Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace – Book Review
Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace, 1814-1852. By Rory Muir. Yale University Press, 2015. 585 pages of text; 43 Illustrations; 4 map;, 4 pages of Chronology 1814-1852; 3 pages of Wellington’s offices, honors and titles; 66 pages of notes; and 34 pages of bibliography. Hardback. $40.00.
Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace is the second of two volumes examining Wellington’s life. The first volume, Wellington: The Path to Victory, covered Wellington’s birth to 1814, when Napoleon first abdicated. This volume covers from the first occupation of Paris to Wellington’s death and is focused on Wellington’s political life, his impact on British culture, and “how the hard-working, high-spirited, indiscreet man who commanded the army in the Peninsula in his early forties, adapted to the very different milieu of London society.”
The book is divided into five parts. “Part I: War and Peace in Europe (1814-18)“, covers the first occupation of France, the return of Napoleon, Waterloo, and the second occupation of France. “Part II: In Cabinet (1819-27)”, covers Wellington’s return to England and joining the British cabinet of Prime Minister Liverpool before moving to be the Master-General of the Ordnance. “Part III: Prime Minister (1828-30)”, covers Wellington’s term as Prime Minister where he shepherded and passed Catholic Emancipation, surprising friends and foes. “Part IV: Out of Office (18310-41)”, covers Wellington losing a vote on the Reform Bill and returning to private life. “Part V: Back in Harness (1841-52)”, covers Wellington becoming commander-in-chief of the British army through to his state funeral.
Volume Two of the biography starts with Wellington (now the Duke of Wellington) going from Paris to Madrid. The French released King Ferdinand, who lost no time trying to re-establish absolutist rule. “Wellington’s mission to Madrid is significant for the insight it provided into his political outlook: his dislike of the unbridled absolution … was as strong as his irritation with the ideologically driven folly of the liberales when they had been in power in 1813.” His mission to Madrid was unsuccessful in trying to moderate between the extremists on both sides. He returned to London where he was showered with honors for his role in fighting the French in Portugal and Spain. He then left for Paris as Britain’s representative. It was Wellington who purchased Napoleon’s sister’s house for the British Embassy in Paris.
France was still in disarray, with ex-supporters and officers of Napoleon being replaced by royalist supporters. “The restoration had yet to put down roots and had dangerously few active partisans. The great majority of the population… gave it tepid acquiescence but no real loyalty.” This helps explain Napoleon’s easy return to power in 1815.
February 1815 saw Wellington in Vienna to represent Britain at the Congress to settle disputes about redrawing the boundaries in Europe after Napoleon’s abdication. This was interrupted by news of Napoleon’s return to France. The representatives immediately ordered Napoleon’s arrest. The language was toned down from inviting “any peasant lad or maniac to shoot him down at sight,” because of objections by Metternich of Austria and Wellington. “Wellington… denounced the idea of encouraging assassination or murder as a private sport.”
Several armies would be mobilized to help the royalist French forces: Austrians in Italy, several German states would form the army of the Upper Rhine, Russians in Wurtzburg, Prussian forces on the Lower Rhine, and Wellington was to command the non-Prussian allied forces in the Netherlands and Lower Rhine. Overall command was to be held by a council consisting of the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, and the Austrian Field Marshal Schwarzenberg.
The allied force Wellington commanded, contained units of questionable loyalty to the allied cause. A “number of the [Dutch] King’s senior officers and advisors … spent many years loyally serving Napoleon…Some of the men of the 2 Regiments at Mons began the cry Vive Napoleon on the first arrival of the news” of Napoleon’s return. Many of the British units available in Netherlands-Belgium had not seen action, leading Wellington to complain “I have got an infamous army, very weak and ill equipped and a very inexperienced staff.” Wellington tried unsuccessfully to get the British and Portuguese units he commanded during the Peninsular Campaigns. “It was less a question of courage than of cohesion, discipline and confidence, and with some many less experienced troops Wellington was much less inclined to manoeuvre or attack, even if the strategic situation had called for it.” Adding to Wellington’s problems, British army headquarters appointed officers to Wellington’s staff without consulting him. “Wellington was mortified at having to tell many officers who had served him well on the staff in the Peninsula that he had no vacancy for them in Belgium.” As normal for Wellington, he made sure that London knew about his displeasure. His complaints resulted in officers he wanted appointed to key positions.
As it turned out, “the campaign was so brief and bloody that the staff was completely disrupted by casualties before it could become fully effective. This was not a problem limited to Wellington’s army; the French and Prussians also suffered from poor staff work because officers had no time to find their feet.”
Even with all the preparations for war, Wellington kept up a busy social life in Brussels. This was mentioned in the diaries of several British expatriates living in Brussels. Wellington was seen at recitals, parties, dinners, and balls. Lady Capel noted that “But Nobody can guess Lord Wellington’s intentions, & I dare say Nobody will know he is going til he is actually gone.”
About the Waterloo campaign, Muir says, “[t]he few days of the Waterloo campaign have been studied so intensively that the original documents have been probed and tested beyond breaking point, with the result that trivial anomalies and inconsistencies, together with gaps in the evidence, have assumed an unwarranted significance… In fact there is nothing unusual in such contradictions in first-hand testimony… The problem is greatly compounded by the acrimony aroused by many of the controversies surrounding the campaign…. The intense scrutiny of the campaign has another effect: it highlights the errors made by all three commanders and their subordinates… They acted under intense pressure, generally with little sleep and amid a cloud of partial and misleading information…. Historians necessarily clarify and simplify the story they tell, and it takes a conscious effort to remember just how much more confused and unclear was the picture facing the generals at the time.”
Muir addresses the controversies of when Wellington first heard of Napoleon crossing the frontier and why he attended a ball the night before a battle. Some claim that the Prussian messenger arrived June 15 early in the morning. “However, the evidence for this message is scanty, and it is simply unbelievable that Wellington would have failed to react if he knew the campaign had begun; self-preservation (if nothing else) would have ensured that he lost no time in getting his army ready for action. This is exactly what he did in orders issued around six o’clock that evening… The original text of these orders is missing and they need to be treated with some care, but their gist is clear enough…. A few hours later, probably around ten o’clock at night, a second set of orders… were issued…. These After Orders dictated a general shift of the army to the east towards Nivelles…. Having issued these orders Wellington went to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball…. [T]he first-hand accounts of the ball which we possess suggest rather less grandeur and more confusion and dismay…” One of the attendees, Katherine Arden, wrote “When on our arrival at the ball, we were told that the troops had orders to march at 3 in the morning, and that every officer must join his regiment by that time; … We staid at this ball … long enough to see express after express arrive to the Duke of Wellington…”
One of the messengers brought word around 1am that the French were at Quatre Bras. That message turned out to be false and the French were still some miles south of Quatre Bras. The Nassau regiment’s commander reported later that they were holding Quatre Bras but “that the terrain prevented him from seeing the strength of the enemy’s force.”
After a few hours’ sleep, Wellington left Brussels early morning, reaching “Quatre Bra about ten o’clock in the morning… He approved the deployment of Perponcher’s Division at Quatre Bras; the orders to Chassé and Alten to cover Nivelles; and those summoning Cooke and the First Division from Braine-le-Comte to Nivelles.”
When Wellington met Blücher at Brye (between Quatre Bras and Ligny), “it seems probable that Wellington told Blücher that he did not expect to be attacked at Quatre Bras, and they discussed the best way that he could assist the Prussians… Müffling makes explicit Wellington’s proviso ‘I will come so long as I am not attacked myself’, others are silent on the point – although everyone must have understood that as an implicit condition.”
At this point, Wellington knew there was an inactive French force south of Quatre Bras and a large force at Ligny, “but none of the allies yet knew where the larger portion of Napoleon’s army was, or what his intensions were.”
Muir’s descriptions of the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo will be familiar to readers of other books on the campaign. I was expecting more information about Wellington’s role or thoughts. Muir explains, “Wellington’s role in the battle is curiously obscure. He did not give a detailed account of the fighting in his Waterloo dispatch and there are relatively few references to him in the first-hand accounts of the action…. Equally the whole course of the battle is too shrouded in uncertainty to permit any serious tactical criticism of the conduct of either general.”
After Napoleon’s capture and the occupation of France, came the restoration of the Bourbons and squabbling among the allies. The Prussians wanted France severely punished but the British and Russians favored a less harsh punishment. Part of the terms was an allied army of occupation, led by Wellington, and paid for by the French for 3-5 years.
During the occupation, Wellington “had a unique position on the European stage in these years, being regarded … as a figure apart whose integrity was unimpeachable, and who could be relied upon to settle disputes without regard to special interests. … These years would form the high point or culmination of the career of most men, but in Wellington’s life they appear as a relatively quiet interlude between the tension and bloodshed of his military campaigns and the different strains he was to face as a major figure in British politics when he returned to England.”
After the occupation ended in 1818, Wellington was offered the post of Master-General of the Ordnance, a position that would allow him to “taking an active field command in the unlikely event of a new war requiring his immediate services.” The Ordnance was responsible for the design, testing, and supply of weapons. Wellington accepted the position with the stipulation “that if the government was at any time forced from office, he should be free ‘to take any line I may at the time think proper’.” Prime Minister Liverpool agreed because “Wellington was a national, not merely a party, figure who prestige should not be lowered by being used in pursuit of purely party ends.”
In politics, Wellington was mostly pragmatic. “He had a strong distrust of theory and arguments from first principles, regarding intellectuals in politics … as impractical and dangerous. His preference was always to take an existing structure and, by a combination of his own energy and purpose, and necessary changes, make it function efficiently, rather than demolish the whole and begin anew.” Wellington supported practical new technologies, such as steam ships.
Wellington was not known to be a great speaker in Parliament. “His own style was consciously plain and simple, with a strong emphasis on factual details and avoiding literary artifice.” Even so, he could give effective speeches that got results. While Prime Minster, he spoke in favor of the bill to emancipate Catholics, allowing them to participate fully in government after centuries of denial, with the exception of positions that had authority over the Church of England. John Cam, a Member of Parliament, wrote in his diary, “The Duke spoke slowly but without hesitation or embarrassment of any kind. He did not refer to notes at all, and only once read from a paper containing an extract from the Journals of the Scottish Parliament. … The most striking part of his speech was when he alluded to the own experience of the horrors of civil war, and said that he would willingly lay down his life to avoid one month of it. The effect of this in the mouth of the great soldier was visible in all who heard him. The words were not the boasting of an orator, but the expression of real feeling from one who had seen thousands die around him, and was, as Lord Grey afterwards said, ‘red with the blood of a hundred battles’.” Wellington knew Catholic Emancipation needed to happen however unpopular and “at considerable political cost to his reputation and the stability of his government.”
While Wellington participated in several governments after being Prime Minister, he played an important but secondary role “avoiding a confrontation between the two Houses [Commons and Lords]”. When he withdrew from politics to take up the position of commander-in-chief of the British Army, he urged “forgiveness, ‘Christian charity’, and a willingness to forget past differences – difficult political virtues in the best of times… They were virtues he had always practiced as well as preached”.
As commander-in-chief Wellington oversaw several reforms, his favorites being practical ones such as new barracks, and replacing the musket with percussion musket then the Minié rifle. Wellington suffered through several controversies, such as accusations he impeded progress on “abolition of purchase for officers, short service enlistment for the rank and file, the abolition of flogging, and the expansion of the scope of the War Office to include the Ordnance and other military departments.” His old troops from the Peninsular Campaigns were incensed that some of the other campaigns received special medals, which were sponsored by the government, but Wellington refused to go directly to Queen Victoria on their behalf. Wellington argued “that soliciting rewards deprived them of their value, and that it was not for him to ask the Queen or her ministers for further favours.” In 1847, after Lord Russell spoke with the Queen, “the General Service Medal was awarded to surviving veterans” of all the campaigns against France.
Wellington died at home on September 14, 1852, in his favorite chair “at a quarter past three, with his family, servants, and doctors around him… The Queen and the Prime Minister agreed that the Duke should be given a state funeral”.
Wellington always dealt with both political and military matters throughout his life. I walked away from this book with a greater appreciation for Wellington’s impact on England, which went beyond his military accomplishments. Muir definitely is pro-Wellington, but he does a good job providing clear information on the controversies in Wellington’s life.
I recommend this book for those interested in Wellington, not just for the often-neglected treatment of the occupations of France, but mostly for his contributions to English culture and society.
Steven M. Smith has been an Armchair General contributor since 2010. He has a life-long interest in history especially the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. He was the owner of The Simulation Corner gaming retail outlet in Morgantown, West Virginia, until 1983. He is currently a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and works for Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Maryland.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.