The View From the Bunker Ya gotta love the Duke of Wellington17 Jun 2015 0
Last week we discussed the vast improbability of Napoleon’s 100 day reign which came to a rather dismal end at the Battle of Waterloo. And I find it fascinating that the timely demise of my favorite Emperor rests squarely at the hands of my favorite General.
Much like the Civil War started and ended in Wilmer McLean’s front yard, there’s a tidy karmic element to that relationship which simply seems right!
It’s true! I can’t help but admire the bombast and force of will that served Napoleon so well for more than decade of European domination. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be him because, in the end, he was destined to go down in flames. And it wasn’t the vast array of coalition forces pitted against him that would prove to be his downfall. It was a slow, self-inflicted political suicide that did him in.
C’mon! We all know that one serial monogamist friend who’s fallen in love with falling in love, so they jump from relationship to relationship to get that “high.” In a similar vein, military geniuses like Napoleon are typically addicted to the campaign and everything and their inherent drive to conquer inevitably drives them to one conquest too many. You already know the rest of that story.
So when considering this column, at first, I thought the word “nemesis” might apply to the relationship between Messrs. Bonaparte and Wellesley, but that term is best left to sitcoms and Star Trek movies. While Newman really was Jerry Seinfeld’s nemesis, these two gentlemen didn’t meet until the very end.
After some further thought, I determined that word “foil” worked much better here because these military men were such polar opposites. Please allow me to explain.
While Napoleon’s rise to power was meteoric to say the least, especially by 19th Century standards, Arthur Wellesley took a much more methodical approach to finally becoming the British Prime Minister in 1828. And he would apply that slow but steady philosophy throughout his entire military career.
And that journey started with a regimental command during the failed 1794 Netherlands campaign. Upon his return to England, Wellington issued one of my all-time favorite statements, “At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson.” I can’t tell you how well that sentiment has served me.
Knowing what not to do in life is 75 percent of the equation.
From there it was off to India where Wellesley perfected the art of logistical planning; he learned that carefully applied diplomacy secured important allies; and, more often than not, he realized that the best offense was a good defense because a good defense minimized casualties.
But it was when he took command of the Peninsular Campaign that our future Duke came into his own. His adaptive style of engaging the enemy is still studied to this day. For six long years Wellesley led a back and forth, nip and tuck operation against the French army before finally driving them out of Spain.
Wellesley, who must’ve been a student of Sun Tzu, never tried to impose his will on a tough enemy. Instead, he maximized whatever advantages he had and consistently adjusted his tactics to the current conditions.
When it was time to retreat, he retreated. And with his back to that 1810 Lisbon wall, amid talk of a complete Anglo withdrawal, Wellesley put on one of his famous defenses and stopped the larger French army in their tracks.
Not only that, but he implicitly understood the fluidity of an almost guerilla style of warfare in which the regularly defeated Spanish army would dissolve only to reform and reemerge somewhere else a short time later.
In fact, the Peninsular Campaign was such a unique military affair that, at the time, the folks back home thought it was a complete flop. But Wellesley endured as he continued to sap French manpower and resources that were desperately needed elsewhere.
Promoted to the rank of Field Marshall, it all came together for Wellesley at Waterloo. His supply lines were secure, the planning was superb – he and the Prussian General Gebhard Blucher were in constant communication the day of the battle. His defensive doctrine was beyond reproach taking the high ground and anchoring his position at La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. And, unlike his opponent, he didn’t waste a second disparaging or underestimating his enemy.
While Napoleon said that both the British soldiers and their general were “terrible” and bragged about sweeping the field by noon, Wellesley warned his commanders that Bonaparte’s battlefield presence was worth 40,000 men. To offset this disadvantage, he repeatedly put himself in harm’s way by riding from infantry square to infantry square to rally his troops.
Some folks say that Blucher’s nick-of-time arrival was a stroke of luck, but it was all part of the plan. With the French right flank falling apart, Wellesley employed his favorite tactic one last time.
He had his troops lie behind a ridge to avoid being battered by the Grand Battery and when the French Grenadiers and Chasseurs made it to the top of that ridge; they were met with a withering point blank volley from 1,500 suddenly standing British Foot Guards. Their subsequent charge broke what was left of the French Army.
And that win put a period on an amazing military career in which Wellesley never lost a battle.
Not one to sit one to sit on his laurels, Wellesley re-entered politics moving up the ladder until he became the leader of the British Empire. Even then he didn’t relax! Of him, one of his Tory supporters wrote, “He goes to work just as if he had his fortune and his reputation still to make, just as if there had been no India, no Spain, no Waterloo.”
I may love Napoleon’s story, but I wanted to be the Duke of Wellington who cleared proved that slow and steady really does win the race.
Jeff Ward is a free-lance writer, radio show host, and former opinion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times Media Group. He got hooked on wargames immediately after he picked up that copy of Avalon Hill’s Midway from Hobbymodels in Evanston, Illinois in 1970. You can reach Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.