Napoleonic Wars: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

'Battle of Salamanca', 1815
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Arthur Wellesley was born in Dublin, Ireland in late April or early May 1769, and was the fourth son of Garret Wesley, Earl of Mornington and his wife Anne. Though initially educated locally, Wellesley later attended Eton (1781-1784), before receiving additional schooling in Brussels, Belgium. After a year at the French Royal Academy of Equitation, he returned to England in 1786. As the family was short on funds, Wellesley was encouraged to pursue a military career and was able to use connections to the Duke of Rutland to secure an ensign's commission in the army.

Serving as an aide-de-camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Wellesley was promoted to lieutenant in 1787. While serving in Ireland, he decided to enter politics and was elected to the Irish House of Commons representing Trim in 1790. Promoted to captain a year later, he fell in love with Kitty Packenham and sought her hand in marriage in 1793. His offer was declined by her family and Wellesley elected to refocus on his career. As such, he first purchased a major's commission in the 33rd Regiment of Foot before buying the lieutenant colonelcy in September 1793.

Arthur Wellesley's First Campaigns and India

In 1794, Wellesley's regiment was ordered to join the Duke of York's campaign in Flanders. Part of the French Revolutionary Wars, the campaign was an attempt by coalition forces to invade France. Taking part in the Battle of Boxtel in September, Wellesley was horrified by the campaign's poor leadership and organization. Returning to England in early 1795, he was promoted to colonel a year later. In mid-1796, his regiment received orders to sail for Calcutta, India. Arriving the following February, Wellesley was joined in 1798 by his brother Richard who had been appointed Governor-General of India.

With the outbreak of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1798, Wellesley took part in the campaign to defeat the Sultan of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. Performing well, he played a key role in the victory at the Battle of Seringapatam in April-May, 1799. Serving as the local governor after the British triumph, Wellesley was promoted to brigadier general in 1801. Elevated to major general a year later, he led British forces to victory in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. Honing his skills in the process, he badly defeated the enemy at Assaye, Argaum, and Gawilghur.​

Returning Home

For his efforts in India, Wellesley was knighted in September 1804. Returning home in 1805, he took part in the failed Anglo-Russian campaign along the Elbe. Later that year and due to his new status, he was permitted by the Packenhams to marry Kitty. Elected to Parliament from Rye in 1806, he later was made a privy councilor and appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland. Taking part in the British expedition to Denmark in 1807, he led troops to victory at the Battle of Køge in August. Promoted to lieutenant general in April 1808, he accepted command of a force intended to attack the Spanish colonies in South America.

To Portugal

Departing in July 1808, Wellesley's expedition was instead directed to the Iberian Peninsula to aid Portugal. Going ashore, he defeated the French at Roliça and Vimeiro in August. After the latter engagement, he was superseded in command by General Sir Hew Dalrymple who concluded the Convention of Sintra with the French. This permitted the defeated army to return to France with their plunder with Royal Navy providing transportation. As a result of this lenient agreement, both Dalrymple and Wellesley were recalled to Britain to face a Court of Enquiry.

The Peninsular War

Facing the board, Wellesley was cleared as he had only signed the preliminary armistice under orders. Advocating for a return to Portugal, he lobbied the government showing that it was a front on which the British could effectively fight the French. In April 1809, Wellesley arrived at Lisbon and began preparing for new operations. Going on the offensive, he defeated Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult at the Second Battle of Porto in May and pressed into Spain to unite with Spanish forces under General Gregorio García de la Cuesta.

Defeating a French army at Talavera in July, Wellesley was forced to withdraw when Soult threatened to cut his supply lines to Portugal. Short on supplies and increasingly frustrated by Cuesta, he retreated into Portuguese territory. In 1810, reinforced French forces under Marshal André Masséna invaded Portugal forcing Wellesley to retreat behind the formidable Lines of Torres Vedras. As Masséna was unable to break through the lines a stalemate ensued. After remaining in Portugal for six months, the French were forced to retreat in early 1811 due to sickness and starvation.

Advancing from Portugal, Wellesley laid siege to Almeida in April 1811. Advancing to the city's aid, Masséna met him at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro in early May. Winning a strategic victory, Wellesley was promoted to general on July 31. In 1812, he moved against the fortified cities of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. Storming the former in January, Wellesley secured the latter after a bloody fight in early April. Pushing deeper into Spain, he won a decisive victory over Marshal Auguste Marmont at the Battle of Salamanca in July.

Victory in Spain

For his triumph, he was made Earl then Marquess of Wellington. Moving on to Burgos, Wellington was unable to take the city and was forced to retreat back to Ciudad Rodrigo that fall when Soult and Marmont united their armies. In 1813, he advanced north of Burgos and switched his supply base to Santander. This move forced the French to abandon Burgos and Madrid. Outflanking the French lines, he crushed the retreating enemy at the Battle of Vitoria on June 21. In recognition of this, he was promoted to field marshal. Pursuing the French, he laid siege to San Sebastián in July and defeated Soult at Pyrenees, Bidassoa, and Nivelle. Invading France, Wellington drove Soult back after victories at the Nive and Orthez before hemming the French commander in at Toulouse in early 1814. After bloody fighting, Soult, having learned of Napoleon's abdication, agreed to an armistice.

The Hundred Days

Elevated to Duke of Wellington, he first served as ambassador to France before becoming the first plenipotentiary to the Congress of Vienna. With Napoleon's escape from Elba and subsequent return to power in February 1815, Wellington raced to Belgium to take command of the Allied army. Clashing with the French at Quatre Bras on June 16, Wellington withdrew to a ridge near Waterloo. Two days later, Wellington and Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher decisively defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

Later Life

With the end of the war, Wellington returned to politics as Master-General of the Ordnance in 1819. Eight years later he was made Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. Increasingly influential with the Tories, Wellington became prime minister in 1828. Though staunchly conservative, he advocated for and granted Catholic Emancipation. Increasingly unpopular, his government fell after only two years. He later served as foreign secretary and minister without portfolio in the governments of Robert Peel. Retiring from politics in 1846, he retained his military position until his death.

Wellington died at Walmer Castle on September 14, 1852, after suffering a stroke. Following a state funeral, he was buried at St. Paul's Cathedral in London near Britain's other hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Napoleonic Wars: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).