Janet Menzies talk to the ninth Duke of Wellington about his illustrious ancestor, the 1st Duke of Wellington. And the pivotal moment for Europe, the Battle of Waterloo.
The Duke of Wellington speaks to The Field, on the anniversary to mark 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo, about his ancestor and the pivotal battle. For victory recipes and military features see our Waterloo page.
DUKE OF WELLINGTON AND WATERLOO
The first Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said (but almost certainly didn’t): “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” According to his descendant, the ninth Duke of Wellington, the hunting field is a far better place to look for the origins of Wellington’s decisive victory. “In recognition of his successful campaigns, the first Duke of Wellington was voted a considerable sum of money by the House of Commons to purchase a country estate and when Stratfield Saye was acquired in 1818, its potential for hunting and shooting was an important factor. The first Duke of Wellington very much liked both hunting and shooting. In the Peninsular campaign he used to try to hunt as often as possible as a way of taking exercise. He was a good rider – and he needed to be, because in his military life he rode very long distances in order to be always present at important engagements.
“At Waterloo he moved around the battlefield a lot, as was his custom in nearly every battle. Famously at Waterloo, and in the last three years of the Peninsular, he had his great horse, Copenhagen. What made Copenhagen remarkable was that he had extraordinary stamina and so the Duke of Wellington could ride him all day without changing horses. The battle of Waterloo didn’t start until about 11am because it had rained heavily through the night but the battle was still continuing at 8pm. So it was a long day. It wasn’t the first time that Copenhagen showed that stamina and that partnership with the horse formed a substantial aspect of Wellington’s career.”
Now, 200 years later, Europe is still celebrating Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. What is it about that one battle that has made it iconic?
“It is easy to see why Waterloo made such a difference,” stresses the present Duke of Wellington. “Only a year earlier, in April 1814, all Europe thought the Napoleonic Wars had come to an end. Napoleon himself had been forced to abdicate and the powers of Europe convened the Congress of Vienna, where all the governments, including the newly restored French monarchy, met to discuss the political future of Europe. They thought it was the end of 20 years of European warfare. So when the news arrived that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was back in France, everything changed.
The Duke of Wellington was already at the Congress, having replaced Lord Castlereagh, and so he was asked to assemble an allied army in the Low Countries. Wellington put together that army and won the battle – which was such a resounding and total victory that Napoleon was again forced into exile. The victory was so complete that it removed forever the risk of another Napoleonic war and led to a new era in Europe. That new era lasted a long time. There was essentially peace in Europe from then until the First World War. So it was significant from a military and a political point of view. Waterloo is one of the big battles, and decisive battles do have a long-term effect.”
And Waterloo, suggests the present Duke of Wellington, highlighted the start of modern industrial and technological Europe. “During the Napoleonic Wars technological developments were beginning. The outcome of the Napoleonic Wars was enormously enhancing for Britain as a nation. Our Industrial Revolution got under way – for example, in September 1830 it was the Duke of Wellington who opened the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.”
Wellington was a man of his times, making modern changes throughout his life and career. “At Stratfield Saye he made a number of practical innovations,” points out the ninth Duke, “including the heating in house, and he had double glazing put on the windows and the corner cupboard lavatories in every bedroom – all improvements that were both foresighted and quite modern. He was interested in the estate and it was well kept, although the accounting records we have suggest his steward was not financially adept. When he originally chose Stratfield Saye he had objected to one of the alternatives, Uppark in Sussex, because it stood on a hill and he was worried about the cost of the shoes for the horses going up and down the hill. He was a generous man but he was also practical.”
This rigorous, disciplined thinking distinguished the Duke of Wellington’s military career. At a time when military command was generally considered a sport for amateurs, Wellington brought a professional attitude that is recognised and admired to this day.
“I have read a lot of the Duke’s orders and dispatches and he had an extraordinary attention to detail,” says his descendant. “For example, the orders that he issued on the morning of the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo outlined precise instructions about timing and equipment, even down to the length of the ladders for the storming of the walls. No manager of men then or since could have been more mindful of the necessity of giving detailed and accurate orders. And he did it with a very small central staff.”
Many historians of Waterloo have suggested that Napoleon under-estimated the Duke of Wellington and, surprisingly, Napoleon was not present on the field for much of the battle, unlike Wellington. But the ninth Duke has a slightly different interpretation, highlighting the different personalities of the two men. “At the library here at Apsley House [the London townhouse of the Dukes of Wellington] we have the first copies of Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice from St Helena, written by Napoleon’s doctor, Barry O’Meara. He writes that Napoleon believed the Duke of Wellington took a huge risk positioning himself where he did at Waterloo, because if he had been defeated, retreat would have been very difficult. In fact, Wellington had written a report for the government a year earlier called The Defence of the Netherlands, in which he had identified that area south of the Forêt de Soignes as a good, defensible position and that, indeed, was where the battle of Waterloo took place.”
The first Duke of Wellington pointed out an important difference between France’s conscript army and Britain’s professional soldiers: “The conscription calls out a share of every class – no matter whether your son or my son – all must march; but our friends – I may say it in this room – are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.”
His descendant stresses, “There was a huge sense of national pride in Britain about the fact that we had fought this war consistently, sometimes on our own, sometimes with allies, for more than 20 years. And we were part of the victory and that led to an enormous increase in Britain’s prestige and our pride as a nation.” A nation proud of its soldiers – and in the 200 years since Waterloo we have had cause to be proud of them again and again.
THE BATTLE OF THE WELLINGTON BOOT
Thanks to Wellington, the British even beat the French at boots. “He developed his shorter boot so that it worked with trousers,” says the ninth Duke, describing the evolution of the Wellington boot.
Newly fashionable trousers, as opposed to knee breeches, were as prone to pinch then as now, so Wellington’s low leather boots were more comfortable, while the high front offered protection for the knee. In 1853, just a year after Wellington’s death, a French firm, Aigle (the Eagle), became the first company to manufacture vulcanised rubber long boots that, to this day, are known as Wellington or wellie boots, rather than “eagle boots”. So Wellington captured yet another Eagle.