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.