Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 17
by John Joseph Greenough
The Very Model of a Modern Major General
Halifax felt the outbreak of the Crimean War almost immediately. Troops from the garrison were dispatched to the front, as well as troops which had previously served in the city; local civilians volunteered for service, and Joseph Howe undertook to recruit in other parts of North America in order to get volunteers to aid Britain. The citizens of Halifax followed the fortunes of the British army with interest, and, like most of the English-speaking world, they rapidly became aware of conditions at the front. It was the first war in which newspapers played a significant role in providing the civilian population with detailed accounts of life in the army in the field, and the civilians were, for the most part, horrified. The administrative machinery of the British army had almost invariably faltered at the outset of previous campaigns, but no one except the military and a few well-placed civilians in London had known about it. But this was different. Every newspaper reader knew about the breakdown of supplies, the horrors of army hospitals, the bungling of the generals, and the other attendant misadventures of the army in the field. The cry was raised for the reform of the army. In the past, the antiquated and ridiculously complicated military machinery had been well protected by the entrenched interests of the officer class, the indifference of the politicians, and the enormous prestige of the Duke of Wellington, who would consider no change in the established order. But Wellington was dead: some of the officers themselves favoured reform; and the politicians, goaded by the public outcry, were thoroughly aroused. The administration of the army was at least partly reformed. The public, including the good citizens of Halifax, read in their newspapers of the changes. Those same citizens of Halifax would have been amazed to learn that one of the very incidental side-effects of reform was to be the last full-scale row over their slightly dilapidated Citadel.
At the outbreak of the war, no fewer than 11 different ministries, departments, agencies and boards were responsible for the administration of the British army. The four most important of these were the General Commanding in Chief, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, the Secretary at War, and the Master General and Honourable Board of Ordnance.1 Without going into great detail, it is sufficient to note that the Secretary of State, with his twofold responsibilities, usually delegated military matters to the Secretary at War. The latter was only infrequently a member of the cabinet, rarely an influential politician, and, in practice, only had control over finance. The relationship between the Secretary at War and the General Commanding in Chief was made difficult by the fact that the latter's appointment was a prerogative of the crown and no one had ever delineated the precise relationship between the Commander in Chief and the cabinet. In any case, the gentleman holding the office was usually more eminent than the Secretary at War, who was as a result obliged to tread warily in contentious matters. No Secretary at War, for example, would ever have dared risk a major confrontation with the Duke of Wellington.
None of the above-named gentlemen had much control over the Master General and Board of Ordnance. The Ordnance not only supplied military equipment and built fortifications, it also ran what amounted to a private army, in the form of the engineers and artillerymen. Some (but not all) Ordnance officers held army ranks in addition to their regimental ones, but their chain of command led directly back to London and to the Inspector General of Fortifications (or, for the artillery, the Director General of Artillery) who was in turn directed by the Master General and board. This led to a ridiculous situation which has been well described by the historian of the Royal Artillery.
This, of course, was the reason why none of the commanding generals in Halifax had ever interfered with the course of the building of the Citadel, despite the fact that some of them must have been annoyed or disgusted by the difficulties and crises of the 1830s and 1840s. Except for authorizing the use of garrison soldiers for construction work, they were almost as much spectators to the business as the civilians of Halifax. Perhaps this had been at the root of the disagreement between Colonel Nicolls and General Maitland in the late 1820s.
The reform of the army changed the entire situation. In August 1854, the office of Secretary of State for War was created and that of Secretary at War was abolished soon afterward. This meant that the gentleman responsible for the army finally had major cabinet rank. Out of deference to Lord Raglan, the last Major General, that office was retained until his death in 1855, at which time it was abolished. The Honourable Board disappeared at the same time. The administration of the Ordnance passed to the Secretary of State for War, and military command of Ordnance forces to the Commander in Chief.
These developments meant that the colonial detachments of the Ordnance were finally incorporated into the same structure as the rest of the army. The local Commanding Royal Engineers still reported to the Inspector General (Burgoyne had enough prestige to survive the debacle) but the local General Officer Commanding now had the authority to countersign estimates, policy proposals and other major items. The two chains of command ultimately went back to the same source: the Secretary of State for War and the Commander in Chief. Moreover, the surviving Fortifications department had lost much of its power and influence, and the local commanders could easily go over the Inspector General's head. Some of them proceeded to do just that.
The transition could not possibly have come at a worse time for the Ordnance staff in Halifax. The General Officer Commanding in Nova Scotia was one John Gaspard Le Manchant, who was also the lieutenant governor of the province. A brief discussion on Le Marchant's personal history is in order. He was a classic example of the problems of having a famous father. The elder Le Manchant had had a brilliant career as a soldier. He was something of a rarity in the 18th-century British army in that he combined an ability to lead with a genuine interest in the theoretical side of his profession. He had devised training procedures for the cavalry and had been instrumental in establishing the Royal Military College. He had helped to train an entire generation of young officers, most of whom subsequently proved their worth in the Peninsular War, many of them on Wellington's staff. He had also been acknowledged to be the best English cavalry commander of his era. On top of all that, his life had had all the elements of a romantic comedy. He had begun his military career by challenging his colonel to a duel and had successfully eloped. He was a respectable amateur artist and musician. He died leading a successful cavalry charge at Salamanca, and Wellington called his death a great loss to the army.3
The younger Le Marchant never attained the eminence of his father, who died when John Gaspard was six. He too had gone into the army probably a mistake on his part but unlike his father, had had to purchase his promotions. The father had been a successful and popular administrator; the son became a martinet. Eventually, after 26 years of service, uneventful except for a brief period in Spain during the Carlist wars, he drifted into a career as a colonial administrator. He was successively lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia (1852-57), Newfoundland (1859-64) and Malta (1865-69).4 His relative failure in the army rankled, and he rarely lost the chance to make his military opinions known to anyone who cared to listen. When the Nova Scotia Ordnance establishment came under his command in May 1855, he was presented with a golden opportunity to make trouble, and he lost no time in seizing it.
On 2 July 1855 Le Marchant addressed himself to the Secretary of State for War on the subject of the Halifax defences. He was unsparingly critical. In his opinion the city was rendered virtually indefensible by the bad condition of all the principal works. He got in a dig at the Respective Officers in true Le Marchant fashion: these officers had undoubtedly performed their duties conscientiously, but the fact remained that the works were in deplorable condition. The Citadel, he noted,
The matter of the cavalier was something of a red herring; in fact Colonel Stotherd had already dispatched a special estimate for repairing and re-roofing the building.6 This had been approved in record time, and authorization for the repairs was dispatched on 28 July.7 Nevertheless, London put pressure on Stotherd to explain the situation, and he did so on 26 August.8 He noted that the Citadel work was being held up because the depleted garrison could not provide enough workmen, and, in any case, there was not much work left. The parapets had suffered to a certain extent from the cold of the preceding winter and the glacis was unfinished. As for the cavalier, repairs were under way and would take only two months.
The Ordnance annual estimate dispatched to London a month later repeated the same point. There were seven items for the Citadel, only two of which were for new work (the glacis and the parade). The remainder were all for routine maintenance.9 The majority of items in the estimate were of a similar nature. Stotherd wrote,
A few days later, Stotherd addressed a long letter to Burgoyne, setting forth at length the condition of the defensive works in his command. On the subject of the Citadel, he had comparatively little to say; most of his comments concerned defects which would be remedied by the approval of the estimate for the coming year. The only exception was the old ironstone masonry in the escarp on the west front. This, he admitted, was in poor condition, but it had stood for almost 25 years and would, with care, continue to stand. He recommended pointing the masonry to ensure its survival.11
Stotherd had a breathing space of a couple of weeks after Le Marchant's first sally. He had, it seemed, met and survived the attack but this was true only insofar as he had answered general objections. Le Marchant proceeded to change his approach. On 10 October his military secretary sent Stotherd a list of questions directly concerning the Citadel, and, on the same day, the general sent a copy to Lord Panmure (the Secretary of State for War) in London.12
Why Le Marchant chose the Citadel as the focus of his complaints is not entirely clear. Certainly the lessen defences, after a couple of decades of neglect, must have been in worse shape. The most likely explanation is symbolic: the Citadel was the most prominent work in the general's command. Moreover, it had absorbed the greater part of the money spent by the Ordnance in Nova Scotia for a quarter of a century, and, should it prove faulty, would demonstrate that the old system had indeed been inefficient.
Le Marchant's questions were specific. He wanted to know how long it would take to finish the work: how many guns could be mounted; whether or not the battery on top of the cavalier could be safely fired; the quantity of water available; the length of time needed to complete the glacis, and whether on not it would be better to complete it by contract. He noted that the west curtain seemed, to his eyes at least, to be completely rotten: that the cavalier was in such a bad state that it was unsafe to fire its guns: that the redan salient was exposed because the escarp was too low, and that there were faults with the construction of the parapet and terreplein. He ended by requesting a history of the work.
Stotherd replied on 22 November.13 Since most of Le Marchant's questions were ultimately incorporated into the still longer list which he presented to the commissioners in the following year, it is unnecessary to quote at length from Stotherd's replies. The colonel wisely attempted no more than direct factual answers, even when the phrasing of the questions invited editorial comment or justification. He produced elaborate calculations to demonstrate that the use of contract labour in the work on the glacis would be more expensive than the use of soldiers. This apparently convinced Le Marchant, for the question was not raised again.
Having carefully done his duty, Stotherd sent a copy of his correspondence with Le Marchant to General Burgoyne.14 The Inspector General was infuriated by Le Marchant's treatment of the colonel.
Burgoyne realized the implications of Le Marchant's attack. Should the general's allegations be substantiated, the whole business would reflect badly on the Fortifications department, which was still extricating itself from the wreck of the Board of Ordnance. The last thing Burgoyne needed was a scandal. Even a minor one could do a great deal of damage. From December on, he directed his considerable ingenuity and influence toward defeating Le Marchant; but for the moment he could do nothing directly. Everything depended on the attitude of the Secretary of State for War. How seriously would Panmure take Le Marchant's allegations?
The answer arrived on 28 December. Le Marchant's dispatches containing his correspondence with Stotherd, which had arrived in London in early December, had meandered around the War Office for a couple of weeks and had finally been sent to Burgoyne with a request for a report on the subject. This gave Burgoyne his chance. After 50-odd years in the army, he was a consummate expert in the game of bureaucratic politics. If Panmure wanted a report, how could he possibly fail to be satisfied with one prepared by an entire committee of experts empowered to examine the site at first hand? At one stroke Le Marchant would be prevented from lodging more complaints and the whole business would be settled quickly. The idea was immediately proposed to Panmure and was rapidly accepted.16
The composition of the proposed committee was a work of art; it presents a classic example of the manipulation of things in such a way that nothing can possibly go wrong. Burgoyne proposed that the commission be composed of the CRA and CRE in Nova Scotia, the CRE in Bermuda, a naval officer, and an officer appointed by Le Marchant. The importance of this selection lay in the fact that three of the five were Ordnance personnel and the fourth (the naval officer) could almost certainly be counted on to go along with the others. No matter what attitude Le Marchant's appointee adopted, his was only one voice in five. The scheme was plausible enough the Ordnance officers were, after all, the only experts available and had an air of impartiality. Le Marchant could hardly object to it. Burgoyne must have been well pleased with his handiwork.
Whatever his faults, Le Marchant did have enough political acumen to give Burgoyne a run for his money. The committee was about the last thing he wanted. Word of it reached him in February, and in the two months remaining to him, he set about making as strong a case for himself as possible. He realized that his only chance of making any headway against a packed committee was to dig up something so scandalous that the committee members, being officers and gentlemen, could not possibly ignore it. He also realized, from Stotherd's answers to his questions, that the majority of the points he had raised could be satisfactorily answered. The one area about which Stotherd had been relatively evasive was the state of the old ironstone escarps. Was there something scandalous to be found there? On 9 March he asked Stotherd for "the whole of the Contracts for the Citadel and their specifications" as well as for information on expenditure oven the years.17 Stotherd after telling Burgoyne about the request18 promptly turned oven the documents in question. Among them were the contracts for masonry let by Nicolls in 1829-30.19 These suggested that there was indeed something to be gained by raising the issue of the old masonry.
To ensure that the examination of the masonry in question was thorough, Le Marchant requested that an independent expert, a Halifax building contractor named Forman, be permitted to conduct his own examination of the Citadel. Panmure agreed to the request.20 This may well have been a mistake on Le Marchant's part, since it worsened his relationships with Stotherd and Burgoyne without gaining much of a tactical advantage. After all, there were no fewer than two engineers on the commission, and neither was likely to admit that a mere colonial contractor knew more about masonry than they did. But the move did ensure that an independent assessment of the work would be placed on record and sent to London. It was a comment on the relative decline of the Fortifications department that an army officer could successfully impose such a condition. Nevertheless, the odds were still in Burgoyne's favour as the committee began its deliberations on 24 March 1856.21
The five members of the committee were Stotherd, Lieutenant Colonel Williams (CRE, Bermuda). Lieutenant Colonel Dick (CRA, Halifax), Commander Shortland (Royal Navy) and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Le Marchant, the major general's brother. The committee was to answer a total of 59 questions drawn up by General Le Marchant, and to give recommendations for repairs, alterations and future works. Of the 59 questions, 27 were general, 10 concerned armament, 2 concerned provisions, and the remaining 20 all concerned the state of the masonry. The last were, of course, the most significant since they reviewed the whole matter of the work done by Colonel Nicolls at the outset of the building, and implicitly questioned the competence of Nicolls and his immediate successors. They also raised issues which the Ordnance department had not properly faced when it rectified Nicolls's mistakes in the early 1830s. Specifically, they concerned the work done under contract and the legality of the contracts themselves.22
The other questions were easier to answer. The beauty of Burgoyne's scheme had, in part, consisted of the fact that it left Le Marchant to draw up the questions which were to be put to the committee members. Neither of the Le Marchants were trained engineers. In consequence, they missed some extremely obvious defects in the plan of the Citadel. Occasionally they noticed symptoms of the defects, but because of their limited knowledge of the subject, their questions were not sufficiently specific to force any admissions from the engineers on the committee.
The best example of this involved the questions concerning the exposure of the upper portions of the escarp in the redan and in the western face of the north front. Such exposures were, in fact, the result of the engineers' inability to form a proper glacis in these areas, and had Le Marchant realized this, he might have gotten a damaging admission from the committee members. As things stood, only the two engineers on the committee knew the truth, and they were not about to tell anyone. The exposure on the western side was explained away by pointing out that there was no place in the vicinity where an enemy could set up a battery and that the fort was well covered on the eastern front, both from the ships in the harhour and from the guns of Fort Charlotte. Similarly, the committee explained, the 8-inch gun at the redan salient could not command the glacis immediately below it because it was intended to cover the harbour. The committee did not feel obliged to point out that none of the guns could command the glacis below the redan salient because the slope was too steep.
The remaining general questions were even easier to answer, since almost none of them raised serious objections; some of them, in fact, were silly. The committee members were quite right to point out that at no time was the cavalier intended as a keep and that it was erroneous to consider it as one. Where Le Marchant did raise a legitimate question, it was reasonably dealt with. Certain small errors in construction were noted and alterations were advised but, on the whole, the committee passed off Le Marchant's general questions without difficulty.
The questions on artillery and provisions also raised no important issues; they merely served to get the answers on record. The masonry questions, on the other hand, occupied a great deal of time. To answer them, the committee was forced to call witnesses, collect legal opinions and open part of the old masonry to find out whether or not it was likely to remain standing. This took the better part of a month, and resurrected events which had been forgotten for 26 years. In the end, Le Marchant succeeded in at least part of his ambition; the workings of the Ordnance department were examined by outsiders as they never had been before.
Before this, no one had ever examined the Nicolls contracts. Were they not, asked Le Marchant, "loosely drawn up and ill defined?" In answering this, the committee called for opinions from three people, two Clerks of the Works and Mr. Forman, the contractor appointed by Le Marchant to make an independent examination of the masonry. The committee posed three questions to Mr. Forman:
Forman, in reply, noted that he "had found it necessary to be more explicit" in his own contracts and had some specific complaints about the wording, but, in general, was unable to come to any definite conclusion about them. Mr. Gordon, a Clerk of the Works, found no faults24 while Mr. Shiras, the second clerk, noted that one clause provided for superintendance by the department:
Shiras's answer raised the whole question of how closely the works had been supenintended. Fortunately Richard Creed, a former Clerk of the Works who had held the position during Nicolls's tenure, was still alive and still in Halifax, and the measurement book for the period had been located. The committee examined Creed as to its accuracy:
The committee did not see fit to submit the contracts for the opinion of a solicitor, and Le Marchant neither discovered the correspondence between Nicolls and the Solicitor General of Nova Scotia on the subject27 nor learned that the last set of contracts (1830) had been let without tenders. On the basis of the evidence presented, the committee was able to conclude only that "some of the clauses . . . might have been drawn up with greater precision and clarity," and that they were "sufficiently binding to ensure that the walls were built according to the specification." Thomas Le Marchant disagreed, but was forced to admit on the basis of Creed's evidence that he thought the walls had been "actually built quite equal to the specifications."
In the course of collecting evidence, the committee discovered a few odd facts about the methods of building employed by the department in the early days. William MacDowal, a master mason who had been employed on the works, testified that Nicolls had used masonry of lower quality than was required later as a means of saving money, and that the working season had usually gone on a month or so later than was needed for the new work to set before the onset of the first frost.28 But no really embarrassing facts emerged from the examination of the witnesses.
The story of the failures was, of course, well known, and Le Marchant made no attempt to exploit it. He was content to get it on record that £17,585 11s. 2d. (according to the committee's reckoning) had been spent on making the failures good. The committee also noted that "the new work is of superior dimensions and quality to the old."
The critical question was whether or not the remaining contract masonry could be expected to stand. This, the committee established, included
To establish the condition of this work, the committee collected opinions and made openings in two places. They concluded that
Thomas Le Marchant refused to endorse this judgement on the grounds that Mr. Forman had not yet made his independent examination, and complained that the other members should have withheld their opinion until Forman had reported. His objections were noted, but the other members declined to withdraw their observations, and there, for a short time, the matter rested.
The rest of Le Marchant's questions about the masonry were easily answered. The masonry work done by the department was, the members considered, sound, although there were slight bulges in parts of the interior retaining wall. As for the cavalier, the committee decided that it was sound and could easily withstand the shock of having its roof battery fired (although the members do not seem to have gone to the extent of firing the guns to find out for sure).
The committee was concluding its deliberations when Forman's report arrived on 1 May. Forman disagreed with some of the committee's judgements, but not to any great extent. He considered the interior retaining walls to be in a more serious state than the committee admitted, and he took rather a dim view of the old masonry.
Finally, he noted that the longitudinal walls of the cavalier had "been lifted out of their original position and separated from the arching abutting across the cross walls."
Forman had also opened several of the rubble walls he does not say which and concluded that "the stones had not been skilfully arranged, the walls not built solid nor proper precautions taken to bind the work together," and concluded that "masonry in these walls cannot last for any length of time."
The committee's response took the form of a brief rebuttal of most of Forman's points. The tone of the reply implied that Forman, as a civilian, could not be expected to know what a work of fortification should look like. It was agreed that frost would eventually destroy the contract masonry, but the committee was of the opinion that nothing needed to be done about them "until more decided symptoms of failure exhibit themselves." As for the cavalier,
Similarly, the bulging in the interior retaining walls was due to minor failures in the recess arches which the committee thought, could be repaired only by expensive alterations.
Thomas Le Marchant, needless to say, disagreed with these conclusions. He did not share the other members' opinion that the interior masonry which had been examined was good, and he thought that the old contract walls should be taken down and rebuilt "as soon as the Citadel is in other respects perfect." He also noted that when the ground at the foot of the recess piers in the interior retaining wall of the south front was opened to examine the footings, "the hole filled with water nearly to the surface of the parade," from which he inferred, reasonably enough, that the works were "standing in water." The other committee members pointed out that the ground was still saturated with water from melting snow.
The committee's conclusions were numerous, but none was particularly critical of the Ordnance department. The comments on the masonry (quoted above) were allowed to stand; Colonel Le Marchant's objections were noted separately. The committee recommended several things: the glacis should be completed quickly; the brick revetments in the ravelins should be removed: a couvre-porte in front of the gate should be constructed in order to facilitate sorties: 68-pounders should be substituted on the south salients; Addison's shot furnaces should be provided, and a few other minor items should be taken care of. The report was signed by all five members of the committee on 5 May.
Stotherd dispatched a copy of the report to General Burgoyne on 7 May.31 The Inspector General must have been pleased with the results of his scheme. Although parts of the report could lead to questioning, if they were examined more closely, and though some of it shed rather an uncomplimentary light on the work done by the department 25 years earlier, it was, on the whole, a vindication. It stopped further criticism and it effectively silenced Le Marchant. He never risked another major encounter with Burgoyne during the remainder of his term at Halifax.
One question remains for the modern historian: How much of the report was whitewash? Considered in isolation, it would be difficult to determine. But given the history of the work, given what we know about the building done under Nicolls's command, it would seem reasonable to believe Forman's assessment of the old contract-built walls; the engineers on the committee had managed to cover up the facts, at least partially. Fortunately there is enough evidence sketchy as it sometimes is for the later period to reach a conclusion. The old walls stood far longer than even the most sanguine member of the 1856 committee had any right to expect. Part of the south face of the southeast salient had to be externally buttressed at some point in the late 19th century, and ultimately had to be propped up with timber in the 1930s, but the rest of the walls stood and still stand. Until it was rebuilt in 1973-74, the west curtain remained more or less intact, looking, one suspects, only slightly more decrepit than it had a century earlier. (Now rebuilt, it probably looks better than it ever did.) In most respects, then, it would seem that the 1856 committee members acquitted themselves well; they salvaged the honour of the department without greatly sacrificing truth.