Right About Face

Duke of Wellington
Duke of Wellington; drawing by David Levine

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…

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