Why I enjoy studying Wellington


"... and the readers will have to make their own judgement as to whether any given statement represents
(a) what happened
(b) what he believed happened
(c) what he would like to have happened
(d) what he wanted others to believe happened
(e) what he wanted others to believe that he believed happened."
Jay and Lynn "The Complete Yes Minister"

I think one of the reasons I like Wellington is that there is no bullshit about him; what you see is the way he was, warts and all. Napoleon always seemed to be playing to the crowd, making the grand gesture, even his private letters have an element of this about them as though he expected them to become public and wrote what he thought his public would expect. You can never be sure you're seeing the real person. Of course Wellington did have to consider the politics and his letters to Horse Guards are always carefully worded to present matters in the best possible light. But his private letters, to his brothers William and Henry for example, are untouched by such considerations and often show the signs of stress and frustration which led to the occasional outbursts. He was quite open about the need for tact in public communications from his Head Quarters as in his comment on Beresford's Albuera despatch: "Come, come, write me a victory". The casualty figures couldn't be hidden, but the fact that Beresford had prevented the French relieving Badajoz should be emphasised. Napoleon himself relied more on Wellington's despatches (as printed in the English papers) than on his Marshals' reports to keep himself abreast of the position in Spain, a telling testament to their fundamental accuracy.

So when reading quotes from Wellington one should always consider the audience for which is it intended. An official despatch to Horse Guards will rarely be negative in tone. A letter to Colonel Torrens, secretary at the Horse Guards, will be less formal, and he felt enough confidence in Torrens to let himself go a bit. His letters to his brothers, Henry and William are where he lets off steam - they are his safety valve. They often start with a blast of fury and irritation, but usually end up with a statement to the effect of "Ah well, these things are sent to try us and we must bear them and get on with things."

This leads in to the other reason I like studying Wellington: he was such a complex and intricate character. In some ways a man of his time, he was in others well ahead of it. Born in the establishment (even if it was an impoverished part of it) the mature Wellington believed that he had the right to command, but that he also had the responsibility to ensure that he did so competently and to the best of his ability. In an age of extravagance, he was abstemious. He was a health fanatice 150 years before the concept was invented.

He hadn't always been so conscientious. As a child he seems to have been extremely introverted, caring for nothing but music. In the financially troubled period following his father's death, he was removed from Eton since his results could not justify the expenditure. His brother and mother didn't know what to do with him, and in desperation sent him to a military academy in France to prepare him for a possible army career. At this stage he was still drifting. His brother obtained (through a mix of cash and influence) an army commission for him, plus an appointment to the Vice-Regal court in Dublin (which doubled his pay and theoretically made him financially independent). He seems to have had little interest in his profession, and spent most of his time socialising and running into debt, just another one of the Vicereine's "awkward squad". What turned him around was the shock of his rejection by Kitty Packenham's family. Whether the greater injury was to his heart or his pride, it seems clear that the event brought him up short and made him take a long look at himself, his current situation and future prospects. He seems to have developed a revulsion for the sort of person he had become.

The change was sudden and astonishing. The violin disappeared, and the young Wellesley set about becoming a model army officer and seeking active service. Richard was encouraged enough to mortgage more of the family estates to purchase his brother's promotion. Fortunately for Arthur this was the period of greatest corruption in the army purchase system. In 1793 Revolutionary France declared war on England and the corruption was coupled to a period of great expansion in the size of the army and hence the number of officers required. A young officer keen to serve actively could rise through the ranks in a matter of months. By the end of the year, Wellesley was in command of a battalion on the front line in Holland in the army nominally commanded by Frederick, Duke of York. The two men who were to turn Britain's military record around were on a steep learning curve. Both, in the shambles of the retreat to Bremen, "learned what not to do". Both put the lesson to good use in their later careers.

It was almost certainly at this time that he began the habit of thinking situations through and writing them out in the form of a series of personal memos. The earliest extant examples from India indicate a well established practice. All through these years he was reading widely and thinking deeply on matters ranging from rights and responsibilities to honour and duty. He was analysing and improving the management of his regiment, separating the essential from the ornamental in military practice and developing the command priorities he was to practice for the rest of his career. In India he observed the excesses of his fellow Europeans, and began to practice the abstemious and fastidious habits for which he was noted in later life. The debts he had left in Ireland were on his conscience, and his new found sense of duty and obligation ensured that they were the first thing paid out of his Indian fortune on his return to Europe. His thoughts on the responsibilities of the ruling class meant that the tradesmen were paid first.

He was no angel though. He was vain of his appearance, and liked to dress in clothes that showed his lean figure to advantage, but this vanity never ruled him. He had (albeit fairly late compared with his brothers) proved his intellectual capacity by mastering his profession in a very short time, and developed an arrogant contempt for those who were lazy or incapable, a trait which was to cause problems in later life. He had no time for fools, no matter what their background, but amongst the non-fools he preferred the company of the socially elite. He was still quite shy in some ways and never easy with strangers, particularly those from a different social class and a meeting with a ranker would have him tongue tied. He had a temper which he usually controlled, but he was not above lashing out at whoever happened to be present when he did lose it. He didn't apologise for mistakes, though he often tried to make it up to the victim in another way. He also liked the company of women, particularly clever ones.

As he came to realise and accept his capabilities, he became ambitious to demonstrate them by commanding in his own right. Despite this, his belief in discipline and the sanctity of the chain of command meant that he was usually a punctilious subordinate, though occasionally guilty of dumb insolence privately. The corollary to this was his expectation of absolute obedience when he was in command. But command meant responsibility, and just as he refused to be blamed for his superiors mistakes (e.g. the Convention of Cintra) when in command he himself he took responsibility for all decisions.

On his return to England he found his achievements in India disregarded. It was a major come-down, and it took a major effort to rationalise his way through the period. His watchword became 'duty'.

I am nimmukwallah, as we say in the East; that is, I have eaten of the King's salt, and, therefore, I conceive it to be my duty to serve with unhesitating zeal and cheerfulness, when and wherever the King or his Government may think to employ me.
(Letter to a friend 1806, Despatches, II, p616 footnote)

Thus speaks the mature (though not yet famous) Arthur Wellesley, explaining to a friend why he wasn't whinging to all and sundry about being given a minor and undistinguished command. He had paid all his debts and had enough left of his Indian fortune to keep himself and his new wife in modestly comfortable circumstances if wisely invested and used economically. That's not to say that he didn't want an active command. He had sense enough, however, to realise that publicly playing the prima donna or sulking in his tent was unlikely to get him what he wanted. On the contrary demonstrating a willingness to do the "dirty jobs" when asked and doing them competently was more likely to impress those whose opinions counted in this matter.

Contrary to popular belief, his aristocratic origins and connections, so useful in the early stages of a military career, were more of a hindrance than a help by this time:

In the first place, they thought very little of any one who had served in India. An Indian victory was not only no ground of confidence, but it was actually a cause of suspicion. Then because I was in Parliament, and connected with people in office, I was a politician, and a politician never can be a soldier. Moreover, they looked upon me with a kind of jealousy, because I was a lord's son, 'a sprig of nobility', who came into the army more for ornament than use ... they thought I could not be trusted alone with a division. ... When the Horse Guards are obliged to employ one of those fellows like me in whom they have no confidence, they give him what is called a second in command - one in whom they have confidence - a kind of dry nurse.

Wellington developed a rooted objection to seconds in command!

Wellington was not a sentimentalist, and wasted no time on futile regrets or repinings. In the Peninsular he was too busy to think of anything but plans and organisation:

You ask me if Lord Wellington has recollected - with regard? He seems to have had a great opinion of him, but scarcely ever mentioned him to me. In truth, I think Lord Wellington has an active, busy mind, always looking to the future, and is so used to lose a useful man, that as soon as gone he seldom thinks more of him. He would be always, no doubt, ready to serve any one who had been about him, or the friend of a deceased friend, but he seems not to think much about you when once out of the way. He has too much of everything and everybody always in his way to think much of the absent.
F. S. Larpent, Private Journal, p 227

Wellington was a great believer in pragmatism and flexibility. This was expressed in various ways, such as his belief in "accommodation":

Half the business of the World, particularly that of our Country is done by accommodation, & by the parties understanding each other. But when rights are claimed they must be resisted if there are no grounds for them; when Appeal must be made to higher authorities there can be no accommodation, & much valuable time is lost in reference, which ought to be spent in action.
Letter to Charles Villiers, minister at Lisbon, 1809, Despatches, V, p163

Another is his attitude to campaign planning as compared to that of French Marshals:

They planned their campaigns just as you might make a splendid set of harness. It looks very well, and answers very well, until it gets broken; and then you are done for. Now I made my campaigns of ropes. If anything went wrong, I tied a knot and went on.
from Sir W. Fraser Words on Wellington, p. 35
Really when I reflect upon the characters and attainments of some of the General officers of this army ... on whom I am to rely ... against the French Generals ... I tremble: and, as Lord Chesterfield said of the Generals of his day, 'I only hope that when the enemy reads the list of their names he trembles as I do.'

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