Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington

Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1814

Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1814

Napoleon Bonaparte and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley never met or corresponded, and they fought only one battle directly against each other, on June 18, 1815. The fact that it was the Battle of Waterloo, which resulted in Napoleon’s permanent removal from the French throne, cemented them together in history.

Wellesley – better known as the Duke of Wellington, a title he was granted in 1814 – was born in Dublin on May 1, 1769, the same year as Napoleon. He joined the British Army in 1787 and served in the Netherlands, India and Denmark before rising to prominence in the Peninsular War. He led the allied forces to victory against the French in Spain, and served as Britain’s ambassador to France after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814. Louis XVIII was very fond of him.

When the Duke of Wellington was later asked if he saw Napoleon on the opposite heights at Waterloo, he said, “No, I could not – the day was dark – there was a great deal of rain in the air.” (1)

It is claimed that during the battle a British artillery officer came to Wellington to tell him that he had a clear a view of Napoleon and several guns pointing in that direction. Wellington replied, “No! I’ll not allow it. It is not the business of commanders to be firing upon one another.” (2) As Andrew Roberts notes in Napoleon and Wellington (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), Napoleon needed to be defeated in the field. If he had been killed in an “ungentlemanly” fashion, people would always have suspected that he would have won the battle. Afterwards, Wellington refused to allow Napoleon to be handed over to the Prussians, who were keen to execute him.

Wellington’s opinion of Napoleon

Wellington did not consider Napoleon to be a gentleman. He commonly referred to him as “Buonaparte,” using a spelling and pronunciation that emphasized Napoleon’s non-French lineage. In 1835 he wrote:

Buonaparte’s whole life, civil, political, and military, was a fraud. There was not a transaction, great or small, in which lying and fraud were not introduced…. Of flagrant lies, the most important in the military branch of his life that I can now recollect are – first, the expedition from Egypt into Syria, which totally failed, and yet on his return to Egypt was represented to the army there as a victory…. The next was the battle of Eylau. This he represented as a great victory. It is true that the Allied army retired after the battle. So did Buonaparte. … I should think that Spain would afford you instances of fraud in his political schemes and negotiations. … Buonaparte’s foreign policy was force and menace, aided by fraud and corruption. If the fraud was discovered, force and menace succeeded; and in most cases the unfortunate victim did not dare to avow that he perceived the fraud. (3)

However he later said to the same correspondent:

I have seen most of the other marshals and I have no doubt that, as a general, Buonaparte was the best of them…and with his prestige worth forty thousand men. (4)

As Roberts points out, Wellington could not disparage Napoleon’s military skill without lessening his own achievements.

Napoleon’s opinion of Wellington

Napoleon referred to Wellington as a representative of the “English oligarchy,” and blamed him for his exile on St. Helena, even though Wellington – who had spent a month on the island in 1805 – had nothing to do with the choice of that remote location.

One of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, the Count de Las Cases, writes that in general Napoleon disliked speaking of Wellington. “He seemed carefully to avoid pronouncing his opinion on him; feeling, no doubt, the impropriety of publicly depreciating the General who had triumphed over him.” (5) On one occasion when Napoleon did pronounce on Wellington, his remarks were not complimentary:

[I]t is very certain that I gave [Wellington] a terrible quarter of an hour [at Waterloo]. This usually constitutes a claim on noble minds; his was incapable of feeling it. My fall, and the lot that might have been reserved for me, afforded him the opportunity of reaping higher glory than he has gained by all his victories. But he did not understand this. Well, at any rate, he ought to be heartily grateful to old Blücher; had it not been for him, I know not where his Grace might have been today; but I know that I, at least, should not have been at St. Helena. Wellington’s troops were admirable, but his plans were despicable; or should I rather say, that he formed none at all. He had placed himself in a situation in which it was impossible he could form any; and by a curious chance, this very circumstance saved him. If he could have commenced a retreat, he must infallibly have been lost. He certainly remained master of the field of battle; but was his success the result of his skill? He has reaped the fruit of a brilliant victory; but did his genius prepare it for him? His glory is wholly negative. His faults were enormous. He, the European Generalissimo, to whose hands so many interests were entrusted, and having before him an enemy so prompt and daring as myself, left his forces dispersed and slumbered in a capital until he was surprised. And yet such is the power of fatality! (6)

In his will Napoleon left 10,000 francs to a former imperial army soldier named Cantillon who had been accused, and acquitted, of attempting to assassinate Wellington in Paris in 1818.

Wellington after Waterloo

Although best known as a military commander, the Duke of Wellington was also a Tory politician. During the time in which Napoleon in America is set, Wellington was serving in Lord Liverpool’s cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance. This meant he was responsible for British artillery, engineers, fortifications, military supplies, transport and field hospitals, among other things. He later served twice as Prime Minister of Great Britain, in 1828-1830 and again briefly in 1834. In his later years he was Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, a post he held until his death on September 14, 1852 at the age of 83.

For more about the Duke of Wellington, there is a short biography on the UK government website and a longer one on the Spartacus Educational website, as well as one by Marjie Bloy on The Victorian Web. The Napoleon, His Army and Enemies website offers a not particularly flattering summary of Wellington’s career. Lifeofwellington.co.uk provides an extensive free online commentary to accompany Rory Muir’s two-volume biography of Wellington, and an excellent set of links in its “further resources” section. If it’s books you’re after, Adventures in Historyland has posted a fine Wellington reading list.

Sean Grass details Wellington’s extravagant funeral, which was replete with commercial excess (Duke of Wellington funeral wine, anyone?), in an online essay in BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History.  Some 1.5 million people lined the streets and 10,000 guests packed St. Paul’s Cathedral. Every parish church in England tolled its bells. Tennyson wrote a fulsome ode to mark the occasion:

For this is England’s greatest son,
He that gain’d a hundred fights,
Nor ever lost an English gun.

  1. Earl Philip Henry Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851 (London, 1889), p. 19.
  2. The Twelve Great Battles of England (London, 1861), p. 179. Another version of the story has the officer saying, “There’s Buonaparte, Sir. I think I can reach him, may I fire?” and Wellington responding, “No, no. Generals commanding armies have something else to do than to shoot at one another.” G.R. Gleig, The Life of Arthur Duke of Wellington (London, 1869), p. 267.
  3. Louis J. Jennings, ed., The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, Vol. 2 (London, 1885), p. 286.
  4. Ibid., Vol. 3, p. 277.
  5. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. 4 (New York, 1855), p. 160
  6. Ibid., p. 161.

8 commments on “Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington”

  • Gabrielle Sutherland says:

    Superb writing!

  • andy meakin says:

    found this through tweet from @PillarofState – excellent and informative, will be looking a lot more through this site in future. always interests me to understand what each thought of the other – not an easy subject to find accurate information on i would imagine. I think it still shows further that wellington showed some compassion for soldiers and on his enemies, interesting that he would not give Napoleon over to the Prussians after the battle.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying the site. Wellington did have compassion for soldiers, and a real sense of what it was to be a gentleman. Here’s what he wrote on June 26, 1815 regarding the issue of Napoleon being executed:

      General —— has been here this day to negotiate for Napoleon’s passing to America, to which proposition I have answered, that I have no authority. The Prussians think the Jacobins wish to give him over to me, believing that I will save his life. —— wishes to kill him; but I have told him I shall remonstrate, and shall insist upon his being disposed of by common accord. I have likewise said that, as a private friend, I advised him to have nothing to do with so foul a transaction; and that he and I had acted too distinguished parts in these transactions to become executioners, and that I was determined that, if the sovereigns wished to put him to death, they should appoint an executioner, which should not be me.

      Thanks to Josh from Adventures in Historyland for providing me with this quote in the discussion about this post at the Napoleonic Wars Forum.

  • BobPaulley says:

    Great article!

    Sadly, Wellington was never as good a PM as he was a General and is generally regarded as a failed politician.

    He actually had a technical advantage over the French, which is seldom noted. British artillery had a longer range and higher muzzle velocity than the French. Napoleon, being primarily an artillery officer could not compete against that advantage.

    The source of the technical advantage? A supply of Graphite, which allowed finer muzzle and ball surfaces.

    That technical advantage played a part in every battle on land and sea.

  • tom blau says:

    Did Wellesley, during the wars, ever say something along the lines of, ‘where he (Napoleon) draws a line in the sand, there shall I step over it’?

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[I]t is very certain that I gave [Wellington] a terrible quarter of an hour [at Waterloo]. This usually constitutes a claim on noble minds; his was incapable of feeling it.

Napoleon Bonaparte