Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knollys, William Thomas

KNOLLYS, Sir WILLIAM THOMAS (1797–1883), general, born on 1 Aug. 1797, was eldest son of General William Knollys, called eighth Earl of Banbury, and until 1813 Sir William held the courtesy title of Viscount Wallingford [see under Knollys, William, Earl of Banbury, ad fin.] Educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, Knollys received his first commission in 1813, when little more than sixteen, in the 3rd (now the Scots) guards, and was almost immediately despatched with a draft to the Peninsula. Thence he crossed the Bidassoa into France with the victorious English army, and after the passage of the Adour was attached to the force which invested Bayonne. The first day he joined the headquarters of his battalion he was detailed for outpost duty, and on being shown the area which he was to guard by Lieutenant-colonel (afterwards Field-marshal) Sir Alexander Woodford, he found his own sentries stationed behind one hedgeside of a narrow lane, while the French sentries lined the other hedgeside. But Colonel Woodford explained that he need give himself no concern about this anomaly, for that the pickets of both nations had for some time held it a point of military honour and courtesy never to molest one another so long as the respective delimitations of ground were observed. Indeed Knollys was wont to dwell on the difficulty experienced in preventing this mutual forbearance merging into actual friendship, leading the opposing pickets to exchange presents of wine and tobacco, and thus allowing undesirable intelligence to leak out.

On the occasion of the French sortie from Bayonne, 14 April 1814, Knollys was again with the outposts. He had noticed an ominous stir in his front, and his suspicions had been strengthened by information brought in by a French deserter. He sent warnings to his superiors, but his information was unheeded; the surprise was complete, and the French penetrated so far within the English lines that after the fray Knollys found they had ransacked his tent. When most hotly engaged in the first onset, and as he was running along the ditch of the parallel, he stumbled in the dark almost into the arms of two French grenadiers, who made a clutch at their prize, but the lad escaped capture.

On the signing of peace he returned to England, but directly after the battle of Waterloo he was again sent with a draft to join his battalion in Paris, which formed part of the army of occupation. In 1821 he was appointed adjutant, and thence working his way through successive grades he became lieutenant-colonel of his battalion in 1844, and regimental colonel in 1850. He had had for his own adjutant the present general, Sir Frederick Stephenson, and under their joint efforts the regiment was held to be one of the best drilled, disciplined, and organised in the British army. Accordingly, Colonel Knollys was instructed to initiate Prince Albert, who was titular colonel of the Scots fusilier guards, into the art of soldiering. Beginning in 1850 and for successive seasons the prince was in the habit of attending battalion and brigade field days in Hyde Park at nine o'clock in the morning, diligently mastering, under Knollys's instruction, the intricacies which characterised the drill of forty years back, and afterwards studying the interior economy of the regiment. From this period Prince Albert became Knollys's steady supporter. In 1854 he was promoted major-general and appointed governor of Guernsey, whence in 1855 he was despatched on a mission to Paris to investigate the French system of ‘intendance,’ i.e. commissariat, transport, &c., which was supposed to have exemplified its superiority to our method in the Crimea.

At the same time the camp at Aldershot—the first conception of which was due to Prince Albert—was in process of formation, and Lord Hardinge, the commander-in-chief, entrusted Knollys, at the instance of Prince Albert, with the first conduct of the experiment in 1855. The army at the time utterly lacked administrative cohesion. It therefore fell to Knollys's lot not only to form his Aldershot staff and to organise the troops into brigades and divisions, but to initiate the diverse departments of commissariat, transport, stores, and even the medical and chaplain's departments. He found it necessary to instruct with his own hands some of the first arrivals in camp in pitching tents, and, while sharing with them a tent life, to teach them the elementary duties of soldiers in the field. On the death of General Bucknall Estcourt, chief of the staff in the Crimea, in June 1855, it was suddenly intimated to Knollys that he had been selected to succeed him; but before the date fixed for his embarkation the appointment was cancelled, on the ground of his seniority, which would have entailed the supersession of many other Crimean generals. Notwithstanding his disappointment, he resumed his labours at Aldershot with undiminished energy. Although Lord Hardinge was then commander-in-chief, the principal moving spirit in the English army, as regarded the practical training of the troops, was Prince Albert, and from him Knollys received the most encouraging support against the ill-will and obstruction of which Aldershot, at that time unpopular with the public, was the object. The queen and prince consort were frequent residents for days together at the Pavilion. Success exceeded expectation. General von Moltke was one of the foreign visitors to the camp, and on the rare occasions when he broke his habitual silence, he evinced his surprise and approval at the progress made by British troops. When Knollys's command came to an end in 1860, he had established Aldershot on a basis of efficient organisation, which in its main lines has continued up to the present day.

In 1861 he accepted, at the instance of the prince consort, the post of president of the council of military education. In 1862 he was selected by the queen as treasurer and comptroller of the household of the Prince of Wales, who had recently entered on his twenty-first year. For fifteen years, 1862–1877, he performed the responsible and laborious duties attached to this confidential position, frequently accompanying the prince, especially during the earlier period, in his travels abroad and in his visits to foreign courts. The honorary distinctions of LL.D. and D.C.L. had been conferred on him by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1863 and 1864. In 1867 he was created a K.C.B., and in 1871 he was made a member of the privy council. In 1872 he had once more a short interlude of military duty, having been appointed, in conjunction with Sir Hope Grant, umpire in chief during the well-known Salisbury manœuvres. In 1877 he resigned his position in the household of the Prince of Wales, and accepted that of gentleman usher of the black rod. At the same time he was nominated to the honorary post of groom of the stole to the prince. In 1883 Knollys was gazetted to the colonelcy of the Scots guards, the regiment in which he had begun his soldier's life nearly seventy years previously. He only survived this honour three days. He died on 23 June 1883 at Black Rod's House, Westminster Palace, in his eighty-sixth year, and was carried to his grave in Highgate cemetery by sergeants of his old regiment. Knollys married in 1830 Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John St. Aubyn, and by her he left a numerous family of sons and daughters.

Knollys published ‘Some Remarks on the Claim to the Earldom of Banbury,’ London, 1835, 8vo, and ‘A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, translated from the French’ of the Duc de Fezensac, London, 1852, 8vo.

[Private information.]

H. K.