Wellington’s Wars

Huw Davies

Posted on 28 December 2020

I bought this book slightly on impulse at St Paul’s Cathedral gift shop. I was expecting a swashbuckling, Boy’s Own, description of battles, like a 19th Century Andy McNabb. I flicked through and saw a few maps with army positions on them and was sold.

The reality when I started reading was nothing like I hoped. This is an academic history book which when I started reading had me reaching for Google and thinking it might be a bit over my head. As an academic work it assumes some knowledge of the period and of Wellington and Napoleon which if you don’t have you’ll want to do some research to understand. It was worth it though. This book is exciting and fascinating, with first-rate research and an excellent style. You will have to make an effort to read it, but you will be glad you did.

The opening parts are about Arthur Wellesley’s early exploits in India as a junior officer. He is put in command of a simple mission and botches it, and opened to the question as to whether this early failure influenced his later reckless decisions. He gradually regains trust and reforms the logistical operations, with many soldiers dying of starvation on the march. He develops his own style of light and quick to deal with the tactics of the insurgents, which will later influence his battle style.

In 1809 Wellington graduates from India to fight Napoleon, whose army has invaded Spain and are knocking on the door of Portugal. Portugal is the UK’s oldest ally. Being small and not economically powerful, we have swapped protection of their continental border for a landing-point for invasions of Europe.

Over a six-year period, Wellington drives back Napoleon from Portugal, then through Spain and into France. There are successes and failures, good and bad allies, successes and mistakes on all sides. Napoleon is briefly exiled on Elba but escapes and rallies his armies for the decisive battle of Waterloo, where as we already know Napoleon did surrender. Wellington came back to the UK a hero and went on to become Prime Minister, while I live in Waterloo, next to Waterloo Station, Waterloo Bridge and The Wellington pub, as a result of that battle in Belgium.

We are plunged straight away into the brutality of 19th Century war while the tone remains academic and unsentimental, allowing facts to always speak for themselves without comment. The British Army were constantly undersupplied, leading to the starvations and to the blind-eye to pillaging. The Portuguese and Spanish had the misfortune to be pillaged first by the invading French army and then again by the liberating British army, but with inadequate supplies and soldiers starving, the pillaging was de rigeur. On capturing a Spanish fortress town that had put up several days resistance and cost many lives, the rape, torture and pillage was allowed to continue for 72 hours straight, which some of the generals described as every single beast rising up from hell. In India, a town who realised the British were coming and they would not be able to defend themselves, slit the throats of their wives and children so as not to let the British soldiers have them, and fought to the death.

The political games show through right from the start and the fact that Wellington became excellent at playing his games, was probably his most important skill as a general. The constant battles with politicians back in the UK with the variable support for the war, and having to change plans or fight without supplies as a result, through to the alliances with foreign leaders from local to national, the UK has never been big enough to drive an army back through Europe alone, and has relied on allies with partially-aligned interests. We may fight them after, we may even be preparing to, but we make do with what we’ve got and make the best of it. Politicians want the glory of war but don’t want to support it.

Our commonly-stereotyped trait is that the UK renege on the deals we’ve made and cannot be trusted, leading to the nickname Perfidious Albion. I had never heard this phrase before and had to Google it then two days after, Boris Johnson announced his intention to break international law and the French press erupted with accusations of L’Albion Perfide. Seems on the continent it’s a bit better known. Maybe we are shrewd to the point of ruthlessness, maybe we are just assholes. I don’t care.

The need to spin the military action to politicians back home is also why Waterloo is called Waterloo. The battle of Waterloo was staged over a 20 mile square area in Belgium and the village of Waterloo was where Wellington held his headquarters. Wellington could not have won without the support of the Prussian army, who had a mutual interest in defeating Napoleon. On winning, the Prussian commander suggested that it be recorded as the Battle of La Belle Alliance, after a village by that name close by and the hand of friendship, The Beautiful Alliance referring not only to the place but to the beautiful alliance between the two countries. Wellington rejected it immediately, arguably through pride or political necessity, and spun it to British peope as a British win.

In a fantastic example of this, the book opens with a portrait of Wellington painted in celebration of Waterloo. The artist originally painted him holding a pocket watch, and when Wellington asked why he was holding a watch, the painter replied ‘because you’re waiting for the Prussians to arrive’. Wellington had the watch painted out and compromised with a telescope. Waterloo had to be a British win, and a Wellington win. 

The blurb on the back of the book suggests that this book is controversial in contemporary scholarship around Wellington. I know nothing about this but the feel I get through the book is that the accepted opinion is that Wellington was a military genius who never made mistakes, but the truth is that his political and logistical nous were as important to him as his bravery and operational skills. Not knowing anything about Wellington research, I remain blissfully ignorant and free to enjoy the book without opinions.

This is an amazing book. Whether it’s the political wrangling, the horror of 19th Century war, the audacity of the generals or the bravery of the soldiers, it just stops you in your tracks over and over. The academic and emotionless presentation allows the information to shine through better than any fiction.