The Duke of Wellington Never Apologizes
William Norman Ramsay (1782-1815), the son of a captain in the Royal Navy, joined the Royal Artillery when he was 16. He served with distinction in Egypt (1800-1801) and then during Wellington's Peninsular Campaign (1808-1814). Wellington being rather stingy with honors when it came to the artillery, Ramsay, like the rest of the gunners in the Peninsula garnered little praise from his general, even when he performed with outstanding skill and initiative.
On May 5, 1811, during the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro (May 3-5, 1811), while Ramsay was serving in command of a section of horse artillery, he found that his two guns had been surrounded by the French and were in imminent danger of being taken. Not only would this have been a terrible disgrace to the artillerymen, but it would have impinged seriously on Wellington's reputation, for his army had not lost a single gun to the French during the campaign. So Ramsay rallied his men, had them limber up their guns, and then charged the French. The enemy, surprised by the audacious move, gave way, and Ramsay brought his guns to safety. Although it won Ramsay no formal honors, his feat of arms was widely reported in the press and earned him considerable fame, the historian William Napier calling him “the most brilliant artillery officer in the Peninsular army."
Little more than two years after Fuentes d'Onoro, the Duke of Wellington came to believe that Ramsay had acted contrary to orders during the Battle of Vittoria (June 21, 1813). Two days after the battle, Wellington confronted Ramsay about the matter. The Duke charged that during the battle Ramsay had moved his troop contrary to orders to stand fast until he received direct instructions. Ramsay replied that he had in fact received orders to move, very early on the morning of the 22nd a staff officer having told him to rejoin his brigade, and produced witnesses who agreed with him, among them Lord Fitzroy Somerset, one of Wellington's closest aides, the later Lord Raglan.
Among the snootiest of men, Wellington refused to admit that he had mis-spoken. He placed Ramsay under arrest for four weeks, omitted his name from his official dispatch to the War Office announcing the victory, and even blocked Ramsay's application for a promotion
Released from arrest, Ramsay returned to his duties, serving throughout the rest of the Peninsular Campaign, and then on occupation duty in France and the Netherlands. Then came Napoleon's "Hundred Days."
On June 18, 1815, Ramsay, who had finally attained a majority and command of a troop of horse artillery, was with his guns in Wellington's army as it prepared to give battle at Waterloo. As Wellington inspected his lines, he paused briefly to say a few polite words to Ramsay, about the closest he ever came to apologizing to anyone. Ramsay acknowledged Wellington's words with a polite bow of his head.
At about 4:00 p.m. Ramsay was shot through the heart while helping beat off the first of the French cavalry attacks on Wellington's lines.
William Norman Ramsay was one of four brothers, all of whom died in the military service of the Crown, three during 1815: John Ramsay, 19, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, had died of disease in the Leeward Islands in 1807; Alexander Ramsay, 24, an army officer, was killed in action near New Orleans on January 1, 1815; David Ramsay, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, was 22 when he died of disease in Jamaica in July of 1815. Their father, Captain David Ramsay, R.N., died at 68 in 1818.
FootNote: What Happened at Vittoria? Late on the evening of the 21st, Wellington ordered Ramsay to stand fast in a nearby village until he received further orders. Very early the next morning, a staff officer instructed Ramsay to rejoining his brigade. Thinking the orders came from Wellington, Ramsay proceeded to do so. Who the staff officer was, or who had sent him, is unknown – he was probably an aide-de-camp to some general who, seeing the battery apparently idle, took it upon himself to issue orders.
President MacMahon Honors his Oath
In late 1873, following the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, the provisional government of the French Third Republic finally decided to appoint a permanent president. The choice fell upon Patrice Marie Edme Maurice de MacMahon (1808-1893). MacMahon, scion of an Irish family that had lived in France for nearly two centuries and held patents of nobility from both the Bourbons and Bonapartes, had had a distinguished military career, rising to marshal, and had been serving for several months as the third provisional president of the Republic. Now MacMahon was both a conservative and a monarchist, and had commanded the troops who suppressed the Paris Commune in 1871. So there was fear in some circles, and hope in others, that he might use his office to institute a monarchist restoration.
One day, in November of 1873, MacMahon was approached by the Count de Chambord, Bourbon claimant to the throne. The Count inquired as to whether MacMahon would favor a restoration of the monarchy. French being a language that allows of great nuance, the Count’s words implied that the erstwhile royal family would be quite happy to assist MacMahon in a coup d’etat to restore the monarchy, with Chambord ascending the throne as "Henry V."
The Count must have been very surprised at MacMahon’s reply, which, loosely translated, was, “I could not betray the people of France, who had entrusted me with the safety of the Republic.”
Although MacMahon remained at heart a monarchist, and staunchly favored conservative policies, he stuck to this principle throughout his presidency, until he resigned in early 1879.