BBC – History British History in depth: The Duke of Wellington: Soldiering to Glory


Early life

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), was probably Britain’s greatest military commander, but he was also perhaps one of her worst prime ministers. Fortunately his premiership was only short-lived, and its failings were more than made up for by the splendour of his wartime career. At a time of peril, when his country most desperately needed victories, this great soldier never lost a battle.

Wellesley was born in Dublin, the fourth son of the 1st Earl of Mornington. He always denied being Irish, however, saying that being born in a barn does not make someone a horse. He felt he was not truly Irish because he hailed from the Anglo-Irish aristocratic ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ that ruled Ireland until the partition of 1922.

…his mother decried the idea of a military career for him, believing him to have no aptitude for soldiering…

He was educated first at Eton, where he learned little except perhaps how to use his fists, and then – probably due to lack of funds because of his father’s early death – at school in Brussels. He entered the French military academy at Angers, in Anjou, in 1786. Although his mother decried the idea of a military career for him, believing him to have no aptitude for soldiering, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in an infantry regiment in 1787 and became a captain of dragoons five years later.

In the meantime he was elected to a seat in the Irish parliament, but took as little interest in politics as he initially did in soldiering, preferring to idle his life away socialising and playing the violin. Indeed, he might have spent his entire life as a wallflower attending the picnics of the Irish Lord-Lieutenant as an aide-de-camp, had not the French executed King Louis XVI in 1793, prompting Wellesley suddenly to take his life and career seriously. He burned his violin in his fireplace, and became a lieutenant colonel of the 33rd Foot Regiment, in which capacity he saw his first action at Boxtel in the Netherlands campaign in 1794, and then fought again at Geldermalsen the following year.

Winning victories

Oil painting of the storming of Srirangapatna, by Sir Robert Ker Porter, 1800
An oil painting of the storming of Srirangapatna by Sir Robert Ker Porter, 1800.

The campaign was short-lived and disastrous, though no blame attached to Wellesley, who performed well. The incompetence of the British officers in command, however, prompted him to take up a still closer study of the military arts. When his elder brother Richard became the new Governor-General of India in 1797, Wellesley took the 33rd Foot out there and founded a great reputation for himself as a brilliant but also painstaking commander. His victories in Mysore, at Srirangapatna and over Dhoondiah Waugh won him promotion to major-general.

…Wellesley…founded a great reputation for himself as a brilliant but also painstaking commander.

In the Mahratta Wars, in September 1803, Wellesley won the famous victory of Assaye. Subsequently he considered this to be the finest of all the 60 battles he fought in his military career. He was knighted the following year and in 1805 he returned home, stopping off on the way on the remote island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1806, after having commanded thousands of men and subdued hostile sub-continents, he was given the command of a lowly battalion in Hastings. He was elected MP for Hastings in the same year.

Painting showing one of the regiments commanded by Wellesley at the storming of Srirangapatna
An oil painting of the storming of Srirangapatna, by Sir Robert Ker Porter, 1800. One of the regiments was commanded by Wellesley

This time he took politics more seriously, and became Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1807, largely as the result of the influence of his ambitious family, who were prominent Tory politicians. He also found time to take part in the Copenhagen campaign, which was short-lived, though not quite so disastrous as earlier British incursions to Napoleon’s Europe.

Opportunity for glory

He told a friend that he would not be chased off the continent as so many other similar forces had been…

In 1808, by then a lieutenant-general, Wellesley was at last given an opportunity for genuine glory, when he was – albeit briefly – given command of the British expeditionary force destined for Portugal. He told a friend that he would not be chased off the continent as so many other similar forces had been, because he had made a study of French tactics, and would not be at any kind of psychological disadvantage in relation to the enemy. ‘They may overwhelm me but I don’t think they will outmanoeuvre me’, he said. ‘First, because I am not afraid of them, as everybody else seems to be; and secondly, because if what I hear of their system of manoeuvre is true, I think it a false one against steady troops. I suspect that all the continental armies were more than half beaten before the battle was begun – I, at least, will not be frightened beforehand.’ It was a brave boast, but fully justified by subsequent events.

The Iberian Peninsular campaign started off well after victories at Rolica and Vimeiro. Soon afterwards, however, Wellesley was superseded in command by two generals, Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Dalrymple, who signed an armistice with the French that allowed the defeated enemy safe passage home, with all their arms and booty and even transportation in Royal Navy vessels. Back in Britain there was outrage at the terms of what was called the Convention of Cintra, and an ‘inquiry’ (which was effectively a court-martial) was heard in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. After several weeks, Wellesley was finally acquitted.

Soon after the Cintra inquiry

closed, Wellesley returned to the Peninsula, once again in command. In one of history’s great coincidences, however, the time he had spent in England had coincided with the two months that Napoleon had campaigned in Spain. So the two men missed confronting one another, and only came face to face for the first and last time at the battle of Waterloo six years later.

The leadership Wellesley showed in the Peninsular campaign was exemplary…

Having resumed command in Portugal in 1809, Wellesley – aided at all times by the Portuguese army and the Spanish guerrillas – spent the next five years trying to expel the French from the Peninsula. He took not one day’s leave as he campaigned backwards and forwards across Portugal and Spain, occasionally being forced to retreat because of the pressure of numbers opposing him, but never losing a battle or even so much as a single cannon. He was almost always outnumbered by the huge French forces that were occupying Spain in the name of Napoleon’s brother, King Joseph of Spain. The leadership Wellesley showed in the Peninsular campaign was exemplary; he won a reputation for expecting the best from his men, and for being a harsh disciplinarian when he did not get it. Yet his troops also knew he never risked their lives unnecessarily.

Battle of Waterloo

A painting of the Battle of Waterloo by M Dubourg
A painting of the Battle of Waterloo by M Dubourg

Wellesley – who by now had been created Duke of Wellington – had crossed the Pyrenees into France before Napoleon abdicated for the first time in 1814, and after this he became British Ambassador in Paris. He was then appointed British plenipotentiary to the Congress of Vienna. He was in Vienna when, in March 1815, the news arrived that the ex-Emperor Napoleon had escaped from exile on the island of Elba. Pausing only to declare Napoleon an international outlaw, Wellington went to take up command of the Anglo-Allied army in Brussels. This was made up of an ungainly mix of units of British, Dutch, Belgian and some German soldiers, a large proportion of whom were raw recruits. It was far removed from the seasoned army Wellington had moulded into a crack fighting unit in Spain and Portugal.

In June 1815 Napoleon suddenly marched north into present-day Belgium, making for Brussels. On 16th June he simultaneously attacked the Anglo-Allied army at Quatre Bras and the Prussian army under Field Marshal Prince von Blucher at Ligny, routing the latter. Wellington was forced to retreat to the easily defended slopes of Mont St-Jean, three miles south of his headquarters at Waterloo. Only three-and-a-half miles wide, the battlefield was protected by woods and villages on the flanks, and by two well-defended farms – Hougomont and La Haie Sainte – in the centre.

…The Duke was everywhere on the battlefield…

The French attacked before noon on Sunday 18th June, but after repeated assaults they failed to break Wellington’s line. The Duke was everywhere on the battlefield, encouraging his men and giving orders about how best to repulse the French attacks. He later described the battle as ‘a close run thing’. By the afternoon, Prussian corps that had survived the Battle of Ligny – and that unbeknown to Napoleon had marched northwards rather than eastwards back towards Prussia – began appearing on Wellington’s left flank.

Napoleon was forced to draw off many of the troops he had hoped to employ against Wellington, in order to deal with them. By 7pm, after his famed Imperial Guard had also failed to break Wellington’s line, Napoleon was routed. A month later he had abdicated for the second time and surrendered to the British, who exiled him to the remote island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.

Covered in honours

Wellington was covered in honours by Britain and by all the European powers, but instead of retiring he entered the British Cabinet in 1818, staying there as Master-General of Ordinance until 1827. The following year he became prime minister and in 1829, despite being a reactionary Tory, and against his private inclinations, he helped pass the Catholic Relief Act, with the aid of Sir Robert Peel. He resigned in 1830 when it became clear that he could not prevent parliamentary reform from being enacted.

…nothing can detract from the untarnished glory he earned as the conqueror of Napoleon.

As commander-in-chief of the British Army between 1827 and 1828, and from 1842 until his death in 1852, Wellington was a force for conservatism, and it has been argued that the lack of army reform under his leadership led to the British army being ill-prepared for the Crimean War. But even if his political and administrative career was distinctly less impressive than his military and diplomatic achievements, nothing can detract from the untarnished glory he earned as the conqueror of Napoleon. Along with the 1st Duke of Marlborough, he stands as one of the finest two soldiers Britain has ever produced.

Find out more


Wellington: a personal history by Christopher Hibbert (HarperCollins, 1998)

Wellington by Richard Holmes (HarperCollins, 2002)

Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001)

Wellington by Elizabeth Longford (Abacus, 2001)

Places to visit

Apsley House Home of the first Duke of Wellington and the London home of the Dukes of Wellington ever since. The house is open to the public all year.

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About the author

Andrew Roberts is author of The Holy Fox, Eminent Churchillians, Salisbury: Victorian Titan and Napoleon and Wellington. He also appears regularly on British television and radio, and writes for The Sunday Telegraph.


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