Friday 11 August 2017


Last week's post on Napoleon proved popular with readers, so this week I'm writing about the other great protagonist of the Napoleonic Wars: Wellington.

The Duke of Wellington was born Arthur Wesley in 1769, the same year as Napoleon. He was born in Ireland to a Protestant family which traced its ancestry back to 12th century Somerset. He was sent to a preparatory school in Chelsea to ensure that he did not grow up with an Irish accent.

The Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Painted c. 1815–16, after Waterloo

He went to Eton, but it is unlikely that he really said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields there, if only because he was noted for his lack of interest in sports.

As the third son of a family without much money, Wellington was doomed to join the Army, though, a talented violinist, he might have preferred a career in music like his father, the Professor of Music at Trinity College, Dublin. His mother (not a notably sympathetic figure) was clear. He was “food for powder and nothing more”.

At sixteen he was sent to the Royal Academy of Equitation in Anjou in preparation for military life. Despite its name, the Academy offered training in swordplay, fencing, mathematics and the humanities as well as riding. Arthur appears to have flourished there and returned to London in time to join the 73rd Highland Regiment in 1787.

For several years Arthur's military career stagnated. He moved from one regiment to another, his family buying him commissions until he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, but his role was limited to ordering up wine and entertaining the ladies as aide de camp in Dublin Castle. It was not until 1794 that he first saw action with the 33rd Foot in the disastrous Dutch campaign commemorated in the nursery rhyme about the Duke of York who marched 10,000 men to the top of the hill and back again. In fact, all too many of the 10,000 did not make it back again and Arthur was one of the few commanders whose men had any success in combat, beating the French at Boxtel on 15 September 1794.

The failure of the Dutch expedition left Arthur back in Dublin. Another purchase made him a full colonel, but with no immediate prospect of action. It wasn't until 1796 that he was to set off for India.
India was to be the making of him. It was the era when Britain was still consolidating its power with the annexation of the princely states and, though Arthur was repeatedly denied command of any really large campaigns, he fought a number of small ones to great effect. India gave a young colonel the opportunity to command huge armies. In the invasion of Mysore, Arthur commanded not only the 33rd but ten battalions of sepoys, ten thousand miscellaneous horsemen, and twenty-six guns. 

Arthur was by now calling himself Wellesley, an older version of the family name, favoured by his brother, who aspired to a peerage and thought that reverting to this spelling of the name might help his plans for upward social mobility. Arthur, who was apt to go along with this sort of thing, started signing his name as ‘Wellesley’ from May 1798.

Wellesley achieved a number of notable military victories in India. His triumph at Assaye was lauded by the Governor-General of India as a "most brilliant and important victory" but, as the Governor-General was his brother, he may not have been totally impartial. Still, there is no doubt that the battle was an important success and Wellesley always considered it his greatest victory, though (as, much later, at Waterloo) he was distressed by the scale of British casualties.

Wellington at Assaye - National Army Museum

India also gave Wellesley the opportunity to demonstrate his administrative skills. In his post as adviser to the Rajah of Mysore, he was effectively the British government's representative to a court which was obliged to accept the reality of British rule, albeit exercised through the Rajah. Wellesley proved efficient at imposing a firm and just rule, reducing corruption, amongst both the native officials and the British military.

Arthur Wellesley returned to England in 1805 with an established reputation as both an extraordinarily successful fighting general and an effective administrator, but found himself with no immediate role. He spent some time as Chief Secretary to Ireland, with an interlude to invade Denmark in 1807. Ireland bored him. Desperate for a more active role in the fight against Napoleon, he wrote to the Canning (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), : "I… am ready to set out for any part of the world at a moment’s notice.”

In 1808, it looked as if he might be packed off to South America to liberate the Spanish colonies there. (This features in Burke in the Land of Silver.) Napoleon's invasion of Spain, though, put an end to these plans. The British decided to provide military help to the Spanish resistance and the force that had been conceived as the Army of the Americas was diverted to meet this new requirement. In July 1808 Wellesley was on his way to Spain and the start of the Peninsular War.

What was the Peninsular War and why did it matter?

In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain. In May, the people rose up in rebellion in Madrid – a rising that was put down with extreme brutality. (There's an account of this in Burke in the Land of Silver.) As is so often the case, the brutal response to the unrest led to a growth of resistance. Soon Spanish troops loyal to their old King and supported by irregulars who gave us the word guerrilla were in open warfare against the French.

Goya's famous depiction of French reprisals after the Madrid Uprising
The Shootings of May Third 1808

The Spanish forces were no match for Napoleon's troops, but the British saw the opportunity to take the fight to the French and sent substantial forces to the Iberian Peninsula, landing in Portugal and marching into Spain. This was the start of a long and bloody conflict. Against the drama of Napoleon's sweep eastward through Europe and the disaster of the Retreat from Moscow, it is easy to see the Peninsular War as a sideshow. The fighting in Spain, though, may well have been decisive to the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, because for significant periods of time the British presence in the peninsula was the only threat to Napoleon in Western Europe. The fighting there was effectively a second front and, if European history has taught us one thing, it is that a country fighting a two front war starts at an enormous disadvantage.

For years the war in Spain was inconclusive. The British would advance, at one stage taking Madrid, and then be driven back toward Portugal. Some of the reverses saw them suffering terrible losses, but over time the French were gradually driven back toward the Pyrenees and by 1813 Wellesley was able to cross into France, reaching Toulouse by April 1814. He had high hopes of driving north to Paris and bringing down Napoleon, but by then Napoleon was already under attack by the Russians, Austrians and Prussians (Britain’s allies in the Sixth Coalition). Paris fell at the end of March and, as the news of Napoleon's abdication reached Toulouse, the Peninsular campaign was finally over.

Wellington and James Burke

Wellington features in two of the Burke books. We meet him first in Burke in the Land of Silver when Burke is assigned to his staff to plan the invasion of Argentina - the one that was aborted when Britain decided to invade Spain instead. Wellington meets him again in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo (Burke at Waterloo), when Burke foils an attempt on his life. Both these books are currently unavailable in the UK, but can be bought in the US through Simon & Schuster's website.

All my books are shortly to be republished in the UK by Endeavour Press, who will also be publishing a new book about Burke's adventures fighting under Wellington in the Peninsular War.


  1. Wellington learned the MOGUL (Mongol) tactics at Assaye, his toughest battle. He won there with mobility and concentrated firepower. Have you ever seen a Mongolian Airlines crew at lunch? When it is over, they all jump up to attention as one. Never seen anywhere else. Now imagine a co-ordinated Mongol attack on horse back, firing their armor piercing compound bows into the knights, turning away as one, to sucker them into a pursuit until their heavy horses are blown, then turning back as one, hitting the knights as a bat out of hell, blowing them to eternity all at once. Extreme choreographed discipline, practiced many times over. The Hungarians eventually learned this. The OTTOMANS then blew them away with concentrated cannon fire, thus inventing a new ball game.

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for this.