THE HON. SIR JOHN W FORTESCUE
FORTESCUE, SIR JOHN WILLIAM (1859-1933), military historian, was born in Madeira 28th December 1859, the fifth son of Hugh Fortescue, third Earl Fortescue, by his wife, Georgiana Augusta Charlotte Caroline, eldest daughter of Colonel George Lionel Dawson-Damer, third son of John Dawson-Damer, first Earl of Portarlington. He was descended from Chief Justice Sir John Fortescue [q.v.] Brought up in country surroundings at Castle Hill, near Barnstaple, he developed a great love of country life and pursuits with a countryman's eye for ground, which stood him in good stead in explaining the battlefields which he described. He was educated at Harrow under H. M. Butler [q.v.], to whose love of English literature he owed much. Short sight curtailed his athletic activities, besides debarring him from a military career; he therefore entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1878, intending to read for the bar, but, finding the law uncongenial, in 1880 he became private secretary to Sir William Robinson, governor of the Windward Islands; two years in the West Indies aroused his interest in their history and connection with the army.
After completing his degree at Cambridge Fortescue spent four years in New Zealand (1886-1890) as private secretary to the governor, Sir Williaim Jervois [q.v.], during which he began writing and had several articles accepted by Macmillan's Magazine. This led to his contributing a volume on Dundonald to Macmillan's 'English Men of Action' series (1896), which was preceded in 1895 by a history of his elder brother Lionel's regiment, the 17th Lancers. Messrs. Macmillan then commissioned him to write a popular one volume history of the British army. Finding it impossible to do justice to his subject in so brief a compass he obtained the publishers' assent to a more ambitious venture in four volumes. The first two (1899), which reached 1713 and 1763, were at once recognized as a really authoritative contribution to the subject, but when a third (1903) and a fourth (1906) only reached 1792 and 1802 it became evident that the work must extend far beyond the limits contemplated. Finally thirteen volumes appeared, the last (continuing to 1870) in 1930. Few historians have ventured on so large a project, still less accomplished it single handed.
He was appointed C.V.0. in 1917 and K.C.V.0. in 1926. He was elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1920, received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, and was awarded the Chesney gold medal of the Royal United Service Institution. He delivered the Ford lectures (1911), published the same year as British Statesmen of the Great War, 1793-1814, and the Romanes lecture (1929) at Oxford, and the Lees-Knowles lectures at Cambridge (1914).
Fortescue published many works besides the History of the British Army. He edited six volumes of the Correspondence of King George the Third (1927-1928) and seven volumes (the first with W. N. Sainsbury, q.v.) of the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, covering the years 1677 to 1698 (1896-1905). His County Lieutenancies and the Army, 1803-1814 (1909), a short life of Wellington (1925), perhaps the least unsatisfactory of the biographies of the Duke, and many other volumes were offshoots of his main work. The Story of a Red Deer (1897), written for a nephew of 9 years old, shows him in a very different light and is probably his most widely read work.
In 1916 Fortescue undertook a history of the war which was then in progress; based on official sources, it was to be of an interim character, mainly for the general public. He entered upon the work reluctantly, finding it hard to switch from the Peninsula period to the very different conditions, ideas, and methods of 1914, with which he was less familiar, and he was not sorry to be relieved of the task.
Fortescue was an excellent lecturer with a good presence and delivery. He was among the few Ford lecturers at Oxford to attract and retain a large undergraduate audience. He wrote vigorously, lucidly, and graphically. He visited every battlefield which he could reach, and could grasp and explain their important features. He was indefatigable in research and no future writer on British military history will be able to neglect 'Fortescue'. He provided a basis on which others have built and illuminated many obscure corners. He held very definite views and never hesitated to express them, sometimes rather more forcibly than the evidence warranted. He had his share of foibles and preferences and it is easy to find fault with details, but his work remains one of solid and permanent value, one of the really big achievements of his generation.
Fortescue married in 1914 Winifred, elder surviving daughter of Howard Beech, Rector of Barlavington, Sussex. Herself something of a writer, her Perfume from Provence (1935) contains some very attractive sketches of Provencal life, written with real insight and humour.
He died without issue at Sunny Bank Anglo/American Hospital, Cannes, 22nd October 1933.
23rd October 1933;
Sir John Fortescue, Author
and Curator, 1933;
The House of
Fortescue is said to date from the Battle of Hastings (1066),
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