Wellington: The path to victory 1769-1814

Rory Muir / Yale

“Let us bury the great duke…” intoned Lord Tennyson but Rory Muir has brought him to life.

There have been many biographies and you might reasonably ask if we need another. I have read several full-length studies of Wellington’s military life. Most were interesting, even enthralling, but none equals Muir’s ability to take us behind the facade of Military Hero to discover the extraordinarily talented but fallible human within. Muir is better qualified than most to accept such a challenge.

An Adelaide University alumnus, he has devoted his life to illuminating the Napoleonic War in British history. His successful doctoral thesis (1988) was the ‘British Government and the Peninsular War 1808- 1811’. Never published, its formidable research underpins this book as it did his masterly Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon 1807-1815 (1996), which, like his Salamanca 1812 (2002), Yale also published. It says much for Yale University Press’s respect for Muir that they allowed him 727 pages for what is only volume one of his Wellington biography.

Volume two containing the Waterloo Campaign and Wellington’s long political career is yet to come. May I live to review it! Muir demonstrates what can be achieved in penetrating analysis when a sympathetic but objective researcher steeps himself in Wellington’s correspondence (40 volumes or more published, and at least 100,000 in manuscript at Southampton University). Arthur Wellesley had his faults. Muir is suitably scathing about Wellington’s ceaseless grumbling to the British ministry and his grotesque ingratitude for their four-year long support. Then, like other commanders, he committed mistakes that cost men’s lives but unlike some more recent generals, he admitted his errors and learned from them.

On the other hand, even staff offi cers who disliked him personally admitted that in battle he was the essential man. Things went badly in his temporary absence but quickly went well after he galloped up. No wonder he complained that even their victories could not convince his generals they could beat the French. His soldiers knew better. Pointing him out to a new chum before Waterloo a veteran said: “That’s the long-nosed b– what beats the French.” Throughout this book, Muir’s cogent analysis repeatedly demonstrates how he did it. His analysis of the seemingly miraculous early summer campaign across northern Spain that ended with Wellington’s destruction of King Joseph’s Bonaparte’s army at Vittorio is particularly memorable.
After he crossed the Pyrenees and took Toulouse the news at last arrived: Napoleon had abdicated. All Britain rejoiced and the Prince Regent made Arthur Wellesley a duke.


Related Content