About Henry Evelyn Wood
Field Marshal Sir Henry Evelyn Wood VC, GCB, GCMG (9 February 1838 – 2 December 1919), was a British Army officer.
After an early career in the Royal Navy, Wood joined the British Army. He served in several major conflicts including the Indian Mutiny where, as a lieutenant, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that is awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He further served as a commander in several other conflicts notably the First Boer War and the Mahdist War. His service in Egypt led to his appointment as Sirdar where he reorganised the Egyptian Army. He returned to Britain to serve on the army staff leading to his appointment as field marshal.
Ancestry and early life
Wood was born at Cressing near Braintree, Essex as the fifth and youngest son of Sir John Page Wood, 2nd Baronet, a clergyman. Wood was an elder brother of Katherine Parnell (Kitty O'Shea). Sir Matthew Wood, 1st Baronet, was his grandfather and Lord Chancellor William Wood, 1st Baron Hatherley was an uncle. His maternal grandfather had been an admiral in the Portuguese navy. One of mother’s brothers was a British admiral and another rose to be Surveyor-General of Cape Colony.
Wood was educated at Marlborough College but ran away after an unjust beating.
Early military career
Like his near contemporary John French, he began his career in the Royal Navy, serving under his uncle Captain Frederick Mitchell on HMS Queen, but vertigo stopped him going aloft. Wood served as a midshipman in the Crimean War during the siege of Sebastopol, in Captain William Peel’s 1,400 strong naval brigade, whose job was to man guns on a ridge opposite Sebastopol. He was at Inkerman and aged 16, he was seriously wounded in an attack on the Redan, almost losing his left arm, which doctors wanted to amputate. Wood was mentioned in despatches and received his first, unsuccessful, recommendation for a VC.
Invalided home with a letter of recommendation from Lord Raglan, written five days before his own death, he left the Royal Navy to join the British Army, becoming a cornet (without purchase) in the 13th Light Dragoons and reporting to their depot with his arm still in a sling; He had only £250 a year in private income, rather than the £400 needed, and was soon in debt. His uncle paid for his promotion to lieutenant (1 February 1856).
He returned to the Crimean Theatre (January 1856) but within a month was in hospital at Scutari with pneumonia and typhoid. His parents were told he was dying and his mother arrived on 20 March 1856 to find one of Florence Nightingale’s nurses striking him. He was so emaciated that the bones of his hips came through his skin. Against medical advice he was brought home to England where he recovered.
He considered joining the French Foreign Legion, but instead became a lieutenant in the 17th Lancers to get to India. He reached Bombay on 21 December 1858. Whilst out hunting he was attacked by a wounded tiger – it was shot in the nick of time by his companion – and rode a giraffe belonging to a friendly Indian prince to win a bet with a brother officer - he stayed on long enough to win the bet, but was trampled badly, its rear hoof breaking through both cheeks and crushing his nose.
In India, he saw action at Rajghur, Sindwaho, Kharee, and Barode during the Indian Mutiny. On 19 October 1858 during an action at Sindwaho while in command of a troop of light cavalry, twenty-year-old Lieutenant Wood attacked a body of rebels, whom he routed almost single-handedly. At Sindhora, with the help of a daffadar and a sowar, he rescued a local merchant from a band of robbers who had taken their captive into the jungle, where they intended to hang him. For this, Wood was awarded the Victoria Cross.
His citation reads:
"For having, on the 19th of October, 1858, during Action at Sindwaho, when in command of a Troop of the 3rd Light Cavalry, attacked with much gallantry, almost single handed, a body of Rebels who had made a stand, whom he routed. Also, for having subsequently, near Siudhora, gallantly advanced with a Duffadar and Sowar of Beatson's Horse, and rescued from a band of robbers, a Potail, Chemmum Singh, whom they had captured and carried off to the Jungles, where they intended to hang him."
He also saw action at Kurai (25 October 1859). He became deaf for a week whilst studying Hindustani at Poona, which he attributed at the time to overwork. In December 1859 he joined the 2nd Central India Horse, whose main function was the suppression of banditry. In this role he had to deal with an incipient mutiny and sort out the regimental accounts. He was invalided back to Britain in November 1860 with fever, sunstroke and ear problems.
On 16 April 1861, Wood was promoted to captain. His captaincy cost him £1,000 official payment to the government and £1,500 “over regulation” to buy out his predecessor.
He passed the exam to enter the new Staff College, Camberley, but another officer from 17th Lancers had higher marks and as at that time only one officer was permitted from each regiment each year, Wood had to transfer to the 73rd (Perthshire) Regiment of Foot, in which he became a brevet major (for services in India) on 19 August 1862. He took up his place in January 1863, and graduated in 1864. Whilst at Staff College he took boxing lessons.
In the autumn of 1865 the 73rd were ordered to Hong Kong, but Wood disliked the new commanding officer so much that he paid £500 to transfer into the 17th (Leicestershire) Regiment of Foot. Having just written to propose to his future wife, he read in 1867 that “General Napier” was to lead an expedition to Abyssinia; he packed his bags to volunteer, but then heard this was not to be General William Napier whom he knew from India, but General Robert Napier, whom he did not know and who was unlikely to grant him a staff position.
After a stint as an aide-de-camp in Dublin, where the damp climate brought on a recurrence of fever and ear trouble, Wood was given a staff position until 1871. He was Deputy Assistant Quartermaster-General, then brigade major of North Camp at Aldershot.
In the summer of 1871 he paid £2,000 to purchase a full majority in the 90th Light Infantry, one of the last such transactions before purchase of commissions was abolished. Nursing his children through diphtheria (he had sent his pregnant wife away), he was prescribed morphine for insomnia and nearly died of an overdose.
On 19 June 1873, Wood was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel.
Third Ashanti War
In 1874, he served in the Third Ashanti War, commanding a flank at the Battle of Amoaful (21 January 1874) where he was wounded and the Battle of Esaman. He helped recruit a regiment from among the coastal African tribes, although he wrote of the Fantis that “it would be difficult to imagine a more cowardly, useless lot of men”. He did, however, discourage British officers from using physical abuse on them. He was wounded just above the heart, confining him to a stretcher for a day. Relying on chlorodyne and laudanum to keep going, he was ordered to lead the sick and wounded back to the coast. It was erroneously reported in the London press that he had been captured and probably flayed alive.
He was promoted brevet colonel 1 April 1874 and was appointed Superintendent of Garrison Instruction at Aldershot, a position he held until 1878. A man of modest means for much of his life, Wood took his profession very seriously – like many who had served under Wolseley in the Ashanti War he was a member of the reforming “Wolseley ring”, although the two men were never on particularly good terms.
With a young family to support but not hopeful of getting a staff position, Wood had studied law. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1874.
In 1878 Wood fought with 90th Light Infantry under Lt-Gen Thesiger (who became later Lord Chelmsford) in Natal. They fought against the Gaika tribe in the last of the Kaffir Wars (Battle of Tutu Bush, May 1878).
In January 1879, he took part in the Anglo-Zulu War and was given command of the 3,000-strong 4th (left) column of the army that crossed the Zulu frontier, and shortly afterwards he received the local rank of brigadier general. Defeat of other British forces at Isandlwana forced him to retreat to fortified positions at Kambula. Defeated at Hlobane (28 March 1879), where he had his horse shot under him, he recovered and decisively beat the Zulus at Kambula (29 March 1879) and also took part in the final battle at Ulundi. At the close of the war, Evelyn Wood became a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.
He was paid £100 for a series of London newspaper articles, his first published work. Wood was by now so deaf from various fevers that an officer had to accompany him at night as he might not hear a sentry’s challenge. He was disappointed not to be made a major-general. Wood and his wife had to take a six month trip to escort the former Empress Eugenie to see the spot where her son, the Prince Imperial, had been killed - to his annoyance he received no pay whatsoever for this mission, despite its being official business at the Queen's request.
Wood recommended Redvers Buller for his VC after the Zulu War.
First Boer War
Wood briefly commanded the Chatham Garrison. With the First Boer War going on, Wood was sent back to South Africa in January 1881 with the local rank of major general, as second-in-command to Sir George Colley, Governor and Commander-in-Chief in Natal, succeeding him after his defeat and death at Majuba Hill (27 February 1881). Wood had intended to renew the fight and relieve the towns under siege, but was ordered by the Cabinet to make peace. Wood wrote to his wife that the treaty would make him ”the best abused man in England for a time” Wolseley (who thought the treaty “infamous” and “ignominious”) and other officers thought he should have resigned his commission rather than sign it. He had to travel to Pretoria, and was injured on the way when the horses of his carriage bolted. He was offered, but declined the Governorship of Natal.
Although the peace negotiations were an embarrassing reverse for Britain, they brought Wood political and royal favour. The Queen thought highly of Wood (and Buller). Wood had already impressed Lord Beaconsfield (then Prime Minister), who had met him at the Queen’s suggestion after the Zulu War, and now impressed Gladstone, the current Prime Minister. He was promoted major-general (12 August 1881) and remained in Natal until February 1882, was awarded the Order of St Michael and St George and then returned to the Chatham command.
Egypt and Sudan
Wood was given command of a brigade in the Egyptian expedition to suppress the Urabi Revolt. However, his brigade remained behind in Alexandria, so he missed the Battle of Tel el-Kebir.
After a brief visit to England in November 1882 he returned to be Sirdar (commander) of the Egyptian Army from December 1882 until 1885, during which period he thoroughly reorganised it, with Francis Grenfell and Kitchener working under him. He had 25 British officers (given extra pay and Egyptian ranks a grade or two higher than their British ones) and a few NCOs, although to Wood’s annoyance Lt-Gen Stephenson, commander of the British occupation forces, was confirmed as his senior in June 1884. During the cholera epidemic of 1883 British officers earned the respect of Egyptian soldiers by nursing them. Wood gave Sundays off from drill as well as Fridays (the Muslim holy day), so that Egyptian soldiers would see that their British officers took their own religion seriously.
In the Gordon Relief Expedition (see Mahdist War) Wood was in charge of the line of communication. He commanded the British at the Battle of Gennis. He was the only officer to be given an important command despite advising against Wolseley’s choice of the Nile route. Wood briefly took Redvers Buller’s place as Chief of Staff as Buller had to take charge of the desert column after Stewart was mortally wounded at Abu Klea. In this job Wood became unpopular for employing female nurses (against the advice of army doctors at that time) and quarrelled with his friend Buller when Wood recommended a more cautious advance which would give time to build up supply depots.
By this stage Wood was so deaf that Wolseley complained he had become hoarse from shouting at him. Wolseley wrote of Wood that “he has done worse than I expected” and in his journal described him as “the vainest but by no means the ablest of men. He is as cunning as a first class female diplomatist … (but has not) real sound judgement…… intrigues with newspaper correspondents … he has not the brains nor the disposition nor the coolness nor the firmness of purpose to enable him to take command in any war … a very second rate general … whose two most remarkable traits (a)re extreme vanity & unbounded self-seeking" although a letter to his wife (complaining that Wood was “a very puzzle-headed fellow”, wanting in method and vain) suggests that Wolseley still bore Wood a grudge about the peace after Majuba Hill.
Ill once again, Wood handed over the job of Sirdar to Francis Grenfell. To his annoyance, he received no honours from the Nile expedition.
In 1886, Wood returned to Britain to take charge of Eastern Command at Colchester. Then, from 1 January 1889 to 8 October 1893 Wood was General Officer Commanding of Aldershot Command, one of the most important posts in the army at home. He was promoted to lieutenant-general (1 April 1890) and awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1891.
At Aldershot he was concerned with the well-being of both troops and animals, recommending the rebuilding of barracks and training of army cooks. At Aldershot he arranged for sick men’s food to be prepared in hospitals rather than brought in tins from their own units. He experimented with training soldiers on bicycles, night marches (in the teeth of opposition from the Duke of Cambridge who thought it might interfere with horses’ rest) and negotiated with the railway companies for cheap rail tickets for soldiers going on leave. He also carried out extensive training manoeuvres for the regulars under his command and for Militia and Volunteer forces. He made contributions to a Baptist chapel for a time, and ensured that Baptist services were as well publicised as those of other denominations. With the help of some high-ranking Roman Catholic friends, he agreed on an ecumenical service for Irish regiments which was acceptable both to Roman Catholic soldiers and their Anglican officers and chaplains.
While Wood was at Aldershot his aides-de-camp included Captain Edward Roderic 'Roddy' Owen (Lancashire Fusiliers), a famous amateur jockey (Wood was a keen rider and huntsman), and Major Hew Dalrymple Fanshawe, 19th Hussars. Fanshawe (who commanded V Corps during World War I), later became Wood's son-in-law, marrying his elder daughter Anna Pauline Mary on 25 July 1894.
Administering the Army
Wood saw further staff service at the War Office as Quartermaster-General to the Forces from 1893 to 1897. He was promoted to full general on 26 March 1895 and was Adjutant-General to the Forces from 1897 to 1901. His duties in the 1890s were similar to those of a Chief of the General Staff, had such a job then existed.
Wood wrote several books at this time by writing each day for an hour before daybreak – in 1895 he published a book on the Crimean War, in 1896 a book on Cavalry at Waterloo, and in 1897 “Achievements of Cavalry”.
Wood was a patron of Captain Douglas Haig, who had attracted his attention by reporting on French cavalry manoeuvres in the early 1890s, although they did not actually meet face-to-face until an 1895 staff ride where Haig was serving as aide to Colonel John French. Haig wrote that Wood was “a capital fellow to have upon one’s side as he always gets his own way”. He arranged Haig's posting to the 1898 Sudan War – with orders to write privately to Wood reporting on Kitchener, the expedition commander.
Wood, who had experience of commanding both infantry and cavalry, supported the concept of mounted infantry and proposed that each infantry battalion have one mounted company. The concept of mounted infantry fell back into disfavour in the Edwardian period as French and Haig rose to the top of the Army.
Wolseley told him that his role in the 1881 Peace made it impossible for him to be given a field command in the Second Boer War, despite his offer to serve under Buller, his junior. He was nonetheless disappointed when Roberts was appointed commander-in-chief rather than himself. His three sons served in the war. During the war he became ill from War Office work.
Wood commanded the II Army Corps and Southern Command from 1901 to 1904. On 8 April 1903, Sir Evelyn Wood was promoted field marshal. That same year, he was awarded the freedom of the Borough of Chelmsford.
He retired from active service in December 1904.
Wood’s mother was left short of money after 1866 when her husband died and, already 66 years old, she went on to write fourteen novels and translated Victor Hugo’s L’Homme qui Rit into English.
Wood's sister Anna was also a novelist under her married name Steele - one of her novels featured a henpecked VC who may have been based on her brother. She left her husband on her wedding night - apparently still a virgin - when she discovered that he expected to have sex with her. Evelyn was once sued for assault after striking Colonel Steele in one of his many attempts to “reclaim” his wife.
During the Indian Mutiny another sister, Maria Chambers, conveyed her children to safety through mutineer-controlled country carrying a phial of poison for each child.
Marriage and children
In 1867 Wood married the Hon. Mary Paulina Anne Southwell, a sister of Thomas Southwell, 4th Viscount Southwell, a friend from India. Southwell opposed the marriage as the Southwells were Roman Catholic and Wood, although not a man of particularly strong religious views, refused to leave the Church of England. Having barely seen Paulina for four years, he proposed by letter in 1867 on the understanding that she would never “by a word or even by a look” try to prevent him volunteering for war service. They had three sons and three daughters but she died on 11 May 1891, while Wood was commanding at Aldershot. After his wife’s death Wood was deeply touched to receive 46 letters of condolence from NCOs and privates who had served under him.
Wood hunted an average 46 days out of his 60 days leave each year, almost up until his death. He was convinced that hunting was of great value in training officers by encouraging horsemanship, an eye for terrain and rapid decision-making under danger. He was often injured, on one occasion whilst at Staff College falling on the crown of his head so badly that his neck swelled as if he were suffering from a large double goitre. During the Second Boer War he was injured in the chest whilst when he fell against a crucifix, worn under his shirt, which had belonged to his late wife.
Parnell divorce scandal
The Wood family were financially dependent on their wealthy, eccentric spinster Aunt Ben. She gave each sibling £5,000 but gave Wood no money as he had married a Catholic. She later paid him an allowance for a time. His brother-in-law later paid him enough of salary to keep horses, grooms, hounds and servants, supposedly for supervising estates in Ireland although it is unclear that he ever devoted much time to this task. Wood had to appeal to Aunt Ben for cash after the First Boer War.
Evelyn and his siblings Charles and Anna demanded equal shares of Aunt Ben's inheritance, but in March 1888 she made a new will leaving everything (£150,000 plus lands) in a trust for the sole benefit of her favourite niece, Wood's sister Katherine, better known Kitty O'Shea. The other siblings tried to have Aunt Ben declared insane, a petition dismissed after she was examined by the eminent physician Sir Andrew Clark. When Aunt Ben died in May 1889 the siblings alleged undue influence by Kitty. Kitty's husband Captain William O'Shea (18th Hussars), an Irish MP, at this point also contested the will claiming it contravened his marriage contract and also sued for divorce. Kitty was the lover of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell, and the public scandal helped to destroy his career and the chance of Irish Home Rule. It is unclear whether the siblings encouraged O’Shea in his divorce to blacken Kitty’s name. It was suggested that Wood’s sister Anna Steele was herself a former lover of William O’Shea – when the will was overturned Anna used her share to live as a recluse, with a pet monkey to which she fed anchovy sandwiches. Sir Evelyn probably received about £20,000 in the eventual settlement. Retirement
After retiring from active service in December 1904, Sir Evelyn Wood VC took a house at Upminster (Essex), and became chairman of the Association for the City of London. On 11 March 1911 he was appointed Constable of the Tower of London. In 1913 Wood was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB).
He became colonel of the Royal Horse Guards in November 1907. He was a governor of Gresham's School from 1899 to 1919.
As a qualified barrister, he had become Honorary Colonel of the 14th Middesex (Inns of Court) Rifle Volunteer Corps in Nov 1899 and supported its incorporation as an officer training unit in the new Territorial Force in 1908.
Wood's autobiography appeared in 1906. In retirement he wrote Our Fighting Services (1916) and Winnowed Memories (1917) which one historian described as “stuffed with adulatory letters he had received, extracts of speeches he had given and anecdotes in which his wisdom or cleverness figured”.
Wood died in 1919, and was buried with full military honours in the Military Cemetery at Aldershot in Hampshire. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London.