Friday, May 3, 2013
Book Review - Wellington's Wars
I'm back to reading Napoleonic non-fiction after reading a fair bit of fiction of late. This book is the latest to finish its turn on the top of the pile on my bedside table.
How many other biographies or battle histories can be written about the Napoleonic period in general before they all start repeating themselves? I must admit that this was part of the reason I turned to fiction again after such a long time. I felt that this was going to be a re-hash of the Iron Duke's military career without offering anything new to say, but was mildly surprised to find that the author actually did manage to hang the familiar old stories on to a hook that hasn't been covered in any in-depth way in all the other biographies I've read (or at least can remember reading!). This book particularly examines the experiences from his early military career in Flanders, India and the early period in the Peninsula which gave rise to his extraordinary success as a military leader, culminating with the Battle of Waterloo. Also pleasing is the fact that this book is by no means a hagiography of a superman, but an examination of why Wellington succeeded as a general despite some glaring flaws.
The main thesis the author pushes is that amongst all his well known military abilities, it was Wellington's political acumen that drove him to the pinnacle he reached in British history. Not just his diplomatic skills with dealing with recalcitrant allies, but also his political dealings with his own government and knowing that what could be done militarily may not always be politically expedient. The ability to balance the two competing demands as near-perfectly as he did is the author's main argument as to why Wellington deserves the title of military genius.
What surprised me was the author's contention that Wellington was weakest in his ability to analyse intelligence. His legendary ability to 'know what is on the other side of the hill' would seem to indicate that this was not a weakness, but the author points out several occasions throughout his career (the early stages of the Waterloo campaign being the last) where Wellington interpreted the available intelligence to suit his own preconceived ideas. The Battle of Assaye, for example and contrary to later retellings, was actually fought due to a failure of interpretation of evidence and reliance on racial stereotypes. Wellington's assumption was that the enemy was not going to make a stand because they were retreating to join up with another Maratha army nearby, despite the fact that intelligence indicated they were concentrating for battle. He also assumed that native infantry would run in the face of determined European attack, discounting the fact that the core of the Maratha infantry and artillery were European trained to a standard of discipline not that far removed from his own troops.
However, it was his ability to never stray from the political objectives and to preserve his army, despite pressure from his own government and that of his allies, that set him above the ordinary. For instance, his masterful preparation of the defence of Portugal behind the Lines of Torres Vedras was carried out in total secret against severe criticism from the opposition and even his own supporters in the government found it difficult to support him. Faced with criticism from his officers and politicians at home, he nevertheless forged ahead with his plan which brilliantly succeeded. Up until the Vittoria campaign, he never had 100% support at home, but never let that stop him doing everything to keep the British army in the field as a threat to the French and a support to the Spanish, while never exposing it needlessly to danger.
The ultimate expression of Wellington as political warrior lies in the aftermath of the Waterloo campaign. Despite the unalterable fact that Waterloo was a joint victory of the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies, and that the battle would not have been fought if the Prussians had not agreed to support him, Wellington made sure that history recorded the battle as a British victory in order that Prussia would not be able to translate the victory into excessive demands for reparation which potentially could set the stage for further conflict. The author contends that because Wellington so quickly claimed the victory for Britain and shut down any claim for sharing it with the Prussians, the Prussians could not justifiably lay claim to a larger slice of the spoils, which contributed to the ongoing peace after 1815!
I'm not sure how deliberate claiming the glory for Britain was, or whether it was natural jingoism that triumphed, but it makes a good story that Old Nosey preserved the peace by short changing the Prussians out of their fair share of the glory. Perfidious Albion personified! (Though I suppose that with his experience of Prussian thirst for revenge during his time as ambassador in Paris, his time as ambassdor to the Congress of Vienna and the vicious aftermath of Waterloo it's not such a long bow to draw after all)
Besides that last claim, I thought it was a good book that gave a new slant to the familiar tales. it didn't take those tales at face value and looks underlying causes due to the personality of the Great Man himself.