An Unnecessary Affray

An Unnecessary Affray is my second short story for the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop in 2020. It has been a bit of a marathon this year, since in a moment of madness I agreed to two short stories with a book publication date only a few days later, to say nothing of the Covid 19 lockdown. I’m quite proud of myself for getting it all done. As always, the story is free so please share as much as you like.

This tells the story that is not told in An Unconventional Officer, about the action on the Coa on 24th July 1810. I had to be selective about which episodes of Paul van Daan’s early years in the army I covered in that book, but I’ve always wanted to go back and write the stories I didn’t manage to tell, since I’ve always known what happened in my head. I managed it with the Copenhagen campaign in An Unwilling Alliance, and I’m delighted to have finally written about Paul and Craufurd’s spectacular falling out at the Coa.

There are several versions of the events of this day, and Craufurd had his supporters and his critics. Personally, I love Craufurd, you couldn’t make him up, but this wasn’t his finest hour, and I’ve tried to reflect that in my imagined version. As always, I’ve taken some historical liberties to give my fictional battalion something useful to do and I apologise to the gallant officers and men whose roles I have stolen.

A final warning in case you’ve not read the books; I usually try to keep my short stories free of bad language, but I was incapable of writing Paul van Daan’s reaction to this battle without the occasional lapse. His regular readers will understand this. Sorry.

An Unnecessary Affray: a story of the Combat on the Coa

It was hot on the long march from Viseu to Almeida, with the July sun beating down on the troops over a distance of some seventy miles. The pace was brisk, but not punishing, with the march beginning in the cool early dawn and stopping to rest and eat before the heat of the afternoon sun became unbearable. Ensign Evan Powell was surprised at how much progress they were able to make each day. He mentioned the steady but effective pace to his fellow ensign in the fourth company.

“The major won’t push them beyond endurance unless it’s an emergency, no matter what Wellington or Craufurd might say,” Donahue said. “Chances are we won’t see a battle. Craufurd is under orders to keep a watchful eye on the French but not to risk the light division. By the time we get there he might already be pulling out.”

“Why are we going then?”

Donahue shot him an amused glance. “The official version or my guess?”

“Both, I suppose,” Evan said. He was a little in awe of Donahue, who at nineteen was two years older than him and had almost three years experience on active service with the 110th and had fought at Rolica, Vimeiro and Talavera along with a number of smaller skirmishes. Evan had only recently arrived in Portugal to take up a vacant commission in the fourth company of the 110th and although he had done eight weeks training with the second battalion in Melton Mowbray, and had set sail full of confidence, he found his new messmates intimidating.

“All right then. Officially, Lord Wellington is sending the 110th to reinforce General Craufurd at Almeida in case of a surprise attack by the French. It’s not that strange, we’re not formally designated light infantry yet, but we’re all trained skirmishers and we’ve served with Craufurd’s division out on the border for months.”

“And unofficially?”

Donahue grinned. “Unofficially, old chap, you’ve arrived in the middle of the juiciest scandal this army has seen in a long time. Major van Daan is newly widowed, his wife recently died in childbirth, but it’s very well known that for at least a year he has been enjoying a very passionate affair with the wife of an assistant deputy quartermaster. Last week it all blew up when Captain Carlyon smacked his wife in public right outside headquarters and accused her of making a cuckold of him with the major. Major van Daan took exception to it and challenged him, and the whole battalion held its collective breath until Carlyon did the decent thing and ran like a rabbit taking a fat purse from the army pay chest with him.”

“He deserted?”

“Better that than dead, which he would have been if he’d got into a fight with our major. Anyway, Wellington took a hand. He doesn’t want to lose Major van Daan over a scandal with a light skirt, so he’s sent him up here to calm down, while I imagine he’ll do his best to get the girl sent home.”

Evan was shocked, although he tried not to show it. His family was Welsh, solid local gentry with low church leanings and the word adultery had never been heard in his mother’s drawing room. His arrival in camp right in the middle of the preparations to march meant that he had barely had time for an introduction to his new commanding officer, but he had felt an instinctive liking for the tall fair officer with the ready smile who had welcomed him, apologised for the chaos, and handed him over to his company captain for further instructions. He was disappointed but also very curious. They were sitting around the camp fires, as darkness fell over the scrub covered, rocky plains and low hills of central Portugal and this was proving to be one of Evan’s most interesting conversations in the midst of orders and marching and picket duty.

“Is she pretty?”

Donahue gave a faint smile. “She’s beautiful. Lucky bastard. I can’t say I blame him.”

“Awful for his wife, though.”

“Not sure she even knew, she was friendly with Mrs Carlyon, they were forever around the place together.”

“Awful for him, then,” Evan said, trying hard to imagine himself in such an appalling position. “He must feel so guilty.”

“Not him. He can’t have cared about her or he wouldn’t have…”

“Mr Donahue.”

The voice was quiet, and Donahue stopped mid-sentence and scrambled to his feet to salute. Evan did the same, quaking. His company captain was a completely unknown quantity and Evan’s impression of Johnny Wheeler was of a pleasant, even-tempered man in his thirties who seemed well-liked by both officers and men, but there was an edge to his voice now.

“Captain Wheeler. Sir. My apologies, didn’t see you…”

“I’d guessed that, Ensign, or you wouldn’t have opened your mouth so freely on the subject of your battalion commander’s personal life to a new officer.”

It was impossible to see if Donahue was blushing in the firelight, but Evan knew that he was. “Sir, very sorry. I was repeating gossip, sir, should know better.”

“How the hell do you think he’d have felt if he’d heard you saying that?  She was his wife of six years, she gave him two children, and he’s barely holding himself together.”

“Sir, I didn’t think.”

“There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that you can think, Donahue. Get yourself out there, forward pickets, you can relieve Mr Renard. I hope it’s bloody cold.”

“Yes, sir.”

Donahue’s voice was subdued. He picked up his hat, saluted and set off into the darkness. Evan followed his example, but Wheeler stopped him.

“Not you, Mr Powell, you’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I was part of the conversation, sir.”

“I know, I heard. I also heard what you said last. Empathy is a useful quality, I hope you manage to hold onto it after a few years in the army. Stand down, lad. As you’ve lost your messmate, why don’t you come and join us?”

Evan froze in surprise and glanced over to a group of men around an impressive fire in the centre of the camp. Donahue  mockingly called it ‘the golden circle’ where the commanding officer of the 110th and his particular friends congregated. Wheeler was beckoning, so Evan followed, feeling gauche and awkward and painfully aware of his youth and inexperience.

“Johnny, that was the longest piss in history, I was about to send out a search party. While you’re up, grab another bottle of wine, will you, there’s one in my tent. In fact bring two, since I can see you’ve brought a guest. Come and sit down, Mr Powell, there’s a spare camp chair next to Captain Swanson. Sergeant-Major, get him a drink, will you?”

Sergeant-Major O’Reilly unfolded his long limbs from a blanket on the grass and went to collect a pewter mess cup which he filled with wine. Evan accepted with mumbled thanks and sat down, trying to look inconspicuous.

“Why did Mr Donahue disappear into the darkness, Johnny?” Paul van Daan enquired.

“He was being an arsehole and I don’t much like him so I gave him extra picket duty.”

There was a general laugh. Major van Daan surveyed Wheeler thoughtfully. “Now that is something I might have said, but you, Johnny, are a model of rational behaviour. You’re also prevaricating. May I ask…?”

“No, because I’m not going to answer.”

The major turned blue eyes towards Evan. “Mr Powell…”

“Don’t you bloody dare, Paul.”

Evan could feel his knuckles clenching around the cup and was thankful that it was not a glass. After a long moment, the major’s expression softened into a smile.

“Ensign Donahue isn’t the only one being an arsehole this evening. I beg your pardon, Mr Powell, I’m not quite myself at the moment. Shift that chair over here closer to me, will you, I’m too lazy to yell, and I want to find out more about you. This must have been the worst moment to arrive, I’ve not had a moment to talk to you and I don’t suppose Captain Wheeler has either. It feels ridiculous to ask how you’re settling in, so I won’t. Tell me instead, where you’re from and what brought you into the army?”

The party broke up late, and Evan slept well in his shared tent and woke surprisingly refreshed. He thought about the evening as he mounted Cassie, his bay mare, and set off into the cool dawn light. It had been an evening of laughter and good conversation and for the first time since arriving, Evan had come away feeling a sense of belonging. He wondered if all regiments were like this and if other commanding officers had Paul van Daan’s effective blend of authority and friendliness.

Donahue was tired and miserable the following day, with little to say. He did not ask how Evan had spent the evening and no mention was made of their conversation of the previous day. Evan privately decided that if Donahue attempted to revive the subject, he would decline to take part. Gossiping about his commanding officer no longer felt comfortable after spending an evening in his company. Evan knew nothing about Paul van Daan’s private life but he had the sense that his friends were closing ranks protectively around him and Evan understood why. Bad enough to suffer such a loss in private, but unbearable to do so under the relentless glare of army gossips.

***

The River Coa was in full flood when the 110th reached the narrow stone bridge leading on to the fortress of Almeida. Captain Johnny Wheeler surveyed the raging torrent as he rode over the bridge and thought that whatever happened, neither French nor Anglo-Portuguese troops would be able to ford the Coa which meant that possession of the bridge would be crucial in any retreat or engagement. There were pickets along the river, outposts from Picton’s third division which was quartered at Pinhel and Major van Daan halted to speak to one of the officers. Johnny watched his friend talking to the young lieutenant and thought how tired Paul looked. In the brief time since his wife’s death, he had slept poorly, rising after only a few hours sleep to sit by the dying embers of the fire with Jenson, his orderly, or walking the perimeter of the camp to chat to the sentries. Johnny was one of the few men who knew something of Paul van Daan’s internal struggle between grief and guilt for his pretty wife, and longing for the dark eyed young woman who seemed to have turned his world upside down.

After about twenty minutes, Paul mounted up and joined Johnny and Carl Swanson who commanded his light company. “I’m not happy,” he said bluntly. “It doesn’t sound as though Craufurd has made any attempt to withdraw across the river yet. This lad knows nothing of what’s going on, but he says a lot of the officers are worried that Craufurd is lingering too long. I’m going to speed it up a bit, I want him to read Wellington’s letter, it might get him moving.”

Johnny saluted, wheeled his horse and trotted back to his men with the order, and the 110th set off again at a much faster pace. The area between the Coa and the Agueda rivers was a rough plateau, with low hills and rocky outcrops studded with trees and criss crossed with low stone walls enclosing orchards, olive groves and vegetable gardens. Johnny assessed the ground and thought that it was good country for skirmishing, but given the huge numerical advantage that the French had in this region, he would not choose to pit his men against Ney’s tirailleurs, if it could be avoided.

The 110th met the first pickets of the light division a mile on, and after a brief conversation, Paul returned to Johnny. “I’m riding up to see Craufurd, he’s camped about half a mile west of here. Come with me, Johnny. Captain Swanson, get them bivouacked here until we know where he wants us.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd was known as Black Bob, partly because of his dark colouring and complexion, and partly because of the violent mood swings and fierce temper which struck terror into the officers and men of his brigade and more recently his division. Paul and Johnny found him in his tent, studying what looked like a sketch map of a fortress spread out on a folding camp table. Paul saluted and Craufurd glared at him.

“What the devil are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Lord Wellington’s orders, sir. I’ve a letter from him.”

Paul held it out and Craufurd took it. “Of course you bloody have. I received a letter from him yesterday, and two days before that as well. Does he spend his entire time writing letters?”

“Pretty much, sir,” Paul agreed pleasantly. Craufurd regarded him, black brows drawn together and Johnny tried not to hold his breath. Suddenly, Craufurd grinned.

“Somebody should put sand in his ink pot,” he said. “Well, whatever the reason, it’s bloody good to see you, boy. Sit down. You too…what’s your name again?”

“Wheeler, sir, Paul said, pulling up a camp chair. “Same as last time you asked.”

“Button your lip, Van Daan, and let me read this latest nonsense.”

There was silence in the tent as Craufurd read. The orderly disappeared then reappeared with a tray, and Johnny took a cup of wine with a smile of thanks and waited. Finally, Craufurd looked up.

“Nothing much new there. He wants me to stay on this side of the river as long as it’s safe to do so, but not take any risks. Protect Almeida, but not for too long. Use my initiative but follow orders. Listen to…”

“I get the point, sir. We all do. He’s worried and he’s feeling his way.”

“He isn’t here,” Craufurd said shortly.

“I am, sir.”

“And I’m supposed to consult a junior officer about my division?”

Paul said nothing and Johnny admired his silence for a while. Eventually Craufurd made and exasperated sound.

“I am about to blow up Fort Concepcion,” he said. “I’ve left it as long as possible, but if I leave it much longer, there’s a risk they’ll take it. Burgoyne and his engineers are in there, making the final preparations. The rest of the division has been pulled back a mile or so, leaving only the pickets and vedettes out there. We’ll withdraw when we need to.”

“When will that be, sir?”

“Is that why he’s sent you?” Craufurd demanded belligerently. “Has he had the bloody nerve to send a boy of your age to keep an eye on me because he can’t be here himself?”

“He sent me to provide support if it’s needed, sir.”

“And to write back immediately if you think I’m making a balls-up.”

“No, sir, if I think you’re making a balls-up, I’ll tell you myself. And I’m a bit worried that you might be.”

“Duly noted, Van Daan. Are you sure he didn’t actually send you to stop you doing something stupid in your private life?”

Johnny caught his breath and Paul went very still but did not immediately speak. After a moment, he said:

“You mean losing my wife to childbirth? Not much he can do about that really, sir.”

Craufurd’s expression changed. “Christ, Paul, I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. Wellington wrote to me to tell me what had happened, he thought I should know. Is the child all right?”

“She seems to be thriving, we’ve found a wet nurse and she’ll be travelling back to England as soon as an escort can be found.”

“And what of Mrs Carlyon?”

“I don’t know her plans, sir.”

“Liar,” Craufurd said, without heat. “Wellington’s worried you’ll persuade her into committing social suicide with you, he has a tendre for that girl.”

“So do you, sir.”

“Yes, I bloody do, so take care of her. And keep that husband of hers away from her. Did he really hit her in the town square in front of half the army?”

“Yes. Don’t worry about her, sir. She’s safe at the farm with the medical staff and Carlyon won’t come back, he’s too much of a coward. Don’t think I don’t know that you’re using my personal troubles to distract me. Where do you want us?”

“You can stay where you are for the moment, I’ll send word once Burgoyne is ready and we’re on the move. Write what you like to Wellington. I know this area and I know my men and what they can do. I’ll march when I’m ready.”

***

Tension mounted over the next few days. The 110th shared picket duty with several companies of the 95th and Evan listened to their grumbling and tried not to be afraid. He could see no sign of fear in either his fellow officers or his men, but this was not their first experience of war. More and more French troops seemed to be moving into position, and Evan could sense the unease of his seniors. Officers from the other battalions, the 52nd, 43rd, 95th and the Portuguese  caçadores came and went, spending time with Major van Daan, and Evan suspected that the conversation centred around when the light division might withdraw and whether Craufurd was holding on too long.

At dawn on the 21st of July, Evan woke to movement, and then the call of the bugle. During training, he had practised getting to arms at speed, and had been impressed with his men, but he was astonished at how much faster these veteran troops could manage it. Gunfire could be heard through the morning mist as Major van Daan was summoned to Craufurd’s command post and returned to brief his officers.

“There’s action around Concepcion. Ney’s sent in the fourth corps and they’re driving in our pickets and the cavalry vedettes. They’re going to blow the fort, and then, please God he’ll get us over that bridge and out of here.”

“We won’t fight then, sir?”

“Not unless we have to, Mr Barry, we’re hugely outnumbered here and this was never meant to be more than a watching brief. The 14th dragoons are holding them off until the fort is blown. Stand to arms, I want them ready to move at a moment’s notice.”

The explosion was shattering, a huge boom followed by a series of lesser charges and Evan felt as though the ground was shaken beneath him. He wondered how it felt to be even closer. Around him, his men were restless, ready now for either action or retreat, and it was a relief when General Craufurd rode up to the edge of Vale de la Mula shortly afterwards and approached Major van Daan. The French were clearly visible in front of the village, three regiments of infantry and a battalion of light infantry. The major saluted.

“Orders, sir?”

“Stand to, Major.”

“We’ve been doing that since dawn, sir. Did the explosion do its job?”

“More or less. Some casualties, though, some of the cavalry were too close. A few dead and wounded from both sides. The 14th are holding them nicely, I doubt we’ll see action today.”

“Are we not retreating, sir?”

“Not yet. We can wait a while longer, I believe.”

Paul van Daan was frowning. “We probably can, but what’s the point, sir, if we have to go. Surely…”

“You forget yourself, Van Daan. Wait for orders.”

Evan watched him ride off then looked over at Major van Daan and Captain Wheeler. They were both frowning.

“You think he’s got this wrong?” Wheeler asked.

“I think it has the potential to be a bloody disaster,” the major said shortly. “Carl, Johnny, get the men round, I want to speak to them.”

The rain began during the early evening on the 23rd and continued ceaselessly through the night. Evan was on picket duty with Donahue and a dozen men of their company, and his companion grumbled through the sleepless and rain-sodden night. Marshal Ney’s 6th Corps lay close by, and for several days, the light division had manoeuvred across the plateau between the Coa and Agueda rivers, occasionally exchanging fire with French scouts.

A heavy mist hung over the ground as Evan watched his men lighting a fire to make tea. Sergeant Mackie brought a steaming cup and Evan smiled gratefully.

“Soon warm up, sir. Captain says we’ll be covering some of the wagons, bringing supplies out of Almeida. If we’re lucky, we can bugger off after that.”

As Evan drank his tea and ate two hard biscuits, bugles sounded as the main body of the army called reveille and began the morning muster, formed in companies. Men in red, green or the brown of the Portuguese units toured the pickets with dry cartridges to replace any that had got wet in the night. After only a short time, Evan had learned the morning routine of the army and it felt soothing, familiar, almost safe.

“Mist’s burning off a bit,” Donahue said. “Hope they relieve us soon, I’ve had enough of being out here with the bloody green jackets.”

Evan did not reply. Since the night Donahue had been sent out on extra picket duty, his relationship with his fellow subaltern had cooled a little. Now that he had begun to get to know some of the other officers in the battalion, he was less impressed by Donahue’s stories and found his incessant complaining irritating. Their current bivouac was wet, muddy and uncomfortable but it did not help to constantly moan about it. Evan was tired of his condescending manner and was beginning to loathe some of the tales he told of his conquests among the local women. He did not know if Donahue was really such a Lothario and was painfully aware of his own complete lack of experience, but Donahue’s gleeful descriptions of seduction made him cringe.

“There’s movement from the French lines,” Sergeant Mackie said abruptly, and something in his tone made all the men turn their heads. Suddenly they were alert, reaching for muskets and shouldering packs. Private Brown doused the fire, kicking the embers around to ensure that it could not flare up again. Evan stood staring into the mist until his eyes hurt. He could hear the sounds now, but there had been movement before and he did not know what Mackie had heard that was different although he suspected the men did. There was a sudden breeze which lifted the edge of Evan’s coat and caused a mad flapping as Private Crook finished rolling up his blanket. The mist shifted eerily, like some ghostly creature reaching out white fingers to touch the low stone wall behind which they had camped, and then suddenly sunlight pushed its way through and there was a clearing in the fog, and then another, and Evan felt his innards turn to water at the sight before him.

“Oh shit,” Donahue breathed beside him.

The broad plain was covered with French troops as far as the eye could see. They were close and fully armed and Evan knew with utter certainty that this was not another feint in the long dance of advance and retreat that Craufurd had been playing for days. These men were ready to fight, and today he might die.

Alarm calls were sounding up and down the line of pickets, and were picked up in the rear, as the men of the light division scrambled to pack up, abandoning roll-call to line the stone walls of the orchards and vineyards where they had slept. Donahue drew his pistol and checked it methodically and Evan did the same, although his hands were shaking so much that he was not sure he would be able to aim and fire. As he thought it, there was a shot to his left and then another, and suddenly the air was filled with the crackling of musket and rifle fire as the front line of Ney’s voltigeurs and the first of the rifle pickets exchanged fire.

“They’re coming,” Donahue said, and his voice was suddenly very calm. “Don’t panic, Powell. Hear that noise?”

“Drums?”

“That’s right. They’re a way off yet, which means he’s not brought up his main columns, these are just the skirmishers. We’ll hold them off, but when I give the word, we fall back through those trees to the main force. Don’t worry, they’ll be waiting to give support.”

“What if they’re not?”

“They will be. Stick with your men, they know what they’re doing. Christ, these bastards are fast.”

The French skirmishers were moving forward over the rough terrain, ducking behind trees and rocks to let off a shot. They worked in pairs, covering each other skilfully, and Evan was terrified at how quickly they were approaching. He felt painfully isolated and certain that within minutes he would be dead, then the crash of a musket beside him made him jump. It was followed by another and then another and the voltigeurs began to fall. They were replaced immediately by others, and Donahue straightened, took aim with his pistol and fired.

“Fall back,” he called. “We’re too far out here.”

Relief mingled with fear in Evan’s breast, but at least he could move now. Copying Donahue, he drew his sword and ran with his men to the first line of a small copse of trees. The men disappeared behind trees, turning to fire again at the approaching French. Donahue reloaded his pistol and it reminded Evan that he had not yet fired his. He was a good shot, had practised for many hours with his father and brother and could bag a wood pigeon better than either, but these were not birds. Evan took aim, knowing that his shaking hands must be visible to his men, and he wondered if they thought him a coward. A blue jacket came into his sight and he steadied the pistol, feeling as though he would vomit. The Frenchman roared, a meaningless sound, designed to terrorise, and it galvanised Evan into action. He fired, coping well with the recoil, and the Frenchman fell. Evan was shocked, wondering for a moment if he had somehow stumbled, then he heard Crook’s voice behind him.

“Bloody hell, good shot, sir. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

They ran, dodging between trees as the voltigeurs came closer. Shots flew around them, most bouncing harmlessly off tree trunks. Evan did not bother to stop and reload, he could not aim in here and his men seemed intent only on escape now. There were too many Frenchmen, and sounds from the right suggested that the riflemen who had formed the next picket had been overrun. A shot to Evan’s left was followed by a cry of agony and he stopped, knowing that one of his own men had been hit. A hand grasped his elbow, dragging him forward.

“No time, you’ll be taken. We need to get to those walls.”

Emerging into sunlight on the other side of the trees, Evan could see the grey stone walls, and beyond them, the red coats with silver grey facing of the 110th. Around him, his men made no further attempt to stand, there was no cover here. Evan risked a glance over one shoulder and wished he had not, as hundreds of French skirmishers swarmed up through the rocky terrain. He had been right about the riflemen, he caught a glimpse of them surrounded by French troops, their hands in the air. Evan felt very exposed but all he could do was run for the walls. As he did so, a shot sounded very close, so close to his ear that he ducked instinctively. There was a noise like a slap and a shout of pain, and the man running beside him went down. Evan turned his head and saw Mackie, blood spreading out over the back of his jacket, trying desperately to drag himself to his feet.

The others were ahead of Evan, scrambling over the stone wall to take refuge behind their battalions, and once they were out of the line of fire, there were shouted orders, the 110th took aim and the crackle of musketry filled the air. Only Mackie and Evan were still outside the wall and Evan saw Donahue turn and yell furiously. Evan looked down. The Glaswegian sergeant’s eyes were dull with pain, but he was still trying to get himself up, and suddenly Evan knew that he could not leave him. He ran back, trying to keep low, shots whistling past him from both directions as the 110th and the voltigeurs engaged in a spirited exchange of fire, and bent over his sergeant.

“Come on.”

Mackie grasped his arm and used it like a ladder to drag himself to his feet, his face contorted with pain. A shot grazed the top of Evan’s shoulder, so close that it ripped the cloth of his coat. For a moment, terror froze him and he wanted to drop the sergeant and run for cover, but Mackie’s desperate expression stopped him. Instead, he pulled the sergeant’s arm across his shoulders and began to stagger painfully towards the wall.

“Grogan, keep those bastards off them!” someone bellowed, and Evan recognised his commander’s voice. He took a step and then another, Mackie’s tall frame weighing him down, and a shot hit the ground by his feet, kicking up grass and mud. Another step. Mackie stumbled and Evan had to stop, sweat pouring down his face into his eyes. He hauled the sergeant up a little more and took another step.

“Here.”

The voice made him jump from beside him, and then the weight of the sergeant was eased. Two men took Mackie from him, lifting him off his feet between them. “Run, sir.”

Freed from his burden, Evan covered the few feet to the wall and hands reached for him, helping him over. Beyond the lines, he fell to his knees, vomiting onto the ground as his terror caught up with him. He was alive, although he had no idea how.

The two men were laying Mackie down nearby. One of them inspected the wound and the other straightened and came to where Evan knelt. Evan looked up, bitterly ashamed of his weakness, and was shocked to realise that the outstretched hand came from Captain Wheeler.

“Well done,” he said. “Are you all right? I thought you’d been hit.”

Evan felt the shoulder of his jacket, and realised that through the torn cloth there was wetness and a painful graze. He had not felt any pain at the time, and the thought that he had so nearly been cut down by a bullet made him feel slightly light-headed. He looked at Wheeler then remembered he had not saluted. He scrambled to his feet and did so awkwardly. Wheeler shook his head.

“Give yourself a minute, lad, and breathe, you’ve had a shock. You may also have saved a man’s life, we’ll send him to the back with the wounded. Sit down, have a drink and then get yourself over to your men, they need you.”

“They don’t need me. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Evan said bitterly.

“You’re learning,” Wheeler said gently. “It’s a bloody way to do it, mind. Go on.”

Evan watched him go back to the wall, drank some water and when his stomach had settled a little, went to join Donahue and his lieutenants with the rest of his company.

***

After an hour of skirmishing and desperately holding off the French light troops from the shelter of the walls, Johnny could not believe that Craufurd had not called the retreat. Even the furthest of his troops, the 43rd, were no more than two miles from the bridge, but it appeared that the general intended to make a stand. Johnny could sense Paul van Daan’s anger, as the drums came ever closer and Ney’s main columns marched into their battle lines, ready for the assault. Several men from the 110th had fallen, and at least three were dead. The wounded, Mackie among them, had been carried to the back of the lines, and Paul had given orders that they were to be removed to the bridge where he had already sent his orderly, Jenson, in charge of the grooms with the officers horses. Johnny wondered if they would be allowed to cross. Major Napier, Craufurd’s ADC was riding between the battalion commanders, with orders to hold their ground to allow some wagons of artillery ammunition and other supplies to cross the bridge.

“They’re forming up to attack,” Paul said, crouching behind the wall, his eyes on the French. “Once they’ve got those guns ready, we’re going to be fucking slaughtered here. What is wrong with him?”

Johnny was watching the cannon, the artillerymen scrambling to drag them into position, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Wellington would never have waited this long to order a retreat, but there was no word from Craufurd.

Abruptly, Paul got to his feet. “We’re pulling back,” he said, and raised his voice to a bellow. “First, second, third, fifth and guards companies under Captain Clevedon, fall back to the farmyard over there, then stand. Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, under Captain Wheeler, cover them, then make a running retreat. I’m going up onto that rise to see what’s going on, along the lines, I’ll join you.”

“Sir, for God’s sake!” Johnny yelled, exasperated, but Paul had gone, keeping low behind the lines, following a narrow goat track up the slope. Johnny watched, but decided that his commander had taken a sensible line on the reverse slope and was probably not in danger. He turned to his own company, shooting orders.

As the guns began to spit fire at the light division troops, the 110th made an untidy retreat to the  farmyard, and positioned themselves around the broken walls, muskets and rifles steady in sweating palms. Johnny glanced over at his newest subaltern. He was worried about young Powell, whose white face and trembling hands made him look like a frightened child. This was an appalling first engagement for a new young officer and Powell had no idea how well he was actually doing, but Johnny wished he had told his lieutenants to keep an eye on the boy.

The farmyard was out of range of the cannon, but some of the rifles were coming under heavy fire, and Johnny watched anxiously as they retreated, cautiously at first and then pushed into headlong flight, racing towards the lines of the 43rd who were trying to give them cover.  Craufurd’s line stretched between the Almeida fortress on the left and the Coa gorge on the right, and as long as the two flanks remained steady, it could probably hold. The rifles flight was opening up a gap to the left, and Johnny watched in dawning horror, praying that it would close before the French saw it. As he thought it, the first of the rifles reached the 43rd, and the two battalions merged, red coats mingling with green in a panicked melee.

There was a yell, and Johnny turned to see Paul running towards them, speeding over the ground with no attempt to maintain cover. He arrived, flushed and breathless and several of his captains abandoned their men and ran to hear the news.

“Cavalry. French hussars on the left, our flank is turned. They’re slaughtering the rifles over there, O’Hare’s men are running for their lives, it’s bloody chaos. We need to retreat.”

“We’ve no orders.”

“I’m giving the orders. Two halves, same formation as before, skirmishing in companies down that road towards the bridge.”

“What about Craufurd?” Carl Swanson asked, and Johnny flinched internally at the expression on his commander’s face.

“If he’s lucky, we won’t run into him,” Paul said. “Get moving and get them out of here.”

The retreat had disintegrated into chaos. On the left, French hussars swept through a company of riflemen and into the 43rd while to the right, the 52nd were under heavy attack from an infantry brigade. Between them, the 110th fell back, with officers and NCOs trying desperately to keep them together. It was another thirty minutes or more before Johnny, his men keeping up a steady fire behind yet another set of stone walls, saw Major Napier riding in search of Paul. Johnny glanced over his men, shouted an order to his senior lieutenant and ran to join them.

“We’re sounding the retreat,” Napier said. “Cavalry and guns are ordered to gallop for the bridge, the Portuguese to follow. The rest of you…”

“Give me strength!” Paul bellowed, and Johnny saw Napier jump at the volume. “We’re already in full bloody retreat, did he not notice? Half the Portuguese have already run for their lives, they’re probably across that bridge by now.”

“They’re helping to block the bloody bridge,” Napier said bitterly. “There’s a gun carriage or wagon or something, that’s overturned, and they’re panicking. We need time to clear it, Major, you can’t get horses and wagons down that road quickly. The infantry is to fall back from the left, and you need to defend every inch of this ground for as long as possible and keep them off that bridge. If they get to it before we’re ready to get the troops across they’ll cut us off and we’re all dead or prisoner, it will be a bloodbath.”

Johnny understood. The road to the bridge made a sharp turn, overshooting the heights and then turning back on itself along the river bank, in order to descend the steep slope gradually. Cavalry, guns and wagons had to keep to the road because the hillside would be too steep for them, and the sharp turn would slow them down. Johnny watched Paul’s face assimilating the information. After a moment, he nodded and when he spoke, he suddenly sounded very calm and very much in control.

“Understood, Napier. Where is he, is he all right?”

“No,” Napier said briefly. “He’s not himself, he’s very agitated and I’m a bit worried he’ll do something rash. He knows he’s made a bad mistake, Van Daan, and he can’t retrieve it, it’s happened too fast.”

“It’s been happening for days, and he could have got it back even a couple of hours ago,” Paul said quietly. “He wanted a fight, he wanted to prove something to Wellington, and he was too bloody arrogant to listen to any of us.”

“I know. He knows.”

“All right. Get back to him and tell him I’m forming a rear-guard and we’ll keep them back as long as we can.”

“The 95th…”

“The rifles took the brunt of that first cavalry charge, Charles, and they’re so tangled up with the 43rd in places it’ll be hard to keep order. My lads are still together. We’ll all need to fight our way down there, but tell him I’ll hold the rear for him. Just tell him, will you?”

Napier nodded. A flurry of shots flew alarmingly close, and Paul ducked back behind the stone wall with Johnny. “And either get off that horse or get out of here before you get yourself killed,” he shouted, and Napier raised a hand in acknowledgement, wheeled his horse and cantered away.

***

They had been fighting for hours, and Evan was exhausted. His fear was still there, bubbling under the surface, but there was no time to think about it. He was breathless, his voice hoarse with shouting encouragement to his men as they dragged themselves over stone walls, some of them head-height. The French were under no such disadvantage, with so many troops, they were able to send fresh men into the fray allowing those who were tiring to fall back. They hunted Craufurd’s men down the slopes ruthlessly, and too many fell under heavy musket fire or lay bloody and trampled beneath the sabres of the cavalry.

Ahead of the 110th, the men of the 43rd and 95th made their way erratically towards the bridge, leaving dead, wounded and prisoners behind them. Van Daan held his men steady at the rear, pinning down sections of the French for long stretches of time to give their retreating fellows time to move on, then making a frantic dash to the next enclosure where they caught their breath behind stone walls before turning to fire again. At any moment, it seemed to Evan, that the relentless tide of the approaching French would flood over them and sweep them away, but somehow, when the waves threatened to overwhelm his men, Paul van Daan was up again, shouting orders, pointing to a new shelter, a new refuge, a new yard or orchard or olive grove which he could use as a flimsy fortress. His eye for terrain was extraordinary, and in the midst of his confusion and sheer terror, Evan felt something akin to hero-worship for the tall figure who seemed to him to be keeping them alive almost single-handedly.

As they drew close to the bridge, their way was blocked by men of the 43rd and 95th, some of them wounded and being supported by their comrades. Bloody and battered, they streamed down the road towards the river, some of them scrambling down the steep slopes to reach the bridge. Above the road, two knolls overlooked the crossing, currently held by Craufurd’s troops, but there was already fighting on the heights as the advancing French fought to push the defenders off. On the route to the bridge, French fire was finding more targets as the light division men came together in a concentrated mass, and from behind every available rock, wall and bush, the enemy directed fire at the men trying desperately to reach the bridge, which was still clogged with wagons and men.

“This is a death trap,” Major van Daan said. “Captain Wheeler, draw them over to the left, there’s some cover behind those rocks, although not much. Set up fire onto that slope, it might draw some of them off from the bridge. Who’s in command up on that knoll?”

“Looks like Beckwith, sir.”

“Good news, he’s got a brain. Keep them low and keep them busy, Johnny, I’m going to climb up there.”

“Oh, not again,” Wheeler said, and Evan thought he sounded rather like an exasperated nursemaid with an over-exuberant charge. “Look, sir, if you have to commit suicide, take somebody with you. They might be able to get you out of there if you’re wounded, or at least bring a message.”

“What an excellent idea,” Van Daan said cordially and to Evan’s astonishment, smiled at him. “What do you say, Ensign Powell, do you think you can keep me out of trouble?”

Evan froze for a moment. The thought of the scramble up the slope terrified him, but he realised suddenly that there was nothing in the world that he wanted to do more.

“Paul, no! He’s seventeen with no experience, and…”

“Yes, sir,” Evan said loudly, and Wheeler stopped speaking and stared at him. The major was still smiling, as though musket fire was not raining down around him, and Evan felt that there was nothing that he could not do.

“Thank you. Any seventeen year old in his first engagement that has the guts to drag his wounded sergeant to safety is a man I’m happy to have beside me. Come on, we’ll go up the reverse slope, it’ll be a scramble, but we’ll be out of the firing line.”

They found Lieutenant-Colonel Beckwith with a telescope to his eye and Evan, who was experiencing a rush of excitement which seemed to have driven all fear from him, almost wanted to laugh at the casual way in which he greeted Major van Daan.

“I’ve been watching your lads, Major. Bloody good work. If only they’d clear this bridge, we might get more of them off.”

“You’re doing a bloody good job up here, sir. We’re stuck for a bit, I’m going to hold that rocky area for as long as I can. Where’s General Craufurd?”

“Down there somewhere, I don’t know. Napier’s conveying his orders, I’ve not seen him for a while.”

“He’s not wounded, is he?”

“I don’t think so, but he’s not himself today. Look, keep up your fire until they clear those wagons. The minute we can, I’ll send a messenger and you can get your lads over.”

“We can wait.”

“Take an order, Major. You’ve done enough today.”

“Yes, sir. Once I get them across, we’ll set up the guns and we can cover your retreat.”

“Good. Unless we get orders to the contrary.”

“I wouldn’t mind some orders,” Van Daan said mildly, and Beckwith laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“The only orders you approve of are your own, Van Daan. Good luck.”

The scramble down the slope was much quicker, and the major led the way back to the lines, keeping low and making a weaving run, which Evan followed. Behind the rocks, the men of the 110th crouched, keeping up a steady and surprisingly effective fire on the French. Most of the enemy attention was focused on the bridge, where some of Colonel Elder’s Portuguese troops were finally managing to clear the tangle of wagons and guns out of the way to allow some of the troops to begin crossing.

***

Johnny Wheeler had lost track of time. He was beginning to worry about his men running out of ammunition and had told them to save their shots and make them count. After the first scramble to cover, the 110th remained relatively safe in their rocky fortress. A determined rush by the French would dislodge them in seconds, but Ney’s men seemed wholly focused on the bridge and the detachments of the 95th and 43rd up on the knoll. Johnny guessed that given the distance between Paul’s men and the bridge, the French considered that they would have plenty of time to dispose of the 110th once the other English battalions had been annihilated.

There was movement from the knoll, and Johnny watched as the English troops began to fall back, hard pressed by the French. Beside him, Paul had his folding telescope to his eye and after a long moment, he swore softly.

“What is it, sir?”

“Beckwith is pulling out. He’s had orders to withdraw.”

“Should we move?”

“No. Oh for God’s sake, where the hell is Craufurd, he’s gone mad?”

“He’s desperate, sir.”

“He’s going to be more than desperate in a minute. Once the French have that high ground they can pick us off at their leisure.”

Paul stepped out from behind the rock and there was a yell from Ensign Powell. Instinctively, Paul dropped low, and a shot struck the rock inches from his head, breaking off shards. Paul flattened himself against the rock and yelled.

“Colonel Beckwith. Over here.”

Beckwith joined him within minutes and his face was distraught. “Napier brought orders to retreat over the bridge,” he gasped. “But, Major, the 52nd aren’t all over. Barclay and his men are still out there fighting, nobody has given him orders to retire.”

Johnny felt his stomach lurch and he met Paul’s eyes in a moment of shared horror. “Oh no,” he breathed. “The poor bastards. They’re either dead or prisoners.”

“No, they’re not,” Paul said, and stood up. “Napier! Major Napier. Over here!”

Craufurd’s ADC looked around, bewildered, then trotted his horse forward. “Major van Daan.”

“Barclay,” Beckwith croaked. He looked to Johnny like a man driven to the edge of his endurance. “Barclay is still over there with half the 52nd, he’s had no orders to retire.”

“He must have,” Napier said.

“He bloody hasn’t, he’s not having a picnic over there,” Paul said furiously. “You need to get over there and tell him to pull back.”

Napier hesitated and Beckwith said sharply:

“It’s an order, Major.”

Napier took off at a canter. A sharp volley of shots came from above and both Paul and Beckwith turned to look. Johnny followed their gaze and felt a rush of sheer despair. As the 43rd and 95th had retired from the knoll, the French had moved in. Settling down among the rocks and bushes, they were beginning to fire down onto the retreating troops who were finally making their way onto the bridge.

“Colonel Beckwith. Major van Daan. Get your men out of here and across the bridge.”

General Robert Craufurd was on foot, and Johnny thought that he looked more agitated than he had ever seen. The dark hair was rumpled, as though he had been running his fingers through it, and Craufurd’s face was pale, his eyes darting from side to side and his jaw clenched. Both Beckwith and Paul saluted and Johnny thought that at least one of them meant it.

“Sir, Major Napier has gone out to bring the rest of the 52nd in,” Beckwith said without preamble.

“Very good. Take your men, Colonel, and lead them across the bridge. Major van Daan, fall in behind with the 110th.”

Neither Beckwith or Paul spoke. Johnny realised he was holding his breath. Eventually, Beckwith said:

“Sir, with the French up on the knoll, we’re going to be cut to pieces.”

“Some casualties are unavoidable, Colonel. The bridge is clear, your men will need to move quickly.”

“If I could take some of the rifles back up…”

“That would be suicide, Colonel. Get moving.”

Beckwith saluted. Every line of his body radiated anger, but he moved away, shouting orders to his officers and NCOs. Craufurd looked at Paul.

“Once Colonel Beckwith’s men are on the move, fall in behind, Major.”

Paul took a deep breath. “Sir. You’re not thinking straight. Somebody needs to push the enemy back off that knoll to cover the retreat.”

“It’s too risky.”

“It’s too risky not to.”

“I have given my orders, Major.”

There was a long and painful pause, then Paul saluted without speaking. Craufurd turned away and made his way back down towards the bridge, his sergeant orderly at his heels. Nobody spoke for a long time. Johnny watched his friend and knew with absolute certainty what he was about to do. It was a moment of decision, a choice to follow him or to obey Craufurd’s orders. Johnny knew he could probably induce some of the men to go with him across the bridge, if he told them the orders had come from the commander of the light division. He also knew that he was not going to do it. Watching Paul’s expressive face, considering options and discarding them, Johnny admitted to himself that he would probably follow this man into hell and back. Finally, Paul spoke.

“First, second, third, fifth and guards. Form up under Captain Clevedon and prepare for a fast withdrawal over the bridge. On the other side, string out into an extended line and cover any troops still crossing. Grab some ammunition when you get there, the wagons are across. If any of you have any left now, share it with the rest of us, you won’t be shooting going over that bridge, you’ll be running.”

“Yes, sir,” Clevedon said soberly.

“Light, fourth, sixth and eighth, with me. We’re going to take back those knolls and protect the retreat.”

They took the knoll at the point of steel. Some shots were fired on the way up, with Paul’s men dodging between bushes and rocks, firing where they could, but at the top there was neither space nor time to fire muskets. The French seemed shocked, having witnessed the easy withdrawal of Beckwith’s troops such a short time before, and Paul’s men fought with single-minded ferocity. The thought of the rest of the battalion crossing the bridge below under constant fire from the French was a spur to action and once at the top, the 110th used bayonet and sword in a brief, savage fight with no quarter given and Johnny was drenched in the blood of the men he killed.

There was always a point in a close fight, where it felt impossible to carry on. Johnny’s sword arm ached and his whole body begged for rest, so that he had to force himself onwards. A voltigeur raced towards him, bayonet raised, and Johnny side-stepped and slashed viciously, bringing the man down. There was a scarlet spurt and Johnny could smell the blood so strongly that it was almost a taste in the back of his throat.

There was a crack, then another, and Paul’s men scrambled for cover as three or four Frenchmen found time to reload and fire. Johnny ran, grasping the arm of young Powell, who seemed frozen to the spot. As he rounded a tree, shoving the boy ahead, there was a sharp pain and his leg gave way. Johnny went down and rolled over, swearing softly. A hail of fire clattered around them, and was answered immediately by the crash of rifles from Sergeant Grogan’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.

“Sir, here.”

Powell was holding out a white neckcloth. Johnny shifted on his bottom to bring the damaged leg closer to the boy. “You do it, Mr Powell. Nice and tight, I’ll need to walk on it in a bit.”

Powell obeyed and despite their situation, Johnny almost laughed at the intense concentration on the young face. He did a good job though, and Johnny accepted his hand and got cautiously to his feet, realising that the immediate sounds of battle had died away. The French were retreating, backing away and then running in full flight, almost falling down the steep, rocky slopes, leaving dead and wounded behind, and Paul’s small band stood breathless and bloody across the knoll, briefly savouring their victory.

There was no time to enjoy it. The French were regrouping at the foot of the knoll, their officers yelling orders, and the voltigeurs were strung out along the slopes where they could fire down onto the troops on the bridge. Paul shouted orders and his men settled into position, taking careful aim. Most of the companies were armed with muskets which were not especially accurate but his light company had rifles and they picked off individual Frenchmen with contemptuous ease. Suddenly it was the French who were under pressure and as Craufurd’s light division staggered across the bridge to safety, the French cowered as balls whistled about their ears, ricocheting off rocks and screeching into the air. As the French fired onto the bridge, the 110th fired onto the French, and Johnny called orders as calmly as he could and tried not to think about what they would do when the ammunition ran out which it was assuredly going to.

Firing diminished, as men had nothing to fire with, and Johnny counted the shots and watched the men settling in grimly, bayonets and swords at the ready, knowing that the French could count as well as they could. Eventually, it was quiet around the knoll and Johnny looked over at Paul and saw the mobile face quirk into an attempt at a smile.

“Sorry, lad. We’re going to have to fight our way out of this, and it might not be pretty. I didn’t have time to ask your advice.”

“I’m not an idiot, Paul, I knew what I was getting into.”

“All right then. Let’s not wait for them, we’ll go down fast when they don’t expect it. Every man for himself now, Johnny, straight to the bridge, bayonets and swords. And if I go down and any one of these bastards stops to pick me up, I’ll gut him myself.”

“That won’t stop me trying, sir.”

Johnny turned in surprise and saw Ensign Powell, his sword drawn and his young face white and set but very determined. Paul managed another smile although it lacked conviction.

“Don’t you bloody dare, Ensign.”

The French were coming, scrambling up the slope, and the 110th waited. There was little shooting. It was hard for the French to aim uphill while the 110th had nothing to shoot with. Johnny waited, sword in hand, intensely aware of his men around him. He had known some of them for ten years and more and he was trying not to think of them now as individuals, with wives and children and families who would mourn their death. Below, the rest of the division was streaming over the bridge and Johnny concentrated on that thought, and on the men who would survive as he waited for the order to attack.

The firing had been desultory, but was picking up now, and Johnny was puzzled, as he could not immediately tell where the shots were coming from. Below him, it seemed that the French advance was slowing, and Johnny peered down the slope, trying to see through the trees, wondering what was happening. His men, who had been immobile with fixed bayonets and grim faces, were stirring, uncertain now. Suddenly there was a roar, and a rush, and then the French broke and red coats, mingling with green, surged up the slope. Johnny lowered his sword and stood watching and Paul walked forward.

“Colonel Beckwith.”

“Major van Daan. I’ve been told you disobeyed a direct order from General Craufurd.”

“Did he tell you to come up here, sir?”

“No. But he didn’t tell me I couldn’t either.” Beckwith gave a tight smile. “Barclay’s men are crossing now and Macleod just made the most suicidal charge I’ve seen in a long time, the bloody maniac. It’s time to go, Van Daan. Let’s get them out of here.”

***

Evan had thought that the battle was over. After the frantic scramble across the bridge, the light division lined up to defend their position, but did not occur to him that it would be necessary. Major van Daan was issuing orders, and men raced to collect ammunition and distribute it. Further back, behind the lines, the wounded were carried up to a small chapel which was being used as a temporary hospital and the surgeons tended wounds, performed amputations and in some cases, closed the eyes of men already dead. Across the bridge, the French waited for orders and Evan was sure the order would be to retreat.

He was wrong.

As the light division stood to arms, waiting, a regiment moved forward, crossing the bridge. Evan watched them come, bewildered. The caçadores, who had crossed early, were in position behind stone walls a little above the bridge, and artillery had been placed across the road to sweep it from end to end. Once Craufurd’s battalions were across the river, they had placed themselves behind rocks and walls on the slope commanding the bridge. They had fresh ammunition and they were bloody and exhausted and angry, watching in disbelief as the French formed their grenadiers on the knoll and then charged at the passage, offering an irresistible target.

It was slaughter. The leading company was mown down, before it had got half way across, by musket fire from the hillside and from the right. The column broke, and the men recoiled and dispersed among the rocks and trees by the bank, firing pointlessly towards Craufurd’s battalions. On the bridge, the French lay dead and dying, but more were forming up at the far end.

“Surely they’re not coming again,” Johnny Wheeler breathed. “It’s suicide.”

“What if they manage to ford the river, sir?”

“They’re not fording this. A couple tried earlier and were shot down or swept away. General Craufurd has sent the cavalry out along the roads to make sure, but the river is too swollen after the rain we’ve had. This is their only way to cross, but they’re not going to make it.”

“They’re going to give it a try, though,” Major van Daan said. “Bloody Ney. I notice you don’t see him putting his neck into this noose, he’ll stay well back.” He raised his voice. “Sergeant O’Reilly, I want your sharpshooters to target the officers. Once they’re down, I’m hoping this lot will break and run a lot sooner.”

“Yes, sir.”

The French made three charges, and it sickened Evan to watch the dead and wounded piling up. Wave after wave of troops flung themselves at the bridge and were cut down in appalling butchery until the bridge was blocked by the bodies. Evan could make no sense of the day and was too exhausted to try. He had thought, in his naivety,  that a battle was either lost or won but he could not imagine who would claim victory or defeat on the Coa today. He only knew that he was weary and miserable and wanted it to be over.

At midnight, the order came to withdraw and General Craufurd’s division slipped away through the darkness. Arriving at the edge of Pinhal, where Picton’s third division lay, they received orders to stand down and rest, and Evan Powell lay on the hard, cold ground and slept the sleep of total exhaustion.

It was early when the bugles sounded, and Evan rose and went with his men to roll-call and early parade and the miserable knowledge that through the chaos of the previous day, both officers and men had died or been wounded. He listened to the names with a chill in his heart and when he was free, went to find his captain.

“What happened to Mr Donahue, sir?”

Johnny Wheeler regarded him with compassion. “I’m sorry, Ensign. He was cut down in the final retreat over the bridge. They brought his body over, we’ll bury him later today.”

Evan could not believe it. He stood numbly at the side of the hastily dug grave, one of many on the hillside above the Coa. Around them, the hills were a hive of activity as General Picton mobilised his third division to pull back ahead of any French advance. Evan wondered about that. Picton’s men had been very close, and he was puzzled why the sound of battle had not brought the third division into the fray.

General Robert Crauford

The light division formed up for the march and the 110th lined up in companies, their wounded grouped together to be loaded into wagons, Captain Johnny Wheeler among them. He was talking quietly to his battalion commander when there was an abrupt command and the companies sprang to attention at the approach of General Robert Craufurd.

“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”

Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”

Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”

There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.

“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.

“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.

“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”

Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”

“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Evan looked at the ground, wishing he could be somewhere else. Inexperienced he might be, but he was sure that no commander should rake down an officer of Paul’s rank before his battalion, and he could sense the discomfort of both officers and men. Paul said nothing.

“You’re a disgrace to your regiment, to this army and to your family. God knows, I’ve tried to ignore the stories about you, but I’m beginning to realise there’s no smoke without fire. Six years, was it, that you led that poor woman a dance, and now that she’s gone, you’re sniffing after another officer’s wife and driving him so mad that he…”

“That’s enough!” Paul snapped. “You’re entitled to say what you like about my professional conduct, sir, but if you think I’m going to stand here and allow you to drag my wife into this, you’re a madman. She’s dead. Show a little respect, if you’re capable of it.”

Evan was holding his breath again. He found Craufurd frankly terrifying. Donahue had told stories of the man’s raging temper, appalling manners and brutal discipline and at this moment it was easy to see where the rumours came from. In this mood, Craufurd appeared just as willing to shoot his own officer as the French, but Paul’s words temporarily silenced him. After a moment, he said:

“I meant no disrespect to either lady, as you well know, but your cavalier attitude to army regulations is reflected in your private morals, boy, and neither has a place in my division.”

“You’re lucky to have a division left,” Paul said. It was obvious that he was as angry as Craufurd. “We should never have been in that position, and you know it, which is why you’re so bloody furious. I told you, Wellington told you, Napier told you, I think even Beckwith told you at some point, but you’re too arrogant to listen to any of us, and you almost got your division slaughtered because of it. Report me to Wellington, in fact you can report me to God Almighty if you like, it won’t make you feel any better. Those graves shouldn’t be there. You should have retreated, but you chose to linger on in the hope of a neat little rearguard action that would make you look good, and those men died because of it. Yes, I disobeyed a direct order, to try to save lives. I will sleep very will tonight over that decision.”

“Get out of here,” Craufurd hissed. “Take your battalion, while you still have one, and get out of here. You are not part of my division, and you will not march with us, sir. You are a disgrace.”

He turned on his heel and stalked away. For a long moment, nobody moved or spoke. Finally, Paul van Daan stirred, as if coming out of a trance.

“If any one of you tells me I should have kept my mouth shut there, I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head,” he announced. “Sergeant-Major O’Reilly, is it going to take you the rest of the morning to get my battalion on the road?”

***

After a few miles, the unsprung wagon made Johnny feel so sick that he called for his horse. The wound was painful but not agonising, and it was no worse riding. The battalion marched almost silently. Generally, Paul’s officers took a relaxed attitude to the march, and there was a hum of conversation, but the 110th were too weary and too miserable after their losses and their commanding officer’s altercation with General Craufurd.

After an hour, Johnny rode up the line to join Carl Swanson at the head of the light company. “Do you think he’s ready to talk yet?”

“No,” Carl said, his eyes on Paul’s straight back. “But he probably needs to. You, me or both of us?”

“Let’s both go.”

Paul glanced both ways as they came up on either side of him. “Have you lost your companies, gentlemen?”

“No, it’s still there,” Carl said equably.

“I think mine is too,” Johnny said, peering back over the heads of the marching men.

“Well, get back to them, then.”

“Oh, cut line, Paul. We’re worried about you. It’s what friends do.”

After a moment, Paul’s taut expression softened a little. “I’m all right,” he said. “Calming down slowly.”

“Do you think he meant it?”

“Craufurd? Well he did at that moment, but I doubt he’ll follow through on it. And even if he did, I don’t think Wellington will let him call a general court martial, he won’t want this story bandied around in the London Gazette more than it needs to be. He’ll probably tell me to apologise.”

“You probably need to apologise, Paul.”

“Craufurd needs to apologise, he’s an arsehole. How are the wounded doing?”

“Bearing up, none of them are that serious. I’m glad you decided to bring them with us, though.” Johnny shot his friend a thoughtful glance. “When we get there…”

“I’m not going to see her,” Paul said. “I know what you’re about to say, and you’re right. Given what just happened, I need to get my battalion back to where it should be and behave myself for a bit. Wellington is on the move, I’ll join him and await orders. Johnny, why don’t you take the wounded and a small escort and ride on to Viseu? You can get treated there and I’ll send a message once I know where we are going.”

“And I can check up on your lady love, I see through you, Van Daan. Have you heard from her?”

“Yes, she wrote to tell me that my daughter is safely on her way to Lisbon with Daniels and the bulk of the sick and wounded. Nan remained with the last of the hospital patients, but she needs to get herself out of there. I’ll write a letter and you can take it for me.”

“To Lisbon?”

“Yes, she can stay in the villa.” Paul met Johnny’s eyes and seemed to read his thoughts. “Johnny, it’s up to her. I’m going to miss Rowena to the end of my days, and I’ll never stop feeling guilty about her, but you know how I feel about Nan. She’s not free to marry me, and God knows when she will be. She says she’ll stay with me anyway.”

“That will ruin her, Paul.”

“I know. Or I can send her back to England to her family and we both spend our time waiting for a man to die. I don’t know what she’ll do.”

“Yes, you bloody do,” Johnny said, torn between exasperation and affection. “She’s as bad as you are.”

His friend smiled, and for the first time in days it was a genuine smile. “Perhaps that’s why we should be together,” he said. “Cheer up, at least she’s a good doctor, she can get that ball out of your leg for you. How’s your new officer, Johnny?”

“I think he’s doing all right,” Johnny said. “What a bloody introduction to the army, though. I think it was a shock to him, losing Donahue, they’d got friendly.”

“He’s going to be better than Donahue,” Paul said positively, and Johnny smiled.

“Yes, he is. I wonder if he realises it yet?”

“He hasn’t a clue. He’s in shock, he’s probably still trying to remember his own name and which way to sit his horse. But when he calms down, I’d like to spend a bit of time with young Powell. He’s got promise.”

“If you’re not cashiered, of course,” Carl said cheerfully.

“That’s a good point, Carl. If they kick him out, do you think they’ll give the battalion to me?” Johnny speculated.

“Certainly in the short term. Major Wheeler sounds good,” Carl said. “We could club together and see if we can come up with the purchase price. Are civilians allowed to donate? I’ve a wealthy friend who used to be in the army, he might be good for a few guineas. Sad story, you know, he was a very promising officer but couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it.”

“Fuck off both of you,” Paul said.

***

Their laughter carried in the still morning air, and Ensign Evan Powell heard it, and felt inexplicably cheered. His company had been subdued, the loss of their officer and one of their men weighing heavily, but he was surprised to realise that like him, their mood was lifting and they were beginning to talk again, low voiced conversations about the weather, the road and the prospect of catching rabbits for dinner. Evan supposed that this was how it must be in the army, when men became used to burying friends and comrades, then moving on with no time for grief or extended mourning.

Evan’s grief remained, but alongside it, he was aware of a strange feeling of content. He remembered sitting beside Donahue just before the battle, his mind consumed with fear, but it occurred to him now, that what he had been feeling was not fear of battle but fear of fear itself.

That at least had gone. Evan had met fear, had felt it flooding through him, and had discovered that it did not diminish him. He was still afraid of dying, of being wounded or maimed, but he no longer feared that it would freeze him. In the heat of battle he had discovered that he could live with his terror and still function, and that once engaged, he was not aware of fear at all. It was a revelation. Evan had thought, for a time, that this great adventure might be a mistake and that he had not the stomach or the temperament to be a soldier. Those few hours on the banks of the Coa had taught him otherwise.

“Powell. Got any rations left?”

Evan reached into his saddle bag and withdrew a cloth wrapped package. “Two biscuits and an apple, sir.”

“Chuck the apple over, and I’ll pay it back when we stop, my man bagged a couple of pigeons first thing, I’ll share them with you.”

It felt like a good trade, and Evan threw the apple to Lieutenant Quentin who gave a smile of thanks, and beckoned to him to ride up beside him. Evan urged his horse forward and the 110th marched on, over the scrub covered plains of Portugal, leaving the bridge over the Coa behind them.

The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroThe 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.”

Lieutenant-General Charles Alten

One of my new favourite characters in the Peninsular War Saga, is Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, who took over command of the light division in May 1812, after General Robert Craufurd was killed at the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Carl August von Alten, to give him his German name, was from an old Hanoverian family, the second son of Baron Alten, and was first commissioned in the Hanoverian guards in 1781 at the age of sixteen, having previously served the Elector of Hanover as a page when he was twelve. He rose to the rank of captain and fought in the campaigns in the Low Countries in 1793-95, proving particularly effective as a commander of light infantry.

In 1803 after the French invasion, the Hanoverian army was disbanded at the convention of Lauenburg and Alten was one of many Hanoverians to leave his country and enrol in the force collecting at Lymington, which became part of the British army as the King’s German Legion. Alten was a lieutenant-colonel by now and as such, took command of the light infantry of the KGL.

Alten took part in the Hanoverian expedition of 1805 under Lord Cathcart, and fought under him again in the brief Copenhagen campaign in 1807. This may have been his first meeting with Sir Arthur Wellesley, who commanded the reserves; certainly Alten fought under him at the only significant battle of the campaign, the battle of Koge, which is also known as the battle of the clogs, and which forms an essential part of the plot of An Unwilling Alliance.

Alten next fought under Sir John Moore in Sweden and then Spain, and commanded the second flank brigade during the retreat; the first flank brigade was commanded by Robert Craufurd. Neither fought at Corunna, having taken a different route out of Spain, although both shared in the privations and horrors of the winter retreat.

 Alten’s next campaign was the disastrous Walcheren expedition in the summer of 1809, after which he returned to the Peninsula and commanded an independent KGL brigade at the bloody battle of Albuera. His conduct and career must have impressed his commander-in-chief, who referred to him as ‘the best of the Hanoverians’ and in May 1812 he was given command of the light division. Alten led Wellington’s elite troops during the battles of Salamanca, Vitoria, the Pyrenees, the Nivelle, the Nive, Orthez and Toulouse.

Historian Charles Oman has been harsh in his judgement of Alten’s role in the light division, comparing him unfavourably with Craufurd, as ‘a general of much more pedestrian quality, who might never fail to make an attempt to obey Wellington’s orders to the best of his ability, but could never supplement them by any improvisation of his own, of which he was incapable’. It is probably true that Alten did not share Craufurd’s flashes of sheer brilliance, but neither did he share his reputation for rudeness, belligerence and inability to get on with his officers. Wellington placed his faith firmly in Alten’s ability to command, and the light division retained their reputation as Wellington’s elite troops under his steady leadership. The officers of the light division presented him with a sword of honour as a token of their esteem, something they would probably not have done for Craufurd.

In 1815 Alten led Wellington’s third division during the Hundred Days. Part of the division was heavily engaged at the Battle of Quatre Bras, and at Waterloo, Alten’s men held the front line throughout the day and suffered appalling losses. Alten was badly wounded and his courage and conduct won him the rank of Count von Alten.

The King’s German Legion was disbanded at the end of the war, and Alten took command of the Hanoverian troops in France as part of the Army of Occupation until 1818 when the occupation ended. He returned to Hanover where he became minister of war and foreign affairs and rose to the rank of field marshal. He remained on the British army list as Major-General Sir Charles Alten, GCB. He died in 1840 and is buried in the Neustadter Kirche in Hanover.

Writing Alten as a fictional character is an interesting challenge. He arrives to command the light division after the siege of Badajoz and I have a strong suspicion that Lord Wellington greeted his arrival with a massive sigh of relief. After the ups and downs of life with the irascible genius of Robert Craufurd, I think it is is no coincidence that Wellington chose a man who appears to have been noted for his steadiness, amiability and readiness to obey orders to place in charge of his most useful division. Wellington never denied Craufurd’s talent, but I think he was probably permanently on edge, wondering what Craufurd would do next.

It was tempting to write Alten as Oman portrays him, a pedestrian general and a safe pair of hands, but as I was trying to find out more about Paul van Daan’s new commander as a person, I discovered a couple of lines in the third volume of Rifle Green in the Peninsula, one of my favourite sources for the actual day to day happenings in the light division, which made me rethink.

“The 1st brigade of the light division was ordered by General Erskine, whom they knew all too well from his short time in command of the division when Craufurd was in England, to cover the withdrawal of his cavalry. General Alten was most indignant at having his brigade ordered to such a precarious position. After forming up and halting them in columns ready to form square, he then remonstrated with Erskine in no uncertain terms.”

This little passage gave me a different perspective; mild-mannered Clark Kent was having none of it from General Erskine and wasn’t afraid to say so. It occurred to me that unlike Craufurd, there are not dozens of accounts describing him, but if actions speak louder than words, Alten’s officers liked and respected him enough to present him with a gift and Wellington thought highly enough of him to entrust him with the light division and then to give him a significant command during the Waterloo campaign. The best of the Hanoverians, it seemed to me, might well have been a very good commander and a likeable man.

That is how I have chosen to portray Alten, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better through the rest of the books. I’d love to find out more about him and I wonder if there is a fabulous German source out there that I know nothing about yet. My Alten is courageous, intelligent and well-mannered, with a willingness to listen to advice and to discuss his plans with his officers. He misses his wife, and enjoys sharing a good bottle of wine with Colonel Barnard and playing chess with Colonel van Daan. What he is not, is boring, pedestrian and weak. I hope my readers enjoy him.

An Untrustworthy Army, Book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga, is due out on 30th November and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

The Storming of Ciudad Rodrigo – an excerpt from A Redoubtable Citadel

The storming of Ciudad Rodrigo is the opening scene of book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga, A Redoubtable Citadel and took place in January 1812.

The light division had been instructed to storm the lesser breach, while Picton’s third division had been given the greater breach on the northwest. Paul walked up to meet his commander and found the two commanders of the other brigades already with him. Both men were relatively new in post although both had commanded brigades before. Colonel George Drummond had died of fever the previous September and Colonel Sydney Beckwith had been invalided home in August which placed Paul in the strange position of being the longest serving of the three brigade commanders albeit the youngest. It had cemented his position in the division. He was known to be close to both Wellington and Craufurd, and while Beckwith and Drummond had tended to look upon him as something of a young upstart at times, he found relations with Vandeleur and Barnard, who had not been present when he was surprisingly raised to command a brigade at the age of thirty, far easier.
Robert Craufurd glared at Paul as he saluted. “There you are! What the devil was that racket about earlier, I thought you were going over to the French!”
“Thought about it,” Paul said. “But I remembered in time how badly they tend to overdo the garlic in their cooking. I was retrieving one of my ensigns from an ill-judged attempt to join one of the forlorn hopes.”
Craufurd gave a crack of laughter. “He looking for early promotion, Paul?”
“He was looking to avoid gambling debts to some Highland major who’s been fleecing him at the headquarters mess,” Paul said grimly. “I don’t know who, but I’ll find out.”
“It’ll be Brodie,” Barnard said. “He’s known for it. Cards and swordplay. He’s a devil with a blade and he keeps up his lifestyle by challenging men to a friendly bout and betting on it. A couple of very promising young officers have had to sell out to meet their obligations, I’ve heard.”
Both Craufurd and Paul were staring at him. “Does Wellington know?” Craufurd demanded.
“He can’t, or Brodie would be up to his neck in it,” Paul said briefly. “Don’t worry, sir, I’ll deal with him after this mess is over. Trust me it’ll be the last time he tries to make money out of one of my junior officers. And if he kicks off about it, he can try challenging me to a friendly bout and having a bet on it.”
Craufurd gave a bark of laughter and the other two men smiled politely. “I admire your confidence, Colonel,” General Vandeleur said. “I believe he’s very good.”
“I’ll be surprised if he’s good enough to beat this arrogant young bastard,” Craufurd said dispassionately. “I’ve seen Colonel van Daan fight and he’s almost as good as he thinks he is. We’ll talk about it when this is over, Paul. I don’t mind you kicking his arse but I don’t want Lord Wellington on my back over it. For now, we’re going in over the lesser breach. Call them in around the San Francisco convent, I’d like a word with them before we go in. Vandeleur, your lads will lead us over, Barnard to follow. Colonel van Daan will bring his lads up behind to correct all of our mistakes.”
Barnard shot Paul a startled glance and seemed relieved to see him laughing. Neither of the other commanders had completely got to grips with Craufurd’s acerbic tongue and were not always sure when he was being genuinely offensive or when he was joking.
“It’s what I do best, sir,” Paul said. “You got any orders you particularly want me to ignore today or shall we just see how it goes?”
“You disobey an order of mine today, Colonel and I will shoot you in the head!” Craufurd said explosively.
“No you won’t, sir, you’re too fond of my wife,” Paul said with a grin. “I’ll bring them up. You going to make a stirring speech? I might make notes.”
“You should, Colonel,” Craufurd said shortly. “Then you can make another one telling them the best wine shops to loot when they get in there!”
Paul laughed aloud, aware of the shocked expressions of the other two men. “I would, sir, but I don’t know them, not been to Ciudad Rodrigo before.”
“Well for those in doubt, follow the 110th, they’ll find them! Get going!”
Paul was amused as he stood at the head of his brigade, listening to Craufurd’s speech. He was aware that not all the men would hear it all but the words would be passed among them and probably embellished. Craufurd was disliked by many of his officers but adored by his men despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, and his speech was unashamedly aimed at them, sentimental at times but guaranteed to touch their hearts.
“Soldiers,” he said finally, his voice carrying through the crisp cold evening air. “The eyes of your country are upon you. Be steady. Be cool. Be firm in the assault. The town must be yours this night. Once masters of the wall let your first duty be to clear the ramparts and in doing this, keep together!”
They cheered him with riotous enthusiasm and he smiled down at them, black browed and stocky, a man at home in his command and knowing himself loved. “Now lads, for the breach!”
They stirred, checking their arms, ready to move, and Paul stepped forward and stilled his brigade with a yell which surpassed anything his commanding officer had managed.
“Third brigade halt!”
The men froze and snapped to attention. Paul stepped up onto a chunk of broken masonry and looked down over them.
“Wine, ale, liquor – I don’t give a damn, providing you bring some back for me and I’m picky so make it good!” he said, and there was a gust of laughter through the brigade. “But if I catch any one of you looting houses or hurting the locals and I swear to God you’ll wish you’d died in that breach. As for the women – every single one of you bastards knows my views on rape and you touch a lassie against her will I will personally cut off your balls and nail your prick to the doorpost! You have been warned. Officers and NCOs make sure everybody heard that message, will you?”
“That’s all right, sir,” RSM Carter said pleasantly. “I’m fairly sure they heard that message in London at Horse Guards.”

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant)

Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, 1809 – An Excerpt from An Unconventional Officer

Viseu
Viseu

Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, in 1809 must have been greeted with a sigh of relief.  While Wellington’s engineers frantically worked on the Lines of Torres Vedras, Craufurd and his light division prowled the border and the rest of the army took a breath and recovered from the horror of Talavera.  And in an Unconventional Officer, the first book of the Peninsular War Saga, Anne Carlyon is the toast of headquarters and the object of admiration from a number of officers, some of them more senior than others…

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul watched as Anne Carlyon danced her way through the headquarters festivities over Christmas and the sight of her tried his resolve almost to breaking point. It was impossible to keep his distance. Her popularity with Lord Wellington made her a guaranteed guest at every party and he watched her laughing and flirting with an ache in his heart. Her husband trod behind her, his eyes following her around every room. Paul, who had come to loathe Carlyon, could almost pity him. He could remember the days when Robert had spent all his time and money at cards and had seemed indifferent to the whereabouts of his lovely young wife. Two years later, he seemed unable to take his eyes from her but was no more comfortable in her presence than he had ever been. His fellow officers spoke behind his back with open amusement about his obsession with her and her flirtatiousness with other men, and Paul was aware of a certain reserve in their comments around him which told him that gossip was linking his name to Anne’s.

Anne’s close friendship with Rowena made it impossible for him to avoid spending time around her even if he had wished to, but he did not. He tried hard not to make life difficult for her with her husband although he was aware of Carlyon’s simmering resentment. It threatened to spill over at the ball hosted by the Highlanders during Christmas. He had danced with Anne and they had remained beside each other when it ended, watching the Highlanders demonstrate a complicated reel. Paul was watching her laughing face, the long graceful line of neck and shoulders and the swell of her breasts above the silver gauze of her gown. At moments like this, despite all the complications of their relationship, he could not help feeling a surge of simple happiness that she was beside him, their arms touching. He had not noticed Carlyon’s presence until he spoke.
“Move away from my wife, Major.”
Paul turned, startled. He was not sure if Carlyon was drunk but he was looking belligerent. Anne had turned too. “I am just watching the dancing, Robert,” she said quietly and something in her voice told Paul that she spent a good deal of her time soothing her husband’s jealousy.
“You may have been, but that’s not where Major van Daan was looking.”
Paul felt an unexpected rush of anger. “Surprised you noticed from the card room, Mr Carlyon. Run through her monthly allowance yet, have you? Don’t worry, she can come and eat with us if she finds herself short again.”
Anne was horrified. “Paul, for God’s sake!”
“How he spends your money is not one of the best kept secrets of the army, Nan. But keep at it, Rob, we all know that’s what you married her for!”
“It’s none of your bloody business, Major!” Robert said harshly. “Get away from him, Nan – now!”
“Stay where you are, Nan,” Paul said softly, his eyes on Robert’s face. “I think he’s drunk, and I’d rather you weren’t around him in this state, not sure he’s in control of himself and I don’t want you hurt.” He placed his hand very deliberately on Anne’s shoulder. Carlyon’s face flushed scarlet.
“Get away from my bloody wife, Major…”
“That will do!”
Anne turned with relief at the sound of Lord Wellington’s voice. People had begun to stare and she had no idea how to stop either of them. Wellington looked at Carlyon and then at Paul and the expression on his face was not encouraging.
“I have no idea if either of you are drunk, but you will separate now and remain apart. Major van Daan, you have a wife. Kindly join her. Mr Carlyon, remove yourself and calm down. Ma’am, will you join me for a stroll?”
Anne took his arm. “Gladly, sir,” she said, and allowed him to lead her away. Neither of them spoke as he drew her through the crowd, and out onto the broad terrace at the end. It was deserted and Wellington took her to the stone balustrade, which looked out over the town.
“Take a moment, ma’am. I think you are upset.”
Anne glanced at him. “Thank you for intervening, my lord. I suspect by now they are both feeling rather stupid.”
“Certainly I imagine Major van Daan is. While his feelings are moderately obvious he usually manages to keep them under better control.” Wellington paused. “As for your husband, we are all aware that he finds it increasingly hard to control himself. I am sorry. It must be very difficult for you.”
Anne turned to look at him, startled. “Does everybody at headquarters know, sir?” she asked.
“Everybody speculates, ma’am. Your husband’s level of jealousy is unusual and attracts comment. As for Major van Daan, there is always gossip about him, much of it nonsense. But since you came to Portugal it has become very obvious that he has no interest in any other woman.”
Anne shook her head. “Lord Wellington…”
“Ma’am, I don’t judge you. You must be very lonely at times, I think,” he said quietly. “I am too. Neither of us is happy in our marriage. It cannot be a surprise to you when I tell you how very attractive I have always found you. And if circumstances were different, I think I would be suggesting rather more than a stroll on the terrace, so I can hardly pass judgement on Major van Daan.”
“Sir…”
“I am not going to embarrass you, my dear. Our situations are not the same. And while I do not think I would have any scruples about Mr Carlyon’s wife, I could not reconcile my conscience with trying to seduce Major van Daan’s mistress. I consider him a friend.”
“I’m not his mistress, sir.”
“No. But he would very much like you to be.”
Anne smiled. “He cares too much about Rowena. And so do I.”
“I know.” Wellington returned her smile. “I don’t always find it easy to make idle conversation, ma’am. But I find you very easy to talk to. I hope that nothing I have said this evening means that you…”
“No.” Anne turned quickly to him. “Oh no. I am honestly flattered. And you are right. Sometimes I am lonely.” She smiled suddenly. “I can understand why Paul likes you so much.”
Wellington laughed aloud. “I am honoured,” he said drily. “He often has little patience for his senior officers. We should go in, Mrs Carlyon; before somebody notices that either of us is missing. But before we do, would you be very offended…?”
Anne met his eyes steadily. His unexpected understanding had touched a chord in her. “No,” she said, shocking herself.
He came closer and placed one hand under her chin, tilting her head back. Gently his lips met hers. Anne closed her eyes and let him kiss her, and then she was conscious of his arm about her, drawing her closer. His body was hard and she reached up and placed her hand on the back of his neck. Very delicately he parted her lips and suddenly his kiss was no longer tentative and she was conscious of a surprising shiver of pleasure. He held her against him, and she was kissing him back without restraint.
It lasted a long time. Almost Anne wanted it to continue. She was slightly shocked to realise that if it were not for Paul she would possibly have been interested in the commander-in-chief’s tentative offer. She had never felt this way with any man other than Paul and she was in love with him. But there was something attractively straightforward about Wellington’s kiss and she rather imagined he would demonstrate the same direct enjoyment in bed.
Eventually she drew back, and looked up at him, smiling slightly. “I don’t think we had better do that again, my lord,” she said quietly.
The hooded eyes were amused. “Neither do I,” he said. “I don’t know which of them would be more likely to murder me. But I am glad that I did. It suddenly makes the exasperating behaviour of two of my officers much easier to understand. I just hope they don’t end by killing each other.”
“I’ll try to make sure that they don’t.”
“Thank you, my dear. I feel obscurely flattered. Although I think I must allow you to go back inside without me. I am going to need a few moments alone, where it is dark.”
Colour scorched her face, but she was laughing. “I am sorry, sir.”
“Don’t be. I spend a good deal of my time doing things I don’t enjoy. It is very pleasant now and again to do something I do.”
There was a movement at the door and Anne turned quickly. Paul van Daan came out onto the terrace and she felt herself blush again, thankful of the darkness. He came forward his eyes on her face, taking her hands in his. “Are you all right?”
“Major van Daan, you are beginning to try my patience,” Wellington said sharply and Paul looked at him.
“I just came to apologise, sir, to you and to Nan. I’m going to take Rowena home, she’s tired. I’ve apologised to Carlyon and he has accepted. Stupid of me. Perhaps I’ve drunk more than I realised.”
“I doubt it, Major, but that is certainly the excuse we will be accepting,” Wellington said. He came forward and Anne looked up at him and saw her own amusement mirrored in his hooded blue eyes. “Your apology is accepted. Please don’t let it happen again.”
Paul lifted her hand to his lips then released her. “I won’t, sir.” He turned to go. At the door he looked back. “Mind, I’m not sure he’ll be all that happy about you kissing her on the terrace either, sir,” he said, and met Anne’s eyes. She was momentarily appalled and then saw that he was laughing.
“Paul…”
“Christ, lass, I don’t blame you. Between the two of us I’m surprised you’re not driven mad. It would serve both of us right if you did find somebody else.” He glanced at his chief and smiled slightly. “But don’t make a habit of it, sir. I don’t know how he’d feel about it, but just at the moment I’d like to punch you. Good night.”

(From An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant)

 

Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz – an Excerpt from A Redoubtable Citadel

The storming of the two great Spanish border citadels of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz were the first step in Wellington’s campaign of 1812.  It was essential for him to hold these fortresses, known as the keys to Spain and he pushed his army to it’s limits in order to capture them, with huge loss of life and appalling loss of discipline.

 

This is not good for the men of the third brigade of the light division because if there is one thing their unpredictable Colonel hates the most it’s storming a fortress and he is very prepared to let everybody know about it…

A Redoubtable Citadel is the fourth book in the popular Peninsular War Saga, telling the story of Paul and Anne van Daan and the officers and men of the 110th light infantry through the bloody campaigns of 1812.

It was early evening and already the skies were growing darker. All day the guns had fired, a deafening bombardment of the city walls which left men with their ears ringing even after the noise had stopped but it was becoming quieter now, with longer gaps between shots and the volunteers of the 88th Connaught Rangers stood immobile, so quiet that it was possible to hear the breathing of the next man as they waited for the order to begin the assault. They were all volunteers, this band of men, forming the Forlorn Hope, the first men over the breaches. Survival would bring glory and in some cases promotion but survival was very unlikely.
Sergeant Nathaniel Higgins was not one of the volunteers but they were his men and he ran an experienced eye over them and approved their steadiness. At the front of the line were two officers, also volunteers and neither of them from the 88th. The older of the two was a dark eyed captain of thirty-five and Higgins had been told that he was up on a charge of killing a fellow officer on a duel. Disgrace was his only future and he was probably lucky to have been offered this chance to lead these men to death or glory. The younger was no more than a lad, probably twenty, an ensign and too young for this. He was pale and sweating, but seemed calmer than Higgins would have expected, and he wondered what had driven the lad to this desperate end. Debt or a woman, Higgins supposed. Sometimes the young fools did not seem to realise what they were doing when they volunteered for this or how unlikely they were to survive. They saw it as the road to glory and quick promotion. Looking at this boy, Higgins was fairly sure he knew exactly what he was doing. Intelligent grey eyes were studying the walls.
Reaching into his coat Higgins took out his battered flask and drank, then touched the boy on the arm and offered him the rum. The young officer took it and drank with an attempt at a smile, handed it back.
“You all right, sir?” Higgins said, and the boy nodded, his eyes still on the fading bulk of the citadel of Ciudad Rodrigo, looming up in the falling darkness.
A sound broke through the silence and Higgins jumped. It was a shout, a bellow so loud that every man of the Forlorn Hope also jumped and turned, peering through the darkness. A tall figure was striding from the waiting lines towards them and he did not appear to be in the least concerned at the stir he was causing.
“Oh bloody hell,” the young ensign said, and he sounded, Higgins thought, suddenly more terrified than he had seemed to be of going over the wall.
“Mr Jackman. Am I seeing things or are you actually standing there with the Connaught Rangers when you should be back in line with your men?”
The tall figure resolved itself into an officer, fair haired and hatless with a long legged stride. Close up Higgins was aware of a pair of startling deep blue eyes which were fixed with ominous intensity on the young ensign. Jackman snapped to attention and saluted, and Higgins did the same realising that the man wore a colonel’s insignia on his red coat.
“Sir. Yes, sir.”
“Don’t give me ‘yes, sir’ you bloody idiot! What the hell are you doing here?”
“Volunteered, sir. Sorry, thought you’d know. Sergeant said commanding officers would be informed…”
“I was informed, that’s why I’m bloody well here chasing after you when I ought to be back there putting the fear of God into my lads! What made you think you had the right to volunteer for this suicidal piece of lunacy without my permission? Get your kit and get your arse back to your company before I kick you so hard you’ll scale that breach without your feet touching the ground!”
Higgins cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Colonel. But the lad is right. He’s entitled…”
“Not when he’s nineteen and being a bloody imbecile he isn’t!” the colonel said. He looked at Higgins. “You going over there, Sergeant?”
“Not with this lot, sir. With my men afterwards.”
“Good man.” Suddenly the colonel smiled. “Sorry, I should have introduced myself before, we’ve not met. Colonel Paul van Daan, 110th.”
Higgins stood to attention and saluted. The extraordinary scene was suddenly much clearer; he had heard of Colonel van Daan who had been given command of the newly formed third brigade of the light division. There were many legends in the army, most of whom, in Higgins opinion, fell woefully short of their reputations but he was already beginning to see why men spoke of Paul van Daan with something bordering on awe. The colonel looked at the captain commanding the troop.
“Name and regiment?”
“Captain James Harker, sir, of the 9th.”
“Ah. I rather see why you’re here.” Van Daan studied him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t on that disciplinary board. I hope you make it, Captain. If you do, come and see me, would you? I’ve heard good things about you and you might feel that a change of scene would do you good if you get to carry on in the army. I’m always short of good officers.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Van Daan’s blue eyes shifted back to Ensign Jackman. “Captain Manson has informed me that you are in debt, Mr Jackman.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Cards?”
“Yes, sir. In pretty deep. Can’t pay. Debts of honour, sir.”
Paul van Daan studied him. “To whom? Don’t tell me any of my officers are fleecing their juniors, I’ll skin them alive!”
“No, sir. I owe most of it to an officer of the Highlanders, a major. Got into a game up at the headquarters mess…”
“Mr Jackman, when you were offered the chance to serve in my regiment, did anybody give you any information about my rules on gambling?”
Jackman’s face was visibly scarlet even through the darkness. “Yes, sir. Not to gamble above our means and never with a senior officer. Sorry, sir. But it’s not in the army regulations.”
“Fuck the army regulations, most of them are bollocks anyway, you’re in the 110th and the only regulations that matter are the ones I tell you matter! And it serves you right for going to the headquarters mess anyway, the food’s dreadful and the wine is worse. No wonder Wellington never goes near it. I will deal with the major who thinks it is a good idea to flout my rules and gamble with my juniors at a later date. If he is extremely lucky he’ll get his head blown off before I catch up with him!”
Higgins gave a choke of laughter. “They’re in reserve sir, won’t be engaged today.”
“He bloody will when I get hold of him! Captain Harker, can you manage without this young fool? Despite his evident idiocy in matters of finance, he’s a surprisingly useful officer and I’d like him to go over with his men.”
Harker was smiling. “Gladly, sir.”
“Good. Jackman, if it becomes necessary I will settle your blasted debts of honour myself and you can pay me back gradually. And if I ever see you near a card table for anything greater than a penny a point I am going to shoot you in the head and display your bloody body as a warning to others. Now piss off back to your company and be thankful that I don’t have time to kick the shit out of you as you richly deserve! Move!”

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant)

Battle of Fuentes de Onoro- an excerpt from An Uncommon Campaign; book 3 of the Peninsular War Saga

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

The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place in May 1811 on the border between Portugal and Spain as Lord Wellington led his army to invest the fortress of Almeida.  Much of the action took place in the narrow streets of the village, with brutal and bloody hand to hand fighting.  The battle is at the heart of An Uncommon Campaign.

Wellington admitted himself once the battle was over that it had been a near-miss.  He had extended his line along a ridge above the village with the intention of keeping his potential line of retreat back to Lisbon open, but on this occasion he over-extended himself and the newly formed seventh division found itself stranded out on his right, under huge pressure from the French.  Massena was desperate for a win, knowing that his difficulties over the past year had left him unpopular with his Emperor and victory for Wellington was by no means certain.

His right was saved by the light division.  General Robert Craufurd had been on leave in England for several months and Wellington’s crack troops had been under the leadership of the disastrous Sir William Erskine who had made a number of atrocious mistakes.  After Sabugal, Wellington moved Erskine over to the fifth division and Craufurd arrived back with his men on the battlefield on the eve of the battle and proceeded to show the army how it was done by performing an outrageously perfect fighting retreat over several miles of open country under constant attack in order to rescue the beleaguered seventh division and shift Wellington’s line to something more defensible.

In the novel, the final square in this retreat was commanded by Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th who encounters a French cavalry colonel whom he had met a few days earlier during skirmishing out on the road towards the village…

 

Thatcher had wheeled his horsemen again and was bringing them round to take a pass back at the guns which Dupres had ordered up against the 110th. Even at a distance, Paul could hear him calling his cavalrymen into line and he felt a surge of sheer horror as he realised.
“Jesus Christ, he’s going to cut them off! The rest of his men are behind that outcrop!”
He ran towards Nero and swung himself into the saddle yelling, but the Allied cavalry had already begun to gallop towards the guns, sabres ready. The gunners were limbering up and preparing to move, and Paul saw Dupres swing around and give a signal. To the rear of Thatcher’s small troop, a mass of French cavalry appeared, and Dupres galloped his men forward, trapping Thatcher’s men neatly between the rocky ridge and the solid lines of the 110th. They were vastly outnumbered, and half of Dupres’ men were armed with lances. Paul felt his guts twist in horror. The only possible help he could give would involve opening his square and once it was broken, the French would be in and his men would be slaughtered.
Paul swung around. “Carter, four ranks. Hold square, but back three ranks loaded and ready. Take out every one of them you can.”
Thatcher had realised his danger, but there was no option but to carry on. He raised his sword and pulled out at the head of his men, thundering down towards Dupres and his cavalry. Paul slid from Nero’s back and ran to the side of his square nearest to the approaching cavalry. He placed a hand on the shoulders of the nearest men.
“On my word,” he said softly. “Open up.”
He saw Carl look over, appalled, but he did not look back at him. Around him the rifles and muskets had opened fire, and Dupres cavalry were beginning to fall. Paul stood waiting, watching the Allied cavalry approach.
“Now,” he said, and his square parted.
Thatcher saw the move and Paul saw him haul back on the reins with a yell. His horse reared up and he was shouting orders. His troopers wheeled sharply right and rode into the centre of the square, pulling up quickly and shuffling close together to make space. Paul found that he was counting them in as his men continued to pound in three ranks into the approaching French cavalry. The centre of the square was becoming crowded but the horses and men were highly trained and stood very still, leaving space for more. Paul watched, his heart in his mouth as Dupres’ men moved in towards the gap. There were fewer of them, but he knew he had only moments left before they broke into the square. Looking up he saw Thatcher watching, and then the boy looked over at him. There were twenty cavalrymen still outside the square. Thatcher lifted his hand and then wheeled and yelled to his men. Paul watched in sick horror as the men thundered away, galloping on towards Dupres.
“Close it!” he yelled.
The gap closed smoothly, and the rifles and muskets continued to fire. Paul looked over to where Dupres waited and saw the Colonel looking directly back at him. The Frenchman’s face was flushed. He stared at Paul, and Paul looked back. Dupres’ lips curved into a smile and he lifted his sabre and yelled an order, and Thatcher’s men crashed into him, with the other half of the Frenchmen hitting them from behind.
It was short and brutal. Paul’s rifles continued to fire where they they could but the muskets were silenced;  it was impossible to aim at the French without risking hitting the English. It was quickly over, and the English cavalrymen were cut down. Around him, Paul could sense the distress of his men and of the rest of the troop. They had all seen deaths in battle many times, but there was something deliberately cruel about the massacre of twenty men within a few feet of them. Paul could no longer see the young captain, but Thatcher’s horse was loose and galloping off and he stood watching, feeling tears behind his eyes. The French cavalry massed around the English troopers who were on the ground, and then there was a thunderous volley of fire, and Paul looked up and saw that Crauford was up on the ridge and the light division were lined up, rifles at the front, firing volleys down on the French.
Dupres wheeled his horse with a shouted order and the French were on the run, some of them falling as they galloped away, their Colonel at their head. The rifles of the 110th thundered out and the last half dozen of the cavalry fell from their horses as Dupres men rode out of reach. Paul watched, feeling sick and grief-stricken. For a moment, unusually, he felt unable to move or speak. Around him the guns still fired and he moved his eyes to the bodies on the ground.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “We need to get moving, Paul,” Carl said quietly, and Paul stirred and nodded and looked over to the lines.
“Open up,” he said to Carter. “Let the cavalry out first.”
He stood watching as the men filed out, then called his men into line and let his officers lead them up onto the ridge to join the rest of the light division. Further away he was conscious of the French infantry advancing in column but they were too far away to be an immediate concern. As his men moved ahead, Paul broke away and ran to where the bodies of the English cavalry lay.
Captain Thatcher lay on his back and his body had been slashed over and over. Across his throat was a savage cut, which reminded Paul of what had almost happened to Manson. Thatcher’s eyes were open, staring at the sky. Paul reached out and closed his eyes very gently.
“Colonel van Daan!”
He recognised the bellow of General Craufurd from the ridge above. Ignoring it, Paul stooped and lifted the long form of the young captain. He moved forward towards the lines, and saw several of his men break away and come back, ignoring the yells of their general. Carter, Hammond and Dawson came to assist him and they carried Captain Thatcher’s body up the ridge and behind the lines.
At the top Paul stepped back and let his men carry Thatcher to the back. Craufurd came forward.
“Colonel van Daan. That has to have been one of the…”
Paul swung around. “Don’t!” he said softly, and Craufurd stopped.
“Well done, lad,” he said quietly, and Paul shook his head.
“No it wasn’t. I couldn’t save him. I stood there and watched that bastard cut him down and I couldn’t do anything to help him. And he came in to save our arses.”
Craufurd put his hand on Paul’s shoulder. “I know, Colonel. Nastiest thing I’ve ever seen on the field, they could have taken them prisoner, no need for that. Come on, get back to your men. Nothing more you can do for him now.”
Paul nodded and turned away, making his way over to his lines. His men had taken up position on the edge of the ridge. Mechanically he checked their lines and approved the rocky outcrops behind which they were stationed. He was conscious of his immense pride in them. Their retreat across the plains had been a textbook piece of infantry work and at some point he wanted to tell them so, but his eyes and ears were still full of the tragedy of Thatcher’s pointless death.
Craufurd had moved away and was speaking to one of the Spanish runners, giving him a message to take to Lord Wellington. Paul watched, feeling curiously detached. Craufurd moved away and came back towards him.
“They’ve attacked Fuentes de Onoro again,” he said briefly. “They’ve got the highlanders fighting down there, they’re holding their own. We’re to hold up here, wait and see what those infantry columns do. They might attack, although we’re in a strong position up here.”
“Yes, sir,” Paul said. Craufurd nodded and moved away up towards the first and second brigade to speak to Beckwith and Drummond. Paul turned and looked out over the French columns, three infantry divisions moving into place to threaten the British lines. Silently Paul assessed the distance and the situation and then he turned and yelled an order.
Shock rippled through the first division and light division as the 110th fired. Their first tremendous volley ripped into the first line of French infantry and blew them apart. Craufurd moved forward with an oath.
“What the bloody hell is he doing?” he said furiously.
There was another enormous blast of gunfire and the second French rank exploded. It had taken them that long to realise, incredulously, that the British were not waiting for them to attack. Under shouted orders from their commanders they fell back quickly, dragging some of their wounded with them. Paul stood watching their frantic movements, his face expressionless.
“Major Swanson, Major Clevedon, Colonel Wheeler. You’ve got the range. Any one of them steps within it, I want him dead. See to it.”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny said quietly, and watched as his commander walked away and back up to where Craufurd waited with Beckwith and Drummond.
“This could be interesting,” Clevedon said mildly.
“Yes. Bet Craufurd is wishing his holiday had lasted longer,” Carl said with a grin. There was something about the set of his commander’s back which suggested that he was ready to take on General Craufurd and possibly Lord Wellington as well. “All right, Sergeant, you heard what the colonel said. Keep them loaded and if there’s a Frenchman you can hit, he’s dead. The colonel is seriously pissed off with them and I do not want him pissed off with us as well, it’s never pleasant.”
Paul approached Craufurd, saluted silently and waited.
“I did not give permission for your men to open fire, Colonel!” Craufurd said furiously.
“No, sir. I did that.”
“Without orders! What in God’s name is wrong with you, Colonel? You’ve been in command of a brigade for five minutes and you already think you don’t have to follow my commands.”
“Sorry, sir.”
“Sorry? What do you mean, sorry? You’re not fucking sorry at all!”
“No, sir. Not at all. Just being polite.”
“Polite?” Craufurd looked as though he might explode. Paul glanced at Beckwith and Drummond then back at his chief.
“Permission to go back to my men, sir?”
“Van Daan, you are an arrogant young bastard without any respect for authority or…”
“Yes, I have, sir. Immense respect for authority, especially your authority. I could point out that you didn’t tell me not to fire those volleys, but you and I both know that would be nit picking! I fired them because I’m fucking angry and I felt like letting them know that they cut down our men like that and I’m going to fucking slaughter them any chance I get! And you know what? I think they got the fucking point! Let’s see how quickly they come forward against my lads again today, shall we? And if Lord Wellington is looking for volunteers to march down to Fuentes de Onoro and kill a few more of them, you just let me know because I’m in the mood! Permission to go back to my men, sir?”
Craufurd studied him for a moment. Unexpectedly he said quietly:
“Go ahead, Colonel.”
“Thank you, sir.”

(From An Uncommon Campaign; Book 3 of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)

Church in Fuentes de Onoro.

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Battle of Bussaco: an excerpt from An Irregular Regiment

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

The Battle of Bussaco takes place at the beginning of book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga, An Irregular Regiment.  Lord Wellington had organised a retreat back to the Lines of Torres Vedras, the series of defences he had built to protect Lisbon from the invading French.  He was not in a position to push the French back at this point, so the battle was more of a delaying tactic, but it was very successful and made an important point to Massena.  It was also an opportunity for Wellington to try out the newly reorganised Portuguese army in battle and he was very happy with their performance.  In the book, Major Paul van Daan is newly married to his second wife and back on the battlefield without time for a honeymoon…

Paul could hear them now, the steady drum beat of the approaching columns. He turned to O’Reilly.
“They’re coming,” he said, and raised his voice softly. “110th at the ready!”
“Ready, sir,” Wheeler called back, and the order was passed along the lines. There was no bugle call on this occasion. Craufurd wanted the presence of such a large force to come as a shock to the French.
Michael checked his rifle and looked over his shoulder. “Nice and steady boys,” he said. “No need to be heroic here, the bastards have no idea they’re about to walk into us. Wait for my word, now.”
“Light company ready, Sergeant?”
“Ready as they’ll ever be, sir.”
Paul moved along the ranks his eyes checking for potential problems. They could hear the marching of the French coming closer through the mist and he saw the green jackets of the 95th further up beginning to move forward in skirmish formation. He nodded to Michael.
“Corporal Carter,” Michael called.
“Yes, Sergeant.”
“Will your lads pay particular attention to not letting the Major get himself killed today? You know how clumsy he is, and if I have to take him down to the hospital with a hole in him, his wife is likely to be after us with a scalpel.”
Paul looked back, startled, and then began to laugh. “Corporal Carter!”
“Sir.”
“Let the lads know there’ll be extra grog for the man who shoots Sergeant O’Reilly for me today. Make it look like an accident.”
There was a muted rumble of laughter. “Do it now for you if you like, sir!” one of the sharpshooters called. “No need for extra grog, be my pleasure!”
“You’d better hope the French get you today, Scofield, you cheeky bastard!” the sergeant said, laughing. “Ready now boys.”
“Get going,” Paul said, and Captain Swanson called the order and led his men forward.
They watched as the skirmishers moved over the ridge, taking down individual Frenchmen with accurate rifle fire. It took some time. Paul grinned as he realised that his light company were getting carried away with their feinted attack and were actually pushing the French column back. He imagined that Craufurd was cursing them for delaying the French advance. He could not sound a retreat without alerting the French to his position so he settled down to wait for Carl and O’Reilly to pull them back. Eventually he saw them moving back up the ridge, saw Carter and young Hammond laughing, having just received an earful from their exasperated sergeant. The rifles of the light division were already back up the ridge and the French came on, causing the English gunners to limber up and pull back. Still they waited. The French came closer, pressing on, thinking that on this part of the ridge at least they had the English on the run. They could only see the thin line of the 43rd.
Craufurd held his nerve. The leading column was within twenty-five yards of the crest, and Paul could see the individual faces of each Frenchman when he heard Black Bob yell. “52nd and 110th – avenge Moore!”
It was an emotive cry. There were men of both regiments who had seen Sir John Moore fall at Corunna and he had been beloved of the men he commanded. Paul had done his early training under Moore and had always believed him to be one of the best commanders of light infantry in the army.
“Fire!” Paul roared, and along the line the 52nd and the 110th rose and fired a staggering volley of rifle and musket fire at point blank range into the enemy. No man at the front of the columns was left standing. Along the line his men were reloading, as the shocked Frenchmen reeled, and then steadied and clambered over the bodies of their comrades and ran into a second devastating volley. Some of his riflemen fell back to reload and manage a third, but the rest fixed bayonets and Paul drew his sword.
In the roar of the musket fire and the screams of wounded and dying men, Paul moved his lines steadily forward. He had deliberately allowed the experienced men of the 110th to bear the brunt of the first attack and seeing that they were holding their own without difficulty he ran back to his two Portuguese battalions leaving Johnny to lead the 110th  on. These were raw inexperienced troops but he was hopeful that with him at their head they would stand.
He was not disappointed. As the musket fire tapered off, the men were fighting with bayonets and swords, and he led his Portuguese into the fray. With the example of the 110th already cutting their way through the French lines, they did not hesitate, and before long the French advance had halted and the whole line was wavering. Paul’s men found time to reload again, and as another barrage of fire crashed into them the French began to run. Some of the Portuguese chased after them, and Paul bellowed to stop them. Without being able to see what was happening all along the ridge he would not risk them charging through French lines and being cut off and hacked to pieces.
A small party of horsemen approached from the north. “Nice work, Major van Daan,” Lord Wellington said. “Our allies are looking good today.”
“Our allies are looking bloody brilliant, sir,” Paul said. He was delighted with the performance of his Portuguese, and he could sense the high spirits of the troops. They had worked hard and trained well, but nothing improved morale as well as a successful action.
“Think you can make them even better, Major?” Wellington asked quietly, and Paul looked up sharply.
“Given some time, definitely, sir.”
“I’ll bear that in mind. They’ll remain under your command for the time being until we have a chance to talk.”
“Yes, sir.”
Wellington looked along the line to where Craufurd was approaching. “General Craufurd. Superb work, sir. Couldn’t have gone better. I think that will more or less do it for the day. They might rattle away at us a bit, but they’ve got the point. Well done, sir.”
Craufurd’s face lightened slightly. “Thank you, sir. Good tactics.” He glanced at Paul, and his mouth twitched into what was almost a smile. “Well done, Major van Daan.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Wellington smiled as he watched Craufurd move back down the lines. “Nicely handled, Major. Your diplomatic skills have improved since India.”
“I hope so, sir. I was an arrogant young bastard then.”
“You still are, Major. You just hide it better. Hold the line and be ready in case I need you elsewhere, you’re the fastest battalion I have. But I think we’re mostly done.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll keep picking them off as we see them. Good shooting practice for the lads.” Paul raised his voice. “Carter! O’Reilly still alive, is he? Why? Get on with it, lad, haven’t got all day!”
“You’re a murdering bastard, so you are, sir!” an Irish voice called, and Michael emerged through the smoke which hung like a pall over the battlefield and realised that Wellington was listening with great interest. “Oh sorry, sir, didn’t know you were here. Major van Daan is just trying to talk the lads into shooting me, sir.”
Wellington gave one of his alarming cracks of laughter. “Is he? Well I’d better get out of here then in case he decides to set them on me! Hope you survive the day, Sergeant.”
“Thank you, sir, appreciate your support,” Michael said. He watched as the general rode off up the line. “Peterson is down, sir, shot through the shoulder. I’ve sent him up to the back to get treated. Can’t have him lying around to trip over if they come again. No other casualties.”
“Good. Carl, do you know how the other brigades are doing?”
“All good I think. They’d no idea we had so many men. Brilliant tactics.”
“Aye, Hookey knows his work. They don’t know they’re beaten yet, but they are. Let’s keep it up, nice and steady. If it’s French, shoot it.” He looked at Michael and grinned. “Or Irish and wearing sergeant’s stripes.”
“Very funny. If I get caught in the crossfire you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face, so you will.”
“Stay alive, Michael. If I get you killed, she’ll murder me. She likes you, you’re always on her side if we fight.”
“We’re all on her side, sir, in case you’d not realised. She’s prettier than you. And possibly a better soldier too, now that I’ve seen her in a fight.”
Paul laughed. “She fights dirtier than you do, Sergeant.”
“Good. I hope she shoots you on sight.”

(From An Irregular Regiment: Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)

Monument to the Battle of Bussaco

 

Limping with Labradors – Guest blog by Toby

Blogging with Labradors

Toby

Welcome to blogging with labradors.

Hard to believe that this is called blogging with labradors and yet this is the first time I’ve been allowed my own blog post.  I mean, she’s very keen on posting ‘cute’ photos of us but do we get a say?  No.

Today she’s finally agreed to let me dictate my own post.  She can’t do anything else really.  I’m still recovering from my recent operation and while I’m lying around looking cute in her socks, she’ll let me get away with pretty much anything…

So, first a little about me.  My name is Toby, one of the two stars of Blogging with Labradors.  I’m thirteen and a black labrador, born on the Isle of Man up in Ballaugh although my Dad was an Irish show dog. She makes a lot of jokes about the Irish in me, but she’s laughing on the other side of her face at the moment since she just got back the result of her Ancestry DNA test and has discovered that she’s 11% Irish herself.  It explains nothing except the strange sense of humour and a somewhat dodgy taste for Irish folk music, but there you go.

I share the house with a family of four humans and another labrador called Joey who was adopted two and a half years after I arrived.  Joey is Manx and from a line of working dogs, which means he’s not as good-looking as me, although he’s not bad I suppose.  He used to be the energetic one, although he’s got so fat these days that his nickname is either Fattums or the King of Chins.  He’s supposed to be on a diet, but that’s a bit of a joke because he’s the most talented food thief I’ve ever met.  Generous too, he’s always willing to share what he gets down off the kitchen counters.

Joey the Labrador

My humans are all right really.  I like the young ones best.  They’re always willing to stop whatever they’re doing, especially if it’s homework, and get down on the floor to give me a bit of a hug or a tummy tickle.  They also make a lot less fuss about dog hairs than the older ones.

Both the senior humans do something called “working at home”.  This seems to involve endless hours sitting at desks staring at a computer screen although how much of it is work and how much is scrolling through cute dog photos on Facebook and twitter is anybody’s guess.  I don’t really mind, because since she started working at home, I’m never without company.  She’s moved our beds into the study with her and we pretty much spend our days in there while she mumbles rubbish about Wellington and the battle of Badajoz at the screen and piles up books on the floor because she’s run out of space on the desk.  Sometimes we go and lie on the books, just for a laugh, and pretty much every one of them has dog hairs in it and at least one muddy paw print…

We live in Douglas on the Isle of Man which is a great place to live as a dog since it’s full of beaches, glens, rivers and great smells.  At my age I don’t walk that far, I’ve got arthritis, but I do like to get out and have a mooch around and a good sniff.

During the past year, she’s started writing books.  To be honest, she’s been writing books for years but she’s started publishing them.  I have to say I mostly approve since it keeps her quiet and out of mischief and means she spends more time with us.  I also like the website and blog, since a bit of publicity never does a labrador any harm, and I’m glad she’s acknowledging how important we’ve been to her success so far.

The thing that has bothered me is that up to now none of these books seems to have had much of a canine element.  I mean I know they’re historical novels, but people have had dogs for a good few years now and I can’t believe she’s neglected this important aspect of the human condition.  It’s true that there is a brief mention of a hound in A Marcher Lord” but he barely gets a few lines and there’s no character development.  It’s a shocking omission.

A Redoubtable Citadel

The most recent book is called “A Redoubtable Citadel” (where does she get these titles from) and it is published today.  It’s the fourth book in a series set during the Peninsular War.  I don’t know much about war and I’ve never thought it made much sense when you can eat or sleep instead, but people seem to like these books.  However the crucial thing about book four is that she’s finally come to her senses and introduced a dog.  It’s early days yet, but I think this one has the potential to be an important historical figure.  He’s got a good military name and I think he’s going improve the lives of the main characters no end by scattering dog hairs all over their uniforms and leaving muddy paw prints all over the tent.  I can’t wait.  Although apparently a few other things happen in this book, like battles and whatnot…

Other than that, the only other excitement in life at the moment is regular visits to the vet.  I had an operation a few weeks ago to get rid of an annoying lump on my foot and they’re all kicking off because I keep chewing off the dressings.  I’m not sure what else they expected, those things are uncomfortable.  This sock does seem to be a better solution so far and I must say I’m enjoying making a fashion statement.  She’s got an endless selection of attractive socks for me to work my way through.

I’m signing off now.  They’re cooking brunch and I’m hoping to cadge a bit of bacon if there’s any going but don’t worry I’ll be back soon on Blogging with Labradors with more musings on life with labradors…

Toby

The Battle of Talavera, 1809

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

The Battle of Talavera was fought on this day in 1809 near the town of Talavera de la Reina in Spain.  Sir Arthur Wellesley, fresh from his highly efficient victory at Oporto took 20,000 British troops into Spain to join General Cuesta’s 33,000 Spanish troops.  They marched up the Tagus valley to meet a French army some 46,000 strong, officially commanded by Joseph Bonaparte but actually under the command of Marshal Victor and General Sebastiani.

Wellesley did not do well in his attempts to cooperate with Cuesta.  Not for the first time, the British army found that their Spanish allies were unable to come up with the supplies and transport they had promised.  It is not clear whether this was negligence, inefficiency or simply that the supplies were not available, but it left Wellesley’s army in a difficult position with food running out.  In his negotiations with Cuesta, there was a language difficulty as Wellesley did not speak Spanish and Cuesta spoke little English and refused to speak French.  It is possible there was also a simple clash of culture as Wellesley fumed at what he perceived as inactivity and poor planning on the part of the Spanish.

Nevertheless, some agreement was reached and after days of delay and misunderstanding there was a clash between the French and British armies on 27th July which led to 400 casualties in Donkin’s brigade.  To add to Wellesley’s mistrust of his Spanish allies there was a farcical episode during the evening of the 27th when Cuesta’s men fired a volley without orders at some French dragoons.  Little damage was done to the French but four Spanish battalions dropped their weapons and fled in panic.  Afterwards Wellesley wrote:

“Nearly 2,000 ran off on the evening of the 27th…(not 100 yards from where I was standing) who were neither attacked, nor threatened with an attack, and who were frightened by the noise of their own fire; they left their arms and accoutrements on the ground, their officers went with them, and they… plundered the baggage of the British army which had been sent to the rear.”

Cuesta, deeply embarrassed, sent cavalry to bring the troops back but it did nothing to improve relations between the British and the Spanish.

During the night, Marshal Victor sent three regiments up the hill known as the Cerro de Medellin.  Two of them got lost in the dark but the third managed to surprise a brigade of the King’s German Legion which had gone to sleep, apparently believing that they were the second line instead of the first.  In a chaotic action in the darkness on the hilltop, General Rowland Hill sent in Stewart’s brigade from the second division to recapture the ground and the French retreated.

At dawn the French artillery began firing, and Wellesley was obliged to pull his men back into cover to avoid major casualties.  Ruffin’s division attacked the Cerro de Medellin again in column but the British emerged from cover in line and the French were broken by musket volleys and ran.

After an informal truce when dead and wounded were removed and the French leaders consulted Joseph Bonaparte, a frontal attack was launched against the British 1st and 4th divisions, once again in column.  They were routed by the Guards brigade but the Guards pursued too far and ran into the French second line, losing 500 men to artillery fire.  Wellesley realised that his centre was broken and brought up the 48th foot to fill the gap in his lines.  Mackenzie’s brigade joined them and the French attack was pushed back again, with Lapisse mortally wounded.

In the fictional version of the battle, described in An Unconventional Officer, Major Paul van Daan’s battalion of the 110th fought as part of Hill’s division and were involved in the night battle on the Cerro de Medellin and then in the centre battle.  Several field hospitals were set up in and around the town of Talavera, some of them using convents and monasteries and it is in one of these that Anne Carlyon worked as a volunteer alongside Dr Adam Norris as the wounded were brought in.

With his main attack defeated, Victor sent Ruffin’s men into the valley between the Medellin and the Segurilla.  Anson’s cavalry brigade was sent to push them back but an undisciplined charge by the 23rd light dragoons ended in disaster in a hidden ravine.  The French had formed squares and fought off those cavalry which had managed to negotiate the hazard with considerable losses among the British and Germans.

It was the last French attack of the day.  Joseph and Jourdan chose not to send in their reserve and during the night the French melted away leaving behind 7389 dead, wounded and captured soldiers.  Allied losses were worse over the two days with the British losing 6268 dead and wounded and the Spanish 1200.  Wellesley lost approximately 25% of his forces and in a final horror, wounded men from both sides burned to death when the dry grass of the battlefield caught fire.

Meanwhile, Marshal Soult was moving south, in an attempt to cut Wellesley off from Portugal. Wellesley initially believed that Soult’s had only 15,000 men and moved east to block it but Spanish guerrillas intercepted a message from Soult to Joseph confirming that Soult had 30,000 men.  Fearing that his line of retreat was about to be cut by a larger French force, Wellesley sent the newly arrived Light Brigade on a mad dash for the bridge at Almaraz.  Craufurd’s men arrived just ahead of Soult and Wellesley withdrew his army across the mountains and organised his defence of Portugal.  His hard fought victory brought him the title of Viscount Wellington of Talavera.

Historians disagree about Wellesley’s problems with the Spanish.  Some consider the campaign a failure despite the victory and cite the failure of the Spanish to supply Wellesley’s army as the reason.  Wellesley certainly believed that the Spanish made promises which they failed to keep.  However, the condition of Spain at that time may well have made it impossible to provide the necessary food and transport and the personal difficulties between Cuesta and Wellesley certainly did not help.  There were also political rumblings, with suggestions that Wellesley might be given control of the Spanish army and Cuesta was undoubtedly upset by the idea although it does not seem that it originated from Wellesley himself.  Wellesley was cautious from the start about his Spanish adventure, citing the fate of Sir John Moore’s army during the campaign of 1808 and his determination not to allow his route back to Portugal to be cut off made him wary.

On the whole, it was probably not the time for an all out invasion of French-controlled Spain.  Wellesley’s original brief had been to defend Portugal but his army was not yet the formidable fighting force which he later led to victory at Salamanca and Vitoria.  The severity of his losses made his retreat a sensible choice and the time he spent consolidating in Portugal put him in a far better position to resume the campaign.