Viscount Wolseley

Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley is one of five Field Marshals to condescend to be associated with the Old Wellingtonian Lodge. He was Gilbert & Sullivan’s Modern Major General, and his efficiency was the inspiration for the late 19th century English phrase “everything’s all Sir Garnet”.

Like Lord Roberts, Wolseley was a professional soldier, a very much a self-made man, and quite the opposite of Lord Methuen. He was born into a family with little money and unable to afford a commission his mother sought a nomination on the strength of his father’s service from the Commander-in-Chief, appropriately enough the Duke of Wellington. His mother’s direct appeal was successful, and he was nominated to an ensigncy in the 12th Foot (later the Suffolks) in 1852. He would later write that that the first business of the young officer who wished to distinguish himself in his profession was to seek to get killed, the only means by which he could hope to advance while the system of purchase prevailed.

Wolseley transferred to the 80thin order to see active service in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Within a few months of his arrival he distinguished himself in an assault on Myat Toon’s stockade at Kyault Azein in 1853, and was so badly wounded in the left thigh that would trouble him for the remainder of his life. He saw service in the Crimea, where he met Charles George Gordon in the trenches before Sevastopol, who would become one of his heroes; in turn Wolseley would become one of only two men for whom Gordon prayed nightly. Wolseley was slightly wounded, this time in the right thigh during one attack on the Quarries in June 1855, but on 30 August he was severely wounded by shellfire, suffering another wound to the right leg and losing the sight of his left eye.

Wolseley was diverted from a posting to China by the Mutiny, and he was part of the first relief of Lucknow, and later succeeded his future rival, Roberts. He fought in Oudh and in the Second Opium War with Hope Grant, his first patron. In less than eight years Wolseley had risen, without purchase, from ensign to brevet lieutenant-colonel at the age of only twenty-five, and had established a reputation for courage and judgement in action and as an able staff officer.

Whilst serving in Canada he took the opportunity of seeing something of the American Civil War, reaching the Confederacy and meeting both Robert E Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson in the aftermath of Lee’s retreat from Maryland after Antietam.

In 1873 he led an expedition to punish Asante incursions into the Gold Coast protectorate by seizing their capital of Kumasi. He became Governor of the Gold Coast and his work established Wolseley as the ‘Modern Major-General’ immortalised by Gilbert and Sullivan and the cockney catchphrase ‘All Sir Garnet’ became common parlance.

Wolseley was rewarded with the GCMG and KCB, a grant of £25,000, and the rank of Major General on 1 April 1874. The honours came from the Conservatives, who had come into office during the campaign. Disraeli described him as ‘a little man, but with a good presence, and a bright blue eye, holds his head well, and has a lithe figure.’1 Wolseley himself believed he would have been granted a peerage by the Liberals, and he turned down both the GCB and a baronetcy, believing the latter worthy only of ‘common people’.

He became the first High Commissioner and Governor-General of Cyprus, and after the disaster at Isandlwana, was appointed Governor and High Commissioner in South Africa, where he captured the Zulu king Cetshwayo, and defeated the Pedi chief Sekukuni.

Wolseley was made Adjutant-General, but this job was twice interrupted by campaigns. The first was to suppress Arabi Pasha’s nationalist revolt in Egypt, being sent off with the Cabinet’s simple missive ‘Instructions to Wolseley: Put down Arabi and establish Khedive’s power.’The second was the belated attempt to relieve his hero Gordon, in Khartoum.

He was made Field Marshal in 1894 and then Commander in Chief, a role in which he was succeeded by his great rival, Roberts. He died in 1913 in Menton on the French Riviera.

He was initiated into the Military Lodge No 728 under the Irish Constitution in Dublin.

[1] Monypenny & Buckle, 5.305

[2] Gladstone, Diaries, 31 July 1882