By John Harding-Edgar
Every now and then, but increasingly rarely, at least as far as Napoleonic history is concerned, an opportunity arises to bring to the surface the story of a man whose role was of significant, but thus far overlooked, importance. As Quartermaster General in the campaigns against Bonaparte, General Sir George Murray has long been recognized by military historians as perhaps the most trusted and valued of Wellington’s senior officers. But his own extraordinary life and sensitive personality has never been explored.
One of the duties of a QMG was to report on a regular basis back to Horse Guards, Britain’s military HQ, on the actions and progress of a campaign. Accompanying Murray’s official reports and his seemingly endless correspondence with Allied Generals, were letters to his politician brother and socialite sister, each one focusing on the elements of his life that were of interest to them; in his brother’s case, the political background to what was happening all over Europe and the seeming impossibility of defeating an enemy vastly superior in numbers, and in his sister’s the descriptions of the places through which the army was passing and philosophical musings on the destructive forces that were ruining the lives of the local populations.
Such are the primary sources which underpin the military period in the life story of Murray, Wellington’s effective Chief of Staff in the Peninsular War. More notebooks, letters and political papers, and contemporary newspaper reports provided the material for the continuation of his life after Napoleon’s defeat.
I came to write the story of Murray, my four greats Uncle, initially as a small project to amuse the family. It was at the last Wellington Congress at Southampton University that I was encouraged to bring the story to a wider audience. My family had always maintained that Murray was not just a hugely successful soldier, the most decorated of his generation after Wellington himself, but for forty years was his best friend and the only man received into his full confidence.
My research into the Murray Papers at the National Library of Scotland and other libraries enabled me to access the full story of Murray’s life, building on his military service in Ireland, The Low Countries, Egypt, and the West Indies, up to the moment when the Wellington / Murray partnership really commenced at Copenhagen in 1807. Murray was more than a successful and indefatigable soldier; he was a modern military thinker and politician who served Wellington as his Colonial Secretary. It is the story of a fascinating life of military, diplomatic and political and personal experiences played out against the backdrop of the Napoleonic threat.
Lady Louisa Erskine’s risky flirtation (perhaps adulterous, we shall never know), with Murray in Paris after Napoleon’s defeat led to years of social difficulties, court actions, and costly damages. It shaped the rest of his life. His sensitive loyalty to her never wavered as he stood by her through more than 5 years of living a double life, fathering an illegitimate daughter and ultimately marrying and supporting Lady Louisa through recurrent illnesses.
Murray stood to shoulder to shoulder with Wellington from the bombardment of Copenhagen, through the Peninsular War, in the Occupation of France after Waterloo, in the House of Commons, and as Master General of the Ordnance. The two men remained totally loyal to one another throughout 40 years of immense upheaval.
The challenge for me was to produce something for two differing sets of readers. In my research I tried to steer a path between the detailed requirements of academics and military historians who may look to the book for new material on the challenges faced by Murray in his QMG role, and his part in the numerous military actions in which he was involved, and the more general and personal biography that was crying out to be written for a more general reader. The military historians have always been interested in Murray as a general who had a unique ability to read Wellington’s mind and put his plans quietly and effectively into operation, and who developed the QMG role into something never seen before in the British Army. They have used the material in the Murray Papers to illustrate and support views on military actions. Nobody, other than the military historian SGP Ward whose unpublished research recognised Murray’s importance, has worked with the more personal material of equal interest which together with the military papers gives us the full story of the life of Murray.
The more closely I researched the events in which Murray and Wellington were involved throughout their 40 year friendship, the more it became apparent that the fit between the two men gave the Peninsular Army the edge that eventually enabled it to expel the French from Spain and Portugal. This in turn resulted in a mutual loyalty that lasted throughout some eventful political years, into old age, when they were still discussing how best to defend these islands. They knew it was impossible to hide their frailties from one another, and disagreed on some fundamental issues, but that never dimmed the mutual respect and loyal friendship each had for the other. There was a recognition that, as a pair, they could take on enemies and opponents with a good chance of success, even when the odds seemed stacked against them.
Next to Wellington: General Sir George Murray. The Story of a Scottish Soldier and Statesman, Wellington’s Quartermaster General is now available here.