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date: 25 February 2021

Wolseley ringfree

(act. 1873–1890)
  • Halik Kochanski

Wolseley ring (act. 1873–1890), military reformers, was a group of British army officers in the late nineteenth century who owed their high ranks to Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley (1833–1913). The ring developed owing to several factors: patronage was a way of Victorian life; promotion in the army was governed by seniority and not by selection; the Staff College did not turn out a sufficient number of staff officers; and Wolseley personally believed that he could select the best men.

The quality of senior officers during the Crimean War had not impressed Wolseley, and he began to keep 'a list of the best and ablest soldiers I knew' (Wolseley, Story of a Soldier's Life, 201). Wolseley's first experience of command was the 1870 Red River campaign. Then his choice of staff officers was limited to those already serving in Canada. John McNeill, William Francis Butler, Redvers Henry Buller, and Hugh McCalmont all impressed him with their military knowledge and capacity for hard work and were earmarked for future use.

In 1873 Wolseley selected his staff for the Asante campaign, and it is the Second Anglo-Asante War that marks the real origin of the Wolseley ring. Apart from the officers listed above, he chose Henry Brackenbury, John Frederick Maurice, George Pomeroy Pomeroy-Colley, Baker Creed Russell, and Henry Evelyn Wood to accompany him. Qualifications for membership of the ring included loyalty to the chief, intellect, bravery, and experience of war. Few new members joined the élite after this campaign: Herbert Stewart was a notable exception.

Men from the ring accompanied Wolseley on the various tasks the government set him. These included civil appointments, such as in Natal in 1875 and in Cyprus in 1878. Foremost, though, was their staff work when on campaign. In 1879 Wolseley was appointed to replace Lord Chelmsford after the early disasters of the Anglo-Zulu War. He was joined in South Africa by Brackenbury, McCalmont, Russell, Maurice, and Colley. In Egypt in 1882 Wolseley accepted the services of lieutenant-generals Frederick Willis and Edward Bruce Hamley as divisional commanders, but managed to find places on the staff for most of his ring.

The cohesion of the ring lasted until the expedition of 1884–5 to relieve Gordon in Khartoum, Wolseley's last experience of active-service command. He complained in a letter to his wife on 31 December 1884, 'they torture themselves with jealousy one of the other, and sometimes even in their dealings with me are inclined to kick over the traces'. Buller failed to ensure an adequate supply of coal to keep the steamers running. Butler proved incapable of working in a team, and Wood was so deaf that working with him was a strain on Wolseley's voice. Only Herbert Stewart earned praise, but he died from wounds in the campaign.

Wolseley's patronage extended to securing important appointments for his protégés while he himself served at the War Office. He collaborated with Wood to improve the training of the army. Maurice's intellect was encouraged and he became the 'pen of Wolseley' (Luvaas, 173–215). Yet loyalty to Wolseley did not always last. Wood was never totally forgiven for signing a peace treaty with the Boers in 1881 before the British defeat at Majuba and the death of Colley had been avenged. Brackenbury angered him by adopting the Indian viewpoint of the defence of India while serving there, in direct contradiction of his patron's opinions. He later served as director of ordnance when Wolseley was commander-in-chief. Buller equally was never totally forgiven for nearly being appointed commander-in-chief in 1895 instead of his patron, yet Wolseley did secure his appointment as commander of the First Army corps in the South African War.

The ring has been criticized because allegedly it did not bring the best men forward, its size was too limited, and it divided the late Victorian army. The argument that Wolseley's men were not as able as he supposed rests on the performances of Colley, Butler, and Buller in the graveyard of military reputations, South Africa. Colley disappointed his chief in the Anglo-Transvaal War by attempting to take Majuba Hill with too few men and paid for his error with his life. Butler angered Wolseley by refusing to suggest provisions for the defence of Natal and Cape Colony when war with the Boers was imminent. Buller's poor strategic decisions during the war appalled Wolseley.

The commander-in-chief, the duke of Cambridge, had his own circle of officers whose careers he encouraged, yet he disputed Wolseley's right to select his own staff. He argued that 'no army could stand these sorts of preferences without entirely dampening the energies of senior officers', but Wolseley was unrepentant (Verner, 164). The duke objected to the list of staff officers selected for the autumn campaign in 1885 to retake Khartoum because he felt that more men should be given experience of staff work. Wolseley replied that many new men had been tried already and found wanting. He listed them with caustic comments: one colonel was 'not fit to be a corporal' (Wolseley to Cambridge, 4 April 1885, Cambridge MSS, Royal Archives, M858/47). Nor had the Marlborough House set surrounding the prince of Wales fared any better: Stanley Clarke was not recommended for a medal or promotion.

The argument that the Wolseley ring was a divisive factor in the Victorian army rests on its perceived competition with the Roberts ring based in India. This was more of a rivalry between the junior members of the rings, particularly Ian Hamilton, who upheld Roberts's reputation at every opportunity. There is little evidence of enmity between Wolseley and Roberts themselves other than their differences of opinion on the value of short service and their opposing ideas on Indian defence. The Wolseley ring and Roberts ring were just two among other circles formed around powerful men like the duke of Cambridge and the prince of Wales.

The Wolseley ring owed its existence and validity to the failure of the Staff College to supply an adequate number of staff officers and to the system of promotion by seniority. As the Staff College's reputation improved, Wolseley encouraged young protégés such as J. Adye and E. S. E. Childers to apply in order to gain the necessary theoretical knowledge of staff work. Similarly the establishment of a promotion board and the acceptance of selection as the method for future promotions at the end of the century meant that rings like Wolseley's should no longer have been necessary in the army. The effectiveness of the Wolseley ring is demonstrated by the fact that it ensured Wolseley's reputation as the foremost colonial commander in the late Victorian army.

Sources

  • Viscount Wolseley [G. Wolseley], The story of a soldier's life, 2 vols. (1903), vol. 2
  • H. M. Kochanski, Sir Garnet Wolseley: Victorian hero (1999)
  • J. Luvaas, The education of an army: British military thought, 1815–1940 (Chicago, IL, 1964)
  • W. Verner, The military life of H.R.H. George, duke of Cambridge, 2 vols. (1905)
  • In relief of Gordon: Lord Wolseley's campaign journal of the Khartoum relief expedition, 1884–1885, ed. A. Preston (1967)
  • The South African diaries of Sir Garnet Wolseley, 1875, ed. A. Preston (1971)
  • The South African journal of Sir Garnet Wolseley, 1879–1880, ed. A. Preston (1973)
  • I. Harvie, ‘“The Wolseley ring”: a case-study in the exercise of patronage in the late Victorian army’, MA diss., University of Buckingham, 1993
  • E. M. Spiers, The army and society, 1815–1914 (1980)
  • E. M. Spiers, The late Victorian army, 1868–1902 (1992)

Archives

  • Hove Central Library, Sussex, corresp. and papers
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Devon Record Office, Exeter
Royal Archives, Windsor Castle, Berkshire [with gracious permission of her majesty the queen]