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The Grand Old Duke of York (Hardback)

A Life of Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany 1763–1827

Military > Pre-WWI > Napoleonic > Peninsular War

By Derek Winterbottom
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 208
Illustrations: 20
ISBN: 9781473845770
Published: 16th May 2016



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Oh, the grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany is famous because of the nursery rhyme which ridicules him for poor leadership but, as Derek Winterbottom’s biography shows, he was far from incompetent as a commander. What is more, the famous rhyme does not even hint at his achievements as commander-in-chief of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars. His career as a commander and administrator and his scandalous private life are long overdue for reassessment, and that is what this perceptive and absorbing study provides.
He transformed the British military machine, and the Duke of Wellington admitted that without York’s reforms he would not have had the army that fought so well in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. York also led a turbulent personal life which was engulfed by scandal when his mistress was accused of using her influence over him to obtain promotion for ambitious officers.
Today the Duke of York is a neglected, often derided figure. This biography should go some way towards restoring his reputation as a commander and military reformer.

As featured in

The Historian Vol.80

Basis of author article as featured in

Military History Monthly, November 2017

This rehabilitation of the military career of Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, with which we were all acquainted from childhood through the enduring nursery rhyme ridiculing his apparent indecisive military leadership by first marching his men up the hill before immediately marching them down again, argues that he was ‘far from incompetent as a commander’. Indeed, the author, in this full-length, well-researched biography of the duke, the first to be published for over sixty years, identifies the source of the misrepresentation of the Duke’s military tactics as a reference to his manoeuvring the 10,000 troops under his command which he maintains effectively preserved them from potential destruction at Tourcoing resulting from the indecisiveness of Britain’s Austrian ally, for which he received a fulsome apology from the Austrian emperor. Winterbottom also eulogises his military reforms as commander-in-chief of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars. They included targeting the buying of commissions, improving tactics and training, organisation of the militia and recruitment, reducing corporal punishment, increasing soldiers’ pay, reforming military hospitals and disciplining inept officers, amounting to the transformation of ‘the British military machine which Wellington acknowledged contributed to the success of his armies in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. He does not however exonerate the Duke for the accumulation of large debts through his gambling and ‘reckless spending on race horses and a palace’. Nor does he ignore his turbulent personal life, including the notorious scandal when his mistress was accused of ‘using her influence over him to obtain promotion for ambitious officers’.

The Historical Association

Whether or not the book will change/confirm your opinion of the Duke of York, all in all, a nice addition to Napoleonic Era history.

The Napoleon Series - October 2016 - reviewed by Ron McGuigan

‘Oh, the grand old Duke of York, he had 10,000 men.’ We have all sung it, but how many of us know anything about the figure to whom the nursery rhyme refers, namely Prince Frederick Augustus, the second son of King George III of England? Probably not that many, whilst what even those people know is limited to what is generally seen to be his farcical command of the British armies that were sent to the Low Countries in 1793-94 and then again in 1799, and the Duke’s subsequent involvement in a scandal which cost him his job when his current mistress was found to be using her influence to obtain commissions in the army for money. What we have, then, is at best a comic figure, but in this simple and unpretentious biography Derek Winterbottom shows us that the ditty that we should really be singing is rather the one about the model of a modern major general. Unlike his elder brother, the future George IV, the youthful Prince Frederick was an earnest young man on good terms with his father determined to make his mark on life. The obvious field in which he could do this being the army, at the age of just seventeen he was appointed as a colonel, to which honour he responded by engaging very seriously with all matters military and within a few years emerging as a serious authority on the armed forces of Prussia in particular. When war broke out with France in 1793, then, he was a natural choice for the command of the British forces sent to the Netherlands, and in this capacity it is Winterbottom’s view that he actually performed quite well: there were failures and defeats, certainly, but in almost every case these were not York’s fault. When the experiment was repeated in 1799, the Duke’s performance proved harder to defend, but here, too, Winterbottom is keen to exonerate him, pointing out, in particular, that his authority was curtailed by the instructions he had received from London. Perhaps, then, York was not so bad a field commander as has usually been assumed, but, if the author’s judgement is susceptible of challenge on this point, what is clear is that, appointed commander-in-chief of the army, the Duke proved a great success, putting an end to many abuses, improving training and military education and encouraging the introduction of new tactics, the changes that he made beyond doubt playing an important role in the string of victories that culminated in the battle of Waterloo. As for the scandal that temporarily interrupted his career in 1809, this is shown in effect to have been manufactured by radicas out to attack the government under any pretext whatsoever, York having at worst been naïve and foolish rather than corrupt. Meanwhile, as we learn, too, that York was a decent and kindly man who was much liked by all who met him, the obvious comment that he was no Wellington is one that has a distinctly positive ring.

Dr Charles Esdaile, Professor in the history of Napoleonic Europe, University of Liverpool

This is an excellent, readable biography of a major but somewhat neglected historical figure.

Read the full review here.

History of War

As featured in

Gloire & Empire no.69

This is a scholarly book but also an easy and absorbing read. It is an important addition to the canon of writings about this period in British history in which the country came close to defeat but was saved by figures such as Nelson and Wellington. Frederick’s reputation has been rightly restored, and there is also a convincing explanation of the origins of the famous rhyme.

The Cliftonian Magazine 2016, Dr Robert Acheson

An informative and entertaining book which deserves a wide audience and would make a very entertaining documentary.

Read the full review here.

Destructive Music

As featured in

Manx Tails Magazine

As featured in

Manx Indenpendent

The subject of this new biography is perhaps most often remembered due to a somewhat derisive nursery rhyme which appears to ridicule the Duke’s leadership qualities. However, as the author shows, he was in fact far from incompetent as a commander. His career as a general – he was commander-in-chief of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars - and administrator, plus his scandalous private life are long overdue for reassessment and this is what this book – the first full length biography to be published in over 60 years - provides. The Duke transformed the British army, targeting the purchase of commissions, improving both tactics and training, the organisation of the militia and recruitment, reducing corporal punishment, increasing soldiers’ pay, reforming military hospitals and dealing with inept officers. As if this were not sufficient, the author describes the Duke’s somewhat turbulent and often scandalous private life, with mistresses, gambling, spending on race horses and a palace, plus the fact he lived and indeed died heavily in debt. This new work should, however, go some way towards restoring the Duke’s reputation as a commander and important military reformer.

Numerous appendices – eight in all – cover such aspects as the Duke of York’s alleged illegitimate children, Gillray and Rowlandson caricatures of the Duke and the Duke of York’s Military School. There are 21 monochrome plates and two maps, plus a preface, references, sources and an index. In all, a refreshing new biography of an often misjudged character and one that is well worth reading.

Stuart Asquith, Author

I read this expecting to learn about a titled, silly old fart (that is Oz for “duffer”) who didn’t know anything about military matters, who was in charge of British infantry, “and marched them up to the top of the hill, and marched them down again”.

However, what I read, was quite inspirational.

The Duke of York, was Frederick, the younger brother of King George 4th, AKA The Prince Regent, who was a less admirable personality.

This book, quite frankly, and surprisingly, has lead me to be a fan of TGODOY, as indeed he was admired in his own day.

TGODOY was the Field Marshall, in charge of the British military during the Napoleonic wars. He was Arthur Wellesley’s (AKA The Duke of Wellington) boss.

He is credited by historians, the British parliament, and The Duke of Wellington himself, with army reforms which enabled the land victory over Napoleon, especially at Waterloo. As a result of his reforms, he was known as “the soldier’s friend”.

This book is beautifully written, and was a pleasure to read. As well as being a fascinating view of the Georgian age of English aristocracy, warts and all.

Thoroughly recommended.

John Viggers, Freelance

About Derek Winterbottom

Derek Winterbottom read modern history at the University of Oxford and a further degree at the University of York. He is the author of some twenty publications in the fields of history, biography, local history and education. See his website at derekwinterbottom.com

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