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General William Munro, C.B., 39th Regiment - Soldier and Plantsman

by Jeremy Archer

In 1989, as its contribution to Museums Year, which focused on heightening 'public awareness of the important part which museums play in the cultural life of the community', the National Army Museum staged a special exhibition: 'Butterflies & Bayonets - The Soldier as Collector'. The exhibition described the contribution that generations of soldiers had made to specialist areas of study such as archaeology, botany, ornithology and entomology. Most of those featured in the exhibition had received a good, all-round education including then essential military skills such as draughtsmanship and observation. In far-off lands and frequently with plenty of time on their hands, what could be more natural than that they find other ways of satisfying their curiosity and pushing back the boundaries of scientific study?

William Munro, 39th Regiment of Foot, later 1st Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment, was a good example of the genre. The eldest son of William Munro, he was born at Druid's Stoke, Gloucestershire, in 1818. He entered the 39th Foot as an ensign on 20 January 1834 and, in a manner that was unusual when officers purchased their promotions, remained with the 39th for almost the whole of the next 31 years. He managed to blend military competence with an enquiring mind and appears determined to make a contribution beyond the strictures of a rigid military hierarchy. William Munro's first posting was to Bangalore in what was then the Presidency of Madras. After five years in Bangalore, the 39th Foot moved in swift succession to Bellary, to Kamptee, to Kurnool, then to Agra and finally to Ferozepore. William Munro appears to have made good use of his time: he began collecting in the state of Coorg as soon as he arrived in India. As early as 1837, he had put together Hortus Bangalorensis, a collection of the plants of the Bangalore region, now in the library of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Soon afterwards he published Discovery of Fossil Plants at Kamptee. He founded the botanical gardens in Agra and, in 1844, followed his earlier work with Hortus Agrensis, or, Catalogue of All Plants in the Neighbourhood of Agra. The latter work may even have been on the presses when, on 29 December 1843, the 39th Foot played a distinguished role as one of only two Queen's regiments present at the Battle of Maharajpore. Apparently the problem was that the Regent, Dada Khasgee Walla, was 'reluctant to refrain from insulting the British authority'. In helping to bring the warlike Mahrattas to heel, the 39th lost Ensign Bray (who was carrying the Queen's Colour) and 27 men killed and 11 officers - including Lieutenant and Adjutant William Munro - and 176 NCOs and men wounded.

Recovering from his wounds, William Munro's military career progressed steadily. He was promoted captain on 2 July 1844 and major on 7 May 1852. The 39th Foot went from Agra to Dinapore in Bengal in late 1844 and returned to England in mid-1847, after almost 14 years in India. It is an indication of the depredations of the climate that, of the 31 officers who died in India, only three were killed in action. Among other things, William Munro found time to write On Antidotes to Snake Bites for the Journal of the Agricultural Society of India in 1848, and Report on Timber Trees of Bengal for the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal in 1849. After almost three years of being shunted round England - from Canterbury to Gosport to Hull and finally to Preston - the 39th Foot went to Ireland. On 11 November 1853, with 20 years' regimental service behind him and in preference to more senior contemporaries, Lieutenant-Colonel William Munro took command of his Regiment, moving with them to Gibraltar from Cork six months later.

Although initially excluded from the reckoning, casualties from both combat and disease led to regiments from the Mediterranean theatre being warned for service in the Crimea. The 39th Foot embarked on the screw steamer Golden Fleece and arrived at the port of Balaclava on New Year's Eve 1854, as the siege-lines around Sebastopol were tightening. Although there were periodic sorties, the bulk of the time was spent in the trenches. It was attritional warfare at its worst but Lieutenant-Colonel Munro managed to find some compensations. His reputation evidently preceded him and the letters of Captain Robert Hawley, 89th Regiment of Foot, to his father at West Green House, Hartley Wintney make frequent mention of William Munro's mildly eccentric activities.

On 18 January 1855 Robert Hawley wrote: 'Tomorrow I shall walk up to Lord Raglan's to see the place and afterwards to the hills to pick some of the berries of a new juniper - so I am assured it is by a great lover of nature, the colonel of the 39th, who is in correspondence with half the societies in London - to send to the Uncle.' On 8 April 1855 he wrote: 'I have seen a letter from Lindley [John Lindley, first Professor of Botany at the University of London, Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society] in which he says the seeds are those of the Juniper Excellens (I think), the timber of which was so much prized in sacred history. It was supposed to have been extinct till found by Munro, 39th, in the hills of India. The seeds of the prickly shrub I sent to West Green are those of the plant of which the Crown of Thorns was supposed to have been made, growing over the whole country near Jerusalem.' On 21 October 1855, the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, he wrote: 'I have some autumn crocus for the Uncle and some of the only true wild vine, together with acorns of the much lauded and unknown (almost) Quercus pubescens. The Queen has written to thank Colonel Munro of the 39th for the crocus roots he sent her. He got some at the same spot yours come from.' His last mention of William Munro was in his letter of 1 February 1856: 'I put up with this some of the seeds of the Pinus Taurica unless Munro, 39th, who ought to know, says what is wrong. The sort has not yet been imported. On a lawn it grows very prettily. I don't say we have such civilization here, but the grass near the Black Sea in spots grows short and green with these trees on it dipping down almost to the salt-water.'

Sadly there was slightly more to life in the trenches of the Crimea than plant-hunting. On 10 July 1855 Captain Edward Beauchamp Maunsell, 39th Foot, son of Richard Maunsell of Oakley Park, County Kildare, was killed. The Regimental History omits the details, which, were it not for Robert Hawley, would be lost for ever: 'He saw a shell coming and, uttering the old cry of "A shell, look out!" threw himself down. The vile shot came bodily on his leg, taking it clean away from the knee, then, exploding, it wounded seven of his men. The fine fellow got up on his remaining leg, and hopping amongst his soldiers asked if anyone was worse wounded than himself. "No, sir, no," was the answer. "Then bring the stretcher at once," he said, "for I am badly hit." One of his brother officers came from Camp to meet him. About half-way he took his hand. It had lost all power, and sixteen hours after the accident he was laid on Cathcart's Hill. These are incidents you never hear of.' General Simpson, the Commander-in-Chief, described Captain Maunsell as 'a very gallant and meritorious officer'. Although only Captain Maunsell and 10 NCOs and men were actually killed in action, a further 81 members of the 39th Foot died from disease. At the end of the campaign William Munro was promoted brevet colonel, became a Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath on 2 January 1857, a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (5ème Classe) and received the Order of the Medjidie (4th Class) from our Turkish allies.

On 1 May 1856 the 39th Foot was the first regiment to leave the Crimea, embarking for Canada in the Simoon. On 28 June they arrived in Montréal, to a rapturous reception. According to a contemporary source: 'Few cities in the British Empire have taken a more hearty interest in the war in the Crimea - have sympathised more deeply with the toils and hardships of both the allied armies who have been engaged there - or triumphed more heartily in Alma, Inkerman and the crowning victories before Sebastopol than the city of Montréal.' It concludes: 'Thus ended the day; and, considering the unanimity of the citizens - the spirit of the rejoicings, and the decorum that prevailed among so large a body of men fresh from a campaign - no more agreeable celebration could possibly have taken place.'

As Gardeners' Chronicle wrote on William Munro's death, he managed 'so close a study of the characters, nomenclature, affinities, and classification of grasses as to have been for many years the most trustworthy referee on that difficult order'. In the study of grasses, or gramineæ, William Munro assumed a position of extraordinary prominence, perhaps the greatest authority of his day. He identified grasses from all over the world and for many of the greatest botanists of that era: from Australia for George Bentham; from Hong Kong and Fiji for German botanist Berthold Seemann; from Afghanistan for Surgeon-Major James Aitchison; from India for Sir Joseph Hooker and from Mexico and Texas for John Torrey and George Thurber. Following field-work in and around Hong Kong by the American plant-hunter Charles Wright, Munro identified 98 species, of which a dozen were new to science. Asa Gray, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard, with whom Munro corresponded between 1858 and 1878, described him as 'a jolly good fellow' in a letter to Torrey. Two letters from Munro to Thurber are preserved in the Library of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University. They offer useful pointers to Munro's approach:

On 26 July 1858 Munro wrote from his quarters in the 'Citadelle' of Québec: 'I had the pleasure of receiving two days ago after a short visit to Montreal your parcel of plants. At present I have made only a cursory inspection but I see that they contain many of great interest and some few that I have never seen before. I will examine them with as little delay as possible and return those intended to be returned with care ... I have specimens identical with yours, from Spain and from India. These few I identified at once and I will write about others as I can decide on them.'

He followed up with a longer and more detailed letter, also from Québec, dated 11 February 1859: 'I have at last finished all the grasses you entrusted me with. I am very sorry that I should have kept them so long but very many of them were critical species and with many of these I found it necessary when I once begin to work up the whole genus and this as you know takes up much time especially when that time can only be had by snatches ... I am obliged for the handsome contribution many of these make to my herbarium. Tomorrow I will despatch the parcel to your address containing all the plants you asked to be returned and I have added a few duplicates from my own herbarium which I thought might have some interest for you. I am sorry that they are not . more valuable and more numerous but travelling so much about the world as my function compels me to do I have of course been compelled to take as few duplicates as possible about with me. Some few of the Gibraltar and Cunian grasses you will I think find interesting.'

He continues: 'I am afraid that I cannot have the pleasure of adding anything of value to your collection of autographs and portraits of botanists. When I return to England I could doubtless do so. I should much value the portraits you mention. There is none published of myself except one of a group in the Crimea by Fenton. I should esteem much any notes about Nuttall's plants as I feel doubtful about so many of them and I hope when I return to England to bring out if possible a species gramineæ as soon as I can read the various continental herbaria to authenticate original species. Pray give my kind regards and compliments to Dr. Tiney and with the same to yourself. Believe me, Yours very truly, William Munro'.

William Munro also took care to establish gardens where his soldiers could grow vegetables, giving them lectures on which might be most suitable. He did this in India, in Canada and in the West Indies. In October 1859 the 39th Foot moved to Bermuda, where the only distraction - and that a relatively small one - was the American Civil War. Five years later the Regiment returned to England and Aldershot, where, in response to the evident need for post-Crimea Army reform, proper training facilities were at last provided. On 19 December 1865 Colonel William Munro relinquished his command, after an astonishing twelve years, one month and eight days - some five times longer than a modern-day commanding officer might expect - retiring on half-pay. During those twelve years over 5,000 officers and men served under his command. Subsequently re-employed, he was promoted Major-General on 6 March 1868 and commanded British troops in the Windward and Leeward Islands from 1870 to 1875, based in Barbados. Among other honorifics, he became Colonel of the 93rd Regiment (Sutherland Highlanders) on 11 October 1876, was promoted lieutenant-general on 10 February 1876 and achieved the rank of general on 25 June 1878.

William Munro's botanical interests were never allowed to take a back seat. On 4 April 1861 he delivered a paper On the identification of the Grasses of Linnæus's Herbarium, now in the possession of The Linnean Society of London. However, his most important paper is generally held to be A Monograph of the Bambusaceæ in the Transactions of the Linnean Society of London for 1868 - this described the 219 bamboo species then known. At his death he was working on a general monograph for the order of gramineæ, in continuation of the Prodromus of Alphonse and Casimir de Candolle. Sadly, it was never completed. In all he wrote nine papers but his major contribution lay in assisting the researches of others. William Munro also gave his name to a number of plants: many of those with Munroii, Munroa or Munronia in the name are associated with him. These include Indian rainforest trees such as Elæcarpus munroii, or Kara, Eugenia munroii and Monocera munroii and also Munronia piccata, or Binkohomba, used for medicinal purposes in Sri Lanka.It was John Torrey of New York who dedicated a new genus of grasses, Munroa, to William Munro: Munroa squarrosa (Nuttall) Torrey is false buffalo grass, a rare native of California.

Having lived at Farnborough, near Southampton, and Torquay in Devon, William Munro died at Monty's Court, Norton Fitzwarren, Somerset on 29 January 1880. In his will he wrote: 'I direct my trustees hereinafter named to present my Herbarium and such of my botanical and other works of a scientific description or otherwise as they shall think fit to select as a library or collection of books of reference to accompany the same to such public body or person or persons as will best ensure the retention of the same as National Property in connection with the Royal Palace and Gardens at Kew And I give all the Orders and Decorations of which I may die possessed to my eldest or only son who shall attain the age of twenty one years to be retained as heirlooms.'

The Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew holds a large collection relating to William Munro: this includes a list of the plants that he gave to Kew (his herbarium), copies of his own botanical works and extensive correspondence with the leading botanists of the day. There is also an interesting display on General William Munro - including two splendid miniatures, together with his orders and decorations - in The Military Museum of Devon and Dorset at The Keep in Dorchester. Ensign Bray's uniform - complete with bullet and bloodstains - may also be seen in the Museum.