Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby of Tullibody captured Trinidad on the 18th of February, 1797.
Major-General Sir Ralph Abercromby of Tullibody had been ten years retired from the army, during which he'd enjoyed a taste of the cushy life as the Member of Parliament for Clackmannanshire, when he returned to the fray at the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793. You'd have thought he'd have had more sense, but things were viewed differently in those days and soldiering was the occupation for a gentleman. As it happened, Britain was glad to have him back, because,
as far as the French Revolutionary Wars are concerned, he became its most successful general, albeit he didn't have much competition. Wellington versus Napoleon at Waterloo was over twenty years away then.
Ralph Abercromby was born in Menstrie Castle, on the 7th of October, 1734, although thePeerage.com records his birth date as the 25th and the date of his baptism as the 26th of the month. Wee Ralph went to school in Alloa, before attending Rugby School, which he did as a thirteenyearold, from the 12th of June, 1748. After his gentlemanly indoctrination at Rugby, Young Mr. Ralph went to Edinburgh University, where he studied law, with a view to proceeding to the Bar. Later, in 1754, he studied civil law at Leipzig (Göttingen, according to some biographies). By the time Ralph had returned from the Continent, he'd decided on a military profession and in March, 1756, he forked out for a commission in the 3rd Dragoon Guards. So Ralph Abercromby became Cornet Abercromby on the 23rd of May, 1756 and rose through the ranks to become a famous Lieutenant-General.
In terms of active service, Abercromby first did a stint during the Seven Years War; with the 3rd Dragoons. The fact of his promotions is enough to confirm his good service against the French and it is said that he studied the methods of Frederick the Great of Prussia, which seems to have stood him in good stead. However, Abercromby didn't take the opportunity to test his newly gained, germanic tactical ideas during the American War of Independence. That was primarily because his sympathies were with the Colonists, but in any case, he retained a respectable military reputation. After he'd left the Army, Abercromby became the Member of Parliament for Clackmannan and Kinross, which office he held from 1774 until retiring in favour of his brother, in 1780.
When France declared war on Britain in 1793, Abercromby resumed his military career. Being held in high esteem as “one of the ablest and most intrepid officers,” he was given a brigade under the Duke of York. The Dutch campaign started well enough, with Abercromby to the fore at Le Cateau on the 16th April, 1794. He also led the attempt to recapture Boxtel on the 16th of September. That action nearly ended in a rout, but Abercromby's reputation didn't suffer. And the fact that the British Army escaped total annihilation thereafter, was solely down to Abercromby's “masterly manoeuvres.”
Despite being wounded at Nijmegen, in the October, Abercromby led the retreat, but what made things so bad was the severe winter of 1794-5. More like the Arctic Circle than northern Europe, it was a bit like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The drifting snows and heavy sleet led to men and horses freezing to death in great numbers. The army reached Deventer on the 27th of January, but got no respite from pursuit and fought a rearguard action through to March, before they reached Bremen and were able to embark. Abercromby was a hero and hailed as the greatest General of the time in Britain, and in recognition, he was created a Knight of the Bath and sent to the West Indies.
As Commander-in-Chief of a fleet of British warships, Abercromby was given 15,000 men and orders to capture French, Spanish and Dutch territories in the West Indies. He arrived in April of 1796 and his troops, led by Sir John Moore, whom you'll have heard of, promptly recaptured St. Lucia, then Abercromby's men went on to take St. Vincent and Grenada, in the June. The Dutch colonies of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, on the coast of Guiana, were also retaken about the same time. Trinidad was next on the list.
On the morning of the 16th of February, 1797, the British fleet passed through the Barns into the Gulf of Bria. There, tucked in nicely behind the island of Gaspagrande, they found the Spanish at anchor; four ships and a frigate. Abercromby's naval commander anchored opposite, just out of gunshot range and made ready for an attack; planned for the morrow. However, in the early hours of the 17th, the craven Spaniards set their ships alight and scarpered. Anti-climax or what! The next day, the 18th of February, 1797, Abercromby's troops were landed unopposed on Trinidad, which was ticked off the list.
Abercromby's next task was to be Commander-in-Chief in Ireland; against a likely French invasion and to curb a potential rebellion. However, he got no support from the Irish Government and resigned. The 1798 Irish revolt, which he had anticipated and endeavoured to prevent, cannot be held against him. Next up, in 1799, was an unsuccessful expedition to the Netherlands, which Abercromby alone emerged from with his reputation intact. Then, after a bit of to'ing and fro'ing and farting around between Gibralter, Cadiz and Malta; the Egypt campaign, which was to be Abercromby's last.
Abercromby was told to land in Egypt and advance on Alexandria, so he did. The debarkation of his troops at Aboukir Bay, in the face of strenuous French opposition, on the 8th of March, 1801, is ranked among the most daring and brilliant exploits of the British Army. The French were defeated and Abercromby moved inland to Mandora, where he again won a battle, on the 13th of March. On the 21st , at the Battle of Alexandria, Abercromby's army defeated the French yet again. In the space of a fortnight, the man from Tullibody had beaten Napoleon's army three times. Beat that Wellington.
Tragically for Tullibody's finest, he was fatally wounded at Alexandria when struck in the thigh by a spent ball. Only when he knew the battle was won did he allow himself to be carried to the rear and taken about 'The Foudroyant'. He died seven days later, on the 28th of March, 1801. Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby of Tullibody was buried in Malta. The Duke of York paid him this tribute, “His steady observance of discipline, his ever-watchful attention to the health and wants of his troops, the persevering and unconquerable spirit which marked his military career, the splendour of his actions in the field and the heroism of his death, are worthy the imitation of all who desire, like him, a life of heroism and a death of glory.”
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.