“Write me a victory”

“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:

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The Iron Prince

Much has been written in the last couple of days about the late Duke of Edinburgh being a rock for his wife, Her Majesty the Queen, and the Crown. But it is rather as “the man of the house” of Windsor that we can realize the extent of the centrality of his role. Thanks to Ingrid Seward’s amazing biography Prince Philip Revealed (Atria Books – Simon & Schuster), anyone can understand why this consort was so instrumental in the success of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

A “product of a broken home”, Prince Philip understood, from a very young age that life is difficult and that you need to prepare for its challenges. Private school gave him the structure and discipline he couldn’t find in his own family. Later in life, his insistence on ensuring that his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, follow the same path would leave scars in the soul of the future king. But that’s another story.

In a nutshell, Philip ensured that his family would live in a relative environment of normalcy. From his drive to modernize the kitchens of Buckingham Palace to his designing of “[…] a portable barbecue that would fit into the back of a Range Rover so he could take it out onto the moors at Balmoral”, or his insistence for the adoption of television as a medium to reach out to people, the author succeeds in making you feel that Philip was a down-to-heart man. He was keener to “[…] adapt a range of clothing that would keep him warm during the winter months” than to succumb to pump and circumstances and obsequiousness.

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Why Wellington Lost the Battle of Memory

On a beautiful June day in 2014, I travelled from Brussels to Waterloo by train. For a long time, I longed to walk the battlefield where one of my favorite military heroes, Arthur Wellesley, earned his laurels. Before ascending the Lion’s Mound with my family, I wanted to visit and spend time at Wellington’s HQ, the iconic house where the famous British warlord spent the night before and after the battle.

Being a huge booklover, I expected to leave with a few tomes about the Iron Duke under my arms. Instead, I was greeted by a bleak, quasi non-existential array of books of the said subject adorning the bookshelves. The only titles offered were of Napoleon and his Marshals. All I could come out with was a Christmas ornament at the effigy of the famous British soldier. An affront, in my humble opinion. I understand why so many people are fascinated and enthralled by the Little Corporal, but to the point of overshadowing his victorious nemesis at the very place where Wellington tried to snatch a few hours of rest? Where he let one of his subordinates, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Gordon die in his camp bed after being mortally wounded during the battle? This sad state of affairs has haunted me for several years now.

That was until I received a copy of the book Waterloo, written by the renowned British historian Alan Forrest, which is part of the Great Battles series published by The Folio Society (the book was originally published in 2015 by Oxford University Press). I have to admit that I regret not having read it before. Not only does it answer my long-lasting question, but it is also written by a masterful author. After all, who would not enjoy reading a passage about Field Marshal Blücher treating a concussion “[…] with an interesting mixture of garlic and schnapps”? And Alan Forrest even makes a mention of my beloved “Cantons de l’Est” (Eastern Townships, in Quebec), where I live.

More seriously, Alan Forrest first tells the reader that Waterloo was a political victory for Wellington and the United Kingdom, serving to plaster the cracks in British national identity and unity, notably in Scotland. The outcome of what happened on 18 June 1815 on the “Morne Plaine” was used to flatter the legendary military ethos of the Scottish people. Having lived for several months in the land of my ancestors, I visited quite a few Regimental Museums and I can attest that the legacy of Waterloo is still extremely vibrant in Caledonia.

Second, the military confrontation in Belgium was not a crucial victory, in the sense that “even if he had won at Waterloo, Napoleon would surely have lost the war, and victory would have provided him with only the briefest of respites.” Furthermore, “Britain already had its hero from the Napoleonic Wars, an unambiguous figure on whom all could agree, in the person of Horatio Nelson. It did not need Wellington […].” The subject of my admiration arrived too late, 10 years after the battle of Cape Trafalgar and did not serve in the right branch of the British Armed Forces. History can be brutal.

Thirdly, there was a question of character. While Napoleon draped himself in the “cult of a heroic French defeat”, his British opponent was the opposite. “Weariness and sadness for the loss of his companions-in-arms made it impossible for him to exult, though his apparent lack of excitement at the scale of his victory was widely assumed to stem from a cold aloofness that would make him a hard man to like and a somewhat ambivalent national hero.” Napoleon did not lose sleep over the death of soldiers, because that was their ultimate duty in war. Wellington was made of a different fabric.

Napoleon could not defeat the British squares and the Prussian reinforcements on the battlefield on that fateful summer day, but he etched himself in the memory – and affection – of future generations. While I will probably never fully embrace this outcome at Waterloo – contributing to my desire to read even more about Wellington – I came to understand what Winston Churchill meant when he said that history would be kind towards him because he would write it. The commander of the British troops would have needed to learn how to become a tragic hero and be able to count on better advocates.

Alan Forrest’s book might not be first pick for those wanting to stick to battle stories, troop movements, logistics and the minutiae of a battle. But it is an excellent explanation of the aftermath and legacy of one of history’s most famous battles. As we approach the Holiday Season, I would highly recommend this excellent book for the history buff in your circle. As we stare down few more weeks of Covid-19 related confinement, I am confident this new (and beautifully bound) edition of Waterloo will be an ideal companion for long winter evenings.

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Alan Forrest, Waterloo, London, The Folio Society, 2020, 224 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ms. Cathleen Williamson, who is in charge of public relations for The Folio Society for generously providing me with a complimentary copy of this fascinating book.

Wellington, seul vainqueur de Waterloo?

WaterlooThierryLentzL’été 2014 fut le plus beau de ma vie, en ce qu’il m’a offert le privilège de visiter une multitude de champs de bataille et lieux historiques sur le continent européen. De ceux-ci, Waterloo figurait en tête de liste. Ayant toujours nourri un vif intérêt envers le Duc de Wellington, j’étais fasciné de passer une bonne heure dans ce que fut son quartier général à l’époque (et qui porte maintenant le nom de Musée Wellington).

Ayant habité en Écosse pendant plusieurs mois suite à cette visite, j’avais accès à plusieurs livres publiés à propos de la légendaire bataille sur les mornes plaines – les Britanniques étant friands de commémorer leur contribution à la défaite de l’Aigle. Un bel après-midi d’hiver, alors que je me trouvais dans une librairie d’Édimbourg, mon regard se posa sur un petit livre de l’historien Brendan Simms portant sur la contribution des hommes de la King’s German Legion dans la défense de la ferme de la Haye Sainte – laquelle fut cruciale dans la victoire de Wellington et ses lieutenants.

Je me propose de rédiger quelques lignes bientôt à propos de cet ouvrage, mais je me limiterai ici à mentionner qu’il m’a ouvert les yeux sur le fait que Waterloo n’est pas exclusivement une victoire britannique, et ce, avec tout le respect que je dois à mes ancêtres écossais qui ont pris part à la bataille.

Cet état de fait est également soulevé de manière très éloquente par l’historien Thierry Lentz – qui est également directeur de la Fondation Napoléon – dans son excellent livre sur la bataille de Waterloo.

Après son retour aux Tuileries le 20 mars 1815, l’ancien Empereur déchu veut, selon les propos de l’auteur « convaincre l’Europe qu’il était décidé à vivre en paix avec elle, dans les frontières négociées en 1814 et sans velléité de reconquête d’aucune sorte. » Les participants du Congrès de Vienne refusent et « […] Napoléon devait en effet, une fois de plus, jouer son trône sur un coup de dés. »

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Happy Birthday, Duke of Wellington

Wellington
King and Country item NA256 resting on the second tome of Rory Muir’s biography of the Duke of Wellington, with the Union Jack flag in the background.

Happy Birthday to the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, victor of Waterloo. An extraordinary figure whose unparalleled contribution helped saved Europe and the world from Napoleonic hegemony and tyranny. He would be 247 years old!