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.
I began writing the Peninsular War Saga some years ago. At the time, I was attempting to find an agent or a publisher for one of my standalone historical romances, without much success. I had a lot of very positive feedback about my writing, my plots and my characterisation but everybody was saying the same thing; we’re sorry, but there is no market for traditional historical romance any more.
More than one agent urged me to try to write a contemporary romance. I made several attempts and hated all of them. Many people told me that with just a little adjustment, I could write for Mills and Boon historical. Once again, I made the attempt, and the people at Mills and Boon were lovely, gave great feedback, but were just not sure that my characterisation was quite right for them. I was getting nowhere.
To cheer myself up, I decided to scrap all my dreams of writing a marketable historical romance and just write something that I really wanted to do. There was definitely no market for a new series about the Peninsular War, since it had been done to death in the years following the runaway success of the Sharpe books and TV series. Still, it’s what I wanted to write, and since it was clear that nobody was going to read it anyway, I felt very liberated. I decided I could write it just for me, about a collection of people who didn’t always feel heroic or brave or even that patriotic. A lot of them joined because they had no option, or because they needed a job. They fought and they died and a lot of them became heroes. They also got wet, got grumpy when they were hungry, got sore feet and developed a bad head cold from time to time.
I wanted to explore areas of the war that I’d not really seen a lot about. What about the medical services? How did the commissariat work and who was responsible for ordnance and transport and prisoners of war? And what about the women and children who followed the army? What was it like in camp and on the long marches and all the boring hours between battles and skirmishes? What were relationships like between officers and men, away from the parade ground and the tidy regulations which governed army life?
Out of all these questions was born the Peninsular War Saga. Finally tired of trying to persuade an agent or a publisher to read one of the books, I decided to publish independently, without really thinking I’d sell more than a dozen copies, let alone develop an enthusiastic following. With book five doing well and book six in the early planning stages, I consider I’ve been incredibly lucky.
The Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the fictional 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon; in particular, a young officer called Paul van Daan who joins the regiment in 1802 as it is about to go to India to fight under General Arthur Wellesley.
From the battle of Assaye, through Italy, Copenhagen and Portugal, we follow the early career of Lieutenant Paul van Daan, the most unusual officer ever to join the 110th as he attempts to find his place in the regiment. Along the way he makes both friends and enemies, discovers a talent for leadership and shares his life with two very different women.
An Unconventional Officer is slightly different to the other books, as it covers a longer time period, almost eight years. I wanted it to be a full introduction to Paul’s story and to get him to the point where he was well-established in Wellington’s army. While it introduces many of the main characters, the heart of this novel is the love story between Paul and Anne and its theme is Paul’s gradual development from a young officer willing to break all the rules, to a slightly more mature officer who is beginning to learn to fit in a little better.
This book is really a spin-off from the Peninsular War Saga, but it fits very securely within the series as well. It takes place halfway through the action of An Unconventional Officer, during the Copenhagen campaign, which is mentioned, but not explored in book one. I adore this book, partly because the navy theme enabled me to set part of it on the island which is my home and which I love, and partly because it is a real coming-of-age book for Major van Daan as well as a key point in his developing friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley.
It is 1806 andCaptain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife. He pays court to Roseen Crellin, who is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.
Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.
As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.
This book covers an area of the war that I knew very little about. The building and manning of the lines of Torres Vedras are absolutely fascinating and worth a lot more time than I was able to give them. It is also the story of a young couple learning to be married, and sets the tone for Paul and Anne’s relationship throughout the series. If you don’t leave your hero and heroine at the church door, you have to work out what their marriage is going to be like, and I loved the challenge of that.
On the heights of Bussaco Ridge, Paul van Daan leads his battalion into action under Lord Wellington in his defeat of the French under Marshal Massena. The book explores Paul’s developing career, and the happiness of his marriage to the lovely young widow of a fellow officer. As Wellington prepares to chase Massena out of Portugal, Paul is serving under the worst general in the army and must find a way to keep his regiment safe and protect his reputation.
In addition to the battles and the personal stories of my characters, I wanted to introduce something about army politics during this book. I particularly love finding an interesting, funny or even a very sad story from history and trying to work it into the lives of my characters.
Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida. As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is becoming accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and managing the resentment of other officers at his promotion over older and longer serving men. His young wife is carrying their first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities. And if that was not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during the days of the battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally, with potentially lethal consequences for the 110th and the rest of the third brigade of the light division.
This was definitely the most emotional book for me to write. I wanted to highlight the plight of women in wartime, and I’m proud of this book, but it was extremely painful for me.
In the freezing January of 1812, Lord Wellington pushes his army on to the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bloody siege with tragic consequences. Colonel Paul van Daan and his wife Anne have a baby son and in the aftermath of the storming, take a brief trip to Lisbon to allow Paul’s family to take little William back to England. With his career flourishing and his marriage happy, Paul has never felt so secure. But his world is shattered when his young wife is taken prisoner by a French colonel with a personal grudge against Paul. As Wellington’s army begins the siege of Badajoz, the other great Spanish border fortress, his scouts and agents conduct a frantic search for the colonel’s wife. Meanwhile Anne van Daan is in the worst danger of her life and needs to call on all her considerable resources to survive, with no idea if help is on the way.
This book covers both triumph and miserable retreat and was a wonderful opportunity both to introduce some new characters and to revisit one of the major storylines from the first book. It turned out to be more emotional than I expected and I loved being able to highlight one of my favourite characters whom I felt I’d neglected a little. The story of the retreat from Burgos was impossible to glamorise and highlighted both the best and the worst of Wellington’s army.
It is June 1812 and back with her husband and his brigade, Anne van Daan is beginning to recover from her ordeal at the hands of Colonel Dupres as Lord Wellington marches his army into Spain and up to Salamanca. In a spectacularly successful action, Wellington drives the French back although not without some damage to the Third Brigade of the Light Division.
Still recovering from their losses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, the Light Division remains in Madrid while Wellington lays siege to Burgos but some of Paul’s brigade have troubles of their own.
Lieutenant Simon Carlyon is determined not to allow his dead brother’s shameful reputation to blight his career in the army but finds it harder than expected to serve under the man who killed him. Colonel Johnny Wheeler is finding the lie he told to protect others difficult to live with, faced with the unrelenting hostility of a young officer. And Captain Michael O’Reilly’s life becomes complicated through a casual act of kindness.
The end of the campaigning season is not going as well for the Allied army and triumph turns to an undignified and dangerous retreat. At a time when the discipline of Wellington’s army seems to have broken down, Van Daan’s brigade need to set personal matters aside and concentrate on staying alive long enough to reach safety.
That’s as far as I’ve got with the novels. My next book is intended to be the sequel to An Unwilling Alliance, covering the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. I’ve not been able to find a novel covering this campaign before so it feels like uncharted territory. I intend to pick up Hugh Kelly’s story, but as the campaign once again involved both army and navy, I will be joining the men of the 110th second battalion, who, while Major van Daan was leading the first battalion to glory in the Peninsula, were unlucky enough to be sent to Walcheren. The working title is An Inauspicious Expedition.
The other books in the Peninsular War Saga, as planned so far are as follows:
An Unrelenting Enmity: set during winter quarters from December 1812 to April 1813
An Auspicious Action: the story of the battle of Vitoria
An Uncivilised Storming: the Pyrenees and San Sebastian
An Inexorable Invasion: the invasion of France
An Improbable Abdication: Toulouse and the return to England
An Unmerciful Engagement: Waterloo
An Amicable Occupation: the Army of Occupation
Looking at that list, I feel a combination of excitement and sheer terror. At present I seem to be able to manage two books a year, but some of these will take more research than others, so I don’t promise that. There will also be more in the Manxman series, since I hope at some point to be able to reunite Hugh Kelly and Paul van Daan.
Currently, I’m beginning the research for the book about Walcheren, which will be published some time next year; I can’t give a date yet until I have a better idea of how long the research will take. I’m also making notes about book 6 in the main saga, which may be quicker to write, given that it is set outside of the main battles and campaigns, although obviously, given that this is the 110th, there will be some action.
So far, most of the books have been published only as e-books, but I am working at changing that. Early next year I am hoping to have all the books in paperback on Amazon, and then to get them into some bookshops or for sale on my website later in the year.
I’ve come a very long way from believing that nobody wants to read another series about the Peninsular War, and I’m so grateful to all my readers, especially those who follow me on facebook and twitter and visit my website regularly. Some of you have left fabulous reviews as well, and every good review is like a gift, even if it’s only a couple of lines.
It has been a good year in many ways at Writing with Labradors, despite losing our beloved Toby. We’re so grateful we have Oscar to step into his paw prints, and we’re looking forward to an even better 2019. In the meantime, remember to look out for book giveaways on Amazon on Christmas Eve, in honour of the Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood. And for future giveaways and updates, please click on the link to subscribe to the newsletter.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors.
In the run up to Christmas, and with the latest book up and running, I’ve decided to devote this blog to sharing some of my favourite books with you. Last year, on Christmas Eve, I did a post about the Christmas Book Flood, or Jolabokaflod. The concept was new to me, but I loved it.
In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi. Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.
The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary and people love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world. One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”
There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity. In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books. The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.
The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me. Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient. Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.
Last year, to celebrate this fabulous tradition, I offered some of my e-books free on Christmas Eve, and the take-up was phenomenal. I like to think I found a lot of new readers on that day and I intend to do the same thing again this year. But I also wanted to do a Christmas countdown of books that I’ve read and loved; a sort of literary advent calendar which has started late. Some of them are fiction, some are non-fiction, but all of them have a particular place on my shelves, both actual and electronic. I hope that reading about some of them will cause some of you to buy them, either for yourselves or for family and friends, as part of our own Christmas Book Flood.
Merry Christmas from all of us at Blogging with Labradors.
An Untrustworthy Army is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga and is published on Kindle today. It covers a period of around seven months in 1812, during which Wellington led his army into Spain, achieved a spectacular victory at Salamanca and entered the Spanish capital of Madrid, which had been in French hands for four years. He then marched on to invest the fortress city of Burgos,but Burgos proved too much for Wellington’s army, and he was obliged to make a difficult retreat, with the French at his heels, back to the border. It was a miserable end to a triumphant year but it did not nullify Wellington’s achievements. He had given the Allied army an ascendency over the French which it had not had before, and the next campaigning season had a new purpose to it.
For anybody new to the books, the Peninsular War Saga follows the fortunes of a fictional regiment of infantry through the long wars of the early nineteenth century and the man who rose to command it.
Paul van Daan is 21 when we first meet him, the younger son of a wealthy shipping merchant, who purchases a commission in time to join the regiment on its way to India. On paper, he is a fairly typical young officer, but Paul has an unusual past which sets him apart from many of his privileged contemporaries. He finds his home in the army, and discovers a talent for leadership which will bring him early success and which also brings him to the attention of General Arthur Wellesley.
Writing a historical fiction series based around real events is an interesting challenge. On the one hand, there is no need to spend much time thinking up a plot line; I always know where my characters ought to be. On the other hand, it isn’t enough just to put them down on a battlefield and write about nothing else. These people had lives; they ate and drank, went to parties, fell in love, got sick, got wounded. Sometimes, far too often, they died.
I have tried to populate my series with a collection of believable characters who sometimes do unbelievable things. Most of the unbelievable things really happened; I do a lot of research, and if I find a fascinating story or incident, I love to weave it into the fabric of my novel. The trick is to try to make it as seamless as possible. By now, for me, the fictional characters of Paul van Daan and his redoubtable wife, Anne, are so real, it is faintly surprising to look at the order of battle for Fuentes d’Onoro and find the 110th not there.
Alongside the story of the regiment and the love story of Paul and Anne is the story of a friendship. Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, is not known for having good relationships with all of his officers, and is often described as distant and difficult, but he had a few close friends, whom he valued, and Paul van Daan is one of them. The growing friendship between two men who are, in many ways, very different and yet also very similar, is possibly my favourite element of writing the books. Lord Wellington is a fantastic character to write; I’ve spent endless hours reading his letters and they bring him alive for me.
There have been many novels set during the Peninsular War ever since Bernard Cornwell made it so popular with his fabulous Sharpe series. I’ve read a good few of them, before I decided to make my own foray into Portugal and Spain, and each author has a different take. My books are rooted very firmly in the army, and the battles it fought, but they give equal weight to characterisation and relationships and the daily life of the men and women who marched with Wellington.
By the beginning of book 5, the fiery young lieutenant we first meet at the beginning ofAn Unconventional Officer has begun to settle down. He has risen to command a brigade of the elite light division, is on excellent terms with its commanding officer, Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, and is happy in his second marriage, with his children back in England being cared for by his family. He even has a dog. There is something very enjoyable in depicting Paul trying to deal with a young officer getting himself into trouble; it feels like karma. Paul has come a long way from the impetuous young officer who got himself court-martialled in An Unwilling Alliance, although in some ways he really hasn’t changed that much at all.
History dictates the plots of my books, and in An Untrustworthy Army, history let me down. The famous Light Division, generally at the forefront of any action, got some time off. They were barely engaged at Salamanca and when Wellington marched on to invest Burgos, he left the Light Division in Madrid. If I stuck strictly to history, this would have been a very quiet book. Needless to say, I have cheated a little, allowing one of my new characters to temporarily join another regiment, to give at least a flavour of the battle, and sending my fictitious third brigade of the Light Division off to get themselves into trouble elsewhere.
The end of 1812 was a miserable time for Wellington’s army, and both I and the stalwarts of the 110th infantry are relieved that it’s over, although not without some sadness. Book 6, An Unrelenting Enmity, will be published at the end of next year, and will spend some time in winter quarters, as well as following a group of the 110th on a dangerous mission to locate a missing British diplomat.
The next book, however, will take a different direction. I’m going to be picking up the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, the Royal Navy and the Second Battalion of the 110th who have the misfortune to be bound for Walcheren. The working title is An Insalubrious Island, although that may change.
Thanks to everybody who has been reading and enjoying my books. I hope you enjoy this one, and I look forward to taking Christmas off and then getting back to work in the New Year.
One of my new favourite characters in the Peninsular War Saga, is Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, who took over command of the light division in May 1812, after General Robert Craufurd was killed at the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo.
Carl August von Alten, to give him his German name, was from an old Hanoverian family, the second son of Baron Alten, and was first commissioned in the Hanoverian guards in 1781 at the age of sixteen, having previously served the Elector of Hanover as a page when he was twelve. He rose to the rank of captain and fought in the campaigns in the Low Countries in 1793-95, proving particularly effective as a commander of light infantry.
In 1803 after the French invasion, the Hanoverian army was disbanded at the convention of Lauenburg and Alten was one of many Hanoverians to leave his country and enrol in the force collecting at Lymington, which became part of the British army as the King’s German Legion. Alten was a lieutenant-colonel by now and as such, took command of the light infantry of the KGL.
Alten took part in the Hanoverian expedition of 1805 under Lord Cathcart, and fought under him again in the brief Copenhagen campaign in 1807. This may have been his first meeting with Sir Arthur Wellesley, who commanded the reserves; certainly Alten fought under him at the only significant battle of the campaign, the battle of Koge, which is also known as the battle of the clogs, and which forms an essential part of the plot of An Unwilling Alliance.
Alten next fought under Sir John Moore in Sweden and then Spain, and commanded the second flank brigade during the retreat; the first flank brigade was commanded by Robert Craufurd. Neither fought at Corunna, having taken a different route out of Spain, although both shared in the privations and horrors of the winter retreat.
Alten’s next campaign was the disastrous Walcheren expedition in the summer of 1809, after which he returned to the Peninsula and commanded an independent KGL brigade at the bloody battle of Albuera. His conduct and career must have impressed his commander-in-chief, who referred to him as ‘the best of the Hanoverians’ and in May 1812 he was given command of the light division. Alten led Wellington’s elite troops during the battles of Salamanca, Vitoria, the Pyrenees, the Nivelle, the Nive, Orthez and Toulouse.
Historian Charles Omanhas been harsh in his judgement of Alten’s role in the light division, comparing him unfavourably with Craufurd, as ‘a general of much more pedestrian quality, who might never fail to make an attempt to obey Wellington’s orders to the best of his ability, but could never supplement them by any improvisation of his own, of which he was incapable’. It is probably true that Alten did not share Craufurd’s flashes of sheer brilliance, but neither did he share his reputation for rudeness, belligerence and inability to get on with his officers. Wellington placed his faith firmly in Alten’s ability to command, and the light division retained their reputation as Wellington’s elite troops under his steady leadership. The officers of the light division presented him with a sword of honour as a token of their esteem, something they would probably not have done for Craufurd.
In 1815 Alten led Wellington’s third division during the Hundred Days. Part of the division was heavily engaged at the Battle of Quatre Bras, and at Waterloo, Alten’s men held the front line throughout the day and suffered appalling losses. Alten was badly wounded and his courage and conduct won him the rank of Count von Alten.
The King’s German Legion was disbanded at the end of the war, and Alten took command of the Hanoverian troops in France as part of the Army of Occupation until 1818 when the occupation ended. He returned to Hanover where he became minister of war and foreign affairs and rose to the rank of field marshal. He remained on the British army list as Major-General Sir Charles Alten, GCB. He died in 1840 and is buried in the Neustadter Kirche in Hanover.
Writing Alten as a fictional character is an interesting challenge. He arrives to command the light division after the siege of Badajoz and I have a strong suspicion that Lord Wellington greeted his arrival with a massive sigh of relief. After the ups and downs of life with the irascible genius of Robert Craufurd, I think it is is no coincidence that Wellington chose a man who appears to have been noted for his steadiness, amiability and readiness to obey orders to place in charge of his most useful division. Wellington never denied Craufurd’s talent, but I think he was probably permanently on edge, wondering what Craufurd would do next.
It was tempting to write Alten as Oman portrays him, a pedestrian general and a safe pair of hands, but as I was trying to find out more about Paul van Daan’s new commander as a person, I discovered a couple of lines in the third volume of Rifle Green in the Peninsula,one of my favourite sources for the actual day to day happenings in the light division, which made me rethink.
“The 1st brigade of the light division was ordered by General Erskine, whom they knew all too well from his short time in command of the division when Craufurd was in England, to cover the withdrawal of his cavalry. General Alten was most indignant at having his brigade ordered to such a precarious position. After forming up and halting them in columns ready to form square, he then remonstrated with Erskine in no uncertain terms.”
This little passage gave me a different perspective; mild-mannered Clark Kent was having none of it from General Erskine and wasn’t afraid to say so. It occurred to me that unlike Craufurd, there are not dozens of accounts describing him, but if actions speak louder than words, Alten’s officers liked and respected him enough to present him with a gift and Wellington thought highly enough of him to entrust him with the light division and then to give him a significant command during the Waterloo campaign. The best of the Hanoverians, it seemed to me, might well have been a very good commander and a likeable man.
That is how I have chosen to portray Alten, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better through the rest of the books. I’d love to find out more about him and I wonder if there is a fabulous German source out there that I know nothing about yet. My Alten is courageous, intelligent and well-mannered, with a willingness to listen to advice and to discuss his plans with his officers. He misses his wife, and enjoys sharing a good bottle of wine with Colonel Barnard and playing chess with Colonel van Daan. What he is not, is boring, pedestrian and weak. I hope my readers enjoy him.
Sir Harry Smith is one of my favourite characters from the Peninsular War, up there with Lord Wellington and General Robert Craufurd. A relatively humble doctor’s son from Cambridgeshire, he rose to the heights of his profession on sheer merit and a good deal of personality, retained the friendship and admiration of the Duke of Wellington, defying the accepted belief that Wellington only favoured aristocratic and well-born officers, and married the love of his life in the shadow of the bloody siege of Badajoz. He is one of the most colourful characters of his day, and his autobiography, along with that of Kincaid, his close friend in the 95th are two of the liveliest and most readable accounts of Wellington’s campaigns. Harry Smith has a more personal significance for me, as he was the historical figure who first sparked my enthusiasm for the Peninsular War and is the inspiration, although not the model, for Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry.
Henry George Wakelyn Smith was born in 1787, the son of a surgeon in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, and was commissioned into the army in 1805 and promoted to lieutenant in the 95th Rifles a few months later. He first saw active service in South America during the British invasions of 1806-07 and distinguished himself at the Battle of Montevideo.
In 1808 the young Harry Smith joined the forces under Sir John Moore invading Spain. The expedition, begun with high hopes, ended in a disastrous retreat over 200 miles of mountain paths in winter. Men, women and children died by the roadside, but Smith made it back to Corunna and the battle which left Moore dead on the field. A brief period of recovery in England restored Smith to health and his next voyage to Portugal was as part of General Robert Craufurd’s light brigade, later to become the celebrated light division. Harry Smith’s Peninsular War had begun in earnest.
Smith served with the 95th throughout the war, from 1808 to end Battle of Toulouse in 1814, and he served with considerable distinction. In 1810 he was appointed to ADC to Colonel Beckwith, with whom he clearly enjoyed an excellent relationship. In February 1812 he was promoted captain and he filled a succession of staff posts within the light division.
In April, Wellington’s army successfully stormed Badajoz and the army sacked the city, turning into a drunken mob whom even their own officers could not control for several days. Looting, murder and rape were committed openly and many citizens, especially women, fled from the town to take refuge at the British lines, hoping that the officers would protect them. One such lady, whose home had been destroyed, brought her younger sister with her, a girl of fourteen newly returned from a convent education. Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon appears to have shaken off the restrictions of her upbringing very quickly. Within a few days she was the wife of Captain Harry Smith and remained by his side for the rest of the war.
Harry Smith volunteered to serve in the United States, fighting at the Battle of Bladensburg and witnessing the burning of the capitol in Washington, an act which appalled Smith and some of the other Peninsula veterans, who compared it unfavourably to “the Duke’s humane warfare in the south of France.” He returned to Europe in time to serve as a brigade major at Waterloo and remained with the army during the occupation of France, acting as Mayor of Cambrai in Picardy. His close relationship with Wellington continued; the two men both ran hunting packs and in his autobiography, Smith describes how Wellington arranged to divide up the countryside between the two packs.
When the occupation was over, Smith returned to being divisional ADC in Glasgow for Major-General Reynell who commanded the Western District of Scotland, and it was Reynell’s recommendation that gained him his first colonial appointment as ADC to the Governor of Nova Scotia, Lieutenant-General Sir James Kempt in 1826.
Smith was promoted Major in the army by the end of 1826, but remained unattached to a regiment, and was still unattached when raised to Lieutenant-colonel in July 1830. In 1828 he was sent to the Cape of Good Hope where he commanded a force in the Sixth Xhosa War of 1834-36 and was later appointed as governor of the Province of Queen Adelaide. He was considered an energetic and talented commander who was able to restore confidence among British and Boer residents and had considerable influence over the tribes.
Smith’s attempts to modernise and introduce improvements and benefits to the Xhosa tribes were supported by the high commissioner, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, another peninsular veteran, but his policies were reversed by the ministry in London and he was removed from his command. Both Xhosa and Boers regretted his loss and some historians have suggested that his departure precipitated the Great Trek.
In 1840 Harry Smith was appointed Adjutant-General in India. He fought in the Gwalior campaign of 1843 and the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-6, where he was eventually given an independent command and on 28 January 1846 he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Sikhs at Aliwal on the Sutlej. For this victory he was awarded the thanks of Parliament and was the subject of an unusually long tribute from the Duke of Wellington, whose remarks concluded:
“I have read the account of many a battle, but I never read the account of one in which more ability, energy, and experience have been manifested than in this. I know of no one, in which an officer ever showed himself more capable than this officer has, in commanding troops in the field. He brought every description of troops to bear with all arms, in the position in which they were most capable of rendering service; the nicest manoeuvres were performed under the fire of the enemy with the utmost precision, and at the same time, with an energy and gallantry on the part of the troops never surpassed on any occasion whatever in any part of the world. I must say of this officer, that I never have seen any account which manifests more plainly than his does, that he is an officer capable of rendering the most important services and of ultimately being an honour to this country.”
This is probably the greatest tribute the Duke ever bestowed on an officer. Sir Harry Smith was created a baronet and the words “of Aliwal” were appended to the title by the patent. He was promoted to major-general in November 1846.
In 1847 Smith returned to South Africa as Governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner with the local rank of lieutenant-general. The disaffection of the Boers and the local tribes had gone very much the way Smith had prophesied eleven years earlier. Smith’s first campaign was to deal with the Boers in the Orange River Sovereignty and he defeated them at Boomplaats in August 1848.
In December 1850 war broke out with the Xhosa once more and some of the Khoikhoi joined in. Smith did not have enough troops from England but he experienced some success. He has been criticised by modern historians for his conduct during this period. Smith had a tendency towards the dramatic, and some of his demonstrations towards the tribes appear appalling in a modern context, although interestingly do not seem to have been seen that way by Xhosa themselves at the time. His campaign was warmly approved by the Duke of Wellington and other military authorities but Earl Grey, in a dispatch never submitted to the queen, recalled him in 1852 before the Xhosa and Khoikhoi had been completely subdued. Smith protested strongly against the abandonment of the Orange River Sovereignty to the Boers, which happened two years after his departure, and was a firm supporter of the granting of responsible government to Cape Colony.
In 1853 Sir Harry Smith was made General Officer Commanding the Western District in England and was given brevet promotion to lieutenant-general in 1854. He was appointed to the same role in the Northern District in 1856.
Smith died at his home at Eton Place, London, on 12 October 1860. He was buried at St Mary’s, Whittlesey. His wife, Juana, who had accompanied him throughout his life on his various campaigns, died twelve years later and is buried with him. Smith’s autobiography was first published posthumously in 1901.
I first met Harry Smith, not as the enthusiastic junior officer who features as a recurring character in my peninsular war books, but as the victor over the Sikhs at Aliwal and then as a colonial general and administrator in South Africa. There was always something very appealing about Sir Harry Smith and reading between the dry lines of some of the history texts, I had a sense of a huge personality, a man with courage and ideas and a determination to make progress and to do whatever job he was sent to do, to his utmost.
This didn’t always go well. Smith’s enthusiasm as a young officer clearly recommended him to his seniors during his days with the light division and I suspect that his independent thinking worked well under commanders like Robert Craufurd and Sydney Beckwith while it might not always have gone down as well with ministers such as Lord Glenelg in later life.
The slightly surprising thing, is how well Smith seemed to get on with Lord Wellington, a commander with a reputation for disliking initiative in his officers and a man, moreover, who was reputed to prefer his officers to be young men from aristocratic families. Smith failed on both counts and yet it is very obvious that he held Wellington’s favour from the start.
My interest in the older Harry Smith caused me to read his autobiography. I already knew something of the political history of the Napoleonic Wars but my knowledge of the military aspects was restricted to a couple of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books which came out at round about the same time. I read, initially one or two more contemporary accounts of the conflict and then began to read some of the standard histories of the period, old and new, and more biographies and autobiographies and I was completely hooked.
When I began to attempt writing my own historical novels, these were initially set in very different periods. The idea of a Peninsular War novel came to me several years later and I baulked at it, probably because by that stage Sharpe had arrived on our TV screens and a host of other writers were tackling the Napoleonic wars both from and army and a naval perspective. It seemed to me at the time, that the stories were being told by others and told well.
The story of Harry and Juana Smith kept coming back to me over the years, however, and I continued to read everything I could get my hands on about the period. I wanted to write, not their story exactly, but the story of another couple who took the same journey as them and lived through the same events. Gradually, over a couple of years of scribbling, Paul and Anne van Daan were born.
Paul van Daan shares Harry Smith’s talent and energy and independent spirit. I chose a different background for him. I wanted something a long way from Cornwell’s Sharpe, since it seemed to me that every novel of that period would be directly compared to those. Sharpe was from the bottom of the heap, an enlisted man scrabbling his way up to an officer’s commission. Harry Smith started higher, respectably middle class but with no money. I moved a step or two up the social scale with my hero, giving him a wealthy background but a very mixed pedigree and an early stint below decks in the Royal Navy to make him comfortable with his enlisted men. The point of Sharpe is that he struggles to fit in anywhere; I wanted a hero who could fit in everywhere. Paul’s fight is not against the army establishment it is against his own nature; quick-tempered, hot-headed and impulsive; the early books are about Paul growing up.
Anne’s background has little in common with Juana Smith although like Juana, she takes to life in the army’s tail as if she had been born there. She shares a lot of Juana’s traits; she is attractive, charming and very determined and she has the ability to get on with both officers and enlisted men. Like Juana, she is a favourite of the irascible Lord Wellington. Like Juana, she has a hard-headed practicality which enables her to cope very well with the conditions of an army on the move.
The joy of writing fiction is that it is possible to introduce one’s fictional creations to the characters who inspired them. Colonel Paul van Daan is both older and senior to the young Harry Smith and although they get on well, they also disagree spectacularly on occasion. It has been fun to go back to Smith’s early days and to tell a little of his story alongside my own and it’s good to look back and remember how my own journey through the Peninsular War began with Harry’s autobiography.
Book five of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, is due for publication on kindle at the end of November and in paperback in December. The first four books are available on Amazonhere and for a glimpse at an earlier episode in Paul van Daan’s history, try An Unwilling Alliance.
The Battle of Assaye was fought on 23rd September 1803 and was a major victory for Arthur Wellesley, then a relatively young and inexperienced general. He was later to claim it as one of his most impressive victories. In the Peninsular War Saga, it is Paul van Daan’s first major battle at the head of the 110th light company and the start of a long association with the man who was to become the Duke of Wellington. This is an excerpt from An Unconventional Officer.
In the dim light of Wellesley’s briefing room, the following morning, Paul was aware that he was the youngest and by far the least experienced of the officers present, but he knew that the previous day’s action had earned him his place there. His chief called on him, and Paul stood up and walked to the front where Wellesley’s aide had pinned a sketch map of the area. Briefly Paul outlined the events of the previous day and pointed out the troop locations he had seen. “Thank you, Captain van Daan. Gentlemen, we’re going to make a fight of it,” General Wellesley said calmly. “Here, on the edge of Assaye.” There was a stunned silence around the briefing room. “Sir – what about Colonel Stevenson?” Maxwell said. There was no sign of the raging hangover he deserved. “Shouldn’t we wait for him? Our force is split in two.” Wellesley fixed Colonel Maxwell with an arctic gaze. “Surprisingly, Colonel, I am aware of that,” he snapped. “Two of our scouts went out last night. They report that it is possible that the Maratha army may be pulling out. I don’t want to lose this opportunity. We have the element of surprise. I’d intended to join up with Stevenson at Borkadan but I’m not waiting for him, he’ll join us when he can, I’ve sent a message.” He motioned to his aide who picked up another sketch map and pinned it to the wall. “Gentlemen, my plan of battle.” “It’s suicide!” John Wheeler said later, as Paul outlined the general’s orders to his officers in his tent. “Not necessarily,” Paul said. “Wellesley is ambitious but he’s not stupid. If we wait for Stevenson this campaign could drag on for months. He’s fairly sure that the irregular forces won’t stand for long. Scindia’s infantry probably will, but with good discipline we can take them.” “Where does he want us?” Carl asked. “At the rear initially, with the 19th and the Madras cavalry. He’s leaving half a battalion of sepoys here to guard the baggage and the camp. The other half will fight under us while Johnstone takes the rest of the 110th. Wellesley wants fast manoeuvrable troops ready to move in and plug any gaps. He’s going ahead with a cavalry escort to reconnoitre the Maratha position. The rest of us follow. We have about two hours, gentlemen, get them ready.” The Maratha chiefs had positioned their army in a strong defensive position along a tongue of land stretching east from Borkadan between the Kailna River and its tributary the Juah. Their army was commanded by a Hanoverian mercenary by the name of Anthony Pohlmann, apparently a former East India Company sergeant, who had positioned his infantry to the east of the Maratha camp in the plains around Assaye on the southern bank of the Juah. As Wellesley approached with his cavalry escort in the late morning it was clear that he was facing the entire combined army. The weather was clear. It had rained during the night, and the day was cooler than average, although out on the river plain with his men, watching the Maratha and Wellesley easing their troops into position, Paul was already hot enough. Mosquitoes, the permanent irritation of India, were particularly prevalent towards the end of the monsoon season and up and down the line Paul could see his men swatting irritably at the creatures. Pohlmann was deploying his infantry battalions in a line facing southwards behind the steep banks of the Kailna with his cannon arrayed directly in front. The great mass of Maratha cavalry was kept on the right flank leaving the irregular infantry to garrison the village of Assaye to the rear. The only obvious crossing point over the river was a small ford directly ahead of the Maratha position, and it appeared that Pohlmann was hoping to funnel the British and Madras troops across the ford into the mouth of his cannon, and then on to the massed infantry and cavalry behind. The local guides assured the general that no other ford existed nearby, but any frontal assault would have been suicide. While reconnoitring, Wellesley had noticed two unguarded villages on each bank of the Kaitna beyond the Maratha left, and it became obvious that there was a second ford. Wellesley led his army east to the crossing in an attempt to launch an attack on Pohlmann’s left flank. At around three o’clock the British crossed to the northern bank of the Kaitna unopposed apart from a distant fire from the Maratha cannon. Once across, Wellesley ordered his six infantry battalions including most of the 110th to form into two lines, with his cavalry as a reserve in a third along with Paul’s light company and sepoy infantry. His Mysore cavalry were ordered to remain south of the Kaitna to keep an eye on a group of Maratha cavalry, which hovered around the rear. “He’s not going to let us get away with that,” Carl commented, studying the distant Maratha troops through a small telescope. “See, he’s already swinging around to create a new line.” He was right, Paul saw. Pohlmann swung his infantry and guns through 90 degrees to establish a new line spread across the isthmus with his right flank on the Kaitna and the left on Assaye. It was a good defensive move, which would protect his flanks, Paul thought, but it negated some of the advantage of his superior numbers. “They’re moving fast,” he said, watching the enemy’s redeployment with appreciation. “Hookey needs to get a move on or we’ll be outflanked.” The same thought had obviously occurred to the general who immediately extended his front to avoid the danger. A battalion of pickets and the 74th Highlanders, which formed the right of the first and second lines, were ordered to move to the right. This allowed the 78th Highlanders to cover the left flank and the four Madras infantry battalions plus the rest of the 110th foot to form the centre of the British line. The Maratha cannonade was intensifying and beginning to do some damage. Initially Wellesley ordered his own artillery forward to counter the attack but it was not powerful enough to be effective. The guns were turned onto the infantry, pounding them with canister, grape and round shot and Paul moved his horse forward restlessly, feeling powerless as the guns punched into the British lines. It was infuriating to be so far back with no part to play in the battle. It was impossible from the rear to see everything that was going on, although occasionally messages would come through via horsemen. Wellesley was a commander who liked to move freely around the battlefield in person, relaying orders to his various commanders, but he could not be everywhere. A young ensign from the 78th had been sent back out of harms way with a badly wounded arm. He slid from his horse, blood dripping, and Paul and Carl both ran forward to assist him. Carl eased him out of his coat and Paul staunched the flow of blood, and sent O’Reilly running for bandages. “What’s happening?” “The infantry has advanced with bayonets,” the ensign said. “We’ve taken heavy fire, but we’re holding our own and moving forward. I got this when we charged the gunners. It’s going well but we’re taking losses. The sepoys are a bit wild; two of the Madras battalions took off in pursuit but we got them back. I want to get back there.” “Well, you can’t, lad, not when you can’t hold a musket or a sword,” O’Reilly said, winding a bandage carefully around the wound. “Sit down, drink some water and take a breath. You’ve done your share.” Paul was conscious of rising sounds of battle coming from the English right. He ran back to his horse and swung himself into the saddle, reaching for his telescope. The other officers and some of the men began to cluster around him. “What in God’s name is happening?” Paul said. He was watching the steady advance of the pickets ahead of the 74th and it was clear that something was going badly wrong on the right. While he had been dealing with the injured ensign, Colonel Orrock had begun his advance in charge of the pickets who were to clear the way for the 74th Highlanders heading towards the right. It was clear now that he had either misunderstood his orders or mistaken his way, because he was marching too far to the right in direct line with the guns in and around Assaye. The King’s 74th had followed their pickets, and under the appalled gaze of the 110th light company they were being slaughtered on the field. The pickets had already been almost completely annihilated. Even from this distance Paul could see their bloody bodies piled up, with the Highlanders scrambling over them to advance. Despite the horrific casualties, with iron and lead cutting into them they had reached as far as the low cactus hedge about a hundred yards out from the village but they could go no further. It was insanity and Paul felt a cold fury that nobody had realised the mistake and stopped the advance sooner. “Maxwell!” Paul bellowed. He was too enraged to consider the proprieties of rank. “We need to charge, man, they’re being slaughtered over there.” Colonel Maxwell rode up to join him. “Waiting for orders from Wellesley,” he said. His voice betrayed his anxiety. “They’ll come.” “How the hell can you be sure? We need to go in now before they’re all dead!” Paul could not take his eyes from the horror unfolding before him. The 74th could go no further. They were rallying around their colours now, forming a square. He could see them pulling the bodies of their dead comrades to form a rough rampart around them. And then there was a yell, and the Maratha cavalry charged, followed closely by two of Pohlmann’s regular battalions, and the Highlanders were fighting with bayonet, fighting for their lives. Paul felt sick. He looked at the colonel. “I’m not waiting,” he said, and raised his voice. “Light Company, to me! Form line! Native third battalion, fall in behind!” The men had been waiting for the order. Paul dismounted, handed the reins of his horse to his orderly and drew his sword. The light company fell into rank with the precision of a clockwork toy with the sepoys lined up behind them as they set out at a steady pace across the battlefield. Paul scanned the battle, picking out the crumbling lines of the highlanders. Behind him Paul could hear Maxwell bellowing orders and he grinned. Within two minutes the colonel was riding up beside him. “If Wellesley court martials me for this, I’m taking you down with me, you arrogant young bastard!” he told Paul, and gave the order to charge, his men overtaking the light company on both sides and thundering down towards the enemy. The cavalry smashed into the rear of the Maratha lines and Paul waved to O’Reilly. “Michael, we’re going to cut across and plug the gap left between the 74th and the 10th. Don’t let them split our line any further. Let the dragoons do the slaughter. It’s our job to stand firm. And watch those bloody gunners, I don’t trust them as far as I can kick them. Get through to the Highlanders and protect their left.” Covering the ground quickly, they arrived at the battle zone to discover fierce fighting between the dragoons and the Maratha light cavalry. The remains of the Highlanders were barely on their feet, and Paul could see none of their officers. Through the thick of the fighting the light company slashed their way with sword and bayonet, and under orders bellowed by the NCOs they formed a barrier between the cavalry and the beleaguered 74th. Paul was appalled at the number of casualties. The dead lay piled up, impeding their advance. The guns were deafening, and the smoke obscured friend from foe. Paul stabbed a sepoy who was charging him down, then swung around and slashed at two more. There were screams from the Maratha cavalry who were under savage attack from the dragoons. The smell of blood and sweat and the acrid scent of fear hung heavy in the air. A horse screamed in pain, then the guns crashed again. Cries of agony told Paul that his right flank was hit. “We need to shut these bastards up and let the cavalry do their job,” he said to Carl. “Sergeant, ten men and with me. Carl, Johnny, line them up and cut down anything that tries to get past you, I don’t want a sabre up my arse. Carl, when we’re through, try to bring the men up to secure the guns. It’ll give the dragoons the chance to do their work.” Paul led his men through the fray at a cautious run. The gunners on the far right had no need to aim any more. The packed mass of advancing British presented an easy target. They were concentrating their fire on the advancing 110th and the remains of the Highlanders, avoiding the battle raging between the two lots of cavalry so that they did minimum damage to their own men. There were three guns in his sight. Paul crouched low behind a small clump of cacti. He felt O’Reilly’s hand on his arm. “Easy, sir. Wait until they’re reloading. The timing is as reliable as our own men shooting a volley, I’ll count you in.” Paul nodded. “On my mark,” he said over his shoulder. “Go for the gunners on the right first, then work across to the left.” “Make sure every one of the bastards is dead,” the Irishman instructed. “They’re the devil for playing dead, and before you know it they’re shooting you in the arse. If in doubt, cut their throats. Hard to get up from that one. Watch for them hiding under the bodies. Now here we go. One, two three…” The gunners were quick and efficient at loading, but Paul and his men were on them before they were halfway through the process. Each gun had a small group of sepoys defending it, but they were no match for the enraged light company, and the gun was silenced within five bloody minutes. Paul stood for a moment catching his breath, glancing around him. The ground was saturated with blood and eight gunners and their guards lay dead. “Well done, sir,” his sergeant said. He was wiping blood from his hands down his tunic. “All dead. Bryant, Smith, stay to guard it until the lads come up. Kill anything you don’t like the look of.” “Aye, sir,” Smith said. He was a fearsome sight, covered in blood, his bayonet held in steady hands. “That include Bryant, sir, ‘cause he’s an ugly bastard?” “After you’ve done with the Maratha,” Paul said with a grin. “Come on, Michael, let’s find ourselves another gun.” The fight was harder now, as they were cutting through the remains of the Maratha infantry. The sepoys were fierce fighters, but they seemed leaderless and backed off from the savage assault of the light company bayonets more easily than expected. The second set of guns was in sight when Paul felt an agonising pain in his left thigh. He stumbled and fell, rolled over onto his back and slashed up at a sepoy who was lunging down at him with fixed bayonet. The man screamed and fell, blood spurting. Paul sat up and felt cautiously at his leg. “Sir, you all right?” Private Cooper pulled up in his headlong run and offered his hand to Paul. Paul got up, nodding. “Musket ball, I think,” he said, probing and wincing. “I’ll live. Let’s get moving.” The light company reached the second set of guns and swarmed over the gunners in seconds. There was less noise now, although across to the left he could hear that the guns he had thought silenced by the advance of the 78th had started up again. He glanced at Michael, who shrugged. “Told you,” he said. “Not dead enough.” “They will be,” Paul said grimly. “Wellesley is over there; I can see him. He’ll shut them up. Are this lot done?” “Aye, and it’ll get easier now. The heart is out of them. Can’t see any officers about either. Perhaps it was getting too dirty for their pretty French uniforms. Look here’s Smithy. Is the gun secure, lad, or have you run away from Bryant?” “Bryant’s down. Some bastard cavalryman came through running scared and slashed him on the way.” “Dead?” O’Reilly asked. “Didn’t look good, Sarge. Poor bastard.” Smith glanced at Paul. “Mr Swanson and the lads are through, sir, sends his compliments and says you’re to get a bloody move on.” Paul was trying not to think about Bryant’s laughing face only fifteen minutes earlier. “Come on then.” “Are you all right, sir?” the sergeant said, indicating Paul’s leg. “I’ll be fine.” Paul tested it. It hurt badly, but he had not lost strength and it was bleeding sluggishly. He had no idea of what damage had been done, but he did not need to stop now. He began to run. It was bearable. He was conscious of the Irishman keeping pace with him, making sure he did not fall, and shot an appreciative grin his way. O’Reilly’s thin face was grimly amused. “You’re a hard young bastard,” he said. “You’ve the navy to thank for that,” Paul replied, dodging a sepoy who was lying on the ground trying to stab upwards into his stomach. He despatched the man quickly and ran on. They overran the guns more quickly now with no further casualties, and joined up with the 78th. A major Paul knew slightly saluted him, pulling out a canteen and gulping down water. “Captain van Daan. They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems. Would your ruffians have something to do with that?” “Maybe, sir. We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.” “Lose many?” “I don’t know yet. One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right. We’ll not get out of it unscathed.” “None of us will, laddie. They’re on the run now. Their French officers took off, no discipline left. Eyes right, the general is approaching.” Wellesley reined in. He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning. “Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.” “Yes, sir.” “Well done, sirs. You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.” “Not serious, sir.” “Good, good. I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.” Paul glanced up at him warily. “I was around, sir,” he said. “Yes.” Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes. Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly. “You anticipated correctly, Captain. You might not always be right, however. I prefer my officers to await orders.” “Yes, sir.” “Did Colonel Maxwell…” “No, sir,” Paul said definitely. We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.” Wellesley shook his head. “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well. I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns. Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear. Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them. Captain, are your men able to join them?” “Yes, sir.” Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company. “Good, let’s get those guns back. God knows what the cavalry are doing!” Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them. “They all right over there, sir?” “I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here! What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain? Why can they never follow a simple order?” Despite himself, Paul grinned at the General’s exasperated tone. “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.” The rest of the light company were approaching with Carl at their head. There were familiar faces missing in their ranks. With a sinking feeling Paul realised that he could not see Sergeant Stewart or Lieutenant Wheeler. While the 78th and the 110th light company attacked from the West, Wellesley himself rode to the 7th native cavalry, the only mounted troops Maxwell had left on the field, and led them from the East. The attack was short and brutal, and for one sickening moment it looked as though the general himself was lost, as his horse went down under a pike. Shaken but undeterred, Wellesley was up again and mounted on his third horse of the day and the light company leaned against the carriages of the recovered guns and caught their breath…
Women in the Peninsular War are a central theme of the novels I write and I have just finished reading an excellent book with that title by Professor Charles Esdaile. I have just finished reading this book properly for the first time, although I’ve dipped in and out of it for research for my novels for a while. Charles Esdaile has written an excellent account of the experiences of women of all nationalities and classes who found themselves caught up in the horror of the conflict in Portugal and Spain in the early nineteenth century.
This account looks at the situation of women from an economic and social point of view, both those trying to scrape a living in a land devastated by war and those who arrived in the Peninsula attached to armies of both sides. We look at a range of women; wives and prostitutes, sutlers and traders, women who made the most of their opportunities and women who suffered appallingly at the hands of both French and English armies. He looks at the stereotypical perceptions of Iberian women of the day and the effect this may have had on how they were treated and he supports his writing with a host of stories and examples from sources written at the time.
Women suffered during this war. They were subject to appalling conditions, loss of homes and livelihoods and frequently victims of rape. But this is not an account of victimhood. Professor Esdaile writes about survival and courage; about the things that changed for these women and the things that did not. Little is known about the women of the Peninsular War but this book gives them a voice and a character and is well worth a read.
I have tried to give the women of this time a voice in the novels. As a novelist rather than a historian, there is a delicate balance between telling a story which will engage modern readers and writing an unrealistic view of women in the early nineteenth century. Next month I am taking part in a panel at the Malvern Festival of Military History with other historical novelists, the title of which is “A Fine Line – turning historical fact into fiction” and the treatment of women in novels set during this period is an excellent example of this. As a modern woman writing about a different era, it is my job to portray conditions as they were, not as we would like them to have been. At the same time, Anne van Daan, the leading female character of the books, is a woman who was thrown, quite accidentally, into a situation which gave her opportunities to broaden her horizons and to discover talents and abilities that she would never have had the chance to use at home.
I have been asked questions about Anne and what she did during the novels and I’ve needed to answer them honestly. There is no record of any woman performing the kind of surgical operations in Wellington’s medical tents that Anne came to do during the war. Women could not be doctors. There was no formal training available to them and they would never have been allowed to practice.
Having said that, there is a fair amount of evidence that women were a common sight tending the wounded after battle. They were expected, as part of the deal for being allowed to accompany their men, to act as washerwomen, seamstresses and nurses. Most of the women who travelled with Wellington’s army were attached to the enlisted men either as wives, officially on strength or as informal companions. Many of them were local women who had simply taken up with the men with no formal arrangement. They lived hard and dangerous lives and went through incredible hardship. They suffered the privations of marches, bad weather, sickness and starvation. They often died and their children with them. Most of them, at some time or another, helped to tend the wounded.
It was less common for an officer’s wife but that was simply because there were very few of them with the army. If women joined their husbands they tended to remain away from danger in places like Lisbon and Oporto, forming a kind of ex-pat community while their husbands were at war. There were notable exceptions to this; Mary Scovell frequently joined her husband at headquarters when she was able and Juana Smith, the young Spanish bride of Captain Harry Smith of the rifles was at his side throughout the war. Juana definitely, on occasion, helped with the nursing and it was her example that first sent Anne van Daan in the direction I have given her.
To allow Anne to act as an unofficial doctor seems like a monumental step, but the reality is that with the agreement of both her husband and a couple of army surgeons hard-pressed and desperate for competent help, it is not impossible. Young and inexperienced trainees were sent out with virtually no training; they assisted, learned on the job and then went back to take their medical examinations as battle hardened veterans. We have very few detailed accounts of exactly what these hospital mates actually did but I suspect that in desperate times and as their knowledge and experience grew, they took on more advanced procedures without official qualifications. There is also mention in contemporary accounts of local doctors or even camp followers, unqualified but helping out when no other help was at hand. The army medical service was desperately under-staffed at times and it is not that much of a stretch to imagine the surgeons closing their eyes to what the wife of an officer was doing, especially when she was very competent, required no payment and got no official recognition. As to the matter of whether a nineteenth century woman was capable of such a thing, I have no reason to imagine that a young woman back then was any less capable than a female junior doctor today; she simply did not have the same opportunities.
The crucial point, and the fine line for me, in writing about a woman like Anne, is to ensure that her behaviour is not seen as normal or acceptable by everyone around her. While her very eccentric husband is genuinely proud of her and one or two of the army surgeons value what she does, there is a lot of disapproval and resentment among other surgeons and many of the officers. Anne does not fit into the army hierarchy and she is not supposed to. Occasionally this gets difficult for her but she persists because once she has escaped from the traditional bond of femininity she has no wish to go back.
I have given my heroine a role in Wellington’s army and I’m proud of her. However, I am very conscious that I don’t want to create some kind of army of Amazons fighting alongside their men. Women, for the most part, had very definite roles and were expected not to stray beyond them. They lived hard and dangerous lives and were subject to harassment and ill-treatment and sexual assault in an era where this was not viewed in the same way as we view it today. Once again, I have tried to depict their reality as sympathetically as possible, not denying their truth but not letting it define them either. While there are many examples of heroism in contemporary accounts, of both officers and men of both armies stepping in to defend a vulnerable woman, there are sadly just as often, accounts of the opposite happening. Stories of theft, violence and rape are sometimes mentioned so casually in diaries and journals that it takes a moment to realise what we are hearing. Some diarists express their horror, like Edward Costello at Badajoz. Others seem to see it as an inevitable part of war.
Overall the British troops had less of an appalling reputation than the French although this may have been due to lack of opportunity at times. There were penalties for crimes against the locals; Wellington did not want his armies seen as invaders but as liberators. However, given the societal norms of the time, one wonders how the mistreatment of a woman would balance against the theft of livestock.
I first came across this final story when I was researching courts martial for An Unwilling Allianceearly this year and I found it repeated this week in a book about the rifle regiment as I was researching the Salamanca campaign. It is a sad little story and a version of it could have happened in any place at any time, but it says something to me about the position of women during the Peninsular War.
While the light division was quartered at Rueda for two weeks in the run up to the battle of Salamanca, a grenadier from the 61st regiment, Private Dennis Farrell arrived in search of a sergeant of the rifles who was serving with the light division. It appeared that Mrs Farrell had deserted her husband, leaving him to care for their two children, and run off with the sergeant. Nobody seems to know exactly what made Ann Farrell take such drastic action although it was rumoured that Farrell beat her.
When Farrell arrived he persuaded Ann to leave the camp to talk to him and spent some time trying to convince her to return to him. Ann, however, was having none of it. She was happier with her sergeant, who was good to her, and was enjoying life with the rifles. She appears to have been popular with the other women and both officers and men liked her; at informal dances she was apparently a favoured partner of General Vandeleur. She had no intention of going back to Farrell.
The next that the riflemen, camped nearby, knew of her, was a series of screams. By the time they reached her, Ann was beyond help, having been stabbed to death with her husband’s bayonet. Her husband had fled but the authorities caught up with him and arrested him at Fon Castin on 8th July 1812 for the murder of his wife.
Apparently, Private Farrell must have received some sympathy from the court martial, because he was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and received a sentence of twelve months’ imprisonment. When he had served it, he returned to his regiment and was killed the following year in action in the Pyrenees.
His wife was buried by the riflemen who were apparently sad at the loss as she had been popular in the regiment. I haven’t been able to find a record of what happened to the couple’s children but the fate of Ann Farrell is tragically not that uncommon even during modern times and the extremely light punishment inflicted on her husband may well be a reflection on the value placed on the life of a woman or it may be a realistic effect of the need for experienced men which made it more useful to send Private Farrell back into battle than to hang him.
Turning historical fact into fiction gives a novelist the opportunity to experiment a little, to throw in a few “what ifs” which it is difficult for a critic to disprove providing it is done within the context of the time. We know so much about the battles of Wellington’s army, about the weapons and the uniforms and the opinions of generals and politicians. What we cannot know is the thoughts and feelings of the vast bulk of men and women, marching through rivers and sitting by the campfire at night. We have a few voices out of the thousands, speaking to us through diaries and journals but most of them are silent. That silence gives us the opportunity to give them a voice of our choosing and researching what did happen and then imagining what might have happened is both a challenge and a reward of writing historical fiction.
The Malvern Festival of Military History takes place on 5-7 October 2018 and tickets are available here.
The next book in the Peninsular War Saga,An Untrustworthy Army, will be available on Kindle from 30th November 2018 and in paperback by the end of the year.
The retreat from Burgos took place in torrential rain towards the end of 1812. It was a miserable end to a year which had seemed spectacularly successful for Wellington’s army. It may have appeared that the Allies had trudged back to the border with their tail between their legs but despite the anti-climatic end to 1812, Wellington established himself beyond all doubt in French minds as a general to be respected. During winter quarters his army rested and recovered and Wellington considered how to improve supplies, discipline and the overall health of his troops. By the start of the new campaigning season he was more than ready for a new advance into Spain with lessons learned and from that one, there would be no retreating.
After the bloody storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, Wellington finally met Marshal Marmont on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca and inflicted a crushing defeat. It was the culmination of weeks of manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring and it seemed for a time that Wellington would decide not to give battle, but he was quick to spot a weakness in the French line and Marmont’s army was swept aside.
Wellington’s army marched on to Madrid and King Joseph evacuated his capital, leaving the Anglo-Portuguese army to enter as liberators on 12th August. Joseph’s army retreated as far as Valencia. Wellington was hoping that a combination of weather, exhaustion, supply problems and the traditional squabbling and disharmony between leaders would keep the various sections of the French army apart. He relied on the Spanish to keep the French busy in the north while he laid siege to the castle of Burgos.
Wellington was caught off guard by how quickly Clausel was able to rally the defeated French army. The French initially marched on Valladolid causing General Clinton to fall back and the Spanish to abandon the town. Wellington attempted to pursue Clausel but the French fled out of reach. With a wary eye on the various French armies, Wellington left General Hill to defend Madrid with three divisions while he set about reducing Burgos.
Wellington had around 35,000 men and the siege began on 19th September. The defenders were commanded by General Dubreton and consisted of around 2,000 troops. Wellington, however, was seriously short of heavy guns; some historians believe he had only three 18 pounders while others assert that he had more locally captured cannon. He was also short of trained engineers and sappers, many of whom were either killed or wounded during the siege operations.
On the evening of 19th September, Wellington ordered an attempt on the San Miguel hornwork, which guarded the fort’s northeast approach. It was a brave move considering the lack of artillery support but the Allies were able to capture the hornwork although they lost 421 men killed and wounded, to a loss of 138 killed and wounded on the French side. The Allies took 60 prisoners and 7 guns.
Wellington’s engineers began digging in batteries on the hornwork hill. The first of these was finished on 22 September but possibly hoping for another quick success, Wellington ordered an attack on the same night before his guns had had a chance to fire. 400 men from his first and sixth divisions attacked the palisades with axes and then ladders but were easily repulsed to the loss of 150 killed and wounded.
The engineers dug a mine under the fort’s west wall which was detonated in the early hours of 29th September. Once again a British advanced party attempted the breach, but received no support and were driven back. It was realised that the wall was an ancient structure and not part of the main French defences. Wellington set his engineers to dig a new mine and his troops to build a breaching battery but this was immediately destroyed by French artillery. The same thing happened the following day, with both guns and gun crews lost. On 2nd October, Wellington finally sent to Sir Home Popham for more guns to replace them but they were destined not to arrive in time to be of use.
The second mine was fired on 4th October, blowing a gap in the north-west wall and killing a number of the defenders. Wellington’s army attacked once more and managed to secure a tentative position in the outer defences but with the loss of 220 men killed and wounded. The Allied army set about digging a new trench against the inner defences but the French made a surprise attack on 5th October, killing and wounding more than 110 men and removing or destroying most of their equipment. The digging resumed on the following day but the French attacked again on the 8th and Wellington lost another 184 men. It had begun to rain heavily, flooding the trenches and the Allied guns were running out of ammunition. All the time, Wellington was receiving reports of the movements of the French armies and racing against the clock.
Time ran out after another failed assault on 18th October. With another 170 casualties and nothing gained, Wellington was aware that the French army was approaching and he risked being overrun. Reluctantly he abandoned the siege and prepared to retreat, having gained nothing and lost 550 dead, 1550 wounded and three guns.
Marshal Soult had finally connected with King Joseph and had moved towards Madrid with around 61,000 men. In the north, General Souham’s Army of Portugal had around 53,000 men. Wellington had around 73,000 troops, around 35,000 at Burgos, 20,000 at Toledo under General Hill and another 18,000 under General Charles von Alten in Madrid. Wellington had instructed the Spanish general, Ballesteros to stop Soult’s move but Ballesteros was offended that Wellington had been offered the supreme command in Spain and refused to obey. No support came from the 8,000 Anglo-Sicilian troops under Maitland in Alicante on the east coast and Wellington was in a dangerous position, cut off from Hill. The River Tagus, which he had hoped would provide a barrier at this time of year was unusually low. The Allied army was in serious trouble.
Wellington raised the siege on 21st October and slipped away, unnoticed by the French until the following day. Souham followed, and a series of small actions were fought between pursuers and pursued over the following week. On 29th October, the French took the bridge at Tordesillas and Wellington needed to order a full retreat. He sent instructions to Hill to abandon Madrid and join him.
After a skirmish with Soult’s advance guard on 30th, Hill withdrew to Alba de Tormes, and Joseph re-entered Madrid although he was so keen to destroy Wellington’s army that he left immediately without even leaving a garrison. Hill and Wellington joined up near Alba de Tormes on 8th November and on 15th found themselves facing 80,000 men under Soult across the old Salamanca battlefield. On this occasion Soult did not take the bait and Wellington began retreating west later that day.
Supply arrangements for Wellington’s army went badly wrong. The competent quartermaster-general, Murray, had returned to England and his replacement, Willoughby Gordon, lacked his organisational talents and imperturbable efficiency. The Allied troops marched for four days in torrential rain with little or no food. Surprisingly, Soult sent only his cavalry after the Allies but the French took hundreds of prisoners among the stragglers and many men died of hunger or exposure.
The Allied army reached Ciudad Rodrigo on 19th November with around 5,000 men missing. Wellington was back where he had started and it seemed for a time that some of the magic of his reputation had been lost. Wellington himself spent the winter concentrating on what had gone wrong and how it might be righted before the next campaigning season. He was furious at the breakdown of both logistics and discipline during the retreat and he was determined that it should not happen again.
Historians differ about the reasons for some of Wellington’s actions during this campaign but most appear to agree that Wellington made a serious mistake in attempting the siege of Burgos without a proper siege train and enough guns, ammunition and equipment. He himself later suggested that he had made a mistake in leaving his three best and most experienced divisions around Madrid, but it seems doubtful that even the third, fourth and light divisions could have taken Burgos with the means and the time available.
“The essential fact is that Wellington should never have left himself so short of means; at the very least he should have summoned a proper siege train as soon as he had reconnoitred the fortress. The combination of lack of foresight and poor judgement was most untypical. The army suffered over 2,000 casualties in the siege, its morale deteriorated greatly and the French armies were left undisturbed to prepare their counter-offensive. It was the worst mistake of Wellington’s military career.”
The fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, tells the story of the battle of Salamanca and the retreat from Madrid and Burgos from the perspective of Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the light division and is due for publication on 30th November on Kindle and at the end of the year in paperback.