Wellington: The Path to Victory – Book Review
Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814. By Rory Muir. Yale University Press, 2013. 591 pages of text, 26 maps, 4 pages of Chronology 1769-1814, 76 pages of notes, and 37 pages of bibliography. Hardback. $38.00.
Wellington: The Path to Victory is the first of two volumes examining Wellington’s life “in which three strands are constantly entwined: Wellington’s own actions and perspective; the history of his military campaigns and the political debates in which he was engaged; and the way he was perceived by his contemporaries, or the history of his reputation.” This volume covers from Wellington’s birth to 1814, when Napoleon first abdicated.
Even if you are mostly interested in reading about Wellington’s military accomplishments, at least skim through the first two chapters; otherwise you might be confused as to why some people support and others oppose Wellington later in the book. The third chapter starts with Arthur Wesley’s (as he spelled his name then) failure to convince Kitty Pakenham’s parents to allow them to get married, her father delivered “a stern homily to the young man, enumerating his many faults and suggesting that he correct them and embark on a useful career before thinking of marriage.” The rest of the chapter deals with Wesley’s introduction to war—the brief, disastrous campaign in The Netherlands.
India, where Wesley spent eight years, takes up seven chapters. His oldest brother became governor-general, which helped Wellesley’s career (his older brother changed the spelling of the family name) but also raised suspicion that his rise from colonel to major general was due more to his oldest brother’s influence than Arthur’s abilities. “They were crucial years in which he developed his skills as a commander of men, a tactician, a strategic planner and a civil governor.”
Muir does a very good job of placing Wellington in the context of the times. Quotes from the diaries and letters of Wellington’s contemporaries provide an intimate view of Wellington, either as a comrade or a rival. While Muir takes Wellington’s side for most of the controversies, he does provide quotes from the opposing view. For example, in Chapter 6 he describes in detail the circumstances when during a night battle at Seringapatam in India, Wellesley’s force had been surprised. They recovered, then charged the enemy into a forest. In the forest, they became separated and lost. Wellington tried to find his men in the forest, and then tried to find the reserve he left but missed them in the dark and went to the army field headquarters, alone and agitated.
“Wellesley’s discomfiture delighted many in the army who were jealous of his prominence or simply enjoyed good gossip, and as the years passed and Wellesley’s fame grew, the story became ever more delicious and ever more embroidered.”
Many years later, Richard Bayly, who did not like Wellington, claimed that when Wellesley arrived at headquarters, he “burst into a violent passion of tears.” However, “Bayly admits that he was not present at the scene, and heard the story from an unnamed staff officer.” Muir continues with eyewitness accounts written much closer to the event, which depict Wellesley as being disappointed but no mention of any breakdown. Muir concludes this section by saying that “the failure of the attack on Sultanpettah Tope only attracted the gossip because the figure at its centre was so well connected and later became so famous … Wellesley’s very success in later life kept its interest alive, and gave it an importance it did not deserve.”
After India, Wellesley returned to England, married Kitty, and spent the next two years in politics before being part of the force that attacked Copenhagen (July to September 1807) to keep the Danes from joining Napoleon. He returned to England, resuming his political career until he was sent to Portugal in July 1808. He returned to England after the Cintra Convention in September 1808 that had English ships transport General Jean-Andoche Junot’s French Army from Portugal to France with all their guns and ammunition in exchange for a temporary truce. Junot sent General Francois-Etienne Kellermann to the British to propose the conditions for an armistice, which the British mostly accepted. “Wellesley objected to some of the details of the armistice … but was overruled by Dalrymple.” (General Sir Hew Dalrymple was commander of the British army forces in Portugal at the time.) Wellesley’s “signature on the armistice arose from a point of protocol; Dalrymple intended to sign it himself, but Kellermann objected that as he, a subordinate officer, would be signing for the French, a similar officer should sign on behalf of the British. Dalrymple then asked Wellesley to sign and he did so without demur.”
Only the steadfastness of Wellesley’s friends in Parliament allowed him to survive the political firestorm. Read chapter 17 to get the full details, which show how interwoven relationships are between politics and military commands. This makes the recent scandals involving American generals in Afghanistan seem tame.
The remainder of the book explores Wellesley’s time as overall commander of British and allied forces in Portugal and Spain (1809–1814). Muir continues here to spend as much time on the politics of the situation as he does on the campaigns and battles. Preparation for campaigns and logistics are discussed in detail, especially the care Wellesley takes to have his forces, British and allied, trained and equipped. Wellesley had to work with a mostly co-operative ally—Portugal—and at times a dysfunctional ally, Spain. This is where Muir’s interweaving politics and military really shine.
In the last chapter Muir sums up his view of Wellington:
From the day he took command of the army in Portugal in April 1809 to the day that news of Napoleon’s abdication reached him, Wellington took the weight of responsibility for success or failure squarely on his shoulders. A politically controversial figure at home, conducting a campaign that lacked bipartisan support, and with a weak government that would be unable to protect him in the event of failure, he would be held responsible for any defeat whether he was really to blame or not. Never one to suffer in silence he complained vehemently and indiscreetly at the difficulty of the position in which he was placed, but it is clear that he relished the responsibility and had no wish to have it lessened by instructions that would limit his discretion.
As you can tell from the quotes, Muir is a very literate British writer who respects and likes Wellington. His research is careful and comprehensive. This is not a light book, but its 34 chapters are organized so that a reader can dip into it at key points in Wellington’s life. The endnotes and bibliography provide detailed-oriented readers the ability to judge Muir’s interpretations of the events.
I recommend this book for those interested in the interplay of politics and military command of the British Army in late-1700s India and the Napoleonic Wars. This book also is for those interested in the logistics and training of British and Portuguese troops during that time.
Steven M. Smith has been an Armchair General contributor since 2010. He has a life-long interest in history especially the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. He was the owner of The Simulation Corner gaming retail outlet in Morgantown, West Virginia, until 1983. He is currently a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and works for Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Maryland.