The Duke of Wellington was not an easy man to read. The passage of time has not made it easier. He was incredibly good at projecting the public image of the statesman and general “Duke of Wellington” and keeping the private image of the more sensitive, artistic and shy Arthur Wellesley out of sight. It is that legend of the “Iron Duke” that is best known to people today.
So an article about 11 things we didn’t know about the Duke of Wellington, to help publicise the opening of the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, should be an enlightening read. It was however a little disappointing for me and highlights just how difficult it is for historians to disentangle myth from fact. Now on the whole the article was not all that bad. It mentions his distaste for war, his fashionably short hair, the amount of pubs with his name on, about not inventing beef Wellington and those famous boots.
However the article is rife with potholes. Three of which stand out, although I found quite a few marked omissions in the others, not least that the boot was not called “Wellington” until after his death and his short hair really had nothing to do with crew cuts. Interestingly the entire rank and file of the army was required to have its hair worn long powdered and clubbed at the back until 1808.
Officers, especially the younger ones, had already ceased in this fashion during the 1790’s and early 1800’s. Wellington was one of these men.
The biggest problems start ominously at the beginning. The very first one is “1) Wellington was Irish”. At first this looks to be rather obvious instead of inaccurate because he was born in Dublin. However at the bottom is quoted “because a man is born in a stable it does not make him a horse”. I cannot be too clear that the Duke of Wellington never said this. It was said by Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, with typical self effacing humour, as a way of disowning Wellington from the Irish people. And he had a point for Wellington though being born there, was raised by an Anglo Irish aristocratic family, that had more in common with their English betters than the land they owned. Indeed his brother Lord Mornington felt it a most grievous insult to be awarded an Irish peering acidly calling it a “Gilt potato”.
“3) Wellington thought the British Army was rubbish” a leading statement if ever there was one. The caption confusingly then informs us that while participating in the 1794 campaign he was so appalled by British strategy that he was inspired to study strategy.
Let’s start briefly at the beginning. Wellington was a young Colonel of Infantry in the 33rd foot. While serving in the Duke of York’s campaign in the Low Countries 1793-1794, during the retreat from the river Waal,he witnessed harrowing scenes of neglect and mismanagement in which the army suffered. A long time later he commented that he had learned “What not to do” and that that was always something. He never felt the British army was superb unless it was taken care of, but he equally never thought it was rubbish.
In an effort to highlight Wellington’s distinctive dress sense, the article says “6) Wellington anticipated military camouflage” informing us that he chose to wear his understated frock coats as a deterrent to enemy snipers. This is not so much an inaccuracy as it is a large assumption that cannot be reliably corroborated. Wellington began wearing his plain campaign outfit at the beginning of the Peninsular War in 1808. There is no evidence he did so to deter snipers in that he is thought to have worn full dress in the Low Countries, India and Denmark, and continued to do so for parades and reviews. Also changing to a form of dress that actually made him stand out amongst uniformed officers would not necessarily keep him safe. General officers of the time rarely thought about uniforms in terms of being a target and Wellington is more likely to have worn his simple uniform for comfort rather than safety.
As it is some excellent material was missed. Such things like: He changed his name 3 times.
He helped Robert Peel form the Metropolitan Police. He went on a diplomatic mission to St Petersburg to prevent Russia from going to war with Turkey. What he ate for breakfast on campaign. He always liked to be neat, and because he had a heavy beard he often shaved twice a day and the fertile ground of little known facts that is his time in India certainly should have been included, not least of which that he considered that he knew as much about fighting as he ever did after returning from India.
I think an opportunity to entertain and educate people about the Duke, at a time when people will be more interested in him because of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, was missed here. Trust me when I say the man is more interesting than the legend, and much available online doesn’t show this.