The soldiers’ ‘real friend’: John, Earl Ligonier: Huguenot refugee and British commander-in-chief

In this latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow in the Lords 1715-90 section, examines the career and lasting influence of one of the pre-eminent British generals of the middle years of the 18th century.

Ligonier may seem, initially, a strange subject for a site devoted to the 18th-century peerage. He was a British peer for only the last seven years of his life, from 1763, when he was already well into his 80s, and he sat in the House of Lords on just 17 occasions. These British titles were extinguished at his death in 1770, and an Irish title granted in 1762 became extinct in 1782 upon the death of his nephew.

Nevertheless, the many titles he received late in life – two Irish and two British –were a belated recognition of his contributions to the British Army. Ligonier’s career is instructive because it encapsulates in a single person Britain’s long history of military engagement with France in the 18th century.

Born into a French Protestant family in 1680, Jean-Louis Ligonier fled in 1698 from the ongoing persecution of the ‘Huguenots’ in France. Ending up eventually in England, he was naturalized by an Act of Parliament in February 1702 and immediately enlisted as a volunteer to fight in Flanders against the forces of his former homeland. He fought in many of the major engagements of the War of the Spanish Succession: Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), the siege of Tournai (1709) and Malplaquet (1709). He emerged miraculously unscathed from the last of these, though his clothes were in tatters through the 20 bullets he reportedly received to his person. By the war’s end in 1713 he had been promoted to adjutant-general of the Allied armed forces in the Iberian Peninsula, and lieutenant-governor of Minorca.

When Britain went to war again against France in the War of the Austrian Succession, Ligonier was given his first field command position, as major-general. He was present as a commander at the victory at Dettingen in 1743 and the defeat at Fontenoy in 1745. Assigned to defend the English Midlands during the Jacobite uprising, he did not participate at Culloden. He returned to the continent and, now as commander-in-chief, oversaw the retreat of the British Army and its allies from Rocoux. He was captured at Lauffeldt on 2 July 1747 and in his captivity was treated with esteem by Louis XV himself, who sent him back to the British camp with the preliminary proposals for peace. In February 1748, on the eve of the treaty negotiations, Ligonier was selected to replace his deceased colleague, Field Marshal George Wade, in the House of Commons as Member for the borough of Bath. The electoral patron for the borough, its postmaster Ralph Allen, obviously had a penchant for choosing military leaders to represent this fashionable spa town.

Ligonier moved from the battlefield to the council room for the Seven Years’ War, when, as commander-in-chief and master general of the ordnance, he acted as overall strategist and chief of staff of the British war effort. In the same period he was raised to the peerage, first as Viscount Ligonier of Enniskillen in the Irish peerage (1757), then as Viscount Ligonier of Clonmel, also in the Irish peerage (1762). He was created Baron Ligonier of Ripley on 27 April 1763, only a few weeks after the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War. The peace was announced formally to the members of Parliament at the opening of the new session, 15 November, when Ligonier was first introduced to the House of Lords as a British peer. After he had resigned his military offices, he was, on 10 September 1766, promoted Earl Ligonier.

Unlike the dukes of Marlborough and Wellington, who bookend his career, Ligonier does not have a great epoch-making victory such as Blenheim or Waterloo to his credit. When he was in Flanders in the 1740s he was more often involved in trying to avert a complete rout of his forces by the superior French forces. The victories of the Seven Years’ War were won on the field by his subordinates, many of them hand-picked by him, such as Jeffrey, Lord Amherst, James Wolfe and John Forbes.

It could be argued, however, that he was as influential in the shaping of the modern British Army as either Marlborough or Wellington. He had the skills of both a soldier and a politician, devising strategy and persuading others to implement it. He also remodelled the structure of the British Army, developing new types of fighting forces such as light infantry and cavalry, and horse artillery.

As we mark the contributions of members of the British armed forces, we should turn our attention to Ligonier’s impact on the individual soldiers. Ligonier was known as a humane commander who took great care to attend to the health and comfort of those under his charge. As a colonel he paid out of his own pocket for a second doctor to attend to the needs of his own regiments. When a commander-in-chief, he frequently battled with the Treasury to provide additional medical staff for the army, to have the rye in his soldiers’ bread replaced with wheat, and to have adequate blankets supplied to them during the long winter months.

Tributes flooded in when Earl Ligonier died in 1770 at the age of 90. Horace Walpole deemed him to have ‘had all the gallant gaiety of his nation, and was universally beloved and respected’. A more formal notice judged that:

Through all the rage of contending parties, changes of measures and administration his character was never once mentioned with disrespect nor one of his actions arraigned. The glorious successes which attended our arms in all parts of the world may justly in great measure be ascribed to his Lordship, his co-operation with the great men at the head of affairs and his just regard to real merit in all his appointments and recommendations.

But perhaps the most valuable comment on his career was the obituary notice that lamented that ‘in him the soldier has lost a real friend: one who in public and private life did honour to humanity’. [Whitworth, 393, 394, 399]



Further reading:

Rex Whitworth, Field Marshal Lord Ligonier: A Story of the British Army, 1702-1770 (1958)

Reed Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession (1993)

Richard Middleton, The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years’ War, 1757-62 (1985)


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2 thoughts on “The soldiers’ ‘real friend’: John, Earl Ligonier: Huguenot refugee and British commander-in-chief

    1. Haig alas does not fall within our current scope, but perhaps you would like to look at the WW1 posts from our colleagues in the Victorian Commons?

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