In the ‘good old days’ of Scottish education children learned about dates and battles and famous admirals and generals. They also had to learn famous poems. There may have been plenty of flaws in that way of educating kids but at least they knew about some famous Scots. One of those Scots was a Glaswegian who is widely recognised as one of the finest British generals to leave these shores, and the poem which was inspired by his death was a staple of schoolrooms across the old Empire. Here is the first verse of “The Burial of Sir John Moore” by Charles Wolfe:
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, As his corse to the rampart we hurried; Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot O'er the grave where our hero we buried.
Moore was famous not only for his leadership, training and tactics but also for his compassion for common soldiers. At a time when the army was seen as a refuge for ‘the scum of the earth’ Sir John Moore treated his men with respect and introduced many reforms which improved the lot of the beggar in red.
He was born in Glasgow in 1761 to a privileged life. His father was a doctor but also a tutor to young Duke of Hamilton. It was a military life which Moore wanted though and at 15 he became an Ensign in the 51st Foot. (His younger brother joined the Royal Navy and ended his career as a Vice Admiral).
Two years later with the American War of Independence in full swing his friend the Duke of Hamilton raised a regiment from Lanarkshire and Moore joined it as a junior officer.
The 82nd Foot as the regiment was numbered was sent across to America and took part in the successful Penobscot Expedition where the British managed to hold off superior land and naval forces (In fact it was America ’s worst naval defeat until Pearl Harbor).
He was lucky to serve under another Scot, Brigadier Francis McLean, who was an experienced commander but also one who looked after his men. This expedition may have been a formative experience for Moore . He would have seen McLean ’s inspiring leadership based on respect for his men (and the captured enemy) and he would also have seen at close hand the way American light troops skirmished.
At the end of the War of Independence he returned home and like many others you’ve read about in this Who’s Who series he became an MP. He was MP for Lanark Burghs for only six years from 1784-1790 but it reinforced his connection to Scotland .
He was steadily progressing through the ranks, not just because of his patronage but also his skills. He served in Corsica, the West Indies, Holland and Egypt and by 1803 he was a Lieutenant General at Shorncliffe in Kent.
Two of the most important things Moore did for his country happened at that time. The first was he introduced the Martello tower to Britain . It was a squat coastal defence tower based on one he had come across at Mortella Point in Corsica which had given the British great trouble in the early 1790s. Over the next forty years about 140 Martello towers were built around the coasts of the UK , Ireland and Imperial outposts.
The second thing Moore did was introduce a Light Infantry concept to his brigade at Shorncliffe. Moore took four regiments and volunteers from several Scottish regiments and taught them his new ideas on how to train men. It wasn’t based on bullying and learning by numbers; it was done by officers and men learning the same skills and by men being taught to use their initiative.
It was radical thinking at the time but the results soon showed for themselves when the Light Infantry of the Light Division became the elite of the British Army fighting in Portugal and Spain.
Moore himself was sent to Portugal in 1809 after the three senior officers in the Peninsula were recalled after a controversial decision by one of them (who was practically mad) allowed a trapped French army to escape on Royal Navy vessels!
Moore was soon facing impossible odds. He had advanced his army into Spain to help them drive out the French but when Napoleon himself arrived with 200,000 fresh troops the Spanish attack collapsed. Moore had to retreat north towards the protection of the Royal Navy on the coast to save his small army. They suffered terribly in the winter retreat to Corunna ( La Coruña ) but won the race to the town against Marshal Soult and managed to beat the French in battle on 16th January 1809. It was a bittersweet victory. Moore was mortally wounded and was buried under French fire in the ramparts defending the town.
Slowly and sadly we laid him down, From the field of his fame fresh and gory; We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone, But we left him alone with his glory.