Peter W. Sinnema's interesting book on the English idealization of the Duke of Wellington. which I have reviewed elsewhere in The Victorian Web, quotes Norman Thompson to the effect that "virtually 'every writer projected onto the Duke of Wellington the demanding ideals of the age and saw in him the perfect hero in Victorian dress'" (5)." Ruskin represents a dissenting voice, even doubting whether the Iron Duke deserved credit for Waterloo. In A Knight's Faith (1885), after making a very modern commment about the difficulty of discovering whether a general actually has much of an effect upon individual battles, he compares him to Lord Raglan of Crimean War infamy and Carlyle's Friedrich the Great:
The great difficulties in such work are, first, to rescue from exaggeration what the battle really was; and, secondly, from the lucky or unlucky accidents of the fact, what it was meant to be, when either general has a meaning at all. At Alma, Lord Raglan, losing his way, finds himself with his staff, on a sudden, in the middle of the Russian lines. He observes to his surprised suite, "Our presence here will be of the greatest advantage." It was so; but it was not an advantage Lord Raglan had calculated on. And the battle was won, not by Lord Raglan, but by Colonel Yea and Sir Colin Campbell.
Too many of our English victories (we are in the extremely bad habit of forgetting our defeats) have been of this accidental character, their blunders redeemed by hard fighting and cruel loss. On the other hand, all Friedrich's battles are composed with the precision of a musical arrangement. When he fails, it is either because his orders have been disobeyed, or because difficulties occur in their execution which no foresight could have anticipated. . . . It is especially also to be noticed that Friedrich's battles are all passionate. He loses his head in defeat, rides away out of the first sight of it at Mollwitz, protracts the ruin of Kolin in desperation, and would fain have fallen by a chance bullet at Kunersdorf. The Duke of Wellington is totally the contrary of him in this particular. His battles are the severe application of perfect military science, with perfect coolness of nerve, absolutely conquered passion (such passion as he had to conquer), a certain quantity always of the best soldier material in the world to work with (Irish and Scotch), with admirable staff officers for friends, and usually second- or third-rate ones for his enemies. Until 1815, he had never met one good general except Maséna; — over whom he gained no advantage. But he never makes a mistake, never neglects a detail, never falls ino a trap, and never misses an opportunity. Also, when he sees that a thing can be done, he does it, without asking how many men it will cost. It will for ever remain a question between the two nations whether Waterloo was lost by Napoleon's misuse of his cavalry, or Wellington's discipline of his infantry. But there is no question at all that a general of the highest quality, — Friedrich, Black Edward, or Castruccio de' Castracani, — with the entire force of Prussia and England at his command, would have crushed Napoleon without losing ten thousand men in a single day. ["Inquisitive," 31.479-81]
Wellington, in other words, has many soldierly virtues, to be sure, but he turns out to be second-rate, rather uninspired general who needlessly sacrificed his men. Such a judgment might appear a change of heart from Ruskin's earlier mention of him in "Pre-Raphaelitism" (1853) in the context of criticizing modern sculpture:
You have a portrait, for instance, of the Duke of Wellington at the end of the North Bridge — one of the thousand equestrian statues of Modernism — studied from the show-riders of the amphitheatre, with their horses on their hind-legs in the saw-dust. Do you suppose that was the way the Duke sat when your destinies depended on him? when the foam hung from the lips of his tired horse, and its wet limbs were dashed with the bloody slime of the battle-field, and he himself sat anxious in his quietness, grieved in his fearlessness, as he watched, scythe-stroke by scythe-stroke, the gathering in of the harvest of death? You would have done something had you thus left his image in the enduring iron, but nothing now. [12.154-55]
Ruskin certainly seems closer to the adulation of the Iron Duke in the years immediately after his death than he does in his more substantial later estimate, but one must note that the critic here characteristically writes polemically and therefore he uses his quasi-biblical description of Wellington largely to point out the differences between Wellington's reputation and the poor sculptural representation of him.
Sinnema, Peter W. The Wake of Wellington: Englishness in 1852. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006.
Last modified 23 September 2006