Monday, March 07, 2016

Slashed, stabbed, robbed, bled and struck by lightning. The extraordinary story of Major General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby

There was once a 70ft high column on this plinth in Valletta, Malta. But it was destroyed by lightning in 1864.

The unlucky strike on the column, but lucky survival of the plinth itself, seems strangely appropriate considering the man it commemorates, Major General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby GCMG KCB KCH.

The cavalry officer survived various battles in the Peninsular Wars and actually brought the news to Wellington that Napoleon had abdicated.

But then came 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo…

1) Ponsonby was first wounded in both arms and knocked off his horse by another sabre slash.

2) a French lancer saw him move on the ground and stabbed him in the back with his lance, saying “You’re not dead, you rascal”.

3) a French skirmisher then robbed him.

4) lucky for Ponsonby, a major in the French Imperial Guard Dragoons spotted him, gave him some brandy and promised to send help.

5) but a French skirmisher then used him as a shield.

6) towards the end of the battle, Ponsonby was ridden over by Prussian cavalry (allies!) as they joined the fight.

7) and he was then roughed up by a Prussian looking for plunder.

8) help arrived again when a British soldier found Ponsonby and stood guard over the officer during the night.

9) in the morning, Ponsonby was dragged away in a cart.

10) over two days, despite SEVEN major wounds, surgeons bled him of 120 fl oz, a whopping SIX pints of blood (3.4l).

Ponsonby was nursed back to health by his sister, Lady Caroline Lamb (yes, the one who had an affair with Lord Byron in 1812), and went on to become Governor of Malta, hence the column.

The major general died suddenly, aged 53, at Murrell Green, near Basingstoke, on January 11, 1837 as he was sitting down to a meal at an inn called, ironically, the Wellesley Arms (named in honour of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and, of course, Ponsonby’s commanding officer at Waterloo).

According to an obit in the Gentleman’s Magazine (vol 161): “Raikes reported that ‘the physicians long ago pronounced that the action of his heart was disordered, that he might live on for years, but that when the crisis came, he would die suddenly, as if by a pistol shot’.”

That Ponsonby’s heart was a bit dicky after Waterloo is hardly surprising. But, I wonder if they double checked his pulse before they buried him in the crypt of St Nicholas's Church, Hatherop, Glocestershire.

Footnote: The Wellesley Arms disappeared shortly after Ponsonby’s death. It was once the first overnight stop for Exeter coaches from London but left obsolete when the railways reached Basingstoke in 1840.