Brothers in arm? Wellington & Fitzroy Somerset
Perhaps the biggest cloud hanging over the military career of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington is the perception that he was cold and unfeeling to his troops. Countless biographies remind us that the Iron Duke rarely showed his emotion. He was said to be prone to condescension to anyone that he deemed inferior – which was practically everyone. For many the legendary description of his men as ‘scum of the earth’ in 1813 underlines Wellington’s ruthless reputation – yet when the quote is used in full context the picture become less clear:
[these men are] the scum of the earth; it is really wonderful that we should have made them to the fine fellows they are
The above seemingly blatant insult could now be reinterpreted as Wellington’s appreciation for how far such lowly men had progressed under his command, though it was hardly a glowing compliment. In fact there are many instances of Wellington’s sense of feeling in the arena of battle – and just how keenly he felt the loss of men under his command. Despite these occasions an over-riding sense remains that Wellington was never quite willing or able to give credit where it was due – even towards his closest military aides.
Wherever Wellington went, Fitzroy was sure to follow (Waterloo 1815)
One such stalwart was Fitzroy Somerset, youngest son of the 5th Duke of Beaufort, who joined Wellington’s staff in 1807 and became his military secretary in 1811. In August 1814 Fitzroy married Emily Harriet Wellesley-Pole, Wellington’s niece (and Wicked William’s sister). She was in Brussels with him and gave birth to a baby daughter just weeks before the battle of Waterloo. In the heat of the battle Fitzroy was shot in the arm by a French sniper, whilst he was fighting alongside Wellington. He was taken to a nearby farmhouse where the arm was amputated – but not before he insisted on removing a ring his wife had given him.
One of the first duties Wellington had to perform on his return to Brussels was informing Emily of her husband’s situation, which can hardly have been the easiest news to impart to a young mother wrought with anxiety.
Shortly afterwards Wellington penned this letter to Fitzroy’s brother:
To His Grace to Duke of Beaufort
Bruxelles, June 19th 1815
My dear Lord
I am sorry to have to acquaint you that your brother Fitzroy is very severely wounded, and has lost his right arm. I have just seen him, and he is perfectly free from fever and as well as anybody could be under such circumstances.
You are aware how useful he has always been to me; and how much I shall feel the want of his assistance, and what regard & affection I feel for him; and you will readily believe how much concerned I am for his misfortune.
Indeed the losses I have sustained have quite broken me down, and I have no feeling for the advantages we have acquired. I hope however that your brother will soon be able to join me again; and that he will long live to be as he is likely to become, an honour to his country, as he is a satisfaction to his family and friends.
Believe me my dear Lord ever your most faithful servant
It is plain how desperately sad Wellington was for the injuries sustained by his young protégé – and very touching (with the benefit of hindsight) to know that Fitzroy went on to fulfil his destiny as ‘an honour to his country’.
But questions arise as to the true measure of their relationship when we look at the many years of service that Fitzroy gave to Wellington – suggesting that Wellington received much more than he was prepared to reciprocate.
Having endured Wicked William’s antics at the battlefront for two months in 1808, it must have come as a relief for Arthur Wellesley to find someone as reliable and discreet as Fitzroy Somerset amongst his aide-de-camp staff. Over the course of 6 the next years Fitzroy became as essential part of Wellington’s command.
Even after the calamity of Waterloo, Fitzroy quickly learned to write with his left hand and remained part of Wellington’s inner circle. Following a stint as aide de camp to the Prince Regent, he returned as Wellington’s secretary in the latter’s new capacity as Master-General of the Ordnance in 1819. When Wellington became Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in January 1827, Fitzroy duly followed to become Military Secretary. But hereafter came a parting of the ways since Wellington was obliged to relinquish command of the army when he became Prime Minister in January 1828. Fitzroy stayed on as Military Secretary until 1852 (the year Wellington died) – effectively becoming the Duke’s eyes and ears in army-related matters.
Fitzroy’s first shakey left-handed letter to his mother
On the face of it there is plenty to suggest that Wellington took a very keen interest in Fitzroy’s career, and he certainly ensured that Fitzroy’s disability proved no hindrance to high office. When we look at the recently auctioned Raglan Collection, there are many items that could only have been gifts bestowed on Emily and Fitzroy through Wellington’s personal generosity.
For example Lot 10, a ring allegedly taken from Tipoo Sultan’s finger after the Battle of Seringapatem in 1799, or Lot 78 which originally stood in Apsley House
But here’s the rub – Wellington’s private generosity ran counter to his preparedness to intervene in matters of public concern. For we find that Fitzroy’s willingness to serve, his loyalty and commitment was rewarded with mediocre pay.
Throughout his life Wellington was exasperated by constant demands upon his patronage, privately acknowledging that his refusal to bow to such pressure when forming his first cabinet in 1828 lost him many friends. Even Charles Arbuthnot sulked for days on that occasion, but the Duke held firm and kept his friend from office. Why was this?
Wellington often said:
I am nimmukwallah, as we say in the East; that is…I conceive it my duty to serve with unhesitating zeal and cheerfulness, when and wherever the King or his government may think proper to employ me.
This rigid sense of duty compelled Wellington to suppress private needs wherever they impinged upon matters of Government and state. It made him circumspect not only in regard to patronage for others, but also in terms of his own rewards. For example in the aftermath of Waterloo when the nation was happy to lavishly treat their conquering hero, Wellington modestly opted for Stratfield Saye House – & returned £100,000 to state coffers. We can therefore see that Wellington’s over-riding desire to maintain high standards of decorum in office, created the dichotomy between private generosity and public mean-spiritedness.
In public life Wellington often felt isolated, but saw approachability as a weakness
Another factor separating Wellington’s private and public image was his hostile attitude towards the press, of which he once wrote… ‘blackguard editors of newspapers [attempt to] deprive us of our reputation by their vulgar insinuations’. Wellington repeatedly declared that he would never have anything to say to the ‘gentlemen of the Press’. Acting like this he developed a bunker mentality, going out of his way to avoid accusations of impropriety in public office – making him appear hard-hearted towards genuine appeals for placement.
It is therefore unsurprising that Fitzroy Somerset was not raised to the peerage until after Wellington’s death, or that he remained a relatively poor man throughout his life. Both of these could (and perhaps should) have been tackled through Wellington’s influence. Fitzroy was created Baron Raglan in 1852 and given command of the British troops sent to the Crimea in 1854. He died there in 1855 from complications brought on by an attack of dysentery. Even in his final cruel days at the battlefront Raglan was heard exclaiming ‘What would Wellington have done, if he had been here?’ This poignant plea reveals how much Raglan appreciated the comradeship and ability of his old commander in arms.
Dear Arthur, Wish you were here. Fitzroy x
In conclusion we must consider Raglan’s feelings when examining Wellington’s commitment to their friendship. We see that Lord Raglan idolised Wellington and seems to have had no sense of being taken for granted. The plain truth is that the Iron Duke would not have given his right arm for anyone, and those who knew him intimately would have accepted this unequivocally – because Wellington’s private character could never usurp his desire to serve the nation.
This blog does not shed more light on the complexities of Wellington’s character – but it does show that he was loyal and dependable, whilst also aloof and ungenerous. This combination is the crux of the continuing debate about Wellington the man.
As for Lord Raglan, his death proved him a wealthy man indeed for in 1858 some 1800 friends, admirers and comrades purchased Cefntilla house and estate in Monmouthshire, presenting it to his family in perpetuity – a fitting memorial to a man who indeed was ‘an honour to his country’.
Cefntilla Court, Raglan’s ancestral home
Christie’s auction catalogue for the Raglan Collection (London, 23 May 2014) really is a triumph of academic research containing a veritable treasure trove of items of interest.
Raglan Rescue is an ongoing campaign to save Lord Raglan’s collection for the nation
I cannot recommend highly enough the superb new archive in Ebbw Vale and its helpful staff, where the Raglan MS is housed.
There are so many excellent internet and archival resources devoted to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. However it is impossible to ignore the forthcoming Wellington Congress which will be staged at the University of Southampton from 9-12 April 2015. This is a great way to hear many diverse papers about the life and times of the Duke of Wellington, and it is not too late for those wishing to submit a paper and be part of this event celebrating the bicentennial of Waterloo. Who knows? I might even be there!