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Memorial to Sir Ralph Abercromby in St Paul's CathedralSir Ralph Abercromby

Inside St Paul's Cathedral is a memorial to Lt General Sir Ralph Abercromby KB. 

Sir Ralph Abercromby (sometimes spelled Abercrombie) (1734-1801), was a British lieutenant-general and was the eldest son of George Abercromby of Tillibody, Clackmannanshire, and was born in October 1734.  The painting, which is in the National Portrait Gallery in London was painted by John Hoppner (1758-1810).

He was educated at Rugby and Edinburgh University, in 1754 he was sent to Leipzig to study civil law, with a view to his proceeding to the Scottish bar. On returning from the continent he expressed a strong preference for the military profession, and a cornet's commission was accordingly purchased for him, March 1756, in the 3rd Dragoon Guards. He served with his regiment in the Seven Years' War, and the opportunity was afforded him of studying the methods of Frederick the Great moulded his military character and formed his tactical ideas. He rose through the intermediate grades to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the regiment (1773) and brevet colonel in 1780, and in 1781 he became colonel of the King's Irish infantry. When that regiment was disbanded in 1783 he retired on half-pay.

That up to this time he had scarcely been engaged in active service was owing mainly to his disapproval of the policy of the government, and especially to his sympathies with the American colonists in their struggles for independence; and his retirement is no doubt to be ascribed to similar feelings. On leaving the army he for a time took up political life as member of Parliament for Clackmannanshire. This, however, proved uncongenial, and, retiring in favour of his brother, he settled at Edinburgh and devoted himself to the education of his children.

When France declared war against England in 1793, he hastened to resume his professional duties; and, being esteemed one of the ablest and most intrepid officers in the whole British forces, he was appointed to the command of a brigade under the Duke of York, for service in the Netherlands. He commanded the advanced guard in the action at Le Cateau, and was wounded at Nijmegen. He was tasked with protecting the British army in its disastrous retreat out of Holland, in the winter of 1794-1795. In 1795, he received the honour of a knighthood of the Bath, in acknowledgment of his services.

The same year he was appointed to succeed Sir Charles Grey, as commander-in-chief of the British forces in the West Indies. In 1796, Grenada was suddenly attacked and taken by a detachment of the army under his orders. Abercromby afterwards obtained possession of the settlements of Demerara and Essequibo, in South America, and of the islands of Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Trinidad. He returned in 1797 to Europe, and, in reward for his important services, was appointed colonel of the regiment of Scots Greys, entrusted with the governments of the Isle of Wight, Fort-George and Fort-Augustus, and raised to the rank of lieutenant-general.

Portrait of Sir Ralph Abercromby in the National Portrait Gallery, by John HoppnerHe held, in 1797-1798, the chief command of the forces in Ireland. There he laboured to maintain the discipline of the army, to suppress the rising rebellion, and to protect the people from military oppression, with a care worthy alike of a great general and an enlightened and beneficent statesman. When he was appointed to the command in Ireland, an invasion of that country by the French was confidently anticipated by the English government. He used his utmost efforts to restore the discipline of an army that was utterly disorganized; and, as a first step, he anxiously endeavoured to protect the people by re-establishing the supremacy of the civil power, and not allowing the military to be called out, except when it was indispensably necessary for the enforcement of the law and the maintenance of order.

In a famous order of February 1798 he described the army as being 'in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to anyone but the enemy'. His comments caused a political storm. Finding that he received no adequate support from the head of the Irish government, and that all his efforts were opposed and thwarted by those who presided in the councils of Ireland, he resigned the command. His departure from Ireland was deeply regretted by the Irish people, and was speedily followed by the disastrous results which he had anticipated, and which he had been so keen to prevent.

After holding for a short period the office of commander-in-chief in Scotland, Sir Ralph, when the enterprise against the Dutch Batavian Republic was resolved upon in 1799, was again called to command under the Duke of York. The campaign of 1799 ended in disaster, but friend and foe alike confessed that the most decisive victory could not have more conspicuously proved the talents of this distinguished officer.

In 1801, he was sent with an army to dispossess the French of Egypt. His experience in the Netherlands and the West Indies particularly fitted him for this new command, as was proved by his carrying his army in health, in spirits and with the requisite supplies, in spite of very great difficulties, to the destined scene of action. The debarkation of the troops at Abukir, in the face of strenuous opposition, is justly ranked among the most daring and brilliant exploits of the English army. A battle in the neighbourhood of Alexandria (March 21, 1801) was the sequel of this successful landing, and it was Abercromby's fate to fall in the moment of victory. He was struck by a spent ball, which could not be extracted, and died 7 days after the battle. His old friend and commander the Duke of York paid a just tribute to the great soldier's memory in general orders: "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."

By a vote of the House of Commons, a monument was erected in his honour in St Paul's cathedral. His widow was created Baroness Abercromby of Tullibody and Aboukir Bay, and a pension of 2,000 a year was settled on her and her two successors.


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