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Posted on Oct 10, 2012 in Books and Movies

Wellington’s Wars – Book Review

By Steven M. Smith

Wellington’s Wars: The Making of a Military Genius. Book review. Huw J. Davies. Yale University Press, 2012. 254 pages of text, 8 pages of pictures, 12 maps, 21 pages of notes, and 16 pages of bibliography. Hardback. $38.00.

Wellington’s Wars tells the story of how Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, became not only a great military commander but, like Dwight Eisenhower in World War II, he was also a political general: "Throughout his career, Wellington encountered the turbulence created by the interaction of politics and war."

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Huw J. Davies spends three of nine chapters describing Wellington’s experiences in India where he learned about the limits of European-style military practices and how to work with allies—especially those who were difficult or untrustworthy. The next four chapters describe how he applied what he learned in India to the Peninsular War. The next-to-last chapter covers his invasion of France from Spain. Waterloo, the battle he is most known for, is the subject of the last chapter. Following the Waterloo chapter is Davies’ summation of Wellington’s major strengths and weaknesses.

If you are one of those people who do not normally read prefaces, read the first two and half pages of this book’s preface. This section describes a scene where Wellington orders the painter of his official post-Waterloo portrait to make a significant change. The full rationale of the change is revealed in the Waterloo chapter. For Davies, the story of the painting is what inspired him to write this book. Since this isn’t a mystery novel, it’s okay to skip to the last chapter before returning to the beginning and reading the rest of the chapters in order.

Wellesley (he didn’t become the Duke of Wellington until 1813) first saw combat in the Low Countries in 1794, fighting Revolutionary France. His time there was very short, as his regiment arrived just in time to be swept up in the retreat of the First Coalition’s forces. "Although he would not have realized it at the time," Davies writes, "the campaign in the Low Countries gave Wellesley an important reference point for the problems resulting from poor relations with, and poor handling of, allied troops."

From 1797 to 1805, Wellesley was in India where his oldest brother was Governor-General. His political connections saved his military career from an abrupt ending in 1799, when his force was not only repulsed by Mysore forces but Wellesley abandoned his command, running back to the British camp. Wellesley did redeem himself later in the campaign. However, Davies points out that in the official unit histories and diaries of the participants, Wellesley was not the major figure, as more flattering biographies presented him.

Being one of the officers in charge of the army’s supply train on campaign in southern India, Wellesley learned valuable lessons in planning that served him well in the Peninsula. At the end of the campaign he was made governor of Seringapatam and represented the British government to the people and leaders of Mysore. He spent his time exploring the region and its people. He was also sent to speak with bordering Marathas Confederation leaders.

Defeat of the Mysore did not end British problems and Wellesley found himself in the middle of a guerrilla war with a charismatic leader, Dhoondiah Vagh. The second chapter explores how Wellesley dealt with an insurgency. The following excerpt shows that the principles of counterinsurgency go back over 200 years.

Wellesley therefore had to achieve political success on four separate fronts if he was to set the conditions to achieve military success against Dhoondiah. First, he needed political agreement that recognized Dhoondiah as a threat not only to the British but within individual localities and a regional level. Secondly, he had to ensure political support for his military actions, without committing Britain or the East India Company to an alliance with the Marathas. Thirdly, Wellesley needed political support to guarantee an accurate, reliable and timely supply of intelligence on his enemy, crucial to defeating any insurgency. Finally, Wellesley realised (sic) that he had to work to transform latent political support into active military cooperation in order to guarantee supply lines and transportation equipment.

The period between the suppression of the insurgency and war with the Marathas was not Wellesley’s best, as his personal flaws of blaming others, arrogance and spite even led to a minor break with his older brother. While personally unhappy at being in Mysore, he did improve conditions there. He also foresaw a near-future problem with Marathas. His response was to create "a well-trained sepoy detachment, which was to benefit from a surplus of cattle, bullocks for supply trains and the … plentiful resources of the province."

Wellesley correctly saw that there was going to be a war with the Marathas; he wrote his brother, "We are ready and the supposed enemy are (sic) not, and every day’s delay after this time is an unnecessary increase of expense to us, and an advantage to them." When war came in 1802, Wellesley wrote that he was the best person to lead the British and allied forces as he had made a survey of the border and knew the major Marathas leaders. His brother appointed Wellesley to command the main British and allied army.

The Marathas War taught Wellesley how to fight a war while needing to cajole or threaten his allies into supporting him and obeying orders. He also learned that "alliances were made which [he] knew he would eventually betray." While Wellesley is rightly lauded for his innovations in military intelligence, he had a life-long problem whereby he considered "his intuitive judgement (sic) to be more reliable than the intelligence at his disposal."

The Peninsular War chapters cover familiar ground for those who have read other books on Wellington. While Davies gives good, if brief, descriptions of the battles, his main focus is on Wellesley’s interactions with the governments of Britain, Portugal, and Spain. Several times Wellesley loses his temper and sends withering letters, even to his supporters in the British government. Those flaming missives were mostly sent on behalf of his men or those allied forces under his command, however. Wellesley is presented as always being a general first and a politician second. When smooth talking doesn’t get results, he does not hesitate to bully his political opponents, be they the Royal Navy or the entire Spanish government.

While he gets results in the short run, it does cause longer-term problems. And occasionally his bullying didn’t work, as when the British government told Wellesley to invade France instead of finishing clearing the French out of Spain (Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet was still in Catalonia).

Wellesley’s invasion of France shows the maturity of Wellesley’s generalship and the results of the years spent training and fighting with the same British, Portuguese, and Spanish forces through many campaigns. Even so, Wellesley had almost as many problems with his own troops as he did with fighting the French. One aspect of the campaign is the uncertainty Wellesley had about whether he would be left vulnerable by the Coalition members making separate peace with Napoleon. Fortunately for him, Napoleon rebuffed all peace attempts.

After Napoleon’s fall, Wellington was sent to Paris where he destroyed an initially favorable impression with his aloofness, arrogance, and uncharacteristic public debauchery, even in front of his wife. The British government quickly removed him and sent him to the post-war conference where he was back in his element. Surprisingly, he found himself supporting milder conditions for France to counter-balance Prussia and Russia.

On his way to the conference he surveyed the Low Countries, looking at the landscape with military defense in mind, as he did not trust the French. Turned out he was right; Wellesley’s foresight paid off when Napoleon returned from exile and reclaimed his position as emperor.

During the negotiations he was well aware that British interests lay with a balance of power. With Prussia aggressively pushing for supremacy over the other German states, particularly in the north, Wellesley had to walk a fine line drawing up the division of forces as only the British, Dutch, and German States had forces close enough to the French border to quickly interact with Napoleon.

Davies’ chapter on Waterloo explains the political aspects of the battle, providing only a bare-bones description of the actual fighting. I feel this is the best chapter in the book and the one I reread several times. It explains why Wellington chose Waterloo as the place to stand and fight. This chapter also tells of the political consequences of Wellington’s force not only taking the brunt of Napoleon’s attack, but of breaking the French Imperial Guard. Wellington’s dispatches after the battle "Likely … was downplaying the Prussian role, not least if the British were to have a chance of reining in the Prussian desire for revenge against the French."

The concluding remarks summed up that "Wellington’s true genius lay in the consummate balancing, throughout his career, of contradictory political objectives." Wellington was a complex person with a lot of inconsistencies and contradictions. Some of his specific strengths and weaknesses have been mentioned earlier.

Overall this was an interesting book covering an aspect of Wellington that is not explored in this detail by other biographies of his military career. I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Wellington’s military education or the campaigns he was involved in such as Waterloo, the Peninsula, or India. Wellington’s Wars shines on the interplay between politics and military commanders.

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.

2 Comments

  1. A thorough and informative review. However, in my judgement, you ought to realise that the enemy are often many in number.

  2. A very interesting review of a book which I think would be well worth reading; certainly a useful corrective to the slightly hagiographic accounts of Wellington’s career by many British historians.

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