The Age of George III

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A Comparison of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon

This document was written by Nicholas Dunne-Lynch, to whom I am most grateful



Natural talent :

  • Not possessed of the genius of Napoleon, Wellington was moulded in more human proportions, and
  • Had none of the negative qualities that lay on the other side of genius.

His character proved more stable and enduring. He

  • had an inner confidence, powerful self-esteem, and belief in his own judgement, which contributed greatly to his military genius. He had an ‘almost supernatural balance’
  • learned from failure and reverse.
  • never repeated a mistake. In fact, his mistakes haunted him
  • had enormous influence in post-1815 Europe, and was largely responsible for
    • defeating of Napoleon, ending 23 years of war
    • restoring the Bourbons, and European stability, though France was still to have periodic upheaval
    • avoiding a punitive peace with France
    • restructuring and refinancing a bankrupt France

Natural talent:

Though an outstanding genius, Napoleon was

  • Over ambitious, egotistical and egocentric
  • Often unpredictable and irrational

Energy and drive

  • Very energetic.
  • Able to cope with huge workload.
  • Answered all correspondence the same day.
  • In the Waterloo campaign (90 hours), had 9 hours sleep. Already working at 3 am on 18 June 1815. To Ned Packenham he was ‘the Man of Energy’. He once went 14 days on only 48 hours sleep.
  • Preferred to do things himself. Mistrusted judgement of subordinates – often with good reason
  • Read avidly and widely, including every dispatch and captured document.
  • Studied Napoleon very carefully, and knew his tactics intimately

Energy and drive

  • Exceptional energy, but often very erratic.
  • Could lead his army through mountain passes in waist-deep snow one day, and sulk for hours the next

Physical abilities

  • Extremely fit physically, far above the average officer
  • Exceptional horseman, even for his time, which enabled him to move rapidly around a battlefield. He once rode 300 miles across difficult terrain just to reconnoitre.

Physical abilities

  • Not among his great qualities.
  • No great rider, he was thrown numerous times.
  • Yet, could show extraordinary physical courage and determation


  • Often criticised for abstemious living by his high-living contemporaties
  • Could pass the day without eating, and days without sleeping
  • Drank moderately for the period


  • Did little himself.
  • Dictated letters and delegated.

Marriage and women

  • Not a great success as a husband, but
  • Very much at ease with women, and some the most important insights into his character emerge from his correspondence with confidantes

Marriage and women

  • His power attracted many female admirers
  • Marriage to Josephine not very happy.
  • Both serially unfaithful. Divorced Josephine for dynastic reasons
  • Had many love affairs, and children by a string of mistresses


  • Though very shy, had a reserved charm and seldom showed his fiery temper - except to spoilt upper-class officers (‘There"s nothing so stupid as a gallant officer.")
  • Not vain in any sense. Avoided crowds who wanted to cheer him, and was embarrassed when his troops did.
  • Suspicious of all praise and flattery
  • Spoke clearly and to the point, always using simple and direct language, without hiding unpleasant truths
  • Valued early in his career as an adviser to cabinet ministers, and, after 1815, to most of the crowned heads of Europe
  • Treated everyone with the same directness, from kings and princes to his generals, ADCs and soldiers. This directness often mistaken for insensitivity or rudeness


  • Not comfortable among people. Liked to keep a distance
  • Liked to attract admiration.
  • Treated people generally as inferiors, including monarchs
  • Could be perfectly charming or absolutely abnoxious, whatever suited his purpose


  • Genuinely hated war and derived little pleasure from victory
  • Believed political reform would trigger revolution and lead to demagogy, dictatorship and more war


  • Power, glory, military victory and conquest, his imperial image, succession and a Bonaparte dynasty, so
  • Divorced his wife, Josephine to marry Marie Louise, princess of Austria
  • Surrounded himself with regal pomp and as Emperor
  • Bankrupted France by extravagence and war
    Made wars to extort funds from conquered states
  • Installed his largely incompetent and greedy brothers in high office e.g. as kings of conquered states


His low key leadership responsible for

  • the reorganisation of the British and Portugese armies into effective forces
  • the development of new battle techniques

One of the greatest and most successful military commanders in history, never losing a battle in almost 50.

  • Napoleon’s equal in strategy; his superior in tactics, and ‘the most flawless commander of all time’ (Neibuhr).


His magnetic genius motivated and organised

  • the greatest talent in France in a manner not seen since the days of Charlemagne
  • one of the finest armies the world has ever seen – alas sacrificed to his egotistical genius

Certainly one of the great military geniuses of all time, developing new strategies, tactics and techniques.


His highly successful strategy had been used by generals in the past, for example, by Fabius, the Roman general. However, he was highly successful in applying an overall strategy and, as commander, he

  • Took a very long term view and never lost sight of that
  • Evaded the enemy by rapid manoeuvre, wearing them down
  • Avoided battles until certain of a desisive victory.
  • Always choose the battle ground (exception: Assaye)
  • Conserved troops. Avoided wasting them on heroic or high-risk tactics or dramatic victories (exception: Assaye)
  • Hid his troops so that the enemy would not know his precise strength and position (exception: Assaye)
His was the perfect response to the aggressive French strategy, but at Assaye he himself employed such a strategy


  • Was high risk, and very costly in troops
  • Was driven by political necessity.
  • Needed the money he could extort to fund a bankrupt France
  • Alienated conquered states and populations making resistance inevitable


  • Studied the terrain very carefully.
  • Had exceptional memory for landscape and geographical details, and how to exploit them.

Contingency planning

  • First class.
  • Best example: Creating the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras in advance of his retreat into Portugal, saving his army and entire campaign.

Military character

  • Cool and decisive.
  • Had exceptional self-control in battle
  • Could read a military situation instantly and react very cooly
  • Not given to heroics, but exposed himself to the same dangers as his men. Was hit twice by spent bullets. Had two horses killed under him at Assaye. His soldiers often implored him to take cover, fearing for his safety.
  • Never sacrificed his troops for a quick victory.
  • Declined chance of a victory he knew would result in high casualties. (exception: Assaye where a rapid manoeuvre and frontal attack smashed a force 8 times size of his)
  • Admitted mistakes freely and learned from them
  • Never blamed his troops for failure.
  • Often hard on officers: ‘there is nothing more dangerous than a gallant officer’

However, he

  • Had no stomach for the destructive elements of war
  • Hated the aftermath, such as reading the casualty list, ‘the butcher’s bill’.
  • Broke down on reading the Waterloo list
  • Determined that Waterloo would be his last battle

Military character

Some commentators diagnose him as a psychopath, because he

  • Seemed unable to feel remorse for the catastrophies he inflicted and the millions killed in the wars he waged
  • Abandonned projects that became difficult, such as the Egyptian campaign
  • Changed his mind often, and often gave confusing or contradictory orders
  • Was unable to make close friends, and exploited those close to him (e.g. Bourienne, his classmate and loyal secretary) ‘friendship’ was a ‘meaningless word’
  • Could not tolerate rivals and wanted to take all the credit for victories (e.g. ‘exiled’ Passepinte after battle of Hohenlinden)
  • Forget his failures quickly.
  • Did not learn from failure.
  • Usually blamed others
  • Never forgotting an injury.
  • Took disproportionate revenge
  • Showed paranoic tendancies from childhood. His paranoia led to the establishment of a ruthless police state under Fouché.

In addition, he

  • Inspired extreme loyalty but seldom returned it
  • Saw loyalty as something owed him by right
  • Tended to adandon or discard those loyal to him
  • Hated people to leave his service and punished them without remorse (Bourienne) However, he could overlook someone’s faults and failures if they were useful to him
  • Developed a very sophisticated war machine,


  • Neglected completely medical services, and
  • Did not arrange medical supplies for many major battles

Tactics and tactical skills

  • Could read a battle very precisely.
  • Never acted impulsively but always with decision and great resolution
  • Knew exactly where to be on the battlefield.

Major contribution to military tactics

  • Hid infantry lines on the reverse slope of a hill, protecting them from artillery and the fire of attacking infantry
  • Brought them to the firing line when attacking infantry as close as 25 metres

Best example:

  • Final phase at Waterloo when allied infantry repelled the Imperial Guard, inflicting 75% losses
  • The use of infantry squares against cavalry was not new, but he used it with great effect and precision atWaterloo, when Wellington’s squares withstood 5 massive cavalry charges in 2 hours

Tactics and tactical skills

Many of his tactics had developed early in the Revolutionary Wars by generals such as Drout (d’Erlon) including

  • Attack in column, smashing enemy lines of badly trained and poorly motivated troops lead by elderly generals using out moded tactics
  • Attack at unconventional times, such as in winter during heavy snow

In fact, most of the military improvements credited to Napoleon, were originated and implemented by his marshals and generals.

Highly motivated troops French troops were feared across Europe, but Napoleon

  • had little regard for their lives and he never spared them
  • Demanded more and more effort and loyalty to him personally
  • Sometimes cynical in his wastage of troops, expecting them to lay down their lives in loyalty for him

Worst example: In a last desperate effort at Waterloo he lied to the Imperial Guard, telling them that the army approaching was Grunchy’s, and rousing the Guard into an all of nothing charge, in which 75% fell. The army was the Prussians

The Imperial Guard were repulsed by the British Guards under Wellington’s personal command, using his technique of hiding infantry behind rising ground until the last minute.

Relationship with troops

  • Didn’t like to be cheered by troops: ‘what will happen when they want to boo me?'
  • Never addressed his troops en masse
  • Inspired by leadership and example, not oratory. Knowing fhat he wanted to conserve them gave his troops greater trust in him.
  • Troops always inspired by his presence

Relationship with troops

  • Looked on his troops as an expensible item in is conquests, and he wasted them in amanner that often shocked his own marshals.
  • Though he has a long-term goal of conquest, he does not seem to have had any long term vision, except to subdue Europe under France, and subdue France under his own rule.

Main strategic policy

Low risk strategy, featuring

  • Conserving forces
  • Avoiding battle unless necessary and victory certain. In 44 engagements as commander (1809-15), he never lost, though one or two he would admit to be drawn

Main strategic policy

High-risk strategy, featuring

  • Massive armies and agressive tactics
  • Quick, decisive and often stunning victories
  • Moving vast armies rapidly
  • Striking quickly, often by surprise, and with great ferocity, inflictiung enormous casualties
  • Preventing the coordination of the enemy forces, and defeating them piecemeal

The civilized game of European warfare had not seen anything like Bonaparte’s agressive strategy and tactics. Amazing victories partly due to Europe’s failure to accept that warfare had changed, and to change tactics

Strategy driven by

Lack of support from UK Government, because

  • His family, the Wesleys (later Wellesleys) unpopular, being Irish and controlling five seats in the London Parliament
  • The army not popular. The navy the darling of the British after Trafalgar

Strategy driven by

  • Need for glory, which he freely admitted, and which had to fed on victory after victory
  • Need for funds from conquered states, since France was largely bankrupt
  • Need for public approbation.
  • Victories and conquests covered corruption, incompetence and maladministration at home

National Support

  • Government often left Wellington short of resources and troops. He often complained of being at the mercy of ‘copyboys’ in Whitehall’.
  • However, he knew high casualties would result in recall and the end of his campaign

National support

  • Very strong, especially while winning foreign wars and bringing back riches
  • Opposition stifled by Fouchés police, and repression of Royalist support


  • The opposition in Parliament, the Whigs, allied to the Prince Regent, had sympathy for the new France
  • The Whigs tried to reach an accord with Napoléon, despite the experience of the Treaty of Amiens, and Napoléon’s tendancy to break treaties


  • Royalist pockets (e.g. the Vendee) never accepted him
  • To supress opposition, he established a police state, employing Fouché as Minister of Police. Ruthless but effective, Fouché was one of his betrayers in 1815

After Waterloo

  • Still had 400,000 troops under arms, and
  • Theoricitcally, at least, could have defeated any army. However, most of these troops deployed to forestall royalist uprisings, which certainly would have followed had the troops been withdrawn to fight the Allies


  • British press relatively free
  • Campaign not widely publicised at first and British people indifferent. Later, much press and public interest.
  • Army, campaign and Wellington grew in popularity with victories


  • Controlled the French press and that of conquered or confederated states.


Strategy required support from

  • Local people and irregular forces, such as the Spanish ‘guerrilleros’
  • Regular forces, such as the Spanish and Portugese in the Peninnsular War, and the Prussians, Dutch etc during the 100 Days.
  • The strategy also required disciplined troops.
  • The British – Portuguese in the Peninsular War


  • Ample resources, usually extorted from conquered states in the form of taxes or ‘reparations’
  • On campaign, the army foraged, reducing the need for supply train, but slowing the progress of the army while foraging. This
  • Alienated the inhabitants of conquered lands
  • Resulted, for example, in mass resistance in Spain, Portugal and Russia

Supply policy

  • Seldom lived off the land for fear it would alienate the native population.
  • bought and paid for all supplies, but sometimes not for quite a while.

This policy and strategy were responsible for

  • Victory in the Peninsula, aided by the civilian population support and guerrilleros
  • Winning over the local civilian polulation of during the invasion of France in 1814
  • Defeat of Napoleon in the Russian and Saxon Campaigns of 1812-14, as Prussian and Russian generals adopted Wellington’s strategy and tactics (e.g. Gen. Barclay-Tolley of Russia, which eventually gave the Russians the upper hand.) There were to be no more decisive battles that suited Napoleon, until Waterloo.

British command of the seas was critical because it allowed supplies to be shipped to Lisbon and from there overland, during his retreat behind the ‘lines of Torres Vedras’. This lifeline saved the army

Supply Policy

This strategy required

  • A thorough knowledge of the terrain/theatre of war
  • A large amount of requisitioning in the area of operations, which in turn limited the duration of these operations
  • A psychological advantage resulting from a myth of invincibility. Enemy was ‘half beaten before the battle’


No strategic blunders, though some tactical. Though his mastery of improvisation or his veteran troops always saved him: ‘…they never let me down.’


Enormous strategic blunders. The worst of were

  • The invasion of Egypt, mainly to control the route to India and the East
  • The invasions of Spain and Portugal, ostensibly to deprive the UK of resources
  • The invasion of Russia while hundreds of thousands of his troops were tired down in Spain by Wellington and Iberian guerrileros

See The Battle of Waterloo web site for a detailed account of the battle.
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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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