Wellington as a General; Comparisons to Napoleon

Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops and we’ll settle this matter by lunchtime!

What they thought of each other

Famous last words from Napoleon on the morning of the 18th of June 1815, perhaps. I’ve covered what happened next extensively already, but suffice to say that it wasn’t settled by lunchtime.

“Bad call on my part, I guess.”

The quote may have been an attempt to boost his men’s confidence before a decisive battle, but the Duke never accorded Napoleon himself such disrespect. Asked for his opinion on who he thought the greatest general in history was, he responded:

In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.

“What about Alexander the Gr-” “DID I STUTTER.”

He was also quoted in the 1830s as saying “[Napoleon’s] presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men”, and although he did not mean this literally, it was meant as a compliment to Napoleon’s ability to inspire, motivate and lead his armies. High praise, but a little disingenuous, perhaps. I mean, who had beaten Napoleon?

It’s also worth noting that Napoleon’s opinion was not shared by his contemporaries – when word reached the Congress of Vienna that Napoleon had escaped from Elba in May 1815, Tsar Alexander I (hilariously described by Napoleon as a “shifty Byzantine”) had turned to Wellington and remarked:

It’s up to you to save the world!

“I’ll be over here, saying more dramatic things!”

Marshal Ney, the French army’s second-in-command at Waterloo, also warned Napoleon not to underestimate him. Any of the French commanders who had faced him in Spain or Portugal knew he was a dangerous opponent.

Battle Records

Comparing the two in terms of raw numbers, we can see that Napoleon fought approximately 60 battles in his long and bloody career, and only ‘lost’ 7 of them, mostly towards the end, although some, like Eylau, were inconclusive, and others especially in Russia, are disputed as victories in the traditional sense. The Battle of Berezina, for instance was only a ‘victory’ insofar as the utter disaster wasn’t as complete as it could, or indeed should, have been.

The word ‘berezina’ is a French synonym for ‘disaster’. It was pretty bad.

He garnered a myth of invincibility about himself and his army, leading to a loss of morale among his opponents. He was considered so dangerous, in fact, that The Trachenberg Plan used to defeat and drive him from east of the Rhine in 1813 was entirely based around not directly confronting him – instead picking at his Marshals and isolated parts of his army whenever the opportunity arose.

It was a tiny bit more complex than that, and worked thanks to the tireless aggression of generals like Gebhart “Forwards!” von Blucher.

Wellington, on the other hand holds a record of approximately 44 engagements in the field between 1808 and 1815, and never lost once, although he did suffer from a couple of what he described as ‘draws’, and his record of taking fortresses is much poorer – I will return to that later on. His first campaign into Spain ending at Talavera is probably the closest he came to out-and-out defeat, and obviously some minor actions did not go in his favor. (The Battle of Talavera is his only battle that comes close to the casualties at Waterloo, at least percentage-wise. He suffered a brutal 6,000 casualties from a force of just over 20,000 – around 25%. For Napoleon, these numbers were almost routine).

He had cut his teeth in the Anglo-Mysore and Anglo-Maratha wars in India between 1797 and 1803, and didn’t fight between 1803 and 1807 – the years of Napoleon’s greatest triumphs. He owes his military reputation to three things – the Waterloo Campaign, the Peninsular War, and the Battle of Assaye in 1803, an astonishing victory against the Maratha Empire against seemingly impossible odds.

Wellington always held Assaye as one of his greatest victories – 9,500 men making an opposed river crossing and assault on an enemy gun line while outnumbered somewhere between 3 and 5 to 1.

They only faced each other once, at Waterloo, and never met in person. Both agreed that Waterloo was not their finest campaign. Asked later if he had even seen Napoleon across the field at Waterloo, he responded that the day was dark, and he had not. Legend has it that an artillery officer had seen Napoleon, and had asked permission to fire on the ‘Corsican Ogre’, and Wellington had replied:

No! I’ll not allow it. It is not the business of commanders to be firing upon one another.


Similarities and Differences

They were approximately the same age – at Waterloo Wellington was 46, Napoleon 45, and only a few months separated them at birth – Wellington was born on the 1st of May, Napoleon on the 15th of August, both 1769.

Here the two men diverge dramatically. Wellington lacked Napoleon’s spark of genius at his height – he never gained a victory as complete as Austerlitz, for instance – but he didn’t suffer the downsides of this ‘genius’ either. Napoleon, as time went on, became more egotistical, irrational and unpredictable, and more prone to hubris. Wellington may have lacked a ‘complete’ victory (although Salamanca and Vitoria come close), but never endured anything close to the disasters of the Russian Campaign either.

Oh hey, look we’re back at the Berezina

He learned from his mistakes, and generally never made the same one twice. Wellington, unlike Napoleon, always kept his feet on the ground, and was always realistic in his assessment of a situation. His remarks to a politician’s interview after Waterloo, he said:

It has been a damned serious business… Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. … By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.

This could be taken as egotism, but it was also a supreme self-confidence and belief in his own judgement (it was also probably true). One gets the impression that Napoleon would never have acknowledged the closeness of the contest. Napoleon was emotional, Wellington cool to the point of coldness. Napoleon’s daylong sulks followed by bursts of manic energy would have been anathema to Wellington’s consistent work ethic.

In physical terms as well, the two men couldn’t have been more different. Despite being the same age, Wellington seemed much younger than his adversary. A large part of this was due to his incredible physical fitness, exceptional even among his fellow officers. This came partly from his distrust of his subordinates’ reports – he always preferred to observe a situation himself, and there are reports of him on one occasion riding upwards of 300 miles across rough terrain, just to reconnoiter. During the Waterloo campaign he had just 9 hours sleep over nearly four days.


He was an excellent horseman, even for his time. He was heavily criticized at the time for his abstemious living and lack of indulgence by his fellow officers on campaign, but they undoubtedly helped him maintain his health in an era before nutrition was fully understood.

(Wellington was also probably taller, around 5 foot 8 or 9, according to this. To put another longstanding myth to bed, Napoleon was around 5 foot 6, above average for a man of his time – about the same height as Francois Hollande, the current French President and taller than the previous, Nicolas Sarkozy. The picture of him as small comes from differences in British and French measuring systems at the time, as well as caricaturing in the contemporary press.)

Napoleon, on the other hand, was by 1815 suffering from a myriad of health problems. He suffered severely from piles for most of his adult life, which meant he couldn’t always mount his horse, and was often constipated. He had to be regularly dosed with laudanum to help with the pain, and his diet was exceptionally poor. He was also overweight following months of inactivity at Elba, and had started retaining urine as well. Even without these factors, he had become increasingly lethargic in his character, and had never been as physically fit as Wellington even at his height.

Paul Delaroche painting from 1814

Later in his career he did little himself, preferring to delegate – thus his earlier genius dissipated through the varied abilities of his subordinates, and lost a lot of its impact. Larger armies also led to more delegation, and Napoleon never encouraged the kind of culture which would have allowed subordinates to develop and flourish – his Marshals in particular were praised for loyalty rather than ability.

Their fates bear this assessment out. A peptic ulcer combined with gastric cancer claimed Napoleon in May 1821, aged just 51. Wellington lived until the age of 83, long enough to have his picture taken by daguerreotype, and long enough to see the coming of widespread railways to the United Kingdom (a development he despised).

“I guarantee you, people will still be complaining about British Rail 200 years from now.”

Their attitudes to their soldiers was entirely different as well. Wellington, consummate snob that he was, described them as “scum”, a not entirely unfair assessment due to the way recruitment worked, but despite his coolness and reserve it often cracked in the face of the horrors of war. The morning after his men had assaulted the fortress at Badajoz in April 1812, which they managed to capture at enormous cost (somewhere just short of 5,000 men were dead and wounded, including some 40% of the Light Division), he openly wept at the carnage in front of the breaches and in the ditches below. After Waterloo, he prayed that this battle would be “[his] last” (it was):

My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.

This was reflected in his strategy as well. I’ll be covering this more later on, when I discuss him on his own, but suffice to say that he took no pleasure in warfare, nor the loss of life it entailed, even as he mastered its mechanics. Any failures were his responsibility alone, and he never blamed the “scum” for any of his setbacks. He remarked in later years that his men “…had never let me down.

Napoleon had no such compunctions. It is very difficult to psycho-analyse someone at two hundred years distance, but his utter disregard for his own men’s lives does paint an unflattering picture of his personality and point towards several possible disorders. His extreme ambition and megalomania had its reverse in his contempt to all those around him, from monarchs down. This undoubtedly made him effective, at least initially, as it enabled him to take greater risks with little to no anxiety and delivered him some famous victories. But he never showed concern for losses among his own men, and twice abandoned them in the face of difficulties – in Egypt in 1800, and after the Berezina in 1812. His failures were either forgotten or blamed on others, and he once described friendship as “a meaningless word”.

Modern ‘motivation’ culture laps this stuff up, but really stop and think about what this can mean for thousands of men whose lives depend on this attitude.

Ironically, their public perception was almost diametrically opposed. Wellington was direct in his communication, which could often be mistaken for rudeness, and disliked his men cheering for him. Remarkably he never gave a speech to his men en masse. Nevertheless, he inspired the army, both as an example and as a leader, and his soldiers knew that he always did his best to conserve them, and not place them in dangerous situations without reason. Quick victory was never bought with their lives, except on rare occasions when outside factors demanded it.

The aforementioned bloodbath in the breaches of Badajoz was because the siege was in danger of being relieved by Marshal Soult, for instance.

Napoleon, by contrast, inspired extreme loyalty, but rarely returned it. His army was an expendable tool, and while his soldiers were feared across Europe, their lives were often cynically thrown away in a manner shocking to even his Marshals. Worse was his treatment of civilians – the French Revolutionary Army had mostly lived off the land, which in practice meant theft, looting and brigandage. This worked ‘well’, (for the soldiers at least) in densely populated Central Europe in keeping his army supplied, but failed in the scorched earth campaign conducted by the Russians in 1812; and in the Peninsular, where the civilian population rose up in revolt and caused logistical chaos.

Wellington instead bought and paid for everything his army took, or at the very least issued promissory notes. As a result he never alienated civilians in the same way as Napoleon did – even in 1814, when his army crossed into France meticulous records were kept and suppliers paid. This was sheer pragmatism – Wellington had seen the result of the French Army’s actions in Spain, and wanted no repeat of them for his own army. He often argued with the commissariat back in Britain, and frequently castigated them for not providing his soldiers with what they needed.

Many, many French civilians after the war expressed that they would much rather have a British Army on their land than a French one, which is a pretty harsh indictment of their countrymen and nominal protectors.

Who Was the Better General?

So, to boil it down to brass tacks, who was better? Well first, a caveat. The two men operated in very different spheres. Napoleon after 1804 wielded not only a huge and disciplined army, but also supreme power over the French Empire itself. All senior appointments were made by him, and all campaign strategy flowed directly from him. He also controlled the French press and the secret police under Fouche.

He was, in short, a modern dictator – an absolutist emperor, albeit a popular one while he was successful. He, in theory at least, answered to no-one.

Wellington was instead a member of the Irish Peerage, and from an unpopular family. Unlike Napoleon, he was not a child of revolution, and instead strictly operated within the British political and class system as it existed, free press and all. In addition, the British army was not popular, especially compared to the Navy. None of his immediate subordinates were chosen by him, and he often complained bitterly of some of the dross that was foisted on him by his superiors in London.

He was also constrained by the nature of the wars he fought in – he was almost always fighting alongside allies (the Portuguese and the Spanish), and his strategy often had to take into account their national interests and sensitivities as well as his own, something the domineering Napoleon never felt he had to do (and it cost him – after the Battle of Leipzig in late 1813, the states of the Confederation of the Rhine defected wholesale. Part of this was weathervaning in the face of Napoleon’s defeat, but they clearly felt no great loyalty to him).

With those caveats in mind, it becomes clear that despite his reputation, Napoleon was the inferior general, overall. For the whole Peninsular War, fought from 1808 to 1814, Wellington never lost sight of his overall objective of driving the French from Portugal and Spain, and everything he did related back to that conceptual framework, even if he did suffer setbacks and difficulties. Ultimate victory, when it came, fulfilled this and all of his subordinate objectives, and was achieved at minimal expenditure of men and resources, as far as was possible (an astonishingly low 9,000 KIA and 30,000 WIA, for a six year conflict!).

He was a competent and confident battle-winner, and almost always chose the ground on which he fought and when and how the armies engaged. The epilogue of Waterloo, a narrow victory won by the timely intervention of the Prussians against Napoleon himself is perhaps not his crowning glory in terms of skill, but it heralded forty years of peace on mainland Europe, and ended 23 years of nearly continuous conflict.

Napoleon, on the other hand was undoubtedly a military genius and master of maneuver. It can be convincingly argued that with an army below a certain size, he was unequaled. (There are only a handful of generals in history one can say this of – Erwin Rommel and Stonewall Jackson spring most immediately to mind.) Wellington’s assessment is fair, and he certainly deserves his reputation as a formidable general of considerable prowess. He was probably a better overall ‘battle-winner’ than Wellington, and his aggressive and lightning fast method of attack delivered him some crushing victories of the kind Wellington never gained (nor, indeed, tried to, for the most part).

His weaknesses lay in his own personality and his failure of strategic planning. His battered enemies in Austria and Prussia never entirely went down for the count, and while British encouragement and money played a part in keeping them in the fight, a lot of it was down to the humiliating treaties forced upon them by Napoleon. The ultimate test of a general and leader is whether he can bring a war to a successful and lasting conclusion, and Napoleon never managed that in his favor – and in the end, he never really separated the battlefield general from the diplomatic emperor, to his cost.

“Could you all go stand outside? All that lace is giving me a migraine.”

His tendency towards adventurism, and his habit of making ad hoc decisions before and during a campaign led to his weakest moments, and destroyed his armies in both Egypt and Russia. His inability to admit fault and honestly examine his mistakes prevented him from improving, and eventually led to him being predictable – a fatal flaw for an army on campaign – as well as unable to keep up when all the other powers hastened to learn as much as possible. His contempt for his soldiers’ lives also led his army to lose effectiveness over time, as his veterans were killed off and replaced by conscripts. He was unable to achieve another Austerlitz or Jena-Auerstedt after 1807 because his enemies wouldn’t let him, and in the end he was forced into abdication and exile, neither an Emperor or a General in the end.

“OK, maybe there was more than one bad call.”

Many people would argue that his record and disposition mean that in a straight up battle, Napoleon would have prevailed over Wellington, and the Battle of Waterloo certainly hints in that direction. But in ignoring Napoleon’s utter disregard for political strategy and his pick-and-mix approach to military grand strategy, we are giving him too much credit.

His missteps and hubris, both on and off the field, ensured no such confrontation would ever take place – and perhaps Wellington, in his nervous dispatch after Waterloo, recognized and was relieved of that fact. Wellington may not have been as good on the field of battle, but on the day, between himself and Blucher, they were good enough.

A quick shoutout to some people on Twitter – a week ago I posted a survey asking who people thought was better – and the result came in as of this writing as a dead heat. Thank you so much to those of you who voted, and to @cturner72 for retweeting it.

All pictures used in the public domain.

Header image is The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, painted by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler.

If you liked this article, find me on Twitter here.

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