206 years ago today, Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army won a stunning victory at the battle of Salamanca.In honour of the anniversary, I wanted to share a short excerpt from the first chapter of my next book. An Untrustworthy Army is the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga and follows Colonel Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the light division into Spain…
It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which had battered down on the Anglo-Portuguese army as they sat on the edge of the city of Salamanca, setting up a ferocious artillery fire which was designed to pound the city, a major French supply depot, into submission. The French had converted four convents into temporary fortresses and had settled initially to wait for reinforcements. Lord Wellington’s guns were neither numerous enough or powerful enough to subdue the fortifications, but he had more than enough men to blockade the city and with no reinforcements forthcoming, the French had surrendered. “Thank God for that, we do not need another Badajoz,” Colonel Johnny Wheeler commented to his second-in-command, as they took their places in the triumphal procession into the city. “Pretty place, this, and at least they’ve the sense to appear welcoming, whatever they might actually think.” Major Gervase Clevedon glanced at him with a grin. “Won’t stop a few wine shops losing half their stock tonight,” he said. “But if they’ve any sense at all the taverns will do a good trade. The brothels certainly will, I’m not expecting many of my lads to be around camp tonight unless they’re on sentry duty. I’ve told them I want half in and half out, they’ve drawn lots as to who goes first. If the first lot don’t come back in the morning, I think I can rely on the second lot to go and get them.” Wheeler was laughing. “Gervase, what happened to us? We used to be such correct young officers, I swear to God I once had a man flogged for drinking on duty.” “They still don’t drink on duty, sir, he’d kick them into the river. And I for one wouldn’t go back. We were a regiment of outsiders, the 110th, new-fangled and pretty much laughed at by half the army back in India. Some good lads, mind, but no identity to speak of. As for the 112th it was in so much disgrace when it came back from the Indies most people thought it was going to be disbanded.” Wheeler ran his eyes over the neat ranks of the 112th. “I know. Look at them now, up here with the light division’s finest. Jesus, it’s hot. I wish they’d get going.” Clevedon was beginning to laugh. “I think you might find,” he said cautiously, “that the victory parade is being held up, while Colonel van Daan’s wife’s maid locates her missing hat.” Wheeler broke into laughter as a pretty brown haired woman in a sprigged muslin gown sped past them carrying a fetching straw hat trimmed with silk flowers. “Get a move on, Teresa, we’re dying of heat stroke out here,” he called. Teresa Carter looked back over her shoulder, laughing. “I do not know why he bothers, she will have lost it before they get into the Cathedral,” she said. At the head of the 110th, Colonel Paul van Daan took the hat from Teresa with a smile of thanks and turned to his wife. “Put it on,” he said in tones of considerable patience. “Keep it on, I am not having you with sunstroke. Or I will spoil Lord Wellington’s lovely parade by tipping you off that horse into the river.” “I’m not sure I’d mind that just at the moment, it might be cooler,” his wife said, tying on the hat at a particularly fetching angle. “Jenson, would you ride up and tell Lord Wellington thank you for waiting? The colonel has a mania about my hats, I cannot tell you what a bore it is.” Paul’s orderly grinned and spurred his horse forward. Much of the army was settled in sprawling cantonments on the edge of Salamanca, but several regiments had been selected to form part of the parade into the city. This would lead to a Te Deum in the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor would be illuminated during the evening while Lord Wellington and his officers were entertained by the Spanish grandees of the city to a civic banquet and fireworks. “You would think,” Paul’s wife commented, drawing up beside him, “that the Spanish would have had enough of fireworks given that the French seem to have blown up entire sections of their city to build fortifications. Since being with the army I have found that things exploding in the sky have taken on a whole new meaning for me.”
I wrote a Peek into the Future, which is the imaginary obituary of Paul van Daan recently for a guest blog but ended up using something else. I enjoyed it and wanted to share it with my readers, although I found it surprisingly painful writing about the death of one of my all time favourite characters.
The post takes the form of a letter from one of Paul’s grandsons to another who is currently serving overseas…
Letter from Captain Michael van Daan to Lieutenant James Manson, India, 1866
You must already have heard the sad news officially, but I wanted to write to you myself about Grandfather’s death. It has been a few weeks now but most of us are still finding it hard to believe he is gone. I enclose a cutting of his obituary from the Times which is very flattering about his long and distinguished career.
The Times regretfully announces the death of General Sir Paul van Daan, Colonel-in-Chief of the 110th Light Infantry and Governor of the Craufurd Officer Training College. Sir Paul died peacefully at his home in Leicestershire after a short illness. He was eighty-five.
Sir Paul’s long and distinguished career began in 1802 when he joined the 110th foot as ensign and then lieutenant. He fought with great courage at the Battle of Assaye the following year and was promoted to captain by General Wellesley and then to major in 1806.
Sir Paul is best known for his service during the long years of the war against Bonaparte. He served in Naples and Sicily and then in Denmark but came to prominence in the Peninsula under the late Duke of Wellington. He fought at Rolica and Vimeiro and at the famous victory at the Douro his men had the honour of being the first to cross the river. He was wounded at Talavera but remained in Portugal and was promoted to colonel-in-charge of the regiment in 1810.
From 1811, Sir Paul commanded the third brigade of the famous Light Division. Further battle honours include Bussaco, Sabugal, Fuentes de Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Alba de Tormes, Vitoria, the Pyrenees, Bidassoa, the Nivelle and Toulouse along with many minor actions. He was wounded several times but his sense of duty always took him back into the field. He was known to be a close friend and confidant to the late Duke, who placed him in charge of a division at Waterloo.
At the close of the war, Sir Paul remained with the Army of Occupation in France. His later career took him to Africa and India. When he retired from active service, he took charge of the newly established Craufurd College for the training of light infantry officers, a foundation which he helped to set up, and of which he remained a dedicated patron until his death. He was an active supporter of many charities and served on various boards and committees pertaining to the armed forces. He was well known for his vocal opinions on the need for army reform, in particular with regard to conditions of service and the abolition of flogging.
Sir Paul is survived by his devoted wife, Anne, six children and eleven grandchildren. Two sons and four grandsons followed him into the army.
The funeral will be held at the regimental chapel in Melton on Friday next, and there will be a memorial service in London later this year, date to be announced. Her Majesty the Queen sent a personal message of sympathy to the grieving widow.
You will be glad to hear that he was not ill for long, a winter cold which turned quickly to bronchitis. He died with Grandmamma beside him which is exactly what he wanted.
I must tell you of the funeral which was so well attended there was not room in the church for them all. You would not have thought it a time for laughter, but laugh we did. Lady Denny was there, draped in so much black you’d have thought her the widow, and came up to our party afterwards to speak to Grandmamma. She went on and on about my Grandfather’s virtues and then at the end she spoke of the Duke in the most familiar way, as though she had known him personally.
“It must console you, dear Lady van Daan, to think that such two good friends are reunited at last,” she said, in such a syrupy voice. My grandmother looked at her very hard for a moment.
“Dear Lady Denny, it doesn’t console me in the least,” she said finally. “By now, if they’ve met up, I rather imagine they are yelling at each other about the abolition of flogging. They haven’t seen each other for fourteen years, they have a lot of arguing time to catch up on. I think I may delay my own demise for a few years until they are over it.”
Somewhere in the middle of disgracing myself laughing at a funeral, I’d swear I could hear him laughing too…
Write soon, cousin. I miss you.
For anybody wanting to read the story of Paul and Anne van Daan and the 110th infantry from the beginning, the first four books are available on Amazon kindle
I’ve spent some time over the past week or two reading accounts of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century courts martial for my next book, An Unwilling Alliance. A surprising number of them came to absolutely nothing and the novelist in me desperately wants to know the full story behind how they came about. Were charges brought maliciously? Commanding officer didn’t like the look on your face? Got off because you were really good at hiding the evidence? Or because you were really good at your job and nobody wants to lose you? So many possibilities, I’m going to have to be forcibly restrained from court martialling half my characters now, it sounds like so much fun…
Surgeon James Dalzell of the 32nd in 1800 is my favourite so far, though. He got into it in an Assembly Room (probably drunk or fancied the same girl in my opinion) with his commanding officer Major James Wentworth Mansergh and made use of “unwarrantable and most offensive language” by telling him “the said Major Mansergh that he was a damned rascal and a Scoundrel and no Gentleman and threatening to pull him by the nose and afterwards on the same night repeating the same language raising his hand in a threatening manner and again threatening to pull him, the said Major Mansergh, by the nose.”
Surgeon Dalzell seems not to have actually been arrested for this until six months later and on that occasion he really kicked off and informed Major Mansergh in the presence of soldiers of the 32nd in the barrack yard that “his command was a damned rascally one to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Clearly something had ticked Surgeon Dalzell off beyond the telling and if there was a man on that court martial with a straight face by that point, he was a better man than I am. A brief search has revealed that to threaten to “pull a man’s nose” was considered an insult likely to lead to a duel in the ante-bellum South and when I need another distraction I am going to download that article in full as I want to find out the origin of that one. Certainly it is clear that Surgeon Dalzell and Major Mansergh were not going to be exchanging Christmas gifts.
But the plot thickens even further. Enter Captain William Davis who was also court-martialled in 1800. Captain Davis was also charged with using disrespectful and improper language to Major Mansergh in the barrack yard on the same evening that Surgeon Dalzell hit the proverbial roof. While no nose pulling appears to have been involved here, Captain Davis followed the major, attempted forcibly to stop him and called him “a damned Rascal and a Scoundrel and at the same time raising his hand in a threatening manner to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Now there is clearly a bit of a theme here, and it looks as though the court was able to spot it. Surgeon Dalzell, interestingly was acquitted of the charges of nose-threatening and general name-calling. The court made mention of something that Mansergh said about the surgeon in a conversation with Captain Davis that evening in the barrack yard which had caused Dalzell to lose his temper. Although he was acquitted, he was instructed to make an apology to Major Mansergh for improper language and conduct. The wording of the apology is very specific – I’m guessing all Dalzell had to do was read it out and the matter was over. Clearly the court felt that whatever had happened, Dalzell was provoked.
Captain Davis wasn’t quite so lucky and I wonder if that was because of his rank. Certainly given that he went for his commanding officer in front of the enlisted men on the parade ground, he was very unlikely to get away with it. Captain Davis was found guilty and suspended without rank or pay for the term of two years. Even so, the court expressed some sympathy for Davis, pointing out that his treatment by Mansergh, while it can’t justify his actions, certainly mitigated his sentence. Presumably without it, he might have been cashiered.
The editor has very kindly provided footnotes of what happened to the principals in the various cases and that’s where it becomes interesting. Captain Davis sold out the following month, presumably unable or unwilling to live without pay or rank for the next two years. Surgeon Dalzell must have taken his medicine and made his stilted apology to Major Mansergh because he remained in the army and was appointed Surgeon to the Forces in Ireland in 1804. Clearly he managed to control his temper better in the future.
Major Mansergh was not the subject of the court martial but that did not stop the court from expressing its opinion that his conduct appeared “highly reprehensible, in not having supported his command with more propriety and energy”. What else was said off the record, or by Mansergh’s own commanding officers is not recorded, but Major Mansergh sold out the following month and did not return to military service. Somehow I have a feeling there might have been a celebration in the mess at some point…
Until I started looking in to military discipline in more detail, I think I had assumed that a court martial was seen as a disgrace and the end of an officer’s career but clearly that is not the case. In both the army and the navy, officers were court-martialled, acquitted or received minor punishments and went on to do very well. Captain Bligh of the Bounty survived no less than three courts martial during his career.
Court martial seems to have been a valid way of seeking an enquiry into an incident. An officer censured for some error would often ask for a court martial to clear his name; a good example of this would be Lt-Colonel Charles Bevan after the fiasco at Almeida in 1811 whose request for a court martial was denied, a fact which contributed to his suicide.
The other fact about a court martial which came as a surprise to me was that the King looked at all trial records and had the right to override either the verdict or the punishment. I was aware through research into the Peninsular War that the commander-in-chief had the right to commute sentences on men convicted of local offences but it appears that it was not uncommon for the King to completely overturn the decision of the General Court Martial, either in deciding to declare a verdict of not guilty, or simply to announce that he no longer required the services of the officers involved.
In matters of military discipline in the 18th and 19th century there must always have been a lot of leeway depending on individual circumstances. An officer committing an offence needed to be charged by a senior officer and there must have been many occasions where a good officer got away with an informal reprimand simply because he was good at his job and valued. Equally there would have been senior officers with a bee in their bonnet about particular issues for example Admiral Gambier was known to be an evangelical Christian and used to fine his officers for bad language. Commanders confident in their relationships with their officers will have used different methods of management, saving court martial for extreme cases in the same way that a good manager rarely uses the formal disciplinary process. There are always variations from the strict letter of the law.
And that’s probably a good thing for one of the officers of the 110th infantry…
Beginning in 1802, the Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon, and in particular the story of Paul van Daan who joins the regiment as a young officer and rises through the ranks in Wellington’s army.
A second linked series, about a Manx naval officer, begins with An Unwilling Alliance, due to be published in April 2018 and tells the story of Captain Hugh Kelly of HMS Iris, Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry and the Copenhagen campaign of 1807.
It is 1802, and two new officers arrive at the Leicestershire barracks of the 110th infantry just in time to go to India. Sergeant Michael O’Reilly and Lieutenant Johnny Wheeler have seen officers come and go and are ready to be unimpressed. Neither of them have come across an officer like Lieutenant Paul van Daan.
Arrogant, ambitious and talented, Paul van Daan is a man who inspires loyalty, admiration and hatred in equal measure. His unconventional approach to army life is about to change the 110th into a regiment like no other.
The novel follows Paul’s progress through the ranks of the 110th from the bloody field of Assaye into Portugal and Spain as Sir Arthur Wellesley takes command of the Anglo-Portuguese forces against Napoleon. There are many women in Paul’s life but only two who touch his heart.
Rowena Summers, a shy young governess who brings him peace, stability and lasting affection.
Anne Carlyon, the wife of a fellow officer who changes everything Paul has ever believed about women.
As Europe explodes into war, an unforgettable love story unfolds which spans the continent and the years of the Peninsular War and changes the lives of everyone it touches.
It is 1810 and Major Paul van Daan and the 110th prepare to meet the French on the ridge of Bussaco in Portugal. Back on the battlefield only two weeks after his scandalous marriage to the young widow of Captain Robert Carlyon, Paul is ready for the challenge of the invading French army.
But after a successful battle, Lord Wellington has another posting for his most unorthodox officer and Paul and Anne find themselves back in Lisbon dealing with a whole new set of challenges with army supplies, new recruits and a young officer who seems to represent everything Paul despises in the army’s views on discipline and punishment. Anne is getting used to life as the wife of a newly promoted regimental colonel as two other women join the regiment under very different circumstances. And an old adversary appears in the shape of Captain Vincent Longford whose resentment at serving under Paul is as strong as ever.
It’s a relief to return to the field but Paul finds himself serving under the worst General in the army in a situation which could endanger his career, his regiment and his life. Given a brief by Wellington which requires Paul to use tact and diplomacy as well as his formidable fighting skills, it’s hardly surprising that the army is waiting for Wellington’s most headstrong colonel to fail dismally at last…
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.
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.
An Untrustworthy Army (Book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga: June – November 1812)
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 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, will Colonel van Daan’s legendary brigade manage to hold together and get themselves back to safety? (To be published in July 2018)
An Unrelenting Enmity (Book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga: December 1812 – April 1813)
Wellington’s army is in winter quarters, licking it’s wounds after the retreat from Burgos. In the 110th and the rest of the Third Brigade, however, morale is high. Anne van Daan has successfully given birth to her second child and there is time for a trip to Lisbon to see the rest of the children. Things take a turn for the worse when a new commander is appointed to the 115th serving under Paul, a man who represents everything that Wellington’s most unconventional brigade commander despises. In addition, the new Major has a history with Sergeant Jamie Hammond which looks likely to set off a major explosion in the 110th. (To be published in December 2018)
An Uncivilised Storming (Book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga: May- October 1813)
Lord Wellington leads his army into northern Spain. With a better supply train and a new determination the Anglo-Portuguese army are about to make a push to cross the Pyrenees and invade France. Wellington’s army, including Colonel Paul van Daan and the Third Brigade of the Light Division face the French at Vitoria win a comprehensive victory. There follows an exhausting series of battles as Marshal Soult tries desperately to rally his forces and push the English back. Weary of battle, Paul is appalled when he arrives in time to witness the sacking of San Sebastian by the Allied troops, an atrocity which makes him question his place in the British army. (To be published in April 2019)
An Inexorable Invasion (Book 8 of the Peninsular War Saga: October 1813 – February 1814)
Wellington’s army is invading France. After almost five years of advancing and retreating across Portugal and Spain, Colonel Paul van Daan and his brigade are about to set foot on French soil, the first time many of them have ever done so. At the battles of the Bidassoa and the Nivelle, the men of the light division are at the forefront of the action as Wellington ruthlessly presses home his advantage. But behind the scenes, the European powers are negotiating for Bonaparte’s abdication and the end of hostilities and the disappearance of Sir Henry Grainger, British diplomat and intelligence agent sends Captain Michael O’Reilly and Sergeant Jamie Hammond with a small force into hostile country on a mission which could lead to peace – or cost them their lives. (To be published in August 2019)
An Improbable Abdication (Book 9 of the Peninsular War Saga: March 1814 – January 1815)
Wellington’s army is in France, marching inexorably towards victory. An inconclusive engagement at Toulouse is cut unexpectedly short when the news comes in that Napoleon Bonaparte has abdicated and that France has surrendered. With war finally over, Colonel Paul van Daan and his battered and exhausted men are bound for England and a round of celebrations and gaiety which Colonel van Daan could do without. While the crowned heads of Europe are feted in London, honours and promotions abound and Anne and Paul find themselves learning how to live a normal life again with their children around them. The light division is broken up with it’s various regiments sent to other duties and Lord Wellington, now a Duke, is despatched to Vienna to represent Britain in the complex peace negotiations which threaten to try his patience almost as much as Marshal Massena. But the early months of 1815 bring shocking news… (To be published in December 2019)
An Unmerciful Engagement (Book 10 of the Peninsular War Saga: Waterloo 1815)
For Paul and Anne van Daan, domestic bliss has been interrupted long before they had grown used to it. Bonaparte is loose and with the light division disbanded and many of it’s crack regiments dispersed to other theatres of war around the globe, Wellington needs to pull together an army from the allied nations of Europe. His Peninsular army no longer exists but he still has Paul van Daan and the 110th. Promoted to General, Paul is on his way to Brussels and to a battle far worse than anything he has yet experienced. (To be published in June 2020)
An Amicable Occupation (Book 11 of the Peninsular War Saga: 1815 – 1818 the Army of Occupation)
With the horrors of Waterloo behind him, Paul van Daan is in France commanding a division of the Army of Occupation under Wellington. It is a whole new experience for the officers and men of the 110th, learning to live beside the men they fought against for six long and painful years.
A Civil Insurrection (Book 12 of the Peninsular War Saga: Yorkshire 1819)
Back in England finally, the 110th have settled back into barracks and are enjoying a rare spell of peace when trouble in the industrial towns of the North sends them to Thorndale, Anne’s home city where her father and other mill owners are under threat from what looks like a revival of the Luddite movement. After many years of fighting the French the men of the 110th are faced with a new challenge which might see them pitted against their own countrymen. (To be published in December 2020)
Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bevan is one of the many tragedies of the Peninsular War and a story which I found particularly sad. There were so many deaths in battle or from wounds or sickness, but in the middle of it, Colonel Bevan took his own life over a matter of honour.
Bevan served in the 28th foot in Egypt, Copenhagen, Walcheren and then in the Peninsula. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in January 1810 and appointed initially to command the second battalion, 4th foot and then the following year moved to the first battalion in the Peninsula.
After the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro on 2nd May, 1811, the French Commander Messena ordered the besieged garrison at Almeida under General Brennier to break out to the north-west and rejoin the French forces via the bridge at Barba del Puerco over the river Agueda. Wellington had been expecting such a move and sent orders to General Sir William Erskine to extend his fifth division northward as far as the bridge at Barba del Puerco by sending the 4th Foot to the bridge itself. Meanwhile, Campbell’s sixth division and Pack’s Brigade were to continue the investment of Almeida. The orders were sent out by 2 p.m. on the 10th and reached Erskine at his Headquarters by about 4 p.m. Erskine claimed to have sent the orders immediately to the 4th Foot at Val de Mula but it seems they were not received until around midnight.
At about midnight, the garrison of 1400 men broke-out from Almeida, blowing up the powder magazines and made it through the pickets of the Portuguese and 2nd Foot. Pack’s Brigade and Campbell with the 36th pursued the French towards the bridge at Barba del Puerco. Lieutenant-Colonel Bevan, having received his orders around midnight, had decided to wait the few hours until day-break before moving. However, on hearing the gunfire, Bevan ordered his regiment to move off quickly towards the bridge. The French arrived at the bridge first, pursued by Pack’s force and the King’s Own with the 36th Foot attacked the second French column in flank as it was descending the steep road to the bridge. Despite losses, the main French force made it across the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Cochrane of the 36th with a detachment from his regiment and the 4th decided to rush the bridge and was beaten back with casualties.
Lord Wellington was furious at both the failure to block the French breakout and the futile attempt to cross the bridge. In a despatch to the Earl of Liverpool, Secretary of State, Wellington wrote that ‘the 4th Regiment which was ordered to occupy Barba del Puerco, unfortunately missed their road and did not arrive there till the enemy had reached the place….’ and that ‘the enemy are indebted for the small part of the garrison which they saved principally due to the unfortunate mistake of the road to Barba del Puerco by the 4th Regiment.’
A second despatch says that orders were sent to Erskine which were received at about 4 p.m., and that Erskine said he forwarded them immediately. The despatch further states that ‘the 4th Regiment, which it is said did not receive their orders before midnight, and had only two and a half miles to march, missed their road and did not arrive, at Barba del Puero till after the French.’…. ‘Thus your Lordship will see, that, if the 4th Regiment had received the orders issued at 1 p.m. before it was dark at 8 o’clock at night, or if they had not missed their road, the garrison must have lain down its arms….’ Lieutenant Colonel Bevan felt that both he and his regiment had been unfairly criticised in the despatches and asked Wellington for an enquiry. Wellington refused this and subsequent requests. Eventually, apparently falling into a black despair at the slur on his own reputation and the honour of his regiment, Bevan shot himself on 8th July 1811. He was buried in the castle yard at Portalegre and his funeral was attended by all divisional officers. His memorial stone reads:
‘This stone is erected to the memory of Charles Bevan Esquire. Late Lieutenant Colonel of the 4th or King’s Own Regiment with intention of recording his virtues. They are deeply engraven on the hearts of those who knew him and will ever live in their remembrance.’
What really happened on that fateful night to enable the French to escape from Almeida will never be known. Historians differ on the exact sequence of events, but there is some consensus that General Erskine, who was dining with Sir Brent Spencer that evening, received the orders and put them in his pocket, forgetting about them until around midnight. Realising the severity of his error he then excused himself to Wellington by claiming that the 4th had set out late and then lost their way. In November 1897 MacMillan’s Magazine published an extract from the diary of Private John Timwell of the 43rd Foot, which included the following entry from the diary of an officer of his regiment:- “The French could never have escaped had it not been for an accident in Sir William Erskine not sending an order in time to Colonel Bevan, which caused him to be too late at Barba del Puerco with his Regiment. Poor Bevan was censured by Lord Wellington, which circumstance preyed so much on his mind, knowing he had done his duty, that he blew his brains out. The order alluded to was sent from headquarters by Lord Wellington’s direction and Sir William Erskine forgot to forward it, and literally, after the business was over, the document was found in his pocket.” Bevan’s wife and children in England were informed that he had died of fever and it was not until 1843, that his eldest son, Charles was told the truth by an uncle, Admiral James Richard Dacres, who wrote informing him that the 4th had received their orders too late and that neither Bevan nor his Regiment were at fault.
Bevan’s story is often cited by critics of Wellington as an example of his autocratic and uncaring behaviour towards his officers and it is true that the commander-in-chief does not come out well from the affair. Wellington was well aware of the problems of Sir William Erskine as a divisional commander. His temporary command of the elite Light Division had been disastrous, he was very near-sighted and apparently had mental health problems as well as being arrogant and unwilling to listen to advice. There were rumours too, that he drank too much, and one wonders if that may have influenced his casual treatment of Wellington’s orders that night. Certainly Wellington was quick to remove Erskine from his position commanding a division and instead sent him to lead four mounted regiments in the newly organized 2nd Cavalry Division in Rowland Hill’s corps. At some time during 1812 Erskine’s problems were too obvious to ignore and he was declared insane. In 1813 he killed himself by jumping out of a window in Lisbon.
Wellington’s tolerance of Erskine for so long can be explained by the man’s connections and possible influence in London. Although the commander-in-chief would have liked to ignore politics and fight his war, it was not always possible. For the same reason, he was probably reluctant to publicly censure Erskine for his likely blunder in the Almeida affair. But it is also very possible that Wellington genuinely believed that Bevan had made a mistake by not setting out for the bridge during the night.
It should be remembered that Wellington did not take any measures against Bevan or the fourth. He was not court-martialled or disciplined in any way. It is very probable that Wellington simply failed to take into account the effect of one of his not infrequent public criticisms of his officers on a man as sensitive as Charles Bevan. Bevan was known to suffer from periods of melancholy, probably what would today be recognised as clinical depression. Other officers had suffered from their commander-in-chief’s insensitivity and bad temper and recovered. Bevan, sadly, was unable to do so.
There is now a memorial to Charles Bevan in the English cemetery in Elvas, a beautiful little place which we visited last year. It is impossible not to feel sad at the waste of a man who was liked and respected by his fellow officers and loved by his wife and children. In a different time, under a different commander, Bevan might have done better. Service under Wellington, it seemed, required a thicker skin than poor Bevan possessed.
Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas
The story of Bevan is told in full in Wellington’s Scapegoat by Archie Hunter and has been discussed by various historians. Some claim that Wellington deliberately scapegoated Bevan to avoid the political consequences of telling the truth about Erskine. Others suggest that Wellington genuinely believed Bevan to have made a mistake and could see no reason to take the matter any further. Bevan had been told and simply needed to get over it and move on.
Rory Muir, in his excellent biography of Wellington, points out that it probably made no sense for Wellington to re-open the unfortunate affair with an enquiry. There was a war to fight and decisions to be made and there was no time for agonising and recriminations. It was a harsh but practical approach which may have sat ill with some of Bevan’s fellow officers, but it probably accounts for some of Wellington’s success as a commander.
What may be true, is that Wellington could have explained his decision not to allow an enquiry to Bevan rather than brusquely refusing without discussion. That, certainly, is Wellington at his most autocratic but it was not personal to Bevan and most of his officers managed to survive it. Poor Charles Bevan, with his periods of depression, simply could not.
The suicide of Charles Bevan is an integral part of the story of An Uncommon Campaign,the third book in the Peninsular War Saga although we do not meet Bevan personally. Colonel Paul van Daan’s reaction to his death is a mixture of sadness, guilt and anger and probably mirrors that of a lot of the officers who knew Bevan. Even today depression and suicide are difficult for many people to understand, and for a character like the belligerent and outgoing colonel of the 110th, Bevan’s despair and his decision to leave his wife and children must have seemed completely incomprehensible. Knowing more about the condition today, it is easier to understand what happened to Bevan.
For me, the story is a reminder of the realities of war in any age. The men who held officers’ commissions under Wellington all experienced combat and army life in their own individual way. We look at the army, marching across the plains and mountain ranges of Portugal, Spain and France, as a unit but, to the officers and men fighting in it their stories were unique. There was no understanding or acceptance of post traumatic stress disorder, shock or depression. No clinician stepped in to declare that Sir William Erskine was not well enough to command men in battle and nobody was there to assess Lord Wellington’s sudden explosions of sarcastic fury and diagnose stress in a man with huge burdens to bear. In the age of the wars against Napoleon no allowances were made for the physical and emotional effect of years of campaigning.
Given everything these men went through, the suicides of Charles Bevan and Sir William Erskine are not that surprising at all. The surprising thing is that it didn’t happen more often.
Welcome to 2018 at Writing with Labradors. It’s New Year’s Day on the Isle of Man, and it’s raining, windy and freezing cold. In some ways this is a relief because if it had been a nice day I would have felt obliged to go out for a walk and I don’t feel like it.
It’s been a very different and very busy Christmas this year, with Richard’s family with us for the whole of the holidays, and then entertaining friends to dinner last night. I’ve had no time to write, research or do anything else and in some ways that’s been quite hard.
I think it has probably done me good, however. Time away from the current book has given me the chance to think through what I’d like to do with it and I feel a lot clearer about where it is going. I’m very happy with the few chapters I’ve written and research is going well so I’m looking forward to getting on with it. I think my head may have needed the break.
It’s made me think a bit more about how I schedule my writing time going forward. I’m very privileged that I don’t have to hold down a full time job at the same time as writing, but I do have a very busy life with a family, my dogs, a big house to maintain and accounts and admin to be done for Richard’s business. I’m aware that it’s very easy to let things slide when I’m in the middle of a book, but I realise that I need to be better organised both with the various tasks through the day and with time off to relax.
This year I’ve edited and published seven existing novels, with all the associated marketing and publicity, I’ve written an eighth book from scratch and published it and I’ve started a ninth. I’ve handed my Irish dance school over to my two lovely teachers to run, I’ve supported son and daughter through GCSEs and AS levels, my old fella Toby through an operation at the age of 13 and I’ve had a major foot operation myself. I’ve toured the battlefields of Spain and Portugal where some of my books are set and I went to Berlin, Killarney, London, Hertfordshire, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool. I lost a very dear old family friend and went to his funeral. And I’ve gained some amazing new friends, some of whom I’ve not even met yet, although I’m hoping to this year. I’ve set up a website and an author page, joined Twitter and Instagram and I genuinely feel I can now call myself an author, something I had doubts about in one of my first posts on this website.
It has been an amazing year and I’m so grateful for all the help and support I’ve received. I’ve not won any awards, although I’ve had one or two reviews which have felt like getting an Oscar. Still, I’d like to do the thank you speech, because it’s the end of my first year as a published author and I owe so many people thanks for that.
I’m starting with the man I married, who has been absolutely incredible throughout this. He set up my website and taught me how to use it, and has always been there to answer any questions about technology. He spent hours designing the new covers for the Peninsular War Saga and he also took the photographs which are gorgeous. He drove me through Spain and Portugal, scrambled over battlefields and listened to me endlessly lecturing with more patience than I could have imagined. He has celebrated my good reviews and sympathised over the bad ones. He’s been completely amazing this year – thank you, Richard. You are the best.
My son is studying for A levels at home and shares the study with me. That’s not always easy, as during research I tend to spread out from my desk into the surrounding area, onto his table and onto the floor. He has become expert at negotiating his way through piles of history books. He is also a brilliant cook and will unfailingly provide dinner at the point when it becomes obvious I am too far gone in the nineteenth century to have remembered that we need to eat. Thanks, Jon.
My daughter is my fellow historian and brings me joy every day. She mocks my devotion to Lord Wellington ruthlessly, puts up with my stories, lets me whinge to her and makes me laugh all the time. She drags me away from my desk to go for hot chocolate and to watch the sun go down, watches cheesy TV with me, helps me put up the Christmas decorations and corrects my fashion sense. Thank you, bambino.
There are so many other people I should thank. Heather, for always being there and for offering to proof-read; Sheri McGathy for my great book covers; Suzy and Sarah for their support and encouragement.
Then there are the many, many people online who have helped me with research queries, answered beginners questions about publishing and shared my sense of the ridiculous more than I could have believed possible. There are a few of you out there but I’m singling out Jacqueline Reiter, Kristine Hughes Patrone and Catherine Curzon in particular. I’m hoping to meet you all in person in 2018 and to share many more hours of Wellington and Chatham on Twitter, Archduke Charles dressed as a penguin and the mysterious purpose of Lady Greville’s dodgy hat. A special mention also goes to M. J. Logue who writes the brilliant Uncivil War series, and who is my online partner-in-crime in considering new ways for the mavericks of the army to annoy those in charge and laughing out loud at how funny we find ourselves.
The new book is called An Unwilling Alliance and is the first book to be set partly on the Isle of Man, where I live. The hero, a Royal Navy captain by the name of Hugh Kelly is a Manxman who joined the navy at sixteen and has returned to the island after Trafalgar with enough prize money to buy an estate, invest in local business and find himself a wife while his new ship is being refitted. It’s a tight timescale, but Hugh is used to getting things his own way and is expecting no trouble with Roseen Crellin, the daughter of his new business partner. Her father approves, she is from the right background and the fact that she’s very pretty is something of a bonus. It hasn’t occurred to Hugh that the lady might not see things the same way…
The title obviously refers to the somewhat rocky start to Hugh and Roseen’s relationship, but it has other meanings as well. The book moves on to the 1807 British campaign in Denmark and the bombardment of Copenhagen, in which Captain Kelly is involved. The Danes were unwilling to accept British terms for the surrender of their fleet to avoid it falling into the hands of the French and as an alliance proved impossible, the British resorted to force.
In addition, there was something of an unwilling alliance between the two branches of the British armed forces taking part in the Copenhagen campaign. There is a history of difficulties between the Army and the Navy during this period, and given that the Danish campaign required the two to work together, there is an interesting conflict over the best way to conduct the campaign.
The naval commander during this campaign was Admiral James Gambier while the army was commanded by Lord Cathcart. While Captain Hugh Kelly served under Gambier in the British fleet, a division of the army under Cathcart was commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley and Brigadier General Stewart and consisted of battalions from the 43rd, 52nd, 95th and 92nd – the nucleus of the future Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s Peninsular army. In An Unconventional Officer, we learn that the expedition is to be joined by the first battalion of the 110th infantry under the command of the newly promoted Major Paul van Daan and An Unwilling Alliance looks at the campaign from both the army and naval perspective, filling in part of Paul’s story which is not covered in the series.
I am hoping that the book will be published at the beginning of April 2018 and it will be followed by book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, covering the Salamanca campaign and the retreat from Burgos some time in the summer. After that I will either get on with the sequel to A Respectable Woman which follows the lives of the children of Kit and Philippa Clevedon or the third book in the Light Division series, set after Waterloo.
We’re hoping to go back to Portugal and Spain this year for further photography and battlefield mayhem. I’ve got some new ideas for the website and will be publishing several more short stories through the year. My first research trip is in a couple of weeks time when I’ll be visiting Portsmouth and the Victory, the National Maritime Museum and possibly the Imperial War Museum if I don’t run out of time. And the Tower of London for no reason at all apart from the fact that Wellington used to enjoy bossing people around there.
My final thanks go to the real stars of Writing with Labradors. Toby, my old fella, is thirteen now and survived a major operation this year far better than I did. Joey is eleven and needs to lose some weight. They are my friends, my babies and my constant companions and I can’t imagine life without either of them although I know that day is going to come. Thank you to my dogs who are with me all the time I’m working and who make every day happier.
Happy New Year to all my family, friends, readers and supporters. Looking forward to 2018.
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. They 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.
They are also easier to give away, and this year I want to celebrate my own version of the Jolabokaflod with my readers, by giving away the e-book versions of some of my books on kindle for two days, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. It is two years since I first made the decision to independently publish my historical novels, and it has gone better than I ever expected. This is my way of saying thank you to all my readers and hello to any new readers out there.
Visit my Amazon page to download the following books free, tomorrow and the following day:
A Respectable Woman – The daughter of a nineteenth century missionary is torn between love and propriety
A Marcher Lord – Divided loyalties on the Anglo-Scottish borders in Tudor times
The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place in May 1811 on the border between Portugal and Spain as Lord Wellington led his army to invest the fortress of Almeida. Much of the action took place in the narrow streets of the village, with brutal and bloody hand to hand fighting. The battle is at the heart of An Uncommon Campaign.
Wellington admitted himself once the battle was over that it had been a near-miss. He had extended his line along a ridge above the village with the intention of keeping his potential line of retreat back to Lisbon open, but on this occasion he over-extended himself and the newly formed seventh division found itself stranded out on his right, under huge pressure from the French. Massena was desperate for a win, knowing that his difficulties over the past year had left him unpopular with his Emperor and victory for Wellington was by no means certain.
His right was saved by the light division. General Robert Craufurd had been on leave in England for several months and Wellington’s crack troops had been under the leadership of the disastrous Sir William Erskine who had made a number of atrocious mistakes. After Sabugal, Wellington moved Erskine over to the fifth division and Craufurd arrived back with his men on the battlefield on the eve of the battle and proceeded to show the army how it was done by performing an outrageously perfect fighting retreat over several miles of open country under constant attack in order to rescue the beleaguered seventh division and shift Wellington’s line to something more defensible.
In the novel, the final square in this retreat was commanded by Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th who encounters a French cavalry colonel whom he had met a few days earlier during skirmishing out on the road towards the village…
Thatcher had wheeled his horsemen again and was bringing them round to take a pass back at the guns which Dupres had ordered up against the 110th. Even at a distance, Paul could hear him calling his cavalrymen into line and he felt a surge of sheer horror as he realised. “Jesus Christ, he’s going to cut them off! The rest of his men are behind that outcrop!” He ran towards Nero and swung himself into the saddle yelling, but the Allied cavalry had already begun to gallop towards the guns, sabres ready. The gunners were limbering up and preparing to move, and Paul saw Dupres swing around and give a signal. To the rear of Thatcher’s small troop, a mass of French cavalry appeared, and Dupres galloped his men forward, trapping Thatcher’s men neatly between the rocky ridge and the solid lines of the 110th. They were vastly outnumbered, and half of Dupres’ men were armed with lances. Paul felt his guts twist in horror. The only possible help he could give would involve opening his square and once it was broken, the French would be in and his men would be slaughtered. Paul swung around. “Carter, four ranks. Hold square, but back three ranks loaded and ready. Take out every one of them you can.” Thatcher had realised his danger, but there was no option but to carry on. He raised his sword and pulled out at the head of his men, thundering down towards Dupres and his cavalry. Paul slid from Nero’s back and ran to the side of his square nearest to the approaching cavalry. He placed a hand on the shoulders of the nearest men. “On my word,” he said softly. “Open up.” He saw Carl look over, appalled, but he did not look back at him. Around him the rifles and muskets had opened fire, and Dupres cavalry were beginning to fall. Paul stood waiting, watching the Allied cavalry approach. “Now,” he said, and his square parted. Thatcher saw the move and Paul saw him haul back on the reins with a yell. His horse reared up and he was shouting orders. His troopers wheeled sharply right and rode into the centre of the square, pulling up quickly and shuffling close together to make space. Paul found that he was counting them in as his men continued to pound in three ranks into the approaching French cavalry. The centre of the square was becoming crowded but the horses and men were highly trained and stood very still, leaving space for more. Paul watched, his heart in his mouth as Dupres’ men moved in towards the gap. There were fewer of them, but he knew he had only moments left before they broke into the square. Looking up he saw Thatcher watching, and then the boy looked over at him. There were twenty cavalrymen still outside the square. Thatcher lifted his hand and then wheeled and yelled to his men. Paul watched in sick horror as the men thundered away, galloping on towards Dupres. “Close it!” he yelled. The gap closed smoothly, and the rifles and muskets continued to fire. Paul looked over to where Dupres waited and saw the Colonel looking directly back at him. The Frenchman’s face was flushed. He stared at Paul, and Paul looked back. Dupres’ lips curved into a smile and he lifted his sabre and yelled an order, and Thatcher’s men crashed into him, with the other half of the Frenchmen hitting them from behind. It was short and brutal. Paul’s rifles continued to fire where they they could but the muskets were silenced; it was impossible to aim at the French without risking hitting the English. It was quickly over, and the English cavalrymen were cut down. Around him, Paul could sense the distress of his men and of the rest of the troop. They had all seen deaths in battle many times, but there was something deliberately cruel about the massacre of twenty men within a few feet of them. Paul could no longer see the young captain, but Thatcher’s horse was loose and galloping off and he stood watching, feeling tears behind his eyes. The French cavalry massed around the English troopers who were on the ground, and then there was a thunderous volley of fire, and Paul looked up and saw that Crauford was up on the ridge and the light division were lined up, rifles at the front, firing volleys down on the French. Dupres wheeled his horse with a shouted order and the French were on the run, some of them falling as they galloped away, their Colonel at their head. The rifles of the 110th thundered out and the last half dozen of the cavalry fell from their horses as Dupres men rode out of reach. Paul watched, feeling sick and grief-stricken. For a moment, unusually, he felt unable to move or speak. Around him the guns still fired and he moved his eyes to the bodies on the ground. He felt a hand on his shoulder. “We need to get moving, Paul,” Carl said quietly, and Paul stirred and nodded and looked over to the lines. “Open up,” he said to Carter. “Let the cavalry out first.” He stood watching as the men filed out, then called his men into line and let his officers lead them up onto the ridge to join the rest of the light division. Further away he was conscious of the French infantry advancing in column but they were too far away to be an immediate concern. As his men moved ahead, Paul broke away and ran to where the bodies of the English cavalry lay. Captain Thatcher lay on his back and his body had been slashed over and over. Across his throat was a savage cut, which reminded Paul of what had almost happened to Manson. Thatcher’s eyes were open, staring at the sky. Paul reached out and closed his eyes very gently. “Colonel van Daan!” He recognised the bellow of General Craufurd from the ridge above. Ignoring it, Paul stooped and lifted the long form of the young captain. He moved forward towards the lines, and saw several of his men break away and come back, ignoring the yells of their general. Carter, Hammond and Dawson came to assist him and they carried Captain Thatcher’s body up the ridge and behind the lines. At the top Paul stepped back and let his men carry Thatcher to the back. Craufurd came forward. “Colonel van Daan. That has to have been one of the…” Paul swung around. “Don’t!” he said softly, and Craufurd stopped. “Well done, lad,” he said quietly, and Paul shook his head. “No it wasn’t. I couldn’t save him. I stood there and watched that bastard cut him down and I couldn’t do anything to help him. And he came in to save our arses.” Craufurd put his hand on Paul’s shoulder. “I know, Colonel. Nastiest thing I’ve ever seen on the field, they could have taken them prisoner, no need for that. Come on, get back to your men. Nothing more you can do for him now.” Paul nodded and turned away, making his way over to his lines. His men had taken up position on the edge of the ridge. Mechanically he checked their lines and approved the rocky outcrops behind which they were stationed. He was conscious of his immense pride in them. Their retreat across the plains had been a textbook piece of infantry work and at some point he wanted to tell them so, but his eyes and ears were still full of the tragedy of Thatcher’s pointless death. Craufurd had moved away and was speaking to one of the Spanish runners, giving him a message to take to Lord Wellington. Paul watched, feeling curiously detached. Craufurd moved away and came back towards him. “They’ve attacked Fuentes de Onoro again,” he said briefly. “They’ve got the highlanders fighting down there, they’re holding their own. We’re to hold up here, wait and see what those infantry columns do. They might attack, although we’re in a strong position up here.” “Yes, sir,” Paul said. Craufurd nodded and moved away up towards the first and second brigade to speak to Beckwith and Drummond. Paul turned and looked out over the French columns, three infantry divisions moving into place to threaten the British lines. Silently Paul assessed the distance and the situation and then he turned and yelled an order. Shock rippled through the first division and light division as the 110th fired. Their first tremendous volley ripped into the first line of French infantry and blew them apart. Craufurd moved forward with an oath. “What the bloody hell is he doing?” he said furiously. There was another enormous blast of gunfire and the second French rank exploded. It had taken them that long to realise, incredulously, that the British were not waiting for them to attack. Under shouted orders from their commanders they fell back quickly, dragging some of their wounded with them. Paul stood watching their frantic movements, his face expressionless. “Major Swanson, Major Clevedon, Colonel Wheeler. You’ve got the range. Any one of them steps within it, I want him dead. See to it.” “Yes, sir,” Johnny said quietly, and watched as his commander walked away and back up to where Craufurd waited with Beckwith and Drummond. “This could be interesting,” Clevedon said mildly. “Yes. Bet Craufurd is wishing his holiday had lasted longer,” Carl said with a grin. There was something about the set of his commander’s back which suggested that he was ready to take on General Craufurd and possibly Lord Wellington as well. “All right, Sergeant, you heard what the colonel said. Keep them loaded and if there’s a Frenchman you can hit, he’s dead. The colonel is seriously pissed off with them and I do not want him pissed off with us as well, it’s never pleasant.” Paul approached Craufurd, saluted silently and waited. “I did not give permission for your men to open fire, Colonel!” Craufurd said furiously. “No, sir. I did that.” “Without orders! What in God’s name is wrong with you, Colonel? You’ve been in command of a brigade for five minutes and you already think you don’t have to follow my commands.” “Sorry, sir.” “Sorry? What do you mean, sorry? You’re not fucking sorry at all!” “No, sir. Not at all. Just being polite.” “Polite?” Craufurd looked as though he might explode. Paul glanced at Beckwith and Drummond then back at his chief. “Permission to go back to my men, sir?” “Van Daan, you are an arrogant young bastard without any respect for authority or…” “Yes, I have, sir. Immense respect for authority, especially your authority. I could point out that you didn’t tell me not to fire those volleys, but you and I both know that would be nit picking! I fired them because I’m fucking angry and I felt like letting them know that they cut down our men like that and I’m going to fucking slaughter them any chance I get! And you know what? I think they got the fucking point! Let’s see how quickly they come forward against my lads again today, shall we? And if Lord Wellington is looking for volunteers to march down to Fuentes de Onoro and kill a few more of them, you just let me know because I’m in the mood! Permission to go back to my men, sir?” Craufurd studied him for a moment. Unexpectedly he said quietly: “Go ahead, Colonel.” “Thank you, sir.”
(From An Uncommon Campaign; Book 3 of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)
Church in Fuentes de Onoro.
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In describing the Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwellas my elephant in the room, I’m very definitely not being serious. These novels are a lot bigger than an elephant.
During the course of this year I have independently published the first four books of my Peninsular War Saga on Amazon, and before I did that I was already nervous about them being compared to the Sharpe novels, since those, for most people, are the gold standard of novels describing Wellington’s war in Portugal and Spain in the early nineteenth century. Authors like C S Forester, Patrick O’Brian, Alexander Kent and Dudley Pope have depicted the navy in impressive detail, and in recent years, Cornwell has been joined by authors such as Adrian Goldsworthy and Iain Gale. But Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe remains the character that most people remember from popular fiction when they think of the Peninsular War.
In part, of course, this has a lot to do with the classic TV adaptations starring Sean Bean which aired between 1993 and 2008, based loosely on the books. But Cornwell’s books, with their meticulous research and brilliant battle descriptions are enduringly popular in their own right, and for a new writer, the thought of being compared to a writer who has already done something so extraordinarily well, is extremely daunting and definitely unavoidable.
The first four novels of my Peninsular War Saga were all published between May and September of 2017, but I had been writing them for a number of years. My original hope was to try to find an agent and go the traditional publishing route, but the responses I received all gave me the same message; there is currently no market for historical novels set in the Peninsular War. Unless, presumably, they’re written by Bernard Cornwell. Left with the choice of abandoning the books or going the independent route, I chose the latter and I’m very glad I did. In less than six months, I’ve sold some books and I’ve had a few reviews, mostly very positive, one or two less so. I’m currently working on book five and I’m enjoying myself very much. But good or bad, the reviews tend to mention the S word, and it’s led me to finally stop ignoring it and to stare straight at the elephant. I’ve received a number of messages and posts asking questions about this, and I thought I’d use those as a basis to face up to my fear of Richard Sharpe…
Did you get the idea for your books from reading or watching Sharpe?
The lead character in my books is called Paul van Daan, and he came into being very early on in my writing career. I’ve always been obsessed with history, studied at school and then at university. I’ve always read a lot, especially historical novels, and I started to write my own as a teenager. They were dreadful and I destroyed them many years ago.
The first full length book I wrote was set in South Africa in the nineteenth century. It was a period I’d studied and was fascinated by, especially given the political situation at the time with apartheid. I read everything I could about how South Africa came to be the way it was, and I wrote a novel based around the early conflict between Boer and British which led to the Great Trek. My leading character was a Boer who had lost family at Blood River, but who for various reasons found himself being educated and raised as an Englishman, with all the ensuing conflict. The young officer’s name was Paul van Daan.
Over the years I wrote a lot of other stories and novels, most unfinished. I made a few efforts at getting published, but it became obvious very early on that I was going to get nowhere with my South African novel. The political climate became increasingly sensitive, and it was obvious that a white, English working class female was not the right person to publish a novel set in nineteenth century South Africa with all it’s complicated racial politics. Paul and his story were abandoned in favour of other things.
A few years ago, with my children growing up, I decided to give writing another go and I worked on several other projects, while re-reading my earlier efforts. Most of them were unceremoniously dumped at that point, but something about this novel stayed with me although I had no intention of going back to it. After a lot of thought, I realised that it was the characters that I liked. Paul van Daan was a soldier, not particularly easy but to me, very appealing. Carl, Johnny and Michael were all a part of that early book. So was Anne. Paul’s first wife was Dutch and was named Renata. Of all of them, her character probably changed the most. Renata was something of a mouse, while I really like Rowena. But I was surprised overall at how happy I was with this little group of people even though I wasn’t that happy at where they were living. But it occurred to me suddenly that I didn’t need to be wedded to one particular location or time period.
Once I was looking for somewhere to relocate my series, the Napoleonic wars were obvious. I’d studied them and I’d read about them. By this stage I had both read and watched Sharpe, and then followed up by a lot of reading of biographies. In particular I was very attached to Sir Harry Smith who was a major character in the original novel as mentor and friend to the young Paul van Daan. I’d read his autobiography as background and that played a big part in my decision to attempt the Peninsular war. I’m rather delighted with the fact that in the novels I’ve published, their relationship is reversed and it’s Paul who is the senior, taking an interest in young Captain Smith’s career…
For a while, I pretended not to think about Sharpe, but it didn’t bother me anyway since I didn’t really think I’d ever get far enough to publish the books.
Is your lead character like Richard Sharpe?
Not much, to be honest.
Richard Sharpe was a lad from a poor background who joined the army and managed, through talent, courage and a lot of luck to get himself an officer’s commission at a time when most commissions were purchased. He was a good soldier and a good leader but he struggled to fit in because of his background. Every promotion was a fight for him and he had to be better than all the others to achieve them.
Paul van Daan, in contrast, was born with the proverbial silver spoon. His father made his money through trade, his mother was English aristocracy and he went to Eton and Oxford. He’s arrogant, clever and always knows best and he has enough money to buy his way to the top. If he’d been around after Talavera, he would have been the man Josefina ran off with because he could have afforded her. Richard Sharpe would have hated him on sight.
Looking a bit closer, however, maybe not.
Paul van Daan has one or two odd things in common with Sharpe. One of them is a very pretty set of stripes across his back. Sharpe got his during his early days in the army; Paul got his in the Royal Navy. After he got thrown out of Eton for a long list of bad behaviour which culminated in him throwing the Greek master into a fountain, his father sent him to sea as a midshipman on one of his trading vessels to make a man of him. The ship was wrecked and only one lifeboat made it to shore on Antigua where the men were scooped up by a press gang desperate for experienced sailors. Nobody believed Paul’s story about his wealthy background, or perhaps they just didn’t care that much; they were desperate for men. At fifteen, Paul fought at the Battle of the Nile under Nelson and earned himself a promotion to petty officer before he managed to get word to his father who secured his release.
Two years below decks gave Paul van Daan a slightly eccentric outlook for a young gentleman which he took into the army with him a few years later. Sharpe might have hated him on sight, but I’d pretty much guarantee that after their first battle together, they’d have been getting happily drunk together.
What about promotions?
Not much doubt who is going to move faster through the hierarchy given Paul’s money and background. Sharpe would definitely have been grouchy about that. Paul is a major at 26 when Sharpe hadn’t even got started properly, and a colonel in his thirties. Having got there, however, he stays there for a long time. He’s found his niche, he’s not after more money and he wouldn’t take an administrative posting to move up if you begged him to; Paul likes to fight. He’ll finally move up again for Waterloo, I suspect, but we’ll see…
And the Chosen Men?
Paul’s friendships aren’t always popular with the army establishment. He’s on equally good terms with the son of an Earl and his cockney sergeant. He’s not in the Rifles, but he is a light infantry officer. After a lot of thought I invented a completely new regiment or two for my books and expanded the light division to accommodate them.
There is an Irish sergeant although he doesn’t resemble Patrick Harper very much since he’s an educated man who joined the ranks to hide after a failed rebellion in Ireland.
And Wellington? Paul is close to him in a way that Sharpe could never have been. Partly that’s because of his background; Wellington was a snob. Almost as important, though, is the fact that Paul has the thickest skin in the British army and doesn’t care how much his chief yells at him, which is probably a pleasant change for Wellington who tended to upset more sensitive souls. The only things Paul gets upset about are arseholes saying the wrong thing about his wife and any general whose incompetence puts his men at risk.
And what about the women?
Ah yes. Well, there are a few, in the early days. Definitely something Paul and Richard Sharpe have in common. Actually, I think Sharpe was often better behaved about this than Paul. But then during a thoroughly unpleasant posting to Yorkshire in 1808, Paul meets Anne Howard. It’s not particularly simple since he’s married and she’s about to be, to a junior officer, but this particular love affair isn’t going to go away. As for running around with other women once he’s with her, I wouldn’t personally recommend it…
If I liked Sharpe, will I enjoy your books?
I’ve got no idea. Try one and if you like it, read the others.
A friend who read them suggested a tagline of Sharpe for Girls. I don’t see it myself, since I know so many women who loved the Sharpe books, but I suspect that one of the biggest differences in style is that although Paul is the main character, once Anne comes on the scene she gets equal treatment a lot of the time. She isn’t really a girl to be sitting around looking pretty and she spends a fair bit of her time in the surgeons tents covered in gore. When she’s not doing that, she’s organising the quartermaster and bullying the commissariat, taking time out to flirt outrageously with the commander-in-chief and generally shocking the ladies of headquarters during winter quarters.
Both men and women seem to be reading and enjoying the books. I’ve recently changed the covers; the first cover was very much a ‘romantic novel’ look and I didn’t think it reflected the books very well. The new covers have definitely improved sales, and I’ve had a couple of very good reviews from men.
How would you describe the books?
Not as a Sharpe copy.
I can’t describe what I’ve written so I’m going to quote a couple of reviews.
“Absolutely brilliant. For 40 years I’ve been fascinated by this period of history, and have read everything I could my hands on, history, biography, memoirs and fiction. This series is the best fiction I’ve ever read – fantastically well researched and historically accurate, with wonderfully drawn characters and relationships. They give a brilliant idea of what war was like then, as well as a moving love story and brilliant relationships between the male characters. Got to the end of number 3 and luckily the fourth was published one day earlier, now I’m dying for no 5.”
“What a great series. Loved the characters. Well researched, unputdownable!”
“Good book well written thoroughly researched.”
I’ve had two bad reviews for these books out of a fair few excellent ones.
One of them complains that the book is too like Sharpe and it’s the reason, to be honest, that I’m writing this post, because it made me think about it. When I write about a particular campaign, my first thought is always, where were my regiment and what was their role in it. When I read that review, I admit to a bit of a panic. I couldn’t remember anything about Sharpe’s role in Massena’s 1811 retreat and I was worried that I’d accidentally copied Cornwell’s treatment of that. I needn’t have worried, Sharpe wasn’t even involved in that campaign, he was off at Barossa. Just as well actually, he’d have killed Erskine stone dead. My lad came close.
When I looked again at the review I realised he’d given equally unfavourable reviews to other authors who had written books about this period, some of them well-known. I’m taking the view that for this particular reviewer, if you’re not Cornwell you shouldn’t be writing about this. Nothing I can do about that.
The other review was a lot more detailed and it was from a lady who seemed to object to the romance in the novel which she complained was too much of a contrast to the unpleasant descriptions of war. I couldn’t establish which she wanted more or less of.
The rest of my reviews have been great and I’m so grateful to the people who have read the books, enjoyed them and taken the trouble to write a review. Even a couple of lines is a big boost.
A few of them mention Sharpe. Every time I see it, I feel very honoured at being mentioned in the same sentence as Bernard Cornwell, since I’ve been reading and loving his books for twenty years now. I’m also completely terrified because I don’t want to let people down by not being as good.
During the years I’ve been working on these books I’ve done an unbelievable amount of research. I’ve learned facts about Wellington’s army that I never thought I’d have reason to know. I’ve also talked to some great people who are as passionate about the period as I am and that’s one of the things I love most about doing this.
Books one to four of the Peninsular War Saga are available on Amazon on kindle and in paperback. Book five, which covers the Salamanca and Burgos campaign, will be published next year. They’re not Richard Sharpe, they’re Paul van Daan. I hope you enjoy them anyway…
The organisation of Wellington’s Peninsular Army can be split into three main areas; ranks of officers and men, the structure of the army and the support services. Sir Arthur Wellesley arrived in Portugal in 1808 but did not take full command of the army until the following year. Morale was poor and most officers believed that Wellesley would be lucky to hold Lisbon, let alone the rest of Portugal. Wellesley himself seems always to have intended a more aggressive policy although he did not necessarily always share his intentions with the politicians in London. After a resounding success at Oporto and a victory, albeit a difficult one, at Talavera, Wellington embarked on a reorganisation of the army into divisions.
The ranks listed below show the traditional command structure of the army. In practice, during the war, commands and ranks were very flexible. It was not unusual for a Lieutenant to be found commanding a company or a Major in charge of a battalion. Regiments were often commanded by Lieutenant-colonels if their Regimental Colonel was not in the field.
Officers acquired their commissions by purchase, and theoretically all promotions were also purchased up to the rank of colonel. During the war, however, the large number of officers killed meant that many promotions were given without purchase – less than one in five first commissions were purchased. In some regiments it was possible to advance quite quickly without needing to pay for a commission and a sympathetic regimental colonel could often help talented young officers up the ranks.
It was unusual for NCOs to be given a commission but it did sometimes happen, usually for `acts of specific courage in the field. Because of the class distinctions of the day – officers were supposed to be ‘gentlemen’ it could be difficult for an enlisted man to fit in once he attained his commission.
The exception to this was in the case of ‘gentlemen volunteers’. These were men of good birth who could not afford a commission so joined the ranks. They trained and fought with the enlisted men but messed and socialised with the officers until a commission without purchase became available.
Lieutenant Colonel Battalion
Major General Division
Lieutenant General Corps
Field Marshal Theatre of war
Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs)
Chosen Man (an informal award to a promising private soldier, later formalised into the rank of Lance Corporal)
Structure of the Army
The Peninsular Army was structured as shown below. As with the ranks listed above, there was a lot of variety in numbers and commands. Most regiments were permanently under strength due to death, injury and sickness so the numbers below are very general and would have varied widely between different regiments and at different stages of the war. The structure below is that of the infantry; cavalry was organised slightly differently.
Each company consisted of around 100 men. It was commanded by a Captain with two lieutenants and two ensigns. There were two sergeants per company and three corporals.
Each battalion consisted of 10 companies; 8 infantry companies, a company of guards and a light company. The guards tended to be used for main assaults, they recruited big men and their job was to stand firm. The light company were skirmishers; fast, agile and smart with the capacity to think independently.
Battalions also had their own Regimental Sergeant-Major who had overall charge of discipline.
Most regiments consisted of two battalions although some had three or more, particularly the Rifles. It was unusual for both battalions of a regiment to be serving in the same army although it did happen, once again most notably with the Rifles. Usually the second battalion was either serving elsewhere, or back in barracks providing reinforcements to the first battalion in the field.
Confusingly, both officers and men often referred to their battalion as their regiment so that the two terms can be used interchangeably at times. Each regiment had a Colonel in Chief who might have been serving in the field but was often more of a figurehead, with the actual command being left to a lieutenant colonel.
Each regiment usually had a Regimental Sergeant Major in charge of each battalion.
Two to four regiments / battalions comprised a brigade, which was presided over by a brigade commander. The actual term Brigadier was not often used. A brigade commander could be a colonel or lieutenant colonel, usually of one of the regiments included in the brigade.
A division consisted of two to four brigades, usually between 5,000 and 15,000 men with 10,000 being fairly normal. Divisional commanders could be Major Generals or Lieutenant Generals. Wellington had seven divisions and added an eighth in 1811. The light division was generally the smallest.
In my Peninsular War saga, Paul van Daan joined the 110th in 1802 at the age of 21. He was slightly older than most new officers and will have joined as an ensign but purchased immediately on to lieutenant. This practice was not officially allowed, but often happened with men who could afford it if commissions were available and the regimental colonel agreed.
His first promotion was given in the field and he was fairly young for it although it was not unheard of. After that his rise was fast; he could afford it and he was talented, but he never rose as quickly as Wellington had before him. Wellington was an ensign at 18 and a lieutenant, like Paul, almost immediately afterwards. He was a Captain at 22, also like Paul but gained his majority at only 24 and was a Colonel by the time he was 27 while Paul was thirty. Unlike Wellington, Paul was in combat for most of the time, however, which made subsequent promotions easier.
Regiments and battalions had their own quarter-masters, who were in charge of provisions and supplies for the regiment. Wellington had a relatively small headquarters staff and worked them hard. The medical services were under the control of the army medical board in London, and the commissariat which was responsible for supplying the army was also a separate body, a situation which caused a good deal of problems for the commander in chief.
In reality, how each section of the army was run tended to be very much down to local circumstances. Commanding officers varied considerably in their attitudes to discipline and etiquette, and each regiment developed it’s own customs and traditions within the army regulations.
Army headquarters in London was known as Horse Guards and was situated in Whitehall.
There are a lot of good sites on the internet which go into considerable detail about the organisation of the Peninsular Army. A very clear account of it is given in Stuart Reid’s Wellington’s Army in the Peninsula published by Osprey which is available on Amazon.
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