Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thorn, William

THORN, Sir WILLIAM (1781–1843), soldier and military historian, was born in 1781. He purchased a cornetcy in the 29th, afterwards the 25th, light dragoons, on 17 March 1799, and joined the regiment in India. He was promoted to be lieutenant on 26 Jan. 1801. He served with his regiment under Lord Lake [see Lake, Gerard, first Viscount Lake] in the Maratha war which broke out in August 1803, took part in the action of Koel (29 Aug.), the capture of Alighar (4 Sept.), the battle and the capture of Delhi (11 Sept.), and the capture of Agra (18 Oct.). Thorn greatly distinguished himself at the battle of Laswari or Leswarree (1 Nov.), when the British cavalry, having penetrated the enemy's line, immediately reformed and charged three times backwards and forwards with surprising order and effect, amid a continuous fire of cannon and an incessant discharge of grape and chain shot. He had one horse killed under him in the morning at the commencement of the action and another wounded; in the evening he was himself, in the moment of victory, severely lacerated by a grape shot, which fractured the lower part of his face. Thorn also took part in the movements under Lake for the relief of Delhi in October 1804, in the capture of Díg on 24 Dec. in the same year, and in the siege of Bhartpur in January, February, and March 1805, when, after four disastrous assaults, the siege became a blockade until terms were agreed upon in April. He was then engaged in the pursuit of Holkar into the Punjab until peace was arranged in January 1806.

After discharging the duties of adjutant and riding-master to his regiment, Thorn was promoted on 23 June 1807 to be captain, and appointed brigade-major to the cantonment of Bangalore in Maisur, where ten different corps—cavalry, artillery, and infantry—were assembled. Here he continued until 1810, when, a detachment of cavalry being required for the expedition against the Mauritius, Thorn's offer to go with his troop was readily accepted by Sir George Hewett [q. v.], the commander-in-chief, who spontaneously intimated that his staff appointment at Bangalore would be kept open until his return. Thorn landed with the expedition under Sir John Abercromby [q. v.] in Grand Bay, Mauritius, on 29 Nov. 1810, and took part in the operations which resulted in the capture of the island and of the French fleet on 3 Dec. Thorn received Abercromby's thanks for his services, and returned with him to India early in 1811.

In April 1811 Thorn was appointed brigade-major to the division of Colonel (afterwards Sir) Robert Rollo Gillespie [q. v.] in the expedition to Java under Sir Samuel Auchmuty [q. v.] He arrived at Penang on 18 May, and at Batavia with the whole expedition on 26 July. He landed at Chillingching on 4 Aug. On the 7th he moved with the army across the river Anchol, and on the following day the city of Batavia was entered without opposition. Thorn took part on the 10th in the attack by Gillespie on the strong advanced position of the enemy at Weltervreeden, when he was wounded by a grape shot. Though still suffering from the effects of his wound, Thorn was present with the advanced brigade of Gillespie's division on 26 Aug. at the assault of Fort Cornelis, a very strong position defended by 280 guns, which was captured and the enemy completely defeated. Thorn was thanked in orders for his services by Sir Samuel Auchmuty. On the completion of the conquest of Java in the following month, Thorn was appointed deputy quartermaster-general of the British forces serving in Java and its dependencies, and promoted to be brevet major on 30 Sept. 1811.

The fall of Batavia had been followed by a massacre of the Dutch by the sultan of Palembang in Sumatra, and Thorn accompanied a punitive expedition under Gillespie which landed in the Palembang river on 15 April 1812, and took possession of the works at Borang. He was one of the intrepid little band that with Gillespie surprised the fortress of Palembang on the night of 25 April, and held it until joined in the early morning by the remainder of the British troops, when the city, fort, and batteries, defended by 242 guns, at once surrendered. The expedition then returned to Java and proceeded to complete its conquest. Thorn received the thanks of the Indian government, of the commander-in-chief in India, Sir George Nugent, and of the local authorities for his services.

After making a tour through the island to study its geography, Thorn resigned his staff appointment on 7 July 1814, and returned to Europe for the recovery of his health. He employed himself in arranging notes of his military career, which resulted in the publication of ‘Memoirs of the Conquest of Java with the subsequent Operations of the British Forces in the Oriental Archipelago,’ illustrated with numerous plates and engravings, 4to, 1815. In this year he went to the continent and marched as a volunteer with the British army to Paris. In 1818 Thorn published ‘A Memoir of the late War in India conducted by General Lord Lake, Commander-in-chief, and Major-general Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, 1803 to 1806, on the Banks of the Hyphasis. Illustrated by maps and plans of operations,’ 4to, London.

Thorn was promoted to be major in the 25th light dragoons on 9 April 1819, and on the same date was placed on half pay; he was promoted to be brevet lieutenant-colonel on 12 Aug. 1819, and retired from the service on 10 Sept. 1825. For his services he was made a knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic order. He died of apoplexy at Neuwied on the Rhine on 29 Nov. 1843.

[War Office Records; Despatches; Thorn's Memoirs of the late War in India under Lord Lake; Thorn's Memoirs of the Conquest of Java; Gent. Mag. 1844 i. 430; Annual Register, 1844; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature.]

R. H. V.