Wellington 'Never Lost a Battle' - Why both sides annoy me

May 2018
493
Michigan
#1
I just broke open Architects of Empire: The Duke of Wellington and His Brothers. I am enjoying the book so far, but on the first page there was this phrase:

"More important, he never lost a battle."

My gut instinct is "waaaaait a second, what about Redinha and the Siege of Burgos? While the casualty figures at Redinha are massively inflated by pro-French historians, Ney arguably won a tactical victory."

On one hand, it is valid to say that Wellington "never lost a battle where both sides were trying to destroy one another." Redinha was a rear-guard action, and the Siege of Burgos was obviously a siege. We can forgive the Siege of Burgos, as Scipio Africanus is generally accepted to never have lost a battle, but utterly failed to take Utica (and certainly, not for lack of trying.)

On the other hand, Redinha is more problematic: clearly, Ney succeeded in his objective of preventing Wellesley from destroying Massena's army, and Wellesley failed to destroy Massena's army (at that point). By all definition of victory, this was a victory for Ney. But before we jump onto that bandwagon, if we consider Redinha a victory for Ney, we also have to consider Corunna a victory for Moore: he prevented Soult from achieving his objective.

What annoys me is the obvious fact that being "undefeated" on the battlefield isn't necessarily everything: one must look in the context of the campaign, and the war, to judge a general's performance. Wellington fought his first 16 battles (where he had overall command) and didn't lose until he fought his 17th at Pombal. He fought and won more total battles before he lost his first than Scipio Africanus did his entire life. Several other notable generals fought fewer 16 battles, and Wellesley could reasonably claim to be "undefeated" until Pombal.

I have also seen it said that Wellington never lost a "Pitched" battle. This statement has more merit: Redinha and Pombal were both victories for the French, but they only victories because they weren't utterly destroyed: Wellesley and the Allies clearly won the "Lines of Torres Vedras Campaign." Given that Wellesley's objective was the defense of Portugual and not, necessarily, the destruction of Massena, one could argue that these battles were not "pitched", in addition to the fact that the French were not trying to destroy the Allied Army in both battles: they were merely trying to prevent their own destruction. Sieges, such as Burgos, are obviously not "pitched" battles.

What irritates me the most is that claiming that Wellington "never lost a battle" is at best, subject to interpretation, and at worst "stolen valor-by-proxy." I think Wellington's record is already sufficient to put him among the greats of history, and the "never lost a battle" statement is unnecessary puffery.
 

Edratman

Ad Honorem
Feb 2009
6,115
Eastern PA
#2
I hold the opinion that Wellington lost the Battle of Quatre Bras . This was a distinctly different battle from Waterloo and was a clear and undisputed French victory. The advocates of "never lost a battle" must be combining this battle with Waterloo to whitewash the record.
 
Feb 2016
4,129
Japan
#4
Quatre Bras at the very worst can be with written up as a draw.
However as the French failed to achieve anything and retreated from the field it is usually a victory in all but the most bitter anglophones eyes... which is amusing as the battle was won and fought more by Orange and Saxe Weimar than Wellington.
 
Aug 2010
15,119
Welsh Marches
#6
That Wellington never lost a battle seems to me to be one of those claims that are sort of true but need to be qualified quite heavily when one gets down to the details; i.e. a claim that can be thrown up into the air for further consideration. I don't see Quatre Bras as 'a clear and undisputed French victory', since Wellngton carried the field, but it did prevent him from going to help the Prussians - that is exactly what I mean by saying that the disputed statement needs qualification!
 
Likes: frogsofwar
Jul 2018
427
Hong Kong
#7
The solution is simple : Just claiming that Wellington never lose a single "major battle" in field engagement. :cool:
Rear-guard skirmishes and sieges were excluded from the list, so there is no problem at all !

And I definitely don't think that the British army lost the Battle of Quatre Bras, whether strategically or tactically.

Otherwise, you have to seriously conclude that the French general Dupont lost to the Austrian army in the AD 1805 Battle of Haslach-Jungingen,
even regarding of the fact that the 20,000-strong Austrian army was severely blunted by a much smaller French troops (only 5,000 men) for half a day in two little villages suffering heavy losses and then allowed Dupont's division "slipped away intact" like a winner (yet imagine how ridiculous claiming Dupont "lost a battle" merely because he lost the ground to the Austrians ! In fact, it was a "strategic victory" and a "tactical draw")

Wellington, just like Dupont who thwarted the Austrian army's advance and wasn't routed by enemy army, prevented Napoleon's army from cutting the British army and the Prussian army apart by holding the strategic crossroad of Quatre Bras long enough and thus virtually thwarted the French army's strategic plan. Also, the French army's resource was thus diverted and could not concentrate on either front (against British + against Prussian). At last, the British army actually repelled the French army's offensive for the whole day, and then executed the "strategic withdrawal" towards Waterloo from Quatre Bras for luring the French army forward for allowing himself to contact and reunite with the battered Prussian army by chance. Obviously, Quatre Bras was not the British defeat (otherwise, would you dare to say 1805 Haslach-Jungingen was the French defeat ?).
 
Likes: Edric Streona
Jul 2017
43
France
#8
He lost a lot of battles, but which was not decisive

He was at the Battle of Boxtel (French victory)

He lost the Battle of Pombal

He lost the Battle of Tordesillas

The second Siege of Badajoz, but his worst defeat is the siege of burgos
 
Jul 2018
427
Hong Kong
#9
He was at the Battle of Boxtel (French victory)
Are you kidding me ? He's just a regimental commander in that battle, had no power to influence the general trend of battle at all. We should only count those he had overall command of the entire army in battle / siege.

He lost the Battle of Pombal
It was a rear-guard skirmish anyway.

He lost the Battle of Tordesillas
He retreated only because a pivotal bridge was seized by the French army, pretty controversial for claiming that he "lost a battle".

The second Siege of Badajoz, but his worst defeat is the siege of burgos
the siege battle anyway, Wellington's army endured the heavy casualties without capturing a bastion, unquestionably a defeat, but had nothing to do with "field battle" (excluding any vanguard or rearguard skirmish less than 10,000 men involved in combat) in which Wellington had really never been defeated.
 
Jul 2017
43
France
#10
I think the battle of tordesillas was a big tactical and strategic defeat for Wellington

Wellington struggled in carrying out his retreat because he had not secured Tordesillas nor the bridge over the Douro River.

The 1812 campaign was one of Wellington's worst campaigns and his retreat from Madrid was almost as disastrous as Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The only reason it did not break Wellington was because Soult was being extremely overcautious. Had Soult made a general pursuit then Wellington's army would have likely been destroyed because Wellington had not accounted for supply depots even nearby within Portugal.

But to the fury of the French soldiers and officers, Soult failed to order an attack

So yes, the battle of Tordesillas was a major defeat, and it had great consequences, but the French failed to exploit this defeat