The Malvern Festival of Military History: my review

I have just got back from a great weekend at the Malvern Festival of Military History. It was a fantastic event, featuring a wide selection of historians, novelists and enthusiasts and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the field who didn’t make it this year. I met some amazing people and have come away with some good memories and a whole host of new ideas which I am never going to have time to write. I also spent a small fortune on books…

The festival was a full-on weekend, with so many talks and discussion panels that it was genuinely difficult to get time to eat. It took place in several marquees in the grounds of Severn End in Hanley Castle and the excellent coffee van and crepe van kept a few of us going through the weekend. Having to travel from the Isle of Man meant that I missed most of the first day although having attended this year, I am going to make sure that next year I’m able to be there for the full event.

I arrived in time to hear Sir Max Hastings’ talk on Vietnam which was excellent. Vietnam is one of those conflicts, like the Northern Ireland troubles, which was part of the backdrop to my childhood. My parents were daily news watchers and allowed us to watch with them from a very early age so I always knew about the war although I never learned about the causes until I reached university in the early eighties. I genuinely want to read this book.

Wellington enthusiasts let loose without supervision…

On the following day I attended panels on the English Civil Wars and 1815-1914 – A Century of Peace? Contrasting talks were given by Nicholas Shakespeare on how Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister and Andrew Roberts on Churchill: walking with destiny. I was sorry that the evening concert had to be cancelled but I thoroughly enjoyed the speakers’ reception which gave an opportunity to meet people informally. I’m indebted to my husband for managing to find a very suitable pub for dinner afterwards; the Wellington Inn. Jacqueline Reiter and I were so excited that I’m surprised they let us in, they probably thought we were lunatics, but I’m glad they did, the food was excellent.

 

A Close Run Thing? Waterloo with Charles Esdaile, Alan Forrest, John Hussey, Robert Pocock and Jacqueline Reiter

Sunday was they day very much dedicated to the period I write about and I enjoyed every single one of the talks on that day. Adam Zamoyski on Napoleon was interesting and I enjoyed his exchange of views with Charles Esdaile. Probably my favourite panel was the one on Waterloo ably chaired by Robert Pocock. Charles Esdaile, Jacqueline Reiter, John Hussey and Alan Forrest discussed a number of questions covering both the military and political aspects of the battle and an alarming number of books have been added to my ‘to read’ list.

A Fine Line – Turning historical fact into fiction with David Donachie, Iain Gale, Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams and Lynn Bryant

My own panel was the last of the day, consisting of myself along with Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams, David Donachie and Iain Gale, all fantastic authors. David was a great chair, and we talked about some of the challenges of creating believable historical fiction at the same time as spinning a story that readers will enjoy. I loved it and would have been happy to sit down afterwards to carry on the discussion.

Nein! Standing up to Hitler, 1935-44 by Lord Ashdown

The last talk was given by Lord Ashdown about his book “Nein! Standing up to Hitler 1935-44” which blows away the commonly held belief that there was little resistance to Hitler among his own people. It was a story of lost opportunities which led to tragedy and I bought that one on the day.

In the outer marquee were book stalls, an exhibition of war art and a variety of information stands and endless opportunities to talk. I spent most of the weekend talking and listening; it isn’t often I get the chance to spend time with a group of people who are just as passionate about history as I am and I loved every minute of it.

There are probably one or two things to be learned for next year. Food was genuinely a bit of a problem; the programme was very intensive and it was difficult to leave to get food. This was fine on the first day where there seemed to be a variety of food stands but on the Saturday and Sunday there was only the crepe van, who heroically fed the entire event. I suspect the weather, which was cold, and on Saturday very wet, kept them away but I wonder if it caused some people to leave to get lunch and perhaps not to come back or to miss some of the talks because of it.

It was a pity that the two evening concerts were not a success. I wasn’t able to get to the first one as it coincided with Richard’s train arriving and I had to pick him up, but I gather it was so poorly attended that the second one, on the Saturday, was cancelled. This was a real shame but I suspect it was a combination of the cold, wet weather and the problem of food once again; once people leave a venue to find dinner it is hard to get them back again. I’m hoping that it doesn’t put the organisers off the idea of the evening concerts, I think it’s a great one, it’s just the timing that needs looking at.  

None of these minor blips detracted from my enjoyment of the event. The speakers were excellent, the discussions lively and everybody I met was friendly. I had been a bit concerned that my mathematician husband would be bored but he had a great time and is definitely keen to come back next year.

I met so many great people it’s impossible to list them all although a few stood out. Carl and Gail Christie (who travelled all the way from Canada for the event), Charles Esdaile, Sinead Allen, Robert Pocock, Andrew Lacey (a fellow undergraduate with me back in the early eighties), Ian Blance (whose organisational skills are astonishing) all the great writers on my panel but especially Tom Williams (read his books, they’re awesome) and of course Jacqueline Reiter. Thanks to everybody we met for being friendly, welcoming and really interesting. In the end, it’s the people who make events like this such a success.

I sincerely hope that the Malvern Festival of Military History goes from strength to strength. I intend to be a regular visitor and want to extend my thanks and congratulations to Ian Blance and Enlightenment Events for a marvellous weekend. Well done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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…

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.

 

Threat to the Bosworth Battlefield Site

This is an appeal against the threat to the Bosworth Battlefield site. I have lifted the text directly from The History Geeks site and if anybody wishes to send in an objection to this planning application they can do so here planning@hinckley-bosworth.gov.uk quoting ref number 18/00425FUL. You MUST include your full name AND postal address and country if you are outside of the UK.

Hi guys,

This is an URGENT appeal for everybody who follows this page to take action. One of Britain’s most iconic battlefields is under threat of development and we ALL need to get involved to stop this from happening. Below are the key points of the planned development, which until now, the 11th hour, has been kept very low key by the local council, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough (Leicestershire) which has kindly been drafted out by Julian Humphrys of the Battlefield’s Trust. As he notes, Bosworth is one of a mere forty six registered battlefields in England. This is a tiny amount when one considers the sheer amount of battles fought on English soil throughout history. We cannot afford to lose any part of this historic ground.

The decision over this site is due to be made on Tuesday 28thAugust 2018 (three days from now) at a meeting of the council’s planning team. This meeting is scheduled to take place at the following address and is open to the public, so if you are local then please do attend;

The Hinckley Club
Rugby Road
Hinckley, Leicestershire
LE10 0FR

 

Threat to Bosworth Battlefield
The Battlefields Trust

The battle of Bosworth was fought on 22 August 1485 and resulted in the defeat and death of King Richard III and the accession to the throne of Henry Tudor who ruled as King Henry VII. In 2009 the actual site of the battle was located in a HLF-funded project led by the Battlefields Trust. The battlefield is one of just 46 given registered status by Historic England.

On 28 August 2018, next week, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council Planning Committee will consider a planning application to build a car track in and adjacent to the western edge of the registered battlefield. The area in question sits in the vicinity of the crest over which Fenn Lane approaches the battlefield and is almost certainly where Henry Tudor’s rebel army first saw the royal army’s deployment. In addition, survey work conducted in advance of the planning application has uncovered further artillery roundshot from the battle. For both these reasons the development is in an area of special interest on the battlefield.

The Battlefields Trust agrees with Historic England that the battlefield will be harmed by this development, but is alarmed at the suggestion that because only a small part of the registered battlefield area will be affected (and therefore the damage judged to be less than substantial), it should be allowed to proceed. The Trust recognises the constraints imposed by current national planning guidance for heritage assessments, but would argue that battlefields represent a special case which has not been properly considered by this guidance; the whole battlefield constitutes a single heritage asset and no one part of it can be said to be more or less important than another.

This kind of marginal development risks in particular the incremental destruction of the battlefield at Bosworth. Agreement to this planning application is likely to generate others and the Council will find these hard to reject given the precedent this case establishes, especially if such applications are small scale and might individually be classed as causing ‘less than substantial’ harm. In such circumstances the Council would have presided over the destruction of one of the most significant military heritage sites in England as Bosworth is, along with Hastings and Naseby, one of the most important battlefield sites in the country.

The Battlefields Trust also questions whether the full economic impact of the development has correctly been assessed. The battlefield and associated Battlefield Centre bring economic benefit to Hinckley and the surrounding area. The negative impact of the development on battlefield tourism does not seem to have been fully factored into the public benefit assessment and the Trust urges that this should be undertaken in advance of any decision being made.

The Trust has also pointed out that this application runs contrary to the policies contained in the Council’s own conservation management scheme for the battlefield which was prepared in 2013. In particular:

5.1 In line with current national policy, ensure that planning policy within the local development plan documents seeks to protect land within the revised Registered boundary38, including key sites and their settings known to have been associated with the Battle
Policy 5.4 In line with current national policy, in liaison with the Historic and Natural Environment team (LCC) ensure that any new development within the area and its setting does not have an adverse visual or landscape impact on the special qualities of the area, and that existing development which detracts from the area, where appropriate, is mitigated
Policy 8.2 In line with current national policy, ensure that topographic views across the Battlefield and within its setting are conserved and managed in order to protect significance enabling understanding and interpretation
Policy 8.3 In line with current national policy, protect the area from activity and development which undermines tranquillity – in particular noise, visual intrusion and night light spill.

This is an URGENT appeal for everybody who follows this page to take action. One of Britain’s most iconic battlefields is under threat of development and we ALL need to get involved to stop this from happening. Below are the key points of the planned development, which until now, the 11thhour, has been kept very low key by the local council, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough (Leicestershire) which has kindly been drafted out by Julian Humphrys of the Battlefield’s Trust. As he notes, Bosworth is one of a mere forty six registered battlefields in England. This is a tiny amount when one considers the sheer amount of battles fought on English soil throughout history. We cannot afford to lose any part of this historic ground.

The decision over this site is due to be made on Tuesday 28thAugust 2018 (three days from now) at a meeting of the council’s planning team. This meeting is scheduled to take place at the following address and is open to the public, so if you are local then please do attend;

The Hinckley Club
Rugby Road
Hinckley, Leicestershire
LE10 0FR

Please remember that this coming Monday is a bank holiday so act NOW. To object then email planning@hinckley-bosworth.gov.uk, quoting ref number 18/00425FUL. You MUST include your full name AND postal address and country if you are outside of the UK.

 

The Battle of Vimeiro, 1808

The Battle of Vimeiro took place on this day in 1808 when the British under General Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated the French under Major-General Junot near the village of Vimeiro in Portugal.

Four days earlier, Wellesley had defeated the French at the Battle of Rolica. Wellesley knew that his command of the army was temporary; he was seen as too junior a general to have overall command and he had been informed that more senior commanders were on their way. Sir Harry Burrard arrived during the battle and Sir Hew Dalrymple arrived soon after while Sir John Moore landed in time to take command of the British forces and lead them into Spain.

Nevertheless it was Wellesley who was in command when the army was attacked by Junot After Rolica, Wellesley had taken up a position near the village of Vimeiro, deploying his forces to hold the village and several ridges to the west which protected the landing point at Maceira Bay. Wellesley had hoped to march on Lisbon once his reinforcements had landed. He had eight infantry brigades, around two hundred and forty light cavalry and two thousand Portuguese troops, outnumbering Junot by around six thousand men.

Junot’s first move was to attempt to outflank the British by taking an unoccupied ridge to the north-east of the village. Wellesley’s men held Vimeiro and the western ridge, but he moved quickly to take the ridge ahead of Junot. Junot sent reinforcements to join the battle on the flank but made the decision to launch an attack on the village without waiting to see the outcome of his outflanking manoeuvre.

The first attack was made by Thomieres brigade who marched on the British position in column, with skirmishers and artillery in support. The British countered with four companies of riflemen from the 60th and 95th and their attack was so successful that the French skirmishers were pushed back, leaving the main French column facing the 50th regiment. At 100 yards the British opened fire while several companies began moving in towards the French flanks. The French reeled under the lethal musketry of the British infantry and were unable to deploy into line. They fled, leaving three cannons to be captured.

Shortly afterwards, Charlot’s brigade attacked Anstruther’s brigade which was hidden behind a crest and before they could deploy from column into line were struck in the flank by a second battalion which sent them fleeing in disorder from the deadly volleys. Junot sent in his grenadier reserve which was initially pushed back. Two battalions to the right managed to enter Vimeiro but were driven out by a British counterattack and then routed in flight by the light dragoons. The cavalry appear to have become carried away by their success and charged out of control, straight into the French cavalry division. They retreated to the loss of Colonel Taylor and approximately a quarter of his men.

Solignac led the French attack on the northeastern ridge, this time in a three column formation. Once again they left it too late to deploy into line and were shattered by British musket volleys and fled. Brenier’s brigade, coming up with four battalions, had some success against two British battalions who appeared unprepared after their success against Solignac. However the French were stopped by the firepower of the 29th and the two remaining battalions rallied to join them in pushing Brenier’s men back.

By the end of the battle, Sir Arthur Wellesley’s command had been superseded by Sir Harry Burrard. Burrard did not interfere with Wellesley’s conduct of the battle, but once it was done, he stepped in to prevent Wellesley pursuing the French retreat, apparently believing that Junot had troops in reserve.

Vimeiro was a welcome triumph for the British but the aftermath was a disaster. Junot offered complete surrender and was probably astonished at the terms offered by Sir Hew Dalrymple. Under the Convention of Cintra, the defeated army was transported back to France by the British navy, complete with guns, equipment and the loot it had stolen from Portugal. The Convention caused an outcry in Britain and all three generals were recalled to face an official enquiry.

Wellesley had wanted to fight on. He had signed the preliminary Armistice under orders but took no part in negotiating the Convention and did not sign it. Dalrymple appeared keen to lay the blame onto Wellesley but at the enquiry, which was held in the Great Hall at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in November and December of 1808 all three generals were officially cleared. Wellesley, however, was returned to duty in Portugal where the British had suffered the loss of Sir John Moore at Corunna; neither Burrard or Dalrymple were given active commands again.

The battle of Vimeiro gave hope to the people of Lisbon and should have been a sharp reminder to the French that they were not invincible. Wellesley, up until this point, had been known mainly for his achievements in India and some years later Napoleon was to use the term “sepoy general” to belittle the importance of that experience. Rolica and Vimeiro, however, brought Wellesley very firmly onto the European stage and when the dust from the convention of Cintra had settled, Sir John Moore was dead and Burrard and Dalrymple were no longer considered suitable for command. The sepoy general was given his opportunity and on his return to Portugal in 1809 he was quick to prove himself worthy of it with a swift and decisive victory at Oporto.

In the Peninsular War saga, Paul van Daan is present at the battle of Vimeiro but the battle itself does not feature in An Unconventional Officer; if I’d included every battle in depth it would have been longer than the Bible. It’s an interesting battle, though, with a lot of features which have become very familiar to me as I follow Wellesley and his army through the long years of the war in Portugal and Spain. Reading about it once again on the anniversary, I find myself wondering if this early time in Portugal is something I’d like to revisit at a later stage.

The next book in the Peninsular War Saga is due for publication on 30th November 2018. It will be followed by the second book in the Manxman series the following year, which follows Captain Hugh Kelly RN through the Walcheren campaign of 1809.

Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts

I’m currently on a week long trip to Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts which leaves the traveller in me overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape and the historian in me with her head spinning. After only a few days it’s clear to me how appallingly difficult it must be for any historian writing about the turbulent past of this area to find a balance between the stories of the past and the ongoing narrative of the present.

I’ve never studied the history of Ireland in any depth. During my younger years at school, Ireland tended to be taught as a footnote to the political situation in England at the time. I learned about Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, the Phoenix Park murders and Charles Stewart Parnell without ever really going into their significance within Ireland. Later, as an adult, I read more widely, inspired by the novels of Leon Uris, Trinity and Redemption. I learned something of the Civil War horrors while at University. But all of these have come in snatches, bits of information read and stored away, without ever finding time to read around the subject and develop an overview.

This trip has changed that for me. Spending time in Belfast and Derry, reading accounts of the confusing relationships between the English, the Scots and the Irish of all persuasions has reminded me that through the centuries this has been so much more than the simplistic explanation of conflict between Protestants and Catholics which was what I remember being told as a child, watching the violence explode across the evening news week after week through the seventies. IRA bombings were a reality of life, coming close to home on more than one occasion, and all I can remember back then was a sense of anger at feeling under threat over a cause that I did not understand and felt was none of my business.

I’ve travelled to Ireland many times since then both on holiday and as the former owner of a Manx Irish dance school. I’ve made friends and grown to love the place but most of my trips have been to the south where the sense of history is just as strong but very different. Here in the north, the feeling of the past whispering in the ear of the present is far stronger.

Yesterday we went for a trip to Derry / Londonderry and visited the Free Derry Museum and the Siege Museum; history through different lenses. Even the fact that I’m not sure which name to call it is an indication of the complexity of dealing with the history of this region. It would not occur to me to write Banjul / Bathurst or Zimbabwe / Rhodesia or Thailand / Siam in a blog post, but the difference in the name given to the walled city is more than a matter of history here, it’s a statement of allegiance.

In my own writing so far, the turbulent history of Ireland is a back story that I’ve not explored, but being here, it’s a back story that I can see coming to the fore at some point. Michael O’Reilly is a central character in the Peninsular War saga and it has occurred to me more than once that his history as an Irish rebel and fugitive from justice must be in direct conflict to the bonds of friendship he comes to feel for the Englishmen he fights alongside through the long years of the war. I’d like to know more about the young Michael and how he ended up where he did.

Alongside the historical complexity of this region is the stunning beauty of the scenery and that can be appreciated without needing to understand any more. Coming from the Isle of Man, I consider myself a connoisseur of fabulous coastlines and this one is definitely up there with the best. Travelling back on the Lough Foyle ferry yesterday evening into Magilligan was magical.

I love Northern Ireland and will definitely be back. Before I do, I’d like to have read a lot more about the history and feel more at home with the events and the people that have shaped this place. But even for the casual holidaymaker in search of beauty and peace and incredibly friendly people, I would highly recommend it.

Toby

Toby was the result of a snap decision after spending some time with friends who had a young black labrador. It was a decision that changed our lives.

 

 

We had lost our beloved cats, Reggie and Ronnie, over a year earlier. Both lived to be more than twenty and we couldn’t imagine finding cats with their enormous personalities to replace them. We were living on the Isle of Man by then with two young children, both of whom had fallen in love with Tavey, our friends’ dog during our visit. On the way home, Richard said suddenly:

“Shall we get a dog?”

“A labrador?” I asked hopefully. I’d spent a huge amount of time many years earlier staying with the family of a university friend. They always had dogs, black labradors and a springer spaniel. I adored Worthington and Henry and had always thought that if I could have a dog, that’s what I’d like.

“Well they’re good with children,” Richard said.

The conversation might have rested there, but when we arrived home, I picked up the free paper from among the mail and flicked through it. With our conversation in mind, I glanced at the classifieds and to my surprise, there it was, a small advert.

“There’s somebody advertising labrador puppies here, in Ballaugh,” I said.

Richard looked at me. “Ring them,” he said. “We can go and have a look. We don’t need to get one. Don’t let the children know, in case we decide not to do it.”

Looking back on that piece of naivety makes me howl with laughter.

There was one puppy left when I rang, a black boy. It was a small litter, only four puppies, the mother a family pet. We arranged a time to go up when the children were at school, having told them nothing.

The house was chaos, puppies confined to a large pen but still taking over the room. Richard sat down next to the pen and someone deposited a black puppy onto his lap. “This is him. We call him Homer, he’s the biggest of the litter. Look at his paws.”

We looked. It was hard to miss those paws, they were enormous. I stroked the puppy’s ears. It had climbed up Richard’s chest and was licking his face. “What do you think?” I asked.

Richard didn’t answer. He’d obviously lost the ability to think, he was too busy falling in love.

Toby came into our lives like a small black tornado. He was lively, he was bouncy and he ate everything in sight. He ate our shoes and our clothes and our kitchen. He resisted all forms of training or discipline and made puppy training classes a nightmare. He clearly knew his name but had no idea why it mattered since he had no intention of responding to it. He was a new full time job and we adored him from day one.

My memories of Toby are a series of snapshots through the years. Toby as a puppy, failing to look guilty as some new piece of destruction came to light. Toby taking forever to learn ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘heel’ and ‘come’, but then unexpectedly learning ‘turn’ and ‘paw’ without effort.

Stars of Blogging with Labradors
Blogging with Labradors, starring Toby and Joey

Toby first learning to swim down at Groudle Beach and then refusing to come out of the water because he loved it so much.

Toby as a young dog, taking pride of place beside Richard in our little red Mazda with the top down, ears blowing in the breeze as they headed off for the beach or the plantation.

Toby at two and a half, when we introduced Joey, the new puppy, patiently letting him jump all over him and then batting him halfway across the room when he got bored.

Toby at a barbecue, stealing a sharp kitchen knife off the worktop and racing out to greet an arriving guest to cries of “Hilary, watch out, he’s got a knife”

Toby refusing to come back to the car when it was time to go home, not once but many many times, making me late to collect the kids while I was coaxing him.

Toby at Silverdale, meeting an elderly man unexpectedly on the path and eliciting the remark: “Bloody hell, it’s the Moddey Dhoo!”

Toby taking the descent down Peel Hill too fast, rolling to the bottom and ending up with an operation and weeks of hydrotherapy to get him walking again.

Toby curled up on the beanbag with Anya when she was practicing her reading, listening to stories about dolphins and mermaids, loving the cuddles.

Toby on our “dog training for awkward dogs” intensive course, earning the nickname “Mr I will if I feel like it” after his determination not to walk to heel on the lead defeated experts in the field.

Toby getting older, his beard and eyebrows going grey, still handsome, very distinguished.

Toby sitting beside Jon and then Anya through their GCSEs and A levels, headbutting their books and laptops to get attention when they were trying to study.

Toby with arthritis, too stiff to move fast or go for long walks anymore, but loving the garden or a mooch around the beach.

Toby meeting Oscar, the new puppy. Standoffish at first, then interested, but very much in charge, very much the senior dog. All the little steps of acceptance; the first time sharing a bed, letting Oscar lick him, licking him back. Toby watching Joey and Oscar play fighting and then finally joining in, a bit stiff and awkward, but having fun, his tail wagging.

The boys enjoying the sun this afternoon

Toby sunbathing in this warm weather on the tiled front porch with his brothers, his fur warm to touch, snoring gently.

I’ve started to cry again as I write this. There is so much to say about Toby that I can’t write it all. He was my friend, my beloved dog for fourteen years, and I struggle to believe that I won’t see him again.

There was a day, a few weeks back, when we took the dogs to Groudle Beach. I’d not seen Toby go into the water properly for a long time but he clearly wanted to show Oscar how it was done. It brought tears to my eyes to see how happy he was, splashing about. He looked like a dog who was discovering some of his lost youth and seemed to be enjoying it.

A week ago we took the three of them to Derbyhaven Beach in the evening. He was less keen to swim that day but he paddled, and sniffed the rocks and walked around on the sand looking so happy, his tail wagging, a big grin on his face.

On Monday 23rd he joined in a huge playfight in my study, trashing the place and making work impossible until I kicked them out. They all fell asleep in mid-game, slept for about four hours and woke up to eat dinner, then sat outside with us watching the lights come on.

The next morning I found him apparently sleeping peacefully in the kitchen. There was no sign of illness or distress or any kind of trauma. Joey was sleeping next to him; Oscar nearby in his cage. He’d died in his sleep, almost as if he’d decided that this was as good as it was going to get. He refused the inevitable declining health and mobility; the misery of a family trying to decide when was the right time to let him go.

He went kindly and with dignity and that kind of death was a gift that many pet owners don’t get. I was in shock and then distraught and I cried when we buried him and didn’t know how I would ever stop. Our family has lost a beloved member and I hate that he’s not curled up next to me. There’s an empty bed; an empty space on the porch in the mornings and an empty space in my heart that will always be there for Toby.

There’s been an outpouring of sadness and sympathy online, not only from friends and family who knew Toby but from people who have got to know him online through following Writing with Labradors. I’ve been so touched at all the messages. It doesn’t make losing him any easier but it does help.

It’s only been a few days, and grief still catches all of us unawares. We all deal with it differently; the girls talk and cry a lot, the boys are quieter, sadder. Joey spent the first day wandering from room to room, knowing he was missing, which made me cry more. But we were so lucky to get Oscar, the perfect puppy, when we did. His company has settled Joey very quickly. It would have been much harder without him.

I’m never going to stop missing my big boy and I’m horribly aware that Joey isn’t that much younger than him. But the pain and the grief of loss when a pet dies is worth every moment for all the years of love and fun we’ve had with him. He was a fabulous dog, loving, funny and daft, and I don’t regret any of it.

Rest in peace, Toby Dawson. You were so loved.

 

 

 

 

 

Haunted Castletown

Castle Rushen
Castle Rushen, on the Isle of Man

What better way to spend a beautiful evening than to take a tour of haunted Castletown? That’s how I spent yesterday evening, courtesy of Isle of Man Ghost Tours, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve done a few ghost walks in the UK over the years. The York one was particularly good and I also enjoyed Chester and Shrewsbury. A few years ago a friend invited me to join her work evening out which turned out to be a ghost walk around Douglas followed by a meal and drinks. It was winter, a freezing cold evening and I think the early darkness contributed to the atmosphere although by the end I suspect we were all too cold to enjoy the final few stories.

It was a different experience yesterday and we toured Castletown in the evening sun. It was a very small group; the walks have only just started up again for the summer season and it was Tynwald Day, a bank holiday on the Isle of Man, so I suspect a lot of local people were at St John’s or else at home enjoying the weather. My own family chickened out so I went alone.

The appeal of a ghost tour for me is only partly about the supernatural. I’m not really a believer in ghosts but I have always loved a good ghost story. As a child I was very susceptible to nightmares and I can remember my mother banning me from taking books of ghost stories from the library as she was fed up with being woken up in the night by an eight year old hearing imaginary bumps in the night. As an adult I still enjoy them and was a huge fan of the novels of the late, great Barbara Mertz who wrote some fantastic ghost stories under the pen name of Barbara Michaels.

But in addition to the supernatural element, I just like a good story, and that is what I got from the tour last night. The guide interspersed tales of hauntings and mysterious figures with comic anecdotes about such local characters as Gerald Gardner, the founder of the Wicca movement, who lived in Castletown and apparently had to be warned by the local constabulary for holding meetings in his home which included a collection of naked women. Gardner was obliged to get curtains put up to avoid offending the neighbours and to get rid of the horde of peeping Toms who used to hang around in the street outside.

The tour guide had clearly done his research, both in the archives and by talking to local people and visitors with stories to tell. He was a good speaker, very engaging, and the two hours passed very quickly. Some of the stories were genuinely funny; I particularly liked the one he apparently found in an old book telling of the ghost of a black headless dog in Castletown which can only be seen by another dog. A talking dog, presumably. I must take my boys down there and they can tell me if they see anything…

Other stories genuinely had a spooky feel about them. The ghostly woman in black seen around Castle Rushen is a very traditional ghost story but there’s a reason it’s a classic and the mysterious light coming on at night in one of the rooms of Compton House was also an odd one.  I also enjoyed the haunting of the Old Grammar School; ghostly children’s voices singing in an empty building is a definite chiller.

I was curious to find out if there were any ghosts from the Napoleonic War period but there were none mentioned on this tour. A lot of the Manx chapters of An Unwilling Alliance are set in and around Castletown and it would be fun to come up with a story from that period. I’m currently looking out for an idea for a nice Manx ghost story for Hop tu Naa this year, so watch this space.

All in all, I’d really recommend this as a way to spend an evening. I’d like to go back to do some of the other tours as well; I’ve a feeling there are many more spooky tales to come.

It was growing dark as I walked back to the car past the gates of Castle Rushen and the old House of Keys. I honestly don’t believe in ghosts, but passing Compton House I couldn’t stop myself from looking up at the windows. No light came on. I was laughing at myself as I got to the car because I’m aware that I didn’t look back a second time. Just in case…

Joey the Labrador

I thought long and hard about sharing our experience with Joey the Labrador during the past 72 hours. Part of me thought it was too cold and contrived to talk about that many tears and that much stress on a blog post.  The other part of me is aware that since I started Writing with Labradors just over a year ago, hundreds of people have not only read, but interacted with me about my writing, my life and more than anything else, my dogs.  Toby and Joey, my elderly labradors, have become firm favourites with a large number of people and our new arrival, Oscar, has been hugely popular.

Eventually I’ve decided to share.  The story isn’t over yet, we’re still up in the air and we’re hoping for a good outcome but we still don’t know for sure. But my beautiful Joey has given us a major fright and I can’t go on sharing pretty photos of them all without telling the story.

About 48 hours ago, Joey’s back legs suddenly stopped working. This isn’t uncommon with labradors; Toby has bad arthritis and falls over occasionally, although much less so since we started giving him joint supplements. But with Joey it was sudden and shocking and he seemed in agony.

We’ve been backwards and forwards to the vet several times. Yesterday morning he couldn’t get up at all and we cried, all of us, on and off, waiting for the vet to open, knowing that the time might have come, far too soon and totally out of the blue, to say goodbye to a beloved member of our family. Joey is twelve and not the oldest of our dogs and to be honest we didn’t expect it to be him.

It took three of us; my husband, my son and myself to get him into the car and down to the vet. My daughter stayed at home, crying over the other two dogs. We promised her that if it was bad news we’d make sure she had time to say goodbye.

The vet, who is fabulous, came out of the surgery to examine Joey in the back of the car. He was fairly relaxed, wagging his tail. Eventually she asked us to get him down and on his feet if possible so that she could check his reflexes. I felt a bit sick, knowing how painful it was going to be for him, but Jon and Richard did it and he stood there, letting her move his legs about.

“It doesn’t seem neurological,” the vet said, finally. She sounded slightly surprised. Joey looked up at her intently. Then he gave a little woof and went for a walk.

Joey wasn’t on a lead. He couldn’t walk; it seemed superfluous. We all stood there watching him in some surprise for a minute. My brain came back online first.

“He’s not going to stop,” I said.

Nobody moved or spoke.

“He’s going,” I said, starting to move. I had flip flops on and I couldn’t run.

“He can’t run,” Richard said, watching him.

“He’s bloody running,” I said, tripping over my own feet.

At that point, the wisdom of taking an active nineteen year old became obvious as Jon raced across the car park and caught Joey on the curb before he went into the road.

Having rediscovered his legs, Joey tripped around the car park (on a lead) did what he needed to do and came home with us. So far the vet has diagnosed a severe arthritic flare up, probably exacerbated by an injury (chasing a new puppy around possibly?)

Joey is home now. Yesterday he was not running around, or even walking. He was clearly in pain but he could get up and down when he needed to and he’s got a shedload of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers. His tail is still wagging.

This morning, Joey came out into the front garden. It seemed difficult for him and he flopped down again and wouldn’t move. I was starting to get anxious again, it was a long time since he’d done a wee, but nothing shifted him. Nothing until Jon came past with Oscar on a lead, taking him for his morning walk. Suddenly Joey was up and at the gate, looking expectant. I got the point and got his lead. Outside the garden, we didn’t go far, but just watching him mooch around on his feet and behaving normally was a joy.

Oscar curled up with Joey
Oscar cuddling Joey

Oscar has been unbelievable with him. At first he seemed confused that his friend wouldn’t play but now he’s just cuddled up to him, happy to be close.

By this evening, Joey was almost back to his old self. He has started requesting to go for a walk, only very short ones to the end of the road and back, but so much more than we expected. This evening at feeding time, we found him sitting at the top of the three steps to the utility room. While Anya and I were still working out how to get him down without hurting him he stood up and walked down them as though he’d never been injured.

Writing with Labradors is in shock. It’s one thing to know that your old boys are getting on. It’s another to find yourself face to face with the reality of losing a dog that you adore. We still don’t know the long term prognosis for Joey although it’s looking very good at the moment. But it has given us a reality check.

The boys enjoying the sun this afternoon

I love my dogs. There is no part of me, that is ready to say goodbye to any one of them although when the time comes I will do the right thing. In the meantime I feel as though I’ve just both dodged a bullet and had a rehearsal for what might happen in the future.

 

Writing with Labradors. They don’t live forever but while they’re with me, I love them to bits.