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Major-General Sir William Erskine, 2nd Baronet (30 March 1770 – 1813) was an officer in the British Army, served as a member of Parliament, and achieved important commands in the Napoleonic Wars under the Duke of Wellington, but ended his service in insanity and suicide.

He was the eldest son of Lieutenant-General Sir William Erskine, 1st Baronet and his second wife, Frances. He succeeded to the baronetcy on his father's death in 1795.[1]

Early career

Erskine was commissioned into the 23rd foot 1785, and transferred to the 5th Dragoons as a lieutenant in 1787, and in 1791 became captain of the 15th King's Light Dragoons (the unit his father had served in with distinction) on 23 February 1791. His first active service was in Flanders 1793–95, during the French Revolutionary Wars, when he acted as aide-de-camp to his father.[1] In 1794 he was made lieutenant-colonel. and fought at the Battle of Villers-en-Cauchies, where a handful of English and Austrian cavalry routed a much larger force of French infantry and cavalry.[2]

On his father's death in 1795, Erskine became baronet. He represented Fife in Parliament in 1796 and 1802–1805. In 1808, Erskine received promotion to major general. When he heard Erskine was being shipped to Portugal, Wellington complained that he "generally understood him to be a madman." The Horse Guards breezily responded that, "No doubt he is sometimes a little mad, but in his lucid intervals he is an uncommonly clever fellow; and I trust he will have no fit during the campaign, though he looked a little wild as he embarked."[3]

Peninsular War

During the 1811 campaign in Portugal, Erskine took over the command of the famous Light Division in the absence of Robert Craufurd. He soon developed a reputation for rashness. Wellington wrote, "It is impossible to trust to his judgment in any critical case."[4]

While pursuing Marshal Andre Massena's retreating French army, several sharp actions were fought at Pombal, Redinha, Casal Novo and Foz do Arouce between the Light Division and Marshal Michel Ney's rearguard. At Casal Novo on 14 March 1811, Erskine advanced his men along the main road in fog without proper scouts. When the fog suddenly cleared, his leading elements found themselves facing elements of Jean Marchand's division deployed in line with artillery support. This carelessness cost the Light Division 155 killed and wounded, while Marchand lost only 55 men.[5]

At the Battle of Sabugal, the fog and Erskine's bungling saved General Jean Reynier's isolated French corps from destruction. Wellington assigned Erskine with the Light Division and some cavalry to cut in behind Reynier's open left flank while four divisions attacked in front. The hapless Erskine, who was very nearsighted, issued a set of foolish orders then promptly got lost in the fog with the cavalry.[6] The leaderless Light Division covered itself with glory in the subsequent action, but the French escaped from Wellington's trap.

During the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro, Erskine's 5th and Alexander Campbell's 6th Divisions covered the Siege of Almeida. After the French relief army was turned back, the French garrison slipped out of the fortress in the night and marched straight through the blockading force to freedom. On this occasion, an exasperated Wellington said, "I have never been so distressed by any military event as by the escape of even a man of them."[7] This time Erskine was only one of several officers who blundered. Aware that he could not dismiss Erskine because of the man's political influence, Wellington tried to place Erskine in positions where he could do little damage.[8]

From 19 June 1811, Erskine led four mounted regiments in the newly organized 2nd Cavalry Division in Rowland Hill's corps. He soon relinquished command, but reassumed his post on 8 April 1812.[9] Soon after, he was declared insane and cashiered. He took his own life in Lisbon in 1813 by jumping out of a window, reportedly with the last words, "Now why did I do that?".[2]


  • Chandler, David, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan, 1979. ISBN 0-02-523670-9
  • Glover, Michael, The Peninsular War 1807-1814. London: Penguin Books, 2001. ISBN 0-14-139041-7
  • Oman, Charles, Wellington's Army, 1809-1814. London: Greenhill, (1913) 1993. ISBN 0-947898-41-7
  • Smith, Digby, The Napoleonic Wars Data Book. London: Greenhill, 1998. ISBN 1-85367-276-9


  1. 1.0 1.1 H. M. Stephens, ‘Erskine, Sir William, second baronet (1770–1813)’, rev. Roger T. Stearn, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 30 May 2008
  2. 2.0 2.1 Chandler, p 142
  3. Glover, p 146
  4. Glover, p 347
  5. Smith, p 356
  6. Glover, p 146-7
  7. Glover, p 156
  8. Oman, p 151
  9. Oman, p 352, 359
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
William Wemyss
Member of Parliament for Fife
1796 – 1800
Succeeded by
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Parliament of Great Britain
Member of Parliament for Fife
1801 – 1806
Succeeded by
Robert Ferguson

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