While researching my next book, THE MERCENARY PIRATE, I came across interesting facts about espionage and the Duke of Wellington. The iron duke was dependent on intelligence officers to be ‘the eyes and ears of the army’ (Wellington’s Spies by Mary McGrigor) at times when Wellington himself questioned the state of his drunken, disorderly military.
At the height of Wellington’s success, which earned him accolades and notable titles, three cunning spies rose above everyone else: Scotsman Andrew Leith-Hay, humorous, perceptive, and detailed; Scotsman Colquhoun Grant, a clever master of disguise; and nobleman Charles Cocks, who zealously sought acclaim and rank under dangerous conditions.
Andrew Leith-Hay hailed from Aberdeenshire. An aide-de-camp commissioned as an ensign into the 72nd Foot, he earned respect for his prowess in sketching landscapes that provided his superiors with meticulous maps of the enemy’s location, battlefields, forts, and intelligence. A serious man, he reconnoitered mountains and valleys, traveling over treacherous ground in torrential rain to relay information that would help shift the tide of battle in Wellington’s favor. He also witnessed and documented the alarming deteriorating conditions of the troops on both sides of the war. His sketches were compiled into A Narrative of the Peninsular War.
At twenty-nine years old, Colquhoun Grant was already a fourteen year army veteran. The eighth son of ten children, he was sent to military school, in London, at ten years old. He left school at fifteen and was commissioned as an ensign in the 11th Regiment of Foot. While held in a French prison for a year, he learned to speak the language fluently and studied French battle strategies. While on assignment to the West Indies, he learned Spanish and Portuguese, which made him invaluable during Wellington’s pursuit of Marshall Marmont, Napoleon’s favorite aide, in Portugal and Spain. Bold and cunning, Colquhoun posed as an American in Paris under an alias, which allowed to roam wherever he pleased. And to his dying day, he never once betrayed the identities of those who helped him gather information.
Captain Charles Edward Somers Cocks was the heir to the second Earl Somers. At twenty-three years old, he informed his father that he wanted to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming a soldier instead of following two generations as a Whig for the constituency of Reigate. Impetuous, determined, and courageous, Charles did everything he could do to stand out to his superiors. Cool-headed under fire, he drew maps, taught himself Spanish, excelled in sword-fighting and shooting, on foot and on horseback. He left diaries and letters of his exploits, and died honorably as he led men out of the trenches at the castle of Burgos.
While reading the accounts of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, and the Siege of Burgos, I was stirred by the daring and courage of these men, bivouacking in camps on the march, reconnoitering behind enemy lines, or riding into battle without the promise of another sunrise. Heroes in every sense of the word, Andrew Leigh-Hay, Colquhoun Grant, and Charles Cocks were the assurance Wellington had that the orders he gave resulted in a British victory.