Nelson Meets Wellington, But No High Fives

Patton and MacArthur first met on the battlefield long before they were triumphant generals. Wellington and Nelson had an introduction in a quiet hour during the war with Napoleon. Both encounters happened in September.

Patton and MacArthur first met in the Great War during an artillery barrage on September 12, 1918. The future Third Army commander was 32 and the future Pacific Forces commander was 38. Recalled Patton, “I think each one wanted to leave but each hated to say so, so we let it come over us.”

This amazing moment between World War II generals on a World War I battlefield is described in a splendid article from the Army Historical Center. The shared conversation between these young officers was never clear, but they were certainly in their element at the time. Lieutenant Colonel Patton was driving the first generation of tanks and Brigadier General MacArthur was leading an infantry brigade. Had the shells fallen any closer, the course of military history could have dramatically shifted.

Another crossing of major figures occurred 113 years earlier, when Major-General Arthur Wellesley found Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson in a waiting room at Whitehall. The brief meeting is depicted in a Wikipedia article on the future 1st Duke of Wellington:

In September 1805, the then Major-General Wellesley, newly returned from his campaigns in India and not yet particularly well-known to the public, reported to the office of the Secretary for War to request a new assignment. In the waiting room, he met Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, already a legendary figure after his victories at the Nile and Copenhagen, and who was briefly in England after months chasing the French Toulon fleet to the West Indies and back. Some 30 years later, Wellington recalled a conversation that Nelson began with him which Wellesley found “almost all on his side in a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me”. Nelson left the room to inquire who the young general was and on his return switched to a very different tone, discussing the war, the state of the colonies and the geopolitical situation as between equals. On this second discussion Wellington recalled, “I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more”. This was the only time that the two men met; Nelson was killed at his great victory at Trafalgar just seven weeks later.

A sidebar on appearance

Every officer in 1800’s Whitehall was surely dressed to impress, but looks aren’t everything. The man inside the uniform matters most. We are reminded of the saying, “A unit ready for combat will never be ready for inspection.” Sherman and Jackson dressed like disheveled privates, whereas McClellan probably polished every button on his uniform. An exception would be George Patton, who insisted on proper uniform pieces—and issued fines for negligence—for every one of his soldiers.


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