Wellington: Does Waterloo’s Iron Duke deserve his reputation?

In run up to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington looms especially large and no one is better qualified to lay bare this legacy than Rory Muir. Research fellow at the University of Adelaide and author of this year’s Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace 1814-1852 and Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814, we caught up with the historian to get the true measure of the Iron Duke’s leadership  and discover whether he was indeed one of Britain’s, or even the world’s, greatest ever generals.

What sort of military experience did Wellington have in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War?

The war against Tipu Sultan in 1799 was very important in Wellington’s career, giving him his first independent command and introducing him to the difficulties of leading a mixed force of British and allied troops. Because of his links to his brother, the Governor-General, he had a very broad view of the war, including questions of strategy and diplomacy that were usually beyond the range of an officer of his rank, and he had to deal with the logistical difficulties of marching a large force through enemy territory. The Battle of Malavelly was the largest action he had seen in his career, and the attack on Seringapatam introduced him to the difficulties of sieges and controlling troops when they had successfully stormed a fortress. All these things would find echoes later in his career.

Wellington: The Iron Duke
Portrait of Portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, circa 1814

How did his leadership fare in the Peninsular War?

Wellington’s leadership was central to British success in the Peninsular War. Many of his leading subordinates – including capable, intelligent soldiers like Rowland Hill and George Murray – had great doubts about the defence of Portugal in 1810, although they continued to have faith in Wellington’s ability. The success of the Lines of Torres Vedras and Masséna’s disastrous retreat in the spring of 1811 vindicated Wellington’s judgement in the eyes of the army and ensured that he had the complete confidence of his officers and men – and the government at home – for the rest of the war.

How did he outsmart Napoleon at Waterloo?

Napoleon’s fatal mistake in 1815 was his failure to crush the Prussians at Ligny, or to pursue them effectively. Wellington would not have given battle at Waterloo without knowing that Blücher would march to his assistance, and when the Prussians arrived Napoleon was outnumbered and attacked in the flank – an impossible position unless Wellington’s army dissolved under pressure. Wellington began the campaign slowly, but by the morning of 17 June, the day before Waterloo, he had a better understanding of how the campaign was unfolding than Napoleon. Nonetheless, Napoleon deserves great credit for the way he fought against the odds and came quite close to success. It was indeed a near-run thing.

Wellington: The Iron Duke
The final stages of the Battle of Waterloo as Wellington’s troops begin to get the upper hand on the French.

What did the two commanders think of each other? Mutual respect or shared disdain?

Wellington greatly respected Napoleon’s military ability, and his slow start to the campaign in 1815 was partly due to his determination not to make a mistake that Napoleon could exploit. But he had no sympathy whatsoever for Napoleon’s regime or his rule in Europe, which he regarded as military despotism that ruthlessly exploited the peoples of the continent, including the French, for the benefit of a tiny elite. For his part Napoleon was seldom generous in his comments about any enemy, rival or even loyal subordinates, and he was particularly hostile to the British, and especially Wellington.

Did Wellington have an iconic tactic and what strategies did he employ on the battlefield?

Wellington fought all sorts of battles depending on circumstances: offensive battles, defensive battles, carefully prepared battles and battles where he seized an unexpected mistake by the enemy and attacked without warning. Over the course of the Peninsular War he worked hard to improve the professionalism of his army while the quality of his French opponents declined. He was able to take risks at Salamanca in 1812 that he would not have dared take in 1809 at Talavera, while by 1814 at Toulouse he undertook an extraordinarily bold manoeuvre on the French flank. Like all good generals he was essentially pragmatic and did not rely on any single tactic for his success.

What success did he have dabbling in politics and how did it affect his military career?

Wellington was closely involved in politics all his life: he was a member of parliament before he saw a shot fired in action, and a minister in the government when he landed in Portugal in 1808. He belonged to an important political family, and was well known to leading members of both the government and the opposition. At times this made him more controversial, but it also meant that ministers developed great confidence in his judgement, and this trust led them to support him in the defence of Portugal even when most informed military opinion regarded it as hopeless.

Wellington: The Iron Duke
Wellington on his horse at the Battle of Assaye. The Duke would later describe this as his greatest victory.

What was Wellington’s greatest victory?

That depends on what you mean by ‘greatest’. His most skilful victory, the one that sheds most credit on him as a general, was probably Salamanca, where he pounced on a slight mistake made by Marshal Marmont and in a few hours had completely routed the French army. But the victory with the most important consequences was undoubtedly Waterloo, which not only destroyed Napoleon’s attempt to regain power but ensured that Britain – and Wellington personally – would have great influence in determining the nature of the peace, with results that were certainly beneficial for Britain, France and Europe as a whole.

What was Wellington’s most shattering defeat?

Wellington never lost a battle, but his most disappointing campaign was in late 1812 after his victory at Salamanca and triumphant entry into Madrid. There were still too many French troops left in Spain, and his advance forced them to unite against him, while Wellington’s failure to capture the fortress of Burgos, despite repeated attempts, meant that a long and difficult retreat back to the Portuguese border was unavoidable. And yet even with the benefit of hindsight, it is very difficult to see how he might have maintained himself in Madrid unless the French opposing him made another serious mistake, and after Marmont’s defeat they were very cautious.

Wellington: The Iron Duke
Wellington addresses his troops at Waterloo, which was undoubtedly his most important victory.

He is often listed as one of the 100 greatest Britons. How can you assess his affect on the nation?

Wellington’s personal role was essential to Britain’s role in the Peninsular War and the Waterloo campaign. Without him, Napoleon might still have been defeated, but Britain’s part in his defeat would have been much less prominent and her influence in post-war Europe would have been much diminished. And that influence, as wielded by Wellington and Castlereagh, played a vital role in laying the foundations for a generation of peace, which enabled an exhausted Europe to recover from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

At home he ensured that Ireland was spared the horrors of a civil war in 1829 and helped reconcile the Tories to the lasting implications of the Reform Bill of 1832, so that within a decade they had a chance of resuming their place as the natural party of government. That opportunity was lost due to the party’s split over the Corn Laws, but Wellington nonetheless played a central role in managing the transition from the relatively closed, aristocratic government of the early 19th Century to the more broadly based, although still far from democratic system of Victorian times.

Is he the greatest general ever? Do his tactics still have an influence today?

Wellington was one of the most successful of great generals, but his career lacks the sweep and grandeur of Alexander, Genghis Khan or Napoleon. As a soldier he deserves to be remembered, among other things, for his commitment to protecting the local civilian population (whether allied, neutral or nominally enemy) as far as possible from the ravages of war. And for his care of his men, doing his utmost to ensure that they were kept well supplied, while at the same time enforcing strict discipline in order to prevent them pillaging and quarrelling with the local inhabitants. And, unlike a great many soldiers, writers and poets of his day, he was too realistic to be seduced by the romance and glamour of war. Very few great generals would remark immediately after their most important victory: “I have no feeling for the advantages that we have acquired,” and “that nothing, next to a battle lost, can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

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