Duke of Wellington
The Defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo
Arguably one of the most brilliant military strategists England had ever known he was renowned for his defensive style of warfare against numerically superior forces. He fought some 60 battles throughout his military career and was much loved by his troops who were very loyal to him. Hid crowning glory was the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 which brought peace to Europe.
Born in 1769 into an aristocratic Irish family where, after attending a couple of schools he was sent to Eton College, an experience he hated and failed to achieve any success. Without showing much enthusiasm for anything, his mother grew increasingly concerned for her sons future saying ‘I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son’. He enrolled into the French Royal Academy of Equitation where he became an excellent horseman and learned French. On returning home, his mother was astonished at his improvement.
A Military Career
He decided upon a military career and joined the army. As was the practice at the time he purchased a commission first as a major and then a lieutenant colonel. His first experience of action was in Flanders that did not go well for the British. Wellington realised that the failure was mainly due to the faults of the leaders and poor organisation. He remarked that he had ‘at least learned what not to do’.
His next military campaigns were in India where he had ongoing successes fighting in several battles. Promoted to the rank of Major General, his accomplishments were in no small measure due to his strategic planning. He instilled strong discipline in his men, securing good supply lines and using scouts and spies for intelligence. Successes in the wars against Denmark and the Peninsular war followed.
The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was to become his defining victory. His planning and strategic skills resulted in the defeat of Napoleon. The battle was to become the most famous in all of British history and destroyed the dream of a Napoleonic empire forever. Except for the Crimean war and a quick Franco-Prussian war Wellingtons, actions had ensured peace in Europe for almost a century. Without the need to devote resources to war, Britain was able to concentrate on developing our trading activities.
Return to England
So grateful was the nation that on his return to England, the public regarded him as a hero, formally honoured, and given £400,000 (worth some £5.8M in today’s money). He was also given an estate in Stratfield Saye near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Wellington made plans to demolish the existing building and build a property to rival Blenheim Palace. It was to be called Waterloo Palace but proved too expensive, and the designs dropped. Today the stables house the Wellington Exhibition and among the exhibits are the cast bronze funeral carriage made from melted down French cannons which had been captured at the battle. A commemorative column stands at the entrance. Wellington’s horse, Copenhagen, is also buried here.
On his return to England, he entered parliament as a member of the Tory party. He was elected leader becoming Prime Minister in 1828. (He was to become PM twice). He was not a natural orator, and his debating skills led to his parliamentary career being less successful than his military exploits. After his first cabinet meeting, he was heard to exclaim, ‘An extraordinary affair, I gave them my orders, and they wanted to stay and discuss them’.
His strong conservative views dented his popularity. He introduced Catholic emancipation, which granted civil rights to Catholics. Another bill, the Reform Act, was also to prove unpopular and mobs stormed his London home, Apsley House, forcing him to install iron shutters. For this, he became known as the Iron Duke. Today, opposite his house on Hyde Park Corner is a statue of the Duke mounted on his horse, Copenhagen. Nearby is Wellington Arch which was originally the entrance to Buckingham Palace. It is crowned by the most massive bronze sculpture in Europe and is well worth a visit.
Death and Funeral
His death in 1852 resulted in one of the most significant public events of the 19th century. Ten thousand marchers formed the funeral procession and over one and a half million people lined the streets of London, to watch his funeral procession. Wellington was buried alongside our great naval hero Lord Nelson. The windows of St Pauls were draped with heavy black cloth, and 6,000 new gas lights lit the dome and the whispering gallery. Queen Victoria attended and wrote ‘the GREATEST man this country has ever produced’.
Overview by Graham Saunders