Author: Jacqueline Reiter
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Published: 11th January 2017
“a confident, elegantly written biography, rooted in iron clad fact… a much needed spotlight of unbiased scholarship to a fascinating and tragic life.“
John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham is a name that can be read in many histories without inspiring any emotion. For me the title Lord Chatham was vaguely familiar from the memoirs of Rifleman Harris, and brief references to the Walcheren Expedition of 1809. A name as heavy with resonance for historians of the British army as any. Walcheren however was a leech that having appended itself to Lord Chatham over 200 years ago, has yet to be extracted.
The name of the man and the place of his disgrace have been irrevocably joined and has ensured that the man be relegated to that shadowy place of national shame reserved for unsuccessful Generals.
Yet the name Walcheren tells us absolutely nothing about Lord Chatham, not even studies of the campaign get to the heart of the person of John Pitt, except to point out his failings as a commander. The taint of this phase of the Napoleonic Wars, one of a series of 19th century Dieppe’s and Gallipoli’s, has been so strong so as to almost dismiss the rest of Chatham’s life as an insignificance, an embarrassment better hidden away that put on display.
Yet it seems unfair that this man’s life should be without the benefit of an closer look, and thankfully Jacqueline Reiter’s biography, “The Late Lord”, redressed this imbalance and calls for a reappraisal.
Firstly the author has done a fine job of bring something of Chatham’s personality across in her narrative. A man of impeccable manners and charm, who was perhaps cursed with the “advantage” of being the first son of a great man.
The ease with which he gained high offices, not to mention the ear of the King, seemed to expose a benign sloth in Chatham that was all too easy to interpret as a criminal level of procrastination.
This younger Pitt however was earnest in his dedication to duty, and equally determined not to rock any boat he found himself in charge of, to say he was a conservative is an understatement.
Jacqueline Reiter knows her man well, and cuts to the heart of his personality with scalpel sharp incisiveness. A telling observation being that he hated to do anything for appearances sake (though he was a bit of beau), and this leant to inactivity that would cost him dear.
This story is one of semi tragic consequences. John Chatham was in the end left alone. His search for purpose in life ended perhaps unfulfilled, for he was cast from politics and after Walcheren he would never command in the field again. He had neither sons nor daughters to comfort him, and as his public life received perpetual bombardment, his personal life melted around him.
Look into the large eyes of John Chatham’s later portraits and there is an emptiness there that is not to be found in the one that adorns the cover of this book. The price of a life devoted to being useful, shaded by the spectres of his brilliant father and brother. Maintaining the status quo had been costly.
Yet it is both wrong and unfair to say his life was useless. As the author demonstrates, a steady ship, even if it goes nowhere is better than one that ploughs on with all sail and ends up wrecked as a consequence. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Chatham displayed his usual sloth, his practice of rising late gaining him the nickname “The Late Lord”, but he brought a stability in a time of confusion.
As Master General of the Ordinance the story was the same. Blessed with the name of Pitt and an ear at the palace, he was a perfect choice for many important political administrative roles, unsuited to others. While not having enough distance from party politics to save him from being something of a lamb to the sacrifice, he did nothing inherently wrong in his home postings, but for many contemporaries it was not enough just to maintain a course.
And what of Walcheren? The missile that finally sank his ship. Was the stigma it lent to his reputation deserved? I myself have often wondered if Moore had not died at the moment of victory at Corunna would History have been so kind to the man who only just saved his army from total destruction. Wellington only just escaped a similar evisceration to Chatham after the convention of Cintra for much less. Once more the author very adroitly puts before us the evidence, and from it must be drawn the conclusion that while Chatham’s leadership was indeed questionable. He was nicknamed “Turtle” by the troops who likened his speed and love of comfort to the physical and gastronomic attributes of this animal. John Pitt was not a natural soldier, he had a solid political foundation but little acumen for field command. Had he been placed under a successful General he might have done creditably, several of Wellington’s brigadiers were utter buffoons but were part of “the club” and were thus protected.
The burden of command is lonely however. Chatham, like in all things did little actually wrong. But his slow pace, disagreements with the navy, (who may well be just as culpable for the disaster), and his ability to allow his own detachment to alienate subordinates and ordinary soldiers made for an unforeseen circumstance to arise that was the real reason the expedition failed. The fever that wrecked the army practically removed the entire force from any further useful role in the war against France. Rather than any military failure, Chatham was defeated by germs.
When he returned to face an enquiry it is telling that the opposition, finding little to condemn him militarily sank his ship on the basis of his alleged unconstitutional communication with the King. Jacqueline Reiter is quite open about Lord Chatham’s often ham fisted attempts to take control of his own narrative, a failing that crops up more than once.
The Late Lord is a confident, elegantly written biography, rooted in iron clad fact, rarely ever straying from what cannot be substantiated. I think it also brings to the fore the wider strategy Britain adopted to defeat France. Brilliantly highlighting, at the same time, the life of a man who represents a substrata of British statesmen and aristocrats during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This book does much to retake lost ground, questioning what has been taken for granted, and bringing a much needed spotlight of unbiased scholarship to a fascinating and tragic life.