Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Iron Duke

Of all the curious parallels of history, none is stranger than that of Napoleon and Wellington, who were to meet as rivals on the fatal field of Waterloo.

They were born in the same year, 1769, and in each case the exact date is somewhat uncertain. Wellington in later life always celebrated the first of May, but was not sure that it was his rightful birthday. Both were born upon islands—the one in Corsica, the other in Ireland—which islands, by the way, were constantly striving to achieve their independence.

Both were born into large families. Napoleon was a fourth child and Wellington a fourth son. The father of each is described as an easy-going, indulgent man, without force of character, while the mother was the moving genius of the family. But between Napoleon and his mother existed a lively affection; while Wellington's mother never seemed to care for this child, and constantly spoke of him in terms of reproach.

Both boys attended military schools in France, far away from their own home and friends, and consequently drew apart from their comrades, lived their own lives, and carved out their own destinies. These are but a few of the early parallels of two famous soldiers who were afterward to decide the fate of Europe at the points of their swords.

The family name of Wellington, before he received a dukedom, was Wesley or Wellesley. As a boy he was known as Arthur Wellesley. His father was the Earl of Mornington, his mother a daughter of Lord Dungannon. The Earl is spoken of as a lover and composer of music. Arthur had three brothers who were all destined to do noteworthy things. His oldest brother, who bore the title of Lord Wellesley, aided him no little in choosing his profession of soldier.

The boy's birthplace was Dangon Castle, Dublin. Almost nothing is known as to his earliest years, beyond the sorrowful fact that his mother was not fond of him—almost had an aversion to him—and spoke of him openly as "the fool of the family." From this we infer that Arthur was a silent, reserved lad, who did not shine at his studies, but who nevertheless did "a heap of thinking." Being misunderstood at home he withdrew more and more into his shell—thus forming a crust of reserve which was to be more or less a handicap to him all through life. For the Iron Duke, as he came to be called, never threw off his diffidence nor won the hearts of his soldiers, as did that other recluse, Bonaparte.

Arthur Wellesley's first school away from home was Eton, that great "prep" school of so many English boys. The fact that he attended there helped to give rise to the proverb that "Waterloo was won on the cricket fields of Eton"—but as a matter of record the boy was not interested in this sport. He preferred the fiddle to the racquet, as he had inherited his father's love of music.

"I was a player of the violin once myself, sir," he remarked in after years to a friend; "but I soon found that fiddling and soldiering didn't agree—so I gave it up, sir! I gave it up!"

Only one other anecdote is recorded of his life at Eton, and this was a fight! Nor was it a case of choose your weapons—it was plain fists. He began with first principles. A fellow student, Robert Smith, who is chiefly noted as having been the brother of Sydney Smith, the noted essayist and preacher, was enjoying a swim in the river, near the campus. Arthur could not resist the impulse to throw mud at his bare back.

"Stop that!" yelled Smith.

"Dare you to come," said Arthur.

Bob promptly waded out, and they "mixed." Just which boy got the better of it is not clear, but if justice ruled, the future conqueror of Napoleon should have received his first trouncing.

One other fight is recorded of his early schooldays—and this does not mean that Arthur was naturally of a pugnacious disposition, for he wasn't. It simply means that one's battles, little or big, are always remembered, rather than the pleasant though colorless ways of peace. On a visit home he got into an argument with a blacksmith's boy, named Hughes. In this instance, might was right. The smith's muscles were the brawnier, and the Etonian got soundly licked—that is, if we can take the word of Hughes who was wont to boast in later years that he beat the man who beat Napoleon!

At Eton came the usual question which confronts every boy in his teens—the choice of a business or profession. His mother did not think he was good for anything. In writing of her children, about this time, she says:

"They are all, I think, endowed with excellent abilities, except Arthur, and he would probably not be wanting, if only there was more energy in his nature; but he is so wanting in this respect, that I really do not know what to do with him."

He took no interest in the law or the Church. He seems to have moped along in a lackadaisical sort of way in the classroom. He had, not given an indication of "shining" in any direction. Consequently there was nothing left for a gentleman's son—except the army! It was a make-shift choice.

Those were the days of the American Revolution. The progress of this struggle must have appealed powerfully to the English boys; and the final defeat of the trained British troops by the raw Colonials must have been a bitter blow. There came an insistent demand for more and better schools for the officers. England seems to have been poorly equipped in this respect. Wellesley himself, like many another English boy, was sent across the channel to France. The chosen school was at Angers on the Maine, and was conducted by the Marquis of Pignerol, a celebrated military engineer of the time. In connection with the school was a fine riding academy.

It was in 1785 that Arthur entered this school. He was then sixteen, a thin gangly-looking boy, who perhaps because he had grown too rapidly could not be persuaded to take much interest in anything. He felt out of his element and ill at ease, although he was not the only English lad here. He is described by General Mackenzie, who was a schoolmate, as "not very attentive to his studies, and constantly occupied with a little terrier called Vick, which followed him everywhere."

This is about as definite a glimpse of him as we can get, but it does enable us to picture him as idling about the streets of this picturesque old town, or climbing the steep cliffs which rise from the water's edge, at the confluence of the streams which flow by Angers. At the top of the hill we can see him whistling to Vick, and tossing down one of the gentler slopes a stone or stick for the faithful terrier to retrieve.

Did this idle schoolboy dream dreams of future greatness on the battlefields of the land that was now teaching him to draw the sword? Who shall say.

Although at Angers only a short time, about twelve months, it was by no means time wasted. He perfected his French and learned many things about manners and customs that were to be of good service. Likewise, through his family's influence, he made the acquaintance of several French noblemen, who must undoubtedly have given him a broader point of view, and perchance some good advice on the subject of soldiering.

His father had died in 1781, but his oldest brother, who had made his mark as a soldier and man of letters, took a lively interest in him and constantly urged him on. England is indebted no little to this brother Richard, who, probably more than any other, was the guiding star in the making of her great soldier.

In the days just after the American War, the British army was not well organized or officered. Instead of the fighting machine that it afterward became, it was a sort of gentleman's training school, so far as the officers were concerned. Any one who had good family connections or money could get a commission. The skill and experience were supposed to come later, on the field of action.

This fact explains the early promotion of Arthur Wellesley. At the age of seventeen, soon after leaving Angers, he was made an ensign in a regiment of infantry, and within five years, by the time he was twenty-two, he had been made a captain. Nor did his rapid advancement end here. In 1793 he became a major, then a lieutenant colonel; and by 1796 he was a full-fledged colonel—at twenty-seven! The secret "power at court" was his brother Richard, who was a secretary to Pitt, the statesman. But another friend was Lord Westmoreland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who took a fancy to him and made him a staff officer.

As one historian puts it, regarding army commissions: "Wealth and interest were nearly all-powerful; it was the palmy day of purchase which George the Third had tried and had failed to abolish, and, until the Duke of York became commander-in-chief, infants of both sexes figured in the army list as the holders of commissions."

It is interesting to note—to resume our parallel—that this was the stormy time of the French Revolution, when Napoleon was painfully carving his way upward by the edge of the sword, and by push rather than "pull" had achieved high command in early life.

But we would do the young Wellington a grave injustice if we pictured him as leading a life of inactivity, awaiting a promotion through "pull." He had qualities which now began to assert themselves and were to contribute to his larger fame. For one thing, he was something of a diplomat. He remembered names and faces, and turned every acquaintance to account. Later, he was credited with a marvelous memory—such as also had his great French rival.

These qualities, it is true, were slow in ripening. At the age of twenty-one, he was elected to the Irish House of Commons, from his home County. This was done in order to give him parliamentary training, and such service was allowed without the necessity of relinquishing his military rank or duties. It was merely an extra tail to his kite. He is thus described by a colleague, Sir Jonah Barrington:

"Wellesley was then ruddy-faced and juvenile in appearance, and popular enough among the young men of his age and station. His address was unpolished; he occasionally spoke in Parliament, but not successfully, and never on important subjects; and evinced no promise of that unparalleled celebrity and splendor which he has since reached, and whereto intrepidity and decision, good luck, and great military science have justly combined to elevate him."

Although he made no great mark as a Parliamentarian, he did make friends at this time, who were destined to influence his life. One was the brilliant though somewhat unprincipled Lord Castlereagh, who was to aid him to obtain the chief military command of the English army in Spain. Another was a certain young lady, Charlotte Packenham, who found his tongue more eloquent than did his colleagues in the House of Commons. She was the daughter of Lord Longford, who was not so easily won over to the young man's suit. In fact, the nobleman gave him a curt "no." He was looking for a more brilliant match for his daughter than a subaltern.

So the young people had to give each other a sad farewell. But it was not to be forever. Ten years later when the young soldier had won his spurs, and had returned from his brilliant campaign in India, a Major General, the parental gates were unbarred. The Lady Charlotte had remained constant through all the years of waiting and separation, and they were happily wedded.

That Wellesley took more than a perfunctory interest in his military duties is evident even during his earliest years of service. For example, he wished to determine for himself just how much weight, in the way of equipment, a soldier could carry in light marching order.

"I wished," he says, "to have some measure of the power of the individual man compared with the weight he was to carry, and the work he was expected to do. I was not so young as not to know that since I had undertaken a profession, I had better endeavor to understand it." And he adds, "It must always be kept in mind that the power of the greatest armies depends upon what the individual soldier is capable of doing and bearing." It is but another way of saying, "A chain is no stronger than its weakest link," or, as we put it today, "It depends upon the man behind the gun." Thus Wellington early discovered and put into practise that indefinable something we call "morale."

As lieutenant colonel of the Thirty-Third Foot, he took up his work in earnest, with the result that in a few months it was officially declared to be the best drilled regiment in Ireland.

But the young commander was not content with this. He did not want to remain at home as a mere "drill sergeant" when affairs were so active abroad. Due partly to the outbreak of the French Revolution, all Europe seethed with war. France was in revolt against the world, and all the neighboring powers were pitted against her. England had maintained a strict neutrality at first, but when Belgium was overrun, felt compelled to intervene, just as in the similar great war of aggression begun by Germany in our own time.

Naturally, young Wellesley wanted to be in it. He wrote to his brother Richard importuning him to use his influence in this direction. "I will serve as major to one of the flank corps," he wrote, as his own regiment was "the last for service." The request was not granted, however, and he had to wait until the Spring of 1794 for his chance to see active service.

It was a parlous time to go over. The French had defeated one army after another, of the Allies, and were in the hey-dey of their first success. The trouble seemed to be lack of unity of command, and lack of able leadership. The Duke of York was in command of the British army, but allowed himself to be out-maneuvered repeatedly. By the Fall of that year, when Wellesley was with the army, the campaign resembled a rout.

During a series of rearguard actions in the retreat through Holland and Flanders, Colonel Wellesley came first into official notice. It was at the Meuse, a stream made forever memorable in the recent Great War. A retreat had been ordered during the night, to avoid a superior force of French. One regiment, however, had mistaken its orders and engaged the enemy. The result was a hopeless tangle of infantry and cavalry, with the enemy taking advantage of the confusion to press the attack.

The Thirty-Third had been ordered to support the rear. Colonel Wellesley, seeing the danger, ordered his regiment to halt in a field alongside of the road, leaving the way clear for the retreat. As soon as the stragglers had gotten by, he threw his regiment again in solid formation across the road, and they advanced upon the charging French with such coolness and precision that the attackers were forced to halt. It was only an incident of warfare, but it showed his promptness of decision, and the fruits of discipline in his regiment.

All that ensuing winter the French harried their army. Wellesley was stationed on the Waal, a branch of the Rhine; and he gives some idea of their arduous life in a letter dated December 20, 1794:

"At present the French keep us in a perpetual state of alarm. We turn out once, sometimes twice, every night. The officers and men are harassed to death, and if we are not relieved, I believe there will be very few of the latter remaining shortly. I have not had the clothes off my back for a long time, and generally spend the greatest part of the night upon the bank of the river, notwithstanding which I have entirely got rid of that disorder which was near killing me at the close of the summer campaign. Although the French annoy us much at night, they are very entertaining during the daytime. They are perpetually chattering with our officers and soldiers, and dance the carmagnole  upon the opposite bank whenever we desire them. But occasionally the spectators on our side are interrupted in the middle of a dance by a cannon ball, from theirs."

In this somewhat humorous recital, Wellesley makes no mention of the sufferings which they must have undergone from lack of food and supplies of all kinds. He purposely puts the best face on it, and bears his troubles stoically. But young as he was, he marveled at the inefficiency and lack of coordination of the high command. Once when a dispatch was received by the General during dinner, from their ally, Austria, he tossed it aside unopened with the remark, "That will keep till morning."

During three months on the Waal, Wellesley declares that he was in direct touch with headquarters only once, and adds: "We had letters from England, and I declare that those letters told us more of what was passing at headquarters than we learnt from the headquarters ourselves. It has always been a marvel to me how any of us escaped."

One result, nevertheless, of this isolation was to throw the young colonel back upon his own resources. It was the finest possible training for his later career.

When Colonel Wellesley returned to England the next year, he thought for a time of resigning his command. One reason was undoubtedly the poor state of the army in equipment and discipline. Another was the fact that he owed his brother money on account of promotions in the service, and his officer's pay was not enough to repay it. He was always scrupulous in matters of debt.

His application for discharge, however, was not accepted. England had need of all her trained men at this time. In addition to the trouble in France, there were other affairs demanding attention in Spain and India. The whole world seemed to need readjusting at once.

Wellesley's next assignment was to accompany an expedition against the French settlement in the West Indies, which set sail in October, 1795. But when only two days out the ships encountered a terrible storm. One ship sank with all on board, others were badly crippled, and hundreds of sailors perished. The expedition put back to England.

Although Wellesley escaped the full effects of this storm, the exposure left his health undermined. His regiment was ordered abroad in the Spring, this time to the East Indies, and when they set sail, in April, he was too ill to accompany them. It was not until February, 1797, that he joined them in Calcutta.

Arthur Wellesley was now in his twenty-eighth year. All that had passed hitherto might be regarded as his schooling. He had been an obscure and "foolish" boy at school (to all appearance). He had failed to make his mark as a military student on the Maine. He had been a dilettante staff officer, and a reticent member of Parliament. Money and family had apparently made him what he was—neither better nor worse than many another young British officer. In his brief campaign in France, he had conducted himself creditably, but had come away with a distaste for the service, as it was then conducted.

To revert to our former parallel—Napoleon at twenty-eight was on the high road to world mastery. Wellington at twenty-eight had not yet found himself. But now on his trip to India he was on the threshold of his career. His deeds there and on other fields were to astonish the world. Did they also astonish the silent officer himself?

It would require a detailed account of the Indian campaign to trace adequately the gradual rise of this officer in the service. For his was not a meteoric or spectacular rise. It was by gradual steps—but each step found him fully prepared. This, perhaps, is as near the secret of the great soldier's success as we can get. He was never a self-advertiser. He never talked much. But he was keenly observant, and his wonderfully retentive memory aided him at every turn. He could go through a countryside once, and then be able to map out an attack—using every natural advantage to its utmost.

And, best of all, his superiors were beginning to discover his merits. They soon found, beneath his quiet exterior, a keen intellect and an indomitable will. Within two months after reaching Calcutta he was consulted by General St. Leger on a plan to establish artillery bases, and was also nominated to command an expedition against the Philippines, then under Spanish control, but preferred to remain and fight it out in India.

"I am determined that nothing shall induce me to desire to quit this country, until its tranquility is ensured," he said—which recalls to mind the famous saying of Grant's: "We will fight it out along this line, if it takes all summer."

Wellesley's next appointment was as Commander of the Mysore brigade. His brother Richard, Marquis of Wellesley, had been appointed Governor General of India, and the two men were destined to exercise a strong influence on affairs in that disturbed country. While nominally in control of the land, the English possessions actually included only the narrow strip running along the various sea coasts; the interior being overrun by unruly tribes of Sepoys under Tippoo Sahib. It required careful planning and equipping of armies marching from opposite sides of India to meet and crush this formidable rebellion.

In all this strenuous work of field and garrison, Wellesley took an active part. At one time, as Governor of Seringapatam; at another as Brigadier General, personally directing assaults upon some native fortress, and, after its capture, restoring order and discipline, and thus ensuring the respect and confidence of the natives.

"I have been like a man who fights with one hand and defends himself with the other," he wrote at this period. "I have made some terrible marches, but I have been remarkably fortunate; first, in stopping the enemy when they intended to press to the southward; and afterwards, by a rapid, march to the northward, in stopping Sindhia."

In 1803, he was made Major General, with the title of Sir Arthur Wellesley; and two years later returned to England as one of her most trusted and esteemed commanders. And England had need of just such men as he. There were still more stirring years ahead in Spain and elsewhere, until this strong silent man had emerged into the "Iron" Duke of Wellington, who should meet that other Man of Destiny on the plains of Waterloo.

Wellington won his success by his infinite capacity for taking pains. His life defies the biographer to analyze, whether through the medium of a lengthy volume or a brief chapter—because it was made up of so many little things. They were the duties of each day, but he not only did them thoroughly, he also learned through them the larger grasp of the next day's problems.

A contemporary pen picture of "the Sepoy General," on his return to England in 1805, will serve to show us what manner of man he appeared to be, to his subordinates. Captain Sherer, who has left this portrait, says:

"General Wellesley was a little above the middle height, well limbed and muscular; with little incumbrance of flesh beyond that which gives shape and manliness to the outline of the figure; with a firm tread, an erect carriage, a countenance strongly patrician, both in feature, profile, and expression, and an appearance remarkable and distinguished. Few could approach him on any duty, or, on any subject requiring his serious attention, without being sensible of a something strange and penetrating in his clear light eye. Nothing could be more simple and straightforward than the matter of what he uttered; nor did he ever in his life affect any peculiarity or pomp of manner, or rise to any coarse, weak loudness in his tone of voice. It was not so that he gave expression to excited feeling."

His reputation as a great soldier will stand for all time, not because he defeated Napoleon, but because his whole military career was built upon duty. It was not ostentation but merit that won him the supreme command. His ideals were always high.

"We must get the upper hand," he advised, "and if once we have that, we shall keep it with ease, and shall certainly succeed."

Important Dates in Wellington's Life

1769. May 1. Arthur Wellesley born.
1785. Attended military school at Angers, France.
1787. Entered British Army as ensign.
1793. Became lieutenant-colonel.
1794. Saw his first active service in Flanders.
1796. Colonel. Sent to India.
1803. Major-general.
1805. Married Charlotte Packenham.
1808. Made lieutenant-general, and sent to command Peninsular War.
1814. Created Duke of Wellington.
1815. Defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
1827. Prime minister.
1852. September 14. Died.