James Pipon and Sir Arthur Wellesley

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This article by A J N Young was first published in the 1986 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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This is the third and last part of the story of the military career of James Pipon of Noirmont.

Portugal expedition

The close of the second article about James Pipon found him appointed as Senior Commissary for the expedition to Portugal under Sir Arthur Wellesley. The troops for this had been assembling at Cork in Ireland, so he had to make a long journey to join them, living as he was at that time in Bath. First, however, he went to London to receive instructions from Sir Arthur about transport for his baggage. An account shows that the cost of its carriage to Portsmouth and loading onto The Monarch transport with porterage was £3 11s. One wonders when it reached its owner, for Sir Arthur went ahead in a fast frigate, as soon as he received the Government's orders, and landed at Corunna with the object of discovering what help he could expect from the Portuguese.

James did some shopping in London, buying "two gowns for Eliza and two for the child" for £4. The child was John Kennard, now just over one year old. He also bought 14 large and six small spoons from Smith and Asprey for £7 18s 6d.

The journey from Bath by chaise to Holyhead, recorded as 229 miles, cost £32 3s 8d, including postillions', turnpike and hostlers' charges. He soon reached Dublin, but did not reach Cork, where he stayed at Leech's Hotel, until 2 July. No further documents having survived, we can only assume that he met some of his subordinates and tried to find out what stores were available for shipment. Fortescue states, however, that equipment for the field was very far from complete. Uncertainty over the Government's intentions was doubtless the reason for this, as the force being assembled was at first intended for an attack on the Spanish Colonies in South America. In June it was suddenly announced that its objective would be to expel the French from Portugal, for which purpose another 3,000 troops were to be added to the original 5,000. Clearly the Commissariat was faced with great difficulties from the start.

The change of plan was due to the non-compliance by the Portuguese with Napoleon's orders for a blockade of British goods in all European ports. So a French army under Junot had been sent to Lisbon in the previous November. They just failed to capture the Royal family, who had fled to Brazil. At this the Portuguese, following the example of the Spaniards, rose in revolt, and a local army of 5,000 men in north Portugal under General Friere was preparing to move southwards to link up with the British.

Arrival in Portugal

The landing place chosen for the Army was Mondego Bay, some 90 miles north of Lisbon, because the fort of Figuerio which overlooked it had been captured by local insurgents and handed over to the British Admiral Cotton. Had the plans for this expedition not been so hurriedly formed, there might have been time for a more suitable spot to be chosen. Lack of opposition was, indeed, an important consideration, but what was unfortunately overlooked was the fact that the beaches there were exposed to a heavy surf from huge Atlantic rollers capable of overturning the frail landing craft. Those acquainted with St Ouen's Bay in Jersey will have no difficulty in understanding what happened. When the disembarkation took place between 1 and 8 August, many boats were upset and lives lost. To quote Sir Arthur Bryant: "Every now and then the waves overturned a boat and, despite the efforts of the sailors, later threw up a cluster of stiff red-coated bodies."

A German Commissary, August Schaumann, has left a vivid account of his landing, and it may be imagined that Pipon's experience was little different. "With my portmanteau under my arm I climbed with a portion of my cousin Plate's company into one of the flat-bottomed boats supplied by the men-of-war. Preceded by two sloops we rowed rapidly towards the rocky, sandy shore of the bay, which the huge breakers had converted into a sheet of raging foam. The men sat four by four on the thwarts, all pressed closely together with their packs and muskets between their legs. With beating hearts we approached the first lines of surf and were lifted high up into the air. We clung frantically to our seats and all of us had to crouch quite low." They were dragged ashore by naked sailors who flung out ropes as the surf receded. They then found that rocks and sand were so burning with the heat of the sun that everybody went about barefoot and paddled in the surf from time to time to cool themselves.

Once landed the Commissariat staff found themselves faced with severe difficulties. There was a great lack of transport, for only four camp equipment wagons and three forge carts had been brought from Ireland. It was essential to make use of the Portuguese. Wellesley had been active in tackling this problem. The Bishop of Oporto had promised him 500 mules and by 10 August there was sufficient carriage to convey bread for 13 days. But trouble arose with General Friere, who was expecting to be provided by the British. On reaching the small town of Leiria, he commandeered all stores of food there and said he would co-operate only if Wellesley would undertake to provide rations for 6,000 men. At least there was plenty of wine and evidently a certain amount of beef available.

Criticism of the Commissariat

What then of the efforts of James Pipon who found himself Senior Commissary in these unusually testing and confusing conditions? Lacking documents, we cannot tell accurately what he and his staff achieved. But he did incur strong criticism from Wellesley, whose despatches on the subject are quoted in no fewer than four books on this campaign. Michael Glover records that on 8 August Wellesley wrote to Castlereagh just as the first landings were being completed: "The people who manage the commissariat are incapable of managing anything out of a counting house." He claimed that he had to show them everything himself. Earlier he had said "I have had the greatest difficulty in organising my commissariat for the march, and that department is very incompetent ... the existence of the Army depends on it." He does not mention any names.

But another authority, Lady Longford, wrote: "Nor could Wellesley supply Friere's men as well as his own, since his chief commissary, James Pipon, had fallen down badly on the job." Arthur Bryant follows the same line: "Wellesley's staff and commissariat were greenhorns." he says. Fortescue comments: "His commissaries were so helpless that he was obliged himself to draw up for them a table of the number and organisation of the pack-mules and ox-wagons." The other distinguished writer on the Peninsula, C W C Oman, gives a rather different slant to the matter, writing, "August 2 to 9 were spent in the organisation of the commissariat, which the Home Government had disgracefully neglected."

On the subject of the Commissariat generally at this period, Antony Brett-James in Life in Wellington's Army has this to say: "In all this much depended on the commissaries. Though verdicts differ on their zeal and competence, though some were found wanting and a few proved to be dishonest, indulging in irregular if not fraudulent practices, they were mostly sound men who learnt from experience and from being chivvied by commanding officers." He quoted Sir John Bissett who, in Commissariat Service, writing of the time when Sir John Moore's army first entered Spain (November 1808) says "Arrangements had not yet been made in respect of the discipline of the Department and the appointments to it, with a view to furnishing a set of officers trained in some measure to the duties to be required of them; such training could not be the work of a day; also, prior to this, many gentlemen got commissions in the higher ranks of the Commissariat who had not passed through the lower gradations or acquired any of the practice which a regular probation would have produced. The numbers, too, were defective."

This may have been true of some sections of the service, but Pipon had worked his way up from the lowest rank for over ten years before 1808, as had others often named in his letters and returns. He for one was certainly no greenhorn.

As for the criticisms, it may well be asked, in mitigation, how food and forage for such a large force were easily to be procured in a poor foreign land. After all, Wellesley had gone on ahead and had time with his full authority to make contacts for supplies. Shortage of transport vessels had made it impossible to provide the necessary horses and wagons from home. To achieve this, several journeys back and forward would have had to be made, only to delay the whole enterprise. The commissaries would have had a much better chance of organising food and forage if they had sailed at the same time as their commander. As for finding supplies for Friere's men, if the Portuguese themselves could not do this, how could the British commissaries have been expected to do so immediately on their arrival? The fact remains that somehow or other sufficient supplies were obtained within a fortnight to enable the army to advance and defeat the French, not once but twice, at Rolica on 17 August and at Vimiero on the 21st. One can hardly believe that this was entirely due to Wellesley's own personal efforts.

If Pipon's previous service overseas is considered, we find that at Aboukir, stores could be landed direct off the ships, as there was a good bay and a large shallow lake to use. Also there were plenty of Greek, Cypriot and other traders in the eastern Mediterranean only too glad to do business with the British. In Germany experienced firms already existed, which were not slow to press Pipon for contracts as soon as he arrived.

Is it not possible also that Wellesley, in writing of "the people who manage the commissariat" may have had in mind not only those with him in Portugal but the Treasury officials in London? There is a hint of this in Oman's statement. A comment by Lady Longford on a later page of her book is also significant. "These letters emphasise the defects of Wellesley's character," she wrote, "he tended to rush to extremes ... and on paper imagination and temper were apt to take control."

That there was certainly some substance in his criticism of the commissaries is indicated by the following extract from Schaumann, though the person concerned was certainly not working under Pipon. "Commissary-General Rawlings, a puffed-up and very uncivil fellow who, bye-the-bye, was cashiered two years later, had set up a large marquee on the beach and provided himself with all his London camp equipment, consisting of camp chairs of red morocco, small mahogany tables, a silk camp bed with steel springs, a canteen of silver knives, forks and spoons and a costly apparatus for his personal ablutions. Several clerks who were appointed at the same time as myself were given a tent. But in the evening the brute Rawlings would not hear of our making up our beds with a little of the hay that had been landed, although two of his own goats were standing up to their bellies in it. As soon as he had fallen asleep, however, we robbed the said goats of their hay and laid ourselves down upon it."

So there can be little doubt that at this point in his career James suffered a setback. As we shall see, however, it turned out to be only temporary, for some years later Wellesley changed his mind about him. The immediate effect, which meant his return to England, was due to events which occurred at a totally higher level.

Changes in Command

By the end of July Wellesley had heard from Castlereagh that a division under Sir John Moore, who was senior to him, would be shortly on its way to Portugal; and the Government had decided to place this reinforced army under the command of Sir Hew Dalrymple, Governor of Gibraltar, who incidentally had not commanded any troops in the field for 14 years. One can imagine Wellesley's annoyance. Furthermore the second-in-command was to be another senior officer, Sir Henry Burrard. He was a Jerseyman, to whom we owe the gift of land for the street named after him in St Helier. Unfortunately he arrived in Portugal during the battle of Vimeiro and took over the command, only to cancel Wellesley's orders for an advance, which many thought would have resulted in the capture of Lisbon and the destruction of the French army. A few days later he and Dalrymple concluded with the French the convention of Cintra, under which they were permitted to leave intact with all their arms, equipment and loot, which was considerable. There was outcry in England when this news became known and a military court of inquiry was held, as a result of which neither Burrard nor Dalrymple were employed again.

Winston Churchill quotes an amusing jingle from a broadsheet of the time:

"Sir Arthur and Sir Harry,

Sir Harry and Sir Hew,

Sing cock-a-doodle doodle,

doodle-doodle-doo.

Sir Arthur was a fighting cock, But of the other two

Sing doodle-doodle-doodle, doodle-doodle-doo."

Another contemporary reference to Sir Harry Burrard is quoted by Arthur Bryant, from a letter written by a certain Mrs Jackson to her husband George: "A very good sort of man, and if he was unfit to command an army, they who gave him the command ought to have known that, for I am sure everyone else knew it." Strange that two Jerseymen should both suffer damage to their reputation in the same country in the same month.

With Wellesley's departure, Pipon had to go too, for he had been appointed only for this particular expedition. At first, however, he went to Lisbon to gather together the necessary documents for presenting to the Treasury the accounts of the campaign, according to the normal procedure. He probably found transport some time in November, for there is a letter in the Wellesley correspondence dated from Bath on 11 December. In this James wrote: "Sir, On the 12th of last month I had the honour of transmitting to you from Lisbon one set of my cash and provision accounts regularly attested, for the period of my responsibility whilst in the direction of the Commissariat department attached to the army under your command."

After further requests concerning these accounts, Pipon continued - and this is the significant part of the letter - "I trust to be excused for submitting myself as a candidate for your approbation ... after the arrival of Sir Hew Dalrymple, whilst the contractors were supplying the main body of the army, without any aid from them the force under your command was supplied by me from 30 August with fresh meat, wine and forage to 18 September, when you quitted the command, without any want remaining unsatisfied."

This letter concludes: "These circumstances cannot, I hope, detract from the professional character which it has been my pride to uphold for the many years during which I have enjoyed the confidence of the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury."

The heart of the matter is reached in the instructions Wellesley gave for his reply. "Inform him", he wrote, "that he is aware that I did think I had reason to be dissatisfied not with his want of zeal but with his want of experience and ability to conduct the great concerns which he had undertaken. That this dissatisfaction was perfectly known to the army and that therefore any certificate of the kind he requires would be highly injurious to me. Assure him that I am perfectly sensible of his zeal, of his honour and of his integrity; but that the situation which he filled required other qualities which I could not say with truth that he possessed; and that I shall be happy to have any opportunity to be of use to him."

Promotion

So Pipon was back in England and on half pay but, between March and August 1810, as the Public Record Office documents confirm, he was re-employed and ordered to Portugal in the rank of Deputy Commissary in Lisbon. Wellesley was as good as his word. Writing from Freneda on 1 April 1813 to Mr Herries, the Chief Commissary, he referred to the good report he had received of James Pipon from Sir Robert Kennedy, and that he had directed in General Orders that he was to act as Commissary General till the pleasure of the Lords of the Treasury was known, to whom he wished Mr Herries to recommend the appointment.

The official date of James' promotion to this rank, the highest in the service, was 10 December 1814. There had been some delay, but he must have felt it was worth waiting for, and he held this post in Lisbon till 20 October 1819.

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