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Who was Duke of Wellington?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1769-1852), arguably the greatest general Britain ever produced, earned his nickname the 'Iron Duke' through his self-control, attention to detail, and unyielding determination to win . He never lost a battle, nor even a gun. Regarded as a dull boy by his widowed mother, Lady Mornington, he was sent to a French military college, became an ensign in the British army and eventually made his reputation in India, where he defeated the fierce Mahrattas and returned to England a general.

In 1808 he went to Spain in command of an expeditionary force sent to help the Spaniards in their revolt against the French. For six years, aided by Portuguese troops and Spanish guerrillas, he conducted a series of brilliant campaigns in the Peninsular War against some of Napoleon's best generals and finest troops. Having beaten the French at Talavera (1809) and saved Lisbon through building the tremendous fortifications of Torres Vedras, he won victories at Albuera (1811), Badajoz, Salamanca (1812) and Vitoria (1813) before driving Marshal Soult clean out of Spain into France, where he finally defeated him at Toulouse (1814). For six years he had engaged the French without losing a battle and had deprived Napoleon of armies that he would otherwise have employed in Europe.

The Duke of Wellington, as he had now become, was given command of the Allied army that opposed Napoleon after his escape from Elba, and at Waterloo, showing all his icy resolve, he won a desperately close but decisive victory.

He was now the most famous man in Europe and, after his return to England he entered Parliament and eventually became Prime Minister in 1828. A Tory averse to change, who regarded himself first and foremost as the servant of the Crown, he was not a success as a politician and, for a time, was intensely unpopular for his opposition to the Reform Bill. However, he had the courage and commonsense to accept the inevitable and he actually helped to carry through Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Corn Laws.

Wellington was slightly built and of medium height, with a prominent hooked nose. He lived frugally, his speech was abrupt to the point of rudeness, but he had a dry wit and made many memorable remarks. Unhappily married, he had many women friends to whom he was a great letter writer. He ruled his troops with iron discipline, calling them 'the scum of the earth', who had 'all enlisted for drink', though he did add that it was surprising what 'fine fellows' he had made of them.

Thus, his troops never loved him, as Marlborough's soldiers did, but they respected him and fought for him like lions. By the end of his life Wellington had become a national figure; loaded with honors, he died at Walmer Castle and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral at the side of Nelson.


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