One of the most popular British generals of the nineteenth century, Garnet Wolseley (1833-1913) is little known today outside of military and academic circles. Recognized in his own time for resourcefulness, bravery, and strong organizational skills, Wolseley transformed the British army into a modern fighting force.
Garnet Joseph Wolseley was born in the city of Golden Bridge, near Dublin, Ireland, on June 4, 1833. His father was a retired military man turned shopkeeper, also named Garnet. His mother was the daughter of an Irish landlord named Frances Smith. Wolseley inherited strong religious beliefs from his Protestant mother and an interest in the military from his father. After the death of his father, when Garnet was seven, his mother was left with only a small income to provide for her seven children.
Wolseley traced his ancestors to Danish marauders who invaded England before the arrival of the Normans. He wrote in The Story of a Soldier's Life, "the fact of knowing that I inherited a very old name had a marked influence upon my boyhood and early life. It was a spur to the boundless ambition that filled my brain in my youth, and it has been an active factor in the events of my subsequent career."
Wolseley learned surveying and draftsmanship. Through the intercession of his mother with the Duke of Wellington, he was made an ensign in the British army at the age of 18. In those days, such ranks were usually bought. However, his mother's pleading letter had the desired effect. As soon as he entered the army, Wolseley transferred to a less costly regiment that was going to India. Without money, he believed that the way to make a name for himself was to be brave to the point of foolhardiness. Believing that God was saving him for a special destiny, he repeatedly threw himself in harm's way.
In his first battle in Burma, Wolseley was severely wounded in the thigh, but refused to leave the field until his men had won. Earlier that day, he had been at the front of the advance guard and had then volunteered to help lead a charge at the enemy's defenses. Wolseley wrote he was in ecstasy until he fell into a pit lined with stakes, which he narrowly missed. He climbed out only to discover that his men had retreated. Wolseley jumped back into the hole, and later ran for the rear. He was so humiliated that he volunteered to lead a second charge regarded as suicidal. In this second charge, he was badly wounded. A doctor managed to save his life, but for weeks it was unclear whether he would live or die. During this time, Wolseley contracted cholera. His bravery was recorded in official dispatches, and he was promoted to lieutenant.
Wolseley returned home to convalesce, then transferred to the 90th Light Infantry, a unit which was full of upper-class gentlemen. When he recovered, he longed to see action again. His chance came in 1854 when England, France, and Turkey fought against Russia in the Crimean War (1854-56). Wolseley was made a captain at the age of 21, but the authorities later withdrew this order because of his youth. When he threatened to resign his commission, Wolseley was reinstated as a captain. He joined the Royal Engineers who worked to build and repair the trenches. For amusement, Wolseley became a sharpshooter, killing a number of Russians. He wrote in All Sir Garnet, "man shooting is the finest sport of all; there is a certain amount of infatuation about it, the more you kill the more you wish to kill." In a cannon attack, Wolseley was slightly wounded in the leg. Because he decided to stand up during bombardments, he was considered a very brave, if not foolhardy, man.
While in the Crimea, Wolseley met Charles "Chinese" Gordon, a fearless fighter and religious Christian whose qualities appealed to him. He would later try to rescue Gordon at Khartoum, in the Sudan. While extending trenches, Wolseley was slightly wounded in the leg once again. In another Russian attack, his face was torn up, he lost his sight in one eye, and was wounded in the right leg. He was recommended for promotion to major, but this was denied because Wolseley had not spent the required six years in service. However, he was given the position of deputy-assistant quartermaster general.
Wolseley served in India during the mutiny of 1857-59 and China in 1860. In India, he was commanded to reconnoiter a heavily fortified building. Though not expected to capture it, he did. Wolseley then proceeded to capture a second building, without orders to do so. At first, his commander was furious. The next day he recommended that Wolseley be promoted to lieutenant colonel, which likely made him the youngest man of that rank. In the China War, he participated in the capture of the Summer Palace in Peking. His first book, Narrative of the War with China in 1860, details his adventures there.
After less than nine years, Wolseley had served with distinction in four campaigns, been mentioned in official army dispatches nine times, and had risen to the rank of colonel. In an age where noble birth and the purchase of ranks for money yielded many officers, he had risen by merit alone. For his bravery or foolhardiness, as well as his ingenuity and calmness under fire, his superiors had taken notice. During his time in the military, Wolseley witnessed the lack of organization and training of the British army and felt it his duty to rectify this situation.
Sent to North America
In 1861, during the American civil war, Wolseley was sent to Canada after the Union army took two Confederate diplomats from a British ship. His assignment was to help plan for possible war against the Union forces. Although no war was declared, he was to spend a decade in Canada. In order to assess the plans of the Confederacy, Wolseley decided without orders to visit the South. Passing in secret from New York to Virginia, he visited the commander of the southern forces, Robert E. Lee. Wolseley wrote that he went there to judge the condition of its people, the strength of its government, and the organization of its armies. His article "A Month's Visit to the Confederate Headquarters" was published in Blackwood's magazine in January 1863. As he did not visit the Union headquarters, his sympathies appeared to be with the South.
During the remainder of his stay in Canada, he read a lot of military history and wrote the classic The Soldier's Pocketbook for Field Service, in which he details how to prepare soldiers for anything they might experience in the field, from surveying and reconnoitering to the care and feeding of elephants and the proper method of burial at sea. This book was both highly popular and highly controversial. While many soldiers needed and loved it, the book offended many of the higher-ups because it talked about the lack of preparation and the inefficiency of the British army. He also offended both the public and the military elite by suggesting that soldiers be taught to despise those in civil life and by suggesting that false news be planted in newspapers to deceive the enemy, thus anticipating twentieth century tactics.
Although he had resolved to remain a bachelor, Wolseley married Louisa Erskine, in September 1867. Though not rich, she was his intellectual equal. He frequently consulted her about his plans and ideas.
In 1870, Louis Riel, in an attempt to prevent the North West Territories from being incorporated into Canada, proclaimed himself President of the Republic of the North-West, and led an insurgency. Wolseley was dispatched to crush the rebellion. He marched his men hundreds of miles through the wilderness to capture the rebel stronghold at Fort Garry without the loss of a man. However, Riel had fled. As recorded in Letters of Wolseley, a letter to his wife revealed Wolseley's hatred for Riel: "I hope Riel will have bolted. I have such a horror of rebels and vermin, that my treatment of him might not be approved by the civil powers."
Sent to Quell Ashanti Rebellion
After his return to England as a hero, Wolseley was put on half pay due to his criticism of the army in his book. However, Edward Cardwell appointed him assistant adjutant general in the War Office in 1871, to assist with army reforms.
Wolseley's next assignment was to put down the Ashanti rebellion (1873-74) in West Africa. He was given both military and civilian authority, but only 35 hand picked men who later were known as the Wolseley or Ashanti Ring. Wolseley recruited a native force and overcame climate, terrain, and King Koffee. After having burned the Ashanti capital and accepting the surrender of the king, he returned home to a hero's welcome. He was made a major general and given 25,000 pounds and a knighthood.
In 1875, Wolseley was sent to South Africa as both governor and commanding general of the province of Natal, which included the Zulu homelands. He was transferred to the newly-acquired island of Cyprus in 1878, as its first high commissioner. Because of the Zulu uprising, he was returned to South Africa, where he oversaw the capture of King Cetowayo of Zululand and Sekukuni of Transvaal. Returning to England in 1880, Wolseley was appointed quartermaster general, then adjutant general, a key position for the supervision of military training.
Failed to Rescue Gordon
In 1882, Wolseley was sent to Egypt to counter the nationalist uprising of Ahmed Arabi after the massacre at Alexandria, Egypt. The revolt was suppressed and Cairo occupied, after a brilliant feint and attack against Arabi at Tell el Kebir. For this campaign, Wolseley was made a baron and given 30,000 pounds.
In 1884, the Mahdi or anointed one, had united most of the Sudan against Egypt and British interests. Wolseley sent General Gordon to evacuate Egyptians and English citizens in the Sudan. He had met Gordon in the Crimea and had written of him in The American Civil War, "I admired him with a reverence I had never felt for any other man." When Gordon postponed the evacuation and was surrounded by the Mahdi's troops, the British government sent Wolseley to rescue him. Despite brilliant maneuvers and strategy, his advance troops arrived two days after Khartoum had fallen and Gordon had been beheaded. Though Wolseley felt defeated, he was made a viscount and escaped blame.
In 1890, Wolseley was made commander-in-chief for Ireland, during which time he wrote The Life of Marlborough and The Decline and Fall of Napoleon. In 1894, he was raised to field marshal. The following year, he was promoted to commander-in-chief of the British army. Wolseley oversaw the army's mobilization for the Boer War and continued to try to implement reform, against considerable opposition. In 1900, he resigned from the army.
In 1903, the two volumes of Wolseley's autobiography were published. They were verbose and sketchy, due to his failing memory. It has been suggested that he may have been suffering from Alzheimer's disease. During his last years, Wolseley lived a reclusive lifestyle. He died at his winter residence in Mentone, France, on March 26, 1913.
Almost single-handedly, Wolseley transformed the British army from a gentleman's army into a modern fighting machine. While intelligent, capable, and farsighted, he was also rather vain and arrogant. Wolseley was an extremely popular leader. Gilbert and Sullivan lampooned him in song as "The Very Image of a Modern Major-General" in the Pirates of Penzance. An automobile, the Garnet Wolseley, was named for him. Although of humble origins, Wolseley ended his life as a viscount, socializing with some of the most influential people of his age.
Further Reading on Garnet Wolseley
The American Civil War: An English View by Field Marshall Viscount Wolseley, edited by James A. Rawley, The University Press of Virginia, 1964.
Bongard, David L., The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Lehmann, Joseph H., All Sir Garnet: A Life of Field-Marshall Lord Wolseley, Jonathan Cape, 1964.
The Letters of Lord and Lady Wolseley, 1870-1911. edited by George Arthur, William Heinemann, 1922.
Wolseley, Garnet, The Story of a Soldier's Life, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903.