Major General William Beatson is largely unknown to history now – although in the Victorian era he was a minor celebrity. His battles in India and Spain were relatively small footnotes in history, as was his participation in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava as an advisor to General Sir James Scarlet. It is largely for a legal action, fought over his actions while raising a force of irregular Turkish cavalry earlier in the Crimean war, that he became a minor Victorian celebrity.
- Richard Stevenson
This is a substantial book – 400 pages – and it is extremely well researched. Its value is not so much in Beatson’s career, but in the light it throws on little known aspects of soldiering in the Victorian era. Early in his career for example, Beaton was posted from a unit close to one coast of India to one close to the other. The overland journey was just over a thousand miles. Travelling with a small retinue of servants and two sepoys as an escort, it would take Beatson a little over six months to make the journey – standard for the time.
Born in 1804, Beatson came from a prosperous Scottish family. He sought a military career. However, the Army had been scaled back in the aftermath of Waterloo and the family was not wealthy enough to purchase one of the limited numbers of commissions available. Accordingly, Beatson took up a cadetship with the Honourable East India Company. The HEIC had what was essentially a private army to protect the British enclaves in India. The decision would mean Beatson spending the bulk of his military career commanding irregular forces.
Beatson sailed for India in 1820. And it is here that the book begins to come into its own. It is full of well researched detail as to life in India at the time. We follow the young officer about India as he experiences life in the army; learning details such as the number and cost of the servants he was expected to keep and the campaigning needed to maintain control over native rulers.
After nearly 15 years service in India Beatson returned on leave to the UK, taking the opportunity to volunteer for service on the Royalist side in an ongoing civil war in Spain. There he achieved minor fame by raising British volunteer forces and taking part in several stiff actions, being severely wounded in the process. That brought an end to Beatson’s involvement in Spanish affairs and after convalescence he resumed his service with the HEIC.
By now Beaton had amassed sufficient seniority to command HEIC units, and he was posted to Bundelkhand to command a series of regiments being raised there. He was to show marked ability in recruiting, training and commanding native troops. Over the next few years Beatson was to fight a number of small actions, bringing rebellious local rulers of bandit gangs to heel. Beatson had a particular affinity for commanding native cavalry and he adopted their flamboyant uniforms, all gold lace and bright colours. He was also to show a particular talent for antagonizing both subordinates and superiors – something that would cause him problems in later years.
Tension with Russia led to the Crimean war and Beatson was not slow to volunteer for service. His initial task was to raise and command some units of irregular Turkish cavalry – the Bashi-Bazouk’s – but confusion over how they were to be paid stymied this. Beatson then took the opportunity to join the British Army contingent en-route for the Crimea – becoming an advisor to General Scarlett, commander of the Heavy Brigade.
Scarlett, a senior and well liked solder, had never seen action. Unlike Lord Lucan, the commander of the Light Brigade, he was wise enough to take advice from men who had. And it was in that role Beatson fought alongside Scarlett in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade – an astonishing action where the British heavy cavalry routed a much larger Russian force.
The combative Beatson then returned to Turkey, where a second attempt was to be made to raise a force of Bashi-Bazouk irregular cavalry. Although Beatson made a promising start, problems with pay and discipline were legion – leading to several minor mutinies. Exaggerated rumours reached senior British army officers and he was effectively suspended from command. It was to prove the seed of his downfall and lead to a very high profile court action in England.
Beatson returned to England and began a campaign to clear his reputation using pamphlets and the newspapers. This led to questions in Parliament. Although the vote went against Beatson, it had put the matter fair and square in the public eye. This led a Court of Enquiry which the government – to avoid embarrassment – ensured was held behind closed doors. This partially exonerated Beatson. Beatson also started a libel action against those who had spread the original rumours about his conduct with the Bashi-Bazouks, but soon put it on hold as the Indian Mutiny broke out.
Beatson immediately travelled back to India. His travails with the Bashi-Bazouks still hung over him, and at first he struggled for a command. Eventually he was given permission to raise a number of units of irregular cavalry. By the time he had got his new force into some sort of order, the mutiny had been largely suppressed, but there was still one campaign to be fought. One rebel leader – Tantya Tope – was still in the field. Beatson pursued him, but the rebel leader and his force gave Beatson the slip and made for a part of India beyond Beatson’s remit.
The mutiny over, Beatson returned to England to resume his delayed libel case. It was complicated by the government refusing to release certain official documents to the count on the grounds it was prejudicial to the public interest. Thus hamstrung, Beatson lost his case, but was widely thought to have won a moral victory due to the government’s conduct. The case had also cost him a substantial sum of money – a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money – effectively wiping out his lifetime’s savings.
Beatson returned to India, but it was to a pacified, peaceful country and his days of active soldering were over. He served on for a number of years in slowly worsening health. By the age of 65 he was very unwell indeed and he resigned his command and returned to England. There, a few months later, aged 67, he died and was buried in the churchyard at New Swindon. Beatson’s turbulent life was over.
Beatson left no great mark on history. His early service in India, action in the Spanish civil war, minor roles in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade and the Indian mutiny and his libel action are mere paragraphs in most histories. The value of this book is in the extensively researched background details: full of information not found in most books about the period. The difficulties of campaigning in India, the daily life of an officer in the East India Company’s army, the sometime difficult relationships with touchy and proud contemporaries – all are described in depth.
This is a substantial book and it deals with minor campaigns and events. It also tells a complicated story. As such it is neither a quick nor and easy read. It will probably appeal more to someone with a deep interest in Victorian military history than the casual reader. But – to those prepared to invest the time – it is an interesting read.