Last month Ian Alexander-Sinclair recalled MacBeth in Introducing a Special Guest. He returns to reflect on Richard Holmes’s 2003 biography, Wellington: The Iron Duke.
It is inevitable that when reviewing a biography of Wellington one reviews the man, rather than the book, and so with all due respect to Richard Holmes, an excellent military historian and a charming man, sadly now dead, that is what I shall do.
Napoleon said to Marshal Soult, immediately before Waterloo, “Just because you have been beaten by Wellington you think he is a good general. But I tell you that Wellington is a bad general and the English are bad troops”. One wonders if Napoleon really believed this, but if he did he would certainly not have been the only commander who came a cropper by underestimating the enemy.
As Wellington was above all a soldier let’s start with that. He had almost all the qualities essential in a general of his time – not only personal, that is self discipline, prudence, common sense ( how sensible to order troops to lie down behind the slope when under artillery fire) judgement, coolness under fire and the ability to ride a horse, but also necessary military skills, a legendary eye for ground ( he knew there was a ford over the River Kaitna before the battle of Assaye and the decision to fight at Waterloo using the two buildings of Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte was masterly), a superb sense of timing, as displayed at Salamanca, an uncanny aptitude for logistics and a healthy regard for intelligence. He made mistakes but fewer than most.
Wellington had to contend with disadvantages which Napoleon was spared. Napoleon as head of state could do as he pleased. Wellington had to deal with political masters, political opponents and a critical press and had to watch his step all the time. He had, by the standards of his time, a high regard for the lives of his men.
His rapid rise was of course assisted by the patronage of his brother and his ability to purchase promotion but many had these advantages, without his ability. This was evident from his early successes in India, against Tipoo Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, at Seringapatam in 1799, when he was a 30 year old colonel, and against Colonel Pohlmann at Assaye in 1803, which he said later was the best thing he ever did in the way of fighting.
The peninsular war, in which he consistently defeated every marshal sent against him by Napoleon, who never came himself, (why not?) is an extraordinary story. After the initial victory at Vimiero and the disastrous Convention of Cintra, which can not be blamed on him since he had been superceded in command, he was fortunate to be given a second chance by Castlereagh, which turned out to be the right decision. His victory at Talavera in 1809 earned him a viscountcy. He then fought a series of battles and sieges, including taking Ciudad Rodrigo, a beautiful little city where I was delighted to see that the cathedral still bears the marks of the cannon balls, Badajoz and Salamanca, where he decisively out manoeuvred Marmont. As he admitted he made a mistake at Burgos, which he never denied, and routed the French, commanded by Napoleon’s brother, King Joseph, known by the Spanish as “ Tio Pepe”, no soldier, at Vittoria in 1813. He then invaded France and was at Toulouse when Napoleon abdicated. I have visited the battlefields of Talavera and Vittoria as my great great grandfather, Ferrier Hamilton, then a lieutenant in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, fought under Wellington at both; Talavera is virtually unchanged since the battle.
Wellington showed considerable skills in keeping the Spanish and the Portuguese on side, in which he was greatly helped by the navy which was able to supply him through Lisbon and Santander; compare the French treatment of the native population. After Napoleon escaped from Elba, Wellington defeated him at his final battle at Waterloo on 18th June 1815, which he famously called “a close run thing”. Napoleon made several mistakes there apart from underestimating Wellington, including delaying his assault while the ground dried out and failing to appreciate the effect of sustained musketry volleys against massed columns. I recommend Bernard Cornwell’s (of Sharpe fame) excellent book “Waterloo The History of four Days, three Armies and three Battles”, as well as a tour of the battlefield.
Wellington never underestimated Napoleon, saying in 1814 he would rather hear that 40,000 French reinforcements had arrived than Napoleon had come to take command. He did not achieve the same distinction as a politician as he did as a soldier, though as Holmes points out, his brightest spot was Catholic emancipation followed by the creation of the Metropolitan police force. He had the sense to allow the Great Reform Bill through the House of Lords, rather than risk revolution.
Holmes says that as a man he was perhaps easier to admire than to like. He certainly, as he himself put it, “walked by himself”. He distrusted the mob- well, they did break his windows – and preferred a talented man with a title to a talented man without one. His marriage was a disaster, hardly surprising when he had committed himself to marry a woman whom he had not seen for ten years, leaving himself no room for an honourable retreat. “She has grown ugly, by Jove” was his muttered comment, not quite so brutal as George IV’s “ Harris, I am not well: pray get me a glass of brandy” on being introduced to Caroline. He does not appear, however, to have gone short, as it were, and rumours abounded, but he was discreet. His view that 48 hours leave was quite enough as no man needed to be in bed with one woman for longer is debatable but quite tenable. He was a master of the aphorism. His opinion of the reformed House of Commons in 1833 “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life” is an eternal verity, remaining as sound now as then. My favourite is “All the business of war, indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I call “guessing what was on the other side of the hill “”.
I wonder if Holmes has received what he called” the most I can expect, if I meet him on the other side of a celestial hill, will be two conjoined fingers raised to a tall hat, and perhaps a suggestion that he was right, all along, about the impossibility of writing military history”. I agree with Holmes that Wellington was a great man. The victory at Waterloo and the subsequent Congress of Vienna ushered in a century of relative peace in Europe and set Britain on the path of seemingly unlimited imperial territorial acquisition.
Norwich, February 2016.