Wellington: The Consummate Professional



Wellington would give orders to anyone who needed direction, from division commander to lowly soldier.



Napoleon on the eve of Waterloo was to confront Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington for the first time. His Marshals urged caution, but Napoleon brutally put them down. `Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general’ he criticised, `now I tell you that Wellington is a bad general, that the English are bad troops’. So far as he was concerned ce sera l’affaire d’un déjeuner, literally `This’ll be a picnic’. His marshals remained dubious, `I earnestly hope so’ responded his Chief of Staff Marshal Soult.

Wellington, born in 1769, came from an impoverished Anglo- Irish gentry family. His background made him a driven man. He was rejected by the Pakenham family as `not up to scratch’ when he courted his future wife Kitty, which made him determined to prove otherwise. She took on the status of an objective won alongside his considerable military reputation by 1806, but by then she had `grown ugly by Jove!’

After first purchasing a commission, Wellesley’s army rise was meteoric, from Ensign at the age of 16 to Lieutenant Colonel and commander of the 33rd Regiment by 24. Once his brother secured the Governer- Generalship of India in 1798, Wellesley’s military future was assured. He played a major role in successfully defeating the Indian allies of the French in a series of battles culminating in a brilliant but costly victory at Assaye in 1803, emerging as the leading `Sepoy General’ with the rank of Major-General. India developed Wellesley’s hawkish eye for the importance of administrative logistical detail in difficult terrain, a characteristic that was to serve him well later in Spain.

His thirst for reputation continued to drive him. Successive victories against the French on the Spanish Peninsula from Vimiero in 1808 to Vittoria in 1812 followed by victories in the Pyrenees and the south of France earned him a formidable reputation and dukedom by 1814. Wellington’s understated charisma and superb economic management of his armies in Spain coupled with an acute eye for timing and recognition of when precisely to strike placed him in a class of his own. Above all, he showed himself to be the consummate defensive tactician. He was now to do battle for the first time with the master of manoeuvre and attack.

Much has since been made of the similarities between the two opposing commanders at Waterloo, but on the eve of battle they were as academic as they are now. Both were born on islands in the same year, Napoleon on Corsica and Arthur Wellesley in Ireland. Both lost their fathers while young and both were educated in France. Ironically they were to share the same mistresses in Paris, were at ease with mathematics and the study of maps and topography. Hannibal was jointly admired and Ceaser’s `Commentaries’ taken on campaign.

Wellington’s pinnacle of success was, however, to prove Napoleon’s nadir. It was the differences that set them apart. Wellington unlike Napoleon was at the top of his game – soon to be demonstrated at Waterloo – while Napoleon was past his prime. The coolly calculating Wellington was intellectually sharp enough to appreciate that Napoleon would be unpredictably dangerous, but was supremely confident he could deal with him. Despite the early dubious performance of the British army on land, directly experienced by Wellesley in Flanders in 1793, he was not intimidated by the French, claiming in 1808 that:

`I am not afraid of them, as everybody else seems to be; and secondly, because if what I hear of the system of manoeuvre is true, I think it is a false one as against steady troops. I suspect all the continental armies were more than half-beaten before the battle was begun’.

From Talevera on the Spanish Peninsula in 1809, Wellington was to demonstrably prove that his thin red line was the perfect foil for Napoleon’s battering-ram approach with massed columns. Napoleon had respect for Wellington’s victories in the difficult Peninsula, but considered him out of his own league in terms of military prowess. Wellington had fought 24 battles and sieges before Waterloo, and all but one, the siege of Burgos, had been victories. Napoleon had won 60 of his 70 battles and all of them of far greater scale. He had led armies of 200,000 men while concurrently acting as head of state. The forces about to close at Waterloo were only about this in total.

Napoleon projected la Gloire de France, whereas Wellington presented the image of a `gentleman’ player. Although this modest façade suggested the gifted amateur can always prevail, beneath the relaxed demeanor lurked a consummate professional.

Wellington even dressed like an amateur. The only concession to uniform at Waterloo was a low cocked hat adorned with the four cockades of Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Apart from this he wore comfortable civilian clothes. Lord Edward Somerset, commanding a brigade of the Household Cavalry remarked that Wellington passed him by at Waterloo as if `riding for pleasure’. This irreverent approach endeared him to his soldiers, not taken with too much finery, detecting in this a more practical professional.

Wellington’s dullness of dress in fact marked him out on the battlefield, which was part of the intention, to inspire confidence. Napoleon was revered, even loved by his soldiers whereas Wellington held the unqualified respect of his. He had learned what not to do under the misguided management of the Duke of York in the Flanders campaign of 1793. Unfortunate lessons tend to be more enduring than those from success. When Sergeant William Wheeler, a Peninsula veteran with the 51st Regiment learned that Wellington rather than the inexperienced Prince of Orange would be leading them in Belgium he wrote in his diary:

`Our men were almost frantic, every soldier you met told you the joyful news. `Glorious news. Nosey has got the command: won’t we give them a drubbing now”.

Wellington’s taut, lithe and athletic demeanor physically demonstrated he was in his prime, unlike the flabby Napoleon, who was the same age. Wellington’s physical stamina, gained from long years campaigning in Spain and Portugal was undiminished. There was no sallow skin, paunch, curtailment of riding or unintentional dozing during the day. He had less than three hours sleep during the night of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on 15/16th June after discovering that Napoleon had moved into Belgium. He directed operations from the saddle continuously until midnight the following day, riding from Brussels to Quatre-Bras, to Frasnes, to Ligny then back to Quatre-Bras and then on to Genappe covering 50 to 60 kilometres. His second day in the saddle on the 17th June after only another three hours sleep meant a further 20 kilometres and no sleep until midnight. On the day of the battle on the 18th Wellington was up at 03.00 and riding by 06.00 and would be in the saddle for the next 16 hours, directing an extremely close run battle, with all the physical shocks and emotional tensions that that entails. Many of his staff were killed around him. By the end of the battle Wellington had achieved maybe nine hours sleep out of 72, with at least 55 of these on horseback.

This understated strength was personified by a solitary nature, which added to his aura of competence. He was a disciplinarian, often stern with an outwardly cold and aloof manner and extremely sparing in his praise. Plans were always played close to his chest, which often caused complaints and umbrage among his staff and might occasionally reduce morale. He never felt any obligation to explain himself. When his second in command Lord Uxbridge mustered the courage to ask what the plan for Waterloo might be, Wellington responded:

`Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects; and as my plans will depend on his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?’

Little blame could be attached to the surprise caused by Napoleon’s skillful insertion of his own army between the two Allied armies because Wellington never publicly conjectured what might happen. He realised he was at a disadvantage at Waterloo, but characteristically never gave any sign of it. He simply awaited Napoleon’s next move, having established himself in a strong defensive position, but knowing he was cut off from his Prussian allies.

Wellington, unlike Napoleon, rarely if ever delegated on the battlefield. As a consequence he was on the move all day, generally mounted, dashing from trouble spot to trouble spot with his staff trailing behind. Battlefield orders were given personally direct, or if appropriate by staff officers. He would address anybody he needed to, from division commander to lowly soldier. Tight control was maintained. Quick decisions were made and orders issued at every stage of the battle. At Waterloo the Duke characteristically gave orders to those he considered the battle-winners: the infantry or artillery. He left Uxbridge to lead the cavalry.

Wellington was a brilliant defensive tactician and a proven master of profiting from his enemy’s mistakes. He waited for Napoleon to display some. Despite being temporarily out manoeuvred, he continued to superbly manage his army economically. Wellington’s personal demeanour radiated confidence and he could be positively lethal in the timing of his offensive counter-strokes. He waited on the dominant ridge, his Anglo-Allied force occupied and prepared to check-mate his opponent, should there be any mistakes in the opening moves. Wellington believed his pithy and pragmatic responses would far outweigh any `fancy’ schemes the French might throw at him. As he later explained in a conversation recorded by Sir William Fraser:

`They [the French] planned their campaigns just as you might make a splendid piece of harness. It looks very well; and answers very well; until it gets broken; and then you are done for. Now I made my campaign of ropes. If anything went wrong, I tied a knot and went on’.

One thought on “Wellington: The Consummate Professional

  1. Nice article. I’m always glad to read about the Duke.

    Small quibble — it’s a judgment call, but I cannot agree that he was as reputation-driven as you suggest. He defied public scorn many times in his life, not least when he had to install iron shutters at Apsley House to prevent mobs angry over the Reform Bill from breaking his windows.


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