The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up;
And when they were down, they were down.
But when they were only halfway up,
They were neither up nor down!
THE DUKE OF YORK in question was Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827), Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during much of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. In his own lifetime he was derided as a corrupt philanderer who, like his elder brother the future George IV, was rather too fond of women and wine. Two generations before Prince Frederick's disastrous expedition to take Dunkirk in 1793 - the supposed inspiration for the rhyme - his grandfather, George II, had commanded his forces at the Battle Dettingen. The royal person was no longer welcome on the battlefield by the time of French Revolution. Merit mattered in the minds of the public. The gentleman was giving way to the technocrat in the world of business and politics.
Popular history records York as the youthful blunderer, given his command by virtue of a compliant cabinet and willful monarch, eager to promote his second eldest son's career. When political embarrassment became too great, the younger Pitt wrote a careful letter to George III, requesting York's transfer from the field to a staff position. The young royal had blundered badly. Besieging the port of Dunkirk he failed to take account of the position of the French Revolutionary Army under the command of Carnot. Unexpectedly the French Army turned, speeding toward Dunkirk, threatening the British expeditionary forces' flanks and rear. 30 siege guns and some 300 barrels of gunpowder were abandoned in a hasty retreat.
Searching for a dignified, but unobtrusive, army post, the Prime Minister alighted upon the office of Commander in Chief. Then occupied by the ancient Lord Amherst - a victorious general of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) - it was seen as a safe landing spot for a disgraced officer of royal blood. Pitt, the genius of contemporary parliamentary politics, lacked his father's famous eye for military talent. He searched in vain for another Wolfe. Only belatedly did he spot the Wellesley brothers, dying before the Peninsular and Indian campaigns that would make both men legends. In appointing this failed young royal to a back office job of seemingly no importance, Pitt had helped secure ultimate British victory in the struggle against Revolutionary France.
Prince Frederick's failings had been those of inexperience and bad luck. Against a France blessed with soldiers of genius, and the first mass conscript army, York had been given a small ill-trained and ill-equipped forced. Even worse his main ally, the Austrians who then controlled Flanders, possessed an ossified command structure and their soldiers and NCOs were wanting in enthusiasm. The position of Commander in Chief, its office in House Guards and his small staff of 35, gave the young Prince more than a comfortable patronage position, it was the perfect vantage point from which to modernize the British Army.
Signaling immediately that he had no intention of being the royal holder of a sinecure, he plunged into a frenetic schedule of planning meetings, issuing edicts and promoting competent officers where he could find them. A prince of the blood had little influence on the field of battle, but in the class conscious world of late Georgian London, the title HRH and his rank as Field Marshal matched the entrenched interests of the army. The poor cousin of the Navy, the Army had been the province of younger sons of well connected minor gentry. A vast engine of patronage, it had seen little real action since the American war, which it had lost. It was not uncommon for officers to have late breakfasts, or late afternoon tea, while their regiments marched on ahead, commanded in effect by a highly competent band of NCOs. Officers whose regiments were posted overseas had the ability, through a legal loophole, of waiting nearly a year before reporting to their COs. Among the Duke's first acts was to demand these officers immediately report for embarkation. He could not dismiss commissioned officers, even though his father was the sovereign and supportive of his efforts, but could delay their promotions. An idle threat from almost anyone but the second in the line of succession.
A poorly led and equipped force had impressed upon York the need for reform, the size and the fickleness of Britain's continental allies against the French, convinced him of the need for expansion. Britain needed the ability to field a military force independently, able to exploit the Royal Navy's supremacy at sea to the Kingdom's strategic advantage. A large army needed a large officer corp. While Prince Frederick spent much time improving the lot of the ordinary soldier, he understood that the key to building a first class army capable of checking French ambitions lay in a strong cadre of young officers. To that end he first established something we might today describe as an Army Staff College. A few years later, in 1802, he founded Sandhurst, ensuring a steady stream of well trained young men to lead the Army, in what was even then a decade long struggle against French imperialism.
To ensure these young officers did not languish in the lower ranks, he stemmed the practice of purchasing commissions and "recruiting for rank," the ages old practice of making men captains and even colonels if they raised regiments for the King. Those who felt they were denied promotion due to the influence of patronage, were encouraged to approach the Duke privately - even at social occasions. Through the some three hundred letters he answered a day, he did everything in his power to promote men of ability, see that they were trained and were able to train their men to the height of efficiency.
There were early, though minor victories, like at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1801 that served as proof of the success of York's reforms. It would fall on Wellington, a friend and protege, to show what the new army could do in the battlefields of the Peninsula. Just as Wellesley was proving his worth in Portugal, scoring a victory at Vimiero, his great patron was stricken by scandal.
As so often with great men of this era, trapped in the loveless marriages which the royal politics of the age condemned them to, he became infatuated with one Mary Anne Clarke. A charming and beautiful opportunist she extracted a lavish subsidy of a thousand pounds a year. When the relationship ended, Clarke sought vengeance. Allying herself with MPs eager to see the fall of the Great Duke. His reforms had done as much to irritate the gentry - who saw easy sinecure vanish from their grasps - as to improve the fighting form of the army. Rumour held that the Duke of Kent, the jealous younger brother of York, was financing Clarke's extraordinary claims. The story that emerged was of Clarke accepting payments to influence the Duke's decisions on promotions and appointments. It was good fortune that the conspirators failed to pay off Clarke, who in turn retracted her evidence before a parliamentary committee two years later. While the Commons cleared the Duke of York of any wrong doing, the scandal cost him his position as C in C, much to the outrage of Wellington. Only Clarke's retraction, and the passage of two years, allowed York to return to his vital work of reform as C in C.
His elder brother having failed to produce legitimate heirs, York spent much of the Regency period as heir presumptive - something which only added to his ability to push through further reforms. He predeceased George IV by a few months in January 1827.