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Crimean texts


The Invasion of the Crimea, by A.W.Kinglake

Vol. V (3rd edn.)


Vol.5 The Battle of Inkerman Sir George Cathcart p. 20

SIR GEORGE CATHCART AND THE DORMANT COMMISSION.

The Dormant Commission

ON this same 26th of October, Lord Raglan received a communication from the Home Government which gave him unspeakable pleasure; and the subject, in one point of view, is germane to the battle of Inkerman. We shall come to a moment when the prospects of the battle were — at least for a while — overcast by an ill-omened act of waywardness on the part of Sir George Cathcart; and it would seem that the origin or the growth of the feelings which rendered the outbreak possible, may be traced by the clue I am giving.

To meet the contingency of Lord Raglan’s being killed or becoming disabled, the Home Government had secretly provided that in such case the command of the army should devolve upon Sir George Cathcart, and Sir George was intrusted accordingly with what is called a ‘Dormant Commission.’ It was known that the arrangement, if divulged, would not only be mortifying in the extreme to Sir George Brown, but might prove in other ways mischievous;1 and no one

Vol.5 The Battle of Inkerman Sir George Cathcart p. 21

in the Crimea was to be intrusted with the secret except Lord Raglan, H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge, and Sir George Cathcart himself. For Lord Raglan, who lived in close relations with Brown, it was distressing to have to witness his friend’s touching ignorance of the measure which, if so one may speak, had been secretly taken against him, and be forced to avoid every word, every look, which might tend to dispel the illusion. As regards Cathcart, the baneful effect of the Dormant Commission upon his mind is best shown by a paper in his own handwriting, which he left one day at headquarters.

State of Cathcart’s feelings and temper on the 4th of October

It runs thus:—

‘CAMP ABOVE SEBASTOPOL, 4th Oct. 1854.

My DEAR LORD RAGLAN, — Finding that I am not admitted to your confidence, and that Sir George Brown and M. G. Airey appear even to act in your name, without your knowledge, in the conduct and management of military details at this most serious crisis of the campaign in the Crimea; also that I have scarcely had an opportunity, except at Varna, on my landing, of an interview on business, or received a single communication, verbally or otherwise, on the subject of the state of affairs from you; considering also that the circumstances of my present position, known only to yourself, the Duke of Cambridge, and

Vol.5 The Battle of Inkerman Sir George Cathcart p. 22

myself in this country, and to H.M.’s Govt. at home, my duty to my sovereign demands that I should request an interview at the time most convenient to you, without delay, at your headquarters. —

Your most sincere and devoted friend,

(Signed) GEO. CATHCART.’

Whatever may have been the value of any counsels which Sir George Cathcart was willing to proffer, it is plain that he must have grievously weakened any power of persuasion he had by this display of his feelings; and the note, I think, shows how perniciously the secret of the Dormant Commission had fermented, as it were, in his mind.

Withdrawal of the Dormant Commission

Now, however, the Commission was to be withdrawn. The Government, I believe, had no reason for becoming dissatisfied with Sir George Cathcart, but they felt that the step they had taken in secret was one which, if known, would have been cruelly mortifying to Sir George Brown; and, when they came to hear of the great zeal with which Brown had toiled in preparing for the expedition, and the gallant part he took in the battle of the Alma, they determined to undo their act.2 The Duke of Newcastle accordingly requested that Sir George Cathcart would give up the Dormant Commission to Lord Raglan in order that it might be cancelled.3 This Sir George Cathcart at once did, and nothing could be better

Vol.5 The Battle of Inkerman Sir George Cathcart p. 23

than the tone and temper of his letter.

‘My dear Lord Raglan,’ he writes, ‘you have known me long enough, and I hope well enough, to believe me when I say that your communication this moment received is the most gratifying to myself that I could possibly receive, and that the Duke of Newcastle does me no more than justice in saying that he well recollects the obvious reluctance with which I accepted the Dormant Commission.. The fact is, I considered it a command, and though I did not fail to express my adverse opinion, I felt bound to submit to H.M. commands and obey them, be they what they may. I only now delay placing the Commission in your hands for this night because I will not trust it to an orderly, but I will be the bearer of it myself, tomorrow morning, please God, and in the meantime will not write further on the subject’4

Addressing the Duke of Newcastle on this subject, Lord Raglan says:

‘I am sure you will agree with me that Cathcart’s conduct throughout this matter has been exactly what might be expected from a man of his high feeling. Your decision to annul the Commission is an immense relief to me. In my usual intimate relations with Brown I have felt ever since I knew what you had determined a great deal less comfortable than before, and that I was in possession of a secret that would come like a thunderbolt upon him if anything should happen to me. Now, all is right, and I need no longer say to

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myself, False face must hide what the false heart doth know.5

If it be true, as I have inferred, that the grant of the secret Commission to Cathcart had an ill effect upon his temper and feelings, there would plainly be error in imagining that the withdrawal of it was calculated to restore his equanimity. His letter shows, it is true, that he fervently welcomed the change; but there remained the fact that the Queen’s Government had at one time singled him out as the officer best fitted to succeed Lord Raglan in the command of our army; and it was natural, perhaps, that the recollection of this circumstance should tend to lessen his deference for others — including even Lord Raglan — and to give him what proved to be an undue confidence in his own judgment To account for his conduct on the day of Balaclava, and for what by- and-by we shall see him doing at Inkerman, there will be need of all the light that can fairly be shed on his motives.


1. In reality, Sir John Burgoyne (a General of Engineers), was the officer next in seniority to Lord Raglan; but the Home Government imagined that the notion of his taking the command of the army would be regarded by all (including Sir John himself) as entirely out of the question, and it seems that Brown shared this impression. It was, however, quite erroneous; and Lord Raglan, after the withdrawal of the Commission, undeceived the Government upon this point, assuring them that, in the event of the vacancy occurring, Burgoyne both could and would take the command.

2. The Duke of Newcastle assigns those two reasons for the change. —Private letter to Lord Raglan, 13th October 1854, received the evening of the 26th.

3. Ibid.

4. Dated, Camp above Sebastopol, 26th October 1854, 8 P.M.

5. Private letter, Lord Raglan to Duke of Newcastle, October 27, 1854.


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