There are very few times when two such outstanding and eminent military commanders; men who truly defined an age, were gathered in the same room together, and yet history affords us a few rare examples.
I could cite Hannibal’s meeting with Scipio in the gymnasium of Carthage, where Hannibal mentally outfoxed his conqueror, or when two such great allies as Turenne and The Great Conde or Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy fought, met, laughed and dined together.
I would love to have been there when Turenne met John Churchill (later to become the Duke of Marlborough) whom he termed “My handsome Englishman” or when young Prince Frederick of Prussia (later to be termed ‘The Great’) met the ageing Prince Eugene who taught him in the art of war and parted with the words “Will you not kiss my old cheek?”
Any of us would have loved to have seen Ulysses S Grant meet with the wonderful Robert E Lee at Appomattox Court House across the table, or would have laughed to see the difficulty of Grant meeting with Marshal Macmahon – the two failing utterly to cross the language barrier, whilst Montgomery and Patton discussed the plans for the invasion of Palermo in, of all places, a Maltese lavatory!
Wellington once met with Marshal Soult, whom he seized from behind and cried out “I have you at last!” whilst he and Marshal Massena conversed over who owed whom a dinner, with Wellington stressing that opposed to Massena he had never slept, whilst Massena retorted that Wellington had turned every hair on his body white!
Yes, history has a few examples of when two such great people met; sometimes as old friends, sometimes as old enemies, but the cases are very rare indeed, and none more so than when two of Great Britain’s most venerated and iconic military leaders met one day for an hour; Sir Arthur Wellesley, later to become Duke of Wellington, and Horatio Nelson, the greatest Naval commander of all time.
Luckily, Wellington later recalled the meeting one day at Walmer Castle on October 1st 1834 in a conversation with the noted diarist John Wilson Croker, who asked him if he had ever met the great Admiral, and what his thoughts were concerning the great man’s reputation for egotism and vanity, which conversation was recorded in the Croker papers for posterity.
It was September 1805; Wellesley had just returned from India where he had won the outstanding Battle of Assaye, and was arrived at the Colonial Office in Downing Street where, on the same day, Nelson had arrived to be given the Naval commission which would see him dead within a month at his greatest victory at Trafalgar.
In answering Croker’s question, Wellington recalled the meeting:
“Why,” said the Duke, “I am not surprised at such instances, for Lord Nelson was, in different circumstances, two quite different men, as I myself can vouch, though I only saw him once in my life, and for, perhaps, an hour.”
“It was soon after I returned from India. I went to the Colonial Office in Downing Street, and there I was shown into a little waiting-room on the right hand, where I found, also waiting to see the Secretary of State, a gentleman whom, from his likeness to his pictures and the loss of an arm, I immediately recognized as Lord Nelson.”
“He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself, and in really a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose something that I happened to say may have made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All that I had thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and of the aspect and probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman.”
“The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and certainly for the last half or three quarters of an hour I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. Now, if the Secretary of State had been punctual, and admitted Lord Nelson in the first quarter of an hour, I should have had the same impression of a light and trivial character that other people have had, but luckily I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden and complete metamorphosis I never saw.”
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