Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington is attributed with saying that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton (although he didn’t actually say it); however, the training ground for many of the officers who commanded at Waterloo was a much more hazardous school – and certainly had nothing to do with cricket.
2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The final battle in the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo was the culmination of over 20 years of fighting. Wellington’s officers had earned their experience and reputation in Portugal and Spain, in the Peninsular War of 1807-1814, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ‘Spanish ulcer’.
Having risen through the ranks via the army system of purchase – where rank went to those who could buy it, rather than on merit – he was a colonel by the age of 27 and a major-general at 34. Many officers in the British army advanced this way and, although the system was flawed, it did give us the greatest British general of all time.
Practical and meticulous to detail in the day-to-day army administration, Wellington was determined his officers would train their men so they could beat any force they opposed.
He was a master of the battlefield.
Generally, the officers of the Peninsular War were the ‘stiff upper lip’ types. Their letters home spoke of action and adventure, but few officers spoke of their feelings in battle. These officers were gentlemen who desired glory and lived within a code of honour. Life in war, to them, was a grand experience and the battlefield was where glory could be achieved, if you survived it.
An officer’s life was generally better than that of the men. The officer’s had packs – or haversacks – containing rations (including a charge of rum) and spare equipment, but these were conveniently transported on carts, rather than their backs, like the common soldier.
Retreat, however, showed a less than honourable attitude of some of the officers. Some rode in carts while their men struggled to march – often barefoot. During the retreat to Corunna, in January 1809, there was an incidence of one officer climbing on the back of one of his men, so as not to get his feet wet while crossing a river. This proved a great morale booster for the men, when an even more senior officer ordered the soldier to drop his charge into the river.
It was during retreat discipline was most likely to break down. The retreat to Corunna was harrowing for the men and officers; the Spanish winter was harsh and the French were constantly nipping at the army’s heels. Officers used a mixture of encouragement and punishment to cajole the men along. Punishment was harsh; floggings and hangings were inflicted for various crimes.
The army’s discipline depended on the diligence of the regimental officers; men convicted of robber with violence or desertion were hanged, while looters and stragglers risked the lash. The chance of reprieve from punishment was dangled over regiments as a way of getting the men to fight harder when the enemy was close by.
Generals were loved, feared and admired in equal measure. ‘Black Bob’ Craufurd of the Light Brigade was seen as a harsh disciplinarian, but he looked after his men; he led them and suffered with them, marching in their midst and sharing in their miseries. General Roland Hill earned the nickname of ‘Daddy’ due to his care for his troops; his men adored him. And Sir John Moore, killed at the Battle of Corunna having brought the army safely through a harrowing retreat, was mourned deeply, his memory often invoked to encourage the men in the thick of battle.
Officers were expected to be brave, to lead their men from the front, wherever possible. An officer was proud to fall injured in front of the regimental colours – leading their men, rather than following. They often waxed philosophical about the “beautifully romantic and heroically sublime”¹ battlefield, while describing the piteous moans of the wounded – men and horses – and the fury of the combatants. The chivalrous sense of honour was a code; one rode straight, spoke the truth and never showed fear.
Many officers considered themselves content and happy in the military life, thinking little about the enemy, except on the few occasions when they were brought to battle. Campaign life for an officer was a combination of adventure, enjoyment and discomfort; although they were expected to lead their men, they rarely kept company with them when not on the march. Officer and soldier were billeted separately wherever possible; the coarse behaviour of the men grated on the refined officer.
If they looked after their men, however, their men would look after them. There are numerous anecdotes of soldiers trying to protect their officers from the enemy, providing their officers with food and souvenirs taken from the enemy. According to Rifleman Harris, an act of kindness from an officer had often been the cause of his life being saved in the midst of battle.
There were exceptions, of course. An area of Lisbon, known as Belem, was full of officers avoiding the fighting, who fell ill even when only within earshot of a battle. Wellington was happy for unsuitable officers to return home, or at least stay away from the army.
Of those who remained, every officer was a volunteer; they saw the military life as a way of advancement in later civilian life – or as a way to be useful to their king and country. The majority were gentlemen; although their were rare instances of officers having risen from the ranks, these failed to gain the full respect of the common soldier and were not, as a rule, successful.
To many the army was a home. The military life was a profession, officers lived and died to “promote its honour and glory”².
And Wellington was the heart of the army, his presence inspired confidence. Even with all his ambivalence of character, he exerted an extraordinary sense of loyalty among both officers and men. Sir John Kincaid said there was “not a bosom in the army that didn’t beat more lightly, when it heard the joyful news of his arrival.”³
And it was with the confidence and experience gained from 7 years of war in the Iberian Peninsular that Wellington led his army against the French for one last time. It would be the 1st time that Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, would face Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French; at Waterloo on 18th June 1815, 200 years ago.
Footnotes: ¹& ² A Boy in the Peninsular War, Robert Blakeney ; ³ Beggars in Red: The British Army 1789-1889, Sir John Kincaid, quoted by John Strawson.
Article adapted from my own dissertation of 1992, entitled For King, Country and Glory? The British Soldier in the Peninsular War, 1808-1814.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: A Boy in the Peninsular War, Robert Blakeney; Beggars in Red: The British Army 1789-1889, John Strawson; The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, edited by Christopher Hibbert; On the Road with Wellington: The Diary of a War Commissary in the Peninsular Campaigns, August Schaumann; A British Rifleman: Journals & Correspondence during the Peninsular War and Campaign of Wellington, Major George Simmons; Memoirs of Sir Harry Smith, Sir Harry Smith; The Letters of Private Wheeler, William Wheeler; The Sword and the Pen, edited by Michael Brander; The British Soldier, JM Brereton; The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command, John Keegan; Wellington: the years of the Sword, Lady Elizabeth Longford; Soldiers. A History of Men in Battle, John Keegan and Richard Holmes.
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