Wellington took care of his soldiers

A few months ago, I reviewed the very insightful book Wellington’s Command by G. E. Jaycock. Being interested in anything related to the Iron Duke, it was therefore natural for me to read S. P. G. Ward’s Wellington’s Headquarters: The Command and Administration of the British Army during the Peninsular War (Pen & Sword).

While the objective of the author was to detail and explain the functioning of the Peninsular Army and give a portrait of the overall machinery of war, the most interesting aspect of the book is the portrait of the warlord. Wellington, it is a known fact, was a micromanager. For instance, the author explains that “[…] he was his own Director of Military Intelligence”. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to understand that he must have been quite a difficult character to deal with – like most famous personalities in history. About the interrogation of prisoners of war, he reduced one of his subordinates, Stewart, to tears because the latter wrongfully thought it fell within the province of his responsibilities.

But, overall, “Wellington was careful, so far as the standards of the age allowed, of their lives. By French standards he was niggardly and unenterprising.” The best advantage Wellington provided his men with was at the level of supplying them. While the French took the route of a requisition system that “fomented guerilla resistance”, the British general favored a depot system which had the advantage of making his army “[…] as independent as possible of local resources.” The whole method could be slowed down if financial resources – over which Wellington had no control whatsoever – did not show up in a timely manner because “[…] it involved payment by cash at no very distant date from the transaction […]”, but, by and large, the Wellington system “[…] was measurably superior to the French.”

Another adaptation that enhanced the soldiers’ condition was “[…] the adoption of tents and encampments […] in the latter years of the war, as distinguished from its commencement, and the sickness and loss sustained by the French from never putting their men under canvas in the field.” In that regard, Wellington’s personality comes to life when he requisitions a Carmelite monastery to billet his staff.

All in all, the victor of the Peninsular War and Waterloo might have said that his soldiers were “the scum of the Earth”, but he took good care of them. And that’s one of the things I was amazed to discover between the covers of the book.

I was nevertheless astonished to learn that each soldier was only allowed two pairs of shoes per year, one of which could easily be destroyed while “[…] engaged in braking some guns down a sharp incline […]”. Given the importance of footwear in daily life – even more so at war – that information enhances my admiration for the soldiers of this era.

Overall, my favorite chapter is the one devoted to “Wellington and his staff”, in which the author details the Duke’s daily schedule, his capacity for work (he never missed a day of work during the whole Peninsula campaign), dislike of his subordinates using notes when they met him, the fact that “[…] everything that he touched – and he touched everything – bore the mark of his own personality” and his loyalty to his subordinates. The historian also informs the reader about the fact that Wellington was an avid reader and consumer of books. “Few generals have devoted their spare hours so advantageously to utilitarian scholarship”, he writes.

“A commander’s plan is no more than a choice of difficulties”, proclaimed the Iron Duke. On the battlefields of war and life, the wisdom and methods of Wellington are enlightening at many levels. And S. P. G. Ward’s work is an essential addition to any serious student of military history. The first edition of the book was published in 1957 and was reprinted in 2017 by Pen & Sword, but it lost none of its interest, quite the contrary.

Sir Arthur Wellesley might have been aloof and cold at the personal level and might not have been prone to engage in informal chit-chat with the rank and file like Napoleon adroitly did, but his autocratic and conservative character clearly served one purpose: safeguard the men who brought him to victory. Cynics might respond that a soldier was expensive to lose and replace. Fair enough. But being thrifty with the blood of others certainly can’t make a leader demerit in the eyes of history. The conclusions one can take from this book are yet another manifestation that Wellington suffers from having been too discreet about his record. He hasn’t built a memorial to his glory before his death, notably in leaving us memoirs or contributing to his legend. But S. P. G. Ward unquestionably demonstrates that he deserves much more attention – and credit – than he receives.

I can’t wait to put my hands on another book about the fascinating Duke. Suggestions are naturally welcome.

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S. P. G. Ward, Wellington’s Headquarters The Command and Administration of the British Army during the Peninsular War, Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2017, 240 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Daniel Yesilonis, Marketing Manager of Casemate Group, for offering me a copy of that book and for his continued assistance and kindness. Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, is also very supportive of this blog and it is much appreciated.

In Afghanistan “with bayonet and kukri”

HRH Prince Harry (right) pictured while he was deployed with Gurkha soldiers in Afghanistan (source: Nepal News Blog)

Having devoured General Sir Peter Duffell’s book The Gurkha Odyssey (which I reviewed here recently) and being interested in anything related to these élite and legendary soldiers, I was extremely worried about the evacuation of the 100 Nepalese Gurkhas who had been tasked with guarding the Canadian embassy in Kabul. I was relieved when I heard that they had been safely taken away from the country.

Nonetheless, the whole episode reminded me of the chapter Sir Peter devoted to the Gurkhas contribution to Britain’s fight in Afghanistan – during the 1st Afghan War (1839-1842), the Second Afghan War (1878-1880), the Third Afghan War (1919) and the Fourth Afghan War (2001-2021). Since 2001, the Gurkhas took part in no less than 24 deployments!

“In the last two hundred years”, writes the former Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong, “the Gurkha rifleman has soldiered four times on behalf of the British Crown in the beautiful, dangerous and perfidious country of Afghanistan – always at some cost and never for much discernible gain.”

Against all odds, “forgetting their fatigue” and fighting alongside the Gordons, the Highlanders and the Seaforths at the sound of bagpipes, the Gurkhas were a “dangerous battlefield adversary” whom the Afghan fighters did “[…] all they could to avoid.” Despite all the gallantry in the world, Sir Peter comes to the heartbreaking conclusion (in light of all the blood and treasure spent in that part of the world) that “[…] no country has the means to impose its will on Afghanistan.”

On the bright side of things, the Gurkhas’ performance in Afghanistan contributed to the edification of their “[…] strong and respected position in the heart of the British Army.”

Let us now hope that statesmen and influencers of the future will spend more time in libraries and bookstores before they decide on the whim of political circumstances to risk the life and valor of men (and women) whose mission it is to give their everything for us.

For the time being, I strongly recommend The Gurkha Odyssey, not only as an excellent book about military history, but also a powerful story of exceptional courage in the most gruesome circumstances. Blood should never be sacrificed in vain.

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The title of this post comes from General Sir Peter Duffell’s book, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown, Yorkshire, Pen & Sword, 2019, 290 pages.

Mr. Daniel Yesilonis, Marketing Manager of the Casemate Group, has generously provided me with a copy of this excellent book. Daniel is a joy to collaborate with for a blogger.

Viscount Slim was the opposite of Field Marshal Montgomery

General Sir Peter Duffell (source: Nepali Times)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & sword), General Sir Peter Duffell generously accepted to answer my questions for this blog. Below is the content of this fascinating exchange.

But before you read any further, let me remind you that if you are a military history aficionado, this book is a must for your bookshelves.

In my time, we certainly adopted items of jungle equipment from the Australians and rifles from the Americans as they were deemed to be more effective and soldier friendly.

Whenever I attend the change of the guard at the Citadel in Quebec City (home of the Royal 22e Régiment, the legendary Vandoos), I am always impressed by the “Bearskin” hat worn by the soldiers, a tradition that comes from the French. At Waterloo, the red coats picked the hats from the dead bodies of their fallen opponents. Throughout its history, the British Army always knew how to integrate the best parts of other traditions. The Gurkhas are no exception, having been integrated to the British Order of Battle after the Nepal War of 1814-1816. Has the British Army kept this capacity for accepting other’s best capacities and features?

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“When you know you are with the Gurkha, I think there is no safer place to be”

In themselves, these words from His Royal Highness Prince Harry encapsulate the ethos and history of those soldiers who are called the best in the world. Having completed two tours of Afghanistan, notably for two months in Helmand, the Duke of Sussex has seen for himself what those legendary fighters are made of.

In his amazing book, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), retired General Sir Peter Duffell took upon himself to explain what kind of mettle these exceptional fighters who first encountered the British red coats as enemies on the battlefield of the war on Nepal between 1814 and 1816 are made of. Few people could know the subject better, since the author was himself commissioned into the 2nd Gurkha Rifles at the beginning of his military career.

Having lived for several months in Edinburgh (Scotland), I visited the National War Museum on a few occasions. I was always impressed to read that, during World War I, Germans used to call Scottish soldiers “the ladies from hell” – a distinct reference to their kilt and warrior prowess.

I don’t know how Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops (or other battlefield enemies throughout history) called the Gurkhas south of Ypres in the first months of the Great War, but I can easily imagine a similar fright must be instilled in whoever sees one of those Nepali soldiers advancing toward his / her position. Just to give you an idea of the kind of fighter we are talking about, the author recounts that, in the last stages of the Burma campaign:

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“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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Prince Philip and the Gurkhas

Sir Peter Duffell (left) introducing HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the two Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers at the annual Field of Remembrance on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in November 2012. (source: courtesy of Sir Peter Duffell)

I have always been a huge fan of the Gurkhas, who are among the best soldiers who have served and are still serving for Queen and Country. In that regard, I have the privilege of being in touch with Sir Peter Duffell, author of Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), a former commanding officer of the Gurkhas, who later went on to commanding British Forces in Hong Kong between 1989 and 1992. This impressive and generous military figure also served as British Army’s Inspector General.

Upon learning of Prince Philips’s passing two weeks ago, I wrote Sir Peter to ask him about the relationship between the consort and the Gurkhas. Here’s what he mentioned:

Continue reading “Prince Philip and the Gurkhas”