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Right About Face

It is impossible to write a bad life of the Duke of Wellington. Guedalla nearly did, but not even his vulgarity could diminish the stature of the Englishman most nearly resembling the legendary heroes of ancient Rome. The Duke possessed gravitas. He knew where he stood in relation to all other men from his sovereign to his gardener; but the self-confidence this gave him was checked by a proper, though not excessive, modesty and an iron sense of public duty.

He lived by his notions of honor. For he was not only courageous and fair, he was truthful and honest. A French reviewer of his Despatches complained that the word “glory” never appeared in their pages, but Wellington never forgot the carnage and regarded war as a necessity, the call of duty, not the path to triumph. A victory was “the greatest tragedy in the world, Madam, except a defeat.” Yes, the British army was to be commended: but its soldiers were composed of the mere scum of the earth. “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy,” he said of a draft of reinforcements to him in Spain, “but, by God, they terrify me.”

Practically any other man would have betrayed some sign of hubris after winning Waterloo and being hailed as the deliverer of Europe. But Wellington was devoid of ambition or arrogance. The dignity of his position amused him. The secretary of the Royal Academy, a painter called Jones, looked astonishingly like him. “Mistaken for me, is he?” said the Duke. “That’s strange, for no one ever mistakes me for Mr. Jones.” The day came when someone did. “Mr. Jones, I believe?” “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.”

No one would claim that Wellington was a man of originality. And yet he was the original of the ideal type of Englishman who flourished for a century after Waterloo. Everything was to be brought under control, especially the self. The Duke could shed tears over the dead and wounded, but not on the battlefield: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg,” exclaimed Lord Uxbridge in command of the British cavalry, hit by the last cannon shot of the battle. “By God, sir, so you have,” was Wellington’s reply in the popular version. It would be ludicrous to speak of Wellington keeping a stiff upper lip: he did not need to keep one. To be laconic, restrained, and deflating was his nature. He despised cheering—the mob who cheered him today would lynch him tomorrow, the supporters who pressed him to move in this direction, rather than that, would melt from him in a trice if the wind changed.

This natural taste for understatement, this revulsion from heroic poses, the particular forms his sense of honor showed became in the course of time transmuted into a code—the code of Sandhurst and Woolwich (perhaps of West Point), an Anglo-Saxon officer’s code which differed so markedly from that of the Polytechnique or Saumur, still more from that of the officer corps of Prussia or Austria. Simultaneously the code was imposed upon the public schools—naturally with particular force at Wellington, founded in honor of the Duke. No code can be spontaneous. It can be only a debased approximation of what was natural to a unique person. As a result it was not the Duke who was reborn: it was Carruthers, the stage Englishman.

The Wellington legend is enhanced by his unvarying response to well-meaning bores. It was an inflexible rule not to permit a song or anything else to be dedicated to him because as chancellor of the University of Oxford he “had been much exposed to authors.” The legend was also enhanced by his susceptibility to pretty women. Almost as much as Uxbridge, he was a beau. Six ladies including Lady Caroline Lamb and his favorite Mrs. Arbuthnot, with whom he and her husband lived in a triangular relationship on and off until her death, accompanied him about Paris in 1815; another whose name was mentioned scandalously with his made him bring a highly successful libel suit. He was not in fact out for scalps, he just liked to chat the girls up.

At the end of his life he was besieged by a rich heiress and philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who proposed regularly to him. Then there was Miss Jenkins, who bombarded him with Bibles and besought him to be born again. In the midst of converting him, he made her a proposal so ardent that she began to pray to God to preserve her virtue. But then she was exceptionally lovely, and 390 missives passed from her to him before the flame was extinguished. Usually he understood only too well the desire for a coronet which inspired the sirens who wished to snare him; but in her case the Duke was overcome by the thought that all she cared about was his soul.

So the legend grew that in any emergency the Duke had to be consulted, whether it was the clouds of sparrows which were threatening the success of the Great Exhibition by fouling the interior of the Crystal Palace, or who should be sent to command the army and take Rangoon: “But we have always understood that Your Grace thought Lord Combermere a fool.” “So he is a fool, and a damned fool; but he can take Rangoon.”

In describing Wellington the man, Elizabeth Longford’s second volume of her biography is even better than her first. She has excellent judgment, has corrected a number of false impressions and inferences by examining the evidence from the original sources again, and if at times her style is a little breathless, as if she had just herself been pursuing the French from the field, she is so lively and readable that the interminable ins and outs of aristocratic politics are less tedious than they might be.

But it is precisely on the issue of Wellington the politician that a doubt intrudes. What kind of politics were these? What was the relation of Cabinet to king, or Parliament to party? Some of the secondary sources which would give answers to these questions, such as Gash and Turbeville, are quoted in the bibliography, others are not. But I suspect that the author, who is thorough enough in her researches, wrongly believes that she is not a good enough constitutional historian to assess these answers and set Wellington’s career in perspective. This is an error of false modesty. Elizabeth Longford was an exceptionally distinguished student at Oxford in the Twenties and she need have no doubt about her ability to make the necessary judgments.

They are necessary. So are judgments about the statesmen with whom Wellington dealt. In these pages we see them exclusively through his eyes, which is like taking your portrait of Churchill in the war years from Alanbrooke’s diaries. Canning appears to be a low-spirited treacherous upstart, and Peel a grotesquely sensitive, secretive, social incompetent. Their contemporaries did not see them that way. (The present Tory prime minister comes to resemble Peel more and more in his frigidity and inability to communicate, and in his concern to improve the machine of the government. He has the same dislike of the party system and indeed of many of the principles in which his own followers believe because they thwart efficient government.)

No one would guess from these pages that it was Canning and not Wellington who first charmed and neutralized George IV; and that when he died, it was Peel rather than Wellington who carried Catholic emancipation against the instinctive opinion in their party—and against their own previous inclination. It is true that the Duke in the end became prime minister, but only the year before the chief whip of his party wrote to the king’s private secretary saying that Wellington would never do in that post and implying that he would be incapable of explaining his actions adequately if he were compelled to take security precautions. In other words he feared that Wellington might provoke a revolution—as he nearly did in 1830.

Again it is hardly clear in this book that Peel was the ablest prime minister that England has ever had, if by ability one means the power to grasp the whole nexus of government and find administrative solutions to hitherto insoluble problems. It is true that he was guilty of grave fault as a Tory leader: he failed to educate his party, a party which is always having to be coaxed into a new age. But neither for that matter did the Duke.

Whether it is partiality toward the Duke who, like her, married a Packenham or, more likely, extreme impartiality which as a lifelong socialist she felt bound to show, Elizabeth Longford is a good deal too kind to the Duke as a politician. It is true that he was not on the extreme right of the Tory party. That is a very difficult position to attain because there is always some wild die-hard to outflank you. But if he was not as extreme as Eldon, Wellington was considered to be an Ultra.

She praises him for always in the end coming to realize that a change had to be made, whether over Catholic emancipation, or the Reform Bill, or the Corn Laws, and for using his immense authority in the House of Lords to carry his friends with him—or at any rate to get them to abstain from further opposition. In the end he would give the command, “Right About Face,” and they all turned. But this is the most negative type of conservatism, worthy of none of the greatest nineteenth-century Tories. The truth is that he had virtually no political notions on the home front. His forte really lay in foreign policy, where he was a moderating influence in the early days of the Holy Alliance.

He was a peer; and peers of England had hardly had a political idea since curbing the king’s power after the expulsion of James II. There were 150 of them, a small compact class who with their allies among the gentry and the City merchants ruled England. In 1820 a book called A Peep at the Peers showed that they monopolized through patronage the posts of the army, navy, diplomatic and civil service, and in return for supporting the supremacy of the House of Commons they had obtained the right to nominate a large proportion of its members either from their own territorial interest, or because they at that moment possessed the king’s patronage. The Whig peers get a bad press today for being indolent, self-satisfied, and incapable of grasping the implications for government of the Industrial Revolution. But at any rate, they understood the need for political reform and liberty and “belief in the people”—even if Melbourne cracked down on rioters and starving agricultural laborers as heartily as most Tories would have done.

But Wellington was burdened by two handicaps. He was by nature reactionary: he was a Legitimist, and had fought a war against the principles of the French Revolution. The thought of what an English mob could do—and on a small scale at that time did—was foremost in his thoughts. It was not foremost in the minds of the Whigs—who perhaps remembered the mid-eighteenth-century Duke of Newcastle, who declared that he loved a mob because it was a mob that had given England her glorious constitution.

The second handicap Wellington suffered was that he was a soldier. Soldiers find in politics that they cannot command; they have to persuade—and it bores them. Soldiers find that the way in which military conundrums are solved is inapplicable in political life. In the end the only principle the Duke had left was the principle that the king’s government must be carried on, i.e., the House of Lords must acquiesce when some major change was clearly determined upon by the House of Commons. After he had done this three times, the old Tory party disintegrated; but so for that matter had the Whig party, and for twenty prosperous years major institutional reform was at a standstill. The collapse of party politics, the atomistic nature of mid-Victorian parliaments which was the aftermath of aristocratic politics, is omitted in this book.

Yet it was as a soldier in the long aftermath of Waterloo that he failed most signally. As commander in chief of the British army, he was a disaster. The misery and blunders of the Crimean War were his epitaph. He left a legacy to the British high command of blind refusal to move with the times, which with a few brilliant exceptions such as Wolseley lasted until Montgomery. Montgomery turned out to be as bad a head of the army in peacetime as Wellington—though for different reasons. But by that time the top post was not, mercifully, held for life. Perhaps there is something to be said for democracy after all.

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