memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for June 1, 2012


At beginning of the 19th century, well known in London Society and the British army were the four splendid Napier brothers. Well-born and well-educated, their father came from a long line of soldiers and their mother was the beautiful Lady Sarah Lennox, one the daughters of the 2nd Duke of Richmond (who was himself a grandson of Charles II).

Three of them, Charles, George and William stayed in the army and all rose to the rank of general. (a fourth brother, Henry, joined the Royal Navy).

William Napier was with first Sir John Moore and then Lord Wellington in the Peninsular campaign against some of Napoleon’s legendary Marshals – Soult, Ney and Massena; (Marshal Junot had led the successful French invasion of Portugal and signed the peace Treaty of Sintra, the Portuguese Royal Family having, arguably rather cravenly, departed by sea for Brazil) .

William later wrote a lucid and compelling account of the campaign, (Napier’s Memoirs of the Peninsular).

He describes how Wellington bided his time behind the lines of Torres Vedras, which were a minor feat of military engineering – three concentric fortified lines, the first protecting St. Julian’s fort at Carcavelos, where the Royal Navy landed the British troops, the second line encircling greater Lisbon, and the third starting at Torres Vedras and arcing round to the upper Tagus.

When Wellington was ready, he issued forth from behind these lines to soundly defeat Marshal Soult at Vimeiro and proceeded to harry the retreating French northwards, where he next brought them to battle near Coimbra, in the murderous forests of Busaço, then herd them north-east to Foz Coa, across into Spain, Salamanca, Talavera, Vitoria, Burgos and finally over mountains to the south of France.

Napoleon’s marshals capitulated at Toulouse in 1814.

George Napier ended up as Governor-General of The Cape Colony.


The eldest brother, Charles Napier, took part in the British colonial expansion of India, eventually becoming the Governor-General of the Punjab.

There is a story about how, after securing the conquest of the Sind, he thought carefully about how to get the news swiftly and safely back to London. He decided to send several armed horsemen separately overland, each one furnished with one cryptic word – PECCAVI. Several of the Cabinet at Whitehall including the Foreign Secretary had been at school with Napier and were able to decode the message:

peccavi is a form of the Latin verb peccare = to sin: it is in fact the first person of the present perfect – I have sinned.

A pun here but a universal truth.


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