First of a two-volume life of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, covering his first 45 years, a time in which he became a military legend and major political figure.
Wellesley was, writes historian Muir (Salamanca, 1812, 2001, etc.), “arguably, the greatest and most successful of all British generals.” He played a major role in the British subjugation of India and had risen to leadership when Napoleon Bonaparte decided to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. The French proved a tough and battle-hardened enemy—as Muir notes, during the Peninsular War, an account of which forms much of this book, the French were perhaps not the best in battle but were certainly great at getting from one place to another and being prepared for it—against which Wellington honed his own British forces to be the best in the world at the time. The author argues that Wellington was directly responsible for elevating Britain to the head of the list of world powers, where it would remain for the next century and more. Interestingly, he was not an uncontroversial figure; as an Irish-born politician, he had plenty of enemies in Parliament, while he came under criticism during the early campaigning in Portugal for allowing a French army to escape—and not only that, but for helping it evacuate back to France. Some of Wellington’s early biographers were among those who advanced these criticisms, and one of the virtues of Muir’s book is its political evenhandedness, as well as its understanding of the late-18th- and early-19th-century context. He is not above finding fault with his hero, either; as he writes, Wellington “could, on a bad day, be harsh and unjust, and his deep-seated conviction that he was invariably in the right did not make mending fences easy.”
Next up, Waterloo. A welcome biography, particularly for students of European geopolitics.