The fruit of more than thirty years’ labour, Rory Muir’s two-volume life of Wellington is a monumental achievement that will not be bettered for a generation. The first, excellent part, covering the period from Wellington’s birth in 1769 to the conclusion of his victorious Peninsular campaign in 1814, appeared two years ago. This second volume begins with the crowning victory at Waterloo – indeed, it is published to coincide with the battle’s bicentennial – but is chiefly concerned with Wellington’s ‘peacetime’ achievements as prime minister and commander-in-chief.
Elizabeth Longford divided her own impressive two-part biography into the periods before and after Waterloo, and in many ways that is a more logical break. But second volumes are always a harder sell and I suspect Muir’s publisher insisted on holding Waterloo back to encourage the many lovers of battlefield history to put their hands into their pockets for a second time.
Ironically, to my mind at least, Waterloo was one of the Iron Duke’s least impressive victories. Muir generally gives his subject the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assessing his talents or otherwise as a general. But he accepts that Well-ington was slow to react ‘to signs of an impending attack’, a failing that almost enabled Napoleon to achieve his aim of driving a wedge between the two Coalition armies in the Netherlands in the hope of defeating them one by one. Muir points out that all three generals – Wellington, Blücher and Napoleon – ‘made mistakes’ during the campaign, ‘not because they were incompetent, but