Wellington’s Staff

Napoleon, according to Wellington’s recollection of a conversation with one of the emperor’s subordinates, never had a plan of campaign. ‘He always decided according to the circumstances of the moment. “It was always his object,” added the Duke, “to fight a great battle; my object on the contrary was in general to avoid to fight a great battle.”’ Wellington there does both Napoleon and himself injustice. In India the young Wellington had sought battle with the single-mindedness of the young Alexander, and for much the same reason: operating with a small élite army against a large, ill-assorted enemy army, he had no option but to attack. Napoleon, by contrast, attacked because he usually had numbers enough to ensure victory. ‘There are in Europe,’ he said, ‘many good generals, but they see too many things at once. I see only one thing, namely the enemy’s main body. I try to crush it.’ To that extent his plans were simple. But to find the one thing he wanted to see took forethought and time. Much of it was spent with his operations officer, Bacler d’Albe, crawling over a large map spread on the floor of his campaign tent, sticking in pins to mark the morrow’s destinations.

Wellington’s and Napoleon’s methods, if not their objects, were therefore more similar than either would concede. Both laid plans; but Wellington more cautiously and with less help from others. ‘I really have no assistance,’ he despaired to his brother William in September 1810. ‘I am left to myself, to my own exertions, to my own execution, the mode of execution, even the superintendence of that mode.’ Vignettes of Wellington, sitting alone in the doorway of his tent, writing, writing, writing, are certainly a staple of Peninsular memoirs. He wrote well and knew he wrote well. ‘They are as good as I could write now,’ he said to the Marchioness of Salisbury in 1834 of his wartime despatches. ‘They show the same attention to details – to the pursuit of all the means, however small, that could promote success.’ But the sense of doing everything himself was a rare Wellingtonian vanity, which he shared with the sort of pompous busybody he absolutely was not. Afflicted though he often was by incompetents (General Dalrymple ‘has no plan, or even an idea of a plan, nor do I believe he knows the meaning of the word Plan’ – all the worse because Dalrymple then commanded him) and by bores (‘still Admiral Berkeley bores me to death … his activity is unbounded … I never saw a man who had so good an education … whose understanding is so defective and who has such a passion for new invented modes of doing ordinary things’), he could generally count on intelligent and hard-working subordinates to aid him. Hudson Lowe, Napoleon’s future gaoler, was not one of them. Appointed chief of staff in Flanders in 1815, he was got rid of by Wellington before too late. But Murray, his quartermaster-general and effective chief of staff, and, to a lesser extent, Stewart, his adjutant-general, were both valued by him. Many of their subordinates, particularly Gordon and de Lancey, were also able staff officers, conscientious and competent. There were personal shortcomings: Stewart was ‘difficult’, Gordon officious, de Lancey long-winded. They were not in the class of Murray, the ‘perfect’ staff officer. But they were up to their jobs.

They were, nevertheless, very few. No army as yet had the sort of modern staff college which, as today, annually graduates a class of carefully selected and meticulously trained military bureaucrats. The output of the recently founded Senior Department of the Royal Military College, whom he stigmatized as ‘coxcombs and pedants’, though a score served on his staff, was tiny. The total number of staff officers – as opposed to ‘footmen, grooms, cooks, assistants, goatboys, carmen, huntsmen, batmen, orderlies, muleteers and farriers’ – at his headquarters in Spain was rarely more than twelve. They were the commandant of his personal headquarters and the military secretary, the adjutant-general and six deputies or assistants and the quartermaster-general, an assistant and a sketching officer. Aides-de-camp, Spanish liaison officers and interpreters to all these numbered eighteen. In addition, there were nine officers in the medical department, three paymasters and a score of commissary, provost and judge-advocate officials. Most of those personally attached to Wellington, who excluded the commissaries and paymasters, performed office duties only, what his brother-in-law, Edward Pakenham, called ‘this insignificant clerking business’.

The result of this understaffing – itself an effect of the want of training and experience in Wellington’s subordinates – was that he did indeed have to be his own staff officer most of the time. There were, of course, routine matters that he left to subordinates: finance and officers’ appointments (though he made the choice) to the military secretary, supply (though he was adamant about requirements) to the commissary-general, personnel to the adjutant-general and so on. But the essentials he kept under his own hand. They were movements, intelligence and operations.

Movement meant animals and foodstuffs. We have already seen his obsessive concern to acquire draught and pack animals and to keep them fit. Foodstuffs meant money. The British, unlike the French, did not live off the land, for two main reasons. His soldiers could not ‘shift for themselves’, he said; he meant that their foraging expeditions became drunken devastations. Moreover, in both India and the Peninsula, he sought to retain the goodwill of the locals. Therefore he bought rather than requisitioned, seeking, like a Victorian empire-builder, to create local markets. One of the consequences of looting, he complained in a general order of 1809, was that ‘the people of the country fly their habitations, no market is opened and the soldiers suffer in the privation of every comfort and every necessary’. Four years later, at St-Jean de Luz, the effect of his policies was clearly seen: ‘the town is now all a market or fair,’ wrote Larpent. ‘The French peasants are always on the road between this place and Bayonne, bringing in poultry, and smuggling out sugar in sacks on their heads.’ Prices were high but supply abundant.

Intelligence was more difficult to acquire than supply since it could not all be bought. In both India and the Peninsula, Wellington campaigned in mapless country, almost as mapless as Alexander’s Asia Minor. In the Peninsula he was to institute a mapping service of his own. In India, time and the enormity of space surrounding his army precluded that. He had to proceed as Alexander had done: by questioning locals, sending out spies and making reconnaissance.

His maplessness may not have been altogether the frustration we imagine. Good maps impose their own drawbacks, inflicting too much information on those who use them. To simplify what they tell requires direct observation of ground, which a commander may acquire himself or by questioning eyewitnesses. In that way he builds up a mental map of key points and their interconnections, of much the same sort as a chess master does of the nodal centres on his board. Alexander, whose mental map of the Persian empire probably had the Royal Road as its skeleton, undoubtedly operated by an inward vision. So, too, must Wellington have done agains Tippoo and the Mahrattas.

In Portugal and Spain he was better provided, though not much. Maps were few, incomplete and often very inaccurate. Fortunately the British army had outstanding mapping skills, developed in the making of the one-inch Ordnance Survey of England, of which the first edition had just been published (1801). At least six trained cartographic officers were therefore usually in the field, mapping at four inches to the mile. Others were actually infiltrated far behind French lines, where they mapped while maintaining liaison with a wide network of Spanish informers. In India Wellington had used the age-old network of professional double-agents (hircarrahs) to provide himself with the raw material of intelligence. In Spain, where the French were hated, intelligence came freely and plentifully; but it was his sifting and assessment that turned it into useful ‘product’.

And, ultimately, he found no substitute for the evidence of his own eyes. Always well-mounted, and a tireless, bold and skilful horseman, Wellington commonly rode scores of miles a day: forty-five before Assaye, when he discovered the ford that was the key to the position, sixty on two successive nights in Spain to catch officers in dereliction of their duty. A Peninsula veteran testified, ‘I have seen his fifteen valuable chargers led out by the grooms to exercise, with scarcely any flesh on their bones – so much were his horses used.’ We have his own account of the reconnaissance before Assaye. His Indian guides had denied that there was a passage but he insisted in seeing for himself. Noticing the locations of two villages, ‘I immediately said to myself that men could not have built two villages so close to one another on opposite sides of a stream without some habitual means of communication, either by boats or a ford – most probably by the latter.’ His judgement proved right and it gave him the victory.

Stored information also supplemented Wellington’s intelligence system. To both India and Spain he took a small library of topographical and historical books, which he enlarged in the country; on the way out to Spain he taught himself the rudiments of Spanish by reading the New Testament in that language (also to be Macaulay’s method of adding to his linguistic repertoire) and was delighted on landing to receive an address of welcome of which ‘to his own surprise he perfectly understood every word’ (but he had also learnt Urdu in India). Wellington was not an intellect perhaps of the same stature as Napoleon. Methodical though he was, he never hit upon an equivalent of the emperor’s remarkable means of storing essential information in a travelling filing cabinet, which kept him almost as instantly abreast of developments as does a modern data retrieval system. But his mental powers were very great indeed, in both assimilation and exposition. He gave his own description to his friend Stanhope of how his mind worked: ‘“There is a curious thing that one feels sometimes. When you are considering a subject, suddenly a whole train of reasoning comes before you like a flash of light. You see it all,” he went on, moving his hand as if something appeared before him, his eye with its brightest expression, “yet it takes you perhaps two hours to put on paper all that has occurred to your mind in an instant. Every part of the subject, the bearings of all its parts upon each other, and all the consequences are there before you.”’

This is not self-congratulation. The enormous volume of Wellington’s papers, impossible for him to have produced except by high-speed composition, testifies to the accuracy of the passage. Later in life he often drafted replies which he had fair-copied by another hand – the drafts being ‘crossed’ in the contemporary fashion on the letter to be answered, or written on the blank space if there were any. In India he seems to have written everything himself. In the Peninsula his methods were mixed. Sometimes he wrote, sometimes he spoke and expected his officers to render what he said into written form. It depended upon the time available.

In directing operations there was little time; and it was to operations that the movement of the army and the collection of intelligence both led. They were not ends in themselves. Wellington certainly often agonized long over whether to act or not; he himself spoke of his ‘cautious system’ during the Portuguese period, when inferiority of numbers kept him on the defensive for nearly three years. He certainly hesitated for weeks before Salamanca. Then, legend has it, he made the decision to attack while munching a chicken leg. Suddenly throwing the bone over his shoulder, he swept his telescope over the French position, and announced, ‘By God! That’ll do.’ He had seen a gap opening in the French deployment, into which he ordered Pakenham’s division.

Salamanca provided an unusual opportunity. Usually his discussions with his staff were more deliberative. We have an eye-witness account of his ‘orders group’ before the battle of the Nivelle in October 1813; the reporter is the famous Harry Smith, of the Rifle Brigade, then a divisional staff officer:

The Duke was lying down (a favourite posture) and began a very earnest conversation. [We] were preparing to leave the Duke, when he says ‘Oh, lie still.’ After he had conversed for some time with Sir G. Murray (the chief of staff), Murray took out of his sabretache his writing materials and began to write the plan of attack for the whole army. When it was finished, so clearly had he understood the Duke, I do not think he erased one word. He says, ‘My Lord, is this your desire?’ It was one of the most interesting scenes I ever witnessed. As Murray read the Duke’s eye was directed with his telescope to the spot in question. He never asked Sir G. Murray one question, but the muscles of his face evinced lines of the deepest thought. When Sir G. Murray had finished the Duke smiled and said, ‘Ah, Murray, this will put us in possession of the fellows’ lines. Shall we be ready tomorrow?’ ‘I fear not, my Lord, but next day.’

The scene is, indeed, of the greatest interest. It reveals exactly the division of labour in Wellington’s entourage. He decides; his chief adviser translates decision into paperwork and makes a technical judgement. From it action flows. The telescope occupies Wellington’s nervous energies while he thinks. Telescopes, unknown to Alexander, might appear an important addition to the commander’s tools, but they were of such low magnification – only three or four – that they did not greatly extend his range of vision. It was mental powers, not aids to them, which distinguished the true commander from the military functionary.

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