Tag Archives: British Army

“Wellington: The Iron Duke,” by Richard Holmes

30 Sep

“Wellington: The Iron Duke,” by Richard Holmes (303p)

Wellington: The Iron Duke is a 2002 non-fiction biography of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by British military historian Richard Holmes. Through a combination of contemporary diaries and letters written by Wellington (an extraordinary number of which have survived) and those of his age as well as biographers and titbits from other studies, Holmes constructs the story of Wellington’s life from childhood to death with a more centred focus on Wellington’s military career.

The opening chapters of Iron Duke deal with Wellington’s childhood and upbringing in Ireland, particularly the difficult life he and his family had following the death of his father Garret Wesley when Wellington was eleven. I say Wesley because that, as it turns out, was the family name until Richard Wellesley changed it in the 1790s. Wellington led a relatively boring early life – he was the third son and an average student at Eton with no direction ready for his adult life – so Richard dominates the early part of the novel. Richard deals with the crippling finances of the Wesley family, the political problems in Ireland and the cut throat environment of British politics.

He eventually lands Wellington an army commission (that being the usual career of the third son) in the 73rd Regiment of Foot as an ensign in 1787. Wellington’s early army career was, like his childhood, on the dull side as he transferred in an out of regiments. From the 73rd he became a lieutenant and aide-de-camp in the 76th, a brief transfer as a lieutenant in the 12th Light Dragoons in 1789, then he moved to the 18th Light Dragoons as a captain in 1791, until eventually he purchased his majority and lieutenant colonelcy in the 33rd in 1793. Wellington had yet to even see military action though, and in between that period of regiment hopping he dipped his toes into the ferocious world of British politics as a member of parliament, but instead chose to dedicate himself to his military career after his marriage proposal to Kitty Pakenham was rejected by her brother.

Wellington first saw military service in the early years of the war against Revolutionary France. He is given his first command, in charge of a brigade at Boxtel, and while the battle was unsuccessful he learned several lessons that would remain with him right through to Waterloo. After returning he spent another year in politics but wanted out from there again, and so he made preparations to go on campaign again. He had been intended to go to the West Indies (and probably to his death) but fate and the sea proved to be in his favour and their ship was blown back to Poole, so Wellington, now a full colonel, was sent to India instead in 1796. Richard Wellesley, as well as second youngest brother Henry, was to join him in India as the Governor-General. The Wellesley brothers plan to shape India in their vision by putting the entire subcontinent under British command, and Wellington leads the way by participating in the defeat of Tippoo Sultan at Seringapatam. Wellington is made commander of Seringapatam and through his influence with Richard is eventually made into a major-general and given dual command of the successful defeat of the Maratha Confederacy at Assaye.

The bulk of the novel concerns, quite obviously, the biggest success of Wellington’s career: the Peninsular War. Wellington is forced to deal with a lot of loopholes and political nonsense before he departs for Spain, chiefly because the Whig Party attacked them for their conduct in India. He also marries Kitty Pakenham a dozen years after he was rejected, although they had both changed drastically. Wellington was now very much the man history remembers him as – cold natured, meticulous, committed and completely wrapped up in his work. He enjoyed a less than warm marriage to Kitty and they were almost always distant from each other.

Wellington soon rises to the top in Spain after a false start. While back in England he submitted his plan to Lord Castlereagh and is made commander of all British forces in Portugal. Over the course of the next six and a bit years, through his attention to meticulous detail and planning, Wellington storms through Spain and drives the French right out. Without getting into too much detail, Holmes gives a concise analysis of Wellington in the Peninsular War, particularly focusing on how he felt he needed to be in control of everything otherwise the war would be a total failure. After the Peninsular War is over there is the brief interlude during the Peace of 1814, but an entire chapter is dedicated to Wellington’s most famous battle: Waterloo.

The final quarter of the novel deals with the second half of Wellington’s life, which was less successful as his military career. Holmes mainly pays attention to Wellington’s inability to move with the times, stating that he was still very much an 18th century Georgian man, but also theorising that one of his main failures as a politician is his dislike of the general populace and a major disapproval of the way Britain had headed in all those years he had spent away. He was completely against integrated democracy and steadfastly believed that the country should solely be in the hands of “men of taste,” in his words. He was also against party politics and believed that the prime minister should have the role of day-to-day management of the country, working for the monarch and not being constrained to the ills and wills of the party. That is not to say Wellington’s time in office was a total failure, though – he did see the passing of the Catholic Emancipation, but otherwise his time as prime minister is far less glorious as his time as commander-in-chief.

Holmes concludes the novel with an epilogue giving his finals thoughts on Wellington’s life and character. It is his character that Holmes finds most intriguing, and his theory behind Wellington’s devotion to duty and tendency to distance himself from affection comes, as it usually does, from childhood where Wellington led a lonely life as Richard dominated the family. It was that upbringing that made him such a humble and modest but also such a great man.

Iron Duke is quite easy to read for a non-fiction biography. Holmes’ concise to the point approach to Wellington’s life makes this a quick read, and at only 303pages it took me no time to finish it. Perhaps it is not the most intricately detailed biography on Wellington ever written, but Holmes does not address the pointless – he never bores us the colour of Wellington’s socks on 13 June, 1804 or whenever – so the reader is only left with the more important details of Wellington’s extraordinary life. Holmes does an excellent job throughout of explaining Wellington’s personality. In modern times he would be called a control freak due to his constant need to be present and able to fix the mistakes of others. After reading it you get the proper impression of what Wellington must have been like as a commander (“failure is not an option” could have easily been coined by Wellington) and it takes little effort to imagine being one of his underlings. Holmes also pays attention to Wellington’s relationship with his brothers – with Richard it was strained and frosty, but Wellington was seemingly quite close with Henry and William. There are a number of excerpts from surviving letters by Wellington to them where he is unusually candid, but his letters to Richard are cold and formal.

If anything, Iron Duke is more of an entry-level introduction to the Duke of Wellington’s life. That is not to say it has been dumbed down, far from it, but Holmes just gets to the point quicker and his analysis of Wellington’s life, at any stage, is concise and easy to understand. It is also honest and Holmes has no problems discussing Wellington’s often sordid private life, namely the string of mistresses he kept throughout his life. I would not recommend reading this if you have already read Elizabeth Longford’s (herself a great grand-niece of Wellington by marriage – husband Francis was the great-great-great grand nephew of Kitty Pakenham) two volume The Years of the Sword biography on him, as this is far less exhaustive. You are unlikely to read anything new, especially on Wellington’s domestic life, and it would be all too familiar. But Holmes’ writing style is easy yet informative and allows the reader to understand Wellington as a person, as a general and as a politician simply enough so they feel like they know the Duke of Wellington at the end of the novel without being bored by the pointless and irrelevant.

9/10.

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“Four Days in June,” by Iain Gale

19 Sep

“Four Days in June,” by Iain Gale (358p)

Four Days in June is the debut novel by Scottish author Iain Gale. It depicts the three battles (Quatre-Bras, Ligny and the main one at Waterloo) from June 15 to June 18 that brought an end to Napoleon for once and for all.

Primarily, Four Days in June tells the story from the viewpoint of five men that fought it: Col. Sir William Howe de Lancey, Wellington’s personal aid; Gen. James MacDonnell; the man defending Hougoumont; Gen. Hans Ernst von Ziethen, commander of a corps of Prussians at Ligny; Marshal Michel Ney, second-in-command of the French Army; and Napoleon. Gale weaves in and out across the four days from the five points of view, constructing a very compelling story in the process with this style of storytelling.

It begins on the 15th with von Ziethen and de Lancey as the allied commanders hear word of Napoleon’s deceptive tactics at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where with de Lancey we read Wellington’s famous line – “humbugged, by God!” From there, it sweeps across the next day as the twin battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny are fought where de Lancey and Ney narrate Quatre-Bras while von Ziethen mainly narrates Ligny, intermitted with a chapter told by Napoleon and the action at Hougoumont told from MacDonnell’s perspective. Gale fully encapsulates Napoleon’s ailing health and his errors at Waterloo, describing Napoleon’s thought process quite unlike any other author I have encountered.

The second half of the novel takes place on the 18th as the action moves to the main battle, at Waterloo. All five narrators take it in turns to describe Waterloo, de Lancey provides most of it as his position alongside Wellington gave him the best vantage point of all. Wellington attacks and de Lancey describes it, Ney and Napoleon counter it and commentate on their moves, while von Ziethen leads a hurried Prussian army from Ligny to Waterloo to assist Wellington after being checked by the French two days prior. One of the best chapters in the entire novel is Ney’s narration of his foolish cavalry charge into a mass of squared British troops that more or less undid the French at Waterloo as well as the chapter describing de Lancey’s death from a cannonball, where he tells of his love for his wife.

This is a gutsy novel to write. It is historically accurate, but for a new author in his first attempt to delve into the mind of Napoleon (which, by 1815, was probably a load of mush too) takes some courage, yet Gale really does deliver. The self-appraisal, the self-gratification and the self-adulation that flow through Napoleon’s narration are more or less what I imagine Napoleon had been thinking on those four days. It is the same with the other four – Gale has mainly used contemporary diaries as well as his own writing skill to construct the story.

I also found this to be a challenging read. Challenging in a good way, however. Admittedly Gale used an interesting style to write it and because of it the reader has to concentrate. The way the story is told means you have to use your own brain to work what is really happening and what is just fluff. So, if you are just looking at the page and not reading the words you won’t fully understand Gale’s somewhat complicated description of Waterloo, and miss out on a lot of interesting little details. I found that I sometimes had to go back and re-read the narrative, as I had misinterpreted something. In many ways this is more of a political thriller that uses Waterloo as its backdrop than the type of pulp-adventure usually found in this genre.

It is an interesting new take on one of the most famous military clashes in history. Read with caution, however, as it is not a light read and is more serious fiction. But if you are after a cerebral version and an original take on the Battle of Waterloo then I highly recommend Four Days in June.

8.5/10.

“Flashman,” by Georgia MacDonald Fraser

15 Sep

“Flashman,” by George MacDonald Fraser (294p)
1839-1842: Lord Cardigan and the First Anglo-Afghan War

What happened to the bully Flashman from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays after he was expelled from Rugby School? That is the premise of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novel, the first in the series. As an introductory Fraser explains that the novels were discovered in a tea-chest in Leicestershire in 1965, and that he is the editor of the papers. Thus, the Flashman series take on the guise of a false-memoir. The first packet in the series is set in 1839 to 1842 with Flashman as a young man, with most of the action taking place in Afghanistan at the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

If you had read Tom Brown’s Schooldays then you will be pleased to know that Harry Paget Flashman (Fraser has given him a full-name while Hughes solely called him Flashman) is every much the bullying, womanising, cowardly sycophant in adult life as he was as a lad at Rugby School. The first chapter of Flashman recounts his expulsion from Rugby, an affair with his fathers mistress, and his first job – after finally convincing his father for a loan, Flashy lands himself a lieutenancy in the most fashionable regiment in all of the British Army, the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own). From there, he toadies with the best of them by sucking up to Lord Cardigan (of the Light Brigade fame), a man determined to make his regiment as stylish and flamboyant as he by casting out all the proper soldiers. Flashman fits in perfectly.

After a scandal and a piece of typical Flashman luck in a duel, which earns him praise from the Duke of Wellington, he is forced out of London and into a barracks in Scotland. In Scotland Flashman meets his wife, Elspeth Morrison, a beautiful yet spectacularly stupid woman but this again brings him scandal as he is forced to quit the 11th Hussars for marrying below his rank. The Morrison family were not befitting a lieutenant, even if Flashman actually comes from a lesser family than them.

In order to get his reputation and some respectability back Flashman reluctantly departs for India. I say reluctantly because Flashy’s idea of soldiering is getting drunk and playing cards in the mess while sleeping with all sorts of women, so India is far from his liking. It is in India and neighbouring Afghanistan where most of the action in Flashman takes place. After showing off his riding skills and aptitude for learning foreign languages, Flashman is sent to Afghanistan, the most dangerous and unstable frontier colony in the British Empire at the time.

It takes Flashy no time at all to make an enemy in Afghanistan after he rapes – yes, Fraser makes no attempt to write anything but a rape so it is very much that – an Afghan dancer, married to the warlord Gul Shah. Shah wants his revenge on Flashman and takes it out on him as co-existence between Britain and the Afghans crumbles. Following the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army Flashman is captured and tortured for weeks by Gul Shah in a remote mountain hideout. After escaping Flashman follows the British out of Afghanistan in the retreat from Kabul and the disastrous Battle of Gandamak. Eventually he winds up hiding in the fort under siege at Jellalabad (near modern Jalalabad) to escape Gul Shah, severely injured where he collapses in terror. Incredibly, despite all the death and destruction around him and his refusal to stand and fight, the fort is saved by British forces and Flashman is congratulated for surviving the attack and comes out a hero. Nobody else survived to know the truth.

One of the true successes of the format of these novels is Fraser’s meticulous historical accuracy. Even if you go and look for error there is none. Indeed, wherever Flashman writes an anachronism in the narrative Fraser has inserted an endnote at the end of the book correcting Old Harry where he goes wrong. As far as historical accuracy goes these are probably among the most accurate ever written, especially considering the majority of the people involved them are real people.

Above all else, the Flashman novels are Fraser’s attempt at taking a broad swipe at Victorian morality and clocking it with a haymaker. Flashman is unlike most images of the respectability and properness of the Victorian age. He is a liar, a cad, a womaniser, a coward, unreligious, an opportunist and a down right scoundrel. He is everything that the Victorian age does not represent, and I love it.

They are a great fun because they are so over the top and ridiculous, so they usually make for a very entertaining read. The style is easy to read, told in a very relaxed prose, and not the slightest bit difficult to get into. I will say one thing, however – if the prospect of the types of things Flashy gets up to, which has involved the odd rape as well as unapologetic description of his sexual exploits and the odd racial slur (to go with the timeline, that is), then these probably won’t be to your taste. Otherwise give them a go.

8/10.