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.

 

 

 

Not Just the Army…Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington – and a possible Manx connection?

I had one of those very odd little coincidences today which caused me to look at the role of not just the army but also the Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington.

I’ve been thinking about a story, either a short story or a novella, associated with the Peninsular War books but possibly with a Manx connection. I already have a Manxman ready to pop up into the action when the time is right. It was always likely to happen. I don’t know much about Manxmen in the Napoleonic armies, but I do know the navy just loved them. It’s hard not to be good at the sea when you live on an island this small. The most famous of them, a certain Captain John Quilliam RN was a Royal Navy officer and the First Lieutenant on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

When I was researching the young Paul van Daan’s early career in the Royal Navy, I was not sure of my ground. I knew a fair bit about Wellington’s army but the navy was a bit of a mystery. I knew that at fourteen Paul was far too young to be pressed, but I also knew that it happened all the time especially with well grown lads who clearly had seafaring experience. But I wanted Paul’s time in the navy to have some purpose. Those early years are vital, because in the hell below decks in Nelson’s navy fighting skirmishes and then at the battle of the Nile, Paul van Daan grew up. He arrives in the army at 21 not a naive young officer with no experience but as a tough, battle seasoned commander, a petty officer who rose from being a pressed man. He’s been through hell and back, not in the company of officers and gentlemen but alongside the lowest of the low in Nelson’s navy. No wonder he’s often happier down with the men than up in the mess…

But was it possible? Google came to my rescue, and with regard to naval promotion from being a pressed man, the first significant name to pop up was none other than my neighbour from up the road in Marown who was the son of a farmer, an apprentice stonemason until he was picked up by a press gang. From those humble beginnings he rose to be first lieutenant on HMS Victory with a place in history. I could have hugged him. Suddenly, Petty Officer Paul van Daan was not only possible but highly likely.

So when I came to thinking about a Manx connected story I naturally went back to Paul’s navy days. There were a lot of Manxmen in Nelson’s navy and it’s entirely likely that when Wellington asked for the navy and the marines to help with the defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras, one or two of them came along. I’d got my connection, and I’ve already come up with a name. Some research about their role comes next, and as I was working on that from my sickbed, I came across the following story, linked to a JustGiving page for a Royal Marines charity.

The Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge 2017 – linked to Royal Marine history in Portugal

During the Peninsular War (1810-1812) the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Marine Artillery were deployed in support of Wellington’s defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.

At Wellington’s request Vice Admiral Berkeley deployed ashore a naval brigade consisting of 500 seamen and 500 marines to guard the left bank of the Tagus, to provide the signalmen along the Lines of Torres Vedras and to provide Marine artillery. The main force worked in co-operation with the flotilla of naval ships in the North part of the River Tagus to ensure that the French troops could not out-flank the British lines and move on Lisbon, while Naval signalmen ensured that messages could pass along the 29 miles of the Lines in 7 minutes.

Marines along with Artillery were landed on the 3 islands to the North in the Tagus where they worked with the British Army on the left bank and the Naval ships to stop French attempts to use the islands to cross. Later a large number of Marines were moved to Fort San Julien to provide protection for the deployment of maritime logistics to Wellington’s force ashore. This area was also the 3rd Line of Torres Vedras and is close to the current site of HQ Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, STRIKFORNATO.

When the Marines were finally returned to the UK in February 1812 the British General in charge of the Army in Lisbon wrote that he “cannot part with the Royal Marine Battalion without expressing the lively concern he feels in being deprived of their service, and requesting their acceptance of his best thanks for their uniform good conduct whilst in his garrison”.

In recognition of this part of Naval and Royal Marine history, the four Royal Marines based in Portugal are aiming to complete a physical challenge that will start with a canoe to the Islands in the Tagus, to run around the Islands before returning to the left bank. They will then cycle along the first line of defence taking in the signal tower overlooking Wellington’s HQ where Naval signalmen worked before turning south and arriving at St Julian Fort a distance of 64 miles.

This is part of the Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge that will see Royal Marines around the world complete 100 challenges in 100 days, raising funds for wounded and injured Naval Service Marines and Sailors.

It made me smile. The lines of Torres Vedras are unheard of to most people in the UK, even if they know a bit about the Peninsular Wars, although having visited them very recently in Portugal I’m aware of how crucial a part of modern Portuguese history they are. Somehow I love the idea that these guys are raising money for charity in the name of that little piece of obscure history. They aren’t going to get the recognition of the lads running around the UK and it doesn’t really matter since it all goes to the same cause, but I still somehow felt a connection. I made a donation because I wanted my name on that page. It has meaning for me.

I’m going to start the story tomorrow, even though I ought to be working on my final revision of ‘An Unconventional Officer’. I love these little obscure bits of history which turn up in the oddest places. I hope you’re as interested as I am. And if you feel like making a donation, this is the link.

Officers and Gentlemen – Promotion and Rank in Wellington’s Army

Cannon

Lord WellingtonPromotion and rank in Wellington’s army was a daily preoccupation of the officers who served under him.  During the wars against Napoleon, an officer’s commission in the army was obtained by purchase, a crucial plot device in many a Regency novel. Young men wishing to enter the army were obliged to raise the money to buy their way in, and within the army promotion was, for the most part, by purchase as well.

There were several reasons for this. First and foremost, it preserved the social standing of the officer class, keeping out undesirable elements simply because they could not afford to join. It ensured that commissions were generally held by men with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thereby reducing the possibility of Army units taking part in a revolution or coup. It ensured that officers had private means and were less likely to engage in theft or looting during wartime or to engage in profiteering. It served as a form of collateral against abuse of authority or gross negligence or incompetence, since a disgraced officer could be cashiered by the crown which meant they would be dismissed without recouping the cost of their commission. And finally the sale of the commission could provide for an officer’s retirement at the end of his service.

All of these reasons made perfect sense for the time. There was no equality for other social classes in any other area of life and nobody had any desire to see the common soldier raised from the ranks. It happened occasionally but very rarely and was seldom considered to be a success. Unfortunately, the system did not always ensure that the best men rose to positions of command ahead of those who simply had more money. Social exclusiveness was preserved not only by money but by sheer snobbery as regimental colonels were allowed to veto the purchase of a commission in their regiment if they did not think that the officer was of the right social background. This often happened in the Household and Guards regiments which were dominated by aristocrats.

During wartime, especially a war as bloody as the long Napoleonic wars, promotion on merit was more common. If an officer was killed in action his shoes could be filled by promoting a man who could not otherwise have afforded the purchase. It alleviated some of the worst effects of the system and ensured that at least some men of little means but considerable talent had the chance to rise to more senior ranks. But overall Wellington’s army was a hotbed of privilege and tradition with layers of social snobbery between officers, between the guards, the infantry and the cavalry and between old traditional regiments steeped in history and some of the new-fangled regiments recently raised.

This was the background against which the young Paul van Daan purchases his commission in the first book of the Peninsular War saga. The 110th light company was not the obvious choice for him. Paul comes from considerable wealth on his father’s side and very good birth on his mother’s side and a commission in a fashionable cavalry regiment is well within his means. He chooses instead to join with his boyhood friend, Carl Swanson, who as the son of a humble parson has not the means to buy into an expensive regiment. The light company of the relatively new 110th infantry is their choice, and after basic training down at Shorncliffe under the legendary Sir John Moore, one of the men who created the modern army with his light infantry tactics, they arrive at barracks in Melton ready to go to India.

Once in the field, a man’s progression through the ranks could vary widely. Some would be based on ability to pay and willingness to transfer between regiments. An ambitious officer might quickly go through a number of different regiments to achieve rank. By this time, rules had been introduced about the amount of time an officer needed to have served in order to purchase promotion, but in the field all bets were off and rules and regulations were set aside in the name of expediency. Commanding officers would bend and break rules to either promote or block promotion according to their preference for candidates and vacancies opened up all the time due to death or illness.

The various rules and changes going on in the army can be an advantage to a writer needing to promote a character up the ranks in a particular way, since there were so many ways this could happen with local ranks, official ranks, field ranks and temporary ranks, that it is almost always possible to assert honestly that this could have happened in Wellington’s army even if it was not the usual route to success. But despite this flexibility, all of Paul’s fellow officers would have been gentlemen and would have expected their fellow officers to share a set of unquestioned values and beliefs with which they all felt safe.

So what happened when one of them didn’t?

What happened when an officer broke all the rules of his class and his rank and cared more about his enlisted men than the comfort of his officers? What happened when an officer decided to pick and choose which regulations mattered and which didn’t? What happened to a young lieutenant who often preferred the company of his Irish sergeant and his cockney Corporal; who would rather eat by the campfire than dine in the mess; whose friends included thieves and pickpockets and ex poachers? How could any officer who flatly refused to use flogging to discipline his men expect to get on in the snobbish, hierarchical army of the early nineteenth century?

Welcome to the 110th infantry, where officers and men are about to get the biggest shock of their lives.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

Welcome to An Unconventional Officer

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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 Talavera – the problem of a battle

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

The battle of Talavera has been causing me a good deal of trouble while revising An Unconventional Officer.

Talavera, 1809

 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…..

Lists

Cannon

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:

  1. Change Anne’s dress
  2. Wellington at Talavera – what the hell was he doing in that tower and who was with him.  Do I need to know?
  3. Update character list NOW before you resurrect more dead people.
  4. Shoot Goodreads

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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Badajoz – the last stop in our Peninsular War saga tour

Storming of Badajoz

The final day of our trip was spent in the fortress town of Badajoz, which finally fell to Wellington on 6th April 1812 after previous attempts had failed.

Walls of Badajoz

With the sounds of battle filling the air Paul looked over at Wheeler and nodded.  “All right, we’re going in.  Carter, pass the orders back quietly.  No sign of life over here, I’m hoping they’re looking the other way but they’re up there, trust me.  Let’s get those ladders to the front.”

Following their officers, the third brigade moved quickly and quietly over the ground.  At their head were the ladder parties.  Each group had been given very specific instructions about the placement of the ladders and Paul watched approvingly as they ran down towards the ditch.

He had given orders for them to pause at the edge and the men of the 110th and 112th light companies moved ahead throwing lighted bales of hay into the darkness.  The flames lit up the ditch garishly and Paul’s sharpshooters dropped into position, rifles pointed at the battlements.  There were shouts in French from the ramparts as the French realised that their section of the wall was under attack and Paul surveyed the ditches in the flare of the bales.

“Chevaux de frise,” he said in matter of fact tones.  “All right, Carl, keep up that fire.  Get the lads to take down as many as you can while we’re hanging around.  Skirmish formation – one fires and when the French fire back the other shoots at the flash.  Ten minutes of that should keep them busy.  Hammond, get me some volunteers to go down and haul those bloody things out of the way the minute the flares go out.  Preferably men who can see in the dark and have a brain.”

Above in the darkness the fire from the defenders was increasing and Paul kept a wary eye on the range as a dozen men scrambled quietly down into the blackness of the ditch armed with ropes to drag the chevaux de frise out of the way.  In the distance the noise of battle had grown louder and Paul wondered how the rest of the division was doing in the breaches.

There was a sudden explosion of light and sound and screams of pain from a section of his men and he swore softly.

“They’re onto us,” he said, and raised his voice.  “Hammond, how’s it going?”

“Nearly there, sir, three men down but they’re too late.”

“Good news!”  Paul turned to yell orders and his brigade, silent and still in the night, exploded into sudden action.  More hay bales were lit and in the flare of their light he looked down and saw the path through the ditch was clear.

“Advance!” he yelled, and the ladder parties scooped up their burdens again and continued their run under covering fire from the rifles of his sharpshooters.

He had known that the chances were high that the ladders would be too short to reach the top of the wall for most of it’s length but there was one stretch of the curtain wall which was much lower, having been previously damaged and not built up to it’s full height.  It was to the right of his position and the risk of mining was higher, but if he could get a small force up onto the ramparts there, they could hit the defenders in the flank and distract them for long enough to allow the ladder parties to scramble up.

On his orders, his men advanced in immaculate order.  The main ladders were swung up to the walls with men below steadying them to give maximum height and support, and his men swarmed up at speed.  Above him, Paul heard cries in both English and French as the first men reached the top and he realised with a spurt of triumph that the ladders had reached and that his men were fighting at the top.  Already bodies were falling and he knew some of them would be English.  With the defenders busy he turned and called out to Carl, who began his run towards the lowered section of the wall with his chosen companies.

It was going well.  Paul had the sense that his men were following orders and although many of them were coming down off the ladders, they were replaced immediately by more scrambling up.  The sounds from the breaches had faded from his consciousness now that his brigade were engaged and he waited for another ten minutes and then moved forward.

“All right lads, I’m going up.”

“Not yet, sir…”

“Out of the way, Mr Heron before I kick you.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand at the top waving a flag.”

There was laughter amidst the blood and fire and slaughter and he set his foot on the ladder and began to climb.  Shot rained around him but he kept his body close in and was making good progress when his foot encountered a rung which felt unexpectedly shaky and he heard, from above, a yell of warning and then cries of fear.

“It’s breaking up!”

Paul swore.  He could feel the wood giving way under the weight of men.  It often happened and he knew the danger of falling onto the bayonets of the men below him.  Pushing himself back he jumped into thin air and braced himself.  The leap took him over the heads of the men below him and back to the edge of the ditch.  He felt the impact jar through his body and he rolled over and slid back down into the ditch, feeling the bodies of injured and dead men crashing around him.  As he came to a halt something ripped into his hip and he dug his heels into the ground hard to stop his slide and found himself crushed by a press of fallen men into the edge of one of the chevaux de frise which had been dragged out of the way earlier. 

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga)

At Badajoz, I finally felt it.  After over a week of travelling around Portugal and Spain visiting locations and potential locations for scenes in my books, I’ve seen some beautiful and amazing places and I’ve felt at times as though I could imagine my characters being there, living their lives in the shadow of death.

Badajoz is not beautiful.  It is certainly in a beautiful setting and there are quiet spots in the town where you can get the sense of the old walled fortress town which existed in 1812 when Wellington’s army, on it’s third attempt, managed to batter down the walls and fight their way in.  Badajoz is a modern town.  There isn’t the sense of history, the sense of the past preserved that you get in Ciudad Rodrigo or Elvas.  There is the sense of people going to work and having lunch and living their lives.  Badajoz is just an ordinary town in Spain with an interesting history.

Walls of Badajoz

Maybe that’s why it worked for me.  Standing beside the walls, reading the guide which explained in matter of fact words that the road I was looking at went through the breach and that during the storming it would have been piled high with rubble and with thousands of dead and wounded Allied soldiers, I felt a genuine sense of horror.  It doesn’t seem possible now that those men on both sides of the wall, fought and bled and died on ground which is now just a road going into town.

Badajoz

The horror didn’t end there.  When the Allies finally broke in leaving over a thousand dead and another three thousand wounded, heaped on top of each other in the breaches or below the walls, the English army went mad.  It was an accepted custom of war that if a citadel under siege fails to surrender and has to be taken by storming, the troops were allowed to sack the town.  This is horrific enough under any circumstances, but in 1812 the Spanish population of the town, although some were pro-French, were for the most part innocent civilians of a country allied to Britain in the fight against Napoleon.

It didn’t save them.  For almost three days the men of the British army ran riot in the town.  Murder, theft and rape were committed openly and anybody who stood in their way, including some of their own officers, was at risk of being shot down.  Eventually Wellington, appalled at the destruction and violence, set up a gallows in the square as a threat to the drunken men and the chaos died down.  But during those days it must have been hard for the Spanish to feel a sense of gratitude that their city had been liberated from the French.

I felt it more strongly in this noisy, modern town than anywhere else.  I felt sad for those men coming down off the formidable ramparts to add to the piles of dead below.  I felt a sense of the waste and the agony and the bloodshed.  Perhaps it’s because so little actually remains, it’s as if they’ve been forgotten.  Perhaps it’s because it was our last day and then I was going home and back to reality.

It took a while to pull myself out of nineteenth century Spain and Portugal on the journey home.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work and write the next book.  And of all the places I’ve visited I’m not sure I’d go back to Badajoz.  Not because it was a noisy modern town where history has vanished in places.  But because in the places where it remains, I felt indescribably sad.

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Elvas

Elvas is beautiful.

We arrived at lunchtime, staying at the stunning Quinta de Santa Antonio just outside the town. As we were having lunch sitting on a bench in the beautiful gardens, I will admit I was looking around me making notes in my head. This place would have been here when Wellington’s army was besieging Badajoz, and already I can see how it could be used as a setting.

Gardens of the Quinta de Santa Antonio, near Elvas

In the Peninsular War saga, Anne and Paul arrive for a brief stay in Elvas during the run up to the storming of Badajoz.  Anne has just been returned after a two week ordeal in French captivity and for once Wellington has granted Paul some leave (with the proviso that as it’s only 11 miles away he can get him back very quickly).  Inevitably the short holiday doesn’t go entirely to plan but even today, Elvas is a haven of peace in places.

The town of Elvas was at the top of a hill, five miles northwest of the Guadiana River, a fortress town surrounded by seven bastions and the two forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça. It was a town of winding streets and graceful buildings, many of them dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Anne was particularly fascinated by the aqueduct, almost four miles long which had been built in the fifteenth century to supply the town with pure water.

Paul and Anne were given a room in a pretty inn, white painted and clean with high ceilings and long white draped windows.  For a town so close to the war zone which had been variously held by both the French and the English, it seemed remarkably untouched by war. For three days they wandered hand in hand through the narrow cobbled streets, and explored the local churches, forts and shops.  They ate in cosy taverns, surrounded by locals who welcomed them with smiles, and slept late, revelling in waking together with no need to rise for early drill.

(From ‘A Redoubtable Citadel’ by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 in the Peninsular War series)

Driving into Elvas after lunch I felt, almost more than anywhere else we have been, as though I had stepped back in time and was walking in the footsteps of Paul and Anne as they arrived in Elvas for their brief holiday before the horrors of the storming of Badajoz.  The aqueduct is the most amazing piece of architecture, ushering us into the town.

The aqueduct, Elvas

Elvas is a place of tiny cobbled streets and white and ochre painted houses with churches dotted about and a series of forts giving the impression of a formidable military presence.  During the war, Elvas escaped the destruction and havoc wreaked on the other three great border fortresses, and the preservation work done on the old town has protected it’s history.

The Cathedral in Elvas

There is so much to see here that I could turn into a guide book very easily.  The highlight for me was the old cathedral, with the square outside where Paul and Anne van Daan shared a brief spell of normality eating outside a tavern, listening to the locals around them talking about crops and the weather instead of war and bloodshed.  We had coffee outside a small cafe on the square, and looked around at the ancient buildings very much as they must have done.

The cathedral, Elvas

The other highlight of the town, especially on a glorious day like this one, are the stunning views from the various ramparts and high points around the town.  With the hills rising into the distance it is one of the loveliest places I’ve been to.

Countryside around Elvas, Portugal

Before leaving we visited the tiny English cemetery with it’s memorials to the dead of the Peninsular War, in particular the storming of Badajoz and the battle of Albuera, both of which had huge numbers of dead and injured from the Allied army.  

English Cemetary in Elvas

On one wall of the cemetery was a memorial stone to Lt Colonel Charles Bevan, who sadly shot himself after he felt he had been unfairly blamed for the escape of the French garrison from Almeira, an incident mentioned in the third book ‘An Uncommon Campaign’.

Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas

Our trip is almost over and I’ll be glad to get home to see my offspring and my dogs, although I’ve had the best time here.  I’ve been to Spain before but this is my first time in Portugal and I’ve rather fallen in love, with the country, the culture and the people.  I’ve learned so much this week, and have so much work to do to incorporate some of it into the books I’m writing.

Just at the moment I’m sitting in the hotel with the sound of birdsong and a fountain through the open window.  It’s still sunny although slightly cooler and  I can hear the cattle in the background.  It is so beautiful and so peaceful, it’s hard to imagine that only a few miles away in Badajoz the sound of gunfire and falling masonry would have been exploding into the silence as Wellington’s artillery tried to break down the formidable defences of the second great Spanish fortress.

He succeeded but the cost was horrendous.  Tomorrow, our last full day, we are going to the bustling modern town of Badajoz to look for the remains of the town where the British soldiers ran wild in an orgy of destruction and violence when the citadel fell.

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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.

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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.

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