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Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

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by Rory Muir

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The Duke of Wellington was not just Britain’s greatest soldier, although his seismic struggles as leader of the Allied forces against Napoleon in the Peninsular War deservedly became the stuff of British national legend. Wellington was much more: a man of vision beyond purely military matters, a politically astute thinker, and a canny diplomat as well as lover,


The Duke of Wellington was not just Britain’s greatest soldier, although his seismic struggles as leader of the Allied forces against Napoleon in the Peninsular War deservedly became the stuff of British national legend. Wellington was much more: a man of vision beyond purely military matters, a politically astute thinker, and a canny diplomat as well as lover, husband, and friend. Rory Muir’s masterful new biography, the first of a two-volume set, is the fruit of a lifetime’s research and discovery into Wellington and his times. The author brings Wellington into much sharper focus than ever before, addressing his masterstrokes and mistakes in equal measure. Muir looks at all aspects of Wellington’s career, from his unpromising youth through his remarkable successes in India and his role as junior minister in charge of Ireland, to his controversial military campaigns. With dramatic descriptions of major battles and how they might have turned out differently, the author underscores the magnitude of Wellington’s achievements. The biography is the first to address the major significance of Wellington’s political connections and shrewdness, and to set his career within the wider history of British politics and the war against Napoleon. The volume also revises Wellington’s reputation for being cold and aloof, showing instead a man of far more complex and interesting character.

Editorial Reviews

Tim Blanning

'This deeply researched and brilliantly written book supersedes all previous work on the subject. A masterpiece.' - Tim Blanning, author of The Pursuit of Glory: Europe, 1648-1815
Charles Esdaile

'A biography of Wellington that far outclasses all its numerous competitors and will be enjoyed by specialists and general readers alike: truly a splendid achievement.' - Charles Esdaile, author of Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815
The Times - Lawrence James

'Muir's painstaking recital of facts and descriptions of battles will delight military buffs.'—Lawrence James, The Times
New Statesman - Simon Heffer
“[E]xtensively researched and anchored in fact, [Muir] gives an invaluable picture of the duke in his early years that will be unfamiliar to many who know only of his military exploits. Muir has researched his subject for 30 years and it shows. . .[The] second volume – to judge by his first – cannot come soon enough...”—Simon Heffer, New Statesman
BBC History Magazine - Gary Sheffield

'The Wellington biography for our time.'—Gary Sheffield, BBC History Magazine
TLS - Chris Woolgar

"The first major Life of Wellington since Elizabeth Longford's work of 1969-72, Rory Muir's biography is matched by an extensive commentary online (at www.lifeofwellington.co.uk). Muir comes to his task after long research on the wars against Napoleon, from both political and military perspectives. . .giv[ing] us an exceptional insight into the struggle, the changes that were necessary to sustain British forces, and the impact made by determined and ambitious individuals."—Chris Woolgar, Times Literary Supplement
The Wall Street Journal - Max Hastings

'Mr. Muir provides an authoritative view. . . an important book.'—Max Hastings, The Wall Street Journal
International Napoleonic Society - Book Award

Won Second place in the 2014 International Napoleonic Society book award
History of War

‘There have been many biographies and histories written about the Iron Duke but none have been quite so detailed and precise as Rory … exceptionally detailed but manages to stay highly readable throughout and serves as probably the most comprehensive guide to Wellington's early years ever published.’ - History of War
Kirkus Reviews
First of a two-volume life of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, covering his first 45 years, a time in which he became a military legend and major political figure. Wellesley was, writes historian Muir (Salamanca, 1812, 2001, etc.), "arguably, the greatest and most successful of all British generals." He played a major role in the British subjugation of India and had risen to leadership when Napoleon Bonaparte decided to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. The French proved a tough and battle-hardened enemy--as Muir notes, during the Peninsular War, an account of which forms much of this book, the French were perhaps not the best in battle but were certainly great at getting from one place to another and being prepared for it--against which Wellington honed his own British forces to be the best in the world at the time. The author argues that Wellington was directly responsible for elevating Britain to the head of the list of world powers, where it would remain for the next century and more. Interestingly, he was not an uncontroversial figure; as an Irish-born politician, he had plenty of enemies in Parliament, while he came under criticism during the early campaigning in Portugal for allowing a French army to escape--and not only that, but for helping it evacuate back to France. Some of Wellington's early biographers were among those who advanced these criticisms, and one of the virtues of Muir's book is its political evenhandedness, as well as its understanding of the late-18th- and early-19th-century context. He is not above finding fault with his hero, either; as he writes, Wellington "could, on a bad day, be harsh and unjust, and his deep-seated conviction that he was invariably in the right did not make mending fences easy." Next up, Waterloo. A welcome biography, particularly for students of European geopolitics.

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Copyright © 2013 Rory Muir
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18665-9


An Unsettled Childhood (1769–88)

In later life the Duke of Wellington came to be regarded as the embodiment of aristocratic privilege, but this reflected his part in the politics of the 1830s rather than his own upbringing. As the younger son of an Irish peer he was clearly not among the under-privileged in eighteenth-century society, but even so his early life was marked more by obscurity and dependence than wealth and deference.

This obscurity extends even to his date of birth. His family always maintained that he had been born on 1 May 1769, his father giving this date to the Office of Arms as early as 1779. However two independent contemporary sources suggest that he was born a little earlier: the baptismal register of St Peter's Anglican Church, Dublin, records that he was baptised on 30 April, and a newspaper published a few days later states that he was born on 29 April. It seems unlikely that they are both mistaken.

His family had been in Ireland since the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but had only begun to rise to prominence in 1728 when Richard Colley (his grandfather) had inherited considerable estates from his cousin and adopted their surname of Wesley (which was also spelt Wellesley). In 1746 Richard was elevated to the Irish peerage as Lord Mornington and spent vast sums creating a magnificent pleasure garden at Dangan Castle. When he died in 1758 his title and estates passed to his only surviving son, Garret Wesley, Wellington's father. Garret Wesley was passionately fond of music, and was himself a composer and a talented performer on the violin and harpsichord. In 1764 he graduated as a doctor of music and shortly afterwards he was appointed first professor of music at the University of Dublin. He was also the leading spirit in organising aristocratic musical events, often on the pretext of raising money for charity. Possibly because of this, he preferred town to country life; he appears to have neglected the gardens at Dangan, and, in 1769, he leased an imposing mansion in Merrion Street – the most fashionable address in Dublin. He does not seem to have played any prominent part in politics, and yet, on 26 August 1760, he was elevated two steps in the peerage, becoming Viscount Wellesley of Dangan Castle and Earl of Mornington. He had married, on 6 February 1759, Anne Hill, the daughter of Arthur Hill, who in 1766 was created first Viscount Dungannon. Anne's uncle was a prominent and successful politician who rose to become Marquess of Downshire and played an important part in Lord North's government. It is possible that Garret Wesley owed his elevation in the peerage to Downshire's influence.

Lord and Lady Mornington had nine children between 1760 and 1773, of whom two died young and a third as a young adult. Five sons and one daughter remained, and four of the five sons received peerages in their own right. The children were (using the later, more familiar, spelling of their surname):

Richard Colley Wellesley, born 20 June 1760, who bore the courtesy title of Viscount Wellesley from October 1760 until he inherited his father's titles in 1781;

Arthur Gerald Wellesley, named after his maternal grandfather, who died, aged six or seven, in 1768;

William Wellesley, born 20 May 1763, who was adopted as his heir by his cousin, William Pole, and inherited his estates in Queen's County in 1781, adding Pole to his name. Created Baron Maryborough, 17 July 1821;

Francis Wellesley, who died aged three on 10 March 1770;

Anne Wellesley, born 13 March 1768, who married the Hon. Henry Fitzroy (fourth son of Lord Southampton) on 4 January 1790. He died of consumption in Portugal in 1793 or early 1794, and on 9 August 1799 she married Charles Culling Smith, who served as under secretary at the Foreign Office when Lord Wellesley was Foreign Secretary (1809–12), but whose career was otherwise undistinguished;

Arthur Wellesley, born 1769, the future Duke of Wellington;

Gerald Valerian Wellesley, born 7 December 1770, who went into the Church, became Prebendary of Durham and would have risen higher if it had not been for the unhappy state of his marriage to Lady Emily Cadogan;

Mary, 1772–94;

Henry, born 20 January 1773, who became a diplomat and was created first Baron Cowley on 28 January 1828.

The Wesley children did not grow up together; Richard was sent to Eton when Arthur was only three, and before Henry was even born, and for much of their childhood they were widely dispersed, with Anne apparently spending much of her time with her maternal grandmother Lady Dungannon. Nonetheless, close bonds of loyalty and affection mixed with sibling rivalry bound them together. For more than thirty years Richard was the undisputed leader of the pack, seeking places and preferment for Arthur and his other brothers, and expecting loyalty, obedience and submission in return. Secure in his own superiority, he patronised them insufferably, and it was not for many years that they began to wonder if his assumption of superiority was really justified. Eventually the family ties loosened as the surviving brothers and sister made places for themselves in the world, married and established other connections. But throughout life it remained one of the most important networks in their lives; when friendships, affairs and working alliances faded or atrophied, brothers remained brothers, inescapable and infuriating though they were.

Surprisingly little is known about Wellington's childhood, mainly because he seldom talked about it in later life. Only his first seven years were spent in Ireland, for by 1776 Lord Mornington had moved his family to London. The young Arthur attended the Diocesan school at Trim, and in London he was sent to Brown's Seminary, King's Road, Chelsea. Nothing more is known of his early education, but there is some evidence that his health was poor, while G.R. Gleig (an early biographer who knew the Duke in later life) formed the impression that he was 'a dreamy, idle and shy lad'.

On 22 May 1781 Lord Mornington died at Chelsea, aged only forty-five. We know nothing about Arthur's reaction to his father's death, but it must have contributed to the disruption of a childhood that was already unsettled and short of emotional support. Arthur's brother Richard, still a few weeks short of his twenty-first birthday, became head of the family, although Lady Mornington naturally retained the dominant voice in the affairs of her younger children. Lady Mornington was not yet forty, a strong-willed, rather hard woman who appears to have felt little affection for her son Arthur, although the evidence for this is necessarily fragmentary. Later, her correspondence with her younger children was far from intimate; in 1801, when Arthur had been out of England for five years, Henry apologised for opening a newly arrived letter from their mother to Arthur saying: 'If the enclosed letter had been from any person but my Mother I certainly should not have opened it, but I know that her letters never contain anything which might not be published at Charing Cross, & I was anxious to know something about her health.'

A few months after his father died, Arthur Wesley, accompanied by his younger brother Gerald, was sent to Eton. Richard Wesley had shone there, establishing a reputation as a fine classical scholar and acquiring such an abiding love of the school that when he died in 1842 he was buried in the college's chapel. William Wesley also went to Eton and performed creditably although without rivalling Richard's triumph. Arthur failed miserably. He was a pupil there from 1781–84 and thereafter seldom returned, and never spoke of it with affection. He did not attribute the victory of Waterloo to its playing fields (that quip was invented by the French journalist and politician the Comte de Montalembert after Wellington's death), and on one occasion even refused to make a token contribution to its building fund. He won a schoolboy fight with Robert 'Bobus' Smith, and is said to have been flogged for his share in a disturbance, while a contemporary recalled that he was 'not at all a Book boy, and rather dull'. He was, almost certainly, miserable, displayed no academic aptitude, and made no lasting friends. Years later, in 1817, his mother related that Arthur 'was so poor a scholar, so inept and so unwilling, that the masters of Eton advised her (she had early been left a widow with the care of that numerous family) to take him from that school'.

The only glimmer of light to emerge from these years concerns his holidays, which were partly spent with his grandmother Lady Dungannon at Brynkinalt in northern Wales. Here a fight with the son of the local blacksmith, Hughes by name, in which Arthur Wesley was soundly thrashed, established the basis of a friendship. In later years Hughes delighted in recalling 'that Master Wesley bore him not a pin's worth of ill will for the beating, but made him his companion in many wild a ramble'. Few things in Wesley's childhood sound as attractive as wild rambles through the Welsh hills with a local friend.

Wesley was withdrawn from Eton at the end of the school year in 1784, and sent to study with a tutor, the Rev. Henry Michell, at Brighton for a few months. Evidently the experiment was a success, for years later Wesley employed Michell's grandson, the Rev. Henry Michell Wagner, as tutor to his own sons. But, like so much else in Wesley's childhood, it was not to last; Lady Mornington decided to spend 1785 in Brussels, apparently for the sake of economy. Arthur accompanied her, together with John Armytage, the second son of a Yorkshire baronet who had been a friend of the late Lord Mornington, and who had also died recently. The two boys – Arthur turned sixteen that year, and Armytage was a few months older – studied under a French lawyer, M. Louis Foubert. According to G.R. Gleig, 'They were neither of them much given to hard work, but they mixed in the gaieties of the place', while Armytage's own account, on which Gleig draws, states that 'Arthur Wesley was extremely fond of music, and played well upon the fiddle, but he never gave indication of any other species of talent'. In 1815 Wellington was delighted to find that M. Foubert was still alive, and placed a guard on his house to ensure that he was not disturbed by the soldiery. He appears to have met Armytage only once in later life, at the Doncaster races in 1827. After their year in Brussels, Armytage took up his commission as a cornet in the Royal Horse Guards, and stayed in the army for a few years until he married an heiress. This enabled him to live the life of a country gentleman near Northampton where he hunted, shot and patronised the turf. But his greatest pleasure was in driving the mail-coach from Northampton to Barnet and back again, almost every day. (He was not alone in this; many wealthy men acted as unofficial, amateur coachmen in these years, when the turnpikes had improved the roads and skill at driving 'four-in-hand' was something of which to boast.) He had no regrets, telling Wellington: 'Yours has been the more glorious career of the two, but mine I suspect has not been the least agreeable.' He may well have been right, and perhaps, if life had treated the young Arthur Wesley equally generously, he too might have been happy to settle for a life of country sports and coach-driving. It seems unlikely, but his character was still unformed, and there was no sign as yet of the appetite for hard work and incessant activity that was to become so pronounced in him a few years later.

Lady Mornington later acknowledged that Arthur 'was always good-natured, frank [and] popular', but she was annoyed that at Brussels 'he continued incapable, from idleness and want of any disposition to apply, of redeeming his character in point of scholarship'. Her daughter-in-law (William's wife Katherine) recalled her saying: 'I vow to God, I don't know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.' Her conclusion was that he was 'food for powder, and nothing more'; and so the decision was made to send Arthur Wesley into the army. It was not his choice and, if John Armytage can be believed, 'his own wishes, if he had any, were in favour of a civilian's life'. But as yet he had no control over his own destiny, and towards the end of 1785 his brother Richard, Lord Mornington, approached the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Rutland, seeking a commission for Arthur.

Richard Wesley was a success. His brilliant career at Eton had been followed by an equally brilliant career at Christ Church. He had won the Chancellor's Prize for a Latin ode on the death of Captain Cook, and he had made a number of friendships with rising young men, none closer or more important than that with William Grenville, brother of the Marquess of Buckingham and cousin of William Pitt the Younger. By 1785 Pitt was already Prime Minister (aged twenty-six, one year older than Mornington), and Grenville was a junior but influential minister. Mornington now counted both as close friends and was clearly marked as a coming man; he was a member of the British House of Commons, as well as the Irish House of Lords, and exuded talent and self-confidence. Securing a junior commission in an unfashionable regiment would usually have presented little difficulty to so well-connected a figure, but the American War had left a considerable backlog of deserving cases, while Mornington was never particularly good at turning his ability and connections into concrete advantages. Rutland evaded his repeated requests with practised dexterity, and Arthur Wesley remained a civilian for another sixteen months.

Lady Mornington was returning to Britain after her year in Brussels, and saw little point taking Arthur home with her. With no place for him in the British army an alternative had to be found, and one soon presented itself: he would spend a year or two at the Royal Academy of Equitation at Angers in Anjou. There his manners and his French would be polished, and he would learn some of the basics of being an officer. There was nothing odd in a young Englishman (or Irishman, for that matter) completing his education at a French military school in 1786; there were a number of British students, and the Academy was by no means wholly military in character. According to the later recollections of another student, General Sir Alexander Mackenzie of Fairbairn, Arthur Wesley 'was ailing and sickly' while at Angers, 'too much so to take much part in the bodily exercises, riding, fencing, etc, which, I believe, were the principal part of the instructions at this school. He passed most of the time on a sofa, playing with a white terrier'. The dog's name was Vick, and it 'followed him everywhere', but unfortunately we know nothing more of it; not even whether Wesley was able to take it home with him when he left France. However we do know that while Wesley may have neglected his studies, he was introduced into local society and attended dinners given by the Duc de Brissac – where he was scandalised to observe that the host was given better food and wine than his guests. Despite this disillusioning experience, he developed a deep respect for the ancien regime in France which was to prove important in later life. He was well treated by the commandant of the Academy, the Duc de Serent, and his wife; and in 1815, in Paris, greeted the Duchesse with reverence, telling Lady Shelley that it was in her 'society he had passed the happiest part of his life, and to whose matronly kindness he owed more gratitude than he could ever repay'.

Excerpted from Wellington by RORY MUIR. Copyright © 2013 Rory Muir. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rory Muir is visiting research fellow, University of Adelaide. His previously published books include a highly praised study of Wellington’s great triumph at Salamanca and the edited letters of Alexander Gordon, Wellington’s confidential aide-de-camp. He lives in Australia.

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Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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ScreamingEagles More than 1 year ago
Generally, I have found The Wall Street Journal book reviews useful and purchased a number of the books The Wall Street Journal has reviewed based its reviews. In the case of Muir’s book, it would have been better had they had had both a historian and a combat officer and a student of history review the book. In contrast, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 Author Jac Weller Publisher Curtis Books Copyright 1962 has a better explanation of some aspects of Wellington’s success which includes his tactics in combating the French tactical doctrine. On page 20, Weller explains the French tactics. The French soldier was not as well trained as the British. Napoleon had his less disciplined and trained troops advance in columns which is easier to perform than advancing in a line. “An entire brigade might advance on a single company front, 40 men wide by 135 men deep. Napoleon advanced cannons with the column to fire and disorganize the opposing formations. In front of the columns, light infantry would use rifles and irregular fire to also disorganize the opposing forces. The rifles outranged the muskets of the regular line which had no effective response. The columns were mainly psychological because only the first three ranks could fire. Usually the opposing forces gave way before the French made real contact. Wellington put the light companies out in front of his lines to overwhelm the French light infantry so that the French light infantry could never bring effective fire on the main line. On the defensive, Wellington stationed his men behind the crest of a hill so that cannon shot flew over them. Often, he had them lay down to lessen losses. The British were well trained and well disciplined and could fight in a line. A British battalion ranged in numbers from 1,200 to 400 men and fought in two lines. When the French attacked the British positions, the cannons were less effective, the light infantry could not fire effectively on the main line. The French column would have struggled up a hill reaching the crest out of breath and suddenly see a line stand up in front of them and loose volley after volley. The British might have 1,200 muskets firing and the French could only respond with 120 muskets and it is difficult to move from a column to a line under those circumstance. Applied fire power wins! In the Peninsula, the French never successfully altered their tactical doctrine. They made efforts at Waterloo but those changes were not successful. I think this book review overlooked important issues and Muir did not include them in his explanation of Wellington’s success.It does provide a good insight into the opposing forces and difficulties of the French. It provides a good insight into the strain Wellington faced with a government often not understanding warfare and grand strategy.