By Christopher Brice
“He is brave as a Lion but has no headpiece”. This was the considered opinion of a young officer, W.M. Stewart, who served under Hugh Gough (1779-1869) in India. Although not a word commonly used today, Collins dictionary does include that ‘headpiece’ is an archaic word to describe ‘intellect’. Whilst this comment sounds quite a condemnation of Gough’s intelligence and by consequence, his ability and suitability for high command, it is perhaps not as bad as it sounds on first reading. The idea that he had ‘no headpiece’ should not necessarily be taken as a suggestion that Gough, in Stewart’s opinion, lacked ‘intellect’ in general, but specifically with regards to organisation and logistics on a large scale.
Indeed, in examining Hugh Gough’s career, we immediately identify two of the perennial problems of the British Army throughout the generations. Firstly, the lack of suitable officers for higher command leadership. Secondly, a continued failure to appreciate the importance of logistics and staff work. In short, Gough was not a bad general but rather out of his depth in higher command leadership and woefully let down by staff arrangements – particularly in India.
Hugh Gough had a long and successful military career. Despite criticism of his leadership he never actually lost a battle and only one could be counted a draw. Yet he was a controversial figure in his day, and a now largely forgotten character from the days of Empire.
Gough was born in Woodsdown, County Limerick in November 1779 – part of the Anglo-Irish social group that produced so many senior officers of the British Army. Although Gough’s subsequent career suggests a keeping with the tradition of the community, in many ways he was unlike many of his contemporaries. Firstly, he ‘owned’ his Irish identity proudly. He saw no contradiction in being Irish and also loyal to the British Crown. Secondly, he was not strongly anti-Catholic and had long pressed for catholic emancipation. Thirdly, he made no attempt to hide his Irish brogue, as many Anglo-Irish officers did. A contemporary source claims that, when he was engaged in campaigns against the Sikh Empire in the 1840s, his brogue rendered them as the ‘Saikhs’.
Gough was very much born into a military tradition. At the age of 13, he had been commissioned into his father’s militia battalion. A year later he joined the regular army as an Ensign. He saw early service in southern Africa, the Caribbean and South America. During the Peninsular War, Gough commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 87th Foot with great distinction.
Gough was knighted for his services in Spain and was widely considered to have been one of the finest and most experienced battalion commanders of the conflict. The peace that followed the defeat of France saw the 2nd Battalion disbanded and Gough placed on half pay. In 1819, he was given command of the 22nd Foot whom he commanded in Ireland during the ‘Rockite rebellion’, until 1826 when he once again went on half pay.
It was not until 1837 that he received active employment again, being given command of a division of the Madras Army. In 1841 he was despatched to take command of the land forces in the First-Anglo China War. His distinguished service saw him gain much credit as a commander. In recognition of his service in China, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of India in August 1843. Gough commanded British forces at a very difficult time – during the Gwalior Campaign and the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars. His leadership was called into question (largely due to the high casualties that he suffered), yet this ignores many mitigating factors.
Gough’s reputation recovered in retirement, but after his death much criticism of his command – particularly during the Sikh wars – was published. In 1903 Sir Robert Rait attempted to redress the balance in his two volume biography of Gough. Rait very much wrote his book as a defence of Gough, in response to other historians. To the present author, this has been extremely helpful. Rather than getting bogged down in ‘setting the record straight’, he has been able to move beyond this towards a broader examination of Gough. Indeed, the intention has never been to defend Gough, but to better understand him. In trying to defend him, Rait spent the majority of his second volume and the latter part of his first volume examining Gough’s time in India. There is much more to Gough than this and it has been the author’s intention to ‘bring out’ the other period of his life. For parts that Rait gave the attention of a couple of pages, this new work devotes several chapters.
This new biography does not attempt to ignore Gough’s faults and failings, but at times, it does still appear necessary to add mitigation to the accusations levelled against Gough.
However, it has always been the intention to create a balanced and fair assessment of the career of a soldier of great significance. In examining his career, we see a case study for the development of the army and society from the late Georgian and early Victorian era to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His connection with ‘Empire’ means that his achievements are anathema in his native Ireland and would much rather be forgotten by those in modern day Britain, yet his achievements and career was significant. As the Irish journalist and television presenter Cathal O’Shannon remarked in 1965, the fact that Gough became a Viscount and Field Marshal: “…was not bad for a Limerick man in those days”.
Brave As A Lion. The Life and Times of Field Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough, by Christopher Brice can be preordered here.