Useful Notes: The Duke of Wellington

The Proud Duke of Wellington, Commander in Chief

All the business of war, and 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 called "guessing what was at the other side of the hill."

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington KG KP GCB GCH PC FRS (1769-1852), was one of the leading military and political figures of the early nineteenth century. He is often referred to as one of the greatest English generals of all time, except that he was Irish. Indeed his real name is Arthur Wesley, he added the "lle" later. His supposed response (not recorded until after his death) to people pointing out his Irish birth was something along the lines of 'If a man is born in a stable, that doesn't make him a horse', a sentiment which didn't stop him marrying an Irish woman or the Irish building a 200 ft tall monument in his honor. To be fair, his comments stemmed from a dislike of the Protestant and often power-abusing Irish aristocracy rather than the "normal" Irish (Catholic or Protestant), whom he regarded as reasonably good soldiering material and thought no worse of than the "normal" English, Scottish or Welsh (which is to say, he didn't think of them very often).

His military career was rapid, reaching the rank of Colonel in 12 years thanks to the peculiar British system of purchasing promotions. Despite an extremely impressive military career in India, he did not come to real prominence until the Napoleonic Wars,note  and was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal after leading the allied forces to victory against the French at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Following Napoleon's exile in 1814, he served as the ambassador to the Congress of Vienna and was granted a dukedom. During the Hundred Days in 1815, he commanded one of the the allied armies which defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

One of Britain's more quotable war leaders after Winston Churchill. Perhaps his most famous quote is "Our army is the scum of the earth - the merest scum of the earth." This is something of a Beam Me Up, Scotty!, however, as it sounds far harsher than intended due to people leaving out the second part: " it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are."

He was Tory Prime Minister 1828-1830 and again for less than a month in 1838. He also named a third ministry: the short-lived first Cabinet of The Earl Of Derby in 1852 was the first time the Protectionist wing of the Conservative Party had governed, and so had a lot of new names (e.g. Benjamin Disraeli); when these unfamiliar names were read out in the Lords, the aging and hard-of-hearing Duke interjected, "Who? Who?", and behold! the First Derby Ministry is forever known as the "Who? Who? Ministry".

He will also wear any kind of trousers he likes, damn you.
The Duke's Magnificent Boots At Apsley House in London, Minus His Feet, (Which Means the Duke Must Be Barefoot...or Wearing Other Shoes...)

Yes, he had boots named after him. No, they were not rubber (not yet possible at the time — Westerners knew about rubber but couldn't yet make anything like that from it). They were leather, but the rubber ones are of the same style. The capital city of New Zealand was named after him, and the dish Beef Wellington might be named after him.

The Hero of Waterloo

The Duke in fiction:

  • Stephen Fry does a most awesome depiction of him in Blackadder The Third as an ignorant, bellowing, violent bully, who sees tactical ability and inspired leadership as entirely secondary to the truly important quality needed for an army: shouting. This is rather unfair to the good Duke, though he does play along with Blackadder's plot to replace the incompetent Prince of Wales with the far more competent himself.
  • Obviously we see him in Sharpe.
  • Appears as a secondary character in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Gets his own short story, "The Duke Of Wellington Misplaces His Horse", in the followup short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu.
  • Flashman encounters the Duke once or twice, or at least references his opinions. Most notably in the first novel, where he receives a medal from Queen Victoria and a handshake from Wellington; it's the second one he is most proud of.
  • Has a fairly prominent role in the fifth book of the Temeraire series, Victory of Eagles.
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage takes place in an alternate timeline where the duke became Prime Minister on account of his superior bone structure and entertainment value.
  • The four surviving Bronte children, also Anglo-Irish, were obsessed with the Duke and made up elaborate sustained imaginative games about him, lasting into their twenties. They crafted an enormous paracosm around him, writing novels, short stories, plays and poems. They had him lead an expedition to colonize Africa, then leave his son Arthur in charge. Arthur became the Duke of Zamorna, a figure of almost superhuman courage, beauty and spirit.
  • Visual Innuendo in this satirical cartoon about the Duke's womanising. What a big cannon he's got.

Tropes associated with Wellington:

  • A Father to His Men: In his own, "Well Done, Son!" Guy way, he was — the men fought specifically for his approval. A famous quotation from him is often used to bash him and claim that he was not one of these. It is always a) taken out of contextnote  and b) they always leave off the second part of the quotation:
    Wellington: Our army is made up of the scum of the earth, the mere scum of the earth...but what fine fellows we have made of them!
  • Appropriated Appellation: Kind of; "Iron Duke" was an insulting nickname given to him in later years by parliamentary reformists, referring to the shutters on his windows he installed to protect him from mobs enraged by his policies — but it's usually misremembered as describing him as a Badass on the battlefield. Insult Backfire?
  • Arch-Enemy: Napoleon might have been his, but he was hardly Napoleon's. At best, before Waterloo, Napoleon considered Wellington a (massively annoying) thorn in his side, responsible for all of his troubles in Spain. However, Wellington took a very intelligent technical interest in Napoleon's strategic methods ... and also made a point of sleeping with two of Napoleon's mistresses.
    • In public at least, where Napoleon admitting anybody, let alone his greatest enemy, was his equal was never going to happen. Instead the private writings of Napoleon show that Napoleon certainly did think of Wellington as a rival and one with fantastic ability as a general able to negate much of what made Napoleon so effective. The fact that Napoleon attempted to have Wellington assassinated shows that there was plenty of bitterness on a personal level toward Wellington. Oddly enough Waterloo was the opposite, acknowledging Napoleon in public yet privately disparaging him. Trying to undermine Wellington as a real rival was ploy by Napoleon to unsettle his rival (which ultimately failed) whom he was very aware of and who would ultimately defeat him in battle.
  • Awesome McCoolname: His first name was used as evidence to claim he was the Second Coming of King Arthur, a claim which he rejected vehemently.
  • Bad Ass: He never lost a battle. Never. And he fought only one with superior numbers (Vitoria).note 
  • Badass Boast: He made several understated ones.
    • " I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there." — On Waterloo.
    • "Napoleon came on in the same old way, and we beat him in the same old way." — On Waterloo.
    • "Mistaken for me, is he? That's strange, for no one ever mistakes me for Mr. Jones." — On his resemblance to the painter George Jones.
    • "No matter madam. I have seen their backs before." — His remark to the hostess at a formal reception when she apologized for some French officers who turned their backs on him as he entered.
  • Blackmail: Wellington rather magnificently averted this trope when he could have been the victim. In 1824, Harriette Wilson, a famous courtesan, asked for money to leave the Duke out of her scandalous memoirs. Wellington's response was "Publish and be damned!" He did also threaten to sue for libel, but he didn't do so — possibly because some or most of what was in the book was true. By then, he evidently realized, he had a Controversy-Proof Image.
  • Blue Blood: The Duke was a complete snob when it came to the lower orders. He was once quoted as saying "I'd rather have talent with a title, than talent without."
  • Boring but Practical: Wellington was never the most flashy or unpredictable of Generals, but he stuck with what worked and was a superb logistics commander, this being one of his major advantages over his Napoleonic rivals.
    • He once said that Napoleon's strategy was made of harness and his was made of rope. Napoleon's was beautiful to look at but would shrivel up if anything snapped, whereas Wellington's was ugly and makeshift, but for that reason very easy to patch up when something went wrong.
    • It is often said that Wellington was unimaginative in attack. He was not, but he simply knew what he was doing. He was able to pull spectacular outflanking moves out his hat (such as at Assaye, where he knew the terrain better than the Indian scouts who had grown up there), but usually didn't have to: he knew how to collapse enemy positions. Put it this way, let's say a general defending against Wellington needs to do 20 things right. Chances are, he will do around 16 of them right. Wellington will do all 20 of his things right, and so win without needing to be showy. At Waterloo, when he faced the only man in the world close to his own ability, he stood firm, confident in the superior abilities (particularly in respect of fire rate) of his soldiers. And he won.
  • Bribing Your Way to Victory: The reason Wellington made Colonel so quickly and without actually serving in the field was that he bought his way up the ranks. Obviously he turned out to suit the position, though, and anyway, "bribery" is the wrong word. He wasn't paying someone off to promote him when he didn't deserve it. Purchasing a commission was a normal and legal way of gaining a commission in the British army at the time. On the continent, officers had to wait their turn (by order of seniority) for posts to become vacant through the holder dying, being promoted, or retiring. This obviously took longer, especially in times of peace. That officers were promoted on merit was usually an exception; it was only in Wellington's time that merit-based training of officers (at Sandhurst) became usual (as part of the reforms of Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Forces 1795-1809 and 1811-1827; these same reforms were responsible for building Wellington's army in the Peninsular War). The system of purchasing commissions was not completely ended and replaced by merit-based promotion until 1871 with the Cardwell Reforms.
  • Control Freak: And quite a big one at that.
    • He even went so far as to scold an officer for actually improving his supply route. To be fair, Wellington felt that he had to take on as many duties as he could to combat the Surrounded by Idiots situations he generally found himself in.
    • He would keep his plans secret even from his second in command, which could have led to grief had he been killed or incapacitated in the field. In most ways he and his army still belonged to the 18th century, which worked because it still had an 18th-century size. (The more modern Prussian high command kept functioning well even when Field Marshal Blücher went missing — trapped under his dead horse — at Ligny in 1815.)
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Duke showed shades of this on occasion; when he was looking over a list of officers being shipped over from Britain to fight underneath him, he commented "I have no idea what impact they'll have on the enemy but by God they scare the life out of me."
    Victoria: Arthur, what do you think we should do about the sparrows infesting the Crystal Palace?
    Wellesley: Sparrowhawks, ma'am.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep
  • Frontline General: Inherently somewhat unavoidable for field commanders in the period, given engagement and firearms ranges — and Wellington had to dodge French cavalry charges personally on occasion. The casualty rate among his staff officers, close colleagues, and professional friends, got pretty horrifying.
  • He Also Did: We is well known for his battlefield career, but his later political career is much less famous — partly because any recounting of his political career casts him in a less-than-positive light by modern standards, what with his staunch opposition to parliamentary reform, whereas his exemplary career as a commander is much less contentious.
  • Knight Fever:
  • Living Legend: In Britain, Wellington was widely seen as the hero of the Napoleonic Wars and savior of his country, which certainly didn't hurt his subsequent political career. Not everyone agreed with his politics, by any means, but they all knew of him.
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: His contemporaries hailed Waterloo as his greatest battle, and it is certainly the one with which he is most associated. Historians generally consider Vitoria, Talavera, or Salamanca to have been his finest. He himself considered the Battle of Assaye to be his greatest achievement, when he destroyed an Indian army of 70,000 men with his own 10,000, using a hidden ford even his own Indian scouts didn't know about. Assaye also shattered the Second Maharatta coalition and forced Dowlat Rao Scindia to sue for peace.
  • No Indoor Voice: His portrayal in Blackadder the Third is actually fairly accurate in that respect: Wellington really did shout an awful lot.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Really didn't like them, as is demonstrated by this delightfully snarky memo he sent back to the Foreign Office during the Peninsular War:
    Whilst marching to Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and then by dispatch rider to our headquarters.
    We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty's Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.
    Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion's petty cash and there has been hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in Western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.
    This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternate duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability but I cannot do both:
    1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the betterment of the accountants and copy boys in London or, perchance,
    2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Whilst he was naturally extremely patriotic, he considered overstated displays of nationalism to be absurd and dangerous. He later recounted that the most inane remark he had heard in his life was a Portuguese general during the Peninsular War who said to his men: "Remember soldiers, you are Portuguese!"
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Wellington was a very British soldier in some respects and stood out for always taking pains to keep his men from plundering or harassing the local populace wherever he served.
    • One example was the storming of Badajoz, where he had gallows erected to stop the British troops rampaging through the city. When he led his combined armies from Spain into France he sent the Spaniards home because he didn't trust them not to pillage. His chivalry paid off, as the French did not rise against his armies in the way the Spanish had against theirs (devastatingly).
    • Another prime example is his extremely lavish victory dinner after he won the Battle of Vittoria and thus forced the French from Spain: it wasn't his dinner, it was the one that Marshal Jourdan had ordered prepared in anticipation of victory. Wellington still paid for it, advising the very relieved manager of the hotel at which it was held that he should ask for cash up front next time.
  • Old Flame Fizzle: His relationship with his wife Kitty. They'd been close in their twenties, but then didn't see each other for ten years. When he returned from India, he proposed without seeing her. It didn't work out too well.
  • Rightful King Returns: A rather odd personal example for the Duke due to the legend of King Arthur. As the legends dictated that the King would return when Britain was faced with its greatest threat and the Duke's name was the same of that of the King, several romantics tried to link the two. The Duke, of course, denied it completely.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: His personal style had an impact on men's clothing that lasts to this day. He personally designed his own boots, made of lined calfskin leather with tassels on the front. He wore black coats with white cravats and white breeches and was also known for his plumed black bicorne hats. His full dress uniform was scarlet with gold braid. His expensive tailored clothes combined with his tall height and aristocratic manner to create an impression of authority and style that had great popularity in the Romantic Era that coincided with his victories.
    • Always impeccable and well dressed, Wellington could be the focus of criticism for his upper class hauteur according to this account by a contemporary of the Duke's public appearances following his triumph over Napoleon:
    • During a visit to the crowded cities of northern England, an old workman in a boisterous crowd asked him how he could understand the world of the poor with his elegant clothes and polished boots. He then challenged the Duke to "step out of those fancy boots" right there and then “strip naked”. He also challenged the impeccably dressed Commander to trade clothes with him! Wellington said nothing and excused himself.

      Later that day, he appeared again, approached the man and accepted the offer. The stunned crowd and the Duke’s party were silent. The shocked man left with the Duke, and appeared a short time later. Laughter and cheers broke out: the poor old workman was immaculately dressed in all of the Duke of Wellington's finery: coat, cravat, silk waistcoat, breeches and even his silk underclothes. On his head he wore the Dukes plumed hat. And to the delight of the crowd – on his feet he wore the Duke’s famous gleaming black boots and silk stockings. Then the Duke appeared. Nothing remained of his immaculate clothes and grooming. He wore the old jacket and pants of the poor, with the cloth cap of a workman. The rough clogs of the old man were too small for his long, thin feet, so he was barefoot! The crowd suddenly shouted its approval. The old man postured as if he were the Duke himself, and pointed at Wellington's naked feet, stripped of their magnificent boots, and cried "What do you mean sir standing before a Duke in such a state?". Wellington himself smiled. He was known for his upper class identity and snobbery, and later said he took the old man's challenge as a test. He passed the test, but admitted that appearing barefoot in public was intensely humiliating for a man of such dignity and distinction - and that seeing another man wearing his beautiful boots and clothes was even worse. He was famously well dressed, but he was also a true Officer and a Gentleman first.
    • Wellington's boots are now subject to an odd misnomer: 'Wellington boots'- tall waterproof boots with no fastenings to let in water- were, predictably, widely copied in England. When rubber galoshes became available, using technology not possible in the Duke's lifetime, they were also known as Wellington boots because of the shape. Rubber boots were cheaper and less trouble than leather Wellingtons, so they completely took over... so now, in Britain, wellingtons (or wellies) are a kind of boot that the man they're named for would never even have seen.
  • Sidekick: For much of Wellington's career, FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, later 1st Baron Raglan, served as his (presumably perfectly competent) chief aide. Unfortunately, this left him with no significant experience of being in charge, and Wellington's ability didn't rub off on him; later in his life, Raglan commanded British forces in the Crimean War, and he turned into Wellington's Sketchy Successor.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: How the Duke generally felt about his Spanish allies and even some of the officers under his command...
    • ...With a lot of justification. He won the Battle of Talavera in 1809, but had to retreat because the Spanish refused to give promised supplies. And he won that battle when his Spanish allies broke after being terrified by their own volley.
    • As to his British officers — the quote under Deadpan Snarker is possibly apocryphal, but the sentiment behind it is one found in many of his letters.
  • The Stoic: Wellington was known to keep his calm under battle and rallied his men on various occasions despite being under the constant threat of death.
    • Other sources suggest he got extremely nervous privately, though. (He had a stomach-upset the night before Waterloo that's generally attributed to this.) His letters to his (female, interestingly) cousin express the struggle of needing to always keep this image up in front of the troops.
    • Stoicism was expected of officers at the time, as the range of weapons and the nature of battlefield tactics meant that they were all in serious danger throughout any battle. Late in the day at Waterloo, Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington when a French cannonball shattered his leg, later necessitating its amputation, but leading to another famous Wellington quote at the time:
    Uxbridge: By God, sir, I've lost my leg!
    Wellington: By God, sir, so you have!
  • We Have Reserves: Mostly avoided. The Duke knew that his army in Portugal and Spain was the only one available to battle against Napoleon in Europe. He took great pains not to needlessly sacrifice them and constantly avoided battles where there was no distinct advantage.
  • Worthy Opponent: How the Duke saw Napoleon — until he found out the former Emperor had left a considerable amount of money in his will to a man who had tried to assassinate the Duke. The feeling was destroyed completely when the Duke found out Napoleon hadn't even had the money to pay what he promised in the first place.
    • The Duke took an absurd twice-life-size statue of Napoleon as a Greek god from Paris and had it installed in his home at Apsley House (aka Number One, London), basically saying that Napoleon's egotism mocked itself.
    • There's also the (possibly apocryphal) anecdote from Waterloo: as the Armée du Nord rolled in for its third frontal assault of the day instead of doing any clever manoeuvring he was heard to remark "Why, the fellow is just a pounder after all."
    • However, he did note in later life (with clarifications that he didn't mean it literally, and that having reinforcements wasn't the same thing as having an excellent commander):
    I used to say of [Napoleon] that his presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men.
    • There was also a strong mutual respect between Wellington and two of Napoleon's best marshals, André Masséna and Jean de Dieu Soult, who kept him on his toes in Spain and Portugal.

Alternative Title(s):

The Duke Of Wellington