Gary Sheffield on a revisionist analysis of the Iron Duke’s triumphs and failings
Some historical figures are so well known that it is difficult to imagine anyone finding anything original to say about them. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, victor in the Peninsular War and (at least from a British perspective) at Waterloo, might seem to fall into this category.
In Wellington’s Wars Dr Davies proves that this is not the case. In a scintillating, closely argued book based on deep archival research, Davies brings a sceptical eye to Wellington’s military career. Traditionalist fans of the Iron Duke may be outraged; the rest of us need to engage with his arguments.
Biographers sometimes fall in love with their subjects, or, alternatively, come to regard them with loathing. Huw Davies could never be accused of the first sin, and despite some of the language he uses – Wellington is described at various times as a “vain, aloof, [and] arrogant” man who “ranted and raved like a petulant child” and “habitually misunderstood his enemies”– this is far from being a mere hatchet job.
The subtitle of the book is The Making of a Military Genius. While the term genius is apt to conjure up images of wild-haired scientists, Davies uses Clausewitz’s definition of “military genius”, that is, possession of a “very highly developed mental aptitude” for war. The very last sentence of this book argues that Wellington’s genius lay in being able to gain “astonishing success with such limited resources”, in the process “overcoming [the] very human flaws” that Davies outlines in such remorseless detail. While most previous writers on Wellington would have had no difficulty in agreeing with this praise of Wellington, the criticisms are revisionism with a vengeance.
At the core of Davies’ argument is that Wellington “had a rare understanding of the relationship between war and politics”. While this is by no means a unique insight – this reviewer wrote on the subject in this magazine in 2007 – Davies deals with the subject in an extremely detailed and sophisticated fashion. For instance, his interpretation of the political dynamics of the Waterloo campaign of 1815 is that Wellington was concerned about the growth in power of Prussia (and also of its patron, Russia) and also to avoid damaging France to an extent that would be counter-productive. Again, while not entirely original, Davies’ argument is convincing.
His chapters on Wellington’s apprenticeship in India are perhaps the most important sections of the book. Wellington’s early experiences were difficult, with his first action being an outright defeat in which the young commander panicked. Nonetheless, Wellington developed a style of command which he was to take forward to the Peninsula with, Davies argues, mixed success.
This is one of those rare books that is likely to ignite a debate. Perhaps on occasions Davies overplays his hand in criticising Wellington, tending to see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full, but there is little doubt that scholarship on Napoleonic military history will benefit greatly from the explosion of his mine under its ramparts.
Well-written, with a strong human interest dimension (the narrative frequently descends from the level of high command to the battlefield), Wellington’s Wars deserves a wide readership. Davies is to be congratulated on writing a fine book. No doubt he is braced to receive a counter-charge.
Gary Sheffield is professor of War Studies at the University of Birmingham. His book The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (Aurum) has just appeared in paperback