Ralph Abercromby (1734-1801) was considered to be the top soldier of his generation. Along with Sir John Moore, he was known for restoring discipline and the reputation of the British soldier. His restructuring of the army led to the ultimate defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.
Born at Menstry, near Tullibody, Scotland, on October 7, 1734, Ralph Abercromby was the son of George Abercromby of Birkenbog, the chief whig landowner in County Clackmannan. He was educated at Rugby and studied law at the universities of Edinburgh and Leipzig. Lacking an interest in the law, Abercromby persuaded his father to purchase a commission for him in the Third Dragoon Guards in 1756. Two years later his regiment was transferred to Germany where it joined the English force under the command of Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick in the Seven Years' War. He became aide-de-camp to General Sir William Pitt. He was now involved in active warfare and was able to study the advantages and essentials of the strictly disciplined Prussian troops. Abercromby was promoted to lieutenant in 1760 and captain in 1762. After the Treaty of Hubertusburg was signed, he was transferred to Ireland with his regiment. In 1767, Abercromby married into the Menzies family; it was generally considered to be a happy match. Promotions continued for the young officer. He became a major in 1770 and a lieutenant-colonel in 1773.
Elected to Parliament
The Abercromby family had represented the county of Clackmannan for many years. As an eldest son, they decided that it was Ralph Abercromby's turn to seek public office. The election campaign was violent and climaxed in a duel between Abercromby and Colonel Erskine, who was supported by the Jacobite families. No lives were lost, and Abercromby's maternal relative, Sir Lawrence Dundas, insured his victory. Abercromby entered Parliament in 1773 and served until 1780. He refused to vote as his patron desired and, as a result, ruined his chance for political advancement. Abercromby did not believe that British forces should oppose the American colonists in their struggle for independence. His brothers disagreed. James Abercromby died at Brooklyn, New York, while Robert successfully commanded a regiment for the British army. Ralph Abercromby had enough of politics and decided to retire. His brother Burnet, who had made a fortune in India, took over his seat in Parliament. Abercromby retired to Edinburgh and devoted himself to the education of his family.
Recalled to Military Service
England was at war with France. In 1793, Abercromby asked to be reinstated in the British army and given a command. Having maintained a good record and a acquired certain amount of influence within Parliament, he was given a command and posted to Flanders. The war did not go well under the command of the Duke of York. However, in every battle in which he was involved, Abercromby acquitted himself well. He commanded the storming column at the siege of Valenciennes. His military expertise was especially evident when the British retreated from the advancing republican army in the winter of 1794-1795. Abercromby was able to get his dispirited troops away from the enemy. He was one of the few British generals to emerge from this debacle with his reputation intact. For this achievement, he was awarded the Knight of the Bath in 1795. Abercromby believed that the army failed because they had been sapped of strength during the American Revolution and had no real desire to fight the French Republican Army. The officers owed their rank to political influence. The ordinary soldier felt neglected, as the government skimped on provisions and pay.
West Indies Campaign
Abercromby was sent to the West Indies in November 1795 with 15,000 men to take the French sugar islands. He reached Jamaica in 1796. He took St. Lucia first, and moved on to Demerara, St. Vincent, and Grenada. Concerned with the health of his soldiers in the West Indian climate, Abercromby ordered that their uniforms be altered for the hot climate, forbade parades in the heat, established mountain stations and sanitariums. He restored discipline within the ranks of the army and disposed of dishonest and inefficient officers. He also rewarded regular soldiers and officers with bonuses and small civil posts. Abercromby took Trinidad, but lacked sufficient troops to capture Puerto Rico. He returned to England in poor health.
Back to Ireland
In December 1797, Abercromby returned to Ireland to command the troops. Having served there before, he was aware of the political intrigue in which both the British and the Irish engaged. The militia had no discipline and had run rampant over the Irish population. Abercromby refused to allow the militia to continue its rampage, and issued a statement that the militia was more dangerous to its friends than to its enemies. The authorities at Dublin Castle soon decided that he must go. Abercromby resigned his commission and returned home, where he was appointed commander of the forces in Scotland.
In 1799, Abercromby was drawn into the French war on the continent once again. His assignment was to command the first division and capture what was left of the Dutch fleet that had been beaten at Camperdown. He was to create a diversion so that the Archduke Charles and Suwaroff could invade France. His role in the diversion was successful, but the whole operation failed due to the inadequacy of the Russians and incompetence of the other columns. In disgust, Abercromby refused to become a peer and returned to Scotland.
Though he was growing older and his eyesight was failing, Abercromby was given command of the troops in the Mediterranean in 1800. His assignment was to invade Egypt and capture the French army left by Napoleon or drive them out. He proceeded to Gibraltar with his troops to reinforce soldiers under the command of Sir James Pulteney. Abercromby was supposed to land at Cadiz with the cooperation of Vice Admiral Lord Keith. When he arrived at Cadiz, he realized that his men could not off-load safely. He then headed for Malta, which he felt would make an excellent headquarters for the Mediterranean army. On December 27, 1800, he arrived at Minorca, where he spent the next six weeks practicing landing exercises until the force could land in a single day. On March 8, 1801, he sailed into Aboukir Bay and landed approximately 15,600 men in one day. The French general, Menou, attacked on March 21, 1801, but was beaten back. The English lost only 1464 men, one of whom was Abercromby. He took a bullet in the thigh, while riding at the front of his troops. His character was revealed by the comment he made to one of the aides treating him. He asked what was being placed under his head. When told that it was only a soldier's blanket, he told the aide to make haste and return it to the soldier. He died on board the flagship Foudroyant on March 28, 1801, off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Abercromby was buried at Malta.
The extent of Abercromby's influence on the British army was not realized until historians began adding up the number of officers trained by him. That training enabled more famous generals, such as Wellington, to defeat the French army. Abercromby was respected by his superiors and loved by his men. His influence enabled the British army to become the dominant military force of the nineteenth century.
Further Reading on Ralph Abercromby
Boatner III, Mark Mayo, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Bicentenial Edition, David McKay Company, Inc., 1974.
Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Oxford University Press, 1968.
Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition, Grolier Inc., 1995.
Lanning, Michael Lee, The Military 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Military Leaders of All Time, Carol Publishing Group, 1996.