Cantankerous, eccentric and brilliant, the Duke of Wellington was honored by his troops and his political enemies.
By Blaine Taylor
“He was in the thick of the action the whole time,” wrote Colin Campbell about his commander, General Sir Arthur Wellesley, at the Battle of Assaye in 1803. “I never saw a man so cool and collected as he was.” That characteristic, demonstrated so early in his long military career, would impress many throughout Wellesley’s rise from sepoy general in India to worldwide renown as the Duke of Wellington. He was known as “Nosey” to the British troops serving under his command in Europe, who would often say, “We would rather see his long nose in the fight than a reinforcement of 10,000 men any day.” Wellington had his own axiom regarding the best test of a great general: “To know when to retreat and to dare to do it.”
British author Christopher Hibbert’s excellent biography, Wellington: A Personal History (Addison Wesley, Reading, Mass., 1997, $30), is a detailed, lively presentation of the so-called Iron Duke’s personal, military and political life from beginning to end.
The book concentrates on Wellington’s political and military careers, and there are enough interesting details on both to satisfy experts and neophyte scholars alike. Those who knew Arthur Wellesley early in his life predicted that he would be both a great general and the prime minister of Britain–if he lived. And, in due course, he was both. He became a field marshal and commander in chief of the British army as well as the army of occupation on the Continent. Wellington also served as foreign secretary, ambassador to France, Russia and the Congress of Vienna, and chief secretary for Ireland.
What distinguishes Wellington: A Personal History from most other biographies is that it presents the man in all of his often contradictory dimensions. The devotion he inspired in his troops was something that Wellington had in common with his most notable adversary, Emperor Napoleon I of France. Both men also led from the front, rarely admitted their mistakes and loved playing with children. Wellington, however, was more generous with his friends than Napoleon, once going to a banking house on behalf of a colleague down on his luck. “This is my friend,” Wellington said, “and as long as I have money at your house, let him have it to any amount that he thinks proper to draw for.”
Hibbert’s biography does not gloss over the duke’s faults. One learns of an unhappy marriage for which he blamed nobody but himself, two sons from whom he was distant, a host of mistresses who adored him, and his penchant for prostitutes.
Hibbert also shows the reader some of Wellington’s quirky mannerisms. The duke had a disdain for food but a love of flashy uniforms and smart- fitting suits. He chewed blades of grass to steady his nerves on the battlefield, suffered from colds and rheumatism, and thought all doctors were quacks (his word). Wellington eventually went deaf, and in his 70s he rolled about in his saddle to the alarm of people who thought he would fall from his horse, as he frequently did. He loved good stories and often rocked with laughter, but he also fell asleep and snored in church whenever the sermon failed to hold his interest.
Wellington had a keen sense of his own reputation and worth. His straightforward, direct manner of dealing with people, without any toadying, had much to do with his becoming the trusted adviser and confidant to a trio of kings (George III, George IV and William IV) and to the young Queen Victoria, as well as being able to speak on equal terms with the kings of France and Prussia and the emperors of Russia and Austria.
As Hibbert takes pains to point out, Wellington’s popularity as a military hero never diminished with the British people, even though they castigated him roundly for his always conservative political views. “The people are rotten to the core,” he once remarked. “I am one of those who thinks it is very desirable to have no reform.” The prime minister’s speeches in Parliament, according to eyewitnesses, were some of the worst ever delivered there, even though they always were listened to with the greatest of attention.
All in all, Wellington remains a spectacular subject for any biographer, and Hibbert’s entertaining account does him justice in full measure. His eldest son and titular successor once ruminated sadly, “Think what it will be like when the Duke of Wellington is announced and only I come in.”