Born in Ireland, Arthur Wellesley, Duke ofWellington (known as “Wellington”), joined the British infantry as a lieutenant colonel in 1794. Wellington went with his regiment to India in 1796. There he learned the advantages of knowing the landscape and recruiting allies, which he did among the Indian leaders. He won notable victories at Assaye (1803) and Argaum (1803). He was then called back to England and given com¬ mand of a small expeditionary force that landed in Portugal in 1808.
On land, these were the worst of times for the British and their allies. The French emper¬ or, Napoleon (see no. 67), had consistently beaten the Austrians, Prussians and Russians, and he had recently placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne in Madrid. The success or failure of Wellington’s operations therefore assumed a great importance to the British cause.
Perhaps no commander, before or since, has ever understood landscape and topogra¬ phy as clearly as did Wellington. He correctly perceived that the French armies were used to fighting in countries with good road systems and compliant peasant populations. He arranged to have the French cut off from their supply lines and brought many Portuguese over to his side.
The results of Wellington’s planning were remarkable. He outmaneuvered and defeated Massena, one of the best French marshals, in 1810. He followed with an invasion of French-held Spain and won impressive victo¬ ries at Salamanca (1812) and Vitoria (1814). As Napoleon’s empire collapsed around him, Wellington invaded France itself and won the Battle of Toulouse (1814). After Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Paris in 1813, the two most experienced military commanders of their period collided at Waterloo on June 18, 1813.
Wellington fought defensively, seeking to hold out until Marshal Bluchers Prussian troops arrived. Positioning his men on a ridge crested by Mount St. Jean, he wore the French down over the course of the day. After Napoleon’s Imperial Guard made a final, failed assault, Wellington ordered a general charge that soon routed Napoleon’s last army. His own comment on the battle was, “It has been a damned nice thing …. By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.”
Wellington later served as a diplomat (1815-1828) and prime minister of Great Britain (1828—1830). His famous nickname, the “Iron Duke,” referred not to his military capabilities but to the fact that he had iron bars placed over his windows to prevent stones from shattering them during his time as prime minister. Until the time of his death, he was revered as the most astute and far-see¬ ing adviser to Queen Victoria.