FIELD MARSHAL VISCOUNT WOLSELEY, K.P., G.C.B., etc.
IT would be hopeless to attempt in anything less than a respectably-sized book a fair presentment of the career of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. One may go further, and say that probably not for a good many years to come will any, even a voluminous, account be published of what Lord Wolseley has done and his manner of doing it. For this remarkable man has few impartial contemporary critics. One of his prominent characteristics has been the faculty of inspiring either undiscriminating admiration or blind animosity. In the clearer judgment of posterity Lord Wolseley will be, on the whole, better, as well as more accurately, appreciated. It may be urged against him that his public attitude lacked that frank and sincere generosity of mind and purpose which has made heroes of smaller men ; that, as a leader, he never exercised that galvanic influence over his followers which so strongly characterized the "Little Corporal" and "Corporal John." On the other hand, in the rarefied atmosphere of history as it will be written fifty years hence, Wolseley should be a commanding figure. Gallant man, earnest soldier, levelheaded, cautious commander, strong. industrious administrator, he will, by virtue of sheer distinction, rank with Wellington and Von Moltke as one of the greatest military products of the Nineteenth Century.
Lord Wolseley's career has been so often sketched, and the details are so readily accessible in a score of books of common reference, that only the briefest outline of it here is necessary or desirable. Born in 1833, the son of Major G. T. Wolseley, of the 25th Foot, young Garnet entered the Army in 1852, and, a few months later, was lying on his back in front of a Burmese stockade, severely wounded, but still gallantly urging his men to the attack. Then came the Crimea, in which Wolseley, now a Staff-Officer, was twice wounded, and repeatedly distinguished himself. After that the Indian Mutiny, in which five separate mentions in despatches were obtained, and, by the best accounts, the Victoria Cross nobly earned, though not, unfortunately, secured. In 1860-61 Wolseley was again at work in the China War, and, in 1870, he commanded the bloodless but important Red River Expedition. In 1873-4 he marched to Coomassie at the head of a force whose losses were minimised by his forethought and good leadership. In 1879-80 he was Governor and High-Commissioner in Natal, and commanded the troops during the closing operations of the Zulu Campaign. In 1882 he was in chief command of the Egyptian Expedition, and gave the whole civilized world an example of consummate generalship in the operations leading up to the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. In 1884-5 he was Commander-in-Chief of the operations on the Nile and at Suakin. He failed to reach Gordon in time, but there are not a few—the writer included—who regard this failure as one of the most splendid military efforts ever recorded. Only resorted to at the last moment—when it was already too late—Wolseley did all that human man could do, and, for faultless prevision and unwearying persistence. the Nile Expedition of 1884-5 ought to be classed among the finest operations of war in the annals of this or any other country.
As a high Staff Officer in peace time Lord Wolseley's experience has been unique. He has been nearly everything that it is possible for a soldier to be, and in every capacity the strong intellectuality and purposeful tenaciousness of the man have constantly exhibited themselves.
Both as Adjutant- and Quartermaster-General he was handicapped in having to beat down a wall of prejudice and numberless obstacles in various shapes of unreasoning conservatism. Bit by bit he had his way, and though, for a time, apparently "shelved" by an appointment to the command of the forces in Ireland, he was rewarded in 1895 by suddenly finding himself Commander-in-Chief, in circumstances too fresh in the public memory to require recapitulation here.
As Commander-in-Chief Lord Wolseley has devoted himself to one great object—the organization of the Army on a footing of what may be termed fighting efficiency. Already under his auspices the Army has been largely increased, and already the soundness of the measures he has taken to improve its fighting capacity have been demonstrated in the most practical fashion possible. The despatch of the Army Corps to South Africa was an object lesson to the world at large of the ability of the Admiralty to send a force over the seas, which it would tax the resources of any other nation but England to move over any but a land frontier. The bravery displayed at Talana Hill, Elandslaagte, Modder River, and elsewhere, was proof that the British Army still knows how to fight. But the successful mobilization of the Field Force was due to the Commander-in-Chief, and to every thinking student of military affairs it will seem as if the assignment of too much credit on this account would be impossible.
Lewis P. Orans, 2002