In praise of Thomas Graham, unsung hero of the Peninsular War

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Why does a man join the army? The answer was probably more obvious in the 18th century than now, but in 1793 Thomas Graham was 45. The son of a Perthshire laird and of a daughter of the Earl of Hopetoun, and having inherited a good fortune, in 1774, he had married the beautiful Mary Cathcart, daughter of Baron Cathcart and of Jane Hamilton, herself the daughter of Lord Archibald Hamilton, all scions of Scots whiggery.

It was evidently a love match. On the same day, Mary’s elder sister, Jane, had wed too. Their father wrote: ‘Jane has married, to please herself, John, Duke of Atholl, a peer of the realm; Mary has married Thomas Graham of Balgowan, the man of her heart, and a peer among princes.’

And so he proved. The Grahams spent the next 18 years as model country gentleman and lady, improving Balgowan, and later Lynedoch, their Perthshire estates, shooting and hunting and reading, as well as making the season’s visits to Edinburgh and London.

They also went to Brighton, where in October 1777 Mary met Georgiana, née Spencer, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. ‘Mr and Mrs Graham came the same day as the duke and duchess,’ wrote the Countess of Clermont to Georgiana’s mother at Althorp. ‘She is a very pretty sort of woman, the duchess likes her above all things; they are inseparable, which is no bad thing. I wish she had half a dozen more favourites.’

The reason, of course, was ‘the duke’s freezing civility’ towards his duchess. This review is not the place to speculate on the form the inseparability took, but there is no evidence that it was sapphic. Besides, Mary was at Brighton for her health, for the sea-bathing. Indeed, when they returned to Balgowan, Graham had a plunge-bath built to continue the prescribed cure.

Mary’s health worsened, however, and increasingly they sought warmer climes. In May 1792, the year before Britain went to war with France, they travelled to Nice, but while there she died. Thomas, distraught, procured a lead-lined coffin and hired a barge to take it to Bordeaux and thence by ship to Scotland. Near Toulouse, however, revolutionary guards brusquely forced him to open the coffin, ostensibly for reasons of ‘security’, but clearly to search for valuables. The future Whig MP would anyway have had no sentiment for the ‘Auld Alliance’, but even though the Whigs had welcomed the revolution, the desecration of his wife’s coffin seems to have turned Graham into a single-minded warrior. Sir Walter Scott recounts in ‘The Vision of Don Roderick’:

Nor be his praise o’erpast, who strove to hide
Beneath the warrior’s vest affection’s wound;
Whose wish Heaven for his country’s weal denied;
Danger and fate he sought, but glory found.
From clime to clime, where’er war’s trumpets sound
The wanderer went; yet, Caledonia! still
Thine was his thought, in march and tented ground:
He dreamed, ’mid Alpine cliffs, of Athole’s hill,
And heard in Ebro’s roar his Lynedoch’s lovely rill.

One of the first things Graham did was to raise a regiment at his own expense, the Perthshire Volunteers (later the 90th Foot). Then, after joining the Austrians for a while, he became aide-de-camp to that other notable Scots Whig, General Sir John Moore, and served with him at Corunna. By the time Sir Arthur Wellesley took command of the army in Spain, Graham had been made a general, and in 1812 was appointed Wellesley’s second-in-command (if such an appointment under the Iron Duke is imaginable). By 1814, knighted, Graham was commanding all British troops in the Netherlands. After Bonaparte’s abdication he was ennobled as Baron Lynedoch of Balgowan, but declined the grant of £2,000 a year which parliament had voted him.

This is the first biography in 60 years of the relatively unknown General Sir Thomas Graham. It is written with shrewdness, admiration and in a brisk, conversational style by a former officer of Graham’s descendant regiment and is beautifully illustrated, though it deserves a better index.

But this review is in part to set the record straight, following an error of mine in 2010 while reviewing a short history of that descendant regiment, the legendary Cameronians. I repeated the view, widely held in the army by those who remembered the fearful cuts to the Scottish infantry in the late 1960s, that one of the reasons the Cameronians disbanded rather than opt for amalgamation — the only infantry regiment ever to do so — was perhaps because while stationed in Minden, West Germany, there was a mass fight in a local bar between soldiers of the regiment and German youths. In the subsequent investigation, the word giftzwerge — ‘poison dwarfs’— was used by one of the locals and taken up in the press, the Cameronians being tough if generally diminutive men of Glasgow and Lanarkshire.

Philip Grant, the author of this engaging study, and one of the officers who in 1967 voted for disbandment, wrote to me to refute the calumny, and I promised that when the opportunity came I would set the record straight. I am pleased to have been given such an agreeable opportunity to do so.

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