The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place on this day in 1811 in and around the small border village close to the fortress of Almeida which was the last French foothold in Portugal.
In honour of the day, I wanted to share an extract from An Uncommon Campaign, where Major Carl Swanson finds himself commanding five companies under Lt-Colonel Williams of the 5/60th, fighting a bloody battle in the narrow streets of the village.
The rifles and muskets crashed around him and Carl levelled his pistol and fired. The French voltigeurs came on, dodging behind walls and hedges, and after them came the sound of the drums as the French columns marched forward. Carl had been through many battles and he knew the effect those drums could have on inexperienced troops especially when coupled with the sight of the solid columns of Frenchmen marching inexorably forward, shouting for their Emperor with the golden eagle standards blazing overhead. But the men of the 110th had been through too many battles to be easily intimidated. The guns up on the ridge began to fire into the columns, and there were cries of agony, spurting blood and smashing bone. And then Carl heard the clear tones of Captain Manson through the smoke and noise and fear.
“All right lads, fall back when you need, don’t take a punishing. Carter, Dawson, Cooper, Hammond – get rid of those bloody eagles, will you, they piss me off, they don’t even look like birds.”
Carl grinned, and fixed his eyes on the eagles. As the men began to fall back steadily before the approaching columns, there was a crack, and one of the eagles fell, its pole snapped. There was a scrabble among the French to retrieve it, and then a scream of pain and the second eagle toppled forward as the man holding it died. Even through the chaos of battle Carl could hear men cheering as each one fell and he silently applauded Manson’s imaginative piece of morale-boosting.
There was no time for it now as the French crashed into the British lines and the fighting became close and personal and bloody. Each man fought for his life, with bayonet and sword, and seeing his men in danger of being overwhelmed, Carl yelled an order and turned to run back, finding new loopholes in three houses further up. His men recovered quickly, reloaded and turned to fire again.
They fought their way stubbornly up through the narrow streets of the village, in a welter of blood and death. In places, some of the light companies had built makeshift barricades from doors and bed frames, and their officers stood beside them, calling orders in measured tones. When the French overran them they abandoned firepower once more and through sheer determination forced the French back down the hill at the points of their bayonets, scrambling over dead and wounded of both sides.
It was impossible, in the tangled streets, to know what was happening elsewhere in the battle. On an open field it was easier to scan the lines and see how other battalions were doing, but Carl was only aware of his own five companies, now somewhat depleted. He found himself alone briefly in a winding lane, closely bordered by white cottages, one of them badly damaged by artillery fire, his men moving into the houses to check for enemy ambush. Carl wiped sweat from his face on his sleeve and it came away black. Keeping a wary eye up and down the lane he reached for his water bottle and gulped down a few swallows.
Ahead of him a smoke-blackened figure emerged from one of the doorways. “Clear in there, sir,” Private O’Hara said cheerfully. “Just got to..”
There was an explosion of sound and O’Hara’s body jerked violently. He made a strangled gurgling noise and then fell forward, blood spilling onto the baked earth of the street, his back a gaping hole. The Frenchman was only a few feet away and could not have missed, even with the dubious accuracy of a musket. Carl looked down at the dead Irishman and then up at the Frenchman and as he did so there was a babble of French voices and they poured out of the building opposite, a dozen of them, racing towards him with bayonets raised.
Carl dived into the nearest doorway. The house was empty, a bare room, cleared of valuables with only a few pieces of basic wooden furniture. The door was narrow and two of the French infantrymen tried to go through it at the same time and collided, temporarily stuck. Carl could have killed either of them without difficulty but their comrades were yelling behind them and he had no intention of running towards them. He spun around, looking for an exit, but the only window had wooden shutters firmly closed and he had no time to open them.
There was a narrow wooden staircase and Carl sprinted towards it and scrambled to the upper floor. There were two doors and he dived through the first one, slammed it shut, making plaster fall from above with the force of it, and dragged the big wooden bed in front of it. It was not heavy enough to hold the Frenchmen but it would buy him some time.
The window here was also shuttered and Carl struggled furiously with the warped wood, showering himself with plaster and splinters as he fought to open it. It gave finally and he flung the shutter open and leaned over the sill, looking down into the lane below. It was a drop of more than ten feet, he guessed and if he jumped he risked a broken leg. They would bayonet him where he fell and looking along the street, he could see only Frenchmen; the British were further up, fighting their way through the houses at the top of the hill. His stupid pause had allowed him to become cut off from his men and hearing the bed shift behind him, he took a deep breath and swung his leg over the ledge, thinking how furious his commander would have been if he could see his predicament.
Below, under the lower window, three bodies lay immobile, two British and one French. It was impossible to tell if they were alive or dead, but the Frenchman’s bayonet lay to one side and he was soaked in blood. Carl eased himself over, trying to lower himself to minimise the fall but a crash behind him told him he had run out of time and he went over in a scramble and dropped deliberately onto the body of the Frenchman.
It broke his fall as he had intended, the feeling of the corpse beneath him making him feel sick. There was no time to think about it; shouts from the window above told him that his pursuers were there and scrambling to load a musket. Carl got to his feet shakily and turned towards the far end of the hill where his companies had been fighting.
“Sir, get down!” a voice bellowed and Carl recognised it with overwhelming relief, as Private Dawson of the light company. He dropped like a stone, flat to the ground and there was a flurry of rifle shots and an order called in the London accent of Sergeant Hammond. Above him a man screamed and then a body crashed to the ground close to him. More shots were fired and then he heard running feet, hard on the packed earth, and he was suddenly surrounded by red coats. A hand reached to pull him to his feet.
“Sir, are you hurt?” Manson’s voice said.
“No, but I’m bloody embarrassed, that was a mistake I’d expect from a sixteen year old ensign fresh off the boat. You tell the colonel and I’m coming after you, Leo. And thank you.”
He turned and watched as his men surged past him, driving the French back down the hill in a fierce charge. Above, the men at the windows had vanished, driven off by the fire of the rifles although one lay dead in the street beside him and another hung like a broken doll over the window ledge. Carl looked at Manson.
“You all right?”
Manson nodded. His face was black with powder and there was blood on his coat . “Think so, sir. Bastard of a place to defend, mind. Cooper and Blake are hurt, I’ve told them to get themselves up to the church, it’s where we’re sending the wounded for now.”
Wellington at the Tower came about during a late-night online chat with two very dear historian friends, Jacqueline Reiter and Kristine Hughes Patrone. We had recently been to the Tower and had been reading about the changes the Duke of Wellington made when he became Constable of the Tower in 1826. The resulting sketches were put together for our own amusement, and I’ve slightly tidied them up for public consumption, to celebrate Wellington’s 250th birthday.
The sketches take the form of imaginary conversations between the Duke of Wellington, full of crusading zeal to improve conditions at the Tower, and General Sir Paul van Daan, the fictional hero of my Peninsular War Saga and long-time friend and sparring partner of the Duke. I sometimes look ahead and wonder how that friendship will continue into peacetime. I have a very strong feeling that it won’t change very much at all…
No actual History was involved in the creating of these sketches. Well, not much, anyhow. For the background to this, I suggest you read No 1 London’s excellent post on the subject here.
From the creators of Wellington on Twitter…
Wellington at the Tower Part I
“I am making a number of changes at the Tower, General.”
“Firstly, the post of Yeoman Warder. Are you aware that is possible to BUY these positions, or even hand them down from father to son?”
“No. No, sir, can’t say I knew that.”
“It is a disgrace. Such a position ought to be earned, as an honour, not bought and sold. Like…like…”
“Like a commission in the actual army, sir, where you get to lead men and send them into battle? No, I can see why that would worry you.”
“Don’t be impertinent, General. I have decided to end this practice. In future, Yeoman Warders will be appointed based on distinguished military service.”
“Excellent idea, sir. Only please don’t offer it to Sergeant-Major Carter, I do not want to look at his legs in that fancy dress costume.”
Wellington at the Tower Part II
“Ah, General van Daan. I have been speaking to the Surgeon-Major about the moat. It is completely revolting, full of rotting animals and God knows what else. He is of the opinion that it is affecting the health of the men, possibly polluting the water supply.”
“It sounds very likely, sir. Do your lot drink water at all? Things must have changed since the war, then. As I remember, grog and looted wine were more usual.”
“No, General. Only in the 110th.”
“Touche, sir. Can’t see the point of that moat anyway unless you’re expecting to be attacked. There’s not another Reform Bill in the offing, is there?”
“General, as always, you have me in paroxysms of laughter.”
“You’re hiding it well, sir.”
Wellington at the Tower, Part III
“Morning, sir. What in God’s name is that awful racket?”
“I have formally closed down the Tower menagerie, General. It is completely ridiculous to have beasts roaming around a military barracks. The animals are being transported to their new quarters in Regents Park. It will be a great improvement.”
“It’ll certainly be quieter. Is that by any chance an elephant I can hear? I feel as though I’m back in India.”
“It is. I have been listening to that noise every morning from my desk. It has driven me mad.”
“What about the visitors, sir? They loved coming in to see the animals, it’s what brings most people to the Tower.”
– Silence – –
“Ah. Yes, of course. You’ve got no objection to the animals, have you, sir, it’s just people you can’t stand.”
“Certainly I am selective, General. Why don’t you go down and watch them caging the lions? You might like to give them a hand. Although they sound fairly hungry…”
“Nice try, sir. By the way, what have you been doing at the front of the portcullis out there? Those black spikes are new.”
“Ah. I’m glad you noticed those. I have ordered them to be installed so that the guards will no longer be able to lounge against the wall and smoke whilst on duty. High time some military discipline was introduced in this place.”
“Really? Now that is an interesting idea. I am seeing a few of those decorating the guard posts around the barracks. Mind, we don’t have so much trouble with them smoking on duty these days, since Sergeant-Major Carter turned the room in the front tower into a latrine, and took to emptying the chamber pot out the window from time to time if he smelled smoke.”
“Really? What an ingenious idea, you must thank Sergeant-Major Carter for me. Where’s my secretary, I need to find out what the room in the Bloody Tower above those guard posts is currently being used for…”
“Glad I could help, sir. Sorry I can’t stay, but it sounds as though the baboons have escaped again, and I have enough trouble with that dog of my wife’s at home. Good luck, though. And I’d move those papers off your desk in case they make it in here…”
Arthur Wesley, later Sir Arthur Wellesley and still later the first Duke of Wellington was born on this day in 1769 and to celebrate Wellington’s birthday there will be a lot of articles and blog posts out there which tell the story of his extraordinary life far better than I can.
As my readers know, Wellington is a significant character in the Peninsular War Saga. I’ve read several different biographies of him during my research along with a huge number of contemporary diaries and letters from men who served under him and each account puts a slightly different slant on Wellington’s character. Over six books, I’ve developed my own view of Wellington. I rather suspect I owe a good deal to Rory Muir’s historical view of him but as a novelist, I have the flexibility to add my own nuances, especially with regard to his relationship with my fictional characters.
Today, as my tribute to Wellington on his 250th birthday, I’ve put together a collection of some of my own favourite Wellington moments from my novels. I hope you enjoy them.
We start in India, in an Unconventional Officer, when the young and newly promoted Paul van Daan fights under Wellesley at Assaye. At this stage, the two hardly know each other, but there is already a sense of some of the conversations to come…
“Captain van Daan. They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems. Would your ruffians have something to do with that?”
“Maybe, sir. We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.”
“I don’t know yet. One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right. We’ll not get out of it unscathed.”
“None of us will, laddie. They’re on the run now. Their French officers took off, no discipline left. Eyes right, the general is approaching.”
Wellesley reined in. He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning.
“Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.”
“Well done, sirs. You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.”
“Not serious, sir.”
“Good, good. I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.”
Paul glanced up at him warily. “I was around, sir,” he said.
“Yes.” Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes. Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly. “You anticipated correctly, Captain. You might not always be right, however. I prefer my officers to await orders.”
“Did Colonel Maxwell…”
“No, sir,” Paul said definitely. “We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.”
Wellesley shook his head. “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well. I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns. Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear. Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them, Captain, are your men able to join them?”
“Yes, sir.” Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company.
“Good, let’s get those guns back. God knows what the cavalry are doing!”
Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them. “They all right over there, sir?”
“I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here. What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain? Why can they never follow a simple order?”
Despite himself, Paul grinned at the general’s exasperated tone. “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.”
An Unwilling 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.
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.
With much love
Lynn, Joey and Oscar
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 and Captain 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 of An 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.
Who am I kidding…?
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 Oman has 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 Amazon here and for a glimpse at an earlier episode in Paul van Daan’s history, try An Unwilling Alliance.