Moving up the ranks – purchase and promotion: An Excerpt from An Unwilling Alliance

Officer and private of the 40th foot

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.”

(From An Unwilling Alliance by Lynn Bryant, due to be published in April 2018)

 

Military Courts Martial – my new displacement activity…

An Irregular Regiment
Quill penI’ve spent some time over the past week or two reading accounts of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century courts martial for my next book, An Unwilling Alliance.   A surprising number of them came to absolutely nothing and the novelist in me desperately wants to know the full story behind how they came about. Were charges brought maliciously? Commanding officer didn’t like the look on your face? Got off because you were really good at hiding the evidence? Or because you were really good at your job and nobody wants to lose you? So many possibilities, I’m going to have to be forcibly restrained from court martialling half my characters now, it sounds like so much fun…
 
Surgeon James Dalzell of the 32nd in 1800 is my favourite so far, though. He got into it in an Assembly Room (probably drunk or fancied the same girl in my opinion) with his commanding officer Major James Wentworth Mansergh and made use of “unwarrantable and most offensive language” by telling him “the said Major Mansergh that he was a damned rascal and a Scoundrel and no Gentleman and threatening to pull him by the nose and afterwards on the same night repeating the same language raising his hand in a threatening manner and again threatening to pull him, the said Major Mansergh, by the nose.”
 
Surgeon Dalzell seems not to have actually been arrested for this until six months later and on that occasion he really kicked off and informed Major Mansergh in the presence of soldiers of the 32nd in the barrack yard that “his command was a damned rascally one to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Clearly something had ticked Surgeon Dalzell off beyond the telling and if there was a man on that court martial with a straight face by that point, he was a better man than I am.  A brief search has revealed that to threaten to “pull a man’s nose” was considered an insult likely to lead to a duel in the ante-bellum South and when I need another distraction I am going to download that article in full as I want to find out the origin of that one.  Certainly it is clear that Surgeon Dalzell and Major Mansergh were not going to be exchanging Christmas gifts.
But the plot thickens even further.  Enter Captain William Davis who was also court-martialled in 1800.  Captain Davis was also charged with using disrespectful and improper language to Major Mansergh in the barrack yard on the same evening that Surgeon Dalzell hit the proverbial roof.  While no nose pulling appears to have been involved here, Captain Davis followed the major, attempted forcibly to stop him and called him “a damned Rascal and a Scoundrel and at the same time raising his hand in a threatening manner to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Now there is clearly a bit of a theme here, and it looks as though the court was able to spot it.  Surgeon Dalzell, interestingly was acquitted of the charges of nose-threatening and general name-calling.  The court made mention of something that Mansergh said about the surgeon in a conversation with Captain Davis that evening in the barrack yard which had caused Dalzell to lose his temper.  Although he was acquitted, he was instructed to make an apology to Major Mansergh for improper language and conduct.  The wording of the apology is very specific – I’m guessing all Dalzell had to do was read it out and the matter was over.  Clearly the court felt that whatever had happened, Dalzell was provoked.
Captain Davis wasn’t quite so lucky and I wonder if that was because of his rank.  Certainly given that he went for his commanding officer in front of the enlisted men on the parade ground, he was very unlikely to get away with it.  Captain Davis was found guilty and suspended without rank or pay for the term of two years.  Even so, the court expressed some sympathy for Davis, pointing out that his treatment by Mansergh, while it can’t justify his actions, certainly mitigated his sentence.  Presumably without it, he might have been cashiered.
The editor has very kindly provided footnotes of what happened to the principals in the various cases and that’s where it becomes interesting.  Captain Davis sold out the following month, presumably unable or unwilling to live without pay or rank for the next two years.  Surgeon Dalzell must have taken his medicine and made his stilted apology to Major Mansergh because he remained in the army and was appointed Surgeon to the Forces in Ireland in 1804.  Clearly he managed to control his temper better in the future.
Major Mansergh was not the subject of the court martial but that did not stop the court from expressing its opinion that his conduct appeared “highly reprehensible, in not having supported his command with more propriety and energy”.  What else was said off the record, or by Mansergh’s own commanding officers is not recorded, but Major Mansergh sold out the following month and did not return to military service.  Somehow I have a feeling there might have been a celebration in the mess at some point…
The book containing these fascinating stories is A Collection of the Charges, Opinions and Sentences of General Courts Martial as published by authority by Charles James (published in 1820).  It’s frustrating not knowing the stories behind some of these trials but what is interesting to me is a novelist is the outcomes of many of them.
Until I started looking in to military discipline in more detail, I think I had assumed that a court martial was seen as a disgrace and the end of an officer’s career but clearly that is not the case.  In both the army and the navy, officers were court-martialled, acquitted or received minor punishments and went on to do very well.  Captain Bligh of the Bounty survived no less than three courts martial during his career.
Court martial seems to have been a valid way of seeking an enquiry into an incident.  An officer censured for some error would often ask for a court martial to clear his name; a good example of this would be Lt-Colonel Charles Bevan after the fiasco at Almeida in 1811 whose request for a court martial was denied, a fact which contributed to his suicide.
The other fact about a court martial which came as a surprise to me was that the King looked at all trial records and had the right to override either the verdict or the punishment.  I was aware through research into the Peninsular War that the commander-in-chief had the right to commute sentences on men convicted of local offences but it appears that it was not uncommon for the King to completely overturn the decision of the General Court Martial, either in deciding to declare a verdict of not guilty, or simply to announce that he no longer required the services of the officers involved.
In matters of military discipline in the 18th and 19th century there must always have been a lot of leeway depending on individual circumstances.  An officer committing an offence needed to be charged by a senior officer and there must have been many occasions where a good officer got away with an informal reprimand simply because he was good at his job and valued.  Equally there would have been senior officers with a bee in their bonnet about particular issues for example Admiral Gambier was known to be an evangelical Christian and used to fine his officers for bad language.  Commanders confident in their relationships with their officers will have used different methods of management, saving court martial for extreme cases in the same way that a good manager rarely uses the formal disciplinary process.  There are always variations from the strict letter of the law.
And that’s probably a good thing for one of the officers of the 110th infantry…

The Bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807: an Unwilling Alliance

Copenhagen on fire, 1807

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 System which 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 Copenhagen in 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 RN who 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 Chatham definitely 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 books and 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.

 

 

The Peninsular War Saga

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.

In a linked series, the Light Division romances, we follow the fortunes of some of the men of the 110th into peacetime.  Two books have been published so far, A Regrettable Reputation and The Reluctant Debutante

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.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

An Unconventional Officer (Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga: 1802 – 1810)

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.

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

An Irregular Regiment ( Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga: September 1810 – April 1811 )

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…

 

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro
An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro

An Uncommon Campaign (Book 3 of the Peninsular War Saga: April – June 1811)

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.

A Redoubtable Citadel (Book of the Peninsular War Saga: January – June 1812)

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)

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – a review

HMS VictoryThe Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth is more than just a museum.  It is a site containing a collection of museums, all of them connected to the Royal Navy and Britain’s maritime heritage and you need more than one day to do all of them.  Since we only had one day and since the aim of my visit was to soak up some background information about naval warfare and life in the 19th century navy, I was very specific about the museums we chose but we had time for one or two extras and I will definitely be back to do the rest.  This place is absolutely brilliant.

Aboard the VictoryHMS Victory

We went first to visit HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar.  She is looking a little odd at the moment since a new phase of restoration and conservation is taking place, and the top half of her masts is missing.  Despite that, there is no way that this ship can look anything other than impressive and beautiful.

HMS Victory left the Chatham Royal Dockyard in 1765.  Over an unusually long time in service she would lead fleets in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War and in 1805 she achieved lasting glory as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar when Britain defeated the French and Spanish fleet in what is often seen as Britain’s greatest naval victory.

In 1808 the Victory was re-commissioned to lead the fleet in the Baltic.  Four years later, no longer required in this role she was relegated to harbour service as a residence, flagship and tender.  In 1922 she was saved for the nation and placed permanently into dry dock where she is today visited by millions of visitors from around the world; a museum of the sailing navy and the oldest commissioned warship in the world.

For me, the Victory was a chance to step aboard a warship of the age.  My current work-in-progress, An Unwilling Alliance, is about a Manx sea captain who survived Trafalgar and has just been given command of his own warship.  The Iris, Hugh’s ship, is not as big as the Victory, being a third rate 74 gun ship, but there is still a strong sense of what life might have been like aboard such a ship and the task of writing about the Iris and its crew suddenly feels more manageable.

The Victory is set up to give a very good sense of life aboard a warship.  Sections of the lower deck have hammocks set up and some of the tiny officers and midshipmen’s cabins are furnished as they would have been at the time.  You can see the captain and admiral’s quarters and it is fascinating to see how the crew slept and lived alongside the guns.  With a battle approaching, furniture would be cleared away and the entire area would become a battleground.

Naval battles at this time were not just about the pounding of heavy guns.  Ships fought close together and sailors and marines fired muskets and pistols at the enemy crew as if in a land battle.  Nelson’s fatal wound at Trafalgar was caused by a shot down from the enemy rigging which shattered his spine.  Once ships were close together the aim was to board the enemy ship and close and savage hand to hand fighting with sword, bayonet and axe would ensue.  The ship’s guns did not fire exploding shells, they acted as battering rams, smashing the enemy ship to pieces, and a lot of the wounds treated by the ship’s surgeon came from wooden splinters which could be lethal.

One of the big assets of this museum are its guides.  Most are volunteers, often former navy personnel and their knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject is very impressive.  These are not people who have done a bit of background reading on the subject; they know it all.  We spent a fair bit of time chatting, not just about the Victory and the Napoleonic wars but about other ships and other combats.  It would be easy to spend a day just talking to them.

If there is a downside to the Victory, it is the lack of written information.  There is a guidebook and an audio-guide.  I’m not a fan of either as I find wandering around with a book in my hand or listening through headphones detracts from the experience for me, so initially I found the complete absence of any kind of information boards irritating.  I quickly realised that there was always a guide close by to ask, and they always know the answer, but if you’re not one to start talking freely to complete strangers, make sure you get a guide of some kind before you board or you’ll miss out.

The other thing to be aware of, is how low the lower decks are.  We were told that some of the warrant officers were six feet or more and it must have been an enormous strain working below decks at that height.  At 5’6” I had to stoop a fair bit and my 6’ husband had a backache by the end of the tour.

Having said that, it was a completely brilliant experience and I would recommend it to anybody.

Portrait of Sir Home Popham in the museumNational Museum of the Royal Navy

There is a lot of this, it needs plenty of time.  The museum is in two parts, one dedicated primarily to Nelson and his war and the rest covering the history of the Royal Navy up to modern times, including a fabulous exhibition about women and their role in the navy, especially the history of the WRENs.  It’s a great museum, well-set out with a huge amount of information and something for everybody.  We had to rush some parts of it, so be warned and give it time.

Queen Elizabeth, taken from the boatHarbour Tour

This boat trip around the harbour is included in the price of the museums and is well worth doing.  It takes about 45 minutes and looks at the history of Portsmouth as a naval base as well as taking a look at any modern Royal Navy vessels that happen to be in port at the time.  This was a treat for us as it gave us the chance to get a very good look at the brand new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier which is astonishing.  There were a couple of great photo ops including the Victory – the old and the new navy side by side.  Well worth doing but wrap up warmly if you’re doing it in January…

The Mary Rose Museum

This was my bonus treat of the day.  Completely out of my period, but the skeletal remains of Henry VIII’s flagship, raised from the Solent and preserved along with many artifacts, is one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen.  The museum is very new and combines the history of the ship and its sinking with the story of its recovery very effectively.  The technology used to display the ghostly hulk of the Mary Rose, with images of its daily life projected onto it, is impressive.  I can remember following this story as a history student back in the eighties and what they’ve done since then defies belief.  Along with the Victory, this has to be the highlight of the Dockyard and is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, so atmospheric.  Go and see it.

The Mary Rose was the end of our day.  I plan to come back and spend a few days in Portsmouth.  I want to see the rest of the historic dockyard: there is a lot more to see, including the Victorian HMS Warrior, the Submarine Museum, HMS M.33 and several other attractions that I didn’t have time to explore.  This would be an excellent place to visit with children, they have their own dedicated play areas but the exhibits themselves are very much designed for all ages.  Mine are older now but they would have loved this place.  I would also like to spend time looking at the town itself.  I definitely got what I came for, but I want more.

I’ve been worried about taking on the mammoth task of writing about the navy in 1807 when I feel so much more comfortable with the army, but Portsmouth Historic dockyard is a big step forward for me.  After months of reading and making notes I suddenly feel that I’ve got a sense of my locations in the same way I did when I stood on the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.  Writing the navy is very different; although they lived and loved on shore, when they went to work they did it in a small space, bound by wooden walls but with the ocean all around them.  That must have shaped the character of the men who fought and died with Nelson and I’m looking forward to getting to know some of them better.

An Unwilling Alliance is due for publication in April 2018.

 

 

 

 

Copenhagen 1807 – the Navy meets the Army, an Excerpt from An Unwilling Alliance

Old Haymarket, Copenhagen

In Copenhagen, 1807 the British army under Lord Cathcart and the Royal Navy under Admiral Gambier cooperated to seize the Danish fleet to stop it falling into the hands of the French.  Denmark was a neutral country and the bombardment of Copenhagen, although it achieved its aim, was not universally popular.

The army reserve was commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley, keen to return to the field from his position as Chief Secretary in Ireland, and in An Unwilling Alliance a meeting of the various commanders brings together Captain Hugh Kelly, the Manx commander of the Iris and a young army major on the rise, serving under Sir Arthur Wellesley, Major Paul van Daan…

Hugh turned at a sudden noise from the stable yard.  The commanders had left their horses in charge of a groom and the man had roped them to a long wooden bar outside the stables.  There was no sign of him now but one of the horses, a solid piebald with knots in his mane and a thick neck, had broken loose from the rail and was backing up across the yard.  His freedom was making the other horses restive and they were pulling on their tethers.  Hugh swore softly under his breath and made his way outside.

Another man was ahead of him, one of the escort who had arrived with the army commanders.  He was tall and fair, an officer in a red coat, his back to Hugh as he approached the piebald, placing himself between the horse and the way out of the yard.  Hugh went to the bar where the other horses were tied and inspected the ropes.  As he had suspected, every one of them was poorly tied, ready to be loosened with a determined tug.  Hugh sighed and released the first of them, retying it.

The officer spoke, his voice a clear baritone which was hard to place.  The accent spoke of privilege and wealth and the purchase of a commission but the phrasing and words were slightly unusual, as if this man had lived a varied life in many places.

“Stand still, you cross-eyed Danish bastard, I’m not chasing you halfway across the city because a groom can’t tie a knot.  Come here.”

He caught the loose rein and then moved in confidently as the horse reared up in fright, putting a soothing hand on the ungroomed neck and running it down the horse’s shoulder.  “All right lad, I know you’re scared.  No need to be.  Come on, let’s get you back where you should be and fed and watered.  And by the look of you a brush wouldn’t go amiss.  Come on.”

He was holding his body against the horse, steadying him, and the animal quietened immediately, soothed by the confidence in both voice and body.  Hugh watched in reluctant admiration as the man turned, leading the horse back into the yard.  He was wearing the insignia of a major and looked several years younger than Hugh with fair hair cut shorter than was fashionable, especially in the army or navy, and a pair of surprising blue eyes.  The eyes rested on Hugh for a moment, then the major led the horse back to its place at the rail and began to tie him up.  Hugh watched him in surprise for a moment, recognising the knot and then looked up into the major’s face.

“I doubt he’ll break away from that,” he said in matter-of-fact tones, moving on to re-tie the next horse.

The major did the same.  “How to tie a knot that stays tied was one of the only two useful things the bloody navy taught me,” he responded, pleasantly.

“What was the other?” Hugh asked.

“How to kill people.  I got very good at that.”  The major tied the last knot and surveyed Hugh’s handiwork to ensure that it was properly done with an arrogance which both irritated and amused Hugh.  Then the man looked up and saluted.  “Major Paul van Daan, Captain, 110th first battalion.  I’m here with Sir Arthur Wellesley.”

“Sir Arthur Wellesley might have been walking back to his lodgings if you’d not been as quick,” Hugh said, returning the salute.  “You’d think a groom would be better at tying up horses, wouldn’t you?”

“A Danish groom, this week?  What do you think, Captain?”

Hugh grinned.  “I think a pack of British commanders having to walk through town because their hired horses have buggered off might be a small victory but very satisfying,” he said.  “Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris, Major.  How did you end up in the army, then?  Navy didn’t suit?”

“I was fifteen and I didn’t volunteer, Captain.  Put me off a bit.”

Hugh shot him a startled glance.  “Christ, you don’t sound like a man who ought to have been pressed.”

“They don’t always play by the rules.  But it was definitely educational.”

“How long were you in?”

“Two years.  Made petty officer, fought in a few skirmishes and at the Nile.”

Hugh felt his respect grow.  “I was there myself,” he said.  “Let me buy you a drink.  They’ll be a while, I suspect.  You on Wellesley’s staff?”

The major grinned.  “Not officially, although he bloody thinks I am.  Let me have a word with that groom and I’ll be with you.”

Hugh watched as he went to the stable door and yelled.  The man emerged at a run and stood before Van Daan, his eyes shifting to the neatly tied horses in some surprise.  He looked back at the major, his expression a combination of guilt and defiance.

Van Daan reached out, took him by one ear, and led him to the horses as if he had been a misbehaving schoolboy.  He indicated the newly tied knots, spoke briefly and then clipped the groom around the head, not very hard.  Hugh saw him point to the feed troughs and water pump, using gestures to make up for the language difficulties.  He then pointed to the piebald’s tangled mane and muddy coat and gestured again.  The groom was nodding, his sulky expression lightening a little.

Having given his orders, something with which Hugh observed sardonically that Paul van Daan seemed very comfortable, the young major reached into his coat pocket and took out two coins which he held up.  The groom’s eyes fixed on them and Paul van Daan pointed to the horses and spoke again.  The man nodded.  The major handed him one coin and put the other back into his pocket.  Then he smiled, the first real smile Hugh had seen him give, and it transformed his face.  The groom smiled back as though he could not help it, and the major put his hand on the man’s shoulder, laughed, and then ruffled the dirty hair with surprising informality as if he were a younger brother or cousin.  He released the groom and went to the ugly piebald horse, stroking his neck.  The animal nuzzled his shoulder and Van Daan smiled, reached into his pocket and took out a treat.  He stroked the horse as he fed it and Hugh watched him and wondered if the small drama he had just watched played out was regularly enacted with Van Daan’s men.  If it was, he suspected the man was an asset to the army.

“Major van Daan!”

The voice was cold, clipped, it’s tone biting, coming from an upstairs window of the inn, the room where the commanders were dining.  Van Daan turned and looked up.

“Is there a reason why you are in the stable yard socialising with the grooms when the man I have sent to search for you is combing this establishment looking for you?  Or are you under the impression that I asked you to accompany me in order to give you a day off?”

Major Paul van Daan saluted with a grin to the upstairs windows where the dark head of Sir Arthur Wellesley protruded.  “Sorry, sir, didn’t think you’d need me for a bit.”

“It appears that the secretary provided speaks very little English and I would prefer to have this meeting fully documented in a language that the cabinet in London understands.  Sir Home Popham appears to be of the opinion that no minutes are needed at all which makes me all the more determined to provide them.  Try to write legibly for once.”

“On my way, sir,” Van Daan said.  Wellesley withdrew his head and the major gave one more nut to the piebald, called a word to the groom who was filling water buckets with considerable speed and joined Hugh at the door.  “I’m sorry, Captain, we’ll need to postpone that drink, it appears I am now a secretary as well as a battalion commander.  Thanks for your help with the horses.”

“You’re welcome,” Hugh said.  “You in trouble, Major?”

“Wellesley?  Jesus, no, that’s him on a good day,” Van Daan said, laughing.  “I’d better go before he causes serious offence.  Good afternoon.”

An Unwilling Alliance is due for publication in April 2018.  An Unconventional Officer, telling the story of Paul van Daan and the 110th infantry is available on Amazon.

 

Welcome to 2018 at Writing with Labradors

Fireworks in London
Fireworks in London

Welcome to 2018 at Writing with Labradors.  It’s New Year’s Day on the Isle of Man, and it’s raining, windy and freezing cold.  In some ways this is a relief because if it had been a nice day I would have felt obliged to go out for a walk and I don’t feel like it.

It’s been a very different and very busy Christmas this year, with Richard’s family with us for the whole of the holidays, and then entertaining friends to dinner last night.  I’ve had no time to write, research or do anything else and in some ways that’s been quite hard.

I think it has probably done me good, however.  Time away from the current book has given me the chance to think through what I’d like to do with it and I feel a lot clearer about where it is going.  I’m very happy with the few chapters I’ve written and research is going well so I’m looking forward to getting on with it.  I think my head may have needed the break.

It’s made me think a bit more about how I schedule my writing time going forward.  I’m very privileged that I don’t have to hold down a full time job at the same time as writing, but I do have a very busy life with a family, my dogs, a big house to maintain and accounts and admin to be done for Richard’s business.  I’m aware that it’s very easy to let things slide when I’m in the middle of a book, but I realise that I need to be better organised both with the various tasks through the day and with time off to relax.

This year I’ve edited and published seven existing novels, with all the associated marketing and publicity, I’ve written an eighth book from scratch and published it and I’ve started a ninth.  I’ve handed my Irish dance school over to my two lovely teachers to run, I’ve supported son and daughter through GCSEs and AS levels, my old fella Toby through an operation at the age of 13 and I’ve had a major foot operation myself.  I’ve toured the battlefields of Spain and Portugal where some of my books are set and I went to Berlin, Killarney, London, Hertfordshire, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool.  I lost a very dear old family friend and went to his funeral.  And I’ve gained some amazing new friends, some of whom I’ve not even met yet, although I’m hoping to this year.  I’ve set up a website and an author page, joined Twitter and Instagram and I genuinely feel I can now call myself an author, something I had doubts about in one of my first posts on this website.

It has been an amazing year and I’m so grateful for all the help and support I’ve received.  I’ve not won any awards, although I’ve had one or two reviews which have felt like getting an Oscar.  Still, I’d like to do the thank you speech, because it’s the end of my first year as a published author and I owe so many people thanks for that.

Lynn and Richard
Love and Marriage

I’m starting with the man I married, who has been absolutely incredible throughout this.  He set up my website and taught me how to use it, and has always been there to answer any questions about technology.  He spent hours designing the new covers for the Peninsular War Saga and he also took the photographs which are gorgeous.  He drove me through Spain and Portugal, scrambled over battlefields and listened to me endlessly lecturing with more patience than I could have imagined.  He has celebrated my good reviews and sympathised over the bad ones.  He’s been completely amazing this year – thank you, Richard.  You are the best.

My son is studying for A levels at home and shares the study with me.  That’s not always easy, as during research I tend to spread out from my desk into the surrounding area, onto his table and onto the floor.  He has become expert at negotiating his way through piles of history books.  He is also a brilliant cook and will unfailingly provide dinner at the point when it becomes obvious I am too far gone in the nineteenth century to have remembered that we need to eat.  Thanks, Jon.

Castletown 2017
Castletown 2017

My daughter is my fellow historian and brings me joy every day.  She mocks my devotion to Lord Wellington ruthlessly, puts up with my stories, lets me whinge to her and makes me laugh all the time.  She drags me away from my desk to go for hot chocolate and to watch the sun go down, watches cheesy TV with me, helps me put up the Christmas decorations and corrects my fashion sense.  Thank you, bambino.

There are so many other people I should thank.  Heather, for always being there and for offering to proof-read; Sheri McGathy for my great book covers; Suzy and Sarah for their support and encouragement.

Then there are the many, many people online who have helped me with research queries, answered beginners questions about publishing and shared my sense of the ridiculous more than I could have believed possible.  There are a few of you out there but I’m singling out Jacqueline Reiter, Kristine Hughes Patrone and Catherine Curzon in particular.  I’m hoping to meet you all in person in 2018 and to share many more hours of Wellington and Chatham on Twitter, Archduke Charles dressed as a penguin and the mysterious purpose of Lady Greville’s dodgy hat.  A special mention also goes to M. J. Logue who writes the brilliant Uncivil War series, and who is my online partner-in-crime in considering new ways for the mavericks of the army to annoy those in charge and laughing out loud at how funny we find ourselves.

The new book is called An Unwilling Alliance and is the first book to be set partly on the Isle of Man, where I live.  The hero, a Royal Navy captain by the name of Hugh Kelly is a Manxman who joined the navy at sixteen and has returned to the island after Trafalgar with enough prize money to buy an estate, invest in local business and find himself a wife while his new ship is being refitted.  It’s a tight timescale, but Hugh is used to getting things his own way and is expecting no trouble with Roseen Crellin, the daughter of his new business partner.  Her father approves, she is from the right background and the fact that she’s very pretty is something of a bonus.  It hasn’t occurred to Hugh that the lady might not see things the same way…

The title obviously refers to the somewhat rocky start to Hugh and Roseen’s relationship, but it has other meanings as well.  The book moves on to the 1807 British campaign in Denmark and the bombardment of Copenhagen, in which Captain Kelly is involved.  The Danes were unwilling to accept British terms for the surrender of their fleet to avoid it falling into the hands of the French and as an alliance proved impossible, the British resorted to force.

In addition, there was something of an unwilling alliance between the two branches of the British armed forces taking part in the Copenhagen campaign.  There is a history of difficulties between the Army and the Navy during this period, and given that the Danish campaign required the two to work together, there is an interesting conflict over the best way to conduct the campaign.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

The naval commander during this campaign was Admiral James Gambier while the army was commanded by Lord Cathcart.  While Captain Hugh Kelly served under Gambier in the British fleet, a division of the army under Cathcart was commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley and Brigadier General Stewart and consisted of battalions from the 43rd, 52nd, 95th and 92nd – the nucleus of the future Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s Peninsular army.  In An Unconventional Officer,  we learn that the expedition is to be joined by the first battalion of the 110th infantry under the command of the newly promoted Major Paul van Daan and An Unwilling Alliance looks at the campaign from both the army and naval perspective, filling in part of Paul’s story which is not covered in the series.

I am hoping that the book will be published at the beginning of April 2018 and it will be followed by book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, covering the Salamanca campaign and the retreat from Burgos some time in the summer.  After that I will either get on with the sequel to A Respectable Woman which follows the lives of the children of Kit and Philippa Clevedon or the third book in the Light Division series, set after Waterloo.

We’re hoping to go back to Portugal and Spain this year for further photography and battlefield mayhem.  I’ve got some new ideas for the website and will be publishing several more short stories through the year.  My first research trip is in a couple of weeks time when I’ll be visiting Portsmouth and the Victory, the National Maritime Museum and possibly the Imperial War Museum if I don’t run out of time.  And the Tower of London for no reason at all apart from the fact that Wellington used to enjoy bossing people around there.

Writing with Labradors
Toby and Joey – Writing with Labradors

My final thanks go to the real stars of Writing with Labradors.  Toby, my old fella, is thirteen now and survived a major operation this year far better than I did.  Joey is eleven and needs to lose some weight.  They are my friends, my babies and my constant companions and I can’t imagine life without either of them although I know that day is going to come.  Thank you to my dogs who are with me all the time I’m working and who make every day happier.

Happy New Year to all my family, friends, readers and supporters.  Looking forward to 2018.

 

 

Snow in Yorkshire, January 1808 – Excerpt from An Unconventional Officer

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

As we’ve a rare snowy day on the Isle of Man, I thought I’d share a wintery excerpt from An Unconventional Officer although snow in Yorkshire is a bit more common…

Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry is in temporary charge of the 115th Yorkshire foot, a regiment in chaos. His attempts to impose some discipline haven’t been popular resulting in one of the men throwing a rock at his head and causing him to be thrown in a blizzard. In addition, he hasn’t had any breakfast…

He arrived in barracks over an hour later, having given Rufus an easy ride, careful of his legs in the snow. The horse was surprisingly well for his night’s ordeal, and acting on instinct Paul followed his hoof prints in the snow to find out where he had been. The results were interesting. He rode into the stable and dismounted, handing the reins to a groom with a pleasant nod. There was no sign of life out on the pure white snow of the parade ground. Paul walked over and tested the depth. It was a pleasing eight or nine inches with an underlying layer of ice.
He walked over to the stores, nodded to the elderly sergeant who acted as store master, and walked through to the back. He was aware of the old man’s puzzled regard as he lifted a rifle down from the rack, and checked it, then collected some ammunition. Standing in the doorway he loaded swiftly, observing the surprised expression on the store master’s face at the speed. Carter or any one of his rifles would have considered it slow, but for an officer who did not practice regularly it was impressive. Nodding again, he walked out of the store and across to the mess. It was warm inside. Paul leaned the rifle up against the inside of the door and surveyed his officers benignly.
There were seven of them. Lieutenant Carlyon was not present, presumably at home still suffering from the after effects of having a tooth drawn. Paul was glad, as it absolved him of any possible hint of favouritism. Captain Moore was lounging closest to the fire, with his boots on the fender. Beside him sat Lieutenants Bagnall, Walsh and Hendry. A pack of cards was strewn across the table before them. The three young ensigns were sitting further away from the fire. As Paul entered, all heads turned.
“Don’t get up,” he said gently, and every man scrambled reluctantly to his feet, Moore taking the longest. Paul waved them to their seats. Ensign Franklin’s eyes widened. “What happened to your head, sir?” he asked.
“An accident on my way here yesterday.”
“Were you caught in that storm?” Moore said casually.
“In a manner of speaking. Somebody threw a rock at my head on my way here and I ended up decorating the road with a twisted knee and no horse. I rather imagined that Rufus would have made his way back here, but I’m guessing not. Or you’d have sent somebody out to look for me.”
Walsh looked at the others. “No, sir. Was he…did you get him back?”
“Oh yes. He must have been running loose all night in that storm, and then made his way back to find me. Fortunately I found a shepherd’s hut to spend the night in, because I couldn’t have walked that far in that weather.”
“Thank God for that, sir,” Bagnall said heartily. Paul looked around at the seven men, noticing the obvious discomfort of the three ensigns.
“No drill this morning?” Paul asked, still pleasantly.
“No, sir. Parade ground snowed under.”
“Ah, yes. Never mind.” Paul allowed his eyes to wander from one face to another. Ensign Franklin, who seemed to be the most perceptive, was looking terrified. “I expect it won’t take too long to clear.”
They stared at him owlishly, and Paul smiled. He picked up the rifle.
“Anyone load one of these?” he enquired.
“I know how, sir,” Hendry said. “Not often had to do it.”
“I’ve found it useful to learn. Keeps the men on their toes. I’ve half a dozen riflemen in the light company, and they’d laugh themselves silly at how slow I am. Nevertheless, I think I can probably engage to reload fast enough to put a ball through every one of you fucking liars before any of you could get out of the room. Who wants to go first?”
He lifted the rifle and aimed it squarely at Walsh’s knee. Walsh gave a nervous laugh.
“Shouldn’t wave that thing around in here, sir. I mean I know it’s not loaded, but…”
Paul lowered the rifle slightly and fired. The shot hit the floor between Walsh’s feet and the man yelled and leaped backwards, almost stumbling into the fire in his haste. Paul reloaded. Nobody else moved.
“Rufus’ saddle and tack were bone dry this morning when he turned up looking for me,” he said quietly. “So I followed his tracks. Of course the ones he made yesterday would have been covered up. But this morning they led all the way from his stable. He turned up here yesterday, just as I thought, and you all decided to have a jolly good laugh about me getting thrown on the road, and stuck out in that storm. And if I’d frozen to death in a ditch, you’d have shaken your heads and silently thanked God that there was nobody here to kick your lazy, useless arses into action any further! And you know what? That is not what has pissed me off! What has really made me fucking angry is that this morning you saddled my horse and sent him off on his own to God knows where, in weather likely to cause him to break his legs just so that I wouldn’t be able to work out what you’d done! You are so bloody lucky that he’s got more brain than you have and managed to get to me in one piece, because if I’d had to shoot him with a broken leg, I’d have shot you as well! You take it out on me and I can hit back and we’re even! But when you turn on my animals, I am going to make your lives a bloody misery from now until they either post me somewhere else or you sell out!”
He turned, opened the door, and roared:
“Sergeant!”
There was a scramble in the nearest barracks and Sergeant Holland appeared, stuffing his feet into his boots and pulling up his trousers. “Sir?” he said, sounding incredulous.
“Battalion on the parade ground, Sergeant. Now!”
The sergeant stared out at the pure white expanse. “But sir…”
“Ten minutes, Sergeant! And you ought to be able to do it in five! You’re a bloody disgrace!”
Holland saluted. “Yes, sir.”
He jogged off. Paul turned to find a private standing before him, obviously dressed for sentry duty. He saluted and handed Paul a letter. “This just came for you, sir.”
“Thank you.” Paul gave a brief smile, and opened the letter. He scanned it and gave an appreciative grin. It was a very civil note from Lady Howard, thanking him for his assistance in getting her step-daughter to shelter during the storm and inviting him to dine before the ball on Thursday.
He looked up. “Will you wait a moment, Private? I’d like to reply immediately, and you can send one of the grooms with it.”
“Yes, sir.”
Paul looked back at his officers. They were still frozen to the spot, staring at him. “I want that parade ground cleared,” he said. “From barracks wall to barracks wall. And when you get to the bottom of the snow, I want the ice chipped away as well. It will be fit for use by tomorrow, I imagine, and you’ll all be nice and warm by then.”
“Sir?” Bagnall stammered.
“Yes, Lieutenant. You. Each and every one of you. Set your men a good example for once in your lives, go and get a spade each and get digging alongside them. And if I see you stop for anything longer than a piss, I’m going to shoot you for mutiny. And before you open your mouth, Walsh, I know your father is high up at Horse Guards, and if he turns up here whining about it, I’ll shoot him as well! Don’t worry, I can make it look like a training accident. I’ve done it before!” He surveyed the seven men with merciless blue eyes. “The reason you’ve got four companies of lazy useless gobshites is because they’re led by lazy useless gobshites! I intend to amend that, starting from now. Get moving!”

(From an Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant)

An Exploring Officer – a ghost story of the Peninsular War

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

An Exploring Officer – a ghost story of the Peninsular War was written last year for Halloween but I thought I’d publish it again for anybody who missed it.

Church in Freineda, Portugal (An Exploring Officer)It was late afternoon when the storm hit, sudden and violent with a warm wind whipping up dust and sand in choking swirls and the sky becoming leaden and menacing as Giles Fenwick rode south towards Salamanca. His horse, a big rawboned grey was accustomed to long rides in the worst weather conditions, but even he seemed uncomfortable and restive under Giles’ hands. Looking up at the rapidly blackening skies, Giles made the decision to seek shelter for the night.

Since he had transferred to the Corps of Guides from his regiment a year earlier, Giles had become accustomed to sleeping out in all kinds of weather and was surprisingly good at keeping himself warm and dry wrapped in his army greatcoat, but he was sensitive to Boney’s moods. Riding alone for weeks and sometimes months at a time, his horse was his transport, his companion and more than once his lifeline and he was not prepared to risk a night in the open with Boney nervous and ready to bolt at a sudden clap of thunder. Better to make his way to a village and wait the storm out in the relative security of a barn or farmhouse.

Giles did not know the area particularly well. He had been in Ciudad Rodrigo enjoying a rare and all too brief few days of rest when his orders had come. Major Scovell had sounded apologetic in his short note, aware of how exhausting the life of an exploring officer could be and how necessary an occasional spell of respite was, but Lord Wellington was ordering all leave cancelled and Giles had called the commander-in-chief a variety of rude names under his breath, collected supplies and his Spanish guide, Antonio, and had ridden north as ordered, spending weeks dodging the French in the area around Valladolid while Lord Wellington’s Allied army marched on Salamanca. Whatever the result of Wellington’s latest sortie into Spain he wanted intelligence about French troops and defences towards Madrid and beyond out towards Burgos. If he succeeded in driving the French out of Salamanca he wanted to know everything he could about their dispositions to help him decide on his next move.

With his information gathered, Giles had made two coded copies of his notes and sent one off with Antonio via a different route. The risk of either of them being captured was always great. Antonio, a Spanish guide would be shot on sight. Giles was still wearing at least a semblance of British uniform but he was under no illusions that the French would treat him as anything other than a spy. It was a risk he was used to and had accepted when he had taken on the job.

Reaching into his coat, Giles pulled out a sketch map and studied it. If he veered off to the south-west, heading back towards the main road, there was a village marked. It was unlikely that French patrols would be found in this area and he could find shelter for himself and his horse and hopefully some food. When the storm settled he could resume his journey either to the Allied lines outside Salamanca or into the city if Wellington’s attack had been successful. Giles tucked the map away and set off, thinking of Antonio and hoping that he was safe.

The rain started about a mile out of the village, huge raindrops which drove into his eyes with the wind and made it difficult to see anything beyond Boney’s twitching ears. There was a flash across the sky and then a crash of thunder so loud that it made Giles jump. It sounded alarmingly close and Boney reared up in fright. Giles pulled him back and reached out, running his hand over the smooth neck.

“Calm down, boy,” he said gently. “I’m not so keen on it either. Let’s get moving.”

He guided the horse on through the downpour, trying not to react to the thunder claps or the white flashes of lightening which tore into the darkened sky with savage frequency. He could feel Boney’s terror under his hands and he no longer tried to move cautiously. If there was a French sentry at the edge of the village it was too dark to see him until Boney fell over him, but in this weather the enemy could hardly use firepower and Giles had a good deal of faith in his own ability to win in a one to one fight. His care now was for his horse. He could see, finally, a huddle of buildings looming up through the torrential rain, and he quickened his mount slightly and then swore as Boney suddenly skidded and let out a squeal of pain.

Giles reined him in and swung down from the saddle keeping a firm hold on the reins. He could see immediately what had caused the problem, a large rock, smooth and wet and slippery had caused Boney to stumble. The horse, already terrified, was trying to pull away from him and Giles could see that he was lame. There was no point trying to examine the damage here. Giles turned, tugging on the reins to bring Boney in close to him, hoping that his body against the horse’s might soothe him a little. One hand on the reins, the other on the shivering animal’s neck, he led Boney firmly into the village.

It was a small place, a huddle of stone cottages around a crossroads with a church at the centre. As he drew closer, Giles could see that the church had no roof and was damaged, one end of the building sagging dangerously. He wondered initially if the village was deserted. But several of the houses were in reasonable condition, and even had small walled gardens growing vegetables or fruit trees. Somebody was tending those and he ploughed on doggedly towards the largest house, a solid looking farmhouse beyond the church with shuttered windows and a big oak door.

As Giles approached, the door opened. He was relieved although wary. If the French were, for some unlikely reason, in this village miles from where they should be, they were nowhere in sight. But he had learned to be cautious. Most of the villagers in Spain were willing to be friendly enough to a lone English officer, and Giles spoke Spanish fluently; it was one of his qualifications for the job. But he was also aware that there was a considerable proportion of Spaniards who had supported Bonaparte and he was not taking any chances.

“Good evening, Señor. I’m in search of shelter for myself and my horse. Have you a barn or a shelter we can use until this blows over? And some fodder for my lad here, he’s exhausted. I can pay.”

The man held the door wider and in the light of a lamp from the room within, Giles could make out a stocky Spaniard, probably in his forties. He was almost bald although his beard was thick and dark with grey streaks and his eyes were dark. He turned and lifted the lantern, stepping out onto the steps and closing the door.

“This way. Around the back.”

Giles followed him and felt a rush of relief at the sight of a solid looking wooden building at the back of the house. The man unbarred the door, struggling to hold it in the force of the wind and Giles led Boney inside. When the door was closed the man came forward, hanging the lantern up on a hook clearly designed for the purpose and Giles looped Boney’s reins around a wooden rail on the wall and looked around him.

He was surprised at the air of prosperity about the place and was very sure that the French had not been near this place for a long time. The harvest had been brought in and there was hay for the horse. At the far end of the barn, two uninterested mules fed idly from a trough. The farmer moved past him and brought a leather bucket of water for Boney. Giles watched his horse drink and the farmer, without being asked, pulled over a wooden manger and filled it for the horse to eat.

“Thank you,” Giles said. “I’m very grateful. I should introduce myself, Señor. I’m…”

“In the house,” the Spaniard said. “See to your horse and then join me for supper. I can give you a bed for the night.”

“You don’t need to do that, I’ll be all right out here. Although food would be welcome.”

“Join me. We will talk.” The Spaniard surveyed him. “English?”

“Yes.”

“You speak my language well. Join me soon.”

Left alone, Giles went to check Boney’s leg. There was a little swelling, but it was not bad and the horse did not seem particularly distressed now that he was warm and dry and out of the storm. As the wind howled and the rain lashed against the sturdy walls, Giles rubbed him down, fussed him and made sure he was securely tied, then left him to rest and ventured out again, running over to the house where he found his host waiting for him in a dark panelled dining room.

“This is very kind of you, Señor, and you don’t even know my name. Captain Giles Fenwick of the Corps of Guides. I’m travelling to Salamanca.”

The Spaniard bowed. “Matias Benitez, Captain, at your service. You are joining the army there?”

Giles nodded. “Either in or out of the city, I’ve no idea which yet.”

“Come closer to the fire, Captain, it will dry your clothes. If you will hand your coat to my servant he will see that his wife dries it and brushes it for you, and she will launder anything else you wish before you leave.”

Giles masked a grin. Given the condition of the few items of spare clothing he carried in his saddlebags he was not sure they would survive a thorough washing. “You’re very hospitable, Señor Benitez, I’m grateful. I hope to be able to move on tomorrow.”

“You should rest your horse for a day, Captain, he was limping. Stay two nights, you will be safe here and you will make it to Salamanca faster with a rested and fed mount.”

Giles knew he was right. He handed his coat to an elderly servant with a smile of thanks and sat down before the fire which was blazing in a stone fireplace set into the wall. The room looked old with little furniture, just a table and some chairs. There were no pictures hanging on the walls, no cushions and no ornaments. Giles looked back at his host and realised that he had noticed him looking.

“The French,” Benitez said in matter of fact tones. “They came through on their way to Portugal two years ago. Many houses were destroyed, but they found mine a convenient place for the officers to stay so it survived. When they left they took everything of value with them. Much of the furniture went for firewood but they left some.”

“I’m sorry. You’ve rebuilt to some degree, though, it looked as though some houses are occupied. Did the villagers get away?”

“A few did. Most not. There are a dozen or so houses occupied now. We have managed to plant crops this past year so we no longer starve.”

Giles wanted to ask what had happened to the villagers who had not made it away from the French army but two years out here had taught him better. He accepted a pewter cup of sherry and sipped it appreciatively, feeling it warm his chilled body. He was finally beginning to relax.

“How long were they here?” he asked.

“A few months only. They have not returned, thank God. We are not on the main road so there is little cause for them to march this way unless they are searching for food. Or women, but there are none left apart from Maria, my servant and one elderly woman in the village. Nothing to bring them here.”

The door opened and the servant entered with a tray. Giles was glad as it saved him from responding. He wondered about Benitez’ own family. Travelling as he did, he had seen too many such tragedies in both Portugal and Spain through these years of war, and he was very aware that although the English were fighting and dying in the fight against Bonaparte, they were not fighting at home, watching their houses burn and their wives and daughters raped.

It had been weeks since he had sat down to a proper cooked meal and he tried hard to remember to eat like the gentleman he was supposed to be rather than like a starving beggar. He suspected that his host realised how hungry he was as he called several times for another dish. They talked through the meal of the war and Spanish politics and Giles responded civilly to questions about his aristocratic family. He seldom talked of them, but a man who had given so generously of his hospitality was entitled to have his curiosity satisfied.

When they had shared brandy after the meal, Giles rose. “Will you excuse me, Señor? I would like to see that my horse is secure before I retire.”

“Maria has prepared a guest room for you, Enzo can show you the way. No need to venture out in this weather tonight, the barn is very secure. It was rebuilt from scratch when we returned to the village. In the morning…”

Giles smiled and shook his head. “I won’t sleep unless I go,” he said. “It will only take me a few minutes.”

“You should not go out there, Captain. Not this late. It is dark…”

The Spaniard’s voice was emphatic and Giles was faintly puzzled. “I’ve very good night vision, sir, and I’ll take a lantern if I may. It sounds as though the rain has eased.”

“Still, it is not wise when it is dark.”

“I will be fine,” Giles said, firmly but pleasantly, and his host studied him and then sighed and got up.

“If you insist. Take the lantern from the hall, it is covered. But don’t linger out there, Captain. You’ll be chilled.”

Giles bowed and left, grinning once he was away from the older man. He wondered what Benitez thought he usually did when caught out in bad weather. He was a little touched by his host’s concern for him, however excessive it seemed, and he wondered again about the man’s family. Had they died when the French invaded their village? Had there been a son, cut down for defending his home or a daughter defiled and murdered?

Outside the wind was still strong but the thunder and lightening had passed over, just an occasional rumble in the distance to show the direction of the storm. The driving rain had slowed to a fine drizzle, and Giles pulled his greatcoat around him and made his way by the dim light of the lantern to the barn. Inside it was warm and dry and he could see at once that his concern for Boney was misplaced. The horse had eaten and drunk and appeared to be dozing but as Giles closed the door against the wind, Boney gave a soft whicker of greeting. Giles went to him, rubbing his nose and stroking his neck and the horse nuzzled him affectionately.

The leg did not seem too bad but Giles was aware that Benitez was probably right about resting it. Another day and night would ensure that the rest of their journey did not cause any further injury to Boney and Giles needed his horse to be fit and well. He had no money to buy a new mount, besides which he loved the horse and was not prepared to cripple him by pushing him beyond his limits. Boney was essential to his work and if the strain needed longer to heal, he would have to find a temporary mount for a while. It was not likely to be a problem. Unlike most of the other exploring officers, Giles had maintained close ties with his old regiment and there were several officers of the 110th more wealthy than he who would lend him a spare horse and take care of Boney while he mended, but for that to work he had to get him there. Wondering how lame he was, Giles unlooped the reins and began to walk Boney the length of the barn. He was pleased to see that the limp was already less obvious. Before they reached the end, Boney turned and walked back and Giles went with him, watching the movement of his leg. They reached the two curious mules, and Giles turned and led him back down the barn. Boney stopped at the same point he had turned last time and Giles urged him forwards, concentrating on the fetlock. Boney took four or five reluctant steps towards the end of the barn and without warning stopped dead. Giles looked at him, startled. The big grey uttered a loud squeal and moved back, pulling hard on the reins. His ears were flicking back and forth and his lip had curled back from his teeth, his tail down. He was exhibiting all the signs of being terrified but Giles could see nothing which might have alarmed him.

He led the frightened horse back down the barn and stood fussing him, feeling Boney gradually calm down. When he was settled, Giles left him and went back to the other end of the barn. Any object could have spooked the horse simply by being unexpected, but as far as Giles could see there was nothing there. He looked around curiously. The only difference in this part of the barn was that it was significantly colder presumably caused by a loose board or a badly sealed joint. Giles shrugged and lifted the lantern. The flame flickered suddenly and went out leaving him in complete darkness.

Cursing fluently, Giles stood very still until his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There was no point in trying to find his tinderbox to relight the lamp. It was not far to the house and once outside he should be able to see his way by the lights from the house. As his vision adjusted, he could see the solid bulk of Boney at the far end of the barn, and a gleam of eyes beyond him showed where the two mules stood. Cautiously, Giles moved forward to the wall of the barn and felt his way along. He had almost reached the door when something came towards him very fast and hit him so hard that he fell backwards, keeping his feet only because his hand was on the wall to steady himself. He stood motionless for a moment, his heart racing, and then a blast of cold air brought the explanation and Giles grinned as he realised that his attacker was the barn door which had swung open in the wind. How, he had no idea because he was sure he had closed it properly, but he was relieved and amused at how jumpy he was.

Outside he latched the door carefully and checked it to make sure it could not blow open again then turned to go back to the house. As he had hoped, there were several well lit windows to guide him and he was almost there when something caught his eye and he stopped and turned. It was coming from the ruined church; an orange flicker of fire. Giles stood staring for a moment and then a voice called and Señor Benitez was opening the door.

Giles hesitated and then went on to the house and his host closed the door firmly behind him. “Your lantern?”

“It blew out – I must have left the barn door open,” Giles said. “But Señor, is there somebody camping out in the old church? I’m pretty sure I just saw a fire there.”

The Spaniard’s eyes widened. “The church? No. No, there is nobody there.”

“I think there is, Señor. Let me get a light and I’ll go down and…”

“No!” Benitez said, and his response was so forceful that it startled Giles. Benitez seemed to realise it because he gave a somewhat forced smile. “I am sure you are wrong, but I will send Enzo to be sure.”

Giles regarded him thoughtfully. “I would if I were you, Señor. In this wind a spark could easily blow this far and the rain has almost stopped.”

He said nothing more. The servant showed him to a small room at the back of the house overlooking the barn and upon request, Giles handed over his shabby garments for laundering with an apologetic smile and went to bed. He was tired and a proper bed was a pleasure after weeks sleeping on the hard ground.

He awoke abruptly and sat up. It was still full dark and Giles had no idea what had awoken him but he was aware that his heart was pounding and all his senses, finely attuned from months of living on his wits behind enemy lines, screaming danger. It might just have been a dream, disturbed by an owl or some other night bird although it was unusual for him to dream. Giles sat still, listening. There was no sound from below, it must be the early hours of the morning and the household was asleep. But something had disturbed him.

He got up, dressed only in his underclothes and padded to the window, pushing open the shutter. It was too dark to make out more than vague shapes; he could see the dark bulk of the barn, and the outline of the little grove of orange trees which he had noticed earlier. The wind seemed to have died down finally and the trees were not moving. But something did, just at the corner of his vision and he turned his head sharply and saw a figure move at the far end of the barn. The surprise of it made him jump.

It was impossible to make out details in the darkness and Giles knew he would not even have seen the man if he had not moved. He peered through the inky night trying to see more. There was no reason why Señor Benitez should not walk in his own garden in the early hours, but Giles could also think of no reason why he would. He thought briefly about Boney, sleeping in the barn and then he turned and reached for his trousers, a pair of thick French overalls which he had stripped off a dead voltigeur months ago and which were far more sturdy than those issued by the British army. He was probably just being over suspicious, but there was a chronic shortage of good horses throughout Spain and he was not risking losing Boney to some passing opportunist.

Aware of how dark it was, he took time to find a lantern in the kitchen and check that it was topped up with oil. There was no sound anywhere in the house but Maria had left the fire banked for the night and his spare clothing was hanging before it to dry. Giles collected his coat and pulled it on, lit the lantern and made his way cautiously out of the back door, leaving it slightly open.

There was no sign of life as he made his way down towards the barn. The door was still barred as he had left it earlier and Giles opened it and went inside. He was immediately reassured. Boney had settled down for the night and barely stirred as he went to stroke him. One of the mules was snoring faintly, snuffling in it’s sleep. Everything was as it should be and Giles shook his head at his suspicious mind, barred the door behind him and turned to go back to the house.

He saw the man once again, just on the edge of his vision, and once again it made him jump. He was further over now, around the side of the house towards the ruined church. Giles stopped, his heart beating more quickly. The figure was not moving but stood outlined against a faint light, and once again Giles saw the flicker of fire from the church.

“Who goes there?” he called out in Spanish. “Come out, you’re safe, I’m not going to hurt you.”

There was no reply and the man did not move. Giles waited a moment and then set off towards the church. He was beginning to suspect that he was not the only traveller to have stopped to find shelter from yesterday’s storm in this isolated village. The war had left many people homeless and it was not unusual to find small groups of miserable refugees camped out in ruined buildings, surviving as best they could, wandering from place to place ahead of the marching armies. He had no quarrel with them sheltering in the old church; it was none of his business, but for his own peace of mind he needed to know.

Watching his footing in the darkness he took his eye off the figure, and when he looked again the man had gone, presumably back into the church. Giles approached the building, speeding up slightly. One end of the church was virtually intact, but the other was damaged, what was left of the tower broken and sagging dangerously. He was not sure that he would have chosen this particular building as a camp site but given the weather yesterday he could believe that a man might be desperate enough to take shelter here, risking the building coming down in the high wind. Cautiously he made his way along the stone wall, aware of the smell of the fire inside. It was very smoky and he coughed, wondering how the travellers were not choking in this. And then suddenly, as he reached the edge of the wall, the church exploded.

Giles was knocked off his feet, crashing to the damp earth, his ears ringing with the blast. He lay there for a moment, too shocked to move. The still of the night was torn apart by the crackle of flame and the crash of falling masonry and the screams of terror and agony and despair. He recognised the voices of women and the shrill high cry of a child and he could smell the smoke and feel the heat of the flames on his skin.

A woman screamed again, a scream of sheer, bloodcurdling terror. It roused Giles to action and he opened his eyes, scrambled to his feet and swung round to the church, steeling himself to run into the choking smoke to see if he could get anybody out before the already damaged walls came down and buried them all alive. Already his brain, used to the noise and chaos of battle, was thinking ahead, wondering about the safest way in, wondering how many there were and how many he could reach….

There was nothing there.

Giles froze in complete bewilderment as he realised that all he could see was darkness and all he could smell was the fresh, cold night air. The ruined church loomed before him, dark and ominous as before, but with no fire, no screaming people. The smoke had gone, the sounds had vanished, cut off as if they had never been. He was standing alone, staring at the silent building and there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. And then, once again, he caught that movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned his head slowly with a sense of pure dread, knowing what he would see. The solitary figure was standing closer than Giles had seen him so far. It was clearly a man, and although Giles could not make out his face, the uniform was that of a French officer.

It took a long moment before his shocked brain assimilated what had just happened and then came the fear he ought to have felt before. He was sweating and shivering at the same time, his skin crawling with a sense of repulsion which nothing logical could explain. He had dropped the lantern when he fell and it had gone out, he could smell the oil spilling onto the ground. His eyes fixed on the solitary figure he backed up cautiously until his eyes could stay open no longer and he blinked. The figure was gone. Giles no longer wondered where, or how it could have moved without him seeing it. He turned and ran for the house, slamming the door behind him, and went through into the warmth of the kitchen, needing light and a sense of normality. There were several candles on the wooden table and he lit two from the fire with shaking hands and then stoked the fire into life and sat huddled in a wooden chair before it, waiting for his pounding heart to slow and the sense of horror to settle.

“Captain Fenwick.”

The voice made him jump. He stood and turned. Benitez was standing in the doorway, wearing some kind of robe, a candle held high. Giles studied him without speaking. After a moment, the Spaniard came forward, put the candleholder on the table, and went to the big wooden dresser. He returned with a bottle and two cups and poured for both of them. Giles took the brandy without thanks, sat down and drank. After a moment, he felt something around his shoulders and realised that his host had draped a worn woollen blanket around him. Only then did he realise that he was shivering violently. He set the cup down and Benitez refilled it and then pulled a stool close to the fire.

“Are you all right?” he asked quietly.

Giles raised his eyes from his contemplation of the blaze. “No,” he said. “Of course I’m not bloody all right and you know why! What the hell was that?”

“I am sorry, Captain. I did not wish you to see…”

“Well I saw, so start talking.”

“It was not real,” Benitez said and his voice was curiously gentle. “None of it was real.”

“Well I didn’t dream it, Señor. I was out there. I heard the explosion and I smelled the smoke and I heard…what did I hear? The villagers?”

Benitez nodded. “I was not here. I fought with a partisan band – most of the men did. We had ambushed a French patrol in a valley five miles from here. They were all killed. What we did not know was that there was a second patrol in the area. They came across the bodies and gave chase. We were outnumbered so we went up into the hills. They know better than to follow us there.”

“And they came here instead,” Giles said and he could hear the tremor in his own voice. He picked up the cup again and took another sip of brandy. “Your family.”

“All of them. My wife and two daughters, my tenants…we think they locked them in the church and set fire to it. What they probably did not know was that we were using the church to hide supplies…and ammunition, gunpowder…”

“Did anybody survive?”

“No. When the church blew up a few were able to escape but the French bayoneted them as they ran. They raped the women before they killed them. We found the bodies when we returned.”

Giles did not speak for a while. The story was tragic, but it was not new. He had ridden through villages devastated by war on many occasions and he could remember the campaign of 1811, his first in Portugal with the 110th when the light division had been able to follow the direction of the fleeing French armies by following the plumes of smoke as they burned towns and villages on the way. He found himself wondering if such things always left this violent impression on the land long after the tragedy was over and the armies had marched on.

“When did this start happening? When did you first see it?”

“Not straight away. Most of the men left. There was nothing for them here. A few of us stayed, tried to rebuild.”

“But you don’t go out of the house after dark.”

“Would you?”

Giles drained the brandy glass. “Me? I’d do exactly what I plan to do tomorrow, Señor Benitez. I’d get the hell out of here.”

“Your horse…”

“I’ll take it slow, walk him part of the way if I need to. Our infantry don’t have the luxury of horseback, it won’t kill me. If necessary I’ll find somewhere else to rest him for a few nights. But not here. Thank you, you’ve been very hospitable. I’m sorry for what happened, and I know none of this was your fault. But I don’t know how you’ve lived with that out there every night since you came back. Knowing it’s there, I’m not staying another night.”

“I understand. Go back to bed, Captain. Nothing will disturb you in the house; it never does. Goodnight.”

Giles slept little, lying wakeful and tense until the first rosy light of dawn pushed it’s way between the wooden slats of the shutter. Enzo arrived soon after, bearing his clothing, dry and smelling slightly of woodsmoke from the kitchen fire. He said nothing to Giles of the night’s events although Giles was sure that he must know what had happened, he had made enough noise crashing back into the house to wake the dead. The analogy brought grim amusement as he dressed quickly in the early light and took his pack downstairs to find his host awaiting him.

“Maria has made breakfast, Captain. Eat something before you go.”

“Thank you,” Giles said. He joined Benitez at the dining table again and ate ham and bread warm from the oven and a spicy sausage and made no attempt at conversation since he could think of nothing to say. When the meal was over he got up.

“My thanks to you, Señor. You’ve been a generous host. I’m sorry that I need to leave like this.”

“I am sorry too, Captain.”

“You could have warned me.”

“Would you have believed me?” Benitez asked and Giles grinned in spite of himself, acknowledging the truth of it.

“No. I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Ghosts are real, Captain. Like God, they do not require belief in them to exist.”

Giles did not reply. He did not want to think about what had happened until he was a long way from the village and the house, preferably in a smoky tavern with a bottle of good red on the table and a pretty barmaid on his lap. He tried to imagine telling any of his friends in the regiment this story and knew with complete certainty that he would not. They would laugh uproariously and accuse him of having been drunk.

Outside the air was chill although he suspected it would be hot by mid morning. Shrugging into his greatcoat he turned to Benitez who was standing on the steps. “Goodbye, Señor Benitez. Good luck. You’ve not asked for advice, but I’m giving it anyway. Leave. Move away. You shouldn’t be here with this. No house, no land is worth that.”

“You are a good man, Captain. Good luck.”

Giles shouldered his pack and picked up the saddlebags. He glanced briefly down at the ruined church, innocent in the early morning sunlight. “Was that the last time the French came here?” he asked curiously. “Did they ever come back?”

“No. I imagine they thought the village deserted. Only once. An officer, on his own. Like you, I suspect he was a courier or an intelligence officer.”

A slight chill touched Giles. He turned to look back at Benitez. “And did he ever see…what I saw?”

“I think not. It had not begun then. Only afterwards.”

Giles nodded and turned to walk over to the barn. He found Boney up and alert and he fed and watered him, leaving the barn door wide to let in light and air. As he saddled the horse, he talked quietly to him, then walked him a little and was delighted to see no sign of lameness. He would ride to start with, taking it slowly, and if Boney appeared to struggle he would dismount and walk him until he found shelter where he might stay a night or two to let the horse recover. Giles did not mind where it was as long as it was miles away from here.

He led Boney outside and looped the reins over a fence post, settled saddlebags and pack comfortably on the horse and checked the girth and saddle methodically. Benitez had gone back into the house. Giles turned back and went to close the big barn door. As he did so he heard a sound, and he stepped inside, wondering if one of the mules was loose. Both stood placidly eating hay; the sound, a creaking noise, was coming from the other end of the barn and Giles turned to look.

It was a rope, swinging lazily from a beam in the roof of the barn, creaking with the weight of the burden it carried. Giles stared in complete bewilderment for a moment and then understood what he was seeing.

The man hung upside down, tied by his feet. He was naked and his skin was striped with red. Blood dripped down both extended arms, pooling under him on the floor, and his body was writhing in agony, a weak sobbing noise accompanying what Giles knew in appalled comprehension must have been his death throes. God knew how long he had taken to die, swinging there from the beam, partially flayed and bleeding into the earth floor.

Giles backed out of the barn and slammed the door, barring it. Outside the sky was a clear blue with no sign of a cloud and Boney pushed his nose into Giles’ shoulder, comforting, seeming to sense his distress. Giles turned and hugged his neck hard, burying his face into the warm smooth coat, trying to shut out the horror, shaking with reaction.

“You bastard,” he whispered, into the horse’s neck. “You bloody bastard. It wasn’t him. He didn’t do it. He was your guest, just passing through. He was like me.”

After a long time, the shaking eased. He straightened, and wiped his face with both hands, surprised to find that he had been crying. He could not have said why he was so sure that the lone French officer who had died in the barn had not been a man who would have slaughtered a village and he did not try to examine his conviction, but he did not look back at the house to see if Benitez was watching him. He did not want to see the Spaniard again. Impossible to encompass the scale of the man’s loss. Giles wondered if the French officer who had been the object of his vengeance had also left family behind him to mourn.

Mounted and ready, he turned finally and looked back past house and barn to the church, knowing already what he would see. For the first time, the solitary figure in the blue coat did not cause him to jump. Nor did he feel any sense of fear. For the first time he saw the man’s face clearly, thin and dark, his stubbled jaw suggesting long days travelling without shaving. Giles ran his hand over his own jaw and it scraped his hand.

The figure stood motionless, the dark eyes appearing to look directly at him. Giles raised his hand and saluted. Then he turned and rode slowly out of the village, back towards the Salamanca road and Wellington’s army.

 

An Exploring Officer was written as a free gift for Halloween 2017.  Oddly enough as a child, I didn’t really associate ghost stories with Halloween, they were a Christmas treat, allowed to stay up late, huddled on the sofa with my Mum and my sister watching the BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas.  As it’s that time of year I thought I’d share this one again in case anybody missed it.

A bit of trivia for regular readers, Captain Giles Fenwick features in the Peninsular War Saga having come through the 110th before joining Wellington’s Corps of Guides.  After the war, badly wounded at Waterloo, he returns to London when he unexpectedly inherits the title of Earl of Rockcliffe and features briefly in A Regrettable Reputation before getting a book of his own in The Reluctant Debutante.

Lisbon, 1809 – an excerpt from An Unconventional Officer

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

Lisbon, 1809

Riding down from the villa he arrived through the arched gate of the barracks. The place was teeming with men. Two companies were executing a tight drill in squares on the parade ground, and Paul reined in to admire their work. They were almost as good as his men, and he nodded approval to a grinning captain as he rode on past. In the distance he could hear the clicks of muskets as a company of infantry practiced dry firing out at the range. And ahead of him there was a tangle of wagons as two Portuguese carters delivering food and bedding locked wheels and began to shout loudly at each other, gesticulating wildly.
An English voice bellowed at the two men and Paul grinned, recognising the dulcet cockney tones of Private Danny Carter, formerly of the rifles and now permanently part of his light company. Like Paul’s other skirmishers from the rifles Carter flatly refused to change uniform and Paul did not try to make them. He still wore the white armband that Carter’s men had given him after his first battle, and he retained an immense fondness for the independent, obstreperous riflemen.
Carter’s voice rose above the two Portuguese.
“Jesus bloody Christ if ever I saw such a pig’s ear! Stop whipping the horses you silly bugger and hold still or you’ll have the winter feed for the officers’ horses used as carpet for the bloody Connaught rangers to dance on!” Carter had run to the centre to try to disentangle the two locked wheels.
Paul stopped to admire the chaos, but before he could ride forward to intervene there was a peal of laughter and a woman’s voice called out to Carter. “You’re making a worse mull of it than they are! Hold still and I’ll come down and help!”
She had called from an upstairs window of the officer’s block and Paul would have recognised her voice anywhere. In a moment she had arrived through the door and went quickly to the head of one of the frightened horses.
“Here, ma’am, you’re going to get hurt!” Carter said in a panic, worried, Paul knew, about whether he could somehow be held responsible for the injury to some officer’s mad wife. But the girl took the bridle of the frightened beast and spoke quietly to him. The carter lifted his whip and she held up an imperious hand to stop him.
“Stop that! It will frighten him. Stop and wait!”
The sense of her words if not the content was clear and the driver lowered his whip. Anne beckoned to Carter. “Come here and hold him. Gently, now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Carter had clearly just seen the girl properly for the first time, and Paul did not blame him for the expression on his face. She wore a white shirt, like a man’s, open at the throat, and a dark riding skirt, which emphasised the small waist and gentle curve of her hip. She had obviously run down without finishing her toilette because her hair was still loose about her shoulders and Paul remembered the feel of it under his hands and felt a stab of longing.
Carter took the bridle and Anne went to the other horse. Talking soothingly to him, she carefully backed him up, and Carter led the other horse to one side, separating the carts. The two drivers both burst into voluble thanks in Portuguese and Anne smiled at them impartially. One of them, the younger of the two, took a flower from the buttonhole of his dark jacket and leaned down to give it to Anne.
“Obrigada, señor,” Anne said, and the carter, who had the benefit of knowing that he would be gone before the lady’s husband reappeared, placed his fingers to his lips and blew her a dramatic kiss before driving off.
Anne stood twirling the flower between long elegant fingers. The other driver moved away and Private Carter came forward uncertainly.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Anne turned to look at him. Then she pointed at the retreating carter. “It’s all very well scattering flowers around to passing females,” she said, “but if he doesn’t improve his driving skills the next person he comes across is likely to be a fat choleric colonel with a riding crop and a bad attitude.” She tapped the flower onto Carter’s chest to emphasise her point and turned at the sound of an approaching horse. Shading her eyes against the sun she looked up at Paul. “And I notice that you kept well out of reach until the work was done.”
Paul was conscious of poor Carter, unable to take his eyes from the vivid laughing face. He swung down from Rufus. “I was admiring your technique,” he said.
“With the horses or the drivers?” Anne enquired going to Rufus’ head. “Hello, boy, how are you again?”
“Both,” Paul said. “Rufus is pleased to see you. He knows a woman who keeps carrot tops in her pocket.”
“He’s out of luck, I left my jacket upstairs,” Anne said. “How are you, Paul?”
“You know I do think we may have to find you a billet out of the barracks,” Paul said. “Now that I have seen you in action, I realise that it is a matter of keeping my men safe. Close your mouth, Carter.”
“Yes, sir,” Carter said. “You know the lady, sir?”
“To my cost. This is Mrs Anne Carlyon. Lieutenant Carlyon is on Sir Arthur Wellesley’s staff. I met Mrs Carlyon on my trip to Yorkshire last year. At the time she was still choosing between her many suitors.”
“Welcome to Portugal, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Private Carter. You have much better manners than your commanding officer.”
“We’ve tried to teach him, ma’am.”
Anne shot him a startled glance and then burst out laughing. She had heard Paul talking with affection about his men, but she had not fully realised the level of informality that reigned within the light company.
“Keep trying, Carter, he may improve,” she said.
“I have come with messages from Rowena. Is it possible that you could stop flirting with the enlisted men and invite me in for a drink?”
“Unchaperoned?” Anne looked up at him from under long lashes. “Is that the right thing to do here? I need Rowena to tell me how to behave.”
“You actually do,” Paul said, laughing. “Robert has all my sympathy. He is never going to be able to control you.”
“And what makes you think you’d do any better?” Anne said lightly.
“I’d never make the attempt; I know my limitations.” Paul was very aware of Carter’s interested regard.
“Excuse me, sir, but this has just come for you.”
Paul turned at the melodious Irish tones of his sergeant. “Good morning, Sergeant O’Reilly. Thank you. Carter, would you take Rufus to the stables and deliver him to the groom, who should have been here to take him if he were not probably flirting with the cook’s daughter.”
“How do you know the cook has a pretty daughter, sir?”
“I notice these things,” Paul said, scanning the message quickly. “This is an invitation to something that I have no intention of attending. Lose it, Sergeant.”
“Just as you say, sir.” Michael O’Reilly had noticed Anne. He gave her a friendly nod, and then looked again, and hard. Carter had moved away with the horse, still watching Anne. Paul glanced from one to another.
“I think perhaps introductions are in order,” he said. “Sergeant…”
“Sir, the lady may not wish to be introduced to an NCO,” Michael said warningly. At times he found himself wondering if his commanding officer had ever been taught the rules of society. But the girl with the lovely dark eyes was smiling. Paul smiled back at her and continued as though Michael had not spoken.
“Sergeant O’Reilly, this is Mrs Anne Carlyon, who is married to Lieutenant Robert Carlyon on Sir Arthur’s staff. Nan, this is Michael O’Reilly, my sergeant, without whom the light company would not function. Michael is here to remind me of my duty, and Nan is here to flirt with Danny Carter and two Portuguese drivers.”
Michael was looking at the girl’s face. He remembered her as he had last seen her, a gallant little figure in a blue cloak who refused to cry. He wondered if she had any idea who he was. And then she smiled again, a smile of warmth and recognition and genuine interest and to his complete astonishment held out her hand. “I remember you,” she said. “I saw you in the carriage that morning in Thorndale.”
Michael felt a jolt of surprise, not at her recollection but at her willingness to acknowledge it.
“You’ve a good memory for a passing face, ma’am.”
Paul looked at her. “I didn’t know you’d seen him,” he said quietly. “Nan…”
“Don’t look so worried, Paul. If you trust him, then so do I. I am glad to have met you properly, though, Sergeant. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Michael was studying her. He was very aware of her startling beauty, but there was something more about this girl that he found immensely appealing. Her frank acknowledgment of her relationship with his commanding officer was both surprising and impressive and he glanced at Paul and was shocked at the unguarded expression on his face. It was clear that the passage of time and her marriage had not affected Major van Daan’s feelings about Anne Carlyon.
“It’s good to meet you too, ma’am,” he said gently. “I’ll be getting on.” Michael looked at his commanding officer. “Are you coming, sir?”
“Yes, I’ll be with you in a moment.” Paul turned back to Anne. “Are you attending this ghastly reception this evening?”
She nodded. “Yes. Was that the invitation that you were just trying to get your sergeant to lose?”
“It was. But if you’ll be there, I’ll come. We’re only going to be here for a week or so. Wellesley wants to take Oporto back and he’s in a hurry. I don’t know if he’ll want Robert with us or if he’ll leave him here, but I’m concerned about you living in barracks without him here.”
“You mean without you here,” Anne said.
“Yes, I do.” Paul ran his eyes over her with a rueful smile. “Look at you. Poor Carter nearly passed out when he got a good eyeful, and he won’t be the only one. I don’t know how much your husband cares. I only know how much I do. I’ll talk to you later, I have to go.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and turned to catch up with his sergeant. Neither of them spoke for a while. They walked up towards the training field. Finally Paul said:
“If you’ve anything to say, Michael, better get it over with now.”
“Yes, sir. Something of a surprise, and that’s for sure. Did you know she was coming?”
“No. They were on their way to the Cape and Hookey intercepted them. He needed a good administrator. And Carlyon is one, whatever else he is. She, of course, thought we’d gone to South America.”
“And what about your wife, sir?”
“She’s met my wife already, Sergeant,” Paul said with grim humour. “They like each other.”
“God love you, sir, only you could get yourself into this one! Does anybody but me…?”
“No. I’ve told nobody and I won’t. She was a lass I met in Yorkshire and now she’s Carlyon’s wife and Rowena’s friend. That’s all.”
“Well, you’d better get bloody better at it than that, then, sir, because you just looked at her as though she’s a gift you never expected to get.”
“She is,” Paul said quietly.
Michael turned to study his commander’s face. Paul had an unusually expressive countenance and Michael had learned to read him very well. It made for an effective working relationship and an easy friendship which his sergeant had come to take for granted but he had never seen his friend like this.
“Jesus Christ, Paul, how in God’s name after sleeping with half the women in England did you come to fall in love with a girl that young and that out of reach?” he said softly. “I swear to God I thought you immune.”
“So did I,” Paul said. He glanced sideways at his sergeant. “I never intended it, Michael, but I’ve never met a woman remotely like her. I know what you see, lad, and that’s what the rest of the army are going to see as they trip over their own feet every time she walks past. But I’m telling you, there’s a lot more to this girl than the way she looks.”
Michael could not help smiling. “I get that, sir. But you need to be careful, not just for Rowena’s sake but for hers too, she’s newly married and very young and you know what the headquarters gossips are like with a reputation.”
“Michael, she’s here, when I never expected to see her again. And I will get better at it, and I’m not going to hurt Rowena. But don’t ask me to lie to you and pretend that I’m not bloody happy. Because I am. And next week I’m going to fight the French, which believe it or not is what I came here for.”

(From An Unconventional Officer, Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)

“Absolutely brilliant. For 40 years I’ve been fascinated by this period of history, and have read everything I could get my hands on, history, biography, memoirs and fiction. This series is the best fiction I’ve ever read – fantastically well researched and historically accurate, with wonderfully drawn characters and relationships. They give a brilliant idea of what war was like then, as well as a moving love story and brilliant relationships between the male characters.” 5 out of 5 * on Amazon.co.uk