Badajoz – the last stop in our Peninsular War saga tour

Storming of Badajoz

The final day of our trip was spent in the fortress town of Badajoz, which finally fell to Wellington on 6th April 1812 after previous attempts had failed.

Walls of Badajoz

With the sounds of battle filling the air Paul looked over at Wheeler and nodded.  “All right, we’re going in.  Carter, pass the orders back quietly.  No sign of life over here, I’m hoping they’re looking the other way but they’re up there, trust me.  Let’s get those ladders to the front.”

Following their officers, the third brigade moved quickly and quietly over the ground.  At their head were the ladder parties.  Each group had been given very specific instructions about the placement of the ladders and Paul watched approvingly as they ran down towards the ditch.

He had given orders for them to pause at the edge and the men of the 110th and 112th light companies moved ahead throwing lighted bales of hay into the darkness.  The flames lit up the ditch garishly and Paul’s sharpshooters dropped into position, rifles pointed at the battlements.  There were shouts in French from the ramparts as the French realised that their section of the wall was under attack and Paul surveyed the ditches in the flare of the bales.

“Chevaux de frise,” he said in matter of fact tones.  “All right, Carl, keep up that fire.  Get the lads to take down as many as you can while we’re hanging around.  Skirmish formation – one fires and when the French fire back the other shoots at the flash.  Ten minutes of that should keep them busy.  Hammond, get me some volunteers to go down and haul those bloody things out of the way the minute the flares go out.  Preferably men who can see in the dark and have a brain.”

Above in the darkness the fire from the defenders was increasing and Paul kept a wary eye on the range as a dozen men scrambled quietly down into the blackness of the ditch armed with ropes to drag the chevaux de frise out of the way.  In the distance the noise of battle had grown louder and Paul wondered how the rest of the division was doing in the breaches.

There was a sudden explosion of light and sound and screams of pain from a section of his men and he swore softly.

“They’re onto us,” he said, and raised his voice.  “Hammond, how’s it going?”

“Nearly there, sir, three men down but they’re too late.”

“Good news!”  Paul turned to yell orders and his brigade, silent and still in the night, exploded into sudden action.  More hay bales were lit and in the flare of their light he looked down and saw the path through the ditch was clear.

“Advance!” he yelled, and the ladder parties scooped up their burdens again and continued their run under covering fire from the rifles of his sharpshooters.

He had known that the chances were high that the ladders would be too short to reach the top of the wall for most of it’s length but there was one stretch of the curtain wall which was much lower, having been previously damaged and not built up to it’s full height.  It was to the right of his position and the risk of mining was higher, but if he could get a small force up onto the ramparts there, they could hit the defenders in the flank and distract them for long enough to allow the ladder parties to scramble up.

On his orders, his men advanced in immaculate order.  The main ladders were swung up to the walls with men below steadying them to give maximum height and support, and his men swarmed up at speed.  Above him, Paul heard cries in both English and French as the first men reached the top and he realised with a spurt of triumph that the ladders had reached and that his men were fighting at the top.  Already bodies were falling and he knew some of them would be English.  With the defenders busy he turned and called out to Carl, who began his run towards the lowered section of the wall with his chosen companies.

It was going well.  Paul had the sense that his men were following orders and although many of them were coming down off the ladders, they were replaced immediately by more scrambling up.  The sounds from the breaches had faded from his consciousness now that his brigade were engaged and he waited for another ten minutes and then moved forward.

“All right lads, I’m going up.”

“Not yet, sir…”

“Out of the way, Mr Heron before I kick you.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand at the top waving a flag.”

There was laughter amidst the blood and fire and slaughter and he set his foot on the ladder and began to climb.  Shot rained around him but he kept his body close in and was making good progress when his foot encountered a rung which felt unexpectedly shaky and he heard, from above, a yell of warning and then cries of fear.

“It’s breaking up!”

Paul swore.  He could feel the wood giving way under the weight of men.  It often happened and he knew the danger of falling onto the bayonets of the men below him.  Pushing himself back he jumped into thin air and braced himself.  The leap took him over the heads of the men below him and back to the edge of the ditch.  He felt the impact jar through his body and he rolled over and slid back down into the ditch, feeling the bodies of injured and dead men crashing around him.  As he came to a halt something ripped into his hip and he dug his heels into the ground hard to stop his slide and found himself crushed by a press of fallen men into the edge of one of the chevaux de frise which had been dragged out of the way earlier. 

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga)

At Badajoz, I finally felt it.  After over a week of travelling around Portugal and Spain visiting locations and potential locations for scenes in my books, I’ve seen some beautiful and amazing places and I’ve felt at times as though I could imagine my characters being there, living their lives in the shadow of death.

Badajoz is not beautiful.  It is certainly in a beautiful setting and there are quiet spots in the town where you can get the sense of the old walled fortress town which existed in 1812 when Wellington’s army, on it’s third attempt, managed to batter down the walls and fight their way in.  Badajoz is a modern town.  There isn’t the sense of history, the sense of the past preserved that you get in Ciudad Rodrigo or Elvas.  There is the sense of people going to work and having lunch and living their lives.  Badajoz is just an ordinary town in Spain with an interesting history.

Walls of Badajoz

Maybe that’s why it worked for me.  Standing beside the walls, reading the guide which explained in matter of fact words that the road I was looking at went through the breach and that during the storming it would have been piled high with rubble and with thousands of dead and wounded Allied soldiers, I felt a genuine sense of horror.  It doesn’t seem possible now that those men on both sides of the wall, fought and bled and died on ground which is now just a road going into town.

Badajoz

The horror didn’t end there.  When the Allies finally broke in leaving over a thousand dead and another three thousand wounded, heaped on top of each other in the breaches or below the walls, the English army went mad.  It was an accepted custom of war that if a citadel under siege fails to surrender and has to be taken by storming, the troops were allowed to sack the town.  This is horrific enough under any circumstances, but in 1812 the Spanish population of the town, although some were pro-French, were for the most part innocent civilians of a country allied to Britain in the fight against Napoleon.

It didn’t save them.  For almost three days the men of the British army ran riot in the town.  Murder, theft and rape were committed openly and anybody who stood in their way, including some of their own officers, was at risk of being shot down.  Eventually Wellington, appalled at the destruction and violence, set up a gallows in the square as a threat to the drunken men and the chaos died down.  But during those days it must have been hard for the Spanish to feel a sense of gratitude that their city had been liberated from the French.

I felt it more strongly in this noisy, modern town than anywhere else.  I felt sad for those men coming down off the formidable ramparts to add to the piles of dead below.  I felt a sense of the waste and the agony and the bloodshed.  Perhaps it’s because so little actually remains, it’s as if they’ve been forgotten.  Perhaps it’s because it was our last day and then I was going home and back to reality.

It took a while to pull myself out of nineteenth century Spain and Portugal on the journey home.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work and write the next book.  And of all the places I’ve visited I’m not sure I’d go back to Badajoz.  Not because it was a noisy modern town where history has vanished in places.  But because in the places where it remains, I felt indescribably sad.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

 

Elvas

Elvas is beautiful.

We arrived at lunchtime, staying at the stunning Quinta de Santa Antonio just outside the town. As we were having lunch sitting on a bench in the beautiful gardens, I will admit I was looking around me making notes in my head. This place would have been here when Wellington’s army was besieging Badajoz, and already I can see how it could be used as a setting.

Gardens of the Quinta de Santa Antonio, near Elvas

In the Peninsular War saga, Anne and Paul arrive for a brief stay in Elvas during the run up to the storming of Badajoz.  Anne has just been returned after a two week ordeal in French captivity and for once Wellington has granted Paul some leave (with the proviso that as it’s only 11 miles away he can get him back very quickly).  Inevitably the short holiday doesn’t go entirely to plan but even today, Elvas is a haven of peace in places.

The town of Elvas was at the top of a hill, five miles northwest of the Guadiana River, a fortress town surrounded by seven bastions and the two forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça. It was a town of winding streets and graceful buildings, many of them dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Anne was particularly fascinated by the aqueduct, almost four miles long which had been built in the fifteenth century to supply the town with pure water.

Paul and Anne were given a room in a pretty inn, white painted and clean with high ceilings and long white draped windows.  For a town so close to the war zone which had been variously held by both the French and the English, it seemed remarkably untouched by war. For three days they wandered hand in hand through the narrow cobbled streets, and explored the local churches, forts and shops.  They ate in cosy taverns, surrounded by locals who welcomed them with smiles, and slept late, revelling in waking together with no need to rise for early drill.

(From ‘A Redoubtable Citadel’ by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 in the Peninsular War series)

Driving into Elvas after lunch I felt, almost more than anywhere else we have been, as though I had stepped back in time and was walking in the footsteps of Paul and Anne as they arrived in Elvas for their brief holiday before the horrors of the storming of Badajoz.  The aqueduct is the most amazing piece of architecture, ushering us into the town.

The aqueduct, Elvas

Elvas is a place of tiny cobbled streets and white and ochre painted houses with churches dotted about and a series of forts giving the impression of a formidable military presence.  During the war, Elvas escaped the destruction and havoc wreaked on the other three great border fortresses, and the preservation work done on the old town has protected it’s history.

The Cathedral in Elvas

There is so much to see here that I could turn into a guide book very easily.  The highlight for me was the old cathedral, with the square outside where Paul and Anne van Daan shared a brief spell of normality eating outside a tavern, listening to the locals around them talking about crops and the weather instead of war and bloodshed.  We had coffee outside a small cafe on the square, and looked around at the ancient buildings very much as they must have done.

The cathedral, Elvas

The other highlight of the town, especially on a glorious day like this one, are the stunning views from the various ramparts and high points around the town.  With the hills rising into the distance it is one of the loveliest places I’ve been to.

Countryside around Elvas, Portugal

Before leaving we visited the tiny English cemetery with it’s memorials to the dead of the Peninsular War, in particular the storming of Badajoz and the battle of Albuera, both of which had huge numbers of dead and injured from the Allied army.  

English Cemetary in Elvas

On one wall of the cemetery was a memorial stone to Lt Colonel Charles Bevan, who sadly shot himself after he felt he had been unfairly blamed for the escape of the French garrison from Almeira, an incident mentioned in the third book ‘An Uncommon Campaign’.

Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas

Our trip is almost over and I’ll be glad to get home to see my offspring and my dogs, although I’ve had the best time here.  I’ve been to Spain before but this is my first time in Portugal and I’ve rather fallen in love, with the country, the culture and the people.  I’ve learned so much this week, and have so much work to do to incorporate some of it into the books I’m writing.

Just at the moment I’m sitting in the hotel with the sound of birdsong and a fountain through the open window.  It’s still sunny although slightly cooler and  I can hear the cattle in the background.  It is so beautiful and so peaceful, it’s hard to imagine that only a few miles away in Badajoz the sound of gunfire and falling masonry would have been exploding into the silence as Wellington’s artillery tried to break down the formidable defences of the second great Spanish fortress.

He succeeded but the cost was horrendous.  Tomorrow, our last full day, we are going to the bustling modern town of Badajoz to look for the remains of the town where the British soldiers ran wild in an orgy of destruction and violence when the citadel fell.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

The Battle of Salamanca – a tour

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

The battle of Salamanca was fought on 22 July 1812 and the battlefield was our next destination.  It was definitely one of the best days of our holiday.

The battlefield of Salamanca, looking out towards the Greater and Lesser Arapiles

It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which 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. 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 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, 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 back.”

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 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.”

(From ‘An Untrustworthy Army’ by Lynn Bryant, book 5 of the Peninsular Series)

The Salamanca battlefield site is immense.  Not just in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the amount of information available.

The Greater Arapile

We had planned to visit the battlefield since we first planned this trip.  I am halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit is particularly useful as it was made ahead of the writing.  I had read about the small interpretation centre in the village of Los Arapiles to the south of the city of Salamanca, but had not really looked it up until we were about to go there.  I was hugely impressed to find that it was open two days a week, Thursday and Saturday, and we had set aside a Thursday for this trip.

Interpretation Centre for the Battle of Salamanca

I was so glad we did.  This is definitely the best small museum we have visited.  For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which is much more useful than our desperate attempts to translate interpretation boards in other places.  For another, it is amazingly detailed and accurate.  From the advantages and disadvantages of the different infantry formations of line, square and column, to the best way to load a musket, somebody here had done their research and very well.  If I had a prize for museum of this trip, although it was tiny, this is it.

Interpretation Centre, Arapiles

The other joy was the map we were given of a series of interpretation boards around the battlefield site.  There are ten in all, each with information about the battle as it unfolded, and each board has a QR code which can be scanned by a smart phone.  A short dramatised account of that section of the battle, in English, can be listened to at each point.

The routes on the map are marked for walking or cycling.  The good news is that in good weather all tracks are passable in a car.  A 4 x 4 would be best, some of them are very rough, but we managed it on dry roads without.  It took about three hours to do the whole thing.  Honestly it would have been less if it were not for my pedantic insistence that we do the boards in number order so that we got the chronology right for the battle as opposed to working out the shortest circular route which might have taken half the time.  This week the man I married has given the word patience a whole new definition….

The Battlefield of Salamanca

With the help of the museum, the interpretation boards, which are excellent, my trusty battlefield guide and a map, the Battle of Salamanca became suddenly very clear to me.  Driving from board to board and then climbing hills and rocky outcrops to view the various vantage points of the battle it was very easy to visualise how Wellington was able to split the French line and send their army fleeing within a few hours.

Monument at the top of the Greater Arapile

After exhausting ourselves scrambling over battlefield sites, we drove to Alba de Tormes, across the river.  This is the route that a lot of the fleeing French army took and no action took place there in real life.  In my book a significant skirmish takes place there so I wanted to check if my story worked with the location.  I was delighted to realise that with a small adjustment it will work very well.

Alba de Tormes

The bridge at Alba de Tormes

We came back into Salamanca for dinner.  As we are English this involved almost two hours of wandering around this beautiful university city, musing about how it is possible to be in a major city at 7pm and find nobody open for dinner.  We still need some adjustment to Spanish dining hours.  But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, its so lovely, especially the university  buildings, which will feature in book 5 since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.

Salamanca

A great day, and tomorrow we would move on to spend our last two nights in Elvas, close to Badajoz, the next of Wellington’s great sieges, where the British army thoroughly disgraced itself.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

 

Bussaco Ridge, Viseu and Ciudad Rodrigo

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

This section of our trip covered Bussaco and Viseu in Portugal and Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.  

 

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul could hear them now, the steady drum beat of the approaching columns. He turned to O’Reilly.
    “They’re coming,” he said, and raised his voice softly. “110th at the ready!”
    “Ready, sir,” Wheeler called back, and the order was passed along the lines.        There was no bugle call on this occasion. Craufurd wanted the presence of such a large force to come as a shock to the French.
    Michael checked his rifle and looked over his shoulder. “Nice and steady boys,” he said. “No need to be heroic here, the bastards have no idea they’re about to walk into us. Wait for my word, now.”
    “Battalion ready, sergeant?”
    “Ready as they’ll ever be, sir.”
    Paul moved along the ranks his eyes checking for potential problems. They could hear the marching of the French coming closer through the mist and he saw the green jackets of the 95th further up beginning to move forward in skirmish formation. He nodded to Michael.
    “Corporal Carter,” Michael called.
    “Yes, sergeant.”
    “Will your lads pay particular attention to not letting the Major get himself killed today? You know how clumsy he is, and if I have to take him down to the hospital with a hole in him, his wife is likely to take that scalpel of hers to me as well.”
    Paul looked back, startled, and then began to laugh. “Corporal Carter!”
    “Sir.”
    “Let the lads know there’ll be extra grog for the man who shoots Sergeant O’Reilly for me today. Make it look like an accident.”
    There was a muted rumble of laughter. “Do it now for you if you like, sir!” one of the sharpshooters called. “No need for extra grog, be my pleasure!”
    “You’d better hope the French get you today, Scofield, you are on my list,” the sergeant said, laughing. “Ready now boys.”
    “Get going,” Paul said, and Captain Swanson called the order and led his men forward.
    They watched as the skirmishers moved over the ridge, taking down individual Frenchmen with accurate rifle fire. It took some time.  Paul grinned as he realised that his light company were getting carried away with their feinted attack and were actually pushing the French column back. He imagined that Craufurd was cursing them for delaying the French advance. He could not sound a retreat without alerting the French to his position so he settled down to wait for Carl and O’Reilly to pull them back. Eventually he saw them moving back up the ridge, saw Carter and young Hammond laughing, having just received an earful from their exasperated sergeant. The rifles of the light division were already back up the ridge and the French came on, causing the English gunners to limber up and pull back. Still they waited. The French came closer, pressing on, thinking that on this part of the ridge at least they had the English on the run.
    Craufurd held his nerve. The leading column was within twenty-five yards of the crest, and Paul could see the individual faces of each Frenchman when he heard Black Bob yell. “52nd and 110th – avenge Moore!”

Now that I’ve been there and seen it in person, I have literally no idea why Massena sent his army up Bussaco Ridge.

We were staying at the Bussaco Palace Hotel, which is an incredible building, a gothic fantasy built around the simple convent buildings which were present in the early nineteenth century when Lord Wellington marched his army up to Bussaco to face the French Marshal Massena in an attempt to slow him down while the defences at Torres Vedras were being completed.

Brief details of the battle can be found here.  There are many books which give descriptions of the battle  In particular, we are touring the peninsular battle sites with the help of Andrew Rawson’s excellent book The Peninsular War: a battlefield guide.  Since I own it on kindle, I found myself scrambling over the sites clutching my iPad and praying I didn’t drop it, but it was amazingly useful and helped us find places we might not have done.

Up at Bussaco I was awestruck at the slope the French had to climb to make their attack.  We visited Wellington and Craufurd’s command posts and the reconstructed mill where Massena watched the battle unfold.  It is a beautiful place, although somewhat out of the way, and on a sunny day the views from the top are stunning.

View from the Bussaco Palace Hotel

Our other visit during this part of the trip was to the town of Viseu, where Wellington had his headquarters in the run up to Bussaco.  I will be honest and say that I wasn’t that taken by Viseu as a history buff.  There are some lovely old churches and buildings, but the town is now very built up and traffic was so heavy in the centre it’s difficult to get any sense at all of how the town must have seemed to Paul and his men when they set up camp at a farm on the edge of the town in 1809 after Talavera.  Viseu is a lively, modern place and probably a great place to live and work now, but it’s not the place to visit for Peninsular War history.

Fortified Cathedral in Viseu - This is the cathedral visited by Rowena and Anne in Viseu in chapter 17.

The same cannot be said of Ciudad Rodrigo, where we arrived in the afternoon. The rain had gone and the sun came out and approaching the town I felt as though I had stepped back in time.  Even with modern apartment blocks surrounding the ancient walls it is very easy to understand the enormity of the task faced by Wellington’s army when they set out to storm the town in the freezing January of 1812.

Please specify the photo id of the single photo you want to display.

Standing in front of the memorial to General Robert Craufurd at the lesser breach where he was buried I felt surprisingly moved.  Craufurd isn’t one of the best known historical figures of the time, but as commander of the legendary light division, he is vital to my story and his loss was much mourned by the characters I’m creating.  During my research for the books I have become very attached to Craufurd, known as the rudest man in the army, and standing here, where he was shot down more than two hundred years ago was a strange feeling.

Memorial to Robert Craufurd and the men of the light division who fell in the lesser breach during the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812

I loved this trip.  It’s very different to other holidays in recent years, not just because I got to completely indulge myself in terms of history, but also because it seems to be somewhat off the beaten track of popular English tourist spots.  This makes it slightly more challenging in terms of language, since not everybody speaks English and our Spanish and Portuguese is non-existent.  Still we were impressed with how friendly and welcoming most people have been.  The hotels have all been good and we’ve found some great restaurants, although we’re having to adapt to the difference in eating times – it’s just not possible here to decide to have an early dinner at 5.30 or 6pm; the restaurants start to get busy at nine.

I learned so much during this trip.  Part of me was impatient to get back to work and rewrite some of my books based on what I’d seen and learned and the rest of me just wanted to stay and absorb how lovely it is.  I’m unbelievably grateful to the man I married for doing this with me, acting as driver, photographer and general gopher throughout the trip.  He probably needed a holiday afterwards, mind.   Following Wellington around is exhausting; I don’t know how the 110th did it….

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

The Lines of Torres Vedras – Day One

Wellington’s HQ in Pere Negro, the Lines of Torres Vedras

Paul and Anne van Daan arrive at the Lines of Torres Vedras at the beginning of An Irregular Regiment, Book 2 in the Peninsular War Saga.

“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?”

An Irregular Regiment

The redoubts and blockhouses referred to in the above quote were features of the lines of Torres Vedras, the extraordinary system of fortifications built by Lord Wellington to stop the French invading Lisbon in 1810.

It rained for two days in Torres Vedras when we were there.

It felt appropriate somehow.  In  An Irregular Regiment, the 110th Infantry arrives at Pero Negro on the lines of Torres Vedras in torrential rain. They weren’t as fortunate as we are, with a car and a comfortable hotel to come to, but then the  Anglo-Portuguese army wasn’t used to luxury.

The weather on our first day was gorgeous, particularly later in the day. We drove out of Lisbon and found our hotel in Torres Vedras fairly easily although finding the car park proved more of a challenge. Torres Vedras is a lovely little town with cobbled streets. The Stay Hotel is in the centre, opposite the monument to the Peninsular War and I felt ridiculously happy to see it. Somehow it made it real.

Cobbled Street in Torres Vedras

DSC_1460.jpg

We had lunch at a restaurant close by. Tapas at ‘Taberna 22′ was a delight with friendly staff and great food at reasonable prices.

The Lines of Torres Vedras were lines of fortifications built in secrecy on the orders of Lord Wellington to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. They were named after the local town and constructed by Colonel Richard Fletcher using Portuguese workers between November 1809 and September 1810. The lines stopped Massena’s invasion force dead when he arrived there and were so effective that the full system of fortifications was not completed as they were never needed.  The French never got beyond the first line.

After lunch we drove out to the little town of Sobral which was the scene of a battle in October 1810 when the French army led by Marshal André Masséna arrived at the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Marshal Junot’s VIII Corps was engaged in the fighting over two days. On 13 October, the French drove back the skirmish line of Lowry Cole’s 4th Infantry Division. The following day, Junot’s troops seized an outpost belonging to Brent Spencer’s 1st Infantry Division, but were quickly ejected from the position by a British counterattack. Masséna soon decided that Wellington’s defensive lines were too strong to crack and elected to wait for reinforcements.

I had seen paintings of the combat in the town of Sobral but it was a strange experience to get out of the car in the square opposite the heritage centre and be able to recognise the buildings depicted in the battle scene which are still there. The heritage centre is small but the displays are very good and tablets are available with an English translation. We also bought an excellent little book about the lines which includes maps, suggested tours and a huge amount of detailed information about the forts and defences and how they worked.

Sobral, scene of the battle in 1810

_DSC9273-HDR.jpg

Armed with this, we drove in the early evening up to Fort Alqueidao, one of the most important forts on the lines and the location of Wellington’s advance command post. Wellington would frequently visit the fort on horseback, riding up from his headquarters in Pere Negro or from the main signal station at Senhora do Socorro.

It was a beautiful evening and the perfect time to be up at the fort. The views were stunning and the light perfect for photography, I am assured by my resident expert. I was particularly taken with the section of Wellington’s military road which has been preserved. For some reason, reading and writing about his road building in Portugal, I had not really taken on board just how solid some of these roads must have been. Or how uncomfortable, for a wounded man being thrown around in an ox wagon.

Fort Alqueidão.

Dinner in the evening was at another excellent restaurant in Torres Vedras, Restaurante Patanisca. Once again the food was superb, the service very friendly and there was a real local atmosphere to the place. We also discovered that we like the local wine…something else I apparently have in common with Lord Wellington.

Despite the rain we were out on a tour of the lines again the following day although I suspect we were rather more dry and comfortable than Paul and his regiment arriving at the lines after the battle of Bussaco in 1810 in driving rain and heavy mud.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

 

 

The Big Trip – the Portugal and Spain of An Unconventional Officer

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army

Only three days to go before I set off on my trip to Spain and Portugal where I’ll be researching the settings for the first of my Peninsular War novels, An Unconventional Officer and as usual I’m behind with everything.  No matter how well prepared I intend to be and how many lists and promises I make myself, I always end up rushing out of the door in a trail of chaos, vowing that next time I’ll be better organised.

This one ought to be easier.  For one thing, the man I married, who is coming with me as driver, photographer and entertainment, is working in London this week so had to do his packing ahead of time.  His chaos occurred on Sunday, but at least it wasn’t happening at the same time as mine, so for once we are likely to start this holiday on speaking terms.  If that works well, I think we’ll arrange to start all future trips from separate locations, it will be well worth it.

Secondly I am not leaving an empty house, so there is no rush to get dogs to kennels, bathrooms vaguely clean and bins emptied.  Of course I am leaving all this in the hands of my teenaged children, so whether or not I’ll have a house to come back to is something which will vaguely haunt me throughout the holiday.  I trust them not to host a drunken rave (or not a very big one anyway) and not to forget to feed the dogs (they’re labradors, you try forgetting a meal for them).  Whether or not laundry, cleaning or basic hygiene will be maintained is another matter, but I’ve decided that they have to learn some time.

My preparations have been somewhat delayed this time by a sudden and unexpected burst of activity in my Irish Dance school which has suddenly and accidentally become the most popular school in town.  I would like to say that this is the result of a carefully thought out publicity campaign but then I’d be lying to you.  It is more to do with St Patrick’s Day, a last minute press release and a new babies class starting after Easter which is apparently what the local community has been waiting for.  Whatever the reason, we’ve been flooded with enquiries, so when I come back I shall have a lovely little mountain of work to get through.  Still, having lengthy planning conversations with my teachers has been an excellent way to avoid any actual packing.

The trip is something of a working holiday for me.  I’m currently working on a series of books set during the Peninsular War and we are doing a tour of some of the sites and battlefields I’m writing about.  I feel unbelievably excited and also slightly apprehensive about how much rewriting I’ll need to do once I’ve actually been there and seen places like Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo.

The first book in the series, which I aim to bring out in May, is called “An Unconventional Officer” and is the story of Paul van Daan, a young officer who joins the fictional 110th Infantry in 1802 and sails to India to fight the Maratha under General Arthur Wellesley, a relatively young and inexperienced commander with a reputation to make.

Over the course of the book, Paul develops a talent for command alongside a somewhat unusual approach to the hierarchical army of the early nineteenth century.  The book charts his development as an officer alongside his friends and enemies in the army and his relationships with the women in his life: Nell whom he saves from her drunken husband; Rowena, the gentle girl he seduces and then marries and Anne Howard, an unconventional young woman who turns his world upside down.

I love weaving historical fact with fiction and it always surprises me how often an idea I have come up with for a plot fits seamlessly into the facts as I begin to research them.  During my research for the 110th books I have discovered enormous amounts about the working of Wellington’s army and a collection of bizarre facts about the history of surgery and the geography of the Portuguese-Spanish border.

One of the challenges in threading a love story between the battles and skirmishes of Wellington’s war is the relentless pace of activity once Sir Arthur Wellesley took over command of the British army in Portugal.  I have spent hours struggling to work out how my hero and heroine could possibly have time to fall in love while racing from one battlefield to another.  My admiration for the men and women who marched with the army in those days has risen as I’ve learned more and more about what they endured.   On the other hand, there is never any need to invent or manufacture dramatic incidents to keep the reader interested.  

Dramatic incidents aside, the trip will probably never be made unless I stop writing blog posts and get on with laundry and packing.  I’m hoping to post regularly on the trip and to share some amazing photos and that isn’t going to happen unless I get on the flight…

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.