By now the myth that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton has been pretty well exploded. For one thing, there were no playing fields as such at Eton or any other school when Wellington's soldiers were at a formative age. If the Iron Duke benefited from any sport at the crucial battle of his career, it was not some schoolboy pastime but fox hunting—a sport that he pursued avidly throughout all his campaigns.
Wellington was a good Anglo-Irish aristocrat to whom fox hunting was almost a necessity. The Germans might use dogs to trap and seize the fox underground, the French might shoot the animal and the Austrian nobility might have foxes driven conveniently before their shooting stands, but the English considered the manly thing to do was to chase the fox on horseback, and this they did with a vengeance.
Wellington had more than enough time during the Peninsular War to follow the sport. The first time he was sent to the Iberian Peninsula, in 1808, he forced Napoleon's armies out of Portugal only to have the diplomats lose the victory. This meant he had to be sent out again, for an interminable stretch of five years without leave or a visit home—five years of advancing and retreating, of driving hard and then waiting and reorganizing, until at last he brought his troops across the Pyrenees into France, where Napoleon, pressured also in the north, had to give up.
It was a wearying and nerve-wracking campaign, and as soon as possible Wellington began distracting himself with his hounds. First he had to get the war under way. This he did by driving into Spain and winning a victory of sorts at Talavera, which was so popular back home that it brought him his peerage. The very first letter the new peer signed with his new title was one asking the prince regent for permission to have a pack of hounds sent out for the hunt.
Wellington spent the next year and a half or so on the Portuguese border building forts and waiting for the right moment to invade Spain again. In the meantime he wanted his men to be active and happy. He permitted his officers to dress more or less as they wanted; the sportier ones went about in elaborate jockey costumes. There was horse racing, shooting and, of course, fox hunting. Everyone got involved in the hunt in some way. The very commonest soldiers, whose duty it was to feed the dogs, got to snitch the dogs' biscuits, which were better than their own. At any rate, Wellington had every one interested in the hunt. According to one officer's account: "Here the shell-jacket of a heavy dragoon was seen storming the fence of a vineyard. There the dark green of a rifleman was going the pace over the plain. The unsportsmanlike figure of a staff officer might be observed emerging from a drain, while some neck-or-nothing Irishman, with light infantry wings, was flying at every fence before him." The local Portuguese peasantry must have wondered what to make of the English soldiers and all that view hallooing over the countryside.
Wellington himself, never ostentatious in his dress but always correct (he usually wore a plain gray coat and a cocked hat covered with waterproofed silk), rode to the hunt in the top hat and sky-blue-and-black habit of the Salisbury hunt.
When it was time for the English to move out of Portugal and begin the sieges of the French strongholds in Spain, Wellington turned his favorite sport into a propaganda device. Trying to frighten a French garrison into surrendering, he let it be known he was going to take up hunting again and that he needed a house nearby for his hounds—a plan that would let the French know he had no idea of retreating. During the many long sieges he had to lead, he made his officers send back home for their own hounds and wrote enthusiastic notes to his colleagues arranging for meetings and dates. To keep enemy spies from guessing at his plans he would disguise his reconnoiterings as hunting jaunts; the villa where he had his hounds kept was used for secret staff meetings.
The most dashing display of sporting zest came at the battle of Salamanca, one of the major victories of that war. The French and British lines were drawn up, the battle was under way and Wellington was riding along the line of fire, watching the artillery blasting the enemy. His staff was with him, and he was deep in an intense conversation with a Spanish general. Suddenly a rabbit ran into the ravine separating the two armies, and from somewhere sprang a brace of greyhounds in hot pursuit of the rabbit. The moment he saw this, Wellington, to the astonishment of his Spanish allies, gave the view halloo and galloped after hounds and hare full-speed, somehow not being hit by either side's shells and not stopping until he had seen the hounds run down the hare. There is a famous portrait of Wellington by Goya, said to have been sketched as the general rode into Salamanca after the victory; the expression is that of a man who is astonished at having escaped from a terrible danger.
After Salamanca, Wellington found himself without supplies and forced to retreat almost to the Portuguese border. Somewhere back in the straggling train were his hounds. A private wrote, "We were sent to break biscuit and make a mess for Lord Wellington's hounds. I was very hungry and thought it a good job, as we got our own fill." Wellington sent a dispatch off to one of his commanders, advising that "if you should be pressed by the enemy, take care that all our stores and people (including my hounds) move off."
Somehow they—Wellington, at least some of his troops and many of the hounds—made it back to their permanent encampment, and garrison life started again. Wellington had, in addition to his seven war chargers, eight hunters (two of which cost him 400 pounds) and about 16 couple of foxhounds. The hunt met at least three times a week, and Wellington was always there, getting what sport and exercise he could. Conditions were very poor. His hounds, done in perhaps by all their traveling, were considered very poor specimens of the breed. They almost never caught up with a fox, even though the few foxes around were very fat and not to be compared with the brave and wily ones in Britain. Either the hounds caught and killed the fox before the chase was even under way or the fox managed to find a hole to hide in.
The climate was wet and rainy; the going was terrible, the ground being of light gravel or rock and very slippery. A judge advocate who was sent out to take up duty on Lord Wellington's staff found the hunting somewhat less than glamorous. Food was in short supply, and had Wellington been willing to eat fox it wouldn't have mattered, since he and his hunt had only managed to kill one fox in many months, and there was no one who could really take the time to manage things well.
Poor results or no, Wellington kept on hunting. It sometimes seemed to his men that he kept his camp up in the wilderness of the border only to be able to fox hunt. In fact, however much he enjoyed the sport, he found it expedient to be as far as possible from Lisbon, with its bureaucrats and official visitors and local royalty. None of them liked to make the long trek to his camp; he answered the more annoying inquiries as to what he was doing by describing full details of the latest hunt.
Lamed horses, foxhounds and all, Wellington started off once more to clear Spain of the French, and this time he succeeded. He drove his way across Spain, taking Pamplona, where he stopped to rest and hunt. Then he moved into France itself, where there was more hunting—though still not of the best sort. He moved his army on to Toulouse, and it was here that the news came of Napoleon's abdication. Celebrations followed, with balls and, of course, a great hunt in a nearby forest. The war, for the time being, was over, and Wellington could get back home and get in some decent hunting before it was time for him to attend to Waterloo.
It was probably a very good thing, apart from the reasons already given, that Wellington pursued fox hunting during the war rather than, say, shooting. There is a story that in later years he was visiting a lady's estate, and everyone decided to go off shooting grouse. Lord Wellington let his gun off in all directions, to the absolute terror of the lady's young daughter. "What's this," cried the lady to the child, "fear in the presence of the Lord of Waterloo! Stand close behind the Duke; he will protect you." Behind the Duke was the only place to be, for he managed to wing a dog, a keeper, an elderly woman standing in her cottage window while she did her laundry and one pheasant. England may have owed the survival of her armies to the wily fox.