Reviews: Biographical Books



The First Respectable Spy: The Life and Times of Colquhoun Grant Wellington's Head of Intelligence

By Jock Haswell

Haswell, Jock. The First Respectable Spy: The Life and Times of Colquhoun Grant Wellington's Head of Intelligence. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1969. 284 Pages. ISBN# 0241016304. Out of print.

There are very few books written on British intelligence operations during the Napoleonic Wars. Two have been written in the past 10 years, Elizabeth Sparrow's Secret Service and An Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula, edited by Julia V. Page. Each covers a different aspect of intelligence. Secret Service examines the broader picture of the wars and focuses on strategic intelligence. Intelligence Officer is the diary and letters of Edward Somer Cocks, who served as an exploring officer for Wellington during the Peninsula War. The intelligence Somer Cocks provided, while in some cases strategic in nature, was mostly tactical intelligence - where was the enemy, how strong was he, what the terrain was like, etc.

One of Somer Cocks' contemporaries, and undoubtedly the most famous exploring officer during the Napoleonic Wars, was Colquhoun Grant. Mr. Haswell chronicles the life of Grant from his childhood through his military career in the Lowlands, the West Indies, the Peninsula, Waterloo, and India. The bulk of the book covers the Peninsula War. It was here that Grant gained his reputation as a daring young officer who would take great risks to find information about the French. It was he in 1812, who sent critical information back to Wellington about the intentions of the French Army of Portugal, commanded by Marshal Marmont. This intelligence allowed Wellington to continue the siege of Badajoz, secure in the knowledge that the French would not threaten Ciudad Rodrigo, the northern fortress that had been captured a few months earlier.

Shortly after passing this information on to Wellington, Grant was captured and began what only can be described as a series of adventures that would do justice to a James Bond novel. Grant was sent back to France under guard, yet within a few hours of crossing into France, he escaped and proceeded to go to Paris on his own! While there he made contact with a British agent and eventually he was able to make his way to the coast and escape via a French fishing boat. Within 18 months, Grant was back in the Peninsula, this time assigned to Wellington's staff. But his days as an exploring officer were over.

Grant also played a key role in the early days of the Waterloo Campaign. He discovered that the French were on the move and about to cross into Belgium. When he passed this information up through his chain of command General Dornberg ignored it. This information would have given Wellington 24 hours advance notice of the French intentions - enough time for him to concentrate his forces instead being caught unprepared. In the 1820s he commanded the 54th Foot during the Arakan Campaign in the First Burmese War. There all the years of hard campaigning caught up with him and he returned to England in poor health. He died shortly afterwards in Aachen at the age of 48.

On the surface, The First Respectable Spy appears to be written for the Napoleonic scholar or enthusiast. Mr. Haswell had the opportunity to rescue from obscurity the life of an important, but relatively junior officer. To write the book, Mr. Haswell drew heavily on the Autobiography of Sir James McGrigor, who was not only Wellington's chief surgeon but also Colquhoun Grant's brother-in-law. In these memoirs, McGrigor devotes many pages to the exploits of Grant. (Some even say that Grant dictated the parts about himself.) The author also uses many secondary sources such as the regimental history of the 11th Foot (Grant's regiment). Unfortunately, despite these sources, there was too little information to fill 284 pages. Instead Mr. Haswell provides extensive background on the events that Grant was involved in. The reader receives an overview of the strategic and tactical events that occurred in the Peninsula War, yet precious little on Grant himself. Only after the author turns to Grant's adventures, especially after he was captured, does the book become interesting.

The First Respectable Spy has been out of print for many years. It contains information that may appeal to the casual reader with little knowledge of the Peninsula War. Despite its unique topic, the book contains little new information for the serious student of the Peninsula War. Much of the information on the war can be found in other volumes, while most of the information about Grant can be found in other books, such as Oman's Studies in the Napoleonic Wars.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS November 2000

 

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