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…
An Irregular Regiment : arriving back at the Lines of Torres Vedras, the hero of the Peninsular War Saga, Major Paul van Daan, is learning to adapt to a wife who sees herself as more than a drawing room ornament or the mother of his children…
The lines had been created from two ridges of hills by local labour working under the supervision of Fletcher and his engineers. Closed earthworks with a series of small redoubts holding 3-6 guns and 200-300 men, were sited along the high ground of each ridge. Buildings, olive groves and vineyards had been destroyed, denying any cover to an attacking force. Rivers and streams had been dammed to flood the ground below the hills and sections of hillside had been cut or blasted away to leave small but sheer precipices. Ravines and gullies were blocked by entanglements. As she rode beside Paul, listening to him explaining the work that had been done, Anne was amazed at Wellington’s achievement. “We’ll wait behind the lines,” Paul said. “The fortifications are manned by the Portuguese militia, some Spanish and a few British gunners and marines. Wellington has set up a communication system using semaphore, which is extraordinary. He’s got a proper system based on that bastard Popham’s marine vocabulary but there’s a simpler system in place that the locals can use in case the navy pulls out.” Anne regarded him blankly. “Popham? Semaphore? This is a side of you I know nothing about.” Paul stared at her and then laughed. “Well I learned some in the navy as a boy,” he said. “And a little more during the Copenhagen campaign. Which, as you know, did not go well for me. Popham is an arsehole but he’s clever and the system works. I actually find it quite interesting. We can mobilise troops faster than Massena will believe, and the roads the engineers have created mean we can move up and down the lines to where we’re needed very fast. And Wellington has scorched the terrain for miles outside. The French are very good at living off the land, but I think he’s got them beaten this time. It just depends on how long it takes them to realise it.” He smiled at her. “And then we wait, and collect reinforcements and supplies and train our army. Next year we’ll be ready for another advance.” Anne nodded. She was watching him. “What is it, Paul?” Paul glanced at her, surprised. Since his conversation with Johnny during the retreat he had found himself studying Anne at odd moments, imagining her as he had known her in Yorkshire. She had always seemed to him much older than her years but now that he had been reminded of her youth he found himself wondering if he had rushed her into this marriage. He had wanted her so badly for so long that when Robert Carlyon had died he had not thought twice about their future together but now he was suddenly anxious that he had not given her enough time. He had not realised that any of this was evident to Anne. “How do you always know?” he asked curiously. “Your voice. Your face. Something has been bothering you for a few days.” “Nan – do I expect too much of you?” Anne stared at him for a long time. Eventually she said: “Carl or Johnny? Actually it could be any of them, but they’re the two most likely to say it to you. The rest just think it.” Paul burst out laughing. “Johnny,” he said. “He noticed you were upset that day in the village. Hearing what they’d done with the girls and at the murder of the villagers. He pointed out that I’d never have let Rowena hear that story. And he was right, I wouldn’t.” “Paul, I can’t comment on your marriage to Rowena. I only know what I want. Right from the start you have refused to treat me like an idiot or a child, which is how most men treat most women. It is probably a big part of why I love you so much. But that must be difficult because sometimes it means I will get upset, or frightened. And you can’t protect me from that.” “Johnny reminded me how young you were,” Paul said quietly, reaching for her hand. “And as I heard myself say it, I realised that he might have a point. That at twenty you should be thinking about parties and fashion and jewellery and all the things that I should be able to give you. I’m taking you on a tour of redoubts and blockhouses instead of riding in the row and introducing you to George Brummell and the Prince of Wales.” Anne began to laugh. “Should I like either of them?” “I think you’d like George, I do myself. Not so sure about Prinny. Although he’d definitely like you. Now that I think about it, you’re probably safer out here with Wellington, who actually does know how to behave although he wishes he didn’t. But seriously…” “Paul, seriously, what is this about?” “I never asked you,” Paul said abruptly. “About any of this. I walked into the villa and I carried you to bed and five days later you’re my wife and in an army camp up to your ankles in mud with no prospect of a normal life, and I never once asked you if that was all right.” “Did you ever ask Rowena?” “No. She was pregnant and completely desperate. I took her to Naples deliberately so that she could have Francis away from home. By the time we came back the gossips had forgotten to add up dates and there was no scandal. I never asked her because she had no bloody choice, I’d already had what I wanted out of her, she could hardly say no. And that was unbelievably selfish of me. I meant to do things so differently with you. But I didn’t, did I? By the time we got married I’d already created such a bloody scandal with you that you didn’t have much more choice than Rowena did.” “And that has been bothering you for days hasn’t it?” Anne was smiling. “Yes. We laughed about it at the time, but I don’t think I even asked you to marry me properly. I just took what I wanted. Again.” “Oh love, stop it.” Anne seemed to realise suddenly that he was genuinely upset. “I am going to kick Captain Wheeler for this.” “It’s not his fault, Nan. It just made me look at this differently. I’ve been so happy. And so completely wrapped up in myself. And that’s what I do. I met you in Yorkshire, and…” “Paul, stop. What is it you think you should have said to me back in Lisbon?” “I should have asked you to marry me. I should have told you that I know I am not offering you even a part of what you should have, and that the life is hard and painful and often very sad. There are risks and dangers and you’ll see and hear things that will stay with you all your life. I should have told you how much I love you and that if you wanted you could stay in Lisbon or even go back to England, and I’d still marry you. I should have told you that if I have to choose between this life and you, I choose you. And I should have left you time to make up your mind.” Anne put her arms about him. “Yes, Major,” she said quietly. “My answer is still yes. And I’m not going either to Lisbon or to England unless that is where you are going too. I love you, and I love this life. I love your regiment no matter how foul mouthed and filthy they are, and I even love Captain Wheeler although I feel sorely tempted to throw him off Bussaco Ridge the next time he does this to you. I am exactly where I want to be. With you. If you show any signs of trying to shelter me in the way you did with Rowena, you are going to find yourself in serious trouble. And how can I doubt what you’d give up for me when you’d have given up your career if you’d fought that duel with Robert?” “Nan…” “I love you, Paul. The way you are. I am not going back to England to sew cushion covers and dance at the hunt ball. Since I’ve been out here I’ve discovered there is a lot more to me than that. I’d like to find out what else I’m capable of. And I want to be with you. So please, stop listening to your officers trying to tell you that you’re doing this wrong, because you’re not. Being married to any one of them would drive me mad. And drive them even madder.” Paul looked down into the dark eyes. He could remember his immense happiness during their hasty wedding, but somehow this felt more significant, as though what they were saying now, mattered more than the ritualised words of the marriage service. This was the conversation he had never found a way to have with Rowena and he realised its absence had got in the way of his feelings for her. “If that ever changes, you need to tell me.” Anne’s dark eyes were steady on his. “It isn’t all one way, Paul. I know I’m unconventional. Some of that isn’t going to change. But if I am making your life hard…” “You’re not.” “I might. Without ever meaning to. And if I am, you need to tell me so. No silent anger or resentment. That isn’t the way we are going to do things.” Paul nodded, his eyes on her face. “What did I take on when I married you?” he said softly. “Just me. I’m not easy, Paul.” “I know. But somehow I don’t seem to find you difficult at all.” “Prove it,” Anne said unexpectedly, and he laughed suddenly and reached for her, scooping her up into his arms. “You don’t have to tell me twice, lass,” he said, his mood suddenly soaring again. “Good thing they’ve not manned this fort yet, it’s nice and sheltered in there.” Anne was laughing too. “Serve you right if a company of Portuguese militia marches in while you’re busy,” she said. Paul bent his head to kiss her. “I’ll take the chance,” he said.
206 years ago today, Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army won a stunning victory at the battle of Salamanca.In honour of the anniversary, I wanted to share a short excerpt from the first chapter of my next book. An Untrustworthy Army is the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga and follows Colonel Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the light division into Spain…
It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which had battered down on the Anglo-Portuguese army as they sat on the edge of the city of Salamanca, setting up a ferocious artillery fire which was designed to pound the city, a major French supply depot, into submission. The French had converted four convents into temporary fortresses and had settled initially to wait for reinforcements. Lord Wellington’s guns were neither numerous enough or powerful enough to subdue the fortifications, but he had more than enough men to blockade the city and with no reinforcements forthcoming, the French had surrendered. “Thank God for that, we do not need another Badajoz,” Colonel Johnny Wheeler commented to his second-in-command, as they took their places in the triumphal procession into the city. “Pretty place, this, and at least they’ve the sense to appear welcoming, whatever they might actually think.” Major Gervase Clevedon glanced at him with a grin. “Won’t stop a few wine shops losing half their stock tonight,” he said. “But if they’ve any sense at all the taverns will do a good trade. The brothels certainly will, I’m not expecting many of my lads to be around camp tonight unless they’re on sentry duty. I’ve told them I want half in and half out, they’ve drawn lots as to who goes first. If the first lot don’t come back in the morning, I think I can rely on the second lot to go and get them.” Wheeler was laughing. “Gervase, what happened to us? We used to be such correct young officers, I swear to God I once had a man flogged for drinking on duty.” “They still don’t drink on duty, sir, he’d kick them into the river. And I for one wouldn’t go back. We were a regiment of outsiders, the 110th, new-fangled and pretty much laughed at by half the army back in India. Some good lads, mind, but no identity to speak of. As for the 112th it was in so much disgrace when it came back from the Indies most people thought it was going to be disbanded.” Wheeler ran his eyes over the neat ranks of the 112th. “I know. Look at them now, up here with the light division’s finest. Jesus, it’s hot. I wish they’d get going.” Clevedon was beginning to laugh. “I think you might find,” he said cautiously, “that the victory parade is being held up, while Colonel van Daan’s wife’s maid locates her missing hat.” Wheeler broke into laughter as a pretty brown haired woman in a sprigged muslin gown sped past them carrying a fetching straw hat trimmed with silk flowers. “Get a move on, Teresa, we’re dying of heat stroke out here,” he called. Teresa Carter looked back over her shoulder, laughing. “I do not know why he bothers, she will have lost it before they get into the Cathedral,” she said. At the head of the 110th, Colonel Paul van Daan took the hat from Teresa with a smile of thanks and turned to his wife. “Put it on,” he said in tones of considerable patience. “Keep it on, I am not having you with sunstroke. Or I will spoil Lord Wellington’s lovely parade by tipping you off that horse into the river.” “I’m not sure I’d mind that just at the moment, it might be cooler,” his wife said, tying on the hat at a particularly fetching angle. “Jenson, would you ride up and tell Lord Wellington thank you for waiting? The colonel has a mania about my hats, I cannot tell you what a bore it is.” Paul’s orderly grinned and spurred his horse forward. Much of the army was settled in sprawling cantonments on the edge of Salamanca, but several regiments had been selected to form part of the parade into the city. This would lead to a Te Deum in the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor would be illuminated during the evening while Lord Wellington and his officers were entertained by the Spanish grandees of the city to a civic banquet and fireworks. “You would think,” Paul’s wife commented, drawing up beside him, “that the Spanish would have had enough of fireworks given that the French seem to have blown up entire sections of their city to build fortifications. Since being with the army I have found that things exploding in the sky have taken on a whole new meaning for me.”
The Battle of the Clogs, also known as the Battle of Koge, took place in Denmark in 1807 when British and German troops under Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated a Danish force trying to defend Copenhagen which was being besieged in an attempt to persuade the neutral Danes to hand over their fleet to the British in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the advancing French. The campaignwas seen as an unpleasant necessity but was not popular in England. The following is an excerpt from An Unwilling Alliance, set during the campaign.
In the huge market square he found more of his men guarding increasing numbers of prisoners. Some of the Danish troops had taken refuge in the buildings around the square. There were a few desultory shots fired, with no accuracy, but these were dying out now. The hussars and many of the 92nd had moved on through the town, chasing the remaining defenders south towards the bridges. The 52nd was moving around the square, battering on doors and clearing out small pockets of resistance in public buildings. They seemed very controlled and very disciplined and Paul left them alone and led his men over to the town hall where Danish troops, clearly out of ammunition, were throwing missiles down on the heads of a few members of the 43rd who were trying to batter down the door. A red-haired captain was leading them. Paul approached him, dodging a wooden stool which crashed onto the cobbles beside him, narrowly missing him. The captain saw him and saluted. “Sir. I’ve orders to clear them out of here.” “Might take a while, Captain. Mr Swanson!” “Sir.” “Translate, will you? One of the officers will understand Swedish.” “Yes, sir.” “Tell them to surrender. We’re taking prisoners, not slaughtering them. They can look around the square and see that.” Carl moved back quickly, avoiding a bucket hurled from the upper storey. He raised his voice and shouted up to the men at the windows. Paul waited. After a moment there was an enormous crash and his lieutenant jumped back to avoid the splash from what was clearly a chamber pot. It shattered on the stones and the smell of urine and excrement filled the air. A voice shouted back down and Paul raised his eyebrows to Carl who shook his head. “Didn’t get all of that, sir, but I’m translating it as ‘no’.” Paul looked around. More and more prisoners were being escorted into the square. He could see scattered weapons, discarded by the fleeing Danes, and poignantly, a selection of wooden clogs. In their haste to escape, the irregular troops had thrown aside weapons, if they had them, and kicked off the awkward wooden clogs to speed their flight. Some of the men now under guard were barefooted. “Where’s General Wellesley?” he asked. “Not here yet, sir. The 43rd are mopping up the remains down by the bridge, he might be there.” “All right, we won’t wait. Sergeant O’Reilly!” The Irishman jogged forward, saluting. “Yes, sir.” “Four men. Collect up everything they’ve thrown at us that will burn and pile it up against the door.” “Yes, sir.” O’Reilly turned, calling out orders, and Paul watched as the men began to gather the splintered and broken furniture. O’Reilly carried a bench towards the solid wooden door of the town hall. “Not that door, Sergeant.” O’Reilly turned, surprised. Paul was looking up at the windows of the town hall. A lone officer, hatless and fair-haired, his coat soaked in blood, stood looking down at him and Paul had a strong sense that the man had not needed Carl’s Swedish translation. Paul met the other man’s eyes for a long moment. The Dane was probably about his age, surrounded by his men, desperate and angry and determined and Paul hated himself for what he was about to do. He had seen the flutter at the window of the neighbouring house earlier, gone almost before it was visible, but he was very sure it had been a woman’s face. There had been no sign of a woman or child in the chaos of the battle through the streets. He suspected that many of them had taken refuge in nearby churches, but not all. Still looking up at the officer in the upper window, he pointed to the house. “That door,” he said loudly and clearly. “Burn it down. And stand well back, because that’s a wooden building and once you’ve lit it, it isn’t going to stop with the door.” Paul suddenly wished that he had not chosen Michael O’Reilly for this particular task. His sergeant ought to know him better, but he realised, seeing the expression on the Irishman’s face, that he had seen too many cottages and churches burned out in his native Ireland by the English and should not have been asked to carry out a similar order here in a neutral country. But it was too late and Paul could not back down without alerting the Danish officer. The colour had drained from Michael’s face and the dark eyes were fixed on Paul in mute horror. Paul looked back at him steadily. “Get on with it, Sergeant,” he said. O’Reilly turned away, carrying the bench over to the house and his men followed, piling the broken furniture against the door. Long minutes passed and Paul could feel his heart hammering in his breast, his nerves stretched to breaking point, waiting for the officer to crack. The sound came, not from above, but from the prisoners in the square, a high pitched yell of horror, a plea in a language Paul did not understand. He did not need to, to grasp the man’s terror. He was shouting, running forward, calling up to the men at the window, gesticulating in the direction of the house and Carl Swanson moved to catch him, holding him back, speaking to him in Swedish. Paul had no idea if the prisoner understood, but suddenly there was movement in the town hall and a weapon landed on the cobbles, a gun, useless with no ammunition, but a symbol. More followed. Paul looked up at the fair haired officer again and recognised sheer hatred in the man’s eyes. Slowly and very deliberately, the officer reached for his sword. He unbuckled it and held it out, dropping it to the street. It hit the cobbles with a ringing sound. Paul did not take his eyes from the man. “All right, Sergeant. Move the bonfire away from that door, would you? Set a guard, make sure nobody bothers the women and children in there. They can come out when they’re ready but nobody goes in without permission. Captain Wheeler, get this door open and get them out, line them up with the other prisoners. Be very careful, I don’t trust this lad.” “Yes, sir,” Wheeler said quietly. “Captain Young, once they’re all out, take your company through this building and make sure it’s clear. Once you’ve checked, we can use it as a temporary hospital and mortuary.” “Yes, sir.” Paul stood watching as his men moved about their duties. They were unusually quiet and he understood why. He had shocked them and he knew it. He had shocked himself. If the fair-haired officer had held his nerve, Paul knew that he would not have given the order to light the fire that might have killed whoever was hiding in the half-timbered house but even making that threat was unlike him. He had been desperate to end the slaughter and had found, instinctively, the way to do it, but it was going to be hard to live with for a while. The Danish prisoners filed out of the town hall under careful guard. Paul stood watching them. Most of them were looking at the ground, not raising their eyes. A few shot quick glances over at the other house, now with half a dozen of his third company stationed on guard. The Danes were calm and silent. These were regular troops in full uniform and they had held out to the bitter end. Paul watched them go past to join the other prisoners and was glad it had not ended in slaughter. The fair-haired officer came last and he was injured, worse than Paul had realised from below. He was supporting his right arm with his left and was soaked in blood. “Wait,” Paul said. He was sure the man understood English. “You’re injured. We have a doctor on the way over from Roskilde. My men will show you where…” “I go with my men.” The voice was heavily accented but very clear. Paul took a step towards the officer, intending to look more closely at the wound and the man spat, hard and accurate, directly into his face. There was an audible gasp from several of Paul’s men. Paul looked into the other man’s eyes and thought, inconsequentially, that the colour was like his own. He wiped the spittle away on his sleeve without looking away. “I’ll send the surgeon up to you then when he gets here,” he said evenly and turned away. “You are worse than the French.” Paul did not turn. He felt an irrational urge to argue, to tell the young officer what he had seen and heard of in Italy and from veterans back from Europe but he did not. On this day, in this town, the Danish officer was right.
The Battle of Orthez took place on 27 February 1814. After the fierce fighting through the Pyrenees, storms and torrential rain prevented any action for two months.
Researching the second half of the war for my Peninsular War Sagais interesting. When I did the first trip through Portugal and Spain last year, I had already written four and a half books in the series in draft form. I knew where my fictional regiment was going to be during every battle and it was a matter of checking my research against actual locations to be sure that my story would work.
From book six onwards, I am in the dark. I know the history and I know what the Light Division would have been up to for most of the time, but now I am in a position to plan as I go along. I can look at the sites and visualise my characters there; where they were fighting and what they were doing. It is both exhilarating and slightly strange and I have to keep reminding myself that this is a holiday as well or I’d be back at the hotel and writing half the night…
Eventually Wellingtoncut off Bayonne when he crossed the Adour to the west of the city. Soult believed that the Allied attack, which required them to cross rivers, would be held up due to a lack of boats or pontoons but on 23 February, Hope sent eight companies from the 1st Division across the Adour to form a bridgehead. During the evening, two French battalions were sent to investigate and were dispersed with the use of Congreve rockets. The following day, 34 vessels of 30 to 50 tons were sailed into the mouth of the Adour, moored together and a roadway built across their decks.By the evening of 26th, Hope had marched 15,000 men over the bridge onto the north bank. The Allies successfully captured the Sainte-Étienne suburb with a loss of 400 dead and wounded to the French 200 and encircled Bayonne on 27 February. From then on a very relaxed siege was maintained until 14 April when a French sortie led to the the bloody and pointless Battle of Bayonne at the end of the war.
Wellington pursued Marshal Soult’s army eastwards, away from Bayonne. Soult’s army was already weakened and Wellington hoped to divide them further while Soult hoped to trap the Allied army within French occupied territory. Bayonne blocked the north side, three French divisions held a line along the Adour to Port de Lanne and the east was held by four French divisions along the Joyeuse River to Helette. From there into the Pyrenees, Soult’s cavalry patrols closed the cordon.
Wellington started his offensive towards the east on 14 February. Hill’s corps took the right flank, including the second and third divisions, some Spanish and Portuguese troops and Fane’s cavalry while Picton took his men down the left flank and Morillo moved through the foothills on the right. On February 15 Hill defeated Harispe’s division at Garris and forced the French back.
Beresford’s left flank corps advanced the following day towards Bidache. It consisted of the 4th, 6th, 7th and Light Divisions as well as some cavalry. Over the next two days both sides manoeuvred their troops. The French had greater numbers but Soult sent Abbé’s division to help defend Bayonne, a move which left his army with fewer troops to fight Wellington. By 18 February, Soult had his troops in position on the Gave d’Oloron at which point the weather broke again, causing another delay in operations.
On 24 February, Wellington launched a new offensive. For this operation, Hill was reinforced by the 6th and Light Divisions. Beresford with two divisions mounted a feint attack against the northern end of the French line. Picton was supposed to do the same opposite Sauveterre but he exceeded his orders, having found an apparently unguarded ford about 1,000 yards from the bridge. Picton decided to send four light companies from Keane’s brigade across. After a steep climb, they reached high ground only to be overpowered by a battalion of the 119th Line Infantry from Villatte’s division. In their flight down the slope and across the river, they lost about 80 of the 250 men who were either killed, captured or drowned. Somewhere in my head I could hear the ghost of Robert Craufurd laughing, remembering Picton’s refusal to support him during his own unauthorised crossing at the Coa in 1810.
Meanwhile Hill built a boat bridge and sent 20,000 troops across the Gave d’Oloron at Viellenave de Navarrenz, a move which led Soult to pull back to Orthez. Wellington was not particularly keen to fight a battle at this point and tried to outflank the French, sending Beresford to cross the Gave de Pau downstream at Lahontan to circle around Soult’s right flank. At the same time, Hill’s corps moved directly toward Orthez. By 25 February, Soult had gathered his army at Orthez and was ready to fight the Allies.
The French marshal commanded 33,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers with 48 field guns.Wellington had 38,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers, supported by 54 guns. With Soult ready to fight, Wellington intended to send Beresford to break Soult’s right flank while Picton and three divisions attacked the French centre. Meanwhile, Hill’s corps was to attack Orthez, get across the Gave de Pau and attack the French left flank effectively crushing Soult between Beresford and Hill.
Orthez is a pretty little town with the Gave de Pau running from southeast to northwest. Since Beresford was already on the same side of the Gave de Pau, the river only protected Soult’s position to the east of Orthez. However, there is an east-west ridge on the north side of Orthez that ends at the village of St Boes to the west. It rises to about 500 feet with the road running along the crest, with threeknolls rising even higher, as far as 595 feet above the village. These knolls held French artillery.
Soult posted four and a half divisions along this ridge, one division in Orthez and one division in reserve. Going from right to left, the ridge was held by the divisions of Taupin, Claude Pierre Rouget, Darmagnac and Foy. Rouget was in temporary command of Maransin’s division. Harispe’s remaining two brigades held Orthez while Villatte’s division was in reserve north of Orthez. Reille commanded Taupin, Rouget and Paris on the right flank, Drouet commanded Darmagnac and Foy in the center and Clausel had Harispe and Villatte on the left flank. The cavalry was scattered.
Wellington planned to send Cole’s 4th Division supported by Walker’s 7th Division to attack the western end of the ridge under the direction of Beresford. Picton would lead his own 3rd Division and Clinton’s 6th Division in attacking the French centre and Hill’s corps was to feint against Orthez with a Portuguese brigade and hold his two divisions ready to cross the Gave de Pau to the east of Orthez. Charles von Alten’s Light Division was placed under cover behind the old Roman camp where Wellington set up his headquarters located between Beresford’s and Picton’s columns.
It was frosty but not frozen on the morning of 27 February, difficult for me to imagine yesterday, exploring the battlefield in soaring temperatures. At 8.30 the 4th division attacked Taupin at St Boes and quickly seized the church. Ross’s brigade swept into the village but were driven back by the battery on the Plassotte knoll. Cole brought up a KGL battery to duel with Taupin’s guns. This immediately became the target of the French batteries on the Plassotte and Luc knolls; two guns were hit and Captain Sympher was killed.Cole deployed a Portuguese brigade on Ross’ right and sent his line forward again. The result was a second repulse in which Ross was wounded and the counterattack by Taupin’s troops recovered part of St Boes. For a time there was a lull as the two sides fired away at each other from the houses, but the Portuguese had no cover and began to fall back. Wellington sent over the 1st Caçadores Battalion from the Light Division. Cole’s line collapsed just as the reinforcements arrived and Taupin recovered the entire village and drove the Allies back to their starting point.Ross’ brigade suffered 279 casualties and the Portuguese brigade lost 295.
Picton’s attacks against the French centre also met stiff resistance. He had split the 3rd Division, sending Brisbane’s brigade up the right spur towards Foy and Keane’s brigade up the left spur toward Darmagnac’s division. Keane was supported by Power’s Portuguese brigade while Brisbane was followed up the right spur by Clinton’s 6th Division. Since the valleys between the spurs were deep and muddy, both advances were restricted to narrow fronts.
Picton’s skirmishers quickly drove back the French outposts. When the leading brigades came under accurate artillery fire from the Escorial and Lafaurie knolls, Picton held back his formed troops and reinforced his skirmish line to seven British light companies which moved forward until they came into contact with Soult’s main line where they were unable to advance any further. For two hours, Picton waited for Beresford’s attack as the two sides skirmished.
Wellington adjusted his plans after seeing his flank attack fail converting his holding attack with the 3rd and 6th Divisions into a full assault beginning at 11.30am. He threw every available unit against the French right flank and centre, holding back only the second and third battalions of the 95th, the Portuguese 3rd Caçadores and the 17th foot. He also withdrew the battered brigades of Ross and Vasconcellos and sent in the 7th Division.
The struggle for St Boes began again when Walker’s division and Anson’s brigade attacked supported by two batteries firing from the church knoll. Taupin’s tired men, who had been fighting for about four hours, were driven back behind the Plassotte knoll.
Brisbane’s brigade came under damaging artillery fire. The brigade finally reached dead ground where the guns could not hit them, but then came under intense fire from French skirmishers who began picking off the soldiers. Nevertheless the 45th fought its way close to the top of the ridge where Fririon’s brigade of Foy’s division held the ridgeline. On the left of Brisbane’s brigade, two companies of the 88th were guarding the divisional artillery battery as it began pounding the French line. Soult spotted the threat and ordered a cavalry squadron to charge. The cavalry overran the two companies, inflicting heavy losses, and then went after the gunners. The remaining companies of the 88th immediately opened fire on the French horsemen, mowing most of them down to a loss of 165 men. The 88th suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit at 269 killed and wounded.
At this point, Foy was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder which affected the French morale. Brisbane’s brigade was replaced in the front line by two brigades of Clinton’s 6th Division. These fresh troops fired a volley from close range and advanced with bayonet, driving the French down the ridge’s rear slope. Berlier’s brigade of Foy’s division fell back after Fririon’s retreat exposed its flank.With Berlier gone, Harispe’s two battalions in Orthez were compelled to retreat in order to avoid capture. On the left spur, Picton’s two brigades under Keane and Power pressed against Darmagnac’s division. After Foy’s division gave way, Darmagnac retreated to the next ridge in the rear, where his troops took position on the right of Villatte’s division. The divisional batteries of Picton and Clinton immediately attacked the new French position.
Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade began to pull back after Darmagnac’s retreat which opened a gap between Rouget and Taupin. Wellington ordered the 52nd under Colborne to advance from the Roman Camp and drive a wedge into the French defensive line. Colborne led his men across marshy ground and then up the slope toward the Luc Knoll, winning a foothold at the top of the ridge on Taupin’s left flank. Wellington led the 3rd and the 6th in behind them and musket volleys created havoc in the French ranks.
In the thick of the fighting, Wellington’s Spanish liaison officer, Alava was hit in the buttocks by a spent bullet. As Wellington was teasing Alava, he was knocked off his horse when a spent ball struck his sword hilt, bruising his hip. Wellington remounted and continued to direct the battle. Against the advice of his doctors he ignored the injury with the result that he was later unable to ride for a week.
With both flanks turned, Taupin’s division retreated in haste to the northeast, the last French unit to be driven back. To the rear, Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade joined together and fought a hard battle against the pursuing Allies.
Buchan’s brigade skirmished with the French defenders of Orthez all morning. Having received orders to cross the Gave de Pau, Hill marched for the Souars Ford at 11:00 am and brushed aside the French troops defending the ford. Hill’s troops were soon across the river in strength and pressing back Harispe’s outnumbered division. They were joined by Buchan’s Portuguese who crossed at the Orthez bridge the moment the town’s defenders pulled out.Joined by some newly arrived conscript battalions, Harispe attempted to make a stand at the Motte de Tury heights but the raw recruits were too inexperienced and Hill’s men broke Harispe’s line and captured three guns.
By now Soult had realized that Hill’s column might cut him off and ordered a retreat which began well but quickly disintegrated into chaos down narrow paths and across country. Soult had lost six field guns and 3,985 men including 542 killed, 2,077 wounded and 1,366 prisoners while the Allies sustained losses of 367 killed, 1,727 wounded and 80 captured for a total of 2,174. In addition, many of the recently conscripted French soldiers promptly deserted. Soult did not attempt to defend the Luy de Béarn with his demoralized army but retreated north to Saint-Sever on the Adour.
Soult realised he could not defend both Bordeaux and Toulouse. He decided to head for Toulouse. Wellington sent Beresford with two divisions to take Bordeaux which Beresford did on 12 March. There was a brief lull in the fighting while Wellington sent for more troops and Soult ’s men recovered. When the Allied army finally marched towards Toulouse, they were marching towards the end of the war.
Orthez is just over thirty miles to the east of Bayonne, a pretty little town on the river Gave de Pau. The original bridge, with its distinctive sentry tower in the centre, is still there and can be seen from the modern bridge. We drove through the town to view Wellington’s deployment area up past the church and then drove up towards Baights de Bearn to see the spurs where Picton’s men would have been deployed to the right of the road.
Further on it is possible to view the ridge to the right which the Light Division used to climb up to the village. The location of St Boes has apparently changed since the battle but the church marks the area where much of the fighting took place and it is possible to walk down the road towards the Roman Camp to see where the Light Division was engaged.
Turning right after St Boes we drove along the ridge held by Soult’s men. The 52nd would have climbed up the gulley to the right to appear between Taupin and Rouget’s division. It doesn’t look like a particularly easy climb and given the time of year it may well have been very boggy. There is a memorial to General Foy’s men on the left-hand side further along the road.
Having flown into Toulouse to begin this trip, for convenience sake, we are doing the battlefields backwards. By this time Soult was very much on the run, his troops battered and exhausted with many desertions among the new recruits. But at the beginning of Wellington’s attacks on the Pyrenees the matter was by no means certain. Tomorrow the plan is, to visit some of the sites of the Battle of the Nive.
An Unwilling Allianceis the new book, due out in April 2018 and tells the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN who returns to the Isle of Man after fifteen years away with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife.
Roseen Crellin is twenty-one and determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing a liking for the man.
Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. Paul’s courage and talent are unquestionable but his ability to manage the minefield of army politics has some way to go, and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.
Hugh joins Admiral Gambier’s fleet, trying to forget the girl he left behind him while Roseen’s unhappiness leads to a rash escapade that risks both her reputation and her life. As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army as an impulsive action puts Paul’s future in the army at risk. Hugh Kelly finds himself torn between his duty to the service and a reluctant admiration for the young army officer willing to gamble his career on an act of charity.
An Unwilling Alliance is set on the Isle of Man and in Denmark in 1806-7. For readers of the Peninsular War Saga, the action takes place during the first book, An Unconventional Officer and introduces Captain Hugh Kelly RN of HMS Iris who is from the Isle of Man. In the following excerpt, Hugh’s courtship of Roseen is finally looking hopeful…
St Michael’s Isle was the northern most point of the Langness Peninsula. Roseen remembered her father telling her that it used to be detached at high tide, a true island, but the causeway had been built in the middle of the previous century to link it permanently. It was formed of rocky slate, it’s acidic soil limiting the plants that could grow there, and it was inhabited now mainly by sea birds of all kinds, wheeling overhead with their hoarse cries and occasionally swooping down into the choppy sea which crashed onto the rocky shores of the island. It was a place of peace and great beauty but it was not quiet. Roseen had grown up loving the sound of the sea and had always longed to live close enough to it to hear it through her open bedroom window at night. They dismounted and Hugh led both horses to the old chapel and tethered them to a rusty iron gate which had been put up to prevent people going into the chapel which was disused, roofless and probably dangerous. He turned back to Roseen and held out his hand and she smiled and took it. She was becoming accustomed to Captain Kelly’s assumption that she could not make her own way across rough ground, or indeed, up a flight of stairs, without his assistance. Privately, Roseen suspected his chivalry was an excuse to hold her hand, but she had no intention of asking him. He was likely to tell her the truth. He was also likely to stop doing it if he thought it annoyed her, and Roseen realised with some surprise that she did not want him to. There were two buildings on the island. The tiny ruined chapel dated back to Celtic and Norse times and had long been abandoned, home now only to nesting birds and rabbits. The second was a circular fort, built originally under Henry VIII as part of a major coastal defensive system. It had a wall walk at the top and supported eight cannons. It had fallen into disuse for many years but was re-fortified in 1640 by James, 7th Earl of Derby, a strong royalist, against the ships of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. The fort was renamed Derby Fort and the Earl’s initials along with a date of 1645 could still be seen engraved above the fort door. Hugh paused to look at them and Roseen came to stand beside him. “It’s small but it looks very solid,” she said. “Aye, it is. Not that it was likely to be stormed by land, but with the other battery on the far side at Ronaldsway I wouldn’t enjoy sailing into Derbyhaven Bay under fire from two sides.” “That one is more recent, isn’t it?” Hugh nodded, pointing across the bay to the small battery. “At the end of the seventeenth century, I believe. I don’t know what condition that one’s in, not really looked closely, but I’ll bet they’ve done some work on it recently. They use this one as a lighthouse as well, don’t they?” Roseen nodded. “Yes, for the herring fleet. When you’re out on the boats you can see it for miles, it’s an excellent location…” She broke off realising what she had just said. Hugh did not respond immediately. He was looking out to sea at a small fleet of boats outlined against the bright sky in the distance and Roseen wondered if he had heard her and sought frantically for a change of subject. After a moment he looked round and smiled. “Don’t look so horrified, Miss Crellin, you already told me, don’t you remember? When we were touring the house.” “I’d forgotten,” Roseen admitted. “I don’t do it now. My father was worried it might cause people to think ill of me.” “I think it was fine when you were a lass and your brother was with you. But your father is probably right that you had to stop. People will make something of nothing with a girl’s good name.” “Does it bother you?” Roseen asked, and then could have bitten her tongue. The question implied a far closer relationship than she was willing to admit at this stage. At the same time, she really wanted to know the answer.” “No, I can’t see any harm in it,” Hugh said simply. “Although if you were my daughter and looking to find a good husband I’d probably feel it was my duty to ensure that the busybodies didn’t find an excuse to gossip. Luckily they’re not here, so it’s none of their business.” A voice startled both of them, a hail from the ramparts of the fort. A figure in a red coat was visible, musket in hands, looking down at them. “Who goes there, sir?” he called. “Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris. Jesus, fella, you frightened the wits out of me, I’d no idea the place was occupied.” The sergeant of fencibles grinned in a manner that suggested he was well aware of the effect of his unexpected shout. “Sorry, sir. Just half a dozen of us on guard duty. They’re keeping it manned now as a lookout. I wondered if you wanted to bring the lady in for a look around, since you’re here?” Hugh looked at Roseen. “Would you like to, Miss Crellin?” “Yes, thank you. I’ve been here so often, but never inside.” There was little to see inside. Most of the stone flags had long gone or were broken and grass had taken their place. There were the remains of a free standing building, too damaged to guess it’s original purpose, although the sergeant and six soldiers of the fencibles had turned it into a makeshift camp site with a small fire lit. Roseen imagined this was not a popular duty but the men seemed to have made the best of it. Two of them manned the battlements while the others rose and saluted Hugh with commendable speed as he approached. It was odd to see him accepting and returning the salute as his due. It was not how Roseen saw him and she wondered suddenly how different he was aboard his ship with hundreds of men under his command. In recesses in the wall to the north and north-west, six cannons covered the entrance to the bay and Roseen listened with some amusement to Hugh’s questions about the guns, their origin, their age and their maintenance. The sergeant answered as best he could but it was very clear that Hugh knew a good deal more than he did about the guns. They inspected the lighthouse placement which was probably the most useful aspect of the fort, and when their visit was ended she saw Hugh speaking quietly to the sergeant, before slipping him what was clearly a vail. The smartness of the sergeant’s salute suggested that it was a generous one. Riding back towards Castletown and then on to Malew and the Top House for dinner, Hugh was quiet and Roseen thought about that and realised that she was very comfortable with his silence. She studied him as they rode and wondered what he was thinking about. “Miss Crellin?” She realised, in some confusion, that she had been staring at him and blushed. “Oh – I’m sorry, that was rude of me.” “No, it wasn’t. You were probably wondering if I was still alive, I’ve been sitting here like a stuffed owl for a quarter of an hour and there’s no excuse for it. My manners are terrible, it’s my job to entertain you.” “No, it isn’t. That makes you sound rather like a performing monkey.” Hugh choked with laughter. “Is that better or worse than a stuffed owl?” “I am not sure. Probably I would choose the owl. Half the officers in Castletown are definitely more like the monkey and it is tiresome. I was just wondering what you were thinking about but it is none of my business.” “It is if I choose to make it so, lass. And it is so boring I’m embarrassed. I was thinking about guns, wondering about placement on the Iris and whether I could get my hands on a couple of 68 pounder carronades. They’d be unusual on a ship of her size, but I’ve seen how useful they can be. But this is not the time…” “What are the usual guns on a ship like the Iris?” Roseen asked, cutting off his apology. She had never really thought much about naval gunnery but she liked hearing Hugh talk about his profession. He did so rarely but it was different to the posturing of the young army officers she had met. There was genuine enthusiasm in his voice when he talked about the Iris which lent interest to the subject. “She’s a 74 gun third rater, which means two gun decks. Beautifully built and very fast; she was taken from the French and although I hate to say it, they build faster ships than we do, although we’ve got very good at copying their designs. She carries twenty-eight 32 pounders on her gundeck, twenty-eight 18 pounders on her upperdeck, four 12 pounders and ten 32 pounder carronades on her quarterdeck, two 12-pounders and two 32 pounder carronades on her forecastle, and six 18 pounder carronades on her poop deck. The carronades are short-range guns, they smash the enemy ship to bits. Up on the forecastle they can make a big difference in a close fight, Victory had two at Trafalgar. I am trying to work out who owes me a favour or two. And I am astonished that your eyes are not glazing over with boredom. I am actually boring myself.”
Nicholas Whitham has left the army for the unexciting life of a land agent in Regency Yorkshire, but his peace is disrupted by the arrival of Miss Camilla Dorne a young lady of doubtful reputation.
The Reluctant Debutante, the second book in the series, tells the story of Giles Fenwick, Earl of Rockcliffe, formerly one of Wellington’s exploring officers and Cordelia Summers, a wealthy merchant’s daughter with an independent attitude.
A Marcher Lord is a tale of love and war among the Border Reivers on the sixteenth century Anglo-Scottish borders, where a Scottish lord encounters a young Englishwoman who may or may not be a spy.
In the early nineteenth century, officers of the army acquired their commissions by purchase, a system which lasted until 1871 when it was abolished by the Cardwell reforms. Attempts were made from time to time to regulate the system and prevent the worst abuses associated with it, but it was impossible to keep control over every promotion and it was often too easy for an officer with money to bypass the system. Senior officers used the system to improve their retirement funds and wealthy juniors used it to climb the ladder faster…
Paul had been in Dublin with five companies of the 110th when he had received his promotion to major and with it the news that he would take command of the first battalion under Sir Arthur Wellesley in Denmark. The promotion had come at a relatively young age and he had leapfrogged a number of older and longer serving captains in the regiment. The commander of the second battalion, Major Middleton was in his fifties and considering retirement but there were several men who could have claimed Paul’s promotion as their due. Paul was trying hard not to feel defensive about his good fortune, but he was under no illusions that the main factor in his success had been financial. Under the traditional system, promotion was offered to the next man in line in the regiment. If none were able to come up with the purchase price, the commission could be sold to an officer from another regiment wanting to transfer for promotion. The Duke of York, who had made admirable attempts to reform some of the abuses of the system, had put in place length of service conditions for promotion to captain and major which were effective in peacetime although might be relaxed during campaigns when officers were in short supply. Paul had barely reached the required number of years when the promotion had been offered and in his battalion alone, at least four other captains had served longer; more if the second battalion were taken into account. Money had made the difference. Paul’s mother had been the daughter of a viscount but his father was from a trade background and had made his fortune in shipping and finance many times over. When the elderly Colonel Dixon had decided to retire, his commission was sold to Major Johnstone who was in command of the first battalion. Paul, puzzled by Wellesley’s conviction that the majority was his if he was willing to pay for it, had quickly realised that the colonel was expecting his retirement to be funded by a premium on the sale of his colonelcy, a premium which Johnstone could only afford if he added the sum onto the sale of his own commission. The premium was strictly against regulations but Paul was aware that they were an open secret in fashionable regiments, where commissions were sometimes sold for twice the regulation price set by the government. He was both irritated and amused at the approach by the regimental agent, with Dixon and Johnstone remaining at a discreet distance as if the negotiations might sully their hands. Commissions in the 110th did not generally command much of a premium; it was a relatively new regiment with no history and little reputation thus far, but Colonel Dixon was very well aware of both the personal fortune and the ambition of his most unlikely company officer and had taken the gamble. Grimly aware that he was about to be fleeced, Paul had gone back to his mentor, Sir Arthur Wellesley who was in London on Parliamentary business and invited him to dine at the Van Daans’ London home. Paul’s father and brother were away in Leicestershire and they had dined privately and sat afterwards over a good port. “Have you received your commission, Major?” Wellesley had said. They had talked, during dinner, of neutral matters; of the current situation in India and the proposed expedition to Denmark. They had also spoken of politics and the latest London scandals. Paul had been waiting to see if his chief would raise the subject. “Not yet. I am trying to decide if it is worth the extremely over-inflated price I am being asked to pay for it.” Wellesley gave one of his barking laughs. “Expensive, is it? Yes, I’d heard that Dixon is in need of funds.” “Colonel Dixon,” Paul said, sipping the port, “is currently still my commanding officer so it would be unthinkable of me to call him an avaricious old goat. At least anywhere he can hear me.” “What makes you think I won’t report that, Major?” “You never report any of the other appalling things I say to you in private, sir, so I’m cautiously optimistic.” “Are you going to pay it?” Paul pulled a face. “Sir, it’s not the money. It just galls me that he’s making that kind of profit out of a system which shouldn’t allow it. There are at least six or seven other men in the regiment who are eligible for this promotion. We can discount Longford, Cookson and Graham – none of them could raise even the regulation price. Which is a good thing in Longford’s case because he’s an incompetent arsehole who shouldn’t hold the commission he does. But men like Gervase Clevedon and Kit Young and Jerry Flanagan…they’ve every right to be furious if I buy in over their heads. I really want this. But I have to serve with these men.” Wellesley reached for the decanter. “It is your choice, Major. Would it help if I told you that even if you do not accept it, somebody else will.” Paul raised his eyebrows. “Into the 110th? Have we suddenly become fashionable without my noticing it?” “No,” Wellesley said with a laugh. “But sometimes it is more than that. Have you come across Captain Edmund Willoughby?” Paul frowned, puzzled. “If I have, I don’t remember him. Which regiment?” “He has served variously in the 4th, the 10th and the 24th. Moved each time for promotion and he has come up very fast indeed. Faster than you have.” “How?” “Money. Connections. A considerable enthusiasm on the part of a very high ranking member of the peerage to see his natural son progress. He will use the 110th as his next stepping stone; the timing is very convenient for him. Would you like me to tell you how many weeks actual combat experience he has?” Paul met the hooded eyes across the table. “Sir, are you applying emotional blackmail to get me to cough up the money for this piece of highway robbery we are calling a promotion? Is this gentleman likely to get my battalion killed in his first action with them?” “I imagine it is very possible,” Wellesley said tranquilly. “Either that or you will be on trial for shooting him in the head to prevent it.”
With Valentine’s Day coming up next week, I thought I’d post an extra freebie. An Impossible Attachment is a short story about a French prisoner-of-war in Portugal in 1812. It’s a story in its own right although those of you who have read the Peninsular War Saga and in particular A Redoubtable Citadel, will recognise at least one of the characters and some of the background. Please feel free to share it.
Happy Valentine’s Day Everybody…
British Prison Camp, Near Santarem, Portugal, 1812
He first became aware of the smell.
Second-Lieutenant Damien Cavel had served now for fourteen years since his conscription at eighteen and he was entirely accustomed to the filthy conditions of living in an army camp. Raised in a comfortable farmhouse close to Cambrai he had loathed the army at the start but had become accustomed and then attached and had finally embraced his profession with the enthusiasm of a boy who had never wanted the legal career set out for him by his parents. He had learned to adjust to his circumstances in whatever billet was available and living in close proximity with the men of his various companies he had ceased to notice the everyday smell of sweat and unwashed clothing. But the stench of the British army prison camp on the edge of the Tagus surpassed everything.
He had been taken, along with most of his company, on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca, a battle which had happened for many of the French so quickly that they were bewildered. A bitter disappointment to Damien Cavel, newly promoted after years as a sergeant. It was the second time in a year that he had been a prisoner of the British but the experience was very different. The first occasion had ended in him being sent back to his army with a letter of warm recommendation from the English colonel whose wife he had saved and another from Lord Wellington. It had led to his promotion and Damien was only just beginning to savour his new responsibilities in a company of the line before Salamanca left him wounded and then captured for a second time. This time there was no hope of repatriation and he was sent, thrown around in a wagon because of his injuries, to this holding camp north of Lisbon, waiting for transportation to England.
He remembered nothing of the ensuing weeks, tossing and turning with pain, burning with fever and lying in cramped, damp conditions in a disused grain store. Around him men died and were removed and replaced by others. Damien lived although he suspected, when he was finally conscious, that there had been moments when he wished he had not. Around him men groaned in pain or muttered with fever and there was an overpowering stench of excrement and stale urine and decaying flesh. It made him want to gag.
“This one’s awake over here, sir,” a voice said, a harsh English voice belonging to an orderly in shabby uniform with blood staining the front of his shirt. Footsteps sounded and then a man knelt beside Damien.
“Welcome back,” the man said. “I thought we’d lost you.”
Damien tried to speak and nothing came out. His mouth was dry and tasted foul. The doctor, a tired looking man with thinning hair and red-rimmed blue eyes reached out and felt his forehead.
“Fever’s gone,” he said. “Shelby, bring him some water.”
The orderly approached with a cup and the doctor held it while Damien drank, draining the cup. The blue eyes were studying him.
“Do you speak any English?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” Damien said. English had been compulsory at the good school his father had sent him to before the war, when his parents had hoped for a career in the law, possibly leading to government service. He had practised when he was able through the years of the war, speaking to English prisoners and occasionally to other soldiers during days of informal truce. He remembered such a moment at Talavera when he had talked across the stream to men filling their water bottles. But the biggest improvement had come when his company, escorting a supply column up towards Badajoz, had captured the young wife of an English colonel and he had walked beside her for more than two weeks. There were aspects of that time that Damien could not bear to remember, but the girl herself would never leave him. Her French needed no practice, she was fluent, but she had taken it upon herself to improve his English. It had been a distraction from the horror of her ordeal.
“Good,” the English doctor said. “My French is terrible. I’ll leave you here for now…is it Lieutenant?”
“Lieutenant Cavel,” Damien said. “My coat?”
“If you had one, it’s gone,” the doctor said. “Let me have a look at that wound. It was infected but we used maggots and it seems to have done the job.”
Damien lay back and the doctor drew back the thin army blanket and carefully peeled the dressing from a long wound across his midriff. The doctor pressed gently and Damien winced and looked down. He was slightly shocked at the length of the gash, red raw and untidily stitched but there was no smell of decay although Damien wondered if he would have been able to smell it anyway in this foul atmosphere.
“My arm?” he asked, aware of the pain.
“Shoulder wound. Very deep, you’ll have a weakness there for a while. Perhaps always. You use your right or left hand?”
“You’re lucky then. Cavalry sabre, I’d guess, cut you down and then slashed you across the stomach. Ought to have killed you but he didn’t bend low enough. I think you’ll mend. I’ll get them to give you some food and plenty of water, you need rest.”
“Prison transport,” the doctor said in matter-of-fact tones. “Back to England and then if you’ll give your parole you’ll be treated as an officer and a gentleman. Better than most of these lads.”
“Thank you,” Damien said. “Do you know how long?”
“Couple of weeks, maybe. Once the transports have arrived they’ll probably take you by barge down river. You’ll be well enough by then. Eat and get some rest.”
“Thank you,” Damien said again. “May I know your name?”
“Dr Bishop. I’ll send someone up with some food.”
Two weeks was long in the prison hospital. More men died. Others were moved, once they were deemed well enough, to the two barns which housed the bulk of the prisoners. Damien had no idea how much time had passed while he had been ill and was astonished to find that two months had passed since he had fallen at Salamanca and autumn had arrived. Already the days were cooler and once he was well enough to step outside and take the air he could see that the land was turning greener after the heat of the summer months. Vineyards were ripe and heavy with the new harvest, the peasants were busy in the olive groves and the prisoners’ bland and boring diet was supplemented a little with local chestnuts, almonds and walnuts along with oranges and apples.
He was moved away from the fetid hospital into a small house, set aside for the officers, and given a new coat, presumably taken from a dead man and a shabby cloak against the colder evenings. His fellow officers, all bearing the same faint sense of depression, played cards and drank wine when it was available and speculated on their chance of exchange, on conditions in England and on when, if ever, they might see their wives and families again.
Transports arrived and the transport board sent an escort of Portuguese militia to take the prisoners by river on wide, flat bottomed barges to join the ships. Damien went to find Dr Bishop to thank him again and the Englishman saluted and then offered his hand.
“Good luck, Lieutenant Cavel, I hope it’s a smooth voyage and an easy imprisonment.”
“You have been very kind, Doctor. Thank you.” Damien looked out the door at the weather. “I do not think it will be a pleasant trip on the river.”
“No, I’m afraid not. Probably fast though with the rain we’ve had for the past few days, the river is very high.”
It took time to load the prisoners into the boats and standing shivering on the banks watching the laborious process, Damien wondered how many of them would be ill again before they reached the transports. He had no hat, it had been lost on the battlefield, probably looted with his coat and he pulled the thin cloak around him and waited his turn. There were five hundred officers and men, some from Salamanca and others brought in from smaller skirmishes or just picked up in small parties. The Portuguese militia watched them carefully. There was none of the laughter or banter or small kindnesses that the British medical staff had shown and Damien understood why. These men had lived under French occupation, had watched their homes burn, their food stolen and far too often their women raped. They had no sense of kinship with the French troops and he wondered if the small contingent of British infantrymen were there to guard the prisoners or to protect them.
Huddled finally in the barge, Damien looked back as the current swirled them out with the crew steering a course to follow those already gone. The rain was so heavy it was difficult to see the shore or indeed the other boats and he peered through the curtain of water.
“Bloody country,” Captain Bisset said beside him. “Either it rains or it’s baking, there’s no halfway. Perhaps England will be better.”
“Have you ever been?” Damien asked.
“I have,” an older man said. “Spent some time there as a boy. I liked it but the food was terrible.”
“It can’t be any worse than here,” Bisset said and there was laughter. A Portuguese oarsman turned to glare at them and then looked back quickly at a shout from the pilot. Damien understood no Portuguese and had never troubled to learn although he could make himself understood in Spanish.
They were moving quickly on the current, the shore no longer visible, and Damien hoped that there would be a chance to dry out before they were herded aboard the prison transports. Ahead of him he could hear Lieutenant Giroux coughing and he wondered if the man would make it to England alive.
The crash happened without any warning, the barge spinning in a sudden surge of water and hitting an object at great speed. Damien had no idea what it was but there was an ominous crack of splitting wood, and a yell and then water rushed up towards him. The barge had broken across the centre with both sides tilting crazily into the water and he could hear the cries of terror and pain of the men around him as they were pulled in to the grey torrent of the water.
Damien struggled out of the cloak, stood up on the edge of the wooden plank seat, peered through the water and then dived. Something struck his arm hard as he hit the cold water, sending a jolt of pain through the already injured limb but he made himself ignore it and struck out strongly. If he did not get away from the smashed wreckage of the barge quickly he was at risk of being pulled under either by the huge chunks of wood being tossed around in the water or by one of the men, struggling for their lives in the midst. He saw, as he struggled past, what looked like the shape of an enormous tree trunk in the centre of the chaos and he supposed it had come down in the storm and been carried along in the fast current.
They were screaming some of them, helpless in the maelstrom of swirling grey water, broken barge and thrashing arms and legs. Damien did not look back; he could do nothing to help them. Some of them might survive if they could swim or were lucky enough to be able to catch hold of a makeshift float. Already he could hear shouts from the barge behind following up, it’s crew trying desperately to avoid either striking the wreck and being wrecked themselves or hitting the men floundering in the water. Above them the rain continued to fall and Damien swam, following the current at an angle towards the shore.
He had learned to swim as a boy, through long summers with his grandparents on their farm. A river had wound its way across their land and every year one or two venturesome children were lost to drowning. His grandfather had been determined it should not happen to him and by the time he joined the army he was a powerful swimmer. It was not easy in this torrent, weighed down by his clothing, but if he stopped to try to remove his jacket or his boots he was afraid it would be too late. So he relied on the strength lent to him by sheer desperation to keep himself afloat and fought his way towards the shore.
He was thrown, finally, in a muddy swirl onto a stony bank. Steep sides rose above him and Damien, who could never remember feeling more exhausted in his life, dragged himself up and crawled on hands and knees up the bank. Finally, the rain seemed to be easing a little and was more of a fine mist although visibility was terrible. More than anything he wanted to lie down and give in but he knew that if the water rose again he was at risk of drowning while he was unconscious. He used bushes, trees and rocks to scramble up the bank, feeling his way, his hands cut and bleeding on sharp edges and thorns. And then he was there, muddy grass under him but solid ground, and he collapsed and lay still.
Damien awoke some time later. The rain had stopped but the land was covered by a thick fog. There was no sound now but the quiet rush of the river below. He was soaked and shivering so much he could hardly stand, and he pushed himself up, conscious of a terrifying weakness. Whatever had happened to the men in the water had long passed, the sky was darkening through the mist and it was evening. If he lay where he was he would probably be dead of cold by morning.
Stumbling like a drunken man he began to make his way inland. He had no idea where he was or how far from the British army camp but he was unlikely to be able to find his way back there in this weather. He needed shelter; warmth was unlikely in this appalling weather but even a dry barn would be better than this. Food would help but he could not go to some farmhouse and beg for help. The French were so hated here that he was more likely to get his throat cut than a place by the fire.
Damien thought that he must have been staggering for about twenty minutes although it was impossible to be sure, he had lost all sense of time, when he saw the light. It was dim, glowing yellow through the haze. He paused, trying to clear his head which was throbbing. Approaching the farm was a huge risk, but if he could remain undetected he might be able to steal some food and find shelter in an outbuilding. With rest he would be able to think more clearly and decide what to do next.
Close up, he could see a small house, whitewashed with a slate roof, crouching in the midst of a muddy farmyard. There were several buildings nearby, a barn and what looked like a henhouse. Damien moved forward very cautiously. No sensible householder would be out in this weather and night was falling rapidly, but he was suspicious of every sound.
He was almost at the door of the dark barn when disaster struck. Unsteady on his feet and in the darkness he had failed to see the long wooden shape of a broken hoe until he stepped on it. His feet shot from under him and he uttered a cry, quickly cut off but too loud in the darkness.
It could have been heard in the house and with a lamp lit there was clearly someone at home. Damien scrambled to his feet and made for the nearest building, a brick built structure which proved to be a tool shed. He ducked inside and stood very still, peering out through the broken door as the door to the house opened and a figure stood silhouetted against the light.
“Cristiano, is that you?” a voice called and a shock ran through him as he realised that the voice was that of a woman and that bizarrely it was speaking English. “Cristiano? Maria?”
There was silence in the enveloping fog and Damien’s brain, numbed by cold and pain, sprang suddenly into life. The voice was tremulous and afraid and he knew suddenly, with complete certainty that this woman was alone here. He stood very still, listening. Nobody replied. She was calling for people she knew but they were not coming and the silence made her afraid.
It changed everything. Inside the cottage was light and probably warmth and food. It was still a risk. The unknown Cristiano and Maria might be close at hand, but once he was inside with this lone female it would be easier to deal with attack. Damien closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady his shaking limbs and find some strength. Then he stepped out of the shed and ran to the door of the house.
She had seen his movement and she was very quick, closing the door with a faint sound of alarm. But desperation lent him strength and speed and he had his foot in the door before she managed it. She wrestled with it briefly and Damien shoved hard. The woman fell back with a cry of pain and he was inside, slamming the door behind him. There was a wooden bar which would not hold off an army but might well keep Cristiano and Maria out for a while and Damien pushed it into place and turned, leaning his back against the door to keep himself upright and surveyed the candlelit room and his prisoner who was scrambling to her feet, her eyes on his face.
It was a shock to find that she was younger than he had expected, probably in her twenties, dressed in black. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, long and straight and a bright red gold. Her eyes were cat green with flecks of gold in them, wide with terror, and her skin was pale with a dusting of freckles.
“Who are you?” she asked, but he could see her eyes on the soaked blue of his jacket and she knew the answer. “What are you doing here?”
“Seeking shelter,” Damien said. “Are you alone?”
She shook her head quickly. “No. No. My husband is upstairs asleep but he has a pistol. And my servants are close by…”
It was a brave try and he applauded her but the expression in her eyes showed it a lie and Damien pushed himself off the door.
“You lie to me and I will cut your throat,” he said quietly. “I am a French prisoner – escaped, I suppose – and I am in need of food and warmth. Do as you are told and I will not touch you. Try to get help and I will and you will not enjoy it. Which is it to be, Mademoiselle?”
She did not seem to be able to speak for a moment but she nodded. Damien gave a faint smile, trying to hide his relief. He was reasonably sure if he had tried to attack her she could have fought him off with ease and probably killed him.
“Are you alone?” he asked again.
“Yes.” She had found her voice.
“No husband or servants?”
She shook her head. “No. The farmer and his wife went to Lisbon, to market. They were going to stay with her sister. I thought when I heard you…”
“And the husband?”
“Is dead,” she said, and this time he knew she spoke the truth. The black velvet of her gown, trimmed at the hem and neckline with silver grey embroidery made it obvious. It might also explain the mystery of a young Englishwoman alone in Portugal.
“Anybody else?” he asked.
“No. Truthfully.” The girl’s eyes were studying him. Suddenly she said:
“You are ill.”
Damien nodded. “Yes. I have been wounded and then tonight in the river…”
He broke off and stood regarding her for a moment. Then she moved.
“Sit down, I will build up the fire.”
She moved to the fireplace, reaching for a stack of wood on the hearth and Damien moved to a wooden bench and sat down closing his eyes. He realised he was shaking violently with reaction; partly relief at being inside in the warmth and the dry and partly a sense of shame at having threatened a frightened woman. He knew that many of his countrymen would have seen it as a gift to find a young and attractive female alone in the cottage. Damien wished he could reassure her that she was safe.
The new heat from the fire reached him. He heard her move across the room and opened his eyes, turning. “Where are you going?”
She regarded him. “There is wine in the kitchen. And some food.”
“I will come with you.”
“You do not look as though you will make it that far…is it Captain?”
“Lieutenant Damien Cavel, Madame.”
She nodded then indicated the room with a sweep of her hand. “You were right, I’m alone,” she said. “In the dark and in this weather – where would I go? May I trust you?”
“Yes,” Damien said. “Madame, I am sorry. I am desperate…”
She nodded. “Wait there.”
He sat quietly, his eyes closed, savouring the warmth of the fire. She seemed to take a long time and he wondered if, after all, she had fled. He had no idea if there was a horse on the premises but suddenly he found it hard to care.
He opened his eyes, startled, and realised that he had fallen asleep. She stood before him, holding out not, as he had expected, a plate of food but instead a bundle of clothing.
“My husband’s. You will make yourself ill if you sit around in those clothes. I will be in the kitchen. It is warm there, there is food.”
“Madame…” Damien was appalled. “I cannot use these…”
“He has no use for them now.”
She left and Damien shook out the clothing. He stripped off his soaked clothes, dropping them in a heap on the floor and pulled on the shirt and trousers feeling almost childish pleasure in the sense of clean dry clothing. His boots were still soaked and after a moment’s consideration he set them before the fire and draped his wet clothing over the chair then ran his hands through his dark hair and padded through to the back of the house in bare feet.
It was a typical farm kitchen, wooden beams with bundles of herbs drying, a huge fireplace with spit and a brace holding an iron pot over the flames and a long wooden table with benches either side. Damien paused and the woman turned and indicated the table.
“Sit,” she said.
He obeyed and she spooned stew into a bowl and brought it to him. There was bread and a crock of butter and it smelled good; better than anything he had eaten since he had been captured at Salamanca. He tried not to snatch at the food but he was too hungry to be delicate. The woman watched him eat and then brought a bottle to the table and poured wine into a glass.
When the edge was taken off his hunger, Damien looked up. “Will you sit?” he asked. “I feel like a boor eating and drinking while you stand.”
She moved forward and collected a second glass, poured wine and sat. “I thought you were going to cut my throat,” she said, and Damien found a smile, to his surprise.
“I was not very convincing,” he said apologetically and was astonished when she laughed.
“You were. I was very frightened for a while. I may be wrong, Lieutenant, but you do not look like a man who is going to hurt me. But I do not understand how you are here.”
Damien studied the distinctive face. “I also, Madame,” he said. “Because you are English, are you not?”
The woman sipped the wine, watching him finish his meal. “I am. My name is Wentworth. Elizabeth Wentworth. I came out to see my husband. He was an officer, a Captain. Wounded at Badajoz. He died four weeks ago of his wounds. It took a long time.”
Damien was filled with immense sadness. “I am so sorry, Madame. To come so far. But forgive me, surely you did not travel alone?”
“I had nobody to come with me,” the girl said. “His commanding officer wrote to me. He was very ill, too badly hurt to be moved far. They do not usually keep officers in the hospital you know, alongside the men. He was billeted at this farm and Maria – the farmer’s wife – had been caring for him. I came to nurse him but it was only a few weeks…”
Damien set down his spoon and pushed the bowl away. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “That was so good.”
The green eyes studied him. “I have told you why I am here. You said you are an escaped prisoner?”
Damien smiled tiredly. “By accident,” he said. “It is not a very exciting story.”
“Tell me anyway,” Elizabeth Wentworth said.
Damien did so, beginning briefly with his wounding and capture at Salamanca. She listened quietly, the green-gold eyes on his face as he told it.
When it was done he sat silent and exhausted, sipping his wine. Eventually she said:
“What will you do now?”
“I do not know,” Damien admitted. “I could find my way back to the prison camp. Some of the men must have survived the river, they were probably taken there. Another wait for transports to England. Or I could try to make my way north to find the French army again. Hundreds of miles through country where my army is hated and the partisans wish to kill me – probably very slowly. And I have no news – I do not even know where we are. The British won at Arapiles – they may have taken Madrid by now.”
“A fool’s errand,” the woman said.
“The farmer and his wife…?”
“They will want you gone,” Mrs Wentworth said. “They hate the French. But they took their harvest to market. I am not expecting them back for a week at least.”
Damien was silent, studying her. “You should not be here alone, Madame,” he said finally, quietly. “It is too far from the town. While your husband lived, I understand. But now, you should find accommodation in Lisbon until you can…”
“I have no money for accommodation in Lisbon, Lieutenant,” the woman said, and suddenly she looked very young and very tired. “What I had, I spent on the journey and caring for Charles. The army will arrange my passage home when there are transports – they will send an escort, they have said. This is cheaper than a room in Lisbon.”
“And when you reach England?”
“I have an aunt I can stay with for a while. I have been living with her while Charles was out here. Eventually, I am told there will be a small pension. I thought I might seek a position as a governess or companion.”
“Your parents? Or his? Can they not…”
“My parents died some years ago. Charles married me against his parents’ wishes, they have never accepted me. It sounds far worse than it is, Lieutenant Cavel, I shall not starve. But when Maria said I might remain here until I have passage home it seemed to make sense.”
“Until this evening when you might have been raped and murdered by an escaped French prisoner!” Damien said. He felt angry that she should have been placed in that position. “One might think this commanding officer of whom you speak would have…”
“He knows nothing of it, sir. The regiment is in the field with Lord Wellington, I have not written of my small troubles and I shall not; I’m not a beggar. He has written to Horse Guards about my pension and has assured me he will see that it is paid. Beyond that, I am not his concern.” The surprising green eyes softened slightly. “But don’t think that I do not realise I have been lucky this evening. Are you all right, you are shivering again?”
He had been aware of it for a while, reached for the wine and drank more. “A fever. I was ill for some weeks, have been better, but I think the soaking….”
Cautiously he tried to move his left arm and realised that it was agony to do so. Elizabeth Wentworth got up.
“You are in pain,” she said. “Come, I’ll show you where you may sleep.”
“Madame, I can sleep here.”
She did not reply, merely picked up a candle and waited. Damien rose and followed her. The stairs of the small farmhouse were narrow and dark and he had to stoop his tall frame to avoid hitting his head. She did not have the same problem, she was small and slight and he thought suddenly of that other delicate-looking Englishwoman who had proved to have the strength of a lioness and found himself smiling.
There were two rooms above and she pushed open one of the doors. “This is where Maria and Cristiano sleep. They will know nothing about this. Go.”
It was a bedframe, roughly made from local oak, with straps supporting a straw filled mattress and blankets and pillows neatly folded so that the bed could air. Damien stared at it, trying to remember the last time he had slept in a bed. He turned to see her setting the candle on a wooden chest.
“I know the French are taught to live off the land and these people – and I – are your enemies,” she said. “Please don’t steal from them. There is enough food and when you are ready to go you may take what you like from my husband’s clothing, he has no need of it now and he was much of a height with you. Rest and if you need me I am sleeping in the next room.”
Damien was studying the pale face in the candlelight. “You are not my enemy and I do not know anything of these people. Thank you, Madame. I hope I will be better tomorrow. You have probably saved my life tonight.”
She gave a very slight smile. “You have definitely spared mine, sir.”
She turned to go and Damien moved to the bed. A blanket in his hand, he turned.
“Do you miss him very much?”
Elizabeth Wentworth stood framed in the crooked doorframe. “No,” she said, surprising him. “Although I could only admit that to a complete stranger such as yourself. How can I miss a man I barely knew? I was seventeen when we eloped and I had known him for two months then. He was handsome and dashing and I thought I loved him. He was also about to join his regiment to sail to Portugal with Sir John Moore. I was settled in lodgings and I waved him off proudly. That was four years ago. I have not seen him since. He wrote me a total of ten letters during that time. He sent me money occasionally but not enough, I have survived teaching music and drawing and running errands for wealthy widows. And on the occasional gift from my poor aunt who can ill afford it herself. His family do not receive me and would not even lend me money to travel here when I had word that he was so badly wounded. And when I arrived to nurse him, he was delirious and barely recognised me. He was also riddled with the pox, so I imagine that he had not missed me either.”
“Oh no,” Damien said softly, his own misery forgotten. “Oh cherie, I am so sorry. To come so far and for that. He did not deserve you.”
His compassion seemed to startle her. “You don’t know me, Lieutenant. How do you know what I deserve?”
Farm of Cristiano and Maria Guedes, Portugal, 1812
The bedrooms were cold compared to the heat of the rooms below. Elizabeth went down to bank the kitchen fire and extinguish lamps and candles, taking one up to the tiny box room which she had occupied since coming to Santarem. She removed the black mourning gown and took off her stays then wrapped a thick robe around her and got into the narrow bed. Four weeks ago Charles had breathed his last in this bed and she had stripped and washed the linen herself, not wanting to make more work for Maria who had been kind enough already. She sensed that they wanted her gone once her husband had been buried but they were too good to say so. Their trip to Lisbon had been a regular necessity to sell the produce of the small farm but she suspected they would remain with their family for as long as they could. She had been told that a passage would be available for her within the month and the Lisbon quartermaster would send one of his men with a cart to escort her to the ship with her small trunk.
Elizabeth had not liked being left alone at the farm, but it had also been a relief. She had grown up in the country and had willingly agreed to feed the few animals and take care of the house. It was the least she could do to repay their kindness since their last farmhand had left to join the Portuguese army eight months ago and there was no other help locally. Feeding the goats and milk cow and chickens occupied little of her time. She wrote letters, one to her aunt accepting her generous offer of a bed in her own small house until she might make other arrangements and another to Charles Wentworth’s family, telling them of his death and his burial. They would probably not respond but Elizabeth would have known she had done the right thing.
There was a small sum of money, raised through auctioning Captain Wentworth’s personal possessions, and a one-armed Major of the cavalry had ridden out to give her the money. She had seen his eyes brighten at finding the widow young and personable and she suspected that if she had given him the slightest encouragement he would have ridden out again but she did not. Four years of marriage to a soldier had convinced Elizabeth that if she did ever marry again it would not be to a man in a red coat.
She wondered if the French officer was married. Once the initial terror had eased, she had found nothing threatening in the tall, slender dark haired man with steady grey eyes. Any fear of him harming her had vanished very quickly. Four years alone had accustomed Elizabeth to all manner of impertinences from men who very clearly believed that a woman whose husband had been away for so long must welcome their attentions and she had grown very good at sensing danger. She sensed no threat from the exhausted Frenchman with the surprisingly good grasp of English and in practical terms his presence here for a few days might keep her safe. It was improper for her to be staying in a deserted cottage unchaperoned with him sleeping in the next room but since nobody would ever know of it, it could hardly hurt her reputation.
She slept finally, waking as the dawn filtered through the badly fitting shutters at the small window and rose to dress. The black velvet gown was the only mourning she possessed, saved from the death of her mother several years earlier and she would not wear it about the farm. Instead she donned the practical green wool and the sturdy boots and bundled her hair up into a knot then went down to build up the fire in the kitchen before going outside into a fresh dry dawn with the promise of a sunny day to begin the chores of the farm.
When she came back inside later, hungry and ready for breakfast she was faintly surprised not to see the French officer already down. She had moved his jacket and boots into the kitchen to dry properly and bundled up the soaked, filthy linen to be laundered. Now she took off her cloak and went up to her room. There was a box under the bed which contained the remains of her husband’s clothing and she unpacked it, piling it up neatly folded. She had not given the clothing to be sold with the rest of Charles’ effects. It had little value and she had thought she might give it to Cristiano when she left as thanks for his hospitality. Now she carried the small pile, a couple of shirts, some underclothing, woollen stockings and a spare pair of serviceable grey trousers to the other door and knocked.
There was no reply. Elizabeth knocked again and then pushed the door open very cautiously.
“Lieutenant Cavel? Are you awake? I have brought…”
The sight of him on the bed froze the words. He had thrown off the blankets in the night and lay uncovered still dressed in the shirt and trousers she had given him. They were soaked with sweat and his face was flushed and burning. He did not appear conscious and Elizabeth dropped the clothing onto the chest and ran forward.
“Oh lord,” she said, feeling the burning damp of his forehead. “Lieutenant? Mr Cavel, can you hear me?”
The eyes opened, staring at her in confusion and he spoke in French. Elizabeth spoke enough of the language to be able to teach children the basics but his rapid words made no sense to her. It did not matter. He was ill and it was clear that after four weeks of exhausting nursing, she was going to have to go through the process again. She felt a stab of resentment at the thought and then she sighed and turned to find the discarded bedclothes. She could hardly leave him like this.
The routine was familiar by now and resigned, she fell quickly into the pattern of caring for a fever patient; washing him, changing the bed sheets, changing his clothing and patiently spooning water and other liquids between his dry cracked lips. The fever burned fiercely for three days and Elizabeth wondered if, like Charles, he had already been weakened too much by his wounds and his previous illness to survive. But unlike Charles he was clearly a fit and healthy man in all other ways and on the fourth day he slept more easily, his body no longer racked by violent shivering and his brow cool and dry.
Elizabeth sat beside the bed, watching him. Like this he appeared younger than she had first thought, probably no more than thirty or so although his contained manner had made him seem older. She was twenty-two herself and had been told often that she seemed older than her years, which was less flattering to a woman than a man. Once again she wondered if he had a wife waiting for him back in France. She suspected that the answer was yes, there had been a name he had mentioned more than once in his fevered ramblings and she hoped that Anne, whoever she was, appreciated this unassuming man.
He awoke properly late into the evening. Elizabeth had brought the lamp from the kitchen into his room and settled herself to mend one of the shirts she had washed. She was wrapped in her shawl; the heat from the kitchen barely filtered up to the bedrooms. Seeing him stir she looked up and into bewildered grey eyes.
“Madame Wentworth. What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Elizabeth smiled and got up, putting down her sewing. “You’re awake. That’s good. And you have also remembered your English which is even better because you have made me realise how rusty my French has become these past days. Wait there, I will bring you a warm drink now that you can taste it properly.”
She left him and when she returned he had managed to pull himself into a sitting position. Elizabeth handed him the cup of milk with honey and a little brandy and watched him sip it.
“This is very good, thank you. My throat is so dry. How long have I been ill?”
“This is the fourth day.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “I’ve been here four days? I need to leave tomorrow, the farmer and his wife are going to be back…”
“No, they are not,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I received a message from Maria yesterday to tell me they will be at least another week. Her sister has just given birth and they are staying to help and for the baptism. Senor Dias, who has a farm eight miles further up river stopped by on his way back from Lisbon to tell me.”
“Leaving you here alone?”
“I think they are making the most of a holiday. They farm this place alone, you know, they must seldom have the opportunity to leave it because of the animals. All their farmhands left to join the army or the militia. I suppose that with the harvest brought in and taken to market there is little to do here. And I am happy to help them, they were very good to me when Charles was dying. In a few weeks I shall be gone but I will always remember how kind to me the people of Portugal were. Do you feel able to eat some broth?”
“Thank you. I am not sure they would be so kind if they knew you were harbouring an escaped French prisoner.”
“They have no need to know. And you have no need to leave until you are a little stronger. I’ll bring the broth.”
She returned with it and found him holding the half mended shirt. “You are mending my clothes.”
“It was badly torn.”
“And you have also changed them. I was not wearing this nightshirt when I got into bed that night.”
Elizabeth flushed slightly and dropped her eyes. “I could not leave you as you were, you were shivering. I am sorry…”
“Do not apologise, Madame, you have probably saved my life. Again. I am sorry to have been such a charge on you. I will leave as soon as I am able.”
“You have been less trouble than my husband, sir. Are you…do you have a wife at home?”
He smiled. “No. I was young when I joined, have been in the army all my adult life. No time to marry.”
“I wondered. There was a name you mentioned when you were ill. Who is Anne?”
She saw his eyes flicker in surprise. “Anne? Oh. I must have been dreaming, I suppose.”
“An old love or a current sweetheart?” Elizabeth said lightly, teasing, but he did not smile, shook his head as if trying to clear it.
“Neither. A woman I liked very much.”
“I am sorry, I have no right to pry.”
“No, it is not that. I am ashamed to tell you the story; it reflects so badly on some of my countrymen. But then you must know, I am sure, if you have talked to your hosts, that the French are hated for a reason.”
Elizabeth nodded, studying him. She wondered if she wanted to know. After a moment he said:
“I was still a sergeant, posted to a troop escorting supplies. Dull and often dangerous but essential. We had a new commander – a colonel of cavalry, Colonel Dupres. It was odd for a man of his rank to be given such a lowly posting and we all assumed it was a punishment of some kind.”
“And was it?”
“Yes. He had behaved very rashly, more than once, putting his men at risk without need because he felt some sense of rivalry with an English colonel of light infantry. They had clashed several times on the field and Dupres had lost and men had died. During the months I served under him I came to loathe him. He was a thief, looting houses and churches. He was a brute to local people in Portugal and Spain. Not just taking food and supplies; we all do that. But he would kill for sport and torture for fun. And he was a rapist. Any local girl he came across.”
“Oh no,” Elizabeth said softly.
“He was in command and many of the men followed him willingly. War makes beasts of so many, Madame. But there was a skirmish with a group of Spanish partisans and a small English escort, taking supplies up from Lisbon. We captured the English and killed many of the Spanish. The others fled. There was a woman with them – a young Englishwoman. She gave him her name, thinking she would be released as an officer’s wife. She was married to the colonel he hated.”
Elizabeth watched the shuttered expression on his face and wished she had not asked. “You don’t have to tell me any more.”
Damien gave a tight smile. “You will have guessed, I imagine. He slaughtered the remains of her escort in front of her and he took her with us on the march. For two weeks I watched him brutalise her. You do not want the details. Some of us tried to help her as much as we could and tried desperately to think of a way to get her free.”
“Did he kill her?” Elizabeth whispered. She was cold with horror, her own vulnerability out here suddenly real all over again. He shook his head.
“No, although eventually I think he would have. He was…he became obsessed with her. Would not release her. But the partisans had taken word back to the Allied lines and we were attacked one night by half a battalion of light infantry. They went through our men as if we were raw recruits. Dupres survived the battle but her husband challenged him when he realised what had been done to her and killed him.”
“Is that how you were taken prisoner?”
“No. She spoke for us, my captain and I, to Lord Wellington. The rest were sent to be transported but we were released to go back to the French lines with a letter of thanks and recommendation for what we had done for her. I was promoted and so was he. Then I fought at a battle just outside Salamanca and was wounded and taken again.”
“I am sorry, Lieutenant. Was she all right?”
He gave a little smile. “I think so. Hard for any woman to endure what she did, but she was unusual. And so was he. I have seen many men in love before but I do not think I have ever seen a man so enamoured as he. I hope they did well. I have seen death and horror. And rape, since many of our troops see nothing wrong with it. But that stayed with me. I got to know her and I don’t think I could ever close my eyes to it again after that.”
He had finished the broth almost without noticing it and she took the bowl from him gently. “I think you are a good man, Lieutenant. Try to sleep again now. No need to dream horrors about her, she sounds very well taken care of. But you have reminded me of how lucky I have been. Goodnight.”
Elizabeth was surprised at how quickly the Frenchman seemed to recover from his fever. He was up within two days, moving slowly around the house, washing himself and dressing and doing what he could to help her. After four days he was outside with her in the crisp autumn air, carrying the feed bucket and hunting for eggs. She found, to her surprise, that she enjoyed the company. He did not talk a great deal but his silences were restful and she felt comfortable with them.
During the evenings they would sit in the kitchen to save lighting two fires and she finished mending his clothing and watched, with some surprise, as he expertly patched the soles of his boots. She quickly realised that life on a farm was as familiar to him as it was to her, and he began, without asking, to effect small repairs about the place as if he, like her, felt a sense of obligation to the absent farmer and his wife whose hospitality was keeping him warm and fed.
He did not speak again of leaving and at the end of another week, Elizabeth felt the need to raise it. Autumn would soon move into winter and the farmer and his wife would return. She was daily expecting a message about her own passage home and was somewhat shocked to realise how little she wanted to go.
They had finished their evening meal and he got up to wash the pottery bowls and stack them to dry. Elizabeth was amused at the action. She suspected that Charles would never have thought to do it; he had remained a gentleman by instinct, waiting for a servant to clear up after him. His occasional letters had been full of grumbles about the lack of good orderlies and servants. Her own years of near poverty had taught her to manage most things alone, with a local woman coming in daily to do the heavy cleaning and she was an excellent cook.
“You cook very well, Madame, I am being ruined for army fare,” the Frenchman said, echoing her thoughts. Elizabeth smiled.
“I enjoy cooking. Lieutenant Cavel, have you decided yet what you are going to do? I do not mean to hurry you, but…”
Damien collected a bottle of wine and seated himself again. He poured for both of them. “I am telling myself that my work around the farm will make up for my free use of my unwilling host’s wine cellar,” he said. “It is very good; does he make it himself?”
“It is made in the village. They all contribute the grapes and share out the wine. Is this not what you call living off the land, Lieutenant?”
“It is too comfortable for that,” Damien said, laughing. “And in answer to your question, Madame, yes, I have decided. I am going to make my way back over the river and east towards Cadiz. I have no idea where I’ll find Marshal Soult’s army – or if I will – but I think it is the best choice.”
“Or you could surrender and go to England,” Elizabeth said suddenly. She had not meant to say it, but his words conjured up the reality; hundreds of miles of lonely marching without a weapon or an ally, through hostile countryside with no sure knowledge of where he might find his compatriots. “If the partisans catch you, they’ll kill you. And even the British might shoot you as a spy. It is a mad idea, Lieutenant, and I do not want you to do it!”
He smiled then, one of his rare broad smiles which made his face that of a boy again. “Madame, I am sorry. But I am a French soldier – I have been for fourteen years – and it is my duty to get myself back and fight for my emperor. As your husband would have done if he could. But thank you for your concern.”
Elizabeth got up. She was fighting back tears. “You will get yourself killed!” she said furiously, walking over to the fire. “And I do not want to know about it! Go if you must. I will remain here until Cristiano and Maria return and then…”
She heard him move and did not look around. Unexpectedly she felt his hands on her shoulders. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “I am not leaving until I am sure they are back. Or until a man in a red coat arrives to take you to the ship. I am not leaving you alone here.”
“It is not your problem, Lieutenant.”
“My name is Damien, cherie. We probably only have another few days here and nobody will hear you use it. Please.”
Elizabeth turned into his arms. “Did she teach you your English?” she asked, fighting the completely irrational sense of jealousy.
Damien laughed. “I already knew some, but she taught me a lot more. I think it helped to take the mind off the pain. Do not look so cross, Elizabeth Wentworth. She would be very happy to see me practising it on you. May I kiss you?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks were wet with tears. She reached up to cup his face with one hand and found that it too was damp. “I do wish you would,” she said.
They spoke little afterwards, having said all that they could. There was no way that she could persuade him and she understood it. If he were a man to take the safe and easy way, he would not be the man he was.
Damien had not meant it to end this way although he quickly realised, with rueful tenderness that on this occasion it was not going to be his decision alone. She moved around the room as she always did at the end of the evening, blowing out candles with housewifely care as he banked the fire and checked the door and shutters. It was a still, cold night and he followed her up the stairs and was startled as she turned not left into her own little room but right into the main bedroom where he had been sleeping. She set the candle down on the chest and turned to him, the green-gold of her eyes bright on his.
“We have so little time left,” she said. “And this may be all we ever have. I am not wasting it on propriety and morality.”
Damien looked at her for a long time. “And if you bear a child?” he asked.
“Then I will tell them it was my husband’s. A last and joyous gift. Nobody but I need know that he could not have done so.”
It quashed the last of his scruples although he was amused, as he moved to take her into his arms, to realise that she had thought of that well before this moment. He had been neatly ambushed by an English force and not for the first time. On this occasion there was no thought of fighting back and he let her draw him to the bed, into her arms and into joy without a moment of regret.
They lived the next three days in each other’s arms, leaving the bedroom only to eat and to perform the necessary chores of living. If this was to be all they had, he understood her need to savour it, simply to hold him. They talked, when they were not making love, telling details of their lives and families, of their history. He whispered endearments to her in French and taught her their meaning and she made him laugh when she used them back to him. They slept little, waking wrapped together in the big bed, not feeling the cold of approaching winter in each other’s arms. It was as though they had known each other for many years; as though these past weeks had been just the culmination of a growing attachment instead of the madness it really was. He had not wanted to fall in love with her and he had prayed that she would not fall in love with him; it could bring only pain to both of them, but it was far too late for such careful common sense.
Halfway through the third day he awoke to an unfamiliar sound and realised suddenly that it was the approach of a horse. He was abruptly alert again after days of simple happiness but she was quicker even than he, scrambling out of bed, wrapping a blanket about her and running to the window.
“Is it the farmer back?”
“No, it is Major Callen. I imagine with news of the transport. Stay here.”
She scrambled into her black dress, frantically combing out her hair and then went down to open the door with the red gold mass loose about her shoulders. Damien dressed quickly and quietly, hoping that the major was not a perceptive man. His love looked very different to the thin, sad widow he had encountered three weeks ago on a foggy evening.
When he was dressed he moved quietly to the door. Both voices were clearly audible in the tiny cottage.
“We’ll send a gig, ma’am, can borrow it from the commissariat, easier to bring your boxes that way.”
“I don’t have much, Major, but thank you, it is kind.”
“Won’t be until the day after tomorrow but it’ll give you plenty of time to make the transport. It’s a fast boat, sailing into Portsmouth, and there will be two other ladies on board, wives going home, so you’ll have female company. Once you’re there, I understand a carriage has been arranged to take you to your family.”
“My aunt lives in Winchester, sir, it’s not that far. Did you arrange this?”
“No, ma’am. Although I would have. I understand it was your husband’s brigade commander. He has also been on about your pension, hurrying them along.”
“In the middle of a campaign that is so good of him, Major.”
“He’ll have had some time, ma’am. Light division have been in Madrid for a couple of months, I understand. And he’s got a good reputation for taking care of his officers and men.”
“I am grateful. I’ll write to him when I am home to thank him. Major, thank you. I am a little worried about the farm – I’ve been taking care of the animals while the farmer is in Lisbon.”
“No need, ma’am. I’ll leave one of my lads here until they get back. Don’t worry, he’ll behave himself.”
“Thank you. I’ll make sure I’m ready.”
Damien was amused, through his sadness, at the major’s evident reluctance to leave. He did so finally and when the horse was out of sight, Damien put on his boots and went downstairs. She turned to look at him and he saw that she was crying.
“Oh ma mie. Come here.”
She flew into his arms and he held her close, murmuring endearments as she cried. There was little that either of them could say that had not already been said.
He moved through the next day like a ghost, helping her to pack and making sure the farm was secure and the animals in good condition. She had his clothing neatly washed and mended and had fashioned a bag out of old flour sacks for him to carry spares and food, slung across his back like a satchel. It was surprisingly effective and probably more comfortable than the worn out pack he had been used to.
They spent the night wakeful in each other’s arms and he thought, holding her close after making love, that if he never saw her again this moment would stay with him forever; the moment he knew without the slightest doubt that he loved her.
“Your aunt lives in Winchester, does she not?”
“Yes. I will probably look for lodgings nearby. She is the only family I have.”
“What is her direction?”
She twisted her head to look at him. “Her direction? She lives close to the Cathedral; my uncle was a cleric there. I can give you details…but why, Damien?”
Damien kissed her very gently. “I may not survive this war,” he said. “I may not even survive the next month. But if I do…one day I would like to come back to you, cherie. If you think…?”
Her mouth stopped his, the kiss leaving him breathless. “Yes,” she said. “I know it will probably never happen. But Damien – I won’t stop hoping. If I have a child…what were your parents’ names?”
“My father was Damien also. My mother was Colette.”
“Thank you. Both very good names.”
He wondered if this much heartache had ever killed a man and then laughed at his own melodrama. It was not like him and no man had ever died of a broken heart. But he had never realised before how much it hurt. “I love you,” he said, very softly.
“I love you too, Damien Cavel. Never forget it, will you?”
“Never. Take care of yourself, Elizabeth Wentworth. And our child, if there is one. If I live, I will see you again one day.”
He left early, not wanting to risk being caught by the arrival of her military escort. She remained upstairs, watching him from the bedroom window. At the edge of the big barn, on his way down towards the river and the ford, he turned and saw her standing there, already dressed in her mourning black. She looked beautiful in it, the warm colour of her hair framing her pale face. This far away he could not see her tears but he knew they were there, reached up to touch his own wet cheeks. Then he turned and walked on into the bright sunlit morning.
Freneida, Portugal, January 1813
Colonel Paul van Daan gave a theatrical groan as his orderly limped into the room and deposited a large pile of mail onto the table. “Take them away!” he ordered. “I spend half my bloody time either reading or replying to letters, none of which is helping us win this war. I need a secretary!”
His wife looked up from the small table on the far side of the room where she was running through a list of medical supplies and fixed him with an arctic glare. “I beg your pardon?”
Paul grinned. “Sorry, love, I know you’re better than any clerk. But honestly, look at this lot.”
Anne van Daan got up, stepped around the basket where her newest child dozed in a patch of winter sunlight like a well-fed cat, and went to sort through the pile. “Major Breakspear can deal with half of these,” she said. “This is from your father, hopefully giving us a date for his arrival. Those are for some of the other officers – Jenson, can you drop them over please. And this…I’ve no idea.”
Her blank tone made him look up again. “For me?”
“For me,” Anne said. He watched as she opened the somewhat grubby folded sheet. There was another letter enclosed, folded and sealed. Anne scanned the missive and the expression on her face made him smile.
“Well clearly that’s not just another delay in the uniform order,” he said. “What is it, love?”
Anne looked up. “It is from Damien Cavel,” she said blankly.
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Cavel? Sergeant Cavel?”
“Captain Cavel apparently. Currently serving in Marshal Soult’s army although he doesn’t say where.”
“Well he wouldn’t, would he?” Paul said. “May I see? Is it personal?”
“Not to me,” Anne said. She handed him the letter, looking down at the other one in her hand. “He is asking me to convey this letter to an Englishwoman living in Winchester.”
Paul read the letter twice and then looked at Anne. “He says he wants her to know that he is safe. A love affair?”
“I’m guessing so although don’t ask me how! Paul, what in God’s name are we going to do?”
Paul met her eyes and shook his head regretfully. “We can’t, bonny lass, although I’d like to. You know how grateful I am for what he and his captain did for you last year. But we’ve no idea what this contains. I’m sorry, but it’s for the intelligence service.”
Anne studied him for a long time. “All right,” she said finally. “Give it to George Scovell. He can do what he likes with any information in it, but we can trust him to be discreet about it; we can’t have this poor woman’s name shared with half the army.”
“If Cavel has been as careful in her letter as he is in this one there won’t be anything useful anyway. But this could be some kind of cipher, George will have to see it.”
“Will you take it up to him or shall I?”
“I’ll do it; I need to ride over to see Lord Wellington later anyway. Where’s Manson?”
“Practicing dry firing with the light company I think.”
“He can come with me.”
Paul made to tuck the letter into his pocket and his wife said:
“Will you do something for me, Paul?”
Paul studied her with some misgiving. “What?”
“Leave that on the desk and go and find Leo yourself, will you?”
“Nan. You can’t…”
“I’m not going to copy it directly. I’m going to see what it says and write to her myself.”
“You think this is genuine?”
“Yes,” Anne said. “I know Damien Cavel, Paul. He’s not an intelligencer, he doesn’t have the temperament any more than you do. If he’s managed to get a letter to me about this girl it’s because it means everything to him. And I owe him my life.”
After a moment, Paul nodded. “You’ve got half an hour. Seal it again properly, will you?”
His wife smiled sweetly. “Do you think I would not?”
“No. You do have the temperament to be an intelligencer. Oh – what’s the girl’s name, it doesn’t say it here?”
“Wentworth. Mrs Elizabeth Wentworth, a Winchester address.”
Paul blinked in surprise. “Wentworth. I know who that is. She’s the widow of Captain Charles Wentworth – he used to be with the 43rd but transferred over to the 112th just before Fuentes d’Onoro. He was badly wounded at Badajoz, sent back to Lisbon but died of his wounds. I didn’t know him that well but I’d heard his widow came out to nurse him. I wrote a few letters, chased up her pension and helped with transport home.”
“Pretty?” Anne asked. Paul laughed.
“No idea, bonny lass, I’ve never set eyes on her. It rather sounds as though Cavel has, though. She’s a real person and she was definitely out here which makes this unlikely romance a bit more plausible. Get it done and I know nothing about it.”
He left the room and stood outside for a moment, then looked back in. She had unsealed the second letter and was reading it. He saw her lips curve in a smile and he found himself smiling as well. After a moment she sat down, reached for her pen and drew a sheet of paper towards her to send the good tidings to a woman she did not know.
I’ve spent some time over the past week or two reading accounts of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century courts martial for my next book, An Unwilling Alliance. A surprising number of them came to absolutely nothing and the novelist in me desperately wants to know the full story behind how they came about. Were charges brought maliciously? Commanding officer didn’t like the look on your face? Got off because you were really good at hiding the evidence? Or because you were really good at your job and nobody wants to lose you? So many possibilities, I’m going to have to be forcibly restrained from court martialling half my characters now, it sounds like so much fun…
Surgeon James Dalzell of the 32nd in 1800 is my favourite so far, though. He got into it in an Assembly Room (probably drunk or fancied the same girl in my opinion) with his commanding officer Major James Wentworth Mansergh and made use of “unwarrantable and most offensive language” by telling him “the said Major Mansergh that he was a damned rascal and a Scoundrel and no Gentleman and threatening to pull him by the nose and afterwards on the same night repeating the same language raising his hand in a threatening manner and again threatening to pull him, the said Major Mansergh, by the nose.”
Surgeon Dalzell seems not to have actually been arrested for this until six months later and on that occasion he really kicked off and informed Major Mansergh in the presence of soldiers of the 32nd in the barrack yard that “his command was a damned rascally one to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Clearly something had ticked Surgeon Dalzell off beyond the telling and if there was a man on that court martial with a straight face by that point, he was a better man than I am. A brief search has revealed that to threaten to “pull a man’s nose” was considered an insult likely to lead to a duel in the ante-bellum South and when I need another distraction I am going to download that article in full as I want to find out the origin of that one. Certainly it is clear that Surgeon Dalzell and Major Mansergh were not going to be exchanging Christmas gifts.
But the plot thickens even further. Enter Captain William Davis who was also court-martialled in 1800. Captain Davis was also charged with using disrespectful and improper language to Major Mansergh in the barrack yard on the same evening that Surgeon Dalzell hit the proverbial roof. While no nose pulling appears to have been involved here, Captain Davis followed the major, attempted forcibly to stop him and called him “a damned Rascal and a Scoundrel and at the same time raising his hand in a threatening manner to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Now there is clearly a bit of a theme here, and it looks as though the court was able to spot it. Surgeon Dalzell, interestingly was acquitted of the charges of nose-threatening and general name-calling. The court made mention of something that Mansergh said about the surgeon in a conversation with Captain Davis that evening in the barrack yard which had caused Dalzell to lose his temper. Although he was acquitted, he was instructed to make an apology to Major Mansergh for improper language and conduct. The wording of the apology is very specific – I’m guessing all Dalzell had to do was read it out and the matter was over. Clearly the court felt that whatever had happened, Dalzell was provoked.
Captain Davis wasn’t quite so lucky and I wonder if that was because of his rank. Certainly given that he went for his commanding officer in front of the enlisted men on the parade ground, he was very unlikely to get away with it. Captain Davis was found guilty and suspended without rank or pay for the term of two years. Even so, the court expressed some sympathy for Davis, pointing out that his treatment by Mansergh, while it can’t justify his actions, certainly mitigated his sentence. Presumably without it, he might have been cashiered.
The editor has very kindly provided footnotes of what happened to the principals in the various cases and that’s where it becomes interesting. Captain Davis sold out the following month, presumably unable or unwilling to live without pay or rank for the next two years. Surgeon Dalzell must have taken his medicine and made his stilted apology to Major Mansergh because he remained in the army and was appointed Surgeon to the Forces in Ireland in 1804. Clearly he managed to control his temper better in the future.
Major Mansergh was not the subject of the court martial but that did not stop the court from expressing its opinion that his conduct appeared “highly reprehensible, in not having supported his command with more propriety and energy”. What else was said off the record, or by Mansergh’s own commanding officers is not recorded, but Major Mansergh sold out the following month and did not return to military service. Somehow I have a feeling there might have been a celebration in the mess at some point…
Until I started looking in to military discipline in more detail, I think I had assumed that a court martial was seen as a disgrace and the end of an officer’s career but clearly that is not the case. In both the army and the navy, officers were court-martialled, acquitted or received minor punishments and went on to do very well. Captain Bligh of the Bounty survived no less than three courts martial during his career.
Court martial seems to have been a valid way of seeking an enquiry into an incident. An officer censured for some error would often ask for a court martial to clear his name; a good example of this would be Lt-Colonel Charles Bevan after the fiasco at Almeida in 1811 whose request for a court martial was denied, a fact which contributed to his suicide.
The other fact about a court martial which came as a surprise to me was that the King looked at all trial records and had the right to override either the verdict or the punishment. I was aware through research into the Peninsular War that the commander-in-chief had the right to commute sentences on men convicted of local offences but it appears that it was not uncommon for the King to completely overturn the decision of the General Court Martial, either in deciding to declare a verdict of not guilty, or simply to announce that he no longer required the services of the officers involved.
In matters of military discipline in the 18th and 19th century there must always have been a lot of leeway depending on individual circumstances. An officer committing an offence needed to be charged by a senior officer and there must have been many occasions where a good officer got away with an informal reprimand simply because he was good at his job and valued. Equally there would have been senior officers with a bee in their bonnet about particular issues for example Admiral Gambier was known to be an evangelical Christian and used to fine his officers for bad language. Commanders confident in their relationships with their officers will have used different methods of management, saving court martial for extreme cases in the same way that a good manager rarely uses the formal disciplinary process. There are always variations from the strict letter of the law.
And that’s probably a good thing for one of the officers of the 110th infantry…