1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Cornwallis Chesney

Charles Cornwallis Chesney
rritish soldier and military writer

CHARLES CORNWALLIS CHESNEY, (1826-1876), brevet-colonel in the corps of Royal Engineers, born 29 th September 1826, was the third son of Charles Corn walks Chesney, captain on the retired list of the Bengal Artillery. Educated at Tiverton grammar school and Mount Badford school, Exeter, and afterwards at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he obtained his first commission as second-lieutenant of engineers in 1845, passing out of the academy with distinction at the head of his term. His early service was spent in the ordinary course of regimental duty at home and abroad, and being stationed in New Zealand during the Crimean War, he lost the opportunity of serving in the only considerable military operations in Europe in which the present generation of British soldiers has been engaged, while India, the great school of war for the English army, was until lately closed to officers of the Boyal Artillery and Engineers. Among the various reforms in our military system which followed from that war was the impetus given to military education; military history was now for the first time introduced into the course of instruction at our military colleges, and in 1858 Charles Chesney, who had brought himself under notice by an essay on the subject, prepared under a sort of com-petition invited by the authorities, was appointed professor of military history at Sandhurst. In 1864 Captain Chesney succeeded Colonel Hamley in the corresponding chair at the Staff College. To the admirable teaching of these two officers may be ascribed in great measure the intelligent appreciation of the relation of military history to the prac tical business of war now manifested throughout the commissioned ranks of the British army ; their published writings have been received with great favour on the Continent and in America.

Chesney's first published work was an account of the civil war in Virginia, which went through several editions ; and although written in the heat of the struggle, and on the partial information then available, it may still be read with profit. But the work which attained the greatest reputation was his Waterloo Lectures, prepared from the notes of lectures orally delivered at the Staff College. Up to this time the English literature on the Waterloo campaign, although voluminous, was made up of personal reminiscences of actors in the great scene, or of formal records such as Siborne's accurate but tedious narrative, useful materials for history rather than history itself; the French accounts have mainly taken the form of fiction, the 30-called history of Lamartine being as much a work of fancy as the romance of Victor Hugo, while the professedly sober pages of Thiers are not much more to be relied on. In Chesney's lucid and vigorous account of the momentous struggle, while it illustrates both the strategy and tactics which culminated in the final catastrophe, the mistakes committed by Napoleon are laid bare, and for the first time an English writer is found to point out that the dispositions of the great duke were not wholly faultless. Yet such criticism is in truth the sincerest praise, since to those who, knowing anything of war, know that even the highest combinations are at best a groping in partial dark-ness, the capacity of a great leader will be more perfectly appreciated by a right estimate of his mistakes than by a blind attribution of infallibility. And in the Waterloo Lectures the Prussians are for the first time credited by an English pen with their proper share in the victory. On this point there had hitherto been an English as well as a Napoleonic legend. The Waterloo Lectures attracted much attention abroad as well as at home; on the appearance of the French edition, published at Brussels, another account of the campaign, written at the instance of the emperor Napoleon III., and quite in the spirit of the Napoleonic legend, was published immediately afterwards in Paris in a cover to correspond exactly with the Brussels edition, and with the obvious intention that it should circulate in place of the other,—a delicate test of the appreciation of the original on the part of the French Government.

Chesney was for many years a constant contributor to the newspaper press and to periodic literature, devoting himself for the most part to the critical treatment of military operations, and professional subjects generally. Some of his essays on military biography, contributed mainly to the Edinburgh Review, were afterwards published separately. His style is forcible, easy, and eminently clear, his judgment impartial and sagacious, and although his mode of treating military operations may be open to the criticism that it does not make sufficient allowance for the moral element in war—the infirmities of troops and the blunders of generals,—it may be said on the other hand that the whole truth is never told about battles at the time, and cannot be found out afterwards, and that in the long run the less there is of the personal in history, and the broader and more general the statement, the nearer will the historian come to describing what happened.

In 1868 Charles Chesney, who on promotion to field rank had returned to regimental duty, was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on Military Education which sat during that and the following year, under the presidency first of Earl de Grey and afterwards of Lord Dufferin, and to whose recommendations are due the improved organization of our military colleges, and the development of military education throughout the principal military stations of the British army. In 1871, imme-diately after the conclusion of the Franco-German war, he was sent on a special mission to France and Germany, and furnished to the Government a series of valuable reports on the different siege operations which had been carried out during the war, including especially the two sieges of Paris, and on the condition of the fortresses and military condition and organization of the two powers. These reports were published in a large volume, only a few copies of which have been issued confidentially.

Never seeking regimental or staff preferment, Colonel Chesney never obtained any, but he held at the time of his death a quite unique position in the army, altogether apart from and above his actual place in it. Consulted by officers of all grades on professional matters, his ready and vigorous pen was often placed at the service of the Govern-ment to illustrate and defend in the press the different measures of reform lately adopted in military organization; while probably few have done more to raise the intellectual standard of the English army and its estimation in that respect among the more intelligent spirits of foreign armies. Constantly engaged in literary pursuits, he was nevertheless laborious and exemplary in the discharge of his public duties, while managing also to devote a large part of his time to charitable and religious offices. He was abstemi-ous to a fault; and, overwork of both mind and body tell-ing at last on a frail constitution, he died after a short illness on the 19th March 1876, at the age of forty-nine years, to the regret of the whole army, and of a very large circle of friends both within and without the service, to whom he had become endeared in a remarkable degree by his generous, self-denying, and sympathetic disposition. At the time of his death he was serving as Commanding Royal Engineer of the London district.

Colonel Chesney's principal works were:—A Military View of Recent Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland, 1863; Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland, 2d edition, 1865; The Military Resources of Prussia and France, and Recent Changes in the Art of War; Essays by Charles Chesney and Henry Reeve, republished jointly from the Edinburgh Review 1870 ; Waterloo Lectures, 3d edition, 1874 ; Essays in Modem Military Biography, reprinted chiefly from the Edinburgh Review, 1874. (&. C.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries