Private Correspondence: Walcheren 1809 is from a series of letters found in the papers of Captain Hugh Kelly RN and in the Van Daan collection. Experts on the period have often commented on how much correspondence appears to be missing from the well-known Peninsular War officer. It is known that General van Daan corresponded regularly with the Duke of Wellington over the years, but sadly few of these letters have been discovered and by a strange omission, none were included in the Duke’s edited correspondence.
In 1809, Major van Daan was serving in Portugal and Spain with the first battalion of the 110th under Sir Arthur Wellesley while Captain Hugh Kelly RN commanded the Iris during the expedition to the Scheldt.
Extract of a letter from Captain Hugh Kelly, RN to Major Paul van Daan, August 1809
As if this expedition wasn’t bad enough, I seem to have lost young Durrell, who has been temporarily seconded to the flagship by the particular request of Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham. I am assured by Sir Richard Strachan that this is only temporary, but I’m worried about the lad, I don’t like the company he’s keeping.
Popham, by the way, is more insufferable than ever. I’ve not the least idea what his job actually is, although I’m reliably informed he was instrumental in the planning of this expedition, which might explain why nobody is going anywhere. He behaves as though he were Captain of the Fleet, but he isn’t; we don’t seem to have one of those. Whatever he is supposed to be doing, he is all over the place as usual, you’d be hard put to know if he’s army or navy, since he’s forever on shore. From Durrell’s letters, he’s an alarmingly regular visitor to headquarters, which cannot be easy for Durrell who would rather be nowhere near the place.
I’ll be honest, Captain, you might still be having a better time than I’ve been this past month. I am about to embark upon a painful retreat back from Spain, made worse by a hole in my chest which I acquired at a place called Talavera. I’m told we won, which I’d no way of knowing as I was carried off the field half dead. Thankfully, I’m on the mend now, thanks to the efforts of a rather unusual young female who is married to an officer of the quartermasters’ department and who is our new and wholly unofficial surgeon’s assistant.
I hope your campaign is over quickly, that it’s less miserable than Copenhagen, and that you get through it without shooting that arsehole Popham. Sorry I can’t be there to do it for you. I hope the lad’s all right, he doesn’t need to be spending his time with that smug bastard.
By the way, why is Durrell dodging army headquarters? I thought he liked Lord Chatham.
I hope your reply will find me safe in Lisbon. Or anywhere but here, it’s a hell hole, we’re short of supplies and Sir Arthur Wellesley is in the foulest temper I’ve ever seen, made worse by the fact that I’ve been too ill for him to take it out on me.
I hope you’re still recovering well. Take a tip from an older man, Major, and duck next time.
Poor Durrell is trying to avoid his brother who has taken up some nameless and pointless post at headquarters. I’ve no idea what he’s doing there and I suspect Lord Chatham has even less idea, the poor man seems permanently surrounded by a pack of hangers-on and holiday-makers. They say that he seldom emerges from his bedroom before noon; if I had that lot, on top of this campaign, to contend with, I’d stay there all day.
Don’t even talk to me about bombarding a city. Flushing was a horror, I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.
I’ve no idea how long we’ll be here; I don’t think we’ve a cat in hell’s chance of getting anywhere near Antwerp now, and on top of that, there are reports of sickness among the troops. I hope your second battalion isn’t affected, I’ve met one or two of them. Have you friends there?
Extract of a letter from Major Paul van Daan to Captain Hugh Kelly, September 1809
I’ve received a letter from a friend in the second battalion. Captain, what the hell is going on over there? Are you and your crew all right? Is it true the expedition is pulling out?
Is Durrell back with you? It doesn’t sound as though you’d want him on shore just now.
Headquarters has moved to Viseu and Wellington is planning how to stop another invasion, but it’s fairly quiet here. I’m hoping that the stories I’m hearing are exaggerated, but get that boy back with you, if Popham is still strutting around the army lines and gets him killed with some bloody Dutch fever, I am going to catch up with that bastard and shoot him in the head. It’s high time somebody did it, I’d be doing the world a favour.
I really don’t like what I’m hearing about what’s happening on Walcheren. For God’s sake, write to me, sir, I want to know you’re both all right…
Evacuating the sick from South Beveland, 1809
This Blighted Expedition: a novel of the Walcheren Campaign of 1809 (Book Two in the Manxman series). Due for publication on 31st October 2019.
Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3 was dedicated to museums. This turned out to be a good thing because it rained all morning.
I was woken at around 2am by a spectacular thunderstorm. I’m not scared of storms, but I do find it difficult to sleep through them, so while the man I married snoozed on happily, I sat by the long windows in the living room and watched the sky light up, thinking about the reported thunderstorms in the days leading up to the bombardment of Vlissingen in 1809.
The storm rumbled on until about nine, but the rain continued. We hovered, unable to decide, and then got bored with waiting and set off for Middelburg Abbey. It’s about ten minutes walk and the rain had stopped by the time we got there. Nothing was going to stop our Walcheren Expedition day 3.
Middelburg Abbey originated in the twelfth century. Monks from Antwerp established a large religious foundation with two churches and extensive lands on Walcheren and in other parts of Zeeland. Many of the surviving buildings from the monastic period are Medieval Gothic, and date from the late sixteenth century.
Monastic life came to an end in 1574 when the Spanish surrendered to the Protestant Dutch separatists at the end of the two year Siege of Middelburg. William of Orange had given guarantees that the clergy would be left alone, but both the abbey and Roman Catholicism in Middelburg were nevertheless forcibly terminated.
The abbey was taken over for use in the secular administration of the province. Initially it was used as the seat of the district assembly and for other administrative functions including the admiralty, a mint, and a court chamber. Following reforms during the Napoleonic occupation, in 1812 the former abbey complex became known as the Province Building.
The abbey church was badly damaged in May 1940 by German aerial bombers targeting Middelburg in order to persuade the Dutch army not to hold out against German invasion and rebuilding was not completed till 1965. Other abbey buildings continued to accommodate government activities till the end of the twentieth century, such as the land registry and state archive. Part of the complex now houses the Zeeuws Museum and the Roosevelt Study Centre.
The two Protestant churches are still referred to as Abbey Churches, reflecting their monastic origins. The Choir church or Koorkerk was built around 1300 and comprises a tall chancel of seven arches in length, with a five sided apse to the east of the choir stalls with elaborate roof vaulting. On the south side is the church tower known as Lange Jan.
The New church features a double nave and dates from the rebuilding that followed the fire of 1558. It replaced an earlier church built around 1300 which also featured a twin nave. The eastern wall of the New church is also the western wall of the Choir church, and the two interiors were originally connected through an arch, but this was subsequently blocked up. After 1833 the New church became the only parish church for the central walled area of Middelburg.
Both churches are beautiful, although in the middle of the tourist season it was hard to get the sense of peace that I love about old churches. I found this in the old Abbey cloisters, cool and dim, with sunlight peeping through and a gloriously tangled herb garden in the centre; my favourite part of the Abbey.
There is a big, open square in the middle of the Abbey buildings, with trees and seats and a couple of cannon which look rather as though they had been carelessly abandoned by some negligent commissary officer. There is also the entrance to the museum and cafe.
This part of the building has been thoroughly modernised inside, giving little sense of the original abbey. The museum has exhibitions over a number of floors. It is very well designed and put together with very modern themes, but I will be honest and admit that I was a little disappointed. While I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the campaign of 1809 which was not especially significant in Dutch history, apart from the people who died in Vlissingen and Veere, I was very much hoping for some information about the history of Middelburg and Walcheren and that was very much lacking. The one exhibition which dealt with history, was an amazing selection of tapestries telling the story of the rebellion against Spain. I loved that section. Much of the rest of the museum was beautifully put together but gave very little actual information about the town or its history. Given that there is no other museum in Middelburg to do that job, I thought it a shame, although I did pick up some useful information about historic costume.
We climbed Lange Jan to see the fabulous views over the town, following in the footsteps of my fictional Lieutenant Durrell who found it a quiet haven away from the chaos of the campaign in 1809. After coffee and cake outside a local cafe, dodging another rain shower, we went back to Veere to the two museums there. The Veere Museums consist of the City Hall and the Scottish Houses on the quay, both fabulous historic buildings.
There is a unique collection of 16th century statues which once adorned the façade of the City Hall and are on display in the ‘Statue hall’. The ‘Scottish attic’ tells the story of the long lasting trade relationship between Scotland and the city of Veere. Veere was once the centre of the profitable wool trade between Scotland and the Low Countries; the town won staple-rights on Scottish wool in 1541, meaning that the goods had to be made available for purchase there for a set time before being allowed to go on sale elsewhere. This important and profitable trade right encouraged Scottish merchants to establish themselves in Veere permanently and for a period of time, the small Scottish community was ruled by Scottish law and their own leader within the Dutch town.
The museums in Veere were far more interesting in terms of history, although I have to say that there was still more art than history in both of them. I really enjoy art, and I loved the story of the English family who set up an artists’ community in Veere before the second world war. I still felt a slight sense of frustration, however. These towns have so much history and I came away knowing very little about the people, the development of the town, their economy and agriculture and what shaped them. Perhaps there’s a museum somewhere else in this area that I’ve not found which offers that.
Having said that, I had a fabulous day. The museums were great at what they did, even if it wasn’t what I wanted, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I also found, in a rather more modern painting of a woman in traditional Dutch costume, my perfect Katja de Groot. Honestly, I couldn’t stop staring at her. Isn’t she beautiful?
Tomorrow is Vlissingen, and the nautical museum. I really like this part of the world; it’s very relaxed and we’re having a great week. Even if my husband dreams of hills he could cycle up…
Our Walcheren Expedition, day 2, could be sub-titled “What I learned about cycling.”
One of the things well known to our friends and family is that Richard cycles, and I don’t. That sounds like a simple fact of life, but it’s a lot more extreme than it sounds. Richard’s cycling involves owning about six bikes and more gadgets than you would believe. His gadgets measure everything. An entire community of online cyclists share information from these gadgets and congratulate each other on their prowess. Also there is lycra. A lot of lycra.
I did not own a bike as a child and was at university when I first learned to ride one. My mother had lost a cousin of some kind who was run over while cycling in London and refused to budge on the bike issue. Both my sister and I learned as young adults, but while she took to it, I didn’t. Travelling on two wheels seemed to make no sense to me. I did it, from time to time, but remained wobbly and uncomfortable.
Over the past 25 years, I have made fairly regular attempts to improve. There were rides round the Hertfordshire countryside and cycling weekends where I wondered if divorce was a rational option. Eventually, we moved to the Isle of Man which is basically a large hill and I pretty much gave up. I cycled around Lake Kielder on the Scottish borders with the kids about seven years ago, falling off all the way. Two years ago I chickened out of a cycle tour of Berlin. My cycling career was officially over.
I don’t know what made me decide that on Walcheren, I wanted to try again. Perhaps it was just because I knew it was incredibly flat. I’ve also been looking for exercises to help with my hip arthritis and have been told that cycling could be good. Whatever the reason, a couple of months ago I hauled my daughter’s old mountain bike out of retirement and took it down to the prom, probably the only flat area nearby, and wobbled up and down. By the time we arrived in Middelburg, I felt confident enough to give it a try. So on our Walcheren Expedition day 2, we rented bikes and set off into the unknown.
Things I learned about cycling…
You never forget how to swim or how to ride a bike. Only one of those is true for me.
In the Netherlands, the bike is king and road users take care not to endanger them. Tell that to the b*****d in the black van who forced me onto the pavement.
Cycling is easier than walking. No. It’s really not.
Every other cyclist on the road / cycle path is better than I am. Including the four year olds. Especially the four year olds.
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on you” means “I will cycle off into the distance painfully slowly to make a point and not even glance behind me at your yell of pain.”
Cycling on cobble stones is an experience.
Nobody wears a cycle helmet in the Netherlands. This is WAY much more fun.
Hardly anybody wears lycra to cycle. Also, much better. I feel normal.
You can get to most places on cycle paths. This is AMAZING.
I can cycle 28.3 kilometres in a day and still walk / go out to dinner / drink wine. I’m fitter than I thought.
Cycling doesn’t hurt my arthritic hips at all.
My shoulders would hurt less if I didn’t grip the bike in sheer terror.
Renting a city bike from Cycle Hub in Middelburg is a great leveller and my super-cyclist husband was in more pain than I was at the end of the day because the bike was the wrong shape / height / age / type / colour.
Nobody cares that I’m a clumsy oik on a bike here. Because cycling is just normal.
I want to do more of this.
Perhaps it’s time to venture off the prom and try a few gentle hills at home…
Our Walcheren Expedition, day 1 was spent exploring the area by car. It’s always good to do that if possible, to get a sense of the place before planning the week. Given that the real purpose of this trip is to give me a sense of how Walcheren might have been in 1809 when This Blighted Expedition is set, there’s something very exciting for me in walking down streets and looking at views which my characters would have known.
Given that, we were very fortunate to find an apartment, through Airbnb, on Korendijk, which is directly on the canal and is where my Dutch heroine, Katja de Groot, was living with her three children when the British invaded in 1809. Much to my joy, the house turned out to have been built in 1722. Most of the buildings along the street are from the seventeenth and eighteenth century and all fit well with the tall houses that the merchants of Walcheren built to house their businesses and their families.
Our landlady, apparently recognising a history nut at forty paces, explained that this house was built by a wheat merchant, who also owned a mill and a bakery nearby. The beams have a very battered look, understandable because much to my joy, they were recycled from old ships from the local ports. In one part of the building, it’s possible to recognise part of the ship’s mast.
Chatham’s army landed at Bree Sands, to the north, and that is where we started our drive around Walcheren. The challenge of getting the location right in this particular book is that the landscape has changed dramatically. In 1809 Walcheren was an island, as were North and South Beveland. Land reclamation means that it is not possible, as it often is in Portugal and Spain, to look over the landscape and know that you are seeing pretty much the same land as your characters.
All the same, the wide beaches and strong winds definitely give a good sense of what Chatham’s men faced when they landed on Walcheren. We even managed to find the location of Fort Den Haak, where Lord Chatham set up headquarters on that first night, although whatever remains of the fort itself is currently inaccessible to the public. Interestingly, it is further inland than it would have been in 1809.
Following General Fraser’s trail, we drove to Veere, which is a beautiful little town which refused to surrender immediately to Lord Chatham’s army and was battered from both land and sea to persuade it to do so. There is a walk around the fortifications of Veere which we did, and it gives a good sense of the town defences, although most of what exists today was built from 1810 onwards when the French returned, including a fine selection of artillery from 1810 and 1811. We’ll be back to do the museums another day.
Later in the day we took a stroll around Middelburg to get our bearings and were impressed with Middelburg Abbey, where Lord Chatham set up his headquarters. Having seen Wellington’s various headquarters in the Peninsula over the past two years, it was clear that Lord Chatham was somewhat more set on luxury than Wellington, although now that I think about it, the Royal Palace in Madrid probably trumps Middelburg. Once again, we’ll be back to do the museums.
Already I’ve picked up an enormous amount of information for the book, but more importantly, I have a sense of the area and the countryside. One of the things that contemporary accounts frequently mention is that it is flat. They were not wrong about that, so I have decided that tomorrow I shall venture around the coastline on a slightly different mode of transport, and one that I seldom use…
Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview took us to Naarden. We travelled to Walcheren via Amsterdam, which gave us the opportunity to spend a couple of days visiting some friends who live in Naarden. I’d not been there before, and given that most of this trip is about Me Me Me, I had already decided to let everybody else plan these few days. It says a lot about my friends that day one was spent exploring the seventeenth century star fortress and day two was spent at the National Military Museum…
The town of Naarden dates back to the tenth century when it was actually situated about 2.5 km to the north-east. The town was destroyed during the wars of the fourteenth century and rebuilt in 1350 on a high sand ridge on the eastern route to Amsterdam. Because of it strategic position, Naarden became one of the most important fortified towns in The Netherlands.
The current star shape of Naarden dates back to the 17th Century, when the fortifications were improved after the siege of 1673. Naarden was part of the New Dutch Waterline, a defensive line through the Netherlands which I’d never heard of before. I would love to do a tour of these forts, they look stunning, but that will have to be another visit.
Naarden is beautiful, with not only the military buildings and fortifications and the Dutch Fortress Museum, but also a fantastic variety of shops and restaurants within the fort. It deserved far longer than the short visit we were able to manage
The National Military Museum is definitely a full day out. It is situated on the former air base at Soesterberg and apparently combines the collections of the former Military Aviation Museum in Soesterberg and Army Museum in Delft.
The museum depicts the history of the Netherlands armed forces in a collection of huge and very interactive displays. Vast halls display tanks, planes, armoured vehicles and helicopters. There are sections on the various wars the Dutch have been involved with over the centuries and how their armed forces developed and changed. While not directly relevant to my favourite period (although there were some interesting bits about Waterloo) I did learn a lot about the history of the Netherlands which provides context to the story I’m currently telling in “This Blighted Expedition”.
For anybody interested in military history, or even who just likes tanks, planes and helicopters, this was a fabulous day out, especially with children, there is so much for them to do there.
It wouldn’t feel right to end this first section of our trip without mentioning our evening out at the Red Sun at Blaricum, Japanese fine dining with great company. We had the tasting menu, seven courses, which is an event as much as a meal out and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thanks so much to our friends, Patrick and Serena, for being excellent hosts and guides. We had a great time. Next step, Walcheren…
This Blighted Expedition: Book 2 in the Manxman series, coming this autumn…
It is 1809. Austria is back in the war and London has committed to a new campaign in Europe in support. A force of 40,000 men and 600 ships gathers along the south coast of England. Their destination is Walcheren; a lightning strike against the French dockyards on the Scheldt.
Captain Hugh Kelly RN finds an old adversary at the centre of the campaign and realises that Sir Home Popham never forgets a perceived slight. Meanwhile his wife, Roseen, waits in England, but news of victory at Flushing is quickly clouded by more sinister reports and as the troops begin to arrive home, it is clear that something has gone badly wrong with Lord Chatham’s Grand Expedition.
Lieutenant Alfred Durrell finds himself on a temporary secondment as Popham’s aide, a posting which places him at the heart of the campaign as relations between the army and navy begin to deteriorate.
Lieutenant Giles Fenwick is broke and tired of serving under the worst captain in the 110th infantry and longs for a chance to prove himself. As the campaign drags on, Giles faces a stark choice between regimental loyalty and personal integrity with a potentially heavy price to pay.
Captain Ross Mackenzie is newly promoted as captain of the light company and tries hard to fit in, but finds himself pitted against a fellow officer whose personal problems could bring disaster down on the second battalion.
Katja de Groot runs the business she inherited from her husband and is raising three children when the British invasion takes over her home and threatens her livelihood. Katja finds unexpected happiness in her growing friendship with the captain of the light company, but can it survive the horror of war?
As the campaign begins to crumble under bad weather, poor planning and divided leadership, it seems that retreat may be the only option. But in the damp, mosquito-ridden dykes and canals of Walcheren, the British army faces an enemy more deadly than the French…
An excerpt from This Blighted Expedition
When the work was done, Hugh stood on the quarterdeck looking out over Ter Veere. He was feeling slightly sick and he wondered how his other officers were feeling. He could not confess his discomfort to anybody other than Durrell. Durrell had been with him at Copenhagen and knew how Hugh had felt watching the bombardment and burning of the city. Hugh had been relieved at the time that he had not been called upon to participate; most of the work had been done by land batteries on that occasion. This time, Lord Chatham’s army had not had time to land all their guns and Fraser’s division had only five 9-pounders and a howitzer. Reducing Ter Veere would be the job of the navy.
The Iris was the largest of the ships called into action; most of the others were small gunboats. Hugh wondered about that. With fire coming from the town, the Iris was going to present the best target. He knew that Chatham rather than Strachan had given the order for the gunboats to engage and he was not sure that the Earl knew one ship from another, but Sir Home Popham was Chatham’s constant companion and Hugh suspected the list of ships had come from him. Hugh found it hard to believe that Popham would deliberately risk a ship of the line to settle an old grudge, but he had also always suspected that Popham could hold a grudge for a long time.
Hugh had tried to minimise the risk to the Iris by positioning her at an angle where the guns could still direct accurate fire but would be less vulnerable. It was the best he could do. In a skirmish at sea he was an expert at manoeuvring his ship out of danger but there was no way to do so when bombarding a target on land.
General Fraser, having given plenty of time for a message of surrender, gave the order and Hugh relayed it to his crew. He stood at the ship’s rail watching as the first of the guns boomed out. There was some movement among the gunboats to find the best range and the town walls were hit. Almost immediately, the town guns returned fire and a deafening cannonade drowned out everything else. Hugh gave no orders to move the Iris. He had the range and his guns were doing damage to the town walls. Some of the smaller boats were moving in closer to fire barrages over into the town itself, but Hugh kept his position. He was following his orders to the letter and could truthfully answer any questions about his actions but he had no intention of risking his ship for the glory of slaughtering innocent citizens.
The noise was deafening. Firing a naval cannon was a complicated process which required endless practice to ensure a quick turnaround, and Hugh’s men had practiced until they were expert. Some of the youngest boys were employed as powder boys, running gunpowder up from the magazine below to keep the guns supplied. The number of men in each gun crew depended on the size of the gun with the largest manned by twelve men. It was hot work and the crews worked stripped to the waist, labouring to haul the enormous guns back after each recoil.
Listening to the guns, Hugh thought his men were firing more slowly than usual. In battle they could usually manage a shot every two minutes, but this was a more steady pounding. Some of the gunboats were firing more quickly. Hugh thought about sending a midshipman below with orders to speed up and then changed his mind. He remained in place, his eyes fixed on the town walls which were being reduced to rubble and silently prayed for a signal of surrender.
It was becoming more difficult to see now, as clouds of black smoke rolled across the water. Hugh could smell it, felt it in his throat and his nose and instinctively changed his breathing to accommodate it. Below his feet the deck shuddered as another broadside crashed out. Hugh felt it as well as heard it, the whizzing sound as the heavy shot flew through the air and hit the target. At one end of the town wall a small tower had been tilting over for some time and suddenly it collapsed as if it were made from a child’s building blocks, folding in on itself and disappearing in a cloud of brick dust.
None of the return fire had touched the Iris, but not all of the gunboats remained unscathed. Two had already retired out of range with damage to masts and rigging. Through the morning the wind had increased and Hugh kept a wary eye on the weather. He did not know the tides in this water at all but it was clear that some of the smaller vessels were beginning to struggle and he watched for a signal, hoping that the barrage would be called off.
One of the gunboats on the starboard side of the Iris appeared to be in some trouble. Hugh had been looking out towards the town, which was more visible now that the wind was blowing away the black clouds of smoke which had hovered above the waves for the past few hours. Lieutenant Greene’s voice made him turn.
“She’s in trouble, sir.”
Hugh went to join him. The gunboat had lost its mast and given its lurching progress on the tide, Hugh suspected its wheel as well. Gunboats were generally small un-decked vessels which carried between one and three cannon depending on size. This was one of the smaller versions, a single-masted boat with one cannon and a swivel gun mounted on the railing. It was listing badly and Hugh could see a dozen crewmen frantically manning the oars, trying to bring the little boat under control. She was drifting wildly, tossed on the increasingly choppy sea, and two men trying hard to bail out were fighting a losing battle.
“Launch boats,” Hugh said. “Let’s get them out of there, she’s going down.”
Greene spun around, shouting the order and Hugh’s men raced towards the ship’s boats. As with all the ship’s routines they were well practiced. Hugh stood on the quarter-deck watching the progress of the stricken gun-boat.
The first of the Iris’s boats had barely touched the water when an enormous crash made Hugh stagger and almost fall. He turned back to the town just as a second shot hit, smashing into the port railing. A seaman staggered out of a cloud of black smoke clutching his upper arm which was soaked in blood. An enormous splinter protruded just above the elbow and he looked stunned.
“Get him down to the surgeon,” Hugh yelled furiously. “Are the boats launched?”
“Get those men off the gun-boat. Mr Perry, check for casualties. Mr Greene, bring her about, we’re a sitting target here, let’s make it hard for them to aim.”
As the Iris moved smoothly into her new position, Hugh stood watching his boats. It was difficult to row with the gusting wind and against a strong tide and progress was slow. Beyond them, he could see the gunboat low in the water. Suddenly she tilted and the single cannon began to roll.
The crew abandoned all attempt to salvage her and jumped to safety. Several of them began to swim strongly towards Hugh’s boats. The gun-boat upended with her bow pointing towards the sky and then she was gone, a black shadow visible for a while through the slate grey water until she vanished from sight.
Another barrage from Ter Veere crashed out and one fell just short of the Iris, sinking harmlessly into the waves. Hugh thought he was out of range now, but was taking no chances. He was trying to balance the safety of his ship but at the same time remain within reach of the returning boats. They had reached the first of the stricken crew now and were hauling them up into the first boat while the second rowed on into the litter of smashed wood which was all that could be seen of the gun-boat. Several crew members clung to pieces of wreckage and Hugh realised he was holding his breath. He was out of range of the guns but his boats were not and a lucky shot would send them instantly to the bottom with all hands lost.
“Sir, signal to retire,” Greene called, and Hugh took a long breath and then another. He had been waiting for it; the wind and tides were making it impossible to continue the bombardment from sea.
“Get them aboard, Mr Greene and get us out of here,” he said.
This Blighted Expeditionis the second book in the Manxman series, featuring Captain Hugh Kelly RN and Lieutenant Alfred Durrell. Have you read the first book yet? An Unwilling Alliance is also book 1.5 in the Peninsular War Saga and forms a bridge between the two series.
Readers of the Light Division romances may also be interested to know that Giles Fenwick, hero of The Reluctant Debutante, is one of the main characters in This Blighted Expedition. Giles also features briefly in A Regrettable Reputation and is the hero of my ghost story, An Exploring Officer which is free to read here. Giles also features in several books of the Peninsular War saga and might very well have a starring role in book six, An Unrelenting Enmity which is due out at the end of this year or early next year.
Captain 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.
Roseen Crellin 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.
An Unwilling Allianceis available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.
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.
On the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, there will be thousands of posts and articles about the battle and about the Duke of Wellington, many of them excellent, so instead to celebrate the occasion I thought I would share a letter from Lord Wellington from a different time period.
This is an excerpt from the final chapter of An Untrustworthy Army, book five of the Peninsular War Saga, in the aftermath of the horrendous retreat from Burgos. As such, it does contain some spoilers as to who survives, so if you’re halfway through the books you may not want to read it.
The reason I’ve published it today, is because it includes a section of a memorandum sent out to the commanders of divisions and brigades by Lord Wellington on 28 November 1812. Lord Wellington, who features very prominently in my books, doesn’t actually feature in this scene, but his voice can be heard loud and clear across 207 years. The text I’ve used here is quoted directly from the published memorandum. The comments of Colonel van Daan and Colonel Wheeler are all their own, and their language has not been censored.
The Quinta de Santo Antonio was quiet, with both officers and men taking refuge from the appalling weather, as the creaking, ancient carriage pulled up beside the door to the main house. Gardens, pastures and barns were barely visible through torrential rain and Simon Carlyon scrambled down and helped Johnny out. They went directly into the main hall, dripping water onto the cracked tiled floor, and a familiar limping figure emerged from the kitchen region at the back.
“Colonel Wheeler. Good to see you back, sir. I’ll get a couple of the lads to unload your baggage and take it up, you’ll be in your old room.”
“Thank you, Jenson. It’s good to be back. Where have you put Mr Carlyon?”
“I’ll show him; he’s sharing with Mr Witham. Most of the officers of the 115th are in one of the estate cottages, but Mrs van Daan wanted Mr Carlyon in the main house. Come this way, sir. Colonel, why don’t you go through to the office, Colonel van Daan is in there enjoying Lord Wellington’s latest. If you’re lucky, he’ll read it to you. He’s read it to everybody else he ever met, so it’ll be nice for him to have a new audience.”
Johnny grinned, allowing Jenson to take his wet coat. Walking was still painful but becoming easier with the use of a stick and he limped through an archway and found his way to the warm panelled room which had been used last winter as Paul’s brigade office.
He found his commanding officer seated at the big table he used at his desk. Across the room, at a smaller table, was his wife, her dark head bent over a large book which appeared to contain medical notes. She was putting the finishing touches to a sketch of what looked like a spidery creature of some kind but what Johnny had a horrible suspicion might be some part of the human anatomy. He did not want to enquire which part. Anne sat back and surveyed her work with a critical eye, then nodded in satisfaction and added an annotation to the diagram.
Paul got up and came forward as Johnny saluted. “Come and sit down,” he said, pulling out a chair as Anne got up and came to kiss Johnny. “You look a hell of a lot better than you did the last time I saw you.”
“So do both of you,” Johnny said, embracing Anne then lowering himself into the chair. “Nan, you have the most incredible powers of recovery; should you even be out of bed?”
“I would like to see somebody try to confine my lass to her chamber over something as trivial as childbirth,” Paul said with obvious pride. “She does look better, doesn’t she? Wait there.”
He crossed the room and picked up a large wicker basket which had been beside Anne’s desk and which Johnny had thought contained laundry. He was amused to see a tiny pink face, crowned by a few sparse tufts of fair hair, nestling among the linen.
“She is very pretty,” he said, reaching out to touch the little fingers. “Georgiana, I understand? Wasn’t she very early?”
“We think so,” Anne said. “She gave us a bit of a fright to tell you the truth, I wasn’t at all ready for this and I’ve never seen a child this small. But she seems very healthy. You may greet her properly once she’s been fed; she’s worse than her father for hunger, Will was nothing like it. How are you, Johnny, we’ve been so worried about you?”
“I’m very well now,” Johnny said, watching as his commander returned the basket to its warm corner near the fire. “Glad it’s winter quarters, though, there’s no way I could fight like this, I’m limping like a greybeard.”
“You’ll recover quickly with rest and care,” Anne said. “I’m going to take Her Ladyship upstairs for her feed and leave you two to talk. Is Simon with you?”
“Yes, I’ve sent him off with Jenson to unpack. Thank you for leaving him with me, he’s been a blessing.”
“I doubt I could have got him away, short of cashiering or shooting him,” Paul said, going to bring brandy as Anne scooped up her child and left the room. “It’s good to have you back, I’ve missed you.”
“How’s Lord Wellington?” Johnny asked innocently and Paul set the glass on the table with an unnecessary clink and looked at him suspiciously.
“Did Jenson tell you?” he asked and Johnny laughed aloud.
“Not much, only that he’d managed to piss you off again.”
His commander sat down at his desk and picked up his glass. “I am over it,” he said with great dignity. “After a few hours of complete fury, I have begun to see the funny side. Sadly, I suspect that is not a view which is going to be shared by every other officer in this army.”
“What’s he done?” Johnny asked.
Paul reached across the table and picked up a letter. “Settle back and enjoy,” he said. “This is a memorandum which has been circulated to the officers of this army. Needless to say it is not going to stay within the officers of this army. I confidently predict it will be in every newspaper in London within the month and His Lordship’s gallant officers are foaming at the mouth in sheer rage at the slur cast upon them. I won’t read the first part, it concerns putting the army into cantonments for the winter and isn’t that interesting. But it gets funnier.” Paul drank some brandy, set the glass down, and began to read.
“I must draw your attention in a very particular manner to the state of discipline of the troops. The discipline of every army, after a long and active campaign, becomes in some degree relaxed, and requires the utmost attention on the part of the general and other officers to bring it back to the state in which it ought to be for service; but I am concerned to have to observe that the army under my command has fallen off in this respect in the late campaign to a greater degree than any army with which I have ever served, or of which I have ever read.”
“Oh Jesus,” Johnny said, setting down his glass. “Doesn’t he know what happened on the retreat to Corunna?”
“Well he wasn’t there,” Paul said fair-mindedly. “But I can’t see how he could have missed Badajoz. But it goes on.
“Yet this army has met with no disaster; it has suffered no privations which but trifling attention on the part of the officers could not have prevented, and for which there existed no reason whatever in the nature of the service; nor has it suffered any hardships excepting those resulting from the necessity of being exposed to the inclemencies of the weather at a moment when they were most secure.”
Johnny picked up his glass and drank, thinking about the bodies he had seen lying by the roadside, pulled apart by animals and birds, often naked after looting by both the locals and their own soldiers. “Should I hear the rest of this?”
“Actually, you’re obliged to; as your brigade commander – this is addressed to me, by the way – I am requested to share it with you.”
“You don’t have to enjoy it this much. My leg is aching again.”
“Put it up,” Paul said, shoving a wooden bench towards him. “Here, take this cushion and sit in respectful silence while I share the rest.
“It must be obvious, however, to every officer, that from the moment the troops commenced their retreat from the neighbourhood of Burgos on the one hand, and from Madrid on the other, the officers lost all command over their men. Irregularities and outrages of all descriptions were committed with impunity, and losses have been sustained which ought never to have occurred. Yet the necessity for retreat existing, none was ever made on which the troops had such short marches; none on which they made such long and repeated halts’ and none on which the retreating armies were so little pressed on their rear by the enemy.”
Johnny looked down at his injured leg, now supported on the bench on an elaborately embroidered cushion and said nothing as eloquently as he could manage.
“We must look therefore for the existing evils, and for the situation in which we now find the army, to some cause besides those resulting from the operations in which we have been engaged. I have no hesitation in attributing these evils to the habitual inattention of the Officers of the regiments to their duty, as prescribed by the standing regulations of the Service, and by the order of this army.”
Johnny felt an unexpected wave of sheer fury sweeping through him. He wanted to get up and leave but it was too difficult to stand. Instead he said:
“Stop reading this fucking letter, Paul, before I thump you with this stick, I’ve heard enough. How dare he sit there pontificating about my officers, it’s a good thing he’s hiding behind his fucking desk in the village because I’d like to shoot the arrogant Irish bastard right through his thick skull.”
Paul got up and went for more brandy. “You’re really not right yet, lad, are you?” he said sympathetically. “I’m sorry, I should have waited, you can hear the rest another time. Have another drink.”
“I don’t want a drink. Do we get any right to respond to this bollocks? I lost five good officers in the almighty fuck up that he created because he was too lazy or too arrogant to make proper provisions for a siege and a fair few good men besides. And I lost Pat Corrigan, who was a friend. The fact that, to my knowledge, none of our men died of exposure or hunger on that hellish march is due entirely to the care and attention of my junior officers who kept discipline, kept the line, managed their men and shared their last morsel with the sick and wounded. As did, may I say, most of General Alten’s light division. It’s a bloody disgrace.”
Paul put his hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder and refilled his glass. “Johnny, calm down. I thought I was bad when I first read it, but this isn’t like you. Don’t take it personally, he isn’t talking to you or me or any one of our officers and when I read this to them, because I’ll have to, I’m going to make it very clear that they all understand that. He knows what we did. He wrote this in a temper without thinking it through and it’s been sent to all of us because that’s how it works. It’s not aimed at you or me.”
“It’s still addressed to us though, isn’t it?” Johnny said.
Paul nodded. “At some point, when he’s calmed down, I’m going to point that out,” he said. “He’ll never back down or apologise, but he should at least be told the effect it’s going to have on morale, the stiff-rumped, bad-tempered, long-nosed Irish bastard.”
The tone of his commander’s voice inexplicably calmed Johnny’s fury. He drank more brandy and studied Paul. “Over it?” he queried and Paul laughed aloud.
“Getting over it,” he said. “Gradually. Nan forbade me to go over there until I could read it from start to finish without one single expletive. Clearly I’m not quite there yet. Want to hear the rest or shall we leave it there?”
“You might as well finish it,” Johnny said and Paul picked up the letter again and struck an oratorial pose.
“I am far from questioning the zeal, still less the gallantry and spirit of the Officers of the army, and I am quite certain that if their minds can be convinced of the necessity of minute and constant attention to understand, recollect, and carry into execution the orders which have been issued for the performance of their duty, and that the strict performance of this duty is necessary to enable the army to serve the country as it ought to be served, they will in future give their attention to these points.
“Unfortunately the inexperience of the Officers of the army has induced many to consider that the period during which an army is on service is one of relaxation from all rule, instead of being, as it is, the period during which of all others every rule for the regulation and control of the conduct of the soldier, for the inspection and care of his arms, ammunition, accoutrements, necessaries and field equipments, and his horse and horse appointments, for the receipt and issue and care of his provisions’ and the regulation of all that belongs to his food and forage for his horse, must be most strictly attended to by the officers of his company or troop, if it is intended that an army, a British army in particular, shall be brought into the field of battle in a state of efficiency to meet the enemy on the day of trial.
“These are the points then to which I most earnestly entreat you to turn your attention and the attention of the officers of the regiments under your command, Portuguese as well as English, during the period which it may be in my power to leave the troops in their cantonments. The commanding officers of regiments must enforce the orders of the army regarding the constant inspection and superintendence of the officers over the conduct of the men of their companies in their cantonments; and they must endeavour to inspire the non-commissioned officers with a sense of their situation and authority; and the non-commissioned officers must be forced to do their duty by being constantly under the view and superintendence of the officers.”
“Where is Carter just now, by the way?” Johnny interrupted. Suddenly he was beginning to be amused.
“No idea. Taking a holiday with his wife, according to Lord Wellington,” Paul said. “We’re going to need to draw lots to decide who is going to undertake the duty of constantly superintending Sergeant-Major Carter, by the way, because I am telling you now, it’s not going to be me. Maybe Manson could do it, he likes a challenge.”
“Get Michael to do it,” Johnny said. “He used to be an NCO, he’ll know all the tricks.”
“He taught Carter all the tricks,” Paul said. “But there’s more.”
“Jesus, what is this, a memorandum or a three volume autobiography? I’ll be drunk by the end of it.”
“You’ll certainly wish you were,” Paul said. “By these means the frequent and discreditable recourse to the authority of the provost and to punishment by the sentence of courts martial, will be prevented and the soldiers will not dare to commit the offences and outrages of which there are too many complaints when they well know the their officers and non-commissioned officers have their eyes and attention turned towards them.”
Suddenly Johnny was laughing. “Well that definitely wasn’t aimed at us,” he said. “The last court martial for any member of the 110th that I can remember attending was yours.”
“Shut up, or I’ll damage your other leg,” Paul said cheerfully. “The commanding officers of regiments must likewise enforce the orders of the army regarding the constant, real inspection of the soldiers’ arms, ammunition, accoutrements and necessaries, in order to prevent at all times the shameful waste of ammunition and the sale of that article and of the soldiers’ necessaries. With this view both should be inspected daily.
“In regard to the food of the soldier, I have frequently observed and lamented in the late campaign, the facility and celerity with which the French soldiers cooked in comparison with those of our army.” Paul had begun to laugh as well, now. “Mind, they use far too much garlic in it, you can smell them for miles when they’re trying to skirmish unobtrusively.”
Johnny was leaning back in his chair, tears of laughter running down his face. “George Kelly,” he croaked. “Can I be there when you tell him he can’t light a fire and get a meal cooked fast enough?”
“Once again, that duty is not mine. I’m delegating all of this to my officers and as my second-in-command, you get Kelly all to yourself. Stop it, you’re going to choke yourself.”
“I can’t help it,” Johnny said. “Is there much more?”
“Of course there is. Given Hookey’s attention to detail, you cannot think that he doesn’t go on to explain exactly what the men are supposed to do to improve the speed of their cooking; he’s an expert, you see him out there all the time with a mess kettle and a pound of beef in his hands. Do I need to read that part? He also explains how we should run field exercises and march ten to twelve miles a week to keep them fit.”
“Is that all?” Johnny wheezed. “It’s a holiday he’s offering them.”
“I’ll skip to the end; I’m worried about your health, here,” Paul said. “But I repeat that the great object of the attention of the General and Field Officers must be to get the Captains and Subalterns of the regiments to understand and perform the duties required from them as the only mode by which the discipline and efficiency of the army can be restored and maintained during the next campaign.”
Paul put the letter down, picked up his brandy glass and raised it. “I give you the Commander-in-Chief, Colonel Wheeler, in all his wisdom.”
Johnny drank the toast. “Thank God that’s over,” he said. “But seriously, Paul, this is going to send morale into the dust.”
“Morale is already in the dust after Burgos. This is just going to trample on it a bit. But they’ll get over it.” Paul set his glass down. “And of course, he’s right.”
Johnny studied him, thinking about it for a long time. “Yes, he is,” he said. “Just not in your brigade.”
“Our brigade, Johnny. Which is why we train all the way through winter quarters, keep them fit and healthy and teach the new recruits to throw up a camp, light a fire and cook a meal in half an hour. And since Alten took over, the rest of the light division is fast catching up, he’s an obsessive German perfectionist and he rides the lines as often as I do, which I love about him. Hill is very good. But a lot of the others don’t do it and because they don’t, it filters down. Wellington has been a complete arse about this, he should never have done it this way, especially after what they’ve just been through, but he is right about some of it.”
“This wasn’t the way to get them to listen,” Johnny said.
“No. And I think by now he knows it, he’ll have calmed down. He won’t retract a word of it but he’ll probably find some other poor bastard to do the pretty with them and jolly them along and try to get the officers to understand what he’s really trying to say in the middle of all that scathing invective.”
There was another silence. “So when has he asked to see you about that, then, Colonel?” Johnny said.
“Thursday,” Paul said in hollow tones. “He has written with orders for me to speak at a general meeting of divisional and brigade commanders to explain how we do what we do and what they should do to achieve the same. The letter came earlier.”
“Oh bloody hell,” Johnny said. He was trying not to laugh. “You are about to be the least popular officer from here to South America. He’s going to stand you up there, wave that letter and point and by the end of it they’ll be thinking he wrote that with your enthusiastic support and encouragement.”
Paul picked up his glass. “And once again they will be referring to me as Wellington’s Mastiff, and dreaming up ways to get the French to shoot me,” he said. “Pass the brandy again, will you, Colonel?”
Yesterday was my birthday and I’ve already been asked that several times. I’m trying to remember if people used to ask that question in my younger days, but I can’t. Perhaps on the big birthdays; becoming a teenager, reaching 16, 18, 21 and then the landmarks of 30, 40 and 50. Today, I’m 57 which is not a particularly special birthday, although it feels different because yesterday was my silver wedding anniversary. But I think that question, at my age, seems to carry an undertone of “are you feeling old yet?”
I think 57 means something different now, to what it meant many years ago. Certainly for my grandparents generation, reaching 60 meant retirement or at least being within touching distance of retirement. Reaching 65 definitely heralded the end of most people’s working life. Reaching 70 meant you were old.
Of my grandparents, my mother lost her father in 1946 when he was around my age and her mother died at the age of 73. My paternal grandfather was 72 when he died and my grandmother was 80. In the next generation, Dad was 77 when he died of cancer, Mum was 82. Both had been retired for more than ten years.
Theirs was a different generation and a lot has changed. Improvements in medical science means that most of us have the possibility of a longer life; lifestyle changes gives us the risk of shortening it again. The retirement age has risen for both men and women, and the expectation of stopping work at 60 or 65 is a thing of the past. We’re living longer, working longer and I rather suspect remaining engaged with the world for longer.
A lot has been written about post-menopausal women and ‘empty nesters’. These days, if you listen to the media, it is difficult to decide whether or not the empty nest is to be dreaded or longed for, but for all of us with growing children it is bound to happen at some point. In my own case, I’ve a daughter doing A levels, hopefully bound for University either this year or next and a son of 20, living at home and working full time. But unusually for me, it’s made me think a bit about where I am in life at the moment.
Years ago, when I used to work for Relate, we used to look at Life Stages when considering the difficulties people might be having in their relationship. People react very differently to entering a different life stage and it can bring up all kinds of problems if a couple respond to a particular life stage in different ways.
Approaching the empty nest stage, I’m aware that I am in a very different place to many of my friends and family. My sister, my cousin and several of my friends who have worked full time have either retired, cut down their hours or have their eyes fixed firmly on retirement as a goal. Some of them are lucky enough to have their finances in place; others are less so, angry at the changes in the law which has pushed their dream further away. Some are hesitant about leaving the world of work; others are burned out and for them it can’t come fast enough.
I, on the other hand, have never been more excited about my future career. I have so many books to research and write, I need more hours in the day. Off the back of my writing, I’ve been asked to teach several courses at the local college on creative writing and history and I’m also starting the first year of a further education teaching course later this year. I’ve got a dozen projects both paid and unpaid on the go. In talking to friends, I realise I’ve got more in common with some of the younger women I know, who are heading back into the workplace after a break with children than many of my contemporaries. It’s odd. It’s also very exciting.
In the middle of all this, though, I’m still 57 and that gives me pause. My brain may be racing ahead, but my body is a bit more hesitant. I’ve got arthritis all over the place and I don’t have the physical energy that I used to have. When I sit writing all day and then into the evening, I can barely move when I get up. It has started to occur to me that if I want to be fit enough and healthy enough to enjoy all these amazing new opportunities, I might need to stop, take a breath and think about the physical for a while.
I have never been that interested in fitness. Lucky enough not to need to diet to keep my weight down, I have always walked regularly, but other than that I’ve really not paid that much attention to my physical health until now, when it is starting to get in the way a bit. And I realise that I’m not willing to sit back and let that happen.
57 is not old and I don’t want to feel that way. I’m thinking more carefully about my diet, and reluctantly cutting back on those extra glasses of wine. I’ve started to look at what exercises I can do to keep the arthritis at bay and strengthen those parts of the body that have been very neglected. I’m going back to the swimming pool, trying yoga and thinking of joining a tap dance class. I’ve been on the rowing machine and tried, very cautiously, some light weight training. And earlier this week, for the first time in very many years, I got back on a bike and tried to remember how to cycle. I’m never going to be keen on health and fitness as a hobby, but if I’m going to still be writing, teaching and researching into my seventies, which I would love to do, I realise I need to do some work on my body as well as my brain.
So how does it feel to be 57? It feels like a bit of a landmark for me. It’s the year that I decide to take charge, not to let the weeks drift by, because they drift too fast and too far and I don’t want to find myself in a place where I can’t do what I want to do any more, at least not without making a really good effort to improve things. 57 is when I don’t have a child in school any more, I may fairly soon not have any children living at home. 57, I’ve decided, is the year I start to put myself and what I want ahead of the needs of my family sometimes, because they don’t need me all the time the way they used to.
I don’t feel old at 57. In three years time, I’ll be 60 and perhaps I’ll feel different then, but I do hope not. At 57, what I mostly feel is very lucky.
Two years ago today, this book was published. It wasn’t the first book I had written or published, but it was the first in the Peninsular War Saga and the book that meant the most to me. I had dreamed of writing this series for years, had dabbled with it and then put it to one side. Life took over, I had two children, day jobs, a home to run and two labradors to adore. It seemed to me that since Bernard Cornwell raced to the top of the bestsellers charts with his Sharpe novels, there had been so many books written about the Napoleonic Wars that there was no space for mine and certainly no market for my slightly eccentric take on them.
When the book was finally written, I discovered that publishers and agents agreed. This period, it seemed, had been done to death. Nobody was interested any more, in Sharpe’s fellow officers and their adventures through the Iberian Peninsula. Certainly nobody was going to be interested in a series of novels which committed the ultimate crime of being difficult to place within a genre.
“Too much war. Why not write a proper romance?”
“Too much romance. Stick to the battles. Oh, and use your initials, that way people might think you’re a man.”
“Too much history. People don’t read books like this for the history. Cut it down and add more battle scenes. Or romance.”
“Not enough history. None of your characters spend enough time describing their uniforms, their weapons and their kit. The only people who read this sort of thing are re-enactors and they want a lot of detail”
“Your hero isn’t enough of an Alpha male and your heroine is too masculine in her outlook. He’s got too much money, he should earn his commissions not buy them. And she can’t come from the industrial north, it’s not that kind of book. Maybe she should have a title and he could have come up from the ranks. That might do better…”
“Cut it down, change the characters and try Mills and Boon.”
Readers, I haven’t made any of those up. I still have the letters and e-mails. Eventually, I was left with a simple choice. Either I would continue to write the books for my own entertainment and Paul, Anne, Johnny and Carl would never see the light of day, or I would take a chance and try independent publishing. I did it and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Peninsular War Saga hasn’t become an overnight bestseller. I wish it had. I’ve no advertising budget and no experience in marketing, so I’ve sold books one at a time. It’s been a painstaking process, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve discovered a whole new world of interesting people online and I’ve made some friends for life.
And I’ve sold books. Gradually, painfully, the numbers have got better. I’ve never given away review copies, so the reviews have trickled in, but I value every one. Most have been excellent. One or two have been awful. I’ve learned that it’s okay that some people don’t like my books and I don’t die of it.
These days, I call myself a writer and I’m lucky enough to be able to make this my job. It’s not amazingly well-paid, but it’s more fun than working in an office. I’ve had ten books published, five in the main series and one in a linked series. Every book is meticulously researched and I love that part of the process. I’m very proud of what I do.
Today is my birthday, but it’s also the birthday of the Peninsular War Saga, and I suppose the birthday of Paul van Daan. Paul came into being gradually, little more than a boy when I first met him, growing up before my eyes. At times, he irritates the hell out of me; he won’t always do what I want him to do, he’s full of opinions and he pushes himself in where he’s not supposed to be. He was supposed to make a cameo appearance in An Unwilling Alliance and ended up as the third main character in the book.
These days, Paul is part of my life. I hear his voice in my head more often than you would believe. Writing him is incredibly easy, he has a distinctive way of looking at the world, and he makes me laugh and makes me cry. Readers often ask me if there is much of me in Anne. There’s a bit, but there’s a lot more of me in Paul.
I’m so grateful to the people who have helped me along the way. First and foremost, my family. My husband, Richard, has been my biggest cheerleader from the first, content to spend hours setting up my website, designing my fabulous covers and telling me what’s wrong with my plots. I always ignore him. My son Jon, blissfully unaware as a young adult and not much of a reader, who nevertheless was immensely proud to discover that a friend’s grandmother was reading my books and loving them. My daughter Anya, a fellow history lover who laughs at my passion for Wellington, threatens to feed my favourite books to the dogs, shares my study and brings me joy every day of my life. And my sister, Patricia, who is faintly surprised that her little sister has it in her to do anything this interesting, but always encouraging. I love you all.
Then there are the Labradors. We lost Toby last year, halfway through the last book, and I miss him still every day. Joey, my old yella fella, his snores the accompaniment to my working day. And Oscar, my baby, who makes me get up and get some exercise in between chapters and who has taken over my sofa as if he owns it.
All my friends and family have been supportive, but one or two people stand out as always. Heather Paisley, my best friend for more years than either of us care to remember, never fails to say the right thing. Suzy Holland, who was astonished to find I could write and has discovered an undiscovered enthusiasm for military history. Jacqueline Reiter, whom I met online, and is clearly my long lost younger sister, has helped with research and is my ultimate beta reader; she lets nothing go. And Kristine Hughes Patrone, who with Jacqueline, reads every snippet I send her, laughs at all my favourite lines, and loves Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington as much as I do. Through doing this, I have found my people.
My next plan, other than finishing the current work in progress, This Blighted Expedition, is to get all the books in the Peninsular War Saga out in paperback before the end of this year. Hopefully, that will introduce Paul, Anne and the others to readers who haven’t met them yet.
I am an incredibly lucky woman to be able to spend my working day doing something I love as much as this. Occasionally, I like to be able to say thank you, and An Unconventional Officer will be available on Amazon kindle free for three days, on 4th, 5th and 6th June. Many of you have already read it, but please share this with people who haven’t.
Finally, I’d like to thank my readers. You are the most amazingly loyal and supportive bunch in the world. You’re quite shy, most of my contact with you is in private message or e-mail, but you follow my facebook page and twitter, and buy my books. I’m so grateful to each and every one of you. I love your passion for the period, the history and the characters, you pepper me with questions and never fail to point out a typo or a mistake. I’m not sure if mainstream authors with huge advertising budgets and publishers to manage their contact with readers get half the joy I do every time one of you sends me a question I don’t have an immediate answer to and have to look up. I love each and every one of you. Thank you.
The Peninsular War Saga is two years old today and going strong. There are many more books to come and possibly some other linked novels. Happy Birthday to Paul, Anne and the rest of the 110th Light Infantry. And gracious thanks to Lord Wellington, for taking an insignificant, over-confident and very talented young officer under his wing on a hillside in India and for remaining a brilliant, grumpy and entertaining part of my story ever since.