Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XII

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher  (1864) 
by Charles Babbage


recollections of the duke of wellington.

Official visit to see the Difference Engine in 1829—Extract from a letter from the late General Sir William Napier—Loss of the troopship "Birkenhead"—The Author accompanies the Duke to the Exhibition of 1851—Fixed in the crowd, the Duke plays with a child of two years old—The late Countess of Wilton asks a question about the Difference Engine—The Author's explanation—The Duke's remark—Sketch of one portion of the Duke's intellectual character—University Addresses—The Duke helps a dumpy fellow to see the Queen—The Author saves a Master of Arts from hanging—The Duke and the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise—The Duke an economist of time— Character of the French Marshals.

My acquaintance with the late Duke of Wellington commenced in an official visit from himself and Mr. Goulburn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to inspect the drawings and works of the Difference Engine No. 1. This was in November, 1829. Afterwards I met the Duke in private society at the houses of one or two of his intimate friends, and subsequently I was honoured not unfrequently by receiving him at my own. During the Exhibition of 1851 I very often accompanied him in his examination of the contents of that building. I made no notes of any of the conversations, some of them highly interesting, which occurred on such occasions, because I felt that the habit of recording privately the conversations with our acquaintances was a breach of faith towards the individual, and tended to destroy all confidence in society.

I now perceive, when it is too late, that a rigid adherence to that rule has deprived me of the power of relating circumstances of the greatest interest to survivors, and of the highest credit to himself. I should not even have adverted to the subject in the present work, had I not observed in the fourth volume of the life of the late General Sir Charles Napier of Scinde a passage which, if not explained, might lead to the erroneous inference that I had myself proposed to speak to the Duke of Wellington on a certain military subject, whereas I only did so at the repeated desire of Sir Charles himself.

The following is a portion of a letter from General Sir Charles Napier to his brother, General Sir William Napier, extracted from "The Life of Sir Charles Napier," vol. iv., p. 347:—

To General W. Napier; 1852.

"May 2nd.

" I met Babbage at Miss Burdett Coutts. He talked about the 'Birkenhead,' and was very eager, saying, 'Cannot you speak to the Duke of Wellington?' 'No; it would seem a criticising of his conduct.' 'Well, I, as a civilian, may.' 'Yes ; and you will do good, for the Duke alluded to the subject at the Royal Academy dinner an hour ago.' Babbage did so at once, asking him to move in the matter; and the Duke said he would. I also spoke to Hardinge, who told me he had had a mind to allude to it in his speech at the dinner, but feared it might seem a reflection on the Duke."

***** "I have been told that the Duke is only awaiting an official despatch from Harry Smith, or Cathcart, about the ' Birkenhead,' to act. This is probable, as being like his cautious way, but, to my thinking, not well in this case."

The matter referred to arose thus. Several years ago a troop-ship, named the "Birkenhead," was wrecked on the African coast, near the Cape of Good Hope. A very small portion only of the troops were saved. According to the testimony of the survivors, the discipline and order which prevailed on board up to the final catastrophe was admirable, and almost beyond example. If any human means could have saved those invaluable lives, such discipline would have largely contributed to the result.

Sharing the general regret at this severe loss, and sympathising deeply with the feelings of the surviving relatives, it occurred to me that very simple and inexpensive means were available, which if employed, would at the least afford a melancholy consolation to the afflicted relatives, might be retained with becoming pride in their families, and would also add to the respectability of the social position of the soldier.

Observing that military offences punished by a court-martial were made public by being read at the head of every regiment, I suggested that in certain cases publicity should be given by the same means to noble acts of forbearance or of self-devotion.

In the case of the "Birkenhead," in which ship small detachments of several regiments were lost, I suggested that an order should be issued, stating—

The circumstances under which the loss occurred, and the nation's approbation of the conduct of the departed.

That their names should be read at the head of their respective regiments.

That an official letter, signed by the colonel or other proper officer of each regiment, describing the nature of the service under which the loss occurred, and conveying to the nearest surviving relative the expression of the high approbation the Government entertained of such heroic conduct.

Such official testimonials would soothe the feelings of many a relative, would become objects of just pride amongst the relations of the departed, and be handed down as heir-looms in many a village circle.

I mentioned these views to several of my acquaintances, and the idea seemed to meet with general approbation. I found my military friends fully alive to the advantage of such a course for the benefit of the service, and also as a consolation to surviving relatives. Amongst others, I proposed it to the late General Sir Charles Napier. He highly approved of the plan, about which we had several conversations. In one of these I suggested that he should mention it to the Duke of Wellington; to which Sir Charles replied, "No, I could not do that: you should tell him yourself." I smiled at the notion, not thinking that my friend was in earnest.

A short time after I met Sir Charles Napier at a large evening party. We were sitting together on a sofa talking: he resumed the plan I had proposed, spoke of it with much approbation, and concluded by saying, "You ought to tell the Duke of it."

I replied that I had thought he was only joking when he had on a former occasion made the same observation.

"No, indeed," said Sir Charles; "I am serious. The Duke will attend to what you say more than to any of us."

"If you really think so," I replied, "I will follow your counsel. I hope," I added, "the Duke may excuse me as a civilian for speaking about it, but after such an expression of your opinion I feel bound to take that course."

The conversation then turned upon other subjects, when shortly after the Duke of Wellington was announced.

"There," observed Sir Charles, "is the Duke, now go and talk to him about it." I promised to do so at a proper opportunity.

After the Duke had made his bow to the lady of the house, and recognised and conversed with many of his friends, I threw myself in his way. On the Duke shaking hands with me, I remarked that I was particularly glad to meet him, because an idea had occurred to me in which I thought he would take an interest. He stepped with me a little out of the crowd, and I then stated shortly my views. The Duke paid great attention to the subject; made several remarks upon it; and when we separated, I felt satisfied that he took a strong interest in it. I thought, however, that he had applied the idea rather more to the officers, whilst my main object was the interests of the privates.

Much later in the evening I was taking some refreshment in another room, when the Duke entering, saw and rejoined me. He reverted to the subject; I observed that though officers and privates should have the same official acknowledgment, yet that the Commander-in-Chief and the Government possessed other more substantial means of benefiting the surviving relatives of the officers than of the privates. We had some further conversation about it, and I then felt quite satisfied that he both understood and approved of it.

I rather think the Duke of Wellington moved in the House of Lords for certain papers, on which he intended to found some measure of the kind; but his death, shortly after, put an end to the question.

During the year 1851 I very frequently accompanied the Duke of Wellington to the Exhibition, or met him there by appointment at the crystal fountain. Sometimes one or two of his particular friends, usually ladies, were invited to join the party.

On the first occasion I spoke to one of the attending police, simply for the purpose of facilitating our passage if we should get into a great crowd, which, of course, did occasionally happen. In these cases the policeman a little preceded us, and it was very interesting to observe the sudden changes in the countenances of those whom the constable gently touched in order to accelerate our passage. On the first slight pressure of the policeman's hand upon the arm of John Bull, he looked round with indignation: but when the policeman quietly asked him to be so good as to allow the Duke of Wellington to pass, the muscles of John Bull's countenance relaxed into a grateful smile: he immediately made way, and in several cases thanked the officer for giving him an opportunity of seeing the Duke. During the most crowded of those days we at one period became entirely blocked up and stationary for upwards of ten minutes. Our intelligent companion was himself wedged in, at a short distance from us. Just in front of us stood a woman with a child in her arms of about two years old, who was leaning over its mother's shoulder.

The Duke began to play with the infant, pretending to touch its ear with his finger, and then to touch its nose. The mother was gratified,—the child was charmed. At last the crowd almost suddenly broke up, and we went on. After we had advanced about a dozen paces I said to the Duke of Wellington, "I must step back to speak to the mother of your young friend." I then asked her if she knew the gentleman who had been playing with her child for the last ten minutes: she said "No, Sir." I told her it was the Duke of Wellington. Her surprise and delight were equally great. I desired her to tell her boy when he grew up that, when an infant, the Duke of Wellington had played with him. I then returned and told the Duke the object of my mission. His approbation was indicated by a happy smile.

One morning the Duke of Wellington called in Dorset Street with the late Countess of Wilton, to whom he wished me to show the Difference Engine. Its home was at that period in my drawing-room. We sat round it whilst I explained its mode of action, and made it calculate some small Table of numbers.

When I had concluded my explanation. Lady Wilton, addressing me, said, "Now, Mr. Babbage, can you tell me what was your greatest difficulty in contriving this machine?" I had never previously asked myself that question; but I knew the nature of it well.

It arose not from the difficulty of contriving mechanism to execute each individual movement, for I had contrived very many different modes of executing each: but it really arose from the almost innumerable combinations amongst all these contrivances—a number so vast, that no human mind could examine them all.

It instantly occurred to me that a similar difficulty must present itself to a general commanding a vast army, when about to engage in a conflict with another army of equal or of greater amount. I therefore thought it must have been felt by the Duke of Wellington, and I determined to make a kind of psychological experiment upon him.

Carefully abstaining from any military term, I commenced my explanation to Lady Wilton. I soon perceived by his countenance that the Duke was already in imagination again in Spain. I then went on boldly with the explanation of my own mechanical difficulty; and when I had concluded, the Duke turned to Lady Wilton and said, "I know that difficulty well."

The success of this experiment induced me in a subsequent publication[1] to give an analysis of one portion of the Duke of Wellington's intellectual character, although I made no mention of his name. Many of his admirers, however, perceived at once the truth of those views, and recognised the justice of their application. I therefore place them before my readers in the following extract from the work referred to:—

"It is now felt and admitted, that it is the civil capacity of the great commander which prepares the way for his military triumphs; that his knowledge of human nature enables him to select the fittest agents, and to place them in the situations best adapted to their powers; that his intimate acquaintance with all the accessories which contribute to the health and comfort of his troops, enables him to sustain their moral and physical energy. It has been seen that he must have studied and properly estimated the character of his foes as well as of his allies, and have made himself acquainted with the personal character of the chiefs of both; and still further, that he must have scrutinized the secret motives which regulated their respective governments.

"When directly engaged in the operations of contending armies occupying a wide extent of country, he must be able, with rapid glance, to ascertain the force it is possible to concentrate upon each of many points in any given time, and the greater or less chance of failing in the attempt. He must also be able to foresee, with something more than conjecture, what amount of the enemy's force can be brought to the same spot in the same and in different times. With these elements he most undertake one of the most difficult of mental tasks, that of classifying and grouping the innumerable combinations to which either party may have recourse for purposes of attack or defence. Out of the multitude of such combinations, which might baffle by their simple enumeration the strongest memory, throwing aside the less important, he must be able to discover, to fix his attention, and to act upon the most favourable. Finally, when the course thus selected having been pursued, and perhaps partially carried out, is found to be entirely deranged by one of those many chances inseparable from such operations, then, in the midst of action, he must be able suddenly to organise a different system of operations, new to all other minds, yet possibly, although unconsciously, anticipated by his own.

"The genius that can meet and overcome such difficulties must be intellectual, and would, under different circumstances, have been distinguished in many a different career.

"Nor even would it be very surprising that such a commander, estimating justly the extent of his own powers, and conscious of having planned the best combinations of which his mind is capable, should, having issued his orders, calmly lie down on the eve of the approaching conflict, and find in sleep that bodily restoration so indispensable to the full exercise of his faculties in the mighty struggle about to ensue."

Soon after the Queen came to the throne, the two Universities presented addresses to her Majesty. I accompanied that of Cambridge. The deputation was very numerous, and much unseemly pushing took place. I recollect a very short dumpy fellow pushing much more energetically than any other, for whom I made way, as I retired from the strife in which I was unwillingly involved. He not only pushed, but was continually jumping up like a parched pea in a heated frying-pan: his object being to get a glimpse of her Majesty, and the effect accomplished being to alight on the toes or graze the heels of his colleagues.

I retired into a window close to the end of the position occupied by the gentlemen-at-arms. The Duke of Wellington, who had a short time before, as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, presented the address of that body, still remained in the state apartments. He joined me in the recess of the window, and we entered into conversation.

After a time the little dumpy fellow, who had been regularly turned out of the crowd for his pushing, came up to us, and, mistaking the Duke of Wellington for a beef-eater or some palace attendant, complained, almost in tears, that he wanted to see the Queen, and that they had pushed him out, and that he had not been able to see the Queen.

The Duke very good-naturedly said he would take him to a place where he could see her Majesty without being pushed about. Accordingly, the Duke led him behind the gentlemen-at-arms to a situation in which the little man's wish was gratified, and then returned with him to the window, and resumed the conversation.

On another occasion the University of Cambridge presented an address to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The crowd was very great. On descending one of the flights of stairs, a short Master of Arts was unluckily caught by the string of his gown hooking itself upon one of the large door-handles. He was carried off his legs by the advancing rush. To bring back the pendant Master of Arts a single inch was impossible from the pressure onwards. So whilst two or three of his colleagues with difficulty supported him, I took out my pen-knife and cut the imprisoning ribbon.

When I published the "Ninth Bridgewater Treatise," I sent my servant to Apsley House with a presentation copy for the Duke of Wellington. The next morning at breakfast my servant informed me that the porter absolutely refused to take it in, although he stated from whom it came.

I remarked to my brother-in-law, who was staying with me, that it was a very odd circumstance, and inquired what was to be done. He replied, "When a man refuses to receive a parcel, nothing more can be done" I then observed, that if any other person than the Duke had done so, I should have taken no further step; but, I added, that I knew his character so well, that I was confident there was really a good and sufficient reason, although I could not conjecture its nature.

After breakfast I wrote a short note to the Duke, mentioning the circumstance, taking for granted that it arose entirely from some misconception of his orders. I then requested him not to take the trouble of writing to me to explain it; but added that I would send the volume to Apsley House on the following morning, when, I had no doubt, the mistaken interpretation of his orders would have been rectified.

About three o'clock the same day a servant of the Duke's brought me a note, inquiring if there were any answer to take back. The Duke stated in his note that letters, books, parcels, maps, and even merchandise, were continually sent to him for the purpose of being forwarded to all parts of the world. This, he observed, threw upon his house-steward so great a responsibility, that he had been compelled to give directions that no parcel should be received at Apsley House without a written order with his signature, like that which he now enclosed. As the Duke's servant was waiting, I gave him the book, which he took back, and I retained the slip of paper for any other similar occasion.

The Duke was habitually an economist of time. One day I was going homeward in a cab to dress for a dinner engagement, when I thought I observed him riding down St. James's Street towards the House of Lords. On reaching the house of the fiend with whom I was to dine, I found that the Duke of Wellington was expected at dinner. He arrived punctually. In the course of the evening I took an opportunity of asking him whether I was mistaken in supposing I had seen him a short time before dinner riding down St. James's Street. I then expressed my surprise at the rapidity of his movements in getting back to Apsley House in time to dress and be punctual to his engagement. He said, "No, I did not do that; I had ordered my carriage to meet me at the House of Lords, and I changed my dress whilst it was bringing me here."

The most interesting conversations generally occurred when only a few of his intimate friends met together.

On one of these occasions, at a very small dinner-party, the characters of the French marshals became the subject of conversation. The Duke, being appealed to, pointed out freely their various qualities, and assigned to each his peculiar excellence.

One question, the most highly interesting of all, naturally presented itself to our minds. I was speculating how I could, without impropriety, suggest it, when, to my great relief, one of the party, addressing the Duke, said—

"Well, sir, how was it that, with such various great qualities, you licked them all, one after another?"

The Duke was evidently taken by surprise. He paused for a moment or two, and then said—

"Well, I don't know exactly how it was; but I think that if any unexpected circumstance occurred in the midst of a battle, which deranged its whole plan, I could perhaps organize another plan more quickly than most of them."

This strongly confirms the view of the Duke of Wellington's character given in the preceding pages. After examining all the more important combinations which might be made for the conflict, and having selected those which appeared the best, it is quite natural, if any accident deranged the original plan, that he should perceive, more quickly than another commander, one amongst the many plans previously rejected which was immediately applicable to the new and unexpected circumstances.

  1. "The Exposition of 1852;" 2nd edition, p. 222.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.