Underrated: Wellington

The surprisingly humane Iron Duke who defeated Napoleon

History Military Underrated
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (illustration by Michael Daley)

To suggest that Wellington is underrated may seem strange. He remains, after all, the most famous general in British history. He has had more things named after him—including the capital of New Zealand, Mount Wellington in Tasmania, the giant sequoia known (in Britain but not its native California) as Wellingtonia, and of course the eponymous boots—even than his arch-enemy Napoleon.

And yet Arthur Wellesley, as he was born, has become the least fashionable of our national heroes. The process of debunking began soon after the solemn state funeral in 1852 that left even Tennyson struggling for words. “The last great Englishman is low,” the poet lamented, but posterity has been less generous to his subject. In history books and lecture halls, the memory of Peterloo has long overshadowed that of Waterloo. Wellington is often and unfairly blamed by historians for the massacre; moreover, they begrudge him the credit for his greatest victory in favour of his Prussian ally Prince Blücher. Last month the BBC commemorated the battle, “that world-earthquake” as Tennyson could still call it, with a documentary about Wellington’s mistresses, depicting the duke as a ruthless philanderer. Little remains of the reputation of the soldier-statesman, once celebrated as the embodiment of manliness and the saviour of Europe.

Fortunately, the second volume of Rory Muir’s Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace, 1814-1852 (Yale, £30) redresses the balance. In the four decades since the last biography on this scale (by the late, great Elizabeth Longford), much has been unearthed about Wellington’s life and times. Muir begins with the Waterloo campaign and its diplomatic aftermath; then follows his subsequent political career, culminating in his premiership (1828-30); his period in opposition, rebuilding the Tory party after the 1832 Reform Act; and his record as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, bequeathing a professional service fit to defend a rapidly expanding empire.

Muir’s account rightly undermines the harsh image of the “Iron Duke”: a cold and pitiless martinet in the field, a cynical reactionary in politics, feared rather than loved by those around him. One example of his humanity must suffice. As night fell on the battlefield of Waterloo, one of the greatest victories in history, the duke wept as he was told of his friend Gordon’s death. “Well, thank God!” he said. “I don’t know what it is to lose a battle, but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” It is impossible to imagine Napoleon reacting like this. Despite his notorious remarks about his soldiery (“the scum of the earth”, etc), he did in fact look after them better than his contemporaries. Of the 7,687 men wounded at Waterloo under his command, only 11 per cent had died of their wounds a year later. Knowing what brutality his men were capable of, Wellington, in stark contrast to his allies, took care to protect civilians from their depredations, with the result that he was more popular with the occupied French than their own rulers.

Wellington’s political record is certainly harder to defend than his military one, but his integrity in office was never in doubt. The fact that a general would willingly submit to the conventions of domestic politics without a hint of dictatorial tendencies seems all the more extraordinary in retrospect. The only other case of a government led by a warrior in English history had, after all, been Oliver Cromwell; and France was by no means the only comparable country where a military hero had used his prestige to usurp power. Even the United States had treated Washington like a monarch and would later elect several soldier-presidents. Yet Wellington, by his scrupulous conduct, made it his business to be the exception that proved Britain’s rule that military authority be subordinate to civilian authority.

As Prime Minister, he had one truly historic achievement to his credit: Catholic emancipation. This was not a cause that came naturally to him, and it aroused opposition from all sides, including the High Tories who were his natural constituency. But with the eloquent support of Peel in the Commons, Wellington persuaded the King to allow him to press ahead with a Bill that he believed was vital to avert conflict in Ireland. He even fought a duel with Lord Winchilsea, who had accused him of plotting a coup d’état to impose “Popery”; fortunately, neither man was injured. Wellington broke down resistance in the House of Lords by a personal appeal, movingly described by a liberal opponent: “The most striking part of his speech was when he alluded to his own experience of the horrors of civil war, and said that he would willingly lay down his life to avoid one month of it. The effect of this in the mouth of the great soldier was visible in all who heard him.”

Only a Wellington could have pushed through the emancipation of Catholics, which paved the way for that of Jews and other minorities. Confronted by tyranny abroad or injustice at home, the Iron Duke was the right man for the job, after all.