The scum of the earth

October 21 2012

Philip Stanhope (5th Earl Stanhope) tells us in Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-51 (1886, posthumous) that Wellington said to him at Sudbourn Hall in Suffolk on November 4 1831:

“The French system of conscription brings together a fair sample of all classes; ours is composed of the scum of the earth – the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them afterwards.”

He says it again at Deal Castle on November 11:

“A French army is composed very differently from ours. The conscription calls out a share of every class – no matter whether your son or my son – all must march; but our friends – I may say it in this room – are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.”

The phrase is in 1 Corinthians 4:13, but the King James version says “filth of the world”. The OED shows the first use of Wellington’s version as being 1712, by John Arbuthnot in his History of John Bull: “Scoundrels! Dogs! the Scum of the Earth!”. Or is it from a different translation of the Bible?

Ian Hislop quotes Wellington in the second part of his BBC television Stiff Upper Lip, An Emotional History of Britain, to show how sensibilities had changed a generation later, when, for the first time in Britain, a monument was built to the common soldier. John Bell’s Crimean War Memorial (1861) in Waterloo Place shows three anonymous guardsmen surmounted by a female allegorical figure of Honour.

The Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 to recognise acts of valour by ordinary soldiers during the Crimean War. The French equivalent was the St Helena medal (post here).

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

The officers had been discredited by the disasters of that war, as they would be by those of the Boer War and First World War. The first tombs of an unknown soldier were unveiled in London and Paris in 1920.

I reviewed the first part of Hislop’s series in a post called Wellington’s violin. Television history always simplifies, but Hislop doesn’t produce rubbish, for all his lightness of touch.

Passing thought: Tchaikovsky’s direct musical appeal to the emotions was disturbing to some Victorians. See Hubert Parry’s remarks on him.


Other Wellington quotations in Wikiquote (I have checked all the Stanhope quotations here and the Hardy).

Postscript to a letter to his brother Henry Wellesley, May 22 1814, published in Supplementary Despatches and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur, Duke of Wellington (1862) by Arthur Wellesley, 2nd Duke of Wellington:

“I believe I forgot to tell you I was made a Duke.”

Exchange said to have occurred at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 1815 after Lord Uxbridge lost his leg to a cannonball, as quoted in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004):

“Uxbridge: By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!
Wellington: By God, sir, so you have!”

Thomas Hardy, portraying the incident in The Dynasts, Part III, Act VII, Scene viii:

“Uxbridge: I have lost my leg, by God!
Wellington: By God, and have you!”

Wellington in 1824 to John Joseph Stockdale, who threatened to publish anecdotes of Wellington and his mistress Harriette Wilson, as quoted in Elizabeth Longford, Wellington – The Years of the Sword (1969):

“Publish and be damned.”

This has often been recounted as a response to Wilson’s own threat to publish her memoirs and his letters. The story seems to have started with Confessions of Julia Johnstone in Contradiction to the Fables of Harriette Wilson (1825), where she states that his reply had been “write and be damned”.

Philip Stanhope tells us in Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851 (1886, posthumous) that Wellington said to Croker at Sudbourn Hall on November 3 1831 (anticipating FDR):

“The only thing I am afraid of is fear.”

Allegedly in notes by Wellington dated September 18 1836 quoted by Stanhope; the notes are in Stanhope, but I can’t find the quotation:

“Circumstances over which I have no control.”

One Response to “The scum of the earth”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Hislop suggests in the third and final part that the Aberfan disaster in South Wales in 1966 produced a new kind of interest by the media (or at least the BBC) in people’s emotions and that this was considered intrusive at the time. “How did you feel when …?” At the same time, the parents of the children who were killed still behave with an old-fashioned emotional reticence and dignity.

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