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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

Wellington’s Voice: the Candid Letters of Lieutenant Colonel John Fremantle, Coldstream Guards, 1808-1837

Glover, Gareth (ed.). Wellington’s Voice: the Candid Letters of Lieutenant Colonel John Fremantle, Coldstream Guards, 1808-1837. Barnsley (UK): Frontline, 2012. 351 pages.  ISBN# 9781848325739. Hardcover. £25

Wellington’s Voice is a collection of over 300 letters written by John Fremantle over a 29 year span from 1808 to 1837.  The vast majority of these letters cover his time in the Peninsula and the Waterloo Campaigns.   John Fremantle began soldiering as a fifteen-year-old ensign in the Coldstream Guards in 1805.  Twenty-seven years later he would be a colonel commanding the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards and an aide-de-camp to King William IV. He would eventually retire as a major general and having to serve as an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria.  During the Napoleonic Wars he would serve as an aide to General John Craddock and as a company officer with his regiment in the Peninsula.  As a junior officer he would see action at Talavera, Bussaco, Fuentes d’Onoro, the sieges of Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz, Salamanca, and the siege of Burgos.

However, what John Fremantle is best known for as being on the Duke of Wellington’s personal staff.  Fremantle was politically well-connected.  His patron was his uncle William, who all practical purposes adopted him when his father died.  William Fremantle was a Member of Parliament and a close friend of Lord Buckingham, who was also a Member of Parliament in addition to being the Army Paymaster, and the son of a former Prime Minister.  Fremantle was always trying to improve his situation in the army . . . jockeying for better positions usually as an aide-de-camp, preferably to Wellington.  Many of his letters to his uncle are filled with requests for his intervention on his behalf.  Despite his connections, John Fremantle was not appointed to Wellington’s personal staff (also known as his official family) until October 1812.  This was an elite group, politically well-connected, and drawn from the cream of British society.  In October 1813 Wellington’s family would consist of, among others:

Lieutenant Colonel Lord FitzRoy Somerset (Military Secretary)
Lieutenant Colonel the Prince William of Orange (ADC)
Lieutenant Colonel Ulysses Burgh,  the future Lord Downes (ADC)
Lieutenant Colonel, the Honorable Alexander Gordon (Chief ADC)
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fox Canning (ADC)     
Major John Fremantle (ADC)
Lieutenant the Marquess of Worcester (ADC)
Captain the Earl of March (ADC)[1]

Of the three officers who were not members of the nobility, all came from the Guard Regiments: Gordon (3rd Foot Guards), Canning (3rd Foot Guards), and Fremantle (Coldstream Guards).[2] John Fremantle’s letters to his uncle reflect his belief that although he was part of a very exclusive club (first as an officer in a Guards regiment and then on the personal staff of both Craddock and Wellington), his lack of family credentials prevented him from receiving the recognition he deserved.  This was very apparent in 1813, when he was selected to carry the dispatches back to Great Britain announcing the victory of the Allied forces at Vitoria.  This was a great honor and traditionally the officer who carried the victory dispatch would be promoted.  Fremantle had just been promoted to major (coincidentally on the same day of the battle of Vitoria), and the government would not award him another promotion so quickly.   He did receive a promotion to lieutenant colonel in March 1814, when he carried the victory dispatch for the battle of Orthes back to Great Britain.   Fremantle’s attitude affected his relationship with the other aides-de-camp and if his letters occasionally tell of his problems with them.

Fremantle would serve as an aide to the Duke of Wellington after Napoleon abdicated in 1814 and would travel with him to Paris and then on to Austria, for the Congress of Vienna.  He would serve as one of his ADCs during the Waterloo Campaign, and then with him during the occupation of France until he returned to England in November 1818.

John Fremantle’s are important for many reasons.  He was a keen observer and he wrote often on a weekly basis.  As an ADC he had access to the official mailbag and was able to send them home even when on campaign.  Although his letters as a company officer are as filled with information as the ones he wrote as an aide-de-camp, it is the latter ones that will hold the most interest to the reader.  He had an eye for detail and leaves the reader with a good picture of what it was like to serve as an aide-de-camp.  Life most soldiers throughout history, much of his time was occupied with the mundane (he often served as the assistant Military Secretary helping with official correspondence when he was not riding with Wellington), yet he because of his job as an ADC he was there for many of the great events of 1812 to 1815.  We are fortunate that he was such an able writer, who was able to provide vivid descriptions of what he observed.  Because his letters were personal to his uncle, he was very candid about what was happening within Wellington’s official family.  They are filled with gossip and describe the petty jealousies and in-fighting among his staff – something I have not seen in any other set of memoirs or letters.

John Fremantle was the step-brother of Felton Hervey of the 14th Light Dragoons, who served in the Peninsula from 1808 to 1814 and at Waterloo on the staff.  Fremantle’s letters are filled with anecdotes about Hervey.  Their cousin, Charles Bishop of the 16th Light Dragoons, is also mentioned regularly in the letters.  Unlike Hervey, whose stories were always positive, Bishop was the black sheep of the family.  Much of the correspondence about him was about whether he would be court-martialed or would be given the option of resigning in lieu of it.  Despite the Fremantle’s prediction Bishop would serve in the Peninsula from until 1813 and would die at the Cape of Good Hope on 5 January 1815.[3]

Once again Gareth Glover should be commended for rescuing such important primary source material from obscurity.  As usual he does his normal superb job placing the letters in context of the events that were occurring at the time and of course, providing annotations on the various individuals, places, and events, mentioned in them.  I strongly recommend Wellington’s Voice for anyone interested in the Peninsular War and particularly those interested in the functioning of an army staff.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2013


[1] Ward, S.G.P. Wellington’s Headquarters: a Study of the Administrative Problems in the Peninsula 1809-1814.  Oxford: University Press, 1957. Pages 194 - 5

[2] Challis, Lionel. “The Challis Index.” The Napoleon Series. 6 April 2013. Web.

[3] Interestingly, as I was writing this review I received an e-mail inquiring about Charles Bishop!