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Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington


Known as the Great Duke or the Iron Duke, Arthur Wellesley rose to prominence commanding British forces during the Napoleonic Wars, including one of armies in the Peninsular War and a victorious one at Waterloo. Once these wars were over he pursued a political career, holding cabinet posts and serving as Prime Minister. While his importance in the Napoleonic Wars was once overstated, especially in the English language literature, it is easy to feel the situation has gone too far in the opposite direction.

Early Life and Career

Born Arthur Wesley (from 1798 this was Wellesley), the later Duke of Wellington was the third surviving son of the Earl of Mornington, a highly musical member of the Protestant Irish aristocracy. His Irish birth has been credited with giving him a lifelong sense of being an outsider. He lived in Dublin and Dangan early on, and then London. A shy child, he didn’t flourish at Eton and was sent to a military school in France in 1786, where his family expected little. At eighteen he received a commission in the British army thanks to his brother’s connections, becoming an ensign in the 73rd Highland Foot and an aide-de-camp to the Viceroy of Ireland. Promotion soon followed.

Wellesley’s career expanded in 1790, when he sat in the Irish Parliament for Trim, a traditional family position and one he held until 1797. By 1791 he was a captain. He proposed to Catherine Pakenham when he was twenty four but was turned down by her brother and, in debt, ceased gambling to pursue his military career. He tried to be appointed to one expedition, was turned down, and avoided their devastation by illness. He bought the position of lieutenant colonel of the 33rd Foot (this was the usual manner of doing things), and was on active duty in Flanders in 1794 -5, his later career benefitting from seeing how not to do. He learnt the value of sea power when facing a land force, and how much damage a well ordered line could do against French columns.

Wellesley looked for a civil position, couldn’t get one and was sent to India in 1796, where he soon teamed up with his eldest brother, who had arrived to be Governor General. In a sub-continent full of other British officers, Wellesley advanced thanks to his brother’s influence. Brother Richard wanted British India to expand, and the fqamily started on it. Wellesley, a colonel, led his forces in war against the Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Although he was not in overall charge he had much success, but one failure- storming a village he had not been able to reconnoitre – made a lasting impression. British looting also hardened his view on discipline.

He became both the Governor of Mysore and, now a Major General, Commander in Chief of a force fighting the splintered Marāthās. He won a string of victories, including Assaye, and also learnt many lessons he would need in his later career, including the importance of logistics. Made a Knight of the Bath, he was tired, homesick and frustrated with the local British government wasting his victories, and so returned home in 1805. After several unimportant roles he married Catherine Pakenham and returned to politics, joining Parliament chiefly to defend his brother. The marriage which Wellesley had been pining for in India, must be considered an error, as both had changed and the two barely met, if at all, before their wedding. He was restless, looking for a command and activity.

The Napoleonic Wars

Wellesley became Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1807on the condition he could leave for an active military command if one came up. One soon came, and Wellesley had success in 1807 commanding ground troops who took Copenhagen in order to secure the Danish fleet; he also spent time advising the government on military issues. He also became a Lieutenant General. In 1808 Wellesley was ordered to the Iberian Peninsula to carry on the war against Napoleon and his commanders. The cause was the rebellion of the Portuguese from under French rule, and Wellesley aimed to act quickly before senior officers arrived to take over. He was able to defeat Junot’s army at Vimiero. However, when two higher ranking officers arrived and signed off on a peace deal which let Junot’s army go, the British general public rose in anger and Wellesley was one of those court-martialled. He was found innocent, and when the British army was forced out of Spain he argued that he should lead be allowed to lead the army because he could hold Portugal.

The politicians acquiesced, and Wellesley returned. He was able to land and push the French into Spain – only just avoiding capture - winning victories including Talavera. He was made Viscount Wellington as a result, although a push for Madrid failed and the outnumbered British returned to Portugal. Thanks to a line of fortifications he had built (Torres Vedras) and a defensive policy, Wellington outlasted the French in Portugal, before his growing force was able to advance out, capturing the fortresses of Ciudad-Rodrigo and Badajoz in 1812.

By now Wellington had developed the belief that things went wrong if he wasn’t personally overseeing them, putting him at great risk. A victory at Salamanca allowed Wellington to enter Madrid, but he then retreated back into Portugal. Salamanca clearly shows that Wellington was not just a defensive general, but a man of real military ability in all areas. However, he was being worn down. He advanced again in 1813, and a victory at Vitoria – where troops seized the baggage train rather than pursue – and more success followed, until Wellington was able to push Marshal Soult back and invade France. Four days after Napoleon had abdicated, Wellington took Toulouse. Having in the meantime been elevated to Field Marshall, Wellington was now made a Duke.

Wellington became ambassador to the new French King, Louis XVIII, and in 1815 arrived at the Congress of Vienna, which aimed to create a lasting peace. Napoleon had other ideas and resumed control of France, until two armies, one led by Wellington, another by Blucher, won a combined victory at Waterloo and put a permanent end to the wars. Wellington made careful pans to protect his army, and retreat back to his support on the coast, a la the Portugal campaign, which he kept quiet from Blucher so as not to compromise the confidence the Prussian had in the alliance. Difficulties in communications (messages taking a while to arrive) and in locating armies – problems for all forces of the era – have led some to come up with conspiracy theories to discredit Wellington, but these ideas well opposed in the literature. Having avoided being wounded all day at Waterloo, Wellington was nearly killed when his horse kicked out that evening. Wellington’s role was not over, and he helped oversee a peace that was certainly more lenient than some wanted.

Political Career

Having returned to Britain, Wellington once more involved himself in pure politics, becoming a cabinet minister first under the Earl of Liverpool as Master General of the Ordnance which, among many tasks, included dealing with the plentiful civil disorder. One of his suggestions was a police force for London. Over the next few years he worked to defend Britain’s commitments to the Congress system in Europe, but was outmaneuvered and Britain pulled away; he also had little success at later international meetings. However, he wasn’t fully committed to any party, and built up a substantial reputation, and actually quit the government in 1827 in protest at the new Prime Minister over the situation in Ireland. Wellington believed a solution should be worked out which retained the Protestant domination, but gave Catholics seats in Parliament. His marriage was now cold and starkly unhappy, and he was partially deafened by a medical procedure on one ear.

However, by January 9th 1828 a death and a failed premiership had led to the King inviting Wellington to become Prime Minister, which he accepted. Numerous problems were thrown up for Wellington to deal with, but perhaps his greatest civil victory occurred when he realised that something was needed urgently in Ireland to avoid civil war, and he spent many hours persuading the king and his colleagues to pass a Catholic emancipation act, which was duly made law. In doing so, he fought a duel with a member of the House of Lords. However, with the push for further reforms, in other areas of British life, expanding, Wellington dug in. He was especially opposed to parliamentary reform, and amazed many when he declared he supported none at all, and the opposition forced him to resign.

As Wellington opposed the reform laws in opposition, his windows were twice broken by angry gangs, and the iron shutters he put up to defend them earned him the nickname ‘The Iron Duke’. He was almost Prime Minister again in 1832, but couldn’t find the support, and as the Reform Bill passed he left London for the country to save himself from further angry mobs. Wellington then worked to support the king, and when asked to become Prime Minister again in 1834 he refused and recommended Peel, who made him Foreign Secretary, and later a Minister without Portfolio. Wellington actually ran the government in Peel’s early absence. While he has been criticised for not allowing reforms of the army in this period, he has been praised for helping to stop the Chartist movement from exploding into violence, and persuading colleagues to abolish the Corn Laws. He was also an advisor to the young Victoria.

Wellington died in 1852 and was given a state funeral; he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral with Nelson. Wellington liked order, stability, and was turned into a control freak by his experiences. He disliked ‘the mob’ and the press. He eschewed uniform, and commonly wore a grey or blue frock coat, cut short, and his smart appearance was frequently noted.

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