On this day in 1809 Arthur Wellesley became the Viscount Wellington. This was a man who knew a thing or two about PR in the days before PR was invented.
Born Arthur Wesley in Dublin he was a member of the Protestant ascendancy. He did not want to be held back by his Irish roots and is supposed to have said “Because Jesus was born in a stable did not make him a horse.”
He changed the spelling of his name to Wellesley when he was serving in India in a move to brand himself as distinct from his older brother, Richard, Lord Mornington, Governor General of India.
July 28th 1809 was when Wellesley won the Battle of Talavera against the French during the peninsular campaign. Up to this point he was looked down upon by the military establishment. He was seen by some of his contemporaries as a “Sepoy” general, a lower class of leader than those who fought in European wars. He had gained his seniority mainly through the purchase of commissions, which was standard practice at the time. The British Empire was stabilised by a system where the sons of the nobility and the ruling classes dominated the military through purchase of position. This prevented the rise of populist demagogues, such as Napoleon.
Wellesley saw some action in Germany and Denmark, but it was in the Peninsular campaign that he was destined to shine. He defeated every French field marshal in succession before eventually defeating Napoleon himself in Waterloo.
Talavera was his first real test in Iberia. Despite losing 25% of his troops, and retreating from Spain for a year, Wellesley sold it to London as a victory. As a result he was ennobled and was known henceforth as Lord Wellington, first as Viscount and later Duke.
Wellington was a quick study. At Talavera he learned that the Spaniards did not have the resources or matériel to support the British forces in Spain. While the French and Spanish armies had the ability to live off the land his troops could not. He could not risk dispersing his men to forage, and having them picked off piecemeal by superior French forces. He retreated from Spain with a tactical victory which served his interests in London, but giving the strategic victory to the French. He would not return to Spain until he could guarantee secure supplies for his forces.
At Talavera he also practiced a technique that later made him famous at Waterloo. He ordered brigades of foot soldiers to lie down on the reverse slopes of elevated positions. This kept them safe from artillery fire which was designed to clear a path for the French columns. Once the columns began to march the troops were ordered up and into the “thin red line”.
What I find most interesting about Talavera is that the winning side on the day, the combined British and Spanish forces, lost more troops than the French. This is often the way in battle. It is the army that is prepared to take the hard hits that wins the day. In most battles the losing side withdraws in good order, defeated but not routed. It is only when the losing side loses formation and collapses that they suffer large losses. When the fear takes hold, when the common soldiers realise they have lost, and it becomes every man for himself. The lines break up and the victorious cavalry go to town on retreating infantry. In battle, in sport and in business it is the ability to weather defeat, to avoid a complete rout, that marks out a side with character. That is a team with the ability to come back and win the next time.