Wellington always rose early, he "couldn't bear to lie awake in bed" once awake, even if the army was not on the march.
Even when he returned to civilian life after 1815, he slept in a camp bed, reflecting his lack of regard for creature comforts—it remains on display in Walmer Castle.
General Miguel de Álava
complained that Wellington said so often that the army would march "at daybreak" and dine on "cold meat", that he began to dread those two phrases.
While on campaign, he seldom ate anything between breakfast and dinner. During the retreat to Portugal in 1811, he subsisted, to the despair of his staff who dined with him, on "cold meat and bread".
He was, however, renowned for the quality of the wine he drank and served, often drinking a bottle with his dinner—not a great quantity by the standards of his day.
He took up high-technology and mechanical innovations and was one of the first British soldiers to employ shrapnel shells
and congreve rockets
; he was disappointed with the latter, as they were wildly inaccurate. He employed a full time officer to decrypt
intercepted French messages. Conversely, although well organised, his supply trains comprised pack mules and ox carts with ungreased axles, plus cargo boats, if rivers could be used.
He rarely showed emotion in public, and often appeared condescending to those less competent or less well-born than himself (which was nearly everyone). However, Álava was a witness to an incident just before the Battle of Salamanca
. Wellington was eating a chicken leg while observing the manoeuvres of the French army though a spyglass
. He spotted an overextension in the French left flank, and realised he could launch a successful attack there. He threw the drumstick in the air and shouted "Les français sont perdus!"
("The French are lost!").
Another time, after the Battle of Toulouse
, when an aide brought him the news of Napoleon's abdication, he broke into an impromptu flamenco
dance, spinning around on his heels and clicking his fingers.
Despite his famous stern countenance and iron-handed discipline (he was said to disapprove of soldiers cheering as "too nearly an expression of opinion"
), Wellesley cared for his men; he refused to pursue the French after the battles of Porto and Salamanca, because of the inevitable cost to his army in pursuing a broken enemy through rough terrain. The only time he ever showed grief in public was after the storming of Badajoz; he cried at the sight of the British dead in the breaches.
In this context, his famous dispatch after the Battle of Vitoria
calling them the "scum of the earth" can be seen to be fuelled as much by disappointment at their breaking ranks as by anger. He expressed his grief openly the night after Waterloo before his personal physician, and later with his family; unwilling to be congratulated for his victory he broke down in tears, his fighting spirit diminished by the high cost of the battle and great personal loss.
, niece to the third Duke of Wellington, relates an anecdote that Holman, valet to the duke, often recalled how his master never spoke to servants unless he was obliged to, preferring instead to write his orders on a note pad on his dressing-table. Holman, incidentally, was said to greatly resemble Napoleon.
In 1824 Wellington received a letter from a publisher offering to refrain from issuing an edition of the rather racy memoirs of one of his mistresses, Harriette Wilson
, in exchange for financial consideration. The Duke promptly returned the missive, after scrawling across it, "Publish and be damned".
He was also a remarkably practical man, who spoke concisely. In 1851, when it was discovered that there were a great many sparrows flying about in the Crystal Palace
just before the Great Exhibition
was to open, his advice to Queen Victoria
was "Sparrowhawks, ma'am".
As a soldier
Wellington has often been portrayed as a defensive general, even though many, perhaps most, of his battles were offensive (Argaum, Assaye, Oporto, Salamanca, Vitoria, Toulouse). But for most of the Peninsular War, where he earned his fame, his troops lacked the numbers for an attack.
Also, the Iberian Peninsula provided excellent defensive terrain and he was never slow to take advantage of it.
Much of Wellesley's tactics were dictated by politics, supply, or finance. Being merely a general in the field, he had to deal with the vagaries of an unstable government at home, the Portuguese government, various Spanish Juntas, guerrilleros, and warlords. Also, the problem of supply in the barren peninsula was a dire one. The French did not bother to deal with it, and simply looted whatever supplies they needed. Wellesley, needing the goodwill of the populace, was required to bring in his supplies from elsewhere (especially wheat from America) and transport them to his troops in the field. This supply line was his ever-present Achilles' heel, and often he was forced to either retreat or assume a defensive position when his line of supply was threatened.
In his defensive battles, he showed an understanding of defensive tactics almost unmatched. He, almost alone of the Napoleonic commanders,
realised the use of a reverse slope defence
, and made use of one whenever he could, to conceal his numbers and protect his men from artillery. Still, he rarely missed an opportunity to counter-attack, and many French columns found themselves cut up by musket volleys, then attacked with bayonets.
Wellesley could be very aggressive. His river crossing at Oporto
was a gamble; and only the mistake of a subordinate officer allowed any of Soult's army to escape. On the attack also, he showed a clear understanding of tactics and terrain: at the Battle of Vitoria
, he led a massive, well-coordinated attack in four columns from three directions, almost destroying the French army, forcing them to abandon all their baggage and supplies and all but one of their 138 guns.
Still, he had to be very cautious. Besieged at the Lines of Torres Vedras, when Masséna's army was threatening Lisbon, Wellesley often stood on a parapet, surveying the French army with a telescope, muttering, "I could whip them, but it would take 10,000 men, and as this is the only army England has, it behoves me to take care of it."[cite this quote
The total number of French troops in Spain always heavily outnumbered the available number of British and Portuguese, although most French soldiers were used for garrisoning the rebellious population. However, it was always possible for the French command to abandon some region, as they did after Salamanca
, in order to concentrate a larger army than the British; Wellington was therefore always cautious during his incursions into Spain, with the great exception of 1813.
In the campaign leading up to the Battle of Vitoria, he was cut off from his supply line to Lisbon, so he re-established one on the north coast of Spain, throwing the French front-line troops back upon their reserves.
Wellington's sieges achieved mixed results, with the Siege of Burgos
being probably his worst defeat. Most of his sieges were in India, against Indian armies of worse training, arms, and morale than the French; he may have been overconfident at Burgos. Wellington had to retake the frontier fortresses (like Almeida
) several times, because the French were equally successful in capturing them from the Allied garrisons. Also, he did not have the time for lengthy, Vauban
-style sieges, because the French would have been able to gather up relieving forces. Hence, his brief and bloody, though successful, assaults on Ciudad Rodrigo and on Badajoz.
He disliked his cavalry commanders. He wrote a famous letter on 18 July 1812, accusing the cavalry of being unable to manoeuvre except on Wimbledon Common
and of always charging in a body, instead of forming in two lines—one to charge and one as a reserve. Of course, until 1815, he was denied the talents of the brilliant Henry Paget
because of the family feud between them.
He acted as his own head of intelligence, and closely supervised both the supplying and the payment of his troops.
Much of his energy was diverted to political aims: shoring up his support in the British and Spanish governments, lobbying for his choice of officers, and cultivating the cooperation of the Portuguese and Spanish populations. While the French army alienated the latter by seizing their food and shooting anyone who resisted them, Wellington imported most of his food from abroad, paid cash for what he needed locally, and exercised strict discipline over his troops, regularly hanging men for looting, rape, murder, or desecration of religious sites. The locals repaid him with obedience, enlistment and information on French movements. In particular, the guerrilleros
(partisans) operated in fairly close cooperation with British troops against the French, especially in their attacks on French couriers, and the passing of the captured French dispatches to Wellington.