If there’s one occupation that invariably aroused the people’s admiration throughout mankind’s history, is that of the general. A victorious one, to be more precise. And few generals can claim as impressive a track record as Arthur Wellesley, better known as the 1st Duke of Wellington. The Battle of Waterloo, his final and most famous victory over Napoleon himself, put an end to the Napoleonic Wars and gained him enduring fame for the ages to come. But a battle doesn’t decide a war, and the Duke of Wellington is more than Waterloo. Keep scrolling and you’ll understand why.

1# Origins and upbringing

Arthur Wesley, as his family was called then, was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1769. His family belonged to the Anglo-Irish nobility, and that meant that they identified themselves as English first and foremost, and their allegiance was to the Anglican Church, as opposed to the majority of Irish who were Catholic. Arthur was the sixth of nine siblings.

He studied in Eton, where he later described himself as a shy, indolent, and dreamy boy, standing apart while other children played rowdy games. He didn’t enjoy neither football nor cricket, and wasn’t too good either in the classical studies, the backbone of an aristocratic upbringing back on the day. His French, the lingua franca of the period, would always remain ordinary too. Arthur’s mother, Anne Wellesley, Countess of Mornington, said of her boy: ‘he’s food for powder and nothing more.’ How right history was to prove her.  

2# Service in India

His older brother, Richard Wesley, a junior member of Pitt’s administration, secured him a commission in the army, where he begun as an ensign in the 73rd Highland Regiment of Foot. Thanks to Richard’s loans, he soon bought a major’s commission (buying commissions was a common practice back then) in the 33rd Foot. He also served as aide-de-camp for the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and entered politics as a member of the Irish Parliament.

He saw action for the first time in Flanders in 1794, in a disastrous invasion of Revolutionary France by the British. Afllicted by a lack of money, he sought his fortune in British India, sailing there with his batallion in 1797.  He served as Colonel in the war against Mysore and took part in the final conquest of Mysore’s capital, Seringapatam, where he remained as commander of its garrison until 1802. Then he was promoted to Major-General and given command of a British Army in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. He still had his brother to thanks. Richard had been appointed Governor-General of India in 1798.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Wesley in his uniform of the 33rd Foot. He was aged 26 here, shortly before travelling to India. Author: John Hoppner. Photography by: Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust. Collection: Stratfield Saye House

Arthur Wellesley (Richard had changed the family name in 1798) quickly proved himself worthy of His Majesty’s government confidence. He took the fortress of Ahmednuggur by swift storm, and defeated a Maratha army at Assaye, his 9000 men and 20 guns outnumbered at least four to one by the enemy. Arthur himself would often describe Assaye as his finest victory, one in which he showed natural instinct for topography and self-confidence. Moreover, throughout the entire campaign he demonstrated a ruthless attention to detail in logistics, because like Napoleon said: an army marches on its stomach.

3# The Peninsular War

The British public and Europe’s finest armies looked at the Indian wars and its contenders with contempt, and this rankled Arthur. That’s why in 1805 he set sail for Britain, stopping at St Helena (the future place of Napoleon’s second and finale exile) to resupply, and reached Britain in September, as the War of the 3rd Coalition begun. Independent command wasn’t fast coming this time but Arthur was never an idle man. He returned to Ireland to fulfill a promise to Catherine Dorothea Sarah Pakenham, whom he married in 1806. The marriage produced two children Arthur and Charles, although it always remained a tastless union to Arthur, who spent as little time as possible at home and always keep an ample supply of lovers, although in itself this wasn’t uncommon.

Catherine Wellesley, née Pakenham, and future Duchess of Wellington. Although she genuinely adored her husband and wished to make him happy, he found her boring and insufferable. Author: Thomas Lawrence. Source

After commanding a division in the expedition against Copenhaguen in 1808, Arthur was promoted to Lieutenant-General and offered to lead an expeditionary force to Venezuela. The goal was to aid the local nobility in overthrowing Spanish rule, then allies of France and enemies of Britain. All of that changed overnight when Napoleon forced the abdication of the Spanish king Charles IV and his son, the future Ferdinand VII, and replaced them with his brother, Joseph Bonaparte.

The Spaniards sought an alliance with Britain, and Arthur’s expeditionary force was redirected to Portugal, which also yearned to be free from French occupation. Arthur was to be superseded by Moore and Dalrymple, but before they took over, he defeated the French in the battles of Roliça and Vimeiro. Against better judgement, Dalrymple offered the defeated foe free evacuation (their booty included) on board of Royal Navy warships. The agreement known as the Convention of Cintra caused such an outrage in Britain that Arthur was recalled to face a board of enquiry. His name was cleared, and when General Moore died in action, he was restituted as commander of the Anglo-Portuguese army.

4# Defending Portugal

Arthur didn’t dawdle and expelled Marshal Soult’s army out of Portugal in May 1809, taking the French entrenched in Oporto by surprise, by quickly crossing of the river, and forcing Soult to abandon all his artillery in a retreat that costed him over 4.000 casualties. At the head of 20.000 Britons and Portuguese, he crossed the border with Spain to join General Cuesta’s 30.000, with whom he engaged Marshal Victor’s 46.000 strong army at Talavera, on July 27th and 28th 1809. Repulsing the French at a heavy cost, Wellesley was created Viscount Wellington of Talavera and Baron Douro of Wellesley for his successes.

Despite his tought stance against looting, and his determiantion that his soldiers should respect the Spaniards and Portuguese’s Catholic faith, the Spanish authorities and its incompetent military often got on his nerves. Cuesta’s promises to supply the British army weren’t met at all, and 1.500 wounded British left in his care after Talavera, were swiftly abandoned to the French. The latter were moving fast to cut his supply lines with Portugal, and the new Viscount of Wellington was forced to withdraw into Portugal.

Badly outnumbered by the new force of Massena threatening Portugal, Wellington devised a new plan to wear them out. The French had taken the city-fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida on the Spanish border, and although Wellington repulsed them at Bussaco, Massena found a way around the strong British position, forcing the latter to abandon Coimbra and withdraw towards Lisbon, the last stronghold of Portuguese independence. Confident of imminent victory, Massena ignored that in secret, the British and Portuguese had erected a massive line of forts, ditches, moats, and gun emplacements to protect Lisbon at all costs. Four lines punctuated by 152 fortifications and armed to the teeth with more than 600 cannons. The famous Lines of Torres Vedras, combined with Wellington’s enforced policy of scorched earth, inflicted more than 4.000 casualties on Massena and sent him reeling back to Spain to lick his wounds.

The Lines of Torres Vedras was considered the strongest set of fortifications at the time, and was instrumental in preventing Massena from taking Lisbon and forcing Wellington’s army out of Portugal. Author and source: Mapa das Linhas de Torres Vedras in: SORIANO, Simão Luz – História da Guerra Civil e do estabelecimento do governo parlamentar em Portugal. 2º época. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional, 1874. T. 3

5# The liberation of Spain

With Portugal free at last from the French, Wellington retook Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, after making Massena bite the dust again on the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 3rd 1811. The taking of Badajoz proved a much gruesome business though, so toilsome that even made the cold and unfeeling Arthur Wellington cry at the sight of the casualties. Grief soon turned into anger though, at the appaling scenes of plunder, rape, and massacre that his men protagonised.

On June 1812, his army moved towards Salamanca, where he inflicted a serious defeat on Marshal Marmont’s army, thus paving the way for the liberation of Madrid and of the whole of Andalusia, for the French forces stationed there retreated due to the danger of being cut off. The capital was liberated on August 12th, and Arthur was heaped with further honours by the Spanidards, including the appointment as Generalissimo of the Spanish army.

The Duke of Wellington, portrait by Francisco Goya between 1812-1814. On his chest he bears the medals for British, Portuguese, and Spanish orders. From the red ribbon his neck hangs the medal for the prestigious Order of the Golden Fleece, awared by the Spanish authorities after the liberation of Madrid. Author: Francisco Goya. Photography: National Gallery, London.

In Burgos, however, he suffered a reverse when the French garrison taxed him with heavy losses, forcing him to delay his plans to advance onto the French border. By 1813 however, French dominance in Europe was at an end. Napoleon’s catastrophic campaign in Russia, combined with Austrian, Prussian, and Russian offensives in Central Europe prevented him for sending the necessary reinforcements that his Marshals in Spain required. In Vitoria Wellington inflicted yet another defeat over Jourdan’s army, under the nominal command of King Joseph Bonaparte. Years of loot left in the wake of the French flight (including Joseph’s personal carriage and sword) distracted the British soldiers from serious pursuit.

The victory earned Wellington a promotion to Field Marshall, as he kept harrying the French, droving them back inch by inch in a string of battles at Pamplona, San Sebastian, Bidassoa, and the Pyrenees, before bringing the fight into French soil in November 1813. Forced by the weather to wait to take Bayonne until February 1814, he renewed his pursuit of his rival, Soult, to Toulouse, where on April 12th news came of Napoleon’s abdication.

6# Ambassador and Congress of Vienna

Elevated into Duke of Wellington and Duque de Ciudad Rodrigo, Arthur Wellesley returned home after an absence of five years. It was a brief visit. His services were needed in Paris, where he served as the British amabassador, making his best to dissaude the Allied forces of occupation of antagonising the malcontent French.

He was dispatched as British plenipotentiary in the Congress of Vienna, which was to discuss the new post-Napoleonic European order. He had been previously invited to take command of the British forces fighting the United States in North America, but he declined. This was providential, for while in Vienna, it was discovered that Napoleon had escaped from his imposed exile on the Island of Elba. The Emperor of the French was back.

7# The Battle of Waterloo

Declaring him an outlaw, the Allies prepared to move to depose him for good. With Austria and Russia furthest from the action and still mobilising, it fell to British and Prussian troops to bear the brunt of Napoleon’s offensive. This was carried against Brussels, where Wellington assumed command of a British-German-Dutch force, with the Prussian contingent commanded by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.

Napoleon’s plan of driving his own army between the allied ones went initially well. He soundly defated Blücher at Ligny, and while Ney’s engagement against Wellington in Quatre Bras remained indecisive, it forced the latter to abandon any ideas to rendzevous with the Prussians. The situation wasn’t yet hopless for the Allies. Wellington withdrew north to Waterloo (south of Brussels) choosing a strong position suited for defense. And although Blücher’s force were in retreat, they did so in good order and towards Wavre, in parallel with Wellington’s line of march and within supporting distance. Moreover, Napoleon had commited the folly of splitting his force in the eve of the confrontation with Wellington, by sending Grouchy at the head of 33.000 men to harry Blücher.

Map of the Waterloo campaign. Author: Ipankonin (Wikipedia user). Source

It was 18th June 1815. Slightly outnumbered by Napoleon (73.000 French to 68.000, and 252 guns to 150), Wellington’s line was well-protected by a ridge, and although it came closer of breaking under the heavy French assaults on the centre, the arrival of Blücher’s 50.000 strong army on Napoleon’s right flank decided the outcome of the battle and sealed Napoleon’s fate. The clash was so bloody that when told years later what a glorious thing a victory must be, he replied: ‘the greatest tragedy in the world, except a defeat’.

Initial dispositions and movements of the troops during the Battle of Waterloo. The possession of the farm of La Haye Sainte in the centre, became a strategic priority for both Napoleon and Wellington, but by the time the French took it, the Prussians were already engaging the French right and preventing Napoleon from breaking the Anglo-Dutch centre. Author: Ipankonin. Source

Napoleon abdicated for a second time and was exiled to the island of St Helena, where he died only six years later, in 1821. The two great generals of the age never met, and although Wellington used to say of Napoleon that his presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men, Napoleon always scorned Wellington’s deeds, derisively calling him ‘General Sepoy’ (due to his service in India). Had Napoleon not underestimated his capable opponent, the Battle of Waterloo might have ended very different.

8# Prime Minister and civil achievements

After the second restitution of the Bourbons, the Duke of Wellington resumed his duties as ambassador in Paris, and commander-in-chief of the army of occupation. Although respectful of the French as he had been of the Spaniards or the Indians, he was seen as the main responsible for France’s defeat, and several attempts were made on his life by discontent Bonapartists. Conversely, he received a hero’s welcome in England, where Parliament approved to purchase him an estate of five thousand acres in Hampshire. Together with his house in London, Apsley House, and Walmer Castle (the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, which he acquired on taking the post) Strafield Saye became Wellington’s official residence.

Still deeply unhappy with his wife, the Duke kept surrounding himself with lovers, while others like Mrs Arbuthnot, became friends and confidantes. The Duke resumed his role in domestic politics once more, accepting a seat in the cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance, although he accepted only on the condition that he wouldn’t be subjected to the directives of the Conservative (Tory) Party.

Even as Prime Minister (1828 to 1830) he often antagonised many in his party, as when he laboured to pass the Catholic Relief Act, which allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament. But although sympathetic to the common man, he was a reactionary by nature, and remained thoroughly opposed to the Reform Act of 1832, which sought to enfranchise a larger number of voters. Social unrest in Britain was rife as a result of the ideas spread by the French Revolution and by the rapid dislocation caused by the nascent Industrial Revolution. And although Wellington acknowledged the social injustices, he believed that even the slightest moderate reform would bring about revolution and civil strife as it had done in France. During this period his popularity experienced a sharp decline, and he was often hooted at the streets while Apsley House’s windows were stonned by the mob.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Portrait by John Jackson made during 1830-1831. Photography and collection: National Potrait Gallery, London. Source

His brief role as Prime Minister saw other notable achivements such as the establishment of a Police force in London, whose famous famous headquarters are still called Scotland Yard. And he was also one of the founding members of King’s College London, one of the most prestigious universities not only in the UK but worldwide. 

9# The death of the Iron Duke

A misshapen explosion of a howitzer during a test rendered the Duke deaf in the left ear, an incident which also permanently affected his balance. Shortly after his 70th anniversary he experienced a stroke, several seizures, and a general worsening of his health. But indefatigable as ever, he went on to serve as interim Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in Peel’s cabinet, and later minister without portfolio and Leader of the House of Lords. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in 1842, and all his other duties and businesses he conducted in a military fashion: with curtness and efficiency, but alas, lacking tact whatsoever. His popularity recovered soon enough, but he always remained cold and aloof at the shows of affection from the people, even cantankerous in his twilight. He was more spontaneous and demonstrative around children, often playing and indulging them all, both the offspring of guests and relatives, as well as strange children that might happen to be around.

The death of his wife in 1831, despite their strained relationship, was a bigger blow to Arthur that one might have anticipated. It was followed shortly after by the passing away of his close friend, Harriet Arbuthnot, in 1834, and by all of his siblings after 1842. In Walmer Castle, aged 83, Arthur Wellesley passed away on September 14th 1852, after enduring another stroke and a seizure. He was given a state funeral, which was often and it is still reserved for members of the royal house, and in another rare gesture, Queen Victoria ordered her household to go into mourning. The Duke of Wellington, whom Tsar Alexander I of Russia called the conqueror of the world’s conqueror, was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The First of May, 1851. By Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The Duke of Wellington offers a gift to Prince Arthur, on the arms of his mother, Queen Victoria. Prince Consort Albert stands on the background. Queen Victoria was much fond of the Duke and was very distressed by his passing. Photography and collection by: Royal Collection. Source

The Duke of Wellington remains to the day one of the most successful generals ever, his service record only matched by that of Napoleon himself. It can be safely said from him that was one of these few persons without whom history would have been entirely different. For all his qualities and flaws, the Duke of Wellington was a practical man, a soldier at heart, whose life philosophy, brief and direct like his person, can be summarised by this quote:

“All the business of war, indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do. That’s what I call guessing what is at the other side of the hill”

Arthur Wellesley. 1st Duke of Wellington
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