Wellington was not an easy figure to build into a romantic hero

The Duke of Wellington (source: National Army Museum)
(Cliquez ici pour la version française)

I recently had the tremendous pleasure of exchanging with internationally renowned author and historian Alan Forrest about his book on the Battle of Waterloo. Here is the content of our discussion.

Professor Forrest, it’s been a real treat for me to read and review your amazing book on this blog. Many thanks for accepting to answer a few questions for our readers.

I have always nourished a deep interest and admiration about the Duke of Wellington (the first name of my blog was Wellington.World). But he clearly lacked the “romantic poignancy” of his French opponent in the battlefield. Do you feel he has been mistreated / misjudged by history?

I do not think there is any reason to feel that Wellington has been misjudged. He enjoys a high reputation as a military commander, careful in his preparations for battle and alert to the threat of enemy attack. His record in the Peninsular campaign – where he did not, of course, have to face Napoleon – is impressive; and at Waterloo his use of the terrain and his tactics in the face of repeated French attacks have been widely praised. He was, it is true, a more defensive tactician than Napoleon, but I don’t think that that has led to his military qualities being undervalued, and certainly not in Britain.  On the other hand, he was not an easy figure to build into a romantic hero, in contrast to Napoleon who did so much to create his own romantic narrative and who fascinated even those who had no reason to support his ambitions (Walter Scott, for instance, or Goethe, or Byron). 

What is your global appreciation of the Iron Duke? Has he been overrated?

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Waterloo’s Band of Brothers

For about five hours on the fateful afternoon of July 18th, 1815, a band of brothers of 400 soldiers forming the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion – a unit of the British Army – thwarted Napoleon’s plan of breaking up the center of the Duke of Wellington’s lines at Waterloo. Stoically, “these men, and their reinforcements, held off Napoleon for long enough to change the course of the battle.”

When I lived in Scotland and in the aftermath of my visit on the battlefield of Waterloo few months prior to these fantastic months, I was curious to read more about the iconic battle and those who took part in it. And I still am. I was therefore captivated by the publication of The Longest Afternoon: The Four Hundred Men who Decided the Battle of Waterloo (Penguin Books) by renowned Cambridge Professor and author Brendan Simms.

Even though the book was published 7 years ago, it remains one of my favorites. I am always lukewarm to embrace the notion that one specific battle definitively changed the course of a war or that a single event sealed victory or defeat. I came to understand that wars and battles are much more complex than that. But the story brough forward by Brendan Simms doesn’t fail to convince that a small group of men (400 out of more than 74 000 under the orders of the Iron Duke) could make a difference on the battlefield. When dusk fell after the battle, only 42 out of the initial 400 remained. That’s a survival rate of 10%.

Continue reading “Waterloo’s Band of Brothers”