Walcheren 1809 A Blighted Expedition

Today on Blogging with Labradors, I am delighted to welcome back  Jacqueline Reiter with a guest post on the Walcheren campaign of 1809. Jacqueline is a historian and the author of a biography entitled The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham and also a novel called Earl of Shadows which covers Chatham’s life up to the death of his brother, William Pitt, in 1806.

Jacqueline is currently researching the life of Sir Home Riggs Popham, the controversial navy officer who plays a key role in both An Unwilling Alliance and This Blighted Expedition.

This Blighted Expedition  follows the story of the navy, the army and the local population during the Walcheren campaign of 1809 and in this post, Jacqueline explains the background to one of Britain’s greatest military disasters.

Walcheren 1809: A ‘Blighted Expedition’

The British leaving Walcheren

The expedition to Walcheren in 1809 overshadowed all Britain’s prior wartime preparations, including those for the Peninsula. Consisting of 40,000 men and over 600 ships, ‘it was incomparably the greatest armament that had ever left the shores of England’. [1] It was also one of Britain’s greatest military disasters. Within six weeks of leaving the shores of Great Britain, more than one in four soldiers were ill. At least one in ten died.

 

 

Why Walcheren?

The campaign represented Britain’s commitment to an alliance with Austria as part of the War of the Fifth Coalition. Austria received £2 million and a subsidy of £400,000 a month to fight Napoleon in central Europe, and the British government pledged to provide a military diversion in a sphere of their own choosing.

The plan was to capture the island of Walcheren in the Kingdom of Holland – currently a French satellite state ruled by Napoleon’s brother Louis – and destroy the French fleet and dockyards at Flushing and Antwerp. Antwerp was the second largest French naval base after Toulon, and the British had been receiving reports for some time that the French had a fleet of men of war fitting out there. One of Britain’s worst nightmares was that Napoleon would rebuild the fleet he had lost after the battle of Trafalgar and invade Britain (or worse, Ireland).

The dockyards at Antwerp

The attack on Walcheren and Antwerp was not intended to lead to any long-term continental military commitment. It was effectively a raid – in the words of Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War, ‘a Coup de Main.’ [2] Speed and near-perfect military and naval cooperation would be crucial to get an enormous army and huge numbers of ships down the complicated navigation of the Scheldt River (and bring them back again)

John Pitt, 2ndEarl of Chatham, studio of John Hoppner (1799, courtesy of the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess, Royal Marines Barracks, Plymouth)

An unfortunate choice of commanders

For the military command, Lord Castlereagh chose Lieutenant General John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. Chatham was more a politician than a soldier; there were rumours that he had only been appointed because he was close to King George III. This was probably untrue, but Chatham was almost totally inexperienced and notoriously lazy. His nickname was ‘the late Lord Chatham’, because he nearly always was.

 

 

 

The naval command went to Rear Admiral Sir Richard Strachan. Strachan’s most famous exploit was off Cape Ortegal when he captured several French vessels that had escaped after Trafalgar, but he had never participated in an amphibious operation. ‘Mad Dick’, as he was known, was impatient, impulsive, and difficult to work with.

The expedition sails (… eventually)

The plan had been for the expedition to leave before the end of June, but preparations were not complete until mid-July, and contrary winds delayed the departure still further. At this point, bad news arrived: on 6 July, Napoleon had defeated the Austrians at Wagram. This tremendous blow removed one of the main strategic reasons for the expedition, but it was not called off on the grounds that victory might keep Britain’s only ally in the war.

The expedition finally sailed on 28 July and immediately ran into trouble. The fleet reached the Stone Deep off Walcheren as intended, but a gale blew up, dismasting two ships and running a third aground. This led to a significant change of plan.

The Walcheren Expedition, 1809 (map drawn by Martin Brown)

The Scheldt River basin was divided into the East and West Scheldt by Walcheren and the nearby island of South Beveland. Only half the fleet should have entered the East Scheldt to land 12,000 men on Walcheren and 8,000 men on South Beveland. The other half of the fleet should have waited for the narrow channel into the West Scheldt to be secured, then carried the remaining 20,000 men directly to the designated landing place at Sandvliet.

The 29 July storm, however, forced almost all the fleet to enter the East Scheldt and shelter in a protected anchorage known as the Roompot. This meant the army now had to wait for the fleet to dash past Flushing into the West Scheldt, or funnel the siege resources for Antwerp through the Sloe Passage (the narrow channel between Walcheren and South Beveland). Both options would be difficult and potentially time-consuming.

Breezand, Walcheren (photo by Jacqueline Reiter)

Keep calm and carry on

For now, the British landed at Breezand on Walcheren and Welmedinge on South Beveland and initially made rapid progress. By 3 August, South Beveland and almost all Walcheren was in British hands, and the army laid siege to Flushing.

 

At this point, however, the expedition became bogged down. An intended landing to disable the French battery at Cadzand failed. With both Cadzand and Flushing in French hands, the fleet could not easily enter the West Scheldt to carry Chatham’s army and siege equipment to Sandvliet. Worse, Strachan was struggling against contrary winds and could not blockade Flushing from the sea until 8 August. The same winds helped hundreds of French troops sail into Flushing every day.

The bombardment of Flushing

Flushing now had to fall, and fast, so the British decided to attack Flushing the same way they had assaulted Copenhagen in 1807: by bombardment. But constructing the batteries was delayed by the dreadful weather, by lack of leadership among the engineers, and by the enemy, who cut the dykes on 10 August to flood the British lines.

The batteries finally opened on 13 August at 1 pm. Five of the six British batteries (the sixth was not fully ready until the following day) poured fire on the town from 52 pieces of ordnance. The bombardment was supported by several gunboats from the sea and, on 14 August, by seven ships of the line that Strachan had daringly brought through the channel between Flushing and Cadzand.

The bombardment of Flushing, from British Battles on Land and Sea(vol. 3), by James Grant, 1873.

The bombardment went on almost continuously for 36 hours. By 2:30 am on the 15th, however, the French could clearly resist no longer. They surrendered unconditionally, and at 3:30 am the land batteries and men of war fell silent.

 

 

 

Flushing’s garrison of 5,000–6,000 men went to Britain as prisoners of war, and the British finally entered the ruined town. Even seasoned campaigners were horrified at the destruction that had taken place: ‘I beheld the most deplorable picture that can be conceived. Scarcely one single house in it, that has not received some shots, but the greater part of them … altogether destroyed. Many houses are burnt to the ground, and among them is the handsome stadthuis, and one large church. A more complete ruin cannot be fancied. [3]

On to Antwerp! (… or maybe not)

The first stage of British operations was now complete. The second stage – Antwerp – was still to come. Chatham, however, took his time. He did not set out until 21 August on a stately three-day journey to Fort Batz, the southernmost point on South Beveland, preceded ‘by a column of eight waggons, in the first of which was a live turtle.’ [4] (Chatham’s fondness for turtle soup, combined with his habit of sleeping in till past noon, earned him the sobriquet ‘Turtle Chatham’.)

Chatham’s lack of hurry also mystified the French, who nicknamed him ‘MilordJ’Attends’ (‘My Lord I-Am-Waiting’), [5] but Chatham probably considered Antwerp out of reach: 30,000 French troops were in the area, 11,000 in Antwerp alone, under the command of Marshal Bernadotte.

In any case, Chatham had other things on his mind. ‘Walcheren fever’ – probably a combination of malaria, typhoid, typhus, and dysentery – had struck.

Walcheren fever

The fever was sudden, sharp, and devastating, and by the time Chatham reached Fort Batz, it was spreading at a terrifying rate. Of 37,727 men, 2,702 were in hospital, and 14 had already died. By 3 September, only 11 days after first records of the epidemic, 8,194 men were sick – nearly a quarter of the whole army. [6]

On 26 August, Chatham called a meeting of his lieutenants general to discuss proceeding to Antwerp. The next day, the generals submitted their unanimous recommendation: with so many sick and so many French reinforcements round Antwerp, the only viable option was to suspend the campaign.

The evacuation of Walcheren (public domain)

The British now began a hellish retreat to Walcheren. Sick men were left lying on the ground without shelter for as long as two hours because the available spaces on the transports were soon outstripped by the spread of disease. The doctors themselves were also falling ill, and medical supplies – particularly bark (quinine) – were running low.

By 4 September, the British had fully evacuated South Beveland. The next day, the French took possession of the island again.

Things fall apart

On 7 September, Chatham was recalled – but ordered to hold onto Walcheren at all costs, as the government hoped to use the island as a military base. By now there were nearly 11,000 sick, close to a third of the entire army. Chatham sailed home on 14 September, leaving a garrison of 16,000 men under Lieutenant General Sir Eyre Coote.

Sir Eyre Coote (public domain)

Coote was (to put it mildly) not happy. On 23 September, with more than 9,000 men in hospital and 300 new cases of sickness a day, Coote wrote home: ‘The alarming progress hourly made by this fatal disease, is such that if it should continue in the same proportion for three weeks longer … our possession of this island must become very precarious … [as] it is scarcely to be supposed that he [Napoleon] will lose so favourable an opportunity of attacking.’ [7]

 

Miraculously, the French held back, but the British government was in no state to make quick decisions. The Walcheren failure had blown the cabinet spectacularly apart; Lord Castlereagh even fought a duel with Foreign Secretary George Canning. When the government finally turned its thoughts to the Scheldt at the end of October, it decided nothing more could be done and sent Lieutenant General George Don to evacuate what was left of the army.

After destroying the dockyards at Flushing, the last British troops left Walcheren on 23 December. Four days later the island was again in French hands.

Satire on Lord Chatham’s disgrace by George Cruickshank

Walcheren’s long shadow

The campaign left a bitter legacy. Parliament held an inquiry into the disaster in 1810. Chatham did not help his cause by submitting a narrative to the King exculpating himself and blaming all delays on Strachan and the navy; his reputation was destroyed and he was forced to resign his government post. Strachan got off more lightly, but neither he nor Chatham was actively employed again.

Despite this, the inquiry was something of a whitewash. The government’s decision to keep Walcheren until December was even approved by a parliamentary majority.

The real victims were the sick. By February 1810, nearly 4,000 men were already dead of Walcheren fever. The final number of dead was probably closer to 8,000. [8] Of the survivors, many never fully recovered. In 1812, Wellington complained that many units under his command in the Peninsula had been ‘so much shaken by Walcheren’ that they were near-useless. [9] As late as 1824, a doctor commented on a regiment that had served at Walcheren: ‘So many years afterwards, the disease is even at this period occasioned by relapses.’ [10]

Further Reading

Gordon Bond, The Grand Expedition (Athens, GA, 1971)

Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809 (Barnsley, 2011)

Jacqueline Reiter, The Late Lord: The Life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Barnsley, 2017)

Notes

[1] Sir John Fortescue, History of the British Army (London, 1899–1930), vol. VII, p. 56.

[2] Lord Castlereagh to Lord Chatham, July 1809, Correspondence, despatches, and other papers of Viscount Castlereagh… (London: William Shoberl, 1851), vol. 6, p. 292.

[3] Jacqueline Reiter, ‘“Day after day adds to our miseries”: the private diary of a staff officer on the Walcheren Expedition, 1809, Part 2’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 96 (2019), pp. 231–250, p. 239.

[4] Diary of Sir Frederick Trench, National Army Museum 1968-07-261, ff. 65–66.

[5] Théo Fleischman, L’Éxpédition Anglaise sur le continent en 1809 (Mouscron, 1973), p. 70 n. 7.

[6] Journal of the Proceedings of the Army under the Command of Lieutenant General the Earl of Chatham, The National Archives, WO 190.

[7] Sir Eyre Coote to Lord Castlereagh, 23 September 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the expedition to the Scheldt presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 147–149.

[8] Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809 (Barnsley, 2011), p. 201.

[9 ]Quoted in Howard, Walcheren 1809, p. 215.

[10] House of Commons, Report from the Select Committee on the Penitentiary at Milbank (London, 1824), p. 74.

This Blighted Expedition (The Manxman Book 2)  is due to be published on 31st October 2019 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

An Unwilling Alliance (The Manxman Book 1) has been shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research Fiction Prize and is available on Kindle and paperback from Amazon.

 

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham: ‘the Late Lord’

Today on Blogging with Labradors, I am delighted to welcome Jacqueline Reiter with a guest post on John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham: ‘the Late Lord’. Jacqueline is a historian and an expert on Chatham. She has written a biography entitled The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham and also a novel called Earl of Shadows which covers Chatham’s life up to the death of his brother, William Pitt, in 1806. Both are meticulously researched and very readable and I highly recommend them.

Jacqueline is currently researching the life of Sir Home Riggs Popham, the controversial navy officer who plays a key role in both An Unwilling Alliance and This Blighted Expedition, evidence that she doesn’t shy away from a challenge…

Chatham was the commander of the Walcheren campaign in 1809 and an important secondary character in This Blighted Expedition. Jacqueline has given me an enormous amount of help and advice while I have been researching this book for which I am very grateful. It’s a privilege to host her today, talking about a relatively unknown but highly complex historical figure.

‘The Late Lord Chatham’: John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (1756-1835)

John Pitt, 2ndEarl of Chatham, studio of John Hoppner (1799, courtesy of the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess, Royal Marines Barracks, Plymouth]

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham was the eldest son of William Pitt the Elder (created 1st Earl of Chatham in 1766), one of Britain’s most famous prime ministers who had helped turn the tide in Britain’s favour during the Seven Years’ War. He was also the elder brother of William Pitt the Younger (born 1759). John’s family and political connections were thus impeccable, and he benefited from them throughout his life, although he never really managed to emerge from the shadows cast by his father and younger brother.

 

 

 

Childhood and Early Life

John was born on 9 October 1756 at Hayes Place in Kent and was educated at home. This ‘singular’ arrangement may have contributed to John’s shy, reserved nature – he ‘had a very private Education, & has some Timidity in Consequence of it’ – but his upbringing was a happy one. (1) He was a bright child but needed constant encouragement, and he suffered from the painfully obvious fact that his younger brother William was his father’s favourite: ‘Being the first-born of their illustrious father … as too often happens with persons in similar circumstances, his understanding and talents had not been as assiduously cultivated.’ (2)

In 1774 John entered the Army as an ensign in the 47th Regiment and went to Canada as aide-de-camp to the governor of Quebec, Guy Carleton. He was still in Quebec in 1775 when hostilities broke out between Britain and the American colonies. John’s father was well known as an American sympathiser; John was thus prudently sent home with dispatches and shortly after resigned his commission in protest against the war.

The death of the Earl of Chatham engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, after John Singleton Copley (1788, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

When France and Spain declared war against Britain in 1778 John returned to military service, first as a gentleman volunteer and then as a lieutenant in the 39th Foot. He was about to go out to Gibraltar when his father had a seizure in the House of Lords and died shortly after. The new Earl of Chatham stayed a year in Gibraltar and transferred in 1780 to a captaincy in the 86th Foot. He served briefly with his new regiment in the Leeward Isles before transferring to the 3rd Foot Guards, a prestigious London-based regiment.

In 1783 Chatham married Mary Elizabeth Townshend, daughter of Lord Sydney. They were childhood sweethearts: the Pitt and Townshend children had grown up together, and Chatham’s name had been paired with Mary Townshend’s for four years before they finally wed. The marriage was happy but childless.

First Lord of the Admiralty

William Pitt the Younger, studio of Thomas Gainsborough (1787-9, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Shortly after Chatham’s marriage, his brother William was asked by the King to form a government aged only 24 (thus becoming Britain’s youngest prime minister). Although nobody really expected William Pitt’s minority government to survive, he triumphed over the odds and romped home with a huge majority in the 1784 General Election

Chatham’s support for his brother at this time paid off. It took Pitt four years to find a suitable opening, but in 1788 Chatham joined the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, responsible for the maintenance and deployment of Britain’s considerable naval power.

The First Lord of the Admiralty was one of the most powerful men in the government, and Pitt fully expected his brother to put in the work. Unfortunately Chatham had always favoured the path of least resistance, and it was soon clear he wasn’t going to change: ‘An intimate friend of Lord Chatham has spoken to him on the inconvenience attending his laying in bed till the day is advanced, as officers etc. were kept waiting. Lord Chatham said it did not signify, it was an indulgence he could not give up.’ (3) Because of his late rising and lackadaisical approach he quickly earned the nickname ‘the late Lord Chatham’.

Demotion from the Admiralty

When war broke out with France in 1793 Chatham did his best, but his reputation for laziness was by now well established and when things started to go wrong it was far too easy for his department to attract most of the blame. As tensions mounted, Chatham – whose pride and stubbornness could equal his laziness – quarrelled with colleagues over strategic priorities.

The Admiralty

As a result of these enmities, but also because of the navy’s failure to strike a decisive blow against France, Chatham was removed from the Admiralty in December 1794. Pitt kept him in the cabinet as Lord Privy Seal, but the episode destroyed what was left of Chatham’s public reputation and his relationship with Pitt never recovered. ‘The mischief done me is irreparable,’ he complained, ‘and though my brother, whenever he gives himself time to reflect, must … regret the step into which he was surprised, he can never make it right.’ (4)

In 1796 Pitt promoted Chatham to Lord President of the Privy Council, but his political career was going nowhere; nor was his military career, which resumed in 1798 after a 12-year hiatus. Although Chatham commanded a brigade during the Helder expedition in 1799 under the Duke of York, this failed, and Chatham was not allowed to serve abroad again for fear he would die and propel Pitt (who stood to inherit the title) into the Lords.

But in 1801 Chatham finally got a chance to step out of his brother’s shadow. Pitt resigned over a dispute regarding whether to extend the rights of Catholics (legally barred from voting or holding high office). Chatham stood by the King, George III – who opposed Pitt’s Catholic policy – and stayed on as Lord President of the Council under the new prime minister. This earned Chatham the King’s gratitude and underlined how far he and his brother had grown.

Mortar bearing Chatham’s cypher as Master-General of the Ordnance, Tower of London

Master-General of the Ordnance

 In autumn 1801 Chatham became Master-General of the Ordnance, responsible for overseeing the country’s firepower and fortifications while acting as military adviser in the cabinet. He remained in this post when Pitt returned to office in 1804. In January 1806, however, Pitt became seriously ill. Relations between the brothers were still not good, but when Pitt died on 23 January, Chatham was grief-stricken. For the first time since 1788 he was also out of office, although only until March 1807 when he returned as Master-General of the Ordnance in a new Pittite ministry headed by the Duke of Portland.

Over the next two years Chatham played a minor political role, even though his name came up repeatedly as a possible successor to the old and ailing Portland. He spent much of his time away from London as military commander of the Eastern District and turned down several opportunities to serve abroad. Partly this was because Chatham’s wife, Mary, was seriously ill from 1807 to 1809 with a mental disorder. In May 1809, however, the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, offered Chatham the military command of an amphibious expedition to destroy the French fleet and dockyards in the Scheldt River.

Walcheren

Chatham clearly thought about declining the proposal: ‘I can only say that I should be very anxious to have some further conversation with you on the subject before I venture to give any decided answer to it.’ (5) He had, however, turned down too many opportunities already. His dual role as cabinet member and expedition commander became highly embarrassing over the next few months.

Map of the Walcheren campaign from France Militaire: histoire des armées Françaises de terre et de mer … by A. Hugo (1837)

The Walcheren expedition set sail at the end of July 1809 and struggled against adverse winds, lack of leadership, and phenomenally poor luck for the next six weeks. Chatham commanded 40,000 troops; his naval counterpart was Sir Richard Strachan with over 600 vessels. Chatham was especially ill-suited for a swift dash up the Scheldt to take the Dutch island of Walcheren and destroy the ships and defences at Antwerp. He had no imagination to formulate alternatives when things went wrong; he spent much of his time at headquarters rather than going out among the men, which did nothing for morale; and he was not decisive enough to take advantage of any openings that did occur. Nor did he make any change to his habits: he rose ‘between twelve and one, not receiving officers till two o’clock’, a lack of urgency that did not bode well for a swift advance. (6)

More seriously, he rapidly fell out with Strachan, and by the end of the campaign the two men were barely speaking. The army advanced far too slowly, the navy could not cooperate properly because of adverse winds, and the French managed to rush 35,000 reinforcements to Antwerp before the British could even get close. By the end of August, also, sickness was tearing through the army – ‘Walcheren fever’. With over a quarter of his army on the sick list, Chatham called off the assault on Antwerp and retreated to Walcheren.

A Reputation Ruined

Chatham was recalled to England to account for his actions. The Portland government had imploded as a result of the disaster, and the new prime minister, Spencer Perceval, was not on Chatham’s side. When the King requested a narrative explaining what had happened on Walcheren, therefore, Chatham jumped at the chance to secure a favourable hearing, blaming Strachan and the navy for everything: ‘Why the Army was not brought up sooner to the destination from whence its ulterior operations were to commence is purely a naval consideration, and … the delay did in no shape rest with me, or depend upon any arrangements in which the Army was concerned.’ (7)

Cover page for Lord Chatham’s narrative of his proceedings during the Walcheren expedition, 1809

This was a mistake. The House of Commons held an inquiry into Walcheren in 1810, and Chatham’s narrative ignited a constitutional crisis. The government disclaimed all knowledge of the document, which made it look as though Chatham had gone secretly to the King and abused his trust as a privy counsellor to slander Strachan. This was not entirely the truth, but it gave the Perceval government an excuse to get rid of Chatham without appearing to scapegoat him for Walcheren. Chatham was forced to resign as Master-General of the Ordnance in March 1810; he never held political office again.

 

‘Secret Influence, or a Peep Behind the Screen’ by Charles Williams (1810, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Walcheren

After a brief attempt to set the record straight over his narrative, Chatham seems to have decided to grit his teeth and bear the shame. He remained Commander of the Eastern District until 1815, following which he disappeared almost entirely from public life. His wife’s mental illness returned in 1818, and until her death in 1821 he was mostly concerned with nursing her.

Gibraltar in 1849 by Charles Dyce (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

In 1820 he was offered the Governorship of Gibraltar by King George IV. Chatham accepted this public sign of the King’s support on the understanding that he would not actually have to go out. Unfortunately, awkward questions were immediately asked in Parliament and the government ordered Chatham to take up his governorship.

Chatham went to Gibraltar a few months after his wife’s death and remained there four years. He coped well with the crises that cropped up (mostly to do with the unsettled political situation in Spain), but he spent most of his time depressed and homesick – in his words ‘chained to the Rock instead … of being among my friends.’ He left at the first opportunity, arguing that his health had suffered considerably from the climate. As he was now nearly 70, he was not forced to return.

He spent his last 10 years as an invalid, dividing his time between London and Brighton. By the time of his death from a stroke on 24 September 1835, two weeks off his 79th birthday, he had mostly been forgotten. When he was noticed, it was as a minor celebrity who represented a last living connection with the grand politics of the mid- to late-18th century.

Laziness and Loyalty

Chatham spent his life being compared to his brilliant father and brother: as one source observed, it was his ‘ill fate … to be the son of the great Lord [Chatham] and the brother of the great Mr [Pitt], which lays him open to observations, trite but true, of all kinds and in all languages, to his disadvantage.’ (8) Chatham has slipped into obscurity despite occupying such a central political position for 22 years. His reputation for sloth was deserved, and he did not shine militarily on either of the occasions he served abroad.

He was, however, capable of inspiring profound loyalty. Thomas Carey, who served Chatham in the Eastern District for eight years and was his military secretary at Walcheren, undertook a pretty much one-man campaign to clear his superior’s name after Chatham’s disgrace in 1810. He wrote: ‘I have now lived on terms of the closest friendship with him for the last six years of my life, and the more I see of him, the more I am convinced that in understanding few equal him, and in honour or integrity he cannot be excelled.’ (9)

This, with Chatham at the nadir of his personal and political fortunes, is especially remarkable. It is a sign that Chatham is worth examining more closely, and that he was far more than a two-dimensional caricature of sloth and failure.

Notes

(1) Lord Grantham to Anne Robinson, 2 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/17/4/245a.

(2) Horace Twiss, Life of Lord Eldon(London, 1844), vol. 2, pp. 559-60.

(3) James Greig (ed.), The Farington Diary(London, 1922), vol. 1, p. 54.

(4) Chatham to Lord Camden, 7 August 1796, Kent Archives, U840/C254/4.

(5) Chatham to Lord Castlereagh, 18 May 1809, PRONI D3030/3087.

(6) Greig, Farington Diary, vol. 5, p. 224.

(7) Chatham’s Narrative, 15 October 1809, TNA PRO 30/8/260, f. 20.

(8) ‘Thomas Brown the Elder’, Bath: A Satirical Novel(London, 1818), vol. 3, p. 51.

(9) Carey to William Huskisson, 3 May 1810, BL Add MS 38738, f. 26.

This Blighted Expedition is the second book in The Manxman series, featuring Captain Hugh Kelly and Lieutenant Alfred Durrell during the Walcheren Campaign of 1809. It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon kindle and will be released on October 31st 2019.

 

 

 

 

The first book in the series, An Unwilling Alliance, set during the Copenhagen Campaign of 1807 has recently been shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize.

Private Correspondence: Walcheren 1809

Private Correspondence: Walcheren 1809 is from a series of letters found in the papers of Captain Hugh Kelly RN and in the Van Daan collection. Experts on the period have often commented on how much correspondence appears to be missing from the well-known Peninsular War officer. It is known that General van Daan corresponded regularly with the Duke of Wellington over the years, but sadly few of these letters have been discovered and by a strange omission, none were included in the Duke’s edited correspondence.

In 1809,  Major van Daan was serving in Portugal and Spain with the first battalion of the 110th under Sir Arthur Wellesley while Captain Hugh Kelly RN commanded the Iris during the expedition to the Scheldt.

Extract of a letter from Captain Hugh Kelly, RN to Major Paul van Daan, August 1809

As if this expedition wasn’t bad enough, I seem to have lost young Durrell, who has been temporarily seconded to the flagship by the particular request of Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham. I am assured by Sir Richard Strachan that this is only temporary, but I’m worried about the lad, I don’t like the company he’s keeping.

Popham, by the way, is more insufferable than ever. I’ve not the least idea what his job actually is, although I’m reliably informed he was instrumental in the planning of this expedition, which might explain why nobody is going anywhere. He behaves as though he were Captain of the Fleet, but he isn’t; we don’t seem to have one of those. Whatever he is supposed to be doing, he is all over the place as usual, you’d be hard put to know if he’s army or navy, since he’s forever on shore. From Durrell’s letters, he’s an alarmingly regular visitor to headquarters, which cannot be easy for Durrell who would rather be nowhere near the place.

I hope things are going better for you.

Yours, with esteem

Captain Hugh Kelly, RN

An Unconventional OfficerExtract of letter from Major Paul van Daan to Captain Hugh Kelly, August 1809

I’ll be honest, Captain, you might still be having a better time than I’ve been this past month. I am about to embark upon a painful retreat back from Spain, made worse by a hole in my chest which I acquired at a place called Talavera. I’m told we won, which I’d no way of knowing as I was carried off the field half dead. Thankfully, I’m on the mend now, thanks to the efforts of a rather unusual young female who is married to an officer of the quartermasters’ department and who is our new and wholly unofficial surgeon’s assistant.

I hope your campaign is over quickly, that it’s less miserable than Copenhagen, and that you get through it without shooting that arsehole Popham. Sorry I can’t be there to do it for you. I hope the lad’s all right, he doesn’t need to be spending his time with that smug bastard.

By the way, why is Durrell dodging army headquarters? I thought he liked Lord Chatham.

I hope your reply will find me safe in Lisbon. Or anywhere but here, it’s a hell hole, we’re short of supplies and Sir Arthur Wellesley is in the foulest temper I’ve ever seen, made worse by the fact that I’ve been too ill for him to take it out on me.

Yours affectionately, Major Paul van Daan

Extract of a letter from Captain Hugh Kelly, RN to Major Paul van Daan, September 1809

I hope you’re still recovering well. Take a tip from an older man, Major, and duck next time.

Poor Durrell is trying to avoid his brother who has taken up some nameless and pointless post at headquarters. I’ve no idea what he’s doing there and I suspect Lord Chatham has even less idea, the poor man seems permanently surrounded by a pack of hangers-on and holiday-makers. They say that he seldom emerges from his bedroom before noon; if I had that lot, on top of this campaign, to contend with, I’d stay there all day.

Don’t even talk to me about bombarding a city. Flushing was a horror, I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.

I’ve no idea how long we’ll be here; I don’t think we’ve a cat in hell’s chance of getting anywhere near Antwerp now, and on top of that, there are reports of sickness among the troops. I hope your second battalion isn’t affected, I’ve met one or two of them. Have you friends there?

Extract of a letter from Major Paul van Daan to Captain Hugh Kelly, September 1809

I’ve received a letter from a friend in the second battalion. Captain, what the hell is going on over there? Are you and your crew all right? Is it true the expedition is pulling out?

Is Durrell back with you? It doesn’t sound as though you’d want him on shore just now.

Headquarters has moved to Viseu and Wellington is planning how to stop another invasion, but it’s fairly quiet here. I’m hoping that the stories I’m hearing are exaggerated,  but get that boy back with you, if Popham is still strutting around the army lines and gets him killed with some bloody Dutch fever, I am going to catch up with that bastard and shoot him in the head. It’s high time somebody did it, I’d be doing the world a favour.

I really don’t like what I’m hearing about what’s happening on Walcheren. For God’s sake, write to me, sir, I want to know you’re both all right…

 

Evacuating the sick from South Beveland, 1809

 

This Blighted Expedition: a novel of the Walcheren Campaign of 1809 (Book Two in the Manxman series).  Due for publication on 31st October 2019.

Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3

Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3 was dedicated to museums. This turned out to be a good thing because it rained all morning.

I was woken at around 2am by a spectacular thunderstorm. I’m not scared of storms, but I do find it difficult to sleep through them, so while the man I married snoozed on happily, I sat by the long windows in the living room and watched the sky light up, thinking about the reported thunderstorms in the days leading up to the bombardment of Vlissingen in 1809.

The storm rumbled on until about nine, but the rain continued. We hovered, unable to decide, and then got bored with waiting and set off for Middelburg Abbey. It’s about ten minutes walk and the rain had stopped by the time we got there. Nothing was going to stop our Walcheren Expedition day 3.

Middelburg Abbey originated in the twelfth century. Monks from Antwerp established a large religious foundation with two churches and extensive lands on Walcheren and in other parts of Zeeland. Many of the surviving buildings from the monastic period  are Medieval Gothic, and date from the late sixteenth century.

Monastic life came to an end in 1574 when the Spanish surrendered to the Protestant Dutch separatists at the end of the two year Siege of Middelburg. William of Orange had given guarantees that the clergy would be left alone, but both the abbey and Roman Catholicism in Middelburg were nevertheless forcibly terminated.

The abbey was taken over for use in the secular administration of the province. Initially it was used as the seat of the district assembly and for other administrative functions including the admiralty, a mint, and a court chamber. Following reforms during the Napoleonic occupation, in 1812 the former abbey complex became known as the Province Building.

The abbey church was badly damaged in May 1940 by German aerial bombers targeting Middelburg in order to persuade the Dutch army not to hold out against German invasion and rebuilding was not completed till 1965. Other abbey buildings continued to accommodate government activities till the end of the twentieth century, such as the land registry and state archive.  Part of the complex now houses the Zeeuws Museum and the Roosevelt Study Centre.

The two Protestant churches are still referred to as Abbey Churches, reflecting their monastic origins. The Choir church or Koorkerk was built around 1300 and comprises a tall chancel of seven arches in length, with a five sided apse to the east of the choir stalls  with elaborate roof vaulting. On the south side is the church tower known as Lange Jan.

The New church  features a double nave and dates from the rebuilding that followed the fire of 1558. It replaced an earlier church built around 1300 which also featured a twin nave. The eastern wall of the New church is also the western wall of the Choir church, and the two interiors were originally connected through an arch, but this was subsequently blocked up. After 1833 the New church became the only parish church for the central walled area of Middelburg.

Both churches are beautiful, although in the middle of the tourist season it was hard to get the sense of peace that I love about old churches. I found this in the old Abbey cloisters, cool and dim, with sunlight peeping through and a gloriously tangled herb garden in the centre; my favourite part of the Abbey.

There is a big, open square in the middle of the Abbey buildings, with trees and seats and a couple of cannon which look rather as though they had been carelessly abandoned by some negligent commissary officer. There is also the entrance to the museum and cafe.

This part of the building has been thoroughly modernised inside, giving little sense of the original abbey. The museum has exhibitions over a number of floors. It is very well designed and put together with very modern themes, but I will be honest and admit that I was a little disappointed. While I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the campaign of 1809 which was not especially significant in Dutch history, apart from the people who died in Vlissingen and Veere, I was very much hoping for some information about the history of Middelburg and Walcheren and that was very much lacking. The one exhibition which dealt with history, was an amazing selection of tapestries telling the story of the rebellion against Spain. I loved that section. Much of the rest of the museum was beautifully put together but gave very little actual information about the town or its history. Given that there is no other museum in Middelburg to do that job, I thought it a shame, although I did pick up some useful information about historic costume.

We climbed Lange Jan to see the fabulous views over the town, following in the footsteps of my fictional Lieutenant Durrell who found it a quiet haven away from the chaos of the campaign in 1809. After coffee and cake outside a local cafe, dodging another rain shower, we went back to Veere to the two museums there. The Veere Museums consist of the City Hall and the Scottish Houses on the quay, both fabulous historic buildings.

There is a unique collection of 16th century statues which once adorned the façade of the City Hall and are on display in the ‘Statue hall’. The ‘Scottish attic’ tells the story of the long lasting trade relationship between Scotland and the city of Veere. Veere was once the centre of the profitable wool trade between Scotland and the Low Countries; the town won staple-rights on Scottish wool in 1541, meaning that the goods had to be made available for purchase there for a set time before being allowed to go on sale elsewhere. This important and profitable trade right encouraged Scottish merchants to establish themselves in Veere permanently and for a period of time, the small Scottish community was ruled by Scottish law and their own leader within the Dutch town.

The museums in Veere were far more interesting in terms of history, although I have to say that there was still more art than history in both of them. I really enjoy art, and I loved the story of the English family who set up an artists’ community in Veere before the second world war. I still felt a slight sense of frustration, however. These towns have so much history and I came away knowing very little about the people, the development of the town, their economy and agriculture and what shaped them. Perhaps there’s a museum somewhere else in this area that I’ve not found which offers that.

Having said that, I had a fabulous day. The museums were great at what they did, even if it wasn’t what I wanted, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I also found, in a rather more modern painting of a woman in traditional Dutch costume, my perfect Katja de Groot. Honestly, I couldn’t stop staring at her. Isn’t she beautiful?

Tomorrow is Vlissingen, and the nautical museum. I really like this part of the world; it’s very relaxed and we’re having a great week. Even if my husband dreams of hills he could cycle up…

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 1

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 1 was spent exploring the area by car. It’s always good to do that if possible, to get a sense of the place before planning the week. Given that the real purpose of this trip is to give me a sense of how Walcheren might have been in 1809 when This Blighted Expedition is set, there’s something very exciting for me in walking down streets and looking at views which my characters would have known.

Given that, we were very fortunate to find an apartment, through Airbnb, on Korendijk, which is directly on the canal and is where my Dutch heroine, Katja de Groot, was living with her three children when the British invaded in 1809. Much to my joy, the house turned out to have been built in 1722. Most of the buildings along the street are from the seventeenth and eighteenth century and all fit well with the tall houses that the merchants of Walcheren built to house their businesses and their families.

Our landlady, apparently recognising a history nut at forty paces, explained that this house was built by a wheat merchant, who also owned a mill and a bakery nearby. The beams have a very battered look, understandable because much to my joy, they were recycled from old ships from the local ports. In one part of the building, it’s possible to recognise part of the ship’s mast.

Chatham’s army landed at Bree Sands, to the north, and that is where we started our drive around Walcheren. The challenge of getting the location right in this particular book is that the landscape has changed dramatically. In 1809 Walcheren was an island, as were North and South Beveland. Land reclamation means that it is not possible, as it often is in Portugal and Spain, to look over the landscape and know that you are seeing pretty much the same land as your characters.

All the same, the wide beaches and strong winds definitely give a good sense of what Chatham’s men faced when they landed on Walcheren. We even managed to find the location of Fort Den Haak, where Lord Chatham set up headquarters on that first night, although whatever remains of the fort itself is currently inaccessible to the public. Interestingly, it is further inland than it would have been in 1809.

Following General Fraser’s trail, we drove to Veere, which is a beautiful little town which refused to surrender immediately to Lord Chatham’s army and was battered from both land and sea to persuade it to do so. There is a walk around the fortifications of Veere which we did, and it gives a good sense of the town defences, although most of what exists today was built from 1810 onwards when the French returned, including a fine selection of artillery from 1810 and 1811. We’ll be back to do the museums another day.

Later in the day we took a stroll around Middelburg to get our bearings and were impressed with Middelburg Abbey, where Lord Chatham set up his headquarters. Having seen Wellington’s various headquarters in the Peninsula over the past two years, it was clear that Lord Chatham was somewhat more set on luxury than Wellington, although now that I think about it, the Royal Palace in Madrid probably trumps Middelburg. Once again, we’ll be back to do the museums.

Already I’ve picked up an enormous amount of information for the book, but more importantly, I have a sense of the area and the countryside. One of the things that contemporary accounts frequently mention is that it is flat. They were not wrong about that, so I have decided that tomorrow I shall venture around the coastline on a slightly different mode of transport, and one that I seldom use…

 

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview took us to Naarden. We travelled to Walcheren via Amsterdam, which gave us the opportunity to spend a couple of days visiting some friends who live in Naarden. I’d not been there before, and given that most of this trip is about Me Me Me, I had already decided to let everybody else plan these few days. It says a lot about my friends that day one was spent exploring the seventeenth century star fortress and day two was spent at the National Military Museum…

The town of Naarden dates back to the tenth century when it was actually situated about 2.5 km to the north-east. The town was destroyed during the wars of the fourteenth century and rebuilt in 1350  on a high sand ridge on the eastern route to Amsterdam. Because of it strategic position, Naarden became one of the most important fortified towns in The Netherlands.

The current star shape of Naarden dates back to the 17th Century, when the fortifications were improved after the siege of 1673. Naarden was part of the New Dutch Waterline, a defensive line through the Netherlands which I’d never heard of before. I would love to do a tour of these forts, they look stunning, but that will have to be another visit.

Naarden is beautiful, with not only the military buildings and fortifications and the Dutch Fortress Museum, but also a fantastic variety of shops and restaurants within the fort. It deserved far longer than the short visit we were able to manage

The National Military Museum is definitely a full day out. It is situated on the former air base at Soesterberg and apparently combines the collections of the former Military Aviation Museum in Soesterberg and Army Museum in Delft.

The museum depicts the history of the Netherlands armed forces in a collection of huge and very interactive displays. Vast halls display tanks, planes, armoured vehicles and helicopters. There are sections on the various wars the Dutch have been involved with over the centuries and how their armed forces developed and changed. While not directly relevant to my favourite period (although there were some interesting bits about Waterloo) I did learn a lot about the history of the Netherlands which provides context to the story I’m currently telling in “This Blighted Expedition”.

For anybody interested in military history, or even who just likes tanks, planes and helicopters, this was a fabulous day out, especially with children, there is so much for them to do there.

It wouldn’t feel right to end this first section of our trip without mentioning our evening out at the Red Sun at Blaricum, Japanese fine dining with great company. We had the tasting menu, seven courses, which is an event as much as a meal out and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thanks so much to our friends, Patrick and Serena, for being excellent hosts and guides. We had a great time. Next step, Walcheren…

Salamanca

The Battle of Salamanca was fought on this day in 1812 across the rolling plains around the small Spanish village of Los Arapiles. In this excerpt from An Untrustworthy Army, Wellington’s men are marching close to the French army while both generals try to decide whether or not to risk a battle. Wellington had almost decided to retreat on this occasion, when on the afternoon of 22 July, he spotted a gap in the French line and ordered the attack.

After a little more than a fortnight at Rueda, it was a relief to Paul to get his brigade moving. Night marches could be difficult, depending on the terrain, but most of his men were very experienced and followed each other through the darkness, relying on the voices of NCOs and officers to guide them. The clink of horses and the thudding of hooves followed the progress of the cavalry who were advancing with the light division. Paul rode up the long column to find General Charles Alten in conversation with his big German orderly. Peering through the darkness he recognised Paul and waved him forward.

“Colonel van Daan, I am sorry to have interrupted your festivities this evening.”

“It’s a relief, sir, I’ve had enough of waiting. French on the move?”

“It seems so, although I know very little, just that we are to advance with the cavalry and await orders.”

Paul pulled a face which Alten could probably not see in the dark. “When we get there, why don’t we play a hand or two of ‘lets all sit around and guess what the hell Lord Wellington is doing now’, sir?” he said. “I should have gone up to see him instead of prancing about with the Rifles for the evening.”

“Where is your wife, Colonel?”

“I left her in camp for the night with half a company of the KGL to guard the baggage and supplies. They’ll pack up early and follow us up. Where are we going?”

“We will halt behind Castrejon and await Lord Wellington.”

“That’s always a treat,” Paul said gloomily. “I hate marching around for no apparent reason and I’ve got a feeling that’s what we’re doing.”

Alten gave a soft laugh. “There is usually a reason, Colonel. It is simply that you hate not knowing what the reason is.”

Paul acknowledged the truth of this over the next few days of monotonous, repetitive marching interspersed with several fierce skirmishes as Lord Wellington and Marshal Marmont began a cautious facing dance which each day failed to result in a battle. There was nothing urgent or frenetic about their movements. Facing each other across the river and the rolling plains around Salamanca, the two armies manoeuvred in perfect timing, attempting to outflank each other without forcing a pitched battle on any ground of which the two commanders were unsure.

“It’s like a pavane,” Anne said, on the third day. She had ridden up to join Paul and was looking over the lines of Wellington’s army and then beyond to the distant columns of Frenchmen on the opposite bank. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Nor have I,” Paul said. “What the devil is a pavane?”

“It’s a dance. A bit like the Allemande but slower and more stately; it’s very old.”

“What is an Allemande? No, don’t tell me. How do you know all this?”

“There was an Italian dancing master,” Anne said, and laughed aloud at his expression.

“Your stepmother should have locked you up,” Paul said grimly.

“If she had, Colonel, we probably wouldn’t be where we are now.”

“True. But it’s a lesson to me about keeping an eye on my daughters as they’re growing up. I’m shocked at how young girls behave.”

“You did not say that to me in a shepherd’s hut in Thorndale,” Anne said serenely. “How long is he going to keep this up?”

“I don’t know,” Paul admitted, looking out over the lines. “He’s not saying much even to me. I don’t think he’s sure.”

Anne followed his gaze. The countryside was a vast plain with low rolling hills and the river snaking between the two armies. An occasional shot was fired when the two came too close but for the most part, the forces moved watchfully along, ready to fall into position at a moment’s notice. They passed villages and small towns and the people came out to watch them sombrely. There was none of the excitement and joy of their entry into Salamanca. It was as if the locals knew that the generals were contemplating battle and dreaded the consequences for their crops, their homes and their families.

We visited the battlefield during our tour of Portugal and Spain in 2017. The Salamanca battlefield site is immense; not in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the sheer amount of information available. I was halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit was 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.

 

I was so glad we did.  This is definitely the best small museum we visited.  For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which wasmuch 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.  

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.  That day, the man I married gave the word patience a whole new definition.

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.
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.

We went 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.  It always takes some time to Spanish dining hours.  But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, it’s so lovely, especially the university  buildings, which feature in An Untrustworthy Army, since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.

Given that my fictional regiment fights as part of the Light Division, Salamanca had the potential to be a bit of a disappointment for me, since Charles Alten’s men did not play a significant part in the battle. Since I know that Colonel van Daan is easily bored, I chose to give the third brigade a skirmish of their very own out at Alba de Tormes. The battle is included in the book, seen through the eyes of Lieutenant Simon Carlyon who is on temporary transfer to Pakenham’s staff.

A great deal has been written on the battle of Salamanca. For me, the best book on the subject by far is Rory Muir’s book which explores the battle in depth. I highly recommend a tour of the battlefield and interpretation centre; as long as you have transport it is one of the ones it’s perfectly possible to do without a guide.

An Untrustworthy Army is book five in the Peninsular War Saga which follows the fortunes of the fictional 110th infantry and Paul van Daan, the man who rises to lead it, through the long years of Wellington’s wars in Portugal and Spain.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyAn Irregular Regiment

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro

 

 

 

 

 

 

A letter from Lord Wellington

On the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, there will be thousands of posts and articles about the battle and about the Duke of Wellington, many of them excellent, so instead to celebrate the occasion I thought I would share a letter from Lord Wellington from a different time period.

This is an excerpt from the final chapter of An Untrustworthy Army, book five of the Peninsular War Saga, in the aftermath of the horrendous retreat from Burgos. As such, it does contain some spoilers as to who survives, so if you’re halfway through the books you may not want to read it.

The reason I’ve published it today, is because it includes a section of a memorandum sent out to the commanders of divisions and brigades by Lord Wellington on 28 November 1812. Lord Wellington, who features very prominently in my books, doesn’t actually feature in this scene, but his voice can be heard loud and clear across 207 years. The text I’ve used here is quoted directly from the published memorandum. The comments of Colonel van Daan and Colonel Wheeler are all their own, and their language has not been censored.

 

Quinta de Santo Antonio

The Quinta de Santo Antonio was quiet, with both officers and men taking refuge from the appalling weather, as the creaking, ancient carriage pulled up beside the door to the main house. Gardens, pastures and barns were barely visible through torrential rain and Simon Carlyon scrambled down and helped Johnny out. They went directly into the main hall, dripping water onto the cracked tiled floor, and a familiar limping figure emerged from the kitchen region at the back.

“Colonel Wheeler. Good to see you back, sir. I’ll get a couple of the lads to unload your baggage and take it up, you’ll be in your old room.”

“Thank you, Jenson. It’s good to be back. Where have you put Mr Carlyon?”

“I’ll show him; he’s sharing with Mr Witham. Most of the officers of the 115th are in one of the estate cottages, but Mrs van Daan wanted Mr Carlyon in the main house. Come this way, sir. Colonel, why don’t you go through to the office, Colonel van Daan is in there enjoying Lord Wellington’s latest. If you’re lucky, he’ll read it to you. He’s read it to everybody else he ever met, so it’ll be nice for him to have a new audience.”

Johnny grinned, allowing Jenson to take his wet coat. Walking was still painful but becoming easier with the use of a stick and he limped through an archway and found his way to the warm panelled room which had been used last winter as Paul’s brigade office.

He found his commanding officer seated at the big table he used at his desk. Across the room, at a smaller table, was his wife, her dark head bent over a large book which appeared to contain medical notes. She was putting the finishing touches to a sketch of what looked like a spidery creature of some kind but what Johnny had a horrible suspicion might be some part of the human anatomy. He did not want to enquire which part. Anne sat back and surveyed her work with a critical eye, then nodded in satisfaction and added an annotation to the diagram.

Paul got up and came forward as Johnny saluted. “Come and sit down,” he said, pulling out a chair as Anne got up and came to kiss Johnny. “You look a hell of a lot better than you did the last time I saw you.”

“So do both of you,” Johnny said, embracing Anne then lowering himself into the chair. “Nan, you have the most incredible powers of recovery; should you even be out of bed?”

“I would like to see somebody try to confine my lass to her chamber over something as trivial as childbirth,” Paul said with obvious pride. “She does look better, doesn’t she? Wait there.”

He crossed the room and picked up a large wicker basket which had been beside Anne’s desk and which Johnny had thought contained laundry. He was amused to see a tiny pink face, crowned by a few sparse tufts of fair hair, nestling among the linen.

“She is very pretty,” he said, reaching out to touch the little fingers. “Georgiana, I understand? Wasn’t she very early?”

“We think so,” Anne said. “She gave us a bit of a fright to tell you the truth, I wasn’t at all ready for this and I’ve never seen a child this small. But she seems very healthy. You may greet her properly once she’s been fed; she’s worse than her father for hunger, Will was nothing like it. How are you, Johnny, we’ve been so worried about you?”

“I’m very well now,” Johnny said, watching as his commander returned the basket to its warm corner near the fire. “Glad it’s winter quarters, though, there’s no way I could fight like this, I’m limping like a greybeard.”

“You’ll recover quickly with rest and care,” Anne said. “I’m going to take Her Ladyship upstairs for her feed and leave you two to talk. Is Simon with you?”

“Yes, I’ve sent him off with Jenson to unpack. Thank you for leaving him with me, he’s been a blessing.”

“I doubt I could have got him away, short of cashiering or shooting him,” Paul said, going to bring brandy as Anne scooped up her child and left the room. “It’s good to have you back, I’ve missed you.”

“How’s Lord Wellington?” Johnny asked innocently and Paul set the glass on the table with an unnecessary clink and looked at him suspiciously.

“Did Jenson tell you?” he asked and Johnny laughed aloud.

“Not much, only that he’d managed to piss you off again.”

His commander sat down at his desk and picked up his glass. “I am over it,” he said with great dignity. “After a few hours of complete fury, I have begun to see the funny side. Sadly, I suspect that is not a view which is going to be shared by every other officer in this army.”

“What’s he done?” Johnny asked.

Paul reached across the table and picked up a letter. “Settle back and enjoy,” he said. “This is a memorandum which has been circulated to the officers of this army. Needless to say it is not going to stay within the officers of this army. I confidently predict it will be in every newspaper in London within the month and His Lordship’s gallant officers are foaming at the mouth in sheer rage at the slur cast upon them. I won’t read the first part, it concerns putting the army into cantonments for the winter and isn’t that interesting. But it gets funnier.” Paul drank some brandy, set the glass down, and began to read.

“I must draw your attention in a very particular manner to the state of discipline of the troops. The discipline of every army, after a long and active campaign, becomes in some degree relaxed, and requires the utmost attention on the part of the general and other officers to bring it back to the state in which it ought to be for service; but I am concerned to have to observe that the army under my command has fallen off in this respect in the late campaign to a greater degree than any army with which I have ever served, or of which I have ever read.”

“Oh Jesus,” Johnny said, setting down his glass. “Doesn’t he know what happened on the retreat to Corunna?”

“Well he wasn’t there,” Paul said fair-mindedly. “But I can’t see how he could have missed Badajoz. But it goes on.

“Yet this army has met with no disaster; it has suffered no privations which but trifling attention on the part of the officers could not have prevented, and for which there existed no reason whatever in the nature of the service; nor has it suffered any hardships excepting those resulting from the necessity of being exposed to the inclemencies of the weather at a moment when they were most secure.”

Johnny picked up his glass and drank, thinking about the bodies he had seen lying by the roadside, pulled apart by animals and birds, often naked after looting by both the locals and their own soldiers. “Should I hear the rest of this?”

“Actually, you’re obliged to; as your brigade commander – this is addressed to me, by the way – I am requested to share it with you.”

“You don’t have to enjoy it this much. My leg is aching again.”

“Put it up,” Paul said, shoving a wooden bench towards him. “Here, take this cushion and sit in respectful silence while I share the rest.

“It must be obvious, however, to every officer, that from the moment the troops commenced their retreat from the neighbourhood of Burgos on the one hand, and from Madrid on the other, the officers lost all command over their men. Irregularities and outrages of all descriptions were committed with impunity, and losses have been sustained which ought never to have occurred. Yet the necessity for retreat existing, none was ever made on which the troops had such short marches; none on which they made such long and repeated halts’ and none on which the retreating armies were so little pressed on their rear by the enemy.”

Johnny looked down at his injured leg, now supported on the bench on an elaborately embroidered cushion and said nothing as eloquently as he could manage.

“We must look therefore for the existing evils, and for the situation in which we now find the army, to some cause besides those resulting from the operations in which we have been engaged. I have no hesitation in attributing these evils to the habitual inattention of the Officers of the regiments to their duty, as prescribed by the standing regulations of the Service, and by the order of this army.”

Johnny felt an unexpected wave of sheer fury sweeping through him. He wanted to get up and leave but it was too difficult to stand. Instead he said:

“Stop reading this fucking letter, Paul, before I thump you with this stick, I’ve heard enough. How dare he sit there pontificating about my officers, it’s a good thing he’s hiding behind his fucking desk in the village because I’d like to shoot the arrogant Irish bastard right through his thick skull.”

Paul got up and went for more brandy. “You’re really not right yet, lad, are you?” he said sympathetically. “I’m sorry, I should have waited, you can hear the rest another time. Have another drink.”

“I don’t want a drink. Do we get any right to respond to this bollocks? I lost five good officers in the almighty fuck up that he created because he was too lazy or too arrogant to make proper provisions for a siege and a fair few good men besides. And I lost Pat Corrigan, who was a friend. The fact that, to my knowledge, none of our men died of exposure or hunger on that hellish march is due entirely to the care and attention of my junior officers who kept discipline, kept the line, managed their men and shared their last morsel with the sick and wounded. As did, may I say, most of General Alten’s light division. It’s a bloody disgrace.”

Paul put his hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder and refilled his glass. “Johnny, calm down. I thought I was bad when I first read it, but this isn’t like you. Don’t take it personally, he isn’t talking to you or me or any one of our officers and when I read this to them, because I’ll have to, I’m going to make it very clear that they all understand that. He knows what we did. He wrote this in a temper without thinking it through and it’s been sent to all of us because that’s how it works. It’s not aimed at you or me.”

“It’s still addressed to us though, isn’t it?” Johnny said.

Paul nodded. “At some point, when he’s calmed down, I’m going to point that out,” he said. “He’ll never back down or apologise, but he should at least be told the effect it’s going to have on morale, the stiff-rumped, bad-tempered, long-nosed Irish bastard.”

The tone of his commander’s voice inexplicably calmed Johnny’s fury. He drank more brandy and studied Paul. “Over it?” he queried and Paul laughed aloud.

“Getting over it,” he said. “Gradually. Nan forbade me to go over there until I could read it from start to finish without one single expletive. Clearly I’m not quite there yet. Want to hear the rest or shall we leave it there?”

“You might as well finish it,” Johnny said and Paul picked up the letter again and struck an oratorial pose.

“I am far from questioning the zeal, still less the gallantry and spirit of the Officers of the army, and I am quite certain that if their minds can be convinced of the necessity of minute and constant attention to understand, recollect, and carry into execution the orders which have been issued for the performance of their duty, and that the strict performance of this duty is necessary to enable the army to serve the country as it ought to be served, they will in future give their attention to these points.

“Unfortunately the inexperience of the Officers of the army has induced many to consider that the period during which an army is on service is one of relaxation from all rule, instead of being, as it is, the period during which of all others every rule for the regulation and control of the conduct of the soldier, for the inspection and care of his arms, ammunition, accoutrements, necessaries and field equipments, and his horse and horse appointments, for the receipt and issue and care of his provisions’ and the regulation of all that belongs to his food and forage for his horse, must be most strictly attended to by the officers of his company or troop, if it is intended that an army, a British army in particular, shall be brought into the field of battle in a state of efficiency to meet the enemy on the day of trial.

“These are the points then to which I most earnestly entreat you to turn your attention and the attention of the officers of the regiments under your command, Portuguese as well as English, during the period which it may be in my power to leave the troops in their cantonments. The commanding officers of regiments must enforce the orders of the army regarding the constant inspection and superintendence of the officers over the conduct of the men of their companies in their cantonments; and they must endeavour to inspire the non-commissioned officers with a sense of their situation and authority; and the non-commissioned officers must be forced to do their duty by being constantly under the view and superintendence of the officers.”

“Where is Carter just now, by the way?” Johnny interrupted. Suddenly he was beginning to be amused.

“No idea. Taking a holiday with his wife, according to Lord Wellington,” Paul said. “We’re going to need to draw lots to decide who is going to undertake the duty of constantly superintending Sergeant-Major Carter, by the way, because I am telling you now, it’s not going to be me. Maybe Manson could do it, he likes a challenge.”

“Get Michael to do it,” Johnny said. “He used to be an NCO, he’ll know all the tricks.”

“He taught Carter all the tricks,” Paul said. “But there’s more.”

“Jesus, what is this, a memorandum or a three volume autobiography? I’ll be drunk by the end of it.”

“You’ll certainly wish you were,” Paul said. “By these means the frequent and discreditable recourse to the authority of the provost and to punishment by the sentence of courts martial, will be prevented and the soldiers will not dare to commit the offences and outrages of which there are too many complaints when they well know the their officers and non-commissioned officers have their eyes and attention turned towards them.”

Suddenly Johnny was laughing. “Well that definitely wasn’t aimed at us,” he said. “The last court martial for any member of the 110th that I can remember attending was yours.”

“Shut up, or I’ll damage your other leg,” Paul said cheerfully. “The commanding officers of regiments must likewise enforce the orders of the army regarding the constant, real inspection of the soldiers’ arms, ammunition, accoutrements and necessaries, in order to prevent at all times the shameful waste of ammunition and the sale of that article and of the soldiers’ necessaries. With this view both should be inspected daily.

“In regard to the food of the soldier, I have frequently observed and lamented in the late campaign, the facility and celerity with which the French soldiers cooked in comparison with those of our army.” Paul had begun to laugh as well, now. “Mind, they use far too much garlic in it, you can smell them for miles when they’re trying to skirmish unobtrusively.”

Johnny was leaning back in his chair, tears of laughter running down his face. “George Kelly,” he croaked. “Can I be there when you tell him he can’t light a fire and get a meal cooked fast enough?”

“Once again, that duty is not mine. I’m delegating all of this to my officers and as my second-in-command, you get Kelly all to yourself. Stop it, you’re going to choke yourself.”

“I can’t help it,” Johnny said. “Is there much more?”

“Of course there is. Given Hookey’s attention to detail, you cannot think that he doesn’t go on to explain exactly what the men are supposed to do to improve the speed of their cooking; he’s an expert, you see him out there all the time with a mess kettle and a pound of beef in his hands. Do I need to read that part? He also explains how we should run field exercises and march ten to twelve miles a week to keep them fit.”

“Is that all?” Johnny wheezed. “It’s a holiday he’s offering them.”

“I’ll skip to the end; I’m worried about your health, here,” Paul said. “But I repeat that the great object of the attention of the General and Field Officers must be to get the Captains and Subalterns of the regiments to understand and perform the duties required from them as the only mode by which the discipline and efficiency of the army can be restored and maintained during the next campaign.”

Paul put the letter down, picked up his brandy glass and raised it. “I give you the Commander-in-Chief, Colonel Wheeler, in all his wisdom.”

Johnny drank the toast. “Thank God that’s over,” he said. “But seriously, Paul, this is going to send morale into the dust.”

“Morale is already in the dust after Burgos. This is just going to trample on it a bit. But they’ll get over it.” Paul set his glass down. “And of course, he’s right.”

Johnny studied him, thinking about it for a long time. “Yes, he is,” he said. “Just not in your brigade.”

“Our brigade, Johnny. Which is why we train all the way through winter quarters, keep them fit and healthy and teach the new recruits to throw up a camp, light a fire and cook a meal in half an hour. And since Alten took over, the rest of the light division is fast catching up, he’s an obsessive German perfectionist and he rides the lines as often as I do, which I love about him. Hill is very good. But a lot of the others don’t do it and because they don’t, it filters down. Wellington has been a complete arse about this, he should never have done it this way, especially after what they’ve just been through, but he is right about some of it.”

“This wasn’t the way to get them to listen,” Johnny said. 

“No. And I think by now he knows it, he’ll have calmed down. He won’t retract a word of it but he’ll probably find some other poor bastard to do the pretty with them and jolly them along and try to get the officers to understand what he’s really trying to say in the middle of all that scathing invective.”

There was another silence. “So when has he asked to see you about that, then, Colonel?” Johnny said.

“Thursday,” Paul said in hollow tones. “He has written with orders for me to speak at a general meeting of divisional and brigade commanders to explain how we do what we do and what they should do to achieve the same. The letter came earlier.”

“Oh bloody hell,” Johnny said. He was trying not to laugh. “You are about to be the least popular officer from here to South America. He’s going to stand you up there, wave that letter and point and by the end of it they’ll be thinking he wrote that with your enthusiastic support and encouragement.”

Paul picked up his glass. “And once again they will be referring to me as Wellington’s Mastiff, and dreaming up ways to get the French to shoot me,” he said. “Pass the brandy again, will you, Colonel?”

 

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyThe Peninsular War Saga is available on Kindle and will be available in paperback later this year.

Wellington’s Birthday

Arthur Wesley, later Sir Arthur Wellesley and still later the first Duke of Wellington was born on this day in 1769 and to celebrate Wellington’s birthday there will be a lot of articles and blog posts out there which tell the story of his extraordinary life far better than I can.

As my readers know, Wellington is a significant character in the Peninsular War Saga. I’ve read several different biographies of him during my research along with a huge number of contemporary diaries and letters from men who served under him and each account puts a slightly different slant on Wellington’s character. Over six books, I’ve developed my own view of Wellington. I rather suspect I owe a good deal to Rory Muir’s historical view of him but as a novelist, I have the flexibility to add my own nuances, especially with regard to his relationship with my fictional characters.

Today, as my tribute to Wellington on his 250th birthday, I’ve put together a collection of some of my own favourite Wellington moments from my novels. I hope you enjoy them.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyWe start in India, in an Unconventional Officer, when the young and newly promoted Paul van Daan fights under Wellesley at Assaye. At this stage, the two hardly know each other, but there is already a sense of some of the conversations to come…

“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.”

An Unwilling Alliance is not part of the main sequence of books, taking place during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807, but it is one of my favourites in terms of the development of Wellesley and Paul’s relationship. In this scene, Paul is in trouble for upsetting the Royal Navy and Sir Arthur Wellesley is not amused…

Sir Arthur Wellesley was furious.

Paul finally managed to find him alone in his sitting room the following day, writing a letter to London. He had been pleasant on Paul’s arrival but his face had steadily darkened as Paul told his story. He said very little apart from to bark a question when a point was not clear. Paul told the story in full.  There was no point in holding back; at some point the entire tale would come out. Paul suspected that by now the bosun from the Flight would be telling it to Admiral Gambier and he was fairly sure that the man would be telling a version that made him appear less culpable.

Wellesley had not asked him to sit down and Paul stood to attention, fixing his eyes on a spot on the wall as Wellesley allowed the silence to lengthen when the story was told. Eventually his chief spoke, in tones of pure ice.

“Am I expected to get you out of this particular mess, Major van Daan?”

Paul shifted his gaze to Wellesley’s face. “No, sir,” he said. “I don’t expect you to do anything at all. You needed to know, because the bosun from the Flight is going to tell the Admiral what happened and it is going to come back to you. I am sorry.”

“Sorry? Do you think that is enough? You effected an armed boarding of a Royal Navy ship, locked up the crew, threatened the captain of the Iris when he very properly came to take over and asked you to leave and kidnapped a group of men who had been legally pressed into naval service without making any attempt to speak to a senior officer in either service about…”

“I did make an attempt to speak to the Admiral, sir. I spoke to Captain Sir Home Popham.”

“Don’t interrupt me!” Wellesley snapped, furiously. “You deserve to be court martialled and cashiered for this, you insubordinate young imbecile! The situation here is difficult enough; we’re invading and threatening a neutral country, nobody knows who is in command or whether the army or the navy should be taking the lead, orders from London are slower than usual and nobody is telling me anything at all or listening to anything I have to say! Admiral Gambier has every right to be furious about this and every right to demand your stupid young head on a plate and if he writes to Horse Guards to that effect or even complains to Lord Cathcart, there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it. I am not in command here and I don’t have that much influence.”

Paul met his gaze. “I know. And I know you don’t want to hear it, sir, but I am genuinely sorry. I lost my temper.”

“When you were a twenty-one year old junior officer, Major, your outbreaks were mildly amusing, mostly because they caused no real damage. At your age and with your rank they are no longer funny.”

Paul could think of nothing to say. He suspected that he had genuinely gone too far this time. His friends had told him often enough that he could not continue to rely on Wellesley’s indulgence indefinitely. On this occasion he knew that his chief’s fury was exacerbated by his own frustration at being sidelined from the centre of events. Wellesley was ambitious and had pushed for this appointment, wanting to get away from his administrative and political duties in Ireland and back into combat where he believed he was meant to be.

Paul agreed with him. He had served under a variety of officers in both his early navy career and since joining the army and he had never come across any man whom he respected as he did the austere Anglo-Irish general. He had caught Wellesley’s eye in India when he was a young lieutenant and they had remained in contact since then, corresponding regularly. He knew that despite the twelve year age gap, Wellesley liked him and he returned his chief’s regard. They were friends, as far as it was possible to be friends with the distant, unemotional Wellesley and Paul tried hard not to trade on the fact.  

He had not consciously assumed that Wellesley would extract him from his current situation, but he realised that it had not occurred to him that the general might not be able to. In India and in Ireland, Wellesley had been in command. He was subordinate here to Lord Cathcart and the political situation made it difficult for him to demand immunity for a young officer’s rash disregard for the dignity of the navy.

“Nothing to say, Major?” Wellesley said finally.

Paul shook his head. “Not really, sir. I could make a very impassioned speech about the state of those men aboard that ship. I could point out that I wouldn’t have needed to get involved at all if they’d listened to me when I went to the flagship to tell them what was going on. I could work myself into a temper all over again about a system that pays bonuses for legalised kidnapping, but we all know that I’ve a personal axe to grind on that particular subject; the navy stole two and a half years of my life when I was a boy and you don’t want me to go into detail about what some of that was like, trust me. But none of that matters, because you’re completely right. I’m old enough and intelligent enough to weigh up the consequences of my actions and I didn’t. I went blundering in and I didn’t give a thought or a single damn about how I was going to get out of it. And it isn’t fair to expect you to put your neck on the block because I need to learn self-control. I am sorry. Let it take its course.”

There was heavy silence in the room. Outside it had begun to rain and Paul could hear the raindrops against the shutters, the wind whistling through gaps in the wood. He thought inconsequentially that it was typical of Wellesley to find himself in a billet that would be freezing cold at night and not bother to change it.

An Irregular RegimentIn An Irregular Regiment, Paul has married his second wife, who is something of a favourite of Wellington’s, and is preparing to join the army in chasing Massena out of Portugal, when Paul learns that his chief has a particularly interesting job for him…

“I imagine so,” Wellington said. “Really, Colonel, you never fail to surprise me.  With the Duke gone, Dundas is making his own appointments to my army and he has sent me Major-General Sir William Erskine, whom you will meet tomorrow at my reception.  He is to take over the light division during General Craufurd’s absence.”

Paul sat very still, staring at his commander-in-chief. He felt suddenly very sick.  Wellington looked back at him steadily. There was a long silence. Eventually, Wellington said:

“I know you are about to start swearing, Colonel.”

“I actually don’t know any words rude enough to cover this,” Paul said, taking a deep breath.  “Was this your idea or Horse Guards?”

“What do you think, Colonel?”  Wellington sighed.  “I have no choice but to accept him.  He is politically very well connected, of the right rank and knows the right people.”

“And according to popular gossip he is arrogant, inexperienced, blind as a bat and mad as a Bedlamite.  Are you seriously proposing to allow him to command troops at all, let alone Robert Craufurd’s light division?”

“I don’t have a choice, Colonel.”

“Why don’t you send him out in command of my light company for a couple of days, sir?  I can pretty much guarantee they will solve your problem for you.”

“Colonel, murder is not a solution I can countenance I am afraid.”

“What a shame.”

Wellington shook his head.  “I should know better than to confide in a relatively junior officer…”

“You should know better than to confide in me and expect me not to tell you what I think, sir.”

“It is my aim to cause as much damage to Massena’s army as possible, Colonel. I…”

“And the light division would be perfect for that, sir, if you had the right commander.”

“You’re too young and you don’t have the right connections.”

“Christ, I’m not suggesting you give them to me. Either Beckwith or Drummond are more than capable!”

“Colonel, my hands are tied.  He is here and I need to use him, at least until I can come up with a very good reason not to. I have given him limited command and he has not done as badly as I feared.”

“He’s not had much chance so far but if you get Black Bob’s division slaughtered under this lunatic, sir, I suggest you take leave of absence before he gets back, because he’ll shoot you,” Paul said shortly.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh come on, don’t tell me I’m here for a chat and a drink. I’ve spent four months working my arse off in Lisbon to get your army supplied, I’ve come back ready to fight and you are about to give me a job that you think I am going to yell about. How long have I known you, sir?  Cut line and tell me what it is.”

Lord Wellington was silent for some time and Paul studied him. He could almost see his chief considering the best way to phrase his orders, something he seldom did. Usually Wellington barked out instructions and expected them to be obeyed and the care he was taking over this made Paul’s heart sink.

“Very well. You’ll meet Erskine tomorrow. I want you and the 110th to operate under his personal command, in addition – but not as part of – the light division. You’ll provide him with ADCs, try to give him some guidance…”

“You have got to be fucking joking, sir!”

“Watch your language with me, Colonel.”

“My apologies, sir, it just slipped out. Is there something I’ve done recently to piss you off?  Because if there is, I wish you’d just tell me what it is and I’ll apologise. I have to be the worst person in the world for this job. Johnny Wheeler once told me I have the diplomatic skills of a five year old, and honestly, I think he was being generous.”

“Listen to me for a moment. You will be in the thick of the fighting. I want you to act as liaison between General Erskine and the light division but you’ll also be in a position to report back to me.  If things are going wrong, you are a man I trust to make difficult decisions without fear.  God knows you’ve made up your own orders often enough over the years.”

“Yes, in the heat of battle or when no other orders are available. I also fight very well under the command of a good general, by the way.”

“I know you do, Colonel, I commanded you at Assaye, Rolica, Vimeiro, Talavera and Bussaco. And you did exactly what you were asked to do on each occasion and you did it well. But at Assaye you went in to help the 74th before I could get to you to give the order.  And at the Coa you defied Robert Craufurd to double back and retake that knoll, saving the rest of his troops during the retreat. That is why I want you within reach of Major-General Erskine. Because you being there could save lives.”

Paul stared at his commander. “Tell me this is a joke,” he said, too angry to be polite.  “You are giving Robert Craufurd’s light division to a half blind lunatic with no experience of either war or command and you are expecting me to do what exactly?”

“Colonel, don’t lose your temper with me.”

“Sir, I have already lost my temper with you, telling me not to is only going to piss me off more.”

“The light division needs a commander. I have to do something with him, his family are too influential for me to ignore. At best he is inexperienced; at worst he might be dangerous.  So I’m putting him in charge of men who are going to be able to work round him.  Beckwith and Drummond are good men, used to Craufurd.  They’ll know what to do if he makes a mistake.  And if they don’t…”

“Sir?”

“If they don’t, you will,” Wellington said quietly.  “I’m putting the 110th under his direct command.  You’ll march with him, provide him with ADCs, make sure he’s where he should be when he should be.  And make sure that the light division knows what the hell is going on.”

Paul stood up and went over to the window.  “And what happens if that goes wrong?” he asked.

“It won’t.”

“It bloody well could and you know it. If I can’t manage him, my lads end up dead, possibly taking half the light division with them. And if I do manage to survive it, I’m neither senior enough nor well connected enough to survive what they’ll do to me at Horse Guards.   Either way you’re in the clear.  If I manage it, you’ll get a slap on the back and political points.  If I don’t, you stand back and point and I’m going down.”

“That is unfair, Colonel. I have always supported you, no matter how appalling your behaviour at times. Another commander would have left you to your fate after Copenhagen or sent you for court martial after the Coa.”

Paul was silent, aware of the truth of it. Wellington had always supported him when he had been in trouble, but he also understood that his chief would put the needs of his command ahead of any friendship. Paul had no problem with that; it was what he expected, but the idea of Erskine in charge of the light division appalled him and the idea that he was being expected to manage it, was worse.

“How long do you think it will be before General Erskine has me up before a court martial, sir?” he asked finally. “You know what I’m like.”

“I know you’re getting better at it. You can do this, Colonel van Daan,” Wellington said steadily. “You are probably the only man I would trust with it.”

“You’ve got a very funny definition of the word trust, sir.”

“I’ve never yet given you an order you’ve failed to obey,”

It nettled Paul as he knew it was meant to. “No. And you haven’t this time. I’ll do my duty, sir. It’s what I do. But you need to do something for me in return.”

“Which is?”

“Before we set off, I want to borrow your man of business. I need to get my affairs in order. And I need you to give me your word that if he gets me killed, you’ll make sure she’s all right.”

Paul had shaken his commander and he knew it. “Colonel…”

“Your word, sir.  I can get everything set up and ready for my lawyers at home.  But the only thing my family knows about her is that I married the widow of a thief and a deserter, practically over my wife’s grave. They’re not supportive of us and they don’t need to be.  Sooner or later they’ll meet her and get to know her and they’ll think it’s the best thing I ever did.  But at the moment she’s on shaky ground.  So if I die, I need you to use every piece of influence that you have to make sure she gets what she’s due.”

“I will.”

“You promise me.”

“Colonel you have my word on it.”

“And look after her.  Nobody else can do it. I don’t think any of them understands her yet the way you do, with the exception of Leo Manson and he’s too young.”

Wellington studied him for a long moment. Then he nodded.  “I will.  But it isn’t going to be necessary. You are better at this than you think you are, Colonel, I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t sure of that.”

“Well I appreciate your confidence, sir.”

“As to the rest, I give you my word that I will support you if you’re put in a difficult position over this. And I can, I’m not in command of the reserves any more. You take care of my light division until Craufurd gets back and if Erskine comes baying for your head, I will throw him out.”

Paul looked at his chief with troubled eyes. He wanted badly to believe him and he knew that Wellington was completely serious in his intention. He also knew that nothing meant as much to his chief as remaining in command and winning this war and he was under no illusions that he would put that aim ahead of anything else, probably including friendship.

“Thank you, sir,” he said finally, given that there was nothing more he could say. He saw Wellington visibly relax and wondered if the general had actually expected him to refuse.

“Excellent. I’ll expect you and your officers at the reception tomorrow evening, Colonel. Have you met General Erskine at all?”

“Not really, sir, I’ve seen him around.”

“Bring your wife.”

Paul eyed his commander in chief.  “Sir, when my wife hears about this one, you might be better off if I leave her at home,” he said shortly.  “But we’ll be there.  If you’ll excuse me, I’ll need to go and brief my officers about this.  They’ll need at least a day before they get over it enough to guarantee they’ll be civil.”

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroIn An Uncommon Campaign, Wellington is furious in the aftermath of the French garrison’s escape from Almeida while Paul is drawn into army politics in order to secure the promotion of a good officer…

“Don’t start asking difficult questions, Colonel.”

“I have to. Because if you don’t tell me the truth you know perfectly well that at some point something is going to happen that I don’t like and I’ll probably blow up about it when I ought to keep my mouth shut.”

Wellington sighed. “I would rather be dealing with your wife at this point,” he said.

“Well you can’t. I know she’s a better politician than I am, sir, but she’s not well.  What are you giving them that I’m not going to like?”

Wellington studied him for a long time. Then he rose and went to the decanter. He brought it to the table and poured two more drinks and sat down. “I am writing to London concerning this disgraceful affair of the Almeida garrison,” he said. “In it, I am listing the reasons I believe it to have gone wrong. What I will not be doing is hanging Sir William Erskine out to dry. Privately I intend to convey to Horse Guards that I could do so at any moment if I am asked to place yet another officer of dubious competence over a man of honour and ability. I am then going to tell them of my appointment of Lt-Colonel John Wheeler to full colonel of the 112th light infantry.”

“Light infantry?”

“May as well make it worth my while.”

“All right, sir.  And who, may I ask, is the chosen scapegoat?”

“Not a scapegoat, Paul.  Not in the sense you mean.  A lot of mistakes were made but the biggest was the bridge at Barba del Puerco. I sent out an order the previous day to General Erskine to send the 4th under Colonel Bevan out to the bridge. For reasons which nobody seems to be able to explain to me, Colonel Bevan did not go there. The result was that Brennier had free passage over the river.”

“I thought I’d heard that Bevan was there,” Paul said.

“He arrived in order to join in the attack on the retreating French troops. If his men had held the bridge as they should have…”

“Have you had this properly investigated?” Paul asked quietly.

“Is Colonel Bevan a friend of yours, Paul?” Wellington asked.

“Have you met Colonel Bevan, sir? He is a charmingly naïve gentleman with his head stuffed full of notions of honour and gallantry which make my hair stand on end and a tendency to sink into black despair on a regular basis. No, he’s not a friend. He disapproves of me. I frequently want to shake him. But he’s a good man and not a bad officer. And he has a reputation for being highly conscientious. If he’s actually being blamed here for something he didn’t do…”

“He isn’t. I’m not lying about anything, Paul. I’m just not stressing the obvious, which is that both Campbell and Erskine, who command divisions, ought to have been able to work out between them how to prevent the French from breaking out of Almeida and managing a night march on little known paths to cross into Spain. If you and Craufurd had been guarding Almeida for me he wouldn’t have got beyond the first line of your pickets.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Paul admitted. “So you let the commanders off the hook and blame poor Bevan for getting lost in the dark and quietly point out to Horse Guards how embarrassing it would be for them if their appointment – namely Erskine – should later turn out to have been grossly negligent. And then you bring up Colonel Johnny Wheeler and the 112th. Got any other favours you’re asking of them at the same time?”

“A more regular pay chest might be nice, Colonel, but I’m not optimistic.”

Paul drank.  “You were right. I bloody hate it and I wish I didn’t know anything about it.  But I want Johnny Wheeler commanding my men because he’ll keep them alive. What will happen to Bevan?”

“Nothing. God in heaven, Colonel, I’m not going to court-martial the man, he won’t be the first to make a mistake in this war. I would hate to be hauled over the coals for some of my recent choices at Fuentes de Oñoro. I’m not even going to give him a dressing-down in person. There will be a report in the London Gazette which might be embarrassing for him, but he’ll survive it. At some point he will do something gallant with his regiment and I’ll issue a commendation which will also be mentioned in the London Gazette and it will all be forgotten.” Wellington studied Paul. “There is another name which is going to suffer the same fate by the way but I doubt this one will distress you as much. General Erskine is placing some of the blame for the delay in my orders being sent onto Captain Longford.”

“Is he?  What is Longford supposed to have done?”

“He was at a dinner in Villa Formoso with the general when my orders were delivered. According to Erskine he told Captain Longford to deliver them to Colonel Bevan and the captain failed to do so for several hours.”

“Bollocks,” Paul said shortly. “Longford’s not that stupid. He’s trying to build himself a career out of this posting, if he got handed your orders he’d have taken them on the spot. What happened, Erskine put them in his pocket and forget about them?”

“We will never truly know, Colonel.”

“I’ll know, sir. Well it might put a brake on Vincent’s ambitions, but he’s used to that. He’ll smile and say the right things and keep kissing arses until it’s all forgotten. Do him good after what he did at Sabugal. Although it is bloody unfair that Erskine gets off scot free.”

“Paul – you can’t tell anybody about any of this. Not even your wife.”

“If I told Nan about this she’d crucify me,” Paul said bluntly.  “We share a passion for justice which I’m setting aside for Johnny and the 112th. Do I need to do anything about Grey?”

“No. Try not to hit him again. But he insulted your wife, another officer would have called him out. What did he say, by the way?”

“It involved Captain Cartwright.”

“Ah. Yes, that has caused a bit of gossip, Colonel. People are saying you are about to become the father of two children.”

“Is that what you meant about my morals earlier? If I’d fathered a bastard on Arabella Cartwright last year, sir, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation because my bloody corpse would have been found castrated in a ditch outside the nearest military hospital. And if she finds out what you and I have just done to Charles Bevan you might be right there next to me so you’d better be able to carry this off.”

In A Redoubtable Citadel, Wellington faces two bloody sieges within a few months and is particularly grouchy about his officers taking leave…

It had been a frustrating few weeks for the commander of the third brigade of the light division.  Arriving back at Wellington’s lines, Paul found his general in a foul mood, furious about delays in reinforcements arriving, problems with his supply lines and the slow progress of his siege train.  Wellington was still in Freineda, leaving it to the last possible minute to move his headquarters towards Badajoz.  He had spent weeks feeding disinformation to the French about his intentions and had been rewarded by a significant lack of troop movements towards the city, but he knew that once it became clear that he intended to invest the fortress and take Badajoz, the French would move to try to relieve it.  It was a delicately balanced strategy and Wellington found himself, not for the first time, short of men, money and equipment.  He was also short of a commander for the light division, General Charles von Alten having been delayed, and it was quickly clear that he expected Paul to step in to the breach.

Wellington’s senior officers greeted Paul’s return with evident relief, which told him all he needed to know about his commander’s mood during the past weeks.  Since the quick series of promotions which had led him to command a brigade at thirty, Paul had faced a good deal of resentment and opposition from some of the other officers.  He had heard himself described as a wealthy, middle class upstart who had bought his way to success but he was cynically aware of how much they relied on him to manage the commander-in-chief when he reached the point of addressing his generals with the biting sarcasm of a disgruntled Latin master speaking to a particularly dense first year.  The tone of his note requesting Paul’s return had been abrupt to the point of rudeness.

Paul was greeted with pleasure by his own officers.  He bathed and changed and took himself up to Wellington’s headquarters where his chief regarded him with a frosty eye.

“So you’re back?” he said with heavy sarcasm.  “I hope you’re well rested, Colonel?  I wouldn’t want to think I’ve interrupted your holiday too soon.”

“Well you did, sir,” Paul said frankly.  “My family brought my children out to see me, I could have done with another month to tell you the truth.  But the tone of this charming missive informed me I’d done as well as I was going to.  What’s going on?”

He dropped Wellington’s letter onto the table and stood waiting.  His chief picked it up and looked at it for a moment.  “Don’t you want to hold onto this, Colonel?  All my other officers are saving my briefing notes for their memoirs,” he said.

“No thank you, sir, I’ve had enough rude letters from you over the years to be able to recreate a generic bollocking without an aide memoire.  The only letters I hold on to are those from my wife.  She’s a better correspondent than you are, to be honest.  What’s the matter, siege train not arrived?”

“Nothing has arrived!” Wellington said.  “Get yourself a drink, for God’s sake and pour me one as well.  I thought you’d be in a better mood.”

“I was until I walked in here and you started yelling at me.”  Paul went to pour brandy and Wellington’s orderly grinned and effaced himself.  “Want me to tell you about our lovely parties in Lisbon?”

“You don’t need to; your wife wrote to me.  Her description of the Regent’s attempts at flirtation are the only thing that has made me laugh this month, she has a gift.  I wonder if she would accept a post as my secretary?”

“She isn’t going to accept any of the posts you’re likely to offer her, sir, since they would all lead to the same thing and I do not trust you with her.”  Paul put the glass down on the table and sat down without being asked.  “Tell me what’s been going on.”

In the most recent book, An Untrustworthy Army, Paul is put in charge of clearing the last French garrison out of the Retiro in Madrid and finds that he is expected to do so in front of an audience of cheering locals…

Dawn, and then full daylight, brought a new problem. The early sun lit up the astonishing spectacle of an audience.  The citizens of Madrid, some of whom had probably not been to sleep from the previous night’s celebrations, began to throng the streets close to the Retiro, ready to watch the attack on the interior lines. Others appeared on the roofs and balconies of nearby houses. Paul, trying to call his men into order to storm the breach in the wall, surveyed the area in complete astonishment.

“Jesus bloody Christ, we need the light division amateur theatrical group over here, it’d be the biggest audience they ever got. And probably the most appreciative. Where’s Lord Wellington, has he seen this sideshow?  Can we get them cleared out?  If the French decide to make a fight of this, people are going to get hurt. Major Swanson, we need to send a message down.”

It took thirty minutes for the reply to come, a brief and clearly exasperated message from Wellington. Paul read it and looked up at Carl.

“Apparently he’s made representations to the town council, but people aren’t willing to leave,” he said. “I feel my patience diminishing, which is never good.”

An enormous cheer greeted the manoeuvring of three companies of the seventh division into position.  The British soldiers echoed the cheers with a response of their own, drowning Sergeant-Major Carter’s shouted orders to his men about their position.  Carter took a deep breath and looked over at Paul.

“This is bloody chaos,” he said.  “They’re dopey bastards in there, mind, I’d have opened fire by now.”

“If they’ve got any sense they’ll surrender and hope we can get them out of here alive,” Paul said grimly.  “They’re not getting past our lads, but even if they did, these people will tear them to pieces.  Why the hell did Joseph leave them here?”

“Making a point, sir,” Captain Manson said. “He might have left his capital but he didn’t leave it undefended.”

“Two thousand men against the entire army isn’t a defence, it’s a present.”

Another enormous cheer swelled the crowd and Paul swore fluently.  “Carter, get them moving over to the right. Use hand signals if you need to. Any trouble with them, I’ll kick their arses personally. I don’t…ah look, we’ve company.”

Lord Wellington was approaching, making his way with some difficulty through the crowded streets, two young ADCs trying hard to make a path for him with their horses. Paul waited several minutes to be very sure that Wellington had got the point about the difficulties of conducting operations with a crowd of civilian spectators. When he suspected that his chief was on the verge of laying about him with a riding whip, he called over to Sergeant Hammond.

“Sergeant, get over there and clear a path for his Lordship, will you?”

Hammond was wearing his most deadpan expression. He saluted. “Right away, sir.”

Paul dropped his voice. “Don’t make it look too easy, Sergeant.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”

Wellington’s horse emerged finally from the throng which were being neatly held back by the 110th and Paul saluted his chief with a pleasant smile.

“Morning, sir, come to see the show?  I think they can find you space over on that balcony, and I must say I like the look of the pretty dark haired lass on the end, see if you can squeeze in next to her.”

“I will remember to mention to your wife how observant you are when she’s not around,” Wellington said smoothly, reining in and dismounting.  “Do not think that I am unaware of how long it took you to intervene there. Have you had a good night?”

“No,” Paul said briefly. His attention had been caught by a movement up at the fort, and he shielded his eyes from the brilliant early sun. “Is that…?”

“A white flag. I think so,” Wellington said. “I wonder if we might be able to avoid bloodshed after all? Signal that we will meet with them, Colonel. Let’s see if we can put an end to this.”

Lord Wellington, as a fictional character, is an enduring delight to write. His somewhat acerbic personality jumps out of the pages of his letters and orders and his perfectionism and attention to detail make it possible to include him in a novel about his army in a way that is far more difficult when writing about other commanders. Biographers have differed about his style of leadership, his abilities as a general and his personal relationships, and I have probably taken a little from each of them.

My Lord Wellington is a highly complex man who is capable of great warmth and kindness as well as appalling tactlessness. He finds personal relationships difficult, but is very loyal to those he considers friends. His relationship with my fictional officer, Paul van Daan, is central to the books, but equally important is his relationship with Paul’s young wife, who gradually becomes his friend and confidante in a way that foreshadows his future relationship with Harriet Arbuthnot.

I love writing Wellington and miss him in those books where he does not appear. As with all fictional accounts of real historical characters, I don’t claim to have ‘got him right’. None of us can really claim to know a man who was born 250 years ago, but as a novelist I have tried to create an interpretation of him that tallies with what we know of him from contemporary accounts.

Happy 250th Birthday Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington from one of your constant admirers.

The Munich Air Crash of 1958

One of the things that surprises people about me, is that I like football.

I grew up in London in the sixties and seventies, when football had something of a bad name, being inextricably linked with violence and hooliganism. West Ham was our local team, although many of the boys also supported other London teams; Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Millwall being the most common. There was no Sky TV, matches were shown on BBC and it was still easy and affordable to go to watch matches, with supporters crammed into the standing room on the terraces, carefully watched by rows of police. Trouble on match days was so common, we all knew not to get the underground east to go shopping at East Ham or Stratford when West Ham were playing at home. Back then I used to follow the teams my friends followed, without any strong allegiance to any one.

That changed when I moved to Manchester for a job just after finishing university, and discovered a city with a passion for football that I’d not really experienced before. I made friends locally and I can remember the atmosphere in the pubs when United scored. Still not a die-hard fan, I used to follow the league and was pleased when they did well.

My somewhat casual interest stayed that way for many years. I married a man whose interest in football can be measured in negative numbers, and it wasn’t until my son grew old enough to kick a ball and watch a match that I rediscovered football. Weekends were spent shivering in rain, sleet and biting winds watching him play. Gradually, his matches changed from the sight of a pack of six year olds all chasing a ball with no thought of passing or position, to real contests with tactics and skill and enormous passion.

I also rediscovered Manchester United. With my husband so firmly indifferent, it became my job to take my son on the annual pilgrimage to Old Trafford, and I’ll admit that I absolutely loved it. Football had moved on from the days of fights on the terraces and trouble on the underground, and travelling back from a match on the tram packed with celebrating United fans was a pleasure not an ordeal, although the cost had gone up alarmingly by then, making it impossible to do it regularly. Still, we had a great time, and I think it gave me a bond with my son which endures to this day.

These days, he’s a young adult with a job, a girlfriend and a pack of mates who all support different teams. His best friend is a Liverpool fan, which makes for some lively discussions at times. We still share the interest, though, and even if we don’t watch the matches together, we’ll still discuss the results, moan about the manager (it’s traditional) and worship David de Gea’s ability to save us from disaster yet again. Which is why on this day, at some point, we’ll probably sit down together and remember what happened in 1958 when twenty-three people, including eight young players from the Manchester United team, known as the “Busby Babes” died in a plane crash on a slush-covered runway in Munich.

The facts of the tragedy are fairly well known. The team was on its way back from a European Cup match in Belgrade where they had made it through to the semi-finals and the plane had stopped in Munich to refuel.  The pilots twice abandoned take-off because of boost surging in the left engine and there was some talk of needing to stay overnight in Munich. It was decided to make one more attempt to take off but by then, snow had fallen, leaving a layer of slush at the end of the runway. The aircraft hit the slush, crashed through a fence and tore off its left wing after hitting a house. The pilot, who survived, began evacuating passengers, fearing that the plane might explode. United’s goalkeeper, Harry Gregg risked his life to get survivors out of the wreckage.

There were forty-four people on the flight, including the team, the manager and some staff, a number of journalists and several other passengers. Twenty of them died at the scene and three more died in hospital. An investigation originally blamed the pilot, suggesting that he failed to de-ice the aircraft’s wings, despite eyewitness statements to the contrary. It was later established that the crash was caused by the slush on the runway, which slowed the plane too much to take off, and the pilot was cleared of all blame in 1968, ten years after the crash.

Manchester United were trying to become the third club to win three successive English league titles and were currently six points behind the leaders with fourteen games to go. They held the Charity Shield and had just reached their second European Cup semi-final and the team had not been beaten for eleven matches. The crash destroyed what is often considered to be one of the greatest generations of young players in English football history. Of the eight that died, the oldest of them was only twenty-eight. Matt Busby, the manager, survived his injuries but it took him ten years to rebuild the team. The new generation of ‘Babes’ won the European Cup in 1968.

The story of the tragedy is beautifully told at Old Trafford, both in the museum and in an exhibition in the tunnel outside. It is impossible not to be moved. Photographs, more than words, highlight how young they were. I think my son and I both had tears in our eyes the first time we visited. He would have been about nine, struggling to imagine how it would feel if he woke up to read that eight of his current football heroes had died together. Recently football lost another young star in a plane crash, and I’m thinking of Emiliano Sala as well today, a boy on the verge of a whole new adventure. Maybe their youth shouldn’t make it seem that much worse, but for me it does.

Reading about the tragedy again today, I can still feel it. The story has been told many times, but for me the two best depictions of it are in the made for TV movie, United, starring David Tennant, and in the documentary featuring Harry Gregg made in 2008, entitled One Life. Both of those can still reduce me to tears.

I wasn’t born at the time of the Munich crash, although I can remember hearing about it from a very young age from my parents. But for Manchester United fans, and probably for football fans generally all over the world it will never be forgotten. And this afternoon one middle aged woman on the Isle of Man will sit at her desk in silence for two minutes and think about the players and the other people who died on that flight more than sixty years ago.