Written late in the night after the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s words have gone into the annals of military history as one of the most poignant descriptions of the aftermath of battle. In his letter he added, “My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers.”
Now Wellington was no bleeding heart liberal. Just the opposite, he was known as the Iron Duke, and he never hesitated to flog or hang the soldiers he commanded who he often described as the “scum of the earth”. But as a diligent commander he was sparing with their lives. He knew he had limited resources and was always strapped for cash and men. Throughout his career he had sought to limit casualties where possible and never shied away from retreat if that was the most prudent course despite one of his other well-known quotes being “The hardest thing of all for a soldier is to retreat.”
At Waterloo he famously ordered the bulk of his force to withdraw beyond the brow of the hill on which they were drawn up and to lie down to minimise the target made by their massed formations. It is said this movement misled Marshal Ney into believing the Allies were retreating and precipitated his disastrous mass cavalry charges that broke helplessly on the formed squares of the redcoats.
Yet despite his prudence there was little he could do to protect especially the infantry from the merciless bombardment of the French artillery. More than anything else it was the artillery that was the real killer on the battlefield. With roundshot at distance and case or canister at close range, the guns could destroy whole swathes of men and horses and there were over 500 cannon on the field of Waterloo.
The carnage must have beggared belief. With some 200,000 men and 60,000 horses in action on a battlefield measuring only five square miles it meant the resulting concentration of death and destruction has rarely been equalled in the history of warfare. The average number of casualties per square mile suffered by Wellington’s army during that single day was nearly 2,300, a higher concentration than the British Army suffered at the Battle of the Somme.
Afterwards Wellington said, “I hope to God that I have fought my last battle. It is a bad thing to be always fighting.” And so it turned out. After Waterloo, aged just 46, he never fought another action. Promoted Field Marshal, he became commander in chief of the British Army and Prime Minister.
But there was another side to the stern Iron Duke. Later in life, the Duke once met a little boy, crying by the road. “Come now, that’s no way for a young gentleman to behave. What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I have to go away to school tomorrow,” sobbed the child, “And I’m worried about my pet toad. There’s no-one else to care for it and I shan’t know how it is.”
Keen to ease the little chap’s discomfort, the Duke promised to attend to the matter personally. After the boy had been at school for just over a week, he received a note: “Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to Master —- and has the pleasure to inform him that his toad is well.”