Plus ca change (pardon my French)

In any large organization, there is a dynamic tension between the people who focus on procedure and process, and those who concentrate on results. In times of plenty, the former group has the upper hand. It is when there is a crisis that results matter. Were it not for World War II, men such as Montgomery, Patton and Eisenhower would probably not have risen as far as they did.

This is not a new problem, as is illustrated by the following letter, supposedly from the Duke of Wellington to Whitehall (although no-one seems to have an actual source), during the Peninsular War in 1812:

Gentlemen,

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as the the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance.

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

 Wellington

6 comments for “Plus ca change (pardon my French)

  1. May 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    “In any large organization, there is a dynamic tension between the people who focus on procedure and process, and those who concentrate on results.”

    Not really true of the public sector. There is tension, but it isn’t dynamic.

  2. May 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Somebody here claims to have seen the original: http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=223151

    The syntax and vocabulary seem right for the time.

    Further discussion of provenance here: http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=11788

    Another supposed Wellington outburst here: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-233354.html

    This site adds a date: 11 August 1812 – http://aidthoughts.org/?p=1600

    This gives other places where the letter is quoted, including 2 books: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0IBR/is_1_34/ai_n6112440/

  3. Voice of Reason
    May 28, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Sackerson – I found a lot of his despatches in a book. This is certainly the tenor of his writing, and he spent an awful lot of time worrying about supplies and shipments. So, if it’s a spoof, it’s not far off the mark.

  4. Eve Berenger
    May 28, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Fantastic , really enjoyed that 🙂 😆

  5. dearieme
    May 29, 2011 at 12:21 am

    “a bit of a surprise”: sounds bogus to me.

    • Sackerson
      May 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm

      possibly; others have also doubted raspberry jam; there is the possibility that the letter is substantially genuine but has suffered some interpolations.

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