Robert Craufurd, The Man & the Myth: The Life and Times of Wellington’s Wayward Martinet
Pen & Sword (2021), hardback
591 pages,16 pages of B & W illustrations and 16 B & W maps
Such a voluminous book with 506 pages, plus an incredible 79 pages of references and end notes by such a renowned author as Ian Fletcher, certainly delves deeply into the psyche of that most enigmatic of characters, General Robert Craufurd and brings much that is new into the public domain. An updated investigation of Robert Craufurd is well overdue, and this book is therefore much needed.
Early chapters deal with his birth, which Fletcher ably establishes is wrongly stated in almost every reference to Craufurd, including the Dictionary of National Biography – he was not born in Scotland, but in the Southeast of England. This is followed by a brief summary of his childhood (necessarily so as there is little information available) and then a detailed account of his early career in the army in India and Ireland and the years he also spent observing the Austrian army and the Prussian army of Frederick the Great. Finally gaining a senior rank, Craufurd’s role in the infamous expedition to Buenos Aries is explored in extraordinary detail by Fletcher, as one would expect from the pen of the foremost authority on this military disaster.
The second half of the book deals in great detail with Craufurd’s relationship with the formation of the Light Brigade and its eventual transformation into a large division. Much here is well known already, but it is Craufurd’s relationship with all around him that dominates the book and the many aspects of his complicated personality. Fletcher has clearly shown that although too junior to command such a sizeable division, the Duke of Wellington found ways to retain him in charge despite the claims of many more senior officers sent out to Spain by Horse Guards. This clearly shows how much Wellington valued the abilities of Craufurd, but Fletcher does not hide the many occasions when Craufurd overstepped the mark or failed to carry out Wellington’s orders, showing that their relationship was often strained. Fletcher ably shows that Wellington had a similar relationship with other commanders, General Thomas Picton being an obvious example.
The subtitle to the book The Life and Times of Wellington’s Wayward Martinet, ably catches the conundrum that was Robert Craufurd. He held an unenviable reputation as an overbearing and over demanding commander, something that Fletcher links back to his time with Frederick the Great’s headquarters. However, the book argues that his iron will and stern discipline eventually honed his troops into a superb fighting force and claims that his much-vaunted Standing Orders prove his abilities as a commander. All of this has much truth in it, but Craufurd’s numerous errors and near disasters – the Coa being the most notable but by far from being the only occasion when he nearly lost his division – have also to be faced. Fletcher does deal with the Coa in great detail and does admit that Craufurd’s reputation was deservedly damaged by it, but he then goes on to attempt to find possible excuses and alternative reasons for Craufurd’s mistakes on this occasion, but these attempts fail to absolve him of his errors.
Another interesting aspect brought forward by Fletcher is Craufurd’s very intense and loving relationship with his wife and his great love of his four children. His long-enforced absences from his family and his continual fears over the family finances are ably described and clearly indicate a man torn between the army and his family. There are strong hints of either manic depression or even split personality disorder, but I do not feel that this aspect of his personality was explored fully enough, perhaps from a fear that this might lessen his standing as a great military commander.
This leads me on to the one aspect of this volume that this reader found less well investigated. Many of the opinions of officers serving in Craufurd’s Light Division are taken from well-thumbed accounts, many of these published decades after the scenes they attempt to describe and certainly give a very different view of Craufurd than is apparent in the contemporary letters and journals of officers serving in the division at the time. Only the letters of Captain Leach are used in this context and these quotes are always preceded by a remark on Leach’s bias as someone who hated Craufurd with a passion. This unfortunately reduces their value in the eyes of the reader and would appear to indicate that Mr Fletcher is only paying lip service to the views of contemporaries. There are many unpublished contemporary accounts from members of the Light Division readily available to researchers at the Winchester Archives and the Museum of the Oxford Soldier, but none of these sources appear to have been utilised in this work as they do not appear in the bibliography. Their accounts, as utilised by Robert Burnham in his recent history of the Light Division in 1810, also bring to light a number of other occasions on which Craufurd drew sharp criticism from his officers for putting the division at serious risk, which are not mentioned in this work. These unfortunately detract from what in every other sense is an excellent account of Robert Craufurd.
Overall, this is a particularly good overview of a very enigmatic character, where a number of his failings have been discussed at length in a serious attempt to view Robert Craufurd from all sides alongside his creditable successes. I leave the reader to decide if the author has succeeded in fully exposing every facet of Craufurd in an unbiased and dispassionate way or not.