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Major-General John Gaspard Le Marchant (1766-1812)

John Gaspard Le Marchant was an able cavalry officer whose awareness of the need for the modernisation and reform of military education and training led to the establishment of the Royal Military College (RMC) at High Wycombe, the precursor of RMC, Sandhurst, and the Army Staff College, Camberley.

The eldest son of John Le Marchant of Guernsey and his wife Marie Hirzel, John was born near the French town of Amiens on February 9, 1766, and educated at Dr. Morgan’s boarding school in Bath, where the eponymous headmaster declared him to be, “with the exception of Sir Sidney Smith, the greatest dunce that had ever studied there”. His father withdrew him from school and his education was continued at home under the tutelage of the family butler.

In 1781 Le Marchant’s father purchased a commission for him as ensign in the Wiltshire militia, and shortly after the 16 year-old Le Marchant challenged his colonel, Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester, MP for Wilton and later 1st Earl of Caernarvon, to a duel. Herbert was quick to smooth things over but within weeks the impetuous Le Marchant had to be prevented by law officers from duelling with a civilian. Fortunately for his career this early aggression appears to have been controlled thereafter and he was never to issue a challenge again.

In February 1873 Le Marchant transferred to the 1st Royal Regiment of Foot with which he was posted to Gibraltar on garrison duty where he occupied much of his spare time with sketching and painting. On 30 May 1787 he moved to the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons as a cornet and in June 1789 commanded King George III’s escort from Dorchester to Weymouth. The King, founder of the Royal Academy and an enthusiastic patron of the arts, was impressed with Le Marchant’s sketches and an invitation to the Royal circle quickly followed. In November 1789 Le Marchant was promoted to lieutenant in the 2nd Dragoon Guards, The Queen’s Bays, purchasing his own troop in 1791.

From 1793 to 1794 Le Marchant saw active service in the Flanders campaign and was attached to Lieutenant-General Harcourt’s staff where he was impressed by the superiority of the Austrian dragoons and the relative inferiority of their British counterparts in swordsmanship and came to the conclusion that the inefficiency of British arms was a direct result of the lack of professional education for officers. This led Le Marchant to develop both a new design of sabre and a more effective cavalry sword drill and to begin drafting a scheme for a national military college. Despite initial reservations by the Duke of York as to the difficulties of the project Le Marchant opened a senior staff training college in High Wycombe on 4 May, 1799. This was followed by a royal warrant on 24 June 1801 to formally establish the Royal Military College with Le Marchant as lieutenant governor and superintendent general. A junior department was subsequently opened at Marlow, Buckinghamshire on 17 May 1802. 

Promoted to major general on 4 June 1811 Le Marchant was soon advised by the adjutant general that ‘his situation at the college was incompatible with his rank, and he must therefore expect to be immediately removed”. Appointed to the command of a Heavy Cavalry Brigade (3rd Dragoons, 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards) he joined Wellington’s army in the Iberian Peninsula and at Salamanca on 22 July 1812 was ordered by Wellington to support Lieutenant General Sir ‘Ned’ Pakenham’s advance against the French left “at all hazards”.  Leading by example, Le Marchant led the Heavy Brigade in an unsupported charge against the French 66th, 15th, and 22nd Regiments de Ligne, smashing the left wing of the French Army at a critical moment of the battle. As the cohesion of the brigade finally broke down Le Marchant charged a small group of rallying French at the head of half a squadron of the 4th Dragoons and was shot dead by a musket ball that entered his groin and smashed his spine. He was buried on 24 July 1812 in an olive grove on the spur of the Sierra de Gata close to where he fell.

Henry J. Haley was commissioned by the Army Staff College, Camberley, to make a copy of the original painting (artist unknown) of Le Marchant in the possession of the Le Marchant family at Chobham Place. It was presented to the college by Sir Edward Le Marchant, Bt, H. C. Le Marchant, Esq, and the members of the Senior Division in December 1928.

Works consulted:

Godwin-Austen, Brevet-Major A. R. (1927). The Staff and the staff college. London: Constable and Company

Sweetman, John. (2004). Le Marchant, John Gaspard (1766-1812). In Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 12 March, 2009, from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 

Thoumine, R. H. (1968). Scientific soldier: a life of General Le Marchant. London: Oxford University Press