Author throws new light on 1746 Battle of Falkirk’s ‘evil’ redcoat loser

Lt General Sir Henry Hawley, painted perhaps a couple of years after the 1746 Battle of Falkirk Muir.
Lt General Sir Henry Hawley, painted perhaps a couple of years after the 1746 Battle of Falkirk Muir.
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The redcoat commander at the 1746 Battle of Falkirk Muir had the well-earned soubriquet “Hangman Hawley”, and his English Army wrought havoc across Scotland.

Such is the myth, but in fact none of the statements in the above sentence is probably true.

Author Jonathan David Oates.

Author Jonathan David Oates.

Military historian Dr Jonathan David Oates appears certain to ruffle feathers on both sides of the border with his latest book “King George’s Hangman” (Helion Press), which examines the extraordinary career of Lt General Henry Hawley, who led a British Army to defeat outside Falkirk in January 1746.

In popular literature and common perception Hawley has been remembered to unkind posterity as a war criminal and brute - a vicious psychopath, like Outlander’s Black Jack Randall - who routinely murdered his enemies and terribly abused his own troops.

He is also lampooned (for example in the work of famous novelist Nigel Tranter) as a gormless incompetent whose overwhelming nastiness is matched only by his innate stupidity.

Now, however, Jonathan Oates appears determined to set the record straight.

His book does not attempt to prove that Hawley was either a nice man or a brilliant general, but does present a mass of evidence which aims to show the man in a far more even-handed light.

Central to the tale is the (second) Battle of Falkirk, a hellish fight waged in near-blizzard conditions just a short march from Falkirk’s Callendar House.

“It was the largest battle of the Jacobite wars and is of massive importance”, says the author.

“There is no doubt that Hawley (the Government commander on the day) was completely outmaneouvred, and that he made mistakes”.

Re-enactors portraying the redcoat soldiers - Scots as well as English - who fought at Falkirk Muir in 1746.

Re-enactors portraying the redcoat soldiers - Scots as well as English - who fought at Falkirk Muir in 1746.

However that, he says, does not make him a fool.

Far from being an inexperienced soldier Hawley, a cavalryman, had served in the British Army all his life - and in a dizzying string of epic encounters including Almanza (War of the Spanish Succession), the 1715 Rising (Battle of Sheriffmuir) and the battles of Fontenoy and Dettingen (War of the Austrian Succession).

He earned promotion through solid achievement, and while Falkirk was the only battle in which he had a whole army under his command he was beyond question a competent leader of men - for example his cavalry capably screened the British retreat from their defeat at Fontenoy.

So what went wrong?

Jonathan considers that Hawley may have been one of those men who are perfectly capable in one role (in his case, as a cavalry general), but who are out of their depth when presented with the very different challenge of controlling an entire army.

History is littered with examples of men who were brilliant commanders at brigade level but all at sea when asked to command a division.

But what on earth went wrong at Falkirk - and why, with hundreds of cavalrymen under his command (the Jacobites had virtually none) was his force unable either to detect a Jacobite outflanking move or to repel the enemy clansmen?

One factor, Jonathan considers, is that Hawley may have been nervous about using his cavalry in any sort of active role.

He had commanded sound British cavalry on the continent, but two of his regiments at Falkirk had fled at Prestonpans the year before, and may have been thought unreliable.

The course of the battle was to prove this right - the Jacobites thrashed the British dragoons in what should have been a fight heavily stacked in the horsemens’ favour.

How about Hawley’s black reputation for atrocious brutality?

“There simply isn’t the evidence to suggest he was doing anything different from other commanders of the day, or - despite the “hangman” tag - that he hanged lots of people”, says Jonathan.

He did hang four men for desertion, but by the standards of the day that might almost have been lenient in the circumstances - it could have been many more.

Yet the idea that he was a monster persists, and not just among Jacobite-leaning critics.

Several of his contemporaries clearly disliked him, reputedly including James Wolfe of Quebec fame - the same Wolfe who notoriously said of Highlanders under his command “No great mischief if they fall”.

Jonathan’s book aims to present information rather to mount a case for the defence - to challenge or act as devil’s advocate to a posterity that has consigned a soldier’s reputation to abject disgrace on what may turn out to be spurious grounds.

Even the “Hangman” name may not have been used before the early 20th century.

In his personal life Hawley is quoted as talking openly about a mistress, and seemingly had controversial opinions about religion and law.

As a result of his military adventurers he suffered numerous wounds over the years.

Meanwhile Jonathan’s work cheerfully disposes of some of the other widespread myths about the Jacobite wars in general.

That “English Army” of the opening sentence in this article was nothing of the kind.

There were far more Scots serving in it than would be expected by the Scottish proportion of the British population, and more Glaswegians than Londoners.

It could be accurately described as a British army with a heavy Scottish percentage bias.

Nor was the British Army at Culloden as numerically strong as often claimed, says Jonathan - who produces facts to prove this is the case.

Rather than just an exercise in number-crunching, however, perhaps the great strength of his approach is the attempt to put flesh and bones on the British soldiers who fought the Jacobites.

In romantic fiction they are as faceless, mechanistic and brutal as the “baddies” portrayed in war comics, but who in fact were real people who for reasons sometimes practical, sometimes tragic - perhaps even idealistic - found themselves in the ranks of veteran regiments fighting for King George.

Warts and all, their story - like that of the Jacobites - deserves to be told.