The Duke of Wellington was famed for being able to assimilate and process large amounts of complex information in a relatively short space of time. His ability to communicate clear, concise orders based thereon were key to his effectiveness as a commander in chief. However a little investigated facet of his communication skills has been taken for granted.
It is a given that because the Duke was part of the Anglo-Irish Aristocracy; lived in Brussels for a few years and attended the military college at Angers, he could speak French. And indeed he could, though one critic commented that he spoke French like he fought them, Wellington could read, write, speak and understand the language of his enemy. He could do this because French was an international second language for most European nations. It was a language of refinement, art and breeding, and up to a point was practically a necessity for aristocrats to know.
Ironically, because most gentlemen could speak French, and at this point in history most officers were always gentlemen, his knowledge of the language would prove an effective conduit for Wellington to communicate with foreign allies. Essentially making the very language of the Napoleonic empire a weapon of its destruction. No one can doubt the Duke’s fluency in Europe’s most fashionable common language. What has been doubted by many respected biographers is his familiarity with the Spanish language.
Even the most accomplished biographies of the last century have paid scant attention to his language skills, dismissing it with the sure knowledge that he merely spoke a French to his Spanish allies. And it is true he preferred to use his second language to convey ideas and important decisions to allies and diplomats who spoke no English. At the battle of Salamanca he even spoke to his good friend General Miguel Alava in French before racing off to set the army in motion.
However recent evidence shows that Wellington had been applying himself since 1808, and at a stretch possibly beforehand, to learning Spanish. To begin with he had originally been slated for the command of an expeditionary force to South America and had therefore been in contact with the fiery expatriate, General Miranda, who was negotiating for military aid against Spain. With the prospect of becoming immersed in the Hispanic speaking hinterland of Venezuela, it would be entirely fitting if the young General had begun to acquire a base in Spanish.
Certainly by the time he was redirected towards Portugal in 1808, a parting gift from the Ladies of Llangollen had afforded him the means to achieve an understanding of the Spanish language. (Why he did not choose Portuguese is anyone’s guess.) The two spinsters presented Sir Arthur with a Spanish translation of the prayer book published in 1707. The inscription in the book, which survives in the family archive of Baron de Ross, reads:
“This book was given to Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, before he went to command the Armies in the Peninsula in 1808, by Lady Elinor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, better known as the Ladies of Llangollen. He had it in his possession and with him during the whole of the war; and learnt from the perusal thereof what he knows of the Spanish language.”
The book itself was given as a gift to Lady Georgiana de Ross who recounted the story in her memoirs:
“One day, when we were at Stathfieldsaye, the Duke of Wellington was alluding to having learnt Spanish from a Spanish translation of the English Prayer-book, which was given to him when he was going to take command in Spain, by Lady Elinor Butler, the Duke, then Sir Arthur Wellesley, having visited her and Miss Ponsonby at their cottage at Llangollen, as he went through from Wales to Ireland. On my asking what had become of the Prayer-book, “Oh, it’s somewhere in the library here,” was the answer. Whereupon I searched until I found it, with no name, or anything to tell its history. He was very much pleased to see it again, and said he would give it to me as I had taken such pains to find it. I carried it off at once.”
The Duke remarked that it was such a faithful translation that he had been able to understand a speech made in his honour by a local official soon after arriving in Spain. Nevertheless hiw was a Yeoman’s Spanish and seemingly not at all reliable for important discussion. For when meeting General Cuesta in 1809 he had to rely on the English skills of Spanish General O’Donjou, who was a descendant of an Irish family, for Cuesta refused to speak the language of the French invaders on principle. Yet according to, Gonzalo Serrat, a relative of Geberal Alava, in other matters, such as correspondence with his friend, Alava, later in the war, Wellington was quite comfortable in his facility in Spanish to write at least 50 letters to him in that tongue.
All of which together gives a very different impression of how Wellington communicated to his allies. But then the Duke had a history of being able to pick up languages. He used Sea voyages to indulge in voracious reading, when he travelled to India as Colonel of the 33rd, he had taken witt him over 200 books, some of which were Persian Dictionaries and grammar books. Given this choice of reading it is impossible not to conclude that he did what other British officers did after arriving in India, hiring a Munshi to teach him the language; most likely Persian, which he could certainly converse in by the time of the Battle of Assaye, (if not before when he was commander at Seringapatam).
Havildar Syud Hussein of the 4th Native Cavalry had been right marker for his regiment during the first cavalry charge at Assaye, during the engagement he had observed an enemy standard escaping, accordingly he:
“dashed into the centre of a party of the enemies horse, and bore off their standard.”
After the battle his Colonel brought Hussein and the colour to the then Sir Arthur Wellesley. The weary commander heard the story, patted Hussein on the back and, so wrote Sir John Malcolm in 1818:
“eloquent and correct in the Native language for which you were celebrated, said ‘Acha havildar; Jemadar.”
Though it is hard to say if Sir John was being anything but overly flattering, there is little reason to think him completely wrong. To my mind it makes perfect sense that the Duke would have gained a working knowledge of at least one Indian language in the 8 years he spent in the country, where his French would get him nowhere.
Over the last few years, neglected evidence has been rediscovered that points to this hitherto overlooked facet of Wellington’s approach to command and communication. With three languages under his belt we can see that learning the tongue of the country he was going to fight in, was a top priority for Wellington and formed an important part of his preparation for a campaign.
The city of Seringapatam, capitol of Mysore, in South Western India was built to use natural forces to compliment man made fortifications. It stood on an island in the middle of the River Cauvery, rising out of the jungle as a sparkling diamond with its temple spires and minarets piercing its skyline. The Cauvery flows in a brown ribbon out of the Western Ghauts and in the wet season provided a formidable moat to an enemy. On the island’s north western end, the fortress rose over the city, placed on a sloping stone glacis, on it’s primarily granite walls were mounted over 100 guns but though built to be modern, the flat slab faced battlements lacked modern triangular bastions and sloping faces, also by the time the British came, the ground was not swampy, it was parched after the dry season, the river consisted of barely a few toffee coloured streams running across the bare ivory rock. However it would only stay this way until the monsoon season came. On the 4th of April 1799 The Tiger of Mysore had risen early and as was his habit went to one of the calivers of the outer ramparts on the north face. Here he watched the enemies of his father, the Great Hyder Ali blockade his capitol. His plan was the same as when they had come before under Cornwallis, he would wait for the monsoon, using the River Cauvery as a ditch until the rains came and turned it into a moat. The British Company Army under General Harris had arrived before the walls and set up camp to the south of the river having taken 31 days to cover 153.5 miles from Madras. If Harris couldn’t take the city by the 20th of May, the latest date by which rains were expected he would have to retreat, like Cornwallis had, for no army could fight in the Monsoon. Although he had failed to stop the British at Malavelly, Tipu still had somewhere around 30-38,000 men, including his European trained troops and his exceptional cavalry. Colonel Arthur Wellesley had already been off colour for a while, fatigue and heat had “teased him much”. The commander in chief, General Harris had noticed his most energetic Colonel’s flagging energy and had given a warning for him to be watched so that he did not wear himself out. Added to his active but drained demeanour was that he had no great enthusiasm for the war, only a great sense of duty carried him on. He had indeed advised his brother, Lord Mornington, the Governor General, to go into further negotiation with Tipu, and exhaust all possibility of peace before taking so drastic an action of destroying the state of Mysore. Yet here they were and despite his tiredness, Wellesley was one of an alternating team of duty officers who took control of the running of the southern camp. The British had invested Seringapatam with camps on both sides of the river. The southern camp was under General Harris commanding the Madras force, while General Stuart, with the Bombay army was to the north.
Harris now felt that Tipu’s men who had yet to fully enter the city, and still occupied its outer environs, would be dispirited after Malavelly. Indeed apart for burning everything that could aid the enemy as he retreated, causing no little trouble to the British commissariat, Tipu had shown a marked lack of imagination in opposing them. As many commented that there were many points during the advance were he could have fought the British on advantageous terms. Any successes he scored, were largely achieved by the courtesy of injudicious moves made by the British. Between Harris’ southern camp and the Cauvery the ground was broken by small villages, watercourses and thick topes of trees intersected by Nullahs and aloe hedges. This area needed to be cleared and the enemy beaten back into the fortress before the guns could open fire, also Harris thought it would be good to beat up the enemy camp to keep them jumpy. In order to do this on the 5th April 1799 Colonel Wellesley was ordered to prepare a force to occupy the village of Sultanpettah.
Sultanpettah lay amongst some tangled forest scrub astride a Nullah or canal, 200 yards or so from the southern bend of the Cauvery, and would essentially secure or threaten the British right flank. Wellesley, could not be said to have been fighting fit, drained from his recent illness he also had district misgivings about the fact he had not seen the ground he was to advance over, in the dark no less. Nevertheless he prepared in a logical fashion, he split the 33rd into wings. 5 companies would advance supported by their battalion guns, and secure the Tope that seems to have grown close to the village, and the other 5 companies under Major Shee would stand as a reserve with four companies of the 10th Bengal Native Infantry. Wellesley ordered his companies to fix bayonets, but only the Grenadier Company was allowed to charge and prime.
At a little after 7pm the troops marched towards the trees, following the course of a dry Nullah, that would take them around the Tope. The widening course of the ditch proved difficult to follow, and a thick aloe hedge grew on its far side bounding the Tope. Presently they arrived at an opening in the underbrush and the officers halted to discuss which way to take. It was then that one soldier, observed an orange light glowing in the dark ahead of them. Quietly the officers discussed what it might be. Meanwhile the sepoy crouching in the gloom with his comrades behind the hedge slipped the burning slow match into the serpentine of his matchlock, checked its action and opened his pan.
Without knowing it the British had wandered right into the middle of an estimated 2,000 of Tipu’s troops and the next thing they knew a livid discharge of musketry assailed them from both sides, and for an instant the night was lit by fire and flame. Men and officers were shot and knocked down in the confusion. By the light of fizzing rocket bursts and spitting muskets, the advance companies of the 33rd attempted to respond to the cries of their officers. Despite their empty muskets months, even years of drill should have allowed the men of the centre companies to load and present blindfolded. Yet it is another matter entirely to load a musket in the dark, when you are clustered against the bank of a deep Nullah, in unfamiliar surroundings, with your night vision lost to rocket explosions and men being killed and wounded around you.
In the confusion Colonel Wellesley rode up to the head of the advance, and with help put the troops in some kind of order, just as a second volley crashed out from the darkness, from the muzzle flashes it was clear that Tipu’s men were much further to their left now than before. In that confusion someone ordered the drums to beat the Grenadier’s March. This rousing call to attack was supported by the officers bellowing for the men to cross the Nullah and use their bayonets. The British leapt and scrambled over the obstacle and rushed the hedge and were soon entangled amongst the trees, driving back those troops ahead of them, while the Grenadier company opened fire by files into the darkness.
Being mounted Wellesley was unable to cross but gathered a group of 70 odd men, and ordered them to load and fire upon the enemy trying to outflank them. He was then directed to a small stone bridge that spanned the Nullah. At that moment an officer came running back to report the enemy in great strength to their front. The sheet of flame widening along the flanks were causing him much disquiet and two officers were sent to the rear to bring up the reserve.
With the flash of musketry and rocket fire intensifying, and repeated attempts to form having failed, the reserve had not yet arrived. Wellesley having lost contact with the forward companies, ordered his detachment to retire so as to locate the reserves, however instead of retracing their steps they marched in a straight line until they met sentinels of the 10th BNI and the 4 6pdr guns at the corner of the Tope. It transpired that by retreating they had passed right by the reserve which was moving up to support them. At the edge of the Tope they discovered that the reserve was not to be found. Lieutenant Taynton of the Madras Artillery, explained the situation to Wellesley and seeing that he was in discomfort from bruised knee, caused by a spent ball, offered him some brandy and water to refresh him. The sound of gunfire having become general Wellesley ordered them to retire further with the guns to the nearest part of the camp were he found the Swiss Regiment de Meurion and General Sherbrooke’s Brigade standing to arms. He ordered his men to halt and await orders, then rode to headquarters to report the failure of the attack. After a confused action, lasting a quarter of an hour or more, the British had fallen back, but as it happened so too had most of Tipu’s men.
The next morning Wellesley took Sultanpettah and the nearby tope with no losses, hardly surprising since most of the enemy were probably gone. The siege then progressed in a fairly typical fashion. On the night of the 17th a small offshoot of the river called the little Cauvery was taken along with the ruined village of Argarum. From the 21st to the 26th breaching batteries established to the south and west. On 26th April the British Guns opened fire and eventually silenced the opposing batteries. The defenders had put up a good fight, giving gun for gun, and keeping up a constant fire of rockets and big guns on the trenches. Now and again they would set alight the batteries, this would signal a sally by Tipu’s Tiger Sepoy’s who would rush up to the lip, pour a volley of musketry into the works and withdraw as reinforcements came up. Nevertheless Wellesley as Duty officer had taken all the ground between the southern and little Cauvery’s on the 27th of April, though not without difficulty, and the assistance of Colonel Campbell of the 74th.
With the way cleared the breaching Batteries were now thrown up 400 yards from the walls. Sustained bombardment then began with minimal counter fire being returned. The guns pounded away but time was running out, as the coming of the monsoon would soon put a stop to all operations. Not before time, the batteries finally opened a cannelure (a long groove) along the bottom the of the fortifications, partway between were the bridge spanned the river and the most North Westerly bastion whose apex pointed upriver. With a little encouragement this gash would cause the wall to collapse, creating a breach. As soon as the scar smeared the granite face of Seringapatam the chances of Tipu having to face an assault increased considerably. Day by day the guns tore away the bottom of the wall. When that went it brought he top crumbling down in an avalanche of stone masonry. Once the dust cleared, the British officers and engineers trained their telescopes to view the demolition. The fallen rubble had created a ramp that attacking soldiers could climb, after some mathematical consideration it was deemed “a practical breach” and an assault date was set for the 4th May 1799.
“In Fine Style”
Soldiers hate sieges but at last the monotony was coming to an end. Unfortunately that meant storming a breach. Being more senior it was General Baird who was given the honour of leading the storming parties. It was a duty he relished, having once been a prisoner in Seringapatam’s dungeons, and he was after revenge. Wellesley was given command of the reserve and would wait until the breach was taken to advance or reinforce the attack if need be. There is fragmentary evidence that Harris deliberately gave him this command. Partly due to his wishing to keep the Governor General’s brother safe, but it is just possible that Wellesley had fatigued himself too much clearing the way to lead the attack.
Just after midday on the 4th of May 1799. Baird was waiting with his men in the hot and fetid forward trenches for the clock to tick down. Every face glistened, each man damp and uncomfortable in his uniform, each mouth dry. Harris had taken the risk of assaulting at 1 PM to surprise the defenders when they might be resting during midday. The assault columns would have to drop down into the dry Cauvery and run across the boulder strewn bed, but with surprise they might reach the rubble ramp before the enemy saw them. Just before the hour Baird had issued his men a dram and some biscuit, the minute hand of his watch ticked down and pocketing it, the burly Scotsman stood, drew his sword and ordered the
stormers forward. With bayonets fixed the redcoats and Sepoys spilled over the lip of the trench and formed two columns to attack. Baird took his place behind the forlorn hope. The soldiers gazed upon his strong frank face, flushed with excitement and heat, his blue eyes glistening sapphire, and at his order went forward at the double. As they closed Tipu’s men, who had indeed retired to escape the heat of the day, awoke to their danger, the walls came alive with gunfire and the riverbed sang with crack and ping of lead. The sweating columns hitherto jogging to the accompaniment of clunking water bottles, jingling haversacks, slapping bayonet scabbards and the scrape of their own boots, now began to pelt towards the glacis. An officer of the 73rd said that the way was rocky and they had to splash through running streams 4ft deep but “The Breach was good and we mounted it in fine style”. Through the film of smoke the two Columns could be glimpsed rushing forwards, a cheer rising up from the dry riverbed, scattered shots pluming up from their edges. They were a boiling red mass on the bare rock, white cross belts shining and black hats bobbing, musket barrels and bayonets sparkling in the hot sun. The forlorn hope rushed courageously into a hail of lead and got swallowed in the cloud of gun smoke. The first man to crown the breach was Sergeant Graham of the Bombay European Regiment; he had made it up the rubble ramp and wrenched the colours from the hands of the surorised ensign. He darted forward waving the flag and stumbled to the crown of the incline, were he brandished it for all too see and cried “Hurrah for Lieutenant Graham” and was then shot dead.
Perhaps down in the reserve trench Wellesley caught a momentary flash of the bright colours blossoming on the battlements, as the columns welled up the beach like a rising red flood, increasingly lost to clouds of musket smoke, but there was little else to do but wait and watch. The defenders fought fiercely but with Baird urging them on, the British would not be denied the walls and in sixteen minutes of intense fighting Baird had taken the breach and the columns began fanning out left and right along the ramparts and towards the inner fort.
Death of a Tiger.
“I would rather live a day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep” Tipu would live up to his words and died like the Tiger he was, with claws bared to the last. That morning he had taken his habitual observation of the enemy from the northern ramparts. At noon he was served lunch there under a Pandal, at that time suspecting no trouble, despite the fact that the British guns were no longer firing, and a messenger bowing before him to say that the western parallels were unusually filled with Europeans. Perhaps he thought that the enemy would not attack so late in the day. An hour or more later, the scene had changed from one of tranquil sangfroid to desperation and courage.
As the outer defences crumbled the Sultan fell back from the walls with his servants, guards and officers, defending every traverse and gun ramp of the outer walls with ready loaded muskets handed to him by his attendants. He reached the ditch of the inner fort across from a fairly ordinary looking gatehouse called the Water or River Gate, which was set into the walls with a drawbridge to allow entrance and an attractively carved archway over the doors. There he felt a weakening in his leg, and found an old wound was playing him up. Intending to hold the inner fort or reach his palace to make a last stand, he called for his horse and mounted. Looking around he could see Company troops pouring down every traverse and chasing his men across the outer compound. With some urgency therefore he crossed the ditch and entered the gatehouse accompanied by his palanquin. Unknown to him the 12th light infantry had already penetrated the inner ramparts and were even now hurrying to secure the entranceway. Having passed into the shade under the arch he was halfway through the gate when he perceived the redcoats rushing towards him from inside the fort. Without much ceremony they began to shoot into the confined space of the gatehouse, bullets cracked past him and pinged off the walls. As they opened fire assaulting company troops closed in behind him and opened fire into the archway. The carnage was awful, in a matter of minutes most of the Sultan’s guards and retainers had fallen and now their bodies choked the floor.
Tipu’s horse was shot and sank below him. He himself was hit again near his old wound and a second time by a bullet that entered his side, close to his heart, and his turban fell as he was dragged from his horse by his remaining attendants. They placed the sultan on his palanquin against one side of the archway, were he lay, badly wounded, gasping for air as his servants tried to hold back the enemy. The bayonets of the sepoys and soldiers made short work of Tipu’s retainers and they closed in on the crippled Tiger. Summoning his last reserves of strength Tipu had raised himself up and propped himself against the wall. As a soldier began tugging at his rich looking sword belt, he took hold of his gilt inlaid Tulwar as and with a sudden strike laid open the man’s knee. The soldier sprang backwards with a cry, and at that moment he shot him through the shoulder, and instantly another soldier behind Tipu raised his musket and shot him in the temple.
To the victor the spoils.
After 2 hours of fighting, the day’s dying light shone through the smoke that drifted above the silent walls and flowed through the Union Jack floating above the southern cavalier, but a tumult sounding from the city ruined the poignancy of the scene. The Tiger of Mysore was dead & Seringapatam had fallen. It seems the rank and file hadn’t been too eager to practice leniency when they found out how some of their comrades in the dungeons had died, and the looting began very quickly, though the noble idea of righteous revenge was only part of the motive. Meanwhile Wellesley heard a rumour that Tipu was dead and went to investigate. He climbed over the horrors of the breach and was taken to the boundary of the inner fort, the water gate stood was chocked with corpses. There in the shade of the archway, made darker by the dusky onset of twilight, a body was found and dragged out by torchlight.
Grimly Wellesley felt the still pulse of the short portly, delicate limbed man dressed in the soiled white linen jacket, white loose chintz trousers, red sash around and a red and green belt around his shoulder. Although at first there was some doubt, for his eyes were open and his body was still warm, he was pronounced dead. He was identified as the sultan there and then; and it seemed that he had been wounded several times before the final shot killed him, indeed he seems to have been covered in wounds, much besides the shots that brought him down for he had been stabbed by bayonets. There is controversy as to who discovered the sultan. But it is more than possible given the differing first hand accounts that Wellesley and Baird both visited the body at different times. The discovery of Tipu’s body came to epitomise the siege for people back in Britain but General Baird was the hero of the piece, after all he was a much more romantic figure. And much better hero to match the propagandised monster that Tipu was cast in, than the younger brother of the Governor General. Afterwards the prize committee voted to award Baird a finely made sword for his part, and paintings celebrated his triumph over the dead Tipu in suitably heroic terms, opposed to the prosaic and grimy glory in which Wellesley had found him.
Although several British prisoners had been executed in the dungeon Harris wished to spare the as much as possible, General Baird was of the opposite opinion. The tales of the Sack of Seringpatam would warm the firesides of many public houses back in Britain in the years to come. With nothing else to do Wellesley returned to camp, posting the Swiss regiment De Meurion to guard the Breach and the 33rd Foot were formed up outside the palace to keep order. Wellesley had gone back to camp to wash and shave as the sound of looting filled the warm Indian night. The Tiger of Mysore was buried with full honours and as he was laid to rest a rainstorm struck Seringapatam. The storm was so violent that lightning killed two East India Company officers in the town. Tipu’s long awaited Monsoon was finally making an appearance, but it had come one day too late. In the siege 1,400 British and EIC troops were killed and wounded and 8 to 9,000 Sultinate casualties were recorded as buried.
In Command. On the 5th of May Wellesley was ordered to take command of the city and he went to Tipu’s palace. A much more agreeable place than were he had made the acquaintance of the former owner. He had been appointed commander of Seringapatam and he had to relieve Baird. Wellesley thought Baird was a lion hearted officer but had no tact & was unsuited for the post because he had prejudices against the natives. Later Wellesley said that he thought that he had been the “fit” person for the job because he hand done well and was liked by the natives. Harris had appointed Wellesley on the Adjutant General’s recommendation because Baird had asked to be replaced saying he was physically tired, yet he had not want to be superseded by Wellesley. He found General Baird breakfasting with his staff in Tipu’s summer palace, the Darya Daulet Bagh. Wellesley said, in his rapid, rather abrupt manner, “General Baird, I am appointed to the command of Seringapatam, and here is the order of General Harris.” Immediately Baird rose from the table and said to his staff “Come Gentlemen we no longer have any business here” to which Wellesley replied, “Oh, pray finish your breakfast” It would take a long time for Baird to forgive him. Like allot of the army Baird resented Wellesley was merely the governor general’s pet, being superseded by Wellesley rankled with him. Even others felt it unfair for an officer who had played no part in the assault to take command. Wellesley ignored them, his job was to restore order. To that effect four men were hanged for looting and typically discipline then returned. The next day he asked for extra rations for the 12th, 33rd and 73rd regiments who had gotten no food the previous day and got wet during the storm. Having read so thoroughly about India before he arrived few Kings officer’s could have been so well prepared as he was for governing the capitol of Mysore. He hunted and rode, was the life of any social event, yet he drank modestly. He was interested in the culture of the subcontinent too, doubtless hiring a munshi to perhaps teach him some Persian. In India he was described as being very active and extremely fit, riding and exercising frequently, and hunting as often as he could. The Mysore campaign of 1799 had shown him to be a field officer of great endurance, good sense and bravery, yet one who often interpreted duty as blind obedience, a man not yet independent of his connections and there is indications that he was still finding his feet on the battlefield. The next part of his military career however would be were he had the greatest freedom to act as he saw fit, and we will go to see the stolid calculating Iron Duke in a vibrant dynamic light, that was dare we say it, almost Napoleonic in its brightness.
See you again for another Adventure In Historyland. Josh.
Sources: Wellington: The Iron Duke. Richard Holmes. Wellington: The Years of the Sword. Elizabeth Longford. Wellington: The Path to Victory. Rory Muir. Wellington in India: Jaq Weller. The Duke: Phillip Guedella. White Mughals: William Dalrymple. The Death of Tipu Sultan: The True American Commercial Advisor March 18, 1800. Wellington’s Campaigns in India. Reginald George Burton.
The Bicentenary of Waterloo is a very special commemoration and it is very touching to see that people still care about it 200 years later. It is better still to see the wealth of academic material pouring forth from the pens of skilled and talented historians and writers, which will make up the bulk of the scholarship on the battle for years to come. Make no mistake this anniversary is vital for ensuring Waterloo remains in people’s minds. For Europe, and indirectly, those influenced by the European experience, it was the defining moment of the 19th century, and because so much effort has been spent on the bicentennial this year, it’s heroes will live on, I hope, another 100 years.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Battle of Waterloo would have turned out very differently had Wellington not been there. Luckily for those who wish to express their admiration for the Duke and the events of 200 years ago, the bicentennial of Waterloo has caused a resurgence of quality souvenirs, honouring him and his men, which can be displayed in pride of place as a testament to this defining moment in European history.
As soon as news of the Battle of Waterloo was broadcast, the souvenirs began to appear to commemorate the victory, and it was helped that the industry that had sprang up around the cult of the British hero was already well established by the time the news of the victory arrived. Now a tide of Waterloo themed special edition items are on offer once more.
One of the best I’ve seen is a very unique celebration of the anniversary. Rampley and Co is a pocket square company from London and have created a beautiful men’s accessory, for those of us who still wear jackets or waistcoats. It’s emblazoned with Sir Thomas Lawrence’s superb portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which now hangs in Apsley House, showing the Duke in 1814, just before his most famous battle. This is a particularly fitting piece of memorabilia and a very striking accessory, given that the Napoleonic Wars were such a well dressed affair.
You can check out Rampley’s products, and see their excellent Waterloo blog by following this link.
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.
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. Continue reading “What Wellington Said.”
I’ll bet allot of you don’t know about the Duke of Wellington’s mission to St Petersburg in 1826. Well I wasn’t too familiar with it either, so I looked into it and found a great story, so after having my Adventure I had to let you all know about it, this is the story of the Duke and the Tsar, or more accurately of the St Petersburg Protocol, mysterious isn’t it? Continue reading “The Duke and the Tsar part 1.”
The 18th of June, is the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a pivotal moment in European history. Don’t worry I haven’t been nearly so industrious as to have written a lengthy blow by blow account of the fight, hopefully I have been a little more original, So if you have a moment for commemoration please follow me.