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Gathering clouds, dark and ominous, obscured the political horizon in the year 1769. The habitués of London coffee-houses discussed one of three things—“The Letters of Junius,” the most remarkable series of political exposures ever penned; the election of the notorious John Wilkes for Middlesex; and the rebellious conduct of the North American colonists. On the other side of the Channel the Duc de Choiseul was skilfully planning ways and means of fanning into a fierce outburst the flames of discontent now flickering in the West. To heap coals of fire on the country which, during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), had enforced her claims to Canada and India, would be a triumph worthy of the statesman who had banished the Jesuits from the hereditary possessions of Louis XV.Had the people who lived in those stirring times been gifted with the power of penetrating the future, their eyes would have turned in the eventful year of 1769 from the larger stages to the comparatively insignificant islands of Corsica and Ireland, for the former was the birthplace of Napoleon and the latter of Wellington, and both were born in 1769.There are other remarkable coincidences connected with the childhood of Napoleon and Wellington. Their respective fathers were easy-going, unpractical men, their mothers were women of marked force of character, left widows early in life with large families. In addition, the hero of Austerlitz was the fourth child of Letizia Bonaparte, his conqueror at Waterloo the fourth son of the Countess of Mornington.A certain amount of obscurity is associated with their juvenile days. Although the date of the entrance into the world of “the little Corporal” is now fairly well established, it was long before historians ceased to discuss it. There is still much uncertainty as to that of Wellington. The Duke was always vague on the point, and celebrated his birthday on the 1st May, which is the day following that on which he was baptized at St Peter’s, Dublin, presuming the parish register to be correct. Lady Mornington announced that Arthur was a Mayday boy, but her nurse as stoutly maintained that the event took place on the 6th March. Dangan Castle, West Meath, and Mornington House, Marion Street, Dublin, contest the honour of being his birthplace. The witness for the country home is the afore-mentioned nurse; a prescription of the physician who attended Lady Mornington about the period was sent to a chemist in Ireland’s capital, and attests the claim of the town mansion. The matter is not of prime importance, but serves to show the somewhat casual habits of a less practical generation than our own. The real family name of the Westleys, Wesleys, or Wellesleys—the different forms were all used—was Colley or Cowley, but the Duke’s grandfather inherited the estates of his kinsman, Garret Wesley, on condition that he assumed that surname. He became Baron Mornington in 1747. It was the son of this fortunate individual, also a Garret, who was created the first Earl of Mornington in the year previous to his marriage to the eldest daughter of Viscount Dungannon. They became the parents of the future Duke of Wellington as well as of several other children...
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Copyright © 2016 by Harold Wheeler
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The Fool of the Family (1769–93)
Wellington’s Baptism of Fire (1794–97)
The Campaign of Seringapatam (1797–1800)
War with the Marhattás (1801–3)
Last Years in India (1803–5)
Service in England, Ireland, and Denmark (1805–7)
The First Battles of the Peninsular War (1808)
Victory Abroad, and Displeasure at Home (1808–9)
Sir Arthur’s Return to Portugal (1809)
Wellesley’s Defence of Portugal(1809–10)
The Lines of Torres Vedras (1810)
Masséna beats a Retreat (1810–11)
The Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo (1811–12)
Badajoz and Salamanca(1812)
The Closing Battles of the Peninsular War (1812–14)
The Prelude to the Waterloo Campaign (1814–15)
Ligny and Quatre Bras (1815)
Wellington the Statesman (1815–52)
“I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.”
Gathering clouds, dark and ominous, obscured the political horizon in the year 1769. The habitués of London coffee-houses discussed one of three things—“The Letters of Junius,” the most remarkable series of political exposures ever penned; the election of the notorious John Wilkes for Middlesex; and the rebellious conduct of the North American colonists. On the other side of the Channel the Duc de Choiseul was skilfully planning ways and means of fanning into a fierce outburst the flames of discontent now flickering in the West. To heap coals of fire on the country which, during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), had enforced her claims to Canada and India, would be a triumph worthy of the statesman who had banished the Jesuits from the hereditary possessions of Louis XV.
Had the people who lived in those stirring times been gifted with the power of penetrating the future, their eyes would have turned in the eventful year of 1769 from the larger stages to the comparatively insignificant islands of Corsica and Ireland, for the former was the birthplace of Napoleon and the latter of Wellington, and both were born in 1769.
There are other remarkable coincidences connected with the childhood of Napoleon and Wellington. Their respective fathers were easy-going, unpractical men, their mothers were women of marked force of character, left widows early in life with large families. In addition, the hero of Austerlitz was the fourth child of Letizia Bonaparte, his conqueror at Waterloo the fourth son of the Countess of Mornington.
A certain amount of obscurity is associated with their juvenile days. Although the date of the entrance into the world of “the little Corporal” is now fairly well established, it was long before historians ceased to discuss it. There is still much uncertainty as to that of Wellington. The Duke was always vague on the point, and celebrated his birthday on the 1st May, which is the day following that on which he was baptized at St Peter’s, Dublin, presuming the parish register to be correct. Lady Mornington announced that Arthur was a Mayday boy, but her nurse as stoutly maintained that the event took place on the 6th March. Dangan Castle, West Meath, and Mornington House, Marion Street, Dublin, contest the honour of being his birthplace. The witness for the country home is the afore-mentioned nurse; a prescription of the physician who attended Lady Mornington about the period was sent to a chemist in Ireland’s capital, and attests the claim of the town mansion. The matter is not of prime importance, but serves to show the somewhat casual habits of a less practical generation than our own. The real family name of the Westleys, Wesleys, or Wellesleys—the different forms were all used—was Colley or Cowley, but the Duke’s grandfather inherited the estates of his kinsman, Garret Wesley, on condition that he assumed that surname. He became Baron Mornington in 1747. It was the son of this fortunate individual, also a Garret, who was created the first Earl of Mornington in the year previous to his marriage to the eldest daughter of Viscount Dungannon. They became the parents of the future Duke of Wellington as well as of several other children.
Of Arthur Wellesley’s scholastic career little can be ascertained with certainty. We know that he spent a little while at a preparatory school in Chelsea, then a very different place from what it is now, and that he and his eldest brother, Lord Wellesley, who had succeeded his father on his sire’s death in 1781, were at the same house at Eton. Unfortunately the two rooms which they occupied are now demolished. While it would be incorrect to call Arthur a dull boy, he certainly displayed little interest in learning. Indeed, his mother was so cynical regarding his ability, or want of it, that she called him “the fool of the family.”
The dictum that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton may have been true so far as other officers were concerned, but the younger Wellesley showed not the slightest interest in games. He preferred the fiddle to cricket, for he inherited his father’s passion for music. “I was a player on the violin once myself, sir,” he mentioned to an acquaintance in after years, “but I soon found that fiddling and soldiering didn’t agree—so I gave it up, sir! I gave it up!” He was a great admirer of Handel’s compositions.
One precious anecdote regarding his life at the famous public school has been spared to posterity, and appropriately enough it is a record of his first serious fight—not with a sword, but with fisticuffs. Robert Smith, brother of Sydney Smith, the witty divine and essayist, happened to be bathing in the river when Wellesley was passing. Prompted by some evil or jocular spirit the latter picked up a handful of small stones and began to pelt his fellow student. Smith yelled that he would thrash him if he did not stop. Wellesley defiantly dared him to do so. The enraged “Bobus” promptly waded out and accepted the challenge, which he regretted before many rounds had been fought.
Although Wellesley was by no means of a pugnacious disposition, a second fight, in which he was not victorious, took place during a holiday spent at the Welsh home of his maternal grandfather, Lord Dungannon. His opponent was a young blacksmith, named Hughes, who lived to hear of the mighty exploits of the Iron Duke. He was never tired of telling how he once conquered the vanquisher of Napoleon. It was his one title to fame.
After leaving Eton, Wellesley was taken to Brussels in 1784 by his mother, who found the many attractions of London society a heavy tax on a slender purse, for she had removed to the Metropolis on the death of her husband. As her son seemed to take little or no interest in anything but the army, and as that service was then considered a desirable alternative to the Church for the fool of the family, Lady Mornington accepted the offer of some friends to provide for his military education. Whatever ability her fourth son displayed seems to have been less obvious to her than to others, as frequently happens. “They are all,” she writes with reference to her family, “I think, endowed with excellent abilities except Arthur, and he would probably not be wanting, if only there was more energy in his nature; but he is so wanting in this respect, that I really do not know what to do with him.” However, the youth whom she described as being “food for powder and nothing more” was packed across the frontier to Angers. She herself returned to London in 1785, Wellesley proceeding to the quaint old town associated with King John of England. Here he had his first encounter with the French, and there is a celebrated picture showing him in conversation with the Marquis of Pignerol.
Pignerol, who presided over an Academy, not exclusively devoted to the training of would-be soldiers as some writers have assumed, was an engineer officer, and did his best to initiate the Irish lad into some of the mysteries of the science of war. As his pupil only remained at Angers for about twelve months, he cannot have learned more than the rudiments, but he assimilated French with comparative ease. Unlike Napoleon, who was never happier than when he was poring over military books at Brienne, Wellesley enjoyed much good society. He made the acquaintance of the Duc de Brissac, who seems to have been a delightful foster-father of the scholars, for he frequently entertained them at his château. The Duc de Praslin, the Abbé Siéyès, later one of the French Consuls, D’Archambault, Talleyrand’s brother, Jaucourt, who afterwards became Secretary for Foreign Affairs under Louis XVIII, were all on his visiting list. It is quite probable that among his schoolmates was Chateaubriand, destined to fill an honoured place in the world of letters, but of this, said the Duke, he was not absolutely certain.
The British army was not then the skilfully organised fighting-machine it has since become. Entrance into its ranks as an officer was not difficult, provided one had financial support and influence. This explains the rapid promotion of Wellesley. At the age of seventeen he began his military career as an ensign in a Foot regiment, his gazette being dated the 7th March 1787. Nine months later he was promoted lieutenant into the 76th. By successive steps he rose to be captain (1791), major (1793), lieutenant-colonel (1793), and colonel (1796). A colonel at twenty-seven is beyond the dreams of mortal men to-day, and this advancement contrasts oddly with the slow progress of Nelson, Wellesley’s great naval contemporary, who had to depend upon his own unaided merits for promotion. In 1793, six years following his first appointment, he was placed in command of the 33rd Foot, after having experience of the cavalry by serving in both the 12th and 18th Light Dragoons.
A little influence went a long way in those casual times; there was nothing so valuable as “a friend at court.” Unlike many aristocratic nobodies who secured high position, Wellesley afterwards proved his worth, but he scarcely would have ascended the military ladder with such astonishing quickness had not his brother Richard held office under the younger Pitt. Lord Westmorland, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, also took a fancy to him and made him one of hisaides-de-camp.
In 1790, when he was still in his twenty-first year, he entered the Irish House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Trim, County Meath, a “pocket borough” of the Wellesley family. We are told by Sir Jonah Barrington, who made his acquaintance some three years later, that the young soldier “was then ruddy-faced and juvenile in appearance, and popular enough among the young men of his age and station. His address was unpolished; he occasionally spoke in Parliament, but not successfully, and never on important subjects; and evinced no promise of that unparalleled celebrity and splendour which he has since reached, and whereto intrepidity and decision, good luck, and great military science have justly combined to elevate him.” The same authority then proceeds to introduce us to Lord Castlereagh, and adds: “At the period to which I allude, I feel confident nobody could have predicted that one of those young gentlemen would become the most celebrated English general of his era, and the other one of the most mischievous statesmen and unfortunate ministers that has ever appeared in modern Europe. However, it is observable that to the personal intimacy and reciprocal friendship of those two individuals they mutually owed the extent of their respective elevation and celebrity: Sir Arthur Wellesley never would have had the chief command in Spain but for the ministerial manœuvring and aid of Lord Castlereagh; and Lord Castlereagh never could have stood his ground as a minister, but for Lord Wellington’s successes.”
Another contemporary tells quite a different story of Wellesley’s ability, and as he also heard him in 1793 it is printed here in order that the reader may not be prejudiced by Barrington’s opinion. So much is determined by the point-of-view of the witness. The occasion was a debate on the perennial question of the Roman Catholics. Captain Wellesley’s remarks, we are told, “were terse and pertinent, his delivery fluent, and his manner unembarrassed.” Gleig, who was intimately acquainted with the Duke, says that he “seems to have spoken but rarely, and never at any length. His votes were of course given in support of the party to which he belonged, but otherwise he entered very little into the business of the House.” He mentions but one incident connected with this period, namely, Wellesley’s attachment to the Hon. Catherine Pakenham, an acknowledged Society beauty and a daughter of Baron Longford. His Lordship, possessing a keen eye for the practical affairs of life, objected to the match on the score of lack of money, but there is little doubt that the couple came to a mutual understanding.
That Wellesley took more than a casual interest in his military duties is evident, and if he did not display the inherent genius of Napoleon he certainly went about his duties in a highly commendable and workmanlike manner. For instance, he had scarcely donned the uniform of his first regiment before he entered into calculations regarding the weight of the accoutrements, ammunition, and other paraphernalia carried by a private when in marching order. For this purpose he ordered a soldier to be weighed both with and without his trappings.
“I wished,” he says, “to have some measure of the power of the individual man compared with the weight he was to carry and the work he was expected to do. I was not so young as not to know that since I had undertaken a profession I had better endeavour to understand it.” He adds, “It must always be kept in mind that the power of the greatest armies depends upon what the individual soldier is capable of doing and bearing,” a maxim which still holds good, notwithstanding the many changes effected in the course of a century and a quarter. However excellent the gun, it is the man behind it which determines the issue.
It was not until 1794 that Wellesley underwent the hardships of active service. Before that phase of his career is detailed we must make a hasty and general survey of the wide and scattered field of action. The occasion was the second year of the great strife which occupied the attention of Europe, with little intermittance, for over twenty years. The gauntlet had been flung down by France in 1792, when war was declared against the Holy Roman Empire, with which Prussia made common cause. The campaign was an eye-opener to all Europe, for although the Prussians and Austrians began well they did not follow up their advantages, particularly when the road to Châlons and Paris lay open to the former. At Valmy the Prussians were defeated, and subsequently withdrew across the frontier in a deplorable condition of dearth and disease. Dumouriez then invaded Flanders, and was victorious over the Austrians at Jemappes, a success followed by the fall of Mons, Malines, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, and Namur, while smaller towns, such as Tournay, Ostend, and Bruges welcomed the victorious troops with open arms as the heralds of a new era.
In Savoy the scanty Sardinian forces were routed by Montesquiou, and the country annexed, as was Nice by Anselme. With the dawning of 1793 Belgium shared a similar fate, and the occupation of Dutch territory was decided on. This latter was an extremely foolish move, as events soon proved.
England and Holland became involved in the second month of the new year, when the French Convention announced hostile intentions to both Powers. Previous to this, Great Britain had maintained a strict neutrality. She now commenced proceedings by sending 10,000 troops to Holland under the incompetent Duke of York, where they united with a similar force of Hessians and Hanoverians, whose expenses were met by English gold, a plentiful supply of which also found its way into the coffers of other Powers. The Island Kingdom and Russia had already allied themselves, although the Czarina’s designs on Poland precluded immediate co-operation, and during the next few months Sardinia, Spain, Naples, Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, and Portugal joined in mutual support.
Dumouriez duly appeared on Dutch territory, but was compelled to retreat on Flanders by the defeat of the general engaged in besieging Maestricht. On resuming offensive operations he himself lost the battle of Neerwinden. Within a fortnight the French had abandoned all their conquests in Belgium, which again passed into the possession of Austria. Dumouriez took refuge in the camp of the Imperialists after negotiating with Coburg, the commander of the “White Coats,” to place the frontier fortresses into his hands and to unite the two armies. Neither arrangement was carried through, for the defeated general found it more prudent to fly the country. Mayence, on the Rhine, was invested by the Prussians, to whom it eventually capitulated, and Valenciennes and Condé were successfully besieged by the Austrians and British. All three fortresses fell during July 1793.
The tide was beginning to turn even in France, for Toulon and Lyons openly revolted, and civil war broke out in La Vendée. Had the Allies made a concerted effort, the defeat of the Republican cause could scarcely have failed to follow, but they quarrelled amongst themselves instead of following up their advantage. They squandered their strength by dividing their army into detachments, and much precious time was wasted by the diversion on Dunkirk made by the English, Hanoverian, Hessian, and some of the Austrian forces, about 37,000 strong.
The Revolutionary Government, augmenting its fighting body, instructed General Houchard to attack the enemy before the historic seaport. As a sequel to this movement the Duke of York was forced to retreat and abandon forty guns and much of his baggage. Houchard’s triumph was short-lived. He met with disaster at the hands of the Austrians, and paid the price of failure with his head. With the Convention defeat spelt death. Professing the Cause of Humanity, it refused to be humanitarian.
By the middle of September all the important fortresses which blockaded the way of the Allies to the Capital had fallen, with the exception of Maubeuge. The victory of Jourdan, the successor of Houchard, over the covering force at Wattignies saved the situation, and on the 17th October the French marched into Maubeuge. On the Upper Rhine the Allies found themselves in possession of Metz only, at the end of 1793. In the south-west of Europe the campaign made no further progress, and the Republican cause gained fresh impetus by the crushing of the royalist risings at Lyons and Toulon. It will be remembered that Napoleon won his first laurels in helping to subjugate the great arsenal in the south of France, and in forcing the withdrawal of the British fleet under Hood which had gone to support the rebellious inhabitants.
These facts, dry as dust though they may be, are essential to a correct understanding of the part played by Wellington in the early days of the Great War detailed in the following chapter.
“I learnt what one ought not to do, and that is always something.”
The pages of military romance teem with references to the disappointed lover who seeks to assuage his sorrow by active service. In actual life one doubts whether such things often happen, but it appears that it was true of Arthur Wellesley. He asked his eldest brother to use his influence with Pitt to persuade Lord Westmorland to send him “as major to one of the flank corps,” his own regiment being “the last for service.” The request was refused, and the young officer had to wait until May 1794. Orders were then issued for the 33rd to proceed on foreign service as part of a contingent under Lord Moira which was urgently required to reinforce the Duke of York.
The Allies had not only experienced a series of defeats, but Prussia had withdrawn many of her forces on the Rhine for service in Poland, the dismemberment of which seemed to offer more tangible advantages than the protracted warfare against “armed opinions.” As a member of the Holy Roman Empire she had of necessity to supply 20,000 troops—a mere handful—and she announced her intention of merely fulfilling this obligation. Again British gold came to the rescue, and Prussia, by a treaty signed on the 19th April 1794, agreed to keep 62,000 men at the disposal of the Allies in return for a handsome subsidy. The unfortunate Austrian general, Mack, was then given command of the new campaign. The fatal mistake was repeated of dividing the army, with the result that while the Imperialists under Clerfait were forced to retreat on Tournay, the Duke of York, aided by Prince Schwartzenberg, secured an advantage at Troisville. A series of actions around Tourcoing followed on the 16th to the 18th May, during which his Highness narrowly escaped being made a prisoner, owing partly to his having been left isolated by the cutting off of his communications, and partly to a praiseworthy determination to hold the positions his troops had gained. At Pont-à-chin, near Tournay, the repeated attempts of Pichegru to secure the village ended in disaster. On the 26th June the Austrians, in their endeavour to relieve Charleroi, which had surrendered to the growing forces of the French under Jourdan a few hours before, were forced to retreat from the plains of Fleurus. “The loss of Flanders,” says Alison, “immediately followed a contest which an enterprizing general would have converted into the most decisive triumph.” The Duke of York, having sustained a reverse at Oudenarde, was also retreating, intent upon covering Antwerp and Holland.
Wellesley arrived at Ostend with his regiment in June 1794, from whence he was sent to Antwerp, on which the Duke of York and the Prince of Orange shortly afterwards fell back, while Moira marched to Malines. The Colonel held that his senior officer would have been better advised had he and his troops proceeded up the Scheldt or the Maes in boats, an opinion subsequently confirmed by events.
After settling necessary matters Wellesley carried out his instructions and reached the Duke of York several days before Moira was in touch with him. It was a moral victory for the young officer, and doubtless served the very useful purpose of stimulating his ambition.
For three months the Duke of York and the Prince of Orange remained at Antwerp. The Commander of the Dutch troops then retired towards the Rhine, and the former moved towards Holland. During the march General Abercromby was told to secure the village of Boxtel, captured on the previous evening by one of Pichegru’s divisions. A desperate affray ensued, and notwithstanding the intrepid bravery of the British infantry, cavalry, and artillery, it ended in disaster. It is extremely probable that the entire force would have been annihilated but for Wellesley’s promptitude in covering the retreat. No opposition was offered until the British were passing through a wood, when a masked battery opened fire. A little later there was considerable confusion, and a body of French Hussars charged forward only to meet Wellesley’s battalion drawn across the road. They were repulsed, thanks to the valour of the young commander.
Throughout an extremely severe winter the British were continually pressed by the ardent Republicans. From October to January 1795 Wellesley held a post on the Waal, and the arduous nature of his duties is described by him in letters written at the time. “At present,” he says on the 20th December 1794, “the French keep us in a perpetual state of alarm; we turn out once, sometimes twice, every night; the officers and men are harassed to death, and if we are not relieved, I believe there will be very few of the latter remaining shortly. I have not had the clothes off my back for a long time, and generally spend the greatest part of the night upon the bank of the river, notwithstanding which I have entirely got rid of that disorder which was near killing me at the close of the summer campaign. Although the French annoy us much at night, they are very entertaining during the daytime; they are perpetually chattering with our officers and soldiers, and dance the carmagnol upon the opposite bank whenever we desire them; but occasionally the spectators on our side are interrupted in the middle of a dance by a cannon ball from theirs.”
It is a genial, good-natured message, but Wellesley always held his feelings well under control. In the above he chose to reveal the humorous aspect of the long-drawn-out agony. There was plenty to complain about had he desired. The food supply was deficient; the wounded had to bear their agonies with the patience of Stoics, because the stock of medicines ran short; and the general privation was terrible. A pitiful lack of foresight characterised the whole campaign. What could be expected of a Commander-in-Chief who gave preference to the pleasures of the table if a dispatch arrived during a meal, and contemptuously remarked, “That will keep till the morning”? During the time of his sojourn on the Waal, Wellesley “only saw once one general from the headquarters, which was old Sir David Dundas.... We had letters from England, and I declare that those letters told us more of what was passing at headquarters than we learnt from the headquarters ourselves.... It has always been a marvel to me how any of us escaped.”
That “old Sir David Dundas” thought very highly of the young officer’s conduct is evident. When he succeeded as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, on the recall of the Duke of York in the following December, Wellesley was appointed Brigadier and given command of the rear guard. By a series of retreats the tattered army eventually reached Bremen. It embarked for England early in 1795.
In summing up Wellesley’s first experience of field service, Earl Roberts states that it was, “no doubt, extremely valuable to Wellington in after years. It must have taught him that soldiers even of the best quality, well drilled, disciplined and equipped, cannot hope to be successful unless proper arrangements are made for their supply and transport; and unless those who direct the operations have formed some definite plan of action, and have sufficient zeal and professional knowledge to carry it out. If the French generals had taken full advantage of the opportunities which the incapacity of the English and German commanders threw in their way, the British force must have been annihilated.”
One is inclined to doubt whether the troops were “well drilled, disciplined and equipped” at this period. The gross incompetence of many of the highest officers is abundantly proved, and continued lack of success speedily reduces the vital strength of any regiment.
As already noted, the commissariat was execrable. We have it on the authority of one who was present that during the retreat hundreds of invalids succumbed, “whilst the shameful neglect that then pervaded the medical department, rendered the hospitals nothing better than slaughter-houses for the wounded and the sick.”
Shortly after Wellesley reached England he decided to leave the Army. The cause is unknown, but it seems highly probable that either his recent experience had disgusted him with the service as constituted, or he wished to obtain more remunerative employment so that he might be in a position to marry the lady of his choice. He also owed money to his brother, who had made advances for his promotion. This sum could be repaid by the sale of his commission. Although Wellesley was always scrupulous in money matters, the reason seems scarcely credible. We are therefore forced to accept one of the other alternatives, perhaps both, for mention is made of the miserable state of the Army in his letter to Lord Camden regarding the desired appointment. He consulted Mornington on the matter, and it was decided that a position under the Revenue or Treasury Boards would serve his purpose. “If your Excellency,” he writes to the Viceroy, “is of opinion that the offices at these boards are too high for me, of course you will say so; and as I am convinced that no man is so bad a judge of a claim as he who makes it, I trust you will not believe that I shall feel otherwise towards you than as I have always felt, with sentiments of the greatest regard.... You will probably be surprised at my desiring a civil instead of a military office. It is certainly a departure from the line which I prefer, but I see the manner in which the military offices are filled, and I don’t want to ask you for that which I know you cannot give me.”
Research has failed to discover what answer, if any, was vouchsafed this communication. Wellesley remained in the Army. In October 1795 he and his regiment sailed from Southampton as part of an expedition against the French settlements in the West Indies. The vessels encountered a terrible gale, still known as “Christian’s Storm,” after the name of the admiral who commanded the fleet. While it might be untrue to say that the ships were in an unseaworthy condition, their sanitary state was deplorable, for they had but recently returned from a long voyage as hospital and prison transports. Scarcely forty-eight hours after they had sailed, and when they were off Weymouth, the full force of the blast struck them. One vessel foundered with all hands, half-a-dozen or more were totally dismasted, and hundreds of soldiers went to their death in a battle with the elements against which all the drill in the world was ineffectual. Fortunately Wellesley escaped, but when he received orders, in April 1796, to embark his men for India he was too ill to accompany them. However, he set sail for Calcutta in June, and overtaking the 33rd Regiment at the Cape of Good Hope, duly reached his destination in February 1797. “The station is so highly advantageous to him that I could not advise him to decline it,” says Lord Mornington. The good-natured Earl little knew what advantage, both to Wellesley and the Empire, was to accrue as the result of the failure of his brother’s civil ambitions.
India, “a country fertile in heroes and statesmen.”
The proverb to the effect that “History repeats itself” is not strictly true. The further we study the subject, the more we find that like causes do not necessarily bring about similar effects. The ill success which attended the expedition to the West Indies, ere it left the English Channel, has a fitting parallel so far as its practical utility is concerned in the force placed at General St Leger’s disposal to attack Manilla, the Philippine Islands then being in the possession of Spain, with whom Great Britain was now at war. Fortunately it did not meet with disaster, but neither expedition reached its destination. Wellesley accepted the offer of Sir John Shore, the Governor-General of India, to command a brigade, and the troops were embarked. They had not proceeded farther than Penang before an order was issued for their recall owing to troubles brewing in India itself.
Shortly after his return to Calcutta the Colonel was placed in command of the forces in Madras. He also heard that his eldest brother had been offered the extremely responsible and difficult post of Governor-General in succession to Sir John Shore. It was now his turn to feed the flames of Mornington’s ambition. He writes: “I strongly advise you to come out. I am convinced that you will retain your health; nay, it is possible that its general state may be improved, and you will have the fairest opportunity of rendering material service to the public and of doing yourself credit.” Mornington lacked self-confidence, and a thousand and one doubts and fears possessed his mind. The Colonel reminded him that if he refused so advantageous a position on account of his young family, “you forego both for yourself and them what will certainly be a material and lasting advantage.”
Mornington accepted, and arrived at Calcutta with his youngest brother, Henry, as private secretary in the middle of May 1798. He speedily found an antidote for home-sickness in endeavouring to unravel the tangled skein of affairs in Mysore, where Tipú Sultan was intriguing with the French Republic for assistance in attacking the possessions of the East India Company in Southern India. The pugnacious character of the son of Hyder Ali was typified by the tiger’s stripes on his flag. He possessed the fanaticism and barbarity of the Oriental at his worst, and when opportunity occurred would feed a beast of prey with an English prisoner.
To secure either the friendship or the neutrality of the Nizám, whose territory abutted that of the bloodthirsty Tipú, now became of paramount importance. His army was officered by Frenchmen, which was proof positive that in the event of war it would assist Britain’s enemy, although the Nizám had a distinct leaning towards the English. As it happened, the native troops mutinied against their officers, and, seizing his opportunity, the Nizám dismissed them. They were sent to England as prisoners, and subsequently allowed to return to their own country, a most humane consideration, for which Mornington was largely responsible. The military positions they formerly occupied were promptly filled by our own officers. A new treaty was made to preclude the Marhattás from allying themselves with Tipú, and a force of 6000 British troops was maintained by the Nizám at Hyderabad.
Meanwhile Wellesley had proceeded with his regiment to Madras, and, owing to the death of the senior officer, was placed in temporary command of the troops. In communication with Lord Clive, the Governor of the Presidency, and General Harris, the Commander-in-Chief, he busied himself with the multitudinous arrangements necessary for an advance upon Seringapatam, the capital of the Mysore Dominions. Horses, bullocks, and elephants had to be provided for the purpose of transport; forts equipped and provisioned; the siege train properly organized. He drew up a plan of campaign, and bent himself to the task with exacting energy. Notwithstanding the preparations for war, he still hoped that a resort to arms would prove unnecessary. Those who are apt to think that all military men delight in strife for the mere love of it will do well to remember this fact and judge less harshly, for Wellington is the typical representative of the British Army. But he believed in being ready, and hated nothing so much as “muddling through.”
There was still a possibility, though scarcely a probability, that Tipú would repent. He had received word that Napoleon, then on his famous Egyptian expedition, was coming to his aid with an “invincible army.” So far he had refused a definite statement of policy. Not until it was abundantly evident that the protracted negotiations of the Sultan of Mysore with the Government were merely to gain time, was a declaration of war issued on the 22nd February 1799. According to Wellesley, General Harris “expressed his approbation of what I had done, and adopted as his own all the orders and regulations I had made, and then said that he should mention his approbation publicly, only that he was afraid others would be displeased and jealous. Now as there is nothing to be got in the army except credit, and as it is not always that the best intentions and endeavours to serve the public succeed, it is hard that when they do succeed they should not receive the approbation which it is acknowledged by all they deserve. I was much hurt about it at the time, but I don’t care now, and shall certainly do everything to serve General Harris, and to support his name and authority.”
Wellesley never feared to speak his mind, as his voluminous dispatches abundantly testify. In a letter to Mornington he admits that he had “lectured” the Commander-in-Chief because he allowed the Madras Military Board too much license in the matter of appointments. On the other hand, he had “urged publicly to the army (in which I flatter myself I have some influence) the necessity of supporting him, whether he be right or wrong.” In his opinion it was “impossible” to hold the General “too high, if he is to be the head of the army in the field.”
Harris certainly compensated Wellesley to some extent by placing him in command of thirteen regiments, including the Nizám’s contingent, with the rank of brigadier. The strength of this force was about 16,000 men, that of the whole army 35,000, excluding 120,000 camp followers, the bugbear of the old-time commander. The Bombay corps under General Stuart attacked a portion of the enemy, commanded by the wily Tipú, in the vicinity of Sedasser, on the 6th March. This success augured well, for the Sultan was forced to retire.
Harris’s first serious engagement took place near Malavelly on the 27th, Wellesley advancing to the attack and turning Tipú’s right flank. After an engagement lasting three hours the enemy withdrew, with the loss of some 2000 men by death or wounds against the British 7 killed and 53 wounded. Tipú was a skilful soldier, and had not neglected to throw up a line of entrenchments before Seringapatam, into which city he now withdrew. To drive in theadvanced outposts before definitely besieging the place was Harris’s first object. This duty was intrusted to Wellesley and Colonel Shaw respectively, each having charge of a detachment. It was the task of the former to carry a tope, or thicket, and a village called Sultanpettah. He failed, for reasons explained in the following letter:
“On the night of the 5th, we made an attack on the enemy’s outposts, which, at least on my side, was not quite so successful as could have been wished. The fact is, that the night was very dark, that the enemy expected us, and were strongly posted in an almost impenetrable jungle. We lost an officer, killed, and nine men of the 33rd wounded, and at last, as I could not find out the post which it was desirable I should occupy, I was obliged to desist from the attack, the enemy also having retired from the post. In the morning they re-occupied it, and we attacked it again at day-light, and carried it with ease and with little loss. I got a slight touch on the knee, from which I have felt no inconvenience, and I have come to the determination never to suffer an attack to be made by night upon an enemy who was prepared and strongly posted, and whose posts had not been reconnoitred by daylight.” It should be added that twelve soldiers were taken prisoner and executed by the brutal method of nails being driven through their heads, and that Wellesley had previously given it as his opinion that the projected attack on the thicket would be a mistake. The operation undertaken by Colonel Shaw was successful.
The siege now proceeded in earnest, but a breach was not made in the solid walls surrounding Seringapatam for three days. On the 4th May the place was stormed by General Baird. General Sherbrooke’s right column was the first to ford the Cauvery River. His men speedily scaled the ramparts, and engaged that part of the Sultan’s 22,000 troops stationed in the immediate vicinity. The defenders fought with the fatalistic energy and determination so characteristic of the natives of India. The left column followed, but found the way more difficult. Tipú, mounting the ramparts, fired at the oncoming red-coats with muskets handed to him by his attendants. It was his last battle; his body was afterwards discovered in a covered gateway, together with hundreds of others. Wellesley, with his corps, occupied the trenches as a first reserve.
“About a quarter past one p.m.,” says an eye-witness, “as we were anxiously peering, telescope in hand, at the ford, and the intermediate ground between our batteries and the breach, a sharp and sudden discharge of musquetry and rockets, along the western face of the fort, announced to us that General Baird and the column of assault were crossing the ford; and immediately afterwards, we perceived our soldiers, in rather loose array, rushing towards the breach. The moment was one of agony; and we continued, with aching eyes, to watch the result, until, after a short and appalling interval, we saw the acclivity of the breach covered with a cloud of crimson,—and in a very few minutes afterwards, observing the files passing rapidly to the right and left at the summit of the breach, I could not help exclaiming, ‘Thank God! the business is done.’
“The firing continued in different parts of the place until about two o’clock, or a little afterwards; when, the whole of the works being in the possession of our troops, and the St George’s ensign floating proudly from the flagstaff of the southern cavalier, announced to us that the triumph was completed.”
On the 5th, Wellesley took over the command from Baird, who had requested temporary leave of absence, and without delay began to restore some kind of order among the British troops, whose one object after victory was plunder, in which matter they showed little delicacy of feeling. The city was on fire in several places, but the flames were all extinguished within twenty-four hours, and the inhabitants were “retiring to their homes fast.” Having stopped, “by hanging, flogging, etc.,” the insubordination of the troops and the rifling of the dead by the camp followers who had flocked in, Wellesley proceeded to bury those who had fallen.
During the four weeks of the siege the British lost 22 officers and 310 men, and no fewer than 45 officers and 1164 men were reported as wounded and missing. The Commander mentions that jewels of the greatest value, and bars of gold, were obtained. As the prize agents assessed the treasure taken at £1,143,216, the wealth of Seringapatam must have been astounding. Wellesley’s share came to about £4000. Hundreds of animals were required to carry the rich stuffs, plate, and richly-bound books from this city of opulence. A little humorous relief to so much sordidness is afforded by Wellesley’s difficulties regarding some of the late Sultan’s pets. “There are some tigers here,” he writes, “which I wish Meer Allum would send for, or else I must give orders to have them shot, as there is no food for them, and nobody to attend to them, and they are getting violent.” Tipú’s 650 wives gave less trouble than the wild beasts. They were removed to a remote region and set at liberty.
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