Lords and Dukes And Journalists

February 4, 2002


Lord Wellington? I assume you mean the Duke of Wellington. Dukes rank well above lords. In fact, dukes top the hierarchy of the British aristocracy, which has done so much to disprove the theory that intelligence, talent, personality, physical competence, and mental stability are inherited characteristics.

The Iron Duke, as he was not so affectionately known, may or may not have said the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. But he is reliably reported to have described his troops as ``the scum of the earth'' and to have said, concerning those same troops, ``I don't know whether they frighten the enemy, but by God they frighten me.'' I suspect it's a good thing the Duke lived before the era of the fragmentation grenade and the practice of rolling one into the tent of any officer who showed too little regard for the men serving under him.

[Editor's note: for elucidation, see A Wellington Footnote.]

Incidentally, the web site you use as a source for doubting the provenance of the ``playing grounds of Eton'' remark is itself somewhat suspect. The reasoning behind that doubt makes sense. Like so much else the English would have you believe is a tradition older than Hadrian's Wall, the public school myth dates back only to Victoria's reign, or starting about the time of the American Civil War. So the glorification of English public schools was at best just getting under way when the Duke died, in 1852. Only in the latter half of the nineteenth century did Eton and the like gain their reputation as the crucible in which the character of Britain's youth was forged, along with an obsession with bowel movements and a taste for sodomy.

However, also concerning the Duke, that site says:

"Up Guards and at'em"; attributed to the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.

It is doubtful whether Wellington ever used this phrase. One of his contemporaries, J.W. Croker, reported in 1884 that he had written to the duke asking if he really did give this command at the Battle of Waterloo. In an undated letter, the duke replied: "What I must have said and possibly did say was, 'Stand up, Guards,' and then gave the commanding officers the order to attack" - so repulsing the last attack of the French Imperial Guard.

J.W. Croker was a politician and journalist who was indeed a contemporary of the Duke of Wellington. He died just five years after him, in 1857. Now, British journalists are justly famous for their ability to report marvelous things from places where they have never actually set foot. But so far none of them has reported anything thirty years after he died.

I suspect the citation refers to Croker's voluminous diaries and letters, publication of which took up much of the nineteenth century, probably continued into the twentieth, and for all I know may still be going on. What Croker lacked in talent, insight, knowledge, integrity, and taste, he made up for in sheer bulk.

Little of his output has survived except for those diaries and correspondence. They're useful to historians of his era, since Croker knew everyone. He was active in the politics of his time -- among his many dubious achievements, he was the man who persuaded what was then formally the Tory party to rename itself the Conservative party. A reasonably objective biography of nineteenth century figures describes him as an ``MP, political manipulator, and propagandist,'' and notes ``he lost political influence later in his career when he became the toady of the man in power.''

The neglect into which much of his prose has fallen is perhaps explained by another of his contemporaries, the historian Lord Macaulay, in his review of one Croker work:

Many of his blunders are such as we should be suprised to hear any well educated gentleman commit, even in conversation. The notes absolutely swarm with mis-statements into which the editor [Croker] never would have fallen, if he had taken the slightest pains to investigate the truth of his assertions... [Edinburgh Review, 1831].

Little has changed in British journalism from Croker's day to our own, expect that now few people bother remarking on the vast distance that separates what appears in most journalism from verifiable fact, generally accepted knowledge, and simple reality.

Pedantically yours,


A Wellington Footnote

A reader writes:

Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed your article on the Duke of Wellington and the journalist Croker. However, if you will allow me to be a bit pedantic, I would like to draw attention to the two quotes by Wellington that you included in the article.

He did not, in fact, call his soldiers "the scum of the earth," but said that they had been recruited from the scum of the earth. And you might have included the rest of the phrase, in which Wellington marvels at the fact that the army "made them the fine fellows that they are." So, in fact Wellington wasn't denigrating his men, he was paying the British army (and himself) a compliment.

Similarly, when Wellington said, "they frighten me," he was not referring to the rank-and-file of the army, but to his generals. You may look it up in The Armies of Wellington by Haythornthwaite.

There are more Larry King Letters available.