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Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734-1801)

This article was written by Henry Morse Stephens and was published in 1885.

Ralph Abercromby

Sir Ralph Abercromby, the general who shares with Sir John Moore the credit of renewing the ancient discipline and military reputation of the British soldier, was born at Menstry, near Tullibody, in October 1734. His father was a descendant of the family of Abercromby of Birkenbog, and was the chief whig landed proprietor in the little Scotch county of Clackmannan. Mr. George Abercromby had married a Miss Dundas, and had thus increased his own political importance and prepared an important connection for his son. Young Ralph was educated at Rugby, and then studied law at the universities of Edinburgh and Leipzig. But he felt such a distaste for the legal profession, that his father gave way to him, and in 1756 procured him a cornetcy in the 3rd dragoon guards. In 1758 he accompanied his regiment to Germany, where it formed part of the English force under the command of Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, the victor of Minden, and he was soon appointed aide-de-camp to General Sir William Pitt. He now saw a good deal of active warfare, and had a good opportunity of studying the advantages and essentials of the strict discipline of the Prussian system. He was promoted lieutenant in 1760 and captain in 1762, and at the conclusion of peace went with his regiment to Ireland. Here he was stationed for several years, and had an opportunity of studying that country, which stood him in good stead at the most critical period of his military career. His life continued its even tenor of domestic and military occupation; and the prolonged life of his father, who lived till the advanced age of ninety-five, saved him from the necessity of retiring from the service and looking after the paternal estate. In 1767 he married Miss Menzies, with whom he lived very happily, and was promoted in due course major in 1770, and lieutenant-colonel in 1773.

But a change was at hand, and he was asked to contest the county of Clackmannan, which his grandfather and other members of his family had represented, in the whig interest. The election was, like all elections in Scotland at the time, contested with extreme bitterness. His opponent, Colonel Erskine, was supported by all the old Jacobite families, who felt a personal animosity against the whigs. The election terminated, as often happened at this time, in a duel between the two candidates, fortunately without any mishap to either side, and Colonel Abercromby was returned by the influence of his relative, Sir Lawrence Dundas. The plunge into politics was not a fortunate one for Colonel Abercromby. He refused to vote for the interests and at the bidding of his powerful relative, and by his opposition to the American war forfeited all chance of professional advancement. This opposition was the more creditable to him, as he longed to see service at the head of his regiment. His brothers did not feel as he did, and, while James Abercromby fell at Brooklyn, Robert fought his way to high honour and the command of his regiment. At last, disgusted with political life, Ralph Abercromby gave up his seat in parliament and retired in favour of his brother Burnet, who had made a fortune in India, and then, retiring to Edinburgh, devoted himself to the education of his children.

The war with France recalled him to military life. He had been made major-general in 1787, and in 1793 he had no hesitation in applying for a command. Having a great military reputation and much parliamentary influence, he was at once ordered to proceed with a brigade to Flanders as quickly as possible. It is not necessary to go into the details of the disastrous campaigns in Flanders under the Duke of York, but in every engagement General Abercromby distinguished himself. He first made his mark at Furnes, commanded the storming column at the siege of Valenciennes, and was publicly thanked by the Duke of York for his conduct at Roubaix. It was in the retreat, however, that he was most conspicuous. When the Duke of York returned to England, his successors, General Harcourt and General Walmoden, proved incompetent, and on General Abercromby, who commanded the rear column, fell the real burden of the retreat of the dispirited troops before the impetuous onset of the republican army. Under him Lieutenant-colonel Wellesley commanded the 33rd regiment, and learned his first lesson in the art of war. On his return to England in the beginning of 1795 he was made a knight of the Bath, and, almost to his own surprise, found himself considered his country's greatest general. He had learned from this disastrous retreat the terrible deterioration in the military discipline of the English army. His last campaigns had been those of Minden and the Seven Years' war, and he had no difficulty in understanding the causes of the failure of the English. The American war of itself would have been enough to sap the discipline of any army, but there were yet further causes. The American war, like all civil wars, had made the soldiery more ferocious and less easy of control, and, like all wars abounding in defeats, had deprived them of confidence in victory; and at the beginning of the French war they had no strong feelings to animate them, and no esprit de corps to take the place of strong feelings. The army was like a neglected machine; its officers knew they owed their grades to political influence, and the ministers were not slow to use these grades for political purposes; while the soldiers were regarded as an unimportant factor in an army, and were secured and provided for as cheaply as possible. The result of such corruption and false economy appeared in Flanders. Sir Harry Calvert, a keen observer, who afterwards became adjutant-general, remarked that Abercromby's own brigade consisted of old men and weak boys, and reminded him of Falstaff's ragged ruffians.

In November 1795 Abercromby was ordered to start for the West Indies at the head of 15,000 men to reduce the French sugar islands. He was at first driven back by a storm, but reached Jamaica early in 1796. He at once set about his task. He first reduced the island of St. Lucia, with its great and hitherto impregnable fortress of Morne Fortunée, and left his ablest lieutenant, Moore, to govern his acquisition. He then took Demerara, relieved St. Vincent, and reorganised the defences both of that island and of Grenada. He also examined the condition of the health of soldiers in the West Indian climate, had the uniform altered for the hot climate, forbade parades in the heat of the sun, established mountain stations and sanatoria, and encouraged personal valour and self-reliance both in men and officers, by giving the former pecuniary rewards and small civil posts, and by placing the latter on the staff, even when not recommended by the authorities. He went home for the summer, but returned at the end of 1796 and took Trinidad, of which he made Colonel Picton governor. He failed, however, at Porto Rico, through the inadequacy of the force at his command, and then threw up his command from ill-health.

His fame was more assured than ever, and he was sent to Ireland in December 1797 to command the troops there. He had had a great experience of the state of Ireland when his regiment was stationed there, and, knowing what he did, refused to be hoodwinked by the officials at Dublin Castle, or to connive at their schemes. The situation was a perilous one. The English cabinet and Irish officials had fixed their attention on the intrigues of the leading patriots and club orators, rather than on the populace who would take part in a rebellion. And this populace had been inflamed to revolution pitch more by the arbitrary and cruel proceedings of the troops in Ireland than by the declarations of demagogues or the bribes of the French directory. The late commander-in-chief Luttrell, Lord Carhampton, had been ferocious enough, but it was rather of the conduct of the troops than of their commanders that the Irish people complained. The garrison of Ireland consisted nearly entirely of English and Scotch militia and protestant Irish yeomanry. Without the discipline of soldiers, they committed most fearful excesses, and the officials wished to condone their offences because the militia were only serving in Ireland as volunteers, and could demand to be sent home. Abercromby was too thorough a soldier to meet their wishes, and on 26 February 1798 issued his famous general order, that the militia were far more dangerous to their friends than their enemies. The castle soon wished to get rid of this obnoxious Scotchman who would abuse their yeomanry, on which they depended, and try to remove the militia, whose services they wanted, and who seemed to expect that the Irish peasants should not be wantonly ill-treated; the authorities soon made a pretty quarrel between him and Lord Camden, the lord lieutenant, on which Abercromby resigned his command. He soon found he was not in disgrace at home, for he was at once appointed commander of the forces in Scotland.

In 1799 he was summoned to London by Mr. Dundas to discuss a project for a descent on Holland. He was appointed to command the first division, and was informed of two distinct projects. The first was to co-operate with a fleet in capturing the remnant of the Dutch fleet which had been beaten at Camperdown, and the second to make a powerful diversion, with the help of the Russians, in favour of the Archduke Charles and Suwaroff, who were both marching to invade France. On 13 August he set sail with his division of 10,000 men, effected a landing at the Helder after a smart action on 27 August, and on 30 August heard that the Dutch fleet had surrendered to Admiral Mitchell, though nominally to the Stadtholder. Thus the first project was accomplished; the second could not be attempted without a larger force. On 10 Sept. he defeated an attack made on his position by General Daendels, and on 13 Sept. was superseded by the Duke of York. When the Russians had disembarked, the duke ordered an attack on Bergen, which took place on 19 Sept., but was foiled by the impetuosity of the Russians. On 2 Oct. a yet more elaborate attack on Bergen failed. In this Abercromby had to lead the right column along the sand to Egmont-op-Zee. He was completely successful after an engagement in which he had two horses killed under him, but the operation failed through the failure of the other columns. These failures were followed on 20 October by the disgraceful convention of Alkmar, by which the English restored their prisoners, on condition that they should be allowed to embark undisturbed. This failure disgusted Abercromby, but the ministry were so pleased with the capture of the fleet that they wished to make him a peer as Lord Egmont or Lord Bergen, but he refused indignantly to have his name associated with a disgraceful failure.

He now had a very few quiet months in his command in Scotland, where he was immensely popular, as was shown by his unopposed re-election for Clackmannan during his absence in the West Indies; but he had for ever renounced political life, and resigned in favour of his brother Robert. He was then appointed to succeed Sir Charles Stuart in the command of the troops in the Mediterranean. He reached Minorca in June 1800, but the battle of Marengo prevented his being able to land in Italy as the ministry had directed. He therefore waited for orders, and spent his time in trying to improve the physical condition and the morale of his army. Orders at last came for him to proceed to Gibraltar, absorb a force under Sir James Pulteney, and make a descent on Cadiz with th2 August, 2014ived at Cadiz on 3 October with 20,000 men, but failed to make a landing. The causes of the failure have been the subject of bitter controversy, but it may be asserted that no blame is to be laid on either side. Keith, who must have known, declared the anchorage unsafe; Abercromby refused to land unless the fleet would stop with him a fortnight. He, however, made an attempt to land on 5 October, but, owing to the slowness of the men in getting into the boats, not more than 3,000 men could have been got to shore in a whole day, and it would have been too dangerous to leave them unsupported. Admiral and general agreed, therefore, to retire. The latter had not to wait long for further orders, for on 24 October he was directed to proceed with all his troops to Egypt to expel or capture the French army left there by Napoleon. He reached Malta on 19 November, and was delighted with its power of defence, about which he wrote to the government, begging them to make Malta the head-quarters of the Mediterranean army instead of Minorca. On 13 December he left Malta, and cast anchor in the bay of Marmorice on 27 December. Here he waited six weeks, receiving some slight reinforcements, and discovering that the Turks were quite useless as allies. But while waiting he looked after his soldiers' health, and practised disembarkments until the whole force thoroughly understood how to promptly disembark, and every man knew his place in his boat. At last, giving up any hope of assistance from the Turks, he set sail from Marmorice Bay with 14,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 600 artillery. On 2 March he anchored in Aboukir Bay, and on 8 March effected a landing in force in a single day, thanks to former practice. The opposition of the French was vigorous enough to show Abercromby he had no mean enemy to encounter, and he decided to march slowly and cautiously to Alexandria. He had a couple of skirmishes on 13 and 18 March, and then heard that the French general Menou was coming out to attack him. On 21 March accordingly, the French made a violent attack, but without effect, owing to the splendid conduct of Moore and his division, who held the right, and more particularly of the 28th regiment. In the end Menou was beaten back with immense loss, including three generals killed, while the English loss was only 1,464 killed and wounded. Among the latter was Sir Ralph Abercromby, who, riding in front in his usual reckless manner, was wounded in the thigh by a musket-ball. He was carried to the Foudroyant, the flagship. ‘What is it you have placed under my head?’ asked the wounded general. ‘Only a soldier's blanket,’ answered the aide-de-camp, who afterwards became General Sir John Macdonald. ‘Only a soldier's blanket? Make haste and return it to him at once.’ When carried on board he seemed to rally, but the improvement did not last, and on 28 March he died on board the flagship. He was buried at Malta, where a simple monument was erected to his memory; a more enduring monument has remained in the peerage conferred upon his wife as Baroness Abercromby of Tullibody and Aboukir Bay; but the most enduring of all lies in his unstained honour as a soldier.

When Abercromby came to the front in the campaign in Flanders, England had not a single great or even tolerable general, unless we except Lord Cornwallis, and her army was in a terrible state of degeneration. When he died, after having served in every important campaign, he left many a worthy successor and an army second to none in everything but equipment. He formed a regular school of officers, of whom may be mentioned John Moore, John Hope and Robert Anstruther, and James Kempt, his adjutant-general, quartermaster-general, and military secretary in Egypt, Hildebrand Oakes, Thomas Graham, Rowland Hill, Cradock, Doyle, Edward Paget, and his own sons, John and Alexander Abercromby — as goodly a collection of officers as ever were formed by any general. It is more difficult to breathe the spirit of military prowess and military discipline into an army than to win a battle; and this is what Abercromby did. No wonder, then, that Moore and Hope for instance, probably his superiors in military ability, did not grudge giving him the credit for such victories as Morne Fortunée and Alexandria, which they really won, for they looked on him as the regenerator of the English army. No biography of Sir Ralph would be complete which did not notice his extreme short-sightedness, almost blindness, which made him depend for sight at different times on Moore, Kempt, and his son John, nor yet without noticing the singular sweetness and purity of his domestic life, which made all who came across him, from the Duke of York, whom he eclipsed, to Lord Camden, with whom he quarrelled, acknowledge the charm of his society.

Sir Ralph left four sons: 1. George Ralph, M.P. for Edinburgh and Clackmannan, who succeeded his mother as Lord Abercromby, 1821; 2. Lieutenant-general Sir John Abercromby, G.C.B.; 3. James, M.P. for Edinburgh, speaker, and first Lord Dunfermline; 4. Alexander, colonel, C.B., M.P., &c.

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