Real, Solid, and Unbending: The Life and Legacy of Sir John Moore
Sir John Moore first leapt out of the pages of British history for me when my friend, Graham, who lives not far from Moore’s birthplace in Glasgow, Scotland, bid me look him up online. It turned out to be unnecessary since I had already done so months before on one of my crazy historical searches, printed out his biography, and stuffed it in a the back of a too-long-neglected folder which I finally rediscovered. When I had made the print out, I had no idea who Sir John was, and did not even bother to read it through at the time. The only reason I made the copy to begin with was because I took a fancy to his appearance at first sight. Now, looking back at the portrait of him in his dress uniform, with his handsome, memorable face and warm, mesmeric eyes, I remember why he first captured my imagination. I had thought I should have liked to know him very much, just by the way he stared out at me from across the centuries…
John Moore was born in Glasgow in 1761, the son of Dr. John Moore, a respected surgeon, teacher, author, and clergyman from the burgeoning middle class at the crux of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was very much the epitome of his class and age, as one of the defining elements of the Enlightenment was an emphasis on cultivating a polite society of well-rounded gentleman, proficient in the arts and the sciences, as well as philosophy, theology, and ethics. When Dr. Moore became the tutor of the Duke of Hamilton’s eldest son, Douglas, he created enduring ties with the socially elite, and often brought along his son, John Jr., as a companion for Douglas.
By his early teens, young John was already known as a rambunctious lad, hyper-active and accident prone. One such boyhood “accident” occurred when he was play-acting a duel with his father’s pistol…without paternal permission. Assuming it was unloaded (first lesson: never assume!), he squeezed the trigger and heard a scream from a laundry maid cleaning up in the next room! To his relief, she had only been slightly wounded in the arm, and his father was able to patch her up and paid her off without any further trouble. We can only guess what he decided to do to leave a lasting…umm…impression on John!
Now that he was in his teens and the companion of a nobleman’s son, it would be devoutly hoped that young John had learned to temper his exuberant nature and abide by his father’s insistence on learning self-control. Well, perhaps he did in parts, but he was never one to be cowed by his “betters”, and when the duke’s son Douglas became bored and challenged John to a fencing match for sport, John refused to let him win as was expected. Douglas became so frustrated with this persistent teacher’s brat, that he struck too hard and accidently lanced him in the side. John refused to react to the pain, but merely stared defiantly up at him with his piercing hazel eyes and snorted, “Ha!”
Seeing the blood gushing onto the floor and John turning pale, Douglas was horrified at what he had done and rushed to alert Dr. Moore who came to bandage his son’s wound. Thankfully, the incision had not penetrated too deep, but enough blood was spilt to make the young nobleman truly repentant of his bad temperament during the match, and from then on, he learned respect for his little mate and decided to drop the pretext of being his superior. As a result, they struck up a lasting friendship that remained strong until Moore’s death.
As was customary in the upper classes, the Duke of Hamilton decided that his son should tour Europe, and Dr. Moore and John got to accompany him. As usual, John found trouble a plenty, including the time he climbed the side of lava-spewing volcano in Italy and came back covered in ash and suffering from various burns. He also had a run-in with some young noblemen in Paris, who had the impertinence to make fun of John’s simple choice of clothing and hair-style, in contrast to their feathers and frills and wildly ostentatious wigs. The mockery set his Scottish blood to a boil, and John charged into them like a whirl-wind. The French youths had been raised to believe that fighting with ones fists was uncouth, but John, having received boxing lessons in the back streets of Glasgow, had no scruples about knocking them all flat!
Dr. Moore, who had been nearby studying some famous sculptures in a park, was soon on the scene, patching up the “victims” black eyes and bloody noses, and trying to get the stains out of their fashionable attire. Afraid the whole escapade would cause a diplomatic embarrassment, he made quite a scene of lecturing John and sending him off to spend the rest of the day in room at the local inn, grounded. But perhaps secretly, he was just a little proud of his son, and his son’s fists!
One way or another, it is obvious from his letter back home to his wife that Dr. Moore quite pleased with his boy’s progress in learning. From Geneva, Switzerland, he wrote: ‘He really is a pretty youth! He dances, rides, and fences with unusual address; he draws tolerably, speaks and writes French admirably, and has a very good notion of geography, arithmetic, and practical geometry. He is always operating in the field, and showing me how Geneva can be taken’. One thing he did not excel so well at was hand-writing, and in later life his scribbling would be barely legible to those who needed to understand him most, in life-threatening battle situations!
In Prussia, John met George Keith, the old Earl Marshall of Scotland, who had been exiled for Jacobitism after the 1745 rebellion. The old veteran took a liking to the energetic teenager instantly and spent hours instructing him on the ways of warfare. When it was time for them to part, Keith gave John a brace of Prussian pistols and a pocket-sized edition of Horace, both of which he would treasure for the rest of his life. The old marshal must have inspired John, because afterwards he took an increased interest in the military. Given his eagerness, he was even offered a position in the Prussian army as a mercenary, but John preferred to serve his own country, and purchased a commission as lieutenant in the British army at age 16.
Lieutenant Moore would experience his baptism of fire during the American Revolution, where he would distinguish himself as a courageous and proactive officer. He also would demonstrate the moral character instilled in him by his father when he refused to shoot an American officer who had his back turned to him as he desperately tried to rally his breaking ranks, using his sword more as a method of direction than protection. Like another Scottish officer in the British army, Major Patrick Ferguson, who stayed his hand when he could have shot George Washington in the back, Moore ascribed to a gentleman’s code of honor which made it repugnant for him to shoot a fellow officer unless he could look him in the face.
Over the course of the next three decades, Moore rose in the ranks due to his competence and diligence in his chosen field, and he was even knighted (a fact that he jokingly wrote to his mother about, in shock that he should ever bear a noble title!). He participated in various campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars, as well as off-shoot rebellions such as those launched by the United Irishmen in Ireland and Slaves in the West Indies. It is interesting to note that Moore had some sympathies with the plight of both the Irish and the slaves, and even though it was his duty to put down the risings which endangered British security, he was not shy about imparting his opinions on reform to his government.
Sir John earned his men’s undying admiration for his personal courage, always leading from the front and often being wounded as a result. Once he was even shot in the face, and given up for dead. Even though he was eventually rescued and patched up by field medics, he almost did himself in during the recovery process when he deliriously mistook some ointment on his bed stand for a drink, and nearly poisoned himself. However, when he felt the severe burning reaction after swallowing, he realized what he had done and called for someone to give him a feather pen, which he immediately thrust down his throat. After throwing up the toxic blend, he used oil to soothe his scraped throat…and then took another shot at getting some restorative rest and relaxation!
During his career years, Moore also gained fame for implementing new methods of training into the British military continued to be a mainstay after his death, and he also created the light infantry regiment which would be replicated in armies throughout the world. He was known as a strict disciplinarian, but he was not cruel or excessive in his meting out of punishment. Usually, he tried his best to avoid harsher measures such as floggings and hangings unless other milder measures had been tried and failed, making him one of the few truly humanist commanders of his time. He summed up his own position as follows: “Nothing could be more pleasing to the commander of the forces, than to show mercy to a soldier of good character, who had been led inadvertently to commit a crime; but he should consider himself neglectful of his duty, if, from ill-judged lenity, he pardoned deliberate villainy.”
On a personal level, Moore did learn to reign in his boyhood impulsiveness for the most part, but never lost his love of adventure and curiosity about the world around him. He was good-natured and had a quick wit, making him a desirable edition to social circles. His integrity was said to be beyond reproach, and his word was his bond. He was also an excellent judge of character. To have him for a friend was a priceless treasure, but with those whom he distrusted, he remained cold and aloof. Bunbury says: ‘Everything in Moore was real, solid, and unbending. He was penetrating and reflective. His manner was singularly agreeable to those whom he liked, but to those he did not esteem his bearing was severe’.
Physically, he was tall and dignified, with penetrating eyes and handsome facial features. He aged well, and could still be said to have an attractive quality even after years of strain and hard fighting. However, Moore remained a bachelor, mainly because he did not want to make things hard for any family he might have should he be killed in battle. The closest he ever came to tying the knot was when General Henry Edward Fox tried to match-make the 47-year-old Moore with his 17-year-old daughter, Caroline. She was beautiful, intelligent, and just the kind of person Moore found appealing. He was instantly smitten.
However, it’s questionable if the attraction when both ways, because Moore decided to graciously bow out of any engagement, writing to her that he feared the age gap between them might ruin her chances for true happiness with a younger man. This act, almost more than anything else, show the depth of his consideration for others. Caroline later married the young Sir William Napier…and proved just what a smarty-pants she was by managing to crack Napoleon’s secret code that her husband had been toying with!
In 1808, Sir John was given command of a British army to aid a Spanish rebellion against Napoleon Bonaparte, who had invaded Spain and put his brother Joseph on the throne as a puppet king. For Moore, the mission was a thankless task, and the politicians who sent him out on it were fully prepared to make him the scapegoat if things went wrong. Unfortunately for Moore, things did go wrong.
First of all, communication between the British and Spanish high command tended to be strained, made all the more difficult due to the language barrier and Moore’s ever horrendous hand-writing which was even more incomprehensible when he tried to write dispatches in broken Spanish! Second, and more importantly, the man-power guaranteed him by the Spanish proved to be merely a drop in the bucket, and Moore found himself woefully outnumbered by an army under the leadership of Napoleon himself. In addition, the supplies promised by the Spanish people never materialized, and the British general realized that retreat to the coast was the only chance of saving the army from complete destruction.
Napoleon’s troops were hot on his trail, but Moore used all his skill to maneuver away from him. It was becoming increasingly evident that while the goal for Napoleon was victory, the goal for Moore was survival. But the survival rate in the British army was plummeting, as severe winter weather and lack of supplies sapped the strength from the men and their female camp followers. Many fell out of line and froze to death along the roads, while others took to looting the towns they passed through and terrorizing the less-than-welcoming inhabitants.
Moore was furious at his subordinate officers for being unable to keep order among the ranks, and ordered severe punishments (including executions) for those who harmed civilians or damaged/stole their property. In spite of his show of good will to the Spanish populace, the majority still refused to aid Moore in any way, fearing repercussions from the French who they knew were trailing him. British morale overall was extremely low, and it got even worse when their long-awaited shipment of food was overtaken by plunderers from their own ranks and devoured.
Then the British troops received a random boost to keep their heads above water. British soldiers managed to defeat a superior French force in a skirmish along the banks of a river, and took a distinguished-looking French officer prisoner. Taken to Moore’s tent, the captive divulged that he was none other General Count Charles Lefebvre-Desnoutte, the leader of the Imperial Cavalry Guard and nephew of the Empress Josephine. Suddenly overcome with a stress-attack, the prisoner collapsed into a nearby chair, and Sir John took pity on him and personally cleaned and bandaged the saber wound on his forehead. He also lent him one of his pairs of winter long underwear since he had fallen in the river and was soaked to the skin. For Moore, this was close to a gesture of solidarity, since he was a long underwear freak who had a dozen pairs packed in a cart on campaign!
Moore also sent a flag of truce sent across the river to procure Lefebvre’s baggage from the French. Then he invited Lefebvre to dine with him on the verbal promise not to escape, and gave him his own saber from India to fill his empty scabbard and restore his honor. Two years later, when he was being forwarded to England as a prisoner, the French general did effect an escape, probably justifying it since Moore was dead by then and there was nothing in writing binding him to the personal oath. But that was in the future. For the present, his loss was an embarrassing blow to the French camp.
Napoleon, with his true sense of fair play, exploded in a temper tantrum, and declared that he would face Moore himself since no other general in Europe was worth his personal attention. Nice words, but having been out-run and then harassed by second rate troops of inferior numbers, led by a rough-and-tumble son-of-a-Scottish-moderator was too much for the Emperor to stomach, and he ignobly retreated to his comfort zone, a waterproof carriage, and went back to Paris under the pretext of an emergency of state. Later, Napoleon would say of his rival: ‘His talents and firmness alone saved the British army from destruction; he was a brave soldier, an excellent officer, and a man of talent. He made a few mistakes, which were probably inseparable from the difficulties with which he was surrounded, and caused perhaps by his information having misled him.”
Napoleon having retreated to lick his wounds, Marshall Nicholas Soult, Duke of Dalmatia (called “Duke of Damnation” by the British Soldiers) was left in command of the French advance. Like Moore, he had originally been from a middle class background, but volunteered for service in the French military and rose in the ranks through merit. Also like Moore, he was the epitome of a gentleman, always acting with courtesy and greatly admiring chivalry in others. For example, when British Major Charles Napier was wounded five times in battle, a French drummer protected him from being bayoneted by an Italian soldier. Soult ordered that drummer, to be decorated by Soult with the Legion d’Honneur, and when Napier’s mother fell ill in England, Soult and Marshall Ney allowed him to return to England on parole for one year. They did not inform the harsher Napoleon of these good deeds.
Years later, when he was the French ambassador at Queen Victoria’s wedding, Soult met up with the Duke of Wellington and became good friends with him, chatting happily about their mutually shared experiences on opposites sides during their wars and carrying on a long written correspondence after Soult returned home. But all that was yet to come.
Currently Soult was closing in on Moore, who finally had made his way to the fortress of Corunna in Northern Spain and met up with Spanish locals willing to aid him in their common fight against the tyranny of Napoleon. The mission now was to get the bulk of the British Army safely out of Spain via transport ships due to arrive on the coast any day from England. The Spanish partisans knew that they were risking everything by helping Moore, and that they would be left behind to face the French alone. Yet they boldly made their decision to stand with the Briton who had come to liberate them, even though he now faced nothing but retreat. These Spaniards still believed that if the British army could be saved, it would return to fight another day.
On January 16, 1809, Soult and the French Army met the British at Elvina outside of Corunna, and a hot conflict ensued. Moore was looking his most dashing in his scarlet uniform on the back of a pale-gray warhorse, leading from the front as always and galloping back and forth across the battlefield. The soldiers were inspired by his fearless presence, especially the 42nd Highlanders to whom he called, “Highlanders, remember Egypt!” This was a reference to a campaign in which Moore had fought the French along the banks of the Nile, and the Highland regiment had been instrumental in wreaking havoc on the enemy.
Soon after this exhortation, a soldier of the line had his leg torn off by a ball, and screamed aloud, making the other soldiers waver. “Hold to rank, soldiers!” Moore bellowed, then spoke to the injured man being carried off the field, “My good fellow, we must try to bear these things better!” Not long after, Sir John would have the opportunity to put this point into practice.
As he was giving instructions to one of his subordinate officers, a cannon blast knocked Moore from his horse. At first, it did not appear that he was injured, but closer inspection revealed that the ball had almost completely torn off his arm from the shoulder, as well as shattering his ribs. The soldiers who saw their leader fall were stunned, seeming to believe that he was indestructible. But Moore did not make complaint, even as the Highlanders jostled their fellow-Scot onto a stretcher and carried him off the field. One saw that his sword was jabbing into his wound and tried to unbuckle it, but Moore stopped him and retorted, “’Tis better that it leaves the field with me.”
As his stretcher approached was carried through a dark street in Corruna, Moore seemed to sense someone he knew in the crowd and called his name. It was Colonel Paul Anderson, an old friend from battlefield days gone by. Sir John reached out and seized his hand, seeming to realize his own mortality and seeking whatever comfort he could. He pleaded in a whisper, “Anderson, don’t leave me…”
When his French valet Francois saw his master on the stretcher, and a look of horror passed over his face at the sight of the hideous wounds. But Moore, always thinking of others, comforted him in French, saying, “My friend, this is nothing.” Then he gave him a reassuring smile. A surgeon was called in, and even though Moore insisted that he should focus on those who still had a chance of surviving instead of himself, the medic proceeded to prod and dig in the wounds. True to his character, Moore did not make a sound, although his face was completely drained of color from the intense pain.
He continued to ask how the battle was going, and he was told that the British were indeed holding the French at bay. “I hope my country shall do me justice,” he remarked, and then tried to compose a message to his mother, but was overcome by emotion at the thought of never seeing her again. “I have so much to say, but cannot get it out,” he gasped, a sob catching in his throat.
Watching Moore suffering became increasingly painful to all those around who knew and loved him. He finally murmured, “It is a great discomfort…it is a great pain…I feel so strong, I fear I shall be a long time dying…” Then he turned to one of the officer nearby, one Major Stanhope, and murmured, “Remember me to your sister.” Evidently Moore had struck up a correspondence with Lady Hester Stanhope, and she had become his confidante and friend. Whether or not there were any romantic connotations is a mystery of history. One way or another, these would be his last words. Mercifully, he faded away quickly, without a struggle.
Meanwhile, Moore’s second-in-command, General Baird, was on board a British ship having his arm amputated, and did not cry out through all the pain. But when he was informed of Moore’s death, he broke down and sobbed. In the aftermath of the battle, the whole army seemed to be in a state of shock over Moore’s loss, who represented the spirit of service, courage, and determination to see their cause through any difficulty. Years after the successful evacuation from Corunna, the men who had served under him would continue to proudly mark themselves as “Moore’s Men.”
After the last British ship had sailed for the safety of England, the French took Corunna. Marshall Soult, true to form, dismissed with Napoleon’s plans for reprisals and gave the Spanish defenders generous terms. When he found the shallow grave of his adversary, Sir John Moore, he ordered a plaque to be erected with the following inscription from Horace, the classical poet that the bold Scotsman had loved so well:
“So it is true in the long sleep of death
Our hero lies, whilst Honour with bright faith,
Truth and Justice unashamedly weep for,
Their one incomparable son.”
As often happens in my historical studies, I find myself becoming personally attached to these very real figures from the past, and I can honestly say that I am truly thankful to for the life and legacy of Sir John Moore. If it had not been for his seemingly inglorious retreat across Spain, Napoleon may well have had enough time and man-power to capture Portugal. Without Portugal as a landing zone, the British army under Wellington would not have been able to return into Spain, where they defeated the French armies and spelt out the beginning of the end of Napoleonic domination on the continent.
So I guess it’s a blessing of Providence that Sir John Moore was the right person at the right place at the right time, with the courage and skill to challenge a tyrant, no matter how daunting the operation might have seemed. But beyond that, he was a true gentleman with a sense of decency and honor that resonates in any age, and I find myself drawn to pray for his soul, and hope that perhaps we might meet someday on a better plain. As a Scot and a Brit, he was truly one of the flowers of his country and an example of heroism in an era of travail.
By Rosaria Marie