The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place on this day in 1811 in and around the small border village close to the fortress of Almeida which was the last French foothold in Portugal.
In honour of the day, I wanted to share an extract from An Uncommon Campaign, where Major Carl Swanson finds himself commanding five companies under Lt-Colonel Williams of the 5/60th, fighting a bloody battle in the narrow streets of the village.
The rifles and muskets crashed around him and Carl levelled his pistol and fired. The French voltigeurs came on, dodging behind walls and hedges, and after them came the sound of the drums as the French columns marched forward. Carl had been through many battles and he knew the effect those drums could have on inexperienced troops especially when coupled with the sight of the solid columns of Frenchmen marching inexorably forward, shouting for their Emperor with the golden eagle standards blazing overhead. But the men of the 110th had been through too many battles to be easily intimidated. The guns up on the ridge began to fire into the columns, and there were cries of agony, spurting blood and smashing bone. And then Carl heard the clear tones of Captain Manson through the smoke and noise and fear.
“All right lads, fall back when you need, don’t take a punishing. Carter, Dawson, Cooper, Hammond – get rid of those bloody eagles, will you, they piss me off, they don’t even look like birds.”
Carl grinned, and fixed his eyes on the eagles. As the men began to fall back steadily before the approaching columns, there was a crack, and one of the eagles fell, its pole snapped. There was a scrabble among the French to retrieve it, and then a scream of pain and the second eagle toppled forward as the man holding it died. Even through the chaos of battle Carl could hear men cheering as each one fell and he silently applauded Manson’s imaginative piece of morale-boosting.
There was no time for it now as the French crashed into the British lines and the fighting became close and personal and bloody. Each man fought for his life, with bayonet and sword, and seeing his men in danger of being overwhelmed, Carl yelled an order and turned to run back, finding new loopholes in three houses further up. His men recovered quickly, reloaded and turned to fire again.
They fought their way stubbornly up through the narrow streets of the village, in a welter of blood and death. In places, some of the light companies had built makeshift barricades from doors and bed frames, and their officers stood beside them, calling orders in measured tones. When the French overran them they abandoned firepower once more and through sheer determination forced the French back down the hill at the points of their bayonets, scrambling over dead and wounded of both sides.
It was impossible, in the tangled streets, to know what was happening elsewhere in the battle. On an open field it was easier to scan the lines and see how other battalions were doing, but Carl was only aware of his own five companies, now somewhat depleted. He found himself alone briefly in a winding lane, closely bordered by white cottages, one of them badly damaged by artillery fire, his men moving into the houses to check for enemy ambush. Carl wiped sweat from his face on his sleeve and it came away black. Keeping a wary eye up and down the lane he reached for his water bottle and gulped down a few swallows.
Ahead of him a smoke-blackened figure emerged from one of the doorways. “Clear in there, sir,” Private O’Hara said cheerfully. “Just got to..”
There was an explosion of sound and O’Hara’s body jerked violently. He made a strangled gurgling noise and then fell forward, blood spilling onto the baked earth of the street, his back a gaping hole. The Frenchman was only a few feet away and could not have missed, even with the dubious accuracy of a musket. Carl looked down at the dead Irishman and then up at the Frenchman and as he did so there was a babble of French voices and they poured out of the building opposite, a dozen of them, racing towards him with bayonets raised.
Carl dived into the nearest doorway. The house was empty, a bare room, cleared of valuables with only a few pieces of basic wooden furniture. The door was narrow and two of the French infantrymen tried to go through it at the same time and collided, temporarily stuck. Carl could have killed either of them without difficulty but their comrades were yelling behind them and he had no intention of running towards them. He spun around, looking for an exit, but the only window had wooden shutters firmly closed and he had no time to open them.
There was a narrow wooden staircase and Carl sprinted towards it and scrambled to the upper floor. There were two doors and he dived through the first one, slammed it shut, making plaster fall from above with the force of it, and dragged the big wooden bed in front of it. It was not heavy enough to hold the Frenchmen but it would buy him some time.
The window here was also shuttered and Carl struggled furiously with the warped wood, showering himself with plaster and splinters as he fought to open it. It gave finally and he flung the shutter open and leaned over the sill, looking down into the lane below. It was a drop of more than ten feet, he guessed and if he jumped he risked a broken leg. They would bayonet him where he fell and looking along the street, he could see only Frenchmen; the British were further up, fighting their way through the houses at the top of the hill. His stupid pause had allowed him to become cut off from his men and hearing the bed shift behind him, he took a deep breath and swung his leg over the ledge, thinking how furious his commander would have been if he could see his predicament.
Below, under the lower window, three bodies lay immobile, two British and one French. It was impossible to tell if they were alive or dead, but the Frenchman’s bayonet lay to one side and he was soaked in blood. Carl eased himself over, trying to lower himself to minimise the fall but a crash behind him told him he had run out of time and he went over in a scramble and dropped deliberately onto the body of the Frenchman.
It broke his fall as he had intended, the feeling of the corpse beneath him making him feel sick. There was no time to think about it; shouts from the window above told him that his pursuers were there and scrambling to load a musket. Carl got to his feet shakily and turned towards the far end of the hill where his companies had been fighting.
“Sir, get down!” a voice bellowed and Carl recognised it with overwhelming relief, as Private Dawson of the light company. He dropped like a stone, flat to the ground and there was a flurry of rifle shots and an order called in the London accent of Sergeant Hammond. Above him a man screamed and then a body crashed to the ground close to him. More shots were fired and then he heard running feet, hard on the packed earth, and he was suddenly surrounded by red coats. A hand reached to pull him to his feet.
“Sir, are you hurt?” Manson’s voice said.
“No, but I’m bloody embarrassed, that was a mistake I’d expect from a sixteen year old ensign fresh off the boat. You tell the colonel and I’m coming after you, Leo. And thank you.”
He turned and watched as his men surged past him, driving the French back down the hill in a fierce charge. Above, the men at the windows had vanished, driven off by the fire of the rifles although one lay dead in the street beside him and another hung like a broken doll over the window ledge. Carl looked at Manson.
“You all right?”
Manson nodded. His face was black with powder and there was blood on his coat . “Think so, sir. Bastard of a place to defend, mind. Cooper and Blake are hurt, I’ve told them to get themselves up to the church, it’s where we’re sending the wounded for now.”
Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors and welcome to 2019.
It feels like more than a year since I wrote my first blog post of 2018. So much has happened during the year, both personally and professionally, that it’s hard to know where to start, but as always, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more of my readers, both in person and online, and I love the fact that more and more people are beginning to contact me through the website and following me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
2018 saw the publication of two new books. The first of these, which came out in April, was An Unwilling Alliance. This book is the first of a new series, following the career of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, a fictional Manx Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars. It is also part of the Peninsular War Saga, slotting in approximately between books one and two, telling the story of Paul van Daan and the 110th during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807. I was able to set part of the book on the Isle of Man, where I live, and I loved being able to talk about the island to a wider audience.
The second book of 2018 was An Untrustworthy Army, book six of the Peninsular War Saga. It tells the story of Wellington’s Salamanca campaign and the miserable retreat from Burgos at the end of 1812. For some reason, I found this book very difficult. Partly, it was because my fictional brigade is part of the light division which was unusually not very active during much of this campaign. Partly, I think it was because the end of the campaign was genuinely so miserable, that it was hard to tell the story without sinking into unrelieved gloom. I think I managed it eventually, but it took a while. Fortunately, Craufurd the Dog stepped in with a bit of light relief. There were also goats.
Richard and I went on a tour of the Pyrenees in April, to research Vitoria and the Pyrenees campaigns. We had a great time and toured a few battlefields although I suspect we ate and drank rather better than Wellington’s army in 1813. I’m really looking forward to the next few books, as the Pyrenees give a lot of scope for the 110th to really get itself into trouble. We also spent a week in Northern Ireland in the summer, which was beautiful and set off a whole new sub-plot involving the United Irishmen and Michael O’Reilly in my over-active brain. Watch this space for that one, it’s happening sometime.
I wrote three new short stories this year. An Impossible Attachment was written for Valentine’s Day and tells the story of an unlikely romance between a French prisoner of war and the widow of an English officer in Portugal in 1812. The Quartermaster was a Halloween ghost story set in Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812 and The Christmas After tells the story of eight people thrown together on a winter’s journey by mail coach in 1815 who find common ground in their memories of the battle of Waterloo; it completes the story begun in An Impossible Attachment.
In October, I was invited to join a panel of historical novelists speaking at the Malvern Festival of Military History and it was a great experience to be up there alongside some of the best in the genre. The bonus was that I got to spend the weekend listening to a fantastic line up of historians, culminating with the wonderful Paddy Ashdown talking about his latest book.
On a personal level, it has been a mixed year at Writing with Labradors. Luka, our leopard gecko died early in the year at the age of twelve. She was my son’s eighth birthday present and for many years her tank lived in his room. Later she moved into my study and would sit watching me work for hours, during the evenings after her feed.
In May, our lives were lit up by the arrival of Oscar, our new baby black labrador. Oscar is completely gorgeous and has fitted into our family as if he’d always been there. He and Joey bonded immediately and are completely inseparable. Toby was a bit more aloof to start with, but quickly fell in love, and the three of them had the most marvellous time through the early summer months. The weather was hot and sunny and we practically lived outside, reading, writing and watching the three dogs playing.
We had a fright in June when Joey, our twelve year old yellow labrador’s back legs suddenly gave out, and we had a couple of days of sheer misery, wondering how serious the problem was, and if we were going to lose him. It turned out to be a false alarm, it was arthritis, and stronger pain relief and joint supplements very quickly got him back on his feet.
I’ll never forget that summer, because it turned out to be Toby’s last. The amazing weather continued, the kids’ exams were over, and we spent every minute we could outside in the sun. My daughter asked for a hammock for her birthday in July and it became Oscar’s new playground, leaping through the air to join her as she lay there reading, while the older dogs watched, looking as though they were laughing. I was working on the new book, enjoying all of us having time to be together, enjoying Oscar becoming an essential part of family life.
On July 23rd I worked in my study in the morning, but all three dogs wanted to play, so we moved outside and I sat working on the porch while they ran around chasing each other. They collapsed finally for a long nap, woke for dinner and then sat with us on the porch again until after dark. We said goodnight and went to bed. The following morning Toby was lying peacefully in his usual spot and I didn’t even realise he was dead until I touched him. It was a horrible shock; he was fourteen but other than his arthritis, seemed really well and there was no warning.
Despite the shock, it was a very peaceful end and although we miss him desperately, I’m so grateful for that. I was worried about Joey but although he missed Toby, I’m thankful that we had already got a new puppy, as it made the transition much easier for him. Once again, Writing with Labradors is down to two dogs, although Toby is close by and will always hold a very special place in my heart.
So what’s next? I’m planning a busy year in 2019, with the following projects on the go:
- My next book is the second about Hugh Kelly and tells the story of the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. As with Copenhagen, this was a joint operation with the army and navy. Paul van Daan is busy in the Peninsula with Wellesley, but the 110th has a second battalion and I’m looking forward to getting on with the research and meeting my new characters. I don’t have a publication date for this one yet, as the subject is completely new and I can’t yet tell how long the research will take. I intend to go to Walcheren for a research trip and I’m very much hoping to be there in August for the 210th anniversary re-enactment.
- I’m attending the Wellington Congress in Southampton in April to indulge myself in learning more about my favourite general and to meet up with some good friends.
- I’m hoping to attend the Malvern festival again.
- I’m starting a new venture this year, teaching some adult education classes in history and creative writing at the Isle of Man College.
- I’m aiming for four free short stories this year, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Summer, Halloween and Christmas.
- I’m hoping to make a good start on (possibly even to finish) Book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga, which is set during winter quarters of 1812-13.
- The Peninsular War Saga will be available in paperback, initially from Amazon, but later in the year from some local bookshops and to purchase through my website.
- A complete revamp of my website.
- New editions of the two books of the Light Division romances series, to connect them more closely to the Peninsular War Saga.
With all this to look forward to, 2019 is going to be a busy year here at Writing with Labradors. Thanks so much to all of you who have read and enjoyed the books, and a special thanks to those who have left reviews. I really value them.
Have a happy and healthy new year and I look forward to hearing from many of you in 2019.
With much love
Lynn, Joey and Oscar
In the run up to Christmas, and with the latest book up and running, I’ve decided to devote this blog to sharing some of my favourite books with you. Last year, on Christmas Eve, I did a post about the Christmas Book Flood, or Jolabokaflod. The concept was new to me, but I loved it.
In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi. Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.
The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary and people love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world. One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”
There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity. In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books. The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.
The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me. Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient. Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.
Last year, to celebrate this fabulous tradition, I offered some of my e-books free on Christmas Eve, and the take-up was phenomenal. I like to think I found a lot of new readers on that day and I intend to do the same thing again this year. But I also wanted to do a Christmas countdown of books that I’ve read and loved; a sort of literary advent calendar which has started late. Some of them are fiction, some are non-fiction, but all of them have a particular place on my shelves, both actual and electronic. I hope that reading about some of them will cause some of you to buy them, either for yourselves or for family and friends, as part of our own Christmas Book Flood.
Merry Christmas from all of us at Blogging with Labradors.
An Untrustworthy Army is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga and is published on Kindle today. It covers a period of around seven months in 1812, during which Wellington led his army into Spain, achieved a spectacular victory at Salamanca and entered the Spanish capital of Madrid, which had been in French hands for four years. He then marched on to invest the fortress city of Burgos, but Burgos proved too much for Wellington’s army, and he was obliged to make a difficult retreat, with the French at his heels, back to the border. It was a miserable end to a triumphant year but it did not nullify Wellington’s achievements. He had given the Allied army an ascendency over the French which it had not had before, and the next campaigning season had a new purpose to it.
For anybody new to the books, the Peninsular War Saga follows the fortunes of a fictional regiment of infantry through the long wars of the early nineteenth century and the man who rose to command it.
Paul van Daan is 21 when we first meet him, the younger son of a wealthy shipping merchant, who purchases a commission in time to join the regiment on its way to India. On paper, he is a fairly typical young officer, but Paul has an unusual past which sets him apart from many of his privileged contemporaries. He finds his home in the army, and discovers a talent for leadership which will bring him early success and which also brings him to the attention of General Arthur Wellesley.
Writing a historical fiction series based around real events is an interesting challenge. On the one hand, there is no need to spend much time thinking up a plot line; I always know where my characters ought to be. On the other hand, it isn’t enough just to put them down on a battlefield and write about nothing else. These people had lives; they ate and drank, went to parties, fell in love, got sick, got wounded. Sometimes, far too often, they died.
I have tried to populate my series with a collection of believable characters who sometimes do unbelievable things. Most of the unbelievable things really happened; I do a lot of research, and if I find a fascinating story or incident, I love to weave it into the fabric of my novel. The trick is to try to make it as seamless as possible. By now, for me, the fictional characters of Paul van Daan and his redoubtable wife, Anne, are so real, it is faintly surprising to look at the order of battle for Fuentes d’Onoro and find the 110th not there.
Alongside the story of the regiment and the love story of Paul and Anne is the story of a friendship. Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, is not known for having good relationships with all of his officers, and is often described as distant and difficult, but he had a few close friends, whom he valued, and Paul van Daan is one of them. The growing friendship between two men who are, in many ways, very different and yet also very similar, is possibly my favourite element of writing the books. Lord Wellington is a fantastic character to write; I’ve spent endless hours reading his letters and they bring him alive for me.
There have been many novels set during the Peninsular War ever since Bernard Cornwell made it so popular with his fabulous Sharpe series. I’ve read a good few of them, before I decided to make my own foray into Portugal and Spain, and each author has a different take. My books are rooted very firmly in the army, and the battles it fought, but they give equal weight to characterisation and relationships and the daily life of the men and women who marched with Wellington.
By the beginning of book 5, the fiery young lieutenant we first meet at the beginning of An Unconventional Officer has begun to settle down. He has risen to command a brigade of the elite light division, is on excellent terms with its commanding officer, Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, and is happy in his second marriage, with his children back in England being cared for by his family. He even has a dog. There is something very enjoyable in depicting Paul trying to deal with a young officer getting himself into trouble; it feels like karma. Paul has come a long way from the impetuous young officer who got himself court-martialled in An Unwilling Alliance, although in some ways he really hasn’t changed that much at all.
History dictates the plots of my books, and in An Untrustworthy Army, history let me down. The famous Light Division, generally at the forefront of any action, got some time off. They were barely engaged at Salamanca and when Wellington marched on to invest Burgos, he left the Light Division in Madrid. If I stuck strictly to history, this would have been a very quiet book. Needless to say, I have cheated a little, allowing one of my new characters to temporarily join another regiment, to give at least a flavour of the battle, and sending my fictitious third brigade of the Light Division off to get themselves into trouble elsewhere.
The end of 1812 was a miserable time for Wellington’s army, and both I and the stalwarts of the 110th infantry are relieved that it’s over, although not without some sadness. Book 6, An Unrelenting Enmity, will be published at the end of next year, and will spend some time in winter quarters, as well as following a group of the 110th on a dangerous mission to locate a missing British diplomat.
The next book, however, will take a different direction. I’m going to be picking up the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, the Royal Navy and the Second Battalion of the 110th who have the misfortune to be bound for Walcheren. The working title is An Insalubrious Island, although that may change.
Thanks to everybody who has been reading and enjoying my books. I hope you enjoy this one, and I look forward to taking Christmas off and then getting back to work in the New Year.
Who am I kidding…?
The Battle of Assaye was fought on 23rd September 1803 and was a major victory for Arthur Wellesley, then a relatively young and inexperienced general. He was later to claim it as one of his most impressive victories. In the Peninsular War Saga, it is Paul van Daan’s first major battle at the head of the 110th light company and the start of a long association with the man who was to become the Duke of Wellington. This is an excerpt from An Unconventional Officer.
In the dim light of Wellesley’s briefing room, the following morning, Paul was aware that he was the youngest and by far the least experienced of the officers present, but he knew that the previous day’s action had earned him his place there. His chief called on him, and Paul stood up and walked to the front where Wellesley’s aide had pinned a sketch map of the area. Briefly Paul outlined the events of the previous day and pointed out the troop locations he had seen.
“Thank you, Captain van Daan. Gentlemen, we’re going to make a fight of it,” General Wellesley said calmly. “Here, on the edge of Assaye.”
There was a stunned silence around the briefing room. “Sir – what about Colonel Stevenson?” Maxwell said. There was no sign of the raging hangover he deserved. “Shouldn’t we wait for him? Our force is split in two.”
Wellesley fixed Colonel Maxwell with an arctic gaze. “Surprisingly, Colonel, I am aware of that,” he snapped. “Two of our scouts went out last night. They report that it is possible that the Maratha army may be pulling out. I don’t want to lose this opportunity. We have the element of surprise. I’d intended to join up with Stevenson at Borkadan but I’m not waiting for him, he’ll join us when he can, I’ve sent a message.” He motioned to his aide who picked up another sketch map and pinned it to the wall. “Gentlemen, my plan of battle.”
“It’s suicide!” John Wheeler said later, as Paul outlined the general’s orders to his officers in his tent.
“Not necessarily,” Paul said. “Wellesley is ambitious but he’s not stupid. If we wait for Stevenson this campaign could drag on for months. He’s fairly sure that the irregular forces won’t stand for long. Scindia’s infantry probably will, but with good discipline we can take them.”
“Where does he want us?” Carl asked.
“At the rear initially, with the 19th and the Madras cavalry. He’s leaving half a battalion of sepoys here to guard the baggage and the camp. The other half will fight under us while Johnstone takes the rest of the 110th. Wellesley wants fast manoeuvrable troops ready to move in and plug any gaps. He’s going ahead with a cavalry escort to reconnoitre the Maratha position. The rest of us follow. We have about two hours, gentlemen, get them ready.”
The Maratha chiefs had positioned their army in a strong defensive position along a tongue of land stretching east from Borkadan between the Kailna River and its tributary the Juah. Their army was commanded by a Hanoverian mercenary by the name of Anthony Pohlmann, apparently a former East India Company sergeant, who had positioned his infantry to the east of the Maratha camp in the plains around Assaye on the southern bank of the Juah. As Wellesley approached with his cavalry escort in the late morning it was clear that he was facing the entire combined army.
The weather was clear. It had rained during the night, and the day was cooler than average, although out on the river plain with his men, watching the Maratha and Wellesley easing their troops into position, Paul was already hot enough. Mosquitoes, the permanent irritation of India, were particularly prevalent towards the end of the monsoon season and up and down the line Paul could see his men swatting irritably at the creatures.
Pohlmann was deploying his infantry battalions in a line facing southwards behind the steep banks of the Kailna with his cannon arrayed directly in front. The great mass of Maratha cavalry was kept on the right flank leaving the irregular infantry to garrison the village of Assaye to the rear. The only obvious crossing point over the river was a small ford directly ahead of the Maratha position, and it appeared that Pohlmann was hoping to funnel the British and Madras troops across the ford into the mouth of his cannon, and then on to the massed infantry and cavalry behind. The local guides assured the general that no other ford existed nearby, but any frontal assault would have been suicide. While reconnoitring, Wellesley had noticed two unguarded villages on each bank of the Kaitna beyond the Maratha left, and it became obvious that there was a second ford. Wellesley led his army east to the crossing in an attempt to launch an attack on Pohlmann’s left flank.
At around three o’clock the British crossed to the northern bank of the Kaitna unopposed apart from a distant fire from the Maratha cannon. Once across, Wellesley ordered his six infantry battalions including most of the 110th to form into two lines, with his cavalry as a reserve in a third along with Paul’s light company and sepoy infantry. His Mysore cavalry were ordered to remain south of the Kaitna to keep an eye on a group of Maratha cavalry, which hovered around the rear.
“He’s not going to let us get away with that,” Carl commented, studying the distant Maratha troops through a small telescope. “See, he’s already swinging around to create a new line.”
He was right, Paul saw. Pohlmann swung his infantry and guns through 90 degrees to establish a new line spread across the isthmus with his right flank on the Kaitna and the left on Assaye. It was a good defensive move, which would protect his flanks, Paul thought, but it negated some of the advantage of his superior numbers. “They’re moving fast,” he said, watching the enemy’s redeployment with appreciation. “Hookey needs to get a move on or we’ll be outflanked.”
The same thought had obviously occurred to the general who immediately extended his front to avoid the danger. A battalion of pickets and the 74th Highlanders, which formed the right of the first and second lines, were ordered to move to the right. This allowed the 78th Highlanders to cover the left flank and the four Madras infantry battalions plus the rest of the 110th foot to form the centre of the British line.
The Maratha cannonade was intensifying and beginning to do some damage. Initially Wellesley ordered his own artillery forward to counter the attack but it was not powerful enough to be effective. The guns were turned onto the infantry, pounding them with canister, grape and round shot and Paul moved his horse forward restlessly, feeling powerless as the guns punched into the British lines. It was infuriating to be so far back with no part to play in the battle.
It was impossible from the rear to see everything that was going on, although occasionally messages would come through via horsemen. Wellesley was a commander who liked to move freely around the battlefield in person, relaying orders to his various commanders, but he could not be everywhere. A young ensign from the 78th had been sent back out of harms way with a badly wounded arm. He slid from his horse, blood dripping, and Paul and Carl both ran forward to assist him. Carl eased him out of his coat and Paul staunched the flow of blood, and sent O’Reilly running for bandages.
“The infantry has advanced with bayonets,” the ensign said. “We’ve taken heavy fire, but we’re holding our own and moving forward. I got this when we charged the gunners. It’s going well but we’re taking losses. The sepoys are a bit wild; two of the Madras battalions took off in pursuit but we got them back. I want to get back there.”
“Well, you can’t, lad, not when you can’t hold a musket or a sword,” O’Reilly said, winding a bandage carefully around the wound. “Sit down, drink some water and take a breath. You’ve done your share.”
Paul was conscious of rising sounds of battle coming from the English right. He ran back to his horse and swung himself into the saddle, reaching for his telescope. The other officers and some of the men began to cluster around him.
“What in God’s name is happening?” Paul said. He was watching the steady advance of the pickets ahead of the 74th and it was clear that something was going badly wrong on the right. While he had been dealing with the injured ensign, Colonel Orrock had begun his advance in charge of the pickets who were to clear the way for the 74th Highlanders heading towards the right. It was clear now that he had either misunderstood his orders or mistaken his way, because he was marching too far to the right in direct line with the guns in and around Assaye. The King’s 74th had followed their pickets, and under the appalled gaze of the 110th light company they were being slaughtered on the field.
The pickets had already been almost completely annihilated. Even from this distance Paul could see their bloody bodies piled up, with the Highlanders scrambling over them to advance. Despite the horrific casualties, with iron and lead cutting into them they had reached as far as the low cactus hedge about a hundred yards out from the village but they could go no further. It was insanity and Paul felt a cold fury that nobody had realised the mistake and stopped the advance sooner.
“Maxwell!” Paul bellowed. He was too enraged to consider the proprieties of rank. “We need to charge, man, they’re being slaughtered over there.”
Colonel Maxwell rode up to join him. “Waiting for orders from Wellesley,” he said. His voice betrayed his anxiety. “They’ll come.”
“How the hell can you be sure? We need to go in now before they’re all dead!” Paul could not take his eyes from the horror unfolding before him. The 74th could go no further. They were rallying around their colours now, forming a square. He could see them pulling the bodies of their dead comrades to form a rough rampart around them. And then there was a yell, and the Maratha cavalry charged, followed closely by two of Pohlmann’s regular battalions, and the Highlanders were fighting with bayonet, fighting for their lives. Paul felt sick. He looked at the colonel.
“I’m not waiting,” he said, and raised his voice. “Light Company, to me! Form line! Native third battalion, fall in behind!”
The men had been waiting for the order. Paul dismounted, handed the reins of his horse to his orderly and drew his sword. The light company fell into rank with the precision of a clockwork toy with the sepoys lined up behind them as they set out at a steady pace across the battlefield. Paul scanned the battle, picking out the crumbling lines of the highlanders.
Behind him Paul could hear Maxwell bellowing orders and he grinned. Within two minutes the colonel was riding up beside him.
“If Wellesley court martials me for this, I’m taking you down with me, you arrogant young bastard!” he told Paul, and gave the order to charge, his men overtaking the light company on both sides and thundering down towards the enemy.
The cavalry smashed into the rear of the Maratha lines and Paul waved to O’Reilly. “Michael, we’re going to cut across and plug the gap left between the 74th and the 10th. Don’t let them split our line any further. Let the dragoons do the slaughter. It’s our job to stand firm. And watch those bloody gunners, I don’t trust them as far as I can kick them. Get through to the Highlanders and protect their left.”
Covering the ground quickly, they arrived at the battle zone to discover fierce fighting between the dragoons and the Maratha light cavalry. The remains of the Highlanders were barely on their feet, and Paul could see none of their officers. Through the thick of the fighting the light company slashed their way with sword and bayonet, and under orders bellowed by the NCOs they formed a barrier between the cavalry and the beleaguered 74th. Paul was appalled at the number of casualties. The dead lay piled up, impeding their advance. The guns were deafening, and the smoke obscured friend from foe. Paul stabbed a sepoy who was charging him down, then swung around and slashed at two more. There were screams from the Maratha cavalry who were under savage attack from the dragoons.
The smell of blood and sweat and the acrid scent of fear hung heavy in the air. A horse screamed in pain, then the guns crashed again. Cries of agony told Paul that his right flank was hit.
“We need to shut these bastards up and let the cavalry do their job,” he said to Carl. “Sergeant, ten men and with me. Carl, Johnny, line them up and cut down anything that tries to get past you, I don’t want a sabre up my arse. Carl, when we’re through, try to bring the men up to secure the guns. It’ll give the dragoons the chance to do their work.”
Paul led his men through the fray at a cautious run. The gunners on the far right had no need to aim any more. The packed mass of advancing British presented an easy target. They were concentrating their fire on the advancing 110th and the remains of the Highlanders, avoiding the battle raging between the two lots of cavalry so that they did minimum damage to their own men. There were three guns in his sight. Paul crouched low behind a small clump of cacti. He felt O’Reilly’s hand on his arm.
“Easy, sir. Wait until they’re reloading. The timing is as reliable as our own men shooting a volley, I’ll count you in.”
Paul nodded. “On my mark,” he said over his shoulder. “Go for the gunners on the right first, then work across to the left.”
“Make sure every one of the bastards is dead,” the Irishman instructed. “They’re the devil for playing dead, and before you know it they’re shooting you in the arse. If in doubt, cut their throats. Hard to get up from that one. Watch for them hiding under the bodies. Now here we go. One, two three…”
The gunners were quick and efficient at loading, but Paul and his men were on them before they were halfway through the process. Each gun had a small group of sepoys defending it, but they were no match for the enraged light company, and the gun was silenced within five bloody minutes. Paul stood for a moment catching his breath, glancing around him. The ground was saturated with blood and eight gunners and their guards lay dead.
“Well done, sir,” his sergeant said. He was wiping blood from his hands down his tunic.
“All dead. Bryant, Smith, stay to guard it until the lads come up. Kill anything you don’t like the look of.”
“Aye, sir,” Smith said. He was a fearsome sight, covered in blood, his bayonet held in steady hands. “That include Bryant, sir, ‘cause he’s an ugly bastard?”
“After you’ve done with the Maratha,” Paul said with a grin. “Come on, Michael, let’s find ourselves another gun.”
The fight was harder now, as they were cutting through the remains of the Maratha infantry. The sepoys were fierce fighters, but they seemed leaderless and backed off from the savage assault of the light company bayonets more easily than expected. The second set of guns was in sight when Paul felt an agonising pain in his left thigh. He stumbled and fell, rolled over onto his back and slashed up at a sepoy who was lunging down at him with fixed bayonet. The man screamed and fell, blood spurting. Paul sat up and felt cautiously at his leg.
“Sir, you all right?” Private Cooper pulled up in his headlong run and offered his hand to Paul. Paul got up, nodding.
“Musket ball, I think,” he said, probing and wincing. “I’ll live. Let’s get moving.”
The light company reached the second set of guns and swarmed over the gunners in seconds. There was less noise now, although across to the left he could hear that the guns he had thought silenced by the advance of the 78th had started up again. He glanced at Michael, who shrugged.
“Told you,” he said. “Not dead enough.”
“They will be,” Paul said grimly. “Wellesley is over there; I can see him. He’ll shut them up. Are this lot done?”
“Aye, and it’ll get easier now. The heart is out of them. Can’t see any officers about either. Perhaps it was getting too dirty for their pretty French uniforms. Look here’s Smithy. Is the gun secure, lad, or have you run away from Bryant?”
“Bryant’s down. Some bastard cavalryman came through running scared and slashed him on the way.”
“Dead?” O’Reilly asked.
“Didn’t look good, Sarge. Poor bastard.” Smith glanced at Paul. “Mr Swanson and the lads are through, sir, sends his compliments and says you’re to get a bloody move on.”
Paul was trying not to think about Bryant’s laughing face only fifteen minutes earlier. “Come on then.”
“Are you all right, sir?” the sergeant said, indicating Paul’s leg.
“I’ll be fine.” Paul tested it. It hurt badly, but he had not lost strength and it was bleeding sluggishly. He had no idea of what damage had been done, but he did not need to stop now. He began to run. It was bearable. He was conscious of the Irishman keeping pace with him, making sure he did not fall, and shot an appreciative grin his way. O’Reilly’s thin face was grimly amused.
“You’re a hard young bastard,” he said.
“You’ve the navy to thank for that,” Paul replied, dodging a sepoy who was lying on the ground trying to stab upwards into his stomach. He despatched the man quickly and ran on.
They overran the guns more quickly now with no further casualties, and joined up with the 78th. A major Paul knew slightly saluted him, pulling out a canteen and gulping down water. “Captain van Daan. They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems. Would your ruffians have something to do with that?”
“Maybe, sir. We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.”
“I don’t know yet. One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right. We’ll not get out of it unscathed.”
“None of us will, laddie. They’re on the run now. Their French officers took off, no discipline left. Eyes right, the general is approaching.”
Wellesley reined in. He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning.
“Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.”
“Well done, sirs. You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.”
“Not serious, sir.”
“Good, good. I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.”
Paul glanced up at him warily. “I was around, sir,” he said.
“Yes.” Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes. Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly. “You anticipated correctly, Captain. You might not always be right, however. I prefer my officers to await orders.”
“Did Colonel Maxwell…”
“No, sir,” Paul said definitely. We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.”
Wellesley shook his head. “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well. I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns. Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear. Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them. Captain, are your men able to join them?”
“Yes, sir.” Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company.
“Good, let’s get those guns back. God knows what the cavalry are doing!”
Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them. “They all right over there, sir?”
“I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here! What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain? Why can they never follow a simple order?”
Despite himself, Paul grinned at the General’s exasperated tone. “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.”
The rest of the light company were approaching with Carl at their head. There were familiar faces missing in their ranks. With a sinking feeling Paul realised that he could not see Sergeant Stewart or Lieutenant Wheeler.
While the 78th and the 110th light company attacked from the West, Wellesley himself rode to the 7th native cavalry, the only mounted troops Maxwell had left on the field, and led them from the East. The attack was short and brutal, and for one sickening moment it looked as though the general himself was lost, as his horse went down under a pike. Shaken but undeterred, Wellesley was up again and mounted on his third horse of the day and the light company leaned against the carriages of the recovered guns and caught their breath…
An Irregular Regiment : arriving back at the Lines of Torres Vedras, the hero of the Peninsular War Saga, Major Paul van Daan, is learning to adapt to a wife who sees herself as more than a drawing room ornament or the mother of his children…
The lines had been created from two ridges of hills by local labour working under the supervision of Fletcher and his engineers. Closed earthworks with a series of small redoubts holding 3-6 guns and 200-300 men, were sited along the high ground of each ridge. Buildings, olive groves and vineyards had been destroyed, denying any cover to an attacking force. Rivers and streams had been dammed to flood the ground below the hills and sections of hillside had been cut or blasted away to leave small but sheer precipices. Ravines and gullies were blocked by entanglements. As she rode beside Paul, listening to him explaining the work that had been done, Anne was amazed at Wellington’s achievement.
“We’ll wait behind the lines,” Paul said. “The fortifications are manned by the Portuguese militia, some Spanish and a few British gunners and marines. Wellington has set up a communication system using semaphore, which is extraordinary. He’s got a proper system based on that bastard Popham’s marine vocabulary but there’s a simpler system in place that the locals can use in case the navy pulls out.”
Anne regarded him blankly. “Popham? Semaphore? This is a side of you I know nothing about.”
Paul stared at her and then laughed. “Well I learned some in the navy as a boy,” he said. “And a little more during the Copenhagen campaign. Which, as you know, did not go well for me. Popham is an arsehole but he’s clever and the system works. I actually find it quite interesting. We can mobilise troops faster than Massena will believe, and the roads the engineers have created mean we can move up and down the lines to where we’re needed very fast. And Wellington has scorched the terrain for miles outside. The French are very good at living off the land, but I think he’s got them beaten this time. It just depends on how long it takes them to realise it.” He smiled at her. “And then we wait, and collect reinforcements and supplies and train our army. Next year we’ll be ready for another advance.”
Anne nodded. She was watching him. “What is it, Paul?”
Paul glanced at her, surprised. Since his conversation with Johnny during the retreat he had found himself studying Anne at odd moments, imagining her as he had known her in Yorkshire. She had always seemed to him much older than her years but now that he had been reminded of her youth he found himself wondering if he had rushed her into this marriage. He had wanted her so badly for so long that when Robert Carlyon had died he had not thought twice about their future together but now he was suddenly anxious that he had not given her enough time. He had not realised that any of this was evident to Anne.
“How do you always know?” he asked curiously.
“Your voice. Your face. Something has been bothering you for a few days.”
“Nan – do I expect too much of you?”
Anne stared at him for a long time. Eventually she said:
“Carl or Johnny? Actually it could be any of them, but they’re the two most likely to say it to you. The rest just think it.”
Paul burst out laughing. “Johnny,” he said. “He noticed you were upset that day in the village. Hearing what they’d done with the girls and at the murder of the villagers. He pointed out that I’d never have let Rowena hear that story. And he was right, I wouldn’t.”
“Paul, I can’t comment on your marriage to Rowena. I only know what I want. Right from the start you have refused to treat me like an idiot or a child, which is how most men treat most women. It is probably a big part of why I love you so much. But that must be difficult because sometimes it means I will get upset, or frightened. And you can’t protect me from that.”
“Johnny reminded me how young you were,” Paul said quietly, reaching for her hand. “And as I heard myself say it, I realised that he might have a point. That at twenty you should be thinking about parties and fashion and jewellery and all the things that I should be able to give you. I’m taking you on a tour of redoubts and blockhouses instead of riding in the row and introducing you to George Brummell and the Prince of Wales.”
Anne began to laugh. “Should I like either of them?”
“I think you’d like George, I do myself. Not so sure about Prinny. Although he’d definitely like you. Now that I think about it, you’re probably safer out here with Wellington, who actually does know how to behave although he wishes he didn’t. But seriously…”
“Paul, seriously, what is this about?”
“I never asked you,” Paul said abruptly. “About any of this. I walked into the villa and I carried you to bed and five days later you’re my wife and in an army camp up to your ankles in mud with no prospect of a normal life, and I never once asked you if that was all right.”
“Did you ever ask Rowena?”
“No. She was pregnant and completely desperate. I took her to Naples deliberately so that she could have Francis away from home. By the time we came back the gossips had forgotten to add up dates and there was no scandal. I never asked her because she had no bloody choice, I’d already had what I wanted out of her, she could hardly say no. And that was unbelievably selfish of me. I meant to do things so differently with you. But I didn’t, did I? By the time we got married I’d already created such a bloody scandal with you that you didn’t have much more choice than Rowena did.”
“And that has been bothering you for days hasn’t it?” Anne was smiling.
“Yes. We laughed about it at the time, but I don’t think I even asked you to marry me properly. I just took what I wanted. Again.”
“Oh love, stop it.” Anne seemed to realise suddenly that he was genuinely upset. “I am going to kick Captain Wheeler for this.”
“It’s not his fault, Nan. It just made me look at this differently. I’ve been so happy. And so completely wrapped up in myself. And that’s what I do. I met you in Yorkshire, and…”
“Paul, stop. What is it you think you should have said to me back in Lisbon?”
“I should have asked you to marry me. I should have told you that I know I am not offering you even a part of what you should have, and that the life is hard and painful and often very sad. There are risks and dangers and you’ll see and hear things that will stay with you all your life. I should have told you how much I love you and that if you wanted you could stay in Lisbon or even go back to England, and I’d still marry you. I should have told you that if I have to choose between this life and you, I choose you. And I should have left you time to make up your mind.”
Anne put her arms about him. “Yes, Major,” she said quietly. “My answer is still yes. And I’m not going either to Lisbon or to England unless that is where you are going too. I love you, and I love this life. I love your regiment no matter how foul mouthed and filthy they are, and I even love Captain Wheeler although I feel sorely tempted to throw him off Bussaco Ridge the next time he does this to you. I am exactly where I want to be. With you. If you show any signs of trying to shelter me in the way you did with Rowena, you are going to find yourself in serious trouble. And how can I doubt what you’d give up for me when you’d have given up your career if you’d fought that duel with Robert?”
“I love you, Paul. The way you are. I am not going back to England to sew cushion covers and dance at the hunt ball. Since I’ve been out here I’ve discovered there is a lot more to me than that. I’d like to find out what else I’m capable of. And I want to be with you. So please, stop listening to your officers trying to tell you that you’re doing this wrong, because you’re not. Being married to any one of them would drive me mad. And drive them even madder.”
Paul looked down into the dark eyes. He could remember his immense happiness during their hasty wedding, but somehow this felt more significant, as though what they were saying now, mattered more than the ritualised words of the marriage service. This was the conversation he had never found a way to have with Rowena and he realised its absence had got in the way of his feelings for her.
“If that ever changes, you need to tell me.”
Anne’s dark eyes were steady on his. “It isn’t all one way, Paul. I know I’m unconventional. Some of that isn’t going to change. But if I am making your life hard…”
“I might. Without ever meaning to. And if I am, you need to tell me so. No silent anger or resentment. That isn’t the way we are going to do things.”
Paul nodded, his eyes on her face. “What did I take on when I married you?” he said softly.
“Just me. I’m not easy, Paul.”
“I know. But somehow I don’t seem to find you difficult at all.”
“Prove it,” Anne said unexpectedly, and he laughed suddenly and reached for her, scooping her up into his arms.
“You don’t have to tell me twice, lass,” he said, his mood suddenly soaring again. “Good thing they’ve not manned this fort yet, it’s nice and sheltered in there.”
Anne was laughing too. “Serve you right if a company of Portuguese militia marches in while you’re busy,” she said. Paul bent his head to kiss her.
“I’ll take the chance,” he said.
206 years ago today, Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army won a stunning victory at the battle of Salamanca. In honour of the anniversary, I wanted to share a short excerpt from the first chapter of my next book. An Untrustworthy Army is the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga and follows Colonel Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the light division into Spain…
It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which had battered down on the Anglo-Portuguese army as they sat on the edge of the city of Salamanca, setting up a ferocious artillery fire which was designed to pound the city, a major French supply depot, into submission. The French had converted four convents into temporary fortresses and had settled initially to wait for reinforcements. Lord Wellington’s guns were neither numerous enough or powerful enough to subdue the fortifications, but he had more than enough men to blockade the city and with no reinforcements forthcoming, the French had surrendered.
“Thank God for that, we do not need another Badajoz,” Colonel Johnny Wheeler commented to his second-in-command, as they took their places in the triumphal procession into the city. “Pretty place, this, and at least they’ve the sense to appear welcoming, whatever they might actually think.”
Major Gervase Clevedon glanced at him with a grin. “Won’t stop a few wine shops losing half their stock tonight,” he said. “But if they’ve any sense at all the taverns will do a good trade. The brothels certainly will, I’m not expecting many of my lads to be around camp tonight unless they’re on sentry duty. I’ve told them I want half in and half out, they’ve drawn lots as to who goes first. If the first lot don’t come back in the morning, I think I can rely on the second lot to go and get them.”
Wheeler was laughing. “Gervase, what happened to us? We used to be such correct young officers, I swear to God I once had a man flogged for drinking on duty.”
“They still don’t drink on duty, sir, he’d kick them into the river. And I for one wouldn’t go back. We were a regiment of outsiders, the 110th, new-fangled and pretty much laughed at by half the army back in India. Some good lads, mind, but no identity to speak of. As for the 112th it was in so much disgrace when it came back from the Indies most people thought it was going to be disbanded.”
Wheeler ran his eyes over the neat ranks of the 112th. “I know. Look at them now, up here with the light division’s finest. Jesus, it’s hot. I wish they’d get going.”
Clevedon was beginning to laugh. “I think you might find,” he said cautiously, “that the victory parade is being held up, while Colonel van Daan’s wife’s maid locates her missing hat.”
Wheeler broke into laughter as a pretty brown haired woman in a sprigged muslin gown sped past them carrying a fetching straw hat trimmed with silk flowers. “Get a move on, Teresa, we’re dying of heat stroke out here,” he called.
Teresa Carter looked back over her shoulder, laughing. “I do not know why he bothers, she will have lost it before they get into the Cathedral,” she said.
At the head of the 110th, Colonel Paul van Daan took the hat from Teresa with a smile of thanks and turned to his wife.
“Put it on,” he said in tones of considerable patience. “Keep it on, I am not having you with sunstroke. Or I will spoil Lord Wellington’s lovely parade by tipping you off that horse into the river.”
“I’m not sure I’d mind that just at the moment, it might be cooler,” his wife said, tying on the hat at a particularly fetching angle. “Jenson, would you ride up and tell Lord Wellington thank you for waiting? The colonel has a mania about my hats, I cannot tell you what a bore it is.”
Paul’s orderly grinned and spurred his horse forward. Much of the army was settled in sprawling cantonments on the edge of Salamanca, but several regiments had been selected to form part of the parade into the city. This would lead to a Te Deum in the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor would be illuminated during the evening while Lord Wellington and his officers were entertained by the Spanish grandees of the city to a civic banquet and fireworks.
“You would think,” Paul’s wife commented, drawing up beside him, “that the Spanish would have had enough of fireworks given that the French seem to have blown up entire sections of their city to build fortifications. Since being with the army I have found that things exploding in the sky have taken on a whole new meaning for me.”
The Battle of the Clogs, also known as the Battle of Koge, took place in Denmark in 1807 when British and German troops under Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated a Danish force trying to defend Copenhagen which was being besieged in an attempt to persuade the neutral Danes to hand over their fleet to the British in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the advancing French. The campaign was seen as an unpleasant necessity but was not popular in England. The following is an excerpt from An Unwilling Alliance, set during the campaign.
In the huge market square he found more of his men guarding increasing numbers of prisoners. Some of the Danish troops had taken refuge in the buildings around the square. There were a few desultory shots fired, with no accuracy, but these were dying out now. The hussars and many of the 92nd had moved on through the town, chasing the remaining defenders south towards the bridges. The 52nd was moving around the square, battering on doors and clearing out small pockets of resistance in public buildings. They seemed very controlled and very disciplined and Paul left them alone and led his men over to the town hall where Danish troops, clearly out of ammunition, were throwing missiles down on the heads of a few members of the 43rd who were trying to batter down the door.
A red-haired captain was leading them. Paul approached him, dodging a wooden stool which crashed onto the cobbles beside him, narrowly missing him. The captain saw him and saluted.
“Sir. I’ve orders to clear them out of here.”
“Might take a while, Captain. Mr Swanson!”
“Translate, will you? One of the officers will understand Swedish.”
“Tell them to surrender. We’re taking prisoners, not slaughtering them. They can look around the square and see that.”
Carl moved back quickly, avoiding a bucket hurled from the upper storey. He raised his voice and shouted up to the men at the windows. Paul waited. After a moment there was an enormous crash and his lieutenant jumped back to avoid the splash from what was clearly a chamber pot. It shattered on the stones and the smell of urine and excrement filled the air. A voice shouted back down and Paul raised his eyebrows to Carl who shook his head.
“Didn’t get all of that, sir, but I’m translating it as ‘no’.”
Paul looked around. More and more prisoners were being escorted into the square. He could see scattered weapons, discarded by the fleeing Danes, and poignantly, a selection of wooden clogs. In their haste to escape, the irregular troops had thrown aside weapons, if they had them, and kicked off the awkward wooden clogs to speed their flight. Some of the men now under guard were barefooted.
“Where’s General Wellesley?” he asked.
“Not here yet, sir. The 43rd are mopping up the remains down by the bridge, he might be there.”
“All right, we won’t wait. Sergeant O’Reilly!”
The Irishman jogged forward, saluting. “Yes, sir.”
“Four men. Collect up everything they’ve thrown at us that will burn and pile it up against the door.”
O’Reilly turned, calling out orders, and Paul watched as the men began to gather the splintered and broken furniture. O’Reilly carried a bench towards the solid wooden door of the town hall.
“Not that door, Sergeant.”
O’Reilly turned, surprised. Paul was looking up at the windows of the town hall. A lone officer, hatless and fair-haired, his coat soaked in blood, stood looking down at him and Paul had a strong sense that the man had not needed Carl’s Swedish translation. Paul met the other man’s eyes for a long moment. The Dane was probably about his age, surrounded by his men, desperate and angry and determined and Paul hated himself for what he was about to do.
He had seen the flutter at the window of the neighbouring house earlier, gone almost before it was visible, but he was very sure it had been a woman’s face. There had been no sign of a woman or child in the chaos of the battle through the streets. He suspected that many of them had taken refuge in nearby churches, but not all. Still looking up at the officer in the upper window, he pointed to the house.
“That door,” he said loudly and clearly. “Burn it down. And stand well back, because that’s a wooden building and once you’ve lit it, it isn’t going to stop with the door.”
Paul suddenly wished that he had not chosen Michael O’Reilly for this particular task. His sergeant ought to know him better, but he realised, seeing the expression on the Irishman’s face, that he had seen too many cottages and churches burned out in his native Ireland by the English and should not have been asked to carry out a similar order here in a neutral country. But it was too late and Paul could not back down without alerting the Danish officer.
The colour had drained from Michael’s face and the dark eyes were fixed on Paul in mute horror. Paul looked back at him steadily.
“Get on with it, Sergeant,” he said.
O’Reilly turned away, carrying the bench over to the house and his men followed, piling the broken furniture against the door. Long minutes passed and Paul could feel his heart hammering in his breast, his nerves stretched to breaking point, waiting for the officer to crack.
The sound came, not from above, but from the prisoners in the square, a high pitched yell of horror, a plea in a language Paul did not understand. He did not need to, to grasp the man’s terror. He was shouting, running forward, calling up to the men at the window, gesticulating in the direction of the house and Carl Swanson moved to catch him, holding him back, speaking to him in Swedish.
Paul had no idea if the prisoner understood, but suddenly there was movement in the town hall and a weapon landed on the cobbles, a gun, useless with no ammunition, but a symbol. More followed. Paul looked up at the fair haired officer again and recognised sheer hatred in the man’s eyes. Slowly and very deliberately, the officer reached for his sword. He unbuckled it and held it out, dropping it to the street. It hit the cobbles with a ringing sound.
Paul did not take his eyes from the man. “All right, Sergeant. Move the bonfire away from that door, would you? Set a guard, make sure nobody bothers the women and children in there. They can come out when they’re ready but nobody goes in without permission. Captain Wheeler, get this door open and get them out, line them up with the other prisoners. Be very careful, I don’t trust this lad.”
“Yes, sir,” Wheeler said quietly.
“Captain Young, once they’re all out, take your company through this building and make sure it’s clear. Once you’ve checked, we can use it as a temporary hospital and mortuary.”
Paul stood watching as his men moved about their duties. They were unusually quiet and he understood why. He had shocked them and he knew it. He had shocked himself. If the fair-haired officer had held his nerve, Paul knew that he would not have given the order to light the fire that might have killed whoever was hiding in the half-timbered house but even making that threat was unlike him. He had been desperate to end the slaughter and had found, instinctively, the way to do it, but it was going to be hard to live with for a while.
The Danish prisoners filed out of the town hall under careful guard. Paul stood watching them. Most of them were looking at the ground, not raising their eyes. A few shot quick glances over at the other house, now with half a dozen of his third company stationed on guard. The Danes were calm and silent. These were regular troops in full uniform and they had held out to the bitter end. Paul watched them go past to join the other prisoners and was glad it had not ended in slaughter.
The fair-haired officer came last and he was injured, worse than Paul had realised from below. He was supporting his right arm with his left and was soaked in blood.
“Wait,” Paul said. He was sure the man understood English. “You’re injured. We have a doctor on the way over from Roskilde. My men will show you where…”
“I go with my men.”
The voice was heavily accented but very clear. Paul took a step towards the officer, intending to look more closely at the wound and the man spat, hard and accurate, directly into his face.
There was an audible gasp from several of Paul’s men. Paul looked into the other man’s eyes and thought, inconsequentially, that the colour was like his own. He wiped the spittle away on his sleeve without looking away.
“I’ll send the surgeon up to you then when he gets here,” he said evenly and turned away.
“You are worse than the French.”
Paul did not turn. He felt an irrational urge to argue, to tell the young officer what he had seen and heard of in Italy and from veterans back from Europe but he did not. On this day, in this town, the Danish officer was right.
The Battle of Orthez took place on 27 February 1814. After the fierce fighting through the Pyrenees, storms and torrential rain prevented any action for two months.
Researching the second half of the war for my Peninsular War Saga is interesting. When I did the first trip through Portugal and Spain last year, I had already written four and a half books in the series in draft form. I knew where my fictional regiment was going to be during every battle and it was a matter of checking my research against actual locations to be sure that my story would work.
From book six onwards, I am in the dark. I know the history and I know what the Light Division would have been up to for most of the time, but now I am in a position to plan as I go along. I can look at the sites and visualise my characters there; where they were fighting and what they were doing. It is both exhilarating and slightly strange and I have to keep reminding myself that this is a holiday as well or I’d be back at the hotel and writing half the night…
Eventually Wellington cut off Bayonne when he crossed the Adour to the west of the city. Soult believed that the Allied attack, which required them to cross rivers, would be held up due to a lack of boats or pontoons but on 23 February, Hope sent eight companies from the 1st Division across the Adour to form a bridgehead. During the evening, two French battalions were sent to investigate and were dispersed with the use of Congreve rockets. The following day, 34 vessels of 30 to 50 tons were sailed into the mouth of the Adour, moored together and a roadway built across their decks. By the evening of 26th, Hope had marched 15,000 men over the bridge onto the north bank. The Allies successfully captured the Sainte-Étienne suburb with a loss of 400 dead and wounded to the French 200 and encircled Bayonne on 27 February. From then on a very relaxed siege was maintained until 14 April when a French sortie led to the the bloody and pointless Battle of Bayonne at the end of the war.
Wellington pursued Marshal Soult’s army eastwards, away from Bayonne. Soult’s army was already weakened and Wellington hoped to divide them further while Soult hoped to trap the Allied army within French occupied territory. Bayonne blocked the north side, three French divisions held a line along the Adour to Port de Lanne and the east was held by four French divisions along the Joyeuse River to Helette. From there into the Pyrenees, Soult’s cavalry patrols closed the cordon.
Wellington started his offensive towards the east on 14 February. Hill’s corps took the right flank, including the second and third divisions, some Spanish and Portuguese troops and Fane’s cavalry while Picton took his men down the left flank and Morillo moved through the foothills on the right. On February 15 Hill defeated Harispe’s division at Garris and forced the French back.
Beresford’s left flank corps advanced the following day towards Bidache. It consisted of the 4th, 6th, 7th and Light Divisions as well as some cavalry. Over the next two days both sides manoeuvred their troops. The French had greater numbers but Soult sent Abbé’s division to help defend Bayonne, a move which left his army with fewer troops to fight Wellington. By 18 February, Soult had his troops in position on the Gave d’Oloron at which point the weather broke again, causing another delay in operations.
On 24 February, Wellington launched a new offensive. For this operation, Hill was reinforced by the 6th and Light Divisions. Beresford with two divisions mounted a feint attack against the northern end of the French line. Picton was supposed to do the same opposite Sauveterre but he exceeded his orders, having found an apparently unguarded ford about 1,000 yards from the bridge. Picton decided to send four light companies from Keane’s brigade across. After a steep climb, they reached high ground only to be overpowered by a battalion of the 119th Line Infantry from Villatte’s division. In their flight down the slope and across the river, they lost about 80 of the 250 men who were either killed, captured or drowned. Somewhere in my head I could hear the ghost of Robert Craufurd laughing, remembering Picton’s refusal to support him during his own unauthorised crossing at the Coa in 1810.
Meanwhile Hill built a boat bridge and sent 20,000 troops across the Gave d’Oloron at Viellenave de Navarrenz, a move which led Soult to pull back to Orthez. Wellington was not particularly keen to fight a battle at this point and tried to outflank the French, sending Beresford to cross the Gave de Pau downstream at Lahontan to circle around Soult’s right flank. At the same time, Hill’s corps moved directly toward Orthez. By 25 February, Soult had gathered his army at Orthez and was ready to fight the Allies.
The French marshal commanded 33,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers with 48 field guns. Wellington had 38,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers, supported by 54 guns. With Soult ready to fight, Wellington intended to send Beresford to break Soult’s right flank while Picton and three divisions attacked the French centre. Meanwhile, Hill’s corps was to attack Orthez, get across the Gave de Pau and attack the French left flank effectively crushing Soult between Beresford and Hill.
Orthez is a pretty little town with the Gave de Pau running from southeast to northwest. Since Beresford was already on the same side of the Gave de Pau, the river only protected Soult’s position to the east of Orthez. However, there is an east-west ridge on the north side of Orthez that ends at the village of St Boes to the west. It rises to about 500 feet with the road running along the crest, with threeknolls rising even higher, as far as 595 feet above the village. These knolls held French artillery.
Soult posted four and a half divisions along this ridge, one division in Orthez and one division in reserve. Going from right to left, the ridge was held by the divisions of Taupin, Claude Pierre Rouget, Darmagnac and Foy. Rouget was in temporary command of Maransin’s division. Harispe’s remaining two brigades held Orthez while Villatte’s division was in reserve north of Orthez. Reille commanded Taupin, Rouget and Paris on the right flank, Drouet commanded Darmagnac and Foy in the center and Clausel had Harispe and Villatte on the left flank. The cavalry was scattered.
Wellington planned to send Cole’s 4th Division supported by Walker’s 7th Division to attack the western end of the ridge under the direction of Beresford. Picton would lead his own 3rd Division and Clinton’s 6th Division in attacking the French centre and Hill’s corps was to feint against Orthez with a Portuguese brigade and hold his two divisions ready to cross the Gave de Pau to the east of Orthez. Charles von Alten’s Light Division was placed under cover behind the old Roman camp where Wellington set up his headquarters located between Beresford’s and Picton’s columns.
It was frosty but not frozen on the morning of 27 February, difficult for me to imagine yesterday, exploring the battlefield in soaring temperatures. At 8.30 the 4th division attacked Taupin at St Boes and quickly seized the church. Ross’s brigade swept into the village but were driven back by the battery on the Plassotte knoll. Cole brought up a KGL battery to duel with Taupin’s guns. This immediately became the target of the French batteries on the Plassotte and Luc knolls; two guns were hit and Captain Sympher was killed. Cole deployed a Portuguese brigade on Ross’ right and sent his line forward again. The result was a second repulse in which Ross was wounded and the counterattack by Taupin’s troops recovered part of St Boes. For a time there was a lull as the two sides fired away at each other from the houses, but the Portuguese had no cover and began to fall back. Wellington sent over the 1st Caçadores Battalion from the Light Division. Cole’s line collapsed just as the reinforcements arrived and Taupin recovered the entire village and drove the Allies back to their starting point. Ross’ brigade suffered 279 casualties and the Portuguese brigade lost 295.
Picton’s attacks against the French centre also met stiff resistance. He had split the 3rd Division, sending Brisbane’s brigade up the right spur towards Foy and Keane’s brigade up the left spur toward Darmagnac’s division. Keane was supported by Power’s Portuguese brigade while Brisbane was followed up the right spur by Clinton’s 6th Division. Since the valleys between the spurs were deep and muddy, both advances were restricted to narrow fronts.
Picton’s skirmishers quickly drove back the French outposts. When the leading brigades came under accurate artillery fire from the Escorial and Lafaurie knolls, Picton held back his formed troops and reinforced his skirmish line to seven British light companies which moved forward until they came into contact with Soult’s main line where they were unable to advance any further. For two hours, Picton waited for Beresford’s attack as the two sides skirmished.
Wellington adjusted his plans after seeing his flank attack fail converting his holding attack with the 3rd and 6th Divisions into a full assault beginning at 11.30am. He threw every available unit against the French right flank and centre, holding back only the second and third battalions of the 95th, the Portuguese 3rd Caçadores and the 17th foot. He also withdrew the battered brigades of Ross and Vasconcellos and sent in the 7th Division.
The struggle for St Boes began again when Walker’s division and Anson’s brigade attacked supported by two batteries firing from the church knoll. Taupin’s tired men, who had been fighting for about four hours, were driven back behind the Plassotte knoll.
Brisbane’s brigade came under damaging artillery fire. The brigade finally reached dead ground where the guns could not hit them, but then came under intense fire from French skirmishers who began picking off the soldiers. Nevertheless the 45th fought its way close to the top of the ridge where Fririon’s brigade of Foy’s division held the ridgeline. On the left of Brisbane’s brigade, two companies of the 88th were guarding the divisional artillery battery as it began pounding the French line. Soult spotted the threat and ordered a cavalry squadron to charge. The cavalry overran the two companies, inflicting heavy losses, and then went after the gunners. The remaining companies of the 88th immediately opened fire on the French horsemen, mowing most of them down to a loss of 165 men. The 88th suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit at 269 killed and wounded.
At this point, Foy was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder which affected the French morale. Brisbane’s brigade was replaced in the front line by two brigades of Clinton’s 6th Division. These fresh troops fired a volley from close range and advanced with bayonet, driving the French down the ridge’s rear slope. Berlier’s brigade of Foy’s division fell back after Fririon’s retreat exposed its flank. With Berlier gone, Harispe’s two battalions in Orthez were compelled to retreat in order to avoid capture. On the left spur, Picton’s two brigades under Keane and Power pressed against Darmagnac’s division. After Foy’s division gave way, Darmagnac retreated to the next ridge in the rear, where his troops took position on the right of Villatte’s division. The divisional batteries of Picton and Clinton immediately attacked the new French position.
Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade began to pull back after Darmagnac’s retreat which opened a gap between Rouget and Taupin. Wellington ordered the 52nd under Colborne to advance from the Roman Camp and drive a wedge into the French defensive line. Colborne led his men across marshy ground and then up the slope toward the Luc Knoll, winning a foothold at the top of the ridge on Taupin’s left flank. Wellington led the 3rd and the 6th in behind them and musket volleys created havoc in the French ranks.
In the thick of the fighting, Wellington’s Spanish liaison officer, Alava was hit in the buttocks by a spent bullet. As Wellington was teasing Alava, he was knocked off his horse when a spent ball struck his sword hilt, bruising his hip. Wellington remounted and continued to direct the battle. Against the advice of his doctors he ignored the injury with the result that he was later unable to ride for a week.
With both flanks turned, Taupin’s division retreated in haste to the northeast, the last French unit to be driven back. To the rear, Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade joined together and fought a hard battle against the pursuing Allies.
Buchan’s brigade skirmished with the French defenders of Orthez all morning. Having received orders to cross the Gave de Pau, Hill marched for the Souars Ford at 11:00 am and brushed aside the French troops defending the ford. Hill’s troops were soon across the river in strength and pressing back Harispe’s outnumbered division. They were joined by Buchan’s Portuguese who crossed at the Orthez bridge the moment the town’s defenders pulled out. Joined by some newly arrived conscript battalions, Harispe attempted to make a stand at the Motte de Tury heights but the raw recruits were too inexperienced and Hill’s men broke Harispe’s line and captured three guns.
By now Soult had realized that Hill’s column might cut him off and ordered a retreat which began well but quickly disintegrated into chaos down narrow paths and across country. Soult had lost six field guns and 3,985 men including 542 killed, 2,077 wounded and 1,366 prisoners while the Allies sustained losses of 367 killed, 1,727 wounded and 80 captured for a total of 2,174. In addition, many of the recently conscripted French soldiers promptly deserted. Soult did not attempt to defend the Luy de Béarn with his demoralized army but retreated north to Saint-Sever on the Adour.
Soult realised he could not defend both Bordeaux and Toulouse. He decided to head for Toulouse. Wellington sent Beresford with two divisions to take Bordeaux which Beresford did on 12 March. There was a brief lull in the fighting while Wellington sent for more troops and Soult ’s men recovered. When the Allied army finally marched towards Toulouse, they were marching towards the end of the war.
Orthez is just over thirty miles to the east of Bayonne, a pretty little town on the river Gave de Pau. The original bridge, with its distinctive sentry tower in the centre, is still there and can be seen from the modern bridge. We drove through the town to view Wellington’s deployment area up past the church and then drove up towards Baights de Bearn to see the spurs where Picton’s men would have been deployed to the right of the road.
Further on it is possible to view the ridge to the right which the Light Division used to climb up to the village. The location of St Boes has apparently changed since the battle but the church marks the area where much of the fighting took place and it is possible to walk down the road towards the Roman Camp to see where the Light Division was engaged.
Turning right after St Boes we drove along the ridge held by Soult’s men. The 52nd would have climbed up the gulley to the right to appear between Taupin and Rouget’s division. It doesn’t look like a particularly easy climb and given the time of year it may well have been very boggy. There is a memorial to General Foy’s men on the left-hand side further along the road.
Having flown into Toulouse to begin this trip, for convenience sake, we are doing the battlefields backwards. By this time Soult was very much on the run, his troops battered and exhausted with many desertions among the new recruits. But at the beginning of Wellington’s attacks on the Pyrenees the matter was by no means certain. Tomorrow the plan is, to visit some of the sites of the Battle of the Nive.
Cambo-les-Bains, 21 April, 2018