Arthur, the 1st Duke of Wellington, is one of the big beasts of British history. Not only was he the most successful general of the early 19th century, when his victories propelled Britain to unscaled heights of international prestige and power, but he also proceeded to dominate the British Army for decades. Of course, he was also an important player on the political scene, which included spells as prime minister.
Wellington has had many biographers and been the object of numerous focused studies. Some of the latter are excellent. Huw Davies’s Wellington’s Wars: The Making of a Military Genius (Yale, 2012), which I reviewed in a previous issue of this magazine, is a case in point: we are living in a golden age of scholarship on Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. I also retain an affection for Elizabeth Longford’s two- volume account, published more than 40 years ago. Richard Holmes’ Wellington: The Iron Duke (Harper Collins, 2002), which mixes readability with some acute insights, is the best (relatively) short modern biography of Wellington. However, until now we have lacked a modern, meaty biography of Wellington ‘in the round’. Judging by the recently published first volume of Rory Muir’s scholarly but very readable biography, that gap has now been filled.
This is biography on an impressive scale. This first volume covers the life of Arthur Wellesley (he was Wellington from 1809), from his birth in Dublin to the end of the Peninsular War in 1814. There is a substantial supporting online resource (lifeofwellington.co.uk) of extra material that, one assumes, ended on the publisher’s equivalent of the cutting-room floor. It seems slightly odd ending the book before Waterloo, unless there is going to be disproportionate coverage of the 1815 campaign in the second volume. Was the decision not to include Wellington’s entire active military career in the first book a commercial one, inspired by the fear that Wellington the politician would attract fewer readers than Wellington the general?
The picture of Wellington that emerges from the book is positive, as both a personality and a general. Muir is generous about Huw Davies’s work, notwithstanding their very different interpretations of some of the evidence. Muir is also very good on Wellington’s skills as a politician, a role that he filled as much as that of the soldier. There is a detailed discussion of the Convention of Cintra in 1808, for instance. There, having won the victory of Vimeiro, Wellesley was promptly superseded, signing an agreement that allowed the French army to escape under shameful circumstances. However, Muir doesn’t really get to the bottom of why Wellesley signed the convention “without demur”. Perhaps he simply did not realise the storm that it would create at home, nor the threat that it would pose to his later career.
Muir’s careful attention to the British and European political context leads to a much more nuanced view of Wellington than was the case with some older books. Indeed, he goes beyond the boundaries of a purely biographical approach: his discussion of the battle of Talavera, which was fought between 27 and 28 July 1809, covers some 10 pages; Wellington himself, meanwhile, is absent from entire paragraphs. Instead we get descriptions of the fighting, quotes from other officers, and an erudite commentary on the battle as a whole. This attempt to place the commander in the context of his army and its operations is entirely legitimate – and given Muir’s skill as a historian of the battlefield, it is very welcome. But in places the book veers perilously close to morphing into a history of Wellington’s army.
It is also highly detailed. To take one example, we are told that Wellesley’s administrative tasks as governor of the newly captured town of Seringapatam in 1799 involved writing to the authorities to ask for a chaplain to be appointed and to compliment a surgeon. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this level of detail is either overwhelming or one of the book’s strengths. Without doubt, however, this first volume is a formidable achievement, already the Wellington biography for our time. Perhaps when the second volume appears, Muir will produce a slimline abridgement. It would be a great pity if its sheer bulk reduced its potential readership.
Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He is currently writing a concise biography of Wellington for the History Press