Wellington’s Favourite Engineer?

Since we announced our latest book, several people, have questioned the choice of title. Can we truly say that John Fox Burgoyne was Wellington’s favourite? If so, why him and not other deserving Royal Engineer officers such as Richard Fletcher? Author Mark Thompson explains why he believes Burgoyne to have had pride of place in Wellington’s esteem.

Of course, no-one will ever know for certain. Wellington did not say it, but a look at Burgoyne’s service with the Duke will make such a claim reasonable and explain why I have said this about him and not the senior engineer for most of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Fletcher. Apart from one brief absence, Richard Fletcher was the Commanding Royal Engineer under Wellington from 1809 until his death in September 1813. From reading the correspondence over the period, I would describe Fletcher’s relationship with Wellington as professional rather than warm. Over the duration of the war, Wellington came to respect Fletcher’s advice even when he did not follow it. Fletcher was probably one of the few officers who could ‘speak truth unto power’ to their leader and stay in his role.  As the war continued the relationship appeared to become strained, particularly after the difficulties in the sieges of 1811 and 1812. One scurrilous account suggested that Wellington left Fletcher at Badajoz to make the repairs in 1812 because he blamed him for the high casualties (I do not believe it).  Similarly, Fletcher did not appear to have a friendly relationship with his engineer subordinates. He was a great organiser rather than a great leader.

Burgoyne, on the other hand, was generally well liked and had built close and friendly relationships with most of his fellow engineers who served with him in the Peninsula. Burgoyne had also met several Peninsular generals including John Moore and Thomas Graham and was well respected by them. When Burgoyne first came into contact with Wellington he would have come with positive reviews.  In 1809 Burgoyne was ordered by Wellington to carry out comprehensive surveys of the Douro river and the northern border which.  Later in the year he was the only engineer who was with the army for several months when all others were ordered to Lisbon to start work on the Lines of Torres Vedras. This remained the case until mid-1810 when Fletcher re-joined headquarters. Burgoyne would have seen Wellington regularly through this period and was heavily involved in the preparations for the French invasion, surveying potential routes, mining bridges, preparing fort conception and identifying defensive positions all of which would have required close liaison with his commander.

The incident during the action at El Bodon in 1811 where Burgoyne was ordered to stay with a threatened Portuguese regiment (described in detail in the book) showed Wellington’s confidence in Burgoyne, and willingness to use him in non-engineering roles.

Burgoyne then took senior roles at the sieges of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo but avoided the flak that the chief engineer received. When Fletcher remained at Badajoz in 1812, Burgoyne commanded the engineers with the army even though there was another senior engineer in the Peninsula. He carried out another detailed survey of the Douro which would have been in preparation for the advance in 1813 although he would not have known that at the time. The challenges of the Salamanca forts and the failed siege at Burgos did not appear to impact Wellington’s view of Burgoyne.

On the death of Fletcher at San Sebastian in 1813, Burgoyne took over temporary command again. There were two senior engineer officers in the Peninsula at the time and Wellington did not order either up to the army (one was only 40 miles away).  It was almost certain that Wellington was involved in the decision to appoint Burgoyne to the American expedition of 1814.

Burgoyne’s relationship with Wellington did not finish with the end of the war. Wellington was Master General of the Ordnance from 1819-1827 and is likely to have had direct contact with Burgoyne who was commanding engineer for the Medway District, based at Chatham. Burgoyne was selected to be chief engineer of the expedition to Portugal in 1826 and Wellington would have approved this appointment. In 1831 Burgoyne was appointed to the Board of Public Works in Ireland and his work in that country will not have escaped the attention of the Duke.  Burgoyne’s later civil duties across the nation meant he would have been in contact with ministers during the period that Wellington was in the government. One wonders if Wellington had a hand in some of these appointments.

The claim that Burgoyne was (possibly) Wellingtons Favourite Engineer is based on his regular use of this officer when others could have been used. Wellington clearly had great confidence in him and was happy to use him in the absence of senior engineer officers and sometimes over other army officers. No other senior engineer officer served as long under Wellington during the Peninsular War and survived. This relationship built in war would endure for another thirty years in peace.