“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.