Written for: MilitaryHistoryNow.com • September, 2020 •
Many remember Waterloo as Wellington’s most greatest victory. Yet by the time of his famous showdown with Napoleon in 1815, he’d already fought and won 32 battles.
(Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
“While Waterloo remains Wellington’s last and most celebrated battle, it is hardly his most impressive victory.” By Marcus Cribb
THE Battle of Waterloo is a true landmark of history. It was there, just a few miles south of Brussels on June 18, 1815, that three vast armies fought for the future of Europe. The commanders included, Napoleon Bonaparte, the recently reinstalled ruler of France, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher of Prussia and Arthur Wellesley, Britain’s Duke of Wellington.
The details of the battle are well known: Napoleon returns from exile and within 100 days, raises a new army and invades Belgium to divide the allied forces poised to yet again remove him from power. Bonaparte wins at Ligny, while his army is driven off the strategic cross-roads at Quatre Bras. Two days later, he meets Wellington at Mount St. Jean near the little town of Waterloo.
In nine hours of savage fighting, Napoleon is unable to capture the ridge upon which the Anglo-Allied army sits before the Prussians arrive, as expected, and collide with the French right flank.
Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.
(Image source: Historic England. Apsley House.)
While, Bonaparte’s dreams of rekindling his empire are at an end, Waterloo cements Wellington’s legendary status. After 1815, he goes on to become a great statesman, an advisor to three monarchs (George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria), and prime minister.
And while Waterloo remains Wellington’s last and most celebrated battle, it is hardly his most impressive victory. Indeed, Waterloo has left us with the wrong legacy: that Wellington was a defensive general famous for his “reverse slope” tactics, which effectively shielded his men from enemy fire.
Yet Wellington’s earlier victories, often overshadowed by Waterloo, are those of a far more dynamic tactician. Together, they demonstrate that when time, terrain and circumstances allowed, Wellington was a fantastic offensive general. Consider these battles:
Redcoats and East India Company troops drive the much larger Maratha army from the field at Assaye.
(Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
Assaye – September 23, 1803
When asked in later life what his greatest victory was, Wellington would often answer with just one word: “Assaye.”
Fought in India, the it saw the future Duke of Wellington, then known as General Arthur Wellesley, match 6,500 redcoats and East India Company sepoys against a 40,000-strong Maratha army (although some estimates go as high as 100,000 men) with 100 guns led by Anthony Pohlman, a European mercenary commander.
Although vastly outnumbered, Wellesley resolved to attack. In a theme that was to typify his career, he saw how to use the ground to his advantage. Identifying a ford across the river that intersected the battlefield, he personally led his infantry and guns to this vital passage.
Despite being in full view of Maratha cavalry and artillery, the British got their cannon and men across the ford, bringing them onto the flank of the Maratha army, which then turned with quick efficiency and opened up with their cannon at close range against the attackers. Despite taking heavy casualties, Wellesley ordered a bayonet charge against the enemy artillery. It succeeded.
(Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
Meanwhile, on the British left, the Maratha infantry held in line and almost broke some of British battalions with the weight of volley fire. The 78th Highlanders managed to advance and exploit an advantage, added to with a well time cavalry charge by the Light Dragoons.
Eventually Wellesley was able to move up his line and push his advantage using his Highlander troops and Sepoys. After fierce fighting, the Maratha army began to withdraw. Although some of the enemy artillerymen feigned death and re-manned their weapons when in the rear of the British lines, Wellesley had deprived the Maratha army of its prized field guns.
A pursuit of the enemy wasn’t possible, as the British and Sepoy troops were exhausted. Despite this, it was a near complete victory, with 98 Indian guns captured. And despite heavy casualties on both sides, the Maratha commanders surrendered just three months later, giving up much of their land to the British East India Company.
The victory at Assaye, which took only three hours, has been attributed to Wellesley’s coolness under fire and inspiring leadership.
“I never saw a man so cool and collected,” one of his staff officers would later write. British troops storm the north bank of the Douro River at Porto, Portugal.
(Image: The Buffs Living History Society. Oporto)
Second Battle of Porto – May 12, 1809
The Crossing of the Douro at Porto was one of Wellington’s most ambitious and risky battles – a daring gambit featuring something quite rare in the age of horse and musket: an amphibious assault. It also resulted in the liberation of Portugal from the French.
Lord Wellesley had returned to Portugal on April 22, 1809, having been cleared of all charges following the disastrous Treaty of Cintra. Within two weeks, Wellesley had conceived a new plan to drive the French out of Portugal.
With a combined British-Portuguese army of 36,000 men at his command, Wellesley split his force into three: 12,000 were left behind in Lisbon to protect the capital, 6,000 were with William Carr Beresford with orders to march behind the French front and sever their likely line of retreat, while Wellesley led the remaining 17,300 north from Coimbra to face France’s Marshal Soult at Porto. Porto was vital to Portuguese trade and strategically dominated the north of the country. The wide River Douro runs through its centre.
(Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
Following the French sacking of the city on March 28, during which Soult’s army massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians, the invaders ordered all barges and boats found on the river be confiscated or destroyed. Necessary for local transportation and commerce, many citizens defied the French and hid their vessels as best they could.
Believing he had gutted Porto’s river boat fleet, Soult doubted that Wellesley, who was approaching from the south, could cross the Douro. The French marshal languished in bed as his men prepared to remove wagons full of loot. Believing his soldiers were safe on the north bank, Soult did little as Wellesley’s troops infiltrated the southern side of the city, soon occupying the heights there. Help for Wellesley came in an unlikely form: a local Portuguese barber approached the British to offer a barge he’d hidden from the French. The future duke ordered men from the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment – “the Buffs” – to cross to Douro and occupy a walled seminary high on the north bank. Amazingly, the French mistook the British troops for one of their own Swiss regiments, some of which wore red coats. The civilians in Porto made no such error. Recognising that that their liberation was at hand, local boat owners brought four more barges to Wellesley’s position. These would allow even more men to cross in waves. Looking over the anxious, but keen residents offering their vessels, Wellesley waved them forward. “Let them cross,” he ordered an aide.
Soon hundreds of British troops were in position in the heart of Porto and in possession of a building with strong stone walls on high ground.
When Soult realised what was happening, it was already too late.
French troops charged up the slopes towards the seminary, but British redcoats firing from the roof and windows of the building, supported by guns of the Royal Artillery across the river, decimated the attackers.
Before long the French were in a full rout from the city taking what loot they could carry into the mountain passes. Wellesley would pursue to capture as many prisoners in the treacherous terrain as possible.
Soult’s army had suffered a humiliating defeat and lost a vital city. The French losses were 300 killed and wounded with 1,500 prisoners. Wellesley’s force suffered just 23 killed and 98 wounded.
The Battle of Salamanca. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
Salamanca – July 22, 1812
Undoubtedly one of the Allies’ greatest victories of the Napoleonic Wars and Wellesley’s “masterstroke” was the Battle of Salamanca. It’s here that the future Duke of Wellington saw and exploited a momentary advantage and turned it into a remarkable triumph.
After capturing the fortress city of Badajoz in April, Wellesley set off to take the French supply depot at Salamanca. Marshal Marmont, commander of 49,000 French troops, marched out to cut off the British advance.
As the Anglo-Allied army approached Salamanca, the two armies conducted a series of manoeuvres across the Spanish countryside in hopes of gaining an advantage. At times, the opposing columns found themselves as little as one mile apart but refused to commit to battle.
After days of jockeying for position, Marmont made a crucial mistake. Discounting a distant column of dust on the horizon as the harmless British baggage train, the French marshal pivoted his army towards where he believed Wellesley’s force was. In reality, the cloud was from 50,000 Allied soldiers, horses and guns on the move. Marmont had turned his army in the wrong direction, leaving himself dangerously exposed.
Wellesley instantly spotted his opening. As he dined on a chicken leg from his haversack while watching Marmont raggedly deploy his army away from the British column along a steep L-shaped ridge, known as the Greater Arapile, the general cried out. “By God that will do,” he is reported to have exclaimed in excitement, throwing his lunch over his shoulder and immediately scratching out orders for the coming battle. Wellington launched two full infantry divisions at the French centre, supported by another two. As they attacked, Wellesley shifted his 7th Division, out to the western flank.
Riding hell-for-leather on his famous stallion Copenhagen, Wellesley ordered the men of the 7th to swing into the head on the French line. Observers marvelled as the future duke out-paced the younger men galloping alongside him.
Marmont, suddenly realising his army’s peril, ran for a horse, but a British shell exploded near him, breaking an arm and ribs. His second-in-command, General Bonet, was wounded soon afterwards. As the French troops fell back, Major-General John Le Marchant‘s heavy brigade of British dragoons charged. The timing was near perfect as the cavalry rode through the enemy lines before the infantry could form squares. Le Marchant, knowing he had achieved a magnificent success by crushing eight French battalions, was leading his men when he was shot in the spine and killed. As the British heavy cavalry extended their charge, the redcoats struck pressed the victory home. Both the 2nd 30th (Cambridgeshire) and 2nd 44th (East Essex) regiments of foot captured French Imperial Eagles.
The acting French commander, Clausel, attempted a counter-attack throwing some men forward. The advancing Anglo-Portuguese line rebuffed them and soon the entire French army, except one single division was in full retreat. To their credit, the holdouts acted in good order and provided a rear-guard, otherwise many more French units would have been swept into captivity. Marmont’s army lost over 14,000 men and 20 guns, along with the two Imperial Eagles. Wellesley lost less than half of that. It was said that the British general “defeated an army of 40,000 men in 40 minutes.”
British and Allied troops press the attack at Vitoria, Spain. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
Vitoria – June 21, 1813
Following his victory at Salamanca, Wellesley withdrew to Portugal to regroup for a fresh offensive in Spain in 1813. In May, he moved his army through mountain passes into northern Spain to outflank the French armies of Marshal Jourdan and Napoleon’s own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, which were scattered between the Douro and Tagus rivers.
By June, Jourdan’s 68,000-man army sat at Vitoria as the French marshal lay ill with fever. Meanwhile, an enormous wagon train of stolen loot clogged the streets of the city, booty plundered over years of France’s occupation of Spain. More than 150 guns were also in tow. Wellesley planned to attack and destroy the enemy as it idled. At his disposal was a large, experienced army, comprising of 52,000 British and 28,000 Portuguese troops with 90 guns. As many as 25,000 Spanish marched with them.
Wellesley’s plan involved splitting his force into four attacking columns, and striking the French defensive position at Vitoria from the south, west and north, while the last column cut across the French rear. He’d need to act swiftly before any French reinforcements could be brought to bear. Wellington, discovering that the bridge across the Zadorra at the village of Trespuentes was unguarded, sent a brigade of the famous Light Division to secure the crossing with virtually no opposition. Meanwhile another column worked its way onto the heights overlooking Vitoria to start what would be a close and brutal fight.
Wellesley’s ‘columns’ strategy put pressure all-round the French positions. Although divided, his forces threatened to surround the French and pushed the defenders back at several points. Jourdan, realising that he was about to be enveloped, withdrew much of his army back to Vitoria, but with the enemy advancing on multiple sides, French morale collapsed. All 151 French guns, except one, were abandoned, the crews, cutting their horses free and riding to escape, leaving their precious weapons to be captured. Some would be repurposed and used against the French, others would be returned to Britain as trophies.
Upon entering Vitoria, the British soldiers found the streets choked with fleeing French and the wagons of loot. It’s thought that Joseph Bonaparte abandoned his coach and escaped on horseback, while Jourdan lost his prised marshal’s baton in the confusion. The Anglo-Allied triumph at Vitoria didn’t just herald the collapse of France’s war in Spain, it helped encourage Austria to re-join the war against Napoleon, despite Bonaparte’s marriage into the Austrian royal family.
Redcoats and green jackets charge up the slopes into the teeth of the French defences at the River Nivelle (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
Nivelle – November 10, 1813
Attacking into France over the Pyrenees in late 1813, Wellesley fought a series of battles that drove Napoleon’s shattered forces into their own territory.
By the time the snow was flying in 1813, the emperor’s army in the west found itself holed up in a string of mountain redoubts along the Spanish frontier.
By November, the line stretched 20 miles from French soil along the shore of the Bay of Biscay south back into Spain towards Pamplona. With only 60,000 men and no reserves, Soult was stretched impossibly thin.
Wellesley arranged his forces along the breadth of the French line, but massed troops in front of the enemy centre. A breakthrough there would isolate the Soult’s flanks.
The battle started just before dawn on November 10, with an assault on three enemy forts by the men of the Light Division, the 43rd and 52nd Light Infantry, along with the famous 95th Rifles and 17th Portuguese. Despite the risk of charging directly into enemy fortifications, Wellesley’s troops swept the defenders from the ramparts with ease. In one case, the French were so surprised by the sudden appearance of British troops, they fled without inflicting a single casualty.
The main British assault began with the advance of nine divisions dispersed over a five-mile front. When the British 3rd Division took the bridge at Amotz, all French resistance broke and communication between the now separate halves of Soult’s army were cut. By 2 p.m., the French abandoned their defences and were streaming across the Nivelle River having lost over 4,350 men. Anglo-Allied casualties were 2,450.
Wellington at Waterloo. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)
Arthur Wellesley, who was made the 1st Duke of Wellington in 1814, won more than 32 battles in his career; he was never defeated. After vanquishing the French for the last time at Waterloo, the Duke wept at the loss of life and swore he’d never fight again. His final victory against Napoleon remains an important milestone, not only for Wellington and Britain itself, but it also shaped modern Europe. On his death in September 1852, Queen Victoria was overcome with emotion. “He was the greatest man this country ever produced,” she declared. “And the most devoted and loyal subject, and the staunchest supporter the Crown ever had.” More than one million Britons lined the two-mile route at his lavish state funeral.
Wellington will forever be associated with Waterloo. But in this legacy, we sell the man short, praising him for stubbornly holding a ridge in the face of repeated French attacks, while waiting for Blücher’s Prussians. These five other battles paint a picture of a different kind of general: one who took bold risks and used opportunity, cunning and luck to get at the enemy. Both in campaigns and on the battlefield, it was Wellington’s daring that made him great.
Written for Military History Now. September 2020. My thanks to them for the invitation and support.
Marcus Cribb is a keen researcher on the life of the Duke of Wellington and the Peninsular War. Having been featured in podcasts and videos on the Duke’s life, he is often found at Apsley House, the home of the Duke of Wellington, where he is the manager. When not looking after Wellington’s London home, Marcus is a Napoleonic reenactor and serving NCO in the Army Reserves. Follow him on Twitter @mcribbHistory or visit his blog: www.dukeofwellington.org/blog