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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley

Portrait of Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, in military uniformMajor-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of WellingtonBorn in Ireland to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, Arthur Wellesley, later to become first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), had a lonely and unhappy childhood. His father died when he was just 12 years old and his mother showed a preference for her other children, removing Wellington from Eton early to make way for a more promising younger sibling.

A career in the military was deemed his only option, and in 1786 Wellington was sent to the French Royal Academy of Equitation in Angers. Wellington thrived at military school and, with the assistance of his well-connected older brother Richard, made steady progress through the ranks of the British Army.

As none of the various regiments to which he was attached during this early part of his military career saw active service, he filled his time by serving in the Irish House of Commons as MP for Trim, and as aide-de-camp to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, as well as with his favoured pastimes of drinking, gambling and playing his violin.

During this period he met and fell in love with Catherine Pakenham (1773-1831). In 1793 he proposed, but was denied by her brother, who considered Wellington’s prospects insufficient. This humiliation triggered a new resolve in the young man, who immediately gave up music – reportedly burning his violin – and committed himself fully to the military. Within a few months he had purchased a lieutenant-colonelcy and taken command of troops in battle.

During the nine years of active service in India that followed. Wellington led armies to a number of significant victories, and learnt many important lessons about running an army. On his return to Britain, having amassed a substantial sum of prize-money and an Order of the Bath in reward for his service, he renewed his marriage proposal. This time he was successful.

From an unpromising childhood, Wellington had grown into the confident and proud general in the image shown here. His early military career had instilled in him the firm belief that will-power and attention to detail would enable him to have whatever his heart desired.

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