Love letters, 1813 is something I wrote last week, in between preliminary reading for book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, which covers the Battle of Vitoria. It’s early days, but I suspect the title will be an Indomitable Brigade. Occasionally, I like to imagine correspondence between some of my characters, as I did with Paul and Hugh during the Walcheren campaign, it can be an excellent way of setting the scene in my mind, and getting in touch with my character’s current feelings. It’s not exactly a short story, but it definitely tells a story, and I liked this one, so I thought I’d share it with you all, to whet your appetite for the next book…
For the first time ever, I am struggling to decide which book to write next. My original intention was to write the next book in the Manxman series, and I’ve done some reading for that as well, but at the moment, it appears that my head and heart are very firmly rooted in Spain with the Light Division, so I’m going to go with that and see where it leads me.
I wrote a short story in 2019 for Valentine’s Day, A Winter Idyll, which showed Johnny Wheeler going home during winter quarters to settle his uncle’s affairs, and discovering that his land agent’s daughter has been running the estate. There was the hint of a romance, although Johnny was clear at that point that he still felt bound to his lost love, Caroline Longford. Johnny is back in Spain now, and on the march towards Vitoria with the rest of the third brigade…
Quinta de Santo Antonio, May, 1813
Dear Miss Ludlow
Thank you for your letter. I’m very glad your father continues to improve, and that he is able to get out and about a little, and I’m sure you are right that the fresh air and exercise will do him good. I have to scold you a little, however, since I hear from Mrs Green that you have made no use of the barouche as I instructed. You cannot expect him to go far either on foot or on horseback, and he will quickly grow tired of strolling through the village.
I imagine this is due to your scruples with regard to the horses, so I have made arrangements through friends in Leicestershire, for the purchase of two carriage horses. It is high time that Jed and Carney were put out to grass, and I hope they enjoy their retirement in the meadow as much as I intend to when I come home. Write to me, to tell me that they have arrived safely. There is also a new mare, the one we went to see just before I left, whom I hope to breed. I know I can trust you to exercise her.
Your report of the home farm and the tenancies is excellent, and very detailed. I feel as though I’m there, watching the improvements happen. I wish I was, it must be very pretty at this time of year. I realise I’ve no idea what grows in my gardens as it was under snow for half the time I was there, and barely shooting up as I left.
My journey back was uneventful and it is good to be with my friends again, although I must tell you that I walked into a very difficult situation between two fellow officers, which I will not write in detail, but will save for when I see you again. In happier news, I was in time to assist at the wedding of my very good friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Swanson, and Miss Trenlow.
We have received orders that we shall be on the move again very soon. The postal service is always surprisingly reliable here, and letters seldom go astray. I am not accustomed to receive very many, so I look forward to yours, when you have time.
Colonel John Wheeler
Aberly, Derbyshire, June 1813
Dear Colonel Wheeler
Thank you for your very prompt reply. I am delighted to hear that your return went well, and more than a little apprehensive that by the time you receive this, you will no doubt be on the move, probably into danger. I have paid very little attention to news of the current war until now, other than to listen to your uncle’s stories of you before he died, but now I find myself scanning the Gazette for the slightest mention of an action.
The new horses arrived safely, although I am shocked at how much you must have spent on them, considering you are not here to have the benefit. Cora and Millie, the carriage horses, are beautiful animals, very well matched, and according to Jimmy, they are a “dream to drive”. He is eager to take them out, so I have little choice but to follow your orders and take my father on various excursions. Aphrodite, the black mare, is perfect to ride, but a thoroughgoing aristocrat, turning up her nose at the least thing, so that it makes me laugh. I think it is the fault of her owners for giving her such a name, it has made her conceited. I have begun to call her Affie, in the hope of taking her down a peg or two.
We had a disaster with the hen house, I am sorry to say, since that infuriating fox found his way in and created havoc. I have replaced the birds with stock from Jennings’ farm and personally supervised the rebuilding of the coop, so I hope we will have no more trouble.
Father continues well. In fact, being able to get out in the barouche around the farms seems to have improved his memory, and we have talked very sensibly about estate matters, although I am afraid he sometimes forgets that your uncle is dead. Still, it is good to see him more like his old self. I will send you a summary of the quarterly return when I have made it up, but all is progressing just as it should, and I think you will be pleased.
I cannot find the words to express my gratitude that I have been allowed to continue as I have. Few men would have been willing to allow a female the management of their property, and I promise you that I will ensure that you don’t regret it. I’m very happy here, feeling more settled than I have for a long time. At the same time, would it be very impertinent to say that I have found it a little lonely since you left? It is good to have a like-minded person to talk with, about things one cares about. I’ve missed our talks and our rides together.
With warm regards
San Munoz, May, 1813
My dearest Miss Ludlow
The postal service has surpassed itself, and I am dashing off this reply since we are camped here for two nights only, and I want this to go off with the headquarters mail before we march tomorrow. I’ll try to make it legible.
It is a very beautiful evening, and I have just feasted on roast pork and am seated outside my tent in a pensive mood. Just over six months ago, during the retreat from Madrid and Burgos, I lost my good friend Patrick Corrigan beside this river and I nearly died myself. The limp has gone now, and I’m back to full fitness, but I’ll never forget those days, believing I wouldn’t survive. I hadn’t realised at the time, but along with inheriting my uncle’s estate, it’s made me think differently about a number of things.
I walked up with some of the men to the woods where Pat fell. There’s nothing left now. I am told, and I’m choosing to believe it, that when both armies had moved on, the villagers came out to bury the dead. I think it is at least partly true, because our guide showed us several mounds which have been piled with rocks. It makes me feel better to think that Pat is lying there, and it makes me very thankful that I’m not.
I miss you. I miss talking with you and riding with you and laughing with you. It was only three months, and they passed very quickly, but I am left both restless and strangely content. I hadn’t intended to write this, since I have no idea when I’ll see you again, or even if, given that the general believes we’ll be engaging the French within the month, and none of us are invincible. But since you were very honest with me, I wanted to reciprocate. I miss you, Mary.
You would love this view. We’re camped on the heights, looking out over the river, and there are dozens of lanterns and campfires, pungent but very pretty in the gathering dusk. We’re marching out at dawn, so I’m going to finish this now. I don’t know when your next letter will reach me, but write it anyway, will you? I want to know that it’s on its way.
Vitoria, June 20th, 1813
My dearest Mary
I write Vitoria, since it is the nearest town I have a name for, but we are well outside the city, camped in a valley at the foot of a mountainous ridge, waiting for the rest of the army to complete its flanking manoeuvres. We have been engaged in several sharp skirmishes on the march, including an affair at San Millan, but we have come off very lightly and have given the French something to think about.
I have not received a letter, nor expected to in this time, but as I suspect I will be in battle tomorrow, I wanted to write this. I shall leave it with Mrs van Daan, and asked her to send it on to you. I confess that I have spoken of you to her a good deal, although to nobody else.
I want to be honest with you, dearest girl, since I have been honest from the first, to tell you that I have left two letters with Mrs van Daan, one to the lady I have spoken of. Our attachment was such, that I feel a duty to write to her in case of my death. If I survive, and I generally do, I will destroy that letter and write another.
This letter is for you. I realise that during those few months at Limm, I probably spent more time with you than in all the time I knew Caroline. I fell in love with her when we were both lonely, and had she not been committed to another, I think we could have been happy.
My time with you was different. There was no drama, no headlong rush, no real expectation of anything at all. And yet, looking back, I have the sense that I knew, even before I left, that I had found something that I’d been looking for all my life. Just thinking of you, brings me joy.
I wish I had spoken before I left. I told myself that it was too soon, that I needed to be sure of my own feelings and that it would be wrong to ask you to wait for a man wedded to his career and determined to see this war out. Now you are far away, and I miss you, and I want you to know how I feel.
I think, I hope, that you feel the same way, Mary. Will you be my wife? What a thing to do, asking you in a letter with no certainty that I will ever be able to honour my promise. Even after this battle, I have no hope of more leave for a long time, and will have to beg you to wait for me. I have tried to imagine how I would feel if our situations were reversed, though, and I decided that I would want to know.
Should anything happen to me, I have left my affairs in good order, and you will be very well taken care of, Mr Langley has all the details. Assuming that it goes well for me, I will write again very soon, and I hope you will forgive me and be kind, and tell me if I may hope.
With all my dearest love
Aberly, Derbyshire, July 1813
My dearest Johnny,
It is the worst thing, writing to you without even knowing if you will receive this, but write I must. I comfort myself by thinking that if you are wounded, or exhausted or sorrowful, I may help a little to lift your spirits.
The answer is yes, of course, with all my heart. You must have known that it would be, as I do not suppose I ever made a good job of concealing my feelings. I had begun to hope, when you left, that your former attachment did not hold such complete sway over your heart, but I had not expected you to speak so soon, and under such difficult circumstances. I am so happy that you did.
All is well here. I have told nobody of your offer and will not do so until I am sure that you are safe, but know that you are in my prayers and in my heart, every hour of every day. Write soon, my dear, I cannot rest until I hear from you.
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 Sergeant Grogan’s men. Johnny felt his calf and his hand came away bloody. Cautiously he moved his leg, feeling all around, but the damage seemed slight. The ball had entered his calf at the fleshy part but the bone was obviously not damaged and Johnny thought he could still walk.
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.
This is the opening scene of the new book, an Unmerciful Incursion, book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s due out on 31 July 2020 and I can’t wait.
We’re in winter quarters in 1812-13 and the Royal Scots Guards are having an unusually bad day…
Captain Leo Manson was hungry. He had been aware for some time of his stomach growling, but the sound was becoming audible now, or it would have been, if there had not been so much noise on the parade ground. The noise was rising steadily, a combination of marching feet, shouted orders and the quiet grumbling of officers and NCOs who were aware that it was past the dinner hour. The bugle had called some time ago, and the major who was theoretically supervising the drill had hesitated and shot an uncertain glance towards Manson and his companion, who had shaken his head without speaking. Major Beaumont signalled for the drill to continue, but the interruption seemed to have affected the troops, and the manoeuvres, which had been looking considerably better, were deteriorating again.
“To the right, wheel! March!”
The men on the right of the rank stepped off, turning their eyes to the left. Manson watched, hopefully. For the first few steps, things seemed to be going well, but as the movement continued, he realised that some of the troops had forgotten to lengthen their steps. To maintain the wheel in perfect order, each man needed to pay attention to the exact length of his stride or the wheel would fall apart very quickly. It did so, before Manson’s gloomy gaze, with several men treading on those in front of them, and others scrambling in a series of quick, untidy steps to catch up. The celebrated first battalion of the Scots Guards looked like a draught of militia recruits during their first drill session and Manson gritted his teeth to stop himself intervening, silently pleading with the officers to stop the manoeuvre before it got any worse.
The bellow was so loud that Manson physically jumped, even though he knew it was coming. The battalion stopped in its tracks, apart from several men caught in mid-step who cannoned into their comrades, causing a series of collisions which shoved one man out of the front rank on his own. The private froze, recognising his isolation, and looked desperately at his sergeant, who glanced at the nearest officer before jerking his head to indicate that the private retreat. The man made his way back into the line in a sideways shuffle which made Manson want to laugh aloud. Manson’s companion said a word under his breath which was inappropriate for a senior officer on the parade ground and strode to the front of the battalion with the air of a man driven beyond his endurance. Manson, who had served under Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry for more than two years, forgot about his rumbling stomach and just prayed that his commanding officer did not hit anybody.
“You, what’s your name?”
The hapless soldier who had just made it back into the line, stared at the colonel, his mouth open, but no sound came out.
The man did so. Paul van Daan moved closer and inspected him from head to toe with ruthless thoroughness, then held out his hand.
The man hesitated, and his sergeant, who seemed to have regained his wits, stepped forward. “Andrews, the officer of the 110th wishes…”
“Enough!” Paul roared, and the sergeant jumped to attention. “Andrews, give me the bloody musket before I take it from you and shove it where it will never see the sun. Sergeant Bolton, step back, I’ve not given you an order.”
Andrews handed over the musket. He was sweating in fear, and Manson felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. Paul turned the weapon over in his hands, inspecting the touch hole, the lock and then the entire weapon very thoroughly. When he had done, he handed the musket back to Andrews who took it and returned to attention, staring woodenly ahead.
“Well, Private Andrews, it’s clear you were paying attention when they taught you how to keep your musket in good order, even if you missed basic drill training. When did you join?”
“When did you arrive in Portugal?”
“Well you were bloody lucky you didn’t arrive earlier, you missed the worst retreat since Corunna. How much drill training have you had, so far?”
“Sir.” Andrews shot an agonised look towards his captain, who was watching the little drama with a thunderous expression. Paul followed his gaze and Manson saw a faint smile.
“Never mind, you can’t really tell me you’ve had virtually none, can you?”
Paul turned away and walked to the front, surveying the battalion. His voice had a carrying power which any drill sergeant would have envied.
“Major Beaumont. Your officers will be missing their dinner. Why don’t you go on ahead, I want a word with the battalion and then I’ll join you.”
There was a rustle of disquiet among the men as the officers left. Colonel van Daan waited until they had gone, then turned back to the men.
“Sergeant-Major Clegg. Separate out the new recruits, get them lined up over there. And get a move on, I’m so hungry my belly is sticking to my spine. Private Andrews, lead them out.”
Manson watched their faces as Paul began to shout out orders, and he wanted to smile. He had seen it happen many times before. Within minutes, the drill was running, and with only experienced troops, it ran very well. The NCOs, visibly relieved at being able to demonstrate how well their men could perform, kept the movements tight, and the companies worked well together. Paul watched, calling out an occasional order, but mostly left the NCOs to their work. Once it was evident that the Royal Scots Guards were moving smoothly, Paul crossed to where the new troops stood watching in miserable silence, and Manson saw Paul put his hand on Andrews’ shoulder. He was speaking to him, pointing out what was happening in the manoeuvre, and Manson could see the man relaxing. Paul said something and several of the men around him laughed.
When the drill was done, Paul called the new recruits back into line. “Well done,” he said. “I’d a feeling you were better than that. Don’t get arsey with the new lads, we were all there once and they’ll learn quicker if you work together. I’m pleased that I’ll be able to report back to Lord Wellington that the Scots Guards are still the men who proved their worth at Salamanca. Is anybody hungry?”
There was a murmur of laughter and then somebody cheered. Paul grinned, and taking it as permission, the battalion yelled to a man, driven, Manson thought, not only by the thought of dinner but by an unexpected sense of camaraderie. Paul gave the order to stand the men down and walked over to Manson.
“Do you think we’re going to get any dinner?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, sir. That went very well, though.”
“Yes, they’re good lads.”
“They’re good officers as well, sir.”
“They might be, Captain, but if they’ve done more than a couple of hours worth of work with their new recruits this winter, I’ll be very surprised. Don’t look at me like that. I’m going to go in there, explain his Lordship’s instructions and be really, really tactful. I give you my word.”
Manson watched as the tall, fair figure walked towards the solid farm building which currently housed the battalion officers’ mess and felt his heart sink. Colonel Paul Van Daan could manage the enlisted men and NCOs better than any officer Manson had ever seen, but his attitude towards a commissioned officer whom he suspected of shirking his duty frequently left chaos in his wake.
“Captain Manson, where the devil are you? Get in here, I’m hungry.”
Manson sighed and followed, reflecting that whatever the atmosphere in the mess, there would at least be dinner.
The atmosphere was uncomfortable enough for Manson to be happy to miss breakfast the following morning. It was approximately thirty miles from Guarda, where the first division was in cantonments, to Freineda where Wellington had his headquarters. Paul, Manson and Sergeant Jenson, Paul’s orderly, were travelling light and made good time. They stopped in the little village of Braga where a farmer made up for the lack of an early meal with excellent fare and a wealth of local gossip. He and Paul were clearly old acquaintances and Manson ate in silence, trying to follow the conversation which was in rapid Portuguese and seemed to consist of a series of enquiries about members of the farmer’s extended family. Back on the road, Paul was considerably more cheerful.
“I’ve known old Barboza since I was out here under Craufurd a few years ago, he was always good to us. Much better manners than the officers of the Royal Scots Guards, I must say.”
“Sir, you threatened to punch one of the officers of the Royal Scots Guards.”
“Only after he challenged me to a duel,” Paul said composedly. “A challenge which I nobly resisted. I wonder if he’ll complain to Lord Wellington?”
“I expect he’s already written the letter, sir.”
“Perhaps Wellington will be so furious that he’ll remove me from this assignment,” Paul said hopefully. “I’m not at all suited to the job.”
Manson could not help smiling. “You are suited to the job, sir, you just hate doing it.”
“I hate being away from my wife,” Paul said. “She’s barely out of her bed after giving birth, and given what a horrendous ordeal that proved to be, she shouldn’t be out of her bed at all. But we all know that she won’t give a button for the list of instructions that I left for her and is probably doing something highly unsuitable without me there to keep an eye on her.”
“Sir, she’d be doing that even if you were there.”
“You know her very well, Captain.” Paul shot him a smile. “I’m glad I asked you to come with me, Leo, it’s been good to get some time with you.”
“Me too, sir. It’s been a mad few months.”
“It’s been a mad few years.”
Manson could not disagree. He had arrived in Portugal with the 112th infantry, and his early introduction to army life and in particular to Colonel Paul van Daan had not been easy, but both Manson and Paul had persevered. Two and a half years later, Manson was captain of the 110th light company and enjoyed a close friendship with both Paul and his young wife, who travelled with the battalion.
Paul was currently in command of the third brigade of the light division, under its Hanoverian commander, General Charles Alten, but during winter quarters, had been given an unwelcome secondment by Lord Wellington to tour the various divisions of the army, inspecting training and combat readiness. Manson was not entirely clear about Paul’s remit and he did not think that Paul was either, but after only a few weeks it was obvious that some of the officers of Lord Wellington’s army were furiously resentful about his interference in the running of their battalions. Paul’s friendship with Wellington, and his past record of taking on jobs that no other officer in the army wanted to do, had led to him being nicknamed Wellington’s Mastiff several years ago. Manson had heard the sobriquet again recently, and not in an affectionate way.
If Paul cared, he gave no sign of it. Manson thought that his commanding officer was more concerned with the problems he was finding with training and discipline in some of the divisions, than with his own unpopularity. Another officer might have treated this job as a sinecure, sending glowing reports back to Wellington on every occasion and making friends throughout the army but Manson knew that Paul would do no such thing. He treated each inspection as a personal quest to improve things and Manson was exasperated both with his over-conscientious colonel and with Lord Wellington who had set him an impossible task. To make it worse, many of the officers he was dealing with, were of higher rank than he, and resented advice and recommendations from a mere colonel.
An Unmerciful Incursion is available to pre-order on Amazon here.
Although this post is entitled Day 5 – NaNoWriMo with Labradors, my more observant readers will notice that this is in fact the first day of posting. That probably tells you how I’ve been getting on.
For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, is an annual Internet-based writing project that takes place during November. Participants try to write a 50,000 word manuscript between November 1 and November 30 with online encouragement from well-known authors and from fellow participants.
I’ve been tempted to do this before, but the time has never been right. Once, I did actually do a chapter of a possible historical romance before realising that a) I didn’t have time and b) I hated what I was writing. This year, however, it seemed that the timing was perfect.
My latest book, This Blighted Expedition, was published on 31st October. It took me a long time to write this one; generally I manage two books a year but there was a lot of research and it was a challenging storyline which I rewrote several times before I was happy with it. I really wanted to get on with my next project, which will be book six of the Peninsular War Saga, as soon as possible, knowing that a lot of readers are really waiting for that one.
For the past couple of books, I’ve given myself a month off before starting the next one. That month inevitably drifts into two and possibly even three, and I was determined not to do that this time. I already knew the basic storyline of An Unrelenting Enmity and I know my characters and background very well. Why not use NaNoWriMo to kickstart me into getting on with book six? It sounded very simple.
Needless to say it was not. What made me think that I could leap straight into a new book on the day after the last one was published, I have no idea. There were things to do, publicity, blog posts, a mini blog tour and a last minute scramble over the paperback formatting. The first of November came and went and I hadn’t even logged in to the site.
I was determined to do it this year though, and so yesterday I finally sat down, logged in, and updated my pitifully small word count so far. To my amazement, it really worked. Seeing the chart cheerfully predicting that at this rate I wouldn’t reach my 50000 word goal until the eighteenth of December was surprisingly motivating, and I sat down and got on with it. I really like using the timer, to see how long I’ve worked, and the word count is already back on target, after only two days.
I’m generally a very fast writer, and having good touch typing skills helps with that. It’s research, planning and displacement activities like social media and housework that slow down my writing process. Or writing blog posts, maybe…
It’s early days yet, but I’m hoping that by the end of the month I’ll have achieved my goal, which will be about half a book for me. That won’t give me anything like a finished product, and there will still be days when I have to take time out to research and plan and to simply live my life. Oscar isn’t going to walk himself, after all…
Still, I’m excited about this month and will continue to post updates and perhaps an occasional snippet as I go along. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the second book of the Manxman series, but it is so lovely to be back in the Peninsula with Paul, Anne, Johnny and of course Lord Wellington. I cannot describe how much I’ve missed Lord Wellington. I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from today, bearing in mind that this is a first draft and not everything that I post will make it into the final book. This one might, though…
“I have no time to celebrate Christmas, Colonel, as you well know. I am setting out for Cadiz tomorrow. Really, I should be back at my desk now, there are some final orders…”
“Stop it,” Paul said. He saw the blue eyes widen in surprise, he was seldom so abrupt with his chief, but he was suddenly exasperated. “I know you need to go to Cadiz, sir, and I know why. I think you’re bloody mad to travel in this weather, you’ll be forever on the road and my sympathy lies with every single one of the men travelling with you, you will be horrible. And I am grateful that you didn’t insist on me going with you. But my wife has organised this very early Christmas dinner so that you at least have one day to eat a decent meal, have a drink with some of your officers and mend some bridges after that appalling memorandum you sent out last month. She’s put a lot of work into this, and I am not having you grumbling over the roast mutton because there is one more rude letter to some hapless Portuguese administrator that you forgot to write. Are we clear?”
There was a long and pointed silence and Paul tried not to look as though he was holding his breath. Eventually, Lord Wellington took a long drink of wine.
“There is still time for me to insist that you come with me,” he said, and Paul laughed.
“Having me with you while you insert one of Congreve’s rockets up the arse of the Spanish government sounds like a really bad idea, sir, they do not need two of us.”
Wellington snorted. “That is why I am leaving you behind to do the same to every senior officer in my army who fails to follow my instructions on the drills and training to be conducted during winter quarters this year,” he said. “By the time we are ready to march, which I hope will be no later than April, I want every man of my army to know what he is doing. That is your job, Colonel.”
“And a lovely Christmas gift it was too, sir. I’m already having to take a bodyguard out with me when I visit the other divisions, I have been doing this for two weeks, and they hate me.”
“Not in the light division.”
“No. They’ve no need of me there, General Alten is doing a very fine job. And here he is.” Paul shot his chief a sideways glance. “Come and be social, sir. Just for today.”
Wellington studied him for a moment, then gave one of his rare genuine smiles. “This is very good wine,” he said, as though the preceding conversation had not taken place. “Where is it from, Colonel?”
For anybody new to the Peninsular War Saga, they’re available on Amazon kindle here and will be available in paperback before Christmas.
I’ll be posting daily updates on my NaNoWriMo journey over on Facebook and Twitter from now on.
The Battle of Salamanca was fought on this day in 1812 across the rolling plains around the small Spanish village of Los Arapiles. In this excerpt from An Untrustworthy Army, Wellington’s men are marching close to the French army while both generals try to decide whether or not to risk a battle. Wellington had almost decided to retreat on this occasion, when on the afternoon of 22 July, he spotted a gap in the French line and ordered the attack.
After a little more than a fortnight at Rueda, it was a relief to Paul to get his brigade moving. Night marches could be difficult, depending on the terrain, but most of his men were very experienced and followed each other through the darkness, relying on the voices of NCOs and officers to guide them. The clink of horses and the thudding of hooves followed the progress of the cavalry who were advancing with the light division. Paul rode up the long column to find General Charles Alten in conversation with his big German orderly. Peering through the darkness he recognised Paul and waved him forward.
“Colonel van Daan, I am sorry to have interrupted your festivities this evening.”
“It’s a relief, sir, I’ve had enough of waiting. French on the move?”
“It seems so, although I know very little, just that we are to advance with the cavalry and await orders.”
Paul pulled a face which Alten could probably not see in the dark. “When we get there, why don’t we play a hand or two of ‘lets all sit around and guess what the hell Lord Wellington is doing now’, sir?” he said. “I should have gone up to see him instead of prancing about with the Rifles for the evening.”
“Where is your wife, Colonel?”
“I left her in camp for the night with half a company of the KGL to guard the baggage and supplies. They’ll pack up early and follow us up. Where are we going?”
“We will halt behind Castrejon and await Lord Wellington.”
“That’s always a treat,” Paul said gloomily. “I hate marching around for no apparent reason and I’ve got a feeling that’s what we’re doing.”
Alten gave a soft laugh. “There is usually a reason, Colonel. It is simply that you hate not knowing what the reason is.”
Paul acknowledged the truth of this over the next few days of monotonous, repetitive marching interspersed with several fierce skirmishes as Lord Wellington and Marshal Marmont began a cautious facing dance which each day failed to result in a battle. There was nothing urgent or frenetic about their movements. Facing each other across the river and the rolling plains around Salamanca, the two armies manoeuvred in perfect timing, attempting to outflank each other without forcing a pitched battle on any ground of which the two commanders were unsure.
“It’s like a pavane,” Anne said, on the third day. She had ridden up to join Paul and was looking over the lines of Wellington’s army and then beyond to the distant columns of Frenchmen on the opposite bank. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“Nor have I,” Paul said. “What the devil is a pavane?”
“It’s a dance. A bit like the Allemande but slower and more stately; it’s very old.”
“What is an Allemande? No, don’t tell me. How do you know all this?”
“There was an Italian dancing master,” Anne said, and laughed aloud at his expression.
“Your stepmother should have locked you up,” Paul said grimly.
“If she had, Colonel, we probably wouldn’t be where we are now.”
“True. But it’s a lesson to me about keeping an eye on my daughters as they’re growing up. I’m shocked at how young girls behave.”
“You did not say that to me in a shepherd’s hut in Thorndale,” Anne said serenely. “How long is he going to keep this up?”
“I don’t know,” Paul admitted, looking out over the lines. “He’s not saying much even to me. I don’t think he’s sure.”
Anne followed his gaze. The countryside was a vast plain with low rolling hills and the river snaking between the two armies. An occasional shot was fired when the two came too close but for the most part, the forces moved watchfully along, ready to fall into position at a moment’s notice. They passed villages and small towns and the people came out to watch them sombrely. There was none of the excitement and joy of their entry into Salamanca. It was as if the locals knew that the generals were contemplating battle and dreaded the consequences for their crops, their homes and their families.
We visited the battlefield during our tour of Portugal and Spain in 2017. The Salamanca battlefield site is immense; not in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the sheer amount of information available. I was halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit was particularly useful as it was made ahead of the writing. I had read about the small interpretation centre in the village of Los Arapiles to the south of the city of Salamanca, but had not really looked it up until we were about to go there. I was hugely impressed to find that it was open two days a week, Thursday and Saturday, and we had set aside a Thursday for this trip.
I was so glad we did. This is definitely the best small museum we visited. For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which wasmuch more useful than our desperate attempts to translate interpretation boards in other places. For another, it is amazingly detailed and accurate. From the advantages and disadvantages of the different infantry formations of line, square and column, to the best way to load a musket, somebody here had done their research and very well.
The other joy was the map we were given of a series of interpretation boards around the battlefield site. There are ten in all, each with information about the battle as it unfolded, and each board has a QR code which can be scanned by a smart phone. A short dramatised account of that section of the battle, in English, can be listened to at each point.
The routes on the map are marked for walking or cycling. The good news is that in good weather all tracks are passable in a car. A 4 x 4 would be best, some of them are very rough, but we managed it on dry roads without. It took about three hours to do the whole thing. Honestly it would have been less if it were not for my pedantic insistence that we do the boards in number order so that we got the chronology right for the battle as opposed to working out the shortest circular route which might have taken half the time. That day, the man I married gave the word patience a whole new definition.
With the help of the museum, the interpretation boards, which are excellent, my trusty battlefield guide and a map, the Battle of Salamanca became suddenly very clear to me. Driving from board to board and then climbing hills and rocky outcrops to view the various vantage points of the battle it was very easy to visualise how Wellington was able to split the French line and send their army fleeing within a few hours.
After exhausting ourselves scrambling over battlefield sites, we drove to Alba de Tormes, across the river. This is the route that a lot of the fleeing French army took, and no action took place there in real life. In my book a significant skirmish takes place there so I wanted to check if my story worked with the location. I was delighted to realise that with a small adjustment it will work very well.
We went back into Salamanca for dinner. As we are English this involved almost two hours of wandering around this beautiful university city, musing about how it is possible to be in a major city at 7pm and find nobody open for dinner. It always takes some time to Spanish dining hours. But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, it’s so lovely, especially the university buildings, which feature in An Untrustworthy Army, since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.
Given that my fictional regiment fights as part of the Light Division, Salamanca had the potential to be a bit of a disappointment for me, since Charles Alten’s men did not play a significant part in the battle. Since I know that Colonel van Daan is easily bored, I chose to give the third brigade a skirmish of their very own out at Alba de Tormes. The battle is included in the book, seen through the eyes of Lieutenant Simon Carlyon who is on temporary transfer to Pakenham’s staff.
A great deal has been written on the battle of Salamanca. For me, the best book on the subject by far is Rory Muir’s book which explores the battle in depth. I highly recommend a tour of the battlefield and interpretation centre; as long as you have transport it is one of the ones it’s perfectly possible to do without a guide.
An Untrustworthy Army is book five in the Peninsular War Sagawhich follows the fortunes of the fictional 110th infantry and Paul van Daan, the man who rises to lead it, through the long years of Wellington’s wars in Portugal and Spain.
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.”
The Regency Romance; the story of the Light Division romances is my attempt to explain how I came to be writing in apparently very different genres, and even more unlikely, how I came to link the two. On the surface it seems that the military theme of the Peninsular War Saga is very different to the comedies of manners of the Regency novels. A closer look shows that there are very obvious links.
Of all historical novels, Regency romances seem to be one of the most distinctive genres, and although their popularity has waxed and waned they have never completely gone out of style. Set approximately during the period of the British Regency (1811–1820) they have their own plot and stylistic conventions. Many people think of Jane Austen when Regencies are mentioned and certainly her novels are set in the right period, but of course she was writing as a contemporary not as a historian.
It has always seemed to me that Georgette Heyer was the mother of the current Regency genre. She wrote more than twenty novels set during the Regency, between 1935 and her death in 1974 and her books were very much like a comedy of manners. There was little discussion of sex, understandable given the different views of her generation, and a great emphasis on clever, quick witted dialogue between the characters.
These days, Regencies seem to be divided into two sub genres. There are the traditional Regencies which are similar to Heyer’s originals, and a more modern Regency historical genre. Many authors do not seem to confine themselves to one of these two types but may move between the two. Both are currently popular.
Traditional Regencies emphasise the main romantic plot. They play close attention to historical detail and take care to replicate the voice of the genre. There is a good deal of research for writers of traditional Regencies. Heroes and heroines generally remain within the accepted rules and conditions of the period and although their may be some sex it is very likely that the action stops at the bedroom door, probably at the proposal of marriage.
The more modern Regency historical novels break more rules. They may be set during the time period but not necessarily in high society with an insight into life outside of the world of wealth and privilege inhabited by Georgette Heyer’s characters. They may also include characters who behave in a more modern way, particularly when it comes to sexual behaviour and moral values. The style can be very different to the more traditional works. There is another sub genre, the sensual Regency which has become very popular in recent years. These novels are far more explicit than the traditional Regency and the sexual relationship between the hero and heroine is key to the book.
There are some elements which are likely to crop up in all genres of Regency novels. Many are set in, or will refer to the Ton, which means the top layer of English society. They revolve around social activities such as balls, dinners, assemblies and other common pastimes. Men are often involved in sporting activities. There are detailed descriptions of fashion and a consciousness of social class and the rules of behaviour. The difference between them is that in traditional Regencies the heroine is likely to stick to them; in the modern genre pretty much anything goes.
The shift in the genre seems to have come about because of a slump in the popularity of Regencies in the 1990s. Some authors began incorporating more sex into their novels and while lovers of traditional Regencies disliked it, publishers and readers seemed to approve and the Regency novel got a new lease of life.
I grew up reading Georgette Heyer and owned every one of her books in paperback – I still have some of them and still read them from time to time. They are, for me, the ultimate comfort book – the only other series which comes close are P G Wodehouse’s tales of Jeeves and Wooster. These are the books I’ll turn to if I’m ill or miserable or sometimes just because my brain hurts and I can’t focus on anything else. They are written to entertain and with their quick dialogue and comedic moments they never let me down.
I wrote my first Regency novel for the Mills and Boon market during the years I was trying to find a traditional publisher. I’d tried several other novels, including at least two contemporary ones which are never going to see the light of day again, and had joined the Romantic Novelists Association new writers scheme. After very positive feedback on both A Respectable Woman and A Marcher Lord it was suggested that I try to adapt these to Mills and Boon. I did try, but it couldn’t be done. It appeared that I simply could not have a heroine who defended herself very capably against attack; it was the job of the hero to rescue her and Jenny Marchant simply wouldn’t wait. In fact she was more likely to do the rescuing. Philippa Maclay was even worse, she didn’t make it through two chapters without doing something so appalling that it put her beyond hope of redemption. If I rewrote these characters then I would be writing a different book. I gave it up and decided to start from scratch.
Out of that decision came Cordelia Summers and Giles Fenwick of The Reluctant Debutante. Once I got into the swing of it I really loved writing this book. It’s fun and fairly light hearted. I was already doing a lot of research into the period for my series set during the Peninsular war and that fitted very well with a Regency so it wasn’t that much extra work. And the fast paced dialogue and witty characters of the Regency genre exist in all my books, no matter which period they’re set in. I realise that those years of reading Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett have affected the way all my characters speak. They may have different accents and different levels of education, but most of them are smart mouths.
I had a lovely response from Mills and Boon on the Reluctant Debutante. It was a no, but a very detailed no. They liked the setting and the characters and even the plot, but once again my characters let me down. There was not enough internal conflict between them, it seemed; most of their difficulties were external and their way of overcoming them was not dramatic enough. Could I rewrite it to include more conflict between Cordelia and Giles?
I did try. I wrote a selection of scenes for them. The trouble was, trying to fit them into the book made no sense whatsoever. I’d already created these people and their responses to events grew out of their essential character. Cordelia might have flatly refused to see Giles after their quarrel and there could have been weeks of agonising and misunderstandings. But there wasn’t. Cordelia was as mad as a wet hen but once she saw him again, she didn’t have it in her not to listen to his explanation. She’s a practical girl with a wealth of common sense. She simply can’t behave like a drama queen.
So Giles and Cordelia remained as themselves and I published the book pretty much as I’d originally written it, with the removal of one or two completely gratuitous sex scenes which didn’t seem to add anything to the plot. For a while, it was my bestselling book, although the Peninsular War Saga has long overtaken it. This inspired me to write a second Regency, A Regrettable Reputation. It was only while writing this, that it occurred to me, that a link between my main series and my Regencies was not only possible, but made a good deal of sense. The two heroes of the Regencies both turn out to be former Light Division officers, and I have enjoyed incorporating references to their army days and characters from the other books.
After the publication of A Regrettable Reputation, however, some of the dangers of this became clear. I realise that for readers who do move between the two series, I have introduced a number of spoilers about who survived the war. Thus far it hasn’t caused too many problems, but it is the reason why I’ve not carried on with the series yet. I’d like to do more, but I think I need to finish the Peninsular War Saga first. I’m already jumping backwards and forwards in time between the main series and the Manxman naval spin off. Any more time travel and my head will explode, I’ve no idea how Diana Gabaldon does it…
All the same, I enjoyed writing my Regencies. I’ve recently spent some time re-editing both of them and am working on new covers which should be out very soon. The new editions came about for different reasons. There are some changes to the end chapters of A Regrettable Reputation based on research I did for An Unwilling Alliance. I realised that what I had written as a military court martial should almost certainly have been a civilian criminal trial, and although none of my readers ever complained, once I knew I’d made a mistake, it bothered me. The changes do nothing to alter the plot, but the new version is more historically accurate.
The rewriting of The Reluctant Debutante was more of a difficult choice and I spent a long time thinking about it. When I first wrote this book, it was a standalone novel and it was only later on that I came up with the idea of incorporating it into a spin-off series to the Peninsular War Saga. Giles was written as a Waterloo veteran and a former exploring officer and it wasn’t that much of a stretch to imagine him coming through the 110th prior to that.
Once I had the idea, the temptation was irresistible. I wrote the prequel to this novel last year, A Regrettable Reputation, and the Light Division Romances were born. I made a few minor adjustments to The Reluctant Debutante and left it alone. For a long time, it was my most popular novel, a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre. But as an author, it was my least favourite book.
During a break between the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and the writing of the second book in the Manxman series, This Blighted Expedition, I decided to revisit my first Regency and try to work out what I disliked about the book. There were one or two obvious things. Having written the book as a completely separate entity to the series, there were some names which were far too similar to those in my other books and several readers had complained of confusion. Those were easy to change.
I also felt, with hindsight, that the end of the book was too rushed. It was as if the happy ending was in sight and I just wanted to get it over with. I’ve rewritten the last few chapters fairly extensively now, not changing anything about the plot, but giving both Giles and Cordelia space to enjoy their ending as well as giving a voice to one or two minor characters who deserved it. I’m much happier with it now.
The biggest change for me, however, is in the opening chapter, when Giles and Cordelia first meet in a wayside inn. At least two reviewers complained about this scene where Giles, appallingly drunk, grabs hold of Cordelia and kisses her against her will, complaining that it was a sexual assault and that it put them off the book entirely. I’ve had a few bad reviews for many of my books, but these two always bugged me. I was not willing to go away and rewrite the book as a knee-jerk reaction to the #MeToo movement, since I am very sure that what was considered sexual assault in 1818 was very different to now. That does not make it right. It does make it real.
At the same time, I knew that scene wasn’t right for me as a writer. The scene is hardly original; I can think, off the top of my head, of at least two occasions where Georgette Heyer used something similar, and it has been the starter for endless other historical romances. Thirty years ago, when Bodice Rippers were popular, it wasn’t unheard of for the ‘hero’ to go a lot further and still manage to hold the sympathy of the reader. But not this reader.
I was also aware that sexual assault of a far more serious nature has featured in several of my other books and nobody has ever complained about it. Reviewers and readers have talked about how distressing it was but have praised my treatment of the subject in fiction. Nobody has ever suggested I have taken the subject lightly and that is probably because I haven’t.
There is also an incident in An Unconventional Officer which could be compared to this one. Finding himself alone with a very pretty girl in a snowstorm, Major van Daan thanks her for tending to his injury and kisses her. It is completely inappropriate given that he is married, but the kiss is very gentle and very light-hearted and there is never a sense that he would have done anything more without a good deal of encouragement. Once again, nobody has ever complained about this scene; it’s actually a pivotal point in Paul’s life. That, I realise, was the problem with Giles’ drunken assault on Cordelia. It could probably have happened in another book with another writer but it wasn’t right for me. And it definitely wasn’t right for Giles Fenwick, who could not have served under Colonel Paul van Daan and survived it, if he was in the habit of getting drunk and grabbing hold of passing females. The scene was a somewhat lazy plot device which was disrespectful to both my hero and my heroine.
It has taken me time to rewrite that scene, because I didn’t want to leave it out entirely. That first meeting was too important to the future relationship of the hero and heroine. I also wanted the book to be something of a journey of redemption for Giles. After Waterloo he was almost certainly suffering from what we would now call PTSD and meeting Cordelia is the beginning of his journey back into the world. I wanted him to make that journey, but I didn’t want him to behave so badly that his redemption became unbelievable.
I think I’m happy with the result now. The meeting in the inn, although initially somewhat alarming for Cordelia, has lost the sense of menace and fear and feels playful, more flirtatious. The moment Giles steps back and apologises, the reader has a sense of his charm as well as his essential good-nature. He is behaving very badly by the rules of 1818 society, but so is Cordelia, in choosing to take advantage of her moment of unexpected attraction to a stranger she never expects to see again.
When he is sober, Giles is embarrassed. He knows he has behaved badly and it has thrown into sharp focus, the effects of his heavy drinking. He is also uncomfortably conscious of how most of his army friends and his commanding officer from the 110th would view his conduct. Possibly for the first time, Giles realises that he needs to stop and to reassess his behaviour.
I hope new readers enjoy this revised edition of The Reluctant Debutante. The Light Division romances are in many ways, a different genre to the Peninsular War Saga, but they do share common characters and I think, a common theme. My hesitation in rewriting this book was due to my concern about attributing modern sensibilities and attitudes to early nineteenth century characters. Most historical novelists do this to some degree, often by simply leaving things out, but I hope that I have achieved enough of a balance to made Giles and Cordelia both believable and likeable. Certainly I like him a lot more now.
Both books of the Light Division Romances are currently available free on Amazon kindle here.
I began writing the Peninsular War Saga some years ago. At the time, I was attempting to find an agent or a publisher for one of my standalone historical romances, without much success. I had a lot of very positive feedback about my writing, my plots and my characterisation but everybody was saying the same thing; we’re sorry, but there is no market for traditional historical romance any more.
More than one agent urged me to try to write a contemporary romance. I made several attempts and hated all of them. Many people told me that with just a little adjustment, I could write for Mills and Boon historical. Once again, I made the attempt, and the people at Mills and Boon were lovely, gave great feedback, but were just not sure that my characterisation was quite right for them. I was getting nowhere.
To cheer myself up, I decided to scrap all my dreams of writing a marketable historical romance and just write something that I really wanted to do. There was definitely no market for a new series about the Peninsular War, since it had been done to death in the years following the runaway success of the Sharpe books and TV series. Still, it’s what I wanted to write, and since it was clear that nobody was going to read it anyway, I felt very liberated. I decided I could write it just for me, about a collection of people who didn’t always feel heroic or brave or even that patriotic. A lot of them joined because they had no option, or because they needed a job. They fought and they died and a lot of them became heroes. They also got wet, got grumpy when they were hungry, got sore feet and developed a bad head cold from time to time.
I wanted to explore areas of the war that I’d not really seen a lot about. What about the medical services? How did the commissariat work and who was responsible for ordnance and transport and prisoners of war? And what about the women and children who followed the army? What was it like in camp and on the long marches and all the boring hours between battles and skirmishes? What were relationships like between officers and men, away from the parade ground and the tidy regulations which governed army life?
Out of all these questions was born the Peninsular War Saga. Finally tired of trying to persuade an agent or a publisher to read one of the books, I decided to publish independently, without really thinking I’d sell more than a dozen copies, let alone develop an enthusiastic following. With book five doing well and book six in the early planning stages, I consider I’ve been incredibly lucky.
The Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the fictional 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon; in particular, a young officer called Paul van Daan who joins the regiment in 1802 as it is about to go to India to fight under General Arthur Wellesley.
From the battle of Assaye, through Italy, Copenhagen and Portugal, we follow the early career of Lieutenant Paul van Daan, the most unusual officer ever to join the 110th as he attempts to find his place in the regiment. Along the way he makes both friends and enemies, discovers a talent for leadership and shares his life with two very different women.
An Unconventional Officer is slightly different to the other books, as it covers a longer time period, almost eight years. I wanted it to be a full introduction to Paul’s story and to get him to the point where he was well-established in Wellington’s army. While it introduces many of the main characters, the heart of this novel is the love story between Paul and Anne and its theme is Paul’s gradual development from a young officer willing to break all the rules, to a slightly more mature officer who is beginning to learn to fit in a little better.
This book is really a spin-off from the Peninsular War Saga, but it fits very securely within the series as well. It takes place halfway through the action of An Unconventional Officer, during the Copenhagen campaign, which is mentioned, but not explored in book one. I adore this book, partly because the navy theme enabled me to set part of it on the island which is my home and which I love, and partly because it is a real coming-of-age book for Major van Daan as well as a key point in his developing friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley.
It is 1806 andCaptain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife. He pays court to Roseen Crellin, who is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.
Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.
As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.
This book covers an area of the war that I knew very little about. The building and manning of the lines of Torres Vedras are absolutely fascinating and worth a lot more time than I was able to give them. It is also the story of a young couple learning to be married, and sets the tone for Paul and Anne’s relationship throughout the series. If you don’t leave your hero and heroine at the church door, you have to work out what their marriage is going to be like, and I loved the challenge of that.
On the heights of Bussaco Ridge, Paul van Daan leads his battalion into action under Lord Wellington in his defeat of the French under Marshal Massena. The book explores Paul’s developing career, and the happiness of his marriage to the lovely young widow of a fellow officer. As Wellington prepares to chase Massena out of Portugal, Paul is serving under the worst general in the army and must find a way to keep his regiment safe and protect his reputation.
In addition to the battles and the personal stories of my characters, I wanted to introduce something about army politics during this book. I particularly love finding an interesting, funny or even a very sad story from history and trying to work it into the lives of my characters.
Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida. As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is becoming accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and managing the resentment of other officers at his promotion over older and longer serving men. His young wife is carrying their first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities. And if that was not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during the days of the battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally, with potentially lethal consequences for the 110th and the rest of the third brigade of the light division.
This was definitely the most emotional book for me to write. I wanted to highlight the plight of women in wartime, and I’m proud of this book, but it was extremely painful for me.
In the freezing January of 1812, Lord Wellington pushes his army on to the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bloody siege with tragic consequences. Colonel Paul van Daan and his wife Anne have a baby son and in the aftermath of the storming, take a brief trip to Lisbon to allow Paul’s family to take little William back to England. With his career flourishing and his marriage happy, Paul has never felt so secure. But his world is shattered when his young wife is taken prisoner by a French colonel with a personal grudge against Paul. As Wellington’s army begins the siege of Badajoz, the other great Spanish border fortress, his scouts and agents conduct a frantic search for the colonel’s wife. Meanwhile Anne van Daan is in the worst danger of her life and needs to call on all her considerable resources to survive, with no idea if help is on the way.
This book covers both triumph and miserable retreat and was a wonderful opportunity both to introduce some new characters and to revisit one of the major storylines from the first book. It turned out to be more emotional than I expected and I loved being able to highlight one of my favourite characters whom I felt I’d neglected a little. The story of the retreat from Burgos was impossible to glamorise and highlighted both the best and the worst of Wellington’s army.
It is June 1812 and back with her husband and his brigade, Anne van Daan is beginning to recover from her ordeal at the hands of Colonel Dupres as Lord Wellington marches his army into Spain and up to Salamanca. In a spectacularly successful action, Wellington drives the French back although not without some damage to the Third Brigade of the Light Division.
Still recovering from their losses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, the Light Division remains in Madrid while Wellington lays siege to Burgos but some of Paul’s brigade have troubles of their own.
Lieutenant Simon Carlyon is determined not to allow his dead brother’s shameful reputation to blight his career in the army but finds it harder than expected to serve under the man who killed him. Colonel Johnny Wheeler is finding the lie he told to protect others difficult to live with, faced with the unrelenting hostility of a young officer. And Captain Michael O’Reilly’s life becomes complicated through a casual act of kindness.
The end of the campaigning season is not going as well for the Allied army and triumph turns to an undignified and dangerous retreat. At a time when the discipline of Wellington’s army seems to have broken down, Van Daan’s brigade need to set personal matters aside and concentrate on staying alive long enough to reach safety.
That’s as far as I’ve got with the novels. My next book is intended to be the sequel to An Unwilling Alliance, covering the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. I’ve not been able to find a novel covering this campaign before so it feels like uncharted territory. I intend to pick up Hugh Kelly’s story, but as the campaign once again involved both army and navy, I will be joining the men of the 110th second battalion, who, while Major van Daan was leading the first battalion to glory in the Peninsula, were unlucky enough to be sent to Walcheren. The working title is An Inauspicious Expedition.
The other books in the Peninsular War Saga, as planned so far are as follows:
An Unrelenting Enmity: set during winter quarters from December 1812 to April 1813
An Auspicious Action: the story of the battle of Vitoria
An Uncivilised Storming: the Pyrenees and San Sebastian
An Inexorable Invasion: the invasion of France
An Improbable Abdication: Toulouse and the return to England
An Unmerciful Engagement: Waterloo
An Amicable Occupation: the Army of Occupation
Looking at that list, I feel a combination of excitement and sheer terror. At present I seem to be able to manage two books a year, but some of these will take more research than others, so I don’t promise that. There will also be more in the Manxman series, since I hope at some point to be able to reunite Hugh Kelly and Paul van Daan.
Currently, I’m beginning the research for the book about Walcheren, which will be published some time next year; I can’t give a date yet until I have a better idea of how long the research will take. I’m also making notes about book 6 in the main saga, which may be quicker to write, given that it is set outside of the main battles and campaigns, although obviously, given that this is the 110th, there will be some action.
So far, most of the books have been published only as e-books, but I am working at changing that. Early next year I am hoping to have all the books in paperback on Amazon, and then to get them into some bookshops or for sale on my website later in the year.
I’ve come a very long way from believing that nobody wants to read another series about the Peninsular War, and I’m so grateful to all my readers, especially those who follow me on facebook and twitter and visit my website regularly. Some of you have left fabulous reviews as well, and every good review is like a gift, even if it’s only a couple of lines.
It has been a good year in many ways at Writing with Labradors, despite losing our beloved Toby. We’re so grateful we have Oscar to step into his paw prints, and we’re looking forward to an even better 2019. In the meantime, remember to look out for book giveaways on Amazon on Christmas Eve, in honour of the Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood. And for future giveaways and updates, please click on the link to subscribe to the newsletter.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors.
An Untrustworthy Army is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga and is published on Kindle today. It covers a period of around seven months in 1812, during which Wellington led his army into Spain, achieved a spectacular victory at Salamanca and entered the Spanish capital of Madrid, which had been in French hands for four years. He then marched on to invest the fortress city of Burgos,but Burgos proved too much for Wellington’s army, and he was obliged to make a difficult retreat, with the French at his heels, back to the border. It was a miserable end to a triumphant year but it did not nullify Wellington’s achievements. He had given the Allied army an ascendency over the French which it had not had before, and the next campaigning season had a new purpose to it.
For anybody new to the books, the Peninsular War Saga follows the fortunes of a fictional regiment of infantry through the long wars of the early nineteenth century and the man who rose to command it.
Paul van Daan is 21 when we first meet him, the younger son of a wealthy shipping merchant, who purchases a commission in time to join the regiment on its way to India. On paper, he is a fairly typical young officer, but Paul has an unusual past which sets him apart from many of his privileged contemporaries. He finds his home in the army, and discovers a talent for leadership which will bring him early success and which also brings him to the attention of General Arthur Wellesley.
Writing a historical fiction series based around real events is an interesting challenge. On the one hand, there is no need to spend much time thinking up a plot line; I always know where my characters ought to be. On the other hand, it isn’t enough just to put them down on a battlefield and write about nothing else. These people had lives; they ate and drank, went to parties, fell in love, got sick, got wounded. Sometimes, far too often, they died.
I have tried to populate my series with a collection of believable characters who sometimes do unbelievable things. Most of the unbelievable things really happened; I do a lot of research, and if I find a fascinating story or incident, I love to weave it into the fabric of my novel. The trick is to try to make it as seamless as possible. By now, for me, the fictional characters of Paul van Daan and his redoubtable wife, Anne, are so real, it is faintly surprising to look at the order of battle for Fuentes d’Onoro and find the 110th not there.
Alongside the story of the regiment and the love story of Paul and Anne is the story of a friendship. Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, is not known for having good relationships with all of his officers, and is often described as distant and difficult, but he had a few close friends, whom he valued, and Paul van Daan is one of them. The growing friendship between two men who are, in many ways, very different and yet also very similar, is possibly my favourite element of writing the books. Lord Wellington is a fantastic character to write; I’ve spent endless hours reading his letters and they bring him alive for me.
There have been many novels set during the Peninsular War ever since Bernard Cornwell made it so popular with his fabulous Sharpe series. I’ve read a good few of them, before I decided to make my own foray into Portugal and Spain, and each author has a different take. My books are rooted very firmly in the army, and the battles it fought, but they give equal weight to characterisation and relationships and the daily life of the men and women who marched with Wellington.
By the beginning of book 5, the fiery young lieutenant we first meet at the beginning ofAn Unconventional Officer has begun to settle down. He has risen to command a brigade of the elite light division, is on excellent terms with its commanding officer, Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, and is happy in his second marriage, with his children back in England being cared for by his family. He even has a dog. There is something very enjoyable in depicting Paul trying to deal with a young officer getting himself into trouble; it feels like karma. Paul has come a long way from the impetuous young officer who got himself court-martialled in An Unwilling Alliance, although in some ways he really hasn’t changed that much at all.
History dictates the plots of my books, and in An Untrustworthy Army, history let me down. The famous Light Division, generally at the forefront of any action, got some time off. They were barely engaged at Salamanca and when Wellington marched on to invest Burgos, he left the Light Division in Madrid. If I stuck strictly to history, this would have been a very quiet book. Needless to say, I have cheated a little, allowing one of my new characters to temporarily join another regiment, to give at least a flavour of the battle, and sending my fictitious third brigade of the Light Division off to get themselves into trouble elsewhere.
The end of 1812 was a miserable time for Wellington’s army, and both I and the stalwarts of the 110th infantry are relieved that it’s over, although not without some sadness. Book 6, An Unrelenting Enmity, will be published at the end of next year, and will spend some time in winter quarters, as well as following a group of the 110th on a dangerous mission to locate a missing British diplomat.
The next book, however, will take a different direction. I’m going to be picking up the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, the Royal Navy and the Second Battalion of the 110th who have the misfortune to be bound for Walcheren. The working title is An Insalubrious Island, although that may change.
Thanks to everybody who has been reading and enjoying my books. I hope you enjoy this one, and I look forward to taking Christmas off and then getting back to work in the New Year.
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.