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Wellington, supreme general but outflanked PM

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Arab Today, arab today Wellington, supreme general but outflanked PM

Duke of Wellington (R)
London - AFP

Britain reveres the Duke of Wellington for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago, but he proved an unpopular prime minister once he shed his army uniform.

The lesser-known part of Arthur Wellesley's public life, eclipsed by his achievements on the battlefield, is being rediscovered through the numerous exhibitions and commemorations marking the Waterloo bicentenary.

Wellesley, who lived from 1769 to 1852, became prime minister in 1828, 13 years after defeating French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo outside Brussels.

A staunch conservative, he incurred the wrath of public opinion by opposing the proposed reform of grossly outdated parliamentary constituencies.

Vilified even by some of his Tory party colleagues, his government only lasted two years.

Napoleon's conqueror became the subject of ridicule, as seen in a series of cartoons recently displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
In one such satirical cartoon from 1830, the year his government fell, artist John Phillips portrayed John Bull, the personification of Britain, sweeping Wellington away with a broomstick.

"I'm determined to have a clean house," says the stout Bull, while a humbled Wellington, on his knees with the broom on his backside, cries, "What! treat your Waterloo Idol in this way, Johnny?"

"It is clear that the heroic status he had acquired after Waterloo had by this time virtually disappeared," reads the gallery's description panel.

- Iron Duke nickname -

To protect himself from the restive public, Wellington put iron shutters on the windows of Apsley House, his London residence in the corner of Hyde Park, which changed the meaning of his "Iron Duke" nickname.

A brilliant military commander, he was a "singularly bad" prime minister, whereas his opponent Napoleon was both an important head of state and a European military giant, said historian Andrew Roberts.
Napoleon left a body of laws and reforms, many of which still stand today, something which "certainly cannot" be said of Wellington, said the author of "Napoleon the Great".

His spell of unpopularity in politics has not, however, spoilt Britain's long-term admiration of Wellington, who slept just nine hours out of 90 during the Battle of Waterloo.

"Wellington is a byword for many. There are many places that are named after Wellington," said Major General Evelyn Webb-Carter, chairman of the Waterloo 200 organisation, the British body organising commemorations.

Cities, mountains, streets, statues, hotels, pubs and monuments around the former British empire are named after him.

However, in Britain, "most people, going through education, do not know anything about Waterloo or Wellington", Webb-Carter added.

- Legacy of peace and 'wellies' -

The curious can visit Apsley House, where the Wellesley family still resides. Wellington bought the Georgian townhouse from his brother in 1817.

"After Waterloo he needed a London home... to accommodate the new social demands that were made on him," said Josephine Oxley, English Heritage's keeper of the Wellington Collection.

Every year from 1820 until his death, he hosted banquets attended by military top brass, fellow Waterloo veterans, British and foreign royalty and ambassadors.

"The meals were full-scale banquet menus, served in the French style," Oxley said.

The whole house is filled with souvenirs of Waterloo -- and of Napoleon. Wellington installed a 3.45-metre high marble statue of the emperor in the stairwell, reminding visitors of the scale of his victory.

Wellington ensured 99 years of relative peace in Europe up until World War I, an era of prosperity and technological progress in the continent.

He legacy also lives on in the Wellington boot.

Wellington instructed his shoemaker to modify the 18th-century Hessian military boot to make them more practical, said Cameron Kippen, a shoe expert.

They first appeared in 1817 and were hard-wearing in battle yet "also cut a dash as comfortable evening wear".

The calfskin leather boots quickly became fashionable, and rubber versions known as "wellies" are now a staple of many British wardrobes.

 

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