“Wellington cuts an unattractive personal figure”, writes G. E. Jaycock in his groundbreaking book Wellington’s Command: A Reappraisal of his Generalship in the Peninsula and at Waterloo (Pen & Sword). For the huge fan of the Iron Duke in me, such a conclusion came as a shocker. Full disclosure, this book challenged my conceptions of Wellington’s grandeur and I found myself labouring through it more than once. But I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me to nuance my understanding.
Mr. Jaycock, who completed a MA degree in history about the Duke of Wellington at Buckingham University, argues that “the existing historiography has largely downplayed or ignored” the fact that Wellington’s command was characterized by “poor inter-personal relationships within the army [which] undermined effectiveness.” And his demonstration doesn’t fail to disappoint.
In short, the idolized figure depicted between the covers is one of an autocratic and aristocratic micro-manager who was unable to accept any kind of blame or responsibility. There was also a vituperate – not to say frankly despicable – side to the British icon that could be resumed in the following anecdote brought forward by the author:
“Wellington reputedly finished a typical tirade by asking sardonically whether post-war: ‘Are you going to take up your father’s trade?’ Todd’s father was a butler, and Major Todd had otherwise proudly risen in society. True or false, these stories speak volumes.”
Even more problematic in my humble opinion is the fact that “he ignored intelligence because he felt he knew better.” For him, intelligence was just a tool he could toy with, not an essential weapon to be handled extremely carefully. In that regard, isn’t it revealing that, before the battle of Waterloo was even engaged, he had “[…] knowingly and assuredly provided false information regarding his troop dispositions to the Prussians.” With such an ally …
According to G. E. Jaycock, the Iron Duke carried the day on the battlefield on many occasions because of external circumstances or resulting from his nemesis’ conditions or decisions: “That their French opponent was too disorganized and exhausted to implement a counter-attack was a saving grace from the potentially ruinous situation that could easily have unfolded.” About why Wellington’s final battle offered him a ticket for posterity, the author details how the battle “was entirely decided by the attack which the Prussians made on the enemy’s right.”
In addition to the operational assessment of the Prussians’ contribution (such as the presence of significantly more Prussian guns on the battlefield than the ones put forward by the Royal Artillery), the historian also details that “[…] just 36 per cent of the army would eventually however be British, 19 per cent Dutch-Belgian, while 45 per cent of the army would speak German as a first language.” Which, in itself, would suffice to make Field Marshal Blücher if not the hero of Waterloo at least a co-hero with the British warlord. But that was not to be the case, because Wellington compensated his military leadership shortcomings with a brilliant “mastery of spin” and his political savviness. “Write me a victory”, he once said to one of his subordinates. The cloak of the victor was not to be shared.
Ever since I walked on the legendary battlefield on a beautiful June day in 2014, I have been wondering why Blücher has not been granted more credit for his and his soldiers’ contribution to the end of the Napoleonic era. I used to think it was related to British national interest, which would have made sense to a certain extent; every war has political repercussions and is therefore instrumentalized in that way. Thanks to G. E. Jaycock, I now fully grasp why Wellington is reputed as being “the” victor of Waterloo; his inclination to never be unsurpassed either by intelligence reports, subordinates, mistakes, allies or even his own soldiers. Didn’t he describe the latter as being “the scum of the earth”? At the end of the day, I can’t help wondering how insecure Wellington must have been.
Doubtlessly, my interest and fascination with the Iron Duke will remain. For all his (apparently numerous) shortcomings, Wellington remains a figure of tremendous interest to me. King, general or ordinary man, no one is perfect, and we are all defined by our experiences – good and bad. Wellington is no exception to that rule. As a historian, G. E. Jaycock’s role is to explore new perspectives and he has brilliantly succeeded with his book, if only because he has made me impatient to read even more about his subject.
If one of the qualities of a meaningful book reside in the fact that you acquire new and significant knowledge, Wellington’s Command has been an excellent time investment and an extremely beneficial reading.
G. E. Jaycock, Wellington’s Command: A Reappraisal of his Generalship in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, Barnsley (Yorkshire), Pen & Sword, 2019, 248 pages.
I would like to express all my gratitude to Daniel Yesilonis, Marketing Director of the Casemate Group, for sending me a copy of the book and for his inestimably generous collaboration.