Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo and the role of communications

WaterlooTo coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo this week, I’ve taken a very brief look at what role communications may have played in the success of the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns.

Target audience

Three of the Iron Duke’s target audiences could be said to be the British Government, British military and the British tax payer. Without the support of these three stakeholder groups it would have been impossible to wage war.

The media was also influential, as it is today. Journalists could be sent into the field to report on battles. However, it was not unknown for journalists to write copy from their desks in London, cobbling together scraps of information to turn into a story, including rumour and gossip.

The media could shape the reputation of a regiment and its commanding officers, and therefore their chances of promotion. It could also determine whether Wellington would continue to be funded by the Government or see his funding reduced. Good media relations would therefore have been important.

Engineers as market researchers

Wellington didn’t have a team of market researchers, but he did have engineers. They would not only be employed for their obvious technical skills, for example, in bridge building and erecting forts, but also as scouts.

They would ride out and establish the lie of the land, both literally and figuratively speaking. As a ‘defensive general’ it would make all the difference if he could identify and occupy the high ground and force his enemy to fight uphill. And figuratively speaking, it would pay to know whether the local population was on his side, and whether allies could be trusted.

Communication channels

When a battle had concluded and an official report was made back to the senior military command, you could say that the report was as much a form of PR as it was a description of what really happened. The report could also appear in the national press and perhaps serve as the only authoritative account of what happened. In those days, this was as good a report as you would find.

Talking of PR, it’s worth noting that the battle of Waterloo in 1815 never actually took place at Waterloo at all. It took place at Le Belle Alliance. Waterloo was where the headquarters were based. Le Belle Alliance was the most obvious place to name the battle, as it involved the British and Prussians against the French. However, Waterloo was picked. Perhaps it was a more British sounding name and maybe the role of the Prussians was being played down.

During the Peninsula War (1807-14) Wellington allowed the Portuguese and Spanish to join forces with the British. While I’m not aware of any ‘mail shots’ made to win over guerilla fighters, there would have been an element of ‘personal selling’. Face-to-face meetings between Wellington’s staff and local warlords would have been useful for building trust, strategic relationships and partnerships

The secret of war

While TV and radio, let alone the internet, didn’t exist in Wellington’s day, he would still have appreciated the importance of communication per se.

Wellington would not have thought about communications in the theoretical terms that we do today, but a planned and strategic approach to communicating would have been as important then as it is now. After all, it was his adversary Napolean, who famously said that, ‘The secret of war lies in the communications’.

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