Women in the Peninsular War

Women in the Peninsular War are a central theme of the novels I write and I have just finished reading an excellent book with that title by Professor Charles Esdaile. I have just finished reading this book properly for the first time, although I’ve dipped in and out of it for research for my novels for a while. Charles Esdaile has written an excellent account of the experiences of women of all nationalities and classes who found themselves caught up in the horror of the conflict in Portugal and Spain in the early nineteenth century.

This account looks at the situation of women from an economic and social point of view, both those trying to scrape a living in a land devastated by war and those who arrived in the Peninsula attached to armies of both sides. We look at a range of women; wives and prostitutes, sutlers and traders, women who made the most of their opportunities and women who suffered appallingly at the hands of both French and English armies. He looks at the stereotypical perceptions of Iberian women of the day and the effect this may have had on how they were treated and he supports his writing with a host of stories and examples from sources written at the time.

Women suffered during this war. They were subject to appalling conditions, loss of homes and livelihoods and frequently victims of rape. But this is not an account of victimhood. Professor Esdaile writes about survival and courage; about the things that changed for these women and the things that did not. Little is known about the women of the Peninsular War but this book gives them a voice and a character and is well worth a read.

I have tried to give the women of this time a voice in the novels. As a novelist rather than a historian, there is a delicate balance between telling a story which will engage modern readers and writing an unrealistic view of women in the early nineteenth century. Next month I am taking part in a panel at the Malvern Festival of Military History with other historical novelists, the title of which is “A Fine Line – turning historical fact into fiction” and the treatment of women in novels set during this period is an excellent example of this. As a modern woman writing about a different era, it is my job to portray conditions as they were, not as we would like them to have been. At the same time, Anne van Daan, the leading female character of the books, is a woman who was thrown, quite accidentally, into a situation which gave her opportunities to broaden her horizons and to discover talents and abilities that she would never have had the chance to use at home.

I have been asked questions about Anne and what she did during the novels and I’ve needed to answer them honestly. There is no record of any woman performing the kind of surgical operations in Wellington’s medical tents that Anne came to do during the war. Women could not be doctors. There was no formal training available to them and they would never have been allowed to practice.

Having said that, there is a fair amount of evidence that women were a common sight tending the wounded after battle. They were expected, as part of the deal for being allowed to accompany their men, to act as washerwomen, seamstresses and nurses. Most of the women who travelled with Wellington’s army were attached to the enlisted men either as wives, officially on strength or as informal companions. Many of them were local women who had simply taken up with the men with no formal arrangement. They lived hard and dangerous lives and went through incredible hardship. They suffered the privations of marches, bad weather, sickness and starvation. They often died and their children with them. Most of them, at some time or another, helped to tend the wounded.

It was less common for an officer’s wife but that was simply because there were very few of them with the army. If women joined their husbands they tended to remain away from danger in places like Lisbon and Oporto, forming a kind of ex-pat community while their husbands were at war. There were notable exceptions to this; Mary Scovell frequently joined her husband at headquarters when she was able and Juana Smith, the young Spanish bride of Captain Harry Smith of the rifles was at his side throughout the war. Juana definitely, on occasion, helped with the nursing and it was her example that first sent Anne van Daan in the direction I have given her.

To allow Anne to act as an unofficial doctor seems like a monumental step, but the reality is that with the agreement of both her husband and a couple of army surgeons hard-pressed and desperate for competent help, it is not impossible. Young and inexperienced trainees were sent out with virtually no training; they assisted, learned on the job and then went back to take their medical examinations as battle hardened veterans. We have very few detailed accounts of exactly what these hospital mates actually did but I suspect that in desperate times and as their knowledge and experience grew, they took on more advanced procedures without official qualifications. There is also mention in contemporary accounts of local doctors or even camp followers, unqualified but helping out when no other help was at hand. The army medical service was desperately under-staffed at times and it is not that much of a stretch to imagine the surgeons closing their eyes to what the wife of an officer was doing, especially when she was very competent, required no payment and got no official recognition. As to the matter of whether a nineteenth century woman was capable of such a thing, I have no reason to imagine that a young woman back then was any less capable than a female junior doctor today; she simply did not have the same opportunities.

The crucial point, and the fine line for me, in writing about a woman like Anne, is to ensure that her behaviour is not seen as normal or acceptable by everyone around her. While her very eccentric husband is genuinely proud of her and one or two of the army surgeons value what she does, there is a lot of disapproval and resentment among other surgeons and many of the officers. Anne does not fit into the army hierarchy and she is not supposed to. Occasionally this gets difficult for her but she persists because once she has escaped from the traditional bond of femininity she has no wish to go back.

I have given my heroine a role in Wellington’s army and I’m proud of her. However, I am very conscious that I don’t want to create some kind of army of Amazons fighting alongside their men. Women, for the most part, had very definite roles and were expected not to stray beyond them. They lived hard and dangerous lives and were subject to harassment and ill-treatment and sexual assault in an era where this was not viewed in the same way as we view it today. Once again, I have tried to depict their reality as sympathetically as possible, not denying their truth but not letting it define them either. While there are many examples of heroism in contemporary accounts, of both officers and men of both armies stepping in to defend a vulnerable woman, there are sadly just as often, accounts of the opposite happening. Stories of theft, violence and rape are sometimes mentioned so casually in diaries and journals that it takes a moment to realise what we are hearing. Some diarists express their horror, like Edward Costello at Badajoz. Others seem to see it as an inevitable part of war.

Overall the British troops had less of an appalling reputation than the French although this may have been due to lack of opportunity at times. There were penalties for crimes against the locals; Wellington did not want his armies seen as invaders but as liberators. However, given the societal norms of the time, one wonders how the mistreatment of a woman would balance against the theft of livestock.

I first came across this final story when I was researching courts martial for An Unwilling Alliance early this year and I found it repeated this week in a book about the rifle regiment as I was researching the Salamanca campaign. It is a sad little story and a version of it could have happened in any place at any time, but it says something to me about the position of women during the Peninsular War.

While the light division was quartered at Rueda for two weeks in the run up to the battle of Salamanca, a grenadier from the 61st regiment, Private Dennis Farrell arrived in search of a sergeant of the rifles who was serving with the light division. It appeared that Mrs Farrell had deserted her husband, leaving him to care for their two children, and run off with the sergeant. Nobody seems to know exactly what made Ann Farrell take such drastic action although it was rumoured that Farrell beat her.

When Farrell arrived he persuaded Ann to leave the camp to talk to him and spent some time trying to convince her to return to him. Ann, however, was having none of it. She was happier with her sergeant, who was good to her, and was enjoying life with the rifles. She appears to have been popular with the other women and both officers and men liked her; at informal dances she was apparently a favoured partner of General Vandeleur. She had no intention of going back to Farrell.

The next that the riflemen, camped nearby, knew of her, was a series of screams. By the time they reached her, Ann was beyond help, having been stabbed to death with her husband’s bayonet. Her husband had fled but the authorities caught up with him and arrested him at Fon Castin on 8th July 1812 for the murder of his wife.

Apparently, Private Farrell must have received some sympathy from the court martial, because he was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and received a sentence of twelve months’ imprisonment. When he had served it, he returned to his regiment and was killed the following year in action in the Pyrenees.

His wife was buried by the riflemen who were apparently sad at the loss as she had been popular in the regiment. I haven’t been able to find a record of what happened to the couple’s children but the fate of Ann Farrell is tragically not that uncommon even during modern times and the extremely light punishment inflicted on her husband may well be a reflection on the value placed on the life of a woman or it may be a realistic effect of the need for experienced men which made it more useful to send Private Farrell back into battle than to hang him.

Turning historical fact into fiction gives a novelist the opportunity to experiment a little, to throw in a few “what ifs” which it is difficult for a critic to disprove providing it is done within the context of the time. We know so much about the battles of Wellington’s army, about the weapons and the uniforms and the opinions of generals and politicians. What we cannot know is the thoughts and feelings of the vast bulk of men and women, marching through rivers and sitting by the campfire at night. We have a few voices out of the thousands, speaking to us through diaries and journals but most of them are silent. That silence gives us the opportunity to give them a voice of our choosing and researching what did happen and then imagining what might have happened is both a challenge and a reward of writing historical fiction.

The Malvern Festival of Military History takes place on 5-7 October 2018 and tickets are available here.

The next book in the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, will be available on Kindle from 30th November 2018 and in paperback by the end of the year.

The Retreat from Burgos

Burgos

The retreat from Burgos took place in torrential rain towards the end of 1812. It was a miserable end to a year which had seemed spectacularly successful for Wellington’s army. It may have appeared that the Allies had trudged back to the border with their tail between their legs but despite the anti-climatic end to 1812, Wellington established himself beyond all doubt in French minds as a general to be respected. During winter quarters his army rested and recovered and Wellington considered how to improve supplies, discipline and the overall health of his troops. By the start of the new campaigning season he was more than ready for a new advance into Spain with lessons learned and from that one, there would be no retreating.

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca
Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

After the bloody storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, Wellington finally met Marshal Marmont on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca and inflicted a crushing defeat. It was the culmination of weeks of manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring and it seemed for a time that Wellington would decide not to give battle, but he was quick to spot a weakness in the French line and Marmont’s army was swept aside.

Wellington’s army marched on to Madrid and King Joseph evacuated his capital, leaving the Anglo-Portuguese army to enter as liberators on 12th August. Joseph’s army retreated as far as Valencia. Wellington was hoping that a combination of weather, exhaustion, supply problems and the traditional squabbling and disharmony between leaders would keep the various sections of the French army apart. He relied on the Spanish to keep the French busy in the north while he laid siege to the castle of Burgos.

Wellington was caught off guard by how quickly Clausel was able to rally the defeated French army. The French initially marched on Valladolid causing General Clinton to fall back and the Spanish to abandon the town. Wellington attempted to pursue Clausel but the French fled out of reach. With a wary eye on the various French armies, Wellington left General Hill to defend Madrid with three divisions while he set about reducing Burgos.

Wellington had around 35,000 men and the siege began on 19th September. The defenders were commanded by General Dubreton and consisted of around 2,000 troops. Wellington, however, was seriously short of heavy guns; some historians believe he had only three 18 pounders while others assert that he had more locally captured cannon. He was also short of trained engineers and sappers, many of whom were either killed or wounded during the siege operations.

On the evening of 19th September, Wellington ordered an attempt on the San Miguel hornwork, which guarded the fort’s northeast approach. It was a brave move considering the lack of artillery support but the Allies were able to capture the hornwork although they lost 421 men killed and wounded, to a loss of 138 killed and wounded on the French side. The Allies took 60 prisoners and 7 guns.

Wellington’s engineers began digging in batteries on the hornwork hill. The first of these was finished on 22 September but possibly hoping for another quick success, Wellington ordered an attack on the same night before his guns had had a chance to fire. 400 men from his first and sixth divisions attacked the palisades with axes and then ladders but were easily repulsed to the loss of 150 killed and wounded.

The engineers dug a mine under the fort’s west wall which was detonated in the early hours of 29th September. Once again a British advanced party attempted the breach, but received no support and were driven back. It was realised that the wall was an ancient structure and not part of the main French defences. Wellington set his engineers to dig a new mine and his troops to build a breaching battery but this was immediately destroyed by French artillery. The same thing happened the following day, with both guns and gun crews lost. On 2nd October, Wellington finally sent to Sir Home Popham for more guns to replace them but they were destined not to arrive in time to be of use.

The second mine was fired on 4th October, blowing a gap in the north-west wall and killing a number of the defenders. Wellington’s army attacked once more and managed to secure a tentative position in the outer defences but with the loss of 220 men killed and wounded. The Allied army set about digging a new trench against the inner defences but the French made a surprise attack on 5th October, killing and wounding more than 110 men and removing or destroying most of their equipment. The digging resumed on the following day but the French attacked again on the 8th and Wellington lost another 184 men. It had begun to rain heavily, flooding the trenches and the Allied guns were running out of ammunition. All the time, Wellington was receiving reports of the movements of the French armies and racing against the clock.

Time ran out after another failed assault on 18th October. With another 170 casualties and nothing gained, Wellington was aware that the French army was approaching and he risked being overrun. Reluctantly he abandoned the siege and prepared to retreat, having gained nothing and lost 550 dead, 1550 wounded and three guns.

Marshal Soult had finally connected with King Joseph and had moved towards Madrid with around 61,000 men. In the north, General Souham’s Army of Portugal had around 53,000 men. Wellington had around 73,000 troops, around 35,000 at Burgos, 20,000 at Toledo under General Hill and another 18,000 under General Charles von Alten in Madrid. Wellington had instructed the Spanish general, Ballesteros to stop Soult’s move but Ballesteros was offended that Wellington had been offered the supreme command in Spain and refused to obey. No support came from the 8,000 Anglo-Sicilian troops under Maitland in Alicante on the east coast and Wellington was in a dangerous position, cut off from Hill. The River Tagus, which he had hoped would provide a barrier at this time of year was unusually low. The Allied army was in serious trouble.

Wellington raised the siege on 21st October and slipped away, unnoticed by the French until the following day. Souham followed, and a series of small actions were fought between pursuers and pursued over the following week. On 29th October, the French took the bridge at Tordesillas and Wellington needed to order a full retreat. He sent instructions to Hill to abandon Madrid and join him.

After a skirmish with Soult’s advance guard on 30th, Hill withdrew to Alba de Tormes, and Joseph re-entered Madrid although he was so keen to destroy Wellington’s army that he left immediately without even leaving a garrison. Hill and Wellington joined up near Alba de Tormes on 8th November and on 15th found themselves facing 80,000 men under Soult across the old Salamanca battlefield. On this occasion Soult did not take the bait and Wellington began retreating west later that day.

Supply arrangements for Wellington’s army went badly wrong. The competent quartermaster-general, Murray, had returned to England and his replacement, Willoughby Gordon, lacked his organisational talents and imperturbable efficiency. The Allied troops marched for four days in torrential rain with little or no food. Surprisingly, Soult sent only his cavalry after the Allies but the French took hundreds of prisoners among the stragglers and many men died of hunger or exposure.

The Allied army reached Ciudad Rodrigo on 19th November with around 5,000 men missing. Wellington was back where he had started and it seemed for a time that some of the magic of his reputation had been lost. Wellington himself spent the winter concentrating on what had gone wrong and how it might be righted before the next campaigning season. He was furious at the breakdown of both logistics and discipline during the retreat and he was determined that it should not happen again.

Historians differ about the reasons for some of Wellington’s actions during this campaign but most appear to agree that Wellington made a serious mistake in attempting the siege of Burgos without a proper siege train and enough guns, ammunition and equipment. He himself later suggested that he had made a mistake in leaving his three best and most experienced divisions around Madrid, but it seems doubtful that even the third, fourth and light divisions could have taken Burgos with the means and the time available.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of WellingtonRory Muir, in his biography of Wellington, gives the following assessment:

“The essential fact is that Wellington should never have left himself so short of means; at the very least he should have summoned a proper siege train as soon as he had reconnoitred the fortress. The combination of lack of foresight and poor judgement was most untypical. The army suffered over 2,000 casualties in the siege, its morale deteriorated greatly and the French armies were left undisturbed to prepare their counter-offensive. It was the worst mistake of Wellington’s military career.”

The fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, tells the story of the battle of Salamanca and the retreat from Madrid and Burgos from the perspective of Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the light division and is due for publication on 30th November on Kindle and at the end of the year in paperback.

The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh

Fa’side Castle, Pinkie Cleugh by Kim Traynor (Wikimedia)

On September 10th 1547 the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was fought on the banks of the River Esk near Musselburgh in Scotland. It was the last pitched battle between Scottish and English armies and took place during the wars of the Rough Wooing. The Scottish defeat was so severe that it became known as Black Saturday in Scotland.

At the end of his reign, Henry VIII was keen to marry his young son, Edward to the baby Mary, Queen of Scots. Diplomatic efforts failed as the Scots preferred a French alliance, so Henry invaded Scotland to secure the young queen, sparking the conflict which became known as the Rough Wooing. When Henry died soon afterwards the war was continued by the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.

Somerset was keen to pursue the policy of pushing Scotland into an alliance by marrying Mary to Edward and hoped to force an Anglican Reformation onto the Scottish church. In September 1547 Somerset led his army into Scotland, supported by a large fleet. He marched along the east coast of Scotland to keep contact with the fleet in order to secure his supplies. His troops were constantly harassed by local horsemen but their advance could not be stopped.

Meanwhile, to the west, Thomas Wharton and the Scottish Earl of Lennox, who chose to support the English invasion, invaded with 5000 men in an intended diversion, burning Annan and taking Castlemilk. The Earl of Arran had raised an army which consisted mostly of local pikemen and some Highland archers. He had some guns although these were not mobile enough to be particularly useful, and 2000 cavalry under the Earl of Home, consisting mainly of Borderers, whose loyalty tended to be somewhat fluid.

Arran decided to make his stand on the west bank of the River Esk to stop Somerset’s march. His left flank protected his left flank and a boggy area was on his right. The Scots constructed basic fortifications to mount cannon and arquebuses, some of which were pointed into the Forth to keep English ships at bay.

Part of Somerset’s army took possession of Fawside Hill to the east of Arran’s position on September 9th and later in the day, occupied the Inveresk Slopes with guns, overlooking the Scottish position. Lord Home, in a dramatic and pointless gesture, led 1500 cavalry towards the English and challenged them. Lord Grey accepted the challenge and led a force of men-at-arms and demi-lancers against the Scots. The Scots were routed and pursued for three miles westwards, depriving Arran of the bulk of his cavalry. During the night further challenges were issued, one from Arran asking that the dispute be settled by single combat between Arran and Somerset and a second for a battle between 20 champions from each side. Somerset rejected both of these anachronistic proposals; he was probably astonished that they had been made at all.

On the morning of Saturday, 10 September, Somerset moved his army to join up with his guns at Inveresk. He realised that Arran had moved his army across the Esk by the Roman bridge and was marching rapidly to meet him. Arran knew that he was badly outgunned in terms of artillery and hoped to force close combat before the English guns had time to deploy. Unfortunately, this advance moved him out of the protection of his guns on the Forth and the Scottish left flank was badly mauled by fire from the English warships.

The Roman Bridge over the Esk where some of the fleeing Scots came under heavy fire (Kim Traynor, Wikimedia)

Thrown into confusion, Arran’s left wing crashed into his centre while on the other flank, Somerset send in his cavalry. The Scottish pikemen drove them back, inflicting heavy casualties onto the cavalry and Lord Grey was wounded by a pike through his throat. Despite this success, the Scottish advance had faltered and their army was now under heavy fire from the warships as well as English artillery and archers. Unable to stand any longer they broke and ran, just as the English cavalry, which had regrouped, joined the battle, preceded by the English vanguard of 300 men under Sir John Luttrell. The fleeing Scots were chased towards the Esk and into the bogs. Many were drowned or slaughtered while trying to escape and the retreat turned into a bloody rout.

The Scottish army was shattered but their government stubbornly refused to come to terms with the English. The young Queen was sent into hiding as Somerset occupied Scottish castles and towns along the border and held large swathes of territory in the Borders and Lowlands. Still the war dragged on, costing men and money, and Somerset was distracted by political problems at home. On 7th August, Mary sailed to France from Dumbarton and French troops were beginning to arrive in Scotland to support their allies. The war formally ended with the Treaty of Norham on 10 June 1551 and the last English troops were withdrawn from Scotland.

Despite the disaster at Pinkie Cleugh, the English failed to achieve their aims and probably felt that the war had resulted in a waste of men and money. The Franco-Scottish alliance went ahead, and Mary was married to the young Dauphin of France. She remained in France until her young husband unexpectedly died in 1560 and suddenly, the marriage of the Scottish queen became, once again, a matter of interest to England, now under the very different rule of her cousin Elizabeth. While the battle’s political consequences were slight, military historians have given it a greater significance as what may be seen as the first ‘modern’ battle on British soil, an idea explored in more detail in this article by Gervase Phillips originally published in Military History magazine in 1997.

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders
A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

My own introduction to Pinkie Cleugh, which I had never heard of before, was in the first of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles A Game of Kings, where the battle is a key point of the story. The battle is significant in A Marcher Lord, set on the Borders during the War of the Rough Wooing where defeat at Pinkie Cleugh sends Will Scott back to his border fortress along with many other loyal Scots to try to hold it against the invading English. I love the Scottish borders and have spent many hours walking the hills and driving through the valleys, my feet in the present and my head very much in the past. There is an excellent battlefield walk which I would recommend to anybody visiting the area, and especially on a misty day as it was when I visited, it is very easy to imagine the sound of guns, the clashing of pikes and swords and the screams of dying men and horses on that Saturday in 1547…

Threat to the Bosworth Battlefield Site

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

Hi guys,

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

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

The Hinckley Club
Rugby Road
Hinckley, Leicestershire
LE10 0FR

 

Threat to Bosworth Battlefield
The Battlefields Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hinckley Club
Rugby Road
Hinckley, Leicestershire
LE10 0FR

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

 

The Battle of Vimeiro, 1808

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Salamanca

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca206 years ago today, Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army won a stunning victory at the battle of Salamanca. In honour of the anniversary, I wanted to share a short excerpt from the first chapter of my next book. An Untrustworthy Army is the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga and follows Colonel Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the  light division into Spain…

June 1812

It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which had battered down on the Anglo-Portuguese army as they sat on the edge of the city of Salamanca, setting up a ferocious artillery fire which was designed to pound the city, a major French supply depot, into submission. The French had converted four convents into temporary fortresses and had settled initially to wait for reinforcements. Lord Wellington’s guns were neither numerous enough or powerful enough to subdue the fortifications, but he had more than enough men to blockade the city and with no reinforcements forthcoming, the French had surrendered.
“Thank God for that, we do not need another Badajoz,” Colonel Johnny Wheeler commented to his second-in-command, as they took their places in the triumphal procession into the city. “Pretty place, this, and at least they’ve the sense to appear welcoming, whatever they might actually think.”
Major Gervase Clevedon glanced at him with a grin. “Won’t stop a few wine shops losing half their stock tonight,” he said. “But if they’ve any sense at all the taverns will do a good trade. The brothels certainly will, I’m not expecting many of my lads to be around camp tonight unless they’re on sentry duty. I’ve told them I want half in and half out, they’ve drawn lots as to who goes first. If the first lot don’t come back in the morning, I think I can rely on the second lot to go and get them.”
Wheeler was laughing. “Gervase, what happened to us? We used to be such correct young officers, I swear to God I once had a man flogged for drinking on duty.”
“They still don’t drink on duty, sir, he’d kick them into the river. And I for one wouldn’t go back. We were a regiment of outsiders, the 110th, new-fangled and pretty much laughed at by half the army back in India. Some good lads, mind, but no identity to speak of. As for the 112th it was in so much disgrace when it came back from the Indies most people thought it was going to be disbanded.”
Wheeler ran his eyes over the neat ranks of the 112th. “I know. Look at them now, up here with the light division’s finest. Jesus, it’s hot. I wish they’d get going.”
Clevedon was beginning to laugh. “I think you might find,” he said cautiously, “that the victory parade is being held up, while Colonel van Daan’s wife’s maid locates her missing hat.”
Wheeler broke into laughter as a pretty brown haired woman in a sprigged muslin gown sped past them carrying a fetching straw hat trimmed with silk flowers. “Get a move on, Teresa, we’re dying of heat stroke out here,” he called.
Teresa Carter looked back over her shoulder, laughing. “I do not know why he bothers, she will have lost it before they get into the Cathedral,” she said.
At the head of the 110th, Colonel Paul van Daan took the hat from Teresa with a smile of thanks and turned to his wife.
“Put it on,” he said in tones of considerable patience. “Keep it on, I am not having you with sunstroke. Or I will spoil Lord Wellington’s lovely parade by tipping you off that horse into the river.”
“I’m not sure I’d mind that just at the moment, it might be cooler,” his wife said, tying on the hat at a particularly fetching angle. “Jenson, would you ride up and tell Lord Wellington thank you for waiting? The colonel has a mania about my hats, I cannot tell you what a bore it is.”
Paul’s orderly grinned and spurred his horse forward. Much of the army was settled in sprawling cantonments on the edge of Salamanca, but several regiments had been selected to form part of the parade into the city. This would lead to a Te Deum in the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor would be illuminated during the evening while Lord Wellington and his officers were entertained by the Spanish grandees of the city to a civic banquet and fireworks.
“You would think,” Paul’s wife commented, drawing up beside him, “that the Spanish would have had enough of fireworks given that the French seem to have blown up entire sections of their city to build fortifications. Since being with the army I have found that things exploding in the sky have taken on a whole new meaning for me.”

 

Haunted Castletown

Castle Rushen
Castle Rushen, on the Isle of Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Home Riggs Popham

Portrait of Sir Home Popham in the museum

Sir Home Riggs Popham, who features in my recent book, An Unwilling Alliance, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve read about during my research and I am completely unable to make up my mind how I feel about him. As a novelist rather than a historian, I need to be able to present a historical figure in a way that is believable and fits in with the perspective of my fictional characters, but in the case of Popham I find my heroes as ambivalent as I am.

Popham had a wide and varied career and was the subject of much controversy during his lifetime. He was the subject of one court martial and several different investigations, none of which seemed to hold back his career to any great degree. He was a naval officer who seemed more comfortable with the army and was both admired and disliked by contemporaries. The Duke of York applauded his ability while Lord St Vincent seems to have loathed him. He was ambitious, talented and clearly very intelligent but seems to have had the kind of personality that made enemies as easily as friends.

Popham was born in Gibraltar in 1762 to Joseph Popham, consul at Tetuan. His mother died giving birth to him and his father later remarried. Between his two wives, Joseph Popham had twenty-one children. Home Riggs Popham was educated at Brentford School and then at Westminster and appears to have been admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, although it is not clear how much time he actually spent there. In 1778 at the age of 16 he entered the navy as a captain’s servant on board the Hyaena.

Popham’s early career in the navy was fairly typical. He was involved in a number of skirmishes and spent a few months as a prisoner of the French in 1781. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1783. Aboard the Nautilus in 1786 he was responsible for surveying the coast of south-west Africa, building a reputation as an excellent hydrographer.

Progress in the navy was often slow. There were more officers than good commands and many excellent men were unemployed and on half-pay awaiting a ship, including Popham in 1787. Obtaining leave from the Admiralty, he bought his first ship and sailed for India as a trader. He operated to and from India for several years, marrying the daughter of an East India Company officer, Elizabeth Prince, in 1788. During these years he continued with his surveying work, later publishing A Description of Prince of Wales Island with charts. He also discovered a new channel between the island and the mainland through which, in the spring of 1792, he piloted the company’s fleet to China and he was presented with a gold cup by the governor-general in council, who also strongly commended him both to the directors and the Admiralty.

Popham’s commercial activities, however, were causing some suspicion and in 1791 his ship was seized by an English frigate as a prize of war, brought into the Thames, and condemned as a droit of Admiralty for having traded in contravention of the East India Company’s charter. The case was far from clear and Popham appealed, eventually receiving £25,000 over a period of time, which left him with considerable losses. There were rumours that he had been smuggling. He had also failed to renew his leave and was consequently temporarily struck off the lieutenants’ list although he was reinstated in 1793.

In September of that year, Popham was appointed agent for transports at Ostend for the campaign in Flanders under the Duke of York. It was a job to which he was ideally suited, with his excellent organisational skills and understanding of logistics. He formed a corps of sea fencibles to defend Nieuport and distinguished himself to such a degree that on 27 July 1794 the Duke of York requested of the Admiralty that he be appointed superintendent of inland navigation and promoted to commander, an honour which earned him the nickname of ‘The Duke of York’s admiral’.

When the Allied forces retreated in 1795, Popham was in charge of the evacuation and proved himself so competent that in March of that year the Duke wrote to the First Lord requesting that Popham be promoted to the rank of post captain. It is very likely that this rapid promotion at the request of the army engendered some resentment among Popham’s naval colleagues.

During the invasion threat of 1798, Popham set up and commanded a district of sea fencibles. In May he submitted a plan for destroying the Saas lock at Ostend and was given, command of the expedition. The lock was destroyed, but because of worsening weather, the troops under Major-General Eyre Coote could not be re-embarked, and were obliged to surrender. The following year, Popham was sent to St Petersburg to attempt to persuade Tsar Paul to provide troops for a proposed landing in the Netherlands. He took the tsar and his family sailing which they apparently enjoyed so much that they presented Popham with a gold snuff-box and a diamond ring, and the tsar made him a knight of Malta. Popham secured the force needed and returned to England.

Later that year Popham was once again involved in inland navigation as an allied force under General Sir Ralph Abercromby landed on the Helder peninsula. It was poorly supported by the 10,000 Russian soldiers sent by the tsar and the campaign ended with another evacuation which Popham managed with his usual flair. He was awarded a pension of £500 a year and send back to Russia to try to mollify the tsar although Paul, furious at the failure of the campaign, refused to see him.

Back at sea, Popham began working on another project; the signalling system for which he is perhaps best known. His Telegraphic Signals, or Marine Vocabulary, provided ships with a flag system containing letters, words, and common phrases and enabled captains to communicate effectively. Popham’s code, was used by Nelson and his frigates at Trafalgar. It did not immediately supplant the official Signal Book for the Ships of War but was used to supplement it. Popham continued to improve the code over the next twelve years and it was widely used, finally being officially accepted by the Admiralty in 1812.

At the end of 1800 Popham commanded a troop ship with Abercromby’s army invading Egypt. Once there, he was commissioned by a secret committee of the East India Company to negotiate trade treaties with the sheriff of Mecca and other Arabian states as ambassador directly responsible to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Wellesley. Popham was successful only with the Sultan of Aden. In addition he continued his surveying work, later publishing an excellent chart of the Red Sea.

On his return to England in1803 Popham found himself at the centre of another controversy, accused of having incurred ‘enormous and extraordinary’ expenses on repairs to his ship, the Romney in Calcutta. A series of investigations followed, during which Popham published A concise statement of facts relative to the treatment experienced by Sir Home Popham since his return from the Red Sea to rebut the charges. It appears that the case may have been fabricated by Lord St Vincent’s secretary, Benjamin Tucker, in the hope of currying favour and trading on the First Lord’s well-known dislike of Popham. The matter finally went to a select committee of the House of Commons which reported that the figures had been grossly exaggerated and Popham was innocent.

Popham had political ambitions and hoped to become a lord of the Admiralty. He served as a Pittite MP in several different constituencies between 1804 and 1812 and some of his naval appointments were undoubtedly the result of political favour. With his wide variety of interests, Popham became interested in the invention of ‘submarine bombs’ which proved unsuccessful in practical use. He also took an interest in the idea of attacking the Spanish colonies in South America, an idea which had been debated for some years, and in 1804 submitted a paper on the subject to William Pitt, after meeting the Venezuelan patriot, Francisco Miranda.

At the end of 1804 Popham was appointed to the Diadem and in August 1805 he sailed as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope with a force under General Sir David Baird. The operation was a great success, with Popham leading his marine battalion during the attack, and the Dutch surrendered the colony. The squadron remained in Table Bay to guard against a possible French attack.

At this point, Popham conceived the idea of making an attack on the River Plate. Presumably he assumed that with the Tories, led by William Pitt, his patron, in power, he could expect tacit approval, particularly if he were successful. Reluctantly Baird allowed him to take 1200 men; the squadron sailed and at St Helena, Popham ‘borrowed’ a further 180 men. There he heard that Pitt was dead, but not who had replaced him.

 On 25 June 1806 the small force under the command of Brigadier-General William Carr Beresford landed near Buenos Aires. With the addition of the marine battalion it totalled 1635 men. The Spanish were surprised and there was very little immediate resistance. The city surrendered on 2 July and Beresford took possession. Popham sent an enthusiastic open letter to the merchants of England announcing this lucrative new market for their goods. He had spoken too soon, however. By 10 August a force of 2000 Spaniards entered the city, overran Beresford’s men and took them prisoner. Popham and his squadron could do nothing but blockade the river and wait for reinforcements.

On 3 December, with reinforcements arriving, Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling arrived to with orders for Popham to return to England. On his arrival on 20 February 1807 he was put under open arrest to await court martial on two charges: of having withdrawn his squadron from the Cape without orders; and of having launched his Argentine enterprise ‘without direction or authority’.

Typically for Popham, this incident received a mixed reception. In Argentina, Popham is often seen as the catalyst of the independence which followed the invasion. To the Admiralty he was an officer who had acted improperly; to the City of London he had made a bold attempt to open up new markets, and he was presented with a sword of honour. He was tried at Portsmouth in March 1807, was found guilty and severely reprimanded.

Surprisingly, Popham’s career does not seem to have suffered from this. In July he was appointed captain of the fleet with Admiral James Gambier in the expedition against Denmark, and this is where we meet him in An Unwilling Alliance. Several other captains, including Hood, Keats and Stopford apparently protested at this appointment although it was probably Popham’s experience in joint operations which caused Gambier to ask for his appointment. Popham was one of the three officers appointed to negotiate with Denmark at the end of the bombardment, along with Wellesley and Murray.

Popham’s next command was of the 74 gun Venerable during the disastrous Walcheren campaign. Popham’s role in this particular fiasco was interesting, since he seems to have been heavily involved in the planning of the expedition. The blame for the failure of the campaign, which should probably have been shared between the army, the navy, the planners in London and sheer bad luck landed squarely on the shoulders of the army commander Lord Chatham even though the enquiry officially exonerated him, but there may well have been some issues with the planning of the expedition from the start.  Dr Jacqueline Reiter, who has written a biography of Lord Chatham, points out in this post that although there was inevitable recrimination between the army and the navy after the campaign, Lord Chatham seemed to consider the Admiralty planning of the expedition responsible for the disaster, something with which Popham was undoubtedly involved.

Whatever the truth of the Walcheren fiasco, Lord Chatham’s active military career was over while Popham, still in command of the Venerable, was sent to northern Spain to assess possibilities for co-operating with the guerrillas and conducting a kind of naval guerrilla warfare against the French in support of Wellington. He was highly successful at this, keeping an entire French army ‘distracted’, and capturing Santander.

Popham seems to have received very little recognition for this achievement much to his disappointment. There is speculation that his controversial career had finally caught up with him. At the end of the war he was promoted to rear-admiral and made KCB but he was not employed on active service again. He seems to have lost whatever political influence he had once had and had made too many enemies during his colourful career.

From 1817 to 1820 he was commander-in-chief in Jamaica. They were not good years for Popham. He suffered badly from yellow fever and lost one of his daughters to the illness. His son, Home, also died of some kind of pulmonary illness. In 1818 Popham was made KCH but his health was failing. In June 1820 he suffered a series of strokes and wrote to the Admiralty asking to be relieved of his command.

Sir Home Riggs Popham and his wife sailed for England on 15 June. They arrived at the end of July and on 11 September, at Cheltenham, Popham died of a third stroke at the age of only 58. He was buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels at Sunninghill in Berkshire, close to his home, Titness Park. His wife died in Bath, aged ninety-four in 1866. They were considered to be a devoted couple.

The brief sketch I have drawn of Popham in An Unwilling Alliance is not enough to give a full picture of the man and I have a feeling I have a lot more to learn about him. Popham was clearly an intelligent and inventive officer whose achievements are quite remarkable. His work on naval communications was ahead of his time, his work at the Admiralty on the chart committee helped establish the excellent reputation of Admiralty charts. He was a scientific officer with a considerable talent for organisation and often worked better with the army than with the navy. He was a good captain, a loving husband and an affectionate father.

And yet there is always something else about Sir Home Riggs Popham. Suspicion and accusation dogged his entire career. Some of his exploits are extraordinary but I have the sense that he must always have been looking over his shoulder, waiting for his past to catch up with him. He received high praise for many of his achievements, but he does not seem to have been generally liked.

It is difficult to know whether Popham’s reputation as a “damned cunning fellow” is based on his actions or simply on a difficult personality. His achievements are remarkable but in an age when the ideal of a naval officer was Horatio Nelson, a scientist and surveyor who specialised in joint operations with the army was unlikely to become a national hero and it is ironic that some of Popham’s finest moments seem to have involved the evacuation of troops from difficult situations.

Whatever the truth of it, Sir Home Riggs Popham – elusive, enigmatic and controversial – is a gift to any historical novelist and I am looking forward to revisiting him during the Walcheren campaign.

An Unwilling Alliance is a novel of the 1807 Copenhagen campaign, available on kindle and in paperback at Amazon.  My next book, due out in November 2018 is An Untrustworthy Army, Book 6 in the Peninsular War Saga, dealing with the Salamanca campaign.

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Orthez, 27 February 1814

Memorial to Foy’s men at the battle of Orthez

The Bridge at OrthezThe Battle of Orthez took place on 27 February 1814. After the fierce fighting through the Pyrenees, storms and torrential rain prevented any action for two months.

Researching the second half of the war for my Peninsular War Saga is interesting. When I did the first trip through Portugal and Spain last year, I had already written four and a half books in the series in draft form. I knew where my fictional regiment was going to be during every battle and it was a matter of checking my research against actual locations to be sure that my story would work.

From book six onwards, I am in the dark. I know the history and I know what the Light Division would have been up to for most of the time, but now I am in a position to plan as I go along. I can look at the sites and visualise my characters there; where they were fighting and what they were doing. It is both exhilarating and slightly strange and I have to keep reminding myself that this is a holiday as well or I’d be back at the hotel and writing half the night…

Eventually Wellington cut off Bayonne when he crossed the Adour to the west of the city. Soult believed that the Allied attack, which required them to cross rivers, would be held up due to a lack of boats or pontoons but on 23 February, Hope sent eight companies from the 1st Division across the Adour  to form a bridgehead. During the evening, two French battalions were sent to investigate and were dispersed with the use of Congreve rockets. The following day,  34 vessels of 30 to 50 tons were sailed into the mouth of the Adour, moored together and a roadway built across their decks. By the evening of 26th, Hope had marched 15,000 men over the bridge onto the north bank. The Allies successfully captured the Sainte-Étienne suburb with a loss of 400 dead and wounded to the French 200 and encircled Bayonne on 27 February. From then on a very relaxed siege was maintained until 14 April when a French sortie led to the the bloody and pointless Battle of Bayonne at the end of the war.

Wellington pursued Marshal Soult’s army eastwards, away from Bayonne. Soult’s army was already weakened and Wellington hoped to divide them further while Soult hoped to trap the Allied army within French occupied territory.  Bayonne blocked the north side, three French divisions held a line along the Adour to Port de Lanne and the east was held by four French divisions along the Joyeuse River to Helette. From there into the Pyrenees, Soult’s cavalry patrols closed the cordon.

Wellington started his offensive towards the east on 14 February. Hill’s corps took the right flank, including the second and third divisions, some Spanish and Portuguese troops and Fane’s cavalry while Picton took his men down the left flank and Morillo moved through the foothills on the right. On February 15 Hill defeated Harispe’s division at Garris and forced the French back.

Beresford’s left flank corps advanced the following day towards Bidache. It consisted of the 4th, 6th, 7th and Light Divisions as well as some cavalry. Over the next two days both sides manoeuvred their troops. The French had greater numbers but Soult sent  Abbé’s division to help defend Bayonne, a move which left his army with fewer troops to fight Wellington. By 18 February, Soult had his troops in position on the Gave d’Oloron at which point the weather broke again, causing another delay in operations.

On 24 February, Wellington launched a new offensive. For this operation, Hill was reinforced by the 6th and Light Divisions. Beresford with two divisions mounted a feint attack against the northern end of the French line. Picton was supposed to do the same opposite Sauveterre but he exceeded his orders, having found an apparently unguarded ford about 1,000 yards from the bridge. Picton decided to send  four light companies from Keane’s brigade across.  After a steep climb, they reached high ground only to be overpowered by a battalion of the 119th Line Infantry from Villatte’s division. In their flight down the slope and across the river, they lost about 80 of the 250 men who were either killed, captured or drowned. Somewhere in my head I could hear the ghost of Robert Craufurd laughing, remembering Picton’s refusal to support him during his own unauthorised crossing at the Coa in 1810.

Meanwhile Hill built a boat bridge and sent 20,000 troops across the Gave d’Oloron at Viellenave de Navarrenz, a move which led Soult to pull back to Orthez. Wellington was not particularly keen to fight a battle at this point and tried to outflank the French, sending Beresford to cross the Gave de Pau downstream at Lahontan to circle around Soult’s right flank. At the same time, Hill’s corps moved directly toward Orthez. By 25 February, Soult had gathered his army at Orthez and was ready to fight the Allies.

The French marshal commanded 33,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers with 48 field guns. Wellington had 38,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers, supported by 54 guns. With Soult ready to fight, Wellington intended to send Beresford to break Soult’s right flank while Picton and three divisions attacked the French centre. Meanwhile, Hill’s corps was to attack Orthez, get across the Gave de Pau and attack the French left flank effectively crushing Soult between Beresford and Hill.

Orthez is a pretty little town with the Gave de Pau running from southeast to northwest. Since Beresford was already on the same side of the Gave de Pau, the river only protected Soult’s position to the east of Orthez. However, there is an east-west ridge on the north side of Orthez that ends at the village of St Boes to the west. It rises to about 500 feet with the road running along the crest, with threeknolls rising even higher, as far as 595 feet above the village. These knolls held French artillery.

Soult posted four and a half divisions along this ridge, one division in Orthez and one division in reserve. Going from right to left, the ridge was held by the divisions of Taupin, Claude Pierre Rouget, Darmagnac and Foy. Rouget was in temporary command of Maransin’s division. Harispe’s remaining two brigades held Orthez while Villatte’s division was in reserve north of Orthez. Reille commanded Taupin, Rouget and Paris on the right flank, Drouet commanded Darmagnac and Foy in the center and Clausel had Harispe and Villatte on the left flank. The cavalry was scattered.

Wellington planned to send Cole’s 4th Division supported by Walker’s 7th Division to attack the western end of the ridge under the direction of Beresford. Picton would lead his own 3rd Division and Clinton’s 6th Division in attacking the French centre and Hill’s corps was to feint against Orthez with a Portuguese brigade and hold his two divisions ready to cross the Gave de Pau to the east of Orthez. Charles von Alten’s Light Division was placed under cover behind the old Roman camp where Wellington set up his headquarters located between Beresford’s and Picton’s columns.

It was frosty but not frozen on the morning of 27 February, difficult for me to imagine yesterday, exploring the battlefield in soaring temperatures. At 8.30 the 4th division attacked Taupin at St Boes and quickly seized the church. Ross’s brigade swept into the village but were driven back by the battery on the Plassotte knoll. Cole brought up a KGL battery to duel with Taupin’s guns. This immediately became the target of the French batteries on the Plassotte and Luc knolls; two guns were hit and Captain Sympher was killed. Cole deployed a Portuguese brigade on Ross’ right and sent his line forward again. The result was a second repulse in which Ross was wounded and the counterattack by Taupin’s troops recovered part of St Boes. For a time there was a lull as the two sides fired away at each other from the houses, but the Portuguese had no cover and began to fall back. Wellington sent over the 1st Caçadores Battalion from the Light Division. Cole’s line collapsed just as the reinforcements arrived and Taupin recovered the entire village and drove the Allies back to their starting point. Ross’ brigade suffered 279 casualties and the Portuguese brigade lost 295.

Picton’s attacks against the French centre also met stiff resistance. He had split the 3rd Division, sending Brisbane’s brigade up the right spur towards Foy and Keane’s brigade up the left spur toward Darmagnac’s division. Keane was supported by Power’s Portuguese brigade while Brisbane was followed up the right spur by Clinton’s 6th Division. Since the valleys between the spurs were deep and muddy, both advances were restricted to narrow fronts.

Picton’s skirmishers quickly drove back the French outposts. When the leading brigades came under accurate artillery fire from the Escorial and Lafaurie knolls, Picton held back his formed troops and reinforced his skirmish line to seven British light companies which moved forward until they came into contact with Soult’s main line where they were unable to advance any further. For two hours, Picton waited for Beresford’s attack as the two sides skirmished.

Wellington adjusted his plans after seeing his flank attack fail converting his holding attack with the 3rd and 6th Divisions into a full  assault beginning at 11.30am. He threw every available unit against the French right flank and centre, holding back only the second and third battalions of the 95th, the Portuguese 3rd Caçadores and the 17th foot. He also withdrew the battered brigades of Ross and Vasconcellos and sent in the 7th Division.

The struggle for St Boes began again when Walker’s division and Anson’s brigade attacked supported by two batteries firing from the church knoll. Taupin’s tired men, who had been fighting for about four hours, were driven back behind the Plassotte knoll.

Brisbane’s brigade came under damaging artillery fire. The brigade finally reached dead ground where the guns could not hit them, but then came under intense fire from French skirmishers who began picking off the soldiers. Nevertheless the 45th fought its way close to the top of the ridge where Fririon’s brigade of Foy’s division held the ridgeline. On the left of Brisbane’s brigade, two companies of the 88th were guarding the divisional artillery battery as it began pounding the French line. Soult spotted the threat and ordered a cavalry squadron to charge. The cavalry overran the two companies, inflicting heavy losses, and then went after the gunners. The remaining companies of the 88th immediately opened fire on the French horsemen, mowing most of them down to a loss of 165 men. The 88th suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit at 269 killed and wounded.

At this point, Foy was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder which affected the French morale. Brisbane’s brigade was replaced in the front line by two brigades of Clinton’s 6th Division. These fresh troops fired a volley from close range and advanced with bayonet, driving the French down the ridge’s rear slope.  Berlier’s brigade of Foy’s division fell back after Fririon’s retreat exposed its flank. With Berlier gone, Harispe’s two battalions in Orthez were compelled to retreat in order to avoid capture. On the left spur, Picton’s two brigades under Keane and Power pressed against Darmagnac’s division. After Foy’s division gave way, Darmagnac retreated to the next ridge in the rear, where his troops took position on the right of Villatte’s division. The divisional batteries of Picton and Clinton immediately attacked the new French position.

Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade began to pull back after Darmagnac’s retreat which opened a gap between Rouget and Taupin. Wellington ordered the 52nd under Colborne to advance from the Roman Camp and drive a wedge into the French defensive line. Colborne led his men across marshy ground and then up the slope toward the Luc Knoll, winning a foothold at the top of the ridge on Taupin’s left flank. Wellington led the 3rd and the 6th in behind them and musket volleys created havoc in the French ranks.

In the thick of the fighting, Wellington’s Spanish liaison officer, Alava was hit in the buttocks by a spent bullet. As Wellington was teasing Alava, he was knocked off his horse when a spent ball struck his sword hilt, bruising his hip. Wellington remounted and continued to direct the battle. Against the advice of his doctors he ignored the injury with the result that he was later unable to ride for a week.

With both flanks turned, Taupin’s division retreated in haste to the northeast, the last French unit to be driven back. To the rear, Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade joined together and fought a hard battle against the pursuing Allies.

Buchan’s brigade skirmished with the French defenders of Orthez all morning. Having received orders to cross the Gave de Pau, Hill marched for the Souars Ford at 11:00 am and brushed aside the French troops defending the ford. Hill’s troops were soon across the river in strength and pressing back Harispe’s outnumbered division. They were joined by Buchan’s Portuguese who crossed at the Orthez bridge the moment the town’s defenders pulled out. Joined by some newly arrived conscript battalions, Harispe attempted to make a stand at the Motte de Tury heights but the raw recruits were too inexperienced and Hill’s men broke Harispe’s line and captured three guns.

By now Soult had realized that Hill’s column might cut him off and ordered a retreat which began well but quickly disintegrated into chaos down narrow paths and across country. Soult had lost six field guns and 3,985 men including 542 killed, 2,077 wounded and 1,366 prisoners while the Allies sustained losses of 367 killed, 1,727 wounded and 80 captured for a total of 2,174.  In addition, many of the recently conscripted French soldiers promptly deserted. Soult did not attempt to defend the Luy de Béarn with his demoralized army but retreated north to Saint-Sever on the Adour.

Soult realised he could not defend both Bordeaux and Toulouse. He decided to head for Toulouse. Wellington sent Beresford with two divisions to take Bordeaux which Beresford did on 12 March. There was a brief lull in the fighting while Wellington sent for more troops and Soult ’s men recovered. When the Allied army finally marched towards Toulouse, they were marching towards the end of the war.

Orthez is just over thirty miles to the east of Bayonne, a pretty little town on the river Gave de Pau. The original bridge, with its distinctive sentry tower in the centre, is still there and can be seen from the modern bridge. We drove through the town to view Wellington’s deployment area up past the church and then drove up towards Baights de Bearn to see the spurs where Picton’s men would have been deployed to the right of the road.

Further on it is possible to view the ridge to the right which the Light Division used to climb up to the village. The location of St Boes has apparently changed  since the battle but the church marks the area where much of the fighting took place and it is possible to walk down the road towards the Roman Camp to see where the Light Division was engaged.

Memorial to Foy’s men at the battle of OrthezTurning right after St Boes we drove along the ridge held by Soult’s men. The 52nd would have climbed up the gulley to the right to appear between Taupin and Rouget’s division. It doesn’t look like a particularly easy climb and given the time of year it may well have been very boggy. There is a memorial to General Foy’s men on the left-hand side further along the road.

Having flown into Toulouse to begin this trip, for convenience sake, we are doing the battlefields backwards. By this time Soult was very much on the run, his troops battered and exhausted with many desertions among the new recruits. But at the beginning of Wellington’s attacks on the Pyrenees the matter was by no means certain. Tomorrow the plan is, to visit some of the sites of the Battle of the Nive.

Cambo-les-Bains, 21 April, 2018