Arthur Wellesley Blended military prowess and political acumen to defeat Napoleon and unite Europe for a century.
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was defined by his situational awareness. From India to the Iberian Peninsula to the field of Waterloo, Wellington could read a campaign. He could read a battle. He could act and react according to circumstances in a way never excelled and seldom matched. His signature moment came at Waterloo’s climax, when he called to 1st (Guards) Brigade commander Maj. Gen. Sir Peregrine Maitland, “Now, Maitland! Now’s your time!” And indeed it was Maitland’s time to triumph.
Such a record surely ranks Wellington with military history’s foxes—those who know many things well. Yet there was another, perhaps more important element of Wellington’s greatness: He may have been the first modern political general. That is to say he was the first great captain who was a central yet subaltern part of a complex government, involving not merely political but also public input. The development of the early modern state into a money-raising, war-making entity had encouraged the emergence of rois connétables (“king constables”)—rulers and war leaders: Sweden’s Charles XII, Prussia’s Frederick the Great and, the zenith of that species, France’s Napoléon Bonaparte. Britain was an anomaly. There, the fiscal-military state synergized parliamentary constitutionalism with taxation and bureaucracy in a consensual pattern. That structure depended in good part on institutionalizing the support of the landed classes, whose polarized politicization had shaped the Wars of the Roses, the mid-17th century’s civil wars and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. An instrument of that policy was patronage. Political office and military commissions alike were an 18th century version of affirmative action for the gentry.
Britain’s patronage system was Arthur Wellesley’s matrix and milieu. His family was AngloIrish gentry with more influence than money but enough of both to launch Arthur’s military career in spectacular fashion. An ensign at 17, he was a lieutenant colonel at 24 by virtue of five promotions—all gained by purchase under the auspices of eldest brother Richard Wellesley, who was appointed governor-general of India in 1797. Arthur’s regiment was already there, and he was by then a full colonel—by seniority. He had done well as a line officer in the Flanders campaign of 1793–95. Richard, with the vision of creating a British empire in India to replace that lost in North America, involved his brother from the beginning in both the political and military aspects of that conception. Britain’s presence in India was at the far end of an unstable connection to a homeland then fighting a war for survival with Revolutionary France. The British were perceived by regional Indian rulers not as alien imperialists but as participants in the century-long multiplayer “game of thrones” sparked by the decline of the Mughal empire. The Indian powers of Mysore and the Maratha Confederacy challenged—and often balanced—British power.
In that context Wellesley’s hard-fought victories at Assaye and Argaon in the fall of 1803 were only pieces on a game board alongside administration, intelligence, logistics and negotiation. His brother’s patronage enabled him through an error-riddled learning process. As he gained experience, Wellesley negotiated alliances and treaties with Indian states. He also conducted successful counterinsurgencies, which then as now depended heavily on negotiation and compromise at all levels, from local landlords to independent rulers. The peak of his Indian career came in late 1803. Given independent authority to subdue the factionalized Maratha Confederacy, Wellesley combined armed force, persuasion, guile and not a little luck to secure—or impose, depending on one’s perspective—a settlement favorable to British interests.
Arthur Wellesley left India with an abiding sense of the impor- tance as a general of being able to balance military means with political ends, in political contexts that easily overlooked military realities. On returning to Europe in 1805 he entered a completely different geopolitical situation. Here Britain’s strategy was indirect and maritime. The British army was a force in being, unable to operate effectively against Napoléon Bonaparte without Continental allies. And after the emperor’s triumphs of 1805–07 at Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland, Britain’s prospects for securing such allies were slim.
Slim, that is, until Napoléon played the role of obliging enemy by overrunning the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. Wellesley, by then a lieutenant general, was part of an initial fiasco aimed at supporting Portugal. He survived—not least because of his family’s political connections—and responded in 1809 with a general plan for Portugal’s defense. It was a political as well as a military document, playing to politicians’ universal preference for quick military success at low cost. The British cabinet responded by giving him full command. In fact, Wellesley’s plan involved initially holing up in Lisbon and rebuilding the Portuguese army, abandoning most of Portugal and all of Spain to French exploitation. In the long run he projected a war of attrition, suited to British capacities, which would erode France’s resources and embarrass its emperor.
And so it eventually occurred—but the British government wanted immediate and direct results. It was left to Wellesley to decide when his forces would take the offensive, though he was forbidden to enter Spain without express permission from the secretary of state for war, Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool. The Exchequer kept such a tight rein on campaign finances that soldiers and suppliers alike went largely unpaid. Wellesley fired off a series of sizzling letters and received enough funds to take the field in the summer of 1809. The result was a strike into central Spain, a hard-won victory at Talavera—and an immediate retreat back to Portugal. Once more Wellington was looking over his political shoulder. Britain’s principal objective on parliamentary and public levels was to maintain the “army in being.” It would not—arguably could not—be replaced. Preserved, however, it could fight another day—under Wellesley’s command.
That last was no certainty, particularly as Napoléon began concentrating forces for a massive invasion of Portugal. Britain’s press and Parliament alike questioned supporting a situation that Wellesley himself said promised “no brilliant events.” Lord Liverpool declared it preferable to evacuate a little too soon than remain a little too long. Wellesley responded not by defying his political superiors but by asking for “fair confidence” and accepting full responsibility for the outcome.
In an era when “mistakes are made,” this stands out even more clearly as an act of moral courage combined with professional confidence. Wellesley met the challenge with a limited-force attritional campaign that drew the French into a futile six-month siege of Lisbon and a retreat whose privations prefigured 1812 in Russia. He benefited as well from his brother’s appointment as British foreign secretary at the end of 1809. But the costs of the war escalated steadily, to just under £11 million by 1810. Lisbon was a long way from Paris. Wellesley continued to demand men and money. While no obvious sites for more decisive operations suggested themselves in London, neither was the wisdom of continuing the Iberian campaign self-evident.
Over the next 18 months Wellesley conducted a campaign that drove the French out of Portugal and in July 1812 culminated in victory at Salamanca, prompting the French to abandon Madrid. In the process he firmly cemented Anglo-Portuguese military and political relations, while achieving a significant level of cooperation with Spain’s still-recovering army. Military success kept political opposition in check, but questions of the war’s costs and prospects endured. Politics as well as war, moreover, suffer fog and friction. In May 1812 a lone madman had assassinated Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, and Liverpool had become prime minister— and Richard Wellesley had resigned as foreign secretary and sought to replace Liverpool at 10 Downing Street.
His brother’s political ambitions put Arthur in a bind. The brothers were personally close, and in English politics family loyalties had historically trumped more abstract allegiances—to the point of civil war. The days of York and Lancaster might be long past, but Richard had supported Arthur unquestioningly, while Liverpool had been full of questions. Yet Arthur believed two things. First, his brother was not the kind of parliamentarian who could readily form an administration. Second, Liverpool and his government were committed to the war—and they were capable of conducting it without the kind of upheavals likely to follow a successful strike for power by Richard.
Wellesley’s decision caused a rift between the brothers from which they never fully recovered. Nor did Liverpool’s administration deal with Wellesley’s ongoing financial problems—at least not immediately. But Liverpool’s replacement at the War Department was a man of cunning as well as quill pens. Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst, took advantage of a legal loophole to compel the Bank of England to make its gold reserves available to pay troops overseas. By the autumn of 1812 Wellesley was receiving £100,000 a month. Political loyalty was requited in other coin as well. Wellesley was made commander of all allied forces on the Iberian Peninsula—something he considered necessary to secure even minimal coordination of British, Portuguese and Spanish forces against the still numerically superior French. And in recognition of his victories at Madrid and Salamanca he was made Earl, then Marquess, of Wellington (which title appears in the balance of this essay).
The operational prudence and political wisdom of Wellington’s advance on the fortress of Burgos in the autumn of 1812 alike remain open to question. Beyond dispute is the failure of the siege itself, which compelled a rapid and disorganized retreat to Portugal and the reluctance of the Spanish government to grant the extensive authority over its army that Wellington demanded. Only after he threatened to resign his command did the Spaniards accept what amounted to a military government under military authority—an emergency solution that seemed too much like a step toward a military dictatorship.
For Wellington that concern was secondary. Spain’s affairs, he argued, could not be worse than he found them. His own political situation impelled him to seek a decision before the administration’s money and/or goodwill were exhausted. And the disaster that overtook Napoléon in Russia enabled that process, as France transferred increasing numbers of veterans from the Iberian Peninsula to central Europe. In 1813 Wellington called on his Indian experience in a campaign of maneuver that, with useful contributions by a marginally improved Spanish army, threatened French lines of communication, overwhelmed the principal French field army at Vitoria in June and by September drove the French permanently back across the Pyrenees.
Victory attracts politicians. Lon- don’s primary question by the fall of 1813 was where Wellington’s army might best be deployed next. Italy had its advocates; others supported reinforcing a newly mounted, currently limited operation in northwestern Europe. Wellington dismissed both alternatives, stressing the costs of redeployment and the political problems inevitably accompanying military commitments. The government’s reply was to make him a field marshal and authorize him to pursue “whatever course your Lordship shall deem the most effectual.” Wellington briefly considered clearing French-occupied Catalonia but then responded to increasing public and political pressure—particularly from the European states of the Sixth Coalition. This time he staged a series of set-piece battles, one following another, that by December brought his army to Bayonne in southern France before logistics compelled a halt and indiscipline compelled the Spanish component’s return home.
By this time Wellington’s role as a political general had expanded from working with and for a civilian government to recommending, indeed insisting on, state policy. Increasingly frustrated by what he considered the Spanish government’s general intransigence, in November Wellington recommended withdrawing the entire British army from France unless Spain mended its ways. Bathurst replied with a polite demand to “shut up and soldier”—which Wellington did until Napoléon’s abdication in April 1814.
The Hundred Days of 1815 climaxed Wellington’s career as a political general. The government understood that to secure Britain’s interests after Napoléon was again defeated, Britain must play a central role in that defeat. Wellington established tenuous connections with a Prussian ally whose objective—to permanently cripple postwar France—had little congruence with Britain’s concern for a reconstructed European order.
His peninsular army scattered to the corners of the empire, Wellington took command of a motley force whose Low Country and north German contingents had fought more often for Napoléon than against him. And at the crisis point he achieved the campaign’s primary objective. The victory at Waterloo, and Wellington’s effective management of the post-battle narrative, restrained Prussia sufficiently to enable the postwar development of a Concert of Europe, in which Britain played a major role, directly and indirectly, for a century. Wellington’s success at synergizing military and political objectives in ultimately political contexts not only made him a duke—in 1828 he became Britain’s prime minister.
Dennis Showalter is a professor of history at Colorado College and past president of the Society of Military History. For further reading he recommends Wellington’s Wars, by Huw Davies; The Peninsular War, by Charles Esdaile; and Wellington: The Iron Duke, by Richard Holmes.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.