Friday, November 11, 2011

Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734-1801), Fall in the Moment of Victory

Sir Ralph Abercromby, by John Hoppner (died 1810), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1909

The National Library of Scotland has announced plans for a new online educational resource for Scottish schools. Featuring images from its own collection, as well as the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Maritime Museum, it celebrates Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish pioneer medical missionary; Ralph Abercromby, the British lieutenant general who was noted for his services during the Napoleonic Wars; David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer; James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer and Florence Nightingale, made famous by her pioneering work in nursing

Sir Ralph Abercromby and a Companion seated in a room with two maps of Grenada and Carriacou. Originally thought to be possibly with his son. Painting by John Downman (1750 - 1824)

The Death of General Sir Ralph Abercromby, K.G

Monument of Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby at Cathedral St. Paul

Sir Ralph Abercromby KCB (sometimes spelt Abercrombie) (7 October 1734 – 28 March 1801) was a Scottish soldier and politician. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-general in the British Army, was noted for his services during the Napoleonic Wars, and served as Commander-in-Chief, Ireland.

Sir Ralph Abercromby’s several important military victories were matched by his command of the British army, in which he restored discipline and morale. Historians Martin Windrow and Francis K. Mason write: “Although his career was crowned by several notable victories, Abercromby is remembered more as the restorer of high professional standards in the British Army than as a master of tactics.”

Abercromby was born in the village of Tullibody, in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, on 7 October 1734, the eldest son of George Abercromby. He was educated at the prestigious Rugby school and later studied law at the University of Leipzig and Edinburgh University. Entering into a military career, he was offered a cornet’s commission in the 3rd Dragoon Guards in March 1756. He saw action with this unit in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and rose to become a lieutenant colonel in 1773 and brevet colonel in 1780. In 1781, he was named a colonel in the King’s Irish Regiment. However, because he sympathized with the American colonists fighting for independence, he felt it better to leave the military than continue and possibly be forced to fight in a war in which he did not believe. He retired in 1783.

Abercromby decided to enter the political realm: He was elected to a seat in Parliament from Clackmannan, Scotland, but he quickly tired of his duties and left office; he was succeeded by his brother Robert (1740–1827), who also later served as a general in the British army. When France declared war on England in 1793, Ralph Abercromby again took up arms for England and was named as commander of a brigade under the duke of York, second son of George III. Serving for a time in Holland, he saw action at La Cateau (16 April 1794) and was wounded at Nijmwegen. He was in charge of the British withdrawal from Holland in the winter of 1794 and conducted this duty so well that he was honored with a Knighthood of the order of the Bath. In 1795, the king named him to succeed Sir Charles Grey as commander in chief of British forces in the West Indies.

In 1796, Abercromby once again went into battle, seizing the islands of Grenada, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and the then-French settlements of Demerara and Essequibo. He was then recalled to England, where in 1797 he was appointed as head of the English army in Ireland. However, the Irish government blocked his efforts to reform the army. Abercromby resigned his commission after less than a year in office. That same year, 1797, he was made second in command to the duke of York, with whom he had previously served, in the English drive to retake Holland, which ended in disaster and failure.

In 1801, Abercromby was sent to Egypt to help drive the French out of that country. When the English army landed at Aboukir Bay on 2 March 1801, 5,000 English soldiers faced a large French force under the command of General Louis Friant. Historian George Bruce writes: “The landing [of the English] was effected under a heavy musketry and artillery fire, which cost the assailants 1,100 killed and wounded. The French were driven from their positions with a loss of 500 men.”

Aboukir is known to historians as an important English military victory. After this success, Abercromby advanced to the important French threshold of Alexandria. In the midst of the battle on 21 March 1801, Abercromby was hit in the thigh by a rifle ball. He was taken from the field and placed on the English flagship Foudroyant, but surgeons were unable to remove the ball. As Abercromby lay dying, according to one account, one of his men placed a blanket under his head. “What is it you have placed under my head?” he inquired. When told it was a soldier’s blanket, he replied, “Only a soldier’s blanket? Make haste and return it to him at once!”

Seven days after being shot, Abercromby succumbed to his wound at the age of 66. His body was moved to Malta, and he was laid to rest there. The battle of Alexandria, where he lost his life, was a significant one for the French, who found the English troops to be their equal and whose casualties were extremely heavy. The English lost 1,464 men, including Abercromby.

His old friend and commander the Duke of York paid a tribute to the soldier's memory in general orders: "His steady observance of discipline, his ever-watchful attention to the health and wants of his troops, the persevering and unconquerable spirit which marked his military career, the splendour of his actions in the field and the heroism of his death, are worthy the imitation of all who desire, like him, a life of heroism and a death of glory." He was buried in the Commandery of the Grand Master, the Knights of St John, Malta.

By a vote of the House of Commons, a monument was erected in his honour in St Paul's Cathedral, Abercromby Square in Liverpool is named in his honour. His widow was created Baroness Abercromby of Tullibody and Aboukir Bay, and a pension of £2,000 a year was settled on her and her two successors in the title.

He had seven children. Of four sons, all four entered Parliament, and two saw military service!
  1. Hon. Anne Abercromby (d. 17 September 1844)
  2. Hon. Mary Abercromby (d. 1825)
  3. Hon. Catherine Abercromby (d. 7 May 1842)
  4. George Abercromby, 2nd Baron Abercromby (1770–1843)
  5. General Hon. Sir John Abercromby (1772–1817)
  6. James Abercromby, 1st Baron Dunfermline (1776–1858)
  7. Lt.-Col. Hon. Alexander Abercromby (1784–1853)
A public house in central Manchester, the 'Sir Ralph Abercrombie', is named after him

Sources :
Book "World Military Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary" by Mark Grossman

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