The Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro: An Uncommon Campaign – Book Three in the Peninsular War Saga

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro

Fuentes d’Onoro, May 1811

The battle of Fuentes d’Onoro was a near miss for Wellington’s army
The battle of Fuentes D’Onoro took place in 1811

Wellington had initially taken up a reasonably strong position on the line of the Dos Casas, a tributary of the Agueda River. Although the stream itself was insignificant, the section in front of the Allied left ran through a significant ravine that would effectively prevent any French attack on this part of Wellington’s troops. His right was not as strong. As the Dos Casas climbed into the hills the valley was less pronounced and provided less protection. The British position ended at the village of Fuentes de Oñoro, which climbed up from the river to the top of the ridge, and was itself a very defensible position. To the south, however the ravine disappeared and it would be very possible for the French to outflank the British.
With his troops in preliminary positions, Wellington summoned the three light division commanders.
“They’re on their way,” he said without preliminaries. “Marching down from Ciudad Rodrigo. We’ll see where he places them and then look at our positions.”
“If we get time,” Paul said.
His commander eyed him with a forbidding expression. “Have you something useful to say, Colonel van Daan or are you just making sure we all know that your new command is not going to stop you questioning my orders any time you feel like it?”
“Not questioning, sir, more of a comment. You already know we could have done with a bit more time, but we’ll manage. Where do you want us?”
Wellington studied him and then gave a small grim smile. “Out on the road initially, give them a hard time as they approach. I’m sending out four cavalry regiments as well. No major engagements and don’t take any risks, I will need your men intact for this battle, we’re short enough as it is. Have you heard me, Colonel van Daan?”
“Loud and clear, sir. Getting better at it all the time.”
Wellington shook his head. “I can’t wait until Craufurd gets back, he approved this but that’s because he’s forgotten what you’re like. You’re going to give him a seizure.”
“No, he’s easily as tough as you, sir, and I haven’t given you one yet.” Paul glanced at Drummond. “How do you want to do this, George?”
Drummond looked at him and smiled slightly. “Was that an attempt at tact, Paul? Why don’t Beckwith and I take the north side and you bring up the south with the cavalry, the ground on that side will suit them better. We’ll meet back before Fuentes once they’ve made camp.”
Paul nodded. “Sounds good. Sir, we could do with some fast riders to keep us in touch with each other. I can use some of my ensigns but frankly they’d be more use with their men…”
“I’ll get Julian Sanchez to lend you some of his horsemen they know the countryside.” Wellington eyed the three men. “I thought Craufurd would be here in time for this. And he still might make it, he must be very close. Which is why I haven’t appointed a temporary commander.”
There was a brief silence which extended and became difficult. Still nobody spoke. Paul took a deep breath. “I’m glad you shared that, sir, because I’ve been thinking you’d done that just to make my introduction to commanding a brigade more interesting.”
Beckwith gave a splutter of laughter, and Paul glanced at Drummond and saw that he was smiling too. He turned his gaze back to Wellington and for the first time during the briefing there was genuine amusement in the blue grey eyes.
“Colonel there are four of us here and not one of us is in any doubt that if something gets difficult out there you are going to start yelling orders without any thought for rank or protocol. I first saw you do it aged twenty-two at the battle of Assaye when you bullied poor Colonel Maxwell into going into battle ahead of orders and you had been promoted to captain at that point for approximately twenty-four hours. If that happens I trust Colonel Drummond and Colonel Beckwith to have the experience and common sense to judge for themselves whether to join you, ignore you or punch you, and they have my express permission to do any of those three. Get out of here and keep me informed.” From “An Uncommon Campaign’ by Lynn Bryant (Book Three of the Peninsular War Saga)

The battle of Fuentes De Onoro took place at the beginning of May 1811.  After the retreat from Talavera in 1809 and then the successful battle of Bussaco in 1810, Wellington had kept most of his army behind the lines of Torres Vedras and used the time to train and recruit and recover from the mixed fortunes of the Spanish campaign.  The exception was the light division under the brilliant but irascible General Robert Craufurd, who spent the time guarding the border, constantly engaging the enemy in skirmishing, holding the line with men who were fast becoming the acknowledged elite of Wellington’s army.

Marshal Massena, unable to breach the formidable Anglo-Portuguese defences and unwilling to risk too many of his men trying, held on desperately in lands scorched and left bare by the retreating British.  By early 1811 it was clear that he could hold out no longer.  His army was starving and exhausted and the reinforcements he had asked for were nowhere in sight.  It was time to retreat.

Initially, Massena hoped to make for the Mondego valley which had escaped Wellington’s scorched earth policy and where food might be found for his starving men.  But the Anglo-Portuguese army were in hot pursuit and no way could be found across the river in time.  Fighting a skilful and desperate rearguard action, Massena retreated back to the Spanish border.

The Fortress at Almeida, Portugal

There were several great fortress towns along the Spanish-Portuguese border and in order to plan and execute an invasion of Spain safely, Wellington knew he needed to take possession of all of them.  The most formidable on the Portuguese side was at Almeida, and it was the last stronghold in Portugal held by the French.  Wellington besieged the city and Massena, his army finally fed and beginning to recover, marched to relieve it.  Having surveyed the ground, Wellington chose to take up a position along a line running through the little Spanish village of Fuentes D’Onoro.

Supplies were crucial in this stage of the conflict.  The French would have limited access to supplies whereas Wellington was well supplied and could hold out longer.  He had the choice of leaving his line of retreat exposed in order to cover all routes to Almeida or of covering his retreat, which was usually his preferred option but giving the French a possible way through.

Fuentes D’Onoro was a cluster of buildings on a slope with narrow cobbled streets and walled gardens.  It was well known to the men of Craufurd’s light division who had often been quartered there during their time on the border.  Many of the villagers were known personally to them.  With the people evacuated to a refugee camp, the British took up their positions.  The Anglo-Portuguese army had 34,000 infantry, 1,850 cavalry, and 48 guns, while the French had 42,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry, and 38 guns.  Massena had asked for reinforcements from Bessieres in the north, and Bessieres had come himself but with so few men that the reinforcements were pointless.  Wellington commanded six infantry divisions, Charles Ashworth’s independent Portuguese brigade, and three cavalry brigades along with some artillery.

On 3 May, Masséna launched a frontal assault against the British-Portuguese pickets holding the barricaded village, while bombarding the British-Portuguese on the heights east of the village with heavy artillery. The battle in the centre of the village went on throughout the day, with French soldiers of Ferey’s and Marchand’s divisions clashing with the British  1st and 3rd Divisions.

At first, the British-Portuguese were driven back under immense pressure, but a charge that included men of the 71st Highland Light Infantry reclaimed the streets and buildings lost earlier in the day. As the sun went down, the French withdrew and the village remained in British hands, with the former suffering 650 casualties against only 250 for the British.

Both sides spent 4 May recovering their dead and wounded from the streets of the village.  An informal truce was held and men from the two armies met across the Dos Casas brook to exchange food and tobacco and play card games.  When officers intervened, the French organised a series of intimidating parades to impress their enemy.  The English played football.

Meanwhile, French reconnaissance had discovered Wellington’s weakness.  

Fuentes de Onoro looking up from the French position.

His right flank was weakly held by a unit of Spanish partisans near the hamlet of Poco Velho.  The French attacked at dawn on 5 May, concentrating on Wellington’s right flank where the Spanish crumbled.  Allied cavalry held their positions with great courage but the 7th Division was left exposed.  Masséna launched a heavy attack on the weak British-Portuguese flank, led by Montbrun’s dragoons and supported by the infantry divisions of Marchand, Mermet, and Solignac.  Two 7th Division battalions were badly mauled by French light cavalry and Wellington needed to send reinforcements to save the 7th Division from annihilation.  Defeat looked possible, but Wellington had reserves in place and he sent in Robert Craufurd’s light division along with British and German cavalry.

On the threatened British-Portuguese right flank, the elite Light Division, well supported by cavalry and artillery, made a textbook fighting withdrawal.  With very few casualties, they covered the retreat of the 7th Division and fell back into a stronger position selected by Wellington. During the retreat, whenever French artillery ventured too close, the British cavalry charged or feinted a charge. This allowed the infantry time to retreat out of range. If the French horsemen pressed the outnumbered British cavalry back, the British-Portuguese infantry formed squares and, their volleys drove off the French.

It was an extraordinary display of military discipline and precision and a tribute to the genius of Robert Craufurd, who for all his reputation of a rude, over-sensitive disciplinarian who was disliked by many of his officers, could do anything with his enlisted men, who would follow him to hell and back for a word of approval.  The skill of the light division and the courage of the highly outnumbered Allied cavalry saved Wellington, who had undoubtedly made mistakes that day, from what might have been a defeat, and brought instead a victory.

Church in Fuentes de Onoro.

Masséna’s main aim was still to secure Fuentes de Oñoro. He sent forward massed columns of infantry from Ferey’s division. The village, filled with low stone walls, provided excellent cover for the British line infantry and skirmishers, while the French were severely restricted in the little narrow streets. At first, the French had some success, wiping out two companies of the 79th Highland Regiment and killing the regiment’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Philips Cameron. But a counterattack chased Ferey’s men out of the town.

Memorial to the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro 1811

launched a second attack on the town. This time, it was led by three battalions of grenadiers.  Again, the British fell back as Drouet threw in about half of the battalions from both Conroux and Claparède’s divisions, managing to take almost the entire town.

In response, Wellington counterattacked with units from the 1st and 3rd Divisions, plus the Portuguese 6th Caçadores and led by the 88th Connaught Rangers. This broke Drouet’s attack, and the tide began to turn. Low on ammunition, the French had to resort to the bayonet in a futile attempt to drive the British back. One party of 100 grenadiers was trapped in a tight spot and killed. Facing lethal volleys, the French retreated back to the Dos Casas, leaving their casualties behind.  By sunset, French morale had plummeted and many companies were down to 40% strength.

The French artillery tried to bombard the new British line into submission, but for once they were outgunned by Wellington’s cannons. Finally, with their ammunition dangerously low, the French attacks came to an end. Wellington’s men entrenched during the evening. After spending the next three days parading before the British position, Masséna gave up the attempt and retreated to Ciudad Rodrigo, furious with his subordinates whose refusal to obey orders at crucial moments had turned a potential victory into a defeat which would spell the end of his command in the Peninsula.

The battle of Fuentes d’Onoro was not claimed by Wellington as one of his great victories.  He had beaten back the French and was able to continue his blockade of Almeida.  However, he acknowledged how dangerous the situation had been, saying later, “If Boney had been there, we should have been beat.”  Wellington considered that he had unnecessarily extended his line, putting the 7th Division and Light Division in danger.

Two nights after Masséna’s withdrawal, Antoine Brenier’s 1,400-man French garrison of Almeida slipped through the British-Portuguese lines during the night. About 360 French troops were captured, but the rest escaped through a series of blunders.  An infuriated Wellington wrote, “I have never been so much distressed by any military event as by the escape of even a man of them.”

On reaching Ciudad Rodrigo, Masséna was recalled to Paris by a furious Napoleon to explain his actions.  He was replaced by Marshal Auguste Marmont. Masséna returned to France with a vast sum of gold, looted from Portugal and Spain. The defeated French marshal complained that Wellington “had not left him one black hair on his body—he had turned grey all over.”  Later, meeting in France after the war, Wellington and Massena met as former adversaries and got on very well.  On discussing their final campaign against one another, Massena said:

My Lord, you owe me a dinner – for you made me positively starve.”  Wellington laughed.  “You should give it to me, Marshal, for you prevented me from sleeping.”

We visited Fuentes d’Onoro earlier this year.  Despite being surrounded by modern roads it is surprisingly easy to see the layout of the very extended battlefield.  The third book of the Peninsular War saga, “An Uncommon Campaign” is centred around the battle, and in particular the Light Division part in it, since by now Paul van Daan’s 110th are fighting as part of Wellington’s elite division.  The first four books in the Peninsular War Saga are available in both Kindle and paperback editions on Amazon.

An Unconventional Officer

An Irregular Regiment

A Redoubtable Citadel

For regular updates and articles on history, travel, writing and life why not join the mailing list here

 

An Uncommon Campaign – Book Three of the Peninsular War Saga

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

An Uncommon Campaign is now published on Amazon Kindle and will shortly be available in paperback.

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro
An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro

It is April 1811.  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 trying to become accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and is learning to manage the resentment of other officers at his early promotion.  His young wife is carrying her first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities much to the horror of the rest of the army. And if that is not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally with potentially lethal consequences for the Third Brigade of the Light Division.

The third book in the Peninsular War Saga will be published at the end of July 2017.

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

An Irregular Regiment, Book Two will be published on 4 July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

In the run up to the publication of An Irregular Regiment, there will be a free promotion of An Unconventional Officer from 16 – 18 June 2017.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

General Robert Craufurd – you couldn’t make him up…

General Robert Craufurd fought the battle of the Coa on this bridge

Researching for the Peninsular War saga, I’ve met a few characters along the way and other than Lord Wellington, one of my absolute favourites has to be General Robert Craufurd, known to the army as Black Bob, the irascible genius who commanded the Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s army.

When I first created Lieutenant Paul van Daan who marched into the barracks of the 110th foot in 1802 ready to take over, my research into Wellington’s army was only just beginning.  I wasn’t sure how he was going to fit in.  I had thought, early on, that he might turn out to be one of Wellington’s exploring officers, a bit of a lone wolf, since he wasn’t really much like the other officers.  That idea was quickly abandoned.  Mr van Daan, it turned out, was better at the army than I thought he might be.  Besides which, extensive reading made it really clear to me that there was only one natural place for an over-confident individualist with a perfectionist attitude to training and a liking for eccentric characters.  Paul van Daan, although he didn’t know it yet, was clearly destined for Wellington’s Light Division under the grumpy, over-sensitive genius, General Robert Craufurd.

Craufurd was from a Scottish family and joined the army at fifteen.  He has a surprising amount in common with my fictional character, Paul van Daan.  Like Paul, he took the army seriously, studying at a military school in Berlin and travelling all over Europe and to South America and India on various postings.  Like Paul, he had varying success with his commanding officers.  He gained the reputation of being difficult, rude and bad-tempered.  More than once he seriously considered giving up the army, so disgusted was he with how poorly it was run in places.

Like Paul, Robert Craufurd married for love and was devoted to his young wife.  Mary Holland was a granddaughter of Lancelot Capability Brown the landscape designer and Craufurd was thirty-six when they married.  He fell in love relatively late but he fell hard and it was a source of exasperation to his future commanders, particularly Lord Wellington, that he frequently requested furlough home to see his love.  When Craufurd was in the Peninsular, Mary spent some time in Lisbon to be close to him and he returned to England, incurring the wrath of Wellington, for several months during 1811, arriving back literally on the battlefield in time to save the day at Fuentes de Onoro.  He had four children, three boys and a girl.

In 1808, Craufurd sailed for Corunna in Spain to reinforce Sir John Moore’s army.  Under Moore’s reorganisation, General Robert Craufurd was given command of what was called the 1st Flank Brigade which comprised the first battalions of the 43rd and 52nd and the second battalion of the 95th rifles, all light infantry.  The 2nd Flank Brigade, interestingly was commanded by Brigadier Charles von Alten who was to become Craufurd’s successor in command of the light division.  When Moore realised he was at risk of being cut off he began a brutal retreat to the coast.  The two flank brigades marched separately towards Orense.  Men died of cold and starvation and illness although unlike Moore’s main force they were not pursued by the French.  The retreat became famous for Craufurd’s brutal discipline, although surprisingly the enlisted men did not seem to resent this.  They considered that their safe arrival was due to their commander’s iron control of his brigade.  At the coast they awaited stragglers before returning to England, emaciated, sick and in rags.

Craufurd’s brigade, by now, known as the Light Brigade, returned to Portugal in May 1809, but poor weather delayed their sailing and despite a forced march which covered 45 miles in 26 hours they just missed the battle of Talavera.  Nevertheless, it is clear that despite numerous personal differences, Lord Wellington knew the worth of his most difficult commander and the Light Brigade was increased in number to become the Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s army.  Trained skirmishers, they could move fast and travel light and the French learned to fear them.

Craufurd was one of the few men that Wellington the control freak, trusted out of his sight.  The only generals with whom Wellington would ever enter into explanation and discussion were Hill, Beresford and Craufurd – the rest were simply given their orders and expected to obey them.  During that difficult winter Craufurd was sent with his division to hold the Allied outposts, patrolling the border and engaging in constant skirmishing with the French while other divisions rested.  By the time Wellington was ready to advance his army to the border, chasing Massena out of Portugal, Craufurd’s light division was legendary, a force of tough individualists led by the man often described as the rudest man in the army.

General Robert Craufurd had an unusually good relationship with his enlisted men despite being a harsh disciplinarian, very willing to use flogging.  This was because despite his strict reputation, he was also known to care for the welfare of his men in a way that few generals did, working hard to ensure that they were fed and well-equipped.  He seemed often to be more comfortable with the men than their officers.  With a few notable exceptions, the officers of the light division did not like Craufurd.  He had an uneven temper and thought nothing of yelling at officers in exactly the same way as he did the men.  They considered him rude, sarcastic and a bully.

In 1810 Craufurd was keen to show that the confidence which Wellington placed in him was not undeserved.  A sensitive man, he could not forget that he was four years older than Beresford, five years older than Wellington, eight years older than Hill, but still a junior brigadier-general in charge of a division.  He was older and had been in the army longer than most of Wellington’s other commanders but promotion was slow in coming, possibly because of his somewhat abrasive personality.

The Light Division was moved up to the Spanish frontier, and settled in the villages around the fortress town of Almeida with its outposts pushed forward to the line of the River Agueda. From March to July 1810 Craufurd accomplished the extraordinary feat of guarding a front of 40 miles against an active enemy with six times more men.  Not once did the French split his line or find out any information about Wellington’s gathering forces at his rear.  He was in constant and daily touch with Ney’s corps, but was never surprised, and seldom pushed back; he never lost a detachment or sent his commander false intelligence.  General Robert Craufurd’s activity on the border that year gave Wellington everything he needed for the coming campaign.

There were four bridges and around fifteen fords between Ciudad Rodrigo and the mouth of the Agueda, all of which were practicable in dry weather and some even after a day or two of rain. Craufurd insisted on reports being made on the state of the fords every morning.  Beacons were set up on the heights so as to communicate information about the French movements and it took less than ten minutes for his division to get under arms in the middle of the night, and a quarter of an hour, night or day, to bring it in to full order of battle with baggage loaded and assembled.

One of the light division’s most famous skirmishes during this period came at the old Roman bridge at Barba del Puerco.  Ferey sent six companies of voltigeurs, the French light skirmishers, to take the bridge before dawn.  He was able to bayonet the sentries on the bridge before they could get off a shot and was halfway up the slope towards the village of Puerto Seguro, but Craufurd’s system was foolproof and within ten minutes Sydney Beckwith’s detachment of rifles were upon him.  They drove him down the slope and back across the river at speed with the loss of almost fifty men, while Beckwith lost only four men killed and ten wounded.

Occasionally, Craufurd’s daring got the better of him.  At the combat of the Coa in July 1810 he took his men across the river in direct contravention of Wellington’s orders and escaped annihilation by the skin of his teeth.  Wellington was furious but quickly forgave the man he considered essential to his success in keeping the French at bay.  He later wrote:

“I cannot accuse a man who I believe has meant well, and whose error was one of judgement, not of intention.”

At this point, in my novels, Paul van Daan’s battalion of the 110th is still operating independently under Wellington’s command.  Increasingly, however, Wellington is sending Paul into action with the Light Division.  Initially the Captain of the 110th light company, Paul is now beginning to train his entire battalion as skirmishers and it is clear where he wants to be.  His relationship with Craufurd is surprisingly good, although with the frequent explosions to be expected of two determined individualists.  Their relationship might not have survived their very public disagreement at the Coa when Paul disobeys Craufurd’s direct order so that his men can cover the retreat.  It is Anne, newly married, who persuades Paul that as the junior of the two it is Paul’s job to apologise.  From this point on, no matter what their differences, Craufurd and Paul present a united front, something which must have surprised many people.  As with many other relationships in the army, Paul’s path is smoothed by his lovely, clever wife’s diplomatic skills and she and Craufurd are firm friends.

Craufurd’s Command Post at Bussaco

At Bussaco later that year, Craufurd more than redeemed himself, and Wellington was annoyed when his general insisted on returning to England for the winter to see Mary and recover from some health problems.  He threatened half heartedly to give Craufurd’s division to another to command, but the disaster of Sir William Erskine’s temporary command of the light division made it unlikely he would ever carry through on that threat.  In May, Craufurd reappeared on the field at Fuentes d’Onoro to the loud cheers of his men, a typically theatrical entrance.  He then proceeded, within twenty-four hours, to demonstrate just how it was done when he saved the 7th division and the whole of Wellington’s right flank by making a textbook fighting withdrawal.  By now, Paul is in charge of the third brigade, finally part of the light division, and takes an important part in the battle.  Robert Craufurd was promoted to Major-General on 4 June 1811.

Seven months later in January 1812, Black Bob Craufurd was shot down in the lesser breach during the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo at the age of 48.  Typically, he was high up, shouting orders to his men and did not seem to have realised how exposed his position had become, standing in two fire lines.  Typically, in my story at least, it was the youngest and most awkward of his brigade commanders who helps carry him from the field and is with him to the end.  The men of his light division were devastated.  Craufurd took four days to die, the bullet having passed through his lung and lodged against his spine, and he was buried with honour in the breach where he had fallen.  Wellington mourned him deeply and must have frequently wished, through the rest of the war, that his most difficult but talented commander had survived to make the journey with him.

Craufurd and Wellington were not close friends although in some ways they were very alike.  Both were brilliant commanders, clever and well-educated in military matters.  Both could be demanding, meticulous and found it hard to tolerate anything but perfection.  Both struggled at times with managing their officers although Craufurd was better than Wellington with his enlisted men, something he shares with his fictional junior.  The two men had an enormous respect for one another.  Craufurd was a sensitive man, considering his own rudeness at times, and Wellington frequently offended him but always made sure to put it right by complimenting Craufurd’s many talents soon afterwards.  He deeply mourned his difficult, irascible commander and on his deathbed, Craufurd apologised for the many occasions he had been less than supportive of his commander in chief.

The next commander of the Light Division was a surprise to many.  General Charles von Alten was German, very correct, very likely to obey orders, very different to Black Bob Craufurd.  Military historians have not all been kind to Von Alten, although he seems to have commanded the division very competently through the rest of the war.  He appeared to lack the zest and panache of his somewhat eccentric predecessor.

In my novels, there is a reason for Wellington’s choice, and it is summed up very succinctly by Anne van Daan, speaking of Von Alten.

“He’s not as staid as you’d think.  They’ll disagree at times, but Von Alten is a very clever man, Johnny.  He knows what he’s good at, but he also knows his limitations, and he’s going to use Paul to fill that gap.  In some ways it will work better than General Craufurd did.  Craufurd was every bit as brilliant an improviser as Paul.  They loved working together but it was overkill.  Von Alten is a far better fit.  He’ll bring the stability and the organisational skills and Paul will provide the flashes of brilliance.  And this – this is what they share.  The work ethic to be up at dawn when the rest of the army is still resting and recovering, training the new recruits.  Von Alten is genuinely keen to learn how this works, and Paul loves the fact that he’s down here listening and watching instead of being up at headquarters being nice to Wellington.” (An Uncommon Campaign)

Although the third brigade and its flamboyant commander are a figment of my imagination, perhaps there is something in this.  Wikipedia gives this brief description of an action from the Battle of the Nivelle:

Statue of General Colborne outside Winchester Barracks

While the 43rd and 95th were dealing with the French on the Rhune, there still remained one very strong star-shaped fort below on the Mouiz plateau which reached out towards the coast. This was attacked by Colborne’s 52nd, supported by riflemen from the 95th. Once again, the French were surprised and the British succeeded. They had, in the French eyes, appeared from the ground at which point, in danger of being cut off, the French soldiers quickly fled leaving Colborne in possession of the fort and other trenches without loss of a single fatal casualty.

It sounds like the kind of action at which Robert Craufurd would have excelled.  Perhaps after his death Wellington realized that the officers and men he had trained had turned into independent skirmishers to such a degree that a Charles von Alten was needed to rein them in.  Perhaps it was true that while he had men like Colborne and Vandeleur and Barnard, he did not need another Robert Craufurd.

Whatever the truth of it, I love Craufurd, a brilliant, flawed and very human man who believed in God, loved his children and adored his wife.

Thanks for reading. If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to sign up to my e-mail list for articles about history, travel, book reviews, the occasional fiction giveaway or simply Writing with Labradors, join here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Customs of the Army – Life in Wellington’s Peninsular Army

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army

With four of the Peninsular War Saga published on Kindle and in paperback, I thought it was time to update this post on life in Wellington’s Peninsular Army.

Leaving O’Reilly and Carter to line up the men and march them to the

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

barracks, Paul rode on ahead. He was surprised to hear signs of activity on his approach. Perhaps after all their new lieutenants were managing drills already. If that were true, it was a good sign. Touching his heel to Rufus’ flank he cantered further ahead of his company and rode in through the arched gate of the barracks, noticing that the painted sign was hanging down. He would set somebody to righting it tomorrow.
Abruptly Paul reined in, staring at the open square. The battalion was lined up around three sides, around three or four hundred men, he would guess. In the centre was a triangular wooden frame, and a man was tied to it. A corporal, sweating in the heat of the late morning sun, was wielding a lash and as it fell, the victim gave a scream of pain. His back was a bloody mess. Around a hundred, Paul estimated, as he swung down from the saddle.
The back rank of men noticed his arrival, and Paul motioned to the nearest man to take his horse. The infantryman did so with hesitation. Paul still wore the coat he had ridden in, with no insignia and there was no sign that he was anything other than a civilian. He walked forward. The two officers of the battalion were standing at the front of their men. They were young, probably no more than twenty-one or two, and both wore sparkling new uniforms, their hats cocked at exactly the right angle. There the resemblance ended. One was watching the flogging with an expression of apparent approval. He was tall and dark with a thin handsome face and hazel coloured eyes. The other lieutenant was shorter and slighter with soft brown hair and a pair of fine grey eyes, which watched in apparent horror. His face was white and he did not look well.
It was the dark man who saw him first. Paul walked past him towards the whipping post. The corporal paused in his work, looking unsurely at Paul and then over at the lieutenant.
“I think that’s probably enough for today, Corporal,” Paul said quietly. “Take him down. Carefully, now.”
“Who the devil are you, sir?” the dark lieutenant demanded. He had a clear baritone. “This man’s punishment is not yet finished!”
“I was going to ask you the same question,” Paul said turning to him. “Who is in command here?”
“I am. Lieutenant Lionel Manson, 112th foot. Don’t know who the devil you are, but you’ve no place coming in here interfering with discipline, sir! If you’ve a message, it can wait until we’re done!”
“You are done, Mr Manson. Cut him down, Corporal – don’t make me ask again, I’ve had a long ride.” Paul unbuttoned his great coat. He beckoned to a thin, white-faced private in the front row, who ran forward looking terrified. “What’s your name, lad?”
“T…t…terry, sir.”
“Well, Private Terry, will you take this to the officers quarters for me, please?” Paul said, taking off his coat and handing it to the boy with a pleasant smile. He turned to find that both officers had sprung to attention and were saluting. “Ah, that’s better.”
The corporal called out two names, and the men ran to help lift their comrade down, just as the rest of the light company marched through the gate. Paul walked over to the man and inspected his damaged back. “How many, Corporal?”
“A hundred ordered, sir. Ninety given.”
“What offence?”
“Don’t know, sir.”
Paul nodded. “Take him to the infirmary if you’ve one set up yet. If not, lay him on his bunk, face down, and give him some rum. I’ll get somebody to look at him presently.”
“Yes, sir.”
Paul turned to the two officers. Michael O’Reilly had dismounted and was coming forward. “Have you introduced yourself, sir?”
“I’ve not had time,” Paul said. “It’s busy in the 112th I can tell you, Mr O’Reilly.”
The Irishman surveyed the two lieutenants genially. “Lieutenant O’Reilly, 110th light company. You’ll be under the command of this officer for the foreseeable future, gentlemen – Colonel Paul van Daan who commands the 110th, and now your battalion. We’ve a bit of work to do, I can see, but for the time being lets get our men settled and see what arrangements you’ve already made and then we can have a bit of a chat. I didn’t catch your names.”
“I’ve met Lieutenant Manson here,” Paul said, indicating the dark lieutenant. “And this gentleman…?”
“Lieutenant William Grey, sir.”
“Welcome to Portugal, Lieutenant Grey. I’ll see my quarters and get settled in but you can both meet me in my office in – shall we say half an hour?”
“Yes, sir,” Manson said. “But…will you not want time to wash and change and…”
“Yes,” Paul said gently. “Which will take me approximately half an hour. Carry on.”

(From An Irregular Regiment, Book Two of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)

For the ordinary soldiers of Lord Wellington’s army, life was hard.

The British Army drew many of its raw recruits from the lowest classes of Britain. Since army life was known to be harsh and poorly paid it attracted mainly those for whom civilian life was worse. The Duke of Wellington’s famous quote describes them as “the scum of the earth” and claimed that many of the men “enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – some for drink”.  But there were other reasons.

In Scotland for example, many men enlisted due to the collapse of the weaving trade and came from skilled artisan or even middle-class households.  Ireland, the source of many of Wellington’s recruits, sent men to the army in times of desperate hunger or in flight from failed rebellion.  And on a regular basis, local courts would offer thieves, pickpockets and other criminals the choice between enlisting or prison.  Knowing the conditions in local prisons, such men often chose the army.  Some would try to desert as soon as possible but many stayed.  Often, conditions in the army, although appalling, were better than at home.

Most soldiers at the time signed on for life in exchange for a “bounty” of £23 17s 6d, a lot of which was absorbed by the cost of outfitting “necessities” but a system of ‘limited service’ (seven years for infantry, ten for cavalry and artillery) was introduced in 1806 to attract recruits. Soldiers began, from 1800 onward, to receive a daily beer money allowance in addition to their regular wages; the practice was started on the orders of the Duke of York. Additionally, corporal punishment was removed for a large number of petty offences (while it was still retained for serious derelictions of duty) and the Shorncliffe System for light infantry was established in 1803, teaching skirmishing, self-reliance and initiative. Unlike other armies of the time, the British did not use conscription to bolster army numbers, with enlistment remaining voluntary.

The risk of death or permanent injury was huge.  During the Peninsular Campaign, the army lost almost 25,000 men from disease while fewer than 9,000 were killed in action; however more than 30,000 were wounded in action and most battalions were permanently short of officers and men. Seriously under-strength battalions might be dissolved, merged with other remnants into “Provisional battalions” or temporarily drafted into other regiments.

 Officers ranged in background as well.  Although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this referred to an officer’s character and honourable conduct rather than his social standing. The system of sale of commissions officially governed the selection and promotion of officers, but the system was considerably relaxed during the wars. One in twenty (5%) of the officers from regular battalions had been raised from the ranks, and less than 20% of first commissions were by purchase.  The Duke of York oversaw a reform of the sale of commissions, making it necessary for officers to serve two full years before either promotion or purchase to captain and six years before becoming a major.  These changes however, applied more to regiments in barracks than to those on campaign.  In the Peninsular War, promotion was often fast as officers were killed in action or wounded and it was possible for a man who remained in the field to move up the ranks very quickly.

Only a few officers were from the nobility; in 1809, only 140 officers were peers or peers’ sons.   Many more officers came through the Militia and a small number had been gentlemen volunteers, who trained and fought as private soldiers but messed with the officers and remained as such until vacancies without purchase for commissions became available.  Promotion was mainly by seniority; less than 20% of line promotions were by purchase.   Promotion by merit alone did occur, but was less common, although this was very much down to the regimental commanders who could refuse to allow a promotion if they preferred another candidate.  This would have enabled Paul van Daan a good deal of freedom, once he was in command, to choose his own officers and select the candidates he wanted for promotion.  Officers who were disgruntled over his choices would have been free to apply to a transfer to another regiment.

In the 110th and it’s associated battalions, therefore, the mix of officers and men, their backgrounds and promotions and length of service is very typical.  Their commanding officer is very young for his rank, a consequence of plenty of money and a good background combined with a lot of talent and the friendship of the commander-in-chief.  The 110th is not a fashionable regiment and does not attract the aristocracy.  Most of Paul’s young officers are from the middle classes or county families and a lot of them live on their pay.  This works well for them in the 110th since Paul’s regiment is well organised and the mess bills are very reasonable.  In some regiments, particularly the cavalry, a man might buy a commission and then be unable to keep up with the expensive lifestyle of the regiment, where most of the officers came from wealthy families.  Some of Paul’s young officers can afford to purchase commissions and promotions, but for those who can not he is fierce in his willingness to fight with Horse Guards, Wellington and anybody else to make sure that the best men get the commissions they deserve.

The biggest difference in the 110th is in the conditions of the ordinary infantryman.  From the first, Paul van Daan takes a very different view of life in the army, probably stemming from his two years below decks in the Royal Navy as a boy.  He is on very good terms with his enlisted men and NCOs while at the same time having very high expectations of them.  He refuses to use flogging, and rarely gets the provost marshals – the policemen of Wellington’s army – involved with matters of discipline except in very serious cases such as rape and murder.

The 110th have tents for all their men as early as 1809 while the rest of Wellington’s army had to wait until 1813 before tents were issued to all of them.  By then Wellington had improved his supply lines and the commissariat was working better as well, but it was undoubtedly true in the earlier years of his campaigns that enlisted men and their wives and children often slept in the open in all weathers or under tents fashioned from their blankets, and when supplies failed which they did from time to time, they starved.

It was extraordinary how many men did have wives or girlfriends, often local women they met during campaigns.  Lord Wellington and many other senior officers preferred men not to have wives with them but the practice was tolerated largely because it was difficult to stop such liaisons springing up.  Theoretically only a few men in each company was allowed to take a wife on campaign with them but many women stowed away.  The women were invaluable doing laundry and mending, helping with the nursing and cooking and it would have been hard for the army to manage without them.  They too were subject to army discipline and could be flogged or punished.

It was a hard and dangerous life.  Into this world as an eighteen year old bride, Anne Carlyon arrived in 1809, just before Wellesley marched to drive the French out of Oporto.  Officers wives did come to Portugal and stayed in Lisbon or joined their men during winter quarters if the location was fairly safe.    But Anne was different from the start, choosing to make the army her home.  She rode and marched with the men, worked with the surgeons digging out shot and stitching sabre cuts and discovered a whole new side to herself that she would never have known if she had stayed at home.

She also fell in love.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

The Peninsular War saga is a new series about the men and women of Wellington’s army and about the battles and the politics of the fight against Napoleon.  It is the story of a wealthy and privileged young man who rose to command one of the finest regiments in the army and of the extraordinary young woman who shared his life.

It is also the story of an army and it’s customs and of the ordinary men who fought and died with their officers.  And what Wellington actually said about them was that they were “the scum of the earth; it is really wonderful that we should have made them into the fine fellows they are.” 

The books are available on Amazon, both in kindle and in paperback.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

 

 

 

Lord Wellington

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro
An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro

Lord Wellington is one of the most important supporting characters in the Peninsular War Saga.  He first met Paul van Daan on a hillside in India when Paul was an arrogant young lieutenant and it was the beginning of a friendship and working relationship which lasted the rest of Wellington’s life.

As Richard Graham emerged from his billet to find his horses ready, with one loaded with his small amount of baggage, he saw Captain Sean Devlin approaching him. “They’ve gone ahead to get the German lad settled,” he said. “I waited to show you the way. You ready?”

Graham nodded. “Yes. I’m hoping we get fed. I’ve been dreaming of a drink and a meal and trying to forget about today. What a bloody introduction to Portugal!”

Devlin laughed. “You were unlucky, laddie. Normally these affairs aren’t so exciting. Come and be properly introduced.

“I’m not sure I want to be,” Graham said.

“Admit, you’re curious. And you’ll want to find out how the lassie is.”

After a moment Graham nodded. “Should I change?”

“Don’t bother, they won’t expect it.”

“No dinner in the mess?”

Devlin laughed. “Just come as you are.”

Graham complied, admitting to himself that he was curious. His impression of the colonel had been of a towering personality with a temper but he had nothing other than that to go on. On the ride across to the abandoned convent where the 110th regiment had apparently been billeted until they had marched north to fight at Sabugal, Graham glanced at Devlin.

“So what’s the story, Captain?” he asked quietly.

“Don’t know yet, laddie. That’s why I’m here. Hoping to find out. It’s just up here. Best billet on the lines, the 110th always end up somewhere good.”

“I’m not surprised if he’s in charge,” Graham said drily. “Who is he and why the big fuss?”

Devlin grinned. “As the girl said, he commands the 110th. You heard of them?”

“No. Don’t forget I’ve just spent three years in the Indies, which is the arsehole of the world, I’ve not heard of anybody. Don’t think they’ve ever been posted out there. Infantry?”

“Yes. The first battalion is out here and the second in barracks and Paul van Daan commands the regiment along with a Portuguese brigade and the first battalion of the 112th. At the moment. Given how he’s just distinguished himself in this campaign, look for further promotions, I’d say. He’s on his way up, laddie, and fast. They often fight as part of the light division, he’s got a mania for training – a perfectionist – and he’s trained all his men to fight as light infantry although they’re not officially designated as such. I imagine they soon will be. He started out in India under Wellington in the light company. They’re as thick as thieves, he’s one of the few men Wellington will tolerate arguing with him and he has a reputation as something of an individualist. He is known in some quarters as Wellington’s Mastiff. Hookey likes to keep him close at hand and often gives him the jobs nobody else wants. Which is not a reputation I’d want, but it’s certainly a quick route to promotion if you can stay alive.”   (From: “An Uncommon Campaign” Book Three of the Peninsular War series by Lynn Bryant.)

Since I decided to write a series of books set in the Peninsular War, I have spent an inordinate amount of my time reading about Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, who led the Anglo-Portuguese army during it’s five year struggle against Napoleon’s forces in Portugal and Spain. I started knowing very little about Wellington and I have ended up by feeling surprisingly attached to him.

My knowledge of Wellington, to be honest, came from my schooldays when I studied nineteenth century politics in history. He was Prime Minister twice, not very successfully, pushed through Catholic emancipation and fought strenuously and unsuccessfully against the Reform Bill, and in my mind he was always a slightly grumpy and very superior elder statesman who looked down his nose at the young Queen Victoria and disliked change and modernisation.

For my Napoleonic fiction books set during the Peninsular War I have had to go right back to the early days of Wellesley’s career. When he is introduced to the young Lieutenant Paul van Daan in 1802 he is a relatively young and inexperienced general with his greatest victories in the future. He had not yet made his disastrous marriage to Kitty Pakenham and the battle of Assaye, which brought him his knighthood and some public attention, was a year away. He was ambitious, single minded and determined, a moderate drinker for the time, a serious student of military affairs and a man who enjoyed the company of women. Even then, he struggled to delegate, and preferred his officers not to show any initiative or to take matters into their own hands.

As I began to read more about Wellington’s character it became obvious that I had accidentally stumbled on the perfect foil for the flamboyant, unpredictable bad boy of the 110th infantry, Lieutenant Paul van Daan, a character I’ve had in my head for a while. On paper, Paul is everything Wellington likes to see in a young officer; he’s dedicated, intelligent and courageous. In reality, Wellington the control-freak is about to come up against a force of nature and their disagreements are frequent and explosive.

While Paul’s love story is at the heart of the novels, his relationship with his commander-in-chief is almost as important. Increasingly through the years of war, Lord Wellington felt isolated and under siege from political influences in London and worn down by lack of money, men and resources and the limited pool of talented officers available to him on the ground. It increased his tendency to control every aspect of his campaign and the running of the army himself and anybody who reads the volumes of his letters and despatches will quickly begin to realise how involved he was in the detail of administration.

There were few men in his army that Wellington felt comfortable with, but his friendship with the young officer he had first singled out on a hillside in India endures the storms of war and politics. It was a source of envy and resentment among some of the other officers but it was very much understood by Anne, who has her own surprisingly close relationship with the commander in chief.

When I set out to write these novels, Lord Wellington was supposed to be a subsidiary character with little to do apart from to issue orders. As so often happens with subsidiary characters, he developed a mind of his own and began to intrude into the action in the most unsuitable manner. As he is a general, I thought it best to let him have his way.

 

 

The Battle of Salamanca – a tour

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

The battle of Salamanca was fought on 22 July 1812 and the battlefield was our next destination.  It was definitely one of the best days of our holiday.

The battlefield of Salamanca, looking out towards the Greater and Lesser Arapiles

It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which 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. 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 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, 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 back.”

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 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.”

(From ‘An Untrustworthy Army’ by Lynn Bryant, book 5 of the Peninsular Series)

The Salamanca battlefield site is immense.  Not just in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the amount of information available.

The Greater Arapile

We had planned to visit the battlefield since we first planned this trip.  I am halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit is particularly useful as it was made ahead of the writing.  I had read about the small interpretation centre in the village of Los Arapiles to the south of the city of Salamanca, but had not really looked it up until we were about to go there.  I was hugely impressed to find that it was open two days a week, Thursday and Saturday, and we had set aside a Thursday for this trip.

Interpretation Centre for the Battle of Salamanca

I was so glad we did.  This is definitely the best small museum we have visited.  For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which is much more useful than our desperate attempts to translate interpretation boards in other places.  For another, it is amazingly detailed and accurate.  From the advantages and disadvantages of the different infantry formations of line, square and column, to the best way to load a musket, somebody here had done their research and very well.  If I had a prize for museum of this trip, although it was tiny, this is it.

Interpretation Centre, Arapiles

The other joy was the map we were given of a series of interpretation boards around the battlefield site.  There are ten in all, each with information about the battle as it unfolded, and each board has a QR code which can be scanned by a smart phone.  A short dramatised account of that section of the battle, in English, can be listened to at each point.

The routes on the map are marked for walking or cycling.  The good news is that in good weather all tracks are passable in a car.  A 4 x 4 would be best, some of them are very rough, but we managed it on dry roads without.  It took about three hours to do the whole thing.  Honestly it would have been less if it were not for my pedantic insistence that we do the boards in number order so that we got the chronology right for the battle as opposed to working out the shortest circular route which might have taken half the time.  This week the man I married has given the word patience a whole new definition….

The Battlefield of Salamanca

With the help of the museum, the interpretation boards, which are excellent, my trusty battlefield guide and a map, the Battle of Salamanca became suddenly very clear to me.  Driving from board to board and then climbing hills and rocky outcrops to view the various vantage points of the battle it was very easy to visualise how Wellington was able to split the French line and send their army fleeing within a few hours.

Monument at the top of the Greater Arapile

After exhausting ourselves scrambling over battlefield sites, we drove to Alba de Tormes, across the river.  This is the route that a lot of the fleeing French army took and no action took place there in real life.  In my book a significant skirmish takes place there so I wanted to check if my story worked with the location.  I was delighted to realise that with a small adjustment it will work very well.

Alba de Tormes

The bridge at Alba de Tormes

We came back into Salamanca for dinner.  As we are English this involved almost two hours of wandering around this beautiful university city, musing about how it is possible to be in a major city at 7pm and find nobody open for dinner.  We still need some adjustment to Spanish dining hours.  But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, its so lovely, especially the university  buildings, which will feature in book 5 since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.

Salamanca

A great day, and tomorrow we would move on to spend our last two nights in Elvas, close to Badajoz, the next of Wellington’s great sieges, where the British army thoroughly disgraced itself.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

 

the Peninsular War Saga Tour: From Sabugal to Fuentes de Onoro – Battles Galore…

Goats in Belmonte

Our Peninsular War Saga tour took us off the beaten track in places, especially when we were trying to find the site of the battle of Sabugal.

Sabugal, 1811….

They moved away at a run and Manson went forward to join Michael O’Reilly.  The Irishman grinned at him.  “Welcome to the light company, laddie.  You all right to fight, you’re as white as a sheet?”

“I’m fine, sir.”  Manson gave a brief smile.  “Why is he so insistent on us obeying orders?” he asked.  “He doesn’t normally say that.”

Michael glanced across at him with a quick smile.  “Clever lad,” he said.  “No he doesn’t.  He wants it to be very clear that we all have absolutely no say in this.  No democracy here.  He didn’t ask for Johnny or Carl’s opinion back there although he normally does before he makes a decision.”

Manson studied him through the mist.  “Because if it goes wrong it’s his responsibility.  Nobody else can be scapegoated.”

“That’s right.”

“Wellington’s a bastard,” Sergeant Carter said beside him.  “He lets them go yapping at the Colonel’s heels he’s going to get more than he bargained for.”

“You threatening the General, Sergeant?” O’Reilly said, lifting his arm to call his men forward.

“I wasn’t talking about me, sir.  It’ll be the end of kissing her hand and whispering sweet nothings at the headquarters ball.  I don’t know if he realises it, but she’ll carve his liver out and send it to Horse Guards in a box if he does anything that hurts her man.”

“Christ, yes,” Michael said, looking amused.  “Hope this goes well for his sake.”

They marched into eerie silence.  Paul had drawn his sword.  Across the lines his drummers beat a steady marching rhythm, which made it easier for his men to keep in touch.  They made their way steadily up the hill.  He watched his light company moving ahead.  Their line was uneven, each pair of men covering each other, running up and past each other then dropping into firing position.  He had watched them so many times on the training field, had run with them and yelled at them and called them names, and he felt his stomach clench knowing that the decision he had just taken might get many of them killed.

(From ‘An Irregular Regiment’ by Lynn Bryant, book two of the Peninsular War Saga)

We started this day driving out to the little town of Sabugal.  It isn’t one of the better known battles of the Peninsular War and many people have never heard of it.  Sadly it wasn’t included in my battlefield guide, but I found a brief description online of how to get to the site here.  It was surprisingly easy to follow and we drove down to the simple plaque which commemorates the battle and then on down to the edge of the Coa to look across at where the light division advanced from.

Sabugal Battlefield

The river here has been dammed into a lake, but even so it is very easy to look up the hill and imagine how it must have felt marching up into the fog without being able to see the enemy.  It was one of General Erskine’s worst blunders during his time with Wellington’s army.  General Craufurd was on leave in England and the half blind and very mad Erskine is in temporary charge of the light division.   In my novel, Lord Wellington has given the job of babysitting Erskine and keeping him from making any disastrous mistakes to the recently promoted Colonel Paul van Daan at the head of the 110th and 112th infantry along with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores.  Paul is faced with the decision to follow the first brigade of the light division into the fog against orders or letting them get slaughtered.

Memorial to the Battle of Sabugal, 1811.

Sabugal itself has a pretty castle and a tiny interpretation centre dedicated to the Sephardic Jews of Portugal who either fled or went into hiding under the inquisition.  This part of our trip was nothing to do with my writing, but was something of a journey into family history for Richard, whose family on his mother’s side were called Nunes da Costa, and were from this part of the world originally.  From Sabugal we drove to the little town of Belmonte, with which I fell in love.  It helped that the sun shone but we were entranced by the lovely little houses, with flowers everywhere and delighted by the castle, the various churches and the pretty synagogue along with the fact that boards outside cafes and restaurants advertised kosher food.  There wasn’t enough time to do Belmonte justice although we did enjoy a picnic in the central square next to the fountain, but it is on my list of places to come back to.

Synagogue in Belmonte, Portugal

Back to Wellington’s army, we drove on to the ruins of the immense fortress at Almeida and retraced the steps of General Robert Craufurd’s near disaster at the bridge over the Coa.  This was one of those battles I had found hard to understand and standing on that bridge it all fell into place.  In An Unconventional Officer the action at the Coa takes place off stage although it was important and is often referred back to.  I have a feeling it would make a good short story later on.

Memorial to the Battle of the Coa, overlooking the bridge

After the Coa we drove up for a brief photography stop in Freineda, Wellington’s winter headquarters for two seasons, both 1811-12 and 1812-13.  I had seen so many photographs of the house it was odd to see it in real life. Sadly it wasn’t open and our tour is too rushed to work out how to get the key so we’ll have to wait for another trip for that.

Wellington's Headquarters in Freineda

We drove back through Vilar Formoso, although there is little sign of the pretty village which housed one of the hospitals where wounded were taken from the battle of Fuentes dOnoro.  Many of Wellington’s staff and officers were billeted there and after the battle, grave pits were dug behind the large house where the hospital was located.  In the book, Anne van Daan is initially billeted there but moves on fairly quickly to avoid the smells of the hospital and the graves.

Our final stop of the day was Fuentes d’Onoro.  Thanks to our brilliant battlefield guide, we were able to stand by the Dos Casa stream where the English and French exchanged cigarillos and food during a brief break in the fighting and look up at the ridge where Wellington temporarily overextended his line and was saved by the brilliance of General Craufurd and the light division, which by then, in my saga, included the men of Colonel Paul van Daan’s third brigade.

Fuentes d’Onoro looking up from the French position.

An amazing day.  By the end of the day I felt as though I’d been walking in the footsteps of Wellington’s army and I loved every minute of it. I’m so grateful to the man I married for acting as driver and photographer and for letting me bore on about history for the whole week and I think the books will be the better because of it.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

Bussaco Ridge, Viseu and Ciudad Rodrigo

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

This section of our trip covered Bussaco and Viseu in Portugal and Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.  

 

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul could hear them now, the steady drum beat of the approaching columns. He turned to O’Reilly.
    “They’re coming,” he said, and raised his voice softly. “110th at the ready!”
    “Ready, sir,” Wheeler called back, and the order was passed along the lines.        There was no bugle call on this occasion. Craufurd wanted the presence of such a large force to come as a shock to the French.
    Michael checked his rifle and looked over his shoulder. “Nice and steady boys,” he said. “No need to be heroic here, the bastards have no idea they’re about to walk into us. Wait for my word, now.”
    “Battalion ready, sergeant?”
    “Ready as they’ll ever be, sir.”
    Paul moved along the ranks his eyes checking for potential problems. They could hear the marching of the French coming closer through the mist and he saw the green jackets of the 95th further up beginning to move forward in skirmish formation. He nodded to Michael.
    “Corporal Carter,” Michael called.
    “Yes, sergeant.”
    “Will your lads pay particular attention to not letting the Major get himself killed today? You know how clumsy he is, and if I have to take him down to the hospital with a hole in him, his wife is likely to take that scalpel of hers to me as well.”
    Paul looked back, startled, and then began to laugh. “Corporal Carter!”
    “Sir.”
    “Let the lads know there’ll be extra grog for the man who shoots Sergeant O’Reilly for me today. Make it look like an accident.”
    There was a muted rumble of laughter. “Do it now for you if you like, sir!” one of the sharpshooters called. “No need for extra grog, be my pleasure!”
    “You’d better hope the French get you today, Scofield, you are on my list,” the sergeant said, laughing. “Ready now boys.”
    “Get going,” Paul said, and Captain Swanson called the order and led his men forward.
    They watched as the skirmishers moved over the ridge, taking down individual Frenchmen with accurate rifle fire. It took some time.  Paul grinned as he realised that his light company were getting carried away with their feinted attack and were actually pushing the French column back. He imagined that Craufurd was cursing them for delaying the French advance. He could not sound a retreat without alerting the French to his position so he settled down to wait for Carl and O’Reilly to pull them back. Eventually he saw them moving back up the ridge, saw Carter and young Hammond laughing, having just received an earful from their exasperated sergeant. The rifles of the light division were already back up the ridge and the French came on, causing the English gunners to limber up and pull back. Still they waited. The French came closer, pressing on, thinking that on this part of the ridge at least they had the English on the run.
    Craufurd held his nerve. The leading column was within twenty-five yards of the crest, and Paul could see the individual faces of each Frenchman when he heard Black Bob yell. “52nd and 110th – avenge Moore!”

Now that I’ve been there and seen it in person, I have literally no idea why Massena sent his army up Bussaco Ridge.

We were staying at the Bussaco Palace Hotel, which is an incredible building, a gothic fantasy built around the simple convent buildings which were present in the early nineteenth century when Lord Wellington marched his army up to Bussaco to face the French Marshal Massena in an attempt to slow him down while the defences at Torres Vedras were being completed.

Brief details of the battle can be found here.  There are many books which give descriptions of the battle  In particular, we are touring the peninsular battle sites with the help of Andrew Rawson’s excellent book The Peninsular War: a battlefield guide.  Since I own it on kindle, I found myself scrambling over the sites clutching my iPad and praying I didn’t drop it, but it was amazingly useful and helped us find places we might not have done.

Up at Bussaco I was awestruck at the slope the French had to climb to make their attack.  We visited Wellington and Craufurd’s command posts and the reconstructed mill where Massena watched the battle unfold.  It is a beautiful place, although somewhat out of the way, and on a sunny day the views from the top are stunning.

View from the Bussaco Palace Hotel

Our other visit during this part of the trip was to the town of Viseu, where Wellington had his headquarters in the run up to Bussaco.  I will be honest and say that I wasn’t that taken by Viseu as a history buff.  There are some lovely old churches and buildings, but the town is now very built up and traffic was so heavy in the centre it’s difficult to get any sense at all of how the town must have seemed to Paul and his men when they set up camp at a farm on the edge of the town in 1809 after Talavera.  Viseu is a lively, modern place and probably a great place to live and work now, but it’s not the place to visit for Peninsular War history.

Fortified Cathedral in Viseu - This is the cathedral visited by Rowena and Anne in Viseu in chapter 17.

The same cannot be said of Ciudad Rodrigo, where we arrived in the afternoon. The rain had gone and the sun came out and approaching the town I felt as though I had stepped back in time.  Even with modern apartment blocks surrounding the ancient walls it is very easy to understand the enormity of the task faced by Wellington’s army when they set out to storm the town in the freezing January of 1812.

Please specify the photo id of the single photo you want to display.

Standing in front of the memorial to General Robert Craufurd at the lesser breach where he was buried I felt surprisingly moved.  Craufurd isn’t one of the best known historical figures of the time, but as commander of the legendary light division, he is vital to my story and his loss was much mourned by the characters I’m creating.  During my research for the books I have become very attached to Craufurd, known as the rudest man in the army, and standing here, where he was shot down more than two hundred years ago was a strange feeling.

Memorial to Robert Craufurd and the men of the light division who fell in the lesser breach during the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812

I loved this trip.  It’s very different to other holidays in recent years, not just because I got to completely indulge myself in terms of history, but also because it seems to be somewhat off the beaten track of popular English tourist spots.  This makes it slightly more challenging in terms of language, since not everybody speaks English and our Spanish and Portuguese is non-existent.  Still we were impressed with how friendly and welcoming most people have been.  The hotels have all been good and we’ve found some great restaurants, although we’re having to adapt to the difference in eating times – it’s just not possible here to decide to have an early dinner at 5.30 or 6pm; the restaurants start to get busy at nine.

I learned so much during this trip.  Part of me was impatient to get back to work and rewrite some of my books based on what I’d seen and learned and the rest of me just wanted to stay and absorb how lovely it is.  I’m unbelievably grateful to the man I married for doing this with me, acting as driver, photographer and general gopher throughout the trip.  He probably needed a holiday afterwards, mind.   Following Wellington around is exhausting; I don’t know how the 110th did it….

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.