Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Battlefield Royal: Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland

Due to one campaign, and more so the aftermath of that campaign, the Duke of Cumberland, young son to King George II, remains one of the more controversial figures in British military history. Jacobites and even many Scots who may not consider themselves Jacobites will probably always remember the cruelty and brutality of the Duke of Cumberland. At the same time, the record of the Duke overall cannot be denied. He had little success as a military commander yet his greatest contribution to the British army was as a desk general and it would not be much of a stretch to say that had it not been for the efforts of the Duke of Cumberland, Great Britain might not have won many of the subsequent victories which greatly expanded and strengthened the British Empire. Prince William Augustus was born on April 26, 1721 in Leicester House (in what is now Leicester Square) in London during the reign of his grandfather King George I. His father was the future King George II and his mother was Caroline of Ansbach. When he was four-years-old he was given the titles of Duke of Cumberland, Marquess of Berkhamstead, Earl of Kennington, Viscount of Trematon and Baron of the Isle of Alderney. He had special quarters designed for him at Hampton Court and was given the best education possible.

There was a long-standing tradition in the House of Hanover that Kings and their eldest sons did not get along. This, however, did not apply to second sons as the young Duke of Cumberland was, very early on and very noticeably, his parents’ favorite. He was a robust and active child, seemingly fearless and when he was given his long list of titles was also made a Knight of the Bath and enrolled in the 2nd Foot Guards. As he grew older his parents expected him to follow a career in the Royal Navy and eventually become the Lord High Admiral. However, after volunteering in 1740 the Duke found that he didn’t care much for life at sea and instead decided to devote himself to the army. In 1741 he was made colonel of the 1st Foot Guards and began his formal military career. During King George’s War he saw his first action in Germany, having been promoted to major general in 1742 and posted there. He was with his father at the victorious battle of Dettingen where King George II became the last reigning British monarch to lead his troops on the battlefield. Cumberland was wounded in the leg and promoted to lieutenant-general afterward.

In 1745 he was given the top command of the allied British, Hanoverian, Dutch and Austrian forces gathered in Belgium. Full of youthful aggression and with little experience, his first impulse was to throw caution to the wind, invade France and march on Paris. Fortunately, his advisors were able to dissuade him from such a suicidal move and instead he moved his forces to relieve the town of Tournai which was being besieged by the great French marshal Maurice de Saxe. The result was the battle of Fontenoy, a hard blow to Cumberland and a historic victory for France. Being up against Marshal de Saxe, Cumberland was quite simply outmatched. Numerically each army was about even but de Saxe was one of the great captains of the age and a greatly experienced military man having previously served under the likes of Peter the Great and the brilliant Eugene of Savoy. During the battle the Duke of Cumberland showed great determination but also a single-minded fixation on seizing the town of Tournai, ignoring the danger to his flanks and failing to take some basic precautions. The defeat could be attributed to his own personality and his inexperience. The allied army was badly mauled and Cumberland was forced to retreat to Brussels. Ultimately, this disaster for British arms inspired the exiled Jacobite court to decide that the time had come to strike down the House of Hanover and restore the Stuarts to the British throne.

The Stuart heir, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” landed in Scotland and rallied a number of highland clans to support his restoration. With most of the British army committed on the continent, they hoped that with enough speed and zeal and the support of the French they could see King George II sent home to Hanover. It was a daring escapade, undoubtedly and victories soon followed. On September 17 the Jacobite army entered Edinburgh (to great cheers) and on 21 September at the battle of Prestonpans totally surprised and routed the army of General Sir John Cope in a stunning victory. This caused something of a panic in London and George II immediately sent for his son, the Duke of Cumberland, to return and deal with the Jacobites. England was invaded and in November the Jacobites captured Carlisle and then Manchester was abandoned. To many it seemed that 1688 was about to be undone and that the Hanoverian royals would soon be on their way back to Germany. However, Cumberland immediately began to rally his forces (and his presence was a morale boost to the army) as well as spreading rumors that the strength of the Hanoverian armies was far greater than actual fact. In the end, it worked. The Jacobite leaders lost their nerve and (to the great annoyance of Prince Charles) began retreating back to Scotland.

The Duke of Cumberland did not pursue them too closely as he was still trying to gather together as large an army as possible. The Jacobites still had some fight in them as well, which was proven at the battle of Falkirk where the Jacobites defeated General Henry Hawley. However, that was the last Jacobite victory and their defeats were much more numerous. The Duke of Cumberland pursued them out of England and across Scotland, allowing his enemies to be worn out by hunger and privation before cornering them at Culloden Moor. On that famous battlefield the Jacobites launched their last, desperate attack and were completely annihilated. In the aftermath, Cumberland had wounded men shot and launched a campaign of pacification that was shockingly brutal with many Scots being killed indiscriminately, homes burned, livestock killed or confiscated and large areas of the country simply devastated. “Bonnie Prince Charlie” had escaped but Cumberland had his revenge on those left behind. In most of Great Britain and the colonies Cumberland was cheered as a great hero, their deliverer from “Papist tyranny” and their savior from the “Jacobite Menace”. However, in the highlands, his cruelty toward the defeated earned him his lasting nickname of “Cumberland the Butcher”. It was fully deserved.

Buoyed by his victory against a handful of half-starved rebels in Scotland, Cumberland returned to Europe, eager to redeem himself. However, he again faced the brilliant Marshal de Saxe and was again soundly defeated by the French. A military genius he was not. A peace was negotiated and the embarrassed Duke returned to Britain where his reputation had fallen considerably. When he next saw service in the French and Indian War he was posted to Germany and again saw a succession of defeats and one retreat after another until finally negotiating his way out trouble. The Duke of Cumberland who had once been the favorite son of his father was then referred to by King George II as, “my son who has ruined me and disgraced himself”. He never held a field command again and died in London on October 31, 1765 unmarried and childless. The Duke of Cumberland ended his life as a figure of much ridicule. He was hated in parts of Scotland where he won his most clear-cut victory but derided elsewhere because of his defeats on the continent. However, where the Duke of Cumberland did do good was at Horse Guards. Whenever peace would break out the government immediately began to downsize the army and scrap regiments. This was usually done based on seniority but the Duke of Cumberland wished to save regiments based on their merit and he could brilliantly weave bureaucratic red tape to help accomplish this. One way was to put regiments, even if reduced only to their most hardcore veterans, on the Irish establishment where the Treasury had no jurisdiction over them. It may not sound like much but Cumberland did arguably more good at a desk in Horse Guards than he did on any field of battle by saving excellent, veteran regiments from the government chopping block, many of whom would go on to aid in winning great victories for Britain under more competent commanders.

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