Duelling in the Army

Captain F.L. Jones, Late The Irish Regiment of Canada Canadian Army Journal, Vol. VII,I No. 4, October 1954

[Commissioned in The Irish Regiment of Canada in 1938, the author went overseas with the Regiment and was wounded in action in Italy while a company commander (Acting Major). He was placed on the Retired List in 1945 and is now engaged in commercial life in Hamilton, Ontario.—Editor.]

A young officer reading the Army Act for the first time might well get the impression that the rules of conduct so clearly set forth were drawn up to prepare him for seventeenth century warfare. He is solemnly adjured not to shamefully cast away his arms in the presence of the enemy. Leaving his Commanding Officer to go in search of plunder; drawing a sword or beating a drum to occasion false alarms; sending a flag of truce, beating a parley or entertaining parlementaires leads to an inevitable court martial. It is most disturbing for him to learn that a court martial is empowered to sentence him to death or cashier him for committing any of the foregoing offences. If he is wise, he will devote himself to a whole-hearted study of Section 40—that all encompassing section—which seems to take care of everything from dirty boots to fouling the ground. Grave matters like flags of truce and parlementaires should be left to his seniors.

In passing, however, he should take note that he is forbidden to fight, promote, be concerned in or connive at fighting a duel. With a certain wry humour the authorities have seen fit to forbid him attempting to commit suicide in the same section of the Act. The manners and customs of a vanished age in which the concept of personal honour required officer to face officer with pistols is reflected in this injunction against duelling. The practice of duelling in the army survived into Victorian times despite the fact that the duel had never been recognized by law and had several times been forbidden by Royal Proclamation. Its survival into the mid-nineteenth century may be attributed to two reasons: the attitude of both the civil and military courts and the code of honour which, though unwritten, governed the conduct of gentlemen.

Although the duel was illegal, the vast majority of the gentry regarded it as a personal matter between gentlemen, in which the law had no cause to interfere, provided that the principals were persons of honour, and that the affair was conducted in the presence of seconds as a guarantee of fair play. The magistrature and officers of the army were drawn from that class of society which held themselves bound by this code of honour. Hence the laxness on the part of the magistrates during this period to enforce the law.

An army is a mirror of the social order from which it is drawn. The officers carried into the Service this concept of honour and saw nothing unusual in challenging either their superiors or subordinate officers to fight a duel. The Articles of War laid down very stringent regulations against duelling but these were rendered unavailing by long established custom. Concealment was the order of the day. If an officer was wounded in a duel, it was represented to the authorities that he had sprained his ankle or broken his leg. If he was killed in the encounter, his death was put down to disease. In England apoplexy was put forward as the reason. On such foreign stations as India and the West Indies, cholera or fever carried him off. This in face of the fact that every officer and man in the regiment knew otherwise!

The habit of sitting so long and taking so much wine at dinner was the cause of more than one duel. Then again, officers were very sensitive about the "point of honour" in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Certainly, some of them made a fetish of it. Good-natured badinage which became too personal as the decanters went up and down the mess table; a quibble about a bet or an argument over an evolution in the drill book could end suddenly with officers exchanging formal bows and the seconds busily arranging the details for a meeting.

"That satisfaction which a gentleman has the right to expect and which no gentlemen can decline to give" was usually offered in a secluded place at dawn. The only witnesses would be the two seconds and the bored regimental surgeon, yawning over his probes and lint. That scene was played out time and again especially in India where the duel continued to flourish long after it had died out in England. Perhaps the climate and the boredom of garrison duties engendered a choleric type who looked upon an exchange of shots at fifteen paces as the only possible way to settle a dispute or clear up a misunderstanding with a brother officer.

A Commanding Officer who set his face against duelling could prevent this useless effusion of blood. For then, as now, nothing which goes on in a regiment could be hidden from a good C.O. Unfortunately, too many of them accepted the duel as a social institution and did nothing to enforce the regulations against it. It must be said in their defence that the example set them by persons holding high rank in the army or in important positions in the government was deplorable. In 1789, Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, the second son of George III, fought a duel with Lieutenant- Colonel Lennox of the Coldstream Guards. At the time, the Duke was holding the appointment of Colonel of the Regiment which made the affair even more damaging to discipline. They fought at twelve paces and the Lieutenant-Colonel's ball clipped one of the side curls from the Royal Duke's head. The Duke declined to return the fire which was his right and both parties left the ground with honour satisfied.

Nine years later, William Pitt, the Prime Minister, was called out by Mr Tierney, a prominent member of the opposition, as the result of a heated debate upon a Bill for Manning the Navy, in the course of which Pitt had publicly accused Tierney of wishing to betray his country to the French. In 1809, Lord Castlereagh, then Foreign Secretary, fought Mr Canning, the dispute arising over the responsibility for the failure of the Walcheren expedition. The first fire not taking effect, they exchanged shots a second time. Mr Canning fell with a wound in the thigh while Lord Castlereagh escaped serious injury by the ball being deflected by a button on his coat.

The Duke of Wellington, when he was Prime Minister in 1828, felt constrained to send a personal challenge to Lord Winchelsea who had made an attack upon his character in a debate on the Catholic Emancipation Bill. With the politicians banging away at each other in such a fashion, it is little wonder that duelling went unchecked in the army. The Duke's fight with Lord Winchelsea was the more remarkable in that Wellington was known to object to the practice of duelling. He had never taken part in any such affair during his long service career. When in command of the army in the Peninsula, he had done everything in his power to stamp it out. The Duke held that an officer in the public service had no right to hazard his life in a private quarrel. Besides, there were plenty of the enemy to be shot at in front of the Lines of Torres Vedras and beyond instead of having his officers shooting one another. He could not afford to lose good regimental officers and he let his views be known throughout the army. The measure of his success may be seen in the records of courts-martial held in Portugal and Spain during the course of the long war, 1808-1814. Only four fatal duels appear in the official records. No doubt many non-fatal ones were hushed up but it is safe to say that there were fewer duels in the Peninsula than in England at the time. The Duke held a tight rein on the army for there were many hot-heads among the officers, especially the ones from "the less civilized strata of society beyond St George's Channel." In one military memoir of the period, a newly-joined ensign from Ireland complains that he has been with the regiment for six weeks and has yet to fight a duel with any of his brother officers. He proposes to start with the senior captain and work down the list.

The "King's hard bargains" were to be found in the Officers' Mess as well as among the other ranks. That duels were fought for the most trivial reasons and fought with impunity may be seen in the sudden passing of an officer of the 9th Foot. Lieutenant-Colonel Montgomery of the 9th and Captain MacNamara R.N. were riding in Hyde Park on the morning of April 6, 1803, each followed by a dog. The two dogs began fighting. In separating them, Lieutenant-Colonel Montgomery exclaimed angrily, "Whose dog is that? I've a good mind to knock him down." Captain MacNamara resented this remark and cards were exchanged. They met with their seconds at seven o'clock in the evening of the same day. The 9th lost their colonel with a bullet in his heart. The Captain in the senior service was tried for murder at the Old Bailey. His defence was that he was a captain in the Royal Navy and had the feelings of a gentleman. This seems a flimsy enough argument to put against a murder charge but it impressed the jury. Perhaps memories of the Nile and Copenhagen made them sentimental about hearts of oak. Although the judge instructed the jury that if they did not bring in a verdict of guilty on the charge of murder they must find a verdict of manslaughter, the jury was of a different opinion. Captain MacNamara left the court a free man.

McArthur, in his work upon Military Law, when referring to duelling in the army says, "It is believed that there is no instance of an actual execution in Great Britain or Ireland in consequence of one person killing another in a duel fought fairly, and on equal terms; and where friends, or in other words, seconds, were called in to bear testimony to the equality and fairness of the combat." It will be noted that the presence of seconds was essential if such a combat was to be classed as a duel. An event took place in 1807 which should have given the duelling fraternity pause before recourse was made to the matched pistols always ready in the flat, rectangular box.

The Campbell-Boyd affair was a cause celebre and pointed a warning finger that the formalities must be observed or a rope awaited the winner. The second battalion of the 21st Royal North British Fusiliers (now the Royal Scots Fusiliers) was quartered at Newry in Ireland. The senior captain was Alexander Boyd who was none too pleased when Brevet-Major Alexander Campbell, late the 42nd, was brought into the regiment. The fact that Campbell held the rank of major by brevet meant that when his regiment was acting with another he would become a field officer and senior, of course, to all the captains in his own regiment. This was the cause of a feeling of hostility against Campbell among the officers. Boyd, in particular, took little pains to conceal his dislike of the former Black Watch major, who, in his turn, was quick to take offence at anything Boyd said or did. On 21 June, 1807, the battalion was inspected and Major Campbell was corrected by the inspecting officer, General Kerr, for not giving the right word of command during the drill. That evening Campbell, Boyd and two other officers sat long over their wine in the mess. The four of them became a little the worse for wear and a dispute arose between Major Campbell and Captain Boyd over that little matter of drill and the Major's discomfiture on the parade ground. They argued back and forth until Captain Boyd said "I know better than you, Major Campbell, and you may take that as you like." Campbell left the mess in a white heat and hurried to his lodgings near the barracks. Needless to say, he was going for his duelling pistols. Twenty minutes later he was back in the mess, now deserted, and sent a waiter to tell Captain Boyd that a gentleman wished to see him. Boyd came to the mess room and found it empty. The waiter pointed to a small room adjoining the mess and retired to the kitchen. Boyd found himself confronted by Campbell, ready with his pistols. They fought each other at a distance of seven paces, alone in that small room without witnesses. The sound of two shots brought officers and servants crowding into the room. Boyd lay dying with a bullet in his abdomen with Campbell beseeching him to say that everything was fair. Boyd said that he had been hurried. "You know I wanted you to wait and have friends." He died eighteen hours later saying of Campbell, "Poor man. I am sorry for him." Major Alexander Campbell was tried by a civil court for the "wilful and felonious murder of Alexander Boyd". The jury brought in a verdict of guilty of murder to which was added a recommendation to mercy. This was refused by the personal decision of George III who hated duelling and who was determined to make an example of Major Campbell for the benefit of all officers. He made a good end and in his dying confession on the scaffold described himself as "one more unfortunate than wicked—hurried on to this much-to-be-lamented catastrophe by insults past endurance." Talking shop in the mess has been frowned on for many years now and with good reason.

The attitude towards duelling did not change until public opinion became sufficiently aroused to insist on positive action being taken for its suppression. The man responsible for a great public outcry was James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who is best remembered as the officer who led the Light Brigade down the Valley to the Russian guns at Balaclava. A dandy and a martinet, possessed of great wealth and no scruples, he moved with a high demeanour in a world in which he was already an anachronism. Entering the army as a cornet in 1824, he advanced rapidly by purchase which involved an expenditure of £28,000 to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in six years. Getting the command of the 15th Hussars, he quickly made himself the most hated commanding officer in England. In two years' time he held 104 courts-martial and made more than 700 arrests. As the total strength of the unit was never more than 350 all ranks, this was thought to be somewhat excessive in official quarters. It was intimated to him by the Horse Guards as the War Office was then called that he send in his papers. In two years he was restored to the active list and given the command of the 11th Hussars. He devoted himself to making the 11th the smartest cavalry regiment in the service and spent £10,000 a year out of his own pocket to achieve this end. Brave in waving plumes, blue pelisses laced with gold and crimson coloured overalls, the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) earned the praise of the aged Wellington. But as one author was moved to write "within the whited sepulchre of outward display lay the bones of insubordination and discontent." For the brutality and savage discipline which the 15th had endured now fell upon the unfortunate Prince Albert's Own. If Lord Cardigan had the lash laid upon the backs of his troopers, his tongue scourged the officers. A soldier was flogged immediately after Church Parade on the very ground upon which his comrades had been drawn up for divine service. An officer was placed in arrest for putting on the mess table wine contained in a bottle instead of a decanter. He was held in arrest for several weeks without trial. The despotism of the Commanding Officer seemed to know no bounds. Later, a member of parliament was to remark that any officer who joined the 11th Hussars "had the mark of a slave set on his forehead."

The situation in the regiment was becoming a public scandal when a letter appeared in "The Morning Chronicle" taking Lord Cardigan to task for his conduct. Although the letter was anonymous, Lord Cardigan discovered that the writer was a Captain Tuckett, an ex-officer of the regiment. A challenge followed as a matter of course. Lieutenant-Colonel the Earl of Cardigan and Captain Harvey Tuckett faced each other on the field of honour on 12 September, 1840. The first fire being ineffectual, shots were exchanged a second time and Captain Tuckett was slightly wounded. "Merely a graze," is how Lord Cardigan described it later to a Metropolitan Police inspector. The peer was formally charged with firing a loaded pistol with either intent to murder, or to maim and disable, or to do grievous bodily harm." The trial which followed was a solemn farce. Lord Cardigan had challenged and fought a Captain Harvey Tuckett but the man mentioned in the indictment was a Harvey Garnett Phipps Tuckett. On this legal technicality the case for the Crown collapsed and Lord Cardigan departed to flog his troopers and torment his officers as of yore.

But there were serious repercussions. Lord Cardigan had enjoyed a very bad press for years. Now his superiors came under editorial attack. Blunt criticism was directed at the Commander-in- Chief, Lord Hill, for the alleged protection which he had extended to the soldier peer. Macaulay, the Secretary of State for War, had to defend the Government in the House of Commons for retaining the services of Lord Cardigan in the army.

It was not only the Earl who was attacked but the institution of the duel itself. A class distinction, the gesture of a class which seemed to set itself above the law, came into collision with the new morality. The aristocratic influence was on the wane and the stolid middle class England of William Ewart Gladstone was beginning to take shape. There were many who thought that the Englishmen's credo of equality before the law had been flouted by an oligarchy to which so many army officers belonged. It was apparent to them that the duel had no place in a more democratic age. For with the accession of the young Queen in 1837, times were changing fast. No longer was the social scene to be enlivened by the crack of pistols at dawn and a post chaise whirling away down the high road to Dover and a ship for France. Regency rakes who had somehow managed to survive the Regency were now respectable middle-aged gentlemen in sober broadcloth. Gone forever was the world of Becky Sharp and the Marquis of Steyne and the whole raffish society of Vanity Fair. It was Victoria in the morning light.

An association was formed in London with the avowed object of suppressing the duel. Its membership was drawn from the House of Commons and the Lords and included many distinguished officers from the two Services. In a debate in the House of Commons in March 1844, Sir G. Hardinge, Secretary of War, announced to the House that Her Majesty the Queen had expressed her abhorrence of duelling. In April of the same year an amendment was made in the Articles of War. The 98th Article ordained that "every person who shall fight or promote a duel, or take any steps thereto, or who shall not do his best to prevent duel, shall, if an officer, be cashiered, or suffer such other penalty as a general court-martial may award." These articles, with a few verbal changes, were incorporated in the consolidated Army Act of 1879 (Section 38). It is in force to-day.