THE PRIVILEGE OF RANK
The Horse Guards, March 12, 1817 Five major generals, so much scarlet and gold that the usually somber meeting room of the commander in chief’s headquarters was for once a place of color, sat in comfortable upholstered chairs at a long baize-covered table, their chairman, Sir Loftus Wake, Bart., the vice adjutant general, at the head, while on upright chairs at the wall perched the Duke of York’s military secretary and two clerks.
The atmosphere was somnolent despite the morning hour. In front of each general officer lay a blue vellum portfolio tied with red silk, as well as paper, pencils, and a coffee cup of delicate pink Rockingham, rather out of place. Some of the cups were empty, and were being attended to by a footman in court livery. Major General the Lord Dunseath, a dyspeptic-looking man with a purple nose, waved him aside without a word, intent on some detail in his copy of The Times.
The footman next proffered his coffeepot to Sir Archibald Barret, KG, a kind-faced man in spite of his eye patch, who merely sighed and declined with the same breath. Major General the Earl of Rotheram, noble browed, a picture of decency, lit a cigar instead, but Sir Francis Evans, Kt., crabbed and lacking any appreciable chin, with an ear that was turned forward like a tailor’s tab, accepted more of the strong araba and took out his snuffbox. The footman hesitated by the next, empty, chair and then moved to replenish Sir Loftus’s cup.
Sir Loftus Wake resembled a small garden bird in both looks and animation. His frame was spare indeed, and his eyes, his whole head, darted from papers to watch, from watch to door, and then back again with the speed and regularity with which small birds must search about constantly for predators. He stared again at the empty chair and then at his half-hunter. “It is a quarter past. Where can Sir Horace be?”
Lord Dunseath, his nose always a beacon of his disposition, put down his newspaper and made a loud huffing sound. “Well, if he’s trying to come through the City he’ll never get here. They’re hanging that caitiff Cashman at Newgate this morning. The Times says a crowd’s expected. A mob more like, I’ll warrant! I trust you’ve a line of cavalry between them and Whitehall, Wake?”
“Oh, come!” said Sir Loftus, more agitated still. “That will be no occasion for trouble.”
“Don’t you imagine it,” huffed Dunseath again. “I was ‘ere last December when those damned Radicals at the Spa Fields marched on the Tower. As close to revolution as I ever saw!”
“Stuff and nonsense, sir!” said the Earl of Rotheram, blowing a cloud of smoke ceilingwards. “I was at St. James’s the whole time. It was all wind and wine. Hunt and his like, rabble-rousers, yes, but I hardly fancy they have the stuff of a Robespierre in them!” The earl was ever a man in whom the moderation of the shires found a faithful voice.
“I wouldn’t be so sure, Rotheram,” warned Dunseath. “There’s radicalism seething all about. In some places the machine breakers are as active as ever. And there’s a deal too many discharged soldiers and sailors as well. All prey to jackanapes like Hunt.”
“On this latter I would not dissent. And where might we seek to lay blame on that account? I think it truly ignoble that this government has discharged its fighting men in so mean a fashion. There are beggars in scarlet in every lane.”
Lord Dunseath’s nose seemed darker still. “What would you have had Liverpool do, then? Exalt Pitt’s income tax another penny to provide sturdy beggars with pensions? We want done with it!”
Lord Dunseath’s voice was rising in both pitch and volume, but the Earl of Rotheram remained unperturbed. “I very much doubt we shall see an end to the income tax now that it is so expeditiously collected. And I should not have thought it too great a burden on men who stand to profit so much from peace, and, indeed, who have profited so much already from war. At least they might rid us of the wretched Corn Laws.”
“Now, that, sir, is radical talk!” spluttered Dunseath.
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” pleaded Sir Loftus Wake. “I hardly think the Horse Guards is the place for politics.”
The military secretary had moved towards the chairman, meanwhile, and he now whispered something in his ear.
Sir Loftus looked relieved. “Well, gentlemen, it seems that, since we are five, there is a quorum. So let us begin without Sir Horace; and if he does arrive, “
At this point Major General Sir Horace Shawcross, KCB, did indeed arrive, flushed and angry. “In God’s name, what’s become of this country!” he boomed. “Insolent devils holding up every carriage in the City, and not a constable in sight. It would’ve been the same along the Strand an’ all had there not been regular horse there.”
“See, Rotheram; The Times warned as much,” said Lord Dunseath, his nose almost glowing with satisfaction at the news.
The Earl of Rotherham merely raised his eyebrows.
Sir Horace Shawcross ignored the exchange as he half flung his cloak at an orderly. “When in God’s name is Parliament going to grasp the nettle? If we don’t have proper police soon there’ll be no peace for the keeping anywhere, and the army’ll be ruined doing the work!”
Sir Loftus, though well acquainted with Sir Horace Shawcross’s choleric disposition, was taken aback by his vehemence, and the strains of his pronounced Lancashire vowels were permitted, for the moment, to continue unchecked.
“Damme, I’d the very devil of a job in the Midlands with them Luddites.” He pronounced “Ludd” to rhyme with “hood.”
Sir Francis Evans smiled to himself.
Even had Sir Horace seen it, it would not have mattered, for his hero, Robert Peel, chief secretary for Ireland, pronounced the word in the same way. “Now, if we had a peace preservation force, as Peel has got himself in Ireland,” he boomed again, “we could stop all this nonsense in a trice.”
The Earl of Rotheram set aside his cigar. “Peelers? In England?”
“Rather them than us having to do the work,” replied Sir Horace gruffly. “Rather would I be under an Albura saw again than chase round doing police business!” He pulled aside the chair with his right hand, his left having been the object of the surgeon’s blade after that bloody battle, and slammed his hat on the table, setting the cups and saucers atremble.
For what seemed an age, Sir Loftus stared intently at the hat, for it was the old service shako of Sir Horace’s beloved 47th, “Wolfe’s Own”, rather than a major general’s plumes. Sir Loftus, as vice adjutant general, was most punctilious in these matters. Indeed, he seemed quite oblivious now to the growing ruction about his committee.
“Said there’d be trouble,” muttered the purple nose from behind The Times.
“Everyone ‘as been saying there’d be trouble,” growled Sir Horace. “But what’s the good of that? If we had proper police we might do something about it.”
The Earl of Rotheram sighed.
“Aye, Rotheram, well mighty y’sigh,” complained the voice of Lancashire, “for it’s your party that won’t see sense.”
The Earl of Rotheram had, indeed, spoken against the proposal for such a force when last it had been debated in the Lords. “I should sooner trust to the good sense of the magistrates than have some damnable system as they have on the Continent. We’ve not fought Bonaparte these past twenty years just to have a score of little FouchÌ©s in every town.”
Sir Horace looked startled until he recognized the French. He drank his coffee in one go and held out his cup for more. “Rotheram, you’re as good a man as ever walked them broad acres o’ yours, but you underestimate the seething there is, and the dissatisfaction of folk who are a prey to violence every day, in town and country alike. I grant you the odd poacher might disturb your peace, but that’s nothing to having yer livelihood and property, aye, and yer very life itself, a hostage to the mob’s whim.”
The two men looked across the table at each other uncomprehendingly, as if it were the great divide of the Pennine range itself, for Sir Horace’s family was cotton rich and Whig, whereas Lord Rotheram’s was land rich and Tory. In their own counties the families were as well regarded by the poorest of their workers, be it in factory or farm, as any could be. And these two sons had served England dearly in its late trial, Sir Horace’s hand being matched by the earl’s right leg. Yet each saw the future as differently as might two horses see the same fence.
Sensing exhaustion on the subject of a professional constabulary, Sir Loftus Wake sought to regain his authority. “Well, gentlemen, perhaps we should adjourn this debate and be about our proper affairs this day.”
To his considerable relief there was a general murmur of agreement.
“We all want to be ‘ome afore dark,” added Sir Horace gruffly.
“Well, therefore, let us begin the proceedings of the twenty-third meeting of the Army Brevets Committee.” He replaced his pince-nez firmly and turned over a page of his portfolio. “May I first respectfully remind you that the purpose of a brevet, “
“We all know what the purpose of a brevet is, Wake!” rasped Sir Horace. “Let’s be having the business!”
Sir Loftus looked pained once more. “My dear general, I have no reason to suppose that you are anything but in the right. However, it has ever been my practice to proceed on the supposition that not everyone should be expected to retain each and every detail of Horse Guards administration. In that way we may be sure to avoid any profound error.”
Sir Horace looked unconvinced. “As you please, then.”
“Very well, gentlemen. The purpose of brevet rank is to advance those officers of exceptional merit and who might otherwise find their promotion retarded by lack of means to purchase the next higher rank, or indeed by a lack of regimental vacancy in such a rank.” He paused. “It does not carry with it the additional pay, of course; neither is it recognized regimentally, but only in the army as a whole.” He glanced about the table for confirmation that the purpose was understood.
No one seemed to be paying much attention, but Sir Loftus was pleased he had been able to read through his brief so far without further challenge.
“These the nominations?” asked Sir Horace, pulling at the ribbon on the portfolio in front of him.
“Yes,” confirmed the chairman anxiously. “But do permit me to explain more fully.”
Sir Horace raised his eyebrows a little petulantly and gave up fingering the silk.
“Our work this morning,” continued Sir Loftus, quickly, “is in two parts. The most important is to recommend ten lieutenant colonels’ brevets. But first there is the same number of majors’ brevets. The Duke of York’s military secretary would be obliged if all our recommendations were done by the dinner hour so that he might take them for the commander in chief’s approval this evening.”
“Well, let’s be about it, then,” demanded Sir Horace. “How many names are there for each brevet?”
“Two,” replied the chairman. “And so, gentlemen, if you would please open now the portfolios before you, you will see the summaries of service and the letters of nomination for each of twenty captains. In the usual manner we shall each of us award a mark out of six, and when I ask you for that mark I should be obliged if you would all, at the same instant, indicate it to me by the dies which the military secretary is now distributing.”
The lieutenant colonel placed an ebony die, half as big as a sword basket, in front of each member of the committee.
“And may I respectfully remind you, gentlemen, that the die has two blank faces, for any lesser score than three would be unseemly.”
All nodded. And then, at Sir Loftus’s bidding, they began the task of assessing the twenty claims to a coveted brevet.
An hour passed in varying degrees of silence. From time to time a clerk was sent scurrying away on some errand or other, but the seven major generals labored in the main with little need for clarification. When all were done, Sir Francis Evans the last to finish, but only by a minute or so, Sir Loftus motioned a footman to bring Madeira and seedcake to the table, and as smoke from assorted cigars began to fill the room once more, he invited the committee to declare their marks for each contender. “Let us begin, then, with number one: Captain Lord Arthur Fitzwarren, First Guards.”
Five dies each showed six, except Sir Loftus’s own and Sir Horace Shawcross’s, which showed four. The clerks took note.
“Captain Sir Aylwin Onslow, Second Guards.”
The scores were as before, except that Sir Horace’s die showed three.
The chairman made a thoughtful “um” sound, before naming the third. “Captain the Lord Collingbourne, Royal Horse Guards.”
The scores were as before, except that Sir Loftus’s die now showed three as well as Sir Horace’s. “We seem to be in a fractional degree of disparity,” said the chairman, diffidently.
“Seems to me you’re both marking meanly,” said Sir Archibald Barret. “Even I can see that!” He adjusted his eye patch pointedly.
“Meanly be damned,” huffed Sir Horace. “All I’ve seen so far are men with more than adequate means to buy their own advancement. None of them has seen campaigning service. All they’ve seen is the inside of St. James’s and got themselves a good patron!”
“Sir Horace,” began Sir Archibald, kindly; “it is not the good fortune of every officer to hear the sound of the guns every day. These are diligent young men with much to offer the staff. Especially now that peace is come.”
“Perhaps,” conceded Sir Horace. “But there is ever a need for men on the staff who know what it is to fight. If peace is indeed come then it’s even more important that there are officers in positions of influence who know what is the true business of war. Peace will not be with us forever, and the devil in a long peace is that the army forgets how to fight!”
“Prettily said, Sir Horace,” acknowledged Sir Archibald, “but let us not be overly fastidious. Let us just suppose that in ten brevets we shall turn up ten officers as can with honor serve their country best.”
Sir Loftus Wake now showed something of the quality for which he had been entrusted with the committee’s chairmanship, suggesting that the military secretary make a note of those nominations where there was a disparity of more than two points as members saw them. “And then, perhaps, we may look again at those names in light of our findings as a whole.”
The members of the committee were content, and the next nine names passed without much comment.
“Captain John Daniells, Sixty-Ninth Foot,” said Sir Loftus for the thirteenth.
Sir Horace’s mark was six, Sir Loftus’s five, the others threes and fours.
“Now, this I don’t understand,” sighed Sir Horace. “Daniells is described by Sir Charles Alten, who did, after all, command the division at Waterloo in which that regiment was, as the most able captain in his command, and certain to rise to general rank.”
“But you see,” replied Sir Archibald Barret, rubbing his eye patch a shade wearily, “he scarcely needs a brevet to secure that prediction. He’ll fight his way there in the usual way, as you did and I did! We are trying to place men in positions of responsibility on the staff now. I am very much afraid that if a major general says he wants someone as his brigade major then that is greatly more to the point than one who simply predicts a man will reach high rank.”
Once again Sir Loftus managed to stay Sir Horace’s protest. “Gentlemen, what are we meant to be about is the advancement of officers who will serve their country with distinction. This, I believe, is what we are trying to do. We each, perhaps, perceive that service to be rendered differently, but not the ultimate effect. The process is not science, though. I do beg a little forbearance from members.”
Calm returned to the table as three more names were marked, Broke of the Rifles, Lord Henry Lygon of the Bays, and Sir Idris Llewellyn of the 23rd Foot.
“Number seventeen,” said Sir Loftus, sounding a little tired. “Captain Matthew Hervey, Sixth Light Dragoons.”
Sir Horace displayed five, Sir Loftus six, the others fours and one three.
“Oh, come now!” Sir Horace complained. “Lord Uxbridge writes that this officer has one of the best cavalry eyes in the service, and Colquhoun Grant says he did sterling service lately in India for the duke. What more d’ye want?”
Sir Francis Evans answered this time, his chin for the moment out of sight below his collar, his tab ear, like Lord Dunseath’s port-wine nose, reddening as it always did when he was perturbed by something. “We cannot go awarding brevets just because someone is a Waterloo hand. The rest of the army is becoming impatient of the duke’s habit of favoring men so. Hervey has no experience of the staff, and he is not proposed for any special appointment.”
“That, I grant you. But it’s not merely Waterloo. The man, it seems, did extraordinarily well on his own in India.”
“India!” muttered Lord Dunseath from his lately silent corner of the table.
“My noble lord,” sighed Sir Horace, forcing himself to measure his words, “if we continue to think of India in that manner, we shall waste much experience of fighting that we can ill afford to. Mark my words: these Indiamen have things to teach us.”
“I never heard such nonsense! Brown faces is all they see. How can a brown face teach an officer more than a Frenchman?” Lord Dunseath’s own face had turned red, and his nose almost violet.
“Please, gentlemen,” Sir Loftus appealed; “let us not disparage any of these candidates. They are all worthy men. Let us proceed to the remaining three.”
“Very well,” said Sir Horace, “but I must have the floor if Daniells and Hervey do not show when the count is made.”
“Of course, of course: I have said already that it will be a member’s prerogative,” conceded the chairman.
When the declarations and the counting were all done, Sir Loftus announced the preliminary brevets. Daniells’s name was not one of them; neither was Hervey’s.
“Then I must protest most strongly,” said Sir Horace, striking the table with the stump of his absent hand.
Sir Loftus was an officer who sought concordance in the committees of which he was chairman. But although he had risen by his skill on the staff rather than in battle, he shared Sir Horace’s opinion of Daniells and Hervey. He did not know, however, if his staff skills would extend to converting the other members of the brevets committee to that view. He summoned the footman to bring more Madeira.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Regimental Affair by Allan Mallinson. Copyright © 2002 by Allan Mallinson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.