“The Ablest Man in the British Army” The Life and Career of General Sir John Hope





“The Ablest Man in the British Army” The Life and Career of General Sir John Hope

By Paul Patrick Reese

PhD Dissertation, Florida State University, 2007

Abstract: In 1793 Napoléon Bonaparte won his first victory at Toulon, France. In 1805 the Grande Armée marched from the English Channel to the Austrian capital and ultimately defeated a combined Austrian and Russian Army at Austerlitz. Napoléon’s corps had no rivals in Europe. For over twenty years France dominated every aspect of civilization in Europe. However, less than ten years after Austerlitz, Napoléon suffered his last defeat at Waterloo and was exiled from Europe forever. Throughout this entire period only England remained unconquered and defiant of the Emperor’s desires. Historians credit the Royal Navy and England’s commercial wealth as the primary reasons why Napoléon was never able to destroy his nemesis. However, in the end, it was not the Navy or England’s money that defeated the French; it was the British army. An army led by men like General Sir John Hope.

Hope entered military service in 1784 and first fought the armies of France in the West Indies during the mid-1790s. While he was in the West Indies, Hope began his long association with Generals Ralph Abercromby and John Moore who mentored him and furthered his military career. In 1799, Hope was appointed Adjutant General under Abercromby and participated in the Helder Campaign. Although wounded early in the campaign, Hope was later instrumental in the drafting of the Treaty of Alkmaar which ended the campaign. A year later, Hope once again sailed with Abercromby across the Mediterranean and took part in the British Egyptian Campaign in 1801. During the campaign, Hope distinguished himself in battle and negotiated the surrender of the French forces occupying Cairo and Alexandria.

Six years later in 1808, Hope was appointed second in command under Moore during the British army’s expedition to Sweden. After several months of waiting for permission to disembark in Sweden, the expedition was cancelled and Hope was diverted to Portugal. After the British victory at Vimeiro in August 1808, Hope arrived in Lisbon and was responsible for the embarkation of the French army under the provisions of the Convention of Cintra. Hope also assisted in the reestablishment of the Portuguese Regency. When the English government decided to assist the Spanish in their fight against the French, Hope was appointed as a division commander under Moore. Once British attempts failed to halt French advances in Spain, Hope joined in the disastrous retreat to La Coruña. Following the battle of La Coruña, Hope took charge of the British evacuation of Spain after Moore had been fatally wounded.

Upon his return to England in 1809, Hope was assigned as commander of the reserve for the Walcheren Expedition. Despite Hope’s reservations about the overall chances of success of the expedition, Hope’s men performed admirably in their assignments. However, the expedition failed to achieve its objectives and was forced to retreat after the French successfully reinforced the Scheldt Estuary and disease reduced the ranks of the British army.



In 1812, Hope was appointed Commander in Chief of British forces in Ireland. During his short tenure in Ireland, Hope restored the discipline of the army, quelled local disturbances, and was instrumental in the development of the Irish militia and police force. Ongoing campaigns on the Peninsula required Hope’s presence in October 1813, resulting in his transfer to Spain. Upon arrival, Hope was given command of the left wing of the Allied army under the Duke of Wellington. After successfully crossing the Bidassoa River into Southern France, Hope led the pursuit of the French army along the coast to the Nivelle River and eventually to the outskirts of Bayonne. Subsequent to the defeat of the French counterattacks in December 1813, Hope was given the responsibility of investing Bayonne. After successfully crossing the Adour River in February 1814, Hope’s army besieged Bayonne until its capitulation on 28 April 1814.

Wounded during the siege of Bayonne, Hope never again commanded troops in the field. He returned to Scotland and his wife of eleven years. While Hope was away on campaign, it was Louisa who gave him strength, and when he returned, he was able to repay her with his affection. In 1817, Hope became the 4th Earl of Hopetoun and moved his family to Hopetoun House in Linlithgowshire, Scotland. Two years later he was promoted to full general and in 1822 he was honored to host the King of England in his home. Unfortunately, after surviving campaigns in the West Indies, Egypt, the Netherlands, and on the Peninsula, Hope’s health failed in Paris, France where he died at the age of fifty-eight.

General Hope’s generalship and accomplishments contributed immensely to the overall success of the British army against Napoléon and warrant further review. Thousands of books have been written about the England’s war with France during the Napoléonic Era; however, very few of these books highlight the life and career of General Sir John Hope. The goal of this dissertation is to do just that – review the life and military career of John Hope through an objective and scholarly analysis of his and his soldier’s actions based on original correspondence and manuscripts.

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