The Duke of Wellington: Military man whose valour during the Second World War upheld the traditions of his celebrated family line


Anne Keleny
Wednesday 31 December 2014 20:15
The Duke of Wellington died aged 99
The Duke of Wellington died aged 99

Arthur Valerian Wellesley, the eighth Duke of Wellington, fought the French and performed his duty for his country in Spain, just as his great ancestor did.

The great Duke’s grandson’s grandson, born within days of the centenary of Waterloo, served as British defence attaché at Madrid at the end of a career brilliantly begun with the Military Cross, gained in 1941 in his first six weeks with The Blues (1st Household Cavalry Regiment) against the Vichy French in Syria.

In Syria, this proud body of riders, like many others deployed in the Second World War across the globe, had to shoot its horses and rapidly mechanize for the demands of modern warfare. Valerian, on the way there from Palestine in 1940, had ridden in the last horse-march of the complete 1HCR with everyone mounted.

But it was on foot, reconnoitring ahead in moonlight in command of 20 men among the columns and toppled ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, that Valerian proved his courage.

“This officer showed great gallantry and initiative on the 26th June, 1941, when leading a night patrol into Palmyra, and brought back very valuable information as to the enemy’s defences,” the recommendation for his decoration says. Valerian also brought back a trophy, a scarlet cloak that a fleeing member of the French Camel Corps had abandoned.

The award recommendation cites in addition a patrol from El Beida to Furqlus, on 5th July 1941, eight days before the Vichy French sued for an armistice. It goes further: “Apart from the above incidents this officer’s conduct throughout the operations in Syria was exceptionally gallant and he was a magnificent example to all ranks in his Squadron.”

So fine a soldier was Valerian that King George VI personally asked him to stay on in the Army in 1946, when he was contemplating leaving. But though his sovereign had faith in him, he had had to win his family’s approbation. A cloud hung over him in the mind of his father, the 7th Duke, Gerald Wellesley, because he had failed to get in to the “family” regiment, the Grenadier Guards.

Valerian’s war after Iraq and Syria included a wireless course in Cairo, a stint in Cyprus, and acting as a messenger during the battle of Alamein in October and November 1942, for which his regiment was held behind the lines as potential reinforcement.

An exploding makeshift stove during a hasty brew-up then put him out of action with burns until 1943, when he rejoined the regiment on the Turkish-Syrian border, before returning to Cairo and then Jerusalem. There, between protecting VIPs at the King David Hotel during the Cairo and Tehran conferences in November 1943, and embarking from Port Said for Italy in March 1944, he wooed and married the daughter of the Chief of Staff to the GOC. This time in his life was bittersweet because his cousin “Morny”, 6th Duke for only two years, had been killed in action in September at the Salerno landings, making Valerian’s father, Gerald, the 7th Duke, and Valerian, as his son, the Marquess of Douro.

Valerian’s wedding on 28 January 1944 at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem took place under heavy security because of a bomb threat from the Zionist terror group the Stern Gang. It was known to the bride, Diana McConnel, because of her job in military intelligence, but not to Valerian, because she observed the Official Secrets Act and refrained from telling him.

The couple were parted while the 1HCR, with the Eighth Army, fought its way up the spine of Italy until September 1944, when the regiment embarked from Naples for home, and the new Marchioness followed from Port Said on the very next convoy.

Three hundred yards of sea, between his ship and hers, was all that lay between them. They signalled to one another each evening across the waves in Morse, she from the bow of her ship, he from the stern of his, their coded messages of love clear to the hundreds of soldiers on board who could read them.

Obeying his sovereign, Valerian stayed on and was stationed in Germany from 1946, and by 1954 was made Lieutenant Colonel Commanding Royal Horse Guards.

His ceremonial duties included escorting the royal carriages at Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947; standing guard at King George VI’s lying-in-state and then leading the Blues as they escorted the coffin at the funeral in 1952; and being Gold Staff Officer in the coronation procession of the Queen in 1953.

From 1956 to 1958 he was Commanding Officer of The Blues in Cyprus in the midst of the Eoka terror campaign. He endured heartache for his order to military colleagues to assist local people as much as possible, when the regiment’s doctor, doing just that, was murdered. He himself escaped a bomb planted beneath a bed only because it had a faulty timer.

He became Silver Stick-in-Waiting and Lieutenant Colonel Commanding the Household Cavalry from 1959-60, and Commander, the 22nd Armoured Brigade for a year until 1961.

Then it was back to Germany, this time as Commander, Royal Armoured (1st Br) Corps, with three regiments at the ready – as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in 1962 – to repel Soviet armies should the strategic gap in the Harz mountains be threatened.

“I would have received a telegram with the codeword ‘Quick Train’,” he said, had war broken out. “I had the key to the safe where I would find our instructions and we would have had to be out of the camp in two hours and on the border.”

Promoted Brigadier, he then rounded off his military career as British Defence Attache to Spain, taking up the post in 1964. This was the year that the United Nations adopted a resolution that Britain should return to General Francisco Franco’s Spain the then British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, and three years before Gibraltarians voted to stay British.

Valerian retired in that year, 1967, and from the sword put his hand to the plough, devoting himself to the Wellington estates, and also taking on a directorship at the agricultural machinery company Massey Ferguson.

Valerian took the title of the Duke of Wellington after his father’s death in January 1972. He was appointed as the only non-royal Colonel-in-Chief of a regiment, The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (the 33rd) in 1974, presiding until its absorption into The Yorkshire Regiment in 2006, and was made a Knight of the Garter in 1990.

An accomplished salmon fisherman, he lent his support to animal welfare organisations including the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, of which he was vice-president from 1983 to 1989.

As for his name, Valerian, it seems the sticky end of the eponymous third-century Roman emperor defeated by the Persians – some say flayed alive – was far from his parents’ minds when they chose it. Gerald and Dorothy Wellesley so called their son because there was a bust of Valerian in the hall of the house in Rome where he was born, and the name had been in the family since the 16th century. Many such personal details are recorded by his daughter, Lady Jane Wellesley, in her book A Journey Through My Family: The Wellington Story (London, 2008).

Arthur Valerian Wellesley was educated at Eton and New College Oxford, where he studied languages including French, and history, and joined the Oxford University Training Corps before enlisting in The Blues in April 1939. After initial training at Pirbright, near Aldershot in Surrey, he was sent as Cornet Wellesley to Windsor, then embarked with the regiment from Liverpool for the Middle East.

His death comes just months before the bicentenary of his ancestor’s most famous victory at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. He is succeeded by the Marquess of Douro, his son, Charles.

Arthur Valerian Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, Baron Mornington, Earl of Mornington, Viscount Wellesley, Viscount Wellington of Talavera and Wellington, Somersetshire, Baron Douro, Earl of Wellington, Marquess of Wellington, Marquess Douro, Prince of Waterloo, Count of Vimeiro, Marquess of Torres Vedras and Duke of Victoria in Portugal, Duke of Ciudad Rodrigo and a Grandee of Spain, 1st class, KG 1990, LVO 1952, OBE 1957, MC 1941, soldier: born Rome 2 July 1915; married 1944 Diana McConnel (died 2010, four sons, one daughter); died Stratfield Saye Estate, Hampshire 31 December 2014.

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