Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814
London, Yale University Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780300186659; 672pp.; Price: £30.00
University of Leeds
Date accessed: 30 May, 2023
Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 is the first of two volumes based on exhaustive research on Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, by Rory Muir – to be precise, it is based on 30 years work on the subject. As Muir makes clear in his preface, his aim is a thorough re-assessment of Wellington’s life, countering existing biographies of Wellington that have not done the man justice nor placed him in a proper context. This is no small task. It is difficult to pin down exactly how many biographies there are of Wellington (for one, we immediately come up against the problem of defining a biography); certainly as a person he is not short of publications. The main features and moments of Wellington’s life are familiar, perhaps so familiar that often anecdotes, exaggerated tales, and even downright falsehoods, have become attached to his story without much question, and Muir aims to set these things straight and provide a definitive biography of his life. In many ways, Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 has a similar aims, structure and framework to David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon and the three volumes of John Ehrman’s Pitt the Younger ; good company to be in.(1) At 672 pages, volume one certainly promises to be thorough, and it does not disappoint in its rigour and depth.
As a detailed biography, Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 follows an entirely sensible chronological format, divided into four parts: ‘Obscurity and dependence’, covering his childhood, early adulthood and initial military career 1769–96; ‘India and independence’, examining his nine years in India between 1796 and 1805; ‘War, politics, fame and controversy’, looking at Wellington’s role in government and initial military campaigns in Europe, and the political storm surrounding them, between 1805 and 1809; and ‘Adversity and triumph in the Peninsula’ detailing his actions and the events of the Peninsular War. There is a predictable preponderance in the book towards his career from 1807, and over half of the volume dedicated to the six years he spent campaigning in the Iberian Peninsula. This is not tailoring the work to the likely interests of the readership, as the proportions that the different parts of the books occupy reflect the source material that is available.
At the end of the final chapter on the Toulouse campaign there is a form of conclusion to Wellington’s story up to that point. This section reviews Wellington’s contribution to the British, Portuguese, and Spanish victory in the Peninsular War, arguing that although Wellington does not deserve all the credit for allied success in Iberia, his was a central contribution. The argument pulls together Muir’s research and central points dotted throughout the work that Wellington had a particular appreciation and grasp of the strategic military and political situation, both in Iberia, the UK, and the war in Europe that was far more developed and perceptive than most political / military leaders of the time. When reading this, it is quite striking how this appears to be a contemporary manifestation of Clausewitz’s dictum of war being politics by other means. (Not that Wellington was so philosophically inclined to reflect on his experience and articulate it like that). This is a really significant addition to what we know about Wellington, and should certainly raise his estimation as a military commander even further. The mini-conclusion also highlights Wellington’s tendency to shoulder sole responsibility for the army he commanded and this approach to military command did not suit delegating control or discretion to others. As such, Muir is on safe ground asserting that Wellington would have been irreplaceable.
At appropriate moments within the chronological structure of the volume a good number of myths are exposed, apocryphal stories are investigated and discussions diverge into the exact meaning of a comment. For example, Wellington’s ‘scum of the earth’ comments, made on several occasions (which may be news to some), are discussed in the chapter on the Battle of Vitoria where the breakdown in discipline after the battle led him to express this in a letter of 2 July 1813 to Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst, then Secretary for War. Determined to examine the quote and context in full, Muir alerts the reader to several important points. Wellington’s letters often contained an ‘unusually sharp turn of phrase’ (p. 534), and elsewhere in the volume Muir continually shows how Wellington was particularly concerned about a loss of discipline and control in the army he commanded, which sprang from experiences of the British Army in other episodes, such as the retreat to Corunna in 1809 and from Burgos in 1812, and also his personal determination to shelter any civilians from the effects of war. Moreover, Wellington’s commentary to Earl Bathurst goes on to apportion much more blame to junior officers and the situation of NCOs for failing in their duty, with the latter too poorly paid and too close to the rank and file. To cap this off, Wellington did not have any real power, or much influence, to do anything about bad officers or change the role and conditions of NCOs, and this is likely to have added further to his ire. This is but one example of the thorough and thoughtful attention that Muir gives to his subject.
The overwhelmingly chronological structure of the chapters is diverged from in one instance, with a chapter on ‘Life at headquarters’. The transition to this is well handled, as it starts as the Anglo-Portuguese army went into winter quarters after the failed siege of Burgos, and the army’s headquarters were established at Freneda from November 1812 to May 1813, and the chapter opens by discussing this as an event. It then goes into a wider examination of the habits, personnel, relationships, administrative structures, and experience of Wellington’s HQ, which comprised both his aides-de-camp and staff officers with particular military roles such as the adjutant general and quartermaster-general. It is in this chapter that we find more about how Wellington worked, covering his daily and weekly routine through to his relationships with other officers, both formally related to military tasks as well as social activities, such as dinners and hunting. This chapter provides a discussion of Wellington’s psychology and character, which is present elsewhere but perhaps not obvious, and Muir’s research presents a complex and as accurate portrayal of Wellington as could be wished for: both demanding and kind; dedicated to his work and duty yet also, at times, playful. Crucially, this chapter nuances Wellington’s traditional image as cold and haughty, showing that this was partly true but it stemmed from emotional reticence; a trait that was, as Muir points out, somewhat at odds with romantic notions of heroes and leaders and contrasted with the intense emotional loyalty that Napoleon was able to engender.
There are other elements of Wellington’s personal life that are addressed too. The courting, such that it was, and marriage to Catherine Pakenham (more usually know as Kitty) are discussed with deference to the sources on the subject that is much more sensitive that other accounts, and avoids the trap of hindsight and material from later memoirists who thought they could see something awry right from the start. As Muir makes clear, they entered into the marriage of their own free will, but we will not find Wellington’s motives for what quickly became a poor marriage. Also, relations with Wellington’s brother appear quite frequently, for there was a good deal of interdependence, and occasional interference, between family, career, and politics.
A fundamental criticism Muir makes of existing biographies of Wellington is that they do not integrate his life as a politician and a serving military officer. Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 seeks to redress this, particularly in two ways. Firstly, the book gives due attention to Wellington’s overtly political roles during the first 45 years of his life, such as holding office as Chief Secretary for Ireland or his role as a governor in India at various times. Secondly, it also integrates political considerations and actions into his military role. Indeed, this ought to be phrased as re-integrates, as Muir’s research reveals that they never were separate. Political considerations, ranging from the strength of Perceval ministry at home to the wider strategic politics of the Sixth Coalition (1812–14) that finely brought Napoleon’s regime to an end, appear in chapters recounting the military events of the Peninsular War. Additionally, at appropriate stages in the narrative there are discussions of contemporary opinions of Wellington, particularly from opposition MPs who were often being fed a fairly constant stream of information from officers serving under Wellington, albeit that it was not always accurate and usually politically motivated. The parts of Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 that cover 1807 to 1814 can therefore be viewed as a partner to Muir’s earlier work Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807–1815.(2)
Overwhelmingly, this is a narrative of the military events in which Wellington participated. This simply reflects what Wellington did, as he had an exceptional sense of vocation regarding his military career. For example, once he took command of the Anglo-Portuguese army in 1809 he did not go home until the war had ended, so there is little to say about his personal relationships outside the army. Furthermore, he spent most of the time with the army on campaign or in quarters, rather than seeking more comfortable arrangements away from the army and front line in towns or cities. This volume is therefore very much a history of the British Army when under Wellington’s command, and in doing this reveals much about the strengths and changes that the army underwent during the period. One startlingly clear point emerges about the professionalism of the British Army. Again and again, we see through the detailed account of what the army did and how it did it what Wellington expected and to a large degree obtained: dedicated officers that had to understand their role and duties; efficient military arrangements, whether it be relating to supplies, military foresight and intelligence, or information about the army he commanded; and simple hard work. Equally, when things went awry, the level of detail provided in this volume makes it clear why this happened. Muir’s research belies a lot of myths about the British Army in the period. The army did not simply rely on aristocratic ‘natural’ leadership and enthusiastic amateurism; it could not have achieved what it did in Iberia if this was the case. Wellington described the army in 1813 as ‘the most complete machine’, and through this volume we really get to understand why he said this.
The scholarly apparatus of the volume is impeccable. Everything that requires a reference is provided with one, and the detail in the endnotes could provide all that any reader is likely to want to know in terms of detail and relevant information, so we often find a lot more than just a reference. In many cases, there is supplementary information that further elaborates on the incident in question, and where judgements are made further explanation and justification is provided. It is in the endnotes that we find a more direct engagement with existing scholarship on Wellington and the broader history of the period, which is a bit of a shame in some way, but one suspects that this is because the volume has a wider readership in mind that just the academic community. The extensive bibliography, which includes a historiographical essay on the topic too, is thorough and will be particularly useful to future scholars.
One of the particularly interesting aspects of this work (and the forthcoming second volume) is that is supported by a website - http://www.lifeofwellington.co.uk/the-books/ - where supplementary material is provided for those readers that may be interested in finding out a bit more. This takes the form of additional commentary on the chapters, providing a further layer of historical analysis. This does has the potential to serve as a basis for further research, and checking of information, but it also provides insights into the research that underpins the volume, both in terms of actual content but also into the process of researching and writing the work. As Muir points out in the website and book, often painstaking research is tucked away on as files on an author’s PC, and may not see the light of day, when it may help others in the future, perhaps in ways that are not that obvious currently. Certainly, this development in making historical ‘research data’, in the broadest sense, available is a welcome one and something that ought to be emulated.
There is a wider consideration with any biography about the meta-narrative of studying a person, particularly when we already know largely what happened. Although the subject of the biography may have had some sense of the direction of their life, the succession of events that they participated in is not likely to have been predictable. There is an inherent tension, then, between the author and the subject, and the former may be looking for the seeds of future greatness, consciously or not. Additionally, the kaleidoscope of people related to the story, whether they were passing acquaintances, friends, or close relations, can be filtered by pre-existing judgements about who will become significant, either on their own terms or in regards to the subject’s future life. This is all the more the case with a significant figure like Wellington. This can be discerned from the title – The Path to Victory – which suggests that the journey to the end point of the biography is fairly clear. Muir demonstrates that he is aware of such problems, with a concern about portraying the inevitability of Wellington’s rise. Certainly, there are some key moments that are presented in the volume where things could have turned out differently. One particular stage stands out in November 1795, during Wellington’s early career, when his regiment, the 33rd, was under order to go to the West Indies. The regiment was embarked onto transports but was struck by a storm and forced to return to port. In February 1796, the government changed the orders for the 33rd and sent it to India. Of course, we cannot know for certain the outcome if he had gone west instead of east, but given the fearful mortality rates experienced in the Caribbean by European troops, coupled with the pseudo-guerrilla war underway in some islands, it would have been unlikely that Wellington would have survived or if he did, had much opportunity to demonstrate his abilities. The switch of his regiment to India presented Wellington with an entirely different sphere of operations and potential to excel, with his prospects subsequently boosted by his brother becoming Governor General. Muir’s volume is painstaking in showing how Wellington made the most of these moments.
Overall, Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 is an outstanding achievement. It is the definitive biography of Wellington, and fully realises the dedication that Rory Muir has shown to his subject and his exceptional grasp of the sources.
- David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York, NY, 1966); John Ehrman, Pitt the Younger (3 vols., London, 1969, 1983, 1996).Back to (1)
- Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807–1815 (New Haven, CT, 1996).Back to (2)
I have very little to add to Dr Linch’s extremely generous and thoughtful review. I am particularly pleased that he draws attention to the online commentary which is designed to supplement the biography at lifeofwellington.co.uk. This is free and can be consulted and downloaded by anyone: its principal purpose is to bring together additional evidence in parallel to the main text; but it also contains discussion of source problems and other disputed points, and engages with other scholarly work in the field. I would not expect anyone to read all of it (except perhaps another biographer of Wellington), but hope that it will provide a starting place for a reader who is interested in the Battle of Assaye, or the Convention of Cintra, or (in the next volume) Wellington’s role in the repeal of the Corn Laws.
No one can foresee how changing technology will affect the way that historians and other scholars will present their work over the next 20 or 30 years; but I suspect that the rise of different forms of digital publication will lead to writing at a number of levels simultaneously. Already we have contents page; text; notes and illustrations including maps. Some older books contained a detailed breakdown of the contents of each chapter (Fortescue’s History of the British Army is a good example). It is not hard to imagine that in the future notes will contain links to the text being cited, and that the notes will either become very much longer, or an additional layer of discussion, such as my commentary, will become popular. I don’t think that the existing form of my commentary is perfect, but I hope that it will prompt thought about what may soon be possible.