Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Off topic: Wellington meets Nelson

I don't know why my son picked Napoleon's costume for Purim. I tried to explain to him who Napoleon was. Showed him the famous Minard map from 1869 of Napoleon's
disastrous Russian campaign in 1812.  To no avail.   

But at least the mention of Napoleon reminded me of the interesting historical encounter of which I only became aware when I  read it in Churchill's  A History of the English-Speaking Peoples 

Published in History Today Volume 18 Issue 2 February 1968

The month before Trafalgar, the Duke and the Admiral had a singular encounter 

 The Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1814), and Lemuel Francis Abbott's portrait of Lord Nelson

One of the most curious meetings in history, a matter not of design but the purest accident, took place in London, almost certainly on September 12th, 1805. It was not formally recorded until nearly thirty years later, and then once more through chance. It was between Wellington and Nelson, and it was the sole occasion when their paths crossed.
The best-known version of the incident was related to John Wilson Croker, who was for many years Secretary of the Admiralty. Croker was not noted for the generosity of his written judgements, had little use for ‘heroes’, and was once described by Harriet Martineau as possessing ‘a malignant ulcer’; but he found everything to admire in Wellington, for the Duke, as Lord Stanhope also discovered, was splendid in conversation, and both Croker and Stanhope had sense enough to note his words down for the benefit of the future.
Even in age, when the firmest intelligence is apt to grow shaky, Wellington could be relied upon for an accurate version of anything within his knowledge; so that, when posterity has only the Duke’s view of some incident or proceeding, it is generally enough. He had no need to embroider.
Even had he felt the temptation to do so, he would not have given way to it, for he found, over the course of an immensely varied life, that plain truth could seldom be improved upon.
The meeting between the two men, whom succeeding generations have taken as representing the highest flights in the art of leadership, could have taken place only when it did, for until that time, the scenes of their activity had been distant from one another.
Immediately it was over, Nelson was caught up in the concluding stages of a campaign which he did not survive. Some idea of what came under discussion was given in the course of a notice of a Life of Earl Howe which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1838 and which rambled over a number of other subjects.
The topics included a recent action in which Sir Robert Calder had failed to defeat an enemy fleet in that resounding fashion which, Wellington suggested, Nelson had ‘taught the public to expect’. In his turn, Nelson ventured a hope that Wellington might lead a force for the investment of Sardinia, which was then under French control.
At the time, Wellington was a man of thirty-six. He was a substantive major-general, and he had won a Knighthood of the Bath, the insignia of which Nelson was himself so proud.
He had fighting experience on the continent of Europe as well as in many parts of India, where he had made his name both as an administrator and in campaigns against Mysore and against the Mahratta princes, whose forces he had defeated at Assaye two years earlier.
His future appointments, military and political, would be nearer home, though they had not as yet been decided. He had reports to make, friends to visit, and the career that would lead him to feats of arms unparalleled by his countrymen, since the age of Marlborough had not as yet begun.
Nelson, though still a few weeks short of forty-seven, had only one more battle before him. Much battered, with no right arm and a sightless right eye, he was by then a national hero, the darling of the people, though not—by reason of the irregularity of his private life—of George III.
He was regarded by officers of his own profession as the fittest choice for what Lord St. Vincent deemed to be a ‘post of splendour’, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. He had held this appointment for over two years, during which he never relaxed his watch on the enemy.
On the meeting itself, Croker’s, the principal account, needs to be quoted entire, for his passage, though well known, seems to capture the Duke’s tone exactly. At the time when he made the remarks that Croker put down on paper, Wellington was entertaining his friend at the castle which was his official residence as Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Walmer, October 1st, 1834.

—We were talking of Lord Nelson, and some instances were mentioned of the egotism and vanity that derogated from his character. ‘Why,’ said the Duke, ‘I am not surprised at such instances, for Lord Nelson was, in different circumstances, two quite different men, as f myself can vouch, though I only saw him once in my life, and for, perhaps, an hour.

 It was soon after I returned from India. I went to the Colonial Office in Downing Street, and there I was shown into the little waiting-room on the right hand, where I found, also waiting to see the Secretary of State, a gentleman, whom from his likeness to his pictures and the loss of an arm, I immediately recognized as Lord Nelson.

He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself, and in, really, a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me.

 I suppose something that I happened to say may have made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter.

 All that I had thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and the aspect and probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman.

The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and certainly, for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. Now, if the Secretary of State had been punctual, and admitted Lord Nelson in the first quarter of an hour I should have had the same impression of a light and trivial character that other people have had, but luckily I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden and complete metamorphosis I never saw.’
Somewhere about the time that Croker was listening to Wellington on Nelson, an elderly gentleman who lived in Suffolk, Benjamin William Page, was browsing among his copies of The Naval Chronicle.Wellington had seen two sides of the admiral. There was the vain imperfect creature who ‘would be first’. There was the personality which— once recognized for what he was—would as often as not display such powers as could not be mistaken.
This journal, which ran from 1799 to 1818, was edited for and partly written by sea officers, and as it covers in some detail much of the long struggle against Napoleonic France, it is a fund of information on an important side of the life of its era.
When it ceased, three years after Waterloo, Page, who had a habit of putting notes, corrections, exclamations and observations in the margins of his favourite books, wrote angrily in the final volume: ‘...herewith terminated because opposed, it is said, by Croker.’
If rumour was right—and people were apt to say spiteful things about Croker, not all of them true—this was sad, though with fighting ended and the Navy reduced, the Chronicle was becoming dull.
Turning over the issues, Page, who was by that time a retired admiral, lighted on a description of an entertainment at which he had been present at Madras. This was in honour of Peter Rainier, to mark his departure from India after some years in command of the Station.
Wellington—then Sir Arthur Wellesley—had also been a guest, and among the toasts had been: ‘Admiral Rainier—and a pleasant passage to him.’ This was received with ‘great applause, and drunk with three times three, the band playing Heart of Oak’.
This wish was fulfilled. Rainier, with his flag in the seventy-four-gun Trident, and with Page as his captain, sailed for home on March 10th, 1805. Page noted (in ink, to make sure that the entry would last) that he ‘...arrived with a Convoy of 44 ships all safe Septr. 12th, the gallant Sir Arthur Wellesley was a passenger in the Trident & at St. Helena one month, ere Bonaparte.’
This little entry tells much. On the long passage home, Wellington would have come to know Rainier and Page as well as he knew any naval officers, and as the ships at last made their way up Channel, no doubt he was able to land somewhere, post to London, and thus be in the capital by the time the convoy anchored.
India was a common bond between Wellington, Rainier, Page and Nelson. Wellington made his reputation there; so did Rainier, who had served under Pocock, Stevens and Cornish before taking part in a series of stubborn actions against Suffren during the course of the War of American Independence, the same battles that gave Page a taste of battle at the age of sixteen.
As for Nelson, he had first seen guns used against an enemy when, as a midshipman in the Seahorse, he had taken part in the capture of an armed vessel in the employment of Hyder Ali of Mysore, with whom his country was at war. The engagement had taken place off Anjengo, on the Malabar Coast, and he was then the same age as Page had been in the days of Suffren.
Nelson remembered his Far Eastern years vividly, and one of his first measures, after he destroyed the French fleet which had escorted Bonaparte to Egypt in 1798, had been to send an officer overland to India, to assure the authorities in that country that one threat to the sub-continent seemed likely to have been removed.
With a gesture worthy of such an institution, the East India Company voted the victor of the Nile a present of ten thousand pounds.
Page must have written the note about his voyage with Wellington after Bonaparte’s exile to St. Helena. He would have reflected how much, from personal knowledge, Wellington would have approved of the suitability of that distant island as a retreat for his illustrious opponent.
Wellington had actually stayed at The Briars, a bungalow that lay pleasantly among the trees in a valley near the road to Longwood. Later, for a short time in 1815, it was to shelter Bonaparte, while Longwood was made ready.
Nelson, as was his way, transacted a prodigious amount of business during his last days ashore. He was constantly at the Admiralty, and as news of the combined Franco-Spanish fleet began to come in, he was forced to work at such pressure that he must have been concerned at being kept waiting by a member of H.M. Government, even though the reason was a protracted Cabinet meeting which had been held mainly to draft his instructions.
But he was summoned at last, and Wellington was left to his reflections, until his own turn came. They could not but have involved the sea. A long voyage was just over, and he had since spoken with the country’s leading admiral. Only a few weeks more, and, with the rest of the world, he would learn of the triumph and sadness of the conclusion of the Trafalgar campaign.
Wellington’s next great chance came when he was placed in command of what proved to be one of the best armies that Britain ever produced.
The Spaniards changed sides, owing to the contemptuous treatment by Bonaparte of their reigning house, and it became Wellington’s business not merely to support a people more enthusiastic than well-led, but by gradual stages to drive the French from the Iberian Peninsula, an immense task, needing infinite skill and inexhaustible patience.
His successes were as extended in time as they were brilliant in execution, and much hinged, as in all operations of war, on supply. That was secured, throughout the years of struggle, by reason of the domination by the Royal Navy of the sea routes which lay off the French and Spanish coasts.
Nelson had done his work in annihilating the main enemy fleet. Others—and they included Wellington’s troops—would reap the benefit.
In the earlier phases of his campaign, Wellington had support from Nelson’s close friend and immediate successor, Collingwood. By 1810, Collingwood had worn himself to death on active service. His task was continued by Cotton, Pellew, and such active subordinates as Purvis, Berkeley and Sidney Smith.
What Wellington found in many naval officers he came to know was that world-sense which he himself possessed so eminently. Their ideas were seldom bounded by their immediate horizon, for it was not in the nature of their calling, and when Wellington referred to Nelson as having the qualities of a statesman, he had that wide-ranging view of things in mind.
Although Nelson did not live to acquire the variety of experience in affairs that made Wellington unique, his gifts were used to the limit, and it was a happy chance that allowed Wellington a glimpse of them.
The man that Nelson and Wellington had waited to see was Castlereagh, who was then Secretary of War and the Colonies. Castlereagh lived to move an address in Parliament which, had it been implemented, would have memorialized Trafalgar and Waterloo together.
The Secretary of State certainly never had more memorable visitors than the pair who sat together in the little waiting-room in September 1805, and it is likely that he knew it. Perhaps that chance occasion may have been more significant than appeared at the time, and it would have been a sad loss if Croker had not recorded it.
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