The Battle of Orthez took place on 27 February 1814. After the fierce fighting through the Pyrenees, storms and torrential rain prevented any action for two months.
Researching the second half of the war for my Peninsular War Sagais interesting. When I did the first trip through Portugal and Spain last year, I had already written four and a half books in the series in draft form. I knew where my fictional regiment was going to be during every battle and it was a matter of checking my research against actual locations to be sure that my story would work.
From book six onwards, I am in the dark. I know the history and I know what the Light Division would have been up to for most of the time, but now I am in a position to plan as I go along. I can look at the sites and visualise my characters there; where they were fighting and what they were doing. It is both exhilarating and slightly strange and I have to keep reminding myself that this is a holiday as well or I’d be back at the hotel and writing half the night…
Eventually Wellingtoncut off Bayonne when he crossed the Adour to the west of the city. Soult believed that the Allied attack, which required them to cross rivers, would be held up due to a lack of boats or pontoons but on 23 February, Hope sent eight companies from the 1st Division across the Adour to form a bridgehead. During the evening, two French battalions were sent to investigate and were dispersed with the use of Congreve rockets. The following day, 34 vessels of 30 to 50 tons were sailed into the mouth of the Adour, moored together and a roadway built across their decks.By the evening of 26th, Hope had marched 15,000 men over the bridge onto the north bank. The Allies successfully captured the Sainte-Étienne suburb with a loss of 400 dead and wounded to the French 200 and encircled Bayonne on 27 February. From then on a very relaxed siege was maintained until 14 April when a French sortie led to the the bloody and pointless Battle of Bayonne at the end of the war.
Wellington pursued Marshal Soult’s army eastwards, away from Bayonne. Soult’s army was already weakened and Wellington hoped to divide them further while Soult hoped to trap the Allied army within French occupied territory. Bayonne blocked the north side, three French divisions held a line along the Adour to Port de Lanne and the east was held by four French divisions along the Joyeuse River to Helette. From there into the Pyrenees, Soult’s cavalry patrols closed the cordon.
Wellington started his offensive towards the east on 14 February. Hill’s corps took the right flank, including the second and third divisions, some Spanish and Portuguese troops and Fane’s cavalry while Picton took his men down the left flank and Morillo moved through the foothills on the right. On February 15 Hill defeated Harispe’s division at Garris and forced the French back.
Beresford’s left flank corps advanced the following day towards Bidache. It consisted of the 4th, 6th, 7th and Light Divisions as well as some cavalry. Over the next two days both sides manoeuvred their troops. The French had greater numbers but Soult sent Abbé’s division to help defend Bayonne, a move which left his army with fewer troops to fight Wellington. By 18 February, Soult had his troops in position on the Gave d’Oloron at which point the weather broke again, causing another delay in operations.
On 24 February, Wellington launched a new offensive. For this operation, Hill was reinforced by the 6th and Light Divisions. Beresford with two divisions mounted a feint attack against the northern end of the French line. Picton was supposed to do the same opposite Sauveterre but he exceeded his orders, having found an apparently unguarded ford about 1,000 yards from the bridge. Picton decided to send four light companies from Keane’s brigade across. After a steep climb, they reached high ground only to be overpowered by a battalion of the 119th Line Infantry from Villatte’s division. In their flight down the slope and across the river, they lost about 80 of the 250 men who were either killed, captured or drowned. Somewhere in my head I could hear the ghost of Robert Craufurd laughing, remembering Picton’s refusal to support him during his own unauthorised crossing at the Coa in 1810.
Meanwhile Hill built a boat bridge and sent 20,000 troops across the Gave d’Oloron at Viellenave de Navarrenz, a move which led Soult to pull back to Orthez. Wellington was not particularly keen to fight a battle at this point and tried to outflank the French, sending Beresford to cross the Gave de Pau downstream at Lahontan to circle around Soult’s right flank. At the same time, Hill’s corps moved directly toward Orthez. By 25 February, Soult had gathered his army at Orthez and was ready to fight the Allies.
The French marshal commanded 33,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers with 48 field guns.Wellington had 38,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers, supported by 54 guns. With Soult ready to fight, Wellington intended to send Beresford to break Soult’s right flank while Picton and three divisions attacked the French centre. Meanwhile, Hill’s corps was to attack Orthez, get across the Gave de Pau and attack the French left flank effectively crushing Soult between Beresford and Hill.
Orthez is a pretty little town with the Gave de Pau running from southeast to northwest. Since Beresford was already on the same side of the Gave de Pau, the river only protected Soult’s position to the east of Orthez. However, there is an east-west ridge on the north side of Orthez that ends at the village of St Boes to the west. It rises to about 500 feet with the road running along the crest, with threeknolls rising even higher, as far as 595 feet above the village. These knolls held French artillery.
Soult posted four and a half divisions along this ridge, one division in Orthez and one division in reserve. Going from right to left, the ridge was held by the divisions of Taupin, Claude Pierre Rouget, Darmagnac and Foy. Rouget was in temporary command of Maransin’s division. Harispe’s remaining two brigades held Orthez while Villatte’s division was in reserve north of Orthez. Reille commanded Taupin, Rouget and Paris on the right flank, Drouet commanded Darmagnac and Foy in the center and Clausel had Harispe and Villatte on the left flank. The cavalry was scattered.
Wellington planned to send Cole’s 4th Division supported by Walker’s 7th Division to attack the western end of the ridge under the direction of Beresford. Picton would lead his own 3rd Division and Clinton’s 6th Division in attacking the French centre and Hill’s corps was to feint against Orthez with a Portuguese brigade and hold his two divisions ready to cross the Gave de Pau to the east of Orthez. Charles von Alten’s Light Division was placed under cover behind the old Roman camp where Wellington set up his headquarters located between Beresford’s and Picton’s columns.
It was frosty but not frozen on the morning of 27 February, difficult for me to imagine yesterday, exploring the battlefield in soaring temperatures. At 8.30 the 4th division attacked Taupin at St Boes and quickly seized the church. Ross’s brigade swept into the village but were driven back by the battery on the Plassotte knoll. Cole brought up a KGL battery to duel with Taupin’s guns. This immediately became the target of the French batteries on the Plassotte and Luc knolls; two guns were hit and Captain Sympher was killed.Cole deployed a Portuguese brigade on Ross’ right and sent his line forward again. The result was a second repulse in which Ross was wounded and the counterattack by Taupin’s troops recovered part of St Boes. For a time there was a lull as the two sides fired away at each other from the houses, but the Portuguese had no cover and began to fall back. Wellington sent over the 1st Caçadores Battalion from the Light Division. Cole’s line collapsed just as the reinforcements arrived and Taupin recovered the entire village and drove the Allies back to their starting point.Ross’ brigade suffered 279 casualties and the Portuguese brigade lost 295.
Picton’s attacks against the French centre also met stiff resistance. He had split the 3rd Division, sending Brisbane’s brigade up the right spur towards Foy and Keane’s brigade up the left spur toward Darmagnac’s division. Keane was supported by Power’s Portuguese brigade while Brisbane was followed up the right spur by Clinton’s 6th Division. Since the valleys between the spurs were deep and muddy, both advances were restricted to narrow fronts.
Picton’s skirmishers quickly drove back the French outposts. When the leading brigades came under accurate artillery fire from the Escorial and Lafaurie knolls, Picton held back his formed troops and reinforced his skirmish line to seven British light companies which moved forward until they came into contact with Soult’s main line where they were unable to advance any further. For two hours, Picton waited for Beresford’s attack as the two sides skirmished.
Wellington adjusted his plans after seeing his flank attack fail converting his holding attack with the 3rd and 6th Divisions into a full assault beginning at 11.30am. He threw every available unit against the French right flank and centre, holding back only the second and third battalions of the 95th, the Portuguese 3rd Caçadores and the 17th foot. He also withdrew the battered brigades of Ross and Vasconcellos and sent in the 7th Division.
The struggle for St Boes began again when Walker’s division and Anson’s brigade attacked supported by two batteries firing from the church knoll. Taupin’s tired men, who had been fighting for about four hours, were driven back behind the Plassotte knoll.
Brisbane’s brigade came under damaging artillery fire. The brigade finally reached dead ground where the guns could not hit them, but then came under intense fire from French skirmishers who began picking off the soldiers. Nevertheless the 45th fought its way close to the top of the ridge where Fririon’s brigade of Foy’s division held the ridgeline. On the left of Brisbane’s brigade, two companies of the 88th were guarding the divisional artillery battery as it began pounding the French line. Soult spotted the threat and ordered a cavalry squadron to charge. The cavalry overran the two companies, inflicting heavy losses, and then went after the gunners. The remaining companies of the 88th immediately opened fire on the French horsemen, mowing most of them down to a loss of 165 men. The 88th suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit at 269 killed and wounded.
At this point, Foy was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder which affected the French morale. Brisbane’s brigade was replaced in the front line by two brigades of Clinton’s 6th Division. These fresh troops fired a volley from close range and advanced with bayonet, driving the French down the ridge’s rear slope. Berlier’s brigade of Foy’s division fell back after Fririon’s retreat exposed its flank.With Berlier gone, Harispe’s two battalions in Orthez were compelled to retreat in order to avoid capture. On the left spur, Picton’s two brigades under Keane and Power pressed against Darmagnac’s division. After Foy’s division gave way, Darmagnac retreated to the next ridge in the rear, where his troops took position on the right of Villatte’s division. The divisional batteries of Picton and Clinton immediately attacked the new French position.
Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade began to pull back after Darmagnac’s retreat which opened a gap between Rouget and Taupin. Wellington ordered the 52nd under Colborne to advance from the Roman Camp and drive a wedge into the French defensive line. Colborne led his men across marshy ground and then up the slope toward the Luc Knoll, winning a foothold at the top of the ridge on Taupin’s left flank. Wellington led the 3rd and the 6th in behind them and musket volleys created havoc in the French ranks.
In the thick of the fighting, Wellington’s Spanish liaison officer, Alava was hit in the buttocks by a spent bullet. As Wellington was teasing Alava, he was knocked off his horse when a spent ball struck his sword hilt, bruising his hip. Wellington remounted and continued to direct the battle. Against the advice of his doctors he ignored the injury with the result that he was later unable to ride for a week.
With both flanks turned, Taupin’s division retreated in haste to the northeast, the last French unit to be driven back. To the rear, Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade joined together and fought a hard battle against the pursuing Allies.
Buchan’s brigade skirmished with the French defenders of Orthez all morning. Having received orders to cross the Gave de Pau, Hill marched for the Souars Ford at 11:00 am and brushed aside the French troops defending the ford. Hill’s troops were soon across the river in strength and pressing back Harispe’s outnumbered division. They were joined by Buchan’s Portuguese who crossed at the Orthez bridge the moment the town’s defenders pulled out.Joined by some newly arrived conscript battalions, Harispe attempted to make a stand at the Motte de Tury heights but the raw recruits were too inexperienced and Hill’s men broke Harispe’s line and captured three guns.
By now Soult had realized that Hill’s column might cut him off and ordered a retreat which began well but quickly disintegrated into chaos down narrow paths and across country. Soult had lost six field guns and 3,985 men including 542 killed, 2,077 wounded and 1,366 prisoners while the Allies sustained losses of 367 killed, 1,727 wounded and 80 captured for a total of 2,174. In addition, many of the recently conscripted French soldiers promptly deserted. Soult did not attempt to defend the Luy de Béarn with his demoralized army but retreated north to Saint-Sever on the Adour.
Soult realised he could not defend both Bordeaux and Toulouse. He decided to head for Toulouse. Wellington sent Beresford with two divisions to take Bordeaux which Beresford did on 12 March. There was a brief lull in the fighting while Wellington sent for more troops and Soult ’s men recovered. When the Allied army finally marched towards Toulouse, they were marching towards the end of the war.
Orthez is just over thirty miles to the east of Bayonne, a pretty little town on the river Gave de Pau. The original bridge, with its distinctive sentry tower in the centre, is still there and can be seen from the modern bridge. We drove through the town to view Wellington’s deployment area up past the church and then drove up towards Baights de Bearn to see the spurs where Picton’s men would have been deployed to the right of the road.
Further on it is possible to view the ridge to the right which the Light Division used to climb up to the village. The location of St Boes has apparently changed since the battle but the church marks the area where much of the fighting took place and it is possible to walk down the road towards the Roman Camp to see where the Light Division was engaged.
Turning right after St Boes we drove along the ridge held by Soult’s men. The 52nd would have climbed up the gulley to the right to appear between Taupin and Rouget’s division. It doesn’t look like a particularly easy climb and given the time of year it may well have been very boggy. There is a memorial to General Foy’s men on the left-hand side further along the road.
Having flown into Toulouse to begin this trip, for convenience sake, we are doing the battlefields backwards. By this time Soult was very much on the run, his troops battered and exhausted with many desertions among the new recruits. But at the beginning of Wellington’s attacks on the Pyrenees the matter was by no means certain. Tomorrow the plan is, to visit some of the sites of the Battle of the Nive.
I wrote a Peek into the Future, which is the imaginary obituary of Paul van Daan recently for a guest blog but ended up using something else. I enjoyed it and wanted to share it with my readers, although I found it surprisingly painful writing about the death of one of my all time favourite characters.
The post takes the form of a letter from one of Paul’s grandsons to another who is currently serving overseas…
Letter from Captain Michael van Daan to Lieutenant James Manson, India, 1866
You must already have heard the sad news officially, but I wanted to write to you myself about Grandfather’s death. It has been a few weeks now but most of us are still finding it hard to believe he is gone. I enclose a cutting of his obituary from the Times which is very flattering about his long and distinguished career.
The Times regretfully announces the death of General Sir Paul van Daan, Colonel-in-Chief of the 110th Light Infantry and Governor of the Craufurd Officer Training College. Sir Paul died peacefully at his home in Leicestershire after a short illness. He was eighty-five.
Sir Paul’s long and distinguished career began in 1802 when he joined the 110th foot as ensign and then lieutenant. He fought with great courage at the Battle of Assaye the following year and was promoted to captain by General Wellesley and then to major in 1806.
Sir Paul is best known for his service during the long years of the war against Bonaparte. He served in Naples and Sicily and then in Denmark but came to prominence in the Peninsula under the late Duke of Wellington. He fought at Rolica and Vimeiro and at the famous victory at the Douro his men had the honour of being the first to cross the river. He was wounded at Talavera but remained in Portugal and was promoted to colonel-in-charge of the regiment in 1810.
From 1811, Sir Paul commanded the third brigade of the famous Light Division. Further battle honours include Bussaco, Sabugal, Fuentes de Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Alba de Tormes, Vitoria, the Pyrenees, Bidassoa, the Nivelle and Toulouse along with many minor actions. He was wounded several times but his sense of duty always took him back into the field. He was known to be a close friend and confidant to the late Duke, who placed him in charge of a division at Waterloo.
At the close of the war, Sir Paul remained with the Army of Occupation in France. His later career took him to Africa and India. When he retired from active service, he took charge of the newly established Craufurd College for the training of light infantry officers, a foundation which he helped to set up, and of which he remained a dedicated patron until his death. He was an active supporter of many charities and served on various boards and committees pertaining to the armed forces. He was well known for his vocal opinions on the need for army reform, in particular with regard to conditions of service and the abolition of flogging.
Sir Paul is survived by his devoted wife, Anne, six children and eleven grandchildren. Two sons and four grandsons followed him into the army.
The funeral will be held at the regimental chapel in Melton on Friday next, and there will be a memorial service in London later this year, date to be announced. Her Majesty the Queen sent a personal message of sympathy to the grieving widow.
You will be glad to hear that he was not ill for long, a winter cold which turned quickly to bronchitis. He died with Grandmamma beside him which is exactly what he wanted.
I must tell you of the funeral which was so well attended there was not room in the church for them all. You would not have thought it a time for laughter, but laugh we did. Lady Denny was there, draped in so much black you’d have thought her the widow, and came up to our party afterwards to speak to Grandmamma. She went on and on about my Grandfather’s virtues and then at the end she spoke of the Duke in the most familiar way, as though she had known him personally.
“It must console you, dear Lady van Daan, to think that such two good friends are reunited at last,” she said, in such a syrupy voice. My grandmother looked at her very hard for a moment.
“Dear Lady Denny, it doesn’t console me in the least,” she said finally. “By now, if they’ve met up, I rather imagine they are yelling at each other about the abolition of flogging. They haven’t seen each other for fourteen years, they have a lot of arguing time to catch up on. I think I may delay my own demise for a few years until they are over it.”
Somewhere in the middle of disgracing myself laughing at a funeral, I’d swear I could hear him laughing too…
Write soon, cousin. I miss you.
For anybody wanting to read the story of Paul and Anne van Daan and the 110th infantry from the beginning, the first four books are available on Amazon kindle
Nicholas Whitham has left the army for the unexciting life of a land agent in Regency Yorkshire, but his peace is disrupted by the arrival of Miss Camilla Dorne a young lady of doubtful reputation.
The Reluctant Debutante, the second book in the series, tells the story of Giles Fenwick, Earl of Rockcliffe, formerly one of Wellington’s exploring officers and Cordelia Summers, a wealthy merchant’s daughter with an independent attitude.
A Marcher Lord is a tale of love and war among the Border Reivers on the sixteenth century Anglo-Scottish borders, where a Scottish lord encounters a young Englishwoman who may or may not be a spy.
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.”
With Valentine’s Day coming up next week, I thought I’d post an extra freebie. An Impossible Attachment is a short story about a French prisoner-of-war in Portugal in 1812. It’s a story in its own right although those of you who have read the Peninsular War Saga and in particular A Redoubtable Citadel, will recognise at least one of the characters and some of the background. Please feel free to share it.
Happy Valentine’s Day Everybody…
British Prison Camp, Near Santarem, Portugal, 1812
He first became aware of the smell.
Second-Lieutenant Damien Cavel had served now for fourteen years since his conscription at eighteen and he was entirely accustomed to the filthy conditions of living in an army camp. Raised in a comfortable farmhouse close to Cambrai he had loathed the army at the start but had become accustomed and then attached and had finally embraced his profession with the enthusiasm of a boy who had never wanted the legal career set out for him by his parents. He had learned to adjust to his circumstances in whatever billet was available and living in close proximity with the men of his various companies he had ceased to notice the everyday smell of sweat and unwashed clothing. But the stench of the British army prison camp on the edge of the Tagus surpassed everything.
He had been taken, along with most of his company, on the field of Arapiles outside Salamanca, a battle which had happened for many of the French so quickly that they were bewildered. A bitter disappointment to Damien Cavel, newly promoted after years as a sergeant. It was the second time in a year that he had been a prisoner of the British but the experience was very different. The first occasion had ended in him being sent back to his army with a letter of warm recommendation from the English colonel whose wife he had saved and another from Lord Wellington. It had led to his promotion and Damien was only just beginning to savour his new responsibilities in a company of the line before Salamanca left him wounded and then captured for a second time. This time there was no hope of repatriation and he was sent, thrown around in a wagon because of his injuries, to this holding camp north of Lisbon, waiting for transportation to England.
He remembered nothing of the ensuing weeks, tossing and turning with pain, burning with fever and lying in cramped, damp conditions in a disused grain store. Around him men died and were removed and replaced by others. Damien lived although he suspected, when he was finally conscious, that there had been moments when he wished he had not. Around him men groaned in pain or muttered with fever and there was an overpowering stench of excrement and stale urine and decaying flesh. It made him want to gag.
“This one’s awake over here, sir,” a voice said, a harsh English voice belonging to an orderly in shabby uniform with blood staining the front of his shirt. Footsteps sounded and then a man knelt beside Damien.
“Welcome back,” the man said. “I thought we’d lost you.”
Damien tried to speak and nothing came out. His mouth was dry and tasted foul. The doctor, a tired looking man with thinning hair and red-rimmed blue eyes reached out and felt his forehead.
“Fever’s gone,” he said. “Shelby, bring him some water.”
The orderly approached with a cup and the doctor held it while Damien drank, draining the cup. The blue eyes were studying him.
“Do you speak any English?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” Damien said. English had been compulsory at the good school his father had sent him to before the war, when his parents had hoped for a career in the law, possibly leading to government service. He had practised when he was able through the years of the war, speaking to English prisoners and occasionally to other soldiers during days of informal truce. He remembered such a moment at Talavera when he had talked across the stream to men filling their water bottles. But the biggest improvement had come when his company, escorting a supply column up towards Badajoz, had captured the young wife of an English colonel and he had walked beside her for more than two weeks. There were aspects of that time that Damien could not bear to remember, but the girl herself would never leave him. Her French needed no practice, she was fluent, but she had taken it upon herself to improve his English. It had been a distraction from the horror of her ordeal.
“Good,” the English doctor said. “My French is terrible. I’ll leave you here for now…is it Lieutenant?”
“Lieutenant Cavel,” Damien said. “My coat?”
“If you had one, it’s gone,” the doctor said. “Let me have a look at that wound. It was infected but we used maggots and it seems to have done the job.”
Damien lay back and the doctor drew back the thin army blanket and carefully peeled the dressing from a long wound across his midriff. The doctor pressed gently and Damien winced and looked down. He was slightly shocked at the length of the gash, red raw and untidily stitched but there was no smell of decay although Damien wondered if he would have been able to smell it anyway in this foul atmosphere.
“My arm?” he asked, aware of the pain.
“Shoulder wound. Very deep, you’ll have a weakness there for a while. Perhaps always. You use your right or left hand?”
“You’re lucky then. Cavalry sabre, I’d guess, cut you down and then slashed you across the stomach. Ought to have killed you but he didn’t bend low enough. I think you’ll mend. I’ll get them to give you some food and plenty of water, you need rest.”
“Prison transport,” the doctor said in matter-of-fact tones. “Back to England and then if you’ll give your parole you’ll be treated as an officer and a gentleman. Better than most of these lads.”
“Thank you,” Damien said. “Do you know how long?”
“Couple of weeks, maybe. Once the transports have arrived they’ll probably take you by barge down river. You’ll be well enough by then. Eat and get some rest.”
“Thank you,” Damien said again. “May I know your name?”
“Dr Bishop. I’ll send someone up with some food.”
Two weeks was long in the prison hospital. More men died. Others were moved, once they were deemed well enough, to the two barns which housed the bulk of the prisoners. Damien had no idea how much time had passed while he had been ill and was astonished to find that two months had passed since he had fallen at Salamanca and autumn had arrived. Already the days were cooler and once he was well enough to step outside and take the air he could see that the land was turning greener after the heat of the summer months. Vineyards were ripe and heavy with the new harvest, the peasants were busy in the olive groves and the prisoners’ bland and boring diet was supplemented a little with local chestnuts, almonds and walnuts along with oranges and apples.
He was moved away from the fetid hospital into a small house, set aside for the officers, and given a new coat, presumably taken from a dead man and a shabby cloak against the colder evenings. His fellow officers, all bearing the same faint sense of depression, played cards and drank wine when it was available and speculated on their chance of exchange, on conditions in England and on when, if ever, they might see their wives and families again.
Transports arrived and the transport board sent an escort of Portuguese militia to take the prisoners by river on wide, flat bottomed barges to join the ships. Damien went to find Dr Bishop to thank him again and the Englishman saluted and then offered his hand.
“Good luck, Lieutenant Cavel, I hope it’s a smooth voyage and an easy imprisonment.”
“You have been very kind, Doctor. Thank you.” Damien looked out the door at the weather. “I do not think it will be a pleasant trip on the river.”
“No, I’m afraid not. Probably fast though with the rain we’ve had for the past few days, the river is very high.”
It took time to load the prisoners into the boats and standing shivering on the banks watching the laborious process, Damien wondered how many of them would be ill again before they reached the transports. He had no hat, it had been lost on the battlefield, probably looted with his coat and he pulled the thin cloak around him and waited his turn. There were five hundred officers and men, some from Salamanca and others brought in from smaller skirmishes or just picked up in small parties. The Portuguese militia watched them carefully. There was none of the laughter or banter or small kindnesses that the British medical staff had shown and Damien understood why. These men had lived under French occupation, had watched their homes burn, their food stolen and far too often their women raped. They had no sense of kinship with the French troops and he wondered if the small contingent of British infantrymen were there to guard the prisoners or to protect them.
Huddled finally in the barge, Damien looked back as the current swirled them out with the crew steering a course to follow those already gone. The rain was so heavy it was difficult to see the shore or indeed the other boats and he peered through the curtain of water.
“Bloody country,” Captain Bisset said beside him. “Either it rains or it’s baking, there’s no halfway. Perhaps England will be better.”
“Have you ever been?” Damien asked.
“I have,” an older man said. “Spent some time there as a boy. I liked it but the food was terrible.”
“It can’t be any worse than here,” Bisset said and there was laughter. A Portuguese oarsman turned to glare at them and then looked back quickly at a shout from the pilot. Damien understood no Portuguese and had never troubled to learn although he could make himself understood in Spanish.
They were moving quickly on the current, the shore no longer visible, and Damien hoped that there would be a chance to dry out before they were herded aboard the prison transports. Ahead of him he could hear Lieutenant Giroux coughing and he wondered if the man would make it to England alive.
The crash happened without any warning, the barge spinning in a sudden surge of water and hitting an object at great speed. Damien had no idea what it was but there was an ominous crack of splitting wood, and a yell and then water rushed up towards him. The barge had broken across the centre with both sides tilting crazily into the water and he could hear the cries of terror and pain of the men around him as they were pulled in to the grey torrent of the water.
Damien struggled out of the cloak, stood up on the edge of the wooden plank seat, peered through the water and then dived. Something struck his arm hard as he hit the cold water, sending a jolt of pain through the already injured limb but he made himself ignore it and struck out strongly. If he did not get away from the smashed wreckage of the barge quickly he was at risk of being pulled under either by the huge chunks of wood being tossed around in the water or by one of the men, struggling for their lives in the midst. He saw, as he struggled past, what looked like the shape of an enormous tree trunk in the centre of the chaos and he supposed it had come down in the storm and been carried along in the fast current.
They were screaming some of them, helpless in the maelstrom of swirling grey water, broken barge and thrashing arms and legs. Damien did not look back; he could do nothing to help them. Some of them might survive if they could swim or were lucky enough to be able to catch hold of a makeshift float. Already he could hear shouts from the barge behind following up, it’s crew trying desperately to avoid either striking the wreck and being wrecked themselves or hitting the men floundering in the water. Above them the rain continued to fall and Damien swam, following the current at an angle towards the shore.
He had learned to swim as a boy, through long summers with his grandparents on their farm. A river had wound its way across their land and every year one or two venturesome children were lost to drowning. His grandfather had been determined it should not happen to him and by the time he joined the army he was a powerful swimmer. It was not easy in this torrent, weighed down by his clothing, but if he stopped to try to remove his jacket or his boots he was afraid it would be too late. So he relied on the strength lent to him by sheer desperation to keep himself afloat and fought his way towards the shore.
He was thrown, finally, in a muddy swirl onto a stony bank. Steep sides rose above him and Damien, who could never remember feeling more exhausted in his life, dragged himself up and crawled on hands and knees up the bank. Finally, the rain seemed to be easing a little and was more of a fine mist although visibility was terrible. More than anything he wanted to lie down and give in but he knew that if the water rose again he was at risk of drowning while he was unconscious. He used bushes, trees and rocks to scramble up the bank, feeling his way, his hands cut and bleeding on sharp edges and thorns. And then he was there, muddy grass under him but solid ground, and he collapsed and lay still.
Damien awoke some time later. The rain had stopped but the land was covered by a thick fog. There was no sound now but the quiet rush of the river below. He was soaked and shivering so much he could hardly stand, and he pushed himself up, conscious of a terrifying weakness. Whatever had happened to the men in the water had long passed, the sky was darkening through the mist and it was evening. If he lay where he was he would probably be dead of cold by morning.
Stumbling like a drunken man he began to make his way inland. He had no idea where he was or how far from the British army camp but he was unlikely to be able to find his way back there in this weather. He needed shelter; warmth was unlikely in this appalling weather but even a dry barn would be better than this. Food would help but he could not go to some farmhouse and beg for help. The French were so hated here that he was more likely to get his throat cut than a place by the fire.
Damien thought that he must have been staggering for about twenty minutes although it was impossible to be sure, he had lost all sense of time, when he saw the light. It was dim, glowing yellow through the haze. He paused, trying to clear his head which was throbbing. Approaching the farm was a huge risk, but if he could remain undetected he might be able to steal some food and find shelter in an outbuilding. With rest he would be able to think more clearly and decide what to do next.
Close up, he could see a small house, whitewashed with a slate roof, crouching in the midst of a muddy farmyard. There were several buildings nearby, a barn and what looked like a henhouse. Damien moved forward very cautiously. No sensible householder would be out in this weather and night was falling rapidly, but he was suspicious of every sound.
He was almost at the door of the dark barn when disaster struck. Unsteady on his feet and in the darkness he had failed to see the long wooden shape of a broken hoe until he stepped on it. His feet shot from under him and he uttered a cry, quickly cut off but too loud in the darkness.
It could have been heard in the house and with a lamp lit there was clearly someone at home. Damien scrambled to his feet and made for the nearest building, a brick built structure which proved to be a tool shed. He ducked inside and stood very still, peering out through the broken door as the door to the house opened and a figure stood silhouetted against the light.
“Cristiano, is that you?” a voice called and a shock ran through him as he realised that the voice was that of a woman and that bizarrely it was speaking English. “Cristiano? Maria?”
There was silence in the enveloping fog and Damien’s brain, numbed by cold and pain, sprang suddenly into life. The voice was tremulous and afraid and he knew suddenly, with complete certainty that this woman was alone here. He stood very still, listening. Nobody replied. She was calling for people she knew but they were not coming and the silence made her afraid.
It changed everything. Inside the cottage was light and probably warmth and food. It was still a risk. The unknown Cristiano and Maria might be close at hand, but once he was inside with this lone female it would be easier to deal with attack. Damien closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady his shaking limbs and find some strength. Then he stepped out of the shed and ran to the door of the house.
She had seen his movement and she was very quick, closing the door with a faint sound of alarm. But desperation lent him strength and speed and he had his foot in the door before she managed it. She wrestled with it briefly and Damien shoved hard. The woman fell back with a cry of pain and he was inside, slamming the door behind him. There was a wooden bar which would not hold off an army but might well keep Cristiano and Maria out for a while and Damien pushed it into place and turned, leaning his back against the door to keep himself upright and surveyed the candlelit room and his prisoner who was scrambling to her feet, her eyes on his face.
It was a shock to find that she was younger than he had expected, probably in her twenties, dressed in black. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, long and straight and a bright red gold. Her eyes were cat green with flecks of gold in them, wide with terror, and her skin was pale with a dusting of freckles.
“Who are you?” she asked, but he could see her eyes on the soaked blue of his jacket and she knew the answer. “What are you doing here?”
“Seeking shelter,” Damien said. “Are you alone?”
She shook her head quickly. “No. No. My husband is upstairs asleep but he has a pistol. And my servants are close by…”
It was a brave try and he applauded her but the expression in her eyes showed it a lie and Damien pushed himself off the door.
“You lie to me and I will cut your throat,” he said quietly. “I am a French prisoner – escaped, I suppose – and I am in need of food and warmth. Do as you are told and I will not touch you. Try to get help and I will and you will not enjoy it. Which is it to be, Mademoiselle?”
She did not seem to be able to speak for a moment but she nodded. Damien gave a faint smile, trying to hide his relief. He was reasonably sure if he had tried to attack her she could have fought him off with ease and probably killed him.
“Are you alone?” he asked again.
“Yes.” She had found her voice.
“No husband or servants?”
She shook her head. “No. The farmer and his wife went to Lisbon, to market. They were going to stay with her sister. I thought when I heard you…”
“And the husband?”
“Is dead,” she said, and this time he knew she spoke the truth. The black velvet of her gown, trimmed at the hem and neckline with silver grey embroidery made it obvious. It might also explain the mystery of a young Englishwoman alone in Portugal.
“Anybody else?” he asked.
“No. Truthfully.” The girl’s eyes were studying him. Suddenly she said:
“You are ill.”
Damien nodded. “Yes. I have been wounded and then tonight in the river…”
He broke off and stood regarding her for a moment. Then she moved.
“Sit down, I will build up the fire.”
She moved to the fireplace, reaching for a stack of wood on the hearth and Damien moved to a wooden bench and sat down closing his eyes. He realised he was shaking violently with reaction; partly relief at being inside in the warmth and the dry and partly a sense of shame at having threatened a frightened woman. He knew that many of his countrymen would have seen it as a gift to find a young and attractive female alone in the cottage. Damien wished he could reassure her that she was safe.
The new heat from the fire reached him. He heard her move across the room and opened his eyes, turning. “Where are you going?”
She regarded him. “There is wine in the kitchen. And some food.”
“I will come with you.”
“You do not look as though you will make it that far…is it Captain?”
“Lieutenant Damien Cavel, Madame.”
She nodded then indicated the room with a sweep of her hand. “You were right, I’m alone,” she said. “In the dark and in this weather – where would I go? May I trust you?”
“Yes,” Damien said. “Madame, I am sorry. I am desperate…”
She nodded. “Wait there.”
He sat quietly, his eyes closed, savouring the warmth of the fire. She seemed to take a long time and he wondered if, after all, she had fled. He had no idea if there was a horse on the premises but suddenly he found it hard to care.
He opened his eyes, startled, and realised that he had fallen asleep. She stood before him, holding out not, as he had expected, a plate of food but instead a bundle of clothing.
“My husband’s. You will make yourself ill if you sit around in those clothes. I will be in the kitchen. It is warm there, there is food.”
“Madame…” Damien was appalled. “I cannot use these…”
“He has no use for them now.”
She left and Damien shook out the clothing. He stripped off his soaked clothes, dropping them in a heap on the floor and pulled on the shirt and trousers feeling almost childish pleasure in the sense of clean dry clothing. His boots were still soaked and after a moment’s consideration he set them before the fire and draped his wet clothing over the chair then ran his hands through his dark hair and padded through to the back of the house in bare feet.
It was a typical farm kitchen, wooden beams with bundles of herbs drying, a huge fireplace with spit and a brace holding an iron pot over the flames and a long wooden table with benches either side. Damien paused and the woman turned and indicated the table.
“Sit,” she said.
He obeyed and she spooned stew into a bowl and brought it to him. There was bread and a crock of butter and it smelled good; better than anything he had eaten since he had been captured at Salamanca. He tried not to snatch at the food but he was too hungry to be delicate. The woman watched him eat and then brought a bottle to the table and poured wine into a glass.
When the edge was taken off his hunger, Damien looked up. “Will you sit?” he asked. “I feel like a boor eating and drinking while you stand.”
She moved forward and collected a second glass, poured wine and sat. “I thought you were going to cut my throat,” she said, and Damien found a smile, to his surprise.
“I was not very convincing,” he said apologetically and was astonished when she laughed.
“You were. I was very frightened for a while. I may be wrong, Lieutenant, but you do not look like a man who is going to hurt me. But I do not understand how you are here.”
Damien studied the distinctive face. “I also, Madame,” he said. “Because you are English, are you not?”
The woman sipped the wine, watching him finish his meal. “I am. My name is Wentworth. Elizabeth Wentworth. I came out to see my husband. He was an officer, a Captain. Wounded at Badajoz. He died four weeks ago of his wounds. It took a long time.”
Damien was filled with immense sadness. “I am so sorry, Madame. To come so far. But forgive me, surely you did not travel alone?”
“I had nobody to come with me,” the girl said. “His commanding officer wrote to me. He was very ill, too badly hurt to be moved far. They do not usually keep officers in the hospital you know, alongside the men. He was billeted at this farm and Maria – the farmer’s wife – had been caring for him. I came to nurse him but it was only a few weeks…”
Damien set down his spoon and pushed the bowl away. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “That was so good.”
The green eyes studied him. “I have told you why I am here. You said you are an escaped prisoner?”
Damien smiled tiredly. “By accident,” he said. “It is not a very exciting story.”
“Tell me anyway,” Elizabeth Wentworth said.
Damien did so, beginning briefly with his wounding and capture at Salamanca. She listened quietly, the green-gold eyes on his face as he told it.
When it was done he sat silent and exhausted, sipping his wine. Eventually she said:
“What will you do now?”
“I do not know,” Damien admitted. “I could find my way back to the prison camp. Some of the men must have survived the river, they were probably taken there. Another wait for transports to England. Or I could try to make my way north to find the French army again. Hundreds of miles through country where my army is hated and the partisans wish to kill me – probably very slowly. And I have no news – I do not even know where we are. The British won at Arapiles – they may have taken Madrid by now.”
“A fool’s errand,” the woman said.
“The farmer and his wife…?”
“They will want you gone,” Mrs Wentworth said. “They hate the French. But they took their harvest to market. I am not expecting them back for a week at least.”
Damien was silent, studying her. “You should not be here alone, Madame,” he said finally, quietly. “It is too far from the town. While your husband lived, I understand. But now, you should find accommodation in Lisbon until you can…”
“I have no money for accommodation in Lisbon, Lieutenant,” the woman said, and suddenly she looked very young and very tired. “What I had, I spent on the journey and caring for Charles. The army will arrange my passage home when there are transports – they will send an escort, they have said. This is cheaper than a room in Lisbon.”
“And when you reach England?”
“I have an aunt I can stay with for a while. I have been living with her while Charles was out here. Eventually, I am told there will be a small pension. I thought I might seek a position as a governess or companion.”
“Your parents? Or his? Can they not…”
“My parents died some years ago. Charles married me against his parents’ wishes, they have never accepted me. It sounds far worse than it is, Lieutenant Cavel, I shall not starve. But when Maria said I might remain here until I have passage home it seemed to make sense.”
“Until this evening when you might have been raped and murdered by an escaped French prisoner!” Damien said. He felt angry that she should have been placed in that position. “One might think this commanding officer of whom you speak would have…”
“He knows nothing of it, sir. The regiment is in the field with Lord Wellington, I have not written of my small troubles and I shall not; I’m not a beggar. He has written to Horse Guards about my pension and has assured me he will see that it is paid. Beyond that, I am not his concern.” The surprising green eyes softened slightly. “But don’t think that I do not realise I have been lucky this evening. Are you all right, you are shivering again?”
He had been aware of it for a while, reached for the wine and drank more. “A fever. I was ill for some weeks, have been better, but I think the soaking….”
Cautiously he tried to move his left arm and realised that it was agony to do so. Elizabeth Wentworth got up.
“You are in pain,” she said. “Come, I’ll show you where you may sleep.”
“Madame, I can sleep here.”
She did not reply, merely picked up a candle and waited. Damien rose and followed her. The stairs of the small farmhouse were narrow and dark and he had to stoop his tall frame to avoid hitting his head. She did not have the same problem, she was small and slight and he thought suddenly of that other delicate-looking Englishwoman who had proved to have the strength of a lioness and found himself smiling.
There were two rooms above and she pushed open one of the doors. “This is where Maria and Cristiano sleep. They will know nothing about this. Go.”
It was a bedframe, roughly made from local oak, with straps supporting a straw filled mattress and blankets and pillows neatly folded so that the bed could air. Damien stared at it, trying to remember the last time he had slept in a bed. He turned to see her setting the candle on a wooden chest.
“I know the French are taught to live off the land and these people – and I – are your enemies,” she said. “Please don’t steal from them. There is enough food and when you are ready to go you may take what you like from my husband’s clothing, he has no need of it now and he was much of a height with you. Rest and if you need me I am sleeping in the next room.”
Damien was studying the pale face in the candlelight. “You are not my enemy and I do not know anything of these people. Thank you, Madame. I hope I will be better tomorrow. You have probably saved my life tonight.”
She gave a very slight smile. “You have definitely spared mine, sir.”
She turned to go and Damien moved to the bed. A blanket in his hand, he turned.
“Do you miss him very much?”
Elizabeth Wentworth stood framed in the crooked doorframe. “No,” she said, surprising him. “Although I could only admit that to a complete stranger such as yourself. How can I miss a man I barely knew? I was seventeen when we eloped and I had known him for two months then. He was handsome and dashing and I thought I loved him. He was also about to join his regiment to sail to Portugal with Sir John Moore. I was settled in lodgings and I waved him off proudly. That was four years ago. I have not seen him since. He wrote me a total of ten letters during that time. He sent me money occasionally but not enough, I have survived teaching music and drawing and running errands for wealthy widows. And on the occasional gift from my poor aunt who can ill afford it herself. His family do not receive me and would not even lend me money to travel here when I had word that he was so badly wounded. And when I arrived to nurse him, he was delirious and barely recognised me. He was also riddled with the pox, so I imagine that he had not missed me either.”
“Oh no,” Damien said softly, his own misery forgotten. “Oh cherie, I am so sorry. To come so far and for that. He did not deserve you.”
His compassion seemed to startle her. “You don’t know me, Lieutenant. How do you know what I deserve?”
Farm of Cristiano and Maria Guedes, Portugal, 1812
The bedrooms were cold compared to the heat of the rooms below. Elizabeth went down to bank the kitchen fire and extinguish lamps and candles, taking one up to the tiny box room which she had occupied since coming to Santarem. She removed the black mourning gown and took off her stays then wrapped a thick robe around her and got into the narrow bed. Four weeks ago Charles had breathed his last in this bed and she had stripped and washed the linen herself, not wanting to make more work for Maria who had been kind enough already. She sensed that they wanted her gone once her husband had been buried but they were too good to say so. Their trip to Lisbon had been a regular necessity to sell the produce of the small farm but she suspected they would remain with their family for as long as they could. She had been told that a passage would be available for her within the month and the Lisbon quartermaster would send one of his men with a cart to escort her to the ship with her small trunk.
Elizabeth had not liked being left alone at the farm, but it had also been a relief. She had grown up in the country and had willingly agreed to feed the few animals and take care of the house. It was the least she could do to repay their kindness since their last farmhand had left to join the Portuguese army eight months ago and there was no other help locally. Feeding the goats and milk cow and chickens occupied little of her time. She wrote letters, one to her aunt accepting her generous offer of a bed in her own small house until she might make other arrangements and another to Charles Wentworth’s family, telling them of his death and his burial. They would probably not respond but Elizabeth would have known she had done the right thing.
There was a small sum of money, raised through auctioning Captain Wentworth’s personal possessions, and a one-armed Major of the cavalry had ridden out to give her the money. She had seen his eyes brighten at finding the widow young and personable and she suspected that if she had given him the slightest encouragement he would have ridden out again but she did not. Four years of marriage to a soldier had convinced Elizabeth that if she did ever marry again it would not be to a man in a red coat.
She wondered if the French officer was married. Once the initial terror had eased, she had found nothing threatening in the tall, slender dark haired man with steady grey eyes. Any fear of him harming her had vanished very quickly. Four years alone had accustomed Elizabeth to all manner of impertinences from men who very clearly believed that a woman whose husband had been away for so long must welcome their attentions and she had grown very good at sensing danger. She sensed no threat from the exhausted Frenchman with the surprisingly good grasp of English and in practical terms his presence here for a few days might keep her safe. It was improper for her to be staying in a deserted cottage unchaperoned with him sleeping in the next room but since nobody would ever know of it, it could hardly hurt her reputation.
She slept finally, waking as the dawn filtered through the badly fitting shutters at the small window and rose to dress. The black velvet gown was the only mourning she possessed, saved from the death of her mother several years earlier and she would not wear it about the farm. Instead she donned the practical green wool and the sturdy boots and bundled her hair up into a knot then went down to build up the fire in the kitchen before going outside into a fresh dry dawn with the promise of a sunny day to begin the chores of the farm.
When she came back inside later, hungry and ready for breakfast she was faintly surprised not to see the French officer already down. She had moved his jacket and boots into the kitchen to dry properly and bundled up the soaked, filthy linen to be laundered. Now she took off her cloak and went up to her room. There was a box under the bed which contained the remains of her husband’s clothing and she unpacked it, piling it up neatly folded. She had not given the clothing to be sold with the rest of Charles’ effects. It had little value and she had thought she might give it to Cristiano when she left as thanks for his hospitality. Now she carried the small pile, a couple of shirts, some underclothing, woollen stockings and a spare pair of serviceable grey trousers to the other door and knocked.
There was no reply. Elizabeth knocked again and then pushed the door open very cautiously.
“Lieutenant Cavel? Are you awake? I have brought…”
The sight of him on the bed froze the words. He had thrown off the blankets in the night and lay uncovered still dressed in the shirt and trousers she had given him. They were soaked with sweat and his face was flushed and burning. He did not appear conscious and Elizabeth dropped the clothing onto the chest and ran forward.
“Oh lord,” she said, feeling the burning damp of his forehead. “Lieutenant? Mr Cavel, can you hear me?”
The eyes opened, staring at her in confusion and he spoke in French. Elizabeth spoke enough of the language to be able to teach children the basics but his rapid words made no sense to her. It did not matter. He was ill and it was clear that after four weeks of exhausting nursing, she was going to have to go through the process again. She felt a stab of resentment at the thought and then she sighed and turned to find the discarded bedclothes. She could hardly leave him like this.
The routine was familiar by now and resigned, she fell quickly into the pattern of caring for a fever patient; washing him, changing the bed sheets, changing his clothing and patiently spooning water and other liquids between his dry cracked lips. The fever burned fiercely for three days and Elizabeth wondered if, like Charles, he had already been weakened too much by his wounds and his previous illness to survive. But unlike Charles he was clearly a fit and healthy man in all other ways and on the fourth day he slept more easily, his body no longer racked by violent shivering and his brow cool and dry.
Elizabeth sat beside the bed, watching him. Like this he appeared younger than she had first thought, probably no more than thirty or so although his contained manner had made him seem older. She was twenty-two herself and had been told often that she seemed older than her years, which was less flattering to a woman than a man. Once again she wondered if he had a wife waiting for him back in France. She suspected that the answer was yes, there had been a name he had mentioned more than once in his fevered ramblings and she hoped that Anne, whoever she was, appreciated this unassuming man.
He awoke properly late into the evening. Elizabeth had brought the lamp from the kitchen into his room and settled herself to mend one of the shirts she had washed. She was wrapped in her shawl; the heat from the kitchen barely filtered up to the bedrooms. Seeing him stir she looked up and into bewildered grey eyes.
“Madame Wentworth. What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Elizabeth smiled and got up, putting down her sewing. “You’re awake. That’s good. And you have also remembered your English which is even better because you have made me realise how rusty my French has become these past days. Wait there, I will bring you a warm drink now that you can taste it properly.”
She left him and when she returned he had managed to pull himself into a sitting position. Elizabeth handed him the cup of milk with honey and a little brandy and watched him sip it.
“This is very good, thank you. My throat is so dry. How long have I been ill?”
“This is the fourth day.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “I’ve been here four days? I need to leave tomorrow, the farmer and his wife are going to be back…”
“No, they are not,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I received a message from Maria yesterday to tell me they will be at least another week. Her sister has just given birth and they are staying to help and for the baptism. Senor Dias, who has a farm eight miles further up river stopped by on his way back from Lisbon to tell me.”
“Leaving you here alone?”
“I think they are making the most of a holiday. They farm this place alone, you know, they must seldom have the opportunity to leave it because of the animals. All their farmhands left to join the army or the militia. I suppose that with the harvest brought in and taken to market there is little to do here. And I am happy to help them, they were very good to me when Charles was dying. In a few weeks I shall be gone but I will always remember how kind to me the people of Portugal were. Do you feel able to eat some broth?”
“Thank you. I am not sure they would be so kind if they knew you were harbouring an escaped French prisoner.”
“They have no need to know. And you have no need to leave until you are a little stronger. I’ll bring the broth.”
She returned with it and found him holding the half mended shirt. “You are mending my clothes.”
“It was badly torn.”
“And you have also changed them. I was not wearing this nightshirt when I got into bed that night.”
Elizabeth flushed slightly and dropped her eyes. “I could not leave you as you were, you were shivering. I am sorry…”
“Do not apologise, Madame, you have probably saved my life. Again. I am sorry to have been such a charge on you. I will leave as soon as I am able.”
“You have been less trouble than my husband, sir. Are you…do you have a wife at home?”
He smiled. “No. I was young when I joined, have been in the army all my adult life. No time to marry.”
“I wondered. There was a name you mentioned when you were ill. Who is Anne?”
She saw his eyes flicker in surprise. “Anne? Oh. I must have been dreaming, I suppose.”
“An old love or a current sweetheart?” Elizabeth said lightly, teasing, but he did not smile, shook his head as if trying to clear it.
“Neither. A woman I liked very much.”
“I am sorry, I have no right to pry.”
“No, it is not that. I am ashamed to tell you the story; it reflects so badly on some of my countrymen. But then you must know, I am sure, if you have talked to your hosts, that the French are hated for a reason.”
Elizabeth nodded, studying him. She wondered if she wanted to know. After a moment he said:
“I was still a sergeant, posted to a troop escorting supplies. Dull and often dangerous but essential. We had a new commander – a colonel of cavalry, Colonel Dupres. It was odd for a man of his rank to be given such a lowly posting and we all assumed it was a punishment of some kind.”
“And was it?”
“Yes. He had behaved very rashly, more than once, putting his men at risk without need because he felt some sense of rivalry with an English colonel of light infantry. They had clashed several times on the field and Dupres had lost and men had died. During the months I served under him I came to loathe him. He was a thief, looting houses and churches. He was a brute to local people in Portugal and Spain. Not just taking food and supplies; we all do that. But he would kill for sport and torture for fun. And he was a rapist. Any local girl he came across.”
“Oh no,” Elizabeth said softly.
“He was in command and many of the men followed him willingly. War makes beasts of so many, Madame. But there was a skirmish with a group of Spanish partisans and a small English escort, taking supplies up from Lisbon. We captured the English and killed many of the Spanish. The others fled. There was a woman with them – a young Englishwoman. She gave him her name, thinking she would be released as an officer’s wife. She was married to the colonel he hated.”
Elizabeth watched the shuttered expression on his face and wished she had not asked. “You don’t have to tell me any more.”
Damien gave a tight smile. “You will have guessed, I imagine. He slaughtered the remains of her escort in front of her and he took her with us on the march. For two weeks I watched him brutalise her. You do not want the details. Some of us tried to help her as much as we could and tried desperately to think of a way to get her free.”
“Did he kill her?” Elizabeth whispered. She was cold with horror, her own vulnerability out here suddenly real all over again. He shook his head.
“No, although eventually I think he would have. He was…he became obsessed with her. Would not release her. But the partisans had taken word back to the Allied lines and we were attacked one night by half a battalion of light infantry. They went through our men as if we were raw recruits. Dupres survived the battle but her husband challenged him when he realised what had been done to her and killed him.”
“Is that how you were taken prisoner?”
“No. She spoke for us, my captain and I, to Lord Wellington. The rest were sent to be transported but we were released to go back to the French lines with a letter of thanks and recommendation for what we had done for her. I was promoted and so was he. Then I fought at a battle just outside Salamanca and was wounded and taken again.”
“I am sorry, Lieutenant. Was she all right?”
He gave a little smile. “I think so. Hard for any woman to endure what she did, but she was unusual. And so was he. I have seen many men in love before but I do not think I have ever seen a man so enamoured as he. I hope they did well. I have seen death and horror. And rape, since many of our troops see nothing wrong with it. But that stayed with me. I got to know her and I don’t think I could ever close my eyes to it again after that.”
He had finished the broth almost without noticing it and she took the bowl from him gently. “I think you are a good man, Lieutenant. Try to sleep again now. No need to dream horrors about her, she sounds very well taken care of. But you have reminded me of how lucky I have been. Goodnight.”
Elizabeth was surprised at how quickly the Frenchman seemed to recover from his fever. He was up within two days, moving slowly around the house, washing himself and dressing and doing what he could to help her. After four days he was outside with her in the crisp autumn air, carrying the feed bucket and hunting for eggs. She found, to her surprise, that she enjoyed the company. He did not talk a great deal but his silences were restful and she felt comfortable with them.
During the evenings they would sit in the kitchen to save lighting two fires and she finished mending his clothing and watched, with some surprise, as he expertly patched the soles of his boots. She quickly realised that life on a farm was as familiar to him as it was to her, and he began, without asking, to effect small repairs about the place as if he, like her, felt a sense of obligation to the absent farmer and his wife whose hospitality was keeping him warm and fed.
He did not speak again of leaving and at the end of another week, Elizabeth felt the need to raise it. Autumn would soon move into winter and the farmer and his wife would return. She was daily expecting a message about her own passage home and was somewhat shocked to realise how little she wanted to go.
They had finished their evening meal and he got up to wash the pottery bowls and stack them to dry. Elizabeth was amused at the action. She suspected that Charles would never have thought to do it; he had remained a gentleman by instinct, waiting for a servant to clear up after him. His occasional letters had been full of grumbles about the lack of good orderlies and servants. Her own years of near poverty had taught her to manage most things alone, with a local woman coming in daily to do the heavy cleaning and she was an excellent cook.
“You cook very well, Madame, I am being ruined for army fare,” the Frenchman said, echoing her thoughts. Elizabeth smiled.
“I enjoy cooking. Lieutenant Cavel, have you decided yet what you are going to do? I do not mean to hurry you, but…”
Damien collected a bottle of wine and seated himself again. He poured for both of them. “I am telling myself that my work around the farm will make up for my free use of my unwilling host’s wine cellar,” he said. “It is very good; does he make it himself?”
“It is made in the village. They all contribute the grapes and share out the wine. Is this not what you call living off the land, Lieutenant?”
“It is too comfortable for that,” Damien said, laughing. “And in answer to your question, Madame, yes, I have decided. I am going to make my way back over the river and east towards Cadiz. I have no idea where I’ll find Marshal Soult’s army – or if I will – but I think it is the best choice.”
“Or you could surrender and go to England,” Elizabeth said suddenly. She had not meant to say it, but his words conjured up the reality; hundreds of miles of lonely marching without a weapon or an ally, through hostile countryside with no sure knowledge of where he might find his compatriots. “If the partisans catch you, they’ll kill you. And even the British might shoot you as a spy. It is a mad idea, Lieutenant, and I do not want you to do it!”
He smiled then, one of his rare broad smiles which made his face that of a boy again. “Madame, I am sorry. But I am a French soldier – I have been for fourteen years – and it is my duty to get myself back and fight for my emperor. As your husband would have done if he could. But thank you for your concern.”
Elizabeth got up. She was fighting back tears. “You will get yourself killed!” she said furiously, walking over to the fire. “And I do not want to know about it! Go if you must. I will remain here until Cristiano and Maria return and then…”
She heard him move and did not look around. Unexpectedly she felt his hands on her shoulders. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “I am not leaving until I am sure they are back. Or until a man in a red coat arrives to take you to the ship. I am not leaving you alone here.”
“It is not your problem, Lieutenant.”
“My name is Damien, cherie. We probably only have another few days here and nobody will hear you use it. Please.”
Elizabeth turned into his arms. “Did she teach you your English?” she asked, fighting the completely irrational sense of jealousy.
Damien laughed. “I already knew some, but she taught me a lot more. I think it helped to take the mind off the pain. Do not look so cross, Elizabeth Wentworth. She would be very happy to see me practising it on you. May I kiss you?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks were wet with tears. She reached up to cup his face with one hand and found that it too was damp. “I do wish you would,” she said.
They spoke little afterwards, having said all that they could. There was no way that she could persuade him and she understood it. If he were a man to take the safe and easy way, he would not be the man he was.
Damien had not meant it to end this way although he quickly realised, with rueful tenderness that on this occasion it was not going to be his decision alone. She moved around the room as she always did at the end of the evening, blowing out candles with housewifely care as he banked the fire and checked the door and shutters. It was a still, cold night and he followed her up the stairs and was startled as she turned not left into her own little room but right into the main bedroom where he had been sleeping. She set the candle down on the chest and turned to him, the green-gold of her eyes bright on his.
“We have so little time left,” she said. “And this may be all we ever have. I am not wasting it on propriety and morality.”
Damien looked at her for a long time. “And if you bear a child?” he asked.
“Then I will tell them it was my husband’s. A last and joyous gift. Nobody but I need know that he could not have done so.”
It quashed the last of his scruples although he was amused, as he moved to take her into his arms, to realise that she had thought of that well before this moment. He had been neatly ambushed by an English force and not for the first time. On this occasion there was no thought of fighting back and he let her draw him to the bed, into her arms and into joy without a moment of regret.
They lived the next three days in each other’s arms, leaving the bedroom only to eat and to perform the necessary chores of living. If this was to be all they had, he understood her need to savour it, simply to hold him. They talked, when they were not making love, telling details of their lives and families, of their history. He whispered endearments to her in French and taught her their meaning and she made him laugh when she used them back to him. They slept little, waking wrapped together in the big bed, not feeling the cold of approaching winter in each other’s arms. It was as though they had known each other for many years; as though these past weeks had been just the culmination of a growing attachment instead of the madness it really was. He had not wanted to fall in love with her and he had prayed that she would not fall in love with him; it could bring only pain to both of them, but it was far too late for such careful common sense.
Halfway through the third day he awoke to an unfamiliar sound and realised suddenly that it was the approach of a horse. He was abruptly alert again after days of simple happiness but she was quicker even than he, scrambling out of bed, wrapping a blanket about her and running to the window.
“Is it the farmer back?”
“No, it is Major Callen. I imagine with news of the transport. Stay here.”
She scrambled into her black dress, frantically combing out her hair and then went down to open the door with the red gold mass loose about her shoulders. Damien dressed quickly and quietly, hoping that the major was not a perceptive man. His love looked very different to the thin, sad widow he had encountered three weeks ago on a foggy evening.
When he was dressed he moved quietly to the door. Both voices were clearly audible in the tiny cottage.
“We’ll send a gig, ma’am, can borrow it from the commissariat, easier to bring your boxes that way.”
“I don’t have much, Major, but thank you, it is kind.”
“Won’t be until the day after tomorrow but it’ll give you plenty of time to make the transport. It’s a fast boat, sailing into Portsmouth, and there will be two other ladies on board, wives going home, so you’ll have female company. Once you’re there, I understand a carriage has been arranged to take you to your family.”
“My aunt lives in Winchester, sir, it’s not that far. Did you arrange this?”
“No, ma’am. Although I would have. I understand it was your husband’s brigade commander. He has also been on about your pension, hurrying them along.”
“In the middle of a campaign that is so good of him, Major.”
“He’ll have had some time, ma’am. Light division have been in Madrid for a couple of months, I understand. And he’s got a good reputation for taking care of his officers and men.”
“I am grateful. I’ll write to him when I am home to thank him. Major, thank you. I am a little worried about the farm – I’ve been taking care of the animals while the farmer is in Lisbon.”
“No need, ma’am. I’ll leave one of my lads here until they get back. Don’t worry, he’ll behave himself.”
“Thank you. I’ll make sure I’m ready.”
Damien was amused, through his sadness, at the major’s evident reluctance to leave. He did so finally and when the horse was out of sight, Damien put on his boots and went downstairs. She turned to look at him and he saw that she was crying.
“Oh ma mie. Come here.”
She flew into his arms and he held her close, murmuring endearments as she cried. There was little that either of them could say that had not already been said.
He moved through the next day like a ghost, helping her to pack and making sure the farm was secure and the animals in good condition. She had his clothing neatly washed and mended and had fashioned a bag out of old flour sacks for him to carry spares and food, slung across his back like a satchel. It was surprisingly effective and probably more comfortable than the worn out pack he had been used to.
They spent the night wakeful in each other’s arms and he thought, holding her close after making love, that if he never saw her again this moment would stay with him forever; the moment he knew without the slightest doubt that he loved her.
“Your aunt lives in Winchester, does she not?”
“Yes. I will probably look for lodgings nearby. She is the only family I have.”
“What is her direction?”
She twisted her head to look at him. “Her direction? She lives close to the Cathedral; my uncle was a cleric there. I can give you details…but why, Damien?”
Damien kissed her very gently. “I may not survive this war,” he said. “I may not even survive the next month. But if I do…one day I would like to come back to you, cherie. If you think…?”
Her mouth stopped his, the kiss leaving him breathless. “Yes,” she said. “I know it will probably never happen. But Damien – I won’t stop hoping. If I have a child…what were your parents’ names?”
“My father was Damien also. My mother was Colette.”
“Thank you. Both very good names.”
He wondered if this much heartache had ever killed a man and then laughed at his own melodrama. It was not like him and no man had ever died of a broken heart. But he had never realised before how much it hurt. “I love you,” he said, very softly.
“I love you too, Damien Cavel. Never forget it, will you?”
“Never. Take care of yourself, Elizabeth Wentworth. And our child, if there is one. If I live, I will see you again one day.”
He left early, not wanting to risk being caught by the arrival of her military escort. She remained upstairs, watching him from the bedroom window. At the edge of the big barn, on his way down towards the river and the ford, he turned and saw her standing there, already dressed in her mourning black. She looked beautiful in it, the warm colour of her hair framing her pale face. This far away he could not see her tears but he knew they were there, reached up to touch his own wet cheeks. Then he turned and walked on into the bright sunlit morning.
Freneida, Portugal, January 1813
Colonel Paul van Daan gave a theatrical groan as his orderly limped into the room and deposited a large pile of mail onto the table. “Take them away!” he ordered. “I spend half my bloody time either reading or replying to letters, none of which is helping us win this war. I need a secretary!”
His wife looked up from the small table on the far side of the room where she was running through a list of medical supplies and fixed him with an arctic glare. “I beg your pardon?”
Paul grinned. “Sorry, love, I know you’re better than any clerk. But honestly, look at this lot.”
Anne van Daan got up, stepped around the basket where her newest child dozed in a patch of winter sunlight like a well-fed cat, and went to sort through the pile. “Major Breakspear can deal with half of these,” she said. “This is from your father, hopefully giving us a date for his arrival. Those are for some of the other officers – Jenson, can you drop them over please. And this…I’ve no idea.”
Her blank tone made him look up again. “For me?”
“For me,” Anne said. He watched as she opened the somewhat grubby folded sheet. There was another letter enclosed, folded and sealed. Anne scanned the missive and the expression on her face made him smile.
“Well clearly that’s not just another delay in the uniform order,” he said. “What is it, love?”
Anne looked up. “It is from Damien Cavel,” she said blankly.
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Cavel? Sergeant Cavel?”
“Captain Cavel apparently. Currently serving in Marshal Soult’s army although he doesn’t say where.”
“Well he wouldn’t, would he?” Paul said. “May I see? Is it personal?”
“Not to me,” Anne said. She handed him the letter, looking down at the other one in her hand. “He is asking me to convey this letter to an Englishwoman living in Winchester.”
Paul read the letter twice and then looked at Anne. “He says he wants her to know that he is safe. A love affair?”
“I’m guessing so although don’t ask me how! Paul, what in God’s name are we going to do?”
Paul met her eyes and shook his head regretfully. “We can’t, bonny lass, although I’d like to. You know how grateful I am for what he and his captain did for you last year. But we’ve no idea what this contains. I’m sorry, but it’s for the intelligence service.”
Anne studied him for a long time. “All right,” she said finally. “Give it to George Scovell. He can do what he likes with any information in it, but we can trust him to be discreet about it; we can’t have this poor woman’s name shared with half the army.”
“If Cavel has been as careful in her letter as he is in this one there won’t be anything useful anyway. But this could be some kind of cipher, George will have to see it.”
“Will you take it up to him or shall I?”
“I’ll do it; I need to ride over to see Lord Wellington later anyway. Where’s Manson?”
“Practicing dry firing with the light company I think.”
“He can come with me.”
Paul made to tuck the letter into his pocket and his wife said:
“Will you do something for me, Paul?”
Paul studied her with some misgiving. “What?”
“Leave that on the desk and go and find Leo yourself, will you?”
“Nan. You can’t…”
“I’m not going to copy it directly. I’m going to see what it says and write to her myself.”
“You think this is genuine?”
“Yes,” Anne said. “I know Damien Cavel, Paul. He’s not an intelligencer, he doesn’t have the temperament any more than you do. If he’s managed to get a letter to me about this girl it’s because it means everything to him. And I owe him my life.”
After a moment, Paul nodded. “You’ve got half an hour. Seal it again properly, will you?”
His wife smiled sweetly. “Do you think I would not?”
“No. You do have the temperament to be an intelligencer. Oh – what’s the girl’s name, it doesn’t say it here?”
“Wentworth. Mrs Elizabeth Wentworth, a Winchester address.”
Paul blinked in surprise. “Wentworth. I know who that is. She’s the widow of Captain Charles Wentworth – he used to be with the 43rd but transferred over to the 112th just before Fuentes d’Onoro. He was badly wounded at Badajoz, sent back to Lisbon but died of his wounds. I didn’t know him that well but I’d heard his widow came out to nurse him. I wrote a few letters, chased up her pension and helped with transport home.”
“Pretty?” Anne asked. Paul laughed.
“No idea, bonny lass, I’ve never set eyes on her. It rather sounds as though Cavel has, though. She’s a real person and she was definitely out here which makes this unlikely romance a bit more plausible. Get it done and I know nothing about it.”
He left the room and stood outside for a moment, then looked back in. She had unsealed the second letter and was reading it. He saw her lips curve in a smile and he found himself smiling as well. After a moment she sat down, reached for her pen and drew a sheet of paper towards her to send the good tidings to a woman she did not know.
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 the British fleet under Admiral Gambier bombarded 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, due to be published in April 2018 is 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’m loving it now to such an extent that I have already decided where Hugh Kelly’s career is taking him next.
The other joy of An Unwilling Alliance is that it gives 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 has given me the opportunity to go back in time from Wellington’s Peninsular Wars where the 110th has 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 has been an odd experience to look back at a younger Paul and remember all the lessons he hadn’t yet learned in 1807 and it has 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 has been a genuine pleasure and I hope they have the chance to meet up again in the future.
An Unwilling Alliance is due to be published in April 2018 – you can read an excerpt here.
Beginning in 1802, the Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon, and in particular the story of Paul van Daan who joins the regiment as a young officer and rises through the ranks in Wellington’s army.
A second linked series, about a Manx naval officer, begins with An Unwilling Alliance, due to be published in April 2018 and tells the story of Captain Hugh Kelly of HMS Iris, Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry and the Copenhagen campaign of 1807.
It is 1802, and two new officers arrive at the Leicestershire barracks of the 110th infantry just in time to go to India. Sergeant Michael O’Reilly and Lieutenant Johnny Wheeler have seen officers come and go and are ready to be unimpressed. Neither of them have come across an officer like Lieutenant Paul van Daan.
Arrogant, ambitious and talented, Paul van Daan is a man who inspires loyalty, admiration and hatred in equal measure. His unconventional approach to army life is about to change the 110th into a regiment like no other.
The novel follows Paul’s progress through the ranks of the 110th from the bloody field of Assaye into Portugal and Spain as Sir Arthur Wellesley takes command of the Anglo-Portuguese forces against Napoleon. There are many women in Paul’s life but only two who touch his heart.
Rowena Summers, a shy young governess who brings him peace, stability and lasting affection.
Anne Carlyon, the wife of a fellow officer who changes everything Paul has ever believed about women.
As Europe explodes into war, an unforgettable love story unfolds which spans the continent and the years of the Peninsular War and changes the lives of everyone it touches.
It is 1810 and Major Paul van Daan and the 110th prepare to meet the French on the ridge of Bussaco in Portugal. Back on the battlefield only two weeks after his scandalous marriage to the young widow of Captain Robert Carlyon, Paul is ready for the challenge of the invading French army.
But after a successful battle, Lord Wellington has another posting for his most unorthodox officer and Paul and Anne find themselves back in Lisbon dealing with a whole new set of challenges with army supplies, new recruits and a young officer who seems to represent everything Paul despises in the army’s views on discipline and punishment. Anne is getting used to life as the wife of a newly promoted regimental colonel as two other women join the regiment under very different circumstances. And an old adversary appears in the shape of Captain Vincent Longford whose resentment at serving under Paul is as strong as ever.
It’s a relief to return to the field but Paul finds himself serving under the worst General in the army in a situation which could endanger his career, his regiment and his life. Given a brief by Wellington which requires Paul to use tact and diplomacy as well as his formidable fighting skills, it’s hardly surprising that the army is waiting for Wellington’s most headstrong colonel to fail dismally at last…
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.
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.
An Untrustworthy Army (Book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga: June – November 1812)
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 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, will Colonel van Daan’s legendary brigade manage to hold together and get themselves back to safety? (To be published in July 2018)
An Unrelenting Enmity (Book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga: December 1812 – April 1813)
Wellington’s army is in winter quarters, licking it’s wounds after the retreat from Burgos. In the 110th and the rest of the Third Brigade, however, morale is high. Anne van Daan has successfully given birth to her second child and there is time for a trip to Lisbon to see the rest of the children. Things take a turn for the worse when a new commander is appointed to the 115th serving under Paul, a man who represents everything that Wellington’s most unconventional brigade commander despises. In addition, the new Major has a history with Sergeant Jamie Hammond which looks likely to set off a major explosion in the 110th. (To be published in December 2018)
An Uncivilised Storming (Book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga: May- October 1813)
Lord Wellington leads his army into northern Spain. With a better supply train and a new determination the Anglo-Portuguese army are about to make a push to cross the Pyrenees and invade France. Wellington’s army, including Colonel Paul van Daan and the Third Brigade of the Light Division face the French at Vitoria win a comprehensive victory. There follows an exhausting series of battles as Marshal Soult tries desperately to rally his forces and push the English back. Weary of battle, Paul is appalled when he arrives in time to witness the sacking of San Sebastian by the Allied troops, an atrocity which makes him question his place in the British army. (To be published in April 2019)
An Inexorable Invasion (Book 8 of the Peninsular War Saga: October 1813 – February 1814)
Wellington’s army is invading France. After almost five years of advancing and retreating across Portugal and Spain, Colonel Paul van Daan and his brigade are about to set foot on French soil, the first time many of them have ever done so. At the battles of the Bidassoa and the Nivelle, the men of the light division are at the forefront of the action as Wellington ruthlessly presses home his advantage. But behind the scenes, the European powers are negotiating for Bonaparte’s abdication and the end of hostilities and the disappearance of Sir Henry Grainger, British diplomat and intelligence agent sends Captain Michael O’Reilly and Sergeant Jamie Hammond with a small force into hostile country on a mission which could lead to peace – or cost them their lives. (To be published in August 2019)
An Improbable Abdication (Book 9 of the Peninsular War Saga: March 1814 – January 1815)
Wellington’s army is in France, marching inexorably towards victory. An inconclusive engagement at Toulouse is cut unexpectedly short when the news comes in that Napoleon Bonaparte has abdicated and that France has surrendered. With war finally over, Colonel Paul van Daan and his battered and exhausted men are bound for England and a round of celebrations and gaiety which Colonel van Daan could do without. While the crowned heads of Europe are feted in London, honours and promotions abound and Anne and Paul find themselves learning how to live a normal life again with their children around them. The light division is broken up with it’s various regiments sent to other duties and Lord Wellington, now a Duke, is despatched to Vienna to represent Britain in the complex peace negotiations which threaten to try his patience almost as much as Marshal Massena. But the early months of 1815 bring shocking news… (To be published in December 2019)
An Unmerciful Engagement (Book 10 of the Peninsular War Saga: Waterloo 1815)
For Paul and Anne van Daan, domestic bliss has been interrupted long before they had grown used to it. Bonaparte is loose and with the light division disbanded and many of it’s crack regiments dispersed to other theatres of war around the globe, Wellington needs to pull together an army from the allied nations of Europe. His Peninsular army no longer exists but he still has Paul van Daan and the 110th. Promoted to General, Paul is on his way to Brussels and to a battle far worse than anything he has yet experienced. (To be published in June 2020)
An Amicable Occupation (Book 11 of the Peninsular War Saga: 1815 – 1818 the Army of Occupation)
With the horrors of Waterloo behind him, Paul van Daan is in France commanding a division of the Army of Occupation under Wellington. It is a whole new experience for the officers and men of the 110th, learning to live beside the men they fought against for six long and painful years.
A Civil Insurrection (Book 12 of the Peninsular War Saga: Yorkshire 1819)
Back in England finally, the 110th have settled back into barracks and are enjoying a rare spell of peace when trouble in the industrial towns of the North sends them to Thorndale, Anne’s home city where her father and other mill owners are under threat from what looks like a revival of the Luddite movement. After many years of fighting the French the men of the 110th are faced with a new challenge which might see them pitted against their own countrymen. (To be published in December 2020)
Working on a book based around a navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, a visit to the National Maritime Museumin Greenwich seemed like an ideal way to start this visit to London. I can remember going to all the Greenwich museums growing up, but it has been a very long time.
The National Maritime Museum is the leading museum of its kind in the UK and probably one of the best in the world. It is part of a complex known as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and includes the Royal Observatoryand 17th-century Queen’s House. In 2012 the complex was given the overall name of Royal Museums Greenwich along with the famous Cutty Sark which stands nearby.
Greenwich has always had associations with the sea and the navy has roots on the waterfront while Charles IIfounded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for “finding the longitude of places”. The home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridiansince 1884, Greenwich has long been a centre for astronomical study, while navigators across the world have set their clocks according to its time of day. Something about this knowledge has always given me a slight sense of awe when visiting this part of Greenwich.
The National Maritime Museum has a huge collection on Britain’s seafaring history including art, maps and charts, manuscripts, models and plans, navigational instruments and personal items belonging to important historical figures such as Nelsonand Captain James Cook.
Flamsteed House, the original part of the Royal Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and was the first purpose-built scientific institution in Britain. In 1953, the Old Royal Observatory became part of the Museum.
The 17th-century Queen’s House, an early classical building designed by Inigo Jones, is the keystone of the historic “park and palace” landscape of maritime Greenwich. The Queen’s House was refurbished in 2001 to become the heart of displays of art from the Museum’s collection.
In May 2007 a major capital project, “Time and Space”, opened up the entire Royal Observatory site for the benefit of visitors. The £16 million transformation features three new modern astronomy galleries, four new time galleries, facilities for collections conservation and research, a learning centre and the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetariumdesigned to introduce the world beyond the night sky.
The National Maritime Museum has galleries exploring various aspects of Britain’s maritime history. A gallery dedicated to Nelson and the Navy tells the story of Admiral Nelson, his battles, his life and his death at Trafalgar, and sets the battle in the context of the wars against the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It describes the ships, the sailors and how they lived and the way the navy was perceived at home.
The gallery concerned with traders explores the relationship between Britain and the wider world, particularly the powerful East India Company which spread its influence until it controlled huge areas of territory in India. I found this fascinating, partly because I studied this at University and partly because I spent time researching the Company in India when I was writing about Assaye in An Unconventional Officer.
Another gallery covered the difficult subject of the transatlantic slave trade, both up to abolition and beyond. I thought this topic was well-handled, looking at both slavers and abolitionists as well as the slaves who fought back against their masters in places like Haiti.
Other galleries explored the maritime history of London, the first world war and in Voyagers, the personal significance of Britain’s maritime story. I particularly liked the exploration of Turner’s famous painting of Trafalgar which analysed the painting and it’s meaning in the context of national pride and naval power following the battle.
The museum is huge and there is so much to see and do that it is easy to miss things. Work is in progress on a new gallery and there are various temporary exhibitions, a children’s play area and the fabulous Great Map.
If the museum has a fault, it is that the various galleries are sometimes hard to follow in the correct order. Especially as it is sometimes possible to enter a gallery from either end it is easy to find yourself going around in the wrong order and there is no numbering of exhibits to help with this. With a fairly good background in history it didn’t really bother me that much, but I can imagine it would irritate some people.
I loved the museum along with the Royal Observatory, which completed the story of some of the scientific aspects of navigation and the Cutty Sark, standing 400m outside. I didn’t manage the Queen’s House this time around, although I’d like to go back to it.
The Cutty Sark is one of my clearest childhood memories. It was a Sunday afternoon treat, even just going to see it. Going aboard was even better. The ship was one of the fastest tea clippers in the world and there was something romantic for me as a small girl, standing on the deck gazing up at the tall masts and trying to imagine billowing sails and a fresh breeze at sea. I was devastated in 2007 when the ship was badly damaged by fire and have followed the progress of the restoration.
We used to take the bus to the Isle of Dogs back in the sixties and seventies and then walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich. The foot tunnel is a piece of history in itself, a masterpiece of late Victorian engineering which opened in 1902 and was built to replace an expensive and unreliable ferry service which took workers living south of the river to work in the docks and shipyards. The entrances at each end are beneath glazed domes and I can remember the joy of running through the tunnel calling out and hearing my voice echo, bouncing off the walls eerily. We used to count the steps at each end. There were lifts but for some reason we seldom used them.
A visit to Greenwich is both a research aide for the new book and a trip down memory lane. The strong sense of standing with both feet in maritime history is just what I need as I embark on the second half of my book which places me aboard a Royal navy ship bound for Copenhagen in 1807 under Admiral Gambier. But there is also a sense of standing with at least one foot in my own past, a child growing up in the East End with parents who took us to some historic site almost every weekend. There is a strong link between that excited little girl standing on the deck of an old ship and trying to imagine how it felt to sail in her and the woman writing a novel of those who did. I owe that as a debt to the parents who gave me that sense of history and why it matters to all of us.
The new book, An Unwilling Alliance, is due for publication in April 2018.
The storming of Ciudad Rodrigo is the opening scene of book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga, A Redoubtable Citadeland took place in January 1812.
The light division had been instructed to storm the lesser breach, while Picton’s third division had been given the greater breach on the northwest. Paul walked up to meet his commander and found the two commanders of the other brigades already with him. Both men were relatively new in post although both had commanded brigades before. Colonel George Drummond had died of fever the previous September and Colonel Sydney Beckwith had been invalided home in August which placed Paul in the strange position of being the longest serving of the three brigade commanders albeit the youngest. It had cemented his position in the division. He was known to be close to both Wellington and Craufurd, and while Beckwith and Drummond had tended to look upon him as something of a young upstart at times, he found relations with Vandeleur and Barnard, who had not been present when he was surprisingly raised to command a brigade at the age of thirty, far easier. Robert Craufurd glared at Paul as he saluted. “There you are! What the devil was that racket about earlier, I thought you were going over to the French!” “Thought about it,” Paul said. “But I remembered in time how badly they tend to overdo the garlic in their cooking. I was retrieving one of my ensigns from an ill-judged attempt to join one of the forlorn hopes.” Craufurd gave a crack of laughter. “He looking for early promotion, Paul?” “He was looking to avoid gambling debts to some Highland major who’s been fleecing him at the headquarters mess,” Paul said grimly. “I don’t know who, but I’ll find out.” “It’ll be Brodie,” Barnard said. “He’s known for it. Cards and swordplay. He’s a devil with a blade and he keeps up his lifestyle by challenging men to a friendly bout and betting on it. A couple of very promising young officers have had to sell out to meet their obligations, I’ve heard.” Both Craufurd and Paul were staring at him. “Does Wellington know?” Craufurd demanded. “He can’t, or Brodie would be up to his neck in it,” Paul said briefly. “Don’t worry, sir, I’ll deal with him after this mess is over. Trust me it’ll be the last time he tries to make money out of one of my junior officers. And if he kicks off about it, he can try challenging me to a friendly bout and having a bet on it.” Craufurd gave a bark of laughter and the other two men smiled politely. “I admire your confidence, Colonel,” General Vandeleur said. “I believe he’s very good.” “I’ll be surprised if he’s good enough to beat this arrogant young bastard,” Craufurd said dispassionately. “I’ve seen Colonel van Daan fight and he’s almost as good as he thinks he is. We’ll talk about it when this is over, Paul. I don’t mind you kicking his arse but I don’t want Lord Wellington on my back over it. For now, we’re going in over the lesser breach. Call them in around the San Francisco convent, I’d like a word with them before we go in. Vandeleur, your lads will lead us over, Barnard to follow. Colonel van Daan will bring his lads up behind to correct all of our mistakes.” Barnard shot Paul a startled glance and seemed relieved to see him laughing. Neither of the other commanders had completely got to grips with Craufurd’s acerbic tongue and were not always sure when he was being genuinely offensive or when he was joking. “It’s what I do best, sir,” Paul said. “You got any orders you particularly want me to ignore today or shall we just see how it goes?” “You disobey an order of mine today, Colonel and I will shoot you in the head!” Craufurd said explosively. “No you won’t, sir, you’re too fond of my wife,” Paul said with a grin. “I’ll bring them up. You going to make a stirring speech? I might make notes.” “You should, Colonel,” Craufurd said shortly. “Then you can make another one telling them the best wine shops to loot when they get in there!” Paul laughed aloud, aware of the shocked expressions of the other two men. “I would, sir, but I don’t know them, not been to Ciudad Rodrigo before.” “Well for those in doubt, follow the 110th, they’ll find them! Get going!” Paul was amused as he stood at the head of his brigade, listening to Craufurd’s speech. He was aware that not all the men would hear it all but the words would be passed among them and probably embellished. Craufurd was disliked by many of his officers but adored by his men despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, and his speech was unashamedly aimed at them, sentimental at times but guaranteed to touch their hearts. “Soldiers,” he said finally, his voice carrying through the crisp cold evening air. “The eyes of your country are upon you. Be steady. Be cool. Be firm in the assault. The town must be yours this night. Once masters of the wall let your first duty be to clear the ramparts and in doing this, keep together!” They cheered him with riotous enthusiasm and he smiled down at them, black browed and stocky, a man at home in his command and knowing himself loved. “Now lads, for the breach!” They stirred, checking their arms, ready to move, and Paul stepped forward and stilled his brigade with a yell which surpassed anything his commanding officer had managed. “Third brigade halt!” The men froze and snapped to attention. Paul stepped up onto a chunk of broken masonry and looked down over them. “Wine, ale, liquor – I don’t give a damn, providing you bring some back for me and I’m picky so make it good!” he said, and there was a gust of laughter through the brigade. “But if I catch any one of you looting houses or hurting the locals and I swear to God you’ll wish you’d died in that breach. As for the women – every single one of you bastards knows my views on rape and you touch a lassie against her will I will personally cut off your balls and nail your prick to the doorpost! You have been warned. Officers and NCOs make sure everybody heard that message, will you?” “That’s all right, sir,” RSM Carter said pleasantly. “I’m fairly sure they heard that message in London at Horse Guards.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bevan is one of the many tragedies of the Peninsular War and a story which I found particularly sad. There were so many deaths in battle or from wounds or sickness, but in the middle of it, Colonel Bevan took his own life over a matter of honour.
Bevan served in the 28th foot in Egypt, Copenhagen, Walcheren and then in the Peninsula. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in January 1810 and appointed initially to command the second battalion, 4th foot and then the following year moved to the first battalion in the Peninsula.
After the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro on 2nd May, 1811, the French Commander Messena ordered the besieged garrison at Almeida under General Brennier to break out to the north-west and rejoin the French forces via the bridge at Barba del Puerco over the river Agueda. Wellington had been expecting such a move and sent orders to General Sir William Erskine to extend his fifth division northward as far as the bridge at Barba del Puerco by sending the 4th Foot to the bridge itself. Meanwhile, Campbell’s sixth division and Pack’s Brigade were to continue the investment of Almeida. The orders were sent out by 2 p.m. on the 10th and reached Erskine at his Headquarters by about 4 p.m. Erskine claimed to have sent the orders immediately to the 4th Foot at Val de Mula but it seems they were not received until around midnight.
At about midnight, the garrison of 1400 men broke-out from Almeida, blowing up the powder magazines and made it through the pickets of the Portuguese and 2nd Foot. Pack’s Brigade and Campbell with the 36th pursued the French towards the bridge at Barba del Puerco. Lieutenant-Colonel Bevan, having received his orders around midnight, had decided to wait the few hours until day-break before moving. However, on hearing the gunfire, Bevan ordered his regiment to move off quickly towards the bridge. The French arrived at the bridge first, pursued by Pack’s force and the King’s Own with the 36th Foot attacked the second French column in flank as it was descending the steep road to the bridge. Despite losses, the main French force made it across the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Cochrane of the 36th with a detachment from his regiment and the 4th decided to rush the bridge and was beaten back with casualties.
Lord Wellington was furious at both the failure to block the French breakout and the futile attempt to cross the bridge. In a despatch to the Earl of Liverpool, Secretary of State, Wellington wrote that ‘the 4th Regiment which was ordered to occupy Barba del Puerco, unfortunately missed their road and did not arrive there till the enemy had reached the place….’ and that ‘the enemy are indebted for the small part of the garrison which they saved principally due to the unfortunate mistake of the road to Barba del Puerco by the 4th Regiment.’
A second despatch says that orders were sent to Erskine which were received at about 4 p.m., and that Erskine said he forwarded them immediately. The despatch further states that ‘the 4th Regiment, which it is said did not receive their orders before midnight, and had only two and a half miles to march, missed their road and did not arrive, at Barba del Puero till after the French.’…. ‘Thus your Lordship will see, that, if the 4th Regiment had received the orders issued at 1 p.m. before it was dark at 8 o’clock at night, or if they had not missed their road, the garrison must have lain down its arms….’ Lieutenant Colonel Bevan felt that both he and his regiment had been unfairly criticised in the despatches and asked Wellington for an enquiry. Wellington refused this and subsequent requests. Eventually, apparently falling into a black despair at the slur on his own reputation and the honour of his regiment, Bevan shot himself on 8th July 1811. He was buried in the castle yard at Portalegre and his funeral was attended by all divisional officers. His memorial stone reads:
‘This stone is erected to the memory of Charles Bevan Esquire. Late Lieutenant Colonel of the 4th or King’s Own Regiment with intention of recording his virtues. They are deeply engraven on the hearts of those who knew him and will ever live in their remembrance.’
What really happened on that fateful night to enable the French to escape from Almeida will never be known. Historians differ on the exact sequence of events, but there is some consensus that General Erskine, who was dining with Sir Brent Spencer that evening, received the orders and put them in his pocket, forgetting about them until around midnight. Realising the severity of his error he then excused himself to Wellington by claiming that the 4th had set out late and then lost their way. In November 1897 MacMillan’s Magazine published an extract from the diary of Private John Timwell of the 43rd Foot, which included the following entry from the diary of an officer of his regiment:- “The French could never have escaped had it not been for an accident in Sir William Erskine not sending an order in time to Colonel Bevan, which caused him to be too late at Barba del Puerco with his Regiment. Poor Bevan was censured by Lord Wellington, which circumstance preyed so much on his mind, knowing he had done his duty, that he blew his brains out. The order alluded to was sent from headquarters by Lord Wellington’s direction and Sir William Erskine forgot to forward it, and literally, after the business was over, the document was found in his pocket.” Bevan’s wife and children in England were informed that he had died of fever and it was not until 1843, that his eldest son, Charles was told the truth by an uncle, Admiral James Richard Dacres, who wrote informing him that the 4th had received their orders too late and that neither Bevan nor his Regiment were at fault.
Bevan’s story is often cited by critics of Wellington as an example of his autocratic and uncaring behaviour towards his officers and it is true that the commander-in-chief does not come out well from the affair. Wellington was well aware of the problems of Sir William Erskine as a divisional commander. His temporary command of the elite Light Division had been disastrous, he was very near-sighted and apparently had mental health problems as well as being arrogant and unwilling to listen to advice. There were rumours too, that he drank too much, and one wonders if that may have influenced his casual treatment of Wellington’s orders that night. Certainly Wellington was quick to remove Erskine from his position commanding a division and instead sent him to lead four mounted regiments in the newly organized 2nd Cavalry Division in Rowland Hill’s corps. At some time during 1812 Erskine’s problems were too obvious to ignore and he was declared insane. In 1813 he killed himself by jumping out of a window in Lisbon.
Wellington’s tolerance of Erskine for so long can be explained by the man’s connections and possible influence in London. Although the commander-in-chief would have liked to ignore politics and fight his war, it was not always possible. For the same reason, he was probably reluctant to publicly censure Erskine for his likely blunder in the Almeida affair. But it is also very possible that Wellington genuinely believed that Bevan had made a mistake by not setting out for the bridge during the night.
It should be remembered that Wellington did not take any measures against Bevan or the fourth. He was not court-martialled or disciplined in any way. It is very probable that Wellington simply failed to take into account the effect of one of his not infrequent public criticisms of his officers on a man as sensitive as Charles Bevan. Bevan was known to suffer from periods of melancholy, probably what would today be recognised as clinical depression. Other officers had suffered from their commander-in-chief’s insensitivity and bad temper and recovered. Bevan, sadly, was unable to do so.
There is now a memorial to Charles Bevan in the English cemetery in Elvas, a beautiful little place which we visited last year. It is impossible not to feel sad at the waste of a man who was liked and respected by his fellow officers and loved by his wife and children. In a different time, under a different commander, Bevan might have done better. Service under Wellington, it seemed, required a thicker skin than poor Bevan possessed.
Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas
The story of Bevan is told in full in Wellington’s Scapegoat by Archie Hunter and has been discussed by various historians. Some claim that Wellington deliberately scapegoated Bevan to avoid the political consequences of telling the truth about Erskine. Others suggest that Wellington genuinely believed Bevan to have made a mistake and could see no reason to take the matter any further. Bevan had been told and simply needed to get over it and move on.
Rory Muir, in his excellent biography of Wellington, points out that it probably made no sense for Wellington to re-open the unfortunate affair with an enquiry. There was a war to fight and decisions to be made and there was no time for agonising and recriminations. It was a harsh but practical approach which may have sat ill with some of Bevan’s fellow officers, but it probably accounts for some of Wellington’s success as a commander.
What may be true, is that Wellington could have explained his decision not to allow an enquiry to Bevan rather than brusquely refusing without discussion. That, certainly, is Wellington at his most autocratic but it was not personal to Bevan and most of his officers managed to survive it. Poor Charles Bevan, with his periods of depression, simply could not.
The suicide of Charles Bevan is an integral part of the story of An Uncommon Campaign,the third book in the Peninsular War Saga although we do not meet Bevan personally. Colonel Paul van Daan’s reaction to his death is a mixture of sadness, guilt and anger and probably mirrors that of a lot of the officers who knew Bevan. Even today depression and suicide are difficult for many people to understand, and for a character like the belligerent and outgoing colonel of the 110th, Bevan’s despair and his decision to leave his wife and children must have seemed completely incomprehensible. Knowing more about the condition today, it is easier to understand what happened to Bevan.
For me, the story is a reminder of the realities of war in any age. The men who held officers’ commissions under Wellington all experienced combat and army life in their own individual way. We look at the army, marching across the plains and mountain ranges of Portugal, Spain and France, as a unit but, to the officers and men fighting in it their stories were unique. There was no understanding or acceptance of post traumatic stress disorder, shock or depression. No clinician stepped in to declare that Sir William Erskine was not well enough to command men in battle and nobody was there to assess Lord Wellington’s sudden explosions of sarcastic fury and diagnose stress in a man with huge burdens to bear. In the age of the wars against Napoleon no allowances were made for the physical and emotional effect of years of campaigning.
Given everything these men went through, the suicides of Charles Bevan and Sir William Erskine are not that surprising at all. The surprising thing is that it didn’t happen more often.