Washington as Supreme Allied Commander

George Washington, as an Allied Commander is not as sufficiently recognized, even though his role at the First American Supreme Allied Commander [‘généralissme' so designated by the French directives] brought him to the pinnacle of his military career and was as essential as anything he did in the war. This is stated with the view that the War for American Independence won principally due to the effective implementation of combined and joint Allied forces in the Yorktown Campaign of 1781. Though, ultimately, the war was won due to the global threat Great Britian faced due to the broader Allied context in the larger struggle.

Washington's authority as the commander-in-chief of the allied armies in America during 1780-83 can be explained by the French archival material presented at webpage Rochambeau's Instructions for Service in Allied Command. Both Washington and Rochambeau held equivalent military rank in their respective national armies in that each was given one rank above that of a major general. Though there is some confusion in that Rochambeau held the title of 'lieutenant general' in the French Army, but Washington -- in spite of wearing three stars on his uniform -- was never designated as a 'lieutenant general' by the US Congress. [This aspect is reviewed on a separate webpage "Brief Review of George Washington's Military Career," which has a link at the bottom of this page.] A slight distinction between their status was introduced by the French War Minister's instructions to Rochambeau, in which George Washington was specifically identified as the overall 'allied commander' ['supreme commander' in modern terms]. Washington was recognized as a 'généralissme' of the US Congress. In keeping with European conventions of the times, that title designated an overall commander of all allied land forces in the campaign region.
"Général en chef " was used in French documents for both Rochambeau and George Washington [and it must be remembered that Washington was designated by the American congress a 'Commander in Chief' of the American Continental Army], but the Ministre de la Guerre explicitedly identifies the subordination of the former to the latter, qualified as a "généralissime". For example, Général Foch was ‘généralissme des armées alliées' in 1918.
It should be emphasize that this authority did not apply to French naval forces operating in the North American waters. Senior French naval commanders of naval forces that deployed along the American east coast were not under the command of either George Washington or Rochambeau, but were encouraged to assist the land operations if feasible. Both Washington and Rochambeau had to coordinate their requests for naval assistance through conferences with the naval commanders. Most notable example is that both Washington and Rochambeau held a council to confer with Admiral de Grasse aboard the Ville de Paris prior to launching the allied land and sea siege of British held York, Virginia, in 1781.

This page attempts to present Washington's performance as a Supreme Allied commander by focusing on some of the general's selected correspondence. There are three major sections: the first two 'arguments' are supported by references to 'exhibit' letters [hyperlinked within the page] by Washington. First to be addressed is an episode that illustrates the challenges presented in attempting to plan and coordinate the execution of combined [allied] operations. The incident shows the ease with which expressed intentions are not fully understood; how time lapses in communications between distant headquarters [Washington headquarters at New Windsor, NY, and Rochambeau's at Newport, RI] may affect decisions; and how this can frustrate even the most attentive leaders. The episode illustrates that the potential harm caused by misunderstandings and embarrassments can be successfully overcome by character of the great commanders. The second section draws attention to Washington's personal expressions of appreciation for the service rendered by his co-allied commanders. A brief conclusion statement forms the last section and suggests why this page is considered necessary.


Early in 1781, there was considerable pressure for the small French naval squadron stationed at Newport Rhode Island to deploy on some excursions in the south, where up to this time the British were meeting with little resistance. In particular, considerable pressure was being placed by both American and French civilian officials for the French expedition at Newport, RI, to do something about the devastating invasion by Arnold in Virginia that began at the beginning of 1781. Rochambeau was leery of engaging in hastily conceived plans which would not decisively strike at the British. There was also the problem of a superior number of British vessels in nearby Gardiner's Bay which restricted operations of the smaller French naval squadron at Newport. In January 1781, a violent storm damaged many British ships at Gardiner's Bay, and presented an opportunity for the French ships at Newport to conduct some offensive operation against Arnold in Virginia. The French naval commander DesTouches decided to send 4 ships (one 64 gun SOL, two frigates, and a cutter). The small squadron was under Captain le Gardeur de Tilly.

Sensing that this opportunity would be brief, as the British would be expected to have their ships at Gardiner's Bay repaired and back up to full strength within a few weeks, the French commanders at Newport did not believe there was time to coordinate with Washington (at New Windsor, NY) for permission to add troops (technically under Washington's command as Supreme Allied Commander) to the excursion.
Tilly's small French squadron slipped out of Newport on the night of 9 February 1781. Rochambeau wrote Washington that morning. Washington's reaction was that the expedition was not large enough to be effective, and that it should be delayed until some troops could be sent.
Washington conceived of a plan to send Lafayette, overland with some American troops, to join up with some French troops that would go under escort of the French naval ships. Washington expressed this in a 15 February letter to Rochambeau. However, Tilly was already in the Chesapeake and at anchor in Lynn Haven Bay. Tilly's squadron managed to capture some British craft [one was a 44 gun SOL, the Romulus]. Arnold cleverly withdrew his ships up the Elisabeth River and took a defensive position at Portsmouth. Tilly could not find any of the local pilots to take his French ships up the river. Tilly decided it best that he return to Newport with his prize capture before the British recovered their superior posture at Gardiner's Bay. He returned to Newport 24 February.
Allied plans were immediately for a second deployment to the Chesapeake along the lines proposed by Washington, who traveled to Newport in early March to ensure closer coordinated planning. At Newport, Rochambeau and Washington believed that they were launching a significant force against Arnold in Virginia. A larger French naval squadron, under Des Touches, with a contingent of French army troops, departed Newport on 9 March. The French squadron was prevented from entering the Chesapeake Bay after a 16 March naval engagement [The First Battle of the Virginia Capes, during which 89 French sailors were killed or wounded] with a British squadron. De Touches' squadron returned to Newport 26 March.
Washington expressed his irritation with the French in a letter [28 March 1781] to his cousin, Lund Washington. This letter contained private, temporary emotions that were quite different than those expressed officially in a 31 March letter to Rochambeau. Unfortunately, the British intercepted and published [4 April] Washington's letter to Lund in a New York Tory newspaper. Rochambeau was obligated to confront Washington [26 April 1781] about the letter to Lund and accepted Washington's honest reply [30 April 1781] and apology. The result is summed up by arguably the finest of Washington's biographers as follows:
"Thus was the incident submitted, in honest confession, to the generosity of Rochambeau, who replied considerately that he did not believe Destouches knew of the incident, but that he would keep Washington's letter for citation in event the Chevalier showed uneasiness. The French General continued magnanimously: ‘I did what I thought was most consistent with a sincere heart; I wrote about it to your Excellency with candor, being fully persuaded your Excellency's answer would be wrote in the same style, and I wrote only to have the means of smothering up that trifle at its birth.' [Letter of May 5, 1781; 173 Papers of G. W., 19, LC.] Washington was fortunate in having a colleague so forbearing"*
* Douglas Southall Freeman's George Washington, Volume V, Victory With the Help of France 1778-1783 (1952), p.281. On another, un numbered page in his book, Freeman provides the following summation:
"The termination of the affair without a shadow of misunderstanding was due to the candor of Washington and the magnanimity of Rochambeau ..."

Exhibit One: George Washington to Lund Washington, March 28, 1781.
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. from the original manuscript sources Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library website.
New Windsor, March 28, 1781.

Dear Lund: Since my last, your letter of the 14th. Instt. is received. If Mr. Triplet has got as much Land as he has given, and you have paid him the cash difference with a proper allowance for the depreciation since file bargain was made, I am at a loss to discover the ground of his complaint; and if men will complain without cause, it is a matter of no great moment. it always, and now is my wish to do him justice, and if there is any thing lacking in it, delay not to give him full measure of justice, because I had rather exceed, than fall Short.

We have heard nothing certain of the two Fleets since they left their respective ports. We wait with impatient anxiety for advices from Chesapeake, and the Southern Army. God send they may be favourable to us; a detachment from New York has made two or three attempts to put to Sea (for the purpose, it is said, of reinforcing either Arnold or Cornwallis) and as often returned. My last accts. from New York mention another attempt on the 25th; but whether with truth, or not, it is not in my power to say. It was unfortunate; but this I mention in confidence, that the French Fleet and detachment did not undertake the enterprize they are now upon, when I first proposed it to them; the destruction of Arnolds Corps would then have been inevitable before the British fleet could have been in a condition to put to Sea. instead of this the small squadron, which took the Romulus and other Vessels was sent, and could not, as I foretold, do any thing without a Land force at Portsmouth.

[Note:To this point the letter was published by the British in Rivington's Gazette , Apr. 4, 1781.]

How many Lambs have you had this Spring? How many Colts are you like to have? Is your covered ways done? What are you going about next? Have you any prospect of getting paint and Oyl? are you going to repair the Pavement of the Piazza? is anything doing, or like to be done with respect to the Wall at the edge of the Hill in front of the House? Have you made good rite decayed Trees at the ends of the House, in the Hedges, &ca. Have you made any attempts to reclaim more Land for meadow? &ca. &ca. An acct. of these things would be satisfactory to me, and infinitely amusing in the recital, as I have these kind of improvements very much at heart. As soon as you can conveniently do it after receipt of this letter, give me a list of the number and kind of Mares I possess. the number of Colts from 4 years old (inclusive) to those of this spring with the ages, colour, kind, and Sexes. Mrs. Washington (from report only, I believe) has taken a fancy to a Horse belonging to Mr. James Cleveland, brother to the one had from him before (and wch. I think a fine horse), if you can get him in the way of barter, provided he is as handsome, and as fine a horse as represented, and the colour of the set she drives, I shall be very well pleased with your doing it. She joins me in best wishes for you Mrs. Washington, and Milly Posey, I am etc.

[Note:The letter was intercepted by the British.]

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Exhibit Two: George Washington to Jean B. Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, March 31, 1781.
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. from the original manuscript sources Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library website.
Head Quarters, New Windsor, March 31, 1781.

Sir: I last night received your Excellency's favor of the 27th: announcing the return of the Squadron under the command of the Chevalier Des Touche to the Harbour of Newport. A few minutes before your letter reached me, the inclosed, which His Excellency the Minister of France had the goodness to send under an open cover to me, informed me of the Action wh'ich had happened on the 16th: off the Capes of Chesapeak. I likewise received letters from the Chevalier de Touche and the Baron Viomenil by the same conveyance.

While I regret the disappointment of our plan, I cannot but admire the good conduct and valour displayed by Mr. des Touche. The Officers and Men of his Squadron in the course of the action, and I am happy to find by the letters from him and the Baron Viomenil that there was the most generous emulation between the land and sea forces. It may, I think, be fairly said, that Great Britain owes the safety of her detachment under the command of Arnold to the influence of the Winds and not to the superiority of her Navy in the late affair.
I have received an account, though not the particulars, of an engagement on the 15th. instant between General Greene and Lord Cornwallis near Guilford Court House in North Carolina. I impatiently expect official accounts which I shall transmit to your Excellency.
I am extremely sorry to learn by your favor of the 25th. that the Chevalier Chattelus has been ill. Your next I hope will inform me of his perfect recovery, than which scarce any intelligence can be more agreeable. I have the honor etc. 95

[Note:The draft is in the writing of Tench Tilghman.]

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Exhibit Three: George Washington to Jean B. Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, April 30, 1781.
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. from the original manuscript sources Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library website.
Head Quarters, New Windsor, April 30, 1781.

Sir: I assure your Excellency, that I feel extreme pain at the occasion of that part of your letter of the 26th. Inst. which relates to an intercepted letter of mine published by the enemy. I am unhappy, that an accident should have put it in their power to give to the world any thing from me, which may contain an implication the least disagreeable to you or to the Chevalier Des-Touches. I assure you sincerely, that I have no copy of the original letter in my possession, so that I am unable by a comparison to determine how far the publication may be just. The enemy have fabricated whole letters for me, and even a series of letters; and it is not improbable they may have given a different turn to some of my expressions in the present instance. It would however be disingenuous in me not to acknowledge that I believe the general import to be true. The copy however which Your Excellency has sent me differs in some respects from that which the enemy has published, as you will perceive by the inclosed Gazette. Whatever construction it may bear, I beg your Excellency will consider the letter as to a private friend, a Gentleman who has the direction of my concerns at home, totally unconnected with public affairs, and on whose discretion I could absolutely rely. No idea of the same kind has ever gone to any public body.
When I say that I believe the general import of the publication to be true, I mean it in this sense, that there did appear to me a degree of delay in executing the enterprise, suggested by me, with the causes of which I was not well apprised; and an idea of this kind was, probably, expressed in my letter to Mr. Washington. As to the apparent insinuation that the first expedition had been preferred to the one proposed by me, I could not have intended to convey it, 21 because it would have been unjust. I could not but have recollected that my formal proposal did not reach you till after the departure of the first Squadron. 22 My letter however was written in haste, and might have been inaccurately expressed.

[Note 21:The draft, which is by Hamilton, has at this point the following inserted by Washington: "in its fullest latitude," ]

[Note 22:The draft at this point has the following inserted by Washington: "tho' the suggestion of it was previous." ]

I have lately learnt (though not officially) that the cause of the delay I have alluded to was a want of Supplies for the Fleet. Impressed with a real esteem for, and confidence in the Chevalier Des Touches, I heard this circumstance with satisfaction.
With this explanation I leave the matter to his candor and to yours, and flatter myself it will make no impressions inconsistent with an intire perswasion of my sincere esteem and attachment. I have the honor etc.

[Note:From a photostat of the original in the Chateau de Rochambeau, France. ]

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As was his nature, Washington's letters were sincere expressions of his opinions. Scholars generally note how carefully Washington stated what he truly felt and did not waist words for gratuitous sentiments. As such, we should note the following tributes to two men – senior Comrades-in-Arms – whose cooperation allowed Washington's greatest military achievement:

George Washington's 28 October 1781 letter to Comte de Grasse.

George Washington's 14 December 1782 letter to Comte de Rochambeau.

Exhibit Four: George Washington to Comte de Grasse, October 28, 1781.
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library website.
October 28, 1781.

Sir: Your Excellency did me the honour to mention in one of your letters and subsequently in the note transmitted by the M. de la fayette, that from a desire to serve the U.S. You wd enter into engagements for such cooperation the next campaign, as shd not be incompatible with the orders of your Court. This offer is too essential to the interests of the common cause, not to be embraced by me with the greatest eagerness, while it claims my warmest acknowledgements for the continuance of Yr Excelly's friendly disposition towards America. As it is impossible this distance of time, to determine whether it will be most advantageous for the Allies to open the Campaign with the Siege of New York, and thence proceed to that of Chs Town, or make Charles Town the leading operation, I take the liberty of proposing to Your Excelly the following general disposition as equally applicable to either, viz that Yr Excell. wd assemble a decisive naval superiority in the bay of Chesapeake toward the latter end of May, from which central position we might easily transport ourselves for a reunion of our means against whichever of the maritime points above mentioned circumstances shd render it most advisable to attack first. With Yr Excelly. I need not insist either upon the indispensable necessity of a maritime force capable of giving you an absolute ascendency in these Seas, nor enlarge upon the advantages which must be derived from anticipating the British in opening the Campaign; next to the immediate prosecution of our present Successes with the union of Superior means now in our power and which wd infallibly terminate the war at one Stroke. The plan which I have the honor to submit to Your Excelly is that which appears to me most likely to accomplish the great objects of the Alliance. Yr Excelly will have observed that whatever efforts are made by the Land Armies the Navy must have the casting vote in the present contest.

The Ct of France are convinced of it, and have declared their resolution to give this indispensable succour the triumphant manner in which Yr. Excelly has maintained the mastery of the American Seas, and the Glory of the french Flag, leads both nations to look to you as the Arbiter of the War*. Public and private motives make me most ardently wish that the next campaign may be calculated to crown all your former Victories. I entreat your Excelly to be persuaded of my attachment to Yr Glory, and the sincere friendship with which I shall invariably continue, My Dear General &c. 23

[* Bold font added by webpage author. The phrase is the basis for a remarkable, dramatic modern statue of the French admiral place in the city square at Grasse, France, near the museum dedicated de Grasse. See: Mémorial Amiral de Grasse, musée de la Marine]
[Note: The draft is in the writing of John Laurens.]

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Exhibit Five: George Washington to Jean B. Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, December 14, 1782.
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor, from Library of Congress online website]
Newburgh, December 14, 1782.

I cannot, My dear Genl., permit you to depart from this Country without repeating to you the high sense I entertain of the Services you have rendered America, by the constant attention which you have paid to the Interests of it.

By the exact order and discipline of the Corps under your Command, and by your readiness, at all times, to give facility to every measure which the force of the Combined Armies was competent to.
To this testimony of your Public character I should be wanting to the feelings of my heart, was I not to add expressions of the happiness I have enjoyed in your private friendship. The remembrance of which, will be one of the most pleasing Circumstances of my life.
My best wishes will accompany you to France, where I [37] have no doubt of your meeting the Smiles and rewards of a generous Prince; and the warmest embraces of Affectionate friends. [38] I have the honor etc. [39]

[Note 37: The draft, which is also in the writing of Washington, has at this point: "sincerely hope and."] [Note 38: The draft has at this point: "Adieu."] [Note 39: From the letter sent in the Rochambeau Papers in the Library of Congress.]

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There appears to be a pervasive reluctance by Americans to recognize Washington's vital role in maintaining and valuing the French Alliance. Perhaps it should be expected that authors and institutions find it easier – and profitable – to appeal to the casual audience's patriotic propensity to envision that American Independence was won without foreign assistance. Suggesting that such aid was essential to the American victory is often denied in cliché-ridden, popular descriptions of the American Revolution. A considerable number of published works portray the French role in the American Revolution as malevolent. The praise that Franklin and Washington gave to their respective French diplomatic and military/naval counterparts is pushed aside by profuse promotion of paranoid speculation spawned by jealous American contemporaries of these two truly great men in the Nation's struggle.
Unfortunately, the general American public is rarely exposed to the assessments made by the most scholarly historians such as Douglas Southall Freeman. Rather, the casual American visitor is often introduced to the Revolution as one where the American rebels fought and won "Against All Odds.... NO SUPPLIES, NO ALLIES, NO TRAINED ARMY, NO NAVY, and NO MONEY". With "about 5,000 troops", the American Rebels prevailed over Great Britain's "roughly 50,000 troops"! When presented without qualification, such postings foster a dangerous hubris that would make George Washington cringe. Washington was certainly appreciative of the crucial Allied participation that enabled his Yorktown Victory in October 1781 as expressed in his 20 October 1781 'General Orders'. Washington was personally aware of the money, military supplies, experienced professional military volunteers, naval and military expeditions France had sent to assist the Contentinal Army in just the North American theater of the War for American Independence. Serious modern students of military history cannot help but recognize the enormous value to the American cause that was derived by France concurrently forcing a global war upon Great Britain.
The facts are that the American Rebels received financial and military aid from France well before the Alliance Treaty of 1778, after which the American War for Independence became a ‘World War' involving armed forces of France and its ally Spain. England was without allies on the Continent – an essential part of its earlier war strategies when confronting France – and was acquiring more adversaries as the war progressed.. Following the loss of a fourth of its army in North American at Yorktown (October 1781), Great Britain could be thankful that in 1782 it had repulsed combined French-Spanish attacks upon Jamaica in the West Indies, and Gibraltar in the western Mediterranean. However, the real situation was that these possessions were still subject to renewed allied offensives, and Great Britain had to face that the year witnessed the loss of some more small islands in the West Indies and one valuable one in the Mediterranean. Further, there was a French Naval offensive gaining momentum against British posts in India. In effect, the only British ‘successes' were defensive, while the French and Spanish remained on the strategic offensive. Britain had to abandon continued efforts to subdue the American Rebellion to face the mounting global challenges to its empire. These points are further described at the following webpages:
World War Context of the American Revolution.
Impact of French World-Wide Involvement in the War for American Independence.
After Yorktown, 1781: the 'War Beyond the Horizon'.

Exhibit Six: George Washington's General Orders, October 20, 1781 contained a particular tribute to the Allied contribution that enabled the Yorktown Victory.
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. from the original manuscript sources Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library website.
Head Quarters Before York, Saturday, October 20, 1781.
[Omitted here, by webpage editor, are specific instructions to subordinate commanders for following day's duties. The following were delivered as "After Orders" personal remarks by General Washington. Bold face font has been added by page editor for emphasis.]

The General congratulates the Army upon the glorious event of yesterday.
The generous proofs which his most Christian Majesty has given of his attachment to the Cause of America must force conviction on the minds of the most deceived among the Enemy: relatively to the decisive good consequences of the Alliance and inspire every citizen of these States with sentiments of the most unalterable Gratitude.
His Fleet the most numerous and powerful that ever appeared in these seas commanded by an Admiral whose Fortune and Talents ensure great Events.
An Army of the most admirable composition both in officers and men are the Pledges of his friendship to the United States and their cooperation has secured us the present signal success.
The General upon his occasion entreats his Excellency Count de Rochambeau to accept his most grateful acknowledgements for his Counsels and assistance at all times. He presents his warmest thanks to the Generals Baron Viomenil, Chevalier Chastellux, Marquis de St. Simond and Count Viomenil and to Brigadier General de Choissy * (who had a separate command) for the illustrious manner in which they have advanced the interest of the common cause.
He requests that Count de Rochambeau will be pleased to communicate to the Army under his immediate command the high sense he entertains of the distinguished merits of the officers and soldiers of every corps and that he will present in his name to the regiments of Gattinois and Deuxponts the two Pieces of Brass Ordnance captured by them; as a testimony of their Gallantry in storming the Enemy's Redoubt on the Night of the 14th. instant, when officers and men so universally vied with each other in the exercise of every soldierly virtue.
The General's Thanks to each individual of Merit would comprehend the whole Army. But He thinks himself bound however by Affection Duty and Gratitude to express his obligations to Major Generals Lincoln, de La Fayette and Steuben for their dispositions in the Trenches.
To General Du Portail and Colonel Carney 54 for the Vigor and Knowledge which were conspicuous in their Conduct of the Attacks, and to General Knox and Colonel D'Aberville 55 for their great care and attention and fatigue in bringing forward the Artillery and Stores and for their judicious and spirited management of them in the Parallels.
[* Correct spelling is 'Choisy' -- this note is added by webpage editor]
[Note 54: Col. Ethis de Corny. ]
[Note 55: François Marie, Comte d'Aboville, colonel and commander in chief, French artillery in America.]

He requests the Gentlemen above mentioned to communicate his thanks to the officers and soldiers of their respective commands.
Ingratitude which the General hopes never to be guilty of would be conspicuous in him was he to omit thanking in the warmest terms His Excellency Governor Nelson for the Aid he has derived from him and from the Militia under his Command to whose Activity Emulation and Courage much Applause is due; the Greatness of the Acquisition will be an ample Compensation for the Hardships and Hazards which they encountered with so much patriotism and firmness.
In order to diffuse the general Joy through every Breast the General orders that those men belonging to the Army who may now be in confinement shall be pardoned released and join their respective corps.
Divine Service is to be performed tomorrow in the several Brigades or Divisions.
The Commander in Chief earnestly recommends that the troops not on duty should universally attend with that seriousness of Deportment and gratitude of Heart which the recognition of such reiterated and astonishing interpositions of Providence demand of us.

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Of added importance is the following essay by byTheodore J. Crackel:

"Washington and Rochambeau, a Revolutionary Collaboration"

Return to webpages on:

"Brief Review of George Washington's Military Career".

"Comte de Rochambeau".

"Comte de Grasse".

"The Franco-American Alliance of 1778".

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Page posted 20 February 2008; revised 16 May 2015.