What Wellington Said.

I was looking into some of the criticism people tend to level at the Duke of Wellington, and while I was looking for the answers to my questions I ended up writing this rant. 

Galloping at Everything.
Wellington’s criticism of the cavalry is well known. But when I looked into it

The Duke of Wellington
The Duke of Wellington commanded one of Britain’s finest expeditionary forces between 1808 -1814 and defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

I found there was more to the story. The text was written to General Hill about General Slade’s reverse at the hands of General Lallemand at Maguilla in 1811, where the British cavalry overcharged without support and though initially successful ran into the French supports and where roundly beaten. He wrote:

18th June 1812.
“I entirely concur with you in the necessity of inquiring into it (Slades affair). It is occasioned entirely by a trick our officers of cavalry have acquired of galloping at everything, and then galloping back as fast as they gallop on the enemy. They never… Think of maneuvering before an enemy – so little that one would think they cannot manuever, excepting on Wimbledon Common; and when they use their arm as it aught to be, viz. offensively, they never keep… A reserve. All cavalry should charge in two lines, of which one should be in reserve…”

This comes after four years of seeing the cavalry do this “Trick”. Now it is true, the bad press the British cavalry have gotten for the Peninsular war is undeserved, every charge did not end like Maguilla or Campo Mayor. However you will note that he is quite specific here. Wellington was a horseman and had lead cavalry charges from the front in India, he actually did know what he was talking about. In almost every instance, he criticised his cavalry for specific reverses. Never having a particularly strong cavalry arm, he did not utilise those he had as much as he did his infantry, giving the impression that he did not know how to use them. The above quote is actually his only sweeping rebuke on the subject (and certainly the only one I have seen) and when viewed in its often forgotten context it is not Wellington’s intention to blacken the name of his cavalry for ever more, and it is even less likely they ever heard that quote during the war.

In terms of his army. There is no lasting Wellington quote so well remembered than his legendary “Scum of the Earth” quote. In one terrible American documentary on Waterloo, a cut down version is used to show the opposite character’s of Wellington and Napoleon. “He called his men Scum!” the talking-head guest-historian commented, and this phrase is far too often bandied about on twitter for my liking, as if it says it all. This much misquoted line seems to sum up the popular image of Wellington, as the cold upper class General who flogged and hanged his men, while expecting them to follow his example and control themselves, fighting for nothing more than King and Country. But actually it says something very different.

Much as with the above quote, it came after he saw repeated occurrences of indiscipline in his army. The infamous sackings of Ciudad Rodigo, and Badajoz, are cases in point. In these instances he was understanding of their savagery but, during the retreat from Burgos he was unable to keep his temper and wrote a General Order blaming his officers for letting their men get out of hand. Looting and bad behaviour were problems Wellington continually battled against as he strove to keep the people of Spain and Portugal on his side. By 1812 in the Peninsula he was a Marshal of Portugal and commander in chief of the Spanish army, the Spanish and Portuguese army’s made up at least half of his available force. It should be noted that Sir John Moore also blamed his officers during the retreat to Coruña for failing to keep their men in line, he lost the goodwill of the Spanish people and one cannot help but wonder if he would have been treated as forgivingly by later historians had he not died.
The last straw was Vitoria in 1813. A total victory had been achieved and Wellington ordered a pursuit. Accordingly the cavalry went forwards and the infantry pressed on, they got to the massive French baggage train, blocking the road to France, and here most of the soldiers began looting, no rearguard could have been more effective and the French army was saved. Furious, Wellington wrote to the secretary of war, Lord Bathurst on 29 July 1813 that: “Our Vagabond Soldiers” had been “Totally knocked up”. A little later, 2 July 1813, he expanded on his theme: “It is quite impossible for me or any other man to command a British Army under the existing system. We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers.”
Few could or should challenge his anger, this looting had no military excuse and went against all ideals of good conduct, however by the autumn he had seemingly forgotten the matter, writing proudly that his army was: “The most complete machine for its numbers now existing in Europe.” 21 Nov 1813. Much like with his cavalry, the words cannot be proven to have been said out loud during the war. However after the war in an 1831 conversation with Lord Stanhope he was asked: “Do they beat them in the French Army” to which the Duke replied “Oh, they bang them about very much with their ramrods and that sort of thing, and then they shoot them… The conscription calls out a share of every class – no matter whether your son or my son – all must march; but our friends – I may say it in this room – are the very scum of the earth… people talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really Is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.”

Wellington expected his troops to serve out of duty to their country as he did, not out of duty to him, thus he disliked cheering and often lambasted their lack of discipline on paper. The “Scum” quote is a disillusioned Wellington speaking, a man let down and disappointed in men he had brought into such creditable fighting trim. His subsequent writings show that over the course of the last two years of the war, he came to admire them again as never before. To me the progression in his writing is telling about how he actually felt about his army.

With this in mind it would do us well to observe that rather than being a general slur on his common soldiers, the term Scum of the Earth seems to have been a pet phrase of the Duke’s. One he used when he was angered by an event, especially when the service was involved. Throughout his life he was prone to allowing irritations get the better of him, prompting outbursts that were often hurtful, unjust or damaging to all concerned. However they can hardly be taken as the gospel he lived by, and he certainly did not confine this phrase to his soldiers alone. He first used scum of the earth in 1800 to refer to crooked Indian translators, then in 1809, after the commission selling scandal involving the Duke of York’s mistress.

“..as it will be manifest to the whole world that not one of any party… has had any concern, direct or indirect, in the sale of an office and that these transactions, which have deservedly created so much indignation, have been carried on by the scum of the earth”.

This More or less convinced me that he was not speaking in the terms everyone assumes he was. Whenever troops did something unforgivable they were scum, and that went for anyone involved in calumny. It somewhat shatters one of the great issues many people have of him.

“It all depends on that article there!” he said to a reporter before Waterloo, pointing at a redcoat gazing at the statuary in Brussels park, “Give me enough of it and I am sure”.
For their part the army reciprocated in kind, lambasting him back and then forgiving him by turns. Wellington felt that he paid with popularity to create a near perfect army. At Albuera in 1811 he was not there, the consequence was victory but it was bruising, with heavy losses, he visited the wounded and was told by one invalid “There wouldn’t be as many of us here if you where in command my lord” at the battle of Sarauren in 1814 it looked as if he wasn’t going to arrive in time either: “Where’s our Arthur?” a Geordie private commented nervously “Dunno but I wish e wor ere” replied his friend.

They needn’t have worried Wellington arrived and there was no more nervous talk about the outcome. “We would rather see his hooked nose on the field that a reinforcement of 20,000 men” Said another veteran. Wellington said in later life to lady Salisbury, that by the end of the Peninsular war that he had beaten the army into such good shape that… “I could have done anything with that army it was in such perfect order.” In 1814 he lost that most complete & perfect army, it was split up and much reduced in number. So when Napoleon returned the next year he had to start from scratch all over again with a multi national force that he did not know.

8 May 1815 “I have got an infamous army, very weak and I’ll equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff. In my opinion they are doing nothing in England. They have not raised a man; they have not called out the militia either in England or Ireland.” then after the battle, reeling from the carnage he said that he had never seen the infantry behave so well.

He was not immune to the problems at hand and knew exactly why the “scum of the earth” where what they were. For instance He felt that Irish had nothing to enlist for. Their wives he said “Went not upon the parish but upon the dunghill to survive” He found it astonishing that Irish militia enlisted at all and those that did “Must be certainly the very worst members of society”. However the way some go on about it you’d think it was a bunch of maligned saints that stormed the breach at Badajoz, won Albuera’s field, or stood in the squares at Waterloo. In saying these things Wellington was not maliciously assassinating their characters in a fit of aristocratic piqué, he was making accurate observations on the sociological makeup of his army as the quotes in context show.
In later life Wellington was not blind to his personal failings either, telling a friend that if he had life to do over again “I should have given more praise.” It is more of an admission that he cared too much not too little.

Well that’s my thoughts on the subject, a little bit of a rant I know, but sometimes it’s nice to indulge oneself after gathering the facts and get into the thick of it. I may do a follow up on the things he said when he stopped fighting. See you later for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.

Did you know? Wellington was multilingual!

15 Replies to “What Wellington Said.”

  1. Fair enough. War is hell. All plans change after the first shot. You must act faster than the opposition. Support your team, be aware what they are doing, where, when and why. Everybody knows what to do and they do it at the speed of light, without hesitation or commands.

    Back to Peninsula: Logistics were a big deal. It cost 3 times as much to keep a soldier in the field than a sailor on a ship. They needed gold and silver bullion. Nathaniel Rothschild brought it from India. Procurement, politics and corruption: Wellington had to deal with that as well.

  2. I’m so glad what I’ve said about people over the years in anger and frustration will never make it into the history books–I’ve used worse words than scum. 🙂

  3. In a sense, Wellington’s criticism of his men looting is indeed slightly unfair: the whole British Army and Navy were, until the middle of the 19th century, still set up along very mercenary lines. In the Navy, every Officer and sailor got money when they took a prize, promoting an approved form of state piracy. In the Army, Officers had to pay for their commission, their pay hardly enough to compensate for the price of their commission, and so had to be creative to somehow get their hands on extra money. Essentially, even though soldiers and sailors were provided with basic food, enough ammunition, a very basic salary and most of their clothing and equipment, they would have to cough up money to account for all wear and tear on their clothing and equipment, and to supplement their very basic diet with their own funds. Soldiers were mostly poor men, living under circumstances that meant that any money (and even food) they saved could be gone in a matter of hours, and they would never see it again. And those circumstances meant that looting was still very much prevalent within the Army and Navy systems. So condemning them for it whilst knowing how the system worked isn’t very fair, I’d say.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.
      No it wasn’t fair, but it was just. Wellington required his troops to do their job then loot. They did this at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, both were horrendous lootings far worse than Vitoria, but because the fight was done, he let them run their course and stopped it later.
      At Vitoria, work still needed to be done and they lost discipline to loot the French baggage which entirely wrecked his pursuit.
      I’m sorry I don’t agree about the mercenary angle. The British army and Navy took prize money from captured enemy goods and equipment but this was done in a very organised system, in the navy this was just a practical way of disposing of enemy cargo. Otherwise they were official British troops, not bought in, authorised by the governemnt, sworn in by magistrates and commissioned by the King, the fact they paid the Governemnt for the post and not the government paying them to taking it, undoes the mercenary angle for me.
      Wellington was under intense pressure and strain but he knew exactly what kind of men he was dealing with when he said what he said and the main point is, he was not unfairly slating them all, he was accurate in his observations and he was specific and often constructive.


  4. Excellent review of words Wellington said – so true that men are judged by what they say – but so often judge and jury don’t have all the facts or bend them to make a personal point to suit their own ends. Judge these great leaders harshly or kindly they accomplished great things in worthy causes in extremes it’s hard to imagine and war is an extreme hard to imagine. Oh yes and sometimes humans speak on impulse, they make mistakes and speak rashly, we need perhaps to take people on all they have done and said – not just pick up on one or a few comments and then build a model of the man or woman from that. I know this article will be well researched as all your articles are, giving it the more credence, well done.

  5. One cannot judge any Historical personalitys words without the CONTEXT in which they were spoken.Unfortunately ,that is what most people do,including a lot of historians.And particularly as concerns controversial personalities.

  6. I totally agree – many of Wellingtons quotes are used out of context to criticise him.
    I have wanted to research the actual context and full quote behind the “scum” quote as I saw a hisorian on an American drama/documentary say that “he called his men scum” (a very broad statement if you ask me).

    1. You were right to be sceptical. I know the documentary you mean, and I agree, far too simplistic and sweeping an assertion.

      1. I think it is always a good thing to be sceptical to a certain point of someone’s view on history.

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