I have just got back from a great weekend at the Malvern Festival of Military History. It was a fantastic event, featuring a wide selection of historians, novelists and enthusiasts and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the field who didn’t make it this year. I met some amazing people and have come away with some good memories and a whole host of new ideas which I am never going to have time to write. I also spent a small fortune on books…
The festival was a full-on weekend, with so many talks and discussion panels that it was genuinely difficult to get time to eat. It took place in several marquees in the grounds of Severn End in Hanley Castle and the excellent coffee van and crepe van kept a few of us going through the weekend. Having to travel from the Isle of Man meant that I missed most of the first day although having attended this year, I am going to make sure that next year I’m able to be there for the full event.
I arrived in time to hear Sir Max Hastings’ talk on Vietnam which was excellent. Vietnam is one of those conflicts, like the Northern Ireland troubles, which was part of the backdrop to my childhood. My parents were daily news watchers and allowed us to watch with them from a very early age so I always knew about the war although I never learned about the causes until I reached university in the early eighties. I genuinely want to read this book.
On the following day I attended panels on the English Civil Wars and 1815-1914 – A Century of Peace? Contrasting talks were given by Nicholas Shakespeare on how Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister and Andrew Roberts on Churchill: walking with destiny. I was sorry that the evening concert had to be cancelled but I thoroughly enjoyed the speakers’ reception which gave an opportunity to meet people informally. I’m indebted to my husband for managing to find a very suitable pub for dinner afterwards; the Wellington Inn. Jacqueline Reiter and I were so excited that I’m surprised they let us in, they probably thought we were lunatics, but I’m glad they did, the food was excellent.
Sunday was they day very much dedicated to the period I write about and I enjoyed every single one of the talks on that day. Adam Zamoyski on Napoleon was interesting and I enjoyed his exchange of views with Charles Esdaile. Probably my favourite panel was the one on Waterloo ably chaired by Robert Pocock. Charles Esdaile, Jacqueline Reiter, John Hussey and Alan Forrest discussed a number of questions covering both the military and political aspects of the battle and an alarming number of books have been added to my ‘to read’ list.
My own panel was the last of the day, consisting of myself along with Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams, David Donachie and Iain Gale, all fantastic authors. David was a great chair, and we talked about some of the challenges of creating believable historical fiction at the same time as spinning a story that readers will enjoy. I loved it and would have been happy to sit down afterwards to carry on the discussion.
The last talk was given by Lord Ashdown about his book “Nein! Standing up to Hitler 1935-44” which blows away the commonly held belief that there was little resistance to Hitler among his own people. It was a story of lost opportunities which led to tragedy and I bought that one on the day.
In the outer marquee were book stalls, an exhibition of war art and a variety of information stands and endless opportunities to talk. I spent most of the weekend talking and listening; it isn’t often I get the chance to spend time with a group of people who are just as passionate about history as I am and I loved every minute of it.
There are probably one or two things to be learned for next year. Food was genuinely a bit of a problem; the programme was very intensive and it was difficult to leave to get food. This was fine on the first day where there seemed to be a variety of food stands but on the Saturday and Sunday there was only the crepe van, who heroically fed the entire event. I suspect the weather, which was cold, and on Saturday very wet, kept them away but I wonder if it caused some people to leave to get lunch and perhaps not to come back or to miss some of the talks because of it.
It was a pity that the two evening concerts were not a success. I wasn’t able to get to the first one as it coincided with Richard’s train arriving and I had to pick him up, but I gather it was so poorly attended that the second one, on the Saturday, was cancelled. This was a real shame but I suspect it was a combination of the cold, wet weather and the problem of food once again; once people leave a venue to find dinner it is hard to get them back again. I’m hoping that it doesn’t put the organisers off the idea of the evening concerts, I think it’s a great one, it’s just the timing that needs looking at.
None of these minor blips detracted from my enjoyment of the event. The speakers were excellent, the discussions lively and everybody I met was friendly. I had been a bit concerned that my mathematician husband would be bored but he had a great time and is definitely keen to come back next year.
I met so many great people it’s impossible to list them all although a few stood out. Carl and Gail Christie (who travelled all the way from Canada for the event), Charles Esdaile, Sinead Allen, Robert Pocock, Andrew Lacey (a fellow undergraduate with me back in the early eighties), Ian Blance (whose organisational skills are astonishing) all the great writers on my panel but especially Tom Williams (read his books, they’re awesome) and of course Jacqueline Reiter. Thanks to everybody we met for being friendly, welcoming and really interesting. In the end, it’s the people who make events like this such a success.
I sincerely hope that the Malvern Festival of Military History goes from strength to strength. I intend to be a regular visitor and want to extend my thanks and congratulations to Ian Blance and Enlightenment Events for a marvellous weekend. Well done.
Sir Harry Smith is one of my favourite characters from the Peninsular War, up there with Lord Wellington and General Robert Craufurd. A relatively humble doctor’s son from Cambridgeshire, he rose to the heights of his profession on sheer merit and a good deal of personality, retained the friendship and admiration of the Duke of Wellington, defying the accepted belief that Wellington only favoured aristocratic and well-born officers, and married the love of his life in the shadow of the bloody siege of Badajoz. He is one of the most colourful characters of his day, and his autobiography, along with that of Kincaid, his close friend in the 95th are two of the liveliest and most readable accounts of Wellington’s campaigns. Harry Smith has a more personal significance for me, as he was the historical figure who first sparked my enthusiasm for the Peninsular War and is the inspiration, although not the model, for Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry.
Henry George Wakelyn Smith was born in 1787, the son of a surgeon in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, and was commissioned into the army in 1805 and promoted to lieutenant in the 95th Rifles a few months later. He first saw active service in South America during the British invasions of 1806-07 and distinguished himself at the Battle of Montevideo.
In 1808 the young Harry Smith joined the forces under Sir John Moore invading Spain. The expedition, begun with high hopes, ended in a disastrous retreat over 200 miles of mountain paths in winter. Men, women and children died by the roadside, but Smith made it back to Corunna and the battle which left Moore dead on the field. A brief period of recovery in England restored Smith to health and his next voyage to Portugal was as part of General Robert Craufurd’s light brigade, later to become the celebrated light division. Harry Smith’s Peninsular War had begun in earnest.
Smith served with the 95th throughout the war, from 1808 to end Battle of Toulouse in 1814, and he served with considerable distinction. In 1810 he was appointed to ADC to Colonel Beckwith, with whom he clearly enjoyed an excellent relationship. In February 1812 he was promoted captain and he filled a succession of staff posts within the light division.
In April, Wellington’s army successfully stormed Badajoz and the army sacked the city, turning into a drunken mob whom even their own officers could not control for several days. Looting, murder and rape were committed openly and many citizens, especially women, fled from the town to take refuge at the British lines, hoping that the officers would protect them. One such lady, whose home had been destroyed, brought her younger sister with her, a girl of fourteen newly returned from a convent education. Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon appears to have shaken off the restrictions of her upbringing very quickly. Within a few days she was the wife of Captain Harry Smith and remained by his side for the rest of the war.
Harry Smith volunteered to serve in the United States, fighting at the Battle of Bladensburg and witnessing the burning of the capitol in Washington, an act which appalled Smith and some of the other Peninsula veterans, who compared it unfavourably to “the Duke’s humane warfare in the south of France.” He returned to Europe in time to serve as a brigade major at Waterloo and remained with the army during the occupation of France, acting as Mayor of Cambrai in Picardy. His close relationship with Wellington continued; the two men both ran hunting packs and in his autobiography, Smith describes how Wellington arranged to divide up the countryside between the two packs.
When the occupation was over, Smith returned to being divisional ADC in Glasgow for Major-General Reynell who commanded the Western District of Scotland, and it was Reynell’s recommendation that gained him his first colonial appointment as ADC to the Governor of Nova Scotia, Lieutenant-General Sir James Kempt in 1826.
Smith was promoted Major in the army by the end of 1826, but remained unattached to a regiment, and was still unattached when raised to Lieutenant-colonel in July 1830. In 1828 he was sent to the Cape of Good Hope where he commanded a force in the Sixth Xhosa War of 1834-36 and was later appointed as governor of the Province of Queen Adelaide. He was considered an energetic and talented commander who was able to restore confidence among British and Boer residents and had considerable influence over the tribes.
Smith’s attempts to modernise and introduce improvements and benefits to the Xhosa tribes were supported by the high commissioner, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, another peninsular veteran, but his policies were reversed by the ministry in London and he was removed from his command. Both Xhosa and Boers regretted his loss and some historians have suggested that his departure precipitated the Great Trek.
In 1840 Harry Smith was appointed Adjutant-General in India. He fought in the Gwalior campaign of 1843 and the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-6, where he was eventually given an independent command and on 28 January 1846 he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Sikhs at Aliwal on the Sutlej. For this victory he was awarded the thanks of Parliament and was the subject of an unusually long tribute from the Duke of Wellington, whose remarks concluded:
“I have read the account of many a battle, but I never read the account of one in which more ability, energy, and experience have been manifested than in this. I know of no one, in which an officer ever showed himself more capable than this officer has, in commanding troops in the field. He brought every description of troops to bear with all arms, in the position in which they were most capable of rendering service; the nicest manoeuvres were performed under the fire of the enemy with the utmost precision, and at the same time, with an energy and gallantry on the part of the troops never surpassed on any occasion whatever in any part of the world. I must say of this officer, that I never have seen any account which manifests more plainly than his does, that he is an officer capable of rendering the most important services and of ultimately being an honour to this country.”
This is probably the greatest tribute the Duke ever bestowed on an officer. Sir Harry Smith was created a baronet and the words “of Aliwal” were appended to the title by the patent. He was promoted to major-general in November 1846.
In 1847 Smith returned to South Africa as Governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner with the local rank of lieutenant-general. The disaffection of the Boers and the local tribes had gone very much the way Smith had prophesied eleven years earlier. Smith’s first campaign was to deal with the Boers in the Orange River Sovereignty and he defeated them at Boomplaats in August 1848.
In December 1850 war broke out with the Xhosa once more and some of the Khoikhoi joined in. Smith did not have enough troops from England but he experienced some success. He has been criticised by modern historians for his conduct during this period. Smith had a tendency towards the dramatic, and some of his demonstrations towards the tribes appear appalling in a modern context, although interestingly do not seem to have been seen that way by Xhosa themselves at the time. His campaign was warmly approved by the Duke of Wellington and other military authorities but Earl Grey, in a dispatch never submitted to the queen, recalled him in 1852 before the Xhosa and Khoikhoi had been completely subdued. Smith protested strongly against the abandonment of the Orange River Sovereignty to the Boers, which happened two years after his departure, and was a firm supporter of the granting of responsible government to Cape Colony.
In 1853 Sir Harry Smith was made General Officer Commanding the Western District in England and was given brevet promotion to lieutenant-general in 1854. He was appointed to the same role in the Northern District in 1856.
Smith died at his home at Eton Place, London, on 12 October 1860. He was buried at St Mary’s, Whittlesey. His wife, Juana, who had accompanied him throughout his life on his various campaigns, died twelve years later and is buried with him. Smith’s autobiography was first published posthumously in 1901.
I first met Harry Smith, not as the enthusiastic junior officer who features as a recurring character in my peninsular war books, but as the victor over the Sikhs at Aliwal and then as a colonial general and administrator in South Africa. There was always something very appealing about Sir Harry Smith and reading between the dry lines of some of the history texts, I had a sense of a huge personality, a man with courage and ideas and a determination to make progress and to do whatever job he was sent to do, to his utmost.
This didn’t always go well. Smith’s enthusiasm as a young officer clearly recommended him to his seniors during his days with the light division and I suspect that his independent thinking worked well under commanders like Robert Craufurd and Sydney Beckwith while it might not always have gone down as well with ministers such as Lord Glenelg in later life.
The slightly surprising thing, is how well Smith seemed to get on with Lord Wellington, a commander with a reputation for disliking initiative in his officers and a man, moreover, who was reputed to prefer his officers to be young men from aristocratic families. Smith failed on both counts and yet it is very obvious that he held Wellington’s favour from the start.
My interest in the older Harry Smith caused me to read his autobiography. I already knew something of the political history of the Napoleonic Wars but my knowledge of the military aspects was restricted to a couple of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books which came out at round about the same time. I read, initially one or two more contemporary accounts of the conflict and then began to read some of the standard histories of the period, old and new, and more biographies and autobiographies and I was completely hooked.
When I began to attempt writing my own historical novels, these were initially set in very different periods. The idea of a Peninsular War novel came to me several years later and I baulked at it, probably because by that stage Sharpe had arrived on our TV screens and a host of other writers were tackling the Napoleonic wars both from and army and a naval perspective. It seemed to me at the time, that the stories were being told by others and told well.
The story of Harry and Juana Smith kept coming back to me over the years, however, and I continued to read everything I could get my hands on about the period. I wanted to write, not their story exactly, but the story of another couple who took the same journey as them and lived through the same events. Gradually, over a couple of years of scribbling, Paul and Anne van Daan were born.
Paul van Daan shares Harry Smith’s talent and energy and independent spirit. I chose a different background for him. I wanted something a long way from Cornwell’s Sharpe, since it seemed to me that every novel of that period would be directly compared to those. Sharpe was from the bottom of the heap, an enlisted man scrabbling his way up to an officer’s commission. Harry Smith started higher, respectably middle class but with no money. I moved a step or two up the social scale with my hero, giving him a wealthy background but a very mixed pedigree and an early stint below decks in the Royal Navy to make him comfortable with his enlisted men. The point of Sharpe is that he struggles to fit in anywhere; I wanted a hero who could fit in everywhere. Paul’s fight is not against the army establishment it is against his own nature; quick-tempered, hot-headed and impulsive; the early books are about Paul growing up.
Anne’s background has little in common with Juana Smith although like Juana, she takes to life in the army’s tail as if she had been born there. She shares a lot of Juana’s traits; she is attractive, charming and very determined and she has the ability to get on with both officers and enlisted men. Like Juana, she is a favourite of the irascible Lord Wellington. Like Juana, she has a hard-headed practicality which enables her to cope very well with the conditions of an army on the move.
The joy of writing fiction is that it is possible to introduce one’s fictional creations to the characters who inspired them. Colonel Paul van Daan is both older and senior to the young Harry Smith and although they get on well, they also disagree spectacularly on occasion. It has been fun to go back to Smith’s early days and to tell a little of his story alongside my own and it’s good to look back and remember how my own journey through the Peninsular War began with Harry’s autobiography.
Book five of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, is due for publication on kindle at the end of November and in paperback in December. The first four books are available on Amazonhere and for a glimpse at an earlier episode in Paul van Daan’s history, try An Unwilling Alliance.
The Battle of Assaye was fought on 23rd September 1803 and was a major victory for Arthur Wellesley, then a relatively young and inexperienced general. He was later to claim it as one of his most impressive victories. In the Peninsular War Saga, it is Paul van Daan’s first major battle at the head of the 110th light company and the start of a long association with the man who was to become the Duke of Wellington. This is an excerpt from An Unconventional Officer.
In the dim light of Wellesley’s briefing room, the following morning, Paul was aware that he was the youngest and by far the least experienced of the officers present, but he knew that the previous day’s action had earned him his place there. His chief called on him, and Paul stood up and walked to the front where Wellesley’s aide had pinned a sketch map of the area. Briefly Paul outlined the events of the previous day and pointed out the troop locations he had seen. “Thank you, Captain van Daan. Gentlemen, we’re going to make a fight of it,” General Wellesley said calmly. “Here, on the edge of Assaye.” There was a stunned silence around the briefing room. “Sir – what about Colonel Stevenson?” Maxwell said. There was no sign of the raging hangover he deserved. “Shouldn’t we wait for him? Our force is split in two.” Wellesley fixed Colonel Maxwell with an arctic gaze. “Surprisingly, Colonel, I am aware of that,” he snapped. “Two of our scouts went out last night. They report that it is possible that the Maratha army may be pulling out. I don’t want to lose this opportunity. We have the element of surprise. I’d intended to join up with Stevenson at Borkadan but I’m not waiting for him, he’ll join us when he can, I’ve sent a message.” He motioned to his aide who picked up another sketch map and pinned it to the wall. “Gentlemen, my plan of battle.” “It’s suicide!” John Wheeler said later, as Paul outlined the general’s orders to his officers in his tent. “Not necessarily,” Paul said. “Wellesley is ambitious but he’s not stupid. If we wait for Stevenson this campaign could drag on for months. He’s fairly sure that the irregular forces won’t stand for long. Scindia’s infantry probably will, but with good discipline we can take them.” “Where does he want us?” Carl asked. “At the rear initially, with the 19th and the Madras cavalry. He’s leaving half a battalion of sepoys here to guard the baggage and the camp. The other half will fight under us while Johnstone takes the rest of the 110th. Wellesley wants fast manoeuvrable troops ready to move in and plug any gaps. He’s going ahead with a cavalry escort to reconnoitre the Maratha position. The rest of us follow. We have about two hours, gentlemen, get them ready.” The Maratha chiefs had positioned their army in a strong defensive position along a tongue of land stretching east from Borkadan between the Kailna River and its tributary the Juah. Their army was commanded by a Hanoverian mercenary by the name of Anthony Pohlmann, apparently a former East India Company sergeant, who had positioned his infantry to the east of the Maratha camp in the plains around Assaye on the southern bank of the Juah. As Wellesley approached with his cavalry escort in the late morning it was clear that he was facing the entire combined army. The weather was clear. It had rained during the night, and the day was cooler than average, although out on the river plain with his men, watching the Maratha and Wellesley easing their troops into position, Paul was already hot enough. Mosquitoes, the permanent irritation of India, were particularly prevalent towards the end of the monsoon season and up and down the line Paul could see his men swatting irritably at the creatures. Pohlmann was deploying his infantry battalions in a line facing southwards behind the steep banks of the Kailna with his cannon arrayed directly in front. The great mass of Maratha cavalry was kept on the right flank leaving the irregular infantry to garrison the village of Assaye to the rear. The only obvious crossing point over the river was a small ford directly ahead of the Maratha position, and it appeared that Pohlmann was hoping to funnel the British and Madras troops across the ford into the mouth of his cannon, and then on to the massed infantry and cavalry behind. The local guides assured the general that no other ford existed nearby, but any frontal assault would have been suicide. While reconnoitring, Wellesley had noticed two unguarded villages on each bank of the Kaitna beyond the Maratha left, and it became obvious that there was a second ford. Wellesley led his army east to the crossing in an attempt to launch an attack on Pohlmann’s left flank. At around three o’clock the British crossed to the northern bank of the Kaitna unopposed apart from a distant fire from the Maratha cannon. Once across, Wellesley ordered his six infantry battalions including most of the 110th to form into two lines, with his cavalry as a reserve in a third along with Paul’s light company and sepoy infantry. His Mysore cavalry were ordered to remain south of the Kaitna to keep an eye on a group of Maratha cavalry, which hovered around the rear. “He’s not going to let us get away with that,” Carl commented, studying the distant Maratha troops through a small telescope. “See, he’s already swinging around to create a new line.” He was right, Paul saw. Pohlmann swung his infantry and guns through 90 degrees to establish a new line spread across the isthmus with his right flank on the Kaitna and the left on Assaye. It was a good defensive move, which would protect his flanks, Paul thought, but it negated some of the advantage of his superior numbers. “They’re moving fast,” he said, watching the enemy’s redeployment with appreciation. “Hookey needs to get a move on or we’ll be outflanked.” The same thought had obviously occurred to the general who immediately extended his front to avoid the danger. A battalion of pickets and the 74th Highlanders, which formed the right of the first and second lines, were ordered to move to the right. This allowed the 78th Highlanders to cover the left flank and the four Madras infantry battalions plus the rest of the 110th foot to form the centre of the British line. The Maratha cannonade was intensifying and beginning to do some damage. Initially Wellesley ordered his own artillery forward to counter the attack but it was not powerful enough to be effective. The guns were turned onto the infantry, pounding them with canister, grape and round shot and Paul moved his horse forward restlessly, feeling powerless as the guns punched into the British lines. It was infuriating to be so far back with no part to play in the battle. It was impossible from the rear to see everything that was going on, although occasionally messages would come through via horsemen. Wellesley was a commander who liked to move freely around the battlefield in person, relaying orders to his various commanders, but he could not be everywhere. A young ensign from the 78th had been sent back out of harms way with a badly wounded arm. He slid from his horse, blood dripping, and Paul and Carl both ran forward to assist him. Carl eased him out of his coat and Paul staunched the flow of blood, and sent O’Reilly running for bandages. “What’s happening?” “The infantry has advanced with bayonets,” the ensign said. “We’ve taken heavy fire, but we’re holding our own and moving forward. I got this when we charged the gunners. It’s going well but we’re taking losses. The sepoys are a bit wild; two of the Madras battalions took off in pursuit but we got them back. I want to get back there.” “Well, you can’t, lad, not when you can’t hold a musket or a sword,” O’Reilly said, winding a bandage carefully around the wound. “Sit down, drink some water and take a breath. You’ve done your share.” Paul was conscious of rising sounds of battle coming from the English right. He ran back to his horse and swung himself into the saddle, reaching for his telescope. The other officers and some of the men began to cluster around him. “What in God’s name is happening?” Paul said. He was watching the steady advance of the pickets ahead of the 74th and it was clear that something was going badly wrong on the right. While he had been dealing with the injured ensign, Colonel Orrock had begun his advance in charge of the pickets who were to clear the way for the 74th Highlanders heading towards the right. It was clear now that he had either misunderstood his orders or mistaken his way, because he was marching too far to the right in direct line with the guns in and around Assaye. The King’s 74th had followed their pickets, and under the appalled gaze of the 110th light company they were being slaughtered on the field. The pickets had already been almost completely annihilated. Even from this distance Paul could see their bloody bodies piled up, with the Highlanders scrambling over them to advance. Despite the horrific casualties, with iron and lead cutting into them they had reached as far as the low cactus hedge about a hundred yards out from the village but they could go no further. It was insanity and Paul felt a cold fury that nobody had realised the mistake and stopped the advance sooner. “Maxwell!” Paul bellowed. He was too enraged to consider the proprieties of rank. “We need to charge, man, they’re being slaughtered over there.” Colonel Maxwell rode up to join him. “Waiting for orders from Wellesley,” he said. His voice betrayed his anxiety. “They’ll come.” “How the hell can you be sure? We need to go in now before they’re all dead!” Paul could not take his eyes from the horror unfolding before him. The 74th could go no further. They were rallying around their colours now, forming a square. He could see them pulling the bodies of their dead comrades to form a rough rampart around them. And then there was a yell, and the Maratha cavalry charged, followed closely by two of Pohlmann’s regular battalions, and the Highlanders were fighting with bayonet, fighting for their lives. Paul felt sick. He looked at the colonel. “I’m not waiting,” he said, and raised his voice. “Light Company, to me! Form line! Native third battalion, fall in behind!” The men had been waiting for the order. Paul dismounted, handed the reins of his horse to his orderly and drew his sword. The light company fell into rank with the precision of a clockwork toy with the sepoys lined up behind them as they set out at a steady pace across the battlefield. Paul scanned the battle, picking out the crumbling lines of the highlanders. Behind him Paul could hear Maxwell bellowing orders and he grinned. Within two minutes the colonel was riding up beside him. “If Wellesley court martials me for this, I’m taking you down with me, you arrogant young bastard!” he told Paul, and gave the order to charge, his men overtaking the light company on both sides and thundering down towards the enemy. The cavalry smashed into the rear of the Maratha lines and Paul waved to O’Reilly. “Michael, we’re going to cut across and plug the gap left between the 74th and the 10th. Don’t let them split our line any further. Let the dragoons do the slaughter. It’s our job to stand firm. And watch those bloody gunners, I don’t trust them as far as I can kick them. Get through to the Highlanders and protect their left.” Covering the ground quickly, they arrived at the battle zone to discover fierce fighting between the dragoons and the Maratha light cavalry. The remains of the Highlanders were barely on their feet, and Paul could see none of their officers. Through the thick of the fighting the light company slashed their way with sword and bayonet, and under orders bellowed by the NCOs they formed a barrier between the cavalry and the beleaguered 74th. Paul was appalled at the number of casualties. The dead lay piled up, impeding their advance. The guns were deafening, and the smoke obscured friend from foe. Paul stabbed a sepoy who was charging him down, then swung around and slashed at two more. There were screams from the Maratha cavalry who were under savage attack from the dragoons. The smell of blood and sweat and the acrid scent of fear hung heavy in the air. A horse screamed in pain, then the guns crashed again. Cries of agony told Paul that his right flank was hit. “We need to shut these bastards up and let the cavalry do their job,” he said to Carl. “Sergeant, ten men and with me. Carl, Johnny, line them up and cut down anything that tries to get past you, I don’t want a sabre up my arse. Carl, when we’re through, try to bring the men up to secure the guns. It’ll give the dragoons the chance to do their work.” Paul led his men through the fray at a cautious run. The gunners on the far right had no need to aim any more. The packed mass of advancing British presented an easy target. They were concentrating their fire on the advancing 110th and the remains of the Highlanders, avoiding the battle raging between the two lots of cavalry so that they did minimum damage to their own men. There were three guns in his sight. Paul crouched low behind a small clump of cacti. He felt O’Reilly’s hand on his arm. “Easy, sir. Wait until they’re reloading. The timing is as reliable as our own men shooting a volley, I’ll count you in.” Paul nodded. “On my mark,” he said over his shoulder. “Go for the gunners on the right first, then work across to the left.” “Make sure every one of the bastards is dead,” the Irishman instructed. “They’re the devil for playing dead, and before you know it they’re shooting you in the arse. If in doubt, cut their throats. Hard to get up from that one. Watch for them hiding under the bodies. Now here we go. One, two three…” The gunners were quick and efficient at loading, but Paul and his men were on them before they were halfway through the process. Each gun had a small group of sepoys defending it, but they were no match for the enraged light company, and the gun was silenced within five bloody minutes. Paul stood for a moment catching his breath, glancing around him. The ground was saturated with blood and eight gunners and their guards lay dead. “Well done, sir,” his sergeant said. He was wiping blood from his hands down his tunic. “All dead. Bryant, Smith, stay to guard it until the lads come up. Kill anything you don’t like the look of.” “Aye, sir,” Smith said. He was a fearsome sight, covered in blood, his bayonet held in steady hands. “That include Bryant, sir, ‘cause he’s an ugly bastard?” “After you’ve done with the Maratha,” Paul said with a grin. “Come on, Michael, let’s find ourselves another gun.” The fight was harder now, as they were cutting through the remains of the Maratha infantry. The sepoys were fierce fighters, but they seemed leaderless and backed off from the savage assault of the light company bayonets more easily than expected. The second set of guns was in sight when Paul felt an agonising pain in his left thigh. He stumbled and fell, rolled over onto his back and slashed up at a sepoy who was lunging down at him with fixed bayonet. The man screamed and fell, blood spurting. Paul sat up and felt cautiously at his leg. “Sir, you all right?” Private Cooper pulled up in his headlong run and offered his hand to Paul. Paul got up, nodding. “Musket ball, I think,” he said, probing and wincing. “I’ll live. Let’s get moving.” The light company reached the second set of guns and swarmed over the gunners in seconds. There was less noise now, although across to the left he could hear that the guns he had thought silenced by the advance of the 78th had started up again. He glanced at Michael, who shrugged. “Told you,” he said. “Not dead enough.” “They will be,” Paul said grimly. “Wellesley is over there; I can see him. He’ll shut them up. Are this lot done?” “Aye, and it’ll get easier now. The heart is out of them. Can’t see any officers about either. Perhaps it was getting too dirty for their pretty French uniforms. Look here’s Smithy. Is the gun secure, lad, or have you run away from Bryant?” “Bryant’s down. Some bastard cavalryman came through running scared and slashed him on the way.” “Dead?” O’Reilly asked. “Didn’t look good, Sarge. Poor bastard.” Smith glanced at Paul. “Mr Swanson and the lads are through, sir, sends his compliments and says you’re to get a bloody move on.” Paul was trying not to think about Bryant’s laughing face only fifteen minutes earlier. “Come on then.” “Are you all right, sir?” the sergeant said, indicating Paul’s leg. “I’ll be fine.” Paul tested it. It hurt badly, but he had not lost strength and it was bleeding sluggishly. He had no idea of what damage had been done, but he did not need to stop now. He began to run. It was bearable. He was conscious of the Irishman keeping pace with him, making sure he did not fall, and shot an appreciative grin his way. O’Reilly’s thin face was grimly amused. “You’re a hard young bastard,” he said. “You’ve the navy to thank for that,” Paul replied, dodging a sepoy who was lying on the ground trying to stab upwards into his stomach. He despatched the man quickly and ran on. They overran the guns more quickly now with no further casualties, and joined up with the 78th. A major Paul knew slightly saluted him, pulling out a canteen and gulping down water. “Captain van Daan. They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems. Would your ruffians have something to do with that?” “Maybe, sir. We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.” “Lose many?” “I don’t know yet. One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right. We’ll not get out of it unscathed.” “None of us will, laddie. They’re on the run now. Their French officers took off, no discipline left. Eyes right, the general is approaching.” Wellesley reined in. He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning. “Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.” “Yes, sir.” “Well done, sirs. You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.” “Not serious, sir.” “Good, good. I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.” Paul glanced up at him warily. “I was around, sir,” he said. “Yes.” Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes. Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly. “You anticipated correctly, Captain. You might not always be right, however. I prefer my officers to await orders.” “Yes, sir.” “Did Colonel Maxwell…” “No, sir,” Paul said definitely. We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.” Wellesley shook his head. “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well. I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns. Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear. Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them. Captain, are your men able to join them?” “Yes, sir.” Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company. “Good, let’s get those guns back. God knows what the cavalry are doing!” Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them. “They all right over there, sir?” “I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here! What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain? Why can they never follow a simple order?” Despite himself, Paul grinned at the General’s exasperated tone. “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.” The rest of the light company were approaching with Carl at their head. There were familiar faces missing in their ranks. With a sinking feeling Paul realised that he could not see Sergeant Stewart or Lieutenant Wheeler. While the 78th and the 110th light company attacked from the West, Wellesley himself rode to the 7th native cavalry, the only mounted troops Maxwell had left on the field, and led them from the East. The attack was short and brutal, and for one sickening moment it looked as though the general himself was lost, as his horse went down under a pike. Shaken but undeterred, Wellesley was up again and mounted on his third horse of the day and the light company leaned against the carriages of the recovered guns and caught their breath…
Women in the Peninsular War are a central theme of the novels I write and I have just finished reading an excellent book with that title by Professor Charles Esdaile. I have just finished reading this book properly for the first time, although I’ve dipped in and out of it for research for my novels for a while. Charles Esdaile has written an excellent account of the experiences of women of all nationalities and classes who found themselves caught up in the horror of the conflict in Portugal and Spain in the early nineteenth century.
This account looks at the situation of women from an economic and social point of view, both those trying to scrape a living in a land devastated by war and those who arrived in the Peninsula attached to armies of both sides. We look at a range of women; wives and prostitutes, sutlers and traders, women who made the most of their opportunities and women who suffered appallingly at the hands of both French and English armies. He looks at the stereotypical perceptions of Iberian women of the day and the effect this may have had on how they were treated and he supports his writing with a host of stories and examples from sources written at the time.
Women suffered during this war. They were subject to appalling conditions, loss of homes and livelihoods and frequently victims of rape. But this is not an account of victimhood. Professor Esdaile writes about survival and courage; about the things that changed for these women and the things that did not. Little is known about the women of the Peninsular War but this book gives them a voice and a character and is well worth a read.
I have tried to give the women of this time a voice in the novels. As a novelist rather than a historian, there is a delicate balance between telling a story which will engage modern readers and writing an unrealistic view of women in the early nineteenth century. Next month I am taking part in a panel at the Malvern Festival of Military History with other historical novelists, the title of which is “A Fine Line – turning historical fact into fiction” and the treatment of women in novels set during this period is an excellent example of this. As a modern woman writing about a different era, it is my job to portray conditions as they were, not as we would like them to have been. At the same time, Anne van Daan, the leading female character of the books, is a woman who was thrown, quite accidentally, into a situation which gave her opportunities to broaden her horizons and to discover talents and abilities that she would never have had the chance to use at home.
I have been asked questions about Anne and what she did during the novels and I’ve needed to answer them honestly. There is no record of any woman performing the kind of surgical operations in Wellington’s medical tents that Anne came to do during the war. Women could not be doctors. There was no formal training available to them and they would never have been allowed to practice.
Having said that, there is a fair amount of evidence that women were a common sight tending the wounded after battle. They were expected, as part of the deal for being allowed to accompany their men, to act as washerwomen, seamstresses and nurses. Most of the women who travelled with Wellington’s army were attached to the enlisted men either as wives, officially on strength or as informal companions. Many of them were local women who had simply taken up with the men with no formal arrangement. They lived hard and dangerous lives and went through incredible hardship. They suffered the privations of marches, bad weather, sickness and starvation. They often died and their children with them. Most of them, at some time or another, helped to tend the wounded.
It was less common for an officer’s wife but that was simply because there were very few of them with the army. If women joined their husbands they tended to remain away from danger in places like Lisbon and Oporto, forming a kind of ex-pat community while their husbands were at war. There were notable exceptions to this; Mary Scovell frequently joined her husband at headquarters when she was able and Juana Smith, the young Spanish bride of Captain Harry Smith of the rifles was at his side throughout the war. Juana definitely, on occasion, helped with the nursing and it was her example that first sent Anne van Daan in the direction I have given her.
To allow Anne to act as an unofficial doctor seems like a monumental step, but the reality is that with the agreement of both her husband and a couple of army surgeons hard-pressed and desperate for competent help, it is not impossible. Young and inexperienced trainees were sent out with virtually no training; they assisted, learned on the job and then went back to take their medical examinations as battle hardened veterans. We have very few detailed accounts of exactly what these hospital mates actually did but I suspect that in desperate times and as their knowledge and experience grew, they took on more advanced procedures without official qualifications. There is also mention in contemporary accounts of local doctors or even camp followers, unqualified but helping out when no other help was at hand. The army medical service was desperately under-staffed at times and it is not that much of a stretch to imagine the surgeons closing their eyes to what the wife of an officer was doing, especially when she was very competent, required no payment and got no official recognition. As to the matter of whether a nineteenth century woman was capable of such a thing, I have no reason to imagine that a young woman back then was any less capable than a female junior doctor today; she simply did not have the same opportunities.
The crucial point, and the fine line for me, in writing about a woman like Anne, is to ensure that her behaviour is not seen as normal or acceptable by everyone around her. While her very eccentric husband is genuinely proud of her and one or two of the army surgeons value what she does, there is a lot of disapproval and resentment among other surgeons and many of the officers. Anne does not fit into the army hierarchy and she is not supposed to. Occasionally this gets difficult for her but she persists because once she has escaped from the traditional bond of femininity she has no wish to go back.
I have given my heroine a role in Wellington’s army and I’m proud of her. However, I am very conscious that I don’t want to create some kind of army of Amazons fighting alongside their men. Women, for the most part, had very definite roles and were expected not to stray beyond them. They lived hard and dangerous lives and were subject to harassment and ill-treatment and sexual assault in an era where this was not viewed in the same way as we view it today. Once again, I have tried to depict their reality as sympathetically as possible, not denying their truth but not letting it define them either. While there are many examples of heroism in contemporary accounts, of both officers and men of both armies stepping in to defend a vulnerable woman, there are sadly just as often, accounts of the opposite happening. Stories of theft, violence and rape are sometimes mentioned so casually in diaries and journals that it takes a moment to realise what we are hearing. Some diarists express their horror, like Edward Costello at Badajoz. Others seem to see it as an inevitable part of war.
Overall the British troops had less of an appalling reputation than the French although this may have been due to lack of opportunity at times. There were penalties for crimes against the locals; Wellington did not want his armies seen as invaders but as liberators. However, given the societal norms of the time, one wonders how the mistreatment of a woman would balance against the theft of livestock.
I first came across this final story when I was researching courts martial for An Unwilling Allianceearly this year and I found it repeated this week in a book about the rifle regiment as I was researching the Salamanca campaign. It is a sad little story and a version of it could have happened in any place at any time, but it says something to me about the position of women during the Peninsular War.
While the light division was quartered at Rueda for two weeks in the run up to the battle of Salamanca, a grenadier from the 61st regiment, Private Dennis Farrell arrived in search of a sergeant of the rifles who was serving with the light division. It appeared that Mrs Farrell had deserted her husband, leaving him to care for their two children, and run off with the sergeant. Nobody seems to know exactly what made Ann Farrell take such drastic action although it was rumoured that Farrell beat her.
When Farrell arrived he persuaded Ann to leave the camp to talk to him and spent some time trying to convince her to return to him. Ann, however, was having none of it. She was happier with her sergeant, who was good to her, and was enjoying life with the rifles. She appears to have been popular with the other women and both officers and men liked her; at informal dances she was apparently a favoured partner of General Vandeleur. She had no intention of going back to Farrell.
The next that the riflemen, camped nearby, knew of her, was a series of screams. By the time they reached her, Ann was beyond help, having been stabbed to death with her husband’s bayonet. Her husband had fled but the authorities caught up with him and arrested him at Fon Castin on 8th July 1812 for the murder of his wife.
Apparently, Private Farrell must have received some sympathy from the court martial, because he was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and received a sentence of twelve months’ imprisonment. When he had served it, he returned to his regiment and was killed the following year in action in the Pyrenees.
His wife was buried by the riflemen who were apparently sad at the loss as she had been popular in the regiment. I haven’t been able to find a record of what happened to the couple’s children but the fate of Ann Farrell is tragically not that uncommon even during modern times and the extremely light punishment inflicted on her husband may well be a reflection on the value placed on the life of a woman or it may be a realistic effect of the need for experienced men which made it more useful to send Private Farrell back into battle than to hang him.
Turning historical fact into fiction gives a novelist the opportunity to experiment a little, to throw in a few “what ifs” which it is difficult for a critic to disprove providing it is done within the context of the time. We know so much about the battles of Wellington’s army, about the weapons and the uniforms and the opinions of generals and politicians. What we cannot know is the thoughts and feelings of the vast bulk of men and women, marching through rivers and sitting by the campfire at night. We have a few voices out of the thousands, speaking to us through diaries and journals but most of them are silent. That silence gives us the opportunity to give them a voice of our choosing and researching what did happen and then imagining what might have happened is both a challenge and a reward of writing historical fiction.
The Malvern Festival of Military History takes place on 5-7 October 2018 and tickets are available here.
The next book in the Peninsular War Saga,An Untrustworthy Army, will be available on Kindle from 30th November 2018 and in paperback by the end of the year.
The retreat from Burgos took place in torrential rain towards the end of 1812. It was a miserable end to a year which had seemed spectacularly successful for Wellington’s army. It may have appeared that the Allies had trudged back to the border with their tail between their legs but despite the anti-climatic end to 1812, Wellington established himself beyond all doubt in French minds as a general to be respected. During winter quarters his army rested and recovered and Wellington considered how to improve supplies, discipline and the overall health of his troops. By the start of the new campaigning season he was more than ready for a new advance into Spain with lessons learned and from that one, there would be no retreating.
After the bloody storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, Wellington finally met Marshal Marmont on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca and inflicted a crushing defeat. It was the culmination of weeks of manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring and it seemed for a time that Wellington would decide not to give battle, but he was quick to spot a weakness in the French line and Marmont’s army was swept aside.
Wellington’s army marched on to Madrid and King Joseph evacuated his capital, leaving the Anglo-Portuguese army to enter as liberators on 12th August. Joseph’s army retreated as far as Valencia. Wellington was hoping that a combination of weather, exhaustion, supply problems and the traditional squabbling and disharmony between leaders would keep the various sections of the French army apart. He relied on the Spanish to keep the French busy in the north while he laid siege to the castle of Burgos.
Wellington was caught off guard by how quickly Clausel was able to rally the defeated French army. The French initially marched on Valladolid causing General Clinton to fall back and the Spanish to abandon the town. Wellington attempted to pursue Clausel but the French fled out of reach. With a wary eye on the various French armies, Wellington left General Hill to defend Madrid with three divisions while he set about reducing Burgos.
Wellington had around 35,000 men and the siege began on 19th September. The defenders were commanded by General Dubreton and consisted of around 2,000 troops. Wellington, however, was seriously short of heavy guns; some historians believe he had only three 18 pounders while others assert that he had more locally captured cannon. He was also short of trained engineers and sappers, many of whom were either killed or wounded during the siege operations.
On the evening of 19th September, Wellington ordered an attempt on the San Miguel hornwork, which guarded the fort’s northeast approach. It was a brave move considering the lack of artillery support but the Allies were able to capture the hornwork although they lost 421 men killed and wounded, to a loss of 138 killed and wounded on the French side. The Allies took 60 prisoners and 7 guns.
Wellington’s engineers began digging in batteries on the hornwork hill. The first of these was finished on 22 September but possibly hoping for another quick success, Wellington ordered an attack on the same night before his guns had had a chance to fire. 400 men from his first and sixth divisions attacked the palisades with axes and then ladders but were easily repulsed to the loss of 150 killed and wounded.
The engineers dug a mine under the fort’s west wall which was detonated in the early hours of 29th September. Once again a British advanced party attempted the breach, but received no support and were driven back. It was realised that the wall was an ancient structure and not part of the main French defences. Wellington set his engineers to dig a new mine and his troops to build a breaching battery but this was immediately destroyed by French artillery. The same thing happened the following day, with both guns and gun crews lost. On 2nd October, Wellington finally sent to Sir Home Popham for more guns to replace them but they were destined not to arrive in time to be of use.
The second mine was fired on 4th October, blowing a gap in the north-west wall and killing a number of the defenders. Wellington’s army attacked once more and managed to secure a tentative position in the outer defences but with the loss of 220 men killed and wounded. The Allied army set about digging a new trench against the inner defences but the French made a surprise attack on 5th October, killing and wounding more than 110 men and removing or destroying most of their equipment. The digging resumed on the following day but the French attacked again on the 8th and Wellington lost another 184 men. It had begun to rain heavily, flooding the trenches and the Allied guns were running out of ammunition. All the time, Wellington was receiving reports of the movements of the French armies and racing against the clock.
Time ran out after another failed assault on 18th October. With another 170 casualties and nothing gained, Wellington was aware that the French army was approaching and he risked being overrun. Reluctantly he abandoned the siege and prepared to retreat, having gained nothing and lost 550 dead, 1550 wounded and three guns.
Marshal Soult had finally connected with King Joseph and had moved towards Madrid with around 61,000 men. In the north, General Souham’s Army of Portugal had around 53,000 men. Wellington had around 73,000 troops, around 35,000 at Burgos, 20,000 at Toledo under General Hill and another 18,000 under General Charles von Alten in Madrid. Wellington had instructed the Spanish general, Ballesteros to stop Soult’s move but Ballesteros was offended that Wellington had been offered the supreme command in Spain and refused to obey. No support came from the 8,000 Anglo-Sicilian troops under Maitland in Alicante on the east coast and Wellington was in a dangerous position, cut off from Hill. The River Tagus, which he had hoped would provide a barrier at this time of year was unusually low. The Allied army was in serious trouble.
Wellington raised the siege on 21st October and slipped away, unnoticed by the French until the following day. Souham followed, and a series of small actions were fought between pursuers and pursued over the following week. On 29th October, the French took the bridge at Tordesillas and Wellington needed to order a full retreat. He sent instructions to Hill to abandon Madrid and join him.
After a skirmish with Soult’s advance guard on 30th, Hill withdrew to Alba de Tormes, and Joseph re-entered Madrid although he was so keen to destroy Wellington’s army that he left immediately without even leaving a garrison. Hill and Wellington joined up near Alba de Tormes on 8th November and on 15th found themselves facing 80,000 men under Soult across the old Salamanca battlefield. On this occasion Soult did not take the bait and Wellington began retreating west later that day.
Supply arrangements for Wellington’s army went badly wrong. The competent quartermaster-general, Murray, had returned to England and his replacement, Willoughby Gordon, lacked his organisational talents and imperturbable efficiency. The Allied troops marched for four days in torrential rain with little or no food. Surprisingly, Soult sent only his cavalry after the Allies but the French took hundreds of prisoners among the stragglers and many men died of hunger or exposure.
The Allied army reached Ciudad Rodrigo on 19th November with around 5,000 men missing. Wellington was back where he had started and it seemed for a time that some of the magic of his reputation had been lost. Wellington himself spent the winter concentrating on what had gone wrong and how it might be righted before the next campaigning season. He was furious at the breakdown of both logistics and discipline during the retreat and he was determined that it should not happen again.
Historians differ about the reasons for some of Wellington’s actions during this campaign but most appear to agree that Wellington made a serious mistake in attempting the siege of Burgos without a proper siege train and enough guns, ammunition and equipment. He himself later suggested that he had made a mistake in leaving his three best and most experienced divisions around Madrid, but it seems doubtful that even the third, fourth and light divisions could have taken Burgos with the means and the time available.
“The essential fact is that Wellington should never have left himself so short of means; at the very least he should have summoned a proper siege train as soon as he had reconnoitred the fortress. The combination of lack of foresight and poor judgement was most untypical. The army suffered over 2,000 casualties in the siege, its morale deteriorated greatly and the French armies were left undisturbed to prepare their counter-offensive. It was the worst mistake of Wellington’s military career.”
The fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, tells the story of the battle of Salamanca and the retreat from Madrid and Burgos from the perspective of Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the light division and is due for publication on 30th November on Kindle and at the end of the year in paperback.
Welcome to the very first guest blog post from yours truly, Joey the Labrador, senior officer here at Writing with Labradors.
I’ve wanted to do one for a while, but the first couple of posts had to come from our senior officer and I was okay to wait my turn. I didn’t expect it to come like this, with Toby gone now and me in charge of Oscar, our young subaltern. Still, it’s time to step up and do the job.
It’s been more than six weeks since we lost Toby and we’re all getting more used to it, though we’ll never stop missing him. At first I used to forget he was gone and wander around looking for him but I’m over that now. Having Oscar has been the best thing ever, I’m never lonely. He’s always close by, sometimes a bit closer than I need him to be, to be honest. I know I loved old Toby, he was my best mate all my life, but I’m pretty sure I never used to sit on him. Still, although I tell him off from time to time, I secretly quite like Oscar wanting to be that close to me.
Life goes on and there are always changes. Jon-human has started work now and isn’t around studying all the time so there have been some changes in the study. The big table has gone and we’ve got a very comfy sofa and armchair instead which makes it much more homely. Personally I still like my bed best, just behind her chair, so she has to ask me to move if she wants to get up for a cup of tea, but Oscar loves the sofa and we’re very settled in there all day when she’s writing. The extra space means that there’s a lot more space for playing as well. She gets very aggy when we make too much noise in there, but I know she likes it really, she’s soft in the head when it comes to us labradors.
The writing is going very well, apparently. The new book is doing well. It’s my favourite, An Unwilling Alliance, since a chunk of it is set right here on the Isle of Man and talks about the places she takes us for walks. Mind, there’s not enough dogs in it. Toby used to complain about that and he was right, although she promises that Craufurd the Puppy features very regularly in the next one which is out in a couple of months. She’s also planning on introducing a second dog, called Toby at some point, in honour of the old fella. I like that idea, don’t know much about how it’s going to work, I just know that every time she thinks about it, she starts laughing. Madwoman, I’ve always said it.
Meanwhile, she’s been off doing research which means Anya-human is in charge of us. This is great news as she spoils us rotten and even lets us sleep in her bedroom which is normally off-limits. I particularly like it when she sends photos of this to her mother who can do nothing about it because she’s stuck in a castle in some remote part of Spain gibbering about battlefields. Next month she away at the Malvern Festival of Military History, whatever the hell that is. She seems very excited about it. I’m excited because I bet the teen humans have friends over which means illegal pizza, illegal sleeping in the bedrooms and more fuss and attention that I know what to do with. Great news…
Autumn is on its way, and it’s fun teaching Oscar how to chase leaves in the wind. My legs are a lot better now and although I’ve been grumpy about it, I think losing a bit of weight has done me good. I’m getting on a bit, no question, but I want to stick around as long as I can for Oscar and the rest of the family. And having this puppy has definitely made me feel a lot younger again. He’s a lot of fun, although between you and me, I’m not really sure he’s all that bright. A bit like Toby, who was the best friend in the world, but not much between his ears other than daylight. Sometimes I see him in Oscar…
Writing with Labradors is back on track and I think our senior officer would be proud of us. Sitting out on the porch on sunny days, I look at his statue and I’m very glad to have known him. One day Oscar will sit here thinking of me like this, but it’s great to know the tradition is going to carry on through him.
She probably wants me to mention that there is another book coming out soon, An Untrustworthy Army, which is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga. Most importantly it features at least one dog. I recommend you read it on that basis alone.
In the meantime, I’ve just realised the time. Must be lunchtime by now…
Next month I am very proud to be a part of the Malvern Festival of Military History which takes place from 5-7 October.
The festival sees a host of top writers in the field of military history visit Malvern for the Festival of Military History. Taking place in the grounds of Severn End, Hanley Castle, this is Britain’s only literary festival dedicated solely to military history. It looks at fiction and non-fiction, ranging from Agincourt to modern day Afghanistan, and covering warfare on land, at sea and in the air.
Top speakers include Lord Paddy Ashdown on Hitler, Sir Max Hastings on Vietnam, Damien Lewis on The SAS, Nicholas Shakespeare and Andrew Roberts on Churchill and Adam Zamoyski on Napoleon.
Top military historians in their fields also debate key issues in important battles and wars through the ages in a series of panels. These include Agincourt, The English Civil Wars, The Royal Navy, Waterloo, 19th Century Colonial Wars, World War One, World War Two and Post-1945 wars and insurgencies.
I will be part of a panel of novelists discussing the challenges of writing fiction based on historical events and characters. On the panel alongside me will be Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams, David Donachie and Iain Gale, all fantastic authors. All the talks and panels will be followed by book signings and an opportunity for the audience to interact with the authors.
This top-class literary entertainment is supplemented by an exhibition of war art in the Festival exhibit hall. Attendees can browse these during breaks in the programme and while taking their refreshment from the range of food and drink outlets.
The evenings see the attention turn to musical entertainment. On Friday night the New Scorpion Band perform a set of traditional folk tunes from the 18th and 19th Century. Familiar songs such as Spanish Ladies and Over the Hills and Far Away will get your feet tapping! Saturday is the turn of the RAFA Concert Orchestra who will play a selection of war movie themes including The Dam Busters, The Great Escape and Saving Private Ryan.
This spectacular event is not to be missed by anyone interested in the history of warfare. Full details and booking options can be found here. The advanced booking discount ends on 7th September so book now for what looks to be a spectacular event.
Remember to watch out for the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga, due on 30th November. An Untrustworthy Army tells the story of the 110th during the Salamanca campaign.
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.
The Battle of Vimeiro took place on this day in 1808 when the British under General Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated the French under Major-General Junot near the village of Vimeiro in Portugal.
Four days earlier, Wellesley had defeated the French at the Battle of Rolica. Wellesley knew that his command of the army was temporary; he was seen as too junior a general to have overall command and he had been informed that more senior commanders were on their way. Sir Harry Burrard arrived during the battle and Sir Hew Dalrymple arrived soon after while Sir John Moore landed in time to take command of the British forces and lead them into Spain.
Nevertheless it was Wellesley who was in command when the army was attacked by Junot After Rolica, Wellesley had taken up a position near the village of Vimeiro, deploying his forces to hold the village and several ridges to the west which protected the landing point at Maceira Bay. Wellesley had hoped to march on Lisbon once his reinforcements had landed. He had eight infantry brigades, around two hundred and forty light cavalry and two thousand Portuguese troops, outnumbering Junot by around six thousand men.
Junot’s first move was to attempt to outflank the British by taking an unoccupied ridge to the north-east of the village. Wellesley’s men held Vimeiro and the western ridge, but he moved quickly to take the ridge ahead of Junot. Junot sent reinforcements to join the battle on the flank but made the decision to launch an attack on the village without waiting to see the outcome of his outflanking manoeuvre.
The first attack was made by Thomieres brigade who marched on the British position in column, with skirmishers and artillery in support. The British countered with four companies of riflemen from the 60th and 95th and their attack was so successful that the French skirmishers were pushed back, leaving the main French column facing the 50th regiment. At 100 yards the British opened fire while several companies began moving in towards the French flanks. The French reeled under the lethal musketry of the British infantry and were unable to deploy into line. They fled, leaving three cannons to be captured.
Shortly afterwards, Charlot’s brigade attacked Anstruther’s brigade which was hidden behind a crest and before they could deploy from column into line were struck in the flank by a second battalion which sent them fleeing in disorder from the deadly volleys. Junot sent in his grenadier reserve which was initially pushed back. Two battalions to the right managed to enter Vimeiro but were driven out by a British counterattack and then routed in flight by the light dragoons. The cavalry appear to have become carried away by their success and charged out of control, straight into the French cavalry division. They retreated to the loss of Colonel Taylor and approximately a quarter of his men.
Solignac led the French attack on the northeastern ridge, this time in a three column formation. Once again they left it too late to deploy into line and were shattered by British musket volleys and fled. Brenier’s brigade, coming up with four battalions, had some success against two British battalions who appeared unprepared after their success against Solignac. However the French were stopped by the firepower of the 29th and the two remaining battalions rallied to join them in pushing Brenier’s men back.
By the end of the battle, Sir Arthur Wellesley’s command had been superseded by Sir Harry Burrard. Burrard did not interfere with Wellesley’s conduct of the battle, but once it was done, he stepped in to prevent Wellesley pursuing the French retreat, apparently believing that Junot had troops in reserve.
Vimeiro was a welcome triumph for the British but the aftermath was a disaster. Junot offered complete surrender and was probably astonished at the terms offered by Sir Hew Dalrymple. Under the Convention of Cintra, the defeated army was transported back to France by the British navy, complete with guns, equipment and the loot it had stolen from Portugal. The Convention caused an outcry in Britain and all three generals were recalled to face an official enquiry.
Wellesley had wanted to fight on. He had signed the preliminary Armistice under orders but took no part in negotiating the Convention and did not sign it. Dalrymple appeared keen to lay the blame onto Wellesley but at the enquiry, which was held in the Great Hall at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in November and December of 1808 all three generals were officially cleared. Wellesley, however, was returned to duty in Portugal where the British had suffered the loss of Sir John Moore at Corunna; neither Burrard or Dalrymple were given active commands again.
The battle of Vimeiro gave hope to the people of Lisbon and should have been a sharp reminder to the French that they were not invincible. Wellesley, up until this point, had been known mainly for his achievements in India and some years later Napoleon was to use the term “sepoy general” to belittle the importance of that experience. Rolica and Vimeiro, however, brought Wellesley very firmly onto the European stage and when the dust from the convention of Cintra had settled, Sir John Moore was dead and Burrard and Dalrymple were no longer considered suitable for command. The sepoy general was given his opportunity and on his return to Portugal in 1809 he was quick to prove himself worthy of it with a swift and decisive victory at Oporto.
In the Peninsular War saga, Paul van Daan is present at the battle of Vimeiro but the battle itself does not feature in An Unconventional Officer; if I’d included every battle in depth it would have been longer than the Bible. It’s an interesting battle, though, with a lot of features which have become very familiar to me as I follow Wellesley and his army through the long years of the war in Portugal and Spain. Reading about it once again on the anniversary, I find myself wondering if this early time in Portugal is something I’d like to revisit at a later stage.
The next book in the Peninsular War Saga is due for publication on 30th November 2018. It will be followed by the second book in the Manxman series the following year, which follows Captain Hugh Kelly RN through the Walcheren campaign of 1809.
I’m currently on a week long trip to Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts which leaves the traveller in me overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape and the historian in me with her head spinning. After only a few days it’s clear to me how appallingly difficult it must be for any historian writing about the turbulent past of this area to find a balance between the stories of the past and the ongoing narrative of the present.
I’ve never studied the history of Ireland in any depth. During my younger years at school, Ireland tended to be taught as a footnote to the political situation in England at the time. I learned about Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, the Phoenix Park murders and Charles Stewart Parnell without ever really going into their significance within Ireland. Later, as an adult, I read more widely, inspired by the novels of Leon Uris, Trinity and Redemption. I learned something of the Civil War horrors while at University. But all of these have come in snatches, bits of information read and stored away, without ever finding time to read around the subject and develop an overview.
This trip has changed that for me. Spending time in Belfast and Derry, reading accounts of the confusing relationships between the English, the Scots and the Irish of all persuasions has reminded me that through the centuries this has been so much more than the simplistic explanation of conflict between Protestants and Catholics which was what I remember being told as a child, watching the violence explode across the evening news week after week through the seventies. IRA bombings were a reality of life, coming close to home on more than one occasion, and all I can remember back then was a sense of anger at feeling under threat over a cause that I did not understand and felt was none of my business.
I’ve travelled to Ireland many times since then both on holiday and as the former owner of a Manx Irish dance school. I’ve made friends and grown to love the place but most of my trips have been to the south where the sense of history is just as strong but very different. Here in the north, the feeling of the past whispering in the ear of the present is far stronger.
Yesterday we went for a trip to Derry / Londonderry and visited the Free Derry Museum and the Siege Museum; history through different lenses. Even the fact that I’m not sure which name to call it is an indication of the complexity of dealing with the history of this region. It would not occur to me to write Banjul / Bathurst or Zimbabwe / Rhodesia or Thailand / Siam in a blog post, but the difference in the name given to the walled city is more than a matter of history here, it’s a statement of allegiance.
In my own writing so far, the turbulent history of Ireland is a back story that I’ve not explored, but being here, it’s a back story that I can see coming to the fore at some point. Michael O’Reilly is a central character in the Peninsular War sagaand it has occurred to me more than once that his history as an Irish rebel and fugitive from justice must be in direct conflict to the bonds of friendship he comes to feel for the Englishmen he fights alongside through the long years of the war. I’d like to know more about the young Michael and how he ended up where he did.
Alongside the historical complexity of this region is the stunning beauty of the scenery and that can be appreciated without needing to understand any more. Coming from the Isle of Man, I consider myself a connoisseur of fabulous coastlines and this one is definitely up there with the best. Travelling back on the Lough Foyle ferry yesterday evening into Magilligan was magical.
I love Northern Ireland and will definitely be back. Before I do, I’d like to have read a lot more about the history and feel more at home with the events and the people that have shaped this place. But even for the casual holidaymaker in search of beauty and peace and incredibly friendly people, I would highly recommend it.