Generalship from Marlborough to Wellington

Jeremy Black

The acclaimed historian writes about the art of generalship among key British leaders of the long 18th century.
The Duke of Wellington, by Thomas Lawrence
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Never easy, the assessment of generalship becomes more difficult when you go back in time and the sources are less extensive. All-too-often the discussion becomes that of battles lost and won as in Hannibal must be good because he won at Cannae or Napoleon at Austerlitz. This can lead to an underplaying of the other levels of warfare, notably that of strategy and, related to that, the key way in which tasking set the requirements for generalship. Battles might well be important, but they did not necessarily bring the task to fruition, as was abundantly clear in the aftermath of George II’s victory over the French at Dettingen in 1743.

George, the last monarch to lead a British army into battle, was not the last member of the royal family to do so. Instead, his young, second son, William, Duke of Cumberland, was in command of the leading military force campaigning in 1745-8, both in the Low Countries and in Scotland. Moreover, Frederick, Duke of York was in command of the army that invaded Holland in 1799, fighting the French, albeit without success.

Duke of Marlborough 1650-1722

The Duke of Marlborough

However, as in most other states, the monarch was not generally the commander of the main field force. Prominent exceptions, notably Peter the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Napoleon, simply highlight the extent to which the great generals of the century, such as Saxe, Rumyantsev and Suvorov, were not rulers, while others only became rulers by seizing power such as  Napoleon or Nadir Shah of Persia/Iran.

Most British commanders were in the pattern of non-royal. Despite rumours about Marlborough, there was no repetition of a Cromwell or William III seizing power and then commanding the military.

As a result, generals emerged through talent and connections, and were expected to keep both burnished. A failure to do so, as with Marlborough, the most talented British general since Cromwell, led to his fall. In his case, he could deliver success in battle but not the strategic goal of the end of the war, while he suffered from the political move toward the Tories. The far-flung nature of British military commitments, however, provided plenty of opportunities to make a name. This proved especially so in India. Some of those who made a name only served there, most obviously Robert Clive, but Wellington proved able both to do so and then to translate his success to appointments in Europe.

Wellington learned much in India, not least about logistics and concerning the sheer sticking-power required for victory in battle, notably at Assaye in 1803. The key element, however, as with Marlborough, was the ability to hold together what in effect was a coalition force. Indeed, the general as diplomat was crucial in all these coalition armies, a situation also seen in the Seven Years’ War with the Marquess of Granby. Marlborough and both the Dutch and the Austrians, or Wellington and the Portuguese and Spaniards in the Peninsula exemplified these points.

Sir John Moore, killed at Corunna in 1809.

Yet, generalship also required a range of skills. In the case of Marlborough, Granby and Wellington, but also Abercromby and Moore, both of whom were killed, there was the need for physical bravery. This was a key element in showing leadership and maintaining morale.

Reading a battlefield was also necessary, and both Marlborough and Wellington proved extraordinarily good at this skill, which was particularly important in siting guns and deploying units. Feeding reserves into combat was also a key skill in generalship. That entailed being able to read both threats and opportunities, successes seen in particular at Blenheim and Waterloo. In each, generals had to show success on the defence and the attack, whereas, for example, French generals proved better at the latter than the former.

Thus, at the tactical, operational and strategic levels, it was necessary to assess all the information available and to use it rapidly. Getting within the decision loop of opponents was a key element of command skills. With both Marlborough and Wellington, there was the need not only to confront and use the chaos of battle, becoming master of the shape and details of conflict, but also to play for the future. Ultimately, both men showed their skills in generalship, in training the officers and the next generation of commanders. That remains a key element of generalship.

Jeremy Black’s new book is How the Army Made Britain a Global Power: 1688-1815published by Casemate and out now.