Wellington the Boy. By Marcus Cribb.

I am writing this to tie into what would have been the 251st Birthday of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, on 1st May 1769.

The earliest know image of Arthur Wesley (Wellesley) silhouette aged around 7 years old. C. Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

A Disputed Birth

The birth of the future Duke of Wellington, in itself has some interesting nuances in that some facts are still disputed. It is widely accepted that the 1st May is his birthday, his own father and mother wrote that it was the 1st May and Arthur himself celebrated it on this day. However; the baptismal register of the Parish of St Peter, Dublin records Arthur’s christening on 30th April 2 days before his birth. One possible explanation for this was that, sadly 2 of the Earl and Lady Mornington’s children had died in infancy, including a Arthur Wesley (the family name was changed later to Wellesley in order to Anglicise it), who dies in 1768 aged 6 or 7. As such there may have been some haste to baptise their second Arthur (the future Duke of Wellington) with some haste, in case he should die without having received such a blessing. There was already a surviving eldest son, Richard Wellesley and a second son William. In the baptismal register it is possible, albeit less likely, that the parish officials did not know what the date was. There is at least a little likelihood that these records have been falsified, either intentionally or otherwise. The entry above is dated 23rd April and the entry following is dated 24th May; all are in the same handwriting.

Mornington House today – Wiki commons

There is also a dispute ongoing about the place of birth, Mornington House, Dublin, or Dangan Castle, County Meath, the two family homes, town and country respectively. It is almost certain that the baby Arthur was born in Dublin as this is widely agreed upon, however some sources exist about whether the family were actually in residence there at that time, because the house may have been in the process of renovation until the summer of 1769, which would put Dangan Castle, the family seat, as a strong contender, it was also where the 2 eldest brothers were born, which is often proposed by local historians and the tourist trade. Dangan Castle is now, sadly a “romantic” ruin. Other sources have provided over 9 different locations in which Lady Mornington may have been in May 1769 and given birth to the infant Arthur, but the family (including the 9th Duke) maintain now, that it was in Dublin.

Ruins of Danagan Castle today – wiki common

“Food for powder”

It’s fair to say, that Arthur was not a natural student. Following in his brother’s footsteps, he was sent to Eton, but unlike them, he did not settle in naturally and was thought to have learnt relatively little. This young Arthur stood out from his brothers, who were already progressing in their careers, Richard was sent to Christ Church, Oxford and excelled as a scholar, William entered a career in the Royal navy as an officer. Young Arthur did have his father’s passion for music, Lord Mornington is thought to have composed some pieces (a dance survives in his name, though it could be dedicated to him). Arthur we know played the violin, like his father and grandfather before them and had hopes to be a musician of sorts.

It was Arthur’s inability to excel academically and fit into his surrounding that caused his mother to lament: “I vow to God I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur. He is food for powder and nothing more.” Powder referring to gunpowder, Anne, his mother thought his fate was to join the army and probably die in some obscure battle. She was at least half right. Shortly after starting Eton, Garret Wesley, the Earl of Mornington died, giving the family some financial worries, along with the title passing to Richard as eldest son. They decided to send Arthur at first to a school in Brussels, where he picked up French quickly, apparently speaking the language with a slight Belgian accent for the rest of his life. From there, a military career apparently chosen for him, he was sent on to France. It was in the French, Angier Military School that this young Arthur learnt the basics needed to become a Army officer.

Wellington’s first encounter with the French’ – National Army Museum, out of copyright

By this point, with Richard having assumed the title of Lord Mornington and sitting in Parliament, William was commissioned in the Royal Navy and a elected Member of Parliament, younger brothers, Gerald Valerian was destined for the clergy with the youngest, Henry still at Eton, Arthur now found his natural habitat. The course at Angers proved not too difficult for Arthur Wesley, it consisted of, fencing, riding, dancing, French grammar, mathematics and the science of military fortifications. Arthur did well at dancing, fencing and riding, important skills for a young gentleman, he relaxed into the life, playing cards and walking his dog, a white terrier called Vick around the medieval town.

By the time he returned home in 1786, aged just 17, with the skills to equip him in a military life (along with being fluent in French), he agreed with his mothers derisory advice and embarked on a career in the army. He offered a commission in the 73rd (Highland) Regiment but the family used influence, to transfer him to the 76th (Hindoostan) Regiment with a promotion to Lieutenant and then a transfer to the 41st Regiment so he could take up duties in Ireland as the Lord-Lieutenant’s aide-de-camp based in Dublin castle.

Chateau D’Angers today

It is from here the man that would be, Wellington, a Lieutenant of now only 18 years old began a life in the army full of bureaucracy and administration, which would lead to a political career and fast advancement which would see a brilliant journey as commander in the filed in Flanders, then India, before the now famous Battles of the Napoleonic wars.

A young boy, with little talent outside of languages, riding and music who would become, arguably the greatest military talent of the age, if not the greatest ever in Europe. 

Postscript:

The Wesley family originally hailed from Rutland, England and moved (as the Colley or Cowley family in around 1500) they are described as Anglo-Irish, to label them as “Irish” would be anachronistic and unhelpful. With this Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington never did utter the quote “Though a man maybe born in a stable, that does not make him a horse” or words to that effect. This was probably said by Daniel O’Connell (‘The Emancipator’) or one of O’Connells close relations.

Marcus Cribb

Sources:

Wellington: A Personal History: Hibbert, C.

The Great Duke: Bryant, A.

Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814: Muir, R.

Wellington: the Place and Day of his Birth Ascertained and Demonstrated. Murray, J. (1852)

Writing for Land of History: https://adventuresinhistoryland.com a collection of excellent articles and blogs by Josh Provan, which I can strongly recommend.Linked via https://marcuscribb.wixsite.com/thedukeofwellington/blog & https://twitter.com/mcribb89

French Atrocities in the Peninsular War.

By Marcus Cribb.

A difficult topic, but one that is often ‘dismissed’ by Francophile historians as too common, was the French Army’s behaviour towards the civilian population when it invaded a country. Here the focus is on Spain & Portugal, though there were cases in many other invasions, Napoleon had already encouraged his troops to loot and kill after sieges in Italy and after the siege of Jaffa he ordered thousands of captive civilians killed at bayonet point (in order to save ammunition) For examples in Russia see: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v31/n23/geoffrey-hosking/peasants-in-arms)

This is not to say that the British Army behaved angelically, though allied and invited to liberate Portugal & Spain from Napoleon’s aggressive expansionism. The retreat to Corunna in 1809 ‘remains a dark chapter in the history of the British army’ (Charles Esdaile), and the sacking of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian were abysmal incidents, which caused Wellington to fly into a rage and order the hanging of perpetrators on the spot. The differential factor is that the French were ordered to use the murder (and worse) and fear as a weapon as well as individual crimes and on the whole the British Army at least tried to convict those caught and Wellington was clear on harsh punishments for any crimes committed on their allies.

In the Autumn of 1807 Napoleon ordered General Jean-Andoche Junot along with over 24,000 men to invade the neutral nation of Portugal, to end it’s trade with Britain, which it refused to cease (this was an alliance with Britain which dated back to the the 14th Century). No military resistance was offered (The only resistance was offered by the governor of Valenca, who refused to open his gates to the northern column. He only caved in when he found that Lisbon had fallen and the Royal family had already fled to Brazil)

Junot was instructed to seize the property of the 15,000 persons who had fled to Brazil and to levy a 100 million Franc fine on the nation. As it happened, the refugees had carried off almost half of the specie in Portugal and the French were barely able to raise enough money to maintain the occupation army. Nevertheless, the harsh taxes caused bitter resentment among the population. By January 1808 there were open executions of civilians who resisted the heavy handed demands of the French. Meanwhile in Spain, King Charles IV, France’s supposed ally, was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, all of whom were held captive in Bayonne. The remaining children of the royal family were then forcibly ordered to join their parents in France. This led to a spontaneous uprising in Madrid; The Dos de Mayo. What followed was street fighting in different areas of Madrid as the poorly armed population confronted the occupying French troops. There were only a few Spanish military leaders involved, most of whom had been planning a campaign away from the capital and were caught unawares. The uprising was brutally put down by French Troops, street by street, famously having to storm a Spanish artillery barracks which was bravely defended.

[El dos de Mayo / The Charge of the Mamelukes. By Goya – The Prado]

The repression following the crushing of the initial rebellion was harsh. A special military commission was created on the evening of 2 May to be presided over by General Grouchy. This commission issued death sentences to all of those captured who were bearing weapons of any kind. In a statement issued that day Murat said: “The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot.”

These initial executions against cooperation, as in Portugal, or reprisal killings, as in Spain formed a pattern for the French behaviour during the Peninsular War that followed.

[Tres De Mayo by Goya – The Prado]

As the Spanish uprisings became open revolt against their invaders and evolved into successful Guerrilla War, elements to liberate their nation, the French Army used murder and fear as a weapon, under orders and spontaneously alike.

There is far less detail given in French memoirs, on how they carried out orders to sack villages and spare no one (sometimes enthusiastically as the loot provided a chance for the soldiers to gain great valuables). Joseph de Naylies, a French officer (who later because a Captain in the Eclaireurs of the Imperial Guard) wrote, “we entered the town… which was immediately pillaged and reduced to ash… We burnt [it down] and killed everyone we found there”

Maurice de Tascher, another French officer, but who was related to the Empress Josephine wrote a more harrowing account of the sacking of Cordoba; 30th June 1808:

“The Cathedral and the sacred lives within were not spared, which made the Spanish look upon us in horror, saying out loud that they would prefer we violated their women than their churches. We did both. The convents had to suffer all that debauchery has invented and the outrages of the soldier given up to himself”

Chart: Murders in the 2nd French Invasion of Portugal (1810-1811) in 1 district. Source University of Coimbra.

The Duke of Wellington wrote of the murder, thefts and worse: “The British people, I’m certain, wouldn’t believe the indecent behaviours of the French after their retreat.  I have never seen, nor heard, nor read of such behaviour and am convinced their actions have no equal in world history. You will hear several shocking recounts which should be told to the world at large. They killed all the countryfolk they found. Every day, we found the bodies of women, young and old, who were either stabbed, or shot. Since we were near Condexia, they regularly sent patrols to fetch all girls over the age of 10 to the camp to satisfy the soldiery… Every child we met was in tears, mourning the death of a parent. The houses were systematically burned … They dug up and looted the graves. Two days ago, one of our patrols entered a village where they found 36 corpses, most of whom were in their beds…”

It’s worth noting that the British public and Parliament were already well motivated against Napoleon as a threat towards Britain. The fear of invasion was tangible, especially in London and along the South coast. Wellington was not prone to exaggeration, nor did he often write graphic descriptions of the war he witnessed (for example the aftermath of Waterloo so deeply upset him, that he refused to talk about it), so we can presume his writing is factual.

Marcus Cribb, Writing for Land of History: https://adventuresinhistoryland.com a collection of excellent articles and blogs by Josh Provan, which I can strongly recommend.

Linked via https://marcuscribb.wixsite.com/thedukeofwellington/blog & https://twitter.com/mcribb89 

Sources:

Charles Oman: History of the Peninsular War

https://www.jstor.org/stable/26070650

https://historiana.eu/case-study/rights-civilians-and-responsibilities-armies-during-war-wwii-and-onwards/spanish-peninsular-war-1808-1814

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1468-2281.12252