The Battle of Assaye

The Battle of Assaye was fought on 23rd September 1803 and was a major victory for Arthur Wellesley, then a relatively young and inexperienced general. He was later to claim it as one of his most impressive victories. In the Peninsular War Saga, it is Paul van Daan’s first major battle at the head of the 110th light company and the start of a long association with the man who was to become the Duke of Wellington. This is an excerpt from An Unconventional Officer.

In the dim light of Wellesley’s briefing room, the following morning, Paul was aware that he was the youngest and by far the least experienced of the officers present, but he knew that the previous day’s action had earned him his place there. His chief called on him, and Paul stood up and walked to the front where Wellesley’s aide had pinned a sketch map of the area. Briefly Paul outlined the events of the previous day and pointed out the troop locations he had seen.
“Thank you, Captain van Daan. Gentlemen, we’re going to make a fight of it,” General Wellesley said calmly. “Here, on the edge of Assaye.”
There was a stunned silence around the briefing room. “Sir – what about Colonel Stevenson?” Maxwell said. There was no sign of the raging hangover he deserved. “Shouldn’t we wait for him? Our force is split in two.”
Wellesley fixed Colonel Maxwell with an arctic gaze. “Surprisingly, Colonel, I am aware of that,” he snapped. “Two of our scouts went out last night. They report that it is possible that the Maratha army may be pulling out. I don’t want to lose this opportunity. We have the element of surprise. I’d intended to join up with Stevenson at Borkadan but I’m not waiting for him, he’ll join us when he can, I’ve sent a message.” He motioned to his aide who picked up another sketch map and pinned it to the wall. “Gentlemen, my plan of battle.”
“It’s suicide!” John Wheeler said later, as Paul outlined the general’s orders to his officers in his tent.
“Not necessarily,” Paul said. “Wellesley is ambitious but he’s not stupid. If we wait for Stevenson this campaign could drag on for months. He’s fairly sure that the irregular forces won’t stand for long. Scindia’s infantry probably will, but with good discipline we can take them.”
“Where does he want us?” Carl asked.
“At the rear initially, with the 19th and the Madras cavalry. He’s leaving half a battalion of sepoys here to guard the baggage and the camp. The other half will fight under us while Johnstone takes the rest of the 110th. Wellesley wants fast manoeuvrable troops ready to move in and plug any gaps. He’s going ahead with a cavalry escort to reconnoitre the Maratha position. The rest of us follow. We have about two hours, gentlemen, get them ready.”
The Maratha chiefs had positioned their army in a strong defensive position along a tongue of land stretching east from Borkadan between the Kailna River and its tributary the Juah. Their army was commanded by a Hanoverian mercenary by the name of Anthony Pohlmann, apparently a former East India Company sergeant, who had positioned his infantry to the east of the Maratha camp in the plains around Assaye on the southern bank of the Juah. As Wellesley approached with his cavalry escort in the late morning it was clear that he was facing the entire combined army.
The weather was clear. It had rained during the night, and the day was cooler than average, although out on the river plain with his men, watching the Maratha and Wellesley easing their troops into position, Paul was already hot enough. Mosquitoes, the permanent irritation of India, were particularly prevalent towards the end of the monsoon season and up and down the line Paul could see his men swatting irritably at the creatures.
Pohlmann was deploying his infantry battalions in a line facing southwards behind the steep banks of the Kailna with his cannon arrayed directly in front. The great mass of Maratha cavalry was kept on the right flank leaving the irregular infantry to garrison the village of Assaye to the rear. The only obvious crossing point over the river was a small ford directly ahead of the Maratha position, and it appeared that Pohlmann was hoping to funnel the British and Madras troops across the ford into the mouth of his cannon, and then on to the massed infantry and cavalry behind. The local guides assured the general that no other ford existed nearby, but any frontal assault would have been suicide. While reconnoitring, Wellesley had noticed two unguarded villages on each bank of the Kaitna beyond the Maratha left, and it became obvious that there was a second ford. Wellesley led his army east to the crossing in an attempt to launch an attack on Pohlmann’s left flank.
At around three o’clock the British crossed to the northern bank of the Kaitna unopposed apart from a distant fire from the Maratha cannon. Once across, Wellesley ordered his six infantry battalions including most of the 110th to form into two lines, with his cavalry as a reserve in a third along with Paul’s light company and sepoy infantry. His Mysore cavalry were ordered to remain south of the Kaitna to keep an eye on a group of Maratha cavalry, which hovered around the rear.
“He’s not going to let us get away with that,” Carl commented, studying the distant Maratha troops through a small telescope. “See, he’s already swinging around to create a new line.”
He was right, Paul saw. Pohlmann swung his infantry and guns through 90 degrees to establish a new line spread across the isthmus with his right flank on the Kaitna and the left on Assaye. It was a good defensive move, which would protect his flanks, Paul thought, but it negated some of the advantage of his superior numbers. “They’re moving fast,” he said, watching the enemy’s redeployment with appreciation. “Hookey needs to get a move on or we’ll be outflanked.”
The same thought had obviously occurred to the general who immediately extended his front to avoid the danger. A battalion of pickets and the 74th Highlanders, which formed the right of the first and second lines, were ordered to move to the right. This allowed the 78th Highlanders to cover the left flank and the four Madras infantry battalions plus the rest of the 110th foot to form the centre of the British line.
The Maratha cannonade was intensifying and beginning to do some damage. Initially Wellesley ordered his own artillery forward to counter the attack but it was not powerful enough to be effective. The guns were turned onto the infantry, pounding them with canister, grape and round shot and Paul moved his horse forward restlessly, feeling powerless as the guns punched into the British lines. It was infuriating to be so far back with no part to play in the battle.
It was impossible from the rear to see everything that was going on, although occasionally messages would come through via horsemen. Wellesley was a commander who liked to move freely around the battlefield in person, relaying orders to his various commanders, but he could not be everywhere. A young ensign from the 78th had been sent back out of harms way with a badly wounded arm. He slid from his horse, blood dripping, and Paul and Carl both ran forward to assist him. Carl eased him out of his coat and Paul staunched the flow of blood, and sent O’Reilly running for bandages.
“What’s happening?”
“The infantry has advanced with bayonets,” the ensign said. “We’ve taken heavy fire, but we’re holding our own and moving forward. I got this when we charged the gunners. It’s going well but we’re taking losses. The sepoys are a bit wild; two of the Madras battalions took off in pursuit but we got them back. I want to get back there.”
“Well, you can’t, lad, not when you can’t hold a musket or a sword,” O’Reilly said, winding a bandage carefully around the wound. “Sit down, drink some water and take a breath. You’ve done your share.”
Paul was conscious of rising sounds of battle coming from the English right. He ran back to his horse and swung himself into the saddle, reaching for his telescope. The other officers and some of the men began to cluster around him.
“What in God’s name is happening?” Paul said. He was watching the steady advance of the pickets ahead of the 74th and it was clear that something was going badly wrong on the right. While he had been dealing with the injured ensign, Colonel Orrock had begun his advance in charge of the pickets who were to clear the way for the 74th Highlanders heading towards the right. It was clear now that he had either misunderstood his orders or mistaken his way, because he was marching too far to the right in direct line with the guns in and around Assaye. The King’s 74th had followed their pickets, and under the appalled gaze of the 110th light company they were being slaughtered on the field.
The pickets had already been almost completely annihilated. Even from this distance Paul could see their bloody bodies piled up, with the Highlanders scrambling over them to advance. Despite the horrific casualties, with iron and lead cutting into them they had reached as far as the low cactus hedge about a hundred yards out from the village but they could go no further. It was insanity and Paul felt a cold fury that nobody had realised the mistake and stopped the advance sooner.
“Maxwell!” Paul bellowed. He was too enraged to consider the proprieties of rank. “We need to charge, man, they’re being slaughtered over there.”
Colonel Maxwell rode up to join him. “Waiting for orders from Wellesley,” he said. His voice betrayed his anxiety. “They’ll come.”
“How the hell can you be sure? We need to go in now before they’re all dead!” Paul could not take his eyes from the horror unfolding before him. The 74th could go no further. They were rallying around their colours now, forming a square. He could see them pulling the bodies of their dead comrades to form a rough rampart around them. And then there was a yell, and the Maratha cavalry charged, followed closely by two of Pohlmann’s regular battalions, and the Highlanders were fighting with bayonet, fighting for their lives. Paul felt sick. He looked at the colonel.
“I’m not waiting,” he said, and raised his voice. “Light Company, to me! Form line! Native third battalion, fall in behind!”
The men had been waiting for the order. Paul dismounted, handed the reins of his horse to his orderly and drew his sword. The light company fell into rank with the precision of a clockwork toy with the sepoys lined up behind them as they set out at a steady pace across the battlefield. Paul scanned the battle, picking out the crumbling lines of the highlanders.
Behind him Paul could hear Maxwell bellowing orders and he grinned. Within two minutes the colonel was riding up beside him.
“If Wellesley court martials me for this, I’m taking you down with me, you arrogant young bastard!” he told Paul, and gave the order to charge, his men overtaking the light company on both sides and thundering down towards the enemy.
The cavalry smashed into the rear of the Maratha lines and Paul waved to O’Reilly. “Michael, we’re going to cut across and plug the gap left between the 74th and the 10th. Don’t let them split our line any further. Let the dragoons do the slaughter. It’s our job to stand firm. And watch those bloody gunners, I don’t trust them as far as I can kick them. Get through to the Highlanders and protect their left.”
Covering the ground quickly, they arrived at the battle zone to discover fierce fighting between the dragoons and the Maratha light cavalry. The remains of the Highlanders were barely on their feet, and Paul could see none of their officers. Through the thick of the fighting the light company slashed their way with sword and bayonet, and under orders bellowed by the NCOs they formed a barrier between the cavalry and the beleaguered 74th. Paul was appalled at the number of casualties. The dead lay piled up, impeding their advance. The guns were deafening, and the smoke obscured friend from foe. Paul stabbed a sepoy who was charging him down, then swung around and slashed at two more. There were screams from the Maratha cavalry who were under savage attack from the dragoons.
The smell of blood and sweat and the acrid scent of fear hung heavy in the air. A horse screamed in pain, then the guns crashed again. Cries of agony told Paul that his right flank was hit.
“We need to shut these bastards up and let the cavalry do their job,” he said to Carl. “Sergeant, ten men and with me. Carl, Johnny, line them up and cut down anything that tries to get past you, I don’t want a sabre up my arse. Carl, when we’re through, try to bring the men up to secure the guns. It’ll give the dragoons the chance to do their work.”
Paul led his men through the fray at a cautious run. The gunners on the far right had no need to aim any more. The packed mass of advancing British presented an easy target. They were concentrating their fire on the advancing 110th and the remains of the Highlanders, avoiding the battle raging between the two lots of cavalry so that they did minimum damage to their own men. There were three guns in his sight. Paul crouched low behind a small clump of cacti. He felt O’Reilly’s hand on his arm.
“Easy, sir. Wait until they’re reloading. The timing is as reliable as our own men shooting a volley, I’ll count you in.”
Paul nodded. “On my mark,” he said over his shoulder. “Go for the gunners on the right first, then work across to the left.”
“Make sure every one of the bastards is dead,” the Irishman instructed. “They’re the devil for playing dead, and before you know it they’re shooting you in the arse. If in doubt, cut their throats. Hard to get up from that one. Watch for them hiding under the bodies. Now here we go. One, two three…”
The gunners were quick and efficient at loading, but Paul and his men were on them before they were halfway through the process. Each gun had a small group of sepoys defending it, but they were no match for the enraged light company, and the gun was silenced within five bloody minutes. Paul stood for a moment catching his breath, glancing around him. The ground was saturated with blood and eight gunners and their guards lay dead.
“Well done, sir,” his sergeant said. He was wiping blood from his hands down his tunic.
“All dead. Bryant, Smith, stay to guard it until the lads come up. Kill anything you don’t like the look of.”
“Aye, sir,” Smith said. He was a fearsome sight, covered in blood, his bayonet held in steady hands. “That include Bryant, sir, ‘cause he’s an ugly bastard?”
“After you’ve done with the Maratha,” Paul said with a grin. “Come on, Michael, let’s find ourselves another gun.”
The fight was harder now, as they were cutting through the remains of the Maratha infantry. The sepoys were fierce fighters, but they seemed leaderless and backed off from the savage assault of the light company bayonets more easily than expected. The second set of guns was in sight when Paul felt an agonising pain in his left thigh. He stumbled and fell, rolled over onto his back and slashed up at a sepoy who was lunging down at him with fixed bayonet. The man screamed and fell, blood spurting. Paul sat up and felt cautiously at his leg.
“Sir, you all right?” Private Cooper pulled up in his headlong run and offered his hand to Paul. Paul got up, nodding.
“Musket ball, I think,” he said, probing and wincing. “I’ll live. Let’s get moving.”
The light company reached the second set of guns and swarmed over the gunners in seconds. There was less noise now, although across to the left he could hear that the guns he had thought silenced by the advance of the 78th had started up again. He glanced at Michael, who shrugged.
“Told you,” he said. “Not dead enough.”
“They will be,” Paul said grimly. “Wellesley is over there; I can see him. He’ll shut them up. Are this lot done?”
“Aye, and it’ll get easier now. The heart is out of them. Can’t see any officers about either. Perhaps it was getting too dirty for their pretty French uniforms. Look here’s Smithy. Is the gun secure, lad, or have you run away from Bryant?”
“Bryant’s down. Some bastard cavalryman came through running scared and slashed him on the way.”
“Dead?” O’Reilly asked.
“Didn’t look good, Sarge. Poor bastard.” Smith glanced at Paul. “Mr Swanson and the lads are through, sir, sends his compliments and says you’re to get a bloody move on.”
Paul was trying not to think about Bryant’s laughing face only fifteen minutes earlier. “Come on then.”
“Are you all right, sir?” the sergeant said, indicating Paul’s leg.
“I’ll be fine.” Paul tested it. It hurt badly, but he had not lost strength and it was bleeding sluggishly. He had no idea of what damage had been done, but he did not need to stop now. He began to run. It was bearable. He was conscious of the Irishman keeping pace with him, making sure he did not fall, and shot an appreciative grin his way. O’Reilly’s thin face was grimly amused.
“You’re a hard young bastard,” he said.
“You’ve the navy to thank for that,” Paul replied, dodging a sepoy who was lying on the ground trying to stab upwards into his stomach. He despatched the man quickly and ran on.
They overran the guns more quickly now with no further casualties, and joined up with the 78th. A major Paul knew slightly saluted him, pulling out a canteen and gulping down water. “Captain van Daan. They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems. Would your ruffians have something to do with that?”
“Maybe, sir. We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.”
“Lose many?”
“I don’t know yet. One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right. We’ll not get out of it unscathed.”
“None of us will, laddie. They’re on the run now. Their French officers took off, no discipline left. Eyes right, the general is approaching.”
Wellesley reined in. He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning.
“Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well done, sirs. You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.”
“Not serious, sir.”
“Good, good. I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.”
Paul glanced up at him warily. “I was around, sir,” he said.
“Yes.” Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes. Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly. “You anticipated correctly, Captain. You might not always be right, however. I prefer my officers to await orders.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Did Colonel Maxwell…”
“No, sir,” Paul said definitely. We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.”
Wellesley shook his head. “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well. I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns. Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear. Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them. Captain, are your men able to join them?”
“Yes, sir.” Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company.
“Good, let’s get those guns back. God knows what the cavalry are doing!”
Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them. “They all right over there, sir?”
“I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here! What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain? Why can they never follow a simple order?”
Despite himself, Paul grinned at the General’s exasperated tone. “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.”
The rest of the light company were approaching with Carl at their head. There were familiar faces missing in their ranks. With a sinking feeling Paul realised that he could not see Sergeant Stewart or Lieutenant Wheeler.
While the 78th and the 110th light company attacked from the West, Wellesley himself rode to the 7th native cavalry, the only mounted troops Maxwell had left on the field, and led them from the East. The attack was short and brutal, and for one sickening moment it looked as though the general himself was lost, as his horse went down under a pike. Shaken but undeterred, Wellesley was up again and mounted on his third horse of the day and the light company leaned against the carriages of the recovered guns and caught their breath…

Women in the Peninsular War

Women in the Peninsular War are a central theme of the novels I write and I have just finished reading an excellent book with that title by Professor Charles Esdaile. I have just finished reading this book properly for the first time, although I’ve dipped in and out of it for research for my novels for a while. Charles Esdaile has written an excellent account of the experiences of women of all nationalities and classes who found themselves caught up in the horror of the conflict in Portugal and Spain in the early nineteenth century.

This account looks at the situation of women from an economic and social point of view, both those trying to scrape a living in a land devastated by war and those who arrived in the Peninsula attached to armies of both sides. We look at a range of women; wives and prostitutes, sutlers and traders, women who made the most of their opportunities and women who suffered appallingly at the hands of both French and English armies. He looks at the stereotypical perceptions of Iberian women of the day and the effect this may have had on how they were treated and he supports his writing with a host of stories and examples from sources written at the time.

Women suffered during this war. They were subject to appalling conditions, loss of homes and livelihoods and frequently victims of rape. But this is not an account of victimhood. Professor Esdaile writes about survival and courage; about the things that changed for these women and the things that did not. Little is known about the women of the Peninsular War but this book gives them a voice and a character and is well worth a read.

I have tried to give the women of this time a voice in the novels. As a novelist rather than a historian, there is a delicate balance between telling a story which will engage modern readers and writing an unrealistic view of women in the early nineteenth century. Next month I am taking part in a panel at the Malvern Festival of Military History with other historical novelists, the title of which is “A Fine Line – turning historical fact into fiction” and the treatment of women in novels set during this period is an excellent example of this. As a modern woman writing about a different era, it is my job to portray conditions as they were, not as we would like them to have been. At the same time, Anne van Daan, the leading female character of the books, is a woman who was thrown, quite accidentally, into a situation which gave her opportunities to broaden her horizons and to discover talents and abilities that she would never have had the chance to use at home.

I have been asked questions about Anne and what she did during the novels and I’ve needed to answer them honestly. There is no record of any woman performing the kind of surgical operations in Wellington’s medical tents that Anne came to do during the war. Women could not be doctors. There was no formal training available to them and they would never have been allowed to practice.

Having said that, there is a fair amount of evidence that women were a common sight tending the wounded after battle. They were expected, as part of the deal for being allowed to accompany their men, to act as washerwomen, seamstresses and nurses. Most of the women who travelled with Wellington’s army were attached to the enlisted men either as wives, officially on strength or as informal companions. Many of them were local women who had simply taken up with the men with no formal arrangement. They lived hard and dangerous lives and went through incredible hardship. They suffered the privations of marches, bad weather, sickness and starvation. They often died and their children with them. Most of them, at some time or another, helped to tend the wounded.

It was less common for an officer’s wife but that was simply because there were very few of them with the army. If women joined their husbands they tended to remain away from danger in places like Lisbon and Oporto, forming a kind of ex-pat community while their husbands were at war. There were notable exceptions to this; Mary Scovell frequently joined her husband at headquarters when she was able and Juana Smith, the young Spanish bride of Captain Harry Smith of the rifles was at his side throughout the war. Juana definitely, on occasion, helped with the nursing and it was her example that first sent Anne van Daan in the direction I have given her.

To allow Anne to act as an unofficial doctor seems like a monumental step, but the reality is that with the agreement of both her husband and a couple of army surgeons hard-pressed and desperate for competent help, it is not impossible. Young and inexperienced trainees were sent out with virtually no training; they assisted, learned on the job and then went back to take their medical examinations as battle hardened veterans. We have very few detailed accounts of exactly what these hospital mates actually did but I suspect that in desperate times and as their knowledge and experience grew, they took on more advanced procedures without official qualifications. There is also mention in contemporary accounts of local doctors or even camp followers, unqualified but helping out when no other help was at hand. The army medical service was desperately under-staffed at times and it is not that much of a stretch to imagine the surgeons closing their eyes to what the wife of an officer was doing, especially when she was very competent, required no payment and got no official recognition. As to the matter of whether a nineteenth century woman was capable of such a thing, I have no reason to imagine that a young woman back then was any less capable than a female junior doctor today; she simply did not have the same opportunities.

The crucial point, and the fine line for me, in writing about a woman like Anne, is to ensure that her behaviour is not seen as normal or acceptable by everyone around her. While her very eccentric husband is genuinely proud of her and one or two of the army surgeons value what she does, there is a lot of disapproval and resentment among other surgeons and many of the officers. Anne does not fit into the army hierarchy and she is not supposed to. Occasionally this gets difficult for her but she persists because once she has escaped from the traditional bond of femininity she has no wish to go back.

I have given my heroine a role in Wellington’s army and I’m proud of her. However, I am very conscious that I don’t want to create some kind of army of Amazons fighting alongside their men. Women, for the most part, had very definite roles and were expected not to stray beyond them. They lived hard and dangerous lives and were subject to harassment and ill-treatment and sexual assault in an era where this was not viewed in the same way as we view it today. Once again, I have tried to depict their reality as sympathetically as possible, not denying their truth but not letting it define them either. While there are many examples of heroism in contemporary accounts, of both officers and men of both armies stepping in to defend a vulnerable woman, there are sadly just as often, accounts of the opposite happening. Stories of theft, violence and rape are sometimes mentioned so casually in diaries and journals that it takes a moment to realise what we are hearing. Some diarists express their horror, like Edward Costello at Badajoz. Others seem to see it as an inevitable part of war.

Overall the British troops had less of an appalling reputation than the French although this may have been due to lack of opportunity at times. There were penalties for crimes against the locals; Wellington did not want his armies seen as invaders but as liberators. However, given the societal norms of the time, one wonders how the mistreatment of a woman would balance against the theft of livestock.

I first came across this final story when I was researching courts martial for An Unwilling Alliance early this year and I found it repeated this week in a book about the rifle regiment as I was researching the Salamanca campaign. It is a sad little story and a version of it could have happened in any place at any time, but it says something to me about the position of women during the Peninsular War.

While the light division was quartered at Rueda for two weeks in the run up to the battle of Salamanca, a grenadier from the 61st regiment, Private Dennis Farrell arrived in search of a sergeant of the rifles who was serving with the light division. It appeared that Mrs Farrell had deserted her husband, leaving him to care for their two children, and run off with the sergeant. Nobody seems to know exactly what made Ann Farrell take such drastic action although it was rumoured that Farrell beat her.

When Farrell arrived he persuaded Ann to leave the camp to talk to him and spent some time trying to convince her to return to him. Ann, however, was having none of it. She was happier with her sergeant, who was good to her, and was enjoying life with the rifles. She appears to have been popular with the other women and both officers and men liked her; at informal dances she was apparently a favoured partner of General Vandeleur. She had no intention of going back to Farrell.

The next that the riflemen, camped nearby, knew of her, was a series of screams. By the time they reached her, Ann was beyond help, having been stabbed to death with her husband’s bayonet. Her husband had fled but the authorities caught up with him and arrested him at Fon Castin on 8th July 1812 for the murder of his wife.

Apparently, Private Farrell must have received some sympathy from the court martial, because he was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and received a sentence of twelve months’ imprisonment. When he had served it, he returned to his regiment and was killed the following year in action in the Pyrenees.

His wife was buried by the riflemen who were apparently sad at the loss as she had been popular in the regiment. I haven’t been able to find a record of what happened to the couple’s children but the fate of Ann Farrell is tragically not that uncommon even during modern times and the extremely light punishment inflicted on her husband may well be a reflection on the value placed on the life of a woman or it may be a realistic effect of the need for experienced men which made it more useful to send Private Farrell back into battle than to hang him.

Turning historical fact into fiction gives a novelist the opportunity to experiment a little, to throw in a few “what ifs” which it is difficult for a critic to disprove providing it is done within the context of the time. We know so much about the battles of Wellington’s army, about the weapons and the uniforms and the opinions of generals and politicians. What we cannot know is the thoughts and feelings of the vast bulk of men and women, marching through rivers and sitting by the campfire at night. We have a few voices out of the thousands, speaking to us through diaries and journals but most of them are silent. That silence gives us the opportunity to give them a voice of our choosing and researching what did happen and then imagining what might have happened is both a challenge and a reward of writing historical fiction.

The Malvern Festival of Military History takes place on 5-7 October 2018 and tickets are available here.

The next book in the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, will be available on Kindle from 30th November 2018 and in paperback by the end of the year.

The Retreat from Burgos

Burgos

The retreat from Burgos took place in torrential rain towards the end of 1812. It was a miserable end to a year which had seemed spectacularly successful for Wellington’s army. It may have appeared that the Allies had trudged back to the border with their tail between their legs but despite the anti-climatic end to 1812, Wellington established himself beyond all doubt in French minds as a general to be respected. During winter quarters his army rested and recovered and Wellington considered how to improve supplies, discipline and the overall health of his troops. By the start of the new campaigning season he was more than ready for a new advance into Spain with lessons learned and from that one, there would be no retreating.

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca
Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

After the bloody storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, Wellington finally met Marshal Marmont on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca and inflicted a crushing defeat. It was the culmination of weeks of manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring and it seemed for a time that Wellington would decide not to give battle, but he was quick to spot a weakness in the French line and Marmont’s army was swept aside.

Wellington’s army marched on to Madrid and King Joseph evacuated his capital, leaving the Anglo-Portuguese army to enter as liberators on 12th August. Joseph’s army retreated as far as Valencia. Wellington was hoping that a combination of weather, exhaustion, supply problems and the traditional squabbling and disharmony between leaders would keep the various sections of the French army apart. He relied on the Spanish to keep the French busy in the north while he laid siege to the castle of Burgos.

Wellington was caught off guard by how quickly Clausel was able to rally the defeated French army. The French initially marched on Valladolid causing General Clinton to fall back and the Spanish to abandon the town. Wellington attempted to pursue Clausel but the French fled out of reach. With a wary eye on the various French armies, Wellington left General Hill to defend Madrid with three divisions while he set about reducing Burgos.

Wellington had around 35,000 men and the siege began on 19th September. The defenders were commanded by General Dubreton and consisted of around 2,000 troops. Wellington, however, was seriously short of heavy guns; some historians believe he had only three 18 pounders while others assert that he had more locally captured cannon. He was also short of trained engineers and sappers, many of whom were either killed or wounded during the siege operations.

On the evening of 19th September, Wellington ordered an attempt on the San Miguel hornwork, which guarded the fort’s northeast approach. It was a brave move considering the lack of artillery support but the Allies were able to capture the hornwork although they lost 421 men killed and wounded, to a loss of 138 killed and wounded on the French side. The Allies took 60 prisoners and 7 guns.

Wellington’s engineers began digging in batteries on the hornwork hill. The first of these was finished on 22 September but possibly hoping for another quick success, Wellington ordered an attack on the same night before his guns had had a chance to fire. 400 men from his first and sixth divisions attacked the palisades with axes and then ladders but were easily repulsed to the loss of 150 killed and wounded.

The engineers dug a mine under the fort’s west wall which was detonated in the early hours of 29th September. Once again a British advanced party attempted the breach, but received no support and were driven back. It was realised that the wall was an ancient structure and not part of the main French defences. Wellington set his engineers to dig a new mine and his troops to build a breaching battery but this was immediately destroyed by French artillery. The same thing happened the following day, with both guns and gun crews lost. On 2nd October, Wellington finally sent to Sir Home Popham for more guns to replace them but they were destined not to arrive in time to be of use.

The second mine was fired on 4th October, blowing a gap in the north-west wall and killing a number of the defenders. Wellington’s army attacked once more and managed to secure a tentative position in the outer defences but with the loss of 220 men killed and wounded. The Allied army set about digging a new trench against the inner defences but the French made a surprise attack on 5th October, killing and wounding more than 110 men and removing or destroying most of their equipment. The digging resumed on the following day but the French attacked again on the 8th and Wellington lost another 184 men. It had begun to rain heavily, flooding the trenches and the Allied guns were running out of ammunition. All the time, Wellington was receiving reports of the movements of the French armies and racing against the clock.

Time ran out after another failed assault on 18th October. With another 170 casualties and nothing gained, Wellington was aware that the French army was approaching and he risked being overrun. Reluctantly he abandoned the siege and prepared to retreat, having gained nothing and lost 550 dead, 1550 wounded and three guns.

Marshal Soult had finally connected with King Joseph and had moved towards Madrid with around 61,000 men. In the north, General Souham’s Army of Portugal had around 53,000 men. Wellington had around 73,000 troops, around 35,000 at Burgos, 20,000 at Toledo under General Hill and another 18,000 under General Charles von Alten in Madrid. Wellington had instructed the Spanish general, Ballesteros to stop Soult’s move but Ballesteros was offended that Wellington had been offered the supreme command in Spain and refused to obey. No support came from the 8,000 Anglo-Sicilian troops under Maitland in Alicante on the east coast and Wellington was in a dangerous position, cut off from Hill. The River Tagus, which he had hoped would provide a barrier at this time of year was unusually low. The Allied army was in serious trouble.

Wellington raised the siege on 21st October and slipped away, unnoticed by the French until the following day. Souham followed, and a series of small actions were fought between pursuers and pursued over the following week. On 29th October, the French took the bridge at Tordesillas and Wellington needed to order a full retreat. He sent instructions to Hill to abandon Madrid and join him.

After a skirmish with Soult’s advance guard on 30th, Hill withdrew to Alba de Tormes, and Joseph re-entered Madrid although he was so keen to destroy Wellington’s army that he left immediately without even leaving a garrison. Hill and Wellington joined up near Alba de Tormes on 8th November and on 15th found themselves facing 80,000 men under Soult across the old Salamanca battlefield. On this occasion Soult did not take the bait and Wellington began retreating west later that day.

Supply arrangements for Wellington’s army went badly wrong. The competent quartermaster-general, Murray, had returned to England and his replacement, Willoughby Gordon, lacked his organisational talents and imperturbable efficiency. The Allied troops marched for four days in torrential rain with little or no food. Surprisingly, Soult sent only his cavalry after the Allies but the French took hundreds of prisoners among the stragglers and many men died of hunger or exposure.

The Allied army reached Ciudad Rodrigo on 19th November with around 5,000 men missing. Wellington was back where he had started and it seemed for a time that some of the magic of his reputation had been lost. Wellington himself spent the winter concentrating on what had gone wrong and how it might be righted before the next campaigning season. He was furious at the breakdown of both logistics and discipline during the retreat and he was determined that it should not happen again.

Historians differ about the reasons for some of Wellington’s actions during this campaign but most appear to agree that Wellington made a serious mistake in attempting the siege of Burgos without a proper siege train and enough guns, ammunition and equipment. He himself later suggested that he had made a mistake in leaving his three best and most experienced divisions around Madrid, but it seems doubtful that even the third, fourth and light divisions could have taken Burgos with the means and the time available.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of WellingtonRory Muir, in his biography of Wellington, gives the following assessment:

“The essential fact is that Wellington should never have left himself so short of means; at the very least he should have summoned a proper siege train as soon as he had reconnoitred the fortress. The combination of lack of foresight and poor judgement was most untypical. The army suffered over 2,000 casualties in the siege, its morale deteriorated greatly and the French armies were left undisturbed to prepare their counter-offensive. It was the worst mistake of Wellington’s military career.”

The fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, tells the story of the battle of Salamanca and the retreat from Madrid and Burgos from the perspective of Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the light division and is due for publication on 30th November on Kindle and at the end of the year in paperback.

Joey the Labrador

Welcome to the very first guest blog post from yours truly, Joey the Labrador, senior officer here at Writing with Labradors.

I’ve wanted to do one for a while, but the first couple of posts had to come from our senior officer and I was okay to wait my turn. I didn’t expect it to come like this, with Toby gone now and me in charge of Oscar, our young subaltern. Still, it’s time to step up and do the job.

 

It’s been more than six weeks since we lost Toby and we’re all getting more used to it, though we’ll never stop missing him. At first I used to forget he was gone and wander around looking for him but I’m over that now. Having Oscar has been the best thing ever, I’m never lonely. He’s always close by, sometimes a bit closer than I need him to be, to be honest. I know I loved old Toby, he was my best mate all my life, but I’m pretty sure I never used to sit on him. Still, although I tell him off from time to time, I secretly quite like Oscar wanting to be that close to me.

Life goes on and there are always changes. Jon-human has started work now and isn’t around studying all the time so there have been some changes in the study. The big table has gone and we’ve got a very comfy sofa and armchair instead which makes it much more homely. Personally I still like my bed best, just behind her chair, so she has to ask me to move if she wants to get up for a cup of tea, but Oscar loves the sofa and we’re very settled in there all day when she’s writing. The extra space means that there’s a lot more space for playing as well. She gets very aggy when we make too much noise in there, but I know she likes it really, she’s soft in the head when it comes to us labradors.

The writing is going very well, apparently. The new book is doing well. It’s my favourite, An Unwilling Alliance, since a chunk of it is set right here on the Isle of Man and talks about the places she takes us for walks. Mind, there’s not enough dogs in it. Toby used to complain about that and he was right, although she promises that Craufurd the Puppy features very regularly in the next one which is out in a couple of months. She’s also planning on introducing a second dog, called Toby at some point, in honour of the old fella. I like that idea, don’t know much about how it’s going to work, I just know that every time she thinks about it, she starts laughing. Madwoman, I’ve always said it.

Meanwhile, she’s been off doing research which means Anya-human is in charge of us. This is great news as she spoils us rotten and even lets us sleep in her bedroom which is normally off-limits. I particularly like it when she sends photos of this to her mother who can do nothing about it because she’s stuck in a castle in some remote part of Spain gibbering about battlefields. Next month she away at the Malvern Festival of Military History, whatever the hell that is. She seems very excited about it. I’m excited because I bet the teen humans have friends over which means illegal pizza, illegal sleeping in the bedrooms and more fuss and attention that I know what to do with. Great news…

Autumn is on its way, and it’s fun teaching Oscar how to chase leaves in the wind. My legs are a lot better now and although I’ve been grumpy about it, I think losing a bit of weight has done me good. I’m getting on a bit, no question, but I want to stick around as long as I can for Oscar and the rest of the family. And having this puppy has definitely made me feel a lot younger again. He’s a lot of fun, although between you and me, I’m not really sure he’s all that bright. A bit like Toby, who was the best friend in the world, but not much between his ears other than daylight. Sometimes I see him in Oscar…

Writing with Labradors is back on track and I think our senior officer would be proud of us. Sitting out on the porch on sunny days, I look at his statue and I’m very glad to have known him. One day Oscar will sit here thinking of me like this, but it’s great to know the tradition is going to carry on through him.

 

She probably wants me to mention that there is another book coming out soon, An Untrustworthy Army, which is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga. Most importantly it features at least one dog. I recommend you read it on that basis alone.

In the meantime, I’ve just realised the time. Must be lunchtime by now…

The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh

Fa’side Castle, Pinkie Cleugh by Kim Traynor (Wikimedia)

On September 10th 1547 the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was fought on the banks of the River Esk near Musselburgh in Scotland. It was the last pitched battle between Scottish and English armies and took place during the wars of the Rough Wooing. The Scottish defeat was so severe that it became known as Black Saturday in Scotland.

At the end of his reign, Henry VIII was keen to marry his young son, Edward to the baby Mary, Queen of Scots. Diplomatic efforts failed as the Scots preferred a French alliance, so Henry invaded Scotland to secure the young queen, sparking the conflict which became known as the Rough Wooing. When Henry died soon afterwards the war was continued by the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.

Somerset was keen to pursue the policy of pushing Scotland into an alliance by marrying Mary to Edward and hoped to force an Anglican Reformation onto the Scottish church. In September 1547 Somerset led his army into Scotland, supported by a large fleet. He marched along the east coast of Scotland to keep contact with the fleet in order to secure his supplies. His troops were constantly harassed by local horsemen but their advance could not be stopped.

Meanwhile, to the west, Thomas Wharton and the Scottish Earl of Lennox, who chose to support the English invasion, invaded with 5000 men in an intended diversion, burning Annan and taking Castlemilk. The Earl of Arran had raised an army which consisted mostly of local pikemen and some Highland archers. He had some guns although these were not mobile enough to be particularly useful, and 2000 cavalry under the Earl of Home, consisting mainly of Borderers, whose loyalty tended to be somewhat fluid.

Arran decided to make his stand on the west bank of the River Esk to stop Somerset’s march. His left flank protected his left flank and a boggy area was on his right. The Scots constructed basic fortifications to mount cannon and arquebuses, some of which were pointed into the Forth to keep English ships at bay.

Part of Somerset’s army took possession of Fawside Hill to the east of Arran’s position on September 9th and later in the day, occupied the Inveresk Slopes with guns, overlooking the Scottish position. Lord Home, in a dramatic and pointless gesture, led 1500 cavalry towards the English and challenged them. Lord Grey accepted the challenge and led a force of men-at-arms and demi-lancers against the Scots. The Scots were routed and pursued for three miles westwards, depriving Arran of the bulk of his cavalry. During the night further challenges were issued, one from Arran asking that the dispute be settled by single combat between Arran and Somerset and a second for a battle between 20 champions from each side. Somerset rejected both of these anachronistic proposals; he was probably astonished that they had been made at all.

On the morning of Saturday, 10 September, Somerset moved his army to join up with his guns at Inveresk. He realised that Arran had moved his army across the Esk by the Roman bridge and was marching rapidly to meet him. Arran knew that he was badly outgunned in terms of artillery and hoped to force close combat before the English guns had time to deploy. Unfortunately, this advance moved him out of the protection of his guns on the Forth and the Scottish left flank was badly mauled by fire from the English warships.

The Roman Bridge over the Esk where some of the fleeing Scots came under heavy fire (Kim Traynor, Wikimedia)

Thrown into confusion, Arran’s left wing crashed into his centre while on the other flank, Somerset send in his cavalry. The Scottish pikemen drove them back, inflicting heavy casualties onto the cavalry and Lord Grey was wounded by a pike through his throat. Despite this success, the Scottish advance had faltered and their army was now under heavy fire from the warships as well as English artillery and archers. Unable to stand any longer they broke and ran, just as the English cavalry, which had regrouped, joined the battle, preceded by the English vanguard of 300 men under Sir John Luttrell. The fleeing Scots were chased towards the Esk and into the bogs. Many were drowned or slaughtered while trying to escape and the retreat turned into a bloody rout.

The Scottish army was shattered but their government stubbornly refused to come to terms with the English. The young Queen was sent into hiding as Somerset occupied Scottish castles and towns along the border and held large swathes of territory in the Borders and Lowlands. Still the war dragged on, costing men and money, and Somerset was distracted by political problems at home. On 7th August, Mary sailed to France from Dumbarton and French troops were beginning to arrive in Scotland to support their allies. The war formally ended with the Treaty of Norham on 10 June 1551 and the last English troops were withdrawn from Scotland.

Despite the disaster at Pinkie Cleugh, the English failed to achieve their aims and probably felt that the war had resulted in a waste of men and money. The Franco-Scottish alliance went ahead, and Mary was married to the young Dauphin of France. She remained in France until her young husband unexpectedly died in 1560 and suddenly, the marriage of the Scottish queen became, once again, a matter of interest to England, now under the very different rule of her cousin Elizabeth. While the battle’s political consequences were slight, military historians have given it a greater significance as what may be seen as the first ‘modern’ battle on British soil, an idea explored in more detail in this article by Gervase Phillips originally published in Military History magazine in 1997.

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders
A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

My own introduction to Pinkie Cleugh, which I had never heard of before, was in the first of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles A Game of Kings, where the battle is a key point of the story. The battle is significant in A Marcher Lord, set on the Borders during the War of the Rough Wooing where defeat at Pinkie Cleugh sends Will Scott back to his border fortress along with many other loyal Scots to try to hold it against the invading English. I love the Scottish borders and have spent many hours walking the hills and driving through the valleys, my feet in the present and my head very much in the past. There is an excellent battlefield walk which I would recommend to anybody visiting the area, and especially on a misty day as it was when I visited, it is very easy to imagine the sound of guns, the clashing of pikes and swords and the screams of dying men and horses on that Saturday in 1547…

Malvern Festival of Military History

Next month I am very proud to be a part of the Malvern Festival of Military History which takes place from 5-7 October.

The festival sees a host of top writers in the field of military history visit Malvern for the Festival of Military History. Taking place in the grounds of Severn End, Hanley Castle, this is Britain’s only literary festival dedicated solely to military history. It looks at fiction and non-fiction, ranging from Agincourt to modern day Afghanistan, and covering warfare on land, at sea and in the air.

Top speakers include Lord Paddy Ashdown on Hitler, Sir Max Hastings on Vietnam, Damien Lewis on The SAS, Nicholas Shakespeare and Andrew Roberts on Churchill and Adam Zamoyski on Napoleon.

Top military historians in their fields also debate key issues in important battles and wars through the ages in a series of panels. These include Agincourt, The English Civil Wars, The Royal Navy, Waterloo, 19th Century Colonial Wars, World War One, World War Two and Post-1945 wars and insurgencies.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

I will be part of a panel of novelists discussing the challenges of writing fiction based on historical events and characters. On the panel alongside me will be Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams, David Donachie and Iain Gale, all fantastic authors. All the talks and panels will be followed by book signings and an opportunity for the audience to interact with the authors.

This top-class literary entertainment is supplemented by an exhibition of war art in the Festival exhibit hall. Attendees can browse these during breaks in the programme and while taking their refreshment from the range of food and drink outlets.

The evenings see the attention turn to musical entertainment. On Friday night the New Scorpion Band perform a set of traditional folk tunes from the 18th and 19th Century. Familiar songs such as Spanish Ladies and Over the Hills and Far Away will get your feet tapping! Saturday is the turn of the RAFA Concert Orchestra who will play a selection of war movie themes including The Dam Busters, The Great Escape and Saving Private Ryan.

This spectacular event is not to be missed by anyone interested in the history of warfare. Full details and booking options can be found hereThe advanced booking discount ends on 7th September so book now for what looks to be a spectacular event.

Greater Arapile, Battle of SalamancaRemember to watch out for the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga, due on 30th November. An Untrustworthy Army tells the story of the 110th during the Salamanca campaign.