The Battle of Talavera was fought on this day in 1809 near the town of Talavera de la Reina in Spain. Sir Arthur Wellesley, fresh from his highly efficient victory at Oporto took 20,000 British troops into Spain to join General Cuesta’s 33,000 Spanish troops. They marched up the Tagus valley to meet a French army some 46,000 strong, officially commanded by Joseph Bonaparte but actually under the command of Marshal Victor and General Sebastiani.
Wellesley did not do well in his attempts to cooperate with Cuesta. Not for the first time, the British army found that their Spanish allies were unable to come up with the supplies and transport they had promised. It is not clear whether this was negligence, inefficiency or simply that the supplies were not available, but it left Wellesley’s army in a difficult position with food running out. In his negotiations with Cuesta, there was a language difficulty as Wellesley did not speak Spanish and Cuesta spoke little English and refused to speak French. It is possible there was also a simple clash of culture as Wellesley fumed at what he perceived as inactivity and poor planning on the part of the Spanish.
Nevertheless, some agreement was reached and after days of delay and misunderstanding there was a clash between the French and British armies on 27th July which led to 400 casualties in Donkin’s brigade. To add to Wellesley’s mistrust of his Spanish allies there was a farcical episode during the evening of the 27th when Cuesta’s men fired a volley without orders at some French dragoons. Little damage was done to the French but four Spanish battalions dropped their weapons and fled in panic. Afterwards Wellesley wrote:
“Nearly 2,000 ran off on the evening of the 27th…(not 100 yards from where I was standing) who were neither attacked, nor threatened with an attack, and who were frightened by the noise of their own fire; they left their arms and accoutrements on the ground, their officers went with them, and they… plundered the baggage of the British army which had been sent to the rear.”
Cuesta, deeply embarrassed, sent cavalry to bring the troops back but it did nothing to improve relations between the British and the Spanish.
During the night, Marshal Victor sent three regiments up the hill known as the Cerro de Medellin. Two of them got lost in the dark but the third managed to surprise a brigade of the King’s German Legion which had gone to sleep, apparently believing that they were the second line instead of the first. In a chaotic action in the darkness on the hilltop, General Rowland Hill sent in Stewart’s brigade from the second division to recapture the ground and the French retreated.
At dawn the French artillery began firing, and Wellesley was obliged to pull his men back into cover to avoid major casualties. Ruffin’s division attacked the Cerro de Medellin again in column but the British emerged from cover in line and the French were broken by musket volleys and ran.
After an informal truce when dead and wounded were removed and the French leaders consulted Joseph Bonaparte, a frontal attack was launched against the British 1st and 4th divisions, once again in column. They were routed by the Guards brigade but the Guards pursued too far and ran into the French second line, losing 500 men to artillery fire. Wellesley realised that his centre was broken and brought up the 48th foot to fill the gap in his lines. Mackenzie’s brigade joined them and the French attack was pushed back again, with Lapisse mortally wounded.
In the fictional version of the battle, described in An Unconventional Officer,Major Paul van Daan’s battalion of the 110th fought as part of Hill’s division and were involved in the night battle on the Cerro de Medellin and then in the centre battle. Several field hospitals were set up in and around the town of Talavera, some of them using convents and monasteries and it is in one of these that Anne Carlyon worked as a volunteer alongside Dr Adam Norris as the wounded were brought in.
With his main attack defeated, Victor sent Ruffin’s men into the valley between the Medellin and the Segurilla. Anson’s cavalry brigade was sent to push them back but an undisciplined charge by the 23rd light dragoons ended in disaster in a hidden ravine. The French had formed squares and fought off those cavalry which had managed to negotiate the hazard with considerable losses among the British and Germans.
It was the last French attack of the day. Joseph and Jourdan chose not to send in their reserve and during the night the French melted away leaving behind 7389 dead, wounded and captured soldiers. Allied losses were worse over the two days with the British losing 6268 dead and wounded and the Spanish 1200. Wellesley lost approximately 25% of his forces and in a final horror, wounded men from both sides burned to death when the dry grass of the battlefield caught fire.
Meanwhile, Marshal Soult was moving south, in an attempt to cut Wellesley off from Portugal. Wellesley initially believed that Soult’s had only 15,000 men and moved east to block it but Spanish guerrillas intercepted a message from Soult to Joseph confirming that Soult had 30,000 men. Fearing that his line of retreat was about to be cut by a larger French force, Wellesley sent the newly arrived Light Brigade on a mad dash for the bridge at Almaraz. Craufurd’s men arrived just ahead of Soult and Wellesley withdrew his army across the mountains and organised his defence of Portugal. His hard fought victory brought him the title of Viscount Wellington of Talavera.
Historians disagree about Wellesley’s problems with the Spanish. Some consider the campaign a failure despite the victory and cite the failure of the Spanish to supply Wellesley’s army as the reason. Wellesley certainly believed that the Spanish made promises which they failed to keep. However, the condition of Spain at that time may well have made it impossible to provide the necessary food and transport and the personal difficulties between Cuesta and Wellesley certainly did not help. There were also political rumblings, with suggestions that Wellesley might be given control of the Spanish army and Cuesta was undoubtedly upset by the idea although it does not seem that it originated from Wellesley himself. Wellesley was cautious from the start about his Spanish adventure, citing the fate of Sir John Moore’s army during the campaign of 1808 and his determination not to allow his route back to Portugal to be cut off made him wary.
On the whole, it was probably not the time for an all out invasion of French-controlled Spain. Wellesley’s original brief had been to defend Portugal but his army was not yet the formidable fighting force which he later led to victory at Salamanca and Vitoria. The severity of his losses made his retreat a sensible choice and the time he spent consolidating in Portugal put him in a far better position to resume the campaign.
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.
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, claiming that he lacked the zest and panache of his somewhat eccentric predecessor although he seems to have commanded the division very competently through the rest of the war.
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:
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.
Introducing An Unconventional Officer, the first in a major new series about the Peninsular War which spans the years from 1802 to 1810.
Melton Barracks, Leicestershire, 1802….
“Sergeant, what is going on out on the parade ground?”
Michael had been vaguely aware of the rising noise. “Bayonet training, sir. Mr van Daan is supposed to be running it.”
He got up to go to the door. The men had been paired off and were running through the basic movements using wooden bayonets. He had looked out earlier and it had been going smoothly. The young lieutenant had obviously paid good attention to his lessons on the south coast. He had paired up each new man with an experienced soldier and he, Lieutenant Swanson and Sergeant Stewart had been doing the rounds of the men, commenting and correcting. By now O’Reilly was fairly sure that the light company had found its new officers. It was still early days, but they were workers. There had not been a single morning when he had arrived for early drill on the parade ground and found either of them absent or late.
But something had gone badly wrong now. Rory Stewart had been demonstrating a drill using a real weapon. The Van Daan lad was still holding the wooden replica he had been using earlier. What had happened, Michael had no idea, but Stewart was steadily advancing on the younger man, his face grim and set, and Van Daan was backing up, parrying quickly. Around them the men had all stopped to stare. Carl Swanson called out to Stewart to stop, and the Scot ignored him. Michael stared in horror for a moment, as Lieutenant Wheeler yelled an order to Stewart. The sergeant did not appear to even hear him.
“What the bloody hell is he doing?” Wheeler demanded, spinning round in search of a weapon. “Has he gone stark staring mad?”
“Sally Crane,” Michael whispered. He was temporarily frozen to the spot. “Oh dear Christ, this is my fault. Stewart is going to kill him.”
“Not on my bloody parade ground he’s not!” Wheeler said. He had located his pistol and was loading it fast. Michael ran out onto the parade ground, shouting again at Stewart. The Scot did not even look round. He lunged suddenly and Michael was nowhere near close enough to reach him and the point thrust directly at the boy’s throat and Michael closed his eyes in horror. And then there was an agonised yell, and he opened them again because it had been the broad Scots of Stewart’s voice that shouted.
Paul van Daan and the Scot were both on the ground. As O’Reilly watched, Paul got up. Stewart lay there, clutching both shins in agony. Van Daan tossed aside the wooden training tool and picked up Stewart’s bayonet, which he had dropped. Astonished, O’Reilly realised that the boy had waited until Stewart was close enough to reach him, and then dropped onto the ground and hit him across the legs with the wooden bayonet. He must have used considerable force, as Stewart seemed unable to get up. Paul van Daan stood over the Scot and pointed the bayonet directly at his throat and O’Reilly caught his breath. There was a completely new expression on his face and he no longer looked anything like the laughing boy from the tavern. (From An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant)
Welcome to the 110th Infantry. A new regiment and not that well regarded, it is being sent not to Europe to fight Napoleon, but to India, under a young and relatively inexperienced General called Arthur Wellesley. For months the 110th has been trying to attract new officers without success. It lacks the prestige, the history and the social standing of other regiments and commissions are cheap.
All that is about to change.
Paul van Daan is an officer with a mission and isn’t much interested in letting anybody stand in his way. From the bloody battlefield of Assaye through Europe and into Portugal and Spain, An Unconventional Officer follows the men and women of the 110th as they prepare to take a stand against the might of Napoleon’s French Empire.
With the 110th travel two very different women.
Rowena Summers, the shy young governess whose steady affection brings stability and peace to Paul’s life.
Anne Howard, lovely strong-willed and intelligent, who changes everything Paul thought he knew 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.
Welcome to the Peninsular War Saga book 1 – An Unconventional Officer
Published May 30th 2017. Available on Kindle or as a paperback.
Why not head over and read the whole of the first chapter here.
The battle of Talavera is officially over and revision time on An Unconventional Officer is getting easier.
After weeks of agonising over rewriting this blasted battle, the thing just happened, falling seamlessly into place with the rest of the book. I finally did this with pneumonia, spiking a temperature and with a blinding headache. It’s probably the reason describing an unpleasant battle experience in the middle of a scorching Spanish summer came so easily in the end.
The word in this house is now officially revision. AS level revision, GCSE revision and revising the final draft of this book for mistakes and inconsistencies. It’s a long and tedious process but at least I know what I’m doing with it.
This is a long book in comparison with the other three I’ve published. I struggled with the length for a while and finally decided to stop trying to prune it any further. I can’t tell this particular story any other way because it needs to fit around actual historical events so I’m just going with the flow.
The first chapter of ‘An Unconventional Officer’ is available to read for free elsewhere on this website.
References to calm and time management for authors generally raise a snigger around here. In case you hand’t guessed, the title of this post is ironic. I thought I’d get that out of the way first because I don’t want anybody to read this and think it’s going to be at all zen. I’d like it to be, trust me, but it’s not happening. I keep looking at this photograph of me at Bussaco on our recent trip and wondering when I will feel this calm again. It’s sort of soothing just looking at it, though…
View from the Bussaco Palace Hotel, site of the old convent
I’m sitting here, dodging the battle of Talavera because it’s the first day of the new term of my dance school, we have about a billion new starters and I am surrounded by reams of paper covered in fee notes, terms and conditions, welcome letters and codes of conduct. I have literally no idea if anybody is actually going to read any of this, but it’s good that they’ll have it. I’m wondering if I should also give out a free chapter of one of my books as well…
I’ve often wondered if other writers live in the sort of chaos I seem to be surrounded by. There are days when I have so much stuff on my desk and on the floor surrounding it that I can’t move. I can’t get to the stuff on the floor (an atlas of the peninsular war, by the way) because there’s a snoring labrador on top of it, neatly hiding a map of the Estremadura. Yesterday evening I was rampaging about the house searching for a book about the battle of Talavera which I knew I’d had only hours earlier and accusing my family of having moved it. The response was predictable.
Husband: Not seen it.
Daughter: Mum, if I’d found it I’d probably have set fire to it, you have way too many books about Wellington, it’s not healthy.
Son’s girlfriend: Do you know, I don’t think I even own a book that I could lose.
Son: Try the bathroom
It was in the bathroom. Don’t even begin to ask why, I can’t tell you.
Perhaps my life would feel less chaotic if I had a normal job where I went out of the house at eight thirty and came back at five thirty to do normal things. I’ve read a lot about how important it is when working at home to separate out working time from family time, but my family are entirely used to me reading history books or making notes in front of the TV and holding long conversations with Irish dance teachers while trying to do the ironing. It’s not easy.
Still, I think this suits me. I did the traditional thing for years and then I was a stay at home Mum. I’m not sure I was ever that well organised at home, although my desk at work was always a masterpiece of neatness. Perhaps it’s just in my own environment that I create havoc. Or perhaps it’s just the way my brain works.
I’m giving Talavera a break today to concentrate on Manx Trinity, but I’ll be back to it tomorrow. If I can find the book again.
In the meantime, look out for some free promotions coming up over the next few weeks in the run up to the publication of ‘An Unconditional Officer’. It’s not looking good for the ironing pile…
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.
Paul had just rallied his men after their encounter with the left column, keeping a wary eye on the French and trying to assess the extent of the damage. The first company had taken the worst punishing. He had no way of knowing how many were dead and how many lay wounded on the field, but more than half of them were missing including all of the officers. His own light company was battered and bloody and there were faces he searched for and could not find. “Sergeant, where’s Grogan?” O’Reilly shook his head exhaustedly. He was sporting a bloody arm where it had been grazed by a musket ball. “Down, sir,” he said quietly. “Wounded?” “Dead. No doubt.” Paul nodded. The green-jacketed rifleman was one of the oldest in his company and had been with him since India. “Poor bastard. Isn’t his wife expecting again?”
I mentioned a few days ago that I am already tired of the battle of Talavera. Home again after spending the Easter weekend with friends I am contemplating another go at it. I’ve been whinging about Talavera but in some ways it illustrates the general problems of writing about battles.
In writing a series of books about the Peninsular War, it’s hard to avoid the odd battle. They occur with increasing regularity, interrupting the daily life of my characters and causing death and mayhem all over the place and they are impossible to ignore.
Researching battles is actually quite fun. There are a lot of first hand published accounts of this war as well as a fair few histories stuffed with maps and diagrams and other useful tools. In addition, some people have written modern guides to the battlefields for people wanting to tour them.
We weren’t able to get to Talavera during our recent trip around battle sites. It was too far off our route and I had read that a motorway recently built makes it difficult to get much sense of how the country would have looked. I found it incredibly helpful to visit the sites of some of the other battles I’m writing about. My fictional regiment, the 110th took part in Talavera, Sobral, Massena’s retreat and Sabugal, and then the fighting along the border the following year leading up to Salamanca and I made it to most of these places, but the two major battles in the first book were left out so I’m doing Talavera from books and maps and photos.
The problem of battles is how to write them. Battles weren’t particularly neat and tidy, they weren’t always well organised and they often took place over ground covering several miles. Things didn’t happen in neat chronological order, so the battle could be going well in one part of the field while disaster struck on the other. And the most crucial problem from an author’s point of view is that for whole sections of the time the men involved had no idea what was going on.
That leaves the choice of whether to write from the point of view of the individuals involved or whether to take a more general view so as to tell the reader what is happening all over the field. There is also, in my case, the action off the field since what is happening in the surgeons tents is of some importance to the plot. With so much going on there is a danger of flitting from one place to another leaving the reader completely bewildered. I suspect my first draft of Talavera was guilty of this since the man I married informed me he had no idea what was going on when he read it.
The other problem is how long to spend describing battles. Book one of the series begins with Paul joining the 110th and describes his early days with the regiment including the battle of Assaye. At this stage he has not met either of the two women in his life and the focus is very much on the action on the field and it’s aftermath.
By the time we reach Talavera there is some conflict. Not only do I have to work out where the 110th is fighting and what happens to the main characters in the regiment as the day unfolds, but I need to keep an eye on my female character who has her own role to play for the first time. It’s a delicate balance between turning the thing into a military history rather than a novel or giving the impression that the battle is a mere backdrop to the personal lives of the characters. I’m working on how to get that right. Time will tell.
Having said all of that, I like a good battle. It enables me to to bring out the best in some of my characters – and on occasion, the worst. It highlights personality traits and gives opportunities to move the plot along very quickly. There are opportunities for some light-hearted moments but far more opportunities for tragedy. At the end of a battle nothing is ever quite the same.
I’m rather looking forward to getting on with Talavera and I’m hoping it will be the last big section of rewriting I need to do on the first book before it’s ready to publish. I wonder if I’ll still be as cheerful about it by the end of next week…..
Today I have written a list. In fact several lists.
That in itself is not unusual. I live by lists. If it isn’t on one of my lists, it’s very unlikely to get done. Sometimes, even if it is on my list the chances are not good, but there’s still a sliver of hope.
My current list is of the things I need to do before I go away for the Easter weekend. Writing a blog post wasn’t on that list so naturally it’s the first thing I’m doing. But I will go back to the list today.
My list is in a lovely notebook which is full of lists with a cartoon zebra on the front. I feel very adult when I’m using it. I’m not sure where I got it from, I probably stole it from my daughter along with the jumper I’m wearing and I think the socks. My entire family has a weakness for stationery of all kinds, but whereas the men are fairly functional about it, my daughter and I require beauty or at least cuteness. I used to have a charming notebook with the muppets on which for some reason I decided was the most appropriate tool to use at work when making notes. My colleagues at the art gallery honestly barely turned a hair at it, but when I arrived with it for the first day of my next job the expression on the face of my new boss as I opened my notebook and took out my white fluffy flamingo pen gave me all the information I needed about my long term suitability for that particular post. Today’s list was on the kitchen table when my daughter joined me for breakfast and she casually reached for the notebook.
“Don’t touch my list!” I snarled.
Teenage eyes rolled. “Jesus, Mum!”
There are two reasons I don’t want her mucky hands on my list. Firstly because she has inherited her father’s need to doodle and within seconds the list would have been rendered illegible by swirls, cartoons and helpful statements such as “moo cows fly in the night sky” written in bubble letters.
Secondly because she would laugh at the list. The list is weird, I admit it. It’s because there are so many bits to my life. Some of them are really normal, like laundry and cleaning the living room. Those look okay on the list. A lot of people’s lists have things like that on.
Then there is the Irish dance school. That’s a bit more eccentric. I mean “book car hire for Killarney” isn’t too bad, but when it comes to items such as “order sock glue” and “buy 15000 hairpins and 2000 sodding blister plasters” people might start to look askance. The hairpins are only a slight exaggeration, I honestly don’t know what the dancers do with them and I’m afraid to ask. We’ve got a competition in Killarney in two weeks and sock glue really is important…
As for the writing section of the list, this is the bit I really don’t want my daughter involved with. It includes such items as these:
Change Anne’s dress
Wellington at Talavera – what the hell was he doing in that tower and who was with him. Do I need to know?
Update character list NOW before you resurrect more dead people.
There are others which I won’t bore you with. The other thing about my list making, is it tends to run away with me. When I was studying history at university, people would borrow my notes to catch up on missed lectures and then return them either laughing or looking puzzled depending on their level of resilience. One poor lad handed them back with the remark that he’d read one section three times in case it was a handwriting problem. He seemed doubtful that I could really have written “Cromwell still buggering about outside Pontefract” in my lecture notes. He was lucky it wasn’t worse, is all I’m saying.
I wonder if other writers have the same problem of being able to keep things short and simple? For example a phone call to the vet actually reads as “phone vet for mind altering drugs for Toby.”
The above items listed are mostly due to my work on “An Unconventional Officer”. I’m rewriting the battle of Talavera since the man I married read the book and informed me that although he enjoyed most of it, he couldn’t work out what the hell was going on during that episode. I really wanted to tell him to live with the pain; the men on the battlefield mostly hadn’t a clue either, but out of consideration for my readers I’m working on it.
Wellington is another matter, he was doing his usual trick of racing around all over the battlefield and losing half his staff on the way. He did it so often I usually just leave him to it. It’s convenient in a way because he can turn up at odd moments when his intervention helps my plot and nobody could possibly complain about historical inaccuracy since even his own staff couldn’t find him half the time. I’m trying to work out in my rewrite if it actually matters where he was at this point of the battle.
Anne’s dress isn’t difficult, I’m changing a description to match my shiny new book cover. She won’t mind, she hardly ever notices what she’s wearing anyway as long as it doesn’t show the blood.
As for the character list, I’m taking that with me to work on during the journey. It’s been ongoing for a while, but it’s reaching crisis point now that I am actually getting close to publication. During the books, a large number of men are involved and I often give them names for convenience even if they’re not a big part of the story. Some of them get ideas once they have a name and start developing a personality and attitude but those are easy to remember. Others are better behaved and stay where they were put and those are more of a challenge. Some of them sadly don’t make it through the battle and although they’re not well known and probably nobody has got that attached to them, it disturbs even me to realise that although they may have died at Talavera, they’re up and around and taking down the French skirmishers at Fuentes de Onoro two books down the line. It’s like an episode of the Walking Dead and I’m not having it. Hence I’m putting together a comprehensive list of characters to make sure resurrections are a thing of the past.
The bit about shooting Goodreads has already been dealt with by a charming man called Ben who has now attributed The Reluctant Debutante to the correct Lynn Bryant. I’d spent two hours trying to work out how to do it and it took him all of three minutes, which is a lesson to me about when to give in and ask for help…
For all this I’m not changing my list making techniques any more than I changed the way I wrote my degree notes. I did all right with it in the end and I never did forget where Cromwell was at a crucial moment. And reading the endless tasks on my list is somehow less depressing if they make me laugh as I go along.
Right. Where did I put that list?
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