As we contemplate the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo there is one individual more than any other who commands our attention due to his close links, indeed, his governorship of the Maltese islands for seven years and his actions on that Belgian battlefield on June 18, 1815. This is Major General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783-1837).

Ponsonby (pronounced Pun-sunbi) was born in 1783, the second son of Frederick the third Earl of Bessborough (1758-1844) and Henrietta Frances (1761-1821), second daughter of the first Earl Spencer. Their marriage was notoriously unhappy; although Bessborough seemed to possess a “most mild and amiable manner” he neglected Henrietta and frequently insulted her in public.

Major General Sir Frederick Ponsonby, by Jan Willem Pieneman. Photo courtesy of Historic EnglandMajor General Sir Frederick Ponsonby, by Jan Willem Pieneman. Photo courtesy of Historic England

Henrietta was far from faultless: addicted to gambling, she also conducted numerous affairs, resulting in illegitimate offspring (she remarked notoriously “I can never love a little”); however contemporary society judged the earl to be the greater offender. Even though Bessborough initiated divorce proceedings in 1790, pressure from his family persuaded him to spare them all further embarrassment and he dropped the charges.

Lady Bessborough died peacefully in 1821 aged 60, allegedly without regret but worn out by a life of emotional turmoil. The third earl outlived his wife by more than 20 years, dying at Canford House in 1844.

Given her parents’ goings on it is not surprising to learn of Lady Caroline’s (Frederick’s sister) notorious behaviour. In 1805, at the age of 19, Caroline married William Lamb, the up-and-coming politician and future second Viscount Melbourne. However, in 1812, Lady Caroline was engaged in an affair with the poet Lord Byron. The on/off affair was conducted very publicly, with Lady Caroline, whose mental and physical health was often called into question, drawing much attention to herself.

One such demonstration of her willful character occurred at a ball given by Lady Heathcote in July 1813 when Byron insulted Lady Caroline in public and she reacted alarmingly by breaking a wine glass and attempting to slash her wrists. She did not injure herself seriously; however, polite society was scandalised by such extreme behaviour in public.

With this kind of family background one might forgive the young Frederick a few tantrums. Indeed, as a young man he demonstrated a wild streak and became, briefly, addicted to gambling; however, he managed to control his temper so that he very soon gained a reputation for having a calm and admirable disposition, saving his impetuous behaviour for the battlefield where he excelled as a cavalry officer.

Ponsonby entered the army in 1800, aged 17, as a cornet in the 10th light dragoons; he was promoted lieutenant in June of that year and captain in August 1803. In April 1806, he exchanged to the 60th regiment and was appointed major in the army on June 25, 1807. He obtained a majority in the 23rd light dragoons in August that same year. In 1809 he accompanied his regiment to Spain and there he started his activities in the Peninsular War.

Ponsonby distinguished himself at the battles of Talavera and Barossa. In the he latter he was under the command of General Sir Thomas Graham, one of the first British officers to reach Malta in 1799. In March 1810, Ponsonby was appointed lieutenant-colonel and on June 11, 1811, obtained the command of the 12th light dragoons, who he commanded for the rest of the war.

At Barossa, Ponsonby fought fiercely to prevent a perilous turning movement by the enemy. Here he also demonstrated his sangfroid in the arena of battle, later recounting:

“I charged with the cavalry and got a blow on the head and another on the arm, but of no sort of consequence; indeed, no blood was drawn, so that I have not even a claim to a place among the wounded… but feeling a good deal exhausted by fatigue and the knock on the head, I got off [my horse] and fell asleep; when I awoke everything about me was gone.”

Ponsonby was praised for his gallantry at the action near Llarena in April 1812 when the 600 cavalry troops under his command routed Marshal Soult’s superior force of approximately 2,000 cavalry. The Malta Penny Magazine of January 11, 1840, quoting from the United Service Journal, in its appreciation of Governor Ponsonby, claimed that “the judgement displayed by Colonel Ponsonby in the part allotted to him in this action, which was one of the most brilliant cavalry affairs of the war, was universally acknowledged and admired”.

While on the retreat from Burgos, Ponsonby received a wound while engaged in a sortie. So highly did the Duke of Wellington value Ponsonby that after having insisted he join him in his own quarters, he made Ponsonby travel in his carriage until sufficiently recovered to ride.

Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby arriving in Malta, 1827. Photo courtesy of the Albert Ganado Collection.Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby arriving in Malta, 1827. Photo courtesy of the Albert Ganado Collection.

In the action at Tolosa, when the enemy had retreated behind a stockade forming the defences of the town, the regular artillery was unable to blow open the gate from a distance. On being appraised of the situation Ponsonby dashed forward with a gun under the protection of his advanced squadron, and in spite of the heavy fire from the enemy, it was unlimbered, and the gate blown open with such effect that the French instantly fled and abandoned the defences.

Even in the midst of such mayhem Ponsonby’s humanity was demonstrated as conspicuously as his bravery. Seeing a French officer lying by the side of the road bleeding profusely he sent a dragoon off at a gallop to fetch the regimental surgeon to attend their adversary. This turned out to be an act of humanity not as readily offered to him when the occasion arose.

At the termination of the Peninsular War, Ponsonby had the distinction of receiving two gold medals: one with bars for Vittoria and Salamanca, the other a gold cross inscribed with the battles of Barossa, Vittoria, Salamanca and Nive.

A lancer struck his lance through my back. My head dropped, the blood gushed into my mouth, a difficulty of breathing came on, and I thought all was over

In March 1815, Ponsonby was back in England and received orders to embark for the Netherlands as a result of Napoleon’s arrival in Paris following his escape from exile on the island of Elba. Ponsonby was prepared for battle and was ready for action on the field by 6am on the fateful morning of June 18. Ponsonby’s experiences that day are best told in his own words:

“The weather cleared up at noon and the sun shone out a little just as the battle began. The armies were within 800 yards of each other; the videttes, before they were withdrawn, being so near as to be able to converse.

“At the moment I imagined that I saw Bonaparte; a considerable staff moving rapidly along the front of our line I was stationed with my regiment (about 300 strong) at the extreme of the left wing, and directed to act discretionally: each of the armies was drawn up on a gentle declivity, a small valley lying between them.

Harriet, Viscountess Duncannon, later Countess of Bessborough, with her two sons, John and Frederick (right), by John Hoppner. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of Stansted Park Foundation.Harriet, Viscountess Duncannon, later Countess of Bessborough, with her two sons, John and Frederick (right), by John Hoppner. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of Stansted Park Foundation.

“At one o’clock, observing as I thought, unsteadiness in a column of French infantry, 1,000 or thereabouts, which were advancing with an irregular fire, I resolved to charge them. As we were descending in a gallop, we received from our own troops on the right, a fire much more destructive than theirs; they having begun long before it could take effect, and slackening as we drew nearer. When we were within 50 paces of them, they turned, and much execution was done among them, as we were followed by some Belgians who had seen our success.

“But we had no sooner passed through them, than we were ourselves attacked in our turn before we could form, by about 300 Polish lancers, who had come down to their relief. The French artillery pouring in among us a heavy fire of grape shot, which, however, for one of our men killed three of their own.

“In the mêlée I was disabled almost instantly in both of my arms and followed by a few of my men who were presently cut down (no quarter being asked or given). I was carried on by my horse till, receiving a blow on my head from a sabre, I was thrown senseless on my face to the ground.

“Recovering, I raised myself a little to look round (being I believe at that time in a condition to get up and run away) when a lancer passing by, cried out: Tu n’est pas mort, coquin [So, you are not dead yet, scoundrel] and struck his lance through my back. My head dropped, the blood gushed into my mouth, a difficulty of breathing came on, and I thought all was over.

“Not long afterwards (it was then impossible to measure time, but I must have fallen in less than 10 minutes after the charge) a tirailleur (skirmisher) came up to plunder me, threatening to take my life. I told him that he might search me, directing him to a small side pocket, in which he found three dollars, being all I had; he unloosing my stock and tore open my waistcoat, then leaving me in a very uneasy posture, and was no sooner gone, than another came up for the same purpose, but assuring him I had been plundered already, he left me.

“When an officer bringing up some troops (to which probably the tirailleurs belonged) and halting where I lay, stooped down and addressed me, saying he feared I was badly wounded: I replied that I was, and expressed a wish to be removed into the rear: he said it was against their orders to remove even their own men, but that if they gained the day (for he understood that the Duke of Wellington was killed, and that six of our battalions had surrendered) every attention in his power should be shown me.

The historian, describing military achievements, passes silently over those who go into the heat of the battle, though there, as we have seen, every character displays itself

“I complained of thirst, and he held his brandy-bottle to my lips, directing one of the soldiers to lay me straight on my side, and place a knapsack under my head: he then passed on into the action, and I shall never know to whose generosity I was indebted as I believe for my life, of what rank he was I cannot say; he wore a great coat. By and by, another tirailleur came up and knelt down and fired over me, loading and firing many times, and conversing with great gaiety all the while.

“While the battle continued in that part, several of the wounded men and dead bodies near me were hit with the balls which came very thick in that place. Towards evening, when the Prussians came, the continued roar of the canon along theirs and the British lines growing louder as they drew near, was the finest thing I ever heard.

“It was dusk when two squadrons of Prussian cavalry, both of them two deep, passed over me in full trot, lifting me from the ground and tumbling me about cruelly: the clatter of their approach, and the apprehensions it excited, may be easily conceived had a gun came that way, it would have done for me.

A View of Malta, Governor Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, by Richard Dighton.A View of Malta, Governor Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, by Richard Dighton.

“The battle was then nearly over, or removed to a distance. The cries and groans of the wounded all around me became every instant more and more audible, succeeding to the shouts, imprecations, outcries of ‘Vive l’Empereur’, the discharges of musketry and cannon, now and then intervals of perfect silence, which were worse than the noise. I thought the night would never end.

“Much about this time, I found a soldier of the royals lying across my legs: he had probably crawled thither in his agony; his weight, convulsive motions, his noises, and the air issuing through a wound in his side, distressed me greatly; the latter circumstance most of all, as the case was my own.

“It was not a dark night, and the Prussians were wandering about to plunder (and the scene in Ferdinand Count Fathom came into my mind, though no women, I believe, were there). Several of them came and looked at me, and passed on. At length one stopped to examine me. I told him as well as I could (for I could say but little in German) that I was a British officer, and had been plundered already: he did not desist, however, and pulled me about roughly before he left me.

“About an hour before midnight I saw a soldier in an English uniform coming towards me: he was, I suspect, on the same errand; he came and looked in my face. I spoke instantly, telling him who I was, and assuring him of a reward if he would remain by me. He said he belonged to the 40th regiment, but had missed it. He released me from the dying man, and being unarmed he took up a sword from the ground and stood over me, pacing backwards and forwards.

“At eight o’clock in the morning some English were seen at a distance, he ran to them and a messenger was sent off to Harvey, a cart came for me, I was placed in it and carried to a Farm House about a mile and a half distant and laid in the bed from which poor Gordon (as I understood afterwards) had been just carried out, the jolting of the cart and the difficulty of breathing were very painful. I had received seven wounds: a surgeon slept in my room, and I was saved by continual bleeding (120 ounces in two days, besides the great loss of blood on the field).”

Such probably is the story of many a brave man, yet to me it was new. The historian, describing military achievements, passes silently over those who go into the heat of the battle, though there, as we have seen, every character displays itself. The gay are still gay, the noble-minded are still generous; nor has the commander in his proudest (moment) a better claim to our admiration than the meanest of his soldiers, when relieving a fallen enemy in the midst of danger and death.

A statement by Robert Hume, Deputy Inspector of Hospitals and Surgeon to the Commander of the Forces, dated August 10, 1815, records:

“I hereby certify that Col. the Hon. F.C. Ponsonby, commanding the 12th Light Dragoons in the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th of June, 1815, last, received a cut from a sabre on the outside of the right arm, which divided the muscles longitudinally down to the bones extending from near the elbow to the wrist.

“He was also struck behind on the left side by a lance, which fracturing the sixth rib entered the chest and wounded the lungs; besides these two severe wounds, he received several smaller cuts on his head, shoulder, and left arm (which was also disabled) and different parts of his body, and was bruised all over in such a manner as to render his recovery very doubtful.

“His recovery towards convalescence has been very slow; he has still little or no use of his right arm and hand; his breathing is much affected by the wound in his chest, which is still open, and his strength is so much impaired that it is more than probable his constitution will never recover the shock which it has received.”

On hearing of his fate, Ponsonby’s mother and sister Caroline rushed to his side and nursed him back to health. He made a slow but steady recovery.

Ponsonby left his regiment in 1820, exchanging to half pay, and in 1824 was appointed inspecting field officer in the Ionian Islands and promoted major general.

In 1825 he married Lady Emily Charlotte Bathurst, second daughter of Henry, the third Earl Bathurst, at this time Secretary of State for War and the Colonies.

In 1827, Ponsonby was appointed to the administration of Malta. The state of the economy in Malta was not strong at this time so as a cost-saving measure the island was placed on the establishment of a lieutenant governorship.

The Ponsonbys’ first son, Henry, was born in Corfu in 1825 and grew up in Malta. Henry was eventually to serve Queen Victoria as her private secretary for many years.

Sir Frederick and Lady Ponsonby were to have five more children; four of them, Arthur Edward Valette, Georgina Melita Maria, Harriet Julia and Selina Barbara were born in Malta.

Ponsonby was the second longest serving governor of Malta. His tenure was marked by several developments in the ecclesiastic, legal and constitutional spheres. Ponsonby showed firmness and fairness in his administration.

Contemporary character sketches of him remark that he was one of the “simplest, most manly, unaffected men, with very good sterling sense, [and] a sweet temper”. Even Giorgio Mitrovich, who rarely shared Ponsonby’s views, regarded him as “an excellent man”.

Ill-health forced Ponsonby to resign from his post in Malta in 1836. He died quite unexpectedly the following year.

Ponsonby and his family were returning home after staying with his brother William at Canford House in Devon when they stopped for the night at a wayside inn, the Wellesley Arms, at Murrell Green, Hampshire.

The newspapers reported that Ponsonby, arrived at the inn in good health and having ordered his dinner, took his seat at table, whereupon he fell back in his chair and expired.

Christopher Grech is an associate professor at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, US.

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