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Napoleon and Wellington: Saluting two great military leaders and arch-enemies

As this year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of both Napoleon and his famed conqueror, the Duke of Wellington, Luke Rix-Standing takes a closer look at the great adversaries

The Duke of Wellington
The Duke of Wellington
Napoleon Bonaparte

By Luke Rix-Standing

It's easy to feel sorry for the French army. In 1940, the Maginot Line crumbled against the Nazi advance like a croissant that's spent too long in the sun, and centuries of military dominance were forgotten within days. Think of the urban legend that if one searches 'French military victories' in Google, it auto-corrects to 'French military defeats'.

The French actually have one of the best win-loss ratios in history, so could be forgiven for being a bit miffed that even their most celebrated commander is perhaps best-known for his defeat to an English duke. By cutting the head off the Napoleonic snake, Wellington's victory at Waterloo brought an end to 23 years of continuous war in Europe and dismantled in a stroke the fledgling French empire.

In this anniversary year, here's what the history books say about the two generals, and, perhaps more importantly, what they said of each other...

Wellington and Napoleon were the leading commanders of their age and both were born in 1769, but that's roughly where the similarities end.

Napoleon was an architect of chaos, and a product of it - a fiery, unpredictable child of the French revolution, whose grand, romantic visions were centred on an unquenchable thirst for glory and a battering-ram personality. Wellington, on the other hand, was a stiff-lipped Etonian, who'd dabbled in parliamentary politics and risen dutifully through the hierarchy of the British Army. He abhorred extravagance, preferred manners to passion, lionised the class system, and believed wholly in the honourable pursuit of public service. Both men were ardent nationalists, but employed diametrically different strategies in their service to red, white and blue.

Wellington never addressed his troops en masse, communicated with short, factual, monotone bulletins, and had neither a talent nor a penchant for showmanship. His hatred for pageantry extended to his soldiers ("There's nothing so stupid as a gallant officer") and he treated praise with embarrassment and suspicion.

Napoleon was, to say the least, more outgoing. He would deliver impassioned monologues on courage and glory to his armies before battle and in his war reports would romanticise to the point of fabrication.

Neither man was overly troubled by self-doubt, but Napoleon's egomania has become the stuff of legend and some historians have characterised him as a psychopath. Napoleon, they argue, was a despotic warlord, whose naked ambition cost six million lives.

Defenders - and even in English there are some - view him instead as a reformer protecting the values of the revolution. They point to the Napoleonic Code - still the basis for many European laws - and his exceptionally soppy love letters.

Wellington did not possess Napoleon's instinctive genius, so compensated with extraordinary physical fitness, close tactical study and a Thatcher-like ability to survive on very little sleep.

Until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon and Wellington had never battled each other directly, but they most certainly knew of each other. Wellington praised his arch-rival's generalship but described his character with unparalleled venom. Napoleon, on other hand, took aim less at Wellington-the-man, more at the English commander. Clearly no love was lost; in his will, Napoleon left 10,000 francs to a former soldier named Cantillon, who had been accused of trying to assassinate Wellington in Paris in 1818.

When the day of reckoning at Waterloo came, the battle was closely-fought - and indescribably bloody. All told, around 55,000 men were counted dead, injured or missing, and several acres of field turned red with the blood of the slain.

By this time, Napoleon was facing a coalition of four European powers and Wellington's army contained entire battalions of German, Dutch and Belgian soldiers. And, after Napoleon made the fatal mistake of delaying his attack, while waiting for the ground to dry, Blucher's Prussians arrived mid-afternoon to decisively sway the tide of battle.

The Prussians wanted Napoleon's head, but Wellington intervened, saving his life if not his dignity. Promptly exiled to St Helena, he died in 1821, aged 51.

If there's one thing in which Wellington could never match Napoleon, it was stomach for the fight. He broke down in tears on the battlefield while reading the 'butcher's bill' (the list of the dead), and spoke only fleetingly of victory in his dispatches, emphasising instead his desperate losses.

He returned to England and re-entered politics, serving twice as Prime Minister. He never lead an army into battle again.

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