Australian historian Muir (Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814, 2013, etc.) completes his suitably imposing biography of the Iron Duke, guiding him from war to an uneasy peacetime.
All great generals are also diplomats. So it was with Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), first Duke of Wellington, who found himself at the head of an international army in his final showdowns with Napoleon at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. When not balancing the claims of contending generals and nobles, Wellington was wooing the ladies at oddly timed balls, famously one just after Napoleon’s attack at Charleroi. Wellington might deservedly have been nostalgic for battle when, after Napoleon was packed off to Saint Helena, he was pressed into the service of the British government in various capacities, rising eventually to prime minister. Muir is unshakably comprehensive, and few details of his subject’s life and deeds go by unremarked. Naturally, there’s plenty of ammunition thereby for Monday morning quarterbacking and counterfactuals: What might have happened had the French column at Waterloo not been stacked up, one brigade after another? Might the Peterloo Massacre have been avoided? Wellington emerges from Muir’s pages as a man generally unafraid of bullets and controversy alike, well-deserving of a reputation for both sternness and honesty. Certainly, he was no saint, and not simply because of the whispers about his many affairs (which Muir, naturally, enumerates). As the author notes, his diligence and enormous appetite for work were accompanied by impatience and a lack of generosity even to the veterans of his own campaigns (“it is not easy to understand or sympathise with his motives on this occasion,” he writes of one failed effort on the part of those veterans for recognition). It helps to have a handle on late Georgian and Hanoverian British politics to understand such things as Corn Laws and Test and Corporation Acts, though this isn’t a prerequisite for appreciating Muir’s great accomplishment.
Almost certainly not the last word on Wellington but, for now, the most definitive biography of him.