Arthur Wesley, later Sir Arthur Wellesley and still later the first Duke of Wellington was born on this day in 1769 and to celebrate Wellington’s birthday there will be a lot of articles and blog posts out there which tell the story of his extraordinary life far better than I can.
As my readers know, Wellington is a significant character in the Peninsular War Saga. I’ve read several different biographies of him during my research along with a huge number of contemporary diaries and letters from men who served under him and each account puts a slightly different slant on Wellington’s character. Over six books, I’ve developed my own view of Wellington. I rather suspect I owe a good deal to Rory Muir’s historical view of him but as a novelist, I have the flexibility to add my own nuances, especially with regard to his relationship with my fictional characters.
Today, as my tribute to Wellington on his 250th birthday, I’ve put together a collection of some of my own favourite Wellington moments from my novels. I hope you enjoy them.
We start in India, in an Unconventional Officer, when the young and newly promoted Paul van Daan fights under Wellesley at Assaye. At this stage, the two hardly know each other, but there is already a sense of some of the conversations to come…
“Captain van Daan. They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems. Would your ruffians have something to do with that?”
“Maybe, sir. We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.”
“I don’t know yet. One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right. We’ll not get out of it unscathed.”
“None of us will, laddie. They’re on the run now. Their French officers took off, no discipline left. Eyes right, the general is approaching.”
Wellesley reined in. He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning.
“Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.”
“Well done, sirs. You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.”
“Not serious, sir.”
“Good, good. I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.”
Paul glanced up at him warily. “I was around, sir,” he said.
“Yes.” Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes. Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly. “You anticipated correctly, Captain. You might not always be right, however. I prefer my officers to await orders.”
“Did Colonel Maxwell…”
“No, sir,” Paul said definitely. “We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.”
Wellesley shook his head. “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well. I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns. Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear. Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them, Captain, are your men able to join them?”
“Yes, sir.” Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company.
“Good, let’s get those guns back. God knows what the cavalry are doing!”
Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them. “They all right over there, sir?”
“I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here. What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain? Why can they never follow a simple order?”
Despite himself, Paul grinned at the general’s exasperated tone. “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.”
An Unwilling Alliance is not part of the main sequence of books, taking place during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807, but it is one of my favourites in terms of the development of Wellesley and Paul’s relationship. In this scene, Paul is in trouble for upsetting the Royal Navy and Sir Arthur Wellesley is not amused…
Sir Arthur Wellesley was furious.
Paul finally managed to find him alone in his sitting room the following day, writing a letter to London. He had been pleasant on Paul’s arrival but his face had steadily darkened as Paul told his story. He said very little apart from to bark a question when a point was not clear. Paul told the story in full. There was no point in holding back; at some point the entire tale would come out. Paul suspected that by now the bosun from the Flight would be telling it to Admiral Gambier and he was fairly sure that the man would be telling a version that made him appear less culpable.
Wellesley had not asked him to sit down and Paul stood to attention, fixing his eyes on a spot on the wall as Wellesley allowed the silence to lengthen when the story was told. Eventually his chief spoke, in tones of pure ice.
“Am I expected to get you out of this particular mess, Major van Daan?”
Paul shifted his gaze to Wellesley’s face. “No, sir,” he said. “I don’t expect you to do anything at all. You needed to know, because the bosun from the Flight is going to tell the Admiral what happened and it is going to come back to you. I am sorry.”
“Sorry? Do you think that is enough? You effected an armed boarding of a Royal Navy ship, locked up the crew, threatened the captain of the Iris when he very properly came to take over and asked you to leave and kidnapped a group of men who had been legally pressed into naval service without making any attempt to speak to a senior officer in either service about…”
“I did make an attempt to speak to the Admiral, sir. I spoke to Captain Sir Home Popham.”
“Don’t interrupt me!” Wellesley snapped, furiously. “You deserve to be court martialled and cashiered for this, you insubordinate young imbecile! The situation here is difficult enough; we’re invading and threatening a neutral country, nobody knows who is in command or whether the army or the navy should be taking the lead, orders from London are slower than usual and nobody is telling me anything at all or listening to anything I have to say! Admiral Gambier has every right to be furious about this and every right to demand your stupid young head on a plate and if he writes to Horse Guards to that effect or even complains to Lord Cathcart, there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it. I am not in command here and I don’t have that much influence.”
Paul met his gaze. “I know. And I know you don’t want to hear it, sir, but I am genuinely sorry. I lost my temper.”
“When you were a twenty-one year old junior officer, Major, your outbreaks were mildly amusing, mostly because they caused no real damage. At your age and with your rank they are no longer funny.”
Paul could think of nothing to say. He suspected that he had genuinely gone too far this time. His friends had told him often enough that he could not continue to rely on Wellesley’s indulgence indefinitely. On this occasion he knew that his chief’s fury was exacerbated by his own frustration at being sidelined from the centre of events. Wellesley was ambitious and had pushed for this appointment, wanting to get away from his administrative and political duties in Ireland and back into combat where he believed he was meant to be.
Paul agreed with him. He had served under a variety of officers in both his early navy career and since joining the army and he had never come across any man whom he respected as he did the austere Anglo-Irish general. He had caught Wellesley’s eye in India when he was a young lieutenant and they had remained in contact since then, corresponding regularly. He knew that despite the twelve year age gap, Wellesley liked him and he returned his chief’s regard. They were friends, as far as it was possible to be friends with the distant, unemotional Wellesley and Paul tried hard not to trade on the fact.
He had not consciously assumed that Wellesley would extract him from his current situation, but he realised that it had not occurred to him that the general might not be able to. In India and in Ireland, Wellesley had been in command. He was subordinate here to Lord Cathcart and the political situation made it difficult for him to demand immunity for a young officer’s rash disregard for the dignity of the navy.
“Nothing to say, Major?” Wellesley said finally.
Paul shook his head. “Not really, sir. I could make a very impassioned speech about the state of those men aboard that ship. I could point out that I wouldn’t have needed to get involved at all if they’d listened to me when I went to the flagship to tell them what was going on. I could work myself into a temper all over again about a system that pays bonuses for legalised kidnapping, but we all know that I’ve a personal axe to grind on that particular subject; the navy stole two and a half years of my life when I was a boy and you don’t want me to go into detail about what some of that was like, trust me. But none of that matters, because you’re completely right. I’m old enough and intelligent enough to weigh up the consequences of my actions and I didn’t. I went blundering in and I didn’t give a thought or a single damn about how I was going to get out of it. And it isn’t fair to expect you to put your neck on the block because I need to learn self-control. I am sorry. Let it take its course.”
There was heavy silence in the room. Outside it had begun to rain and Paul could hear the raindrops against the shutters, the wind whistling through gaps in the wood. He thought inconsequentially that it was typical of Wellesley to find himself in a billet that would be freezing cold at night and not bother to change it.
In An Irregular Regiment, Paul has married his second wife, who is something of a favourite of Wellington’s, and is preparing to join the army in chasing Massena out of Portugal, when Paul learns that his chief has a particularly interesting job for him…
“I imagine so,” Wellington said. “Really, Colonel, you never fail to surprise me. With the Duke gone, Dundas is making his own appointments to my army and he has sent me Major-General Sir William Erskine, whom you will meet tomorrow at my reception. He is to take over the light division during General Craufurd’s absence.”
Paul sat very still, staring at his commander-in-chief. He felt suddenly very sick. Wellington looked back at him steadily. There was a long silence. Eventually, Wellington said:
“I know you are about to start swearing, Colonel.”
“I actually don’t know any words rude enough to cover this,” Paul said, taking a deep breath. “Was this your idea or Horse Guards?”
“What do you think, Colonel?” Wellington sighed. “I have no choice but to accept him. He is politically very well connected, of the right rank and knows the right people.”
“And according to popular gossip he is arrogant, inexperienced, blind as a bat and mad as a Bedlamite. Are you seriously proposing to allow him to command troops at all, let alone Robert Craufurd’s light division?”
“I don’t have a choice, Colonel.”
“Why don’t you send him out in command of my light company for a couple of days, sir? I can pretty much guarantee they will solve your problem for you.”
“Colonel, murder is not a solution I can countenance I am afraid.”
“What a shame.”
Wellington shook his head. “I should know better than to confide in a relatively junior officer…”
“You should know better than to confide in me and expect me not to tell you what I think, sir.”
“It is my aim to cause as much damage to Massena’s army as possible, Colonel. I…”
“And the light division would be perfect for that, sir, if you had the right commander.”
“You’re too young and you don’t have the right connections.”
“Christ, I’m not suggesting you give them to me. Either Beckwith or Drummond are more than capable!”
“Colonel, my hands are tied. He is here and I need to use him, at least until I can come up with a very good reason not to. I have given him limited command and he has not done as badly as I feared.”
“He’s not had much chance so far but if you get Black Bob’s division slaughtered under this lunatic, sir, I suggest you take leave of absence before he gets back, because he’ll shoot you,” Paul said shortly. “What do you want me to do?”
“Oh come on, don’t tell me I’m here for a chat and a drink. I’ve spent four months working my arse off in Lisbon to get your army supplied, I’ve come back ready to fight and you are about to give me a job that you think I am going to yell about. How long have I known you, sir? Cut line and tell me what it is.”
Lord Wellington was silent for some time and Paul studied him. He could almost see his chief considering the best way to phrase his orders, something he seldom did. Usually Wellington barked out instructions and expected them to be obeyed and the care he was taking over this made Paul’s heart sink.
“Very well. You’ll meet Erskine tomorrow. I want you and the 110th to operate under his personal command, in addition – but not as part of – the light division. You’ll provide him with ADCs, try to give him some guidance…”
“You have got to be fucking joking, sir!”
“Watch your language with me, Colonel.”
“My apologies, sir, it just slipped out. Is there something I’ve done recently to piss you off? Because if there is, I wish you’d just tell me what it is and I’ll apologise. I have to be the worst person in the world for this job. Johnny Wheeler once told me I have the diplomatic skills of a five year old, and honestly, I think he was being generous.”
“Listen to me for a moment. You will be in the thick of the fighting. I want you to act as liaison between General Erskine and the light division but you’ll also be in a position to report back to me. If things are going wrong, you are a man I trust to make difficult decisions without fear. God knows you’ve made up your own orders often enough over the years.”
“Yes, in the heat of battle or when no other orders are available. I also fight very well under the command of a good general, by the way.”
“I know you do, Colonel, I commanded you at Assaye, Rolica, Vimeiro, Talavera and Bussaco. And you did exactly what you were asked to do on each occasion and you did it well. But at Assaye you went in to help the 74th before I could get to you to give the order. And at the Coa you defied Robert Craufurd to double back and retake that knoll, saving the rest of his troops during the retreat. That is why I want you within reach of Major-General Erskine. Because you being there could save lives.”
Paul stared at his commander. “Tell me this is a joke,” he said, too angry to be polite. “You are giving Robert Craufurd’s light division to a half blind lunatic with no experience of either war or command and you are expecting me to do what exactly?”
“Colonel, don’t lose your temper with me.”
“Sir, I have already lost my temper with you, telling me not to is only going to piss me off more.”
“The light division needs a commander. I have to do something with him, his family are too influential for me to ignore. At best he is inexperienced; at worst he might be dangerous. So I’m putting him in charge of men who are going to be able to work round him. Beckwith and Drummond are good men, used to Craufurd. They’ll know what to do if he makes a mistake. And if they don’t…”
“If they don’t, you will,” Wellington said quietly. “I’m putting the 110th under his direct command. You’ll march with him, provide him with ADCs, make sure he’s where he should be when he should be. And make sure that the light division knows what the hell is going on.”
Paul stood up and went over to the window. “And what happens if that goes wrong?” he asked.
“It bloody well could and you know it. If I can’t manage him, my lads end up dead, possibly taking half the light division with them. And if I do manage to survive it, I’m neither senior enough nor well connected enough to survive what they’ll do to me at Horse Guards. Either way you’re in the clear. If I manage it, you’ll get a slap on the back and political points. If I don’t, you stand back and point and I’m going down.”
“That is unfair, Colonel. I have always supported you, no matter how appalling your behaviour at times. Another commander would have left you to your fate after Copenhagen or sent you for court martial after the Coa.”
Paul was silent, aware of the truth of it. Wellington had always supported him when he had been in trouble, but he also understood that his chief would put the needs of his command ahead of any friendship. Paul had no problem with that; it was what he expected, but the idea of Erskine in charge of the light division appalled him and the idea that he was being expected to manage it, was worse.
“How long do you think it will be before General Erskine has me up before a court martial, sir?” he asked finally. “You know what I’m like.”
“I know you’re getting better at it. You can do this, Colonel van Daan,” Wellington said steadily. “You are probably the only man I would trust with it.”
“You’ve got a very funny definition of the word trust, sir.”
“I’ve never yet given you an order you’ve failed to obey,”
It nettled Paul as he knew it was meant to. “No. And you haven’t this time. I’ll do my duty, sir. It’s what I do. But you need to do something for me in return.”
“Before we set off, I want to borrow your man of business. I need to get my affairs in order. And I need you to give me your word that if he gets me killed, you’ll make sure she’s all right.”
Paul had shaken his commander and he knew it. “Colonel…”
“Your word, sir. I can get everything set up and ready for my lawyers at home. But the only thing my family knows about her is that I married the widow of a thief and a deserter, practically over my wife’s grave. They’re not supportive of us and they don’t need to be. Sooner or later they’ll meet her and get to know her and they’ll think it’s the best thing I ever did. But at the moment she’s on shaky ground. So if I die, I need you to use every piece of influence that you have to make sure she gets what she’s due.”
“You promise me.”
“Colonel you have my word on it.”
“And look after her. Nobody else can do it. I don’t think any of them understands her yet the way you do, with the exception of Leo Manson and he’s too young.”
Wellington studied him for a long moment. Then he nodded. “I will. But it isn’t going to be necessary. You are better at this than you think you are, Colonel, I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t sure of that.”
“Well I appreciate your confidence, sir.”
“As to the rest, I give you my word that I will support you if you’re put in a difficult position over this. And I can, I’m not in command of the reserves any more. You take care of my light division until Craufurd gets back and if Erskine comes baying for your head, I will throw him out.”
Paul looked at his chief with troubled eyes. He wanted badly to believe him and he knew that Wellington was completely serious in his intention. He also knew that nothing meant as much to his chief as remaining in command and winning this war and he was under no illusions that he would put that aim ahead of anything else, probably including friendship.
“Thank you, sir,” he said finally, given that there was nothing more he could say. He saw Wellington visibly relax and wondered if the general had actually expected him to refuse.
“Excellent. I’ll expect you and your officers at the reception tomorrow evening, Colonel. Have you met General Erskine at all?”
“Not really, sir, I’ve seen him around.”
“Bring your wife.”
Paul eyed his commander in chief. “Sir, when my wife hears about this one, you might be better off if I leave her at home,” he said shortly. “But we’ll be there. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll need to go and brief my officers about this. They’ll need at least a day before they get over it enough to guarantee they’ll be civil.”
In An Uncommon Campaign, Wellington is furious in the aftermath of the French garrison’s escape from Almeida while Paul is drawn into army politics in order to secure the promotion of a good officer…
“Don’t start asking difficult questions, Colonel.”
“I have to. Because if you don’t tell me the truth you know perfectly well that at some point something is going to happen that I don’t like and I’ll probably blow up about it when I ought to keep my mouth shut.”
Wellington sighed. “I would rather be dealing with your wife at this point,” he said.
“Well you can’t. I know she’s a better politician than I am, sir, but she’s not well. What are you giving them that I’m not going to like?”
Wellington studied him for a long time. Then he rose and went to the decanter. He brought it to the table and poured two more drinks and sat down. “I am writing to London concerning this disgraceful affair of the Almeida garrison,” he said. “In it, I am listing the reasons I believe it to have gone wrong. What I will not be doing is hanging Sir William Erskine out to dry. Privately I intend to convey to Horse Guards that I could do so at any moment if I am asked to place yet another officer of dubious competence over a man of honour and ability. I am then going to tell them of my appointment of Lt-Colonel John Wheeler to full colonel of the 112th light infantry.”
“May as well make it worth my while.”
“All right, sir. And who, may I ask, is the chosen scapegoat?”
“Not a scapegoat, Paul. Not in the sense you mean. A lot of mistakes were made but the biggest was the bridge at Barba del Puerco. I sent out an order the previous day to General Erskine to send the 4th under Colonel Bevan out to the bridge. For reasons which nobody seems to be able to explain to me, Colonel Bevan did not go there. The result was that Brennier had free passage over the river.”
“I thought I’d heard that Bevan was there,” Paul said.
“He arrived in order to join in the attack on the retreating French troops. If his men had held the bridge as they should have…”
“Have you had this properly investigated?” Paul asked quietly.
“Is Colonel Bevan a friend of yours, Paul?” Wellington asked.
“Have you met Colonel Bevan, sir? He is a charmingly naïve gentleman with his head stuffed full of notions of honour and gallantry which make my hair stand on end and a tendency to sink into black despair on a regular basis. No, he’s not a friend. He disapproves of me. I frequently want to shake him. But he’s a good man and not a bad officer. And he has a reputation for being highly conscientious. If he’s actually being blamed here for something he didn’t do…”
“He isn’t. I’m not lying about anything, Paul. I’m just not stressing the obvious, which is that both Campbell and Erskine, who command divisions, ought to have been able to work out between them how to prevent the French from breaking out of Almeida and managing a night march on little known paths to cross into Spain. If you and Craufurd had been guarding Almeida for me he wouldn’t have got beyond the first line of your pickets.”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Paul admitted. “So you let the commanders off the hook and blame poor Bevan for getting lost in the dark and quietly point out to Horse Guards how embarrassing it would be for them if their appointment – namely Erskine – should later turn out to have been grossly negligent. And then you bring up Colonel Johnny Wheeler and the 112th. Got any other favours you’re asking of them at the same time?”
“A more regular pay chest might be nice, Colonel, but I’m not optimistic.”
Paul drank. “You were right. I bloody hate it and I wish I didn’t know anything about it. But I want Johnny Wheeler commanding my men because he’ll keep them alive. What will happen to Bevan?”
“Nothing. God in heaven, Colonel, I’m not going to court-martial the man, he won’t be the first to make a mistake in this war. I would hate to be hauled over the coals for some of my recent choices at Fuentes de Oñoro. I’m not even going to give him a dressing-down in person. There will be a report in the London Gazette which might be embarrassing for him, but he’ll survive it. At some point he will do something gallant with his regiment and I’ll issue a commendation which will also be mentioned in the London Gazette and it will all be forgotten.” Wellington studied Paul. “There is another name which is going to suffer the same fate by the way but I doubt this one will distress you as much. General Erskine is placing some of the blame for the delay in my orders being sent onto Captain Longford.”
“Is he? What is Longford supposed to have done?”
“He was at a dinner in Villa Formoso with the general when my orders were delivered. According to Erskine he told Captain Longford to deliver them to Colonel Bevan and the captain failed to do so for several hours.”
“Bollocks,” Paul said shortly. “Longford’s not that stupid. He’s trying to build himself a career out of this posting, if he got handed your orders he’d have taken them on the spot. What happened, Erskine put them in his pocket and forget about them?”
“We will never truly know, Colonel.”
“I’ll know, sir. Well it might put a brake on Vincent’s ambitions, but he’s used to that. He’ll smile and say the right things and keep kissing arses until it’s all forgotten. Do him good after what he did at Sabugal. Although it is bloody unfair that Erskine gets off scot free.”
“Paul – you can’t tell anybody about any of this. Not even your wife.”
“If I told Nan about this she’d crucify me,” Paul said bluntly. “We share a passion for justice which I’m setting aside for Johnny and the 112th. Do I need to do anything about Grey?”
“No. Try not to hit him again. But he insulted your wife, another officer would have called him out. What did he say, by the way?”
“It involved Captain Cartwright.”
“Ah. Yes, that has caused a bit of gossip, Colonel. People are saying you are about to become the father of two children.”
“Is that what you meant about my morals earlier? If I’d fathered a bastard on Arabella Cartwright last year, sir, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation because my bloody corpse would have been found castrated in a ditch outside the nearest military hospital. And if she finds out what you and I have just done to Charles Bevan you might be right there next to me so you’d better be able to carry this off.”
In A Redoubtable Citadel, Wellington faces two bloody sieges within a few months and is particularly grouchy about his officers taking leave…
It had been a frustrating few weeks for the commander of the third brigade of the light division. Arriving back at Wellington’s lines, Paul found his general in a foul mood, furious about delays in reinforcements arriving, problems with his supply lines and the slow progress of his siege train. Wellington was still in Freineda, leaving it to the last possible minute to move his headquarters towards Badajoz. He had spent weeks feeding disinformation to the French about his intentions and had been rewarded by a significant lack of troop movements towards the city, but he knew that once it became clear that he intended to invest the fortress and take Badajoz, the French would move to try to relieve it. It was a delicately balanced strategy and Wellington found himself, not for the first time, short of men, money and equipment. He was also short of a commander for the light division, General Charles von Alten having been delayed, and it was quickly clear that he expected Paul to step in to the breach.
Wellington’s senior officers greeted Paul’s return with evident relief, which told him all he needed to know about his commander’s mood during the past weeks. Since the quick series of promotions which had led him to command a brigade at thirty, Paul had faced a good deal of resentment and opposition from some of the other officers. He had heard himself described as a wealthy, middle class upstart who had bought his way to success but he was cynically aware of how much they relied on him to manage the commander-in-chief when he reached the point of addressing his generals with the biting sarcasm of a disgruntled Latin master speaking to a particularly dense first year. The tone of his note requesting Paul’s return had been abrupt to the point of rudeness.
Paul was greeted with pleasure by his own officers. He bathed and changed and took himself up to Wellington’s headquarters where his chief regarded him with a frosty eye.
“So you’re back?” he said with heavy sarcasm. “I hope you’re well rested, Colonel? I wouldn’t want to think I’ve interrupted your holiday too soon.”
“Well you did, sir,” Paul said frankly. “My family brought my children out to see me, I could have done with another month to tell you the truth. But the tone of this charming missive informed me I’d done as well as I was going to. What’s going on?”
He dropped Wellington’s letter onto the table and stood waiting. His chief picked it up and looked at it for a moment. “Don’t you want to hold onto this, Colonel? All my other officers are saving my briefing notes for their memoirs,” he said.
“No thank you, sir, I’ve had enough rude letters from you over the years to be able to recreate a generic bollocking without an aide memoire. The only letters I hold on to are those from my wife. She’s a better correspondent than you are, to be honest. What’s the matter, siege train not arrived?”
“Nothing has arrived!” Wellington said. “Get yourself a drink, for God’s sake and pour me one as well. I thought you’d be in a better mood.”
“I was until I walked in here and you started yelling at me.” Paul went to pour brandy and Wellington’s orderly grinned and effaced himself. “Want me to tell you about our lovely parties in Lisbon?”
“You don’t need to; your wife wrote to me. Her description of the Regent’s attempts at flirtation are the only thing that has made me laugh this month, she has a gift. I wonder if she would accept a post as my secretary?”
“She isn’t going to accept any of the posts you’re likely to offer her, sir, since they would all lead to the same thing and I do not trust you with her.” Paul put the glass down on the table and sat down without being asked. “Tell me what’s been going on.”
In the most recent book, An Untrustworthy Army, Paul is put in charge of clearing the last French garrison out of the Retiro in Madrid and finds that he is expected to do so in front of an audience of cheering locals…
Dawn, and then full daylight, brought a new problem. The early sun lit up the astonishing spectacle of an audience. The citizens of Madrid, some of whom had probably not been to sleep from the previous night’s celebrations, began to throng the streets close to the Retiro, ready to watch the attack on the interior lines. Others appeared on the roofs and balconies of nearby houses. Paul, trying to call his men into order to storm the breach in the wall, surveyed the area in complete astonishment.
“Jesus bloody Christ, we need the light division amateur theatrical group over here, it’d be the biggest audience they ever got. And probably the most appreciative. Where’s Lord Wellington, has he seen this sideshow? Can we get them cleared out? If the French decide to make a fight of this, people are going to get hurt. Major Swanson, we need to send a message down.”
It took thirty minutes for the reply to come, a brief and clearly exasperated message from Wellington. Paul read it and looked up at Carl.
“Apparently he’s made representations to the town council, but people aren’t willing to leave,” he said. “I feel my patience diminishing, which is never good.”
An enormous cheer greeted the manoeuvring of three companies of the seventh division into position. The British soldiers echoed the cheers with a response of their own, drowning Sergeant-Major Carter’s shouted orders to his men about their position. Carter took a deep breath and looked over at Paul.
“This is bloody chaos,” he said. “They’re dopey bastards in there, mind, I’d have opened fire by now.”
“If they’ve got any sense they’ll surrender and hope we can get them out of here alive,” Paul said grimly. “They’re not getting past our lads, but even if they did, these people will tear them to pieces. Why the hell did Joseph leave them here?”
“Making a point, sir,” Captain Manson said. “He might have left his capital but he didn’t leave it undefended.”
“Two thousand men against the entire army isn’t a defence, it’s a present.”
Another enormous cheer swelled the crowd and Paul swore fluently. “Carter, get them moving over to the right. Use hand signals if you need to. Any trouble with them, I’ll kick their arses personally. I don’t…ah look, we’ve company.”
Lord Wellington was approaching, making his way with some difficulty through the crowded streets, two young ADCs trying hard to make a path for him with their horses. Paul waited several minutes to be very sure that Wellington had got the point about the difficulties of conducting operations with a crowd of civilian spectators. When he suspected that his chief was on the verge of laying about him with a riding whip, he called over to Sergeant Hammond.
“Sergeant, get over there and clear a path for his Lordship, will you?”
Hammond was wearing his most deadpan expression. He saluted. “Right away, sir.”
Paul dropped his voice. “Don’t make it look too easy, Sergeant.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
Wellington’s horse emerged finally from the throng which were being neatly held back by the 110th and Paul saluted his chief with a pleasant smile.
“Morning, sir, come to see the show? I think they can find you space over on that balcony, and I must say I like the look of the pretty dark haired lass on the end, see if you can squeeze in next to her.”
“I will remember to mention to your wife how observant you are when she’s not around,” Wellington said smoothly, reining in and dismounting. “Do not think that I am unaware of how long it took you to intervene there. Have you had a good night?”
“No,” Paul said briefly. His attention had been caught by a movement up at the fort, and he shielded his eyes from the brilliant early sun. “Is that…?”
“A white flag. I think so,” Wellington said. “I wonder if we might be able to avoid bloodshed after all? Signal that we will meet with them, Colonel. Let’s see if we can put an end to this.”
Lord Wellington, as a fictional character, is an enduring delight to write. His somewhat acerbic personality jumps out of the pages of his letters and orders and his perfectionism and attention to detail make it possible to include him in a novel about his army in a way that is far more difficult when writing about other commanders. Biographers have differed about his style of leadership, his abilities as a general and his personal relationships, and I have probably taken a little from each of them.
My Lord Wellington is a highly complex man who is capable of great warmth and kindness as well as appalling tactlessness. He finds personal relationships difficult, but is very loyal to those he considers friends. His relationship with my fictional officer, Paul van Daan, is central to the books, but equally important is his relationship with Paul’s young wife, who gradually becomes his friend and confidante in a way that foreshadows his future relationship with Harriet Arbuthnot.
I love writing Wellington and miss him in those books where he does not appear. As with all fictional accounts of real historical characters, I don’t claim to have ‘got him right’. None of us can really claim to know a man who was born 250 years ago, but as a novelist I have tried to create an interpretation of him that tallies with what we know of him from contemporary accounts.
Happy 250th Birthday Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington from one of your constant admirers.