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Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (illustration by Michael Daley)

To suggest that Wellington is underrated may seem strange. He remains, after all, the most famous general in British history. He has had more things named after him—including the capital of New Zealand, Mount Wellington in Tasmania, the giant sequoia known (in Britain but not its native California) as Wellingtonia, and of course the eponymous boots—even than his arch-enemy Napoleon.

And yet Arthur Wellesley, as he was born, has become the least fashionable of our national heroes. The process of debunking began soon after the solemn state funeral in 1852 that left even Tennyson struggling for words. “The last great Englishman is low,” the poet lamented, but posterity has been less generous to his subject. In history books and lecture halls, the memory of Peterloo has long overshadowed that of Waterloo. Wellington is often and unfairly blamed by historians for the massacre; moreover, they begrudge him the credit for his greatest victory in favour of his Prussian ally Prince Blücher. Last month the BBC commemorated the battle, “that world-earthquake” as Tennyson could still call it, with a documentary about Wellington’s mistresses, depicting the duke as a ruthless philanderer. Little remains of the reputation of the soldier-statesman, once celebrated as the embodiment of manliness and the saviour of Europe.

Fortunately, the second volume of Rory Muir’s Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace, 1814-1852 (Yale, £30) redresses the balance. In the four decades since the last biography on this scale (by the late, great Elizabeth Longford), much has been unearthed about Wellington’s life and times. Muir begins with the Waterloo campaign and its diplomatic aftermath; then follows his subsequent political career, culminating in his premiership (1828-30); his period in opposition, rebuilding the Tory party after the 1832 Reform Act; and his record as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, bequeathing a professional service fit to defend a rapidly expanding empire.

Muir’s account rightly undermines the harsh image of the “Iron Duke”: a cold and pitiless martinet in the field, a cynical reactionary in politics, feared rather than loved by those around him. One example of his humanity must suffice. As night fell on the battlefield of Waterloo, one of the greatest victories in history, the duke wept as he was told of his friend Gordon’s death. “Well, thank God!” he said. “I don’t know what it is to lose a battle, but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” It is impossible to imagine Napoleon reacting like this. Despite his notorious remarks about his soldiery (“the scum of the earth”, etc), he did in fact look after them better than his contemporaries. Of the 7,687 men wounded at Waterloo under his command, only 11 per cent had died of their wounds a year later. Knowing what brutality his men were capable of, Wellington, in stark contrast to his allies, took care to protect civilians from their depredations, with the result that he was more popular with the occupied French than their own rulers.

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