I got the idea of writing a blog post about Major-General Paul van Daan, the leading character in the Peninsular War Saga from the Historical Writers Forum on Facebook. Every week, we do a #FunFursday post, where members are invited to post something related to a particular theme. It can be an excerpt, a picture, a meme or just some random thoughts. Generally, I post an excerpt from one of my books, if I can find something relevant, but on seeing that the theme was Favourite Character, I decided to write about Paul.
I was quite surprised to discover I’ve not written a blog post about Paul before. I mean, he features quite heavily in many other posts, and is obviously the man behind my most popular series, but I don’t appear to ever have written a post about him. My initial reaction when I saw the theme was to wonder if I should maybe choose one of my other characters, but then I decided, no. I have an entire host of favourite characters in all three of my ongoing series, but when I sit down and start to write, the voice that echoes loudest in my brain, the one I know the best, is undoubtedly the overbearing, noisy, over-conscientious commander of the 110th Light Infantry.
Many of you have already met Paul, and some people have read and re-read his adventures so many times that you probably know him almost as well as I do. This post isn’t written with you in mind, but you’ll all read it, because you’re all waiting for the next book, and anything Van Daan related will do at this point.
For those of you new to the series, we first meet Paul in 1802, at the beginning of An Unconventional Officer, when he has just joined the light company of the 110th infantry in barracks at Melton Mowbray along with his boyhood friend, Carl Swanson. Paul is twenty-one and has joined the army later than a lot of young officers, having spent two years at Oxford first. This might have been seen as a disadvantage against young ensigns of sixteen or even younger, but it is clear right at the start that this new officer has the one quality that could pretty much guarantee a quick rise up the ranks in the early nineteenth century. Paul van Daan has money, and a lot of it. He isn’t embarrassed by it or apologetic about it, and he’s very willing to use it to get where he wants to be.
So who is Paul van Daan?
Obviously, Paul is fictional, and when I decided I wanted to write a series set in the Peninsular War, I had a long hard think. A lot of books have been written in this setting, ever since Bernard Cornwell launched Richard Sharpe on the world back in 1981, and while the setting and the campaigns fascinated me, I was looking for a different kind of hero. Many of the books in this genre that I read, including Sharpe, were based around officers struggling against the military purchase system. They had little or no fortune, no influence and fought against injustice, trying to make their way against all the odds. I decided that had been done many times and very well. But what about the man who didn’t have to struggle at all?
In many books of the genre, the wealthy officer, purchasing his way up the ranks as fast as possible, is portrayed as an incompetent, idle amateur, who comes unstuck in the face of the enemy and can’t gain the respect of his men. It seemed to me, that while there may have been some of these, there were also a very large number of good, steady career officers who could afford purchase but still took their jobs very seriously, worked hard, made friends, loved their wives and families and probably got no mention in modern fiction because they just didn’t seem interesting enough.
Enter Paul van Daan.
Paul is the younger son of a very wealthy City businessman, who runs a shipping Empire and has investments all over the world. Franz van Daan was born in Antwerp and spent his youth making a fortune in India, before moving to England and marrying the daughter of a Viscount, which gave him a respectable place in English society. He had two sons, Joshua and Paul and a daughter, Emma. The Van Daan family divided their time between their London house in Curzon Street and the family estate in Leicestershire.
When Paul was ten, his mother and sister both died in a smallpox epidemic, and Paul’s world changed forever. He had been close to his mother, and after her death his relationship with his father deteriorated. Franz sent him to Eton, where he spent two years before being expelled for throwing the Greek master into a fountain. It was clear that the explosive temper which is to get Paul into trouble all his life was already very much in evidence. With no idea how to deal with his difficult fourteen year old son, Franz took the decision to send him to sea aboard one of his merchantmen, in the hope that it would teach him discipline.
The thought of sending a grieving fourteen year old boy to sea is horrific to modern sensibilities, but during this period it would have been quite common, and many midshipmen in the Royal Navy started their careers at an even younger age. Franz probably hoped that the discipline of shipboard life would bring his wayward son under control, and perhaps thought that Paul might choose a career at sea before joining him in the shipping business. Paul enjoyed his time aboard the merchantman, and it’s possible that his father’s plan might have paid off if disaster hadn’t struck. In a storm off the West Indies, the ship went down. Some of the men made it to shore on Antigua in the ship’s boats, but were immediately picked up by a Royal Navy press gang, and Paul found himself below decks on a man o’war with none of the advantages of wealth or privilege. It took two and a half years before he was able to notify his father that he was still alive, during which time he lived through brutal treatment, flogging, battle at sea and achieved promotion to petty officer.
The story of Paul’s time in the navy will be written one day. In terms of the main storyline, it is the period which defined his adult life. He grew from a boy into a man during those years, and by the time he joined the army in 1802, he had battle experience, had fought and killed men, and had learned something of his own capacity for leadership. He had also learned more than most officers ever knew about living alongside men from the lower orders, in filthy, miserable conditions. He had experienced hunger and flogging and brutality, and his knowledge of that informed his style of leadership when he finally commanded men in the 110th infantry. It is immediately obvious to both his fellow officers and his enlisted men, that Lieutenant van Daan, in terms of the army, is a bit odd…
“He’s the strangest officer I’ve ever served under.”
“You could do worse.”
“Believe me, sir, I have. The seventh company is commanded by a complete arsehole that flogs the men just for a laugh.”
“Tut, tut, Sergeant, that’s no way to speak about Captain Longford. We’ve met. Has he flogged you, Sergeant?”
“More than once, when I first joined. Wonder what your laddie would make of him? Could be good entertainment. I don’t think Mr van Daan gives a shit about seniority somehow.” Michael glanced sideways at Carl. “Or about any other rules.”
Carl shook his head. “Mr van Daan knows every rule in this army, Sergeant, he’s read the training manuals which is more than I have. How closely he’ll stick to them is another matter.”
“He’ll get himself into trouble sooner or later, if he doesn’t, sir.”
“I’m confidently expecting it, Sergeant.”
(An Unconventional Officer)
From his earliest days in the regiment, we follow Paul’s steady rise through the ranks. His progress is made easier through an unlikely, but increasingly close friendship, with the difficult, austere General Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, who first meets Paul on a hillside in India. That friendship is a key element in Paul’s story. The two men are very different, with Wellington’s distant, often cold and unsympathetic personality contrasting with Paul’s warmth and exuberance.
Through the six books (so far) of the Peninsular War Saga, plus an appearance in the first book of the Manxman series, we follow Paul’s career from junior lieutenant, to captain, major, lieutenant-colonel, full colonel and then to major-general in command of a brigade of the light division. We also follow his personal life, through several fleeting relationships, a warm and affectionate first marriage, and finally to a union with the lovely and forthright daughter of a Yorkshire textile baron, who brings her own particular brand of eccentricity to the 110th.
Paul van Daan is an immensely popular character with my readers. From the start, he is both engaging and exasperating. With all the advantages of birth and money, he regularly gets himself into trouble because of his quick temper and his determination to do things his own way. He has very little patience with senior officers he sees as incompetent, and absolutely no tolerance at all with junior officers who don’t do their job properly. He is a talented commander, who can think on his feet and manage his men and he often gets on quite well with officers considered difficult by other people. Wellington is an obvious example, but he also has a good relationship with Black Bob Craufurd, the mercurial, brilliant commander of the light division until his death in 1812, even though the two men definitely had their differences…
“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.”
There is another side of Paul, often hidden behind his outbursts of temper, his ruthlessness in battle and his undoubted talent as an officer. Paul is a family man. He adores his wife and children, cares deeply about his friends and has a passionate determination to take care of his men, in an army where that was not always the first concern of an officer. I’ve tried, throughout the books, to balance out the two sides of Paul’s character to make a believable whole.
There have been some complaints in reviews, that in Paul, I’ve created too much of a ‘modern man’. I’m not always sure what this refers to – possibly his attitude to discipline, possibly his readiness to express his emotion or possibly his devotion to his wife. It’s a point open to debate, but I’d actually dispute that there is any one aspect of Paul’s character that isn’t mirrored by somebody I’ve read about in the letters and memoirs of officers during the Peninsular War. Anybody who has read Harry Smith’s open devotion to his young Spanish wife can’t argue that Paul’s feelings for Anne are unrealistic. Anybody who has read of Colonel Mainwaring’s dislike of flogging, or Sir Rowland “Daddy” Hill’s kindness to his soldiers, can’t argue that all officers were indifferent to the hardships of their enlisted men.
Thinking about Paul van Daan, I realise that I’ve written quite an old-fashioned hero. Paul is a good man, often placed in difficult and painful situations, but who generally does the right thing, even though he messes up from time to time. I think I’ve done that deliberately. In an era when cynicism and the anti-hero are popular, I’ve chosen to write about a man I like. He isn’t always right, and sometimes he is incredibly exasperating, but I can trust him, sooner or later, to come down on the right side. He’s a man of his time, but a good man. He’s funny and affectionate and kind. He’s also angry and arrogant and overbearing and at times I want to slap him. Paul kills people for a living. He also saves them. Sometimes that’s an uncomfortable reality, but that’s the reality of a military man of his time. Luckily, Paul doesn’t suffer from that particular angst. I don’t think many army officers in the early nineteenth century did.
As a writer, I’ve sometimes felt the pressure to write a darker character, with greater moral dilemmas, reflecting some of the difficulties of our modern age. I decided against it. I decided that for a change, I’d write about a dashed good fellow, with a very straightforward view of the world, an imperfect but likeable hero that people could get behind and cheer for, even if sometimes they wanted to smack him. I think many other writers do an excellent job of darkness and angst. I wanted to do something revolutionary in these days, and write about courage, and kindness and integrity.
Look out for more Paul van Daan in book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, An Indomitable Brigade, out next year. Also to follow will be book three of the Manxman series, This Bloody Shore.
Welcome to the Last Sentry, my ghost story for Halloween 2020 and I hope you enjoy it. As always it’s free, so please share as much as you like. This year, in addition to being available to read online, I’ve included a link to a pdf.
As usual, the story is based around the world of the Peninsular War Saga, with its mixture of real and fictional characters. Readers of the books will have heard mention of Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton in book six, and I imagine you’ll meet him again at some point. There is one character in this story who is definitely not fictional, and I suspect you’ll know him when you meet him.
While I have your attention, can a give a shameless plug to an excellent website for those interested in learning more about the Napoleonic Wars. You’ll find huge amounts of information there. I also recommend Zack White’s excellent podcast, the Napoleonicist, and not just because he interviewed me on it.
Happy Halloween, (or Hop tu Naa to all my Manx friends and followers), and I sincerely hope things start to look up very soon. In the meantime, reading can be a great escape…
The Last Sentry
The journey from England to Spain was beset with problems and delays, and on arrival in Oporto, when it became obvious that due to a particularly unpleasant voyage, the officers’ horses would not be fit to travel for some days, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton listened with half an ear to the complaints of the other five officers who had arrived with the Sally-Anne and acknowledged that he was relieved. A week of almost constant sickness had left him feeling weak and exhausted, and he found himself a comfortable inn, ensured that his groom, his valet and his horses were well-cared for and went to bed.
Philip was on his way to take up a new command, in charge of the first battalion of the 115th. He should have joined the regiment during the previous year, but within days of the confirmation of his promotion and transfer to a new regiment, his personal life had fallen apart with terrifying speed, leaving Philipfloundering in the midst of the chaos of his deceased father’s affairs. He had written to his new brigade commander, horribly aware that Lord Wellington’s army would be marching into Spain without him, and had dreaded the response. It had been kinder than he had expected and had given him a good impression of the commander of the third brigade of the light division, making him all the more eager to settle his affairs and get back to his job.
Settling his affairs had taken some time. The death of the Honourable Thomas Norton had come as a shock, though not a grief, to his only son. Norton had died as he had lived, half-drunk and throwing his horse over a fence on the hunting field. Philip was in London, making arrangements for his journey to Portugal while awaiting the birth of his third child. Emma had been well through the pregnancy, and was her usual placid self when Philip apologetically told her that he would need to post down to Hampshire to be with his mother and sister, and to help arrange the funeral.
“Go, Phil. If the baby comes, it comes, it isn’t as though this is the first time I’ve done this. I’m sorry I can’t come with you, since I know it will be hard for you, but I shouldn’t travel this close to my time.”
Philip kissed her warmly. “I’m so sorry, Em, and you’re an angel. I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.”
Emma was dead before Philip reached his family estate, having gone into early labour the day he left. The child died with her, leaving Philip alone to manage his two small sons, his mother who was apparently prostrated with grief over a husband who had never been faithful to her, and a sister of twenty trying to conceal her fears for the future.
Mrs Norton raised herself from her bed at the news of the death of her daughter-in-law and made her pronouncement.
“Dearest, it is terribly sad, of course, but it is not as though it was a love-match, after all. Indeed, I have never understood why…however, your duty is now clear. With your father gone, and your two little boys motherless, you will naturally sell out and come home. Nobody would expect anything else.”
Philip bit his tongue and took himself from the room. He knew that she was right, and that the army would fully understand and support his decision to sell out. His father’s affairs were in disarray, and he had no idea how his wife’s money was settled. He had married Emma in full understanding that she was looking for a place in society that her late father’s situation could not provide. In return, she had agreed to pay his family’s debts and purchase his promotions.
Philip respected his wife’s clear-sighted practicality and insisted that she settle her considerable fortune on their sons when they were born, with a dowry set aside for his sister, Amelia, and a comfortable jointure for his mother should she be widowed. He had asked the lawyers, during the negotiation of the marriage settlement, to ensure that Emma’s personal fortune remain with her, well out of reach of his feckless father and grasping mother. Philip had made a marriage of convenience to secure his future, but he was not greedy and he had no wish to watch his family bleeding his wife dry.
Emma’s will was a shock, and brought with it a fresh flood of grief, as Philip listened to the lawyer’s dry tones and understood that alongside the agreed provisions, she had left him a wealthy man. He cried bitter tears alone in his room, hoping that she had known how much she had come to mean to him. Philip had hoped for friendship in this unlikely marriage, but instead, they had fallen in love, and he read, in those brief lines of her final testament, her firm and abiding affection and trust.
It made his job much easier, although no less tedious and painful. Philip told neither his mother or his sister of his unexpected prosperity, merely assuring them that there was money to support them. Amelia, as he had expected, was relieved and grateful, while his mother was visibly discontented. She was furious at Philip’s announcement that he intended to rent out the London house for the foreseeable future, and even more so, when he informed her that when his sister was ready to return to town for another Season, she would do so under the care of her aunt.
“I hope you’re happy with that, Ammie. I know you didn’t much enjoy London last year. I’d hoped that once the baby was born, you could try again with Emma, but…”
“So did I, Philip. Please don’t worry, I’m thankful. I’ve no wish to do the round of balls and parties just now, I couldn’t think of it. Ignore Mama, she would be angry whatever you did.”
“I can’t give her free rein to run through Emma’s money in London.”
“You should not, she is very comfortably provided for. At present, I am happier at Hanley. And you, dear brother, will be happier back in the army.”
“I will. My new commander has been very generous with my furlough, which makes me all the more determined that I will get back as soon as I have sorted out the chaos of my father’s affairs and paid his debts. I am trusting you to look after Tom and Ned for me, they’ll have Miss Carling and Nurse, but they’re going to miss Emma so much, she was…”
“She was the best mother ever, and I envied them. I’ll do everything I can for them, Phil. Just don’t do anything foolish. I know how much you loved her, I couldn’t bear it if…”
“I give you my word. As far as any soldier can. Take care of yourself, Ammie.”
After the turmoil of family drama, it was bliss to don his uniform and to think only of transport and kit and billets. Even the misery of the voyage gave Philip something to think about other than Emma. It was eleven months since her death and Philip had begun to believe that he was recovering, but away from England’s shores, he missed, all over again, the weekly routine of writing to her.
From Oporto, Philip joined a supply convoy travelling towards army headquarters on the Portuguese-Spanish border. His fellow officers were all veterans of the Peninsula, having been home either on furlough or sick leave. Along with the wagon train of weapons and medical supplies, there were a hundred and eighty reinforcements for the 43rd and 112th, so the officers travelled at marching pace. To Philip, suddenly eager to join his battalion, it felt painfully slow, and he was not at all surprised when they reached the commissary office in Pinhel to discover that Lord Wellington had marched his army into Spain three days earlier.
“There’s a supply depot in Ciudad Rodrigo, sir,” Captain Jones said helpfully. “Only a day’s march from here. Lord Wellington sent instructions that all reinforcements and supply wagons are to be sent on to there, where he’ll have left orders for them.”
Ciudad Rodrigo was a small cathedral town situated at the top of a rocky rise on the right bank of the River Agueda. Philip knew it was one of the key fortresses along the Portuguese-Spanish border, and two of his companions had been present when Lord Wellington’s army had stormed the town at the beginning of the previous year in a bloody engagement. Philip and the other officers were greeted by Colonel Muir, a depressed-looking Scot in his fifties, who commanded the district supply depot and looked as though he would rather be somewhere else.
“Aye, I’ve orders for you, I’ve got details of the quickest and safest route for you to follow to catch up with the light division, it seems you’re expected.”
“I have been for some time,” Philip admitted. “Will the supply column be taking the same route?”
“ The supply column is my problem now, Colonel Norton, don’t worry your head about them. The reinforcements, now – that’s another matter. You’ll be staying a few days to rest the horses, I’m guessing?”
Philip eyed him suspiciously, sensing an unwelcome request. “One or two, maybe, but I don’t want to delay longer than I have to, sir. My brigade commander has been incredibly generous in granting extensions to my furlough to sort out my late father’s affairs, I don’t want him to think I’m taking the long way round.”
“That’ll be Van Daan, will it? He’s not in my good books just now, since he poached two of my best officers on his way out, blast him. He doesn’t deserve that I do him a favour, the thieving bastard, but I’m going to. I’m asking if you’ll wait a few more days, Norton. We’re expecting another draft of reinforcements for the 110th within the week.”
“Can’t they follow when they arrive?”
“The thing is, Colonel, we’ve been having a lot of problems with discipline among troops making their way back to their regiments. Half the time, they either don’t have an officer with them at all, or the officers are young and inexperienced, or from a different regiment and don’t really give a damn about looting the local population. Wellington’s furious about attacks on Portuguese and Spanish farms and villages. You’ve got a few officers with these drafts for the 43rd and 112th, but they’re all very junior, and they tend to take a casual attitude to their duties on the march. If they’ve a colonel of the 115thto supervise them, it’s very unlikely any of the men will try sloping off to raid a wine cellar or rape the farmer’s wife.”
“Jesus, is it as bad as that?”
“On occasion.” Muir eyed Philip thoughtfully. “And not just among the enlisted men. I don’t know if the gossip has reached you yet, Colonel Norton, but…”
“If you’re referring to the murder of Major Vane, I received a very full letter from Major-General van Daan,” Philip said. “A terrible business.”
“Aye, it was. Did you know him?”
“Never met the man in my life, I’m new to the 115th, I transferred in for promotion. And I believe Vane did the same. I’d never wish a man dead, Colonel, but I find myself thankful that I don’t have to manage an officer like that in my battalion.”
“Aye, his conduct wasn’t right, that’s for sure. All the same, a lot of the officers I’ve spoken to, don’t think it’s right that his murderer escaped the death penalty. Sets a bad example to the men.”
Philip did not particularly want to get into a pointless argument with a senior officer, so he said:
“So you’d like me to wait until the rest of the light division reinforcements arrive and march them up to the lines?”
“I think your brigade commander would appreciate it, Colonel. We can make you comfortable here, you can join our mess.”
Philip could see the sense of it, and firmly quashed his frustration at yet another delay. Now that he was formally, if temporarily in command of the new troops, he went to inspect their bivouac outside the city walls, gave strict instructions to the NCOs about leave passes and behaviour and rounded up the few junior officers who would be marching with him, to remind them of their obligations. His duty done, he decided to make the most of his enforced leisure to see something of the town and the surrounding area.
Ciudad Rodrigo was a walled city, dominated by its solid medieval cathedral. Narrow streets opened up into wide squares with houses and churches built in mellow local stone, and although there were still many signs of the destruction of the previous year, the citizens had already made good progress with rebuilding damaged houses and there was scaffolding up at several of the fine churches. Philip could see damage to the walls and tower of the cathedral caused by artillery, and the Spanish garrison of the town were out daily to supervise work parties who were close to completing the repairs to the town walls, where Wellington’s guns had blown two enormous breaches in the ancient stonework.
It was hot during the day, and Philip rode out with one or two of the Spanish officers to shoot game in the countryside. Neither of them had been present during the siege, and seemed more interested in complaining about delayed pay and poor leadership in the Spanish army than talking about the recent history of the town. Muir, when applied to, was more helpful, and provided Philip with Sergeant Griffith from his department. Griffith had lost an arm and an eye during the storming and proved a willing guide, walking out to the Greater and Lesser Teson with Philip, to explain the placement of Wellington’s troops and the direction taken by the storming parties.
Dinner was a protracted affair, with a good deal of wine and brandy, and afterwards Philip developed a habit of going for an evening walk through the pretty cobbled streets of the town and up onto the walls. The sentries along the walls were all Spanish, and Philip thought that they seemed to take a relaxed attitude to their duties, although he supposed that with the French a long way off, they probably had little to do other than drink, smoke and complain. He spoke Spanish fairly well from his time in South America, and he stopped to chat to them, listening to their stories of battles fought and friends lost and wives and families left behind.
Philip lingered late one evening, watching the sun go down from the Citadel, colouring the slate roofs of the outlying villages with a dazzling palette of rose gold and brilliant orange. He had drunk a little too much wine in the company of some Spanish officers in Colonel Muir’s cosy dining room and realised it was becoming a habit. It was too comfortable here, and felt a long way from the war. Philip walked around the walls to clear his head, pausing to look out over the old Roman bridge and smiled at himself as he realised he was willing the new troops to march in over the bridge, leaving him free to do his job.
Further around the walls, he climbed down a flight of steep stone steps and stood looking up at the repaired section of wall where the men of the light division had fought and died on that bloody night in January. The different colour brickwork reminded Philip of a scar, and he realised that he felt a connection standing here, even though he had not been present and his new battalion had not even been part of the light division at that point.
Walking back along the walls to his billet, Philip noticed that the sentries were out of position again. He had observed it several times, and although they were not his men, and the town was in no danger of attack, it irritated him as a breach of discipline. Four or five men were grouped together, a lazy spiral of cigarillo smoke rising into the air, while only one man, dressed in a dark cloak, stood in position above the breach. Philip paused to watch him, standing completely immobile looking out over the countryside. He did not appear to have his musket with him, and Philip wondered if he should go back and speak to the man, but decided against it.
Philip remembered the incident the following afternoon at the dinner table. He was seated beside Colonel Ramirez, determinedly avoiding a third glass of port, when Colonel Muir said:
“Are you still having trouble with the men on the northern wall, Ramirez?”
Ramirez rolled his eyes expressively. “Always, Colonel. Only last week, I have two men on a charge for deserting their post. I tell them that if Lord Wellington comes back, he will have them shot for their cowardice. I hope to make an example of them, so that we have no more problems.”
“Cowardice?” Philip said, surprised. “Surely it can’t be that, they’re miles from the French lines with the whole of Lord Wellington’s army in between. Perhaps they’ve just got sloppy, sir. I admit I walk the walls most evenings, and they’re often not in position, particularly along that wall. They tend to gather together in groups, smoking and talking. I suppose they’re bored, but you’re right, it’s poor discipline.”
“They are not afraid of the French, Colonel Norton, they are afraid of the ghosts.”
Philip spluttered on the last of his port and set his glass down. It was immediately refilled. “Ghosts? Surely you’re not serious?”
“I am not serious, Colonel,” Ramirez said. “Me, I do not believe in ghosts. But my officers tell me that the men complain that sometimes they hear things up there after dark. Screams and cries and the echoes of guns that have not fired since that night.
Muir snorted, reaching for the bottle. “Drunken bastards. If they’re hearing things that aren’t there, they’re coming from the bottom of a bottle, if you ask me.”
“I have told my officers to search them for drink, Colonel, and they assure me they go on duty sober.”
“Over-imaginative, then. A lot of you Spaniards are, I believe.”
Philip blinked at what felt like an astonishing lapse in good manners. He shot an apologetic look at Ramirez, and was relieved that the Spanish colonel seemed amused rather than offended. He winked at Philip, then said smoothly:
“It is possible, I suppose, Colonel, but we do not pay them to feed their imagination with ghostly tales. I will tell my officers to make frequent inspections again.”
“There was one man up there last night,” Philip said. “You’re right, sir, the others were all huddled further round by the steps, but one brave soul didn’t mind the ghosts, he was standing right above the breach. Although it looked as though he’d forgotten his musket, I couldn’t see it.”
“On sentry duty without his weapon?” Muir said scathingly. “Wouldn’t catch an English sentry doing that.”
Philip wished he had not spoken. “He probably had it, sir, he might have just leaned it against the wall while he was having a smoke and forgotten to pick it up. Look, why don’t I take a walk around there after dinner and have a chat with the men? They might speak more freely to me, given that I’m not their commanding officer.”
Ramirez studied him thoughtfully for a moment, then gave his charming smile. “Thank you, Colonel, it is a kind offer. I fear, if they do not improve, I will be obliged to take more drastic action against them.”
It was pleasantly cool as Philip began his nightly circuit of the walls. The Spanish sentries had grown used to the sight of him by now, and greeted him cheerfully, although without the formal salutes and springing to attention he would have expected from an English garrison. Philip took his time, stopping to chat. One group on the eastern wall offered him a drink from a bottle concealed in a coat pocket, and Philip took a swig, then reminded them pleasantly that their own officers might not be so tolerant.
It was beginning to grow dark as he approached the section of the northern wall above the lesser breach, and Philip could neither see nor hear the sentries. He paused, listening, peering ahead into the dim light. This entire section of the wall appeared to be unguarded, and Philip quickened his step. He had been inclined to take a light-hearted view of the Spanish garrison’s dislike of manning this section of the wall at night, but to find no guards at all was beyond a joke.
It was cooler now that darkness was falling, and there was a faint summer mist. Staring ahead in search of the missing guard, Philip caught his foot on a jutting piece of masonry and stumbled a little, catching the edge of the wall to steady himself. The fall brought him up short. The ramparts were not high, and it would be easy for a man to tumble over the edge. Philip made his way forward again, but more cautiously.
The sound of footsteps made him pause again. Clearly somebody was up here after all, although Philip still could not see him. He wondered if it was the lone sentry once more, the stocky figure who seemed the only member of the garrison willing to patrol this part of the wall. Philip waited, as the footsteps came towards him, puzzled by his inability to see the man. The steps were firm and confident, and were growing very close. It was not yet fully dark, and Philip could easily see through the mist, but there was no sign of the Spanish sentry.
A sudden breeze ruffled the feather in Philip’s hat, and he felt it, cool on his face. The footsteps were inexplicably fading again, as though a man had walked briskly past him and onwards down the walkway, but there was nobody there. For a moment, a shiver ran through Philip, then he heard voices from below. Going to the inside edge of the walkway, he peered over, and thought he understood. The foot of the wall was paved all the way up to the next bastion, and the footsteps must have been below him, the sounds distorted by an echo in the quiet evening air. Philip grinned at his momentary superstitious folly and ran lightly down the bastion steps, surprising the Spanish guards who were huddled in the shelter of the small tower passing a bottle between them. They turned in surprise at Philip’s abrupt descent from above, and one put the bottle behind his back. Philip was suddenly angry.
“To attention!” he barked, in Spanish. “Give me that bottle, that you’re so pointlessly trying to hide. Why aren’t you at your posts?”
There was a scramble intoline, and Philip held out his hand and took the bottle. “You have deserted your posts,” he said. “I am not your officer, is not my job to walk the wall and ensure you do your duty, but I am here to tell you that Colonel Ramirez is well aware that you are not where you should be. He has declared that it is enough, and your officers will be checking on you each night. If you continue this way, you are going to be disciplined, possibly flogged. I will not be here to see it, I will be leaving in a few days, but it is sad that I leave with such a poor impression of Spanish troops. You – step forward. What is your name?”
“What’s going on, Garcia?”
The Spaniard threw out his hands in a dramatic gesture. “It is not our fault, Colonel. Time and again we tell the officers that we cannot be on that part of the wall at night. All other places, we will guard. From this bastion to the further tower only. But they will not change the location of the sentry posts.”
“Why can’t you be on that wall?”
“Because of what we see and hear, Colonel. That place belongs to the ghosts, it is not for men.”
“Nonsense,” Philip said firmly. “At least one of your men has been up there, I’ve seen him twice now, the man in the dark blue cloak. Clearly it holds no fears for him.”
There was a long, awkward silence. Then Garcia said:
“He is not one of our men, Colonel, and he has no reason to fear a ghost.”
The tone of his voice brought a momentary chill to Philip, but he mentally brushed it aside. “Well, if he isn’t one of yours, it must be one of the townspeople,” he said. “Either way, it isn’t a ghost.”
“How do you know it is not, Colonel?”
“Because I don’t believe in ghosts, Garcia. And a ghost isn’t a good enough reason for you to shirk your duty. I’m going to talk to Colonel Ramirez, but I’m warning you, you’ll need to improve your behaviour if you don’t want to get into trouble. For tonight, get yourselves back up there. One picket at the top of this bastion, the other along the wall at the further tower.”
Garcia sprang to attention and gave a dramatic salute. “Yes, Colonel. That, we can do.”
Philip watched them go, not sure whether to laugh or be irritated, but the Spanish garrison was not really his problem. He walked back to his billet, giving the bottle to a surprised old man who was smoking on his doorstep, and grinned at the extravagant thanks and blessings that followed him up the narrow lane as the man realised it was more than half full.
A message arrived as Philip was writing a letter to his brigade commander the following day, to say that the new troops had arrived. Philip finished and sealed the letter quickly, and sent his groom to add it to the daily post, then took himself out to the bivouac by the Agueda, to ensure that the new men had set up camp properly and had rations. There were six junior officers from various regiments who would join him on the march to Wellington’s lines, and Philip ran an experienced eye over the camp, spoke to one or two of the NCOs and decided that it would be a fairly easy command. Most of these men were new recruits, and although there would be the usual sprinkling of troublemakers, either criminals who had come through the courts into the army, or simply men who found it hard to learn discipline, there would be no time for idleness on the march. Philip gave orders to his juniors to make regular inspections of the camp, ordered a forty-eight hour rest period before the march and went to see the quartermaster to make sure that rations would be issued. Once he was on the move, Philip wanted to reach the army as quickly as possible.
Philip dined with Colonel Muir and some of the Spanish officers, who drank enthusiastic toasts to his journey and his new posting. Going outside into the warm evening air, he hesitated. Knowing he would be on the road in two days, he had asked both his valet and his groom to check his kit and his horses, and to let him know if he needed to make any last minute purchases. He wrote to his brigade commander informing him of the date of his departure, and wrote a dutiful letter home to his mother and his sister, and missed once again, the writing of a long letter to Emma, filled with army news and gossip and the trivia of his daily life. For the first time since arriving in Ciudad Rodrigo, Philip felt lonely, and he realised he was longing to reach his new battalion, to get to know his fellow officers and to make friends with the easy facility which was an asset in the shifting relationships of army life. Philip recognised the importance of this extended journey, as a pause between his old life and his new, but it had gone on for too long and he wanted it done with.
Almost without thinking, Philip passed his billet and walked down into the Plaza Mayor, where lanterns hung outside every shop and tavern and the people of Ciudad Rodrigo went about their business as though no war had ever touched them. Philip knew that after the bloody fighting in the breaches, the English and Portuguese troops had run wild for a while, looting the town and terrorising its inhabitants. Returning the smiles of men and women at the sight of his red coat, he marvelled at their resilience and their forgiveness.
Philip was approaching the cathedral, when the sight of another red coat made him pause. No leave passes had been granted to the English troops, as Philip wanted them sober and fit to march. The officers were free to wander through the town unless they were on duty, but this was not an officer. Philip stopped and surveyed the man. He was of medium height and compact build, with curly dark hair, and the insignia on his coat told Philip that he was a sergeant.
Philip stood watching with considerable interest, laced with admiration, as the sergeant went through the process of bartering with the elderly Spaniard selling wine from a market trestle. It was clear that the sergeant spoke Spanish fairly well, and it was equally clear that this was not the first time he had done this. Most of the newly arrived troops were raw recruits, but there was a sprinkling of old hands returning from sick leave, and after ten minutes, three bottles of wine had been neatly stowed in the battered pack, and Philip was certain that this man was not new to this.
The sergeant seemed in no hurry to return to camp. With his purchases made, he wandered through the market, stopping at a food stall to buy a hot tortilla wrapped in vine leaves, which he ate as he paused to watch a juggler giving a performance outside the convent. Philip stopped too, and looked up at the windows of the house. He was not surprised to see a flutter of white at the window, proving that the novices were not above enjoying a glimpse of the outside world. He also observed that the sergeant looked up as well, noticed the girls, and gave an impudent wave, sending them scuttling away in maidenly confusion, and probably, if they were unsupervised, a fit of irreverent giggles.
Philip realised that he was delaying approaching the sergeant, because he was enjoying watching the man. There was something about him which spoke of happiness, and a sheer love of life, and Philip was reluctant to end his illicit holiday too soon, although he was definitely going to. He kept his distance, shadowing the sergeant through the town, until it was growing very dark. The townspeople were beginning to gather their children and their purchases and head for home, and some of the shopkeepers were putting up their shutters. By now, the sentries on the walls would have changed over and Philip wondered if the deserted stretch of the northern wall was properly manned tonight.
It was clear that the sergeant was in no hurry to get back to camp. He stopped at a tavern and sat outside with a cup of wine for a while, watching the people of Ciudad Rodrigo head home to their beds with a benign expression. Philip hesitated for a moment, then gave in to his baser self, slipped into the tavern, and bought his own cup of wine, then walked outside and approached the sergeant’s bench from behind.
“Lovely evening for it, Sarge, mind if I join you?”
“Not if the next drink’s on you, my dear, it’s good to…”
The sergeant broke off as Philip walked to the bench opposite him and set down his drink. The expression on his thin, pointed face almost made Philip laugh out loud. He scrambled to his feet, tripping over the bench, managed to right himself and stood rigidly to attention, saluting, staring straight ahead, his dark eyes fixed on a point above Philip’s head.
“Sir. Very sorry, sir, I didn’t know it was you. Many apologies.”
“I’d rather guessed that, Sergeant. Sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to see your leave pass. One of the officers clearly didn’t understand my orders about no leave granted, I need to see who signed it.”
The sergeant shifted his gaze to Philip. Philip held out his hand and waited, and the sergeant did not disappoint him. He clapped his hand to his breast pocket, then shoved both hands into coat and trouser pockets, rummaging industriously. Coming up empty, he reached for his pack, opened it, and rustled around inside it, skilfully concealing the clink of bottles. Eventually he looked up, wide-eyed.
“Well I don’t know how I’ve done that, Colonel, but it looks like I’ve lost it,” he said, and his voice was rich and mellow with the rounded vowels of the West Country. “Maybe I left it in my tent, but I don’t think so, I’ve got an excellent memory, and I’m sure I picked it up. Now, I wonder if some thieving brat has picked my pocket for me in this crowd, knowing I’m new here and taking advantage…”
Philip held up his hand. He was enjoying the performance, and recognised in the sergeant a natural comedian, but he did not have all night. “That’s enough, Sergeant, you’ll have me weeping into my wine cup in a minute. Name and rank?”
“Sergeant Nick Coates, sir, 110th second company. Was under Captain Elliott, but I’ve been away for a while now.”
“Aye, sir. At Badajoz. Been convalescing ever since.”
“That’s a long convalescence, Sergeant Coates.”
“It was a bad wound, sir. More than one. They bayonetted me in the chest as I reached the top of the ladder, then I broke an arm and a leg when I hit the ground.”
“Christ, you’re lucky to have survived that with all your limbs.”
“We’ve good doctors in the 110th, sir.”
“And now you’re on your way back and thought you’d give yourself a night off as a treat. Don’t start searching for the leave pass again, it never existed. What I do want to know is where you got the money for three bottles of good wine. Have you been looting, Coates?”
“No, sir.” Coates hesitated, then took the plunge. “Not my money, sir. It’s more of a commission.”
“A commission? For whom?”
“A gentleman, sir, new to Spain, and with none of the language. They’ll fleece the youngsters something awful, sir, when they first get here.”
Philip was beginning to understand. “So you did have permission.”
“I don’t rightly know, sir. They’re not my officers, you know, and he didn’t approach me directly. One of the men brought the money and said I could keep the change as an incentive to get a good price. They must have heard I’d been out here before and could speak Spanish.”
Philip shook his head. “I suppose if I asked you to point out the soldier in question…?”
“Not one of my men, sir, I didn’t know him. They all look very much alike, don’t they. I was to put the wine outside the officers’ billet, I was just on my way to do that, sir. Sorry I’m not more help.”
Philip studied Coates for a long moment. “I think you know bloody well who ordered that wine,” he said softly. “Do you think he realised that you could end up flogged and demoted if you got caught?”
Shrewd dark eyes met his. “Oh yes, sir, I expect the young gentleman knew that all right. But I didn’t have to say yes, of course.”
“Why did you, you bloody fool?”
Coates looked around the darkened square, where only the taverns remained well lit, men sharing wine on rough benches outside. “I liked this place. Met a girl here. Army hospitals weren’t that much fun, and it was a bloody awful journey, mopping up puke from the new lads and running out of food on the march because the greenhorns don’t know the ropes. I fancied a night out, sir. Didn’t expect to get caught.”
Philip managed to bite back a grin at the other man’s matter-of-fact tones. Picking up his cup of wine, he sat down. Coates remained standing to attention. Philip waited for at least two minutes.
“All right, Sergeant. Sit down and drink your wine, and then we’ll walk back to camp together, I want to check on them. When I leave, I’ll take those bottles and deliver them personally, with a word or two about using the NCOs as errand boys and hanging them out to dry afterwards. Next time, make the young bleater give you a permission slip and then you’re covered, and it’ll be him that’ll get the bollocking.”
Coates stared at him in astonishment, then lowered his compact form onto the bench with a broad grin. “Thank you very much, sir. Your very good health. I’m guessing this is not your first time out here either, you’re not new at this.”
“By no means, Coates, but not out here. Alexandria, Walcheren, Ireland and Naples, with a spell in South America, which is why I was able to admire your bartering so thoroughly.”
Coates sipped the wine. “It’s good that you’re going to Van Daan’s brigade, sir, you’d get cashiered anywhere else, drinking with the NCOs like this.”
“I don’t usually drink with the NCOs, Sergeant, so don’t get any ideas. It’s my night off. And besides, you looked as though you were enjoying yourself.”
Coates looked up and grinned. “I was, sir. Am I on a charge?”
“Not this time, although you were a bloody idiot. But I’m looking for experienced men to help out on this march, since I seem to have been landed with two hundred and fifty raw recruits and half a dozen officers so wet behind the ears they need a nursemaid. I will do you a deal, Sergeant Coates. I will forget all about this little escapade, and in return, I get your unqualified support in getting these sorry specimens up to Lord Wellington’s army.”
Coates studied him for a moment, then picked up his cup and raised it. “Sir, you have yourself a deal.”
“Excellent. You can start tonight. On the way back to camp, I want to walk via the walls. The Spanish are having trouble with ghosts.”
Philip explained, and Coates seemed to enjoy the story. They sat late into the evening. Philip was aware that his conduct in drinking with an NCO was reprehensible and would bring at best a stern reprimand and at worst, a conduct charge, but there were few English officers presently in Ciudad Rodrigo, and those would be up in the mess with Colonel Muir. Philip had missed his friends in the regiment badly and Coates, although only a sergeant, was intelligent, very funny and shrewd. Philip was careful to keep some distance, but enjoyed Coates’ colourful account of his entry into the army seven years earlier, through the agency of a magistrate in Truro.
“Smuggling was it, Sergeant?”
“I prefer to call it free trading, sir. It was my job to provide the gentlemen with their port and their brandy and the ladies with their silks and tea.”
“No, sir, I didn’t deal in sugar, on account of the slaves. Nasty business, slavery.”
Philip stared in astonishment. “A Cornish smuggler who is an abolitionist? I might need another drink to hear this story, Coates.”
“It’s not a long one, sir, though I’ll happily stand you another drink. I was fifteen and on my father’s boat, running brandy and tea into a cove near Marazion when we picked up a body in the water. Younger than me, he looked, half-starved and beaten bloody, poor little beggar.”
“Oh Christ. Slaver gone down?”
“Not as such. Runaway page boy, caught in Plymouth and sold back to the West Indies. He could remember life on the plantations, preferred to drown himself.”
“He was alive?”
“Yes, sir. Algy, his name was. Crewed that boat with me for nigh on ten years, until we got picked up on a run from Roscoff, and after a spell in gaol found ourselves with the choice of the army, the navy or a trial which could have ended much worse. Algy chose the navy, safer for him. Often wonder how he got on, he was a good mate, was Algy.”
“It sounds as though you were too. Right, come on. Time to earn your parole all over again, Sergeant Coates. Let’s get up there and put the fear of God into those sentries, then I will take the officers’ wine and let them know I want a word with them in the morning.”
“You could always confiscate it, sir. Good wine, that.”
“You were born to be hanged, Coates. Get moving.”
There was no sound or movement along the town walls. This late, the sentries were in position, huddled together for warmth and companionship, the air around them hazy with cigar smoke. Philip paused by each group in turn as they saluted and spoke a few words. It was the last night he would do this, and he hoped he was making enough noise to get the sentries on the northern wall into position so that he could give a favourable report to Colonel Ramirez. They approached by the small bastion, and Philip was pleased to see four men, albeit on the wrong side of the tower, muskets shouldered. They looked grim and miserable, but they were there, and he stopped to compliment them on their fortitude, although he was aware that he could not see the next picket.
The night was very clear, with a full moon, and Philip heard the clink of bottles from Coates’ pack as the sergeant followed him onto the wall above the breach. He wondered suddenly if this place held painful memories for Coates, but the sergeant showed no signs of discomfort.
Further along the wall, Philip caught sight of a lone figure and immediately recognised him. He knew by now that the man was not one of the garrison, but must be a townsman, probably from one of the houses directly below the wall, who came up each night for a breath of fresh air before bed. Philip had not been this close to him before, and as he drew nearer, he realised that what he had thought was a cloak, was actually a dark blue caped great coat. He wore a simple bicorn hat, and Philip wondered if he was in fact an officer, either on sick leave or visiting, although he was surprised he had not met him during his week in the town, as the English officers all knew each other socially.
Behind him, Coates echoing footsteps stopped abruptly. Philip paused and looked round in surprise. The sergeant’s face was clearly illuminated in the moonlight, and his expression chilled Philip to the bone. The thin face wore an expression of utter terror, the dark eyes wide, and Coates was backing up so fast that Philip sprinted to grab him by the arm, worried he might tumble backwards over the low parapet. He realised as he grasped Coates, that the sergeant was shaking violently.
“Sergeant, what the hell is wrong with you? Look stand here for a moment and catch your breath. Are you ill?”
“No. No, no, no, no. It can’t be. He’s not here, he’s not here. He’s dead. He’s bloody dead, I saw them bury him.”
Understanding was slow to dawn, and by the time Philip understood, the brisk footsteps along the walkway were coming close. Suddenly, he was afraid as well, and it took all his courage to turn around to see what had caused the sergeant’s sheer terror. The sight was so ludicrously normal that Philip felt completely disoriented.
For the first time, he could see the face of the stocky man who guarded the lesser breach every evening, and although there was nothing spectral about it, it was formidable. He was not old, possibly in his fifties, with very dark hair under his hat, and a pair of piercing dark eyes under thick, beetling brows. His complexion was swarthy, as though he had spent many days in the saddle under the hot Spanish sun, and he walked with deliberate authority, his sword belt jingling slightly as he moved. There was a sense of power and controlled energy about him, and Philip found himself standing to attention and saluting even before he saw the glimpse of a red jacket beneath the swinging coat. Unquestionably this was a senior officer.
The man turned to look at him as he passed. Dark eyes flickered over Philip, as though to check that he was correctly turned out, and then the officer nodded in approval and saluted. He walked past the shivering sergeant without comment. Philip watched his retreating back, feeling as though he had just passed an inspection from a difficult commanding officer, and turned to Coates.
Coates was white in the pale moonlight, and looked as though he might be sick. Philip took him firmly by the arm. “Come on, Sergeant, let’s get you off this wall before you kill yourself. No, don’t try to speak. We’ll go back to my billet and if necessary, I’ll call the surgeon.”
Philip waited until they were inside his warm little room. He pushed Coates into a chair and went for brandy then realised that he had run out. Making a mental note to send Barlow, his valet, to buy more before the march, Philip went to the sergeant’s pack and removed one of the bottles of wine. He poured for both of them and set a glass down in front of Coates.
“I’m going to get cashiered, drinking with a sergeant twice in one day. If I’d not been with you earlier, Coates, I’d have thought you were half-sprung already, but you’re clearly not. What happened, were you ill?”
Coates was beginning to regain his colour. He drank half a glass of wine without taking breath and set it down, then looked up at Philip.
“Thank you, sir. Sorry. Must have taken a turn. Won’t happen again. I’ll leave the wine here, you can give it to the gentlemen in the morning.”
He made as if to rise, and Philip pushed him firmly back into the chair and refilled his glass. “What happened?”
“Permission not to talk about it, sir?”
“Not granted. What were you on about – he’s dead. Who’s dead, Coates? Was it the breach – did you lose friends up there?”
The sergeant drank more wine and did not reply. Philip sat down and sipped his own wine. “Look, I understand. I know what it can do to you sometimes, although we all pretend it doesn’t affect us. I don’t need the details, Coates, but if this is something…”
“You said you’d served in South America, sir,” Coates said abruptly. “Mind me asking when?”
“I was with Beresford during the first invasion, but I developed fever and was sent home, so I missed the worst of that shambles. What on earth has that to do with anything?”
“Because he was out there afterwards. Major-General Craufurd. But you won’t ever have seen him.”
Understanding flooded through Philip along with a chill of horror. He stared blankly at Coates, not wanting to believe what he was saying. “Don’t be funny, Sergeant, I’m not…”
“Did it look as though I was joking up there, sir?” Coates said furiously. “It was him. I know him, I’ve seen him a thousand times. I served in the 110th and we fought under him at Fuentes d’Onoro and at the Coa, and in a dozen skirmishes out on the border. And before then, I marched in his column during Moore’s retreat. I saw that bastard flog the skin off a starving man’s back for stealing a turnip and then give the same man the remains of his own rations later in the day. I was out there, climbing over dead and dying men into the breach last year and I saw him go down. I was at his burial, at the foot of the wall, in the breach. I know him. It was Craufurd.”
Philip believed him. He sat in silence, drinking wine, shocked and feeling slightly shivery. Neither man spoke until Coates set down his empty glass and got to his feet. He saluted.
“Permission to return to camp, sir.”
“Granted. Don’t go that way again.”
“I’m going nowhere near it, sir.”
“Get your kit and the men organised, Sergeant, and be ready to march out the day after tomorrow. I’m counting on you to make my life easier along the way.”
“My word on it, Colonel.” The Cornishman hesitated. “Sir?”
“What is it?”
“I’d prefer not to speak of this to anyone else, sir.”
Philip gave a small, grim smile. “Not a chance of it, Sergeant. They’d think I was mad. Look – are you absolutely sure? It couldn’t have been another man? A trick of the light, maybe you were thinking about Craufurd up there?”
“I saw him, sir. As clearly as I can see you now.” Coates shook his head. “He was a bloody good general, his men thought the world of him. I’d have been glad to see him again, but he shouldn’t have been there.”
Philip thought about it. “I’m not sure about that, Sergeant. Maybe he should.”
The following day was taken up with preparations for the march, and by dinner time, Philip was fully packed and had inspected the men and the baggage wagons, spoken to the Spanish guide allocated to him and said farewell to his hostess. He dined in the mess as usual, but rose early from the table, as he hoped to be on the road at dawn and did not want to set off with a hangover. Colonel Muir shook his hand and wished him well, and Philip was engulfed in a wave of handshakes and good wishes from both English and Spanish officers.
When Colonel Ramirez shook his hand, he said:
“Did you visit my idle sentries last night, Colonel?”
“I did,” Philip admitted. “I’ve been thinking about it, Colonel, and it’s possible the problem is easier to solve than we thought. It seems there’s one stretch of that wall that they hate to patrol. It’s right above where the breach was, and I’d guess they imagine horrors when they’re up there. Perhaps if you moved the pickets a little further apart to either side of that stretch, they’d be better behaved.”
Ramirez studied him thoughtfully. “It is an interesting idea, Colonel Norton. I will think about it. Goodbye, and good luck.”
Outside the mess, Philip hesitated. He had things to do still, but the wall was there, still and quiet in the sleepy late afternoon air. After a long moment, Philip turned away from his billet and walked down to the small bastion, going up the steps onto the wall. He walked along the stretch between the two small towers, then turned and walked back again. Nobody was there, but it was early, and he would not expect to see a ghost in broad daylight.
The thought made Philip smile, it was so ridiculous. He turned again, to go down the steps, and saw him immediately, the stocky figure in the dark coat and hat, staring out over the countryside to the position where almost eighteen months ago, the light division had formed up, ready to storm the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo.
Philip did not move or speak. After a moment, Major-General Robert Craufurd turned towards him and began his brisk, confident march along the walkway until he reached Philip. As before, he turned his head to look at him, and Philip straightened and saluted. It should have felt ridiculous, saluting a man who was not and could not be there, but Philip did not care. Whatever shadow of Black Bob Craufurd that lingered on in the place where he had fallen, deserved his respect.
Craufurd returned the salute with the same quirk of his lips, and walked past Philip. After a moment, the footsteps could no longer be heard. Philip turned to look, but both the bastion and the walkway were empty once more.
It was barely light when the two hundred and fifty men formed up under their temporary officers and set off at a brisk march around the outside of Ciudad Rodrigo towards the Salamanca road. Philip rode at the head of the small column, with the walls rising to his right, bathed in rose pink and golden rays from the awakening sun. The repaired wall was clearly visible, looking more than ever like a scar, and Philip looked up and was not surprised to see the lone figure standing above it, watching them leave. He reined in to allow the troops to march past him, until he was at the back of the column. Unobserved, he took off his hat, and saluted for a long, silent moment. Then he replaced it and cantered forward to the head of his men, setting his horse and his thoughts firmly towards Wellington’s distant army.
The Story of the Peninsular War Saga is based on readers’ questions over the three years since the publication of An Unconventional Officer, the book which launched the series and introduced Paul van Daan to the unsuspecting reading public. I’ve just revisited that book, as I’m in the process of re-editing the whole series for paperback.
This is something I’ve been intending to do for several years, but I’ve continually put it off. Researching and writing the books is much more fun than the boring technical details of formatting and re-editing, and somehow I always delay this job until after the next book. My readers, who are an enthusiastic lot, make this far more difficult by constantly screeching for more in the series. However, after the very successful launch of book six, a number of people contacted me asking when the series would be available in paperback as they wanted to be able to buy them as gifts for friends and family who don’t use kindle. This made a lot of sense.
I also found myself in the unusual position of being unsure whether to move on with book seven or to write book three in my linked Manxman series. It seemed to make sense to do some reading for both, before making a decision, while working with Heather, my editor, to make the books as perfect as possible before launching the paperback editions. It also felt like a good time for me to look back over the past three years at both the story behind the story, and at my own development as a writer.
I get a lot of questions sent to me by e-mail and messenger and I try, if possible, to reply. When I was trying to write this post, I looked back over both questions and answers, and decided this was a good way of structuring the article, so I’ve reproduced some of them here, often with extended answers.
What made you want to write about the Napoleonic Wars?
I first got interested in the Napoleonic wars at University, although I never actually studied them then. I did a course on the history of South Africa, and was introduced to a larger than life character by the name of Sir Harry Smith. As background reading, I got hold of his autobiography and read about his younger days fighting under Wellington in the Peninsula. That led me on to Georgette Heyer’s fabulous novel about Harry and his Spanish wife Juana, and also to other Peninsular War memoirs like Kincaid.
I was completely hooked. I already had ambitions to write historical novels, and I’d thought of various different periods including the English Civil Wars, which I studied at Uni, or the Anglo-Scottish conflicts in the sixteenth century. I also really wanted to write a novel set in nineteenth century South Africa. But the Napoleonic Wars seemed to me to be an excellent setting for a series.
I messed around with a lot of ideas for all of these over the next few years, but I was also busy getting my degrees, finding jobs and getting on with life. I wrote several books of various types during this time, none of which stood a hope in hell of getting published, and even scribbled down some ideas for the Peninsular War Saga. Then in 1993 a TV series began, starring Sean Bean. That led me to read some of the Sharpe novels, and I decided that with Bernard Cornwell doing it so well, and a lot of other authors publishing similar books off the back of his success, there was no chance that anybody was going to pick up a series by an unknown writer who also happened to be a woman.
2. Was An Unconventional Officer your first book?
Written or published? The answer is no and no. I tried to get an agent and a traditional publishing contract for many years before the advent of Kindle and self-publishing, and I wrote a number of different books on advice from people in the industry. I was usually told that as a woman, I should write romance, and that my best chance was with Mills and Boon, so I tried both historical and contemporary with a lot of very positive comments, but no success.
By the time I decided to publish independently, I was sick of the whole thing. I had four completed historical novels that I was reasonably happy with, none of which, I was told, were ‘marketable’. An Unconventional Officer was one of them. I still really wanted to write the full series, and I was already almost at the end of book two, with two more fully researched and planned out, when I made the decision to go for it, egged on by my husband.
Because the publishing process was new to me, and I had literally NO idea how to market my books, I decided to publish the three ‘standalone’ novels first to see how they went. So I published A Respectable Woman,A Marcher Lord and The Reluctant Debutante fairly close together, before being brave enough to put An Unconventional Officer out there. Later on, I re-edited The Reluctant Debutante, in order to link it in with the Peninsular War Saga and wrote a second Regency to go with it.
3. How did Paul van Daan come about? Is he based on a real historical person?
Paul isn’t based on a real person, although he has characteristics of a number of different people.
There’s definitely something of Harry Smith in there, and I’ve deliberately included Harry and Juana in the books as minor characters. Smith was a flamboyant character, very full of himself, and a favourite of Wellington’s despite not being of the social class most generally favoured by his Lordship. He also had a much adored young wife who shared all the dangers of life on campaign with him, and I don’t think anybody would believe me if I said that idea didn’t make its way into the Peninsular War Saga.
With regard to Paul’s care for the welfare of his men, I’ve taken some of that from Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill although I can’t really imagine any of Paul’s lot nicknaming him ‘Daddy’. But in terms of his eccentric style of managing his men and his aversion to flogging, I got the idea from a rather fabulous book called The Letters of Private Wheeler.
William Wheeler of the 51st wrote a series of letters which began with his early days in the regiment, shortly before embarking on the disastrous Walcheren campaign in 1809 and run through to 1828. They are an amazing source of information on the life of an infantryman during this period and I use them all the time. They also introduced me to Wheeler’s first commanding officer, an eccentric gentleman by the name of Lt-Colonel Mainwaring. Wheeler gives several different anecdotes about the colonel, but this gives the flavour of the man.
“It is the general custom of most regiments to shut up the gates, and confine the men to Barracks when under orders for Foreign service. Not so with us. Colonel Mainwaring does not approve of this plan. When he received the order, the gates were thrown wide open that the good soldier might make merry and enjoy himself, at the same time adding that if there should be any poltroons in disguise among us they might be off, it was only the good soldiers he wished to take with him. We were going to reap laurels, therefore he should not hinder the good soldier from enjoying himself for the sake of keeping a few good for nothing fellows. If any such had crept into the Corps, they would only cover the regiment with disgrace. The confidence reposed in us was not in one singe instance abused, not one man having deserted.”
With regard to the practice of flogging, Wheeler tells us that:
“Lt-Colonel Mainwaring is a very humane man. He is no advocate for the cat o’nine tails. I have more than once heard it remarked that if he could not stand fire better than witness a flogging, he would be the worst soldier in the army.”
Over the years I have had one or two reviewers complaining that Paul van Daan’s attitude to discipline is unrealistic and could not possibly have existed at this period. Colonel Mainwaring is my answer to that one. He probably wasn’t the only one, but he is certainly my favourite.
4. Why is Paul half Dutch?
I’m amazed this question hasn’t been asked more often. The answer is very simple and has nothing to do with the Peninsular War Saga. As I mentioned above, before I wrote An Unconventional Officer, I wrote another book which was set in South Africa in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The main character was a young Boer from an Anglicised family who was partly educated in England, and who served under Sir Harry Smith, and one of the themes of the book was his struggle to come to terms with the conflicting parts of his heritage. The character’s name was Paul van Daan. At a certain point it became clear that book was never going to be published for a number of reasons, but I rather fell in love with him, so I decided to transport him back in time to the Peninsular War. I had every intention of changing the surname and making him English, but it just didn’t work, he was too well established in my head. So I gave him a Dutch father instead.
5. How did you come up with Anne’s character and is she based on anybody real?
Anne isn’t really based on any one person. I wanted my heroine to be able to fit into the period and into army life, so I gave her a background which I thought made that possible. I wanted a hard-headed, practical woman who was very intelligent, and very adaptable. The daughter of a Yorkshire mill owner sounded down-to-earth, but because I also wanted her to have the social skills to shine at headquarters, I gave her a well-born stepmother who taught her to ride and to manage a large household. I also deliberately made her quite young, to give her that adaptability.
When I first wrote the books, Anne was not traditionally beautiful. I re-thought that, and decided that it would be more of a contrast for a girl with the wow-factor to turn out to be more interested in keeping accounts and learning how to sew up battle wounds than she is in fashion and parties. I also wanted Anne to have her own friendship with Wellington, to bring out his softer side, so she needed to combine both beauty and brains.
6. A lot of heroes in other books, like Sharpe, are known for moving from one woman to another? Why did you decide to give your hero a wife and a steady family life?
I thought it would be more interesting. Partly it was the Harry and Juana factor, but mostly it was because I wanted to be able to write from both a male and a female perspective, and the only way I could really do that was by giving my leading man a leading lady.
7. How much research do you do for each book?
How long is a piece of string? I do an enormous amount of reading. I know the period details fairly well by now, so I don’t have to keep checking things like uniform and commanding officers every five minutes, but I do need to do detailed research into every campaign, and I also like to find contemporary accounts like Wheeler’s as they are a fabulous source of anecdotes that I can weave into my fictional storyline. I wrote a post about my research and note taking for anybody who is interested in learning more.
8. Who are your favourite real characters in the books?
Wellington has to be top of the list, he is the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve spent so much time reading his correspondence by now, I feel as though I know him really well. Of course that’s just my personal version of Wellington, but it is based on a lot of research.
I really like both the Light Division commanders, Craufurd and Alten. They are totally different personalities, but I’ve given each of them their own character in the books and I love their different relationships with Paul. Harry and Juana Smith are favourites, of course, and because of Heyer’s book, The Spanish Bride, so many of my readers recognise them. And I’m a little in love with Colonel Andrew Barnard, a man who genuinely knew how to enjoy himself in the middle of a campaign.
9. Do you already know which characters are going to make it through the war?
Some. Not all. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Paul and Anne make it, and there are a few spoilers scattered through my short stories and the Regency romances. But there are some names you won’t hear mentioned in those.
10. Are you going to write the books all the way through Waterloo, as Bernard Cornwell did?
If I don’t get run over by a bus, I promise I am. I’m about halfway through now, maybe a little more, as I’ve not yet decided how I’m going to split up the Pyrenees campaigns, they’re terribly all over the place.
11. Are you going to write any more books after Waterloo? Will they be about Paul van Daan?
I’m going to write until I can’t write any more. Whether that will follow Paul, or pick up some other characters in other campaigns, or even take a look at his children, I don’t know yet. I just hope I live a long time, I’ve got so many ideas.
12. What made you start writing the Manxman series?
Local pressure. I live on the Isle of Man and I was always being asked in local interviews, if I would ever write a book set on the island. The Isle of Man was more suited to a book about the navy than the army, so I began An Unwilling Alliance as a standalone novel. Then I remembered that Paul van Daan had been at Copenhagen and thought I could give him a small cameo role. Then he took over a third of the book. Then I realised I needed to know what happened to Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell next.
13. Will Hugh Kelly and Paul meet again during the war?
I think so. Almost certainly. I know where Hugh will be for the next couple of books, but there’s a book after that which could very easily bring the two series together, and I think I’ll write it.
14. Why did you decide to publish independently?
I couldn’t get a publisher for the stories I was writing because I was told nobody wanted to read that kind of book any more. I couldn’t stop writing, and it proved impossible to swap genres, I just couldn’t manage it. I resisted for a long time, because I felt as though it was ‘vanity publishing’. But eventually, I figured that even if only a few people read them, it was better than having half a dozen completed books sitting on my laptop doing nothing.
It turned out that the agents and publishers were wrong, and there was very definitely a market for this series.
15. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
Don’t wait as long as I did. By all means try the traditional route, and keep doing so if that’s what you want. But if you’ve written something you’re proud of, make it as good as you know how, take all the advice you can, and then go for it. If nobody buys it, all it has cost you is some time.
16. Have you ever written any non-fiction or contemporary fiction?
I’ve written some articles and blog posts for people. And I made a couple of attempts at writing contemporary romances for Mills and Boon. They were pretty awful.
17. Will you write any more Regency romances?
I’m sure I will. Before I started the Manxman series, my intention was to intersperse the Peninsular books with the Regency series. But I’ve decided that I can’t manage three series on the go, plus regular short stories. Besides, writing books set after the war meant that I was at risk of introducing too many spoilers. I will go back to them, however.
In A Marcher Lord, I’d like to follow up the story of Jenny’s cousin. And I’d also like to take the characters forward into the period of Mary, Queen of Scots reign. I think that would be fascinating.
I actually started writing a sequel to A Respectable Woman, following the fortunes of Kit and Philippa’s grown up children. Their adopted son Alex is definitely an army man, and I suspect one of their daughters to be a bit of a radical politically. I think I will come back to that.
19. What are your plans for future books? How many are you going to write in both series?
The Peninsular War Saga will go through to Waterloo, and I quite fancy doing a book set during the period of the Army of Occupation. I also have a real yen to write a novel set during the Congress of Vienna, but that will not feature Paul, as I am not taking him into the middle of a pack of diplomats, it would end in murder.
The navy books will probably continue beyond the war, and I’d like to feature the war of 1812 with the USA. I might even do some of the land battles featuring the second battalion. There are a few other campaigns like Bergen op Zoom that I wouldn’t mind looking at.
20. How long does it take you to write a book?
Six months to a year, depending on how much research and what else is going on in my life. This year has been tricky, with the pandemic, it’s been hard to concentrate and I’ve had a house full of people working at home, but once these paperbacks are up and running, I’d like to try to speed up a bit.
And there we have it – the story behind the Peninsular War Saga in twenty questions. Thanks so much to all of you who have written to me over the years to find out more about the books and my writing. Keep the questions coming, I love hearing from you, and I’d be very happy to make contact on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram or you can e-mail me at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
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.”
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.”
“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…”
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.”
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. Donahuemockingly 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.”
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 Portuguesecaçadores 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.
“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?”
“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.
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.
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 thefarmyard, 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 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 Corporal Carter’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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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 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.”
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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