Viscount Garnet Joseph Wolseley (1833-1913)


Field Marshal Lord Wolseley

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

British field commander and military administrator, depicted by William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan as “the very model of a modern Major-General” in The Pirates of Penzance. Born the son of a major on 4 June 1833 in Golden Bridge, Ireland, Wolseley was commissioned an ensign in 1852 and immediately requested a transfer to a regiment bound for combat in India. He suffered a severe leg wound in the Second Burmese War and lost an eye during the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. For his service at Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny, he was brevetted a lieutenant colonel and became Sir James Hope Grant’s staff officer. Accompanying Grant to China in 1860 during the Taiping Rebellion and the Second Opium War, he was present at the fall of the six Dagu forts on 21 August.

Stationed in Canada after 1861, he occasionally observed the American Civil War in the company of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In 1870, his bloodless capture of Fort Garry, Manitoba, crushed the first uprising of Louis Riel (the second was in 1885). Back in Britain, he was reprimanded for his 1869 book, The Soldier’s Pocket-Book for Field Service, which criticized some army practices. Ordered to West Africa in 1873, he won the Ashanti War with victories at Amoaful and Kumasi in 1874.

Given command of all British forces in South Africa after the disaster at Isandlwana, he arrived on 23 June 1879 and followed up Baron Frederick Chelmsford’s victory at Ulundi on 4 July by capturing Cetshwayo on 28 August, thus ending the Zulu Rebellion. Leading a punitive expedition to Egypt in 1882, he won decisively at Tel-el-Kebir and captured Cairo. He tried to rescue Charles “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum in the First Mahdist War but arrived on 28 January 1885, two days too late.

Abu Klea (17 January 1885)

Battle during the Gordon Relief Expedition, 1885. Sir Garnet Wolseley, sent to rescue General Charles Gordon from his entrapment at Khartoum, dispatched two columns of about 2,000 men each to the city. One was the river column under General William Earle, and the other was the desert column under General Herbert Stewart. As Earle’s column worked its way up the Nile, Stewart’s men set off across the desert. The desert march became a desperate race between oases both against heat and thirst and against the Mahdi’s dervishes. On 17 January, the Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmad) placed about 10,000 of his men on the track between Stewart and the oasis at Abu Klea. Stewart formed a square but left outriders well ahead of the formation and allowed Colonel Fred Burnaby to weaken the rear of the square by moving sailors and their naval guns out of position. The Mahdi’s forces launched a massive, determined, and well-paced attack against the square. To avoid shooting their comrades outside, the men on the front of the square held fire until the outriders could get in, by which time the dervishes were dangerously close. While sustained fire kept the front secure, the Mahdists worked their way around and smashed into the back corner Burnaby had dismantled, and broke the square itself. The square was restored, and terrible losses were inflicted on the dervishes, who were forced to retire. This represents, however, the only time a British square was broken. Burnaby and 65 British soldiers and 800 of the Mahdi’s men were killed. Two days later, Stewart himself was mortally wounded, Wolseley had to send his chief of staff Colonel Redvers Buller across the desert to extract the column, and Gordon was not rescued.

Created viscount in 1885, promoted to field marshal in 1894, and serving as commander in chief from 1895 to 1901, Wolseley used his worldwide experience to modernize and reform the British army. His innovations showed immediate benefits in the Second Boer War. He died in Mentone, France, on 26 March 1913. Well into the twentieth century, it was common to characterize things well in hand as “All Sir Garnet.”

References and further reading: Featherstone, Donald. Tel El-Kebir, 1882: Wolseley’s Conquest of Egypt. London: Osprey, 1993. Kochanski, Halik. Sir Garnet Wolseley: Victorian Hero. London: Hambledon, 1999. Lehmann, Joseph H. The Model Major-General: A Biography of Field- Marshal Lord Wolseley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. Maxwell, Leigh. The Ashanti Ring: Sir Garnet Wolseley’s Campaigns, 1870-1882. London: Cooper, 1985. Holt, P. M., and M. W. Daly. A History of the Sudan from the Coming of Islam to the Present Day. London: Longman, 2000. Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa. New York: Random House, 1991.

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