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General Picton: a fast and furious life

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:21 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

Wales has had many heroes over the years but none more controversial than Thomas Picton, the most senior British officer to fall at Waterloo.

He was a brave and wholehearted man but a temperamental one, a general and administrator whose motto seems to have been "make them respect and hate you but most of all make them fear you."

Born at Poyston in Pembrokeshire in 1758 he decided on a military career early in his life and by 1773 had joined the 12th Regiment of Foot at Gibraltar as an ensign.

Money talked in those days and Picton certainly had money - or, at least, his family did.

By 1778 he had bought himself the rank of captain in the 75th Regiment. Already he was acquiring for himself the reputation of a hard and even brutal taskmaster.

His courage was never in doubt and when, five years later, the 75th Regiment was disbanded he quelled an open mutiny by the soldiers, showing great bravery in the process, with little regard to his own safety.

As a reward for that bravery he was promised the rank of major, but for some reason the promotion never came and Picton retired from the army in high dudgeon.

He spent the next 10 years at home in Poyston. During this time his irascible temper quickly came to the fore and he even fought a duel because of some imagined insult. He was seriously wounded in the affair and was lucky to survive.

By 1794, however, he had been appointed aide-de-camp to Sir John Vaughan and was back in harness with the military. He fought with distinction in the various West Indian campaigns and by 1801, now with the rank of brigadier general, he was made governor of Trinidad.

His regime on the island was hard and brutal, whipping, branding and arbitrary execution apparently being regular and common punishments.

Eventually Picton was accused of torturing a young mulatto woman. He returned to Britain and stood trial, claiming that torture was not illegal under Spanish law and Trinidad was still, in the eyes of some, a Spanish possession. It was a flimsy defence and Picton was found guilty.

He appealed against the conviction and was released on bail. The original verdict was later overturned and friends of Picton covered the court costs.

None of this seemed to affect his military career. He was soon appointed major general and at the personal request of the Duke of Wellington commanded a division during the Peninsula War in Spain.

In 1812, he led his men in the storming of the breaches at Ciudad Rodrigo and during the Battle of Badajoz was seriously wounded.

He refused to leave his post and, afterwards, showed the contradictory side to his nature by personally giving each of his surviving soldiers a sovereign out of his own pocket. Sick with his wounds and fever Picton then returned to Britain.

When Napoleon escaped from Elba and the wars began again, Picton soon found himself in Belgium. He fought with Wellington at Quatre Bras in the run up to the Waterloo battle and, never being one to keep out of the action, was again wounded.

He was well enough, however, to take his place at the head of the 5th Infantry Division at the momentous Battle of Waterloo.

Here, leading his men in a counter attack on d'Erlon's Corps in the centre of the British line, Picton was shot through the temple by a musket ball and died.

Interestingly, Sir Thomas Picton was not in his uniform at the time of his death, something that would probably have caused him some distress. News of Napoleon's march into Belgium had come so quickly that he had left his luggage behind and at the time of his death it had still not caught up with him.

Despite his high-handed approach, Picton - although undoubtedly feared by his men - was admired by both Wellington and the government.

In the wake of his death a monument to him was erected in St Paul's and the impressive Picton Monument was built at the western end of Carmarthen town.

That obelisk is still there today, a fitting tribute to the hard and sometimes contradictory man who helped keep Europe safe from the grasp of Napoleon Bonaparte.

General Picton Monument ©Carmarthenshire County Museum

Frieze from the Picton Monument. Image provided by Carmarthenshire Museums Service.

You can read more about the frieze from General Picton's Monument and view other objects from history contributed by the people of Wales on the website for A History of the World.

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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    There's a curious link between two of Phil's posts today (on Stanley and Sir Thomas Picton). Both clearly had a very brutal streak, often looking horribly racist in nature. But whereas Denbigh is now showing the kind of scruple over such a hero we might expect in the 21st century, neither Carmarthen nor Haverfordwest showed such nice morality in the past. Carmarthen has its celebratory monument and Haverfordwest, Picton's home town, named one of its two new comprehensive schools after him in the 1970s. Personally, I was never too happy about that choice because I really do find that Picton's record in Tobago sticks in my gullet. I'd have settled, I think, for maybe the "Gwen John Comprehensive School". But STP it is.

 

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