Wellesley, Sir Arthur, Duke of Wellington
British military heroby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was a man of incredible military talent. After learning tactical skills in India, he was thrust into the bloody Napoleonic Wars. He served with distinction, rising to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-Dutch army. After repulsing the French in Portugal and Spain, he forced Napoleon to abdicate. When Napoleon escaped from exile, Wellington defeated him decisively at Waterloo, saving Europe and the world from the domination of a revolutionary tyrant.
Arthur Wellesley was born to Garret Wesley, Lord Mornington, in Dublin, Ireland. (Later, the family changed the spelling of their surname from Wesley to Wellesley.) Wesley was a member of the Irish House of Lords. The Wesleys were descended from an English Protestant family that had lived in Ireland for generations. Wellesley was a reserved lad, taking no pleasure in sports or games at school. At age 12, he was transferred to Eton College. He was not exemplary there, and struggled academically. So his parents sent him to study in Belgium, where he showed some improvement. He learned to speak French passably, acquired decent horsemanship skills, and improved his already excellent violin playing.
At age 17, Arthur returned to England, his education complete. By the influence of his brother Richard, a member of both the English and Irish Parliaments, Arthur received a commission as ensign in the 73rd Highland Regiment of Foot. As well, he was appointed aide-de-camp to the lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Wellesley was promoted to lieutenant, and after several more transfers, he bought a promotion to major in the 33rd Foot, where he would stay for a long time. By 1793, revolutionary France and England were at war, but Wellesley remained in Ireland with his regiment, now a lieutenant-colonel. Wellesley was an active member of the Irish Parliament all this time. As well, he was trying to court Kitty Pakenham, daughter of an Irish noble. However, when Wellesley officially asked for her hand, he was denied as too poor.
After a brief spell in Flanders in 1794, Wellesley’s regiment was ordered to India to uphold the shaky British dominion in the region. Soon after Arthur’s arrival, his brother Richard was appointed governor of India, raising Arthur’s social status by several notches. The convoluted political situation of the country consisted of a patchwork of territory controlled by various European nations, areas controlled by native rulers loyal to one nation or another, and fiercely independent tribes. Arthur was thrust into action almost immediately against a pro-French native ruler. After a brief war, the British won, and Arthur was promoted to major general in 1802. General Wellesley then led the English in another war, this time versus a powerful tribe called the Marathas. After the battle of Assaye, a brilliant but bloody English victory, the British went on to crush the Marathas. Wellesley’s brother Richard’s star was declining, however, and, in 1805, Arthur returned to England a Knight of the Bath for his good service.
Now that Wellesley was a general and knight, the Pakenham family deemed him worthy of Kitty’s hand in marriage. Arthur decided to marry her without seeing her again since his return from India. “She has grown ugly, by Jove!” was his first remark on their wedding day. It was too late to pull back, however, and they were unhappily married. Throughout the rest of his life, Wellesley never found pleasure in Kitty’s company. General Wellesley quickly reentered Parliament, but he itched for military action in the raging Napoleonic War on the Continent. He was appointed chief secretary of Ireland, but was also sent in command of a quick, successful attack on Denmark. For his good service there, Wellesley was promoted to lieutenant general. He was sent with a small force to Portugal, to attempt to organize an army to fight Napoleon. At this time, the Spanish were carrying on a bloody guerilla war with their French conquerors. After solid tactics and maneuvers, Wellesley won Anglo-Portuguese victories at Rolica and Vimiero. However, he was superseded in command. But his superiors signed the Convention of Cintra, which unwisely allowed the French to return to France unmolested.
Wellesley returned to England, and, at this time, he frequented a brothel. Throughout his unmarried and married life, he apparently had many lovers. Despite this dishonorable fact, he kept a Bible and the Anglican prayer book at his bedside throughout his life, and apparently read them often. He punished plundering troops most severely, and said he felt the “finger of God” on him during the battle of Waterloo. Once he said, “Educate people without religion and you make of them but clever devils.” However, it appears from his actions that Wellesley was not a true Christian.
In 1809, Wellesley was reappointed to supreme command in Portugal. He quickly and efficiently drove the French under Soult out of the country, then headed into Spain to aid the Spanish guerillas. After a fruitless rendezvous with an incompetent Spanish leader, Wellesley faced the French at Talavera, winning a decisive yet bloody victory. For this triumph, Wellesley was made Viscount Wellington. After a respite of a year, a large French army moved to retake Portugal. After several desultory conflicts, the French were repulsed and retreated. But they came back months later and assaulted Spain. Wellington beat them back at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro. In 1812, Wellington captured Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, important Spanish fortresses that guarded the entrance to Portugal. Then Wellington decisively defeated the French at Salamanca and took Madrid. He was also made a marquis and promoted to full general for his victory.
Wellington soundly defeated the French at Vitoria, and was promoted to field marshal. Then he won again at Orthez, and took Toulouse. Then came the news that Napoleon abdicated, to be replaced by Louis XVIII, and Wellington became a hero—and a duke. However, Napoleon soon escaped from exile in Elba and the French army rallied around him. Once again, Napoleon was threatening the peace of Europe. England, Germany, and Holland assembled an army in the Netherlands, which Wellington took command of quickly. Wellington’s forces aligned themselves in Belgium, near a Prussian army under Blucher. The French army was on the Franco-Belgian border, poised to invade.
Napoleon defeated the Prussians at Ligny, while Ney, a French general, fought Wellington to a standstill at Quatre Bras. The Prussians fell back towards Wellington’s forces. These engagements were the prelude to one of the greatest battles the world has ever known: Waterloo.
Wellington, typically, refused to intimate any of his plans to his generals at Waterloo. Napoleon’s strategy was to soften Wellington’s center up with artillery then mount a frontal assault. When Marshal Soult advised him against it due to the fortitude of the British infantry, Napoleon said, “Because you have been beaten by Wellington you consider him a great general. And now I will tell you that he is a bad general, that the English are bad troops, and that this affair is nothing more serious than eating one’s breakfast.” Napoleon grossly underestimated Wellington and his army. On June 17, 1815, after a very close battle, Wellington, assisted by Blucher and the Prussians, won a decisive and total victory. It was Wellington’s last—and most earth-shattering—battle.
He returned to England a hero once again. Still a staunch Tory, Wellington jumped right in to politics as soon as he arrived back in England. In January of 1828, he became Prime Minister. For the most part, his administration was unpopular. Wellington opposed parliamentary reform, something the mob supported wholeheartedly. Often, rioters would smash the windows of his home, so he installed iron shutters on them to prevent this from occurring. Because of this, he earned the nickname “Iron Duke.” Finally, his government toppled in November 1830. Wellington slipped easily into another leadership position, heading up the Tories in the House of Lords. However, he began to decline. Finally, on September 14, 1852, at the age of 83, Wellington passed gently into the next world.
The Duke of Wellington was an extraordinary man placed under extraordinary circumstances. He was relentless in war, consistent in politics, somewhat eccentric in disposition, and reckless in love. Obviously, the Iron Duke can rank among the great tactical minds of the past millennia—and there were quite a few. However, from his actions, we find that he failed to use his many God-given talents for the glory of God; rather, he used them in order to aggrandize his country—not necessarily a wrong aim—and himself—a lost cause.
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