The Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood

In the run up to Christmas, and with the latest book up and running, I’ve decided to devote this blog to sharing some of my favourite books with you. Last year, on Christmas Eve, I did a post about the Christmas Book Flood, or Jolabokaflod. The concept was new to me, but I loved it.

In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as  the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi.  Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary and people love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.  One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”

There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity.  In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books.  The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.

The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me.  Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient.  Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.

Last year, to celebrate this fabulous tradition, I offered some of my e-books free on Christmas Eve, and the take-up was phenomenal. I like to think I found a lot of new readers on that day and I intend to do the same thing again this year. But I also wanted to do a Christmas countdown of books that I’ve read and loved; a sort of literary advent calendar which has started late. Some of them are fiction, some are non-fiction, but all of them have a particular place on my shelves, both actual and electronic. I hope that reading about some of them will cause some of you to buy them, either for yourselves or for family and friends, as part of our own Christmas Book Flood.

Merry Christmas from all of us at Blogging with Labradors.

An Untrustworthy Army

An Untrustworthy Army is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga and is published on Kindle today. It covers a period of around seven months in 1812, during which Wellington led his army into Spain, achieved a spectacular victory at Salamanca and entered the Spanish capital of Madrid, which had been in French hands for four years. He then marched on to invest the fortress city of Burgos, but Burgos proved too much for Wellington’s army, and he was obliged to make a difficult retreat, with the French at his heels, back to the border. It was a miserable end to a triumphant year but it did not nullify Wellington’s achievements. He had given the Allied army an ascendency over the French which it had not had before, and the next campaigning season had a new purpose to it.

For anybody new to the books, the Peninsular War Saga follows the fortunes of a fictional regiment of infantry through the long wars of the early nineteenth century and the man who rose to command it.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul van Daan is 21 when we first meet him, the younger son of a wealthy shipping merchant, who purchases a commission in time to join the regiment on its way to India. On paper, he is a fairly typical young officer, but Paul has an unusual past which sets him apart from many of his privileged contemporaries. He finds his home in the army, and discovers a talent for leadership which will bring him early success and which also brings him to the attention of General Arthur Wellesley.

Writing a historical fiction series based around real events is an interesting challenge. On the one hand, there is no need to spend much time thinking up a plot line; I always know where my characters ought to be. On the other hand, it isn’t enough just to put them down on a battlefield and write about nothing else. These people had lives; they ate and drank, went to parties, fell in love, got sick, got wounded. Sometimes, far too often, they died.

I have tried to populate my series with a collection of believable characters who sometimes do unbelievable things. Most of the unbelievable things really happened; I do a lot of research, and if I find a fascinating story or incident, I love to weave it into the fabric of my novel. The trick is to try to make it as seamless as possible. By now, for me, the fictional characters of Paul van Daan and his redoubtable wife, Anne, are so real, it is faintly surprising to look at the order of battle for Fuentes d’Onoro and find the 110th not there.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of WellingtonAlongside the story of the regiment and the love story of Paul and Anne is the story of a friendship. Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, is not known for having good relationships with all of his officers, and is often described as distant and difficult, but he had a few close friends, whom he valued, and Paul van Daan is one of them. The growing friendship between two men who are, in many ways, very different and yet also very similar, is possibly my favourite element of writing the books. Lord Wellington is a fantastic character to write; I’ve spent endless hours reading his letters and they bring him alive for me.

There have been many novels set during the Peninsular War ever since Bernard Cornwell made it so popular with his fabulous Sharpe series. I’ve read a good few of them, before I decided to make my own foray into Portugal and Spain, and each author has a different take. My books are rooted very firmly in the army, and the battles it fought, but they give equal weight to characterisation and relationships and the daily life of the men and women who marched with Wellington.

By the beginning of book 5, the fiery young lieutenant we first meet at the beginning of An Unconventional Officer has begun to settle down. He has risen to command a brigade of the elite light division, is on excellent terms with its commanding officer, Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, and is happy in his second marriage, with his children back in England being cared for by his family. He even has a dog. There is something very enjoyable in depicting Paul trying to deal with a young officer getting himself into trouble; it feels like karma. Paul has come a long way from the impetuous young officer who got himself court-martialled in An Unwilling Alliance, although in some ways he really hasn’t changed that much at all.

History dictates the plots of my books, and in An Untrustworthy Army, history let me down. The famous Light Division, generally at the forefront of any action, got some time off. They were barely engaged at Salamanca and when Wellington marched on to invest Burgos, he left the Light Division in Madrid. If I stuck strictly to history, this would have been a very quiet book. Needless to say, I have cheated a little, allowing one of my new characters to temporarily join another regiment, to give at least a flavour of the battle, and sending my fictitious third brigade of the Light Division off to get themselves into trouble elsewhere.

The end of 1812 was a miserable time for Wellington’s army, and both I and the stalwarts of the 110th infantry are relieved that it’s over, although not without some sadness. Book 6, An Unrelenting Enmity, will be published at the end of next year, and will spend some time in winter quarters, as well as following a group of the 110th on a dangerous mission to locate a missing British diplomat.

The next book, however, will take a different direction. I’m going to be picking up the story of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, the Royal Navy and the Second Battalion of the 110th who have the misfortune to be bound for Walcheren. The working title is An Insalubrious Island, although that may change.

Thanks to everybody who has been reading and enjoying my books. I hope you enjoy this one, and I look forward to taking Christmas off and then getting back to work in the New Year.

Who am I kidding…?

Lieutenant-General Charles Alten

One of my new favourite characters in the Peninsular War Saga, is Lieutenant-General Charles Alten, who took over command of the light division in May 1812, after General Robert Craufurd was killed at the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Carl August von Alten, to give him his German name, was from an old Hanoverian family, the second son of Baron Alten, and was first commissioned in the Hanoverian guards in 1781 at the age of sixteen, having previously served the Elector of Hanover as a page when he was twelve. He rose to the rank of captain and fought in the campaigns in the Low Countries in 1793-95, proving particularly effective as a commander of light infantry.

In 1803 after the French invasion, the Hanoverian army was disbanded at the convention of Lauenburg and Alten was one of many Hanoverians to leave his country and enrol in the force collecting at Lymington, which became part of the British army as the King’s German Legion. Alten was a lieutenant-colonel by now and as such, took command of the light infantry of the KGL.

Alten took part in the Hanoverian expedition of 1805 under Lord Cathcart, and fought under him again in the brief Copenhagen campaign in 1807. This may have been his first meeting with Sir Arthur Wellesley, who commanded the reserves; certainly Alten fought under him at the only significant battle of the campaign, the battle of Koge, which is also known as the battle of the clogs, and which forms an essential part of the plot of An Unwilling Alliance.

Alten next fought under Sir John Moore in Sweden and then Spain, and commanded the second flank brigade during the retreat; the first flank brigade was commanded by Robert Craufurd. Neither fought at Corunna, having taken a different route out of Spain, although both shared in the privations and horrors of the winter retreat.

 Alten’s next campaign was the disastrous Walcheren expedition in the summer of 1809, after which he returned to the Peninsula and commanded an independent KGL brigade at the bloody battle of Albuera. His conduct and career must have impressed his commander-in-chief, who referred to him as ‘the best of the Hanoverians’ and in May 1812 he was given command of the light division. Alten led Wellington’s elite troops during the battles of Salamanca, Vitoria, the Pyrenees, the Nivelle, the Nive, Orthez and Toulouse.

Historian Charles Oman has been harsh in his judgement of Alten’s role in the light division, comparing him unfavourably with Craufurd, as ‘a general of much more pedestrian quality, who might never fail to make an attempt to obey Wellington’s orders to the best of his ability, but could never supplement them by any improvisation of his own, of which he was incapable’. It is probably true that Alten did not share Craufurd’s flashes of sheer brilliance, but neither did he share his reputation for rudeness, belligerence and inability to get on with his officers. Wellington placed his faith firmly in Alten’s ability to command, and the light division retained their reputation as Wellington’s elite troops under his steady leadership. The officers of the light division presented him with a sword of honour as a token of their esteem, something they would probably not have done for Craufurd.

In 1815 Alten led Wellington’s third division during the Hundred Days. Part of the division was heavily engaged at the Battle of Quatre Bras, and at Waterloo, Alten’s men held the front line throughout the day and suffered appalling losses. Alten was badly wounded and his courage and conduct won him the rank of Count von Alten.

The King’s German Legion was disbanded at the end of the war, and Alten took command of the Hanoverian troops in France as part of the Army of Occupation until 1818 when the occupation ended. He returned to Hanover where he became minister of war and foreign affairs and rose to the rank of field marshal. He remained on the British army list as Major-General Sir Charles Alten, GCB. He died in 1840 and is buried in the Neustadter Kirche in Hanover.

Writing Alten as a fictional character is an interesting challenge. He arrives to command the light division after the siege of Badajoz and I have a strong suspicion that Lord Wellington greeted his arrival with a massive sigh of relief. After the ups and downs of life with the irascible genius of Robert Craufurd, I think it is is no coincidence that Wellington chose a man who appears to have been noted for his steadiness, amiability and readiness to obey orders to place in charge of his most useful division. Wellington never denied Craufurd’s talent, but I think he was probably permanently on edge, wondering what Craufurd would do next.

It was tempting to write Alten as Oman portrays him, a pedestrian general and a safe pair of hands, but as I was trying to find out more about Paul van Daan’s new commander as a person, I discovered a couple of lines in the third volume of Rifle Green in the Peninsula, one of my favourite sources for the actual day to day happenings in the light division, which made me rethink.

“The 1st brigade of the light division was ordered by General Erskine, whom they knew all too well from his short time in command of the division when Craufurd was in England, to cover the withdrawal of his cavalry. General Alten was most indignant at having his brigade ordered to such a precarious position. After forming up and halting them in columns ready to form square, he then remonstrated with Erskine in no uncertain terms.”

This little passage gave me a different perspective; mild-mannered Clark Kent was having none of it from General Erskine and wasn’t afraid to say so. It occurred to me that unlike Craufurd, there are not dozens of accounts describing him, but if actions speak louder than words, Alten’s officers liked and respected him enough to present him with a gift and Wellington thought highly enough of him to entrust him with the light division and then to give him a significant command during the Waterloo campaign. The best of the Hanoverians, it seemed to me, might well have been a very good commander and a likeable man.

That is how I have chosen to portray Alten, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better through the rest of the books. I’d love to find out more about him and I wonder if there is a fabulous German source out there that I know nothing about yet. My Alten is courageous, intelligent and well-mannered, with a willingness to listen to advice and to discuss his plans with his officers. He misses his wife, and enjoys sharing a good bottle of wine with Colonel Barnard and playing chess with Colonel van Daan. What he is not, is boring, pedestrian and weak. I hope my readers enjoy him.

An Untrustworthy Army, Book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga, is due out on 30th November and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

The Moddey Dhoo

As it is Hop tu Naa here on the Isle of Man (Halloween to the rest of you) I thought I’d share one of our local legends, the story of the Moddey Dhoo, or black hound, which according to Manx folklore haunts Peel Castle.

Peel is on the west coast of the Isle of Man, a pretty little town, with the ruins of a magnificent castle, originally built by the Vikings, standing on St Patrick’s Isle. The castle was built in the eleventh century, originally of wood, and was added to over the centuries. The cathedral was also located on the island until it was abandoned during the eighteenth century. Peel Castle is now owned by Manx National Heritage.

The original written source of the story of the Moddey Dhoo comes from English topographer and poet George Waldron, who wrote his History and Description of the Isle of Man, first published in 1713. This is his version of the legend:

“They say, that an apparition called, in their language, the Mauthe Doog, in the shape of a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle; and has been frequently seen in every room, but particularly in the guard-chamber, where, as soon as candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in presence of all the soldiers, who at length, by being so much accustomed to the sight of it, lost great part of the terror they were seized with at its first appearance.”

There was apparently a passage which crossed the church grounds and led to the room occupied by the captain of the guard, where the Moddey Dhoo used to appear as it grew dark, returning the same way at dawn. Waldron reports that one drunken guard ignored the usual procedure of locking the gates of the castle in pairs, and did it alone. After locking up, the guard was supposed to go along the haunted passage to deliver the keys to the captain. Strange sounds were heard that night and when the man returned to the guard room he was white and terrified, unable to stop shaking. He never spoke of that he had seen that night, but three days later, he was dead. This was the last recorded sighting of the Moddey Dhoo; it was decided to seal up the haunted passage and use a different route, and the hound was seen no more.

Waldron’s Moddey Dhoo made a comeback in a different form when Sir Walter Scott wrote Peveril of the Peak, an installment of his Waverly novels, in 1823 and introduced the “Manthe Dog” which was a demon in the shape of a large, shaggy black mastiff. Scott’s fiendish dog was somewhat larger than the Manx spaniel, but he credited Waldron as the source of his creation in his author’s notes.

Local legend claims that the Moddey Dhoo has been sighted beyond the walls of Peel Castle over the years. William Walter Gill has written some of the accounts which have placed the ghostly dog near Ballamodda, Ballagilbert Glen and possibly Hango Hill. He also reports sightings in the 1920s and 1930s at Milntown corner, near Ramsey.

Moving to the island back in 2002, I had never heard of the Moddey Dhoo until my first visit to Peel Castle. When we acquired Toby, our huge black labrador, we were frequently greeted by strangers when we were walking him, comparing him to Peel’s most famous canine. With Toby gone now, we have Oscar, a younger version, to keep the old legend fresh in our minds.

I always really liked the original story of the ghostly dog coming to doze by the garrison fire until morning. He must have been irritated when the antics of a drunken guard caused his route to be blocked up. In my admittedly over-active imagination, he went elsewhere and found a warm spot in the cottage of an old man who thought he was a local stray and welcomed the company. That guard probably died of a pickled liver anyway.

For anybody who wants a historic ghost story, I wrote The Quartermaster to celebrate Hop tu Naa this year and An Exploring Officer last year, both set during the Peninsular War. They’re both free, so read, enjoy and share if you wish.

Happy Hop tu Naa (or Halloween) to everybody, from all of us at Writing with Labradors. Here on the Isle of Man, they say that the veil between the worlds is much thinner on this night, and spirits of the dead can be seen. Like the garrison of Peel Castle all those years ago, I’d be very happy if the spirit of one particular black dog wandered in and curled up by the fire just like he used to…

Sir Harry Smith

Sir Harry Smith is one of my favourite characters from the Peninsular War, up there with Lord Wellington and General Robert Craufurd. A relatively humble doctor’s son from Cambridgeshire, he rose to the heights of his profession on sheer merit and a good deal of personality, retained the friendship and admiration of the Duke of Wellington, defying the accepted belief that Wellington only favoured aristocratic and well-born officers, and married the love of his life in the shadow of the bloody siege of Badajoz. He is one of the most colourful characters of his day, and his autobiography, along with that of Kincaid, his close friend in the 95th are two of the liveliest and most readable accounts of Wellington’s campaigns. Harry Smith has a more personal significance for me, as he was the historical figure who first sparked my enthusiasm for the Peninsular War and is the inspiration, although not the model, for Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry.

Henry George Wakelyn Smith was born in 1787, the son of a surgeon in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, and was commissioned into the army in 1805 and promoted to lieutenant in the 95th Rifles a few months later. He first saw active service in South America during the British invasions of 1806-07 and distinguished himself at the Battle of Montevideo.

In 1808 the young Harry Smith joined the forces under Sir John Moore invading Spain. The expedition, begun with high hopes, ended in a disastrous retreat over 200 miles of mountain paths in winter. Men, women and children died by the roadside, but Smith made it back to Corunna and the battle which left Moore dead on the field. A brief period of recovery in England restored Smith to health and his next voyage to Portugal was as part of General Robert Craufurd’s light brigade, later to become the celebrated light division. Harry Smith’s Peninsular War had begun in earnest.

Smith served with the 95th throughout the war, from 1808 to end Battle of Toulouse in 1814, and he served with considerable distinction. In 1810 he was appointed to ADC to Colonel Beckwith, with whom he clearly enjoyed an excellent relationship. In February 1812 he was promoted captain and he filled a succession of staff posts within the light division.

In April, Wellington’s army successfully stormed Badajoz and the army sacked the city, turning into a drunken mob whom even their own officers could not control for several days. Looting, murder and rape were committed openly and many citizens, especially women, fled from the town to take refuge at the British lines, hoping that the officers would protect them. One such lady, whose home had been destroyed, brought her younger sister with her, a girl of fourteen newly returned from a convent education. Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon appears to have shaken off the restrictions of her upbringing very quickly. Within a few days she was the wife of Captain Harry Smith and remained by his side for the rest of the war.

Harry Smith volunteered to serve in the United States, fighting at the Battle of Bladensburg and witnessing the burning of the capitol in Washington, an act which appalled Smith and some of the other Peninsula veterans, who compared it unfavourably to “the Duke’s humane warfare in the south of France.” He returned to Europe in time to serve as a brigade major at Waterloo and remained with the army during the occupation of France, acting as Mayor of Cambrai in Picardy. His close relationship with Wellington continued; the two men both ran hunting packs and in his autobiography, Smith describes how Wellington arranged to divide up the countryside between the two packs.

When the occupation was over, Smith returned to being divisional ADC in Glasgow for Major-General Reynell who commanded the Western District of Scotland, and it was Reynell’s recommendation that gained him his first colonial appointment as ADC to the Governor of Nova Scotia, Lieutenant-General Sir James Kempt in 1826.

Smith was promoted Major in the army by the end of 1826, but remained unattached to a regiment, and was still unattached when raised to Lieutenant-colonel in July 1830. In 1828 he was sent to the Cape of Good Hope where he commanded a force in the Sixth Xhosa War of 1834-36 and was later appointed as governor of the Province of Queen Adelaide. He was considered an energetic and talented commander who was able to restore confidence among British and Boer residents and had considerable influence over the tribes.

Smith’s attempts to modernise and introduce improvements and benefits to the Xhosa tribes were supported by the high commissioner, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, another peninsular veteran, but his policies were reversed by the ministry in London and he was removed from his command. Both Xhosa and Boers regretted his loss and some historians have suggested that his departure precipitated the Great Trek.

In 1840 Harry Smith was appointed Adjutant-General in India. He fought in the Gwalior campaign of 1843 and the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-6, where he was eventually given an independent command and on 28 January 1846 he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Sikhs at Aliwal on the Sutlej. For this victory he was awarded the thanks of Parliament and was the subject of an unusually long tribute from the Duke of Wellington, whose remarks concluded:

“I have read the account of many a battle, but I never read the account of one in which more ability, energy, and experience have been manifested than in this. I know of no one, in which an officer ever showed himself more capable than this officer has, in commanding troops in the field. He brought every description of troops to bear with all arms, in the position in which they were most capable of rendering service; the nicest manoeuvres were performed under the fire of the enemy with the utmost precision, and at the same time, with an energy and gallantry on the part of the troops never surpassed on any occasion whatever in any part of the world. I must say of this officer, that I never have seen any account which manifests more plainly than his does, that he is an officer capable of rendering the most important services and of ultimately being an honour to this country.”

This is probably the greatest tribute the Duke ever bestowed on an officer. Sir Harry Smith was created a baronet and the words “of Aliwal” were appended to the title by the patent. He was promoted to major-general in November 1846.

In 1847 Smith returned to South Africa as Governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner with the local rank of lieutenant-general. The disaffection of the Boers and the local tribes had gone very much the way Smith had prophesied eleven years earlier. Smith’s first campaign was to deal with the Boers in the Orange River Sovereignty and he defeated them at Boomplaats in August 1848.

In December 1850 war broke out with the Xhosa once more and some of the Khoikhoi joined in. Smith did not have enough troops from England but he experienced some success. He has been criticised by modern historians for his conduct during this period. Smith had a tendency towards the dramatic, and some of his demonstrations towards the tribes appear appalling in a modern context, although interestingly do not seem to have been seen that way by Xhosa themselves at the time. His campaign was warmly approved by the Duke of Wellington and other military authorities but Earl Grey, in a dispatch never submitted to the queen, recalled him in 1852 before the Xhosa and Khoikhoi had been completely subdued. Smith protested strongly against the abandonment of the Orange River Sovereignty to the Boers, which happened two years after his departure, and was a firm supporter of the granting of responsible government to Cape Colony.

In 1853 Sir Harry Smith was made General Officer Commanding the Western District in England and was given brevet promotion to lieutenant-general in 1854. He was appointed to the same role in the Northern District in 1856.

Smith died at his home at Eton Place, London, on 12 October 1860. He was buried at St Mary’s, Whittlesey. His wife, Juana, who had accompanied him throughout his life on his various campaigns, died twelve years later and is buried with him. Smith’s autobiography was first published posthumously in 1901.

I first met Harry Smith, not as the enthusiastic junior officer who features as a recurring character in my peninsular war books, but as the victor over the Sikhs at Aliwal and then as a colonial general and administrator in South Africa. There was always something very appealing about Sir Harry Smith and reading between the dry lines of some of the history texts, I had a sense of a huge personality, a man with courage and ideas and a determination to make progress and to do whatever job he was sent to do, to his utmost.

This didn’t always go well. Smith’s enthusiasm as a young officer clearly recommended him to his seniors during his days with the light division and I suspect that his independent thinking worked well under commanders like Robert Craufurd and Sydney Beckwith while it might not always have gone down as well with ministers such as Lord Glenelg in later life.

The slightly surprising thing, is how well Smith seemed to get on with Lord Wellington, a commander with a reputation for disliking initiative in his officers and a man, moreover, who was reputed to prefer his officers to be young men from aristocratic families. Smith failed on both counts and yet it is very obvious that he held Wellington’s favour from the start.

My interest in the older Harry Smith caused me to read his autobiography. I already knew something of the political history of the Napoleonic Wars but my knowledge of the military aspects was restricted to a couple of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books which came out at round about the same time. I read, initially one or two more contemporary accounts of the conflict and then began to read some of the standard histories of the period, old and new, and more biographies and autobiographies and I was completely hooked.

When I began to attempt writing my own historical novels, these were initially set in very different periods. The idea of a Peninsular War novel came to me several years later and I baulked at it, probably because by that stage Sharpe had arrived on our TV screens and a host of other writers were tackling the Napoleonic wars both from and army and a naval perspective. It seemed to me at the time, that the stories were being told by others and told well.

The story of Harry and Juana Smith kept coming back to me over the years, however, and I continued to read everything I could get my hands on about the period. I wanted to write, not their story exactly, but the story of another couple who took the same journey as them and lived through the same events. Gradually, over a couple of years of scribbling, Paul and Anne van Daan were born.

Paul van Daan shares Harry Smith’s talent and energy and independent spirit. I chose a different background for him. I wanted something a long way from Cornwell’s Sharpe, since it seemed to me that every novel of that period would be directly compared to those. Sharpe was from the bottom of the heap, an enlisted man scrabbling his way up to an officer’s commission. Harry Smith started higher, respectably middle class but with no money. I moved a step or two up the social scale with my hero, giving him a wealthy background but a very mixed pedigree and an early stint below decks in the Royal Navy to make him comfortable with his enlisted men. The point of Sharpe is that he struggles to fit in anywhere; I wanted a hero who could fit in everywhere. Paul’s fight is not against the army establishment it is against his own nature; quick-tempered, hot-headed and impulsive; the early books are about Paul growing up.

Anne’s background has little in common with Juana Smith although like Juana, she takes to life in the army’s tail as if she had been born there. She shares a lot of Juana’s traits; she is attractive, charming and very determined and she has the ability to get on with both officers and enlisted men. Like Juana, she is a favourite of the irascible Lord Wellington. Like Juana, she has a hard-headed practicality which enables her to cope very well with the conditions of an army on the move.

The joy of writing fiction is that it is possible to introduce one’s fictional creations to the characters who inspired them. Colonel Paul van Daan is both older and senior to the young Harry Smith and although they get on well, they also disagree spectacularly on occasion. It has been fun to go back to Smith’s early days and to tell a little of his story alongside my own and it’s good to look back and remember how my own journey through the Peninsular War began with Harry’s autobiography.

Book five of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, is due for publication on kindle at the end of November and in paperback in December. The first four books are available on Amazon here and for a glimpse at an earlier episode in Paul van Daan’s history, try An Unwilling Alliance.

 

 

 

Joey the Labrador

Welcome to the very first guest blog post from yours truly, Joey the Labrador, senior officer here at Writing with Labradors.

I’ve wanted to do one for a while, but the first couple of posts had to come from our senior officer and I was okay to wait my turn. I didn’t expect it to come like this, with Toby gone now and me in charge of Oscar, our young subaltern. Still, it’s time to step up and do the job.

 

It’s been more than six weeks since we lost Toby and we’re all getting more used to it, though we’ll never stop missing him. At first I used to forget he was gone and wander around looking for him but I’m over that now. Having Oscar has been the best thing ever, I’m never lonely. He’s always close by, sometimes a bit closer than I need him to be, to be honest. I know I loved old Toby, he was my best mate all my life, but I’m pretty sure I never used to sit on him. Still, although I tell him off from time to time, I secretly quite like Oscar wanting to be that close to me.

Life goes on and there are always changes. Jon-human has started work now and isn’t around studying all the time so there have been some changes in the study. The big table has gone and we’ve got a very comfy sofa and armchair instead which makes it much more homely. Personally I still like my bed best, just behind her chair, so she has to ask me to move if she wants to get up for a cup of tea, but Oscar loves the sofa and we’re very settled in there all day when she’s writing. The extra space means that there’s a lot more space for playing as well. She gets very aggy when we make too much noise in there, but I know she likes it really, she’s soft in the head when it comes to us labradors.

The writing is going very well, apparently. The new book is doing well. It’s my favourite, An Unwilling Alliance, since a chunk of it is set right here on the Isle of Man and talks about the places she takes us for walks. Mind, there’s not enough dogs in it. Toby used to complain about that and he was right, although she promises that Craufurd the Puppy features very regularly in the next one which is out in a couple of months. She’s also planning on introducing a second dog, called Toby at some point, in honour of the old fella. I like that idea, don’t know much about how it’s going to work, I just know that every time she thinks about it, she starts laughing. Madwoman, I’ve always said it.

Meanwhile, she’s been off doing research which means Anya-human is in charge of us. This is great news as she spoils us rotten and even lets us sleep in her bedroom which is normally off-limits. I particularly like it when she sends photos of this to her mother who can do nothing about it because she’s stuck in a castle in some remote part of Spain gibbering about battlefields. Next month she away at the Malvern Festival of Military History, whatever the hell that is. She seems very excited about it. I’m excited because I bet the teen humans have friends over which means illegal pizza, illegal sleeping in the bedrooms and more fuss and attention that I know what to do with. Great news…

Autumn is on its way, and it’s fun teaching Oscar how to chase leaves in the wind. My legs are a lot better now and although I’ve been grumpy about it, I think losing a bit of weight has done me good. I’m getting on a bit, no question, but I want to stick around as long as I can for Oscar and the rest of the family. And having this puppy has definitely made me feel a lot younger again. He’s a lot of fun, although between you and me, I’m not really sure he’s all that bright. A bit like Toby, who was the best friend in the world, but not much between his ears other than daylight. Sometimes I see him in Oscar…

Writing with Labradors is back on track and I think our senior officer would be proud of us. Sitting out on the porch on sunny days, I look at his statue and I’m very glad to have known him. One day Oscar will sit here thinking of me like this, but it’s great to know the tradition is going to carry on through him.

 

She probably wants me to mention that there is another book coming out soon, An Untrustworthy Army, which is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga. Most importantly it features at least one dog. I recommend you read it on that basis alone.

In the meantime, I’ve just realised the time. Must be lunchtime by now…

Malvern Festival of Military History

Next month I am very proud to be a part of the Malvern Festival of Military History which takes place from 5-7 October.

The festival sees a host of top writers in the field of military history visit Malvern for the Festival of Military History. Taking place in the grounds of Severn End, Hanley Castle, this is Britain’s only literary festival dedicated solely to military history. It looks at fiction and non-fiction, ranging from Agincourt to modern day Afghanistan, and covering warfare on land, at sea and in the air.

Top speakers include Lord Paddy Ashdown on Hitler, Sir Max Hastings on Vietnam, Damien Lewis on The SAS, Nicholas Shakespeare and Andrew Roberts on Churchill and Adam Zamoyski on Napoleon.

Top military historians in their fields also debate key issues in important battles and wars through the ages in a series of panels. These include Agincourt, The English Civil Wars, The Royal Navy, Waterloo, 19th Century Colonial Wars, World War One, World War Two and Post-1945 wars and insurgencies.

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

I will be part of a panel of novelists discussing the challenges of writing fiction based on historical events and characters. On the panel alongside me will be Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams, David Donachie and Iain Gale, all fantastic authors. All the talks and panels will be followed by book signings and an opportunity for the audience to interact with the authors.

This top-class literary entertainment is supplemented by an exhibition of war art in the Festival exhibit hall. Attendees can browse these during breaks in the programme and while taking their refreshment from the range of food and drink outlets.

The evenings see the attention turn to musical entertainment. On Friday night the New Scorpion Band perform a set of traditional folk tunes from the 18th and 19th Century. Familiar songs such as Spanish Ladies and Over the Hills and Far Away will get your feet tapping! Saturday is the turn of the RAFA Concert Orchestra who will play a selection of war movie themes including The Dam Busters, The Great Escape and Saving Private Ryan.

This spectacular event is not to be missed by anyone interested in the history of warfare. Full details and booking options can be found hereThe advanced booking discount ends on 7th September so book now for what looks to be a spectacular event.

Greater Arapile, Battle of SalamancaRemember to watch out for the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga, due on 30th November. An Untrustworthy Army tells the story of the 110th during the Salamanca campaign.

 

The Lines of Torres Vedras

An Irregular Regiment

An Irregular Regiment : arriving back at the Lines of Torres Vedras, the hero of the Peninsular War Saga, Major Paul van Daan, is learning to adapt to a wife who sees herself as more than a drawing room ornament or the mother of his children…

An Irregular Regiment
Book Two of the Peninsular War Saga

The lines had been created from two ridges of hills by local labour working under the supervision of Fletcher and his engineers. Closed earthworks with a series of small redoubts holding 3-6 guns and 200-300 men, were sited along the high ground of each ridge. Buildings, olive groves and vineyards had been destroyed, denying any cover to an attacking force. Rivers and streams had been dammed to flood the ground below the hills and sections of hillside had been cut or blasted away to leave small but sheer precipices. Ravines and gullies were blocked by entanglements. As she rode beside Paul, listening to him explaining the work that had been done, Anne was amazed at Wellington’s achievement.
“We’ll wait behind the lines,” Paul said. “The fortifications are manned by the Portuguese militia, some Spanish and a few British gunners and marines. Wellington has set up a communication system using semaphore, which is extraordinary. He’s got a proper system based on that bastard Popham’s marine vocabulary but there’s a simpler system in place that the locals can use in case the navy pulls out.”
Anne regarded him blankly. “Popham? Semaphore? This is a side of you I know nothing about.”
Paul stared at her and then laughed. “Well I learned some in the navy as a boy,” he said. “And a little more during the Copenhagen campaign. Which, as you know, did not go well for me. Popham is an arsehole but he’s clever and the system works. I actually find it quite interesting. We can mobilise troops faster than Massena will believe, and the roads the engineers have created mean we can move up and down the lines to where we’re needed very fast. And Wellington has scorched the terrain for miles outside. The French are very good at living off the land, but I think he’s got them beaten this time. It just depends on how long it takes them to realise it.” He smiled at her. “And then we wait, and collect reinforcements and supplies and train our army. Next year we’ll be ready for another advance.”
Anne nodded. She was watching him. “What is it, Paul?”
Paul glanced at her, surprised. Since his conversation with Johnny during the retreat he had found himself studying Anne at odd moments, imagining her as he had known her in Yorkshire. She had always seemed to him much older than her years but now that he had been reminded of her youth he found himself wondering if he had rushed her into this marriage. He had wanted her so badly for so long that when Robert Carlyon had died he had not thought twice about their future together but now he was suddenly anxious that he had not given her enough time. He had not realised that any of this was evident to Anne.
“How do you always know?” he asked curiously.
“Your voice. Your face. Something has been bothering you for a few days.”
“Nan – do I expect too much of you?”
Anne stared at him for a long time. Eventually she said:
“Carl or Johnny? Actually it could be any of them, but they’re the two most likely to say it to you. The rest just think it.”
Paul burst out laughing. “Johnny,” he said. “He noticed you were upset that day in the village. Hearing what they’d done with the girls and at the murder of the villagers. He pointed out that I’d never have let Rowena hear that story. And he was right, I wouldn’t.”
“Paul, I can’t comment on your marriage to Rowena. I only know what I want. Right from the start you have refused to treat me like an idiot or a child, which is how most men treat most women. It is probably a big part of why I love you so much. But that must be difficult because sometimes it means I will get upset, or frightened. And you can’t protect me from that.”
“Johnny reminded me how young you were,” Paul said quietly, reaching for her hand. “And as I heard myself say it, I realised that he might have a point. That at twenty you should be thinking about parties and fashion and jewellery and all the things that I should be able to give you. I’m taking you on a tour of redoubts and blockhouses instead of riding in the row and introducing you to George Brummell and the Prince of Wales.”
Anne began to laugh. “Should I like either of them?”
“I think you’d like George, I do myself. Not so sure about Prinny. Although he’d definitely like you. Now that I think about it, you’re probably safer out here with Wellington, who actually does know how to behave although he wishes he didn’t. But seriously…”
“Paul, seriously, what is this about?”
“I never asked you,” Paul said abruptly. “About any of this. I walked into the villa and I carried you to bed and five days later you’re my wife and in an army camp up to your ankles in mud with no prospect of a normal life, and I never once asked you if that was all right.”
“Did you ever ask Rowena?”
“No. She was pregnant and completely desperate. I took her to Naples deliberately so that she could have Francis away from home. By the time we came back the gossips had forgotten to add up dates and there was no scandal. I never asked her because she had no bloody choice, I’d already had what I wanted out of her, she could hardly say no. And that was unbelievably selfish of me. I meant to do things so differently with you. But I didn’t, did I? By the time we got married I’d already created such a bloody scandal with you that you didn’t have much more choice than Rowena did.”
“And that has been bothering you for days hasn’t it?” Anne was smiling.
“Yes. We laughed about it at the time, but I don’t think I even asked you to marry me properly. I just took what I wanted. Again.”
“Oh love, stop it.” Anne seemed to realise suddenly that he was genuinely upset. “I am going to kick Captain Wheeler for this.”
“It’s not his fault, Nan. It just made me look at this differently. I’ve been so happy. And so completely wrapped up in myself. And that’s what I do. I met you in Yorkshire, and…”
“Paul, stop. What is it you think you should have said to me back in Lisbon?”
“I should have asked you to marry me. I should have told you that I know I am not offering you even a part of what you should have, and that the life is hard and painful and often very sad. There are risks and dangers and you’ll see and hear things that will stay with you all your life. I should have told you how much I love you and that if you wanted you could stay in Lisbon or even go back to England, and I’d still marry you. I should have told you that if I have to choose between this life and you, I choose you. And I should have left you time to make up your mind.”
Anne put her arms about him. “Yes, Major,” she said quietly. “My answer is still yes. And I’m not going either to Lisbon or to England unless that is where you are going too. I love you, and I love this life. I love your regiment no matter how foul mouthed and filthy they are, and I even love Captain Wheeler although I feel sorely tempted to throw him off Bussaco Ridge the next time he does this to you. I am exactly where I want to be. With you. If you show any signs of trying to shelter me in the way you did with Rowena, you are going to find yourself in serious trouble. And how can I doubt what you’d give up for me when you’d have given up your career if you’d fought that duel with Robert?”
“Nan…”
“I love you, Paul. The way you are. I am not going back to England to sew cushion covers and dance at the hunt ball. Since I’ve been out here I’ve discovered there is a lot more to me than that. I’d like to find out what else I’m capable of. And I want to be with you. So please, stop listening to your officers trying to tell you that you’re doing this wrong, because you’re not. Being married to any one of them would drive me mad. And drive them even madder.”
Paul looked down into the dark eyes. He could remember his immense happiness during their hasty wedding, but somehow this felt more significant, as though what they were saying now, mattered more than the ritualised words of the marriage service. This was the conversation he had never found a way to have with Rowena and he realised its absence had got in the way of his feelings for her.
“If that ever changes, you need to tell me.”
Anne’s dark eyes were steady on his. “It isn’t all one way, Paul. I know I’m unconventional. Some of that isn’t going to change. But if I am making your life hard…”
“You’re not.”
“I might. Without ever meaning to. And if I am, you need to tell me so. No silent anger or resentment. That isn’t the way we are going to do things.”
Paul nodded, his eyes on her face. “What did I take on when I married you?” he said softly.
“Just me. I’m not easy, Paul.”
“I know. But somehow I don’t seem to find you difficult at all.”
“Prove it,” Anne said unexpectedly, and he laughed suddenly and reached for her, scooping her up into his arms.
“You don’t have to tell me twice, lass,” he said, his mood suddenly soaring again. “Good thing they’ve not manned this fort yet, it’s nice and sheltered in there.”
Anne was laughing too. “Serve you right if a company of Portuguese militia marches in while you’re busy,” she said. Paul bent his head to kiss her.
“I’ll take the chance,” he said.

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

Read the beginnings of Paul and Anne’s love affair in An Unconventional Officer.  Book five of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, is due out later this year.

The Battle of Vimeiro, 1808

The Battle of Vimeiro took place on this day in 1808 when the British under General Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated the French under Major-General Junot near the village of Vimeiro in Portugal.

Four days earlier, Wellesley had defeated the French at the Battle of Rolica. Wellesley knew that his command of the army was temporary; he was seen as too junior a general to have overall command and he had been informed that more senior commanders were on their way. Sir Harry Burrard arrived during the battle and Sir Hew Dalrymple arrived soon after while Sir John Moore landed in time to take command of the British forces and lead them into Spain.

Nevertheless it was Wellesley who was in command when the army was attacked by Junot After Rolica, Wellesley had taken up a position near the village of Vimeiro, deploying his forces to hold the village and several ridges to the west which protected the landing point at Maceira Bay. Wellesley had hoped to march on Lisbon once his reinforcements had landed. He had eight infantry brigades, around two hundred and forty light cavalry and two thousand Portuguese troops, outnumbering Junot by around six thousand men.

Junot’s first move was to attempt to outflank the British by taking an unoccupied ridge to the north-east of the village. Wellesley’s men held Vimeiro and the western ridge, but he moved quickly to take the ridge ahead of Junot. Junot sent reinforcements to join the battle on the flank but made the decision to launch an attack on the village without waiting to see the outcome of his outflanking manoeuvre.

The first attack was made by Thomieres brigade who marched on the British position in column, with skirmishers and artillery in support. The British countered with four companies of riflemen from the 60th and 95th and their attack was so successful that the French skirmishers were pushed back, leaving the main French column facing the 50th regiment. At 100 yards the British opened fire while several companies began moving in towards the French flanks. The French reeled under the lethal musketry of the British infantry and were unable to deploy into line. They fled, leaving three cannons to be captured.

Shortly afterwards, Charlot’s brigade attacked Anstruther’s brigade which was hidden behind a crest and before they could deploy from column into line were struck in the flank by a second battalion which sent them fleeing in disorder from the deadly volleys. Junot sent in his grenadier reserve which was initially pushed back. Two battalions to the right managed to enter Vimeiro but were driven out by a British counterattack and then routed in flight by the light dragoons. The cavalry appear to have become carried away by their success and charged out of control, straight into the French cavalry division. They retreated to the loss of Colonel Taylor and approximately a quarter of his men.

Solignac led the French attack on the northeastern ridge, this time in a three column formation. Once again they left it too late to deploy into line and were shattered by British musket volleys and fled. Brenier’s brigade, coming up with four battalions, had some success against two British battalions who appeared unprepared after their success against Solignac. However the French were stopped by the firepower of the 29th and the two remaining battalions rallied to join them in pushing Brenier’s men back.

By the end of the battle, Sir Arthur Wellesley’s command had been superseded by Sir Harry Burrard. Burrard did not interfere with Wellesley’s conduct of the battle, but once it was done, he stepped in to prevent Wellesley pursuing the French retreat, apparently believing that Junot had troops in reserve.

Vimeiro was a welcome triumph for the British but the aftermath was a disaster. Junot offered complete surrender and was probably astonished at the terms offered by Sir Hew Dalrymple. Under the Convention of Cintra, the defeated army was transported back to France by the British navy, complete with guns, equipment and the loot it had stolen from Portugal. The Convention caused an outcry in Britain and all three generals were recalled to face an official enquiry.

Wellesley had wanted to fight on. He had signed the preliminary Armistice under orders but took no part in negotiating the Convention and did not sign it. Dalrymple appeared keen to lay the blame onto Wellesley but at the enquiry, which was held in the Great Hall at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in November and December of 1808 all three generals were officially cleared. Wellesley, however, was returned to duty in Portugal where the British had suffered the loss of Sir John Moore at Corunna; neither Burrard or Dalrymple were given active commands again.

The battle of Vimeiro gave hope to the people of Lisbon and should have been a sharp reminder to the French that they were not invincible. Wellesley, up until this point, had been known mainly for his achievements in India and some years later Napoleon was to use the term “sepoy general” to belittle the importance of that experience. Rolica and Vimeiro, however, brought Wellesley very firmly onto the European stage and when the dust from the convention of Cintra had settled, Sir John Moore was dead and Burrard and Dalrymple were no longer considered suitable for command. The sepoy general was given his opportunity and on his return to Portugal in 1809 he was quick to prove himself worthy of it with a swift and decisive victory at Oporto.

In the Peninsular War saga, Paul van Daan is present at the battle of Vimeiro but the battle itself does not feature in An Unconventional Officer; if I’d included every battle in depth it would have been longer than the Bible. It’s an interesting battle, though, with a lot of features which have become very familiar to me as I follow Wellesley and his army through the long years of the war in Portugal and Spain. Reading about it once again on the anniversary, I find myself wondering if this early time in Portugal is something I’d like to revisit at a later stage.

The next book in the Peninsular War Saga is due for publication on 30th November 2018. It will be followed by the second book in the Manxman series the following year, which follows Captain Hugh Kelly RN through the Walcheren campaign of 1809.

The Arrival of Oscar – Guest post by Toby from Blogging with Labradors

The arrival of Oscar has changed everything at Blogging with Labradors.

I can’t believe it’s been nine months since my last guest post. High time the labradors got a say again, and a lot has happened during that time.

You’ll be glad to hear I recovered very well from my foot operation last year. In fact, despite all the humans’ very personal remarks about how old I was, I recovered a lot quicker than she did from hers. We quite enjoyed it, Joey and I, she was trapped on the sofa for weeks with not much to do apart from make a fuss of us and call for tea every now and then.

It’s been a good ten months at writing with labradors. She’s now published her ninth book, An Unwilling Alliance, which is partly set on the Isle of Man and gives very good descriptions of a lot of the places I used to go when I was a bit younger. Quite liked the bit where the heroine fell down Peel Hill, I must say, it happened to me in my youth and it’s very long way to roll…

Still, life has been good, the sun has been shining a lot which is good for my arthritis and the younger humans have been doing something called exams, which seems to involve sitting around looking at books, papers and little white cards. The important thing for me is it keeps them in the house and making a fuss of us labradors.  Things were bimbling along nicely I thought, until a few weeks ago when she goes off for one of her periodic trips on the boat.  She usually comes back with a bag of candles from Ikea and eighty-five more books about the Duke of Wellington, but not this time! No. This time, she turns up with THIS!

So there we go. Meet Oscar, my new little brother and the latest member of the Writing with Labradors staff. I must admit, when I first saw what she’d got, I was pretty unimpressed. I mean she has two perfectly good labradors already. A bit old and creaky in places, and Joey seriously needs to lose a few pounds, but we’ve still got what it takes. Why does she want another one?

Joey took to Oscar a lot quicker than I did. I mean, I didn’t dislike him, but he’s a bit noisy and a bit full of it, and like all kids, he doesn’t know when to stop. I had to tell him off a fair bit in the first week or two, and I certainly wasn’t sharing my bed with him or my sofa or having him lounging all over me like Joey does. I always knew that yellow lab was soft in the head.

All the same, I’m starting to get used to him. It’s sort of fun having a youngster around. To start with, I just watched when Joey played with him in the garden. I’ve not seen Joey move that fast for years, I didn’t know the old fatso still had it in him. But it reminded me of the old days when we used to play together like that. And after they’ve finished playing, we all have a sit down together and it feels sort of right, somehow. Like he belongs here.

Still, I wasn’t planning to get involved. But we’ve been outside a lot lately with the weather being so great. They sounded as though they were having so much fun. And one morning I just couldn’t stop myself. Silly old fool at my age, and I’ll feel it in the morning, but by gum it was good fun.

So here we are. Three of us now, not two, and life has got a bit more exciting. Theres a lot of responsibility with having a youngster to take care of. Weve had to teach him about the beach and the park and the glens. Eventually well have to teach him to swim. Ive not really been in the water for a couple of years, but I got in with Oscar down at Groudle the other day and I must say Id forgotten how much I loved it.

2018 is going to be a good year for Writing with Labradors. Welcome to the pack, Oscar. One day maybe she’ll let you do a post of your very own…