Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington : biography

1 May 1769 - 14 September 1852

He was also a remarkably practical man, who spoke concisely. In 1851, when it was discovered that there were a great many sparrows flying about in the Crystal Palace just before the Great Exhibition was to open, his advice to Queen Victoria was "Sparrowhawks, ma'am".Holmes (2002). pp. xvi.

Wellington has often been portrayed as a defensive general, even though many, perhaps most, of his battles were offensive (Argaum, Assaye, Oporto, Salamanca, Vitoria, Toulouse). But for most of the Peninsular War, where he earned his fame, his troops lacked the numbers for an attack.Rothenberg (1999). p. 136.

Military career

Early career

Despite his new promise he had yet to find a job and his family was still short of money, so upon the advice of his mother, his brother Richard asked his friend the Duke of Rutland (then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) to consider Arthur for a commission in the army.Holmes (2002). p. 20. Soon after, on 7 March 1787 he was gazetted ensign in the 73rd Regiment of Foot. In October, with the assistance of his brother, he was assigned as aide-de-camp, on ten shillings a day (twice his pay as an ensign), to the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Buckingham. He was also transferred to the new 76th Regiment forming in Ireland and on Christmas Day, 1787, was promoted to lieutenant.Holmes (2002). p. 21. During his time in Dublin his duties were mainly social; attending balls, entertaining guests and providing advice to Buckingham. While in Ireland, he over extended himself in borrowing due to his occasional gambling, but in his defence stated that "I have often known what it was to be in want of money, but I have never got helplessly into debt".

On 23 January 1788, he transferred into the 41st Regiment of Foot, then again on 25 June 1789, still a lieutenant, he transferred to the 12th (Prince of Wales's) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons and, according to military historian Richard Holmes, he also dipped a reluctant toe into politics.Holmes (2002). p. 22. Shortly before the general election of 1789, he went to the "rotten borough" of Trim to speak against the granting of the title "Freeman" of Dublin to the parliamentary leader of the Irish Patriot Party, Henry Grattan.Holmes (2002). p. 23. Succeeding, he was later nominated and duly elected as a Member of Parliament for Trim in the Irish House of Commons.Holmes (2002). p. 24. Because of the limited suffrage at the time, he sat in a parliament where at least two-thirds of the members owed their election to the landowners of fewer than a hundred boroughs. Wellesley continued to serve at Dublin Castle, voting with the government in the Irish parliament over the next two years. On 30 January 1791 he became a captain and was transferred to the 58th Regiment of Foot.

On 31 October, he transferred to the 18th Light Dragoons and it was during this period that he grew increasingly attracted to Kitty Pakenham, the daughter of Edward Pakenham, 2nd Baron Longford. She was described as being full of 'gaiety and charm'. In 1793, he sought her hand, but was turned down by her brother Thomas, Earl of Longford, who considered Wellesley to be a young man, in debt, with very poor prospects.Holmes (2002). p. 26. An aspiring amateur musician, Wellesley, devastated by the rejection, burnt his violins in anger, and resolved to pursue a military career in earnest.Holmes (2002). p. 27. Gaining further promotion (largely by purchasing his rank, which was common in the British Army at the time), he became a major in the 33rd Regiment in 1793.Holmes (2002). p. 25. A few months later, in September, his brother lent him more money and with it he purchased a lieutenant-colonelcy in the 33rd.


In 1793, the Duke of York was sent to Flanders in command of the British contingent of an allied force destined for the invasion of France. In 1794, the 33rd regiment was sent to join the force and Wellesley, having just purchased his majority on 30 April 1793, set sail from Cork for Flanders in June, destined for his first real battle experience. Three months later on 30 September 1793 he purchased the lieutenant colonelcy of his regiment.Holmes (2002). p. 28. During the campaign he rose to command a brigade and in September Wellesley's unit came under fire just east of Breda, just before the Battle of Boxtel. For the latter part of the campaign, during the winter, his unit defended the line of the Waal River, during which time he became ill for a while, owing to the damp environment.Holmes (2002). p. 31. Though the campaign was to prove unsuccessful, with the Duke of York's force returning in 1795, Wellesley was to learn several valuable lessons, including the use of steady fire lines against advancing columns and of the merits of supporting sea-power.Holmes (2002). p. 30. He concluded that many of the campaign's blunders were due to the faults of the leaders and the poor organisation at headquarters. He remarked later of his time in the Netherlands that "At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson".Holmes (2002). p. 32.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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