The Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley was born into an aristocratic Irish family. He took a career in the British Army and due to force of economic circumstances, decided to take it seriously and train himself for excellence. Success and promotion in India led him to the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 to fight the French forces of Napoleon. The French were ruling Europe, but the British controlled the seas. The strategy of the campaign was to support Portugal by sea and cause an ulcer, to the French, which would be difficult to supply through conquered Spain. The initial campaign was not led by the future Duke, but he was there and it ended in the famous retreat to Corunna by John Moore’s forces. Wellington returned as leader to carry on with the same strategy. His initial plan was defensive to disrupt and pre-empt French attempts to invade Portugal. He continued to do this successfully from 1809 to 1813 when he could go on the offensive and invade France. This action contributed to the abdication and exile of Napoleon. Wellington was to return to fight his last battle at Waterloo and end the 23-year war, the biggest and costliest in history at the time. His successes elevated him to the rank of Duke. He went on to be Prime Minister from the House Lords.

Wellington had a full range of skills. He understood the strategic goals, and was particularly skilled at defence allowing the enemy to fall on his guns. He understood supply, communications, intelligence and engineering. He was excellent at deployment and concealment. He would take personal command near the battle and even ride to his Generals to issue quick instructions. He was expert in making quick adjustments to his deployment in response to the enemy’s actions and when the time came to seize an advantage he would strike with instant, lethal force. I will go on to elaborate on some of his battles.

The Crossing of the Douro

Initially threatening Portugal, there were three French separate groups outnumbering him 2 to 1. He attacked Soult in the North at Oporto first to prevent them combining. Soult was expecting an attack from the sea to the West but it did not come. Wellington found some wine barges and opportunistically sneaked some men across the river. By the time the French noticed it was too late and another crossing cut their retreat and they had to flee with many losses. It was a brilliant morale boosting victory.


Wellington advanced into Spain with Spanish support, but they proved unreliable. Wellington found a defensive position on a ridge at Talavera. He placed his men lying down behind the ridge, like he did at Waterloo, to protect from artillery. The French advanced in column, but the superior allied musket fire, in line, won the day as it continually did throughout the war. His excellent use of skirmishers to disrupt the French light Tirailleurs continued to be significant.

Torre Vedras

Always looking ahead to the worst-case scenario, Wellington foresaw an invasion of Portugal. He reconnoitred North and West of Lisbon from the sea to the river and secretly started building defensive lines. He used Portuguese labour and no one knew, he cleverly used the terrain and regular forts. When Massena attacked in 1810, Wellington retreated burning all the crops behind him in a scorched earth policy. His negativity paid off when the French were surprised to discover the lines and failed to make an impression. Previous, preparation, prevents, p**s, poor performance.

Ciudad Rodrigo

Early in 1812 Wellington believed he could capture the town of Ciudad Rodrigo. He could surround it and bombard it from high points. Once a breach was made he commanded a night attack. A mine killed the assault troops, but soon the whole town was captured. Unfortunately, as often happens in such risky assaults, the troops ran amok, but they were supposed to be Spanish allies. One extra advantage was that a siege train was captured. He went to capture another fortress of Badajoz shortly afterwards. This allowed him the platform to go on the offensive.


In the summer of 1812, Wellington began to advance. He could do so as he started using Santander as a supply port on the north coast. He faced Marmont with a similar number of men. There was some, marching and countermarching south of Salamanca, but the French became spread out in their columns and Wellington saw his opportunity to strike. Marmont was marching west to cut the allies off from Portugal, but the third division were on the right flank, as usual Wellington took responsibility and galloped three miles to Ned Pakenham to order him to attack. They struck like a meteor and destroyed the front division. Two more divisions were picked off in 40 minutes. The French struck back, but Wellington anticipated this and deployed his line of muskets effectively as usual. There were 5 of 8 French divisions that were shattered. Wellingtons initiative showed that he had waited for four years for such an opportunity and then struck with skill and speed. He would d=never be underestimated again.


As Wellington advanced in 1813, Joseph fell back to defend Vitoria. He defended the road approaching to the west. The obvious ploy was to flank from the north, but before doing this the allies attacked from the south, then the north and finally from the west. At the same time, another force under Graham swept around from the north beyond Vitoria to cut off the retreat. This worked well, but the northern force was delayed. There was a piece of luck where there was an undefended bridge to the north west and taking this eased the pressure. The French fell back and were now cut off in the rear. It became a rout and the French were only saved from complete destruction when the army started plundering the riches of the baggage train. The way to the Pyrenees and the invasion of France was open.

Perhaps Wellington’s greatest asset was his personal commitment to the cause and his men. There was apparently little priority for personal glory. He had simple tastes, and would sleep in his cloak on the field with the men before a battle if necessary. He encouraged the Portuguese soldiers who sometimes represented half his army, he mistrusted the Spanish at least to start with. He understood his personal value and appeared at times in view to encourage his troops and worry the cautious Soult. There were many times that he used the phrase A close run thing, His personal commitment, attention to detail and planning could have the deciding factor in the ulcer that ate away at Napoleon. The Frenchman had some great qualities. He wrote the law of France, the Napoleonic code and it was brilliant and still used. His prowess as a General is well known, but I guess it was his ego that led to his downfall. They fought at Waterloo and a scratch force on a well defended reverse ridge was enough to delay the French until the Prussians arrived.

Leadership is not a privilege or an entitlement, it is a responsibility. Wellington served England, not himself.

Conway-Laird (2017)

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