The Lessons of Wellington

by Victor Davis Hanson

New Criterion

Perhaps with the exception of Churchill, England has produced no more a remarkable man of action than the Duke of Wellington, who put an end to the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo–nearly six million dead and twenty-three years after France’s mad genius first declared war against Austria in 1792. He was as effective an organizer and logistician as Lords Roberts, Wolseley, and Kitchener. But unlike his successors he crafted a method of war for his times that transcended the theater of his command, and so could prove as deadly to European adversaries as to colonials.

Born Arthur Wesley to a shaky aristocratic family (which later changed the spelling to Wellesley), the future duke showed no unusual talent as a student. His early military commissions were the results of purchase and family connections, culminating in a command in India granted largely through the interventions of his talented brother Richard, the Governor-General. Indeed, after borrowing to buy a captaincy, majority, and colonelcy, he found himself in debt to almost everyone from close family members to his boot maker.

Yet when he was at last in a position of authority, Wellington immediately showed the hallmark signs of brilliance that would characterize the next twenty years of his military career, resulting in the costly, but dazzling victory over the Marathas at Assaye, followed by further wins at Argaum and Gawlighur that crushed most resistance in British India. In less than a decade, from 1796 to 1805, he provided the muscle to enforce his brother Richard’s brilliant organizational and political craft, cementing the foundations of the British Raj for the next century, through a series of rapid constabulary actions and decisive battles where he developed his trademark attention to defense and logistics.

Recalled to England in 1805, he married, and within three years he was off again to Portugal and Spain. There he kept the Grande Armee at bay in the Iberian Peninsula off and on for a decade, before meeting his destiny at Waterloo in 1815. Conventional odds were against him in Europe since England’s strength was in her navy, with only a small professional army trained for colonial skirmishing, one hardly equipped to face modern continental forces that were blessed by superior technology and bolstered by a vast levge en masse.

No matter–Wellington never really lost to the French, whose generals drew on a population pool nearly three times as large as England’s and claimed they sought empire for the brotherhood of man. In retirement as the Grand Old Man, the Duke finished out the last thirty-six years of his long life as Prime Minister, Chancellor at Oxford, Commander-in-Chief of the army, and acclaimed senior spokesman of British aristocracy. He died peacefully at eighty-three in September 1852–with Napoleon’s nephew Louis poised to stage a coup and declare himself emperor of France. At his funeral at St. Paul’s, a list of well over fifty honors and titles were read aloud–Knight of this, Earl of that, Duke so and so, with a generous splash of Rangers, Masters, Governors, Grandees, and Lords.

All biographers dwell on his contradictions, both personal and professional. Austere and often cold, respected but not liked, his competence and dependability nevertheless won him real loyalty from his men–whom he fek for the most part were the dregs of the earth. Properly married, he was rumored to have enjoyed several mistresses. Scrupulously honest, Wellington nevertheless came home from India a wealthy man as a result of his own lion’s share of the spoils of battle. Without an aristocrat’s classical education, he wrote more polished English prose than most scholars, spoke a number of languages, and read veraciously.

In an age of the emergence of growing staffs, Wellington attended to almost all his business first-hand. If Napoleon’s head was stuffed with grand ideas of empire and huge continental armies, all as a means to establish a Europe based on post-revolutionary principles, Wellington’s mind was instead full of logistical problems in moving a few thousand men in and out of battle, and setting them in defensive positions on reverse slopes where in relative safety they could blast apart columns of infantry approaching with real revolutionary elan. Waterloo proved the latter’s experience and expertise to be the more valuable in the greatest battle of the nineteenth century, leaving military historians in a quandary ever since as to what properly constitutes real prerequisite battlefield genius–prior command of two-thirds of a million troops all over Europe or years at the front with 75,000 in a local theater.

Wellington was not prone to flashy aphorisms like Napoleon, but on occasion his reasoned remarks are more apt to stay with us. “They came on in the same old way, and we sent them back in the same old way” he scoffed of the destruction of the Old Guard at Waterloo. And when refusing a suggestion to target Napoleon across the battlefield, he barked, “I’ll not allow it. It is not the business of commanders to be firing upon one another.” Wellington rarely lost and never lost big. Before he assumed command, the British army was a beaten force of little repute, a mere ancillary to the grand navy; after him, it proved that man for man it was the best in the world. He was utterly unshakeable throughout Waterloo when his army often tottered on the brink: “I looked oftener at my watch than at anything else. I knew if my troops could keep their position till night, that I must be joined by troops from Blucher before morning.”

Gordon Corrigan’s life of Wellington (1) is very laudatory–“the greatest British general of any age”–and very British, written by a former officer and so mostly focused on Wellington as a great captain of the army. In Corrigan’s see-no-evil, hear-no-evil hagiography, rumors about Wellington’s women are ill-founded; widespread enmity was usually without cause and the wages of envy. In short, Corrigan reminds us that “In an age where self-interest was the norm and morality a middle-class responsibility, Wellington’s life shines out.”

Wellington may well have been a prig of sorts, but his poorly disguised contempt for the English poor in the great age of British reform politics is more than balanced by his sterling character. Look to what he did, not what he said, Corrigan reminds us. Repeatedly he ensured that his men were fed and well taken care of. He wept at news of his army’s battle losses–twenty-seven percent casualties at Assaye and twenty-eight at Waterloo–and defined compassion through his own military competence that ensured his men won and were treated well in victory. The very idea that he would enter a warm carriage to abandon a freezing English army in Russia or flee a mess in Egypt as did Napoleon (“In war men are nothing: it is a man who is everything”) is preposterous. At Waterloo he lamented, “I do not know what it is to lose a battle, but certainly nothing can be more painful than to win one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” His officers returned his affection, one writing that the mere sight of the Duke’s long nose was worth more than 10,000 reinforcements. This was a man, after all, who could write sterling prose nonstop to dozens of subordinates and then jump on his horse and ride eighty miles in two days, all cross-country through a difficult landscape. At Waterloo Wellington was as robust as a man thirty; the similarly forty-six-year-old Napoleon was in sorry shape and as lethargic as a man three decades his senior.

If Corrigan sometimes sees a one-dimensional Wellington as an embodiment of English virtue, his military history nevertheless makes fascinating reading and is a tribute to the old-fashioned narrative art that looks at deeds and concrete achievements rather than motivations and inner angst. We also glean invaluable knowledge about the distinctions between grape and canister shot, careful tutorials about loading and shooting muskets, and Wellington’s remarkable constitution that allowed him little sleep while riding vast distances nearly nonstop for hours on end. The prose is engaging, the historical judgment sober and skeptical, and the documentation reliable-in short, precisely the sort of biography that reflects the best of traditional English military scholarship of a half century past.

Andrew Roberts is far trendier and presents a gossipy dual biography (2) of Wellington and Napoleon that offers juxtaposed narratives of their respective lives from birth to their dazzling funerals as he flips back and forth until their climactic meeting at Waterloo, and then chronicles their divergence again during Napoleon’s last exile. Often his reliance on rumor and braggadocio would appall Corrigan–like the young French stage-actress Marguerite Josephine Weimer’s purported respective scoring of Wellington and Napoleon in bed: “Monsieur le Duc etait de beaucoup le plus fort” Roberts uses the superficial similarities between the two–same year of birth (1769), aristocratic background, lack of real formal education–as a backdrop to show how radically different men they were. He attributes much of the divergence to the difference between British and French national character that trumped their similar class and common European experiences.

Roberts dispels misconceptions of their much publicized mutual pique, and in its place shows how much more complex the rivalry was. Napoleon in retirement deprecated Wellington while privately admiring his talents–even as the latter was too much the gentleman to reveal how little he thought of the exiled megalomaniac, a man who once remarked, “At twenty-nine years of age I have exhausted everything. It only remains for me to become a complete egoist.” If Napoleon thought it wise to scoff at the man who beat him, the far more critical Wellington wisely realized that to magnify Napoleon only cemented his own accomplishment. Or as Lucien Henry warned, “Those who would libel Napoleon rob Wellington of half his glory”

If Roberts is not so overt as Corrigan in his efforts to offer up Wellington as the embodiment of English virtue, his subtle comparisons with the more mercurial, exciting–and less moral–Napoleon nevertheless achieve that affect. As for the excuses that Napoleon was sick at Waterloo with an array of ailments from hemorrhoids to bladder obstruction, or that by 1815 he had lost his best men in Russia, or that General Comte Guyot had ignored orders, or that loose-cannon Marshal Grouchy was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that the crazy Ney sent his lancers and cuirassiers in prematurely without orders, Roberts, like Corrigan, will have none of it. The real explanation for Waterloo was far simpler: after delaying for critical hours in the morning when the British and Prussians were confused and hardly ready to fight, Napoleon then sent columns and horsemen en masse against disciplined shooters well protected either on reverse slopes or in solid squares. Napoleon–neither chance nor his marshals–lost the battle. And still, as Wellington pointed out, it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” that might have still worked had not the Duke galloped over the lines steadying his men for hours on end. Napoleon, remember, not Wellington, had the more uniform, skilled, and veteran army.

Roberts demonstrates how Wellington utterly lacked anything of Napoleon’s flair. Byron deprecated him and worshiped Napoleon, presaging the liberal creed of admiring those who profess a liking for humanity but hate people. The imperator emeritus himself wrongly blamed Wellington for his bleak exile on St. Helena, not appreciating that it was precisely Wellington who made sure his theatrical nemesis was not killed. While professing it was the humane influence of his own British Protestantism that had spared the tyrant, Wellington more likely possessed an astute sense of postbellum realities: it was key to the French disappointed sense of self that their emperor be defeated and exiled in shame rather than be killed in battle or executed as a martyr by haughty British.

Napoleon bore that magnanimity heavily, and made arrangements in his will to reward with 10,000 francs a failed assassin of Wellington. How hard it must have been to accept that Wellington beat him so badly, the sepoy general whose rope-a-dope strategy grew out of chronically small armies-and less lethal artillery, with few heavy lancers and no array of subordinate flashy marshals. Indeed, Wellington’s armies were often scarcely a third English, and he never had more than 100,000 men under his total command. As Roberts shows, it is understandable that a genius like Napoleon would become exasperated with a perfectionist like Wellington who “had his number”–not unlike flashy table tennis stars who are finally worn down by mechanical opponents who for hours can methodically return even rocket serves back across the net.

Roberts ends by noting the irony that the grandiose plans of the European Union in Brussels represent the defeated Napoleon’s vision of a united borderless Europe, without class frictions and joined by a common government–as if moderns have far less resonance with the parochial British victor and his aristocratic cronies. As he reminds us, Waterloo was fought a mere twelve miles from Brussels, the center of European collectivism, and thus history has perhaps come full-circle.

But that verdict, I think, is not quite in yet. And the very eccentric qualities that both Roberts and Corrigan note and praise in Wellington–aloof and detached analysis, willingness to fight alone and for principle, a firm unapologetic sense of national purpose and faith in Anglo exceptionalism–we Americans at least seem to appreciate the more. And so in our present crisis it is no accident that the United States finds far more dependable and moral the competent children of Wellington than it does the continental Europeans with all their grand utopian but ultimately empty moral pretensions.

(1) Wellington: A Military Life, by Gordon Corrigan; Hambledon Press, 400 pages, $30.

(2) Napoleon & Wellington: The Battle of Waterloo and the Great Commanders Who Fought It, by Andrew Roberts; Simon & Schuster, 349 pages, $27.


©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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