War hero, the Duke of Wellington, was a reluctant and not especially successful PM

Artist Robert Alexander Hillingford's depiction of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo
Artist Robert Alexander Hillingford's depiction of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo

Two hundred and fifty years after the birth of the Duke of Wellington, historian GORDON LUCY looks at his famed military career and subsequent diversion into politics

Arthur Wellesley, the future 1st Duke of Wellington, is usually regarded as having been born in Dublin on May 1 1769 because he celebrated his birthday on that date. This is not so because he was baptised in St Peter’s Church in Dublin on April 30 1769.

Although he attended Eton College, it is unlikely that he ever suggested that ‘The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’.

Later he spent a year at a French military school in Angers, where he perfected his French, acquired impeccable manners and became a Francophile.

At 17 he entered the army. Through the practice of purchasing commissions, he became a lieutenant colonel at 23, at least 10 years before a talented officer could attain that rank in today’s army, but his later achievements justified his quick promotion.

In India between 1796 and 1805, he defeated Mahratta chiefs who had sworn to drive the English into the sea.

Just before the Battle of Waterloo Napoleon foolishly dismissed Wellington as ‘a mere Sepoy general’ but it was in India that Wellington acquired his superb understanding of his profession.

The principal lesson he learned in India was that war was, from start to finish, a matter of logistics.

Careful logistical preparation was to become his hallmark.

In making the treaties which brought the Mahratta war to a close, he proved himself an able diplomat as well.

After nine years in India, Wellington returned to marry his former sweetheart Kitty Pakenham, the Earl of Longford’s daughter.

His first reaction on seeing her again was to declare, ‘She’s grown ugly, by Jove’. Predictably, the marriage did not prove a stunning success.

Despatched to the continent to engage with the French in the Iberian Peninsula, Wellington did not intend to be ‘half beaten before the battle began’ – the usual state of mind of Napoleon’s opponents.

At Vimeiro he won a notable victory in his first campaign on the Iberian Peninsula but the results were thrown away by incompetent superiors who signed the Convention of Cintra, allowing the repatriation of the French army and its plunder.

In 1809 he returned to the Peninsula as commander in chief.

Within five years he drove Napoleon’s generals from the Iberian Peninsula, invaded the south of France and precipitated Napoleon’s abdication. Wellington was showered with honours.

After Napoleon’s first exile Wellington was in Paris as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the restored French monarchy.

Napoleon’s escape from Elba obliged Wellington to become a soldier again.

At Waterloo Wellington encountered Napoleon in the field for the first time.

By 1815 Napoleon had fought over 60 battles and could be said to have lost only 10. Wellington had fought fewer battles but had never lost one.

With the timely intervention of Blücher’s Prussians, Wellington succeeded in beating Napoleon.

Wellington told his friend Lady Shelly: ‘Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.’ He also freely admitted that Waterloo was ‘a damned near thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’.

It is alleged that the duke held his men in very low esteem. By contrast Napoleon referred to his men as ‘mes amis’ (my friends).

On occasions the duke did refer to his men in unflattering terms. For example, after the storming of Badajoz, when they ran amok, a furious Wellington observed: ‘The scum of the earth; they all enlisted for drink.’

The context of his remarks is at all times important.

During the Peninsular War he visited a hospital full of wounded troops from the 29th Regiment.

He addressed the men by saying, ‘Men of the 29th Regiment I am sorry to see so many of you here’. A sergeant replied, ‘If you had commanded us, My Lord, there wouldn’t be so many of us here’.

Unlike many commanders, Wellington cared nothing for the minutiae of military dress. As one officer said: ‘Provided we brought our men into the field well appointed, with 60lb of ammunition each, Wellington never looked to see whether their trousers were black, blue or grey.’

At Waterloo Wellington wore a strange mix of military and civilian dress – a low cocked hat, a plain blue coat, white buckskin breeches and highly polished top boots.

The Duke of Wellington’s fame rests on his military prowess rather than his two brief periods as prime minister.

While there is a tradition in the United States of converting war heroes into presidents, there is no comparable British tradition.

A reluctant prime minister, he claimed: ‘It is an office for the performance of duties of which I am not qualified and they are very disagreeable to me’.

However, one should not take his description of his first Cabinet meeting seriously: ‘An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.’

Although opposed to ‘Catholic emancipation’, he recognised and accepted its inevitability in 1829, and possibly did so as early as 1823.

Unwisely, in 1830 he dismissed demands for parliamentary reform as the work of radical agitators and foolishly claimed that beginning reform was beginning revolution. A subtler political mind might have recognised that reform was an antidote to revolution.

During Wellington’s caretaker administration in 1834 Lord Grey, his Whig opponent, accused Wellington of ‘concentrating in himself all the power of the state, in a manner neither constitutional nor legal’. This was grossly unfair.

Wellington had learned a lot in the interim and was well on the way to becoming an elder statesman.

Wellington summed up his philosophy of life thus: ‘All the business of war, and 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 at the other side of the hill’.

Wellington died at Walmer Castle in Kent on September 14 1852.

Queen Victoria described him as the greatest man of the 19th century.

Wellington had the largest and most impressive funeral in London between that of Nelson in 1805 and Churchill in 1965.