Jonathan D. Oates, King George’s Hangman (Helion, 2019)
You might not think there is a gap needing filled in the study of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, but Jonathan Oates has found one in this study of Henry Hawley, commander in chief of Scotland from 20 December 1745 to 30 January 1746. Hawley’s reputation as a particularly odious character and inept general lingers. But is it time for a reassessment of “Hangman” Hawley? Oates thinks so.
Oates sets out on his military biography of Hawley by digging into his heritage, his officer father (kia in 1692), and his early military career from 1694. Hawley’s royal connections meant he moved in high social circles away from the battlefield, but he wanted to fight. He got his chance in the Peninsula in 1707 where he was wounded but still remained active in the war. Oates follows Hawley through his ‘peacetime’ career and rise from 1709 to 1740, highlighting the politics of command within the context of the rising Jacobite threat from 1715. Hawley was wounded in that rising, campaigned in Spain, took command of a regiment in Ireland, hunted while taking care of his country pile, and looked after his family. He also wrote down his thoughts on warfare, which is where Oates takes us next.
Hawley was a disciplinarian in thought and deed, and he wrote about politics, military tactics, and gave advice for all ranks entering the service. He hated slovenliness, which led him to underestimate the Jacobite rabble when the time came to fight them. Hawley was soon putting theory back into practice. From 1742 to1745, now a General, Hawley commanded a sizeable force in Europe against the French, then news came of the Jacobite rising. Hawley was late on the scene, continues Oates, but took command of the British Government army in Scotland in December 1745. That led to the Battle of Falkirk, where Hawley commanded a full army in battle for the first time and is the centrepiece of Oates’ book.
Oates tells the story of the Battle of Falkirk, which the Jacobites won. Hawley received much of the contemporary blame, though Oates is a wee bit more generous by adding the foul weather to Hawley’s loss of command and control. Cumberland, in overall charge of the campaign, did not blame Hawley either and his was the opinion that counted. He did intercede against Hawley’s orders to execute deserters and cowards, which has gone against Hawley’s reputation ever since. Hawley went on to command cavalry at Culloden where they did severe damage to the wretched Highlanders. Hawley’s men also took part in the depredations that followed the battle, though Oates is quick to point out that this was acceptable conduct in European wars of the time. Hawley retired from Scotland, but fought again in Europe in 1747-1748, and did so with distinction at the Battle of Laffeld. From 1749, Hawley was all but retired. He wrote his memoirs in 1752 and was involved in organising a possible defence against invasion in 1755. He died in 1759. Oates concludes that Hawley’s epithet of ‘hangman’ was unjustified and that his loss at Falkirk be taken in context with his other military service.
Oates’ stimulating military biography of Henry Hawley illuminates the world of a professional soldier of the ‘middling sort’. We get to see how the system worked for these ambitious men with patronage and politics a prime concern for successful careers. But all the machinations and deals could come unstuck on the battlefield as happened to Hawley at Falkirk. Oates’ account of how that occurred is central to his story and he narrates it well, although perhaps too favourably through diffusing his subject into context. Oates has also contributed an important story to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. Students of the British army in the 18th Century will enjoy this book but the arguments over Hawley’s character are not yet settled, and that is a good thing.
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