Reviews: Biographical Books

Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814

Muir, Rory. Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814. New Haven: Yale, 2013. 672 p. ISBN# 9780300186659. Hardcover. $38

Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814

Tantalisingly ending volume one of The Peer’s life story at the end of the Peninsula War, with Waterloo just over the horizon, Rory Muir’s new biographical study of the Duke of Wellington makes the promise,

The author brings Wellington into much sharper focus than ever before, critically examining every aspect of his life from his unhappy childhood, his baptism into British and Irish politics and his remarkable successes in India, to the setbacks and triumphs of the Peninsular War. This is the first biography to address the significance of Wellington’s political connections and the way they both helped and hindered his campaigns. The work also gives fresh insight into Wellington’s character: his many strengths and the flaws that together made him a complex and interesting man as well as a great soldier.

Cast from unpromising clay, the young Arthur Wesley did not provide any hints as to what was to come. As commanding general material he was not alone in this trait; think of the tipsy small-town shopkeeper U.S. Grant before 1861, or Brigadier Bill Slim pottering about in the backwaters of the Sudan in 1940. He developed over twenty-five years of hard graft from a reticent subaltern lacking patronage in Dublin to the confident and opinionated leader of a successful coalition invasion force – and in Muir’s book we are able to understand how the combined military and political forces of the time imparted their stamp upon him as a person. In an army that provided little in the way of officer training, he learned his craft by doing, making mistakes, then doing better. As he said after his first campaign in Flanders in 1794, “I learnt more by seeing our own faults, and the defects of our system in the campaign of Holland, than anywhere else.” Napoleon may have taunted his Indian experiences (“General of sepoys”), but we clearly see in this book how he learned the parallel skills of campaigning in torrid climes and negotiating the often equally torrid political landscape on the dusty plains of western India.

James Dawes Douglas, a Peninsula staff officer and Military College graduate (later a Portuguese brigade commander) once told a captured Frenchman in 1809 his opinion of the difference between Moore and Wellesley, “With one we had more inspiration, the other more instruction.” Today we might call it micro-management. Wellington had learnt the hard way that there was no easy way to campaigning, and that as commander-in-chief he was ultimately responsible for everything, and therefore often had to see to everything. This book clearly shows the burden this placed upon his narrow shoulders, resulting in often testy and carping correspondence with Whitehall. He was a man who often vented his frustrations in hasty and ill-considered print (“scum of the earth”) rather than face-to-face; it was one of his greatest weaknesses.

It is clear from Wellington: The Path to Victory how the man was a mass of contradictions. Invariably described as fastidiously and trimly dressed, he cared not a whit how his officers or men looked so long as they did their duty; could hang a man for stealing a ball of yarn yet pardon rapists and miscreants in the ranks whose regiments had performed well; despite an ability to take the aggressor’s role as at Salamanca and Vitoria, could almost never manage to bestir his army into a profitable pursuit; could be charming and well-humoured at a dinner party with total strangers, yet was incapable of a meaningful relationship with his long-suffering wife, Kitty. His taciturnity made him unlovable to his men and frightening to junior officers. But perhaps it was his ‘War Face’ (think of Patton’s scowl, or Picton’s for that matter) that gave him, an essentially shy man, the mask of courage to see the thing through.

Muir’s handling of the military facets of Wellington’s career is extremely sound. Whilst the descriptions of the war in Spain and Portugal do not add anything particularly new, the political overtones (and undertones) are neatly nestled in amongst the action, so that we truly see the war as ‘politics by other means’, with enemy, as often as not, being the commissariat department or the Exchequer, as much as the French. I especially enjoyed Chapter Thirty, “Life at Headquarters” in which the intricacies of Wellington’s headquarters staff relationships and machinations are brilliantly explained.

But the real treat lies not even within the book itself. Rory Muir’s website lifeofwellington.co.uk contains a 700 page additional commentary, free to download as a PDF document, which provides extended text, commentaries and quotes to enhance the overall reading experience. It is plainly intended as a document that can be dipped into at will or devoured in parallel. My strong recommendation would be to download “The Commentary” and use it as required when reading the main text (alas I did not discover its existence until after I had finished the book!) Its availability makes this book, which I consider essential reading for any devotee of the era, doubly essential.

I look forward very much to Volume 2, Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace, 1814-1852, to be published in 2015.

 

Reviewed by Steve Brown

Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2014

 

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