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Fiat justitia…

Patsy Cornwallis-West was at one time mistress to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. By the First World War she was a woman in her fifties married to a highly respectable retired colonel in his late seventies.

Her son, George, married one Jennie Jerome, mother of one Winston Churchill before marrying one Mrs Patrick Campbell. But that’s another story.

It would appear that Mrs Cornwallis-West was not entirely satisfied with her septugenarian husband and developed a “more than ordinary interest” in a young officer recently promoted from the ranks and recently wounded. When the young officer failed to reciprocate she started to pull strings. One of these strings was attached to the Quartermaster General.

Soon afterwards, the officer found that he had been transferred to another battalion. This may not sound like a big deal to you or me but it was clearly a huge deal to everyone involved at the time. My guess is that soldiers are deeply attached to their battalions especially when there’s a war on.

This was not the end of the matter. Questions were asked in Parliament and – I kid you not – a special Act – the Army (Courts of Inquiry) Act – was passed to create a committee to look into this one case (well, two actually, but the other one doesn’t concern us). The upshot was that the junior officer was exonerated, his commanding officer fired, Cornwallis-West censured and the Quartermaster General, ahem, informed of the “displeasure of the government”.

That such an effort could be made to secure justice in the middle of a war for a single subaltern who for all I know got killed anyway and may well not even have had the vote is staggering. And magnificent.

Which brings us on to the linked article. The Quartermaster General concerned was a chap called Sir John Cowans. The job he had in supplying the biggest army in British history was immense. And it would appear that he was very good at it. Clearly, scandal or no scandal, a lot of people wanted to keep him in his post. Hence (probably) this article from the Times Military Correspondent singing his praises.

The Times 5 January 1917 p3

I particularly liked this bit:

For example, when the frost-bite first became a danger, an urgent demand for a new anti-frost-bite grease reached him from France late one Monday night. On Tuesday morning he had assembled the chief tallow merchants at his office, and by the Thursday night thousands of tins of this new remedy were on their way to France.

Justice was one thing but the heavens falling was another.

10 comments to Fiat justitia…

  • the other rob

    Which brings us on to the linked article.

    I see four links to wikipedia bios, but no link to any article concerning Cowans.

  • Patrick Crozier

    It’s the picture (where it says “A RECORD OF SUCCESS”). Right click on that and all will be revealed.

  • the other rob

    Thanks! My mistake.

  • Jim

    Contrast the ability (or rather not) of the State to supply its troops with what is required at short notice these days. A similar frost bite problem today might be solved by the time of the next campaign. Which would probably be in a jungle…….

  • Patrick Crozier

    I was going to make some remark to that effect and then I was reminded of an episode of “Secrets of War” which claimed that during Gulf War I decoy drones were developed and deployed in a matter of a few months. Of course, that was a quarter of a century ago now.

  • AndrewZ

    It’s clear that the transfer was intended to be a punishment, even if it’s not clear why. Perhaps it was a transfer to a less prestigious unit. Perhaps any transfer that wasn’t due to a promotion or a clear operational requirement would be seen as the battalion commander getting rid of someone he didn’t want, and would therefore have an adverse effect on the officer’s reputation and career.

  • Paul Marks

    I am bit confused by all this.

  • Umbriel

    @AndrewZ — My supposition would be that she got him transferred to a battalion not stationed abroad, to keep him both accessible and safe, and that his objection would have been to it not only adversely affecting his career, but making him seem like a coward.

    In any event, that Wikipedia picture of “Patsy” is not only gorgeous, but makes her look like someone not to be defied lightly.

  • Patrick Crozier

    His transfer was a punishment. No question about that.