Airey, Richard, Lord Airey 1803-1881, general, was the eldest son of Lieutenant-general Sir George Airey [see Airey, Sir George], and was born in 1803. He was educated at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, and became an ensign in the 34th regiment in 1821. He purchased his lieutenancy in 1823, and his captaincy in 1825, and from 1827 to 1830 acted as aide-de-camp to his father's old comrade, Sir Frederick Adam, in the Ionian Isles, and from 1830 to 1832 to Lord Aylmer, the governor-general and commander-in-chief in British North America. He purchased his majority in 1834, and his lieutenant-colonelcy in 1838, and, after commanding his regiment for a short time, was attached to the staff at the Horse Guards. He acted as assistant adjutant-general 1847 to 1851 and then as deputy quartermaster-general, at head-quarters (1851-3), and in 1852, after becoming colonel, became military secretary to Lord Hardinge, commander-in-chief. This situation he resigned upon receiving in 1854 the command of a brigade in the expedition against Russia.
While at sea, or rather at the moment of disembarking, on 1 Sept. 1854, Colonel Airey found himself suddenly appointed quartermaster-general to the expedition, in the place of Lord de Ros, and acted in that capacity throughout the most critical period of the Crimean war, from September 1854 to November 1855. It was at this period that his name came most prominently before the public. His conduct must be judged by the opinion held as to the functions of a quartermaster-general on active service. If he is to be the left hand of the commander of the forces, as the adjutant-general is his right hand, and is to make arrangements for encampments, marches, and formation of troops in the field, while the adjutant-general looks after discipline, the roster for picket duty, and the personal conduct of the troops, Colonel Airey fulfilled his duties to perfection. He was the strongest man on the staff. Lord Raglan placed the greatest confidence in him, and followed his advice in most things. He was an officer after Wellington's own heart, never shirked responsibility, and delighted in work. He was always at Lord Raglan's side, and as quartermaster-general wrote the order for the charge of the light brigade at Balaclava in accordance with his duty, and at the command of Lord Raglan. Nevertheless, the quartermaster-general's department bore in the sight of the English public the responsibility for the bad condition of the troops before Sebastopol. He despised the correspondents in the Crimea, and suffered accordingly. The whole blame of the inefficiency of the commissariat department and the incompetence of the officers in his own department fell upon him, and most unjustly. At first he received nothing but praise and rewards. He was promoted major-general in December 1854, and made a K.C.B., and in November 1855 appointed quartermaster-general at the Horse Guards. On reaching England he discovered the amount of blame cast upon him, and demanded a military inquiry. In consequence of his demand a board of general officers, presided over by Sir A. Woodford, met at Chelsea Hospital in 1856, to examine Sir Richard Airey's defence against the accusations brought against him by Sir John McNeill and Sir A. Tulloch, who had been sent to the Crimea to report on the breakdown of the commissariat and transport there. He quite exonerated himself, and indeed the causes of failure were directly due to the officers of the commissariat there, and not to him; and he proved his case by the testimony of Sir J. Simpson, who had been sent to report on the officers of the staff in the Crimea, and who not only reported favourably on Sir Richard Airey, but also maintained him in his office when he succeeded Lord Raglan. The defence was most able, and triumphant from the view of an officer trained in the ideas of Wellington, but according to modern ideas, by which the quartermaster-general is responsible for the commissariat, was not so successful.
That Sir Richard Airey had not suffered in the opinion of his military superiors was proved by his subsequent official employment. He was quartermaster-general at the Horse Guards from 1855 to 1865, lieutenant-general in 1862, governor of Gibraltar from 1865 to 1870, G.C.B. in 1867, colonel of the 17th regiment from 1860 to 1868 and of the 7th regiment from 1868, general in 1871, adjutant-general at the Horse Guards from 1870 to 1876, and on his retirement from office after fifty-five years' service, was created Lord Airey in 1876. His last service to the army was as president of the well-known Airey committee, appointed in 1879 by the commander-in-chief with the approval of the secretary of state for war, to inquire into the results of the new short service system. The committee consisted of seven general officers and three colonels, and presented its voluminous report in March 1880. In it is clearly perceptible Lord Airey's opinion of military reform. He recommended a service of eight years with the colours, which would effectually destroy the advantages of the short service system. Yet the report is full of valuable statistics and suggestions. Airey died on 14 Sept. 1881, at the Grange, Leatherhead, the seat of Lord Wolseley, and thus the last supporter of the old Wellington system died at the house of the principal originator and supporter of the new military organisation. Lord Airey had been bred in the school of Wellington, and forms the best link between him and Lord Wolseley. He tried to carry on at the Horse Guards the old ideas, and though they have been shelved, his own ability has never been denied; even Dr. Russell, the most distinguished critic of the Crimean maladministration, has recently acknowledged that the whitewashing board at Chelsea Hospital had not done wrong to whitewash Lord Airey's military character.
Times obit. notice, 16 Sept. 1881. For the Crimean controversy, Opening Address of Sir R. Airey before the Board of General Officers at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London, 1856
Kinglake's History of the War in the Crimea
Dr. Russell's Letters from the Crimea, and more particularly his The Crimea, 1854-5, published 1880
Tulloch's Crimean Commission and the Chelsea Board, 1881.
Contributor: H. M. S. [Henry Morse Stephens]