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The University of Southampton

HIST2094 Wellington and the war against Napoleon

Module Overview

From 1793, for more than 20 years, Britain and her allies were almost continually at war, first against the armies of revolutionary France, then against Napoleon and the combined forces of his empire. Initially this was an ideological struggle — the terror of revolution embedded itself deep in the psyche of the late eighteenth century; subsequently it was a conflict which, while more traditional in its nature, was without precedent in its scale and consequences. Britain’s forces were engaged across the oceans, from the Low Countries to South America, from Cape Town to Calcutta and Penang, as well as on the home front. This module looks at Britain’s engagement with the struggle against Napoleon through the career of one of her foremost generals, the Duke of Wellington. From the start of his career as a soldier, in Ireland, through service in India, the campaigns of the Peninsular War, to Waterloo and the occupation of France, his professional life was wholly focused on this struggle against France. The module will make special use of Wellington’s papers, in the University Library, to understand the practicalities of warfare, the way decisions were made, the political context and the ability of Wellington to work with Britain’s allies on the Continent, in Portugal, Spain and France in 1808-14, and then in the Waterloo campaign of 1815.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The dynamics of global conflict at the start of the nineteenth century
  • How the power of Britain’s armed forces was projected onto the Continent, and the context of their operation, both political and military
  • The role of individuals in leading and organising nations in conflict
  • The importance of systems and logistics
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Analyse the pattern of the war against Napoleon
  • Understand how military and political reputations are made and the context in which military actions may be fought
  • Appreciate the wider context of conflict
  • Appreciate the choices and decision-making processes of individuals and organisations
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Interrogate documentary systems
  • Analyse primary sources
  • Contextualise information
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate the role of techniques of documentary analysis in understanding archival sources
  • Develop a critical approach to primary sources
  • Balance different categories of evidence and the approaches of historians
  • Understand the place of editions of texts and material culture


In this module you will examine British involvement in the war against Napoleon to understand how and why the country was engaged in this conflict. Britain and her allies were locked in a war of stamina, which was ultimately won because Napoleon made mistakes — but at various points it might have been a war lost. While Britain’s navy performed well against French forces, her army was of much lesser standing – yet that army became crucial in bringing the conflict to a close, and its leader in Portugal, Spain and Southern France, the first Duke of Wellington, became indispensable to the British state in projecting her power onto the continent of Europe. You will study how Britain’s forces were organised, what made the army work, how forces were composed, trained and put in the field, for example, in terms of logistics and supply, and how troops might be employed on a battlefield. We will examine political relationships, with the British government and parliament on the one hand, and how British forces worked together and with her allies on the other. The Duke of Wellington’s campaigns in Portugal and Spain - and at Waterloo - will form a series of case studies to show how decisions were made, the challenges that were overcome, the performance of armies in the field, and how war might be concluded. You will see the general’s point of view and the experience of the common soldier, the reactions of local populations, the importance of intelligence and communication, and the role of armies of occupation. We will look at reputations: how did Britain regard its military heroes? How did they make the transition to peace? These were matters of moment for tens of thousands of men, not least Wellington himself. In looking at these questions, the module will focus on a series of studies of primary sources. Britain came through this contest not from military expertise alone, but because ‒ as we will see ‒ war forced change on the state, on its systems for organising and managing its business. Some of those changes came from a maturing of political judgement and strategic decisions; some came through hard work, imagination and invention. Few people in 1793 can have envisaged the consequences — the expansion of the British colonial empire, a thriving economy (those on the Continent suffered severely), and maritime domination, with control of key harbours and naval bases around the globe, and an army of fine reputation. Seminar topics will include: The background to the conflicts Britain at war The organisation of the British army Putting the army in the field Working with allies On the battlefield The campaigns of the Peninsular War Waterloo; making and managing the peace Making the hero

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • Lectures and seminars • Detailed reading and the analysis of primary texts Learning activities include: • Preparatory reading and individual study • Participation in seminars, including short presentations on seminar themes, individually and in small groups • Studying primary sources

Follow-up work45
Completion of assessment task20
Preparation for scheduled sessions45
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Foster, R.E (2014). Wellington and Waterloo: the Duke, the battle and posterity. 

Muir, R (2013). Wellington: the path to victory 1769-1814. 

Esdaile, C (2002). The Peninsular War: a new history. 

Gates, D (1986). The Spanish ulcer: a history of the Peninsular War. 

Knight, R (2013). Britain against Napoleon: the organization of victory 1793-1815. 

Muir, R (1998). Tactics and the experience of battle in the age of Napoleon. 

Esdaile, C (2004). Fighting Napoleon. Guerrillas, bandits and adventurers in Spain, 1808-1814. 

Ward, S.G.P (1957). Wellington’s headquarters. A study of the administrative problems in the Peninsula, 1809-1814. 

Gash, N (1984). Lord Liverpool: the life and political career of Robert Banks Jenkinson, second Earl of Liverpool. 


Assessment Strategy

The module will be assessed by a 2000 word primary source-based essay, submitted mid- semester, and a 2 hour examination which will include one source-based question (gobbet style) and one essay, also source based. The weekly seminars will provide you with a forum to discuss the primary sources and relate them to the historical context and the historiography. They will also allow for the development of interpersonal skills; through the use of class presentations you will be able to develop your knowledge and understanding of particular subject areas and to enhance your oral communication skills. The essay and exam will test your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, your capacity to deploy interdisciplinary approaches and to develop a coherent written argument. In addition, the source-based focus of the essay and the exam will prepare you for the Special Subject and Dissertation in the third year.


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay 50%
Written assignment 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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