Badajoz – the last stop in our Peninsular War saga tour

Storming of Badajoz

The final day of our trip was spent in the fortress town of Badajoz, which finally fell to Wellington on 6th April 1812 after previous attempts had failed.

Walls of Badajoz

With the sounds of battle filling the air Paul looked over at Wheeler and nodded.  “All right, we’re going in.  Carter, pass the orders back quietly.  No sign of life over here, I’m hoping they’re looking the other way but they’re up there, trust me.  Let’s get those ladders to the front.”

Following their officers, the third brigade moved quickly and quietly over the ground.  At their head were the ladder parties.  Each group had been given very specific instructions about the placement of the ladders and Paul watched approvingly as they ran down towards the ditch.

He had given orders for them to pause at the edge and the men of the 110th and 112th light companies moved ahead throwing lighted bales of hay into the darkness.  The flames lit up the ditch garishly and Paul’s sharpshooters dropped into position, rifles pointed at the battlements.  There were shouts in French from the ramparts as the French realised that their section of the wall was under attack and Paul surveyed the ditches in the flare of the bales.

“Chevaux de frise,” he said in matter of fact tones.  “All right, Carl, keep up that fire.  Get the lads to take down as many as you can while we’re hanging around.  Skirmish formation – one fires and when the French fire back the other shoots at the flash.  Ten minutes of that should keep them busy.  Hammond, get me some volunteers to go down and haul those bloody things out of the way the minute the flares go out.  Preferably men who can see in the dark and have a brain.”

Above in the darkness the fire from the defenders was increasing and Paul kept a wary eye on the range as a dozen men scrambled quietly down into the blackness of the ditch armed with ropes to drag the chevaux de frise out of the way.  In the distance the noise of battle had grown louder and Paul wondered how the rest of the division was doing in the breaches.

There was a sudden explosion of light and sound and screams of pain from a section of his men and he swore softly.

“They’re onto us,” he said, and raised his voice.  “Hammond, how’s it going?”

“Nearly there, sir, three men down but they’re too late.”

“Good news!”  Paul turned to yell orders and his brigade, silent and still in the night, exploded into sudden action.  More hay bales were lit and in the flare of their light he looked down and saw the path through the ditch was clear.

“Advance!” he yelled, and the ladder parties scooped up their burdens again and continued their run under covering fire from the rifles of his sharpshooters.

He had known that the chances were high that the ladders would be too short to reach the top of the wall for most of it’s length but there was one stretch of the curtain wall which was much lower, having been previously damaged and not built up to it’s full height.  It was to the right of his position and the risk of mining was higher, but if he could get a small force up onto the ramparts there, they could hit the defenders in the flank and distract them for long enough to allow the ladder parties to scramble up.

On his orders, his men advanced in immaculate order.  The main ladders were swung up to the walls with men below steadying them to give maximum height and support, and his men swarmed up at speed.  Above him, Paul heard cries in both English and French as the first men reached the top and he realised with a spurt of triumph that the ladders had reached and that his men were fighting at the top.  Already bodies were falling and he knew some of them would be English.  With the defenders busy he turned and called out to Carl, who began his run towards the lowered section of the wall with his chosen companies.

It was going well.  Paul had the sense that his men were following orders and although many of them were coming down off the ladders, they were replaced immediately by more scrambling up.  The sounds from the breaches had faded from his consciousness now that his brigade were engaged and he waited for another ten minutes and then moved forward.

“All right lads, I’m going up.”

“Not yet, sir…”

“Out of the way, Mr Heron before I kick you.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand at the top waving a flag.”

There was laughter amidst the blood and fire and slaughter and he set his foot on the ladder and began to climb.  Shot rained around him but he kept his body close in and was making good progress when his foot encountered a rung which felt unexpectedly shaky and he heard, from above, a yell of warning and then cries of fear.

“It’s breaking up!”

Paul swore.  He could feel the wood giving way under the weight of men.  It often happened and he knew the danger of falling onto the bayonets of the men below him.  Pushing himself back he jumped into thin air and braced himself.  The leap took him over the heads of the men below him and back to the edge of the ditch.  He felt the impact jar through his body and he rolled over and slid back down into the ditch, feeling the bodies of injured and dead men crashing around him.  As he came to a halt something ripped into his hip and he dug his heels into the ground hard to stop his slide and found himself crushed by a press of fallen men into the edge of one of the chevaux de frise which had been dragged out of the way earlier. 

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga)

At Badajoz, I finally felt it.  After over a week of travelling around Portugal and Spain visiting locations and potential locations for scenes in my books, I’ve seen some beautiful and amazing places and I’ve felt at times as though I could imagine my characters being there, living their lives in the shadow of death.

Badajoz is not beautiful.  It is certainly in a beautiful setting and there are quiet spots in the town where you can get the sense of the old walled fortress town which existed in 1812 when Wellington’s army, on it’s third attempt, managed to batter down the walls and fight their way in.  Badajoz is a modern town.  There isn’t the sense of history, the sense of the past preserved that you get in Ciudad Rodrigo or Elvas.  There is the sense of people going to work and having lunch and living their lives.  Badajoz is just an ordinary town in Spain with an interesting history.

Walls of Badajoz

Maybe that’s why it worked for me.  Standing beside the walls, reading the guide which explained in matter of fact words that the road I was looking at went through the breach and that during the storming it would have been piled high with rubble and with thousands of dead and wounded Allied soldiers, I felt a genuine sense of horror.  It doesn’t seem possible now that those men on both sides of the wall, fought and bled and died on ground which is now just a road going into town.

Badajoz

The horror didn’t end there.  When the Allies finally broke in leaving over a thousand dead and another three thousand wounded, heaped on top of each other in the breaches or below the walls, the English army went mad.  It was an accepted custom of war that if a citadel under siege fails to surrender and has to be taken by storming, the troops were allowed to sack the town.  This is horrific enough under any circumstances, but in 1812 the Spanish population of the town, although some were pro-French, were for the most part innocent civilians of a country allied to Britain in the fight against Napoleon.

It didn’t save them.  For almost three days the men of the British army ran riot in the town.  Murder, theft and rape were committed openly and anybody who stood in their way, including some of their own officers, was at risk of being shot down.  Eventually Wellington, appalled at the destruction and violence, set up a gallows in the square as a threat to the drunken men and the chaos died down.  But during those days it must have been hard for the Spanish to feel a sense of gratitude that their city had been liberated from the French.

I felt it more strongly in this noisy, modern town than anywhere else.  I felt sad for those men coming down off the formidable ramparts to add to the piles of dead below.  I felt a sense of the waste and the agony and the bloodshed.  Perhaps it’s because so little actually remains, it’s as if they’ve been forgotten.  Perhaps it’s because it was our last day and then I was going home and back to reality.

It took a while to pull myself out of nineteenth century Spain and Portugal on the journey home.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work and write the next book.  And of all the places I’ve visited I’m not sure I’d go back to Badajoz.  Not because it was a noisy modern town where history has vanished in places.  But because in the places where it remains, I felt indescribably sad.

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Elvas

Elvas is beautiful.

We arrived at lunchtime, staying at the stunning Quinta de Santa Antonio just outside the town. As we were having lunch sitting on a bench in the beautiful gardens, I will admit I was looking around me making notes in my head. This place would have been here when Wellington’s army was besieging Badajoz, and already I can see how it could be used as a setting.

Gardens of the Quinta de Santa Antonio, near Elvas

In the Peninsular War saga, Anne and Paul arrive for a brief stay in Elvas during the run up to the storming of Badajoz.  Anne has just been returned after a two week ordeal in French captivity and for once Wellington has granted Paul some leave (with the proviso that as it’s only 11 miles away he can get him back very quickly).  Inevitably the short holiday doesn’t go entirely to plan but even today, Elvas is a haven of peace in places.

The town of Elvas was at the top of a hill, five miles northwest of the Guadiana River, a fortress town surrounded by seven bastions and the two forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça. It was a town of winding streets and graceful buildings, many of them dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Anne was particularly fascinated by the aqueduct, almost four miles long which had been built in the fifteenth century to supply the town with pure water.

Paul and Anne were given a room in a pretty inn, white painted and clean with high ceilings and long white draped windows.  For a town so close to the war zone which had been variously held by both the French and the English, it seemed remarkably untouched by war. For three days they wandered hand in hand through the narrow cobbled streets, and explored the local churches, forts and shops.  They ate in cosy taverns, surrounded by locals who welcomed them with smiles, and slept late, revelling in waking together with no need to rise for early drill.

(From ‘A Redoubtable Citadel’ by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 in the Peninsular War series)

Driving into Elvas after lunch I felt, almost more than anywhere else we have been, as though I had stepped back in time and was walking in the footsteps of Paul and Anne as they arrived in Elvas for their brief holiday before the horrors of the storming of Badajoz.  The aqueduct is the most amazing piece of architecture, ushering us into the town.

The aqueduct, Elvas

Elvas is a place of tiny cobbled streets and white and ochre painted houses with churches dotted about and a series of forts giving the impression of a formidable military presence.  During the war, Elvas escaped the destruction and havoc wreaked on the other three great border fortresses, and the preservation work done on the old town has protected it’s history.

The Cathedral in Elvas

There is so much to see here that I could turn into a guide book very easily.  The highlight for me was the old cathedral, with the square outside where Paul and Anne van Daan shared a brief spell of normality eating outside a tavern, listening to the locals around them talking about crops and the weather instead of war and bloodshed.  We had coffee outside a small cafe on the square, and looked around at the ancient buildings very much as they must have done.

The cathedral, Elvas

The other highlight of the town, especially on a glorious day like this one, are the stunning views from the various ramparts and high points around the town.  With the hills rising into the distance it is one of the loveliest places I’ve been to.

Countryside around Elvas, Portugal

Before leaving we visited the tiny English cemetery with it’s memorials to the dead of the Peninsular War, in particular the storming of Badajoz and the battle of Albuera, both of which had huge numbers of dead and injured from the Allied army.  

English Cemetary in Elvas

On one wall of the cemetery was a memorial stone to Lt Colonel Charles Bevan, who sadly shot himself after he felt he had been unfairly blamed for the escape of the French garrison from Almeira, an incident mentioned in the third book ‘An Uncommon Campaign’.

Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas

Our trip is almost over and I’ll be glad to get home to see my offspring and my dogs, although I’ve had the best time here.  I’ve been to Spain before but this is my first time in Portugal and I’ve rather fallen in love, with the country, the culture and the people.  I’ve learned so much this week, and have so much work to do to incorporate some of it into the books I’m writing.

Just at the moment I’m sitting in the hotel with the sound of birdsong and a fountain through the open window.  It’s still sunny although slightly cooler and  I can hear the cattle in the background.  It is so beautiful and so peaceful, it’s hard to imagine that only a few miles away in Badajoz the sound of gunfire and falling masonry would have been exploding into the silence as Wellington’s artillery tried to break down the formidable defences of the second great Spanish fortress.

He succeeded but the cost was horrendous.  Tomorrow, our last full day, we are going to the bustling modern town of Badajoz to look for the remains of the town where the British soldiers ran wild in an orgy of destruction and violence when the citadel fell.

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The Battle of Salamanca – a tour

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

The battle of Salamanca was fought on 22 July 1812 and the battlefield was our next destination.  It was definitely one of the best days of our holiday.

The battlefield of Salamanca, looking out towards the Greater and Lesser Arapiles

It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which battered down on the Anglo-Portuguese army as they sat on the edge of the city of Salamanca, setting up a ferocious artillery fire which was designed to pound the city, a major French supply depot, into submission. The French had converted four convents into temporary fortresses and had settled initially to wait for reinforcements. Wellington’s guns were neither numerous enough or powerful enough to subdue the fortifications. But he had more than enough men to blockade the city and with no reinforcements forthcoming, the French surrendered.

“Thank God for that – we do not need another Badajoz!” Colonel Johnny Wheeler commented to his second in command as they took their places in the triumphal procession into the city. “Pretty place, this, and at least they’ve the sense to appear welcoming, whatever they might actually think.”

Major Gervase Clevedon glanced at him with a grin. “Won’t stop a few wine shops losing half their stock tonight,” he said. “But if they’ve any sense at all the taverns will do a good trade. The brothels certainly will, not expecting many of my lads to be around camp tonight unless they’re on sentry duty. I’ve told them I want half in and half out, they’ve drawn lots as to who goes first. If the first lot don’t come back in the morning, I think I can rely on the second lot to go and get them back.”

Wheeler was laughing. “Gervase, what happened to us? We used to be such correct young officers, I swear to God I once had a man flogged for drinking on duty.”

“They still don’t drink on duty, sir, he’d kick them into the river. And I for one wouldn’t go back. We were a regiment of outsiders, the 110th, new-fangled and pretty much laughed at by half the army back in India. Some good lads, mind, but no identity to speak of. As for the 112th it was in so much disgrace when it came back from the Indies most people thought it was going to be disbanded.”

Wheeler ran his eyes over the neat ranks of the 112th. “I know. Look at them now, up here with the light division’s finest. Jesus, it’s hot. I wish they’d get going.”

Clevedon was beginning to laugh. “I think you might find,” he said cautiously, “that the victory parade is being held up while Colonel van Daan’s wife’s maid locates her missing hat.”

Wheeler broke into laughter as a pretty brown haired woman in a sprigged muslin gown sped past them carrying a fetching straw hat trimmed with silk flowers. “Get a move on, Teresa, we’re dying of heat stroke out here!” he called.

Teresa Carter looked back over her shoulder, laughing. “I do not know why he bothers, she will have lost it before they get into the Cathedral,” she said.

At the head of the 110th, Colonel Paul van Daan took the hat from Teresa with a smile of thanks and turned to his wife.

“Put it on,” he said in tones of considerable patience. “Keep it on, I am not having you with sunstroke. Or I will spoil Lord Wellington’s lovely parade by tipping you off that horse into the river.”

“I’m not sure I’d mind that just at the moment, it might be cooler,” his wife said, tying on the hat at a particularly fetching angle. “Jenson, would you ride up and tell Lord Wellington thank you for waiting? The Colonel has a mania about my hats, I cannot tell you what a bore it is.”

Paul’s orderly grinned and spurred his horse forward. Much of the army was settled in sprawling cantonments on the edge of Salamanca, but several regiments had been selected to form part of the parade into the city. This would lead to a Te Deum in the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor would be illuminated during the evening while Wellington and his officers were entertained by the Spanish grandees of the city to a civic banquet and fireworks.

“You would think,” Paul’s wife commented, drawing up beside him, “that the Spanish would have had enough of fireworks given that the French seem to have blown up entire sections of their city to build fortifications. Since being with the army I have found that things exploding in the sky have taken on a whole new meaning for me.”

(From ‘An Untrustworthy Army’ by Lynn Bryant, book 5 of the Peninsular Series)

The Salamanca battlefield site is immense.  Not just in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the amount of information available.

We had planned to visit the battlefield since we first planned this trip.  I am halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit is particularly useful as it was made ahead of the writing.  I had read about the small interpretation centre in the village of Los Arapiles to the south of the city of Salamanca, but had not really looked it up until we were about to go there.  I was hugely impressed to find that it was open two days a week, Thursday and Saturday, and we had set aside a Thursday for this trip.

Interpretation Centre for the Battle of Salamanca

I was so glad we did.  This is definitely the best small museum we have visited.  For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which is much more useful than our desperate attempts to translate interpretation boards in other places.  For another, it is amazingly detailed and accurate.  From the advantages and disadvantages of the different infantry formations of line, square and column, to the best way to load a musket, somebody here had done their research and very well.  If I had a prize for museum of this trip, although it was tiny, this is it.

Interpretation Centre, Arapiles

The other joy was the map we were given of a series of interpretation boards around the battlefield site.  There are ten in all, each with information about the battle as it unfolded, and each board has a QR code which can be scanned by a smart phone.  A short dramatised account of that section of the battle, in English, can be listened to at each point.

The routes on the map are marked for walking or cycling.  The good news is that in good weather all tracks are passable in a car.  A 4 x 4 would be best, some of them are very rough, but we managed it on dry roads without.  It took about three hours to do the whole thing.  Honestly it would have been less if it were not for my pedantic insistence that we do the boards in number order so that we got the chronology right for the battle as opposed to working out the shortest circular route which might have taken half the time.  This week the man I married has given the word patience a whole new definition….

With the help of the museum, the interpretation boards, which are excellent, my trusty battlefield guide and a map, the Battle of Salamanca became suddenly very clear to me.  Driving from board to board and then climbing hills and rocky outcrops to view the various vantage points of the battle it was very easy to visualise how Wellington was able to split the French line and send their army fleeing within a few hours.

Monument at the top of the Greater Arapile

After exhausting ourselves scrambling over battlefield sites, we drove to Alba de Tormes, across the river.  This is the route that a lot of the fleeing French army took and no action took place there in real life.  In my book a significant skirmish takes place there so I wanted to check if my story worked with the location.  I was delighted to realise that with a small adjustment it will work very well.

Alba de Tormes

The bridge at Alba de Tormes

We came back into Salamanca for dinner.  As we are English this involved almost two hours of wandering around this beautiful university city, musing about how it is possible to be in a major city at 7pm and find nobody open for dinner.  We still need some adjustment to Spanish dining hours.  But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, its so lovely, especially the university  buildings, which will feature in book 5 since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.

Salamanca

A great day, and tomorrow we would move on to spend our last two nights in Elvas, close to Badajoz, the next of Wellington’s great sieges, where the British army thoroughly disgraced itself.

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the Peninsular War Saga Tour: From Sabugal to Fuentes de Onoro – Battles Galore…

Goats in Belmonte

Our Peninsular War Saga tour took us off the beaten track in places, especially when we were trying to find the site of the battle of Sabugal.

Sabugal, 1811….

They moved away at a run and Manson went forward to join Michael O’Reilly.  The Irishman grinned at him.  “Welcome to the light company, laddie.  You all right to fight, you’re as white as a sheet?”

“I’m fine, sir.”  Manson gave a brief smile.  “Why is he so insistent on us obeying orders?” he asked.  “He doesn’t normally say that.”

Michael glanced across at him with a quick smile.  “Clever lad,” he said.  “No he doesn’t.  He wants it to be very clear that we all have absolutely no say in this.  No democracy here.  He didn’t ask for Johnny or Carl’s opinion back there although he normally does before he makes a decision.”

Manson studied him through the mist.  “Because if it goes wrong it’s his responsibility.  Nobody else can be scapegoated.”

“That’s right.”

“Wellington’s a bastard,” Sergeant Carter said beside him.  “He lets them go yapping at the Colonel’s heels he’s going to get more than he bargained for.”

“You threatening the General, Sergeant?” O’Reilly said, lifting his arm to call his men forward.

“I wasn’t talking about me, sir.  It’ll be the end of kissing her hand and whispering sweet nothings at the headquarters ball.  I don’t know if he realises it, but she’ll carve his liver out and send it to Horse Guards in a box if he does anything that hurts her man.”

“Christ, yes,” Michael said, looking amused.  “Hope this goes well for his sake.”

They marched into eerie silence.  Paul had drawn his sword.  Across the lines his drummers beat a steady marching rhythm, which made it easier for his men to keep in touch.  They made their way steadily up the hill.  He watched his light company moving ahead.  Their line was uneven, each pair of men covering each other, running up and past each other then dropping into firing position.  He had watched them so many times on the training field, had run with them and yelled at them and called them names, and he felt his stomach clench knowing that the decision he had just taken might get many of them killed.

(From ‘An Irregular Regiment’ by Lynn Bryant, book two of the Peninsular War Saga)

We started this day driving out to the little town of Sabugal.  It isn’t one of the better known battles of the Peninsular War and many people have never heard of it.  Sadly it wasn’t included in my battlefield guide, but I found a brief description online of how to get to the site here.  It was surprisingly easy to follow and we drove down to the simple plaque which commemorates the battle and then on down to the edge of the Coa to look across at where the light division advanced from.

Sabugal Battlefield

The river here has been dammed into a lake, but even so it is very easy to look up the hill and imagine how it must have felt marching up into the fog without being able to see the enemy.  It was one of General Erskine’s worst blunders during his time with Wellington’s army.  General Craufurd was on leave in England and the half blind and very mad Erskine is in temporary charge of the light division.   In my novel, Lord Wellington has given the job of babysitting Erskine and keeping him from making any disastrous mistakes to the recently promoted Colonel Paul van Daan at the head of the 110th and 112th infantry along with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores.  Paul is faced with the decision to follow the first brigade of the light division into the fog against orders or letting them get slaughtered.

Memorial to the Battle of Sabugal, 1811.

Sabugal itself has a pretty castle and a tiny interpretation centre dedicated to the Sephardic Jews of Portugal who either fled or went into hiding under the inquisition.  This part of our trip was nothing to do with my writing, but was something of a journey into family history for Richard, whose family on his mother’s side were called Nunes da Costa, and were from this part of the world originally.  From Sabugal we drove to the little town of Belmonte, with which I fell in love.  It helped that the sun shone but we were entranced by the lovely little houses, with flowers everywhere and delighted by the castle, the various churches and the pretty synagogue along with the fact that boards outside cafes and restaurants advertised kosher food.  There wasn’t enough time to do Belmonte justice although we did enjoy a picnic in the central square next to the fountain, but it is on my list of places to come back to.

Synagogue in Belmonte, Portugal

Back to Wellington’s army, we drove on to the ruins of the immense fortress at Almeida and retraced the steps of General Robert Craufurd’s near disaster at the bridge over the Coa.  This was one of those battles I had found hard to understand and standing on that bridge it all fell into place.  In An Unconventional Officer the action at the Coa takes place off stage although it was important and is often referred back to.  I have a feeling it would make a good short story later on.

Memorial to the Battle of the Coa, overlooking the bridge

After the Coa we drove up for a brief photography stop in Freineda, Wellington’s winter headquarters for two seasons, both 1811-12 and 1812-13.  I had seen so many photographs of the house it was odd to see it in real life. Sadly it wasn’t open and our tour is too rushed to work out how to get the key so we’ll have to wait for another trip for that.

We drove back through Vilar Formoso, although there is little sign of the pretty village which housed one of the hospitals where wounded were taken from the battle of Fuentes dOnoro.  Many of Wellington’s staff and officers were billeted there and after the battle, grave pits were dug behind the large house where the hospital was located.  In the book, Anne van Daan is initially billeted there but moves on fairly quickly to avoid the smells of the hospital and the graves.

Our final stop of the day was Fuentes d’Onoro.  Thanks to our brilliant battlefield guide, we were able to stand by the Dos Casa stream where the English and French exchanged cigarillos and food during a brief break in the fighting and look up at the ridge where Wellington temporarily overextended his line and was saved by the brilliance of General Craufurd and the light division, which by then, in my saga, included the men of Colonel Paul van Daan’s third brigade.

Fuentes d’Onoro looking up from the French position.

An amazing day.  By the end of the day I felt as though I’d been walking in the footsteps of Wellington’s army and I loved every minute of it. I’m so grateful to the man I married for acting as driver and photographer and for letting me bore on about history for the whole week and I think the books will be the better because of it.

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Bussaco Ridge, Viseu and Ciudad Rodrigo

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

This section of our trip covered Bussaco and Viseu in Portugal and Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.  

 

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul could hear them now, the steady drum beat of the approaching columns. He turned to O’Reilly.
    “They’re coming,” he said, and raised his voice softly. “110th at the ready!”
    “Ready, sir,” Wheeler called back, and the order was passed along the lines.        There was no bugle call on this occasion. Craufurd wanted the presence of such a large force to come as a shock to the French.
    Michael checked his rifle and looked over his shoulder. “Nice and steady boys,” he said. “No need to be heroic here, the bastards have no idea they’re about to walk into us. Wait for my word, now.”
    “Battalion ready, sergeant?”
    “Ready as they’ll ever be, sir.”
    Paul moved along the ranks his eyes checking for potential problems. They could hear the marching of the French coming closer through the mist and he saw the green jackets of the 95th further up beginning to move forward in skirmish formation. He nodded to Michael.
    “Corporal Carter,” Michael called.
    “Yes, sergeant.”
    “Will your lads pay particular attention to not letting the Major get himself killed today? You know how clumsy he is, and if I have to take him down to the hospital with a hole in him, his wife is likely to take that scalpel of hers to me as well.”
    Paul looked back, startled, and then began to laugh. “Corporal Carter!”
    “Sir.”
    “Let the lads know there’ll be extra grog for the man who shoots Sergeant O’Reilly for me today. Make it look like an accident.”
    There was a muted rumble of laughter. “Do it now for you if you like, sir!” one of the sharpshooters called. “No need for extra grog, be my pleasure!”
    “You’d better hope the French get you today, Scofield, you are on my list,” the sergeant said, laughing. “Ready now boys.”
    “Get going,” Paul said, and Captain Swanson called the order and led his men forward.
    They watched as the skirmishers moved over the ridge, taking down individual Frenchmen with accurate rifle fire. It took some time.  Paul grinned as he realised that his light company were getting carried away with their feinted attack and were actually pushing the French column back. He imagined that Craufurd was cursing them for delaying the French advance. He could not sound a retreat without alerting the French to his position so he settled down to wait for Carl and O’Reilly to pull them back. Eventually he saw them moving back up the ridge, saw Carter and young Hammond laughing, having just received an earful from their exasperated sergeant. The rifles of the light division were already back up the ridge and the French came on, causing the English gunners to limber up and pull back. Still they waited. The French came closer, pressing on, thinking that on this part of the ridge at least they had the English on the run.
    Craufurd held his nerve. The leading column was within twenty-five yards of the crest, and Paul could see the individual faces of each Frenchman when he heard Black Bob yell. “52nd and 110th – avenge Moore!”

Now that I’ve been there and seen it in person, I have literally no idea why Massena sent his army up Bussaco Ridge.

We were staying at the Bussaco Palace Hotel, which is an incredible building, a gothic fantasy built around the simple convent buildings which were present in the early nineteenth century when Lord Wellington marched his army up to Bussaco to face the French Marshal Massena in an attempt to slow him down while the defences at Torres Vedras were being completed.

Brief details of the battle can be found here.  There are many books which give descriptions of the battle  In particular, we are touring the peninsular battle sites with the help of Andrew Rawson’s excellent book The Peninsular War: a battlefield guide.  Since I own it on kindle, I found myself scrambling over the sites clutching my iPad and praying I didn’t drop it, but it was amazingly useful and helped us find places we might not have done.

Up at Bussaco I was awestruck at the slope the French had to climb to make their attack.  We visited Wellington and Craufurd’s command posts and the reconstructed mill where Massena watched the battle unfold.  It is a beautiful place, although somewhat out of the way, and on a sunny day the views from the top are stunning.

View from the Bussaco Palace Hotel

Our other visit during this part of the trip was to the town of Viseu, where Wellington had his headquarters in the run up to Bussaco.  I will be honest and say that I wasn’t that taken by Viseu as a history buff.  There are some lovely old churches and buildings, but the town is now very built up and traffic was so heavy in the centre it’s difficult to get any sense at all of how the town must have seemed to Paul and his men when they set up camp at a farm on the edge of the town in 1809 after Talavera.  Viseu is a lively, modern place and probably a great place to live and work now, but it’s not the place to visit for Peninsular War history.

Fortified Cathedral in Viseu - This is the cathedral visited by Rowena and Anne in Viseu in chapter 17.

The same cannot be said of Ciudad Rodrigo, where we arrived in the afternoon. The rain had gone and the sun came out and approaching the town I felt as though I had stepped back in time.  Even with modern apartment blocks surrounding the ancient walls it is very easy to understand the enormity of the task faced by Wellington’s army when they set out to storm the town in the freezing January of 1812.

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Standing in front of the memorial to General Robert Craufurd at the lesser breach where he was buried I felt surprisingly moved.  Craufurd isn’t one of the best known historical figures of the time, but as commander of the legendary light division, he is vital to my story and his loss was much mourned by the characters I’m creating.  During my research for the books I have become very attached to Craufurd, known as the rudest man in the army, and standing here, where he was shot down more than two hundred years ago was a strange feeling.

Memorial to Robert Craufurd and the men of the light division who fell in the lesser breach during the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812

I loved this trip.  It’s very different to other holidays in recent years, not just because I got to completely indulge myself in terms of history, but also because it seems to be somewhat off the beaten track of popular English tourist spots.  This makes it slightly more challenging in terms of language, since not everybody speaks English and our Spanish and Portuguese is non-existent.  Still we were impressed with how friendly and welcoming most people have been.  The hotels have all been good and we’ve found some great restaurants, although we’re having to adapt to the difference in eating times – it’s just not possible here to decide to have an early dinner at 5.30 or 6pm; the restaurants start to get busy at nine.

I learned so much during this trip.  Part of me was impatient to get back to work and rewrite some of my books based on what I’d seen and learned and the rest of me just wanted to stay and absorb how lovely it is.  I’m unbelievably grateful to the man I married for doing this with me, acting as driver, photographer and general gopher throughout the trip.  He probably needed a holiday afterwards, mind.   Following Wellington around is exhausting; I don’t know how the 110th did it….

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The Lines of Torres Vedras – Day Two

The Palace at Mafra

The Lines of Torres Vedras were an extraordinary achievement, their existence hidden from the French for many months.   

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

“This is a matter of the utmost secrecy, Major,” Wellington said. “I do not wish this to reach anybody, even your own officers. Before we proceed, I need your word on that.”
   Paul was puzzled. “You have it, sir.”
   “Good. Because Sir Richard has some drawings to show me, and I would like to know what you think. Come over to the table.”
   Paul got up and followed his chief to a long table at the other end of the room. There were a number of maps and drawings laid out upon it. Fletcher drew one towards him and pointed. It was a map of Portugal, with drawings and notations over it. Paul studied it for a moment. Then he set down his glass, leaned on the table and looked closer. Nobody spoke for some minutes.      After a while, Paul looked up at his chief.
   “Bloody hell!” he said. “Is this how you’re spending the winter?”

(From An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant, to be published in May 2017)

The meeting above was Major Paul van Daan’s introduction to the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington’s ambitious defensive system which created three lines of fortifications to stop the French taking Lisbon again.

Touring the lines for the first time, I was surprised at the sheer scale of the project.  Driving through the countryside, there were signs everywhere  pointing to ruined forts and redoubts, and we visited various visitor centres and interpretation centres.

It rained all day which was a shame, because the fantastic views from the heights which we saw yesterday were shrouded in mist.  Still it was atmospheric driving up the unmetalled road around impossible bends to the high point of Serra do Socorro which was the main semaphore station during the war.  There is a hermitage at the top with an exhibition which concentrates on Wellington’s communication system along the lines.  Wellington used to ride up here most days from his headquarters in Pero Negro.

Going back down the hill we drove to the little village of Pero Negro where Wellington had his headquarters during the winter of 1810.  The house, Quinta dos Freixos, belonged to Baron Manique and is now privately owned but can be photographed.

Wellington's house in Pero Negro

From Pero Negro we drove along winding roads through valleys and up and down hills, following paths which must have been daily ridden by the officers of Wellington’s army during those difficult days.  Arriving at the pretty town of Arruda dos Vinhos we visited the small visitor centre at the Centro Cultural do Morgado.  This area was the centre of operations for Robert Craufurd’s light division and the streets would have been populated with Portuguese cacadores mingling with the redcoats of the 52nd and 43rd light infantry along with the green jackets of the 95th rifles.

From there we followed the trail to Mafra to the magnificent National Palace.  This building was occupied by the Portuguese royal family before they fled to Brazil and subsequently by the French, Spanish, British and Portuguese armies.  The English established a military hospital there and later, Marshal Beresford requested permission to establish a recruitment and training centre for the Portuguese army there.  Today it is the home of the Escola Pratica de Infantaria training the modern Portuguese army.  The visitor centre gives fascinating insights into how the presence of foreign armies affected the ordinary people of the region, especially in terms of provisions and the requisition or purchase of supplies.

Mafra - Palace

I went back to Torres Vedras feeling slightly sobered.  I have tried to give some indication in the books about the impact of war on the local population, but I feel somehow that I’ve missed something and might want to revisit it.  We have both been slightly surprised by how important this war seems to have been in this part of the world.  For many English people, the Peninsular war is just part of the great war against Napoleon and very few are aware of the huge number of refugees who were displaced from homes and farms and villages, fleeing with the English behind the lines so that Wellington could proceed with his policy of scorching the earth and starving out the French.  Even worse, and this was not really mentioned anywhere we went today, was the fate of those Portuguese people who chose not to follow instructions and flee south.  For them, the starving French army was a plague of locusts who stripped them of everything they owned.

When finally Massena was obliged to give up and retreat back to Spain, pursued by Wellington’s army, their fate was even worse.  The Anglo-Portuguese army was able to follow the French by the plumes of smoke rising from burning villages and towns, and writings of the time report civilian bodies lying in the streets.

In a small town in England, the central square is likely to be occupied by a monument to those who died in the first or second world wars.  In Torres Vedras, outside our hotel, the monument is to the horrors of the French wars and for me being there brought a genuine sense of the impact of that war on this country.  Wellington was here fighting the war and English soldiers died, but the tragedy behind it was that of Portugal, of the men, women and children who suffered as the armies marched across their homeland.

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