HC Deb 25 January 1809 vol 12 cc145-58
Lord Castlereagh

rose, to make his motion for the Thanks of the house to sir Arthur Wellesley, and the officers and men under his command, for the brilliant victory they had obtained at the Battle of Vimiera. —Whatever differences of opinion might have taken place, or might at that moment exist, as to the various matters which had occurred since that brilliant achievement, he was sure there never was, at any period of our history, a stronger burst of national gratitude than that which was universally proclaimed by the people of this country on the receipt of the first intelligence of the gallant and glorious Victory of Vimiera. He was happy in being able to separate this short, but me- morable Campaign from any circumstances, not so favourable, which might subsequently have attached to it; and he had no doubt but the house would be ready to coincide and go along with him in opinion, that the success and glory attending the splendid event of the Battle of Vimiera, on the 21st of August last, deserved the highest admiration and the warmest thanks of that house and of the country. It was impossible to find in the military annals of G. Britain, a more glorious instance of the superiority of her arms, than had been given on that occasion. We had had our victories of Egypt and Maida; but however brilliant those of any former period, none had ever exceeded that of which he was then speaking, which had afforded us a further striking and unquestionable proof, that whenever or wherever we had brought our troops into action with the French, they had shewn themselves greatly superior in courage, hardihood, and discipline.— They proved, that meet where we would, under advantages or disadvantages, whether in infantry, in artillery, (as was shewn at Vimiera), or in cavalry, (as the late campaign in Spain most decidedly evinced), the British soldier could maintain the same superiority over our foes as the British sailor did, and that the only difference consisted in the limited scale on which the former were, from the nature of our situation, employed. It was a fallacious mode of reasoning, to consider G. Britain as capable of acting a principal military part on the continent; her share must necessarily be subordinate and auxiliary, but I these events showed, that if the cause of the world rested on the. British arms, it would rescue the world from the tyrant, under whose sway it now groaned.—He did not wish to enter into a circumstantial detail of the campaign in Portugal, but it would be unjust not to call the attention of the house to the splendid action performed on the I7th of Aug. which, though limited in character, and not equal in extent, did not yield in glory to the Battle of Vimiera itself. The enemy were driven from one of the strongest positions that a body of troops could occupy, and an earnest given of what was afterwards realized in the immortal Battle of the 21st. He was sure it was not from any partial feelings towards the illustrious general who commanded on these occasions that he spoke; for much as he esteemed and admired him, it was impossible that any private feeling could enhance, in his mind, the honours of an action which would for ever remain a most signal example of excellence in the military art. It was no mean triumph to overcome the best troops of France, in possession of a country and every thing necessary for the maintenance of the advantages they enjoyed, with a body of men who were only provided with what could be supplied in a short time, and so completely to overthrow them that one fourth of their force was destroyed, and of 21 pieces of artillery they could only bear eight from the field. If such distinguished results were attained without cavalry, what might not be expected from a British force, completely appointed. He understood it had been hinted in another place, that the Thanks of the house ought to be extended to another individual, who was an officer in high command on that occasion. And therefore the noble lord wished to be perfectly understood, in the motion he should have to submit, not to intend the slightest disrespect towards sir H. Burrard. No one was loss disposed than himself, to hurt the feelings of that officer, than whom he did not believe there was a more gallant, or one of a more enlarged soul, in the British empire. A proof of his generous and manly feeling had been given, in his refusal to take ally share in a transaction which redounded so much to the glory of sir A. Wellesley. When he had mentioned the matter to his majesty, of the intention to confer the Thanks of the country upon sir A. Wellesley, his majesty expressed his approbation of the liberality of sir H. Burrard in not taking the command on that day; and it would, in his opinion, be doing an injury to that gallant and meritorious officer, to mix him in that vote of Thanks. All the military merit of this campaign, was exclusively sir A Wellesley's, and this was not the first instance in which the house was called on to vote an approval of his gallant and distinguished conduct. He had commanded a largerarmy than that with which he conquered at Vimiera, and the battle of Assaye, with the uninterrupted display of the most excellent military talents throughout an Indian campaign, had qualified him, in an eminent degree, for the trust there reposed in him. Military experience had ensured him that success which ever accompanied his brilliant career, and carried with him the confidence of the house as well as the enthusiasm of the army.—From the moment sir A. Wellesley landed at Mondego Bay to the day of the glorious achievement which was then the object of frequent praise, his dispositions of the army were such, that there was not a man, from that distinguished officer. general Spencer, down to the lowest drummer in the army, who was not an enthusiast that would cheerfully follow sir A. Wellesley upon any service. —Having submitted these observations to the house, he felt that he had made out one of the strongest cases ever made out, to entitle a general to the honourable testimony of his valour and good conduct which was bestowed by the vote of parliament, and concluded by moving, "That the Thanks of this house be given to the right hon. lieut. general sir Arthur Wellesley, K. B, for the distinguished valour, ability and conduct displayed by him on the 17th and 21st of August last in Portugal, on the latter of which days he obtained at Vimiera over the army of the enemy a signal victory, honourable and glorious to the British arms."—On the Resolution being read,

Mr. H. Addington

urged his friendship for sir A. Wellesley as an excuse for pressing forward to second the motion. He ran no risk of weakening the ground upon which this motion stood, for if submitted to the whole nation, it would be carried by acclamation. He would abstain from trespassing on the indulgence of the house by following the noble lord minutely or offering any eulogium on the hon. general, his friend, because it was altogether unnecessary, and would be trespassing on the time of the house. Great actions spoke best for themselves; and the splendid deeds for which the house was called upon to vole its Thanks, far exceeded his powers of description. Sir A. Wellesley was at a time of life when much might still be expected, and the course of service so gloriously begun, and so brilliantly distinguished at Assaye, promised a harvest of laurels which would be reaped at the proper periods—whether he was to be employed as the avenger of our wrongs, or the protector of other countries from violence and oppression. With the experience which sir A. Wellesley had acquired, with the prompt courage and coolness for which he was distinguished, what might not be expected from that patriotic ardour, that firm decision, and that calm intrepidity, by which the gallant officer in question had ever been so eminently distinguished, when proper occasions offered for calling them forth? He hoped that no extraneous matter would be introduced into this discussion, however much it might be regretted that the expected consequences had not resulted from this victory.

Lord Folkestone

said, that disagreeable as the task was, he must dissent from the motion; and he would, as shortly as possible, explain his reasons for so doing. The noble lord had said he was not actuated by any partiality in bringing forward the motion; and he hoped it was unnecessary for him to add, that he was not moved by any feelings of hostility to the gallant general in question in making the objections to the motion to which his duty impelled him. It had, as he understood, always been held, that the thanks of that house should not be voted without the most striking proof of some superior valour and achievement, or that some good consequence highly beneficial to the interests of the country, had ensued. He was willing to admit all the merit of courage and gallantry which attached to the character of sir A. Wellesley, and also the enthusiasm of the army towards him: but he could not see that it had been productive of any such good consequences as, in his opinion, ought to have resulted from it. He admitted the truth of the noble lord's statement as to the enthusiasm of the country when the news first arrived; but he believed that enthusiasm had subsided, and a very different opinion had since become general as to the result of the battle alluded to. The noble lord had said the French were superior in numbers, but he was of a contrary opinion. It appeared from the dispatches, that the French army amounted to 12 or 14,000 men; the British army consisted of from 14 to 16,000 men, besides 1,200 Portuguese troops. By the report of the officers of the Court of Inquiry, which had sat on the results of that battle, it appeared that they could not blame sir H. Burrard for objecting to the advance of our forces. The immediate consequences of that objection were the Armistice and the Convention, of which or of some parts of which, the house had recently been informed, his majesty had expressed a formal disapprobation. Neither of the victories, therefore, appeared to him to deserve the thanks of the house.—Another objection in his mind was, that no mention was made in the vote of the name of sir H. Burrard, to whom he thought great praise was due for the partite had acted, and which it was owned by the noble lord he deserved, for his conduct on that occasion. From all these circumstances, he objected to the Vote of Thanks for the Battle of Vimiera, as he did not think it of that brilliant description to demand a Vote of Thanks, and it fell short of those good consequences which ought to have resulted from it; but on the contrary, the whole of the expedition had ended in a manner that was disgraceful to the country.

Mr. Fremantle cordially

concurred in the motion. He gave the noble lord behind him credit when he said, that he had no personal hostility to sir A. Wellesley; but he differed from him widely in opinion on this subject; for he believed that this victory possessed all the ingredients which were calculated to do honour to the country, and to call for the unanimous Thanks of the house. He would not speak of the final result of the campaign; but as to this victory, and the course that led to it, there never was any thing more splendid and decisive, and the house would be wanting in the feelings that ought to distinguish the British parliament, unless they marked their sense of gratitude by the warmest thanks. Pie stated on public grounds, that from the landing at Mondego, to the victory of Vimiera, the whole proceeding formed a splendid monument of the military genius of sir A. Wellesley. But if he were to speak from private feeling he would say, that though from the commencement of his career sir A. Wellesley had deserved the highest applause of his country, there was no occasion when his military genius shone with greater lustre than the present. He agreed with the hon. gent. who spoke last but one, that from what the distinguished general in question had already done, we might form the most flattering hopes of what he would in future accomplish, in the honourable profession to which he was so splendid an ornament; and from the heavy loss we had so recently sustained among our generals, we ought carefully to nourish and encourage all those who had given such pre-eminent proofs of the vast superiority of their talents. He was happy to be able to concur so completely in this motion, from the judicious course which the noble lord had adopted, in confining it to the conduct of the general and the troops.

Mr. Blachfard

supported the motion, and expressed his extreme regret at the treatment his friend sir A. Wellesley received on his arrival in this country, after the brilliant and admirable manner in which lie had performed the service entrusted to his management. He had attacked and beaten, whatever might be said to the contrary, an enemy greatly superior to him in numbers; and if the noble lord would examine the documents, he would find it to be so. He was sorry, however, to say, that instead of being hailed as a conqueror by whom the military glory of Great Britain had been enhanced, he had been dragged as a culprit to answer to the charge of being a party to a transaction which he wished to prevent. The Report of that tribunal, before which he had been arraigned, had disappointed the hopes and expectations of the nation; because it spoke with equal praise of the man who won the battle, and of the man who checked the pursuit; of the man who conducted the disposition of the army, and of the man who when the victory was achieved, at case assumed the chief command. He was far however, from wishing to detract from the merits of the two other gallant generals, or to heighten those of his illustrious friend by a comparison with them; but, certainly, they had no share in the transaction; sir A. Wellesley had performed all the service; sir A. Wellesley was entitled to all the reward. The other officers might, if entrusted with the command from the beginning, have performed the service in the same gallant manner. But here he was not to look to what might have been done, but to what had been done. Sir Arthur had performed the service, and he was entitled to the thanks. The Court of Inquiry had given but cold praise, when they said that he had displayed unquestionable zeal and firmness. These were qualities which every general must possess, unless a traitor or a coward. The performance of a bare duty might screen from censure, but deserved very little praise. Sir Arthur had done more. The disasters of the campaign that was just concluded he thought were wholly owing to the superseding of sir A. Wellesley; for if he had continued in the command, the Convention of Cintra would never have taken place; but, on the contrary, instead of a fatiguing march through Gallicia, he firmly believed our troops would have been employed in driving the French over the Pyrennees. He had been a witness to the whole of the conduct of the distinguished general, to whom the thanks of the house were then proposed to be voted; and in his opinion it deserved every encomium which language could bestow on it. The hon. gent. then adverted to what sir Arthur had done in the East, and what he had done and might do in Europe, and called upon the house to acknowledge the merits of a general who had never been defeated. If, in the course of what he had said, any expression had fallen from him that might be offensive to the friends of the gallant officer who had superseded him, he could assure them, he did not mean to convey the smallest censure on any thing he had done, but merely to express his sentiments as to the conduct and gallantry of the distinguished general who so well had earned and deserved the high reward intended to be conferred on him by the thanks of the house.

Lord Folkestone

observed, that he had not said that the British troops were superior in number to all the French in Portugal, but only to those in the engagement.

Mr. Lambe

fully concurred in the merits of sir A. Wellesley: but it appeared that there had been a difference of opinion between sir A. Wellesley and sir H. Burrard at the close of the day. On that subject the Board of Inquiry had given no opinion, and as they had not done so, he thought it would be indecorous in the house to do any thing which might appear to decide that question. If he voted for the motion, it must be with a clear understanding that this point was left as before.

Lord Castlereagh

said that it was not his object to take the sense of the house, either directly or indirectly, on that question.

General Grosvenor

concurred in the motion, and thought the noble lord had taken the course which was most agreeable to sir H. Burrard himself. That officer would be more satisfied with the manner in which his merits had been allowed, and he was no stranger to the thanks of the house. It was with pride he would give his thanks in the manner proposed. He concluded with describing the actions of the 17th and 21st of August as of the most chivalrous nature, and worthy of being had in everlasting remembrance in the circle of the soldier, and by paying a warm tribute to the merit of sir A. Wellesley, who had conciliated the love and respect of the private soldier, deserved the most hearty applauses of his country, and proved himself a veteran in noble daring, a veteran in martial fame, a veteran in the love and admiration of the public.

Mr. Whitbread

could not give his vote this night without saying a few words. He bore testimony to the judicious, candid, and liberal manner in which the noble lord had brought the subject forward, both with respect to the operations in Spain and Portugal—in resting the whole matter on the real merits of the officers, without entering upon points in which they were not concerned. He would most cheerfully give his thanks for the actions of the 17th and 21st, and acknowledge the conduct, the prowess, the valour, and the gallantry of sir A. Wellesley and the army under his command, from their landing to the conclusion of the victory of Vimiera. But the moment the house was doing ample justice to both they ought to abstain from fixing a stigma on the conduct of another officer, especially after the loss which he had recently sustained. Sir H. Burrard was the commander of the army on the 21st, and from his judicious conduct had deserved the Thanks of that house; and he was sure that no jealousy could exist in the great mind of sir A. Wellesley on this subject. If sir H. Burrard was so modest as not to aspire to the honour which that house had it in its power to confer, sir A. Wellesley, on the other hand, was too generous to envy the thanks of the house to an officer who had not interrupted him in his career, as had been said by an hon. gent. on the floor (Mr. Blachford) but had refused to interfere with the triumphs of sir A. Wellesley, and while he took the responsibility on himself ascribed in his dispatch the merit to sir Arthur. Could the house depart from the established rule, and refuse to record their Thanks to sir H. Burrard, the Commander-in-Chief, as well as to sir A. Wellesley? He fully agreed in the caution of his hon. friend behind him (Mr. Lambe) not to blame sir H. Burrard, and the only way to prevent this was to introduce the name of sir Harry, which might be done without any injury whatever to sir A. Wellesley. If a Commander was responsible for what he committed to an inferior officer, why should he be deprived of the praise? Was sir Harry at a distance on the day of the battle? Had he not taken the command the day before? Sir Arthur came and took his orders from sir H. Burrard before, during, and after the battle. Sir H. Burrard considered the plan of sir Arthur, and held himself responsible for it. An hon. gent. on the other side had defied the opinion of the Court of Inquiry, and decided that sir H. Burrard had done wrong; but he, who did not think quite so lightly of the opinion of the Board, and especially of that of one noble lord who was a member, thought that, after the manner in which the subject appeared to have been considered by that Board, the house could not refuse its Thanks to sir H. Burrard without doing a gross injustice to that officer. In no Vote of Thanks had the Commander-in Chief been ever before left out. The conduct of sir Hyde Parker had been the subject of animadversion, who had entrusted the execution of the business at Copenhagen to lord Nelson; yet sir Hyde Parker was thanked by both houses. If the conduct of sir Arthur, instead of producing a brilliant result, had led to some disaster, sir H. Burrard would have been responsible, and it would have been no excuse that he had delegated the command to sir A. Wellesley. Under these circumstances, ought he not to be considered as sharing in the merits of the success? He had no knowledge of sir H. Burrard—he had never spoken to him in his life—but he thought it an act of duty to move that his name should be included. It was due to his merits, and might be some consolation under the afflicting calamity, of which intelligence had been received that day, and which deprived that gallant officer of a son, who might hereafter illustrate by his achievements the military glory of his country. An hon. gent. had adverted to the reception which sir A. Wellesley had met with. His reception, he believed, was marked with that applause which his distinguished merits deserved—but what had been the reception of sir H. Burrard and sir Hew Dalrymple? On the question between sir A. Wellesley and sir H. Burrard, the Court of Inquiry had given no opinion, and one noble lord had said that if he had been obliged to decide he would have inclined rather to the opinions of sir H. Burrard. The name of that officer, under all these circumstances, ought not to be omitted, and he therefore moved that it be inserted.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer,

observing that the motion must, if pushed to a division, be put in another form, adverted to the merits of the case, and acknowledged, that if the matter were to be decided by personal feeling, one might be disposed to overlook the real nature of the question, in consideration of the calamity to which the hon. gent. had alluded. But it would not be doing justice to sir H. Burrard to thank him for a service, from which his great merit consisted in having separated himself. The course of proceeding which sir Harry adopted, proved that he did not wish to arrogate to himself any share of the merit which he had carefully consigned to its author. In his dispatch he stated that the plan was intirely sir A. Wellesley's, the execution was intirely sir A. Wellesley's, and the report of the battle intirely sir A. Wellesley's. Unquestionably, sir H. Burrard was intitled to great praise for his liberality, generosity, and forbearance; but it was not that description of merit which they were then considering. The only thing that could be recorded here was, that he did not mix himself with what belonged to another; and in doing so the house would be far from consulting his feelings. The hon. gent. would not suppose that he meant to ascribe to him any improper motive in this amendment. But with respect to the case of sir Hyde Parker at Copenhagen, the hon. gent. would recollect that sir Hyde Parker had been thanked for the disposition which he made; but sir H. Burrard laid claim neither to disposition nor execution, and therefore the principle could not apply. With regard to what had fallen from a noble lord under the gallery, it was not surprising, if his objections had induced others to wander in some measure from the question. The noble lord ought to remember, that though the British troops in the field were superior in number, yet, out of eight brigades of which the army consisted, only five had been engaged in the action. Three eighths of the British force remained without firing a musquet (hear, hear). He could not sit with patience, and hear the gallantry of our brave soldiers and the merits of a gallant and distinguished officer thus attempted to be frittered away upon fallacious grounds (loud cries of hear, hear, hear). The distinguished officer who was the subject of the motion before the house, had pursued a career of military glory, unexampled in this country. He had gained almost as many victories as he had been years in the service, and he trusted that the house, leaving all other considerations out of the question, would express their warm and decided approbation of his merits.

General Stewart

assured the house that no man could have a higher respect for sir H. Burrard than he had, but he could not help observing that it would be impossible for the hon. gent. to make the army understand, why sir H. Burrard was thanked, if he could carry his amendment. The private soldier who saw the activity of sir A. Wellesley, and knew that sir H. Burrard had done nothing more than come into the field, could not understand what the British parliament meant. He had not the good fortune to be present at the battle of Vimiera, but he arrived soon after, and observed the sentiment of enthusiasm in favour of sir A. Wellesley, that prevailed from the general to the drummer. It was impossible for him adequately to describe it; but he might use the emphatic language of an experienced general who had served in most of the armies on the continent, and was fully capable of judging of the question—he meant general Anstruther, an officer, for whom he had entertained the sincerest love and affection, who had promised to become one of the brightest ornaments of the British army, but who, unfortunately for his country, had died in consequence of the fatigue of the late retreat. That distinguished officer had stated to him that it was impossible to conceive anything more admirable than the conduct of sir A. Wellesley from the commencement of his operations to the result of the battle of Vimiera; that there was no difficulty which he did not contrive to obviate—that his mind was full of resources—that he managed the army like a machine, of the nature of which he was complete master— that he had every thing at his fingers ends, and that no officer that ever he saw, conducted the operations of an army with more distinguished ability. This service was that of sir A. Wellesley, and the army could never understand, why the thanks for it should be given to another, whose great merit was his generous and liberal refusal to share the honours which he conceived did not justly belong to him.

Mr. Adam

was particularly anxious to express his strong approbation of what had fallen from the hon. general respecting brigadier-general Anstruther. It was impossible to speak too highly of the military merit, the capacity, in all respects, and the excellent character of that officer, who, if his life had not been lost to his country by the fatigue of severe duty, would have been among the list of those this day to have received the thanks of his country. for his services at both battles. He was of opinion that the thanks of this house were? highly merited by sir A. Wellesley, for his conduct at Vimiera, and he was the more confirmed in that opinion from what general Anstruther had written to this country from the field of battle, which had made such a deep impression on his (Mr. Adam's) mind, that it was impossible for him to forget it; and it confirmed every thing that had been said of general Anstruther by the hon. general who had spoken last. He wrote from the field of battle, that such were the confidence which the army of Vimiera had in sir A. Wellesley, and such was his talents for command, that there was nothing that that army could not attempt under that commander, and few things that they would not achieve. Mr. Adam said, that these were with him sufficient reasons for thanking sir A. Wellesley, a sentiment in which the whole house agreed, with the exception of the noble lord under the gallery. It would be cruel indeed, because this great action, which had filled the country with universal joy when it was first known, had happened some months ago, and other events had since intervened, that therefore our gratitude or our thanks should be deadened to those who had achieved it. He then said, that he thought his hon. friend Mr. Whitbread, with whom he had the happiness to agree in general on public questions, would prejudge the matter by the Amendment which he had moved, as it regarded sir H. Burrard. As the motion now stood, and as it had been introduced and supported, he conceived himself and the house at perfect liberty to enter into every inquiry respecting the transactions in Portugal, and that whatever military merit might appear to be due to sir H. Burrard, or whatever political demerit might attach elsewhere, it was still open to the house; but, if the Amendment was persisted in, when the speeches of the day were forgotten, the Journals would exhibit to posterity what would be injurious to the character of sir H. Burrard, without the possibility of explaining it; he, therefore, requested his hon. friend to withdraw his Amendment, as, besides these disadvantages, it would preclude the free and unequivocal thanks of this house to the other officers, and to the army of Vimiera in general. He said it was impossible for him to speak on this question without considerable emotion, as thanks were to follow, among others, to a person in whom he felt the deepest in- terest, he meant genera! Ferguson, whom he considered not merely as a friend, but as a son, the companion and friend of his sons, who were fighting the battles of their country. He felt for him a truly parental affection; and he knew, from the best authority, that sir A. Wellesley had said, that the intrepid gallantry and conduct with which general Ferguson had led on his troops to the charge, was the finest thing he had ever seen in his military service. Mr. Adam added, that he could not help feeling most anxiously, on every account, that thanks, which comprised no opinion, and impeded no inquiry, and did not preclude future thanks to the services of sir H. Burrard, as the result of inquiry, should be voted without altering their original form; and that the country, the army, and the world, should feel, that the gratitude of this house was the constant and invariable reward of great military achievements.

Mr. Whitbread

had no hesitation in complying with the recommendation of his hon. friend, in withdrawing his Amendment. He remained, however, of the opinion he had already expressed, that sir H. Burrard was entitled to the thanks of the house; but as his hon. friend had stated that the vote of this night would not preclude him from afterwards receiving that testimony of approbation to which he (Mr. W.) contended his conduct entitled him, he should not press the introduction of it into the vote of this night. He agreed most cordially with his hon. friend in the sentiments he expressed in regard to general Ferguson. He was satisfied that sir A. Wellesley and general Ferguson must go down to posterity as the most distinguished heroes of Vimiera.—The Amendment was then withdrawn, when the Resolution for a vote of thanks to sir A. Wellesley was put, and carried, with the sole dissentient voice of lord Folkestone. The thanks of the house were next voted to major-generals Spencer, Hill, and Ferguson; and to brigadier-generals Ackland, Nightingale, Fane, and Bowes, and the officers under their command. A Resolution was then agreed to, expressive of the approbation of that house, of the conduct of the noncommissioned officers and privates.