Monday, May 2, 2011

Wellington the Hero

The Duke of Wellington
Eric Hester, a retired head master in England writes about the great Duke of Wellington who can be contrasted with Napoleon as in a fine book by Andrew Roberts, as follows:
A recent post on the noble and edifying Tea at Trianon mentioned Catholic emancipation in England.  A remarkable rôle was played by the Iron Duke, the Duke of Wellington, a Protestant of the Protestants who was Prime Minister.  He was a real hero in England as he had been at Waterloo.

Do we take heed of heroes any more?  When I was head master of a boys’ school I used to ask boys at interview who was their hero or heroine.  Often there was a long pause: saints were frequently mentioned, sometimes a boy’s father or mother which was impressive but never the Iron Duke.  Yet this was a man who ought to be revered by all Catholics.  Born in Dublin of a Protestant family, Wellington acquired the anti-Catholic prejudices of his time.  Yet his nobility and respect for others, especially his fighting men, made him the Prime Minister to grant Catholic emancipation and he was to fight a duel with an extreme Protestant who thought this was a concession to Rome too far.  Before this, he had shown remarkable respect for Catholic beliefs.  When Wellington was Commander in Chief of the British forces in Spain and Portugal, he gave orders that whenever a priest in the streets was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, British soldiers were to stand to attention and present arms.  Thus this Dublin Protestant showed more respect than does many a Catholic today. 
He had to endure obloquy for his granting of Catholic emancipation.  His reasons were not theoretical ones but practical gratitude:  he thought it an injustice that the Irishmen who had fought so bravely and well in the Peninsula and at Waterloo should not be allowed to worship God in their own way.  Again, he could give many modern Catholics a lesson about the meaning of the word “justice”.  About a third of his army was Catholic, recruited in Ireland and Scotland.  In 1829, Wellington challenged to a duel a letter writer in The Standard, Lord Winchilsea, who had berated him for his papist leanings because of his support for Catholic Emancipation.  Lord Winchilsea said that the Duke’s support for King’s College, London (being set up to counteract University College, the Godless institute in Gower Street) would make that college Catholic.  The duel took place on Battersea Fields, and Wellington’s shot grazed the arm of his antagonist who shot into the ground, probably terrified of killing the Prime Minister and hero of Waterloo.  What a more manly way duelling seems of settling quarrels than using spin doctors or paying expensive libel lawyers!
 Wellington and Napoleon are portrayed well in a fine book Napoleon and  Wellington by the eminent English historian Andrew Roberts.  It is very easy reading and is based on the double biography technique started by Sir Alan Bullock with Hitler and Stalin.  Since Roberts is so scrupulously honest, then Napoleon comes out badly.  He was vain, greedy, selfish and, in the end, ruined France.   Napoleon was a racist not just by today’s definition of that term but even by the standards of his time.  When Toussaint, a genuine popular leader in Saint-Dominique, hopefully sent Napoleon a copy of a constitution for the Island, the enraged and clearly racist Napoleon shouted: "I will not rest until I have torn the epaulettes off every nigger in the colonies."  Britain had abolished slavery in her colonies but Napoleon, wherever he could, reinstated it in the name of “liberty” and disenfranchised mulattos throughout the French colonies.  This is glossed over in many histories: whenever the words “Liberty, equality and fraternity” were proclaimed they brought with them tyranny, oppression, torture and death.  Napoleon exiled Pope Pius VII and crowned himself as emperor.  While Wellington’s family gained nothing from his elevation, Napoleon had the gall to make his own unworthy brothers actual kings. 
Wellington spoke of Napoleon with respect, “I should rather hear of the French having 40,000 extra men that that he were to command their forces” – and actually protected him in June and July 1815, as a chapter of Roberts’s book makes clear.  Napoleon gave no honour to Wellington except when he was trying to save his skin.   On the morning of the battle of Waterloo at Le Caillou farmhouse, Napoleon said to General Soult: “Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general.  And now I tell you that Wellington is a bad general, that the English are bad troops, and ce sera l’affaire d’un déjeuner.”  As another great English hero, Churchill, might have said, “Some affaire, some déjeuner!”  Roberts then shows a final piece of infamy from Napoleon, in his will: he left 10,000 franks to a M. Cantillon, a crazed Frenchman who had tried to assassinate Wellington.  

Wellington maintained his sense of humour as is shown in the following from a dispatch that Wellington sent in 1812, responding to a demand from the bureaucratic War Office in Whitehall, London,  for a full inventory: 
Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I crave your indulgence.  Unfortunately, the sum of 1s 9d remains unaccounted for in one battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in Western Spain.  This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of the circumstances since we are at war with France a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.
King George IV’s Queen, Caroline, was not all that she should have been and the King was about to divorce her for her infidelities but she was pretty and the crowds liked her.   She was a kind of Princess Diana figure of her day.  A London mob, rioting in favor of Queen Caroline, stopped Wellington’s coach and asked him if he supported Queen Caroline; the Duke replied, "Well, gentlemen, since you will have it so - 'God save the Queen!' - and may all your wives resemble her."

Teachers, might like to take Wellington as a caution against writing boys, or girls, off at an early age.  At Sandhurst,  where British Army Officers are trained, there used to be a framed document asking the reader to read that side first: on it  there was a school report of a boy described as lazy, stupid and feckless who would never make anything.  When one turns the document over, over all is explained: “that was written at Eton about Arthur Wellesley, subsequently  Duke of Wellington, commander in Chief of the forces against Napoleon, hero of Waterloo, Prime Minister of Britain, Chancellor of Oxford University etc, etc.”  Wellington, like Churchill, did not do much at school.

The last paragraph of Roberts’s book is a sad and chilling one as he comments on the present day.
Napoleon’s programme, of a politically united Europe controlled by a centralized (French-led) bureaucracy, of careers open to talent and of a written body of laws, has defeated Wellington’s assumptions of British sovereign independence, class distinctions and the supremacy of English common law based upon established, sometimes ancient, precedent.  ‘I wished to found a European system, a European code of laws, a European judiciary,’ wrote Napoleon on St Helena.  ‘There would be one people in Europe.’  There is some irony in the fact that Waterloo was fought a mere twelve miles from Brussels, the capital of today’s European Union.  For, although Wellington won the battle, it is Napoleon’s dream that is coming true.
We gave them an inch and they have taken a kilometre. 

Tourists to London can visit Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, Wellington’s house and now a national museum under the jurisdiction of the Victoria & Albert Museum.  As well as many items of Wellingtonian memorabilia, there is a marvellous art collection.  Grateful Spaniards gave their liberator pictures by the local lads such as Velasquez, Murillo and Goya who painted the Duke himself.  When shall we see his like again?


Philippe said...

interesting take on wellington, although i'd say that the comparison made with bonaparte, especially on the issue of racism/slavery not entirely incorrect. at that point in time (roughly the first decade of the nineteenth century), slavery had not been abolished in british colonies, merely the slave trade. plans for slaves in the british empire were not made until 1833, and even then they remained indentured to their masters until this plan fell through by 1838 and they were finally freed.

Philippe said...

oops, that should read "i'd say that the comparison made with bonaparte, especially on the issue of racism/slavery, is not entirely correct."

xavier said...

Maria Elena:

As someone who's a civilian i.e. a civil law lawyer, I do get really irritated to the point of being offended. Civil law is just as honourable and civilizing as common law. And don't forget that common law proceedures owe a great debt to Roman laws of civil procedure.

As for a public administration of talent- what's wrong with that? While I accept differences in classes, I've always been critical of class differences; there's nothing more injust than lower class members who are blocked and thwarted by the lazy and incompetent upper classes because the former are more apt at their tasks. Further, as the Brits have shown on and off for centuries, the upper classes aren't always the leaders the public deserves.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for pointing that put, Philippe. And of course, I never forget how the Irish were treated by the English, long after the slaves were freed. (Wellington was sympathetic to the Irish, however.)

Xavier, I agree wit you. I think the point that Mr. Hester is making is that some British people do not wish to lose their national sovereignty. They do not want to become "one people" with the Europeans as Napoleon envisioned and which is now coming to pass.

lara77 said...

I must read the book on Wellington and Napoleon. Of course, I have to hold my prejudice when reading this book.( I have always loathed Bonaparte.) Thank you again Elena Maria, I always learn another angle to a history written many years ago. The information you bring to light ALWAYS opens another window on the past.( I must say that if Wellington looked like his portraits he was one good looking man.)

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for your kind words, Lara!