Love letters, 1813 is something I wrote last week, in between preliminary reading for book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, which covers the Battle of Vitoria. It’s early days, but I suspect the title will be an Indomitable Brigade. Occasionally, I like to imagine correspondence between some of my characters, as I did with Paul and Hugh during the Walcheren campaign, it can be an excellent way of setting the scene in my mind, and getting in touch with my character’s current feelings. It’s not exactly a short story, but it definitely tells a story, and I liked this one, so I thought I’d share it with you all, to whet your appetite for the next book…
For the first time ever, I am struggling to decide which book to write next. My original intention was to write the next book in the Manxman series, and I’ve done some reading for that as well, but at the moment, it appears that my head and heart are very firmly rooted in Spain with the Light Division, so I’m going to go with that and see where it leads me.
I wrote a short story in 2019 for Valentine’s Day, A Winter Idyll, which showed Johnny Wheeler going home during winter quarters to settle his uncle’s affairs, and discovering that his land agent’s daughter has been running the estate. There was the hint of a romance, although Johnny was clear at that point that he still felt bound to his lost love, Caroline Longford. Johnny is back in Spain now, and on the march towards Vitoria with the rest of the third brigade…
Quinta de Santo Antonio, May, 1813
Dear Miss Ludlow
Thank you for your letter. I’m very glad your father continues to improve, and that he is able to get out and about a little, and I’m sure you are right that the fresh air and exercise will do him good. I have to scold you a little, however, since I hear from Mrs Green that you have made no use of the barouche as I instructed. You cannot expect him to go far either on foot or on horseback, and he will quickly grow tired of strolling through the village.
I imagine this is due to your scruples with regard to the horses, so I have made arrangements through friends in Leicestershire, for the purchase of two carriage horses. It is high time that Jed and Carney were put out to grass, and I hope they enjoy their retirement in the meadow as much as I intend to when I come home. Write to me, to tell me that they have arrived safely. There is also a new mare, the one we went to see just before I left, whom I hope to breed. I know I can trust you to exercise her.
Your report of the home farm and the tenancies is excellent, and very detailed. I feel as though I’m there, watching the improvements happen. I wish I was, it must be very pretty at this time of year. I realise I’ve no idea what grows in my gardens as it was under snow for half the time I was there, and barely shooting up as I left.
My journey back was uneventful and it is good to be with my friends again, although I must tell you that I walked into a very difficult situation between two fellow officers, which I will not write in detail, but will save for when I see you again. In happier news, I was in time to assist at the wedding of my very good friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Swanson, and Miss Trenlow.
We have received orders that we shall be on the move again very soon. The postal service is always surprisingly reliable here, and letters seldom go astray. I am not accustomed to receive very many, so I look forward to yours, when you have time.
Colonel John Wheeler
Aberly, Derbyshire, June 1813
Dear Colonel Wheeler
Thank you for your very prompt reply. I am delighted to hear that your return went well, and more than a little apprehensive that by the time you receive this, you will no doubt be on the move, probably into danger. I have paid very little attention to news of the current war until now, other than to listen to your uncle’s stories of you before he died, but now I find myself scanning the Gazette for the slightest mention of an action.
The new horses arrived safely, although I am shocked at how much you must have spent on them, considering you are not here to have the benefit. Cora and Millie, the carriage horses, are beautiful animals, very well matched, and according to Jimmy, they are a “dream to drive”. He is eager to take them out, so I have little choice but to follow your orders and take my father on various excursions. Aphrodite, the black mare, is perfect to ride, but a thoroughgoing aristocrat, turning up her nose at the least thing, so that it makes me laugh. I think it is the fault of her owners for giving her such a name, it has made her conceited. I have begun to call her Affie, in the hope of taking her down a peg or two.
We had a disaster with the hen house, I am sorry to say, since that infuriating fox found his way in and created havoc. I have replaced the birds with stock from Jennings’ farm and personally supervised the rebuilding of the coop, so I hope we will have no more trouble.
Father continues well. In fact, being able to get out in the barouche around the farms seems to have improved his memory, and we have talked very sensibly about estate matters, although I am afraid he sometimes forgets that your uncle is dead. Still, it is good to see him more like his old self. I will send you a summary of the quarterly return when I have made it up, but all is progressing just as it should, and I think you will be pleased.
I cannot find the words to express my gratitude that I have been allowed to continue as I have. Few men would have been willing to allow a female the management of their property, and I promise you that I will ensure that you don’t regret it. I’m very happy here, feeling more settled than I have for a long time. At the same time, would it be very impertinent to say that I have found it a little lonely since you left? It is good to have a like-minded person to talk with, about things one cares about. I’ve missed our talks and our rides together.
With warm regards
San Munoz, May, 1813
My dearest Miss Ludlow
The postal service has surpassed itself, and I am dashing off this reply since we are camped here for two nights only, and I want this to go off with the headquarters mail before we march tomorrow. I’ll try to make it legible.
It is a very beautiful evening, and I have just feasted on roast pork and am seated outside my tent in a pensive mood. Just over six months ago, during the retreat from Madrid and Burgos, I lost my good friend Patrick Corrigan beside this river and I nearly died myself. The limp has gone now, and I’m back to full fitness, but I’ll never forget those days, believing I wouldn’t survive. I hadn’t realised at the time, but along with inheriting my uncle’s estate, it’s made me think differently about a number of things.
I walked up with some of the men to the woods where Pat fell. There’s nothing left now. I am told, and I’m choosing to believe it, that when both armies had moved on, the villagers came out to bury the dead. I think it is at least partly true, because our guide showed us several mounds which have been piled with rocks. It makes me feel better to think that Pat is lying there, and it makes me very thankful that I’m not.
I miss you. I miss talking with you and riding with you and laughing with you. It was only three months, and they passed very quickly, but I am left both restless and strangely content. I hadn’t intended to write this, since I have no idea when I’ll see you again, or even if, given that the general believes we’ll be engaging the French within the month, and none of us are invincible. But since you were very honest with me, I wanted to reciprocate. I miss you, Mary.
You would love this view. We’re camped on the heights, looking out over the river, and there are dozens of lanterns and campfires, pungent but very pretty in the gathering dusk. We’re marching out at dawn, so I’m going to finish this now. I don’t know when your next letter will reach me, but write it anyway, will you? I want to know that it’s on its way.
Vitoria, June 20th, 1813
My dearest Mary
I write Vitoria, since it is the nearest town I have a name for, but we are well outside the city, camped in a valley at the foot of a mountainous ridge, waiting for the rest of the army to complete its flanking manoeuvres. We have been engaged in several sharp skirmishes on the march, including an affair at San Millan, but we have come off very lightly and have given the French something to think about.
I have not received a letter, nor expected to in this time, but as I suspect I will be in battle tomorrow, I wanted to write this. I shall leave it with Mrs van Daan, and asked her to send it on to you. I confess that I have spoken of you to her a good deal, although to nobody else.
I want to be honest with you, dearest girl, since I have been honest from the first, to tell you that I have left two letters with Mrs van Daan, one to the lady I have spoken of. Our attachment was such, that I feel a duty to write to her in case of my death. If I survive, and I generally do, I will destroy that letter and write another.
This letter is for you. I realise that during those few months at Limm, I probably spent more time with you than in all the time I knew Caroline. I fell in love with her when we were both lonely, and had she not been committed to another, I think we could have been happy.
My time with you was different. There was no drama, no headlong rush, no real expectation of anything at all. And yet, looking back, I have the sense that I knew, even before I left, that I had found something that I’d been looking for all my life. Just thinking of you, brings me joy.
I wish I had spoken before I left. I told myself that it was too soon, that I needed to be sure of my own feelings and that it would be wrong to ask you to wait for a man wedded to his career and determined to see this war out. Now you are far away, and I miss you, and I want you to know how I feel.
I think, I hope, that you feel the same way, Mary. Will you be my wife? What a thing to do, asking you in a letter with no certainty that I will ever be able to honour my promise. Even after this battle, I have no hope of more leave for a long time, and will have to beg you to wait for me. I have tried to imagine how I would feel if our situations were reversed, though, and I decided that I would want to know.
Should anything happen to me, I have left my affairs in good order, and you will be very well taken care of, Mr Langley has all the details. Assuming that it goes well for me, I will write again very soon, and I hope you will forgive me and be kind, and tell me if I may hope.
With all my dearest love
Aberly, Derbyshire, July 1813
My dearest Johnny,
It is the worst thing, writing to you without even knowing if you will receive this, but write I must. I comfort myself by thinking that if you are wounded, or exhausted or sorrowful, I may help a little to lift your spirits.
The answer is yes, of course, with all my heart. You must have known that it would be, as I do not suppose I ever made a good job of concealing my feelings. I had begun to hope, when you left, that your former attachment did not hold such complete sway over your heart, but I had not expected you to speak so soon, and under such difficult circumstances. I am so happy that you did.
All is well here. I have told nobody of your offer and will not do so until I am sure that you are safe, but know that you are in my prayers and in my heart, every hour of every day. Write soon, my dear, I cannot rest until I hear from you.
An Unnecessary Affray is my second short story for the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop in 2020. It has been a bit of a marathon this year, since in a moment of madness I agreed to two short stories with a book publication date only a few days later, to say nothing of the Covid 19 lockdown. I’m quite proud of myself for getting it all done. As always, the story is free so please share as much as you like.
This tells the story that is not told in An Unconventional Officer, about the action on the Coa on 24th July 1810. I had to be selective about which episodes of Paul van Daan’s early years in the army I covered in that book, but I’ve always wanted to go back and write the stories I didn’t manage to tell, since I’ve always known what happened in my head. I managed it with the Copenhagen campaign in An Unwilling Alliance, and I’m delighted to have finally written about Paul and Craufurd’s spectacular falling out at the Coa.
There are several versions of the events of this day, and Craufurd had his supporters and his critics. Personally, I love Craufurd, you couldn’t make him up, but this wasn’t his finest hour, and I’ve tried to reflect that in my imagined version. As always, I’ve taken some historical liberties to give my fictional battalion something useful to do and I apologise to the gallant officers and men whose roles I have stolen.
A final warning in case you’ve not read the books; I usually try to keep my short stories free of bad language, but I was incapable of writing Paul van Daan’s reaction to this battle without the occasional lapse. His regular readers will understand this. Sorry.
An Unnecessary Affray: a story of the Combat on the Coa
It was hot on the long march from Viseu to Almeida, with the July sun beating down on the troops over a distance of some seventy miles. The pace was brisk, but not punishing, with the march beginning in the cool early dawn and stopping to rest and eat before the heat of the afternoon sun became unbearable. Ensign Evan Powell was surprised at how much progress they were able to make each day. He mentioned the steady but effective pace to his fellow ensign in the fourth company.
“The major won’t push them beyond endurance unless it’s an emergency, no matter what Wellington or Craufurd might say,” Donahue said. “Chances are we won’t see a battle. Craufurd is under orders to keep a watchful eye on the French but not to risk the light division. By the time we get there he might already be pulling out.”
“Why are we going then?”
Donahue shot him an amused glance. “The official version or my guess?”
“Both, I suppose,” Evan said. He was a little in awe of Donahue, who at nineteen was two years older than him and had almost three years experience on active service with the 110th and had fought at Rolica, Vimeiro and Talavera along with a number of smaller skirmishes. Evan had only recently arrived in Portugal to take up a vacant commission in the fourth company of the 110th and although he had done eight weeks training with the second battalion in Melton Mowbray, and had set sail full of confidence, he found his new messmates intimidating.
“All right then. Officially, Lord Wellington is sending the 110th to reinforce General Craufurd at Almeida in case of a surprise attack by the French. It’s not that strange, we’re not formally designated light infantry yet, but we’re all trained skirmishers and we’ve served with Craufurd’s division out on the border for months.”
Donahue grinned. “Unofficially, old chap, you’ve arrived in the middle of the juiciest scandal this army has seen in a long time. Major van Daan is newly widowed, his wife recently died in childbirth, but it’s very well known that for at least a year he has been enjoying a very passionate affair with the wife of an assistant deputy quartermaster. Last week it all blew up when Captain Carlyon smacked his wife in public right outside headquarters and accused her of making a cuckold of him with the major. Major van Daan took exception to it and challenged him, and the whole battalion held its collective breath until Carlyon did the decent thing and ran like a rabbit taking a fat purse from the army pay chest with him.”
“Better that than dead, which he would have been if he’d got into a fight with our major. Anyway, Wellington took a hand. He doesn’t want to lose Major van Daan over a scandal with a light skirt, so he’s sent him up here to calm down, while I imagine he’ll do his best to get the girl sent home.”
Evan was shocked, although he tried not to show it. His family was Welsh, solid local gentry with low church leanings and the word adultery had never been heard in his mother’s drawing room. His arrival in camp right in the middle of the preparations to march meant that he had barely had time for an introduction to his new commanding officer, but he had felt an instinctive liking for the tall fair officer with the ready smile who had welcomed him, apologised for the chaos, and handed him over to his company captain for further instructions. He was disappointed but also very curious. They were sitting around the camp fires, as darkness fell over the scrub covered, rocky plains and low hills of central Portugal and this was proving to be one of Evan’s most interesting conversations in the midst of orders and marching and picket duty.
“Is she pretty?”
Donahue gave a faint smile. “She’s beautiful. Lucky bastard. I can’t say I blame him.”
“Awful for his wife, though.”
“Not sure she even knew, she was friendly with Mrs Carlyon, they were forever around the place together.”
“Awful for him, then,” Evan said, trying hard to imagine himself in such an appalling position. “He must feel so guilty.”
“Not him. He can’t have cared about her or he wouldn’t have…”
The voice was quiet, and Donahue stopped mid-sentence and scrambled to his feet to salute. Evan did the same, quaking. His company captain was a completely unknown quantity and Evan’s impression of Johnny Wheeler was of a pleasant, even-tempered man in his thirties who seemed well-liked by both officers and men, but there was an edge to his voice now.
“Captain Wheeler. Sir. My apologies, didn’t see you…”
“I’d guessed that, Ensign, or you wouldn’t have opened your mouth so freely on the subject of your battalion commander’s personal life to a new officer.”
It was impossible to see if Donahue was blushing in the firelight, but Evan knew that he was. “Sir, very sorry. I was repeating gossip, sir, should know better.”
“How the hell do you think he’d have felt if he’d heard you saying that?She was his wife of six years, she gave him two children, and he’s barely holding himself together.”
“Sir, I didn’t think.”
“There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that you can think, Donahue. Get yourself out there, forward pickets, you can relieve Mr Renard. I hope it’s bloody cold.”
Donahue’s voice was subdued. He picked up his hat, saluted and set off into the darkness. Evan followed his example, but Wheeler stopped him.
“Not you, Mr Powell, you’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I was part of the conversation, sir.”
“I know, I heard. I also heard what you said last. Empathy is a useful quality, I hope you manage to hold onto it after a few years in the army. Stand down, lad. As you’ve lost your messmate, why don’t you come and join us?”
Evan froze in surprise and glanced over to a group of men around an impressive fire in the centre of the camp. Donahuemockingly called it ‘the golden circle’ where the commanding officer of the 110th and his particular friends congregated. Wheeler was beckoning, so Evan followed, feeling gauche and awkward and painfully aware of his youth and inexperience.
“Johnny, that was the longest piss in history, I was about to send out a search party. While you’re up, grab another bottle of wine, will you, there’s one in my tent. In fact bring two, since I can see you’ve brought a guest. Come and sit down, Mr Powell, there’s a spare camp chair next to Captain Swanson. Sergeant-Major, get him a drink, will you?”
Sergeant-Major O’Reilly unfolded his long limbs from a blanket on the grass and went to collect a pewter mess cup which he filled with wine. Evan accepted with mumbled thanks and sat down, trying to look inconspicuous.
“Why did Mr Donahue disappear into the darkness, Johnny?” Paul van Daan enquired.
“He was being an arsehole and I don’t much like him so I gave him extra picket duty.”
There was a general laugh. Major van Daan surveyed Wheeler thoughtfully. “Now that is something I might have said, but you, Johnny, are a model of rational behaviour. You’re also prevaricating. May I ask…?”
“No, because I’m not going to answer.”
The major turned blue eyes towards Evan. “Mr Powell…”
“Don’t you bloody dare, Paul.”
Evan could feel his knuckles clenching around the cup and was thankful that it was not a glass. After a long moment, the major’s expression softened into a smile.
“Ensign Donahue isn’t the only one being an arsehole this evening. I beg your pardon, Mr Powell, I’m not quite myself at the moment. Shift that chair over here closer to me, will you, I’m too lazy to yell, and I want to find out more about you. This must have been the worst moment to arrive, I’ve not had a moment to talk to you and I don’t suppose Captain Wheeler has either. It feels ridiculous to ask how you’re settling in, so I won’t. Tell me instead, where you’re from and what brought you into the army?”
The party broke up late, and Evan slept well in his shared tent and woke surprisingly refreshed. He thought about the evening as he mounted Cassie, his bay mare, and set off into the cool dawn light. It had been an evening of laughter and good conversation and for the first time since arriving, Evan had come away feeling a sense of belonging. He wondered if all regiments were like this and if other commanding officers had Paul van Daan’s effective blend of authority and friendliness.
Donahue was tired and miserable the following day, with little to say. He did not ask how Evan had spent the evening and no mention was made of their conversation of the previous day. Evan privately decided that if Donahue attempted to revive the subject, he would decline to take part. Gossiping about his commanding officer no longer felt comfortable after spending an evening in his company. Evan knew nothing about Paul van Daan’s private life but he had the sense that his friends were closing ranks protectively around him and Evan understood why. Bad enough to suffer such a loss in private, but unbearable to do so under the relentless glare of army gossips.
The River Coa was in full flood when the 110th reached the narrow stone bridge leading on to the fortress of Almeida. Captain Johnny Wheeler surveyed the raging torrent as he rode over the bridge and thought that whatever happened, neither French nor Anglo-Portuguese troops would be able to ford the Coa which meant that possession of the bridge would be crucial in any retreat or engagement. There were pickets along the river, outposts from Picton’s third division which was quartered at Pinhel and Major van Daan halted to speak to one of the officers. Johnny watched his friend talking to the young lieutenant and thought how tired Paul looked. In the brief time since his wife’s death, he had slept poorly, rising after only a few hours sleep to sit by the dying embers of the fire with Jenson, his orderly, or walking the perimeter of the camp to chat to the sentries. Johnny was one of the few men who knew something of Paul van Daan’s internal struggle between grief and guilt for his pretty wife, and longing for the dark eyed young woman who seemed to have turned his world upside down.
After about twenty minutes, Paul mounted up and joined Johnny and Carl Swanson who commanded his light company. “I’m not happy,” he said bluntly. “It doesn’t sound as though Craufurd has made any attempt to withdraw across the river yet. This lad knows nothing of what’s going on, but he says a lot of the officers are worried that Craufurd is lingering too long. I’m going to speed it up a bit, I want him to read Wellington’s letter, it might get him moving.”
Johnny saluted, wheeled his horse and trotted back to his men with the order, and the 110th set off again at a much faster pace. The area between the Coa and the Agueda rivers was a rough plateau, with low hills and rocky outcrops studded with trees and criss crossed with low stone walls enclosing orchards, olive groves and vegetable gardens. Johnny assessed the ground and thought that it was good country for skirmishing, but given the huge numerical advantage that the French had in this region, he would not choose to pit his men against Ney’s tirailleurs, if it could be avoided.
The 110th met the first pickets of the light division a mile on, and after a brief conversation, Paul returned to Johnny. “I’m riding up to see Craufurd, he’s camped about half a mile west of here. Come with me, Johnny. Captain Swanson, get them bivouacked here until we know where he wants us.”
Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd was known as Black Bob, partly because of his dark colouring and complexion, and partly because of the violent mood swings and fierce temper which struck terror into the officers and men of his brigade and more recently his division. Paul and Johnny found him in his tent, studying what looked like a sketch map of a fortress spread out on a folding camp table. Paul saluted and Craufurd glared at him.
“What the devil are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Lord Wellington’s orders, sir. I’ve a letter from him.”
Paul held it out and Craufurd took it. “Of course you bloody have. I received a letter from him yesterday, and two days before that as well. Does he spend his entire time writing letters?”
“Pretty much, sir,” Paul agreed pleasantly. Craufurd regarded him, black brows drawn together and Johnny tried not to hold his breath. Suddenly, Craufurd grinned.
“Somebody should put sand in his ink pot,” he said. “Well, whatever the reason, it’s bloody good to see you, boy. Sit down. You too…what’s your name again?”
“Wheeler, sir, Paul said, pulling up a camp chair. “Same as last time you asked.”
“Button your lip, Van Daan, and let me read this latest nonsense.”
There was silence in the tent as Craufurd read. The orderly disappeared then reappeared with a tray, and Johnny took a cup of wine with a smile of thanks and waited. Finally, Craufurd looked up.
“Nothing much new there. He wants me to stay on this side of the river as long as it’s safe to do so, but not take any risks. Protect Almeida, but not for too long. Use my initiative but follow orders. Listen to…”
“I get the point, sir. We all do. He’s worried and he’s feeling his way.”
“He isn’t here,” Craufurd said shortly.
“I am, sir.”
“And I’m supposed to consult a junior officer about my division?”
Paul said nothing and Johnny admired his silence for a while. Eventually Craufurd made and exasperated sound.
“I am about to blow up Fort Concepcion,” he said. “I’ve left it as long as possible, but if I leave it much longer, there’s a risk they’ll take it. Burgoyne and his engineers are in there, making the final preparations. The rest of the division has been pulled back a mile or so, leaving only the pickets and vedettes out there. We’ll withdraw when we need to.”
“When will that be, sir?”
“Is that why he’s sent you?” Craufurd demanded belligerently. “Has he had the bloody nerve to send a boy of your age to keep an eye on me because he can’t be here himself?”
“He sent me to provide support if it’s needed, sir.”
“And to write back immediately if you think I’m making a balls-up.”
“No, sir, if I think you’re making a balls-up, I’ll tell you myself. And I’m a bit worried that you might be.”
“Duly noted, Van Daan. Are you sure he didn’t actually send you to stop you doing something stupid in your private life?”
Johnny caught his breath and Paul went very still but did not immediately speak. After a moment, he said:
“You mean losing my wife to childbirth? Not much he can do about that really, sir.”
Craufurd’s expression changed. “Christ, Paul, I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. Wellington wrote to me to tell me what had happened, he thought I should know. Is the child all right?”
“She seems to be thriving, we’ve found a wet nurse and she’ll be travelling back to England as soon as an escort can be found.”
“And what of Mrs Carlyon?”
“I don’t know her plans, sir.”
“Liar,” Craufurd said, without heat. “Wellington’s worried you’ll persuade her into committing social suicide with you, he has a tendre for that girl.”
“So do you, sir.”
“Yes, I bloody do, so take care of her. And keep that husband of hers away from her. Did he really hit her in the town square in front of half the army?”
“Yes. Don’t worry about her, sir. She’s safe at the farm with the medical staff and Carlyon won’t come back, he’s too much of a coward. Don’t think I don’t know that you’re using my personal troubles to distract me. Where do you want us?”
“You can stay where you are for the moment, I’ll send word once Burgoyne is ready and we’re on the move. Write what you like to Wellington. I know this area and I know my men and what they can do. I’ll march when I’m ready.”
Tension mounted over the next few days. The 110th shared picket duty with several companies of the 95th and Evan listened to their grumbling and tried not to be afraid. He could see no sign of fear in either his fellow officers or his men, but this was not their first experience of war. More and more French troops seemed to be moving into position, and Evan could sense the unease of his seniors. Officers from the other battalions, the 52nd, 43rd, 95th and the Portuguesecaçadores came and went, spending time with Major van Daan, and Evan suspected that the conversation centred around when the light division might withdraw and whether Craufurd was holding on too long.
At dawn on the 21st of July, Evan woke to movement, and then the call of the bugle. During training, he had practised getting to arms at speed, and had been impressed with his men, but he was astonished at how much faster these veteran troops could manage it. Gunfire could be heard through the morning mist as Major van Daan was summoned to Craufurd’s command post and returned to brief his officers.
“There’s action around Concepcion. Ney’s sent in the fourth corps and they’re driving in our pickets and the cavalry vedettes. They’re going to blow the fort, and then, please God he’ll get us over that bridge and out of here.”
“We won’t fight then, sir?”
“Not unless we have to, Mr Barry, we’re hugely outnumbered here and this was never meant to be more than a watching brief. The 14th dragoons are holding them off until the fort is blown. Stand to arms, I want them ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
The explosion was shattering, a huge boom followed by a series of lesser charges and Evan felt as though the ground was shaken beneath him. He wondered how it felt to be even closer. Around him, his men were restless, ready now for either action or retreat, and it was a relief when General Craufurd rode up to the edge of Vale de la Mula shortly afterwards and approached Major van Daan. The French were clearly visible in front of the village, three regiments of infantry and a battalion of light infantry. The major saluted.
“Stand to, Major.”
“We’ve been doing that since dawn, sir. Did the explosion do its job?”
“More or less. Some casualties, though, some of the cavalry were too close. A few dead and wounded from both sides. The 14th are holding them nicely, I doubt we’ll see action today.”
“Are we not retreating, sir?”
“Not yet. We can wait a while longer, I believe.”
Paul van Daan was frowning. “We probably can, but what’s the point, sir, if we have to go. Surely…”
“You forget yourself, Van Daan. Wait for orders.”
Evan watched him ride off then looked over at Major van Daan and Captain Wheeler. They were both frowning.
“You think he’s got this wrong?” Wheeler asked.
“I think it has the potential to be a bloody disaster,” the major said shortly. “Carl, Johnny, get the men round, I want to speak to them.”
The rain began during the early evening on the 23rd and continued ceaselessly through the night. Evan was on picket duty with Donahue and a dozen men of their company, and his companion grumbled through the sleepless and rain-sodden night. Marshal Ney’s 6th Corps lay close by, and for several days, the light division had manoeuvred across the plateau between the Coa and Agueda rivers, occasionally exchanging fire with French scouts.
A heavy mist hung over the ground as Evan watched his men lighting a fire to make tea. Sergeant Mackie brought a steaming cup and Evan smiled gratefully.
“Soon warm up, sir. Captain says we’ll be covering some of the wagons, bringing supplies out of Almeida. If we’re lucky, we can bugger off after that.”
As Evan drank his tea and ate two hard biscuits, bugles sounded as the main body of the army called reveille and began the morning muster, formed in companies. Men in red, green or the brown of the Portuguese units toured the pickets with dry cartridges to replace any that had got wet in the night. After only a short time, Evan had learned the morning routine of the army and it felt soothing, familiar, almost safe.
“Mist’s burning off a bit,” Donahue said. “Hope they relieve us soon, I’ve had enough of being out here with the bloody green jackets.”
Evan did not reply. Since the night Donahue had been sent out on extra picket duty, his relationship with his fellow subaltern had cooled a little. Now that he had begun to get to know some of the other officers in the battalion, he was less impressed by Donahue’s stories and found his incessant complaining irritating. Their current bivouac was wet, muddy and uncomfortable but it did not help to constantly moan about it. Evan was tired of his condescending manner and was beginning to loathe some of the tales he told of his conquests among the local women. He did not know if Donahue was really such a Lothario and was painfully aware of his own complete lack of experience, but Donahue’s gleeful descriptions of seduction made him cringe.
“There’s movement from the French lines,” Sergeant Mackie said abruptly, and something in his tone made all the men turn their heads. Suddenly they were alert, reaching for muskets and shouldering packs. Private Brown doused the fire, kicking the embers around to ensure that it could not flare up again. Evan stood staring into the mist until his eyes hurt. He could hear the sounds now, but there had been movement before and he did not know what Mackie had heard that was different although he suspected the men did. There was a sudden breeze which lifted the edge of Evan’s coat and caused a mad flapping as Private Crook finished rolling up his blanket. The mist shifted eerily, like some ghostly creature reaching out white fingers to touch the low stone wall behind which they had camped, and then suddenly sunlight pushed its way through and there was a clearing in the fog, and then another, and Evan felt his innards turn to water at the sight before him.
“Oh shit,” Donahue breathed beside him.
The broad plain was covered with French troops as far as the eye could see. They were close and fully armed and Evan knew with utter certainty that this was not another feint in the long dance of advance and retreat that Craufurd had been playing for days. These men were ready to fight, and today he might die.
Alarm calls were sounding up and down the line of pickets, and were picked up in the rear, as the men of the light division scrambled to pack up, abandoning roll-call to line the stone walls of the orchards and vineyards where they had slept. Donahue drew his pistol and checked it methodically and Evan did the same, although his hands were shaking so much that he was not sure he would be able to aim and fire. As he thought it, there was a shot to his left and then another, and suddenly the air was filled with the crackling of musket and rifle fire as the front line of Ney’s voltigeurs and the first of the rifle pickets exchanged fire.
“They’re coming,” Donahue said, and his voice was suddenly very calm. “Don’t panic, Powell. Hear that noise?”
“That’s right. They’re a way off yet, which means he’s not brought up his main columns, these are just the skirmishers. We’ll hold them off, but when I give the word, we fall back through those trees to the main force. Don’t worry, they’ll be waiting to give support.”
“What if they’re not?”
“They will be. Stick with your men, they know what they’re doing. Christ, these bastards are fast.”
The French skirmishers were moving forward over the rough terrain, ducking behind trees and rocks to let off a shot. They worked in pairs, covering each other skilfully, and Evan was terrified at how quickly they were approaching. He felt painfully isolated and certain that within minutes he would be dead, then the crash of a musket beside him made him jump. It was followed by another and then another and the voltigeurs began to fall. They were replaced immediately by others, and Donahue straightened, took aim with his pistol and fired.
“Fall back,” he called. “We’re too far out here.”
Relief mingled with fear in Evan’s breast, but at least he could move now. Copying Donahue, he drew his sword and ran with his men to the first line of a small copse of trees. The men disappeared behind trees, turning to fire again at the approaching French. Donahue reloaded his pistol and it reminded Evan that he had not yet fired his. He was a good shot, had practised for many hours with his father and brother and could bag a wood pigeon better than either, but these were not birds. Evan took aim, knowing that his shaking hands must be visible to his men, and he wondered if they thought him a coward. A blue jacket came into his sight and he steadied the pistol, feeling as though he would vomit. The Frenchman roared, a meaningless sound, designed to terrorise, and it galvanised Evan into action. He fired, coping well with the recoil, and the Frenchman fell. Evan was shocked, wondering for a moment if he had somehow stumbled, then he heard Crook’s voice behind him.
“Bloody hell, good shot, sir. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
They ran, dodging between trees as the voltigeurs came closer. Shots flew around them, most bouncing harmlessly off tree trunks. Evan did not bother to stop and reload, he could not aim in here and his men seemed intent only on escape now. There were too many Frenchmen, and sounds from the right suggested that the riflemen who had formed the next picket had been overrun. A shot to Evan’s left was followed by a cry of agony and he stopped, knowing that one of his own men had been hit. A hand grasped his elbow, dragging him forward.
“No time, you’ll be taken. We need to get to those walls.”
Emerging into sunlight on the other side of the trees, Evan could see the grey stone walls, and beyond them, the red coats with silver grey facing of the 110th. Around him, his men made no further attempt to stand, there was no cover here. Evan risked a glance over one shoulder and wished he had not, as hundreds of French skirmishers swarmed up through the rocky terrain. He had been right about the riflemen, he caught a glimpse of them surrounded by French troops, their hands in the air. Evan felt very exposed but all he could do was run for the walls. As he did so, a shot sounded very close, so close to his ear that he ducked instinctively. There was a noise like a slap and a shout of pain, and the man running beside him went down. Evan turned his head and saw Mackie, blood spreading out over the back of his jacket, trying desperately to drag himself to his feet.
The others were ahead of Evan, scrambling over the stone wall to take refuge behind their battalions, and once they were out of the line of fire, there were shouted orders, the 110th took aim and the crackle of musketry filled the air. Only Mackie and Evan were still outside the wall and Evan saw Donahue turn and yell furiously. Evan looked down. The Glaswegian sergeant’s eyes were dull with pain, but he was still trying to get himself up, and suddenly Evan knew that he could not leave him. He ran back, trying to keep low, shots whistling past him from both directions as the 110th and the voltigeurs engaged in a spirited exchange of fire, and bent over his sergeant.
Mackie grasped his arm and used it like a ladder to drag himself to his feet, his face contorted with pain. A shot grazed the top of Evan’s shoulder, so close that it ripped the cloth of his coat. For a moment, terror froze him and he wanted to drop the sergeant and run for cover, but Mackie’s desperate expression stopped him. Instead, he pulled the sergeant’s arm across his shoulders and began to stagger painfully towards the wall.
“Grogan, keep those bastards off them!” someone bellowed, and Evan recognised his commander’s voice. He took a step and then another, Mackie’s tall frame weighing him down, and a shot hit the ground by his feet, kicking up grass and mud. Another step. Mackie stumbled and Evan had to stop, sweat pouring down his face into his eyes. He hauled the sergeant up a little more and took another step.
The voice made him jump from beside him, and then the weight of the sergeant was eased. Two men took Mackie from him, lifting him off his feet between them. “Run, sir.”
Freed from his burden, Evan covered the few feet to the wall and hands reached for him, helping him over. Beyond the lines, he fell to his knees, vomiting onto the ground as his terror caught up with him. He was alive, although he had no idea how.
The two men were laying Mackie down nearby. One of them inspected the wound and the other straightened and came to where Evan knelt. Evan looked up, bitterly ashamed of his weakness, and was shocked to realise that the outstretched hand came from Captain Wheeler.
“Well done,” he said. “Are you all right? I thought you’d been hit.”
Evan felt the shoulder of his jacket, and realised that through the torn cloth there was wetness and a painful graze. He had not felt any pain at the time, and the thought that he had so nearly been cut down by a bullet made him feel slightly light-headed. He looked at Wheeler then remembered he had not saluted. He scrambled to his feet and did so awkwardly. Wheeler shook his head.
“Give yourself a minute, lad, and breathe, you’ve had a shock. You may also have saved a man’s life, we’ll send him to the back with the wounded. Sit down, have a drink and then get yourself over to your men, they need you.”
“They don’t need me. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Evan said bitterly.
“You’re learning,” Wheeler said gently. “It’s a bloody way to do it, mind. Go on.”
Evan watched him go back to the wall, drank some water and when his stomach had settled a little, went to join Donahue and his lieutenants with the rest of his company.
After an hour of skirmishing and desperately holding off the French light troops from the shelter of the walls, Johnny could not believe that Craufurd had not called the retreat. Even the furthest of his troops, the 43rd, were no more than two miles from the bridge, but it appeared that the general intended to make a stand. Johnny could sense Paul van Daan’s anger, as the drums came ever closer and Ney’s main columns marched into their battle lines, ready for the assault. Several men from the 110th had fallen, and at least three were dead. The wounded, Mackie among them, had been carried to the back of the lines, and Paul had given orders that they were to be removed to the bridge where he had already sent his orderly, Jenson, in charge of the grooms with the officers horses. Johnny wondered if they would be allowed to cross. Major Napier, Craufurd’s ADC was riding between the battalion commanders, with orders to hold their ground to allow some wagons of artillery ammunition and other supplies to cross the bridge.
“They’re forming up to attack,” Paul said, crouching behind the wall, his eyes on the French. “Once they’ve got those guns ready, we’re going to be fucking slaughtered here. What is wrong with him?”
Johnny was watching the cannon, the artillerymen scrambling to drag them into position, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Wellington would never have waited this long to order a retreat, but there was no word from Craufurd.
Abruptly, Paul got to his feet. “We’re pulling back,” he said, and raised his voice to a bellow. “First, second, third, fifth and guards companies under Captain Clevedon, fall back to the farmyard over there, then stand. Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, under Captain Wheeler, cover them, then make a running retreat. I’m going up onto that rise to see what’s going on, along the lines, I’ll join you.”
“Sir, for God’s sake!” Johnny yelled, exasperated, but Paul had gone, keeping low behind the lines, following a narrow goat track up the slope. Johnny watched, but decided that his commander had taken a sensible line on the reverse slope and was probably not in danger. He turned to his own company, shooting orders.
As the guns began to spit fire at the light division troops, the 110th made an untidy retreat to thefarmyard, and positioned themselves around the broken walls, muskets and rifles steady in sweating palms. Johnny glanced over at his newest subaltern. He was worried about young Powell, whose white face and trembling hands made him look like a frightened child. This was an appalling first engagement for a new young officer and Powell had no idea how well he was actually doing, but Johnny wished he had told his lieutenants to keep an eye on the boy.
The farmyard was out of range of the cannon, but some of the rifles were coming under heavy fire, and Johnny watched anxiously as they retreated, cautiously at first and then pushed into headlong flight, racing towards the lines of the 43rd who were trying to give them cover.Craufurd’s line stretched between the Almeida fortress on the left and the Coa gorge on the right, and as long as the two flanks remained steady, it could probably hold. The rifles flight was opening up a gap to the left, and Johnny watched in dawning horror, praying that it would close before the French saw it. As he thought it, the first of the rifles reached the 43rd, and the two battalions merged, red coats mingling with green in a panicked melee.
There was a yell, and Johnny turned to see Paul running towards them, speeding over the ground with no attempt to maintain cover. He arrived, flushed and breathless and several of his captains abandoned their men and ran to hear the news.
“Cavalry. French hussars on the left, our flank is turned. They’re slaughtering the rifles over there, O’Hare’s men are running for their lives, it’s bloody chaos. We need to retreat.”
“We’ve no orders.”
“I’m giving the orders. Two halves, same formation as before, skirmishing in companies down that road towards the bridge.”
“What about Craufurd?” Carl Swanson asked, and Johnny flinched internally at the expression on his commander’s face.
“If he’s lucky, we won’t run into him,” Paul said. “Get moving and get them out of here.”
The retreat had disintegrated into chaos. On the left, French hussars swept through a company of riflemen and into the 43rd while to the right, the 52nd were under heavy attack from an infantry brigade. Between them, the 110th fell back, with officers and NCOs trying desperately to keep them together. It was another thirty minutes or more before Johnny, his men keeping up a steady fire behind yet another set of stone walls, saw Major Napier riding in search of Paul. Johnny glanced over his men, shouted an order to his senior lieutenant and ran to join them.
“We’re sounding the retreat,” Napier said. “Cavalry and guns are ordered to gallop for the bridge, the Portuguese to follow. The rest of you…”
“Give me strength!” Paul bellowed, and Johnny saw Napier jump at the volume. “We’re already in full bloody retreat, did he not notice? Half the Portuguese have already run for their lives, they’re probably across that bridge by now.”
“They’re helping to block the bloody bridge,” Napier said bitterly. “There’s a gun carriage or wagon or something, that’s overturned, and they’re panicking. We need time to clear it, Major, you can’t get horses and wagons down that road quickly. The infantry is to fall back from the left, and you need to defend every inch of this ground for as long as possible and keep them off that bridge. If they get to it before we’re ready to get the troops across they’ll cut us off and we’re all dead or prisoner, it will be a bloodbath.”
Johnny understood. The road to the bridge made a sharp turn, overshooting the heights and then turning back on itself along the river bank, in order to descend the steep slope gradually. Cavalry, guns and wagons had to keep to the road because the hillside would be too steep for them, and the sharp turn would slow them down. Johnny watched Paul’s face assimilating the information. After a moment, he nodded and when he spoke, he suddenly sounded very calm and very much in control.
“Understood, Napier. Where is he, is he all right?”
“No,” Napier said briefly. “He’s not himself, he’s very agitated and I’m a bit worried he’ll do something rash. He knows he’s made a bad mistake, Van Daan, and he can’t retrieve it, it’s happened too fast.”
“It’s been happening for days, and he could have got it back even a couple of hours ago,” Paul said quietly. “He wanted a fight, he wanted to prove something to Wellington, and he was too bloody arrogant to listen to any of us.”
“I know. He knows.”
“All right. Get back to him and tell him I’m forming a rear-guard and we’ll keep them back as long as we can.”
“The rifles took the brunt of that first cavalry charge, Charles, and they’re so tangled up with the 43rd in places it’ll be hard to keep order. My lads are still together. We’ll all need to fight our way down there, but tell him I’ll hold the rear for him. Just tell him, will you?”
Napier nodded. A flurry of shots flew alarmingly close, and Paul ducked back behind the stone wall with Johnny. “And either get off that horse or get out of here before you get yourself killed,” he shouted, and Napier raised a hand in acknowledgement, wheeled his horse and cantered away.
They had been fighting for hours, and Evan was exhausted. His fear was still there, bubbling under the surface, but there was no time to think about it. He was breathless, his voice hoarse with shouting encouragement to his men as they dragged themselves over stone walls, some of them head-height. The French were under no such disadvantage, with so many troops, they were able to send fresh men into the fray allowing those who were tiring to fall back. They hunted Craufurd’s men down the slopes ruthlessly, and too many fell under heavy musket fire or lay bloody and trampled beneath the sabres of the cavalry.
Ahead of the 110th, the men of the 43rd and 95th made their way erratically towards the bridge, leaving dead, wounded and prisoners behind them. Van Daan held his men steady at the rear, pinning down sections of the French for long stretches of time to give their retreating fellows time to move on, then making a frantic dash to the next enclosure where they caught their breath behind stone walls before turning to fire again. At any moment, it seemed to Evan, that the relentless tide of the approaching French would flood over them and sweep them away, but somehow, when the waves threatened to overwhelm his men, Paul van Daan was up again, shouting orders, pointing to a new shelter, a new refuge, a new yard or orchard or olive grove which he could use as a flimsy fortress. His eye for terrain was extraordinary, and in the midst of his confusion and sheer terror, Evan felt something akin to hero-worship for the tall figure who seemed to him to be keeping them alive almost single-handedly.
As they drew close to the bridge, their way was blocked by men of the 43rd and 95th, some of them wounded and being supported by their comrades. Bloody and battered, they streamed down the road towards the river, some of them scrambling down the steep slopes to reach the bridge. Above the road, two knolls overlooked the crossing, currently held by Craufurd’s troops, but there was already fighting on the heights as the advancing French fought to push the defenders off. On the route to the bridge, French fire was finding more targets as the light division men came together in a concentrated mass, and from behind every available rock, wall and bush, the enemy directed fire at the men trying desperately to reach the bridge, which was still clogged with wagons and men.
“This is a death trap,” Major van Daan said. “Captain Wheeler, draw them over to the left, there’s some cover behind those rocks, although not much. Set up fire onto that slope, it might draw some of them off from the bridge. Who’s in command up on that knoll?”
“Looks like Beckwith, sir.”
“Good news, he’s got a brain. Keep them low and keep them busy, Johnny, I’m going to climb up there.”
“Oh, not again,” Wheeler said, and Evan thought he sounded rather like an exasperated nursemaid with an over-exuberant charge. “Look, sir, if you have to commit suicide, take somebody with you. They might be able to get you out of there if you’re wounded, or at least bring a message.”
“What an excellent idea,” Van Daan said cordially and to Evan’s astonishment, smiled at him. “What do you say, Ensign Powell, do you think you can keep me out of trouble?”
Evan froze for a moment. The thought of the scramble up the slope terrified him, but he realised suddenly that there was nothing in the world that he wanted to do more.
“Paul, no! He’s seventeen with no experience, and…”
“Yes, sir,” Evan said loudly, and Wheeler stopped speaking and stared at him. The major was still smiling, as though musket fire was not raining down around him, and Evan felt that there was nothing that he could not do.
“Thank you. Any seventeen year old in his first engagement that has the guts to drag his wounded sergeant to safety is a man I’m happy to have beside me. Come on, we’ll go up the reverse slope, it’ll be a scramble, but we’ll be out of the firing line.”
They found Lieutenant-Colonel Beckwith with a telescope to his eye and Evan, who was experiencing a rush of excitement which seemed to have driven all fear from him, almost wanted to laugh at the casual way in which he greeted Major van Daan.
“I’ve been watching your lads, Major. Bloody good work. If only they’d clear this bridge, we might get more of them off.”
“You’re doing a bloody good job up here, sir. We’re stuck for a bit, I’m going to hold that rocky area for as long as I can. Where’s General Craufurd?”
“Down there somewhere, I don’t know. Napier’s conveying his orders, I’ve not seen him for a while.”
“He’s not wounded, is he?”
“I don’t think so, but he’s not himself today. Look, keep up your fire until they clear those wagons. The minute we can, I’ll send a messenger and you can get your lads over.”
“We can wait.”
“Take an order, Major. You’ve done enough today.”
“Yes, sir. Once I get them across, we’ll set up the guns and we can cover your retreat.”
“Good. Unless we get orders to the contrary.”
“I wouldn’t mind some orders,” Van Daan said mildly, and Beckwith laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
“The only orders you approve of are your own, Van Daan. Good luck.”
The scramble down the slope was much quicker, and the major led the way back to the lines, keeping low and making a weaving run, which Evan followed. Behind the rocks, the men of the 110th crouched, keeping up a steady and surprisingly effective fire on the French. Most of the enemy attention was focused on the bridge, where some of Colonel Elder’s Portuguese troops were finally managing to clear the tangle of wagons and guns out of the way to allow some of the troops to begin crossing.
Johnny Wheeler had lost track of time. He was beginning to worry about his men running out of ammunition and had told them to save their shots and make them count. After the first scramble to cover, the 110th remained relatively safe in their rocky fortress. A determined rush by the French would dislodge them in seconds, but Ney’s men seemed wholly focused on the bridge and the detachments of the 95th and 43rd up on the knoll. Johnny guessed that given the distance between Paul’s men and the bridge, the French considered that they would have plenty of time to dispose of the 110th once the other English battalions had been annihilated.
There was movement from the knoll, and Johnny watched as the English troops began to fall back, hard pressed by the French. Beside him, Paul had his folding telescope to his eye and after a long moment, he swore softly.
“What is it, sir?”
“Beckwith is pulling out. He’s had orders to withdraw.”
“Should we move?”
“No. Oh for God’s sake, where the hell is Craufurd, he’s gone mad?”
“He’s desperate, sir.”
“He’s going to be more than desperate in a minute. Once the French have that high ground they can pick us off at their leisure.”
Paul stepped out from behind the rock and there was a yell from Ensign Powell. Instinctively, Paul dropped low, and a shot struck the rock inches from his head, breaking off shards. Paul flattened himself against the rock and yelled.
“Colonel Beckwith. Over here.”
Beckwith joined him within minutes and his face was distraught. “Napier brought orders to retreat over the bridge,” he gasped. “But, Major, the 52nd aren’t all over. Barclay and his men are still out there fighting, nobody has given him orders to retire.”
Johnny felt his stomach lurch and he met Paul’s eyes in a moment of shared horror. “Oh no,” he breathed. “The poor bastards. They’re either dead or prisoners.”
“No, they’re not,” Paul said, and stood up. “Napier! Major Napier. Over here!”
Craufurd’s ADC looked around, bewildered, then trotted his horse forward. “Major van Daan.”
“Barclay,” Beckwith croaked. He looked to Johnny like a man driven to the edge of his endurance. “Barclay is still over there with half the 52nd, he’s had no orders to retire.”
“He must have,” Napier said.
“He bloody hasn’t, he’s not having a picnic over there,” Paul said furiously. “You need to get over there and tell him to pull back.”
Napier hesitated and Beckwith said sharply:
“It’s an order, Major.”
Napier took off at a canter. A sharp volley of shots came from above and both Paul and Beckwith turned to look. Johnny followed their gaze and felt a rush of sheer despair. As the 43rd and 95th had retired from the knoll, the French had moved in. Settling down among the rocks and bushes, they were beginning to fire down onto the retreating troops who were finally making their way onto the bridge.
“Colonel Beckwith. Major van Daan. Get your men out of here and across the bridge.”
General Robert Craufurd was on foot, and Johnny thought that he looked more agitated than he had ever seen. The dark hair was rumpled, as though he had been running his fingers through it, and Craufurd’s face was pale, his eyes darting from side to side and his jaw clenched. Both Beckwith and Paul saluted and Johnny thought that at least one of them meant it.
“Sir, Major Napier has gone out to bring the rest of the 52nd in,” Beckwith said without preamble.
“Very good. Take your men, Colonel, and lead them across the bridge. Major van Daan, fall in behind with the 110th.”
Neither Beckwith or Paul spoke. Johnny realised he was holding his breath. Eventually, Beckwith said:
“Sir, with the French up on the knoll, we’re going to be cut to pieces.”
“Some casualties are unavoidable, Colonel. The bridge is clear, your men will need to move quickly.”
“If I could take some of the rifles back up…”
“That would be suicide, Colonel. Get moving.”
Beckwith saluted. Every line of his body radiated anger, but he moved away, shouting orders to his officers and NCOs. Craufurd looked at Paul.
“Once Colonel Beckwith’s men are on the move, fall in behind, Major.”
Paul took a deep breath. “Sir. You’re not thinking straight. Somebody needs to push the enemy back off that knoll to cover the retreat.”
“It’s too risky.”
“It’s too risky not to.”
“I have given my orders, Major.”
There was a long and painful pause, then Paul saluted without speaking. Craufurd turned away and made his way back down towards the bridge, his sergeant orderly at his heels. Nobody spoke for a long time. Johnny watched his friend and knew with absolute certainty what he was about to do. It was a moment of decision, a choice to follow him or to obey Craufurd’s orders. Johnny knew he could probably induce some of the men to go with him across the bridge, if he told them the orders had come from the commander of the light division. He also knew that he was not going to do it. Watching Paul’s expressive face, considering options and discarding them, Johnny admitted to himself that he would probably follow this man into hell and back. Finally, Paul spoke.
“First, second, third, fifth and guards. Form up under Captain Clevedon and prepare for a fast withdrawal over the bridge. On the other side, string out into an extended line and cover any troops still crossing. Grab some ammunition when you get there, the wagons are across. If any of you have any left now, share it with the rest of us, you won’t be shooting going over that bridge, you’ll be running.”
“Yes, sir,” Clevedon said soberly.
“Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, with me. We’re going to take back those knolls and protect the retreat.”
They took the knoll at the point of steel. Some shots were fired on the way up, with Paul’s men dodging between bushes and rocks, firing where they could, but at the top there was neither space nor time to fire muskets. The French seemed shocked, having witnessed the easy withdrawal of Beckwith’s troops such a short time before, and Paul’s men fought with single-minded ferocity. The thought of the rest of the battalion crossing the bridge below under constant fire from the French was a spur to action and once at the top, the 110th used bayonet and sword in a brief, savage fight with no quarter given and Johnny was drenched in the blood of the men he killed.
There was always a point in a close fight, where it felt impossible to carry on. Johnny’s sword arm ached and his whole body begged for rest, so that he had to force himself onwards. A voltigeur raced towards him, bayonet raised, and Johnny side-stepped and slashed viciously, bringing the man down. There was a scarlet spurt and Johnny could smell the blood so strongly that it was almost a taste in the back of his throat.
There was a crack, then another, and Paul’s men scrambled for cover as three or four Frenchmen found time to reload and fire. Johnny ran, grasping the arm of young Powell, who seemed frozen to the spot. As he rounded a tree, shoving the boy ahead, there was a sharp pain and his leg gave way. Johnny went down and rolled over, swearing softly. A hail of fire clattered around them, and was answered immediately by the crash of rifles from Sergeant Grogan’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.
Powell was holding out a white neckcloth. Johnny shifted on his bottom to bring the damaged leg closer to the boy. “You do it, Mr Powell. Nice and tight, I’ll need to walk on it in a bit.”
Powell obeyed and despite their situation, Johnny almost laughed at the intense concentration on the young face. He did a good job though, and Johnny accepted his hand and got cautiously to his feet, realising that the immediate sounds of battle had died away. The French were retreating, backing away and then running in full flight, almost falling down the steep, rocky slopes, leaving dead and wounded behind, and Paul’s small band stood breathless and bloody across the knoll, briefly savouring their victory.
There was no time to enjoy it. The French were regrouping at the foot of the knoll, their officers yelling orders, and the voltigeurs were strung out along the slopes where they could fire down onto the troops on the bridge. Paul shouted orders and his men settled into position, taking careful aim. Most of the companies were armed with muskets which were not especially accurate but his light company had rifles and they picked off individual Frenchmen with contemptuous ease. Suddenly it was the French who were under pressure and as Craufurd’s light division staggered across the bridge to safety, the French cowered as balls whistled about their ears, ricocheting off rocks and screeching into the air. As the French fired onto the bridge, the 110th fired onto the French, and Johnny called orders as calmly as he could and tried not to think about what they would do when the ammunition ran out which it was assuredly going to.
Firing diminished, as men had nothing to fire with, and Johnny counted the shots and watched the men settling in grimly, bayonets and swords at the ready, knowing that the French could count as well as they could. Eventually, it was quiet around the knoll and Johnny looked over at Paul and saw the mobile face quirk into an attempt at a smile.
“Sorry, lad. We’re going to have to fight our way out of this, and it might not be pretty. I didn’t have time to ask your advice.”
“I’m not an idiot, Paul, I knew what I was getting into.”
“All right then. Let’s not wait for them, we’ll go down fast when they don’t expect it. Every man for himself now, Johnny, straight to the bridge, bayonets and swords. And if I go down and any one of these bastards stops to pick me up, I’ll gut him myself.”
“That won’t stop me trying, sir.”
Johnny turned in surprise and saw Ensign Powell, his sword drawn and his young face white and set but very determined. Paul managed another smile although it lacked conviction.
“Don’t you bloody dare, Ensign.”
The French were coming, scrambling up the slope, and the 110th waited. There was little shooting. It was hard for the French to aim uphill while the 110th had nothing to shoot with. Johnny waited, sword in hand, intensely aware of his men around him. He had known some of them for ten years and more and he was trying not to think of them now as individuals, with wives and children and families who would mourn their death. Below, the rest of the division was streaming over the bridge and Johnny concentrated on that thought, and on the men who would survive as he waited for the order to attack.
The firing had been desultory, but was picking up now, and Johnny was puzzled, as he could not immediately tell where the shots were coming from. Below him, it seemed that the French advance was slowing, and Johnny peered down the slope, trying to see through the trees, wondering what was happening. His men, who had been immobile with fixed bayonets and grim faces, were stirring, uncertain now. Suddenly there was a roar, and a rush, and then the French broke and red coats, mingling with green, surged up the slope. Johnny lowered his sword and stood watching and Paul walked forward.
“Major van Daan. I’ve been told you disobeyed a direct order from General Craufurd.”
“Did he tell you to come up here, sir?”
“No. But he didn’t tell me I couldn’t either.” Beckwith gave a tight smile. “Barclay’s men are crossing now and Macleod just made the most suicidal charge I’ve seen in a long time, the bloody maniac. It’s time to go, Van Daan. Let’s get them out of here.”
Evan had thought that the battle was over. After the frantic scramble across the bridge, the light division lined up to defend their position, but did not occur to him that it would be necessary. Major van Daan was issuing orders, and men raced to collect ammunition and distribute it. Further back, behind the lines, the wounded were carried up to a small chapel which was being used as a temporary hospital and the surgeons tended wounds, performed amputations and in some cases, closed the eyes of men already dead. Across the bridge, the French waited for orders and Evan was sure the order would be to retreat.
He was wrong.
As the light division stood to arms, waiting, a regiment moved forward, crossing the bridge. Evan watched them come, bewildered. The caçadores, who had crossed early, were in position behind stone walls a little above the bridge, and artillery had been placed across the road to sweep it from end to end. Once Craufurd’s battalions were across the river, they had placed themselves behind rocks and walls on the slope commanding the bridge. They had fresh ammunition and they were bloody and exhausted and angry, watching in disbelief as the French formed their grenadiers on the knoll and then charged at the passage, offering an irresistible target.
It was slaughter. The leading company was mown down, before it had got half way across, by musket fire from the hillside and from the right. The column broke, and the men recoiled and dispersed among the rocks and trees by the bank, firing pointlessly towards Craufurd’s battalions. On the bridge, the French lay dead and dying, but more were forming up at the far end.
“Surely they’re not coming again,” Johnny Wheeler breathed. “It’s suicide.”
“What if they manage to ford the river, sir?”
“They’re not fording this. A couple tried earlier and were shot down or swept away. General Craufurd has sent the cavalry out along the roads to make sure, but the river is too swollen after the rain we’ve had. This is their only way to cross, but they’re not going to make it.”
“They’re going to give it a try, though,” Major van Daan said. “Bloody Ney. I notice you don’t see him putting his neck into this noose, he’ll stay well back.” He raised his voice. “Sergeant O’Reilly, I want your sharpshooters to target the officers. Once they’re down, I’m hoping this lot will break and run a lot sooner.”
The French made three charges, and it sickened Evan to watch the dead and wounded piling up. Wave after wave of troops flung themselves at the bridge and were cut down in appalling butchery until the bridge was blocked by the bodies. Evan could make no sense of the day and was too exhausted to try. He had thought, in his naivety,that a battle was either lost or won but he could not imagine who would claim victory or defeat on the Coa today. He only knew that he was weary and miserable and wanted it to be over.
At midnight, the order came to withdraw and General Craufurd’s division slipped away through the darkness. Arriving at the edge of Pinhal, where Picton’s third division lay, they received orders to stand down and rest, and Evan Powell lay on the hard, cold ground and slept the sleep of total exhaustion.
It was early when the bugles sounded, and Evan rose and went with his men to roll-call and early parade and the miserable knowledge that through the chaos of the previous day, both officers and men had died or been wounded. He listened to the names with a chill in his heart and when he was free, went to find his captain.
“What happened to Mr Donahue, sir?”
Johnny Wheeler regarded him with compassion. “I’m sorry, Ensign. He was cut down in the final retreat over the bridge. They brought his body over, we’ll bury him later today.”
Evan could not believe it. He stood numbly at the side of the hastily dug grave, one of many on the hillside above the Coa. Around them, the hills were a hive of activity as General Picton mobilised his third division to pull back ahead of any French advance. Evan wondered about that. Picton’s men had been very close, and he was puzzled why the sound of battle had not brought the third division into the fray.
The light division formed up for the march and the 110th lined up in companies, their wounded grouped together to be loaded into wagons, Captain Johnny Wheeler among them. He was talking quietly to his battalion commander when there was an abrupt command and the companies sprang to attention at the approach of General Robert Craufurd.
“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”
Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”
Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”
There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.
“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.
“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.
“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”
Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”
“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”
Evan looked at the ground, wishing he could be somewhere else. Inexperienced he might be, but he was sure that no commander should rake down an officer of Paul’s rank before his battalion, and he could sense the discomfort of both officers and men. Paul said nothing.
“You’re a disgrace to your regiment, to this army and to your family. God knows, I’ve tried to ignore the stories about you, but I’m beginning to realise there’s no smoke without fire. Six years, was it, that you led that poor woman a dance, and now that she’s gone, you’re sniffing after another officer’s wife and driving him so mad that he…”
“That’s enough!” Paul snapped. “You’re entitled to say what you like about my professional conduct, sir, but if you think I’m going to stand here and allow you to drag my wife into this, you’re a madman. She’s dead. Show a little respect, if you’re capable of it.”
Evan was holding his breath again. He found Craufurd frankly terrifying. Donahue had told stories of the man’s raging temper, appalling manners and brutal discipline and at this moment it was easy to see where the rumours came from. In this mood, Craufurd appeared just as willing to shoot his own officer as the French, but Paul’s words temporarily silenced him. After a moment, he said:
“I meant no disrespect to either lady, as you well know, but your cavalier attitude to army regulations is reflected in your private morals, boy, and neither has a place in my division.”
“You’re lucky to have a division left,” Paul said. It was obvious that he was as angry as Craufurd. “We should never have been in that position, and you know it, which is why you’re so bloody furious. I told you, Wellington told you, Napier told you, I think even Beckwith told you at some point, but you’re too arrogant to listen to any of us, and you almost got your division slaughtered because of it. Report me to Wellington, in fact you can report me to God Almighty if you like, it won’t make you feel any better. Those graves shouldn’t be there. You should have retreated, but you chose to linger on in the hope of a neat little rearguard action that would make you look good, and those men died because of it. Yes, I disobeyed a direct order, to try to save lives. I will sleep very will tonight over that decision.”
“Get out of here,” Craufurd hissed. “Take your battalion, while you still have one, and get out of here. You are not part of my division, and you will not march with us, sir. You are a disgrace.”
He turned on his heel and stalked away. For a long moment, nobody moved or spoke. Finally, Paul van Daan stirred, as if coming out of a trance.
“If any one of you tells me I should have kept my mouth shut there, I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head,” he announced. “Sergeant-Major O’Reilly, is it going to take you the rest of the morning to get my battalion on the road?”
After a few miles, the unsprung wagon made Johnny feel so sick that he called for his horse. The wound was painful but not agonising, and it was no worse riding. The battalion marched almost silently. Generally, Paul’s officers took a relaxed attitude to the march, and there was a hum of conversation, but the 110th were too weary and too miserable after their losses and their commanding officer’s altercation with General Craufurd.
After an hour, Johnny rode up the line to join Carl Swanson at the head of the light company. “Do you think he’s ready to talk yet?”
“No,” Carl said, his eyes on Paul’s straight back. “But he probably needs to. You, me or both of us?”
“Let’s both go.”
Paul glanced both ways as they came up on either side of him. “Have you lost your companies, gentlemen?”
“No, it’s still there,” Carl said equably.
“I think mine is too,” Johnny said, peering back over the heads of the marching men.
“Well, get back to them, then.”
“Oh, cut line, Paul. We’re worried about you. It’s what friends do.”
After a moment, Paul’s taut expression softened a little. “I’m all right,” he said. “Calming down slowly.”
“Do you think he meant it?”
“Craufurd? Well he did at that moment, but I doubt he’ll follow through on it. And even if he did, I don’t think Wellington will let him call a general court martial, he won’t want this story bandied around in the London Gazette more than it needs to be. He’ll probably tell me to apologise.”
“You probably need to apologise, Paul.”
“Craufurd needs to apologise, he’s an arsehole. How are the wounded doing?”
“Bearing up, none of them are that serious. I’m glad you decided to bring them with us, though.” Johnny shot his friend a thoughtful glance. “When we get there…”
“I’m not going to see her,” Paul said. “I know what you’re about to say, and you’re right. Given what just happened, I need to get my battalion back to where it should be and behave myself for a bit. Wellington is on the move, I’ll join him and await orders. Johnny, why don’t you take the wounded and a small escort and ride on to Viseu? You can get treated there and I’ll send a message once I know where we are going.”
“And I can check up on your lady love, I see through you, Van Daan. Have you heard from her?”
“Yes, she wrote to tell me that my daughter is safely on her way to Lisbon with Daniels and the bulk of the sick and wounded. Nan remained with the last of the hospital patients, but she needs to get herself out of there. I’ll write a letter and you can take it for me.”
“Yes, she can stay in the villa.” Paul met Johnny’s eyes and seemed to read his thoughts. “Johnny, it’s up to her. I’m going to miss Rowena to the end of my days, and I’ll never stop feeling guilty about her, but you know how I feel about Nan. She’s not free to marry me, and God knows when she will be. She says she’ll stay with me anyway.”
“That will ruin her, Paul.”
“I know. Or I can send her back to England to her family and we both spend our time waiting for a man to die. I don’t know what she’ll do.”
“Yes, you bloody do,” Johnny said, torn between exasperation and affection. “She’s as bad as you are.”
His friend smiled, and for the first time in days it was a genuine smile. “Perhaps that’s why we should be together,” he said. “Cheer up, at least she’s a good doctor, she can get that ball out of your leg for you. How’s your new officer, Johnny?”
“I think he’s doing all right,” Johnny said. “What a bloody introduction to the army, though. I think it was a shock to him, losing Donahue, they’d got friendly.”
“He’s going to be better than Donahue,” Paul said positively, and Johnny smiled.
“Yes, he is. I wonder if he realises it yet?”
“He hasn’t a clue. He’s in shock, he’s probably still trying to remember his own name and which way to sit his horse. But when he calms down, I’d like to spend a bit of time with young Powell. He’s got promise.”
“If you’re not cashiered, of course,” Carl said cheerfully.
“That’s a good point, Carl. If they kick him out, do you think they’ll give the battalion to me?” Johnny speculated.
“Certainly in the short term. Major Wheeler sounds good,” Carl said. “We could club together and see if we can come up with the purchase price. Are civilians allowed to donate? I’ve a wealthy friend who used to be in the army, he might be good for a few guineas. Sad story, you know, he was a very promising officer but couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it.”
“Fuck off both of you,” Paul said.
Their laughter carried in the still morning air, and Ensign Evan Powell heard it, and felt inexplicably cheered. His company had been subdued, the loss of their officer and one of their men weighing heavily, but he was surprised to realise that like him, their mood was lifting and they were beginning to talk again, low voiced conversations about the weather, the road and the prospect of catching rabbits for dinner. Evan supposed that this was how it must be in the army, when men became used to burying friends and comrades, then moving on with no time for grief or extended mourning.
Evan’s grief remained, but alongside it, he was aware of a strange feeling of content. He remembered sitting beside Donahue just before the battle, his mind consumed with fear, but it occurred to him now, that what he had been feeling was not fear of battle but fear of fear itself.
That at least had gone. Evan had met fear, had felt it flooding through him, and had discovered that it did not diminish him. He was still afraid of dying, of being wounded or maimed, but he no longer feared that it would freeze him. In the heat of battle he had discovered that he could live with his terror and still function, and that once engaged, he was not aware of fear at all. It was a revelation. Evan had thought, for a time, that this great adventure might be a mistake and that he had not the stomach or the temperament to be a soldier. Those few hours on the banks of the Coa had taught him otherwise.
“Powell. Got any rations left?”
Evan reached into his saddle bag and withdrew a cloth wrapped package. “Two biscuits and an apple, sir.”
“Chuck the apple over, and I’ll pay it back when we stop, my man bagged a couple of pigeons first thing, I’ll share them with you.”
It felt like a good trade, and Evan threw the apple to Lieutenant Quentin who gave a smile of thanks, and beckoned to him to ride up beside him. Evan urged his horse forward and the 110th marched on, over the scrub covered plains of Portugal, leaving the bridge over the Coa behind them.
Although this post is entitled Day 5 – NaNoWriMo with Labradors, my more observant readers will notice that this is in fact the first day of posting. That probably tells you how I’ve been getting on.
For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, is an annual Internet-based writing project that takes place during November. Participants try to write a 50,000 word manuscript between November 1 and November 30 with online encouragement from well-known authors and from fellow participants.
I’ve been tempted to do this before, but the time has never been right. Once, I did actually do a chapter of a possible historical romance before realising that a) I didn’t have time and b) I hated what I was writing. This year, however, it seemed that the timing was perfect.
My latest book, This Blighted Expedition, was published on 31st October. It took me a long time to write this one; generally I manage two books a year but there was a lot of research and it was a challenging storyline which I rewrote several times before I was happy with it. I really wanted to get on with my next project, which will be book six of the Peninsular War Saga, as soon as possible, knowing that a lot of readers are really waiting for that one.
For the past couple of books, I’ve given myself a month off before starting the next one. That month inevitably drifts into two and possibly even three, and I was determined not to do that this time. I already knew the basic storyline of An Unrelenting Enmity and I know my characters and background very well. Why not use NaNoWriMo to kickstart me into getting on with book six? It sounded very simple.
Needless to say it was not. What made me think that I could leap straight into a new book on the day after the last one was published, I have no idea. There were things to do, publicity, blog posts, a mini blog tour and a last minute scramble over the paperback formatting. The first of November came and went and I hadn’t even logged in to the site.
I was determined to do it this year though, and so yesterday I finally sat down, logged in, and updated my pitifully small word count so far. To my amazement, it really worked. Seeing the chart cheerfully predicting that at this rate I wouldn’t reach my 50000 word goal until the eighteenth of December was surprisingly motivating, and I sat down and got on with it. I really like using the timer, to see how long I’ve worked, and the word count is already back on target, after only two days.
I’m generally a very fast writer, and having good touch typing skills helps with that. It’s research, planning and displacement activities like social media and housework that slow down my writing process. Or writing blog posts, maybe…
It’s early days yet, but I’m hoping that by the end of the month I’ll have achieved my goal, which will be about half a book for me. That won’t give me anything like a finished product, and there will still be days when I have to take time out to research and plan and to simply live my life. Oscar isn’t going to walk himself, after all…
Still, I’m excited about this month and will continue to post updates and perhaps an occasional snippet as I go along. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the second book of the Manxman series, but it is so lovely to be back in the Peninsula with Paul, Anne, Johnny and of course Lord Wellington. I cannot describe how much I’ve missed Lord Wellington. I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from today, bearing in mind that this is a first draft and not everything that I post will make it into the final book. This one might, though…
“I have no time to celebrate Christmas, Colonel, as you well know. I am setting out for Cadiz tomorrow. Really, I should be back at my desk now, there are some final orders…”
“Stop it,” Paul said. He saw the blue eyes widen in surprise, he was seldom so abrupt with his chief, but he was suddenly exasperated. “I know you need to go to Cadiz, sir, and I know why. I think you’re bloody mad to travel in this weather, you’ll be forever on the road and my sympathy lies with every single one of the men travelling with you, you will be horrible. And I am grateful that you didn’t insist on me going with you. But my wife has organised this very early Christmas dinner so that you at least have one day to eat a decent meal, have a drink with some of your officers and mend some bridges after that appalling memorandum you sent out last month. She’s put a lot of work into this, and I am not having you grumbling over the roast mutton because there is one more rude letter to some hapless Portuguese administrator that you forgot to write. Are we clear?”
There was a long and pointed silence and Paul tried not to look as though he was holding his breath. Eventually, Lord Wellington took a long drink of wine.
“There is still time for me to insist that you come with me,” he said, and Paul laughed.
“Having me with you while you insert one of Congreve’s rockets up the arse of the Spanish government sounds like a really bad idea, sir, they do not need two of us.”
Wellington snorted. “That is why I am leaving you behind to do the same to every senior officer in my army who fails to follow my instructions on the drills and training to be conducted during winter quarters this year,” he said. “By the time we are ready to march, which I hope will be no later than April, I want every man of my army to know what he is doing. That is your job, Colonel.”
“And a lovely Christmas gift it was too, sir. I’m already having to take a bodyguard out with me when I visit the other divisions, I have been doing this for two weeks, and they hate me.”
“Not in the light division.”
“No. They’ve no need of me there, General Alten is doing a very fine job. And here he is.” Paul shot his chief a sideways glance. “Come and be social, sir. Just for today.”
Wellington studied him for a moment, then gave one of his rare genuine smiles. “This is very good wine,” he said, as though the preceding conversation had not taken place. “Where is it from, Colonel?”
For anybody new to the Peninsular War Saga, they’re available on Amazon kindle here and will be available in paperback before Christmas.
I’ll be posting daily updates on my NaNoWriMo journey over on Facebook and Twitter from now on.
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 Sagawhich 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.
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.
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?”
Two years ago today, this book was published. It wasn’t the first book I had written or published, but it was the first in the Peninsular War Saga and the book that meant the most to me. I had dreamed of writing this series for years, had dabbled with it and then put it to one side. Life took over, I had two children, day jobs, a home to run and two labradors to adore. It seemed to me that since Bernard Cornwell raced to the top of the bestsellers charts with his Sharpe novels, there had been so many books written about the Napoleonic Wars that there was no space for mine and certainly no market for my slightly eccentric take on them.
When the book was finally written, I discovered that publishers and agents agreed. This period, it seemed, had been done to death. Nobody was interested any more, in Sharpe’s fellow officers and their adventures through the Iberian Peninsula. Certainly nobody was going to be interested in a series of novels which committed the ultimate crime of being difficult to place within a genre.
“Too much war. Why not write a proper romance?”
“Too much romance. Stick to the battles. Oh, and use your initials, that way people might think you’re a man.”
“Too much history. People don’t read books like this for the history. Cut it down and add more battle scenes. Or romance.”
“Not enough history. None of your characters spend enough time describing their uniforms, their weapons and their kit. The only people who read this sort of thing are re-enactors and they want a lot of detail”
“Your hero isn’t enough of an Alpha male and your heroine is too masculine in her outlook. He’s got too much money, he should earn his commissions not buy them. And she can’t come from the industrial north, it’s not that kind of book. Maybe she should have a title and he could have come up from the ranks. That might do better…”
“Cut it down, change the characters and try Mills and Boon.”
Readers, I haven’t made any of those up. I still have the letters and e-mails. Eventually, I was left with a simple choice. Either I would continue to write the books for my own entertainment and Paul, Anne, Johnny and Carl would never see the light of day, or I would take a chance and try independent publishing. I did it and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Peninsular War Saga hasn’t become an overnight bestseller. I wish it had. I’ve no advertising budget and no experience in marketing, so I’ve sold books one at a time. It’s been a painstaking process, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve discovered a whole new world of interesting people online and I’ve made some friends for life.
And I’ve sold books. Gradually, painfully, the numbers have got better. I’ve never given away review copies, so the reviews have trickled in, but I value every one. Most have been excellent. One or two have been awful. I’ve learned that it’s okay that some people don’t like my books and I don’t die of it.
These days, I call myself a writer and I’m lucky enough to be able to make this my job. It’s not amazingly well-paid, but it’s more fun than working in an office. I’ve had ten books published, five in the main series and one in a linked series. Every book is meticulously researched and I love that part of the process. I’m very proud of what I do.
Today is my birthday, but it’s also the birthday of the Peninsular War Saga, and I suppose the birthday of Paul van Daan. Paul came into being gradually, little more than a boy when I first met him, growing up before my eyes. At times, he irritates the hell out of me; he won’t always do what I want him to do, he’s full of opinions and he pushes himself in where he’s not supposed to be. He was supposed to make a cameo appearance in An Unwilling Alliance and ended up as the third main character in the book.
These days, Paul is part of my life. I hear his voice in my head more often than you would believe. Writing him is incredibly easy, he has a distinctive way of looking at the world, and he makes me laugh and makes me cry. Readers often ask me if there is much of me in Anne. There’s a bit, but there’s a lot more of me in Paul.
I’m so grateful to the people who have helped me along the way. First and foremost, my family. My husband, Richard, has been my biggest cheerleader from the first, content to spend hours setting up my website, designing my fabulous covers and telling me what’s wrong with my plots. I always ignore him. My son Jon, blissfully unaware as a young adult and not much of a reader, who nevertheless was immensely proud to discover that a friend’s grandmother was reading my books and loving them. My daughter Anya, a fellow history lover who laughs at my passion for Wellington, threatens to feed my favourite books to the dogs, shares my study and brings me joy every day of my life. And my sister, Patricia, who is faintly surprised that her little sister has it in her to do anything this interesting, but always encouraging. I love you all.
Then there are the Labradors. We lost Toby last year, halfway through the last book, and I miss him still every day. Joey, my old yella fella, his snores the accompaniment to my working day. And Oscar, my baby, who makes me get up and get some exercise in between chapters and who has taken over my sofa as if he owns it.
All my friends and family have been supportive, but one or two people stand out as always. Heather Paisley, my best friend for more years than either of us care to remember, never fails to say the right thing. Suzy Holland, who was astonished to find I could write and has discovered an undiscovered enthusiasm for military history. Jacqueline Reiter, whom I met online, and is clearly my long lost younger sister, has helped with research and is my ultimate beta reader; she lets nothing go. And Kristine Hughes Patrone, who with Jacqueline, reads every snippet I send her, laughs at all my favourite lines, and loves Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington as much as I do. Through doing this, I have found my people.
My next plan, other than finishing the current work in progress, This Blighted Expedition, is to get all the books in the Peninsular War Saga out in paperback before the end of this year. Hopefully, that will introduce Paul, Anne and the others to readers who haven’t met them yet.
I am an incredibly lucky woman to be able to spend my working day doing something I love as much as this. Occasionally, I like to be able to say thank you, and An Unconventional Officer will be available on Amazon kindle free for three days, on 4th, 5th and 6th June. Many of you have already read it, but please share this with people who haven’t.
Finally, I’d like to thank my readers. You are the most amazingly loyal and supportive bunch in the world. You’re quite shy, most of my contact with you is in private message or e-mail, but you follow my facebook page and twitter, and buy my books. I’m so grateful to each and every one of you. I love your passion for the period, the history and the characters, you pepper me with questions and never fail to point out a typo or a mistake. I’m not sure if mainstream authors with huge advertising budgets and publishers to manage their contact with readers get half the joy I do every time one of you sends me a question I don’t have an immediate answer to and have to look up. I love each and every one of you. Thank you.
The Peninsular War Saga is two years old today and going strong. There are many more books to come and possibly some other linked novels. Happy Birthday to Paul, Anne and the rest of the 110th Light Infantry. And gracious thanks to Lord Wellington, for taking an insignificant, over-confident and very talented young officer under his wing on a hillside in India and for remaining a brilliant, grumpy and entertaining part of my story ever since.
Wellington at the Tower came about during a late-night online chat with two very dear historian friends, Jacqueline Reiter and Kristine Hughes Patrone. We had recently been to the Tower and had been reading about the changes the Duke of Wellington made when he became Constable of the Tower in 1826. The resulting sketches were put together for our own amusement, and I’ve slightly tidied them up for public consumption, to celebrate Wellington’s 250th birthday.
The sketches take the form of imaginary conversations between the Duke of Wellington, full of crusading zeal to improve conditions at the Tower, and General Sir Paul van Daan, the fictional hero of my Peninsular War Saga and long-time friend and sparring partner of the Duke. I sometimes look ahead and wonder how that friendship will continue into peacetime. I have a very strong feeling that it won’t change very much at all…
No actual History was involved in the creating of these sketches. Well, not much, anyhow. For the background to this, I suggest you read No 1 London’s excellent post on the subject here.
“I am making a number of changes at the Tower, General.”
“Firstly, the post of Yeoman Warder. Are you aware that is possible to BUY these positions, or even hand them down from father to son?”
“No. No, sir, can’t say I knew that.”
“It is a disgrace. Such a position ought to be earned, as an honour, not bought and sold. Like…like…”
“Like a commission in the actual army, sir, where you get to lead men and send them into battle? No, I can see why that would worry you.”
“Don’t be impertinent, General. I have decided to end this practice. In future, Yeoman Warders will be appointed based on distinguished military service.”
“Excellent idea, sir. Only please don’t offer it to Sergeant-Major Carter, I do not want to look at his legs in that fancy dress costume.”
Wellington at the Tower Part II
“Ah, General van Daan. I have been speaking to the Surgeon-Major about the moat. It is completely revolting, full of rotting animals and God knows what else. He is of the opinion that it is affecting the health of the men, possibly polluting the water supply.”
“It sounds very likely, sir. Do your lot drink water at all? Things must have changed since the war, then. As I remember, grog and looted wine were more usual.”
“No, General. Only in the 110th.”
“Touche, sir. Can’t see the point of that moat anyway unless you’re expecting to be attacked. There’s not another Reform Bill in the offing, is there?”
“General, as always, you have me in paroxysms of laughter.”
“You’re hiding it well, sir.”
Wellington at the Tower, Part III
“Morning, sir. What in God’s name is that awful racket?”
“I have formally closed down the Tower menagerie, General. It is completely ridiculous to have beasts roaming around a military barracks. The animals are being transported to their new quarters in Regents Park. It will be a great improvement.”
“It’ll certainly be quieter. Is that by any chance an elephant I can hear? I feel as though I’m back in India.”
“It is. I have been listening to that noise every morning from my desk. It has driven me mad.”
“What about the visitors, sir? They loved coming in to see the animals, it’s what brings most people to the Tower.”
– Silence – –
“Ah. Yes, of course. You’ve got no objection to the animals, have you, sir, it’s just people you can’t stand.”
“Certainly I am selective, General. Why don’t you go down and watch them caging the lions? You might like to give them a hand. Although they sound fairly hungry…”
“Nice try, sir. By the way, what have you been doing at the front of the portcullis out there? Those black spikes are new.”
“Ah. I’m glad you noticed those. I have ordered them to be installed so that the guards will no longer be able to lounge against the wall and smoke whilst on duty. High time some military discipline was introduced in this place.”
“Really? Now that is an interesting idea. I am seeing a few of those decorating the guard posts around the barracks. Mind, we don’t have so much trouble with them smoking on duty these days, since Sergeant-Major Carter turned the room in the front tower into a latrine, and took to emptying the chamber pot out the window from time to time if he smelled smoke.”
“Really? What an ingenious idea, you must thank Sergeant-Major Carter for me. Where’s my secretary, I need to find out what the room in the Bloody Tower above those guard posts is currently being used for…”
“Glad I could help, sir. Sorry I can’t stay, but it sounds as though the baboons have escaped again, and I have enough trouble with that dog of my wife’s at home. Good luck, though. And I’d move those papers off your desk in case they make it in here…”
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.
We 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 Allianceis 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.
In 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?”
“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…”
“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 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
In 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…
“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.”
“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.
Writing about writing is something I rarely do. Most of my blog posts are either historical or centre around life with Labradors on the Isle of Man. I’ve read some fantastic posts about the writing process from other authors, but I’d rather come to the conclusion that I’m not particularly introspective when it comes to my own work. I love what I do, but I don’t spend a lot of time analysing it and I dread the interview question “what made you become a writer?”. The best answer I could give to that is “I couldn’t help it.”
Recently, however, something has happened to change my outlook on this. I was asked to teach a creative writing course as an evening class at the University College Isle of Man. This was a new experience for me, although I’ve done training and work in schools, but the idea of designing a course was irresistible. It was a short course, really just to test the water, four weeks on writing fiction, but it has made me think about my writing in a way that I don’t think I have before.
The course ended this week and seems to have been a great success; I really enjoyed it and I think the participants did too. I’ve been astonished at how much I’ve learned from working with them and watching their process as they began their stories, met their characters and studied themes and plot and dialogue. But best of all, it has made me go back and revisit some of my books, thinking again about how and why I do what I do.
In order to teach something, you have to be able to break it down and I’ve found it easier to do this, as I’ve recently been working on revising one of my earliest books. The Reluctant Debutante was a Regency romance which I originally wrote when I was trying the traditional publishing route, and it was designed for the Mills and Boon historical market. I was unsuccessful with it, although it did get some very positive feedback.
When I decided to try self-publishing, I had no idea what I was doing, so I chose to publish my three standalone novels first, using them to test the waters before publishing thePeninsular War Saga. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sales and did no real publicity. The first two books bombed as much as I had expected, but the third, my Regency romance, began to sell. I tried a free promotion and the uptake was huge. A few reviews trickled in and a few Goodreads ratings. Off the back of that, I began to get some sales of the other two books. Surprisingly, although never a bestseller, The Reluctant Debutante was my most popular book for a long time; a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre.
I’ve explained elsewhere why I was never really happy with that book. Occasionally I would get another review, many of them good and one or two absolutely terrible. Like all authors, I hate bad reviews, but I’ve learned to take them philosophically. My problem with this book, was that I kind of agreed with them.
After the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and before really getting stuck in to writing This Blighted Expedition I finally decided to do something about The Reluctant Debutante. I’d not read it through since I published it, and doing so was something of a shock to my system. It wasn’t that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the plot, it’s just that it really wasn’t very well written. The dialogue, always my strong point, was the best part although I don’t think it represented the characters as it should have. But the point of view was all over the place, the structure was messy and there was no clue as to the theme, even though I knew what it was in my head.
I’ve been revising this book along with teaching my course, and doing so has been incredibly useful, as it enabled me to break down the book and look at it in the way I was encouraging my students to do with their own writing. In the end, I didn’t need to change as much as I thought I would. I let the characters tell their story, but I was far clearer about the story they were telling. I gave them a voice, not just in the words they spoke but also in the thoughts they had, the internal dialogue which is so clear in some of my later books but which I seemed to have missed out entirely in this early effort.
I’m cautiously pleased with the result, and given that Giles is a minor character in the Peninsular War Saga and has a major role to play in my current book, I’m happy now, with the way he’s turned out. Part way through the first draft of This Blighted Expedition, I’m conscious of how much I’m applying some of the lessons I’ve learned to my new story.
You can write a very good book without reading a thing about crafting fiction. But personally, I think the work I’ve done in the classroom with my students, has made me a better writer. Certainly it has made me a more self-aware writer. I’m deeply grateful to them for their questions and contributions and endless curiosity about the writing process, both mine and theirs. I hope they all come back for another course and I really hope they all carry on writing. Every one of them has a different style and a different sphere of interest, but I think they have talent. I’m so grateful to University College Isle of Man for giving me the opportunity to teach this course and I hope to do more in the future.
Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors and welcome to 2019.
It feels like more than a year since I wrote my first blog post of 2018. So much has happened during the year, both personally and professionally, that it’s hard to know where to start, but as always, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more of my readers, both in person and online, and I love the fact that more and more people are beginning to contact me through the website and following me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
2018 saw the publication of two new books. The first of these, which came out in April, was An Unwilling Alliance.This book is the first of a new series, following the career of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, a fictional Manx Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars. It is also part of the Peninsular War Saga, slotting in approximately between books one and two, telling the story of Paul van Daan and the 110th during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807. I was able to set part of the book on the Isle of Man, where I live, and I loved being able to talk about the island to a wider audience.
The second book of 2018 was An Untrustworthy Army, book six of the Peninsular War Saga. It tells the story of Wellington’s Salamanca campaign and the miserable retreat from Burgos at the end of 1812. For some reason, I found this book very difficult. Partly, it was because my fictional brigade is part of the light division which was unusually not very active during much of this campaign. Partly, I think it was because the end of the campaign was genuinely so miserable, that it was hard to tell the story without sinking into unrelieved gloom. I think I managed it eventually, but it took a while. Fortunately, Craufurd the Dog stepped in with a bit of light relief. There were also goats.
Richard and I went on a tour of the Pyrenees in April, to research Vitoria and the Pyrenees campaigns. We had a great time and toured a few battlefields although I suspect we ate and drank rather better than Wellington’s army in 1813. I’m really looking forward to the next few books, as the Pyrenees give a lot of scope for the 110th to really get itself into trouble. We also spent a week in Northern Ireland in the summer, which was beautiful and set off a whole new sub-plot involving the United Irishmen and Michael O’Reilly in my over-active brain. Watch this space for that one, it’s happening sometime.
I wrote three new short stories this year. An Impossible Attachment was written for Valentine’s Day and tells the story of an unlikely romance between a French prisoner of war and the widow of an English officer in Portugal in 1812. The Quartermaster was a Halloween ghost story set in Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812 and The Christmas After tells the story of eight people thrown together on a winter’s journey by mail coach in 1815 who find common ground in their memories of the battle of Waterloo; it completes the story begun in An Impossible Attachment.
In October, I was invited to join a panel of historical novelists speaking at the Malvern Festival of Military History and it was a great experience to be up there alongside some of the best in the genre. The bonus was that I got to spend the weekend listening to a fantastic line up of historians, culminating with the wonderful Paddy Ashdown talking about his latest book.
On a personal level, it has been a mixed year at Writing with Labradors. Luka, our leopard gecko died early in the year at the age of twelve. She was my son’s eighth birthday present and for many years her tank lived in his room. Later she moved into my study and would sit watching me work for hours, during the evenings after her feed.
In May, our lives were lit up by the arrival of Oscar, our new baby black labrador. Oscar is completely gorgeous and has fitted into our family as if he’d always been there. He and Joey bonded immediately and are completely inseparable. Toby was a bit more aloof to start with, but quickly fell in love, and the three of them had the most marvellous time through the early summer months. The weather was hot and sunny and we practically lived outside, reading, writing and watching the three dogs playing.
We had a fright in June when Joey, our twelve year old yellow labrador’s back legs suddenly gave out, and we had a couple of days of sheer misery, wondering how serious the problem was, and if we were going to lose him. It turned out to be a false alarm, it was arthritis, and stronger pain relief and joint supplements very quickly got him back on his feet.
I’ll never forget that summer, because it turned out to be Toby’s last. The amazing weather continued, the kids’ exams were over, and we spent every minute we could outside in the sun. My daughter asked for a hammock for her birthday in July and it became Oscar’s new playground, leaping through the air to join her as she lay there reading, while the older dogs watched, looking as though they were laughing. I was working on the new book, enjoying all of us having time to be together, enjoying Oscar becoming an essential part of family life.
On July 23rd I worked in my study in the morning, but all three dogs wanted to play, so we moved outside and I sat working on the porch while they ran around chasing each other. They collapsed finally for a long nap, woke for dinner and then sat with us on the porch again until after dark. We said goodnight and went to bed. The following morning Toby was lying peacefully in his usual spot and I didn’t even realise he was dead until I touched him. It was a horrible shock; he was fourteen but other than his arthritis, seemed really well and there was no warning.
Despite the shock, it was a very peaceful end and although we miss him desperately, I’m so grateful for that. I was worried about Joey but although he missed Toby, I’m thankful that we had already got a new puppy, as it made the transition much easier for him. Once again, Writing with Labradors is down to two dogs, although Toby is close by and will always hold a very special place in my heart.
So what’s next? I’m planning a busy year in 2019, with the following projects on the go:
My next book is the second about Hugh Kelly and tells the story of the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. As with Copenhagen, this was a joint operation with the army and navy. Paul van Daan is busy in the Peninsula with Wellesley, but the 110th has a second battalion and I’m looking forward to getting on with the research and meeting my new characters. I don’t have a publication date for this one yet, as the subject is completely new and I can’t yet tell how long the research will take. I intend to go to Walcheren for a research trip and I’m very much hoping to be there in August for the 210th anniversary re-enactment.
I’m attending the Wellington Congress in Southampton in April to indulge myself in learning more about my favourite general and to meet up with some good friends.
I’m hoping to attend the Malvern festival again.
I’m starting a new venture this year, teaching some adult education classes in history and creative writing at the Isle of Man College.
I’m aiming for four free short stories this year, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Summer, Halloween and Christmas.
I’m hoping to make a good start on (possibly even to finish) Book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga, which is set during winter quarters of 1812-13.
The Peninsular War Saga will be available in paperback, initially from Amazon, but later in the year from some local bookshops and to purchase through my website.
A complete revamp of my website.
New editions of the two books of the Light Division romances series, to connect them more closely to the Peninsular War Saga.
With all this to look forward to, 2019 is going to be a busy year here at Writing with Labradors. Thanks so much to all of you who have read and enjoyed the books, and a special thanks to those who have left reviews. I really value them.
Have a happy and healthy new year and I look forward to hearing from many of you in 2019.