John Gurwood

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Portrait of John Gurwood by William Salter, 1834–1840

Colonel John Gurwood CB (1790 – 25 December 1845), British Army was a successful cavalry officer wounded at many battles on several occasions, leaving long-term emotional and physical scars. He was awarded a Companion of the Bath for his duty to the service. After Waterloo, and the re-settlement of the army on a grateful nation, Gurwood became a writer and historian. A legacy of depression and loneliness led to a tragic and untimely death.

Military career[edit]

Born of "poor but honest parents in the East Riding of Yorkshire",[1] John Gurwood began his career in a merchant's office but in 1808 obtained an ensigncy in the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot. With his regiment he served in the "Light Division" of Wellington's army throughout the early Peninsular campaigns, and at Ciudad Rodrigo (19 January 1812) he led one of the forlorn hopes being severely wounded. For his gallant conduct on this occasion Wellington presented Gurwood with the sword of the French governor of Ciudad Rodrigo.[2]

A little later, transferring to the 9th Light Dragoons, he was made brigade-major to the Household Cavalry which had just arrived in the Peninsula. In the latter part of the war he served as brigade-major to Lambert's brigade of the 6th Infantry division, and was present at the various actions in which that division played a conspicuous part— the Nivelle, the Nive, Orthes and Toulouse. In 1814, he transferred to the 10th Hussars.[2]

During the preliminary actions to Waterloo, Captain Gurwood was for the third time severely wounded, although this happened in a skirmish before the main battle had even started. As a result of the wounds he received from actions against De Grouchy's Cavalry Corps, he was sent back to Brussels and missed most of Waterloo to his considerable mortification.

After the battle, Paris was occupied for over a year, so that Gurwood was part of the allied garrison occupying the city during the restoration of Bourbon King Louis XVIII. Gurwood later married Fanny Mayer (née Kreilsamner) whom he had met in Paris after the war and whose daughter Eugenie (aged 10 at the time) is now believed to have been the illegitimate daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Eugenie went on to marry William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount Esher.

In the first twelve years of the peace he was promoted up to the grade of lieutenant-colonel, and in 1841 became brevet-colonel. He helped broker the so-called Lord Eliot Convention in Spain, which aimed to end the indiscriminate executions by firing squad of prisoners of both sides of the First Carlist War.[2]

Literary career[edit]

Gurwood began by publishing Wellington's General Orders and Regulations in his role in the Field Marshall's staff, whom he had followed since the first in India and then in the Peninsular.[3] Gurwood's whole career was dedicated to Wellington's service, and by the end it had become too much. He was for many years the Duke of Wellington's private secretary, and was entrusted by him with the collection and editing of the Wellington Despatches, upon which he was engaged from 1834, under "whom the idea of giving this collection to the world originated."[4] This coincided with the launch of the Tamworth Manifesto and Peel's new party. But in the first instance it was fraught with the general's personal scruples, and Tory reaction to publication; it certainly occupied Gurwood from 1837 to the end of his life.[2] [5] Compiling the records was a headache for Gurwood. The Duke frequently criticized and denied Gurwood editorial integrity; the latter became frustrated, a frantically 'nervous literary drudge' under constant stress.[6] Wellington asked aristocratic friends, Charles Arbuthnot and Lord Fitzroy Somerset to supervise the recording process, he felt they were "tripping up".[7] Initially the duke absolutely refused to have published, in principle many papers, which entailed wholesale deletions of Gurwood's work. From implacable opposition to any form of objective criticism in 1818, Wellington gradually mellowed. In the 1840s Conservative opposition to any journalistic intrusion was overcome by Lord Stanley and Benjamin Disraeli's joint founding of The Press magazine. But the constitutional changes of 1830s under the Tory-minded 'Sailor King' William IV forced Wellington to reappraise his attitude to Gurwood's work and journalism more generally. Gurwood had looked to Prime Minister Lord Liverpool for support in his chosen profession of historian. He was awarded CB. Quarterly Review's verdict was encouraging "He describes a battle with the same confidence he fights it; always goes straight to the point sys not a word too much or too little, and when the fighting is done, sets about treating with his subdued enemy, in the same direct spirit of fair and manly dealing.[8] However Gurwood was not a natural literary type, his editorial notes were sparse, and infrequent rather than the Reviewer's desired usum vulgi. So much for the first volume about the war in India (1804) the next two volumes were edited by John Gurwood.

When Gurwood was appointed deputy-lieutenant of the Tower[2] the Commander-in-Chief, always expecting at any moment to be recalled to lead the army again, ranted at an unbelievable promotion. Wellington's outrage may have contributed to Gurwood's death:

"it's anti-social; it puts an end to all the charms of society, to all familiar and private communication of thought between man and man; and in fact, it places every individual in familiar society in the situation in which he puts himself in a publick assembly, with a gentleman of the press to report what he says".[9]

Wellington had lost his wife, and lived from 1834 to 1850 with his friend, widower Charles Arbuthnot.[10]

The publication of Wellington's Dispatches was a major work, a monument of industrious skill, and earned its author a Civil List Pension of £200. In 1845 the Government founded the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) dedicated to the collation and publishing of nationally important papers. Yet overwork, depression and serious discomfiture from wounds received had broken his health, and following a very public row with William Napier who had questioned Gurwood's bravery at Ciudad Rodrigo, he committed suicide on Christmas Day 1845, by cutting his own throat.



  1. ^ Dalton, Charles (1904). The Waterloo roll call. With biographical notes and anecdotes. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode. p. 16. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ Q.R. (1835), p.89
  4. ^ Q.R., ibid., p.96
  5. ^ The dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington, K.G. during his various campaigns in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, the Low Countries, and France : From 1799 to 1818. Compiled from official and authentic documents, John Gurwood, London, 1834.
  6. ^ N Thompson, "Wellington after Waterloo", (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1986), p.8
  7. ^ Gurwood to Lord Liverpool, 26 September 1842, Add MSS, 38308, Liverpool Papers
  8. ^ Quarterly Review (1835), p.33
  9. ^ Wellington to Gurwood, 6 November 1838, Add MSS 38308, Lord Liverpool Papers, British Library
  10. ^ N Thompson, "Wellington after Waterloo", Routledge & Kegan Paul (1986), pp.8-13


  • Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gurwood, John". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Thompson, Neville (1986). Wellington after Waterloo. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 
  • White-Spunner, Barney (2012). Horse Guards. Routledge. 
  • Brett, 3rd Viscount Esher, Oliver (1934). Letters and Journals of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher. 4. Routledge. 
  • Gurwood, Esquire to his Grace, as Knight of the Bath, Lieut-Colonel John (1835). "The Dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington". Quarterly Review. London. vols.II and III. 

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gurwood, John". Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 733.