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 Omanhas 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.
The storming of Ciudad Rodrigo is the opening scene of book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga, A Redoubtable Citadeland 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.”
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…
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.”
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!”
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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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)
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…
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 cautious.
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.
Wellington had initially taken up a reasonably strong position on the line of the Dos Casas, a tributary of the Agueda River. Although the stream itself was insignificant, the section in front of the Allied left ran through a significant ravine that would effectively prevent any French attack on this part of Wellington’s troops. His right was not as strong. As the Dos Casas climbed into the hills the valley was less pronounced and provided less protection. The British position ended at the village of Fuentes de Oñoro, which climbed up from the river to the top of the ridge, and was itself a very defensible position. To the south, however the ravine disappeared and it would be very possible for the French to outflank the British. With his troops in preliminary positions, Wellington summoned the three light division commanders. “They’re on their way,” he said without preliminaries. “Marching down from Ciudad Rodrigo. We’ll see where he places them and then look at our positions.” “If we get time,” Paul said. His commander eyed him with a forbidding expression. “Have you something useful to say, Colonel van Daan or are you just making sure we all know that your new command is not going to stop you questioning my orders any time you feel like it?” “Not questioning, sir, more of a comment. You already know we could have done with a bit more time, but we’ll manage. Where do you want us?” Wellington studied him and then gave a small grim smile. “Out on the road initially, give them a hard time as they approach. I’m sending out four cavalry regiments as well. No major engagements and don’t take any risks, I will need your men intact for this battle, we’re short enough as it is. Have you heard me, Colonel van Daan?” “Loud and clear, sir. Getting better at it all the time.” Wellington shook his head. “I can’t wait until Craufurd gets back, he approved this but that’s because he’s forgotten what you’re like. You’re going to give him a seizure.” “No, he’s easily as tough as you, sir, and I haven’t given you one yet.” Paul glanced at Drummond. “How do you want to do this, George?” Drummond looked at him and smiled slightly. “Was that an attempt at tact, Paul? Why don’t Beckwith and I take the north side and you bring up the south with the cavalry, the ground on that side will suit them better. We’ll meet back before Fuentes once they’ve made camp.” Paul nodded. “Sounds good. Sir, we could do with some fast riders to keep us in touch with each other. I can use some of my ensigns but frankly they’d be more use with their men…” “I’ll get Julian Sanchez to lend you some of his horsemen they know the countryside.” Wellington eyed the three men. “I thought Craufurd would be here in time for this. And he still might make it, he must be very close. Which is why I haven’t appointed a temporary commander.” There was a brief silence which extended and became difficult. Still nobody spoke. Paul took a deep breath. “I’m glad you shared that, sir, because I’ve been thinking you’d done that just to make my introduction to commanding a brigade more interesting.” Beckwith gave a splutter of laughter, and Paul glanced at Drummond and saw that he was smiling too. He turned his gaze back to Wellington and for the first time during the briefing there was genuine amusement in the blue grey eyes. “Colonel there are four of us here and not one of us is in any doubt that if something gets difficult out there you are going to start yelling orders without any thought for rank or protocol. I first saw you do it aged twenty-two at the battle of Assaye when you bullied poor Colonel Maxwell into going into battle ahead of orders and you had been promoted to captain at that point for approximately twenty-four hours. If that happens I trust Colonel Drummond and Colonel Beckwith to have the experience and common sense to judge for themselves whether to join you, ignore you or punch you, and they have my express permission to do any of those three. Get out of here and keep me informed.” From “An Uncommon Campaign’ by Lynn Bryant (Book Three of the Peninsular War Saga)
An Uncommon Campaign
The battle of Fuentes De Onoro took place at the beginning of May 1811. After the retreat from Talavera in 1809 and then the successful battle of Bussaco in 1810, Wellington had kept most of his army behind the lines of Torres Vedras and used the time to train and recruit and recover from the mixed fortunes of the Spanish campaign. The exception was the light division under the brilliant but irascible General Robert Craufurd, who spent the time guarding the border, constantly engaging the enemy in skirmishing, holding the line with men who were fast becoming the acknowledged elite of Wellington’s army.
Marshal Massena, unable to breach the formidable Anglo-Portuguese defences and unwilling to risk too many of his men trying, held on desperately in lands scorched and left bare by the retreating British. By early 1811 it was clear that he could hold out no longer. His army was starving and exhausted and the reinforcements he had asked for were nowhere in sight. It was time to retreat.
Initially, Massena hoped to make for the Mondego valley which had escaped Wellington’s scorched earth policy and where food might be found for his starving men. But the Anglo-Portuguese army were in hot pursuit and no way could be found across the river in time. Fighting a skilful and desperate rearguard action, Massena retreated back to the Spanish border.
The Fortress at Almeida, Portugal
There were several great fortress towns along the Spanish-Portuguese border and in order to plan and execute an invasion of Spain safely, Wellington knew he needed to take possession of all of them. The most formidable on the Portuguese side was at Almeida, and it was the last stronghold in Portugal held by the French. Wellington besieged the city and Massena, his army finally fed and beginning to recover, marched to relieve it. Having surveyed the ground, Wellington chose to take up a position along a line running through the little Spanish village of Fuentes D’Onoro.
Supplies were crucial in this stage of the conflict. The French would have limited access to supplies whereas Wellington was well supplied and could hold out longer. He had the choice of leaving his line of retreat exposed in order to cover all routes to Almeida or of covering his retreat, which was usually his preferred option but giving the French a possible way through.
Fuentes D’Onoro was a cluster of buildings on a slope with narrow cobbled streets and walled gardens. It was well known to the men of Craufurd’s light division who had often been quartered there during their time on the border. Many of the villagers were known personally to them. With the people evacuated to a refugee camp, the British took up their positions. The Anglo-Portuguese army had 34,000 infantry, 1,850 cavalry, and 48 guns, while the French had 42,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry, and 38 guns. Massena had asked for reinforcements from Bessieres in the north, and Bessieres had come himself but with so few men that the reinforcements were pointless. Wellington commanded six infantry divisions, Charles Ashworth’s independent Portuguese brigade, and three cavalry brigades along with some artillery.
On 3 May, Masséna launched a frontal assault against the British-Portuguese pickets holding the barricaded village, while bombarding the British-Portuguese on the heights east of the village with heavy artillery. The battle in the centre of the village went on throughout the day, with French soldiers of Ferey’s and Marchand’s divisions clashing with the British 1st and 3rd Divisions.
At first, the British-Portuguese were driven back under immense pressure, but a charge that included men of the 71st Highland Light Infantry reclaimed the streets and buildings lost earlier in the day. As the sun went down, the French withdrew and the village remained in British hands, with the former suffering 650 casualties against only 250 for the British.
Both sides spent 4 May recovering their dead and wounded from the streets of the village. An informal truce was held and men from the two armies met across the Dos Casas brook to exchange food and tobacco and play card games. When officers intervened, the French organised a series of intimidating parades to impress their enemy. The English played football.
Meanwhile, French reconnaissance had discovered Wellington’s weakness.
Fuentes de Onoro looking up from the French position.
His right flank was weakly held by a unit of Spanish partisans near the hamlet of Poco Velho. The French attacked at dawn on 5 May, concentrating on Wellington’s right flank where the Spanish crumbled. Allied cavalry held their positions with great courage but the 7th Division was left exposed. Masséna launched a heavy attack on the weak British-Portuguese flank, led by Montbrun’s dragoons and supported by the infantry divisions of Marchand, Mermet, and Solignac. Two 7th Division battalions were badly mauled by French light cavalry and Wellington needed to send reinforcements to save the 7th Division from annihilation. Defeat looked possible, but Wellington had reserves in place and he sent in Robert Craufurd’s light division along with British and German cavalry.
On the threatened British-Portuguese right flank, the elite Light Division, well supported by cavalry and artillery, made a textbook fighting withdrawal. With very few casualties, they covered the retreat of the 7th Division and fell back into a stronger position selected by Wellington. During the retreat, whenever French artillery ventured too close, the British cavalry charged or feinted a charge. This allowed the infantry time to retreat out of range. If the French horsemen pressed the outnumbered British cavalry back, the British-Portuguese infantry formed squares and, their volleys drove off the French.
It was an extraordinary display of military discipline and precision and a tribute to the genius of Robert Craufurd, who for all his reputation of a rude, over-sensitive disciplinarian who was disliked by many of his officers, could do anything with his enlisted men, who would follow him to hell and back for a word of approval. The skill of the light division and the courage of the highly outnumbered Allied cavalry saved Wellington, who had undoubtedly made mistakes that day, from what might have been a defeat, and brought instead a victory.
Church in Fuentes de Onoro.
Masséna’s main aim was still to secure Fuentes de Oñoro. He sent forward massed columns of infantry from Ferey’s division. The village, filled with low stone walls, provided excellent cover for the British line infantry and skirmishers, while the French were severely restricted in the little narrow streets. At first, the French had some success, wiping out two companies of the 79th Highland Regiment and killing the regiment’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Philips Cameron. But a counterattack chased Ferey’s men out of the town.
Memorial to the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro 1811
launched a second attack on the town. This time, it was led by three battalions of grenadiers. Again, the British fell back as Drouet threw in about half of the battalions from both Conroux and Claparède’s divisions, managing to take almost the entire town.
In response, Wellington counterattacked with units from the 1st and 3rd Divisions, plus the Portuguese 6th Caçadores and led by the 88th Connaught Rangers. This broke Drouet’s attack, and the tide began to turn. Low on ammunition, the French had to resort to the bayonet in a futile attempt to drive the British back. One party of 100 grenadiers was trapped in a tight spot and killed. Facing lethal volleys, the French retreated back to the Dos Casas, leaving their casualties behind. By sunset, French morale had plummeted and many companies were down to 40% strength.
The French artillery tried to bombard the new British line into submission, but for once they were outgunned by Wellington’s cannons. Finally, with their ammunition dangerously low, the French attacks came to an end. Wellington’s men entrenched during the evening. After spending the next three days parading before the British position, Masséna gave up the attempt and retreated to Ciudad Rodrigo, furious with his subordinates whose refusal to obey orders at crucial moments had turned a potential victory into a defeat which would spell the end of his command in the Peninsula.
The battle of Fuentes d’Onoro was not claimed by Wellington as one of his great victories. He had beaten back the French and was able to continue his blockade of Almeida. However, he acknowledged how dangerous the situation had been, saying later, “If Boney had been there, we should have been beat.” Wellington considered that he had unnecessarily extended his line, putting the 7th Division and Light Division in danger.
Two nights after Masséna’s withdrawal, Antoine Brenier’s 1,400-man French garrison of Almeida slipped through the British-Portuguese lines during the night. About 360 French troops were captured, but the rest escaped through a series of blunders. An infuriated Wellington wrote, “I have never been so much distressed by any military event as by the escape of even a man of them.”
On reaching Ciudad Rodrigo, Masséna was recalled to Paris by a furious Napoleon to explain his actions. He was replaced by Marshal Auguste Marmont. Masséna returned to France with a vast sum of gold, looted from Portugal and Spain. The defeated French marshal complained that Wellington “had not left him one black hair on his body—he had turned grey all over.” Later, meeting in France after the war, Wellington and Massena met as former adversaries and got on very well. On discussing their final campaign against one another, Massena said:
My Lord, you owe me a dinner – for you made me positively starve.” Wellington laughed. “You should give it to me, Marshal, for you prevented me from sleeping.”
We visited Fuentes d’Onoro earlier this year. Despite being surrounded by modern roads it is surprisingly easy to see the layout of the very extended battlefield. The third book of the Peninsular War saga, “An Uncommon Campaign” is centred around the battle, and in particular the Light Division part in it, since by now Paul van Daan’s 110th are fighting as part of Wellington’s elite division. The first fourbooks in the Peninsular War Saga are available in both Kindle and paperback editions on Amazon.
An Unconventional Officer
An Irregular Regiment
A Redoubtable Citadel
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An Uncommon Campaign is now published on Amazon Kindle and will shortly be available in paperback.
It is April 1811. Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida. As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is trying to become accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and is learning to manage the resentment of other officers at his early promotion. His young wife is carrying her first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities much to the horror of the rest of the army. And if that is not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally with potentially lethal consequences for the Third Brigade of the Light Division.
The third book in the Peninsular War Saga will be published at the end of July 2017.
An Irregular Regiment, Book Two will be published on 4 July 2017
In the run up to the publication of An Irregular Regiment, there will be a free promotion of An Unconventional Officer from 16 – 18 June 2017.