Sir William Francis Patrick Napier - Encyclopedia

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SIR WILLIAM FRANCIS PATRICK NAPIER (1785-1860), British soldier and military historian, third son of Colonel George Napier (1751-1804), and brother of Sir Charles James Napier (see above), was born at Celbridge, near Dublin, on the 17th of December 1785. He became an ensign in thh Royal Irish Artillery in 1800, but at once exchanged into the 62nd, and was put on half-pay in 1802. He was afterwards made a cornet in the Blues by the influence of his uncle the duke of Richmond, and for the first time did actual military duty in this regiment, but he soon fell in with Sir John Moore's suggestion that he should exchange into the 52nd, which was about to be trained in the famous camp of Shorncliffe. Through Sir John Moore he soon obtained a company in the 43rd, joined that regiment at Shorncliffe and became a great favourite with Moore. He served in Denmark, and was present at the engagement of Kioge, and. his regiment being shortly afterwards sent to Spain, he bore himself nobly through the retreat to Corunna, the hardships of which permanently impaired his health. In 1809 he became aide-de-camp to the duke of Richmond, lord lieutenant of Ireland, but joined the 43rd when that regiment was ordered again to Spain. With the light brigade (the 43rd, 52nd, and 95th), under the command of General Craufurd, he marched to Talavera in the famous forced march which he has described in his History, and had a violent attack of pleurisy on the way. He, however, refused to leave Spain, was wounded on the Coa, and shot near the spine at Cazal Nova. His conduct was so conspicuous during the pursuit of Massena after he left the lines of Torres Vedras that he as well as his brother George was recommended for a brevet majority. He became brigade major, was present at Fuentes d'Onor, but had so bad an attack of ague that he was obliged to return to England. In England he married Caroline Amelia Fox, daughter of General Henry Fox and niece of the statesman Fox. Three weeks after his marriage he again started for Spain, and was present at the storming of Badajoz, where his great friend Colonel M`Leod was killed. In the absence of the new lieutenant-colonel he took command of the 43rd regiment (he was now a substantive major) and commanded it at the battle of Salamanca. After a short stay at home he again joined his regiment at the Pyrenees, and did his greatest military service at the battle of the Nivelle, where, with instinctive military insight, he secured the most strongly fortified part of Soult's position, practically without orders. He served with his regiment at the battles of the Nive, where he received two wounds, Orthes, and Toulouse. For his services he was made brevet lieutenant-colonel, and one of the first C.B.'s. Like his brother Charles he then entered the military college at Farnham. He commanded his regiment in the invasion of France after Waterloo, and remained in France with the army of occupation until 1819, when he retired on half-pay. As it was impossible for him to live on a major's half-pay with a wife and family, he determined to become an artist, and took a house in Sloane Street, where he studied with George Jones, the academician.

The years he had spent in France he had occupied in improving his general education, for, incredible as it seems, the author of the History of the War in the Peninsula could not spell or write respectable English till that time. But his career was to be great in literature, not in art. The tendency appeared in an able review of Jomini's works (Edinburgh Rev.) in 1821, and in 1823 Mr Bickerstet.h (afterwards Lord Langdale) suggested to him the expediency of writing a history of the Peninsular War. For some time he did not take kindly to the suggestion, but at last determined to become an author in order to defend the memory of Sir John Moore, and to prevent the glory of his old chief being overshadowed by that of Wellington. The duke of Wellington himself gave him much assistance, and handed over to him the whole of Joseph Bonaparte's correspondence which had been taken at the battle of Vittoria; this was all in cipher, but Mrs Napier, with great patience, discovered the keys. Marshal Soult also took an active interest in the work and arranged for the French translation of Mathieu Dumas. In 1828 the first volume of the History appeared. The publisher, John Murray, indeed, was disappointed in the sale of the first volume and Napier published the remainder himself. But it was at once seen that the great deeds of the Peninsular War were about to be fitly commemorated. The excitement which followed the appearance of each volume is proved by the innumerable pamphlets issued by those who believed themselves to be attacked, and by personal altercations with many distinguished officers. But the success of the book was proved still more by the absence of competition than by these bitter controversies. The histories of Southey and Lord Londonderry fell still-born, and Sir George Murray, Wellington's quartermaster-general, who had determined to produce the history, gave up the attempt in despair. This success was due to a combination of qualities which have justly secured for Napier the title of being the greatest military historian England has produced. When in 1840 the last volume of the History was published, his fame not only in England but in France and Germany was safely established.

His life during these years had been chiefly absorbed in his History, but he had warmly sympathized with the movement for political reform which was agitating England. The Radicals of Bath and many other cities and towns pressed him to enter parliament, and Napier was actually invited to become the military chief of a national guard to obtain reforms by force of arms. He refused the dangerous honour on the ground that he was in bad health and had a family of eight children. In 1830 lie had been promoted colonel, and in 1842 he was made a majorgeneral and given the lieutenant-governorship of Guernsey. Here he found plenty of occupation in controlling the relations between the soldiers and the inhabitants, and also in working out proposals for a complete scheme of reform in the government of the island. While he was at Guernsey his brother Charles had conquered Sind, and the attacks made on the policy of that. conquest brought William Napier again into the field of literature.. In 1845 he published his History of the Conquest of Scinde, and in 1851 the corresponding History of the Administration of Scinde- books which in style and vigour rivalled the great History, but which, being written for controversial purposes, were not likely to maintain enduring popularity. In 1847 he resigned his governorship, and in 1848 was made a K.C.B., and settled at Scinde House, Clapham Park. In 1851 he was promoted lieutenant-general. His time was fully occupied in defending his brother, in revising the numerous editions of his History which were being called for, and in writing letters to The Times on every conceivable subject, whether military or literary. His energy is the more astonishing when it is remembered that he never recovered from the effects of the wound he had received at Cazal Nova, and that he often had to lie on his back for months. together. His domestic life was shadowed by the incurable affliction of his only son, and when his brother Charles died in 1853 the world seemed to be darkening round him. He devoted himself to writing the life of that brother, which appeared in 1857, and which is in many respects his most characteristic book, In the end of 1853 his younger brother, Captain Henry Napier, R.N., died, and in 1855 his brother Sir George (see below). Inspired by his work, he lived on till the year 1860, when, broken by trouble, fatigue and ill-health, he died (February 12) at Clapham. Four months earlier he had been promoted to the full rank of general.

As a military historian Sir William Napier is incomparably superior to any other English writer, and his true compeers are Thucydides, Caesar and Davila. All four had been soldiers in the wars they describe; all four possessed a peculiar insight into the mainsprings of action both in war and peace; and each possessed a peculiar and inimitable style. Napier always wrote as if he was burning with an inextinguishable desire to express what he was feeling, which gives his style a peculiar spontaneity, and yet he rewrote the first volume of his History no less than six times. His descriptions of sieges and of battles are admirable by themselves, and his analyses of the peculiarly intricate Spanish intrigues are even more remarkable, while the descriptions and analyses are both lit up with flashes of political wisdom and military insight. It is to be noted that he displays the spirit of the partisan, even when most impartial, and defends his opinions, even when most undoubtedly true, as if he were arguing some controverted question. If his style was modelled on anything, it was on Caesar's commentaries, and a thorough knowledge of the writings of the Roman. general will often explain allusions in Napier. The portraits of Sir John Moore and Colonel M'Leod, and the last paragraphs descriptive of the storming of Badajoz, may be taken as examples of his great natural eloquence.

His brother, SIR George Thomas Napier (1784-1855), entered the army in 1800, and served with distinction under Moore and Wellington in the Peninsula - and lost his right arm at the storming of Badajoz. He became major-general in 1837, K.C.B. in 1838 and lieutenant-general in 1846. He was governor and commander-in-chief at the Cape from 1839 to 1843, during which time the abolition of slavery and the expulsion of the Boers from Natal were the chief events. He was offered, but declined, the chief command in India after Chillianwalla, and also that of the Sardinian army in 1849. He became full general in 1854. He died at Geneva on the 16th of September r855. His autobiography, Passages in the Early Military Life of General Sir G. T. Napier, was published by his surviving son, General W. C. E. Napier (the author of an important work on outpost duty), in 1885.

The youngest brother, Henry Edward Napier (1789-1853), served in the navy during the Napoleonic wars, retired as a captain, and wrote a learned Florentine History from the earliest authentic Records to the Accession of Ferdinand III. of Tuscany (1846-1847).

For Sir William Napier's life, see his Life and Letters, edited by the Right Honourable H. A. Bruce (Lord Aberdare) (2 vols., 1862).

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