Member Review

The Iron Duke

Pub Date:

Review by

John P, Reviewer

Last updated on 18 Jul 2017

I Recommend This Book


‘The Iron Duke’ by Lawrence James is subtitled ‘A Military Biography of Wellington’ and moves with great alacrity in the first chapter through his family and personal history prior to his being commissioned as an ensign, whilst the book’s last chapter serves to tell the entire story post-Waterloo. Roman Catholic Emancipation and the Great Reform Act together receive less space than commemorations of the final defeat of Napoleon and the 1828 Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (which paved the way for Catholic Emancipation) is not mentioned at all, although one can’t really complain in what is avowedly a military biography which concerns itself with Wellington’s political interests “only … when they were interwoven with his activities as a general."

James’s Bibliography is rather more puzzling. There is, of course, a very considerable literature on Wellington and particularly on Waterloo, but the absence of any reference to the work of Richard Holmes (‘Wellington: The Iron Duke’); Andrew Roberts (‘Napoleon and Wellington’ and ‘Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble’), R. E. Foster (‘Wellington and Waterloo’) and the various books by Rory Muir seems a little surprising, given that the bibliography is not described as a select one. 

If these authors are not name-checked because too ‘popular’ or ‘slight’ how on earth does one account for the omission of any reference to John Keegan’s ‘The Face of Battle’ (where Waterloo features as one of the three battles studied) or his ‘The Mask of Command’ (where Wellington is one of the four commanders examined)?

Having said that, James does a very good job of presenting Wellington as a first-rate military commander who exhibited calmness of mind under pressure, communicated his orders to his subordinates with exemplary clarity, showed courage under fire and also commanded the respect of his troops by showing concern for their welfare, notwithstanding their comprising “the scum of the earth”.

What one has here then is a one-volume history of Wellington’s generalship which despite any shortcomings it may have clearly knocks Elizabeth Longford’s ‘Wellington; Years of the Sword’ into a bicorne hat.

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