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Subject: Wellington rss

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Captain Nemo
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I was recently surprised in a documentary on Napoleon Bonaparte by a comment that Wellington was an indifferent commander; this was at the end regarding their meeting at Waterloo. I am not very well read on the Napoleonic period but I had always understood Wellington to be well regarded. Napoleon was operating below par by Waterloo and thus the argument was that Napoleon in his prime would have had no trouble in beating Wellington.

No doubt Wellington is advantaged by being a 'hero' of Anglophone countries. Thus he is seen perhaps overly favourably but should he be seen as merely the best of an indifferent lot of generals or a truly inspired figure? Is there a good basis for reaching an objective conclusion?
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Jason Cawley
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He was not an inspired commander, that is just nationalist bias from overwhelmingly English sources. He was a solid one, and particularly good at defense, but nothing exceptional in the whole span of the Napoleonic wars. Nor was his army at Waterloo of particularly high quality, though the British cavalry was definitely good, as were the British guards and highlanders. Those were just a very small portion of the overall Anglo-Allied army, let alone of that plus the Prussian army.

There can be little doubt that had the Prussians not appeared at Waterloo, he would have badly lost the battle, which he himself accurately described as "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life". As it was, he needed and got a very distinct outlier good performance from the British guards cavalry, which had maybe 1-2 equivalents from one end of the Napoleonic wars to the other - not at all something he could have counted on ahead of time. And that's with the Prussians there to save the day.

In the whole sweep of the Napoleonic wars, Czar Alexander and Blucher had much more to do with Napoleon's eventual defeat than Wellington did. By miles. Like, not even remotely close...
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Sam Smith
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As is so often the way, I think the truth is somewhere towards the middle.

Was he an 'indifferent' commander? No, he was competent and capable. But nor was he by any stretch of the imagination a military genius like Napoleon, and some have pointed out that his record of victories is mainly against the B team (India, and then the Peninsula was not the main event from the French point of view). Undoubtedly being on the winning side has also burnished his reputation considerably. And not only did the Prussians save his bacon at Waterloo, but something like nearly half his own army excl the Prussians(I forget the exact %) was not British, but Dutch, Brunswick, German etc. The Tim Clayton book on Waterloo is excellent on this and a good read. Still, all that said, I think he did beat all the French generals who were sent against him!

I have to take issue though with the comment that the British cavalry was good. My reading has been that Wellington himself regarded them as far too ill-disciplined and preferred his steady German cav. The Highlanders also tend to get over-romanticised.

But it's 100% right that the Russians and Prussians (and Austrians) had much more to do with Napoleon's final defeat. It's rather similar to the way that in the popular western consciousness the Russians get air-brushed out of WW2 victory. Google the battle of Leipzig. The 100 Days was kind of like the bit in the Movie where Dracula suddenly sits up in the coffin and Van Helsing hammers the stake one more time. Several Allied armies were converging on Napoleon at that point, so Wellington was not the only potential Van Helsing. Though, of course, who knows what the morale effect of a French win might have been...
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Terry Doherty
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It's true that Wellington mainly faced the B-team up until Waterloo, but it's also true that up until late in the Peninsular War, he had a very small army with an even smaller contingent of reliable British troops facing more numerous French troops.

Wellington was generally regarded as cautious. He was cautious because, he had the only force that Britain could afford to place in the field. If he lost his army in a foolish gamble then Britain would not have been able to put another army in the field for quite some time (several years). It would have meant the fall of the government and the Whigs in power with British involvement limited to a naval blockade and providing cash to ambivalent allies. Indeed up until the results of the 1812 Russian campaign became known many prominent British politicians believed Wellington would get beat and the war would go on like it was during 1809-1812 for decades. So the stakes for him and Britain were quite high.

Despite that he did not hesitate to seize the initiative when he thought he could profit by it. Salamanca being the obvious example.

RE: Cavaly, Wellington was disdainful of the cavalry, because he felt he had a bunch of loose cannon commanders though this reputation was not really deserved. There is a book about this subject called Galloping at Everything by Ian Fletcher.

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Thomas Heaney
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Terry's points are excellent and well-made. Wellington demonstrated again and again that he was a cunning and resourceful commander with an almost mystical ability to read the terrain and to predict the moves of his enemy. But he was nearly always commanding a hodgepodge army with unreliable elements (whether the Dutch or Spanish troops and to a lesser extent the Portuguese) on a shoestring budget. He also had to be politically astute and aware at all time and avoid rocking the political boat. Wellington was far superior to than "indifferent" whose limitations, if they can be called such, were out of his control.
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Jason Cawley
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Wellington might have regarded his British cavalry as poor because undisciplined, but if so that would only show his opinion in the matter isn’t worth jack squat. Uxbridge saved his backside with a perfectly timed “boxcars” charge vs D’Erlons, and the Anglo Allied army would never have survived the day without it.

Murat’s performance at Eylau exceeded it, but pretty much nothing else did from one end of the Napoleonic wars to the other. “But they overextended and got cut up for it”. Um, if they hadn’t overextended through about seven times their own numbers the Brits lose before the Prussians can help. Sometimes balls to the wall recklessness pays off; it did emphatically for Uxbridge at Waterloo.
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Alan Sutton
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People that disparage Wellington are just echoing Napoleon's rants while he was on St Helena.

Napoleon won his most spectacular successes against armies operating outdated doctrine and benefited from the reorganisation of the French forces organised by Carnot while he was only a divisional commander.

Admittedly Napoleon had to seize the moment and change the way campaigns were conducted operationally to take advantage of this but there were several other French generals that could, and did, do this at the same time.

Napoleon owed his pre- eminence to his political astutueness, not his unique military prowess. As I have already said, there were others who could perform as well on the battlefield. Moreau, Massena and Davout instantly spring to mind. Perhaps the only general more politically astute was Bernadotte and his dynasty still survives in Sweden.

Napoleon did not innovate any new tactics (which Wellington did), nor was he at all interested in new military technologies (which Wellington was).

On the other hand, Wellington won his greatest reputation outnumbered against the world's greatest army. His strategic awareness during the Peninsular War may have given rise to his cautious reputation but that was wholely realistic. At the end of the war, though, his army had succeeded in entering France.

Napoleon, on the contrary, was willing to risk everything on a mad gamble. Several of his greatest victories were near defeats, saved by the timely arrival of subordinates. (Marengo or, differently, Jena). Napoleon's reputation was enhanced by his refusal ever to give credit to anyone else for help in "his" victories. His invasion of Russia was the last gamble that ended his winning streak.

Wellington always had the supply of his men foremost in his mind. Not only did this keep his army effective, it prevented the atrocious looting and pillage that occurred routinely wherever Napoleon operated. The vaunted French high rate of march came at the cost of looted and starving populations everywhere they went. Wellington conspicuously ordered his men to pay for everything they needed from the locals and hung looters.

If you read accounts of the Peninsular War you cannot fail to be impressed by Wellington's achievement. Just because Napoleon was never in Spain when Wellington was does not detract from this. Wellington fought and beat all the other leading French generals of the day. When he did meet Napoleon he won. Of course he had help but so did Napoleon in many of "his" victories.

It was Napoleon that ended up on St Helena after Waterloo (because of Wellington's intervention, by the way: all the other Allied leaders wanted Napoleon dead) not Wellington. History has it's verdict there.

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Jason Cawley
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Alan - the problem is that picture of Napoleon’s reputation isn’t remotely true. He was far and away the greatest general of his age, and only Davout givex him any competition in that respect, within the Napoleonic era including back to the start of the French revolution. Few generals ever have been in as many major battles over their careers as Napoleon was, and few can even approach his won lost record, especially if one performs any statistical adjustment for odds or stance.

That wasn’t just a matter of the army he inherited, either. The commanders before him got very little out of the revolutionary army in Italy; he turned it into a terror practically overnight. His operational skill even exceeded his tactical or his political ability. The right way to get a sense if this is to study Esposito’s atlas of his campaigns in some detail. Then there was the efficiency he added to the force before the 1805 campaign. Then there was the stunning outperformance of Austerlitz, something no one like Wellington ever even came close to duplicating. And it wasn’t remotely the only one like that, he had half a dozen as good. Davout can boast 2-3 (and can claim zero losses, nearly unheard of); nobody else in the era even one.

His opponents assessed his presence on the field as worth about 40,000 men. That wasn’t his press releases, that was the men who eventually beat him.

When I think of the men who dud actually defeat him, Blucher looms far larger than Wellington. Wellington faced him once, with Bluchers help, 3:2 overall odds, and defensive stance. Blucher faced him more than half a dozen times. He wasn’t even remotely brilliant; heck he wasn’t even smart, and Wellington was five times the tactician Blucher was.

But nobody else could survive being beaten by Napoleon six times and still come out not only standing, but ready to give battle again two days after a massive defeat and win it.

Winning is impressive, but a general who knows how to even lose without being defeated is impressive in a very different way. Not an intellectual way, a character way. Blucher was basically responsible for Napoleons defeat in the Leipzig campaign and battle, which was much more decisive for the whole series of wars than Waterloo was. He was also responsible for the fall of Paris in 1814, despite getting knocked on the head several times in that campaign. He just would not take defeat as an answer; he would not stay down.

I don’t think that makes Blucher a better general than Wellington let alone Napoleon; it does make him a lion tamer and far more responsible for the eventual defeat of Napoleon that Wellington was. Csar Alexander is the only other man even in the running for historical responsibility for defeating Napoleon, with Blucher I mean.

FWIW...
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Sam Smith
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JasonC wrote:
Wellington might have regarded his British cavalry as poor because undisciplined, but if so that would only show his opinion in the matter isn’t worth jack squat. Uxbridge saved his backside with a perfectly timed “boxcars” charge vs D’Erlons, and the Anglo Allied army would never have survived the day without it.

Murat’s performance at Eylau exceeded it, but pretty much nothing else did from one end of the Napoleonic wars to the other. “But they overextended and got cut up for it”. Um, if they hadn’t overextended through about seven times their own numbers the Brits lose before the Prussians can help. Sometimes balls to the wall recklessness pays off; it did emphatically for Uxbridge at Waterloo.


Personally I would not be so quick to discount their experienced commanding General's opinion. And basing an assessment of their ability on one effective charge at one battle is a good example of how the winner's reputation can get over-burnished with hindsight. Its also possible for both things to be true: i.e. that Uxbridge's charge had a big impact and was a key moment in the battle, but that in general the British cavalry needed to be better disciplined/less impetuous. My recollection is that the charge went on too far and got badly cut up.
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Øivind Karlsrud
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I know next to nothing about Wellington. In fact, the only comment on his generalship I have read comes from a book on WWII, "Panzer Battles" by von Mellenthin. He was Rommel's intelligence officer in North Africa, and has this to say about Montgomery (in a chapter on the battle of Alam Halfa): "Montgomery's conduct of the battle can be assessed as a very able if cautious performance, in the best traditions of British generalship, and strongly reminiscent of some of Wellington's victories."

I've always thought of Wellington (and Montgomery) as the kind of cautious and methodical generals who may not be the best at winning battles, but they are good at winning the war. And AFAIK, Wellington is mostly respected for the Peninsular War, not for the Battle of Waterloo.
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Nick West
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As usual Jason overplays his hand. If he doesn't recognise Wellington as one of the best commanders in the Wars then he really doesn't know what he is talking about. Wellington had the match of everyone he came up against - and I don't think the French marshallate that opposed him can be considered the B team.

Yes, Napoleon was a different level at his peak, but tactically on the battlefield certainly after 1812 I would rate Wellington higher. Napoleon did not understand the use of ground (e.g. reverse slope) and defence in depth that Wellington used at Waterloo. The Army he commanded was poor - most of the best regiments of the KGL and Britain were still in North America. Yes - the Prussians arrival won the battle but that is missing the point. The Allied and Prussia armies worked to a plan - Wellington would not have stood his ground at Waterloo without the promise of Prussian support. I am not doing down Blucher either BTW, he too was an inspiring and brave General and no fool.

The discussion about who had the most impact on the Wars then obviously it is going to be continental powers, who have the manpower. Nobody has mentioned who financed the whole thing - Great Britain. Without British subsidies Prussia and Austria would not have been able to field anything like the numbers then did after in the key 1813 campaign.

We should not compare Wellington to Napoleon though in order to be firm in the view that Wellingon was an excellent general. In any other company than Napoleon, it is hard to argue that Wellington was not superior.
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Severus Snape
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Perhaps one could dare to say that the B-Team also included Napoleon and his Army during the 100 Days Campaign. Okay, the B+ team. Consider how poorly Bonaparte was served by his field commanders, with the best, Davout, left in Paris to very much mind the fort. Yet, he still came within a whisker of winning at Waterloo, even while being beyond his own "best before date." Maybe. Luck was not with Napoleon during this campaign or battle, and luck is something every general needs in order to win.

Winning at Waterloo would not mean winning the war, but perhaps that is why designs like Beyond Waterloo can be useful. Actually, it would be much more useful if John Prados learned how to properly write a rulebook.

All this being said, I consider Wellington one of the "Great Captains" of history, given all of the political and military and physical campaigning challenges he faced, at home and in Spain, where Wellesley led a coalition. The Peninsula Campaign serves as a model campaign.

What we will never see is a battle between Napoleon and Wellington with both themselves, and their armies, in their prime. Such a battle could answer the question, was Wellington a great commander?



As for the question of inspiration: he inspires me.

goo
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Max Sewell
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This sort of sounds like a sports question to me: "Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time?"

"Yes, because, because, because." "No, because, because, because."

I tend to judge this sort of thing using victory as my guide. "Winners win", I always say.

Both Wellington and Napoleon were winners. Both were great generals.

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Pete Belli
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Quote:
This sort of sounds like a sports question to me: "Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time?"


Unlike Tom Brady, Wellington could call his own plays.

Anecdotal evidence provides us with Wellington's assessment of his adversary (including "Napoleon has humbugged me..." and the previously mentioned comment about the Emperor's presence on the battlefield being worth 40000 soldiers) so if these quotes are reliable they offer some insight into the mind of the Iron Duke.

To carry the football analogy forward, Wellington could win the "big game" when a championship was at stake. Napoleon was playing hurt; he fumbled the ball at the 5 yard line.

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Quote:
What we will never see is a battle between Napoleon and Wellington with both themselves, and their armies, in their prime. Such a battle could answer the question, was Wellington a great commander?


Calling Ty.....calling Ty Bomba.....for what-if.....
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Bob Zurunkel
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pete belli wrote:
Quote:
This sort of sounds like a sports question to me: "Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time?"


Unlike Tom Brady, Wellington could call his own plays.

Anecdotal evidence provides us with Wellington's assessment of his adversary (including "Napoleon has humbugged me..." and the previously mentioned comment about the Emperor's presence on the battlefield being worth 40000 soldiers) so if these quotes are reliable they offer some insight into the mind of the Iron Duke.

To carry the football analogy forward, Wellington could win the "big game" when a championship was at stake. Napoleon was playing hurt; he fumbled the ball at the 5 yard line.



There is another Wellington quote to the effect that Napoleon was the greatest General of all time.
 
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Eric Brosius
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One thing that Wellington had to do for most of his career, and did pretty well, is hold a coalition, and the army created by that coalition, together. Military history is full of commanders who blew up coalitions. That may be more important than anything he did on a battlefield.
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Wendell
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Eric Brosius wrote:
Military history is full of commanders who blew up coalitions.


And one of them is Napoleon Bonaparte.
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Terry Doherty
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oivind22 wrote:

I've always thought of Wellington (and Montgomery) as the kind of cautious and methodical generals who may not be the best at winning battles, but they are good at winning the war. And AFAIK, Wellington is mostly respected for the Peninsular War, not for the Battle of Waterloo.


I think the skill Wellington and Montgomery truly shared was their ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their own army and that of the enemy. They had the confidence in themselves to then use that knowledge to fight battles on their own terms and not on their enemy's.
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Terry Doherty
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One advantage Napoleon had over all his adversaries was that he was unquestioned head of state with political power only the Tsar could come close to matching. As such, he could direct the resources of the Empire wherever he wished.

That is a luxury Wellington did not have and his correspondence is filled with requests for more resources and arguments with the C-in-C about retaining his veterans when they were due to rotate to a new station for refitting.
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Eric Walters
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Was Wellington an indifferent commander? Depends what one means by the term, "indifferent." If he tended to keep his cards close to his chest, if he seemed to be strict with his army, then the answer is yes. Follow closely his campaign in Portugal and Spain, and it's clear why he was like this. He'd had his military plans leaked to his political rivals in England, so he learned to keep his thoughts to himself, not even sharing them with his senior officers or alliance liaisons (see Gneisenau's warning to von Muffling when the latter was posted to Wellington's headquarters). He complained of how badly disciplined his army was, blaming his officers for condoning such misconduct. Did he care about his men? Certainly, but in a practical way in terms of carefully arranging for logistics and administration. Such care was important to him if the army was to exhibit steadfastness and reliability. When von Muffling gently chided him about keeping up with the Prussians on the march to Paris after Waterloo, Wellington rebuked him, saying that his army was not the same as Blucher's; he had to take care of his polyglot force so that it would not be disorderly and would rather arrive two days later than suffer indiscipline.

Is Wellington well-regarded? Absolutely so, and for good reason. Vitoria in 1813 shows him in the best light. A stickler for detail and micromanagement when not in battle, he created, trained, and enforced the systems that served him and his army well. But at Vitoria, he showed his capacity for decentralized command and control that we don't see at Waterloo. Once he issued orders to his four columns before the battle, he did not try to interfere with its execution. The difference is the army he led in 1813 and 1814 was not the army he led in 1815.

If Wellington has a reputation for being a defensive general, it's worth studying him on the offense in 1813-1814. His career in India also explains why he learned to shape the enemy situation before attacking (something we see in spades at Vitoria). Going in against a prepared defense was counterproductive.

Lastly, I'd like to offer how decisive Vitoria was in the larger scheme of things. It was this victory that encouraged Austria to join the Sixth Coalition; after the Prussian-Russian humiliations at Lutzen and Bautzen, it showed that the French could be beaten. It's easy to forget the miracle of Napoleon's resurgence after the 1812 debacle; much of Europe was shocked at how quickly he seemed to have rebounded in the spring of 1813. While Wellington's offensive in Spain might not have been the main landward effort for the Sixth Coalition, it certainly helped in sharpening the strategic dilemma the French found themselves in beginning in the autumn of that year.
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I don’t know much about how Wellington performed other than Waterloo but his performance before and during the battle of Waterloo was not so good.

He misread the situation at Quatre Bra. Had one of his Commander not disobeyed an order from Wellington the battle at Quatre Bra would have ended very badly for the Allies.

He did do a good job of using the reverse slope to position his troop at Waterloo but his generalship from what I understand was pretty ordinary other than the initial disposition.

I’ve read David Chandlers Campaigns of Napoléon and would strongly suggest it to others if you are interested in learning about the French side of the Napoleonic war.

My takeaway from reading the book was that Napoleon was a genius at maneuver. His was a vision of decisive victories through maximizing the odds at the key point of attack and creating relatively less bloody victories. He would analyze a variety of options and understand the terrain to be maneuvered over that resulted in frequently out maneuvering his opponents.

However his brilliance was more than his expertise at out maneuvering his opponents. Napoleon developed improvements in organizing his troops for the kind of maneuver warfare he desired. He designed cooking technology that allowed his troops to eat on the go using special ovens. He was very focused at squeezing every last measure of success out of the resources he had access to including identifying and promoting talented officers based on merit in an era where other armies promoted in part due to lineage and nobility status.

His brilliance included going after Blücher first knowing that Blücher would be more likely to stand and fight at Ligny rather than do the more prudent maneuver of falling back towards Wellington’s army.

However, Napoleons was much more pedestrian at battle tactics and the actual mechanics of fighting. Chandler explains it as due to Napoleon trying to centrally control too much of the battle with armies that where too big at the time to be ran effectively that way.

In summary, if I had to have a general, I would take Napoleon at is prime over Wellington any day.

Edit for clarity.
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Nick West
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I don't think the OP really wanted a discussion over who was the better General out of Napoleon and Wellington. Surely he was citing Napoleon's view that Wellington was an indifferent commander and wondering how decisive that view should be in judging Wellington. When before Waterloo Soult, appreciating the reverse slope tactics Wellington would adopt, suggested manoeuvring Wellington out of his position, Napoleon responded by angrily saying to his Marshals, "Because you have been beaten by Wellington you consider him a great General. Now I tell you that Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than a picnic lunch ('a déjeuner').

I don't think you will come to a firm conclusion as to who was superior although most would ago with Napoleon (but generally with the qualifier "at his peak"). The Waterloo campaign was the only time they met and it was a very short campaign with limited data points.

I tend to the view that Wellington was the superior battlefield commander and Napoleon the superior operational commander (and still so, even in 1815). Strategically Napoleon, like Hitler, varied from inspired to disastrous whilst Wellington was equally solid throughout his career, with the possible exception of the Waterloo Campaign. There his deployment was driven by sensitivity about his supply, which ran to the North West (unfortunately the opposite direction to the Prussians and their supply lines). A study of Napoleonic method should have suggested at least the strong possibility of a manoeuvre against the junction of the two Armies, as actually occurred.

Wellington's operational generalship was undermined in my view by the refusal of the British Army to adopt the operational Army Corps system that the Napoleonic experience and defeat had forced upon every other continental army. Corps existed in the Allied Army but only for administration, not operational, command. Wellington still had an army of individual Divisions that he ordered around personally, partly as he was used to commanding an army small enough to get away with doing so.

I am not sure if it was his resistance or Horse Guards doctrine that resisted the innovation of Corps, I suspect the former.

On the battlefield however Wellington was superb throughout his career, the equal of even Napoleon at his peak in my view (although Napoleon's battlefield Generalship was falling off rapidly even by 1809), as well (as others have observed) an excellent administrator, strategist and diplomat.
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Alan Sutton
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Re: Welling

As you say Nick, Wellingtonn's failure to adopt the Corps system can probably be explained by his having never commanded an army large enough to require it.

By the time he did, at Waterloo, his expertise in micro managing divisional orders was ideal. There was no pre organised Corps command structure ready to use in his ad hoc army, assembled as it was in short order when the Congress of Vienna was interrupted.

This disparity in command experience is probably at the root of the contradictions between Napoleon and Wellington's reputations.

Wellington was better than anyone at his level. Problem was, in France there was nobody like him to compare to. No General ever had serious independent command in the armies of the First Empire. This is why Davout is never compared to Wellington. Interestingly, the only French Marshall who really enjoyed independence was Soult in Andalusia but he is always accused of being corrupted by the experience.

Napoleon did everything so he is judged a larger figure in history. He WAS France, literally.


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Steve Pole

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Nationality/period might be a factor here.

When early modern Britain became embroiled in conflicts on the continent it tended to join with (often funding) allies as partners. So, the assessment of the best British generals - Marlborough, Wellington - would include their ability to establish working relationships with other allied leaders with strong personalities such as Eugene and Blucher.

For other nationalities/periods the list of necessary/desirable competences might be different.

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