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Book Review: Wellington’s Wars

Wellington’s Wars: The Making of a Military Genius

by Huw Davies

Yale University Press, 2012

Military historian Huw Davies begins his very readable, analytical new look at the military ‘genius’ of Arthur Wellesley with a telling anecdote from 1827 when the so-called Iron Duke was sitting for his portrait with the exuberant virtuoso Sir Thomas Lawrence. The painter drew a watch in the general’s hand and explained that it signified the impatient wait during the Battle of Waterloo for the arrival of Prussian Field Marshal Blucher and his 50,000 troops. Wellington was horrified – despite the fact that one the day of battle itself, he’d been heard to say “Give me night, or give me Blucher,” he didn’t want a portrait implying that all his tactics and preparation was dependent on somebody else. Lawrence painted in a telescope instead.

The anecdote tells a lot of very accurate things about Wellington the man and Wellington the general, and Davies’ subtitle, “the making of a military genius,” is apt though seemingly contradictory (we don’t expect genius to need making, after all) – this book, packed with both formidable learning and delightful opionizing, is our fullest account yet of just how Wellington learned the trade of war. Davies’ version lacks the magisterial comprehensiveness of Michael Glover’s 1968 Wellington as Military Commander, and both it and every other account of the times lacks the fantastic, populist sweep of Elizabeth Longford’s 1969 volume Wellington: The Years of the Sword (its original U.S. dust jacket featured a different portrait by Lawrence – this one with better hair and a great big broadsword). Where Davies excels is in his taut, progress-report accounting of Wellington’s strengths and weaknesses, given in language that’s frequently unforgiving:

Rather than a flowering military genius, the Wellesley of the Deccan campaign [in India, in 1803] was manifestly incompetent in the organisation of his intelligence collection; and arrogant to the point of imbecility in the analysis of that intelligence and in his interpretation of the nature of his enemy.

There was a time – not too distant – when a UK historian writing ‘incompetent’ and ‘imbecility’ so close to the revered surname would have been given an adjunct teaching position deep in the Andaman Islands and been heard from no more, and although Davies always salvages the moment (“Despite these errors, he still won,” he quickly reassures us in this instance). And there’s never any real doubt where the wheel will stop spinning – Wellington’s place in the military firmament is assured no matter what departmental deviations his biographers might find. And in Davies’ tracing of the development of his subject’s “political generalship,” it’s not like the superlatives are in short supply. The word “genius” is used so many times in so many contexts you half-way expect Leonardo da Vinci to sue for copyright infringement. There’s his “tactical genius”:

… his eye for terrain and his ability to out-think his enemies on countless occasions inspired his officers and men. He was also lucky: despite never shirking his duty to command from the front, and on many occasions exposing himself to enemy fire in order to direct a battle, he never suffered anything worse than a bruise.

And there’s his “strategic genius”:

He had strength of character ‘to keep [his] head at times of exceptional stress and violent emotion’, allowing, for the most part, reason rather than fear or prejudice to define his decision-making. He also possessed the determination ‘to stand like a rock’ and act on belief despite uncertainty. He was a strategic genius, able to translate frequently murky political objectives into clear-sighted military objectives and priorities.

And then there’s a whole ‘nother genius on top of both of those:

Wellington’s true genius lay in the consummate balancing, throughout his career, of contradictory political objectives.

Davies is on safe ground with all these accolades; Wellington scarcely ever lost a battle, and he famously won the biggest one of them all, beating Napoleon himself at Waterloo. Military buffs have pointed out for two centuries that Wellington’s actual tactics on that glorious day would have cost him the victory had chance not repeatedly intervened, but it makes no difference – the pestiferous little Corsican is the one who got shipped off to exile. And Wellington, the former victor of the Peninsular became a god on Earth.

Davies does his best always to outfit that god with feet of clay. He reminds us, for instance (however deferentially), that Wellington’s “inability to accept blame for his mistakes might not in itself have been a great problem, but it suggests an inability, or an unwillingness, to learn from his mistakes.” The suppressed agony of such assessments is of course that neither option – inability or unwillingness – works for the national mythology. And that mythology is perforce part of Davies’ story, since you can’t exactly write about the 19th Century’s greatest general without invoking it. Davies is an unfailingly energetic guide, and at times a refreshingly controversial one. He writes:

Wellington’s historical reputation, founded on the defence of Lisbon at the Lines of Torres Vedras and, of course, Waterloo, is one of caution. This is both unfair and inaccurate. After the victory at Salamanca in 1812, Wellington fought only two more defensive battles, at Sorauren and Waterloo.

– which will have some partisans of the literature scratching their heads, trying to figure out how Davies can look at the dispositions of such engagements as Bidassoa and Nivelle and not see an essentially defensive mind-frame at work, or at least nothing like the “reckless” tactics we’re repeatedly told our man preferred. Still, Davies is so persuasive in his version of the Duke that he may well be right even in such abstruse matters of interpretation – and he’s certainly right in his central assertion, that Wellington faced a radically new kind of warfare, one which had to be fought equally adroitly both on the battlefield and in the corridors of power back in London. It’s the delineation of that Wellington, the political general, that is the best part of Wellington’s Wars – its genius, as it were.