ONE biographer describes the great British military leader Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, as ``cold and punctilious'' and goes on to say that the ``Iron Duke'' never ``secured to himself the affections of officers and men as Marlborough or Napoleon did.'' Perhaps this alleged lack of warmth in the British soldier-hero's character explains to some extent the lack of interest shown in him by the people of many nationalities who still flock to the site of his most renowned victory, near a small town just south of Brussels.
After all, it was in this place that Napoleon Bonaparte met his Waterloo, not Wellington.
Yet images of the great Boney (and his Empress Josephine) are sold in their hundreds here in the form of prints, post cards, and awful little statuettes, while Wellington -- or so the displays in the tourist shops suggest -- is all but forgotten.
It seems that somehow he wasn't a romantic enough figure to perpetuate a legend. Only about 36 years after his passing, it was possible for someone to write, as though referring to a dim past: ``The Wellingtonian legend was once as strong in England as the Napoleonic in France.''
Napoleon, on the other hand, had looked back over his career from his final imprisonment on St. Helena -- where he was busy writing his history for posterity -- and remarked with justice: ``What a romance my life has been.''
In fact, he gave his name to an entire era, this ``Corsican ogre,'' while the reticent Englishman only gave his to a town, a public school, a tall form of conifer (the ``Wellingtonia''), a London military barracks, and a still popular, but now, I suspect, much modified, kind of waterproof boot.
Surely the Duke deserves better from the collective imagination. Specialist historians have presumably done their best, not least among them Elizabeth Longford in her biography of 1969, ``Wellington, The Years of the Sword.''
She is certainly persuaded that her hero remains a hero. ``Wellington's battles and fortresses,'' she writes, ``his Vit'orias and Torres Vedras, are still living names.'' But, she points out, for a writer to grasp the spirit of a hero, he must be ``caught in action, in flight like a great meteorite wrenched off from the mass of humanity: blinding, molten, irresistible.'' And when it comes to her description of the Battle of Waterloo, she brilliantly portrays him that way.
He comes over as absolutely single-minded in his aim to do what needed to be done. ``His whole army,'' she writes, ``vibrated under his inspiration.''
She quotes an eye-witness: ``He was everywhere . . . the eye could turn in no direction that it did not perceive him, either at hand or at a distance; galloping to charge the enemy, or darting across the field to issue orders. . . .''
And the Horse Artillery's commander, Sir Alexander Frazer, expressed an admiration for him that surely amounts to something approaching affection. Longford quotes him writing that although Wellington was ``cold and indifferent . . . in the beginning of battles, when the moment of difficulty comes intelligence flashes from the eyes of this wonderful man; and he rises superior to all that can be imagined.'' But to root themselves in the hearts of ordinary people, heroes sometimes need to be more than supermen on the field of battle. They need to be seen to have a human face.
Elizabeth Longford summed up the problem with Wellington in her ``Author's Note.'' She observed: ``It has always been easier to present the out-and-out egotist redeemed by genius than the hero with unfashionable weaknesses such as reserve and rigidity.''
She suggests that Napoleon was the first, Wellington the second kind of person. But -- as is also definitely suggested by the contrast between Goya's drawing and consequent painting of the hero (just after his victorious entry into Madrid in August 1812) -- Wellington did have a private countenance that was subtly different from his public face.
Goya, as he showed in his self-portrait wearing spectacles of 25 years earlier, was sensitive to a face that is tentative in its awareness or even slightly apprehensive. If the Spanish painter had not also demonstrated his ability to portray his male sitters as arrogantly self-assured, we might assume that his first depiction of Wellington's visage was a projection of his own vision rather than an accurate likeness.
Wellington was habitually morose after his victories, almost as if they had been defeats -- a sympathetic aspect of his character which counterpoints his ``rigidity.'' Goya seems to have sensed it perfectly: the private face. Even when the artist officialized the image in paintings, making Wellington more commanding and erect, something of that facial sensibility remains.
It is strangely at odds with the ``Iron Duke'' reputation, and reminds one perhaps that here was a man who, when younger, had deliberately burned his violin in order to seal his choice between the life of a dilettante and a military career.
In Goya's chalk and paint here are the features, three years before the event, of the man who after Waterloo said, in a broken voice, ``Well, thank God, I don't know what it is to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one's friends.''
Elizabeth Longford follows this moment in her biography with the observation that ``less than twenty miles away Napoleon, ashen and haggard, was weeping over his lost army.'' Somehow one feels more sympathy for the Englishman's unhappy balancing of loss and gain than for the glorious emperor's tears -- impressive anguish of the egotist-genius.
There is another, far more peripheral point of contrast between the two antagonists. It might be epitomized by the egg boiler and spoon used by Wellington's cook throughout the Waterloo campaign. Very plain and utilitarian, these utensils. Perfectly suited to the man who before Waterloo breakfasted only on tea and toast, while Bonaparte ate his repast off ``crested silver plate, which,'' writes Elizabeth Longford, ``suggests that he fortified himself'' with more than the Duke.
Wellington's cook, James Thornton by name, has recently come to light by the discovery, in an antiquarian bookshop, of a handwritten interview in which he recalled everything he could about his service to the Duke.
Published (by Webb and Bower, London; Salem House, Pittsfield, Mass.) under the title ``Your Most Obedient Servant,'' the interview makes a neat little volume. Thornton's answers to the questions put to him are almost as cryptic as the Duke's despatches. But bolstered with a thorough introduction by Elizabeth Longford, this book does add a number of intriguing details to the picture of Wellington handed down to posterity.
There is surprisingly little information about food in the interview, but two things stand out, and both shed what seems to me a warm light, however faint, on the cool repute of the Duke.
One is the information that Wellington sent an order to his cook very early in the morning before Waterloo to be ready that night with a ``hot dinner.'' Elizabeth Longford finds this ``curiously touching.''
How ``nice,'' she muses, ``it would have been to order a hot dinner after Hastings or Bosworth Field.'' And she points out that ``the Duke knew he would survive -- hungry. `The Finger of Providence' was upon him.''
The other touch comes earlier in the story. The cook was asked during the part of the interview concerned with the Peninsula War, ``Did the Duke take any refreshments out with him for the day?''
``The Duke,'' answers Mr. Thornton, ``never took any refreshments with him, when he mounted his horse, except a crust of Bread, and perhaps a hard- boiled egg in his pocket.''
I feel convinced that a truly ``cold and punctilious'' Duke would have gone without the egg.