Writing about writing is something I rarely do. Most of my blog posts are either historical or centre around life with Labradors on the Isle of Man. I’ve read some fantastic posts about the writing process from other authors, but I’d rather come to the conclusion that I’m not particularly introspective when it comes to my own work. I love what I do, but I don’t spend a lot of time analysing it and I dread the interview question “what made you become a writer?”. The best answer I could give to that is “I couldn’t help it.”
Recently, however, something has happened to change my outlook on this. I was asked to teach a creative writing course as an evening class at the University College Isle of Man. This was a new experience for me, although I’ve done training and work in schools, but the idea of designing a course was irresistible. It was a short course, really just to test the water, four weeks on writing fiction, but it has made me think about my writing in a way that I don’t think I have before.
The course ended this week and seems to have been a great success; I really enjoyed it and I think the participants did too. I’ve been astonished at how much I’ve learned from working with them and watching their process as they began their stories, met their characters and studied themes and plot and dialogue. But best of all, it has made me go back and revisit some of my books, thinking again about how and why I do what I do.
In order to teach something, you have to be able to break it down and I’ve found it easier to do this, as I’ve recently been working on revising one of my earliest books. The Reluctant Debutante was a Regency romance which I originally wrote when I was trying the traditional publishing route, and it was designed for the Mills and Boon historical market. I was unsuccessful with it, although it did get some very positive feedback.
When I decided to try self-publishing, I had no idea what I was doing, so I chose to publish my three standalone novels first, using them to test the waters before publishing thePeninsular War Saga. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sales and did no real publicity. The first two books bombed as much as I had expected, but the third, my Regency romance, began to sell. I tried a free promotion and the uptake was huge. A few reviews trickled in and a few Goodreads ratings. Off the back of that, I began to get some sales of the other two books. Surprisingly, although never a bestseller, The Reluctant Debutante was my most popular book for a long time; a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre.
I’ve explained elsewhere why I was never really happy with that book. Occasionally I would get another review, many of them good and one or two absolutely terrible. Like all authors, I hate bad reviews, but I’ve learned to take them philosophically. My problem with this book, was that I kind of agreed with them.
After the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and before really getting stuck in to writing This Blighted Expedition I finally decided to do something about The Reluctant Debutante. I’d not read it through since I published it, and doing so was something of a shock to my system. It wasn’t that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the plot, it’s just that it really wasn’t very well written. The dialogue, always my strong point, was the best part although I don’t think it represented the characters as it should have. But the point of view was all over the place, the structure was messy and there was no clue as to the theme, even though I knew what it was in my head.
I’ve been revising this book along with teaching my course, and doing so has been incredibly useful, as it enabled me to break down the book and look at it in the way I was encouraging my students to do with their own writing. In the end, I didn’t need to change as much as I thought I would. I let the characters tell their story, but I was far clearer about the story they were telling. I gave them a voice, not just in the words they spoke but also in the thoughts they had, the internal dialogue which is so clear in some of my later books but which I seemed to have missed out entirely in this early effort.
I’m cautiously pleased with the result, and given that Giles is a minor character in the Peninsular War Saga and has a major role to play in my current book, I’m happy now, with the way he’s turned out. Part way through the first draft of This Blighted Expedition, I’m conscious of how much I’m applying some of the lessons I’ve learned to my new story.
You can write a very good book without reading a thing about crafting fiction. But personally, I think the work I’ve done in the classroom with my students, has made me a better writer. Certainly it has made me a more self-aware writer. I’m deeply grateful to them for their questions and contributions and endless curiosity about the writing process, both mine and theirs. I hope they all come back for another course and I really hope they all carry on writing. Every one of them has a different style and a different sphere of interest, but I think they have talent. I’m so grateful to University College Isle of Man for giving me the opportunity to teach this course and I hope to do more in the future.
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.
Welcome to the very first guest blog post from yours truly, Joey the Labrador, senior officer here at Writing with Labradors.
I’ve wanted to do one for a while, but the first couple of posts had to come from our senior officer and I was okay to wait my turn. I didn’t expect it to come like this, with Toby gone now and me in charge of Oscar, our young subaltern. Still, it’s time to step up and do the job.
It’s been more than six weeks since we lost Toby and we’re all getting more used to it, though we’ll never stop missing him. At first I used to forget he was gone and wander around looking for him but I’m over that now. Having Oscar has been the best thing ever, I’m never lonely. He’s always close by, sometimes a bit closer than I need him to be, to be honest. I know I loved old Toby, he was my best mate all my life, but I’m pretty sure I never used to sit on him. Still, although I tell him off from time to time, I secretly quite like Oscar wanting to be that close to me.
Life goes on and there are always changes. Jon-human has started work now and isn’t around studying all the time so there have been some changes in the study. The big table has gone and we’ve got a very comfy sofa and armchair instead which makes it much more homely. Personally I still like my bed best, just behind her chair, so she has to ask me to move if she wants to get up for a cup of tea, but Oscar loves the sofa and we’re very settled in there all day when she’s writing. The extra space means that there’s a lot more space for playing as well. She gets very aggy when we make too much noise in there, but I know she likes it really, she’s soft in the head when it comes to us labradors.
The writing is going very well, apparently. The new book is doing well. It’s my favourite, An Unwilling Alliance, since a chunk of it is set right here on the Isle of Man and talks about the places she takes us for walks. Mind, there’s not enough dogs in it. Toby used to complain about that and he was right, although she promises that Craufurd the Puppy features very regularly in the next one which is out in a couple of months. She’s also planning on introducing a second dog, called Toby at some point, in honour of the old fella. I like that idea, don’t know much about how it’s going to work, I just know that every time she thinks about it, she starts laughing. Madwoman, I’ve always said it.
Meanwhile, she’s been off doing research which means Anya-human is in charge of us. This is great news as she spoils us rotten and even lets us sleep in her bedroom which is normally off-limits. I particularly like it when she sends photos of this to her mother who can do nothing about it because she’s stuck in a castle in some remote part of Spain gibbering about battlefields. Next month she away at the Malvern Festival of Military History, whatever the hell that is. She seems very excited about it. I’m excited because I bet the teen humans have friends over which means illegal pizza, illegal sleeping in the bedrooms and more fuss and attention that I know what to do with. Great news…
Autumn is on its way, and it’s fun teaching Oscar how to chase leaves in the wind. My legs are a lot better now and although I’ve been grumpy about it, I think losing a bit of weight has done me good. I’m getting on a bit, no question, but I want to stick around as long as I can for Oscar and the rest of the family. And having this puppy has definitely made me feel a lot younger again. He’s a lot of fun, although between you and me, I’m not really sure he’s all that bright. A bit like Toby, who was the best friend in the world, but not much between his ears other than daylight. Sometimes I see him in Oscar…
Writing with Labradors is back on track and I think our senior officer would be proud of us. Sitting out on the porch on sunny days, I look at his statue and I’m very glad to have known him. One day Oscar will sit here thinking of me like this, but it’s great to know the tradition is going to carry on through him.
She probably wants me to mention that there is another book coming out soon, An Untrustworthy Army, which is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga. Most importantly it features at least one dog. I recommend you read it on that basis alone.
In the meantime, I’ve just realised the time. Must be lunchtime by now…
Today heralds the publication of An Unwilling Alliance, my ninth book, set during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807, a joint operation between the army and the navy. It is linked to the Peninsular War Sagaand features Major Paul van Daan, the hero of the series but it also introduces a selection of new characters.
In 1806, Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years in the navy. He has a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money and intends to inspect the house he has just bought and to find himself a sensible Manx wife. His investment in a local shipping business introduces him to Josiah Crellin and his daughter, Roseen.
Hugh is quick to see the advantages of a marriage with Roseen Crellin. He also finds her very attractive. Roseen is unconvinced. She is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband and is still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart. However it proves to be difficult to dislike Captain Kelly.
Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry 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 are another matter 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.
I’ve really enjoyed writing this book for a number of reasons. It is the first of my books to be set partly on the Isle of Man where I live, and I loved writing that section. The island is a beautiful place and being able to share a little of that with my readers has been very special.
It is also the first book to be based around the navy and I’ve enjoyed the research. I’m thoroughly enthusiastic about it now and am looking forward to future books on the decks of an early nineteenth century warship.
The book has taken me back a little in time to an episode of Paul van Daan’s earlier years. It was strange writing this and has made me realise how much he has grown up during the ten years or more covered by the first four books of the Peninsular War saga. It was fun to revisit the younger Paul before he settled down and learned some self-control.
It was also fun developing the new characters. Hugh Kelly and Roseen Crellin are very different to some of my previous characters. Hugh was the son of a tenant farmer who drank himself to death. He went into the navy as a boy and worked his way up, which has given him a far more down-to-earth view of the world than some of my other heroes. Roseen is slightly better born but still an ordinary Manx girl who has only been off the island twice. She is socially very awkward and proving hard to marry off; nothing like the socially adept heroines of some of my other novels. For all that, I love the way this relationship develops, by fits and starts. It feels very real to me and I have a feeling that Hugh and Roseen are going to be one of my favourite couples.
I have told the story of the Copenhagen campaignin a separate post. This is not a campaign which includes lots of exciting battles and skirmishes. The battle of Koge was over very quickly and although there was an ongoing naval duels for a couple of weeks between the smaller boats of the two nations, the Danish fleet was completely unprepared for the British invasion and its army was cut off from the capital. The Danes fought bravely with what little they had but it was an uneven contest.
I have tried to show a balance in the novel between the pragmatism of the British invasion and the discomfort felt by a lot of the people involved at an unprovoked attack on a neutral country. War was not always a glorious business and was also sometimes very tedious. Much of the campaign involved both army and navy sitting around waiting for the diplomats to finish their negotiations.
The title is also one of my favourites as it has several meanings. Roseen is determined not to make an unwilling alliance with a suitor she does not know and may not like. There is also an unwilling alliance between the army and the navy who often struggled to work together in joint operations. As for poor Denmark, it was trying desperately to maintain its neutrality while being pushed inexorably into an unwilling alliance with either France or Britain.
An Unwilling Alliance is a story of love, of friendship and of war on both land and sea. I hope readers of the Peninsular War Saga will enjoy this glimpse of a different moment in the life of the 110th infantry and I look forward to further adventures with Captain Hugh Kelly RN.
An Unwilling Allianceis the new book, due out in April 2018 and tells the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN who returns to the Isle of Man after fifteen years away with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife.
Roseen Crellin is twenty-one and 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 a liking 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 unquestionable but his ability to manage the minefield of army politics has some way to go, and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.
Hugh joins Admiral Gambier’s fleet, trying to forget the girl he left behind him while Roseen’s unhappiness leads to a rash escapade that risks both her reputation and her life. 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 as an impulsive action puts Paul’s future in the army at risk. Hugh Kelly finds himself torn between his duty to the service and a reluctant admiration for the young army officer willing to gamble his career on an act of charity.
An Unwilling Alliance is set on the Isle of Man and in Denmark in 1806-7. For readers of the Peninsular War Saga, the action takes place during the first book, An Unconventional Officer and introduces Captain Hugh Kelly RN of HMS Iris who is from the Isle of Man. In the following excerpt, Hugh’s courtship of Roseen is finally looking hopeful…
St Michael’s Isle was the northern most point of the Langness Peninsula. Roseen remembered her father telling her that it used to be detached at high tide, a true island, but the causeway had been built in the middle of the previous century to link it permanently. It was formed of rocky slate, it’s acidic soil limiting the plants that could grow there, and it was inhabited now mainly by sea birds of all kinds, wheeling overhead with their hoarse cries and occasionally swooping down into the choppy sea which crashed onto the rocky shores of the island. It was a place of peace and great beauty but it was not quiet. Roseen had grown up loving the sound of the sea and had always longed to live close enough to it to hear it through her open bedroom window at night. They dismounted and Hugh led both horses to the old chapel and tethered them to a rusty iron gate which had been put up to prevent people going into the chapel which was disused, roofless and probably dangerous. He turned back to Roseen and held out his hand and she smiled and took it. She was becoming accustomed to Captain Kelly’s assumption that she could not make her own way across rough ground, or indeed, up a flight of stairs, without his assistance. Privately, Roseen suspected his chivalry was an excuse to hold her hand, but she had no intention of asking him. He was likely to tell her the truth. He was also likely to stop doing it if he thought it annoyed her, and Roseen realised with some surprise that she did not want him to. There were two buildings on the island. The tiny ruined chapel dated back to Celtic and Norse times and had long been abandoned, home now only to nesting birds and rabbits. The second was a circular fort, built originally under Henry VIII as part of a major coastal defensive system. It had a wall walk at the top and supported eight cannons. It had fallen into disuse for many years but was re-fortified in 1640 by James, 7th Earl of Derby, a strong royalist, against the ships of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. The fort was renamed Derby Fort and the Earl’s initials along with a date of 1645 could still be seen engraved above the fort door. Hugh paused to look at them and Roseen came to stand beside him. “It’s small but it looks very solid,” she said. “Aye, it is. Not that it was likely to be stormed by land, but with the other battery on the far side at Ronaldsway I wouldn’t enjoy sailing into Derbyhaven Bay under fire from two sides.” “That one is more recent, isn’t it?” Hugh nodded, pointing across the bay to the small battery. “At the end of the seventeenth century, I believe. I don’t know what condition that one’s in, not really looked closely, but I’ll bet they’ve done some work on it recently. They use this one as a lighthouse as well, don’t they?” Roseen nodded. “Yes, for the herring fleet. When you’re out on the boats you can see it for miles, it’s an excellent location…” She broke off realising what she had just said. Hugh did not respond immediately. He was looking out to sea at a small fleet of boats outlined against the bright sky in the distance and Roseen wondered if he had heard her and sought frantically for a change of subject. After a moment he looked round and smiled. “Don’t look so horrified, Miss Crellin, you already told me, don’t you remember? When we were touring the house.” “I’d forgotten,” Roseen admitted. “I don’t do it now. My father was worried it might cause people to think ill of me.” “I think it was fine when you were a lass and your brother was with you. But your father is probably right that you had to stop. People will make something of nothing with a girl’s good name.” “Does it bother you?” Roseen asked, and then could have bitten her tongue. The question implied a far closer relationship than she was willing to admit at this stage. At the same time, she really wanted to know the answer.” “No, I can’t see any harm in it,” Hugh said simply. “Although if you were my daughter and looking to find a good husband I’d probably feel it was my duty to ensure that the busybodies didn’t find an excuse to gossip. Luckily they’re not here, so it’s none of their business.” A voice startled both of them, a hail from the ramparts of the fort. A figure in a red coat was visible, musket in hands, looking down at them. “Who goes there, sir?” he called. “Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris. Jesus, fella, you frightened the wits out of me, I’d no idea the place was occupied.” The sergeant of fencibles grinned in a manner that suggested he was well aware of the effect of his unexpected shout. “Sorry, sir. Just half a dozen of us on guard duty. They’re keeping it manned now as a lookout. I wondered if you wanted to bring the lady in for a look around, since you’re here?” Hugh looked at Roseen. “Would you like to, Miss Crellin?” “Yes, thank you. I’ve been here so often, but never inside.” There was little to see inside. Most of the stone flags had long gone or were broken and grass had taken their place. There were the remains of a free standing building, too damaged to guess it’s original purpose, although the sergeant and six soldiers of the fencibles had turned it into a makeshift camp site with a small fire lit. Roseen imagined this was not a popular duty but the men seemed to have made the best of it. Two of them manned the battlements while the others rose and saluted Hugh with commendable speed as he approached. It was odd to see him accepting and returning the salute as his due. It was not how Roseen saw him and she wondered suddenly how different he was aboard his ship with hundreds of men under his command. In recesses in the wall to the north and north-west, six cannons covered the entrance to the bay and Roseen listened with some amusement to Hugh’s questions about the guns, their origin, their age and their maintenance. The sergeant answered as best he could but it was very clear that Hugh knew a good deal more than he did about the guns. They inspected the lighthouse placement which was probably the most useful aspect of the fort, and when their visit was ended she saw Hugh speaking quietly to the sergeant, before slipping him what was clearly a vail. The smartness of the sergeant’s salute suggested that it was a generous one. Riding back towards Castletown and then on to Malew and the Top House for dinner, Hugh was quiet and Roseen thought about that and realised that she was very comfortable with his silence. She studied him as they rode and wondered what he was thinking about. “Miss Crellin?” She realised, in some confusion, that she had been staring at him and blushed. “Oh – I’m sorry, that was rude of me.” “No, it wasn’t. You were probably wondering if I was still alive, I’ve been sitting here like a stuffed owl for a quarter of an hour and there’s no excuse for it. My manners are terrible, it’s my job to entertain you.” “No, it isn’t. That makes you sound rather like a performing monkey.” Hugh choked with laughter. “Is that better or worse than a stuffed owl?” “I am not sure. Probably I would choose the owl. Half the officers in Castletown are definitely more like the monkey and it is tiresome. I was just wondering what you were thinking about but it is none of my business.” “It is if I choose to make it so, lass. And it is so boring I’m embarrassed. I was thinking about guns, wondering about placement on the Iris and whether I could get my hands on a couple of 68 pounder carronades. They’d be unusual on a ship of her size, but I’ve seen how useful they can be. But this is not the time…” “What are the usual guns on a ship like the Iris?” Roseen asked, cutting off his apology. She had never really thought much about naval gunnery but she liked hearing Hugh talk about his profession. He did so rarely but it was different to the posturing of the young army officers she had met. There was genuine enthusiasm in his voice when he talked about the Iris which lent interest to the subject. “She’s a 74 gun third rater, which means two gun decks. Beautifully built and very fast; she was taken from the French and although I hate to say it, they build faster ships than we do, although we’ve got very good at copying their designs. She carries twenty-eight 32 pounders on her gundeck, twenty-eight 18 pounders on her upperdeck, four 12 pounders and ten 32 pounder carronades on her quarterdeck, two 12-pounders and two 32 pounder carronades on her forecastle, and six 18 pounder carronades on her poop deck. The carronades are short-range guns, they smash the enemy ship to bits. Up on the forecastle they can make a big difference in a close fight, Victory had two at Trafalgar. I am trying to work out who owes me a favour or two. And I am astonished that your eyes are not glazing over with boredom. I am actually boring myself.”
In the early nineteenth century, officers of the army acquired their commissions by purchase, a system which lasted until 1871 when it was abolished by the Cardwell reforms. Attempts were made from time to time to regulate the system and prevent the worst abuses associated with it, but it was impossible to keep control over every promotion and it was often too easy for an officer with money to bypass the system. Senior officers used the system to improve their retirement funds and wealthy juniors used it to climb the ladder faster…
Paul had been in Dublin with five companies of the 110th when he had received his promotion to major and with it the news that he would take command of the first battalion under Sir Arthur Wellesley in Denmark. The promotion had come at a relatively young age and he had leapfrogged a number of older and longer serving captains in the regiment. The commander of the second battalion, Major Middleton was in his fifties and considering retirement but there were several men who could have claimed Paul’s promotion as their due. Paul was trying hard not to feel defensive about his good fortune, but he was under no illusions that the main factor in his success had been financial. Under the traditional system, promotion was offered to the next man in line in the regiment. If none were able to come up with the purchase price, the commission could be sold to an officer from another regiment wanting to transfer for promotion. The Duke of York, who had made admirable attempts to reform some of the abuses of the system, had put in place length of service conditions for promotion to captain and major which were effective in peacetime although might be relaxed during campaigns when officers were in short supply. Paul had barely reached the required number of years when the promotion had been offered and in his battalion alone, at least four other captains had served longer; more if the second battalion were taken into account. Money had made the difference. Paul’s mother had been the daughter of a viscount but his father was from a trade background and had made his fortune in shipping and finance many times over. When the elderly Colonel Dixon had decided to retire, his commission was sold to Major Johnstone who was in command of the first battalion. Paul, puzzled by Wellesley’s conviction that the majority was his if he was willing to pay for it, had quickly realised that the colonel was expecting his retirement to be funded by a premium on the sale of his colonelcy, a premium which Johnstone could only afford if he added the sum onto the sale of his own commission. The premium was strictly against regulations but Paul was aware that they were an open secret in fashionable regiments, where commissions were sometimes sold for twice the regulation price set by the government. He was both irritated and amused at the approach by the regimental agent, with Dixon and Johnstone remaining at a discreet distance as if the negotiations might sully their hands. Commissions in the 110th did not generally command much of a premium; it was a relatively new regiment with no history and little reputation thus far, but Colonel Dixon was very well aware of both the personal fortune and the ambition of his most unlikely company officer and had taken the gamble. Grimly aware that he was about to be fleeced, Paul had gone back to his mentor, Sir Arthur Wellesley who was in London on Parliamentary business and invited him to dine at the Van Daans’ London home. Paul’s father and brother were away in Leicestershire and they had dined privately and sat afterwards over a good port. “Have you received your commission, Major?” Wellesley had said. They had talked, during dinner, of neutral matters; of the current situation in India and the proposed expedition to Denmark. They had also spoken of politics and the latest London scandals. Paul had been waiting to see if his chief would raise the subject. “Not yet. I am trying to decide if it is worth the extremely over-inflated price I am being asked to pay for it.” Wellesley gave one of his barking laughs. “Expensive, is it? Yes, I’d heard that Dixon is in need of funds.” “Colonel Dixon,” Paul said, sipping the port, “is currently still my commanding officer so it would be unthinkable of me to call him an avaricious old goat. At least anywhere he can hear me.” “What makes you think I won’t report that, Major?” “You never report any of the other appalling things I say to you in private, sir, so I’m cautiously optimistic.” “Are you going to pay it?” Paul pulled a face. “Sir, it’s not the money. It just galls me that he’s making that kind of profit out of a system which shouldn’t allow it. There are at least six or seven other men in the regiment who are eligible for this promotion. We can discount Longford, Cookson and Graham – none of them could raise even the regulation price. Which is a good thing in Longford’s case because he’s an incompetent arsehole who shouldn’t hold the commission he does. But men like Gervase Clevedon and Kit Young and Jerry Flanagan…they’ve every right to be furious if I buy in over their heads. I really want this. But I have to serve with these men.” Wellesley reached for the decanter. “It is your choice, Major. Would it help if I told you that even if you do not accept it, somebody else will.” Paul raised his eyebrows. “Into the 110th? Have we suddenly become fashionable without my noticing it?” “No,” Wellesley said with a laugh. “But sometimes it is more than that. Have you come across Captain Edmund Willoughby?” Paul frowned, puzzled. “If I have, I don’t remember him. Which regiment?” “He has served variously in the 4th, the 10th and the 24th. Moved each time for promotion and he has come up very fast indeed. Faster than you have.” “How?” “Money. Connections. A considerable enthusiasm on the part of a very high ranking member of the peerage to see his natural son progress. He will use the 110th as his next stepping stone; the timing is very convenient for him. Would you like me to tell you how many weeks actual combat experience he has?” Paul met the hooded eyes across the table. “Sir, are you applying emotional blackmail to get me to cough up the money for this piece of highway robbery we are calling a promotion? Is this gentleman likely to get my battalion killed in his first action with them?” “I imagine it is very possible,” Wellesley said tranquilly. “Either that or you will be on trial for shooting him in the head to prevent it.”
I’ve spent some time over the past week or two reading accounts of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century courts martial for my next book, An Unwilling Alliance. A surprising number of them came to absolutely nothing and the novelist in me desperately wants to know the full story behind how they came about. Were charges brought maliciously? Commanding officer didn’t like the look on your face? Got off because you were really good at hiding the evidence? Or because you were really good at your job and nobody wants to lose you? So many possibilities, I’m going to have to be forcibly restrained from court martialling half my characters now, it sounds like so much fun…
Surgeon James Dalzell of the 32nd in 1800 is my favourite so far, though. He got into it in an Assembly Room (probably drunk or fancied the same girl in my opinion) with his commanding officer Major James Wentworth Mansergh and made use of “unwarrantable and most offensive language” by telling him “the said Major Mansergh that he was a damned rascal and a Scoundrel and no Gentleman and threatening to pull him by the nose and afterwards on the same night repeating the same language raising his hand in a threatening manner and again threatening to pull him, the said Major Mansergh, by the nose.”
Surgeon Dalzell seems not to have actually been arrested for this until six months later and on that occasion he really kicked off and informed Major Mansergh in the presence of soldiers of the 32nd in the barrack yard that “his command was a damned rascally one to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Clearly something had ticked Surgeon Dalzell off beyond the telling and if there was a man on that court martial with a straight face by that point, he was a better man than I am. A brief search has revealed that to threaten to “pull a man’s nose” was considered an insult likely to lead to a duel in the ante-bellum South and when I need another distraction I am going to download that article in full as I want to find out the origin of that one. Certainly it is clear that Surgeon Dalzell and Major Mansergh were not going to be exchanging Christmas gifts.
But the plot thickens even further. Enter Captain William Davis who was also court-martialled in 1800. Captain Davis was also charged with using disrespectful and improper language to Major Mansergh in the barrack yard on the same evening that Surgeon Dalzell hit the proverbial roof. While no nose pulling appears to have been involved here, Captain Davis followed the major, attempted forcibly to stop him and called him “a damned Rascal and a Scoundrel and at the same time raising his hand in a threatening manner to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Now there is clearly a bit of a theme here, and it looks as though the court was able to spot it. Surgeon Dalzell, interestingly was acquitted of the charges of nose-threatening and general name-calling. The court made mention of something that Mansergh said about the surgeon in a conversation with Captain Davis that evening in the barrack yard which had caused Dalzell to lose his temper. Although he was acquitted, he was instructed to make an apology to Major Mansergh for improper language and conduct. The wording of the apology is very specific – I’m guessing all Dalzell had to do was read it out and the matter was over. Clearly the court felt that whatever had happened, Dalzell was provoked.
Captain Davis wasn’t quite so lucky and I wonder if that was because of his rank. Certainly given that he went for his commanding officer in front of the enlisted men on the parade ground, he was very unlikely to get away with it. Captain Davis was found guilty and suspended without rank or pay for the term of two years. Even so, the court expressed some sympathy for Davis, pointing out that his treatment by Mansergh, while it can’t justify his actions, certainly mitigated his sentence. Presumably without it, he might have been cashiered.
The editor has very kindly provided footnotes of what happened to the principals in the various cases and that’s where it becomes interesting. Captain Davis sold out the following month, presumably unable or unwilling to live without pay or rank for the next two years. Surgeon Dalzell must have taken his medicine and made his stilted apology to Major Mansergh because he remained in the army and was appointed Surgeon to the Forces in Ireland in 1804. Clearly he managed to control his temper better in the future.
Major Mansergh was not the subject of the court martial but that did not stop the court from expressing its opinion that his conduct appeared “highly reprehensible, in not having supported his command with more propriety and energy”. What else was said off the record, or by Mansergh’s own commanding officers is not recorded, but Major Mansergh sold out the following month and did not return to military service. Somehow I have a feeling there might have been a celebration in the mess at some point…
Until I started looking in to military discipline in more detail, I think I had assumed that a court martial was seen as a disgrace and the end of an officer’s career but clearly that is not the case. In both the army and the navy, officers were court-martialled, acquitted or received minor punishments and went on to do very well. Captain Bligh of the Bounty survived no less than three courts martial during his career.
Court martial seems to have been a valid way of seeking an enquiry into an incident. An officer censured for some error would often ask for a court martial to clear his name; a good example of this would be Lt-Colonel Charles Bevan after the fiasco at Almeida in 1811 whose request for a court martial was denied, a fact which contributed to his suicide.
The other fact about a court martial which came as a surprise to me was that the King looked at all trial records and had the right to override either the verdict or the punishment. I was aware through research into the Peninsular War that the commander-in-chief had the right to commute sentences on men convicted of local offences but it appears that it was not uncommon for the King to completely overturn the decision of the General Court Martial, either in deciding to declare a verdict of not guilty, or simply to announce that he no longer required the services of the officers involved.
In matters of military discipline in the 18th and 19th century there must always have been a lot of leeway depending on individual circumstances. An officer committing an offence needed to be charged by a senior officer and there must have been many occasions where a good officer got away with an informal reprimand simply because he was good at his job and valued. Equally there would have been senior officers with a bee in their bonnet about particular issues for example Admiral Gambier was known to be an evangelical Christian and used to fine his officers for bad language. Commanders confident in their relationships with their officers will have used different methods of management, saving court martial for extreme cases in the same way that a good manager rarely uses the formal disciplinary process. There are always variations from the strict letter of the law.
And that’s probably a good thing for one of the officers of the 110th infantry…
The bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 occurred when Britain carried out an attack on a neutral country in order to either destroy or capture its fleet to prevent it falling into the hands of the French. This little known action of the Napoleonic Wars was seen by many as a stain on the British character although the government remained steadfast in its belief that the attack was an unpleasant necessity.
In 1806 Napoleon launched his Continental Systemwhich was designed to paralyse Great Britain through the destruction of British commerce. The decrees of Berlin in 1806 and Milan in 1807 proclaimed a blockade: neutrals and French allies were not to trade with the British. The Continental System damaged some English industries, but as the British had an overwhelming superiority at sea, enforcing the system proved too difficult for Napoleon. His efforts to police his blockade stretched French forces too thin, and he was never truly able to make it work.
Britain’s first response to the Continental System was to launch a major naval attack on the weakest link in Napoleon’s coalition, Denmark. Although ostensibly neutral, Denmark was under heavy French and Russian pressure to surrender its fleet to Napoleon. Despite the defeat and loss of many ships in the first Battle of Copenhagenin 1801, Denmark-Norway still maintained an impressive navy. Most of the Danish army was at this time defending the southern border against possible attack from the French.
There was concern in Britain that Napoleon might try to force Denmark to close the Baltic Sea to British ships, perhaps by invading Zealand. The British believed that access to the Baltic was vitally important to Britain for trade, raw materials for building and maintaining warships and Royal Navy access to Britain’s allies Sweden and originally Russia against France. The British thought that when Prussia was defeated, Denmark’s independence looked increasingly under threat from France and had previously tried unsuccessfully to persuade Denmark into a secret alliance with Britain and Sweden.
On 21 January 1807, Lord Hawkesbury told the House of Lords that he had received information from someone on the Continent “that there were secret engagements in the Treaty of Tilsit to employ the navies of Denmark and Portugal against this country”.He refused to publish the source because he said it would endanger lives. The reports of French diplomats and merchants in northern Europe made the British government uneasy, and by mid-July the British were convinced that the French intended to invade Holstein in order to use Denmark against Britain.
After a wealth of diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, Canning received intelligence from Tilsit that Napoleon had tried to persuade Alexander I of Russia to form a maritime league with Denmark and Portugal against Britain. Spencer Percival, the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote a memorandum setting out the case for sending forces to Copenhagen. With some reluctance, the King agreed.
The British assembled a force of 25,000 troops and Canning offered Denmark a treaty of alliance and mutual defence, with a convention signed for the return of the fleet after the war, the protection of 21 British warships and a subsidy for how many soldiers Denmark kept standing. On 31 July, Napoleon told Denmark to prepare for war against Britain or else France would invade Holstein. Neither France nor the British persuaded the Danes to end their neutrality, so the British published a proclamation demanding the deposit of the Danish fleet; the Danes responded with what amounted to a declaration of war.
The Danish forces in the city amounted to 5,000 regular troops and a similar number of militia. Most of the civilian inhabitants of Copenhagen were evacuated in the few days before Copenhagen was completely invested.
On 26 August, General Sir Arthur Wellesley was detached with his reserve and two light brigades of British artillery, as well as one battalion, eight squadrons and one troop of horse artillery from the King’s German Legion to disperse a force which had been sent to relieve the beleaguered city. On 29 August, at Koge the British force overpowered the Danish troops, which amounted to only three or four regular battalions and some cavalry.
The Danes rejected British demands, so Lord Cathcart gave the order for the British army batteries assisted by the fleet under Admiral Gambier to bombard the city from 2 to 5 September 1807. In addition to the military casualties, the British bombardment of Copenhagen killed some 195 civilians and injured 768. The bombardment included 300 of Congreve’s rockets which caused fires. Due to the civilian evacuation, the normal firefighting arrangements broke down and over a thousand buildings were burned.
On 5 September, the Danes sued for peace, and the capitulation was signed on 7 September. Denmark agreed to surrender its navy and its naval stores. In return, the British undertook to leave Copenhagen within six weeks. On 7 September 1807 Peymann surrendered the fleet which was either captured or destroyed to stop it falling into the hands of the French. On 21 October 1807, the British fleet left Copenhagen for the United Kingdom but Denmark remained at war with them until 1814. There were attacks in Parliament on the government’s decision to invade and bombard a neutral country but Canning remained convinced that he had made the right decision.
An Unwilling Alliance, published in April 2018 was a new venture for me in several ways. It is the first book which is partly set on the Isle of Man where I live, and Captain Hugh Kelly and Roseen Crellin are both Manx. I have been asked fairly frequently if I intend to write a book with a Manx setting. I wanted to do so but since the Napoleonic wars were a long way from Mann, the obvious setting was the navy since many Manxmen served with great distinction, most notably Captain John Quilliam RNwho was first lieutenant aboard the Victory during Trafalgar. Writing about the army has become second nature to me; the navy took some work but I loved writing it and am currently working on Hugh Kelly’s next adventure which will take him, along with the second battalion of the 110th, on the disastrous expedition to Walcheren in 1809.
The other joy of An Unwilling Alliance was that it gave me an opportunity to combine both the army and the navy. Joint operations were very common then as now and a lot more difficult given the limited communications of the day. Officers and men on both sides had a tendency to assume that their branch of the armed forces was the best and jokes were common but there was genuine resentment in some cases. If a joint operation went wrong each side often blamed the other as a matter of course; poor John Pitt, Earl of Chathamdefinitely came in for some of this after the disastrous Walcheren campaign in 1809 where blame could probably have been shared between the army, the navy, the planners of the operation and sheer bad luck. I have given myself the challenge of trying to convey some of this feeling at Copenhagen, where at least one of the army commanders, Sir Arthur Wellesley, would have done things very differently had he been given the choice. And then there is genuine cooperation and the beginnings of friendship between Captain Hugh Kelly, my down-to-earth, plain-speaking Manxman and the flamboyant, newly-promoted commander of the first battalion of the 110th, Major Paul van Daan.
Finally, an Unwilling Alliance gave me the opportunity to go back in time from Wellington’s Peninsular Wars where the 110th had been fighting for the last four booksand take a look at an earlier episode in Paul’s history which was briefly referred to, but not described, in An Unconventional Officer. It was an odd experience to look back at a younger Paul and remember all the lessons he hadn’t yet learned in 1807 and it also reminded me somewhat painfully why keeping detailed character lists is so important when writing a historical series.
In terms of historical sequence, An Unwilling Alliance fits in at the end of chapter seven of An Unconventional Officer, when Paul has just been promoted to major and given the news that the battalion is being posted to Denmark under Sir Arthur Wellesley. Paul is twenty-five and still has a lot to learn about how to manage the army, his temper, his love life and his unemotional commander. Captain Hugh Kelly is thirty and started out life as a farmer’s son on the Isle of Man; he came up the hard way and has a lot of experience that Paul still lacks. Watching them get to know each other was a genuine pleasure and I hope they have the chance to meet up again in the future.
An Unwilling Alliance was published in April 2018 – you can read an excerpt here. My next book, which is centred around the Walcheren expedition, is titled This Blighted Expedition and will be published later this year.
The Historic Dockyardat Portsmouth is more than just a museum. It is a site containing a collection of museums, all of them connected to the Royal Navy and Britain’s maritime heritage and you need more than one day to do all of them. Since we only had one day and since the aim of my visit was to soak up some background information about naval warfare and life in the 19th century navy, I was very specific about the museums we chose but we had time for one or two extras and I will definitely be back to do the rest. This place is absolutely brilliant.
We went first to visit HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. She is looking a little odd at the moment since a new phase of restoration and conservation is taking place, and the top half of her masts is missing. Despite that, there is no way that this ship can look anything other than impressive and beautiful.
HMS Victory left the Chatham Royal Dockyard in 1765. Over an unusually long time in service she would lead fleets in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War and in 1805 she achieved lasting glory as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar when Britain defeated the French and Spanish fleet in what is often seen as Britain’s greatest naval victory.
In 1808 the Victory was re-commissioned to lead the fleet in the Baltic. Four years later, no longer required in this role she was relegated to harbour service as a residence, flagship and tender. In 1922 she was saved for the nation and placed permanently into dry dock where she is today visited by millions of visitors from around the world; a museum of the sailing navy and the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
For me, the Victory was a chance to step aboard a warship of the age. My current work-in-progress, An Unwilling Alliance, is about a Manx sea captain who survived Trafalgar and has just been given command of his own warship. The Iris, Hugh’s ship, is not as big as the Victory, being a third rate 74 gun ship, but there is still a strong sense of what life might have been like aboard such a ship and the task of writing about the Iris and its crew suddenly feels more manageable.
The Victory is set up to give a very good sense of life aboard a warship. Sections of the lower deck have hammocks set up and some of the tiny officers and midshipmen’s cabins are furnished as they would have been at the time. You can see the captain and admiral’s quarters and it is fascinating to see how the crew slept and lived alongside the guns. With a battle approaching, furniture would be cleared away and the entire area would become a battleground.
Naval battles at this time were not just about the pounding of heavy guns. Ships fought close together and sailors and marines fired muskets and pistols at the enemy crew as if in a land battle. Nelson’s fatal wound at Trafalgar was caused by a shot down from the enemy rigging which shattered his spine. Once ships were close together the aim was to board the enemy ship and close and savage hand to hand fighting with sword, bayonet and axe would ensue. The ship’s guns did not fire exploding shells, they acted as battering rams, smashing the enemy ship to pieces, and a lot of the wounds treated by the ship’s surgeon came from wooden splinters which could be lethal.
One of the big assets of this museum are its guides. Most are volunteers, often former navy personnel and their knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject is very impressive. These are not people who have done a bit of background reading on the subject; they know it all. We spent a fair bit of time chatting, not just about the Victory and the Napoleonic wars but about other ships and other combats. It would be easy to spend a day just talking to them.
If there is a downside to the Victory, it is the lack of written information. There is a guidebook and an audio-guide. I’m not a fan of either as I find wandering around with a book in my hand or listening through headphones detracts from the experience for me, so initially I found the complete absence of any kind of information boards irritating. I quickly realised that there was always a guide close by to ask, and they always know the answer, but if you’re not one to start talking freely to complete strangers, make sure you get a guide of some kind before you board or you’ll miss out.
The other thing to be aware of, is how low the lower decks are. We were told that some of the warrant officers were six feet or more and it must have been an enormous strain working below decks at that height. At 5’6” I had to stoop a fair bit and my 6’ husband had a backache by the end of the tour.
Having said that, it was a completely brilliant experience and I would recommend it to anybody.
There is a lot of this, it needs plenty of time. The museum is in two parts, one dedicated primarily to Nelson and his war and the rest covering the history of the Royal Navy up to modern times, including a fabulous exhibition about women and their role in the navy, especially the history of the WRENs. It’s a great museum, well-set out with a huge amount of information and something for everybody. We had to rush some parts of it, so be warned and give it time.
This boat trip around the harbour is included in the price of the museums and is well worth doing. It takes about 45 minutes and looks at the history of Portsmouth as a naval base as well as taking a look at any modern Royal Navy vessels that happen to be in port at the time. This was a treat for us as it gave us the chance to get a very good look at the brand new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier which is astonishing. There were a couple of great photo ops including the Victory – the old and the new navy side by side. Well worth doing but wrap up warmly if you’re doing it in January…
This was my bonus treat of the day. Completely out of my period, but the skeletal remains of Henry VIII’s flagship, raised from the Solent and preserved along with many artifacts, is one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen. The museum is very new and combines the history of the ship and its sinking with the story of its recovery very effectively. The technology used to display the ghostly hulk of the Mary Rose, with images of its daily life projected onto it, is impressive. I can remember following this story as a history student back in the eighties and what they’ve done since then defies belief. Along with the Victory, this has to be the highlight of the Dockyard and is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, so atmospheric. Go and see it.
The Mary Rose was the end of our day. I plan to come back and spend a few days in Portsmouth. I want to see the rest of the historic dockyard: there is a lot more to see, including the Victorian HMS Warrior, the Submarine Museum, HMS M.33 and several other attractions that I didn’t have time to explore. This would be an excellent place to visit with children, they have their own dedicated play areas but the exhibits themselves are very much designed for all ages. Mine are older now but they would have loved this place. I would also like to spend time looking at the town itself. I definitely got what I came for, but I want more.
I’ve been worried about taking on the mammoth task of writing about the navy in 1807 when I feel so much more comfortable with the army, but Portsmouth Historic dockyard is a big step forward for me. After months of reading and making notes I suddenly feel that I’ve got a sense of my locations in the same way I did when I stood on the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain. Writing the navy is very different; although they lived and loved on shore, when they went to work they did it in a small space, bound by wooden walls but with the ocean all around them. That must have shaped the character of the men who fought and died with Nelson and I’m looking forward to getting to know some of them better.