Thomas Jones Barker (British, 1815-1882) The battle of Waterloo

'A damn close run thing'

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 34

Jane Wellesley and Andrew Roberts battle over the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte – military geniuses who finally clashed at Waterloo 200 years ago

In the early hours of Sunday, June 18th 1815, when my ancestor the Duke of Wellington donned his plain dark blue frock coat and white breeches in the village inn at Waterloo, he may well have realized that this could be the start of the most important day of his life. He would certainly have been supremely confident about what lay ahead. His entire career had been building to this moment, which will be marked by a sale at Bonhams New Bond Street of works and artifacts associated with the battle.

Everything Wellington had seen and experienced since first putting on a uniform had honed his skills on the battlefield. Twenty-one years earlier, in Flanders, when he fired his first shot at the French, he observed inadequate supply lines, ill-equipped soldiers, and officers who were out of touch with, and sight of, their men. Later, when asked about success in his campaigns, he responded, "I was always on the spot – I saw everything and did everything for myself."

He perfected his trade during eight long years in India, where he learnt about tactics and strategy, that discipline on the battlefield was paramount, and courage valueless without it. Victory at the battle of Assaye in 1803 gave him confidence, though four years earlier he had learnt "what not to do" in a skirmish before the battle of Seringapatam, when he had the humiliating night-time experience of being separated from his men. He could still sketch a map of that action years later.

In his private life, too, the young Arthur Wellesley learnt lessons from failure. Both the indifference of his mother to her middle son – "he's food for powder and nothing else" – and the initial spurning of his marriage proposal to Kitty Pakenham, contributed to his determination to make a success of his life. Later, when the disastrous marriage had gone ahead, the lack of a wife he loved meant that during the five years he was away during the Peninsular War, his entire focus was on the challenges in front of him, as he steadily drove Napoleon's forces out of Portugal and Spain.

The Duke would never have claimed to be an intellectual, but he possessed astute judgment, informed by a cool head and a great deal of common sense, and nowhere was this more evident than in his battlefield tactics. Moreover, unlike many of his own officers, he was not frightened of the French forces opposite him. At the start of the Peninsular War, in talking of the French troops he had said, "They may overwhelm me, but I don't think they will out-manoeuvre me ... because I am not afraid of them as everyone else seems to be."

His own troops did not universally like him, but the majority respected and trusted him; one of his men remarked "We would rather see his long nose in a fight than a reinforcement of ten thousand men any day." At Waterloo, Wellington was highly visible throughout the battle, often where fighting was at its fiercest. One concerned officer begged him to withdraw, but the Duke, convinced the day was nearly won, said, "My life is of no consequence now." Ultimately he was not motivated by personal ambition; his allegiance was to King and Country.

Wellington was abstemious, and his diet was simple, so unlike many of his fellow officers he did not suffer the consequences of high living. He was incredibly fit, with extraordinary reserves of energy, and could survive on little rest: over the three nights that preceded Waterloo, he had little more than nine hours sleep. On the day, his presence on the battleground was electrifying, as he galloped from one scene of action to another, giving orders, rallying and reassuring his men. In life, as on the battlefield, he rarely let go of the reins. Today Wellington might be described as a control freak.

On that June day 200 years ago, Wellington was the right man, at the right time, in the right place. He also had luck, the Prussians and the weather on his side. The storm the night before worked to Wellington's advantage when Napoleon, surveying the muddy ground, postponed the start of the battle, giving Blucher, Wellington's Prussian ally, crucial extra time to join the fray. Though it was the height of summer, and dawn had broken early, the first French cannon shot was not until about 11.20am. But Wellington, though keen finally to defeat a man whose dominance of Europe had taunted him for so many years, would not have relished the prospect of the savagery of the conflict: he was no glorifier of war. "Take my word for it, if you have seen but one day of war you would pray to Almighty God that you might never see such a thing again." When night fell, and the day was won, Wellington wept when told that more than 50,000 men lay dead or dying. "I hope to God I have fought my last battle," he said. His wish would be granted.

In the years of peace that followed Waterloo, Napoleon was still in Wellington's sight. Every time he walked up or down the staircase of his London home, he was confronted by a colossal statue of a naked Bonaparte. A gift from the Prince Regent, the famous work by Canova still stands in the foot of the stairwell at Apsley House. My ancestor chose to have images of his opponent around him – there are several other likenesses in the Wellington Museum, but I doubt there was a single picture of Wellington on St Helena, Napoleon's island of exile until his death in 1821. Wellington may have criticized Napoleon as a man, but he admired his skills as a general. In contrast, Bonaparte regularly expressed his disdain for his adversary, even dismissing him as a "bad general" on the day of Waterloo. When told of Napoleon's death, Wellington remarked, "Now I may say I am the most successful general alive." For his part, the deposed Emperor left 100,000 francs in his will to Wellington's would-be assassin in a gesture of rivalry that continued beyond the grave.

Jane Wellesley is the author of Wellington: A Journey Through My Family.

Napoleon Bonaparte: defeated by his own delusions of grandeur, says Andrew Roberts

Twenty-three year old Lieutenant Napoleon Bonaparte stepped ashore at Toulon on Thursday 13th June 1793 having escaped a political maelstrom on his home island of Corsica. He was a penniless, almost friendless refugee, yet six years later he was First Consul and dictator of France, and five years after that Emperor of the French and master of the most powerful nation on the Continent. How did he do it?

It was partly luck; he was only 19 when the French Revolution broke out, permitting him to rise to the rank of general at 24. This was partly because the aristocrats who had provided the army's officers had fled the country or been guillotined. Then there was Napoleon's sense of timing and utter ruthlessness – he once killed 300 Frenchmen in the streets of Paris during an insurrection in 1795. Yet ultimately his success depended on his leadership style, which allowed him to become, in Winston Churchill's words, "the greatest man of action in Europe since Julius Caesar".

The reference to Caesar was apposite because Napoleon's leadership techniques were carefully copied from the Ancient World. A voracious reader, he devoured historical biographies as a child in his father's library in Corsica and at the military academies where he studied from the age of nine. He even saw himself as a direct descendant of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great as a leader. This would usually suggest a psychological disorder, but Napoleon is seen as a great captain of history.

Apart from self-belief, Napoleon's extraordinary ability to inspire the soldiers of his 'Grande Armée' led them literally to follow him anywhere, across the sands of Egyptian deserts, into almost every European capital and even across the frozen wastes of Russia. "In my opinion the French do not care for liberty and equality, they have but one sentiment, that of honor," he said. "The soldier demands glory, distinction, rewards." He gave them liberally to his bravest troops in the shape of medals, pensions, promotions, lands and titles: two of his marshals even became kings.

It helped that Napoleon liked spending time with his men, tweaking their earlobes, joking, reminiscing and constantly inquiring about their living conditions. "Conceal from me none of your wants," he told the 17th Regiment, "suppress no complaints you have to make of your superiors. I am here to do justice to all, and the weaker party is especially entitled to my protection." Unlike many commanders, Napoleon meant it. When marches halted for lunch, he and his chief of staff invited the aides-de-camp and orderlies to eat with them and he always gave wine from his table to his sentries.

It helped that he had an extraordinary memory for faces and names, a quality as flattering today as in the past. "I introduced three parliamentary deputies to him," Napoleon's minister Jean Chaptal recalled. "He asked one of them about his two little girls. This deputy told me that he had seen Napoleon once when he went to [the battle of] Marengo. Problems with the artillery, added the deputy, forced the commander to stop in front of his house; he petted his two children, mounted his horse, and since then he had not seen him again." The incident had taken place ten years before.

Napoleon's proclamations and orders also inspired his troops, drawing on a classical written style that might seem florid today but sounded majestic to the uneducated peasantry who made up the great majority of 18th-century armies. "Remember from those monuments yonder," he famously proclaimed on the morning of the Battle of the Pyramids, "40 centuries of history are looking down upon you". He inspired his men too when he delivered a speech to grenadiers about to storm a long, narrow bridge in his first campaign. "One must speak to the soul," he once said of that occasion. "It is the only way to electrify the men."

Napoleon could be harsh too; he knew that shame could work as well as praise and rewards. "Soldiers of the 39th and 85th Infantry Regiments," he told two units that had run away during a battle in 1796, "you are no longer fit to belong to the French Army. You have shown neither discipline nor courage ... the chief of staff will cause to be inscribed upon your flags: 'These men are no longer of the Army of Italy'." With his acute sense of what would energize and what demoralize, Napoleon correctly gaged that this public humiliation would ensure that both units would fight more determinedly than ever before.

The Swiss military historian General Antoine-Henri de Jomini, who served in both the French and Russian armies during the Napoleonic Wars, was also impressed by how Napoleon understood "that it is necessary never to inspire too much contempt for the enemy, because should you find an obstinate resistance, the morale of the soldier might be shaken by it". In the 1806 campaign against Prussia, Napoleon even praised the enemy cavalry to one French corps, although he took care to promise "that it could do nothing against your bayonets!"

In private, too, he exercised tremendous charm – "My trust in you is as great as my appreciation of your military talents," he once wrote to Marshal Bessières – as well as a witty sense of humor. Small wonder, therefore, that Napoleon's leadership techniques, as well as his strategies and tactics are still taught at military academies around the world.

Andrew Roberts is a historian and author of Napoleon the Great.

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