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On this day in history in 1852, died The Duke of Wellington.
Wellington was a general and a politician. He made war against the French on the battlefield and strove for reconciliation in the Cabinet Room. His major claim to fame, apart from winning the Battle of Waterloo, was the invention of the welly.
Wellington was born of a genteel family and was educated at Eton where he excelled at games but was abysmal at Classics. He later claimed that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.
Wellington’s parent thought him unfit for a diplomatic or political career and so sent him into the army, where his military ability soon became noticeable after several victories in Indian petty wars. When war was declared against France, Wellington was sent to Portugal where, it was hoped, he would prop up Britain’s ally against a French invasion, Spain already having fallen to Napoleon.
In Portugal and Spain, Wellington won a series of victories. His tactics were to use his troops in lines, known as ‘the thin red line’ rather than squares as was the convention, in order to minimise casualties from cannon fire. He was however thwarted by diplomats who tried to come to terms with the enemy. They signed the deeply unpopular Convention of Sinatra, which allowed the French general Junot’s troops to be repatriated. But Wellington kept winning battles and received rewards along the way. He became first a viscount, then a baron, then a marquis, then another marquis and finally a duke. His victories were enormous. He was only hampered by his own foot soldiers who once, instead of pursuing the defeated enemy, looted their baggage train. He called his men ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink’. Wellington drove over the Pyrenees and finally defeated the French.
While Wellington was at the peace conference, debating the future structure of Europe, news came that Napoleon had escaped and was forming an army for another strike. Wellington left the conference at once and inflicted a further defeat on the French at Waterloo. Parliament granted him £200,000 for his efforts.
Wellington now had the wealth and the prestige for a political career. He joined Lord Liverpool’s cabinet, which became known for its repressive policies. Legislation was passed to keep public order and to take action against vagrants, those discharged from war service after Waterloo. Although not personally responsible for the Peterloo Massacre, Wellington took much of the blame. Wellington supported the Congress System, whereby European delegations met regularly in order to maintain peace in Europe. In this case, Wellington was overruled by the majority who preferred to let Europe manage its own affairs and kept British delegations away from conferences.
In 1829, the government was racked by internal dissent and no popular figure was able to form a government. George IV, therefore, summoned Wellington to form a caretaker government. Wellington was quite successful in keeping the government together. His policy was to introduce no policy that would cause dissent. These tactics worked extremely well until the question of Catholic emancipation came up. At that time, Catholics could not vote or be elected to Parliament. As there was a majority of Catholics in Ireland, there was a great deal of resentment at a truly unjust system. Wellington wanted to bring the Catholics on side. He thought that they would be more useful inside the power structure, than outside provoking disorder. He persuaded George IV to support his Catholic Emancipation Bill and had it passed by Parliament. Unfortunately for Wellington, his policy proved to be too unpopular and he was driven out of office.
Wellington’s dual career as soldier and politician led to the creation of the Wellington boot, known as the welly. Wellington instructed his shoemaker to modify the traditional soldier’s Hessian boot. The new footwear was designed in calfskin, had the trim removed and was cut close round the thigh. The resulting creation was hard wearing in battle yet comfortable and elegant in the drawing room.
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