The Iron Duke needed a little help from his friends
Patrick West on a book that shows that Britain actually had a rather minor role in the great Battle of Waterloo
By Gordon Corrigan
Atlantic Books, £30
A common complaint made by First World War historians is that our perception of that conflict has become distorted by Blackadder Goes Forth. This was the 1980s comedy that reinforced the poets’ narrative that it was a needless and horrific conflict conducted with great incompetence and callousness. Yet Blackadder was equally guilty of reinforcing another stereotype: that of the Duke of Wellington being an aloof autocrat. In Blackadder the Third, set in the Regency, Stephen Fry interprets Arthur Wellesley as a overbearing bully who enjoys thrashing his servants and duels with canon (“only girls fight with swords”), and whose guiding principle for leadership is to “shout, shout and shout again”.
We have read and heard much about the First World War in this centenary year. No doubt we will hear much about the Duke of Wellington – and Napoleon – next year: the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. So it is timely to deflate some of the common misconceptions surrounding the Iron Duke and the battle itself.
Far from being the bellicose boor of Stephen Fry’s incarnation, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was a cautious and conscientious figure, who was willing to be at one with his troops on the field of battle. “He planned meticulously and well understood the importance of logistics, of being able to feed, house, tend and transport an army,” writes Gordon Corrigan in Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and Its Armies. Wellington was a calm, methodical leader, and it was his consequent victorious track record in Iberia that had won him the position as head of the Anglo-Dutch army.
Corrigan is eager to puncture another illusion: that Waterloo was essentially a British victory. The British were actually a minority in the Anglo-Dutch coalition of 110,000 men, which in turn was smaller than the 117,000 Prussian force. The Russians were to provide 150,000 and the Austrians close to 300,000, but by the time both were close enough to take part the fighting was over. Britain’s main contribution was £5m and the Royal Navy’s blockade. And at Waterloo, were it not for the late arrival of the Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher, Napoleon might have triumphed.
So how did this victory come to be perceived as a typically British affair? Hindsight and subsequent Anglo-German relations, argues Corrigan. The year 1815 marks the start of the British Century and the last throw of a French imperial era. Between the two world wars of the next century, and after the second, there was little incentive to credit the Germans with anything. Most books on Waterloo after 1945 were allegorical. In writing of the gallant, outnumbered and outgunned British holding the foe until the last, before defeating the mighty dictator and thus saving the world from tyranny, they actually spoke of a much more recent conflict.
Waterloo is not all historiography. Far from it. It’s an old-fashioned romp, in which the emphasis is on detail, tactics and character rather than theory or grand narrative. The lack of primary sources will disappoint the more rigorous reader and orthodox historian. But as this book is primarily a yarn, it doesn’t really matter.
Inevitably, the author compares and contrasts Napoleon and Wellington. Both were born in the same year in peripheral parts of their nations. Both were the product of feckless fathers and domineering mothers, and rose through sheer ability and minimum of patronage. But here the comparisons end. In contrast to the prudent Wellington, Bonaparte was a gambler and opportunist who was careless with the lives of his troops.
Corrigan doesn’t, however, cast the battle as a simple duel. Blücher emerges not merely as a first-rate leader, but also as the most colourful of the three commanders: “A quaffer of copious quantities of gin and brandy, Blücher would swig coffee, munch raw onions and smoke a huge meerschaum pipe as he rode along”.
We later learn of Blücher and Wellington’s first encounter after victory. With both generals on horseback, Blücher threw his arms about Wellesley then kissed him. We also discover that only 10 per cent of British officers had been commissioned from the ranks. The bulk of officers were of the middle classes, educated at grammar schools and the sons of professional men. More revealing still is the number of English and Irish Catholics in the British Army, making up 20 per cent by the time of Waterloo. This preponderance was due to the anti-Catholicism that had been institutionalised in 1688.
While the ban on Catholics joining the Army was lifted in 1741, they were still debarred from holding any “office of profit under the crown”. But this wasn’t enforced in the Army, as long as they didn’t make ostentatious displays of their faith. As a consequence, the Army became one of the few outlets for a Catholic gentlemen. This legacy continues today: in 2012 Catholics made up slightly more than eight per cent of the population but 20 per cent of Army officers. So much for disloyal papists.
More sensitive readers might flinch at the passages on amputation, while perhaps the most appalling disclosure is that riflemen deliberately picke out drummer boys. They were deemed so important because when shouted orders were drowned out by ambient noise signals were given by the beat of a drum.
The Battle of Waterloo is further demystified when we read of looters on the field in its aftermath. Wounded men who tried to resist thieves had their throats slit.
Corrigan’s manner can be a bit gruff. There is a non-sequitur complaining about the RSPCA and a breezy comment about the French soldier’s predilection for rape sits uneasily. His use of “England” to mean Britain is felicitous to historical usage, but it’s just plain wrong to the modern ear. Nevertheless, Waterloo is a hugely enjoyable, illuminating and very gory read.