Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

No Retreat from Destiny: the Mellish Donkey Incident 

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy


In the study of historical events, one is often interposed amusing and unusual circumstances, completely out of character with the seriousness of warfare or diplomacy. In this essay, I have picked a little nugget of humor out of an otherwise grim campaign during the Peninsular War of 1808-1810.  History, most especially delving deeper with the wars in the age of Napoleon, has plenty of similar such anecdotes; and by its very nature provides the willing reader with the most adventurous experiences under arms.  I report a contentious incident that would figure in the legend of a combative and resolute-temper British officer named Mellish.  It is such tidbits that make history such an intriguing study of human nature, and their consequent approach as a continued source of study and learning.

The fate of Mellish’s donkey calls to mind the scene in the World War II movie, Patton[1], when the U.S. Army forces – Seventh Army – got critically held up by a couple of cart-pulling mules that would not budge on a narrow mountain road in Sicily; because the recalcitrant animals were blocking a bridge, this unexpected incident was stalling the army’s advance.   A MP ineffectively struggled trying to dislodge the unmoving obstacle, and to get them (owner, and mules) out of the way.  However these efforts were directed, he made no headway.

Unable to contain his bellicose roars, General George Smith Patton Jr.[2]  leaped out of his jeep – and with his ivory-handled pistol expedited the jackasses (worth mentioning is that the killing of the animals is not showed graphically in the movie, but presented through inference: the sound of a couple of gun-shots is soon heard) and ordered their carcasses shoved off the side of the mountain, so his armored division could move forward.

The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare[3] understood the vagarities of battle, when he wrote in the five acts drama Richard III (1591/1592): 

Catesby: “Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue! The king enacts more wonders than a man, Daring an opposite to every danger: His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights, Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death. Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!”.

King Richard III: “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”.

Catesby: “Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse”.

No detail is too small to affect the outcome of a battle, especially when Richard had been unhorsed on the field at the climax of the clash – and dramatic words of necessity were uttered.

Under trying circumstances, and a particular incident, Mellish converted the loss of his donkey into an economic gain, and brings to mind the creativeness of soldiers in profiting from awkward situations in war and the many ways they can benefit. 

Who can blame them? 

Often, in the study of military history, one is made aware of the painful events in which the participants suffered. 

Once again, the author of this essay shows respect to past historical events and honours the sacrifice of the participants both in victory and losses in action as well, while at the same time bringing a light and psychological touch. 

*           *          *

Histoires anedoctiques (i.e. historical anedoctes) make for fine reading, and provide a much valuable source in understanding men’s behaviour under difficult and dire circumstances.  

One amusing narrative (and a truly inspiring perspective) concerns Henry Francis Mellish (1782-1817; the second son of Charles Mellish, Esq. of Blythe, near Doncaster, county of York) whose resourcefulness, despite adverse economic conditions, is a case in point of the standard of resolution “on the battlefield of surviving”.

A captain serving in the 10th Hussars, Mellish saw major service during the Peninsular War campaign of 1808-1810, and acting as A.D.C. (aide-de-camp) to the gallant Major-General Sir Ronald Ferguson he repaired to his suite to Portugal and Spain.  Sadly unexpected, one day was heard the rumour that the Mellish had been taken a prisoner by enemy forces.  In spite of the many complaints and words of consternation, Wellington’s aplomb seemed almost austere as he quietly replied in a contained locution: “They will not keep him long”.

To everyone’s amazement, Mellish soon reappeared the following day.[4] He was riding the poor specimen of a donkey; and on the back of that pitiable creature he soon entered the British camp, amid the exhilarating welcome of his astonished fellow-countrymen.  

The joviality of the event and the raucous laughter spread contagiously throughout the ranks was caused by the outward shabby appearance of the four-legged animal, and to the odd context of the setting of that peculiar scene.  A further point of comic sarcasm was that the estimate of the donkey’s value would  not surpass a mere £ 5, [5] and this added to the volume of ridiculousness.

I will soon make it £ 35” – retorted Mellish laconically.

Then Mellish hastily moved forward towards the enemy line of fire and resistance – and the enemy’s bullets shot the animal out from under him.  After this annoyance, he came back, to present to the deputy responsible his claim of £ 35.  That was the economic compensation – a kind of bonus – established by the Government for the loss of a mount in battle.

Colloquially, no one could object that truly that was his equus asinus.

                                                                 *           *          *

Comment: The scene – not yet a classical tόpos in the history of warfare applications – reveals Mellish’s intrinsic character in action (even kept as a prisoner-of-war, he did not passively accept his apparent destiny as a captive).

This experience (and making safe his escape) is much denotative of a skilful British officer; and it equally embodies the great necessity and quite a principle of leadership, of taking effective action in removing insurmountable obstacles.  The resolution he exhibited in this instance is quite noteworthy.

There is every objective evidence that the figure of the animal, el burro (i.e. the donkey), has a distinguished functional role.  One would be lead to think that it was not a wild beast, but a domesticated animal, on account of the fact that Mellish easily managed to have this make-shift means of locomotion used with effect, and gaining profitable results – in time, and security (not to be excluded: riding out of the track and known roads).  Not that bad; quite the contrary, considering the fact that due to the mobility of the animal Mellish, unperceived by the enemy, reached safety amid his fellow-comrades.

The fiery nobility of el burro, and its similarly suffered exertions would compose an interpretative cadre of reflection and singular interest.

If Mellish has to be mentioned for proofs of his intrepid coolness and contempt of danger, it is undeniably recognizable that it was to the donkey’s quickness and celerity that he saved his own life.

No comment is needed in referring to the prompt economic gain and a surplus of monetary interest (a 700% income, if compared to the donckey’s estimate of worth); the causa movens, that is left to the intent of personal views.

One can be touched considering how the donkey was sent back to the opposing adversary, paired with Mellish’s dignity in facing enemy bullets – an intentional decision, suffered, but necessary to keep on the campaign by refunding the expences and the acquisition of a new mount.  Getting the donkey to meet his ultimate ride of duty, that is not the gesture in itself of dominance, but the ensuing disproportion to accomplish that proposed outcome.  However it was this part of his conduct, the two valiant “companions” moved to the enemy; the desperate nature of the effort (and possibly a laborious manoeuvring to achieve the result), he performed with his accustomed coolness. This is meant as confirmation to have obstacles soon removed beyond apparent limitation, in thinking one has to fulfill his own mission and aim.

One question soon comes to mind: to consider how Mellish managed to escape from captivity, and to have him secured in the run thanks to the racing capabilities of a donkey?

Mellish showed his quality by giving his personae enough character to lift the performance from the early status of a donkey-man, he became a horse-man.

                                                                 *            *            *

After the conclusion of the military emergencies in the Peninsular conflict, Henry Francis Mellish came back to his native country, and soon after was appointed by brevet to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the army.

Having determined to settle down in life, this meant inspired noble sentiments too: to have a fiancée and a marriage tide established (that was in August 1812, with Harriet) – one of the daughters of the Dowager Marchioness of Lansdowne, by her husband Duke Gifford (of Castle Jordan, country of Meath).

A confirmed dropsy prematurely consumed his existence, and he died of this disorder in 1817.

His mortal remains were interred at the village of Blythe (he is buried in the sacred temple itself, though unfortunately a description of any monument cannot be found).[6]


Barthorp, Michael. Wellington’ s generals. London: Osprey, 1978.

Brander, Michael. The 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales Own). London: Leo Cooper Ltd., 1969.

Brett-James, Antony. Wellington at War, 1794–1815. London: Macmillan, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961.

Davies, Godfrey. Wellington and His Army. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1954.

Griffith, Paddy, ed.. Wellington-Commander: The Iron Duke’ s Generalship. Strettington, Chichester, Sussex, England: Anthony Bird Publications in Association With the Wellington Museum, 1985; Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, 1986.

Guedalla, Philip. The Duke. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1931.

Holmes, Richard. Wellington: The Iron Duke. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002.

James, Lawrence. The Iron Duke: a military biography of Wellington. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992.

Longford, Elizabeth. Wellington: The Years of The Sword. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1969.

Raine, John (Rev.). The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Blyth in the Counties of Nottingham and York. Published by J. B. Nichols and Sons, Westminster, 1860.

Warre, William (Lieut.-Gen., Sir). Letters from the Peninsula, 1808-1812. John Murray, London, 1909. Edited by his nephew, the Rev. Edmond Warre.

Weller, Jac. Wellingt on in the Peninsula, 1808-1814. London, Nicholas Vane, 1962.


The author would like to express gratitude to Andy Nicholson, Nottingham, United Kingdom and Chris Weir – Senior Archivist, Nottinghamshire Archives – for their collaboration and invaluable display of kindness.


[1] A 1970 production; won seven Academy Awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Script – Francis Ford Coppola – and Best Actor – George C. Scott

[2] November 11, 1885-December 21, 1945

[3] Stratford-upon-Avon, April 26, 1564-April 23, 1616

[4] Mellish’s reactions are a distinguished feature in a soldier’s character.  However, the episode must be carefully “read” and pondered.  There is more substantiated evidence of Mellish’s strenuous effort: it provides an indirect reflection on the dysfunctional inadequacies and inattention of the French, especially in carrying out the service de surveillance (i.e. armed guard service) – and it is a significant fact that this particular duty did not require a great deal of responsibility.   This evidence is manifested and revealed in Mellish’s escape and the facts that were later brought to light.

[5] Basically a rendered monetary estimate, it is nonetheless significant and conveniently subjected to some partial considerations.  The amount of money does not seem to have been important – as it is apparently deduced from counting the few one-hand pounds; its true incidence was not in the line of low value, and this later capitalized good (aka the donkey, and Mellish getting the amount for a new horse) was equalled to not a negligible sum.

[6] To probe deeper into this theme of historical research, a good literary reference to read about Henry Mellish in Raines’ work, a 1860 dated publication. 

“Henry Francis Mellish, aid-de-camp to Duke of Wellington; Lt.-Col. in army; sold Blyth in 1806; ob.s.p. 1817; and buried in Blyth church, aet. 35” [Cfr. Rev. Raines, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Blyth…, p. 84].  This does unequivocally confirm that Mellish was born in the year 1782.

An additional point of importance is that in the burial register for Blyth is the following entry:

Henry Francis Mellish, Abode – Hodsock, Buried July 30th 1817, Age 35”. No further details about his death are recorded (Ref.: Microfiche 34, Page 18, Entry No. 140 )



Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2008

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