Wade, George (1673–1748), field marshal and military road builder, was born most likely at Killavally, near Tyrellspass, Co. Westmeath, third son of Jerome Wade, farmer, and grandson of William Wade, a Cromwellian army officer. Reputedly of exceptionally large build, he joined the earl of Bath's regiment as an ensign (26 December 1690) and within months was posted to Flanders, serving in the Williamite campaign against France. A natural career officer, he reached the rank of captain (13 June 1695), retaining that rank for almost nine years. Opportunity for advancement came in the renewal of Anglo–French hostility in the war of the Spanish succession (1702–14) when his regiment (renamed Granville's) saw immediate action at several great engagements including Nijmegen and Liège. Wade showed conspicuous heroism on the field and was promoted twice in 1703, to major (20 March) and lieutenant-colonel (25 October).
In a war of byzantine complexity he soldiered through the Iberian peninsula and its islands with consistent courage if not initiative. He was promoted adjutant-general (brevet colonel) 27 August 1704 and served on the staff of the earl of Galway (qv) in Portugal. Appointed colonel of the regiment in early 1705 on the death of Duncanson, he was wounded at Alcantara 10 April 1706, but remained on active service. Promoted brigadier-general 1 January 1708, his heroism at the taking of Minorca (September 1708) earned him a major-generalship in the Carlist army of Spain. He stayed in the peninsula until late in 1710, commanding a brigade at Saragossa. He then returned to Britain for most of his remaining career.
Probably Wade's greatest legacy, for which he is best remembered, was his home service, 1714–45, opposing Jacobitism in England and Scotland. He was appointed major-general 3 October 1714, initially with orders for Ireland, but became MP for Hindon (Wiltshire) 25 January 1715, a temporary distraction from military duty. With the outbreak of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 all his energies were channelled into its suppression, starting with the discovery of arms and supplies at Bath. His continued success in stemming plots and intrigues led to the arrest of the Swedish ambassador in 1717, for which Wade was promoted colonel of the 4th Regiment of Horse (later 3rd Dragoon Guards). He fought as second-in-command to Lord Cobham at Vigo in the brief Spanish war of 1719, his last blaze of glory on a foreign field. In 1722 he became MP for Bath and retained his seat for life.
In July 1724 Wade was appointed by George I to investigate the Scottish highlands, home of residual Jacobite resistance since ‘the Fifteen’ and notoriously impassable to all but the clans, who alone knew its heathered bogs and ancient topography. In December 1724 he produced an intelligence report which included estimates of loyal and Jacobite recruiting strengths, and a recommendation for the appointment of Gallic-speaking highland officers. His necessary measures included fortresses and a military road network to the remotest parts of Scotland. Thereby the more urbanised, loyal lowlands would be linked with the independent highlands, resulting in pacification and access to all points north and west. In 1725 Wade was duly appointed commander-in-chief in Scotland and commenced his scheme in 1726, strengthening defences and supervising the military construction of about 250 miles (400 km) of metalled roads and bridges, consciously inspired by and symbolically reminiscent of the Roman roads of ancient Britain. Promoted lieutenant-general 7 March 1727 and appointed governor of Berwick and Holy Island in 1732, and of Forts William, Augustus, and George (Inverness-shire) in 1733, Wade's actions changed the economic and social geography of the country. Most of his roads were completed by 1737, with access to the highlands reducing Jacobite disturbance to a minimum and lulling most of Britain into a sense of domestic security. The ‘Wade Stone’, a long column (dated 1729) erected by him at Dalnacardoch in Perthshire, recalls the legend that he, being unusually tall, had placed a coin on it, returning after a year to collect it. The inn where he lived at Weem, also in Perthshire, has a portrait and plaque in his memory. Wade's diplomacy, physical courage, and drive made him a living legend, named in song and verse. Bamber Gascoigne's Encyclopedia of Britain (1993) describes him as ‘remembered warmly even in Scotland’.
Promoted general of horse 2 July 1739, he left Scotland for London in May 1740, becoming lieutenant-general of ordnance and a privy counsellor in 1742. He was appointed field marshal 14 December 1743 and, in spite of age and failing health, gained supreme command of British forces in Flanders, supported by indecisive Dutch and Austrian allies against overwhelming French odds. His lack of experience in having overall responsibility in the field was exposed to the ridicule of French propaganda. Demoralised and ill, Wade requested his own recall at the end of 1744 and relinquished his command in March 1745. By way of appreciation for his previous record, George II made him commander-in-chief in England. With little delay, he was sent north to Doncaster, and subsequently to Newcastle, to stem the spreading Scottish Jacobite rebellion of ‘Bonnie Prince’ Charles Edward Stuart. Ironically, Wade's highland roads, built for conquest, aided the rebels in overrunning large parts of Scotland and invading England itself.
Expecting an incursion at Newcastle rather than at Carlisle, Wade had his dignity dealt a further blow as, hampered by foul weather and the onward progress of the rebels, he conceded command of the army to the 3rd duke of Cumberland, who forced the rebels back at Derby and slaughtered the remainder at Culloden in April 1746. Wade spent the short remainder of his life in retirement. Reputedly authoritarian but equally fair and respected, he remained unmarried but had two sons, William and John Wade, both captains, and two daughters, Jane and Emilia. When he died (14 March 1748) he left his estate to his children and his brother William's widow, but also the means to erect a monument to his memory, sculpted by Roubillac, in Westminster abbey, where he was buried. The National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, contains two portraits, one anonymous, the other by Haecken.