Sunday, June 18, will be the 202nd Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, marking the final defeat of the French military leader and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. On the English side stood Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, an Anglo-Irish soldier and statesmen, who was one of the leading military figures of 19th Century Britain, and a man Alfred Lloyd Tennyson dubbed “the last great Englishman.”
Wellesley was the third surviving son (b. 1769) of an Irish aristocratic family. His father was the first earl of Mornington. In truth, as a child Arthur was uninspiring. A mediocre student. Lazy. Socially awkward. Uninvolved. Only excelling in his playing the violin. At age 12, Arthur entered Eton, where is remained withdrawn and occasionally aggressive. It was the same year that marked his father’s death. Eventually, he was removed from school (1784). Arthur traveled to Brussels with his mother in 1785.
With few options, it was decided that a military career would be a good fit for him. His eldest brother’s connections brought Arthur a number of commissions. The first was as a junior officer in the 73rd Foot. Later, he was the aide-de-camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As the French Revolution set England on alert, by February 1793, England and France were at war. In April of the same year, Arthur became the commander of the 33rd Foot. His brother’s connections could take him no further. For once, Wellesley was on his own. If he were to advance, it would be because he truly deserved it.
In 1794, the 33rd Foot was part of the English forces that knew defeat in the Netherlands. Although Wellesley knew praise for his part in the Flanders Campaign, the defeat was a mighty lesson for the young officer: He must learn how to lead his men and the “art” of war. Avoiding being shipped to the West Indies because of foul weather, Arthur found himself instead sent to India.
Wellington, then Colonel Arthur Wesley (the last name was later changed to Wellesley) of the 33rd regiment, arrived in Calcutta at the age of 28 in February 1797, after a journey of more than three months. He spent eight years in India, where his brother was Governor-General. These years were spent in honing the skills for which he later claimed greatness. He learned something of being a tactician in battle. It was in India that the future victor of Waterloo and future prime minister of Great Britain first dealt with questions of war and peace and civil government.
On 26 March 1799, the Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore attacked Wellington’s army. The enemy forces had been trained by the French and were well armed, but Wellington’s men held their fire until their enemy was but 60 yards removed. Then, British infantry decimated the columns of their attackers, while cavalry forces scattered the remnants of the attacking force. Later, in April and May of 1799, Wellington participated in the siege of Seringapatam in Mysore and led an attack on the entrenchments of the fortress there. After Seringapatam was taken, Wellington was made civil governor and remained there until 1802.
During his time in Seringapatam, Wellington was ordered to suppress a rebellion in north Mysore led by Dhoondiah Waugh. For the first time, Wellington exercised independent command in battle. During this operation, Rory Muir explains, Wellington “displayed all the characteristics of his subsequent campaigns, . . .” which included attention to logistics and “unremitting aggression.” He fought a battle at Conaghul and won a complete victory. Muir writes that Wellington exhibited a remarkable flexibility on the field of battle. A British officer commented on Wellington’s “alacrity and determination” during battle.
On 23 September 1803, Wellington, now a Major General, won his first major victory at the Battle of Assaye. His forces were outnumbered 20:1 by troops of the Maratha Confederacy. A cavalry patrol warned Wellington of the advancing enemy. Despite being outnumbered, Wellington attacked before the enemy forces could set up camp, catching them by surprise. With only 7000 men under his command, he earned a decisive victory at Assaye, but with a heavy cost of men. Wellington later remarked that Battle of Assaye was “the bloodiest for the numbers that I ever saw.” One officer noted that Wellington “was in the thick of the action the whole time . . . I never saw a man so cool and collected as he was.” Another officer commented that Wellington “behaved with perfect indifference in the hottest fire.”
He returned to London and became MP for Rye. In April 1806, he married Kitty Pakenham, a girl he had long loved and to whom he once proposed (but had been found wanting by her father), but meeting her again 1805, he was less enthralled with her, but, perhaps out of duty (for once a gentleman made a promise of marriage, he was honor bound to follow through), he married her, nevertheless. They had two sons, but their marriage was never an easy one.
In 1807, he was appointed Chief Secretary of London, but he did not forsake his army career for a political one. He was often called upon as a military advisor by then Prime Minister, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. When the Spanish revolted against Napoleon’s occupation, it was to Wellington that British ministers turned to deliver an advantageous outcome for the Crown.
According to BBC iWonder, “Wellington had been in overall command of British forces in the Iberian Peninsula since 1809. In January 1812 he led troops from Portugal into Spain. Early victories saw Wellington reach Salamanca in June but by July he was locked in stalemate with an evenly matched French force. On 22 July, his opportunity finally came. Over lunch an aide delivered the message Wellington had been waiting for: the French had over-extended. A quick glance through his telescope was enough. ‘Marmont,’ the French general, he said excitedly, ‘is lost.’ In under an hour, his forces won a decisive victory and all Europe acknowledged Wellington’s military genius.
“Wellington’s victory in Spain and even more devastating French losses in Russia forced Napoleon to abdicate. The duke’s old rival was bested. Victory won him a new title – the Duke of Wellington. Invited to become Britain’s ambassador to France, Wellington moved to Paris, even forging relationships with several of Napoleon’s former mistresses as the deposed emperor endured exile on Elba. He was now a big name on the world stage. After a hero’s welcome on his first return to Britain since 1808, Wellington was dispatched to represent the country at the Congress of Vienna which had been convened to re-draw the map of Europe.”
In February 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France, where he mobilized his army once again. At the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels, Wellesley learned that Napoleon was less than 20 miles removed from the city. Early the next morning, he departed for the front. On 18 June 1815, the bloody Battle of Waterloo took place. The French army was defeated by two of the armies of the Seventh Coalition: an Allied army under Wellington’s command, along side a Prussian arm under the command of Gehard Leberecht von Blucher, Prince of Wahlstatt. At the height of his military career, Wellesley returned to England as the country’s hero.
Unfortunately, the political battleground was not so easy for him to maneuver. He joined Lord Liverpool’s cabinet at time when the masses were beginning to demand political reform. The refusal of Wellington and the political classes to countenance social and political reform put them out of step with the public.
In his personal life, with his marriage far from a happy one, Wellington sought relationships with several courtesans/mistresses. One of those with with the infamous Harriette Wilson, who wrote a detailed kiss-and-tell book describing their encounters. The publisher, pornographer and scandal-monger Joseph Stockdale, even (unsuccessfully) attempted to blackmail the duke prior to its release. Cartoonists and satirists delighted in Wellington’s reputation.
“Affairs at Westminster were no less fraught. Demand for reform refused to quieten. In 1828, George IV asked Wellington to become prime minister. The government was beset with problems. Divisions ran deep between warring factions of the parties. His new role was something of a poisoned chalice. Cannier political operators may have refused the position but the duke, dutiful to the last, accepted. He quickly discovered that leading the country had little in common with leading an army. The autocratic style which had served him so well in the military did not go down so well in Westminster.
“If Wellington thought MPs could be ordered into unity he quickly discovered he was mistaken. One of the most divisive issues of the day centred on Catholic emancipation. Catholics had been barred from holding public office since the 17th Century but by 1829 these restrictions threatened civil strife. Some Tories, who had championed Wellington’s appointment, were aghast at his support for the Roman Catholic Relief Act. One, the Earl of Winchilsea, was particularly vitriolic in his criticism and on 23 March the duke and the earl fought a duel on Battersea Fields. Both survived.
“Wellington had been willing to countenance Catholic Emancipation for the greater good, but parliamentary reform he could not stomach. As a soldier, Wellington had been famed for anticipating what lay “on the other side of the hill” but he lacked the same degree of political imagination. Whig party leader Earl Grey led the calls for reform but Wellington would not budge. Out of step with the times, Wellington’s popularity plummeted. He lost control of the House of Commons, his government unable to tread a path between the attacks from Ultra Tories and reformists. By November he had little option but to resign.
“Despite the collapse of his government, Wellington had continued to lead the charge against Grey’s proposals for parliamentary reform. As his popularity continued to fall, the iron shutters he had installed on his house to protect his windows from the ire of the mob reinforced the image of the ‘Iron Duke’ refusing to move with the times. But in 1832, with the country in deadlock, Wellington backed down for the sake of the country. After persuading his supporters to stay away from Parliament, the Reform Bill finally passed. Even so, he was mobbed by an angry crowd on Waterloo Day. Wellington had remained active in government, as foreign secretary and, latterly, a minister without portfolio. Approaching his ninth decade, Wellington finally retired from public life in 1846. Even then he retained his post as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, unable to step away completely from the public service to which he had devoted his life – servant of crown and country to the last.
“On 14 September (1852) Wellington succumbed to a stroke at his favourite home, Walmer Castle, in Kent. In death the duke’s divisive political legacy was forgotten. Wellington was the hero of Waterloo once more. On 18 November, Britain said goodbye to a hero of a bygone age. The nation united in a display of grief more extravagant than anything seen before. More than 1.5 million lined the streets to pay their respects as Wellington’s coffin was borne to St Paul’s, where a further 10,000 dignitaries packed into the cathedral. Wellington may have been gone, but his reputation lived on.”