The idea for Fur and Feathers at War came to me when the Historical Writers Forum announced that their April monthly theme would be Animals. When I began writing the Peninsular War Saga many years ago, I will freely admit I didn’t really think much about animals. I knew there would be some of course. Horses and pack animals were essential for early nineteenth century logistics and even though I wasn’t writing about the cavalry it was obvious they would feature.
As the books moved on, gained readers and then fans, it was clear however that animals were destined to play an important part in both series and the associated short stories. Apart from the transport and riding animals, we’ve had dogs, cats and even a budgie. Animals also feature as essential food and occasionally simply as comic relief. During the early nineteenth century, vegetarianism and veganism wasn’t generally an option.
Anybody who follows me on social media will know me as an animal lover. On Napoleonic Twitter, I’m sometimes referred to as the Mad Labrador Woman but there are also a variety of cats, birds and goldfish in my past. I’m unashamedly sentimental about animals while recognising that my officers and men cannot often afford to be. The horrors of war, particularly on horses, are very well documented elsewhere.
My animals tell my readers a great deal about my characters but by now, they are also characters in their own right. In honour of ‘Animals Month’ therefore, I thought I’d share some of my favourite fictional creatures. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
Horses and carriages were an essential form of transport in the early nineteenth century and most officers had several horses with them. Paul van Daan’s favourite horse is Rufus, a roan gelding he bought in Ireland before he went to Copenhagen in 1807. Right from the start, it’s clear that he is very attached to Rufus and although he is generally his first choice on a long march, Paul prefers not to take him into battle. On at least one occasion when he does, Rufus is injured when a bullet grazes his side and Paul’s reaction is a good indication of why he’d never have joined the cavalry.
Paul hung on grimly, hearing the shouts of the men around him, and a furious volley of fire back at the enemy. Bringing Rufus finally under control he slid from the saddle feeling physically sick and ran his hand down the animal’s sweating neck.
“Good lad. Settle down and let’s look at you.”
“Sir.” One of the German captains had reached his side. “Are you hurt?”
“No, but he is, I felt him flinch. Hold him, would you? Christ, he’s shaking.”
Paul gave the reins to the German and moved around to study Rufus, quickly seeing the dark stain on his right shoulder. Talking soothingly to his horse he moved closer and very gently examined the wound. The horse tried to pull away and Paul held on and put his face against the smooth neck, whispering to Rufus as he checked the wound.
“I don’t think it’s too deep – a bad graze. He’s a bloody bad shot.”
“Nein, Colonel. He aimed at the horse, I was watching him,” the German said. Paul turned to look at him. Around him he was aware that the sound of firing was dying away, only the shots of the rifles ringing out as they fired after the retreating cavalry.
“It’s Captain Steiger, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. I was looking directly at him. As you turned away, he lifted his pistol and aimed it at you. And then he lowered it and pointed it at the horse.”
Paul was holding Rufus’ head close to him. He kissed the horse very gently on the nose and smiled as his mount nuzzled him. “Bastard. He probably couldn’t see to aim at me in this light, so he went for the bigger target. If I see him on the field this week, I am going to blow his bloody head off. All right, boy, calm down. If you’re snuffling for treats, you’re not that bad.”
There are too many other horses involved in the Peninsular War Saga to list them all, but one of the most popular appeared in the Manxman series, when Paul’s battalion were sent to Denmark. For such a short campaign he chose not to subject his horses to the misery of a sea voyage, but managed to hire two horses from a local inn. One of them was a young horse called Felix. The other was Luna, an overweight piebald mare. I found it very entertaining to send my gallant hero trotting around Denmark on the equivalent of a Thelwell pony and my readers absolutely loved the story of Luna, especially how it ended. It’s probably the first time in the books that we glimpse just how sentimental Major van Daan really can be about animals.
“Captain, do you think you could spare Mr Durrell for an hour tomorrow to show me the way? After that, I promise I’ll be out of your hair, my wife will have forgotten what I look like.”
“Willingly,” Hugh said. “As long as he doesn’t come back telling me he’s accepted a commission in the army, I’d be less than pleased to lose him now that I’ve grown accustomed to a first lieutenant who knows what he’s doing.”
He saw the surprise in Durrell’s eyes and he avoided looking at Paul van Daan. The Major was already arrogant enough.
“Are you travelling post?” he asked.
“I am, although I’m taking it slowly as I’ve a horse to take with me. I bought the young black from Hr Lund. He’s a beauty, Lund had no idea what he’d got there.”
“Really? How the hell did you get him back?”
Paul laughed. “I paid an extortionate bribe to the captain in charge of one of the troop ships to find them a berth; it’s why I’ve taken a while to set off home, I’ve been waiting for them to arrive.”
“Them?” Roseen said.
Hugh saw the Major flush slightly. He met Roseen’s amused gaze and then laughed aloud. “I didn’t mean to admit that,” he said.
Hugh stared at him in astonishment. “Major, you aren’t telling me you bought that fat, ugly mare and paid to have her shipped to England?”
Paul was laughing. “I’ve two children, Captain, and she’s such a gentle soul.”
“And you could buy something similar at any horse fair in England for half the price. That animal is one step away from the slaughterhouse…”
He broke off, understanding, and then started to laugh. “Nobody could believe you were that soft,” he said.
“I would,” his wife said. “Does Sir Arthur Wellesley know?”
“No, thank God. And I am not telling him, he will roast me for years. I paid very little for her; Lund couldn’t believe I’d offered anything.”
“He’s not alone in that,” Hugh said.
“With proper care she’s got a good few years left in her and she will be good for the children, she’s got the sweetest nature.” Paul shrugged. “I got attached to her.”
“Christ, fella, how do you bring yourself to kill the French?” Hugh said.
“Oh, I’m very good at that. I hate killing their horses though.”
The other horse to play a very significant role in the books doesn’t arrive until book six and makes an immediate impact. I didn’t have to invent a name or description for Lord Wellington’s favourite mount, since Copenhagen was real. This is one horse that Paul is not particularly fond of.
“As it happens, I have several new horses I am trying out. One of them looks particularly promising, I’d like you to see him.”
Jenson led Rufus back into the square and Pearl followed Lord Wellington, frisking excitedly around him, knowing that she was going out. After a few minutes, one of the grooms appeared from the stable, leading a horse that Paul did not recognise.
He was a stallion, not particularly tall but with a strong muscular frame, a very dark chestnut with two white heels. Wellington came forward and patted the horse’s neck. Pearl jumped around and the horse sidestepped a little to avoid her. Paul came forward as his chief put a hand into his pocket and withdrew a treat. He fed the horse as his groom still held the reins, bent to check the girth then put one foot into the stirrup and mounted.
Unexpectedly, the horse pulled away from the grooms, backing up fast, his teeth bared in a grimace. Wellington hung on and the groom reached for the bridle. The horse bucked and then reared up with a squeal, his hooves lashing out. One caught the groom on the shoulder, and he fell back with a cry of pain. Wellington clung to the reins, displaying impressive reactions, fighting to bring the animal under control, while Jenson turned Rufus away and led him out of range before the horse’s panic affected him.
As Paul tried to grasp the bridle, the horse kicked out hard with his back legs and Paul dodged, then moved in fast, and reached the horse, grabbing the bridle while taking care to avoid the animal’s flying hooves. Wellington had regained his composure immediately and took a firm hold, pulling the horse in, talking to it in low tones. Paul met his chief’s eyes and stepped back, releasing the horse. With another man he might have held on until he was certain that the horse was calm, but he was not afraid for Wellington, who was a superb rider and more than capable of managing the most difficult mount. Paul stood watching for a moment, to be sure, but Wellington had the animal well under control. Paul turned to the groom, who was being helped to his feet by Wellington’s orderly.
“Are you all right, Brett?”
“I think so, sir.” Brett was cautiously moving his arm. “Winded me a bit.”
“You should see the surgeon, just to get him to have a look at that, it was a hell of a kick.”
“I’ll be all right, sir. I’m sorry, my Lord, he caught me off guard. Shall I take him…?”
“Do not be stupid, Brett, if you are injured, you may not be able to control him, and besides he will settle down now that he knows who is in charge. Morrison, escort Brett to see a surgeon. General van Daan, stop fussing over the poor man like a mother hen, you are making him uncomfortable.”
“I think it was the kick in the shoulder from that ungainly brute that has made him uncomfortable, sir. Where in God’s name did you get him from?”
“He has recently arrived from Lisbon. I am in need of one or two new mounts and Gordon heard that Charles Stewart had two to sell prior to his departure.”
“Charles Stewart sold you that horse? I’d ask for my money back, sir, you’ve been robbed.”
“Nonsense,” Wellington said. He was stroking the smooth chestnut coat. “He rides well, he is very strong and he doesn’t seem to tire easily. He is a little testy, it is true…”
“A little testy?” Paul surveyed the horse in disgust. The horse returned his stare with a baleful eye. “If you want my opinion, he’s a cross-gained, bad-tempered brute who is likely to throw you in the middle of a battle.”
“He will settle down once he is accustomed to me, and understands that I will brook no defiance, General,” Wellington said, watching as Paul retrieved his own horse and swung himself into the saddle.
“Like the rest of the army then, sir.”
“With one notable exception. Brett, why are you standing with your mouth hanging open, when I am sure I instructed you to visit the surgeon?”
“Yes, my Lord. Very sorry.”
Paul eyed the horse as they rode out of the village. “What’s his name?”
“No, but he was foaled in ’07. Probably just about the time you were getting yourself court-martialled for insubordination towards senior officers of the Royal Navy. It is a pity he is already named, I would have liked to have come up with something in memory of such a significant event.”
“What an excellent idea, sir. You could have called him Popham, he’s got that smug expression, with a strong look of being up to no good behind the eyes. I just hope that when he throws you, it’s not in the middle of a fight. I’ll tell Fitzroy to look out for the eye-rolling and bared teeth just in case.”
“If he proves too troublesome, General, you could take him off my hands. Perhaps you would like to exchange him for that black you bought in Denmark? I have always liked the look of him, he is far too good a horse for your orderly to be riding.”
“Felix? Not a chance. If you think I’d put Jenson up on this bad-tempered bastard, sir, you must be all about in your head. Send him back to Stewart and ask for your money back.”
“Knowing Charles Stewart, I imagine that the money has already been spent on expensive Madeira and port for the voyage home. Besides, I have no desire to send Copenhagen back. I will offer you a wager, if you like, that within the year, he will have proved his worth. I am tired of horses blowing up halfway through a fast journey. I think I may have found the mount I have been looking for.”
“If you like, sir. I’ll happily stake a case of good port that you’ll be looking to get rid of him in a year. What’s your stake?”
Wellington touched his white neckcloth. “A broken neck, if you prove to be right, General.”
“That’s not funny, sir.”
In addition to the equine population, my books host a fine collection of dogs. Dogs are my passion and you can reliably assume that if a character in my books is a dog lover, they’re going to be one of the good guys.
The first and most famous dog to be introduced belongs to Anne van Daan, who somewhat irreverently named him after Major-General Robert Craufurd. Paul found the puppy amidst the horrors of the sacking of Badajoz and presented him to Anne. Since then, Craufurd has grown into an enormous shaggy hound who is frequently a menace to his surroundings. He provides a lot of comic moments with his tendency to chew up Paul’s paperwork and Anne’s hats but he proved his worth during the miserable retreat from Madrid and Burgos when he attacked a French dragoon to save Anne’s life.
Paul grumbles incessantly about Craufurd but obviously adores him. In An Indomitable Brigade however, there is trouble at headquarters during a briefing meeting.
“General Victor Alten, you will take your brigade directly through Salamanca via the old bridge. General Fane, you will cross by the fords below Santa Marta. I imagine you are right, General van Daan, they will have retreated before we arrive, they must have reports of our approach by now. I believe that is everything. Unless there are any questions…what the devil is that?”
There was a scrabbling sound from outside, and then a crash as the door was flung open against the wall. All the men turned to face the intruder, and both Lord March and General Fane went so far as to draw their swords, while General Alava stepped between Wellington and the door. Paul did not move. He knew it was unnecessary, as the would-be assassin would come to him. He stood braced.
Something large and hairy bounded across the room and hurled itself at Paul. Standing on its hind legs, it placed huge paws on his shoulders and managed one enthusiastic lick across his face before Paul caught its legs and placed it firmly back on the ground with a sharp command.
Anne’s large shaggy grey dog obeyed immediately, his tail wagging excitedly. He looked remarkably pleased with himself, and Paul wondered if there was any possibility that Craufurd had found his way to the kitchen and the leftovers. He loved food and had an astonishing appetite.
“For God’s sake, what is that dog doing here?” Wellington exploded. “This is supposed to be a military headquarters, not a menagerie. Did you bring him here, Van Daan?”
“Well, I brought him as far as the stable, sir,” Paul admitted. “I didn’t invite him to dinner though. I am sorry, he needed a run. Clearly it wasn’t far enough. Will you excuse me, I’ll just…there you are, Jenson. What on earth happened?”
Paul’s orderly appeared in the doorway, looking harassed and a little dishevelled. “Sorry, sir. Sorry, my Lord. He was locked in one of the stalls, but he must have chewed his way through the latch. I found him in the kitchen with Pearl, but I don’t think he’s done any damage. I don’t know what’s got into him lately. I’ll get him out of here.”
Craufurd rose and trotted politely towards the orderly. He allowed Jenson to attach his lead and followed him out of the room walking perfectly to heel. Paul noticed that the back of Jenson’s uniform was covered in mud which suggested that he had been knocked off his feet by Craufurd at some point during the chase. Jenson closed the door behind him. There was a long, pointed silence. Both March and Fane sheathed their swords, looking rather embarrassed, and Alava moved away from his protective stance in front of Lord Wellington. The officers shuffled silently back to their previous positions around the table.
Paul risked a look at Wellington and was not at all surprised to see that Wellington was glaring at him. When he finally spoke, it was in the voice of a man driven beyond all endurance.
“Somerset, remind me to carry a loaded pistol to all briefing meetings in future.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Paul was fighting back laughter. “I don’t think my wife would like it if you shot her dog, sir.”
“It was not the dog I was thinking of shooting. Does anybody have any questions about my orders?”
Wellington’s tone suggested that questions would be wholly unnecessary, and none were asked. Outside, the officers collected their horses. Nobody spoke about the incident. Jenson brought Paul’s horse forward, and once the other officers were all mounted, released Craufurd from his prison in the stables. The dog frisked around excitedly. Paul looked down at him.
“My career means nothing to you, does it?” he said.
There was a curious sound behind him. Paul turned to find Charles Alten leaning forward on the neck of his horse. He was laughing so hard that he was almost choking. Beyond him, both Kempt and Vandeleur were helpless with mirth. Paul began to laugh as well.
“This bloody dog. I’m going to get him out of here before his Lordship finds that pistol. Not that he’s likely to hit anything, but I don’t want to take the chance. There’s always a lucky shot.”
Craufurd’s impromptu visit to headquarters proved more than a temporary embarrassment for Paul. The previous Christmas, the Van Daans had given Lord Wellington a silvery-grey hunting greyhound called Pearl. His Lordship had grown very attached to her and was not at all amused to discover she was expecting puppies.
Paul took the letter and unfolded it. Johnny watched as he read it with a deepening look of puzzlement.
“What is it, Paul?” Anne asked.
“He’s expecting to be with us the day after tomorrow, and there’ll be orders to march out. But he’s in a bad temper about his hunting bitch.”
“Pearl?” Anne said. “Oh no, is she all right? Has something happened to her?”
“I believe she’s very well, given the circumstances,” Paul said. “It seems she’s expecting a litter of puppies.”
“Puppies?” Johnny said blankly. “What in God’s name does that have to do with you? Even Wellington can’t blame you for…”
There was a sharp bark at the top of the stairs. Anne got up and went to the bottom. “He doesn’t like the polished stairs,” she said. “Come on Craufurd, down boy. Take it slowly and you’ll be all right.”
Both Paul and Johnny turned to watch as Anne coaxed her enormous dog down the slippery stairs. A sudden thought occurred to Johnny, and he turned to look at Paul. Paul was studying his wife with an expression of deep foreboding.
“Nan. Before he turns up here yelling, can you tell me…is there even a remote possibility…?”
Anne turned. Her face was pink with the attempt to stifle her laughter and there were tears in her eyes. “Paul, you know there is. Don’t you remember when you took Craufurd up to Headquarters and then wished you hadn’t because he escaped from the stables and came racing into the room halfway through Lord Wellington’s briefing?”
“Yes,” Paul said in hollow tones. Craufurd had reached the bottom of the stairs. He trotted over to Paul and pushed his shaggy head into his hand. Paul stroked him. “He was wagging his tail as if he’d managed to steal the roast mutton. I wondered what he was so pleased about.”
“Of course, it might not be,” Anne said hopefully.
“It will be,” Paul said morosely. “That bitch is going to give birth, every one of the puppies is going to closely resemble this oversized carpet on legs and I am going to be hearing about this for the rest of my army career. Possibly for the rest of my life.”
Johnny and Anne dissolved into laughter. Paul attempted a glare, but Johnny could see that it was an effort. Eventually, he grinned.
“He is going to be such a pain in the arse about this. Never mind. Go and write to Mary, Johnny. When you’re done, we’ll open a bottle of wine, and we will discuss Ensign Fox and Sergeant Stewart. Let’s get them out of the way before dinner.”
A dog provides a crucial plotline in one of my short stories as well. Eton Mess tells the story of Paul van Daan’s schooldays and introduces young Toby Galloway who is trying to conceal his spaniel crossbreed puppy named India from the school bullies. Galloway is a true dog lover and when we meet him again in a later short story, An Unsuitable Arrangement it’s clear that India was by no means the only dog in his life.
“My mother would like to meet you. I’ve written to her and told her all about you. You’d love it there. They’re good sorts, my family, and the place is full of horses and dogs. Do you like dogs?”
“Yes,” Elinor said. She was beginning to realise that this conversation had nothing to do with travel arrangements and her heart lifted. The Colonel was beginning to describe his favourite spaniel cross-breed and Elinor recognised nervousness. She allowed him to go on for a while because she was enjoying the sound of his voice and the opportunity to study his pleasant face and kind brown eyes. It might be a long time before she saw him again and she wanted to commit them to memory.
She would have been happy for the conversation to continue but the door opened and Beattie’s copper head poked around it, damp with spray.
“Well?” he asked.
“Have you not done it yet?”
Galloway flushed slightly. “I was just telling Miss Spencer that…”
“Stop telling her things and try asking her something. The boat’s waiting and we can’t miss the tide. My employer has been remarkably patient about all this but he’ll be getting to the stage of pacing the room and remembering why he thought about dismissing me two years ago.”
“Why did he…?”
“Get on with it!” Beattie yelled and closed the door.
Elinor could feel laughter bubbling up, filling her with joy. Galloway looked down at her and seemed to catch both her happiness and her understanding. He reached out and took her hand.
“I always knew if I ever reached the moment of wanting to do this that I’d make an absolute mess of it.”
“You’re not, Tobias.”
“I am. But I don’t have time to tell you the history of every dog I ever owned. I’ll let my mother do that. She’s going to write to your uncle and I promise you he’ll make no objection to you going to stay with her. With Juliet as well, of course. And will you call me Toby? All my friends and family do.”
Horses and dogs fit well into the action of the Peninsular War Saga but the Manxman series is about the Royal Navy where Captain Hugh Kelly and First Lieutenant Alfred Durrell have the ship’s cats to contend with. In This Blighted Expedition, Durrell finds himself explaining the situation to Miss Faith Collingwood in rather more detail than he had intended.
There was a big flat rock, almost dry now, and Durrell took off his coat for her to sit on. She did so, dropping the hat beside it and lifting her face to the sunlight. It brought a sudden image to Durrell, and he laughed aloud.
“What is funny?”
“You reminded me of something, but I’m not sure if I should tell you, you might be offended.”
“Something you like?”
“I am intrigued, Lieutenant. Tell me, it is your duty to entertain me today.”
“It was the way you lifted your face towards the sun and stretched a little. It reminded me of Molly, the ship’s cat aboard the Iris. She likes to sunbathe on the quarterdeck in hot weather. When we were off Gibraltar last year I was forever falling over her.”
Faith gave a broad smile. “I like cats. I wish I could have a pet, but my father will not permit it. He says they track in dirt and leave hairs on the furniture.”
“Well, he’d loathe Molly then, she leaves hairs everywhere.” Durrell grinned. “When I first joined the Iris three years ago, I realised we had a problem with vermin. All ships do, of course, which is why most ships carry a cat. Molly has been there for years. Generally speaking, a cat stays with the ship, but Captain Kelly was so attached to her that he brought her from his previous ship, the Newstead. It didn’t take me long to realise that the reason Molly was such a useless hunter was because the captain lets her sleep on the end of his bunk and feeds her choice scraps from his dinner. She has no need to hunt whatsoever.”
“I took my duties very seriously back then and I didn’t really know the Captain. I delivered several rather long lectures to him about the problem and spent a lot of time collecting Molly and dumping her below to do her job. It didn’t improve the situation at all, but that’s because she was sharing the midshipmen’s dinners instead. She’s very fat and very lazy.”
“What did you do?”
“Found another cat when we were in Chatham. I explained to Captain Kelly that I’d found a new home for Molly on shore. Captain Kelly explained to me that if it was such a good home, I could live in it myself. It was fairly clear that given a choice between myself and that cat, I was going to be the loser.”
“So Molly stayed?”
“Molly is probably snoozing on the Captain’s bunk as we speak. I did bring another cat aboard, though. His name is Orry and he’s a very good hunter which is just as well because he very quickly had a family to feed. It didn’t occur to me to find another female.”
Faith was laughing uncontrollably. “Oh, no. How many kittens?”
“Eight survived. We kept four of them, the rest went to other ships and the Captain took Orry to the ship’s surgeon who performed a small operation to ensure there were no more.”
Durrell paused, suddenly appalled. He had completely relaxed into the conversation, and it had not occurred to him that it was not acceptable to be discussing a cat’s sex life with a young lady he hardly knew. He could feel himself flush, but before he could stammer an apology, Faith said:
“My aunt has three cats and had to do the same thing. I am very glad Molly won you over, though.”
Molly and Orry are very well-travelled moggies and are still going strong aboard HMS Iris in the most recent book, This Bloody Shore.
Jannie the Budgerigar.
My decision to introduce a budgie into This Blighted Expedition was prompted by this very beautiful painting which I found in one of the museums in Vlissingen during my research trip. My female main character, Katja de Groot is a prosperous widow raising three children and running her late husband’s textile business. When I saw this portrait it looked so much like the character I visualised that I decided to research whether budgies had been introduced into Europe in 1809. There was no definitive date, but traders definitely started bringing them in around that time so I decided to give Katja a pet bird called Jannie.
A sound caught his attention and he turned. There was a cage on the far side of the room, hanging from a hook in the ceiling before the window. Ross rose and went to look at the bird. It was small and a beautiful shade of blue, like a miniature parrot with black and white markings down its wings. Ross had never seen anything like it before. He touched the bars of the cage and the bird immediately waddled along its perch and nibbled delicately at his finger, surveying him disapprovingly, with a beady eye.
“What kind of bird is it?” he asked.
Katja came to join him. “I do not know the name. Cornelius bought him from an English trader in Vlissingen docks for my birthday. We call him Jannie. He can speak.”
Ross shot her a surprised glance. “Really?”
Katja laughed. She said something in Dutch and the bird mimicked her, managing the odd guttural sound of the language very well. Ross started to laugh.
“I don’t believe it, that’s amazing. What did he say?”
“He said good day to you, Captain,” Katja said mischievously. “I am very fond of him. He was the last gift Cornelius gave to me. The children are very naughty and try to teach him things he should not say.”
“I’m not surprised,” Ross said, still laughing. “Perhaps I should teach him some English.”
“They would enjoy that very much.”
These are just a few of the animals who wander through the pages of my books and short stories. I love writing about them and find them a really useful way to highlight some of the traits of my characters as well as a way of making people laugh. They’ve proved very popular with my readers and people who message me about the books are just as likely to ask about Craufurd and Pearl as they are to ask about Paul and Anne. Sometimes, in moments of high stress it helps to have a dog or cat to stroke and I don’t see why my characters should miss out on that.
I’ll leave you some photos of the real animals who have kept me company over the years here at Writing with Labradors…