Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough, is an interesting and controversial figure of the late Georgian and early Victorian British Army. It is said he commanded in more battles than any other British soldier of this period, save for the Duke of Wellington. Despite this there are many who have questioned his command capability and his competence, particularly where the two Sikh Wars are concerned.
In this, the first major account of his life for over one hundred years, the author seeks not to defend Gough but to better understand him. This is done by attempting to draw out the other periods of his life. By so doing we gain a greater understanding of his background, experiences and influences.
Gough, like so many British officers, was part of the Anglo-Irish community. However unlike many he wore his Irish heritage with pride, and would always refer to himself as an Irishman. Yet he was a ‘Unionist’ and fiercely proud of the British Empire.
Born into a military tradition he first wore the King’s uniform at the age of thirteen. He saw extensive service during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He fought in Southern Africa and the Caribbean. During the Peninsular War he commanded the 87th Foot and was said to have been the most experienced battalion commander of the conflict. After the war he served in southern Ireland during the counterinsurgency response to the ‘Rockite’ movement.
After a lengthy period on half-pay and promotion to major general he was appointed to command a battalion in the Madras Army. It was from here that he was despatched to command British forces fighting in China. He worked closely and effectively with his civilian and naval counterparts and was considered to have been an extremely effective commander. Returning to India he was overlooked for command of the Madras Army but was instead rewarded with the appointment of Commander-in-Chief in India.
In this capacity he conquered the Gwalior State and the Sikh Empire and greatly enhanced British India. However his victories came at a high price in terms of casualties, and he was much criticised for this. Despite this he never lost a battle. He was loved by his men, largely because he suffered with them and was always willing to share in the danger. In battle he wore a white fighting coat, which made him easily identifiable to both his men and the enemy.
Whilst his command ability was sometimes questioned, his courage never was. His life is an interesting tale of a career soldier, a fighting soldier, who was, as an officer who served under him remarked, “as brave as a lion”.
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