Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Le Marchant, John Gaspard (1766-1812)

LE MARCHANT, JOHN GASPARD (1766–1812), major-general, born in 1766, and descended from an ancient Guernsey family, was eldest son of John Le Marchant (a retired officer of the 7th dragoons) and his wife, Maria Hirzel, daughter of Count Hirzel de Gratian, maréchal de camp of the Swiss guards in the service of France. Thomas Le Marchant, of Le Marchant Manor, Guernsey, lieutenant-bailiff of the island, was his grandfather. He was placed at school at Bath, where the future admiral, Sir Sidney Smith, was one of his schoolfellows, and the master, Dr. Morgan, pronounced Le Marchant the greatest dunce he ever met. Brought home, he turned studious, and with the help of the family butler, an American loyalist and a man of some education, made up for past neglect, and acquired habits of application that lasted through life. He appears to have possessed a turbulent temper, which in later years he strove successfully to curb. His youth was full of escapades. On 25 Sept. 1781 he was appointed ensign in the Wiltshire militia (not a Yorkshire regiment, as his son states), and signalled his joining by calling out the colonel for insulting him. The colonel had the wisdom to smooth matters over, and another duel Le Marchant had in view with a Yorkshire gentleman (the regiment was quartered at York) was stopped by the peace officers. His son believes these were the only affairs of the kind in which he was ever concerned, and in after-life he had a great horror of duelling. He was appointed ensign in the 1st royal foot on 18 Feb. 1783, and on the eve of embarking with his regiment for Gibraltar was enticed to a gaming-house in Dublin by a superior officer, who won 250l. from him. The loss practically meant the sacrifice of his commission, but the regimental paymaster came to his rescue on Le Marchant giving a promise, which he religiously kept, never to touch cards again. He spent some years in garrison at Gibraltar, occupying his spare moments in sketching scenery in Spain and Barbary. When at home on sick leave, after an attack of yellow fever, he married, a step regarded by his family as most imprudent, both parties being under age. Le Marchant was sent back in haste to his regiment, but was presently transferred to the 6th Inniskilling dragoons at home; and thence, after obtaining his lieutenancy, to the 2nd dragoon guards, or queen's bays, where he attracted the notice of George III, with whom he became a great favourite. He served with his regiment in the campaigns in Flanders in 1793–4, obtaining his troop in the former year. In 1795 he was promoted to a majority in the 16th light dragoons (now lancers), then in attendance on the court at Weymouth and elsewhere. About this time Le Marchant devised a system of cavalry sword-exercise, which was approved by the Duke of York, and visited the principal sword-cutlers in England with a view to the introduction of a better sword. His son states that a pattern suggested by him was adopted ( experimentally?) in the blues in 1797. This is not very clear, but it appears probable that the sword meant was that afterwards used by the light cavalry in the Peninsula, a curved weapon, with the hilt well thrown forward, which is admitted by the best authorities to have been an excellent sword for cutting, and to have been by no means improved by later modifications. The master-general of the ordnance (Lord Cornwallis) presented Le Marchant with a sword in recognition of his efforts, and he received a similar gift from Mr. Osborne of Birmingham, then one of the foremost sword-cutlers in Europe. In 1797 Le Marchant was promoted to a lieutenant-colonelcy without purchase in Hompesch's mounted riflemen, a newly raised foreign corps, and transferred through the 29th light dragoons to the 7th light dragoons (now hussars). The latter regiment was at that time quartered in the neighbourhood of Windsor under command of Lord Paget, afterwards first marquis of Anglesey.

Here Le Marchant started his project of schools of instruction for officers. A house was taken at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, where General Francis Jarry [q. v.] was engaged to deliver tactical lectures to voluntary classes of young officers. Jarry soon found that rudimentary military knowledge was at too low an ebb in the British service for his pupils to profit by his teaching, and recommended the formation of additional elementary classes. Le Marchant then submitted to the Duke of York a plan for a national establishment, which was commenced on a semi-official footing in the same year (1799). In January 1801 a parliamentary grant of 30,000l. was voted for a ‘royal military college,’ to consist of two departments, a senior at High Wycombe (where Jarry was appointed commandant), and a junior at Great Marlow. Both have since been removed to Sandhurst. General William Harcourt [see Harcourt, William, third Earl] was appointed governor, and Le Marchant, who had been transferred to the 2nd dragoon guards (bays), and afterwards went on half-pay, was made lieutenant-governor. This post, the emoluments of which, with regimental pay, amounted to 2,000l. a year, Le Marchant held with marked ability for nine years, during which time over two hundred officers, including many of Wellington's Peninsula staff, passed through his hands. He vacated the post in the ordinary course, on promotion to the rank of major-general.

Le Marchant was appointed to a brigade of cavalry in the Peninsula in 1810, and joined the army in the autumn of that year. He was present at the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo, and at Llerena on 19 April 1812, when, with Sir Thomas Graham's corps near Badajoz, he overthrew two French regiments of cavalry with three squadrons of the 5th dragoon guards. Just before the battle of Salamanca Le Marchant heard of the death of his wife (Wellington, Suppl. Desp. vii. 195). At the battle of Salamanca, 22 July 1812, Le Marchant's brigade, consisting of the 5th dragoon guards and the 3rd dragoons (now hussars, but at that time heavy cavalry), was posted at the right centre of the allies. In the famous charge of the brigade, with Anson's light dragoons and Bull's troop of horse artillery in support, a French infantry division was utterly routed, and fifteen hundred prisoners taken (Napier, Hist. Penins. War, rev. edit. iv. 269–70). Many cavalry writers are of opinion that Napier, in his vivid description of the episode, has underrated the effect of the charge on the success of the day. Le Marchant, who cut down six of the enemy with his own hand, was mortally wounded by a musket-ball in the groin. He lived just long enough to see the success of the manœuvre. He was buried hastily in an olive-grove hard by, and a hideous monument was put up to his memory in St. Paul's Cathedral. Wellington spoke of Le Marchant publicly and privately as ‘a very able officer,’ and of his death as a great loss to the army.

Le Marchant had by his wife Mary, daughter of John Carey, jurat of Guernsey, ten children, including four sons. His eldest son, Carey, lieutenant and captain first foot-guards, was killed in the battle of the Nive in 1813; and the fourth, Thomas, died a retired major. His second and third sons, Denis and John Gaspard, are noticed separately. Le Marchant was a widely read man, an accomplished draughtsman, and something of a musician. In politics he was a moderate whig. When at High Wycombe he supported a school for poor children at his own cost, at a time when opinions respecting popular education were much divided. He wrote upon military subjects, but few of his writings have been published. Besides his ‘Cavalry Sword Exercise’ (1796), he drew up ‘A Plan for preventing Peculation in the Foraging of Cavalry.’ He also compiled ‘The Duty of Cavalry Officers on Outpost,’ based on the practice of the Prussian and Austrian armies, observed when Le Marchant's regiment, the bays, was temporarily attached to a combined force covering the left flank of the Prussians during the siege of Valenciennes. The work was ordered by the Duke of York to be printed, but was never put into type, and no trace of it could be found among his papers after the author's death. In 1797–8 were published his ‘Elucidation of certain Points in H.M. Regulations for Cavalry,’ and his ‘Instructions for the Movement and Discipline of the Provisional Cavalry,’ the latter being certain regiments raised at the time under the Supplementary Militia Acts for home service on the plan of, but distinct from, the fencible cavalry. An excellent portrait is prefixed to Sir Denis Le Marchant's ‘Memoirs of General Le Marchant,’ 1841.

[Burke's Baronetage under ‘Le Marchant;’ Sir Denis Le Marchant's Memoirs of General Le Marchant, London, 1841 (of this work only ninety copies were printed); Parl. Papers, Accounts and Papers, 1810, vol. ix., Military Enquiry, Royal Military College; Napier's Hist. of Peninsular War, rev. ed. vol. iv.; Cannon's Hist. Records, 2nd and 5th Dragoon Guards; Combermere Corresp. i. 273–5; Gurwood's Well. Desp.; Suppl. Desp. vii. 195, 594, xiv. 30, 34, 45–7, 55, 61, 65, 70, 86.]

H. M. C.