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William Carr Beresford, Viscount Beresford 1768-1854

This article was written by Henry Morse Stephens and was published in 1885

William Carr Beresford, Viscount Beresford 1768-1854, general, was an illegitimate son of George de la Poer Beresford, earl of Tyrone, and afterwards first marquis of Waterford in the peerage of Ireland, and younger brother of Vice-admiral Sir John Poo Beresford. He was born on 2 October 1768, and received his earliest education in schools at Catterick Bridge and York until 1785, when he was sent to the military school at Strasburg. While still in France he received his first commission, an ensigncy in the 6th regiment, in August 1785, and accompanied his regiment to Nova Scotia in 1786. While there he met with a terrible accident out shooting, and lost the sight of his left eye. He obtained his promotion as lieutenant in the 16th regiment in 1790, and in January 1791 became a captain unattached. In the following May he was gazetted to a company in the 69th, which was under orders for the West Indies, but on the outbreak of the war with France he was sent on board the Britannia, 100 guns, the flagship of Vice-admiral Hotham, second in command of the Mediterranean fleet, with two companies of the 69th, who were ordered to serve as marines.

When the inhabitants of Toulon opened their port and received the English admiral, Lord Hood, the marines, and the various companies of regular troops serving as marines were landed in order to garrison the city. Beresford did his duty well enough, and was favourably mentioned in Lord Mulgrave's despatches, but did not especially distinguish himself. However, when Lord Hood was driven out of Toulon in December 1793, and removed the troops to Corsica, Beresford commanded the storming party at the tower of Martello, for which he received his brevet-majority in March 1794, and was present at the captures of Bastia, Calvi, and San Fiorenzo. He returned to England in August 1794 to be promoted lieutenant-colonel and to take command of a new regiment which had been raised for him on his father's estates; this regiment was soon broken up, and Beresford received instead the command of the 88th regiment, or Connaught Rangers, in September 1795.

The 88th was destined to form part of the expedition under Sir Ralph Abercromby to reconquer the West Indies, but the terrible storm called ‘Christian's storm,’ from Sir Hugh Christian, the admiral, utterly dispersed it; two companies arrived safely in Jamaica and served through the campaign, one was blown right through the straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, and the rest into different English ports. The regiment was again reassembled by 1797, and then stationed at Jersey until 1799, when it was ordered to India, at the earnest request of Lord Mornington, to assist in the final conquest of Tippoo Sultan. The 88th, however, did not arrive at Bombay till June 1800, after the fall of Seringapatam, and remained in garrison there until Lord Wellesley projected an expedition to Egypt from India to co-operate with the force under Sir Ralph Abercromby. The expeditionary army, including the 88th, left Bombay in December 1800, under the command of Sir David Baird, but did not disembark at Cosseir, after a tiresome passage, until June 1801.

It was immediately split up into four brigades, and Beresford received the command of the first brigade, consisting of his own fine regiment and some Bombay sepoys. Beresford's brigade had to lead the march across the desert. Baird's force arrived too late to be of any actual service, but the march across the desert had fascinated the imagination of the English people, and Beresford shared the popularity of Baird, Auchmuty, and George Murray. He remained in Egypt with his regiment till the evacuation of that country in 1803, when he returned to England with the brevet rank of colonel and a great military reputation, and at once received the command of a brigade at home.

When Baird was ordered to recapture the Cape in 1805, Beresford received the command of the first brigade, with Ronald Ferguson and Edward Yorke as his colleagues, and Robert Brownrigg as quartermaster-general. The expedition was completely successful; it disembarked on 5 January 1806, defeated the Dutch general Janssens on 8 January, took Capetown on 10 January, and Baird received the surrender of the general and the whole colony on 18 January. This entire and rapid success induced Sir David Baird to listen to the tempting proposals of Sir Home Popham, the naval commander-in-chief, who suggested that Baird should lend him a brigade to capture the city of Buenos Ayres. Baird consented and lent him Beresford's brigade, consisting of his old regiment, the 88th, and the 74th. The detachment accordingly sailed with Popham.

The sudden appearance of English ships and English soldiers took the Spanish garrison by surprise, and Beresford, though with only 1,200 men, was soon master of Buenos Ayres. Popham immediately went home with the tidings and was received with enthusiasm. But Beresford, deserted by Popham, soon found out the difficulty of his position. The population of the colony perceived the weakness of his little army, and, ashamed of being conquered by so few soldiers, banded together under a French emigrant, the Chevalier de Liniers, and attacked the English. The contest was an unequal one, and after three days' hard fighting Beresford and his army capitulated as prisoners of war. Auchmuty's capture of Monte Video and Whitelocke's failure before Buenos Ayres followed, and after a six months' imprisonment Beresford himself escaped and reached England in 1807. The incapacity of Whitelocke had only made the behaviour and military ability of Auchmuty and Beresford appear more prominent, and the latter was ordered to hold himself ready for further foreign service. This time he was sent to the island of Madeira, which he occupied on 24 December 1807 in the name of the king of Portugal, who had, acting under the advice of the English ambassador, abandoned his capital to the French and sailed for Brazil.

In Madeira he remained as governor and commander-in-chief for more than six months, learning the Portuguese language, and obtaining a thorough knowledge of the Portuguese character. But Beresford soon tired of his peaceful life, and to his great content found himself ordered to proceed with one regiment to the assistance of the army despatched under Sir Arthur Wellesley to Portugal. He arrived at Lisbon in August 1808, just after the battle of Vimeiro, and in time to be appointed commandant of Lisbon. He then superintended the evacuation of the southern fortresses by the French garrisons, in conformity with the convention of Cintra, and it was only through his bold attitude that the garrison of Elvas surrendered that strong fortress without firing a shot. After the recall of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Sir Henry Burrard, and Sir Hew Dalrymple, Sir John Moore took command of the army of Portugal, and when he determined to advance into Spain he appointed Beresford, who had been promoted major-general in April 1808 during his residence in Madeira, to the independent command of a division of two brigades, which was to march by way of Coimbra and Almeida to the general rendezvous at Astorga.

Beresford performed his task to Moore's satisfaction, and when the terrible winter retreat to Corunna was decided upon Beresford's division was ordered not to close the rear, as has been erroneously stated, but to march just in front of the reserve under General Paget. From this position in the line of retreat Beresford's men were constantly called back to assist the reserve in their numerous engagements with the French vanguard, and always gave Moore the fullest satisfaction. In the battle of Corunna, where Moore fought his last battle, Beresford was posted on the English left, and did his duty on that memorable day. His brigade was the last but one to embark on board the ships, and when the relics of Moore's famous army reached England it was agreed that no English general had distinguished himself more than Beresford.

The Portuguese government, recognising the utter disorganisation of the Portuguese army, now begged that an English general might be sent them with English regimental officers to effect a reform. The appointment, according to Napier, was much coveted, but the choice of the government fell upon Beresford, not so much on account of his parliamentary influence, which was great, as his thorough knowledge of the Portuguese language and his local knowledge of the country acquired in the last campaign. In February 1809 he was made a local lieutenant-general in Portugal in the English army, though but a major-general of one year's standing, and a marshal in the Portuguese army, and landed at Lisbon on 2 March to begin his difficult task. Beresford distributed the English officers he had brought with him to a very few regiments, and, by steadily weeding out some three-fourths of the most inferior material into a militia, formed a small serviceable army instead of a large unwieldy mass of men. He further perceived the fitness of the Portuguese for light troops, and by a process of selection formed the famous Caçadores, who proved themselves worthy to be brigaded with the light division. The more promising officers were appointed to the regiments intended for active service, and the rest left to the militia; he gave them a real pride in their regiments, and the Duc de Saldanha, for instance, after serving for a short period as aide-de-camp to the marshal, felt no indignity in serving through the rest of the Peninsular war in an infantry regiment. Having selected his men, Beresford had to make disciplined soldiers of them. He carried his maintenance of martial law to an extreme; every infraction of discipline, whether in officers or men, was severely punished, and at the same time every deed of valour was justly estimated. His one great difficulty was to get money and food for his men. Without proper rations they had to plunder, and when they were fed by the English commissariat they became a burden. Throughout his labour of organising the Portuguese army he had the full sympathy of Wellington, who never failed to give the Portuguese the praise that was their due; but his English local rank was the source of endless trouble to the commander-in-chief. Senior generals objected to having their junior placed over their heads; more than one resigned when on the spot, and many refused to join the army, and in his chagrin Wellington writes on one occasion: ‘I would to God Beresford would resign his English lieutenant-general's rank; the embarrassment and ill-blood it causes is inconceivable’.

Before his labours of reorganisation were seriously commenced — while Sir John Cradock was still in command — he had an opportunity of trying his undisciplined mass against Soult's army in the province of Trasos-Montes, and soon saw their utter uselessness. Nevertheless Sir Arthur detached him with his Portuguese, when he moved against Oporto, to cross the Douro on the extreme right, and to try to cut off Loison's retreat at Amarante. This one experience was enough, and when Wellington entered Spain and fought the battle of Talavera, Beresford was left behind to commence his real work. So hard did he labour during the winter of 1809 that Lord Wellington in the summer of 1810 brigaded certain Portuguese regiments with English ones, and found them capable of doing good service. The Portuguese fought side by side with the Englishmen at the battle of Busaco, and the behaviour of the 8th Portuguese regiment is one of the most disputed points in the history of that battle, every historian of the war believing it behaved well, but all differing as to the time when it came into action. For his services on this day Beresford was made a knight of the Bath in October 1810, a knight of the Tower and Sword of Portugal, and Conde de Trancoso in the peerage of Portugal.

When Wellington had retreated into the lines of Torres Vedras, Beresford established his headquarters at Lisbon, and continued his work of reorganisation by means of the fresh English officers who joined him at this time, and having organised his regiments in the winter of 1809, he now organised his brigades in the winter of 1810.

General Hill, who had been Wellington's right hand in the previous year, was obliged to go home from illness in the spring of 1811, and Wellington was reluctantly obliged to give the command of his corps to Beresford, as next in seniority to Hill. His army, which consisted of the 2nd and 4th infantry divisions under Generals William Stewart and Lowry Cole, De Grey's heavy and Slade's light cavalry brigades under the command of General R. B. Long, and four Portuguese brigades, was ordered by Lord Wellington to invest Badajoz and check any incursion of Soult's army of Andalusia into Estremadura, while he himself foiled Masséna's last attempt to break into the fertile province of Beira. From the first no real confidence was felt by Hill's old corps in Beresford; no contrast could be greater than between the quiet English gentleman and the fiery Irishman, and the English officers resented being placed under the command of a Portuguese general. Beresford marched rapidly towards Badajoz; and the very first engagement, which took place at Campo Mayor, showed how little command he had over his troops, for the light cavalry brigade charged the French cavalry so impetuously that it got far beyond the reach of recall, and the 14th light dragoons were either cut to pieces or taken prisoners. Campo Mayor soon surrendered, and the marshal then proceeded to invest Badajoz with inadequate forces. Soult advanced with his whole corps d'armée, and, driving Blake's Spanish army before him, entered Estremadura. Beresford at once raised the siege, and drew up his army, with Blake's upon his right, opposite the little bridge of Albuera. Soult saw that it was possible for him to occupy almost unobserved certain heights on Beresford's right, which Blake had neglected. He therefore made a feint on the English centre, while he sent the flower of his army to occupy these heights. There the battle raged. When Beresford saw Soult's regiments debouching on the heights, he ordered Stewart's division to reoccupy them; but Stewart advanced too hastily, and the 2nd division was soon thrown into disorder by a vigorous charge of the Polish lancers. In vain Beresford himself rushed to the spot, and he had already given the order to retire, when the military genius of Colonel Hardinge, the quartermaster-general of the Portuguese army, won the battle. Without orders from his chief, he galloped up to General Cole, whose division had only just arrived from Badajoz, and ordered it to advance. In perfect order two brigades of the 4th division, Arbuthnott's on the right, and Alexander Abercromby's on the left, advanced to the fatal hill, and gradually but surely forced the French to leave the field. Both generals claimed the victory; but Soult, though he bivouacked upon the field, found it necessary from his enormous losses to retire once more into Andalusia. Beresford had won a hard-fought fight, but a little more generalship would have saved the lives of the 4,300 splendid soldiers, and it was Hardinge and not Beresford who had won the victory. Yet Beresford had many reasons to be proud of the day (16 May). He had personally distinguished himself, and he had prevented Soult from making the advance on Lisbon which Napoleon had directed.

Discontent has been freely expressed at the battle of Albuera. The tactics of the general were almost beneath contempt. Wellington speedily resumed the command of the southern army, and Beresford returned to Lisbon to continue the work of reorganisation, for which he was far more fitted than for command in the field. Nevertheless he was present, though not actively engaged, at the siege of Badajoz, and in the famous advance into Spain, which was signalised by the victory of Salamanca. On that great day he held no particular command, but encouraged his Portuguese soldiers in the gallant attacks of Pack and Bradford on the Arapiles, which were among the finest actions of the great battle. Towards the close of the day he was severely wounded in the thigh, and so did not share the triumph of Wellington's entry into Madrid. After this battle a singular proof occurs of the high value Wellington placed upon his services. It was proposed by the ministry to make Sir Stapleton Cotton, who had been second in command, a peer, when Wellington was made a marquis; but Wellington earnestly begged that this should not be done, because Beresford would at once throw up his Portuguese command. ‘I do not know how you will settle this question,’ he wrote to Lord Bathurst on 2 December 1812. ‘All that I can tell you is that the ablest man I have yet seen with the army, and that one having the largest views, is Beresford. They tell me that when I am not present, he wants decision, and he certainly embarrassed me a little with his doubts, when he commanded in Estremadura, but I am quite certain that he is the only person capable of conducting a large concern’. Beresford soon got cured of his wound in Portugal, and was present in 1813 at the battle of Vittoria and at the battles of the Pyrenees, without any special command. After a sojourn in England, he again rejoined the army before the invasion of France, and commanded the centre of the army at the battles of the Nivelle, the Nive, and Orthez. After this last battle he was detached with two infantry divisions and two brigades of cavalry to Bordeaux, where, Wellington was informed, a strong party existed for the restoration of the Bourbons, and was in command there when the Duc d'Angoulême hoisted the white flag again. He had rejoined the main army before the last battle of Toulouse, and there had the difficult task allotted to him of restoring the battle on the left after the first success had been endangered by Picton's rashness. The Peninsular War was now over, and when Wellington was created a duke, his five most conspicuous lieutenants — Sir Stapleton Cotton, Sir Rowland Hill, Sir Thomas Graham, Sir John Hope, and Sir William Carr Beresford — were created barons in the English peerage as Lord Combermere, Lord Hill, Lord Lynedoch, Lord Niddry, and Lord Beresford of Albuera and Cappoquin, co. Carlow, with pensions of £2,000 for their lives and those of their next two successors in the peerage.

After the battle of Toulouse Beresford went to England for a few weeks to take his seat in the House of Lords, and then returned to Lisbon to resume his command of the Portuguese army, and thus lost the opportunity of being present at Waterloo. His residence in Portugal in time of peace was marked by perpetual squabbling. The Portuguese government had paid the large sums demanded for the army with great reluctance during the war, and when peace was declared insisted on a reduction, and finally would not pay anything at all. Further troubles were caused by the progress of a democratic spirit among the Portuguese, which eventually led to the dismissal of the English officers in the Portuguese service in 1819. This caused Beresford to pay his second visit to Rio de Janeiro, where the king of Portugal still resided. At his first visit in 1817 he had put down a dangerous rebellion in Rio, and now he insisted on his services to obtain the full arrears of pay for his army. On returning to Lisbon he found that the democratic constitution of 1822 had been proclaimed, and he was not permitted to land. He then left Portugal for the last time, and though twice during the civil wars he was requested to take command of the army again, he always refused, and never revisited the country.

On reaching England he commenced his short political career. He had been elected for the county of Waterford after the battle of Albuera in 1811, and again in 1812, but had never taken his seat in the House of Commons. He had now an opportunity in the House of Lords of declaring his strong tory principles, and of supporting the Duke of Wellington in everything. He received rich rewards; he had been promoted lieutenant-general in 1812; was governor of Cork (1811-20) and of Jersey (1820 till death); was colonel of the 88th regiment from 1807, and of the 69th (1819-23); was from 1822 lieutenant-general of the ordnance and colonel of the 16th (1823 till death). He was created Viscount Beresford of Beresford in Staffordshire, and in 1825 was promoted full general. In 1828, when the Duke of Wellington formed his first cabinet on the resignation of Lord Goderich, he was appointed master-general of the ordnance, with the superintendence of the important corps of royal artillery and royal engineers. This office he held until the formation of Lord Grey's reform government in 1830.

He now retired from political life, and was greatly occupied by his famous controversy with Colonel Napier, whose third volume, which treated of the battle of Albuera, appeared in 1833. In three long pamphlets, of which the first two were anonymous and the last signed, and in a letter to Mr. C. Long, the son of Lieutenant-general R. B. Long, he defended his conduct on that memorable day. He tried to make out that his generalship in the memorable campaign of Albuera had been faultless. This was too much for Napier to bear; after a clear exposition of the whole question he ‘declined to believe that Lord Beresford was a greater general than Alexander or Cæsar, and had never made a mistake.’ This controversy was carried on in a very bitter tone on both sides, and does not form a pleasant episode in his career. It is more pleasant to turn to the happy marriage which he made and to his later years.

On 29 November 1832 he married the Hon. Louisa Hope, his first cousin, the youngest daughter of the Most Rev. William Beresford, Archbishop of Tuam and Lord Decies, and the widow of Thomas Hope, the author of ‘Anastatius.’ By her he acquired a vast fortune; he had in 1824 purchased the ancestral estate of Beresford in Staffordshire; he now settled at Bedgebury in Kent, and there led the peaceful life of a country gentleman. Lady Beresford died there in 1851, and through the latter years of his life he was affectionately tended by his stepson, Mr. A. J. Beresford-Hope, afterwards M.P. for Cambridge University, until his death, at the advanced age of eighty-five, on 8 January 1854. He died Viscount and Baron Beresford in the peerage of England, Duke of Elvas in the peerage of Spain, Conde de Trancoso in the peerage of Portugal, knight grand cross of the Bath, knight grand cross of Hanover, knight of the Tower and Sword, knight of San Fernando, colonel-in-chief of the 60th rifles, colonel of the 16th regiment, and a general in the English army.

Possessed of great courage and physical strength, Beresford had the qualities which made an admirable officer, but not those which made a great general, and Wellington paid the greatest tribute to him when he declared that if he were removed by death or illness he would recommend Beresford to succeed him, not because he was a great general, but because he alone could ‘feed an army.

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