Wellington's Wars: The Making of a Military Genius

Wellington's Wars: The Making of a Military Genius

by Huw J. Davies

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Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, lives on in popular memory as the "Invincible General," loved by his men, admired by his peers, formidable to his opponents. This incisive book revises such a portrait, offering an accurate—and controversial—new analysis of Wellington's remarkable military career. Unlike his nemesis Napoleon, Wellington was by no


Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, lives on in popular memory as the "Invincible General," loved by his men, admired by his peers, formidable to his opponents. This incisive book revises such a portrait, offering an accurate—and controversial—new analysis of Wellington's remarkable military career. Unlike his nemesis Napoleon, Wellington was by no means a man of innate military talent, Huw J. Davies argues. Instead, the key to Wellington's military success was an exceptionally keen understanding of the relationship between politics and war.

Drawing on extensive primary research, Davies discusses Wellington's military apprenticeship in India, where he learned through mistakes as well as successes how to plan campaigns, organize and use intelligence, and negotiate with allies. In India Wellington encountered the constant political machinations of indigenous powers, and it was there that he apprenticed in the crucial skill of balancing conflicting political priorities. In later campaigns and battles, including the Peninsular War and Waterloo, Wellington's genius for strategy, operations, and tactics emerged. For his success in the art of war, he came to rely on his art as a politician and tactician. This strikingly original book shows how Wellington made even unlikely victories possible—with a well-honed political brilliance that underpinned all of his military achievements.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British defense analyst Davies offers a provocative and persuasive perspective on the duke of Wellington as a great captain. Davies, a lecturer at King’s College, London, acknowledges the general’s qualities as a soldier: solid judgment, strength of character, ability to “translate frequently murky political objectives into clear-sighted military objectives....” Wellington could coordinate troops in an operational theater and outthink his enemies in battle. He was lucky, never suffering worse than a bruise. The duke relied excessively on his own judgment and intuition, regularly misunderstanding both his enemies and his allies. But, Davies asserts, Wellington’s military genius reflected less his soldierly kills than his profound understanding of politics. Wellington was exposed from the beginning of his career to the tensions making military victory contingent on balancing conflicting political priorities. In India he learned how to deal with uncooperative allies. Facing Napoleon’s aggressions, he lobbied the British government on the importance of opposing Napoleon militarily, and fighting to defend Spain, he comprehended the British army as the war’s linchpin. At Waterloo he acted on the necessity of ensuring Europe’s balance of power. “Political general,” seldom a favorable appellation, is in Wellington’s case high praise. 13 illus.; 12 maps. Agent: req. (June)
BBC History Magazine - Gary Sheffield

"Well written, with a strong human interest dimension. . . . Deserves a wide readership."—Gary Sheffield, BBC History Magazine

Military History - Jonathan Eaton

"Huw J. Davies should be congratulated on producing such an original treatment of Wellington's development."—Jonathan Eaton, Military History
The Scotsman - Michael Kerrigan

"Highly original, audaciously irreverent and yet admirably scrupulous."—Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

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Wellington's Wars



Copyright © 2012 Huw J. Davies
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-16417-6

Chapter One

An Introduction to War and Politics

Arthur Wellesley in Europe and India, 1794–1799

Colonel Wellesley was missing, and the force under his command had been completely broken, repulsed and dispersed ... They had stormed an entrenchment lined with the enemy's pikemen with lances at least twenty feet long, and for once the bayonet had proved ineffectual. The whole detachment was broken and then charged by the pikemen ... The Colonel had been seen by some of the men making off ... towards the encampment ... He soon reached camp, and throwing himself on a table inside [the General's] dining marquee, burst into a violent passion of tears, exclaiming 'Oh, I'm ruined forever! I'm ruined forever! My God, I'm ruined forever! What shall I do? Where shall I go?'

Captain Ralph Bayly, 12th Regiment of Foot Seringapatam, Mysore, India, 5 April 1799

This was Arthur Wellesley's first real taste of battle, and it was a firm indication of the bitterness of war for an eighteenth-century soldier. Wellesley, a twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant-colonel, was in command of the 33rd Regiment of Foot. He had been ordered to capture a small wooded copse, known in south India as a tope. The British needed the tope if they were to stand a chance of successfully preparing siege works against Seringapatam, the island fortress that was also the capital of Tipu Sultan's Mysore. A British force numbering some 20,000 troops had arrived at the fortress two days earlier, after an arduous march that had seen countless lives lost in the inhospitable jungle that dominated Mysore. The Fourth Anglo-Mysore War had broken out after the renegade dictator, Tipu Sultan, had covertly sought assistance from the French, Britain's intractable European foe, in ousting Britain from the subcontinent.

Wellesley's attack on Sultanpetah Tope was badly coordinated. He had conducted no reconnaissance so knew nothing of the natural obstacles the enemy could use as a defence. The light from the campfires in his rear only served to make the darkness ahead of him more impenetrable. The failure of a bayonet charge on a ridge occupied by a line of enemy pikemen caused the attack to disintegrate. Unable to see where he was going, and quickly losing sight of his troops, Wellesley, injured in the knee by a spent musket ball, panicked and fled back to the British encampment. The initial counterattack by Tipu's troops had caused the British soldiers to throw themselves to the ground. It was this that had resulted in the separation of Wellesley from the majority of his command. He reportedly told his Commander-in-Chief, General Sir George Harris that his entire regiment had been wiped out, although other accounts suggest Harris had already gone to bed. Whatever the situation, Wellesley certainly spent an uncomfortable night, at least until his second-in-command, Major Shea, returned with the main body of his regiment. Nevertheless, it did not look good for Wellesley.

The next morning, Harris asked his second-in-command, General David Baird, to lead a second assault on the tope, as the enemy troops there were hampering the position of the 12th Regiment which had successfully, although bloodily, taken a riverbank opposite the wood. Baird, however, insisted Wellesley be given a second opportunity. This was a clever move by Baird. He realised that unless Wellesley was given a chance to compensate for his failure the night before, the young colonel's career might very well have ended. This was unlikely to please the Governor-General, Wellesley's elder brother, Richard, Lord Mornington. But it cannot hide the fact that Wellesley had embarrassed himself. The operation was badly planned and mishandled. Only his closest friends appeared to forgo the temptation to gossip and complain of the distinctly light treatment he had received. It is unlikely that anybody else would have escaped censure. Of course, the following morning, with the scene of operations fully lit, Wellesley completely redeemed himself. The steady advance of the British troops caused Tipu's troops to retreat from the tope with virtually no resistance.

The incident was to leave a deep impression on Wellesley. From the outset, it was apparent that many in the army felt he had got off lightly. Bayly alleged that if 'any other officer in the army ... [had] been guilty of similar dereliction from his duties of his profession, no earthly power could have prevented his dismissal from the Service'. Undoubtedly, Wellesley's escape caused ill feeling, and it is not entirely certain whether this is unjust. The image Wellesley presents of himself in his correspondence, and from the comments and opinions of others, who may or may not have had an axe to grind, is of a pompous, arrogant, aloof individual, whose capacity for emotional intelligence was limited and sensitivity to the feelings of others virtually non-existent. Yet, to read historical accounts of Wellington's early career, one would think that he was centre stage during the planning and preparations and eventual execution of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. If all that were available were the published correspondence of Wellesley and Richard Wellesley, then this is an unsurprising conclusion. The correspondence of Harris and Baird mentions Wellesley's conduct, and both play down the glaring failure of 5 April, but these letters are to the Governor-General. Other accounts of the campaign speak differently. The few letters and diaries that survive barely mention Wellesley's actions. The most telling, perhaps, is that of Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Close, who as Adjutant-General oversaw the planning and execution of the campaign. Wellesley is a marginal figure: a close friend, helpful, well informed, demonstrating skill and a capacity for clear-mindedness that was perhaps rare among his peers; but by no means the figure of authority and decision that appears in many later accounts.

But to say that Wellesley's career should have ended after the fiasco at Sultanpetah Tope is perhaps going a bit far. Baird, Wellesley's immediate superior, reportedly commented that he 'failed, not through the want of skill or bravery, but from circumstances'. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Wellesley eluded serious censure for this incident. Most seem convinced that his good fortune was the result of his family connection in the government. Neither Baird nor Harris was a fool, and neither wanted to antagonise the Governor-General unnecessarily.

The early years of Wellesley's military career, then, were not the glittering opening to predestined military glory. He displayed few of the characteristics that define a military genius. It was India that made Arthur Wellesley a military genius, and the lesson he learned at Sultanpetah Tope was one of many that the subcontinent would impart. To his brother, Wellesley wrote of his 'determination, when in my power, never to suffer an attack to be made by night upon an enemy who is prepared and strongly posted, and whose posts have not been reconnoitred by daylight'. If he had learned the importance of thorough reconnaissance, the episode also left him with a bad case of damaged pride. For some historians, this led Wellesley to salvage his honour by attacking his enemies in India no matter the cost, turning him into an aggressive and unstable tactician.

* * *

The fiasco at Sultanpetah Tope came some twelve years into Wellesley's military career. After a brief stint at Eton, from where he was withdrawn when his father's death revealed the poor state of the family's finances, Wellesley was enrolled in the French Royal Academy of Equitation at Angers on 16 January 1786. A year later, Richard Wellesley, now head of the family as Lord Mornington, bought his younger brother a commission in the 73rd Highland Regiment. By September 1793, and having seen no active military service, Mornington had purchased three further promotions, and Arthur Wellesley was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel in the 33rd Regiment of Foot. Less than a year later, Wellesley was deployed in command of his regiment to the Low Countries. He arrived at Ostend at the height of summer in 1794, as the British Army was in headlong retreat following successive defeats at the hands of Revolutionary France.

The War of the First Coalition, as it became known, had a year earlier seemed so promising for the allied powers of Great Britain, Austria and Prussia. The ragtag armies of Revolutionary France were on the run, staring defeat in the face, and on the brink of losing the French capital, Paris. But the failure of the Great Powers generally to define a unified grand strategy to defeat Revolutionary France, and specifically the incompetence of the Duke of York, the commander of the British Army in the Low Countries, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In August 1793, York had laid siege to Dunkirk, but had done so without siege guns. All he was able to do was blockade the town walls. The garrison called for back-up, and before the British siege train arrived, 45,000 French reinforcements marched on Dunkirk, forcing the 37,000 British troops to retreat into Belgium. Had the British and their allies, the Austrians and Prussians, decided to march on Paris together, there is little chance that the revolutionaries could have withstood the onslaught. But, in pursuing different political objectives, the allies gave the revolutionaries the time they needed to regroup and fight back. Failure to agree a unified grand strategy would blight the allied war effort for the next two decades.

The failure of the Dunkirk expedition literally and metaphorically opened the flood gates on the allied war effort against Revolutionary France. The mismanagement of the Dunkirk expedition mirrors that on a larger scale in the campaign as a whole: poor administration, communication and logistics. Worst of all, though, the operation suffered from poor intelligence. York was unaware of the best canal along which to transport the siege train once it arrived and he was completely unaware of the approach of the French reinforcements towards Dunkirk until the day before they attacked.

The entire allied line collapsed, and by October the British, Austrians and Prussians were retreating east through Belgium. In 1794, a massive French advance involving 207,000 troops fought and defeated the combined Austrian and British Armies at Tourcoing on 18 May. Worse was to follow. On 26 June, in an attempt to relieve the besieged city of Charleroi, an Austrian force of 54,000 attacked a French army of 70,000 at Fleurus. The French line held and counterattacked the Austrians. After this defeat, the Austrians fell back towards the Rhineland, breaking completely from the British. York, meanwhile, pressed by a second French advance, retreated towards the Dutch border, hoping to hold the British line at Antwerp and the Scheldt.

On the same day as the Austrians were defeated at Fleurus, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Wellesley arrived in Ostend in command of the 33rd. No sooner had he landed than he was forced to join the retreat, and the British fell back on strong defensive lines on the rivers Maas and Waal in the eastern Netherlands. The first line was outflanked when the French surprised and took the small but strategically vital village of Boxtel. It was here, on 15 September 1794, that Wellesley had his first experience under fire. Brief and trifling though it was, Wellesley and his regiment had to fight a delaying action to allow a beleaguered Guards regiment to extricate itself from heavy bombardment by a concealed line of enemy artillery, and a charge by a regiment of French cavalry. Despite facing an oncoming cavalry attack, the men under Wellesley's command held their fire. When the enemy was within range, Wellesley gave the order to fire, 'instantly throwing a few cool and well-directed volleys into the enemy's squadrons'. The steadiness of his men, combined with the discipline of their firepower, halted the French cavalry and allowed the rest of the British force to retreat without incident.

Thereafter, the British fell back on Grave and Nijmegen, taking up strong defensive positions on the River Waal. York's position was undoubtedly good. The river was clearly the lynchpin of York's defence. In 1794, it would have been flowing at approximately 8 or 9 knots. Boats would take a great deal of time to cross, under fire from the opposite bank, and would end up about a mile downstream of their starting point. By 21 November York had fourteen regiments on the northern bank of the Waal, spanning seven or eight miles of its length. Wellesley and the 33rd were deployed at Tiel, seven miles west of Nijmegen, and twenty from Headquarters in Arnhem.

Despite this seemingly unassailable position, it was the belief at Headquarters that the enemy planned 'to attempt the passage of the Waal'. For the 33rd, this meant that the men were 'all kept upon the alert'. From his location at Tiel, Wellesley believed 'it will turn out that they are going into Winter Quarters from Nijmegen, as I think it impossible for any troops (even the French) to keep the field in this severe weather'. It was the severe weather that was to provide the route to victory for the French. On 5 December, a severe frost set in. Two days later, the river was glazed with a sheet of ice; on the 8th, and again on the 10th, the French attacked, but on both occasions they were repulsed. At the end of December they attacked again, this time in overwhelming force, puncturing the British defence in several places. On New Year's Eve, the British attempted a counterattack to capture a small fort at Tuil, four miles downstream from Tiel. The fort commanded the Waal for several miles in both directions, and if they gained this key French crossing point it should at least temporarily stem the French advance. Wellesley and the 33rd formed part of this offensive under the general command of Sir David Dundas. Rather than an explicit attempt to repel the French advance, it seems more likely to have been a delaying action to facilitate a general British withdrawal.

As a delaying tactic, the assault was successful. Dundas remained in Tuil until 4 January 1795, when it was evacuated, and the British fell back to the Rhine, some ten miles north of Nijmegen. This position was abandoned when the French managed to break through, cross the Rhine and station artillery on the Oosterbeek Heights. From there, they were able to threaten British Headquarters at Arnhem. The third British defensive line was thus rendered untenable, and the army was again forced to retreat headlong to the River Ems. The allied campaign in the Low Countries was over. In March, the British contingent, which had fought valiantly on the continent for two years, was evacuated, broken and bruised, the 33rd Regiment of Foot and Arthur Wellesley among them.

The first practical military lesson Arthur Wellesley learned, then, was 'how one ought not to do it', and 'that', an ageing Duke of Wellington recalled in 1839, 'is always something'. But this, despite Wellington's pronouncements years later, was not the only lesson. The campaign had also demonstrated the importance of the well-disciplined soldier. The capabilities of the British Army rested on the confidence and coherence of its regiments of infantry. A soldier unable to hold the line jeopardised the cohesion of his entire unit. At the same time, firepower held back until the last moment, when it was most effective, could have devastating effects on advancing enemy troops. What for many were simply instructions in a manual had been visibly demonstrated by the cohesion of the 33rd at Boxtel, compared with the disunity of the Guards. To Boxtel can be attributed Arthur Wellesley's understanding of the importance of the common soldier as the basic fighting unit of the British Army, of 'the mechanism and power of the individual soldier; then that of the company, a battalion and so on'.

If Boxtel had demonstrated a positive, the campaign as a whole had also demonstrated a host of negatives. Wellesley had witnessed appalling command practices. 'I was on the Waal ... from October to January,' Wellington recalled, 'and during all that time I only saw once one general from the headquarters, which was old Sir David Dundas. We had letters from England, and I declare that those letters told us more of what was passing at headquarters than we learned from the headquarters themselves.' Paralysis of command during the defence of the Waal had been noted by several sources. Dundas himself wrote repeatedly to Headquarters complaining of a lack of orders and direction. The want of command was noticed at a basic level by the rank and file: lack of food, warm clothing and hospitals prompted the rapid spread of disease. Perhaps dissatisfaction with the conduct of the campaign amongst both soldiers and officers would not have been so great if rumours of the frequent dinners and parties, of which extraordinary drunkenness was a distinct characteristic, had not filtered down from Headquarters. To make matters worse, the Duke of York enjoyed a barely civil relationship with his counterpart in the Dutch Army, the Prince of Orange. If the conduct of Britain's allies was poor, it was partially because the commanders of each force could not agree.


Excerpted from Wellington's Wars by HUW J. DAVIES Copyright © 2012 by Huw J. Davies. 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.
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Meet the Author

Huw J. Davies is lecturer in defense studies, King's College, London, and the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Defence Academy, UK. He lives in Berkshire, UK.

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