Academic journal article Policy Review

The Perfect Officer

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Perfect Officer

Article excerpt

MILITARY ESTABLISHMENTS CHERISH heroes that confirm their self-image, and as the embodiment of British cool, Sir John Moore has few rivals: Described by his biographer Carola Oman as an Achilles without the heel, Moore was one of Britain's most accomplished commanders during the Napoleonic wars, and he has a timeless quality about him. Having risen in the army ranks due to ability rather than wealth, he served in the hotspots of the war against the French: in the West Indies, in Egypt, in Sicily, and on the Iberian Peninsula.

"With his direct and unaffected manner, he was the very opposite of a show-off like the navy's Sir Sydney Smith, who had blocked Napoleon's advance at Acre and who was busy promoting himself as a second Nelson. Reporting home on the battle of Alexandria, Smith turned up at the Admiralty decked out in a Turkish outfit, complete with turban, shawl, and two pistols in his girdle. Smith was long on daring, but short on judgment. Moore had both. Needless to say, the two of them did not get along.

In the British effort to drive the French out of Egypt, where Napoleon had left his army to fend for itself after Nelson had destroyed the French fleet in Abukir Bay, General Moore was sent to coordinate with the Ottoman army in Jaffa; his equanimity was deemed to have a calming effect on the volatile Orientals.

In the ensuing battle of Alexandria, the reserve under Moore bore the brunt of the French onslaught and stood firm despite running out of ammunition, confirming Moore's image as "a man impossible to alarm." The surrender of the garrisons of Cairo and Alexandria marked the definitive end of the French adventure in Egypt.

Not only could Moore fight. His reputation as a trainer of men was established as commander of the Light Brigade at Shorncliffe Camp on the Kentish coast, whence he directed defense preparations against the force Napoleon had assembled across the Channel during the 1803-1805 invasion scare. Moore did not share the enthusiasm for Prussian tactics shown by Sir David Dundas, the army's adjutant-general, whose drill manual boiled the Prussian method down to eighteen maneuvers, to which Moore referred dismissively as those "damned eighteen maneuvers": Prussian precision maneuvers might look fine on the parade ground, but on the battlefield, they were outdated.

What Moore sought, he noted, was "not a new drill, but a new discipline, a new spirit that should make of the whole a living organism to replace a mechanical instrument." Thus the much looser light infantry tactics that became known as "Sir John Moore's system" required "not so much men of stature as it requires them to be intelligent, hardy and active." The point was to "encourage to the utmost the initiative of the individual, treating soldiers as men and not as machines." A well-read and humane man, he was sparing in his use of the lash. Of the 52nd, "there is not a better regiment and there is none where there is less punishment," he proudly noted.

What was to be his final assignment was with the British expeditionary force on the Iberian Peninsula, an ill-planned and ill-led venture. Moore had to take over after its commander was recalled. The efforts of the Spanish allies had collapsed, but in a daring move, designed to lure Napoleon north, Moore attacked his line of communication, forcing the French emperor to move against him personally, but managing to give him the slip. In disgust Napoleon left it to Marshal Soult to take over the chase.

A retreat is considered the most depressing maneuver a commander can undertake. After untold sufferings in the Spanish winter and casualties of 3,000 dead and 500 wounded that had to be left behind, Moore managed to get his force into position to be extracted by the navy. But first they had to make a stand to beat off their French pursuers, which they successfully did in the battle of Corunna. Moore, however, was among the casualties. …

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