Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts

I’m currently on a week long trip to Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts which leaves the traveller in me overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape and the historian in me with her head spinning. After only a few days it’s clear to me how appallingly difficult it must be for any historian writing about the turbulent past of this area to find a balance between the stories of the past and the ongoing narrative of the present.

I’ve never studied the history of Ireland in any depth. During my younger years at school, Ireland tended to be taught as a footnote to the political situation in England at the time. I learned about Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, the Phoenix Park murders and Charles Stewart Parnell without ever really going into their significance within Ireland. Later, as an adult, I read more widely, inspired by the novels of Leon Uris, Trinity and Redemption. I learned something of the Civil War horrors while at University. But all of these have come in snatches, bits of information read and stored away, without ever finding time to read around the subject and develop an overview.

This trip has changed that for me. Spending time in Belfast and Derry, reading accounts of the confusing relationships between the English, the Scots and the Irish of all persuasions has reminded me that through the centuries this has been so much more than the simplistic explanation of conflict between Protestants and Catholics which was what I remember being told as a child, watching the violence explode across the evening news week after week through the seventies. IRA bombings were a reality of life, coming close to home on more than one occasion, and all I can remember back then was a sense of anger at feeling under threat over a cause that I did not understand and felt was none of my business.

I’ve travelled to Ireland many times since then both on holiday and as the former owner of a Manx Irish dance school. I’ve made friends and grown to love the place but most of my trips have been to the south where the sense of history is just as strong but very different. Here in the north, the feeling of the past whispering in the ear of the present is far stronger.

Yesterday we went for a trip to Derry / Londonderry and visited the Free Derry Museum and the Siege Museum; history through different lenses. Even the fact that I’m not sure which name to call it is an indication of the complexity of dealing with the history of this region. It would not occur to me to write Banjul / Bathurst or Zimbabwe / Rhodesia or Thailand / Siam in a blog post, but the difference in the name given to the walled city is more than a matter of history here, it’s a statement of allegiance.

In my own writing so far, the turbulent history of Ireland is a back story that I’ve not explored, but being here, it’s a back story that I can see coming to the fore at some point. Michael O’Reilly is a central character in the Peninsular War saga and it has occurred to me more than once that his history as an Irish rebel and fugitive from justice must be in direct conflict to the bonds of friendship he comes to feel for the Englishmen he fights alongside through the long years of the war. I’d like to know more about the young Michael and how he ended up where he did.

Alongside the historical complexity of this region is the stunning beauty of the scenery and that can be appreciated without needing to understand any more. Coming from the Isle of Man, I consider myself a connoisseur of fabulous coastlines and this one is definitely up there with the best. Travelling back on the Lough Foyle ferry yesterday evening into Magilligan was magical.

I love Northern Ireland and will definitely be back. Before I do, I’d like to have read a lot more about the history and feel more at home with the events and the people that have shaped this place. But even for the casual holidaymaker in search of beauty and peace and incredibly friendly people, I would highly recommend it.

Toby

Toby was the result of a snap decision after spending some time with friends who had a young black labrador. It was a decision that changed our lives.

 

 

We had lost our beloved cats, Reggie and Ronnie, over a year earlier. Both lived to be more than twenty and we couldn’t imagine finding cats with their enormous personalities to replace them. We were living on the Isle of Man by then with two young children, both of whom had fallen in love with Tavey, our friends’ dog during our visit. On the way home, Richard said suddenly:

“Shall we get a dog?”

“A labrador?” I asked hopefully. I’d spent a huge amount of time many years earlier staying with the family of a university friend. They always had dogs, black labradors and a springer spaniel. I adored Worthington and Henry and had always thought that if I could have a dog, that’s what I’d like.

“Well they’re good with children,” Richard said.

The conversation might have rested there, but when we arrived home, I picked up the free paper from among the mail and flicked through it. With our conversation in mind, I glanced at the classifieds and to my surprise, there it was, a small advert.

“There’s somebody advertising labrador puppies here, in Ballaugh,” I said.

Richard looked at me. “Ring them,” he said. “We can go and have a look. We don’t need to get one. Don’t let the children know, in case we decide not to do it.”

Looking back on that piece of naivety makes me howl with laughter.

There was one puppy left when I rang, a black boy. It was a small litter, only four puppies, the mother a family pet. We arranged a time to go up when the children were at school, having told them nothing.

The house was chaos, puppies confined to a large pen but still taking over the room. Richard sat down next to the pen and someone deposited a black puppy onto his lap. “This is him. We call him Homer, he’s the biggest of the litter. Look at his paws.”

We looked. It was hard to miss those paws, they were enormous. I stroked the puppy’s ears. It had climbed up Richard’s chest and was licking his face. “What do you think?” I asked.

Richard didn’t answer. He’d obviously lost the ability to think, he was too busy falling in love.

Toby came into our lives like a small black tornado. He was lively, he was bouncy and he ate everything in sight. He ate our shoes and our clothes and our kitchen. He resisted all forms of training or discipline and made puppy training classes a nightmare. He clearly knew his name but had no idea why it mattered since he had no intention of responding to it. He was a new full time job and we adored him from day one.

My memories of Toby are a series of snapshots through the years. Toby as a puppy, failing to look guilty as some new piece of destruction came to light. Toby taking forever to learn ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘heel’ and ‘come’, but then unexpectedly learning ‘turn’ and ‘paw’ without effort.

Stars of Blogging with Labradors
Blogging with Labradors, starring Toby and Joey

Toby first learning to swim down at Groudle Beach and then refusing to come out of the water because he loved it so much.

Toby as a young dog, taking pride of place beside Richard in our little red Mazda with the top down, ears blowing in the breeze as they headed off for the beach or the plantation.

Toby at two and a half, when we introduced Joey, the new puppy, patiently letting him jump all over him and then batting him halfway across the room when he got bored.

Toby at a barbecue, stealing a sharp kitchen knife off the worktop and racing out to greet an arriving guest to cries of “Hilary, watch out, he’s got a knife”

Toby refusing to come back to the car when it was time to go home, not once but many many times, making me late to collect the kids while I was coaxing him.

Toby at Silverdale, meeting an elderly man unexpectedly on the path and eliciting the remark: “Bloody hell, it’s the Moddey Dhoo!”

Toby taking the descent down Peel Hill too fast, rolling to the bottom and ending up with an operation and weeks of hydrotherapy to get him walking again.

Toby curled up on the beanbag with Anya when she was practicing her reading, listening to stories about dolphins and mermaids, loving the cuddles.

Toby on our “dog training for awkward dogs” intensive course, earning the nickname “Mr I will if I feel like it” after his determination not to walk to heel on the lead defeated experts in the field.

Toby getting older, his beard and eyebrows going grey, still handsome, very distinguished.

Toby sitting beside Jon and then Anya through their GCSEs and A levels, headbutting their books and laptops to get attention when they were trying to study.

Toby with arthritis, too stiff to move fast or go for long walks anymore, but loving the garden or a mooch around the beach.

Toby meeting Oscar, the new puppy. Standoffish at first, then interested, but very much in charge, very much the senior dog. All the little steps of acceptance; the first time sharing a bed, letting Oscar lick him, licking him back. Toby watching Joey and Oscar play fighting and then finally joining in, a bit stiff and awkward, but having fun, his tail wagging.

The boys enjoying the sun this afternoon

Toby sunbathing in this warm weather on the tiled front porch with his brothers, his fur warm to touch, snoring gently.

I’ve started to cry again as I write this. There is so much to say about Toby that I can’t write it all. He was my friend, my beloved dog for fourteen years, and I struggle to believe that I won’t see him again.

There was a day, a few weeks back, when we took the dogs to Groudle Beach. I’d not seen Toby go into the water properly for a long time but he clearly wanted to show Oscar how it was done. It brought tears to my eyes to see how happy he was, splashing about. He looked like a dog who was discovering some of his lost youth and seemed to be enjoying it.

A week ago we took the three of them to Derbyhaven Beach in the evening. He was less keen to swim that day but he paddled, and sniffed the rocks and walked around on the sand looking so happy, his tail wagging, a big grin on his face.

On Monday 23rd he joined in a huge playfight in my study, trashing the place and making work impossible until I kicked them out. They all fell asleep in mid-game, slept for about four hours and woke up to eat dinner, then sat outside with us watching the lights come on.

The next morning I found him apparently sleeping peacefully in the kitchen. There was no sign of illness or distress or any kind of trauma. Joey was sleeping next to him; Oscar nearby in his cage. He’d died in his sleep, almost as if he’d decided that this was as good as it was going to get. He refused the inevitable declining health and mobility; the misery of a family trying to decide when was the right time to let him go.

He went kindly and with dignity and that kind of death was a gift that many pet owners don’t get. I was in shock and then distraught and I cried when we buried him and didn’t know how I would ever stop. Our family has lost a beloved member and I hate that he’s not curled up next to me. There’s an empty bed; an empty space on the porch in the mornings and an empty space in my heart that will always be there for Toby.

There’s been an outpouring of sadness and sympathy online, not only from friends and family who knew Toby but from people who have got to know him online through following Writing with Labradors. I’ve been so touched at all the messages. It doesn’t make losing him any easier but it does help.

It’s only been a few days, and grief still catches all of us unawares. We all deal with it differently; the girls talk and cry a lot, the boys are quieter, sadder. Joey spent the first day wandering from room to room, knowing he was missing, which made me cry more. But we were so lucky to get Oscar, the perfect puppy, when we did. His company has settled Joey very quickly. It would have been much harder without him.

I’m never going to stop missing my big boy and I’m horribly aware that Joey isn’t that much younger than him. But the pain and the grief of loss when a pet dies is worth every moment for all the years of love and fun we’ve had with him. He was a fabulous dog, loving, funny and daft, and I don’t regret any of it.

Rest in peace, Toby Dawson. You were so loved.

 

 

 

 

 

Battle of Salamanca

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca206 years ago today, Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army won a stunning victory at the battle of Salamanca. In honour of the anniversary, I wanted to share a short excerpt from the first chapter of my next book. An Untrustworthy Army is the fifth book in the Peninsular War Saga and follows Colonel Paul van Daan and the third brigade of the  light division into Spain…

June 1812

It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which had battered down on the Anglo-Portuguese army as they sat on the edge of the city of Salamanca, setting up a ferocious artillery fire which was designed to pound the city, a major French supply depot, into submission. The French had converted four convents into temporary fortresses and had settled initially to wait for reinforcements. Lord Wellington’s guns were neither numerous enough or powerful enough to subdue the fortifications, but he had more than enough men to blockade the city and with no reinforcements forthcoming, the French had surrendered.
“Thank God for that, we do not need another Badajoz,” Colonel Johnny Wheeler commented to his second-in-command, as they took their places in the triumphal procession into the city. “Pretty place, this, and at least they’ve the sense to appear welcoming, whatever they might actually think.”
Major Gervase Clevedon glanced at him with a grin. “Won’t stop a few wine shops losing half their stock tonight,” he said. “But if they’ve any sense at all the taverns will do a good trade. The brothels certainly will, I’m not expecting many of my lads to be around camp tonight unless they’re on sentry duty. I’ve told them I want half in and half out, they’ve drawn lots as to who goes first. If the first lot don’t come back in the morning, I think I can rely on the second lot to go and get them.”
Wheeler was laughing. “Gervase, what happened to us? We used to be such correct young officers, I swear to God I once had a man flogged for drinking on duty.”
“They still don’t drink on duty, sir, he’d kick them into the river. And I for one wouldn’t go back. We were a regiment of outsiders, the 110th, new-fangled and pretty much laughed at by half the army back in India. Some good lads, mind, but no identity to speak of. As for the 112th it was in so much disgrace when it came back from the Indies most people thought it was going to be disbanded.”
Wheeler ran his eyes over the neat ranks of the 112th. “I know. Look at them now, up here with the light division’s finest. Jesus, it’s hot. I wish they’d get going.”
Clevedon was beginning to laugh. “I think you might find,” he said cautiously, “that the victory parade is being held up, while Colonel van Daan’s wife’s maid locates her missing hat.”
Wheeler broke into laughter as a pretty brown haired woman in a sprigged muslin gown sped past them carrying a fetching straw hat trimmed with silk flowers. “Get a move on, Teresa, we’re dying of heat stroke out here,” he called.
Teresa Carter looked back over her shoulder, laughing. “I do not know why he bothers, she will have lost it before they get into the Cathedral,” she said.
At the head of the 110th, Colonel Paul van Daan took the hat from Teresa with a smile of thanks and turned to his wife.
“Put it on,” he said in tones of considerable patience. “Keep it on, I am not having you with sunstroke. Or I will spoil Lord Wellington’s lovely parade by tipping you off that horse into the river.”
“I’m not sure I’d mind that just at the moment, it might be cooler,” his wife said, tying on the hat at a particularly fetching angle. “Jenson, would you ride up and tell Lord Wellington thank you for waiting? The colonel has a mania about my hats, I cannot tell you what a bore it is.”
Paul’s orderly grinned and spurred his horse forward. Much of the army was settled in sprawling cantonments on the edge of Salamanca, but several regiments had been selected to form part of the parade into the city. This would lead to a Te Deum in the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor would be illuminated during the evening while Lord Wellington and his officers were entertained by the Spanish grandees of the city to a civic banquet and fireworks.
“You would think,” Paul’s wife commented, drawing up beside him, “that the Spanish would have had enough of fireworks given that the French seem to have blown up entire sections of their city to build fortifications. Since being with the army I have found that things exploding in the sky have taken on a whole new meaning for me.”

 

Haunted Castletown

Castle Rushen
Castle Rushen, on the Isle of Man

What better way to spend a beautiful evening than to take a tour of haunted Castletown? That’s how I spent yesterday evening, courtesy of Isle of Man Ghost Tours, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve done a few ghost walks in the UK over the years. The York one was particularly good and I also enjoyed Chester and Shrewsbury. A few years ago a friend invited me to join her work evening out which turned out to be a ghost walk around Douglas followed by a meal and drinks. It was winter, a freezing cold evening and I think the early darkness contributed to the atmosphere although by the end I suspect we were all too cold to enjoy the final few stories.

It was a different experience yesterday and we toured Castletown in the evening sun. It was a very small group; the walks have only just started up again for the summer season and it was Tynwald Day, a bank holiday on the Isle of Man, so I suspect a lot of local people were at St John’s or else at home enjoying the weather. My own family chickened out so I went alone.

The appeal of a ghost tour for me is only partly about the supernatural. I’m not really a believer in ghosts but I have always loved a good ghost story. As a child I was very susceptible to nightmares and I can remember my mother banning me from taking books of ghost stories from the library as she was fed up with being woken up in the night by an eight year old hearing imaginary bumps in the night. As an adult I still enjoy them and was a huge fan of the novels of the late, great Barbara Mertz who wrote some fantastic ghost stories under the pen name of Barbara Michaels.

But in addition to the supernatural element, I just like a good story, and that is what I got from the tour last night. The guide interspersed tales of hauntings and mysterious figures with comic anecdotes about such local characters as Gerald Gardner, the founder of the Wicca movement, who lived in Castletown and apparently had to be warned by the local constabulary for holding meetings in his home which included a collection of naked women. Gardner was obliged to get curtains put up to avoid offending the neighbours and to get rid of the horde of peeping Toms who used to hang around in the street outside.

The tour guide had clearly done his research, both in the archives and by talking to local people and visitors with stories to tell. He was a good speaker, very engaging, and the two hours passed very quickly. Some of the stories were genuinely funny; I particularly liked the one he apparently found in an old book telling of the ghost of a black headless dog in Castletown which can only be seen by another dog. A talking dog, presumably. I must take my boys down there and they can tell me if they see anything…

Other stories genuinely had a spooky feel about them. The ghostly woman in black seen around Castle Rushen is a very traditional ghost story but there’s a reason it’s a classic and the mysterious light coming on at night in one of the rooms of Compton House was also an odd one.  I also enjoyed the haunting of the Old Grammar School; ghostly children’s voices singing in an empty building is a definite chiller.

I was curious to find out if there were any ghosts from the Napoleonic War period but there were none mentioned on this tour. A lot of the Manx chapters of An Unwilling Alliance are set in and around Castletown and it would be fun to come up with a story from that period. I’m currently looking out for an idea for a nice Manx ghost story for Hop tu Naa this year, so watch this space.

All in all, I’d really recommend this as a way to spend an evening. I’d like to go back to do some of the other tours as well; I’ve a feeling there are many more spooky tales to come.

It was growing dark as I walked back to the car past the gates of Castle Rushen and the old House of Keys. I honestly don’t believe in ghosts, but passing Compton House I couldn’t stop myself from looking up at the windows. No light came on. I was laughing at myself as I got to the car because I’m aware that I didn’t look back a second time. Just in case…

Joey the Labrador

I thought long and hard about sharing our experience with Joey the Labrador during the past 72 hours. Part of me thought it was too cold and contrived to talk about that many tears and that much stress on a blog post.  The other part of me is aware that since I started Writing with Labradors just over a year ago, hundreds of people have not only read, but interacted with me about my writing, my life and more than anything else, my dogs.  Toby and Joey, my elderly labradors, have become firm favourites with a large number of people and our new arrival, Oscar, has been hugely popular.

Eventually I’ve decided to share.  The story isn’t over yet, we’re still up in the air and we’re hoping for a good outcome but we still don’t know for sure. But my beautiful Joey has given us a major fright and I can’t go on sharing pretty photos of them all without telling the story.

About 48 hours ago, Joey’s back legs suddenly stopped working. This isn’t uncommon with labradors; Toby has bad arthritis and falls over occasionally, although much less so since we started giving him joint supplements. But with Joey it was sudden and shocking and he seemed in agony.

We’ve been backwards and forwards to the vet several times. Yesterday morning he couldn’t get up at all and we cried, all of us, on and off, waiting for the vet to open, knowing that the time might have come, far too soon and totally out of the blue, to say goodbye to a beloved member of our family. Joey is twelve and not the oldest of our dogs and to be honest we didn’t expect it to be him.

It took three of us; my husband, my son and myself to get him into the car and down to the vet. My daughter stayed at home, crying over the other two dogs. We promised her that if it was bad news we’d make sure she had time to say goodbye.

The vet, who is fabulous, came out of the surgery to examine Joey in the back of the car. He was fairly relaxed, wagging his tail. Eventually she asked us to get him down and on his feet if possible so that she could check his reflexes. I felt a bit sick, knowing how painful it was going to be for him, but Jon and Richard did it and he stood there, letting her move his legs about.

“It doesn’t seem neurological,” the vet said, finally. She sounded slightly surprised. Joey looked up at her intently. Then he gave a little woof and went for a walk.

Joey wasn’t on a lead. He couldn’t walk; it seemed superfluous. We all stood there watching him in some surprise for a minute. My brain came back online first.

“He’s not going to stop,” I said.

Nobody moved or spoke.

“He’s going,” I said, starting to move. I had flip flops on and I couldn’t run.

“He can’t run,” Richard said, watching him.

“He’s bloody running,” I said, tripping over my own feet.

At that point, the wisdom of taking an active nineteen year old became obvious as Jon raced across the car park and caught Joey on the curb before he went into the road.

Having rediscovered his legs, Joey tripped around the car park (on a lead) did what he needed to do and came home with us. So far the vet has diagnosed a severe arthritic flare up, probably exacerbated by an injury (chasing a new puppy around possibly?)

Joey is home now. Yesterday he was not running around, or even walking. He was clearly in pain but he could get up and down when he needed to and he’s got a shedload of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers. His tail is still wagging.

This morning, Joey came out into the front garden. It seemed difficult for him and he flopped down again and wouldn’t move. I was starting to get anxious again, it was a long time since he’d done a wee, but nothing shifted him. Nothing until Jon came past with Oscar on a lead, taking him for his morning walk. Suddenly Joey was up and at the gate, looking expectant. I got the point and got his lead. Outside the garden, we didn’t go far, but just watching him mooch around on his feet and behaving normally was a joy.

Oscar curled up with Joey
Oscar cuddling Joey

Oscar has been unbelievable with him. At first he seemed confused that his friend wouldn’t play but now he’s just cuddled up to him, happy to be close.

By this evening, Joey was almost back to his old self. He has started requesting to go for a walk, only very short ones to the end of the road and back, but so much more than we expected. This evening at feeding time, we found him sitting at the top of the three steps to the utility room. While Anya and I were still working out how to get him down without hurting him he stood up and walked down them as though he’d never been injured.

Writing with Labradors is in shock. It’s one thing to know that your old boys are getting on. It’s another to find yourself face to face with the reality of losing a dog that you adore. We still don’t know the long term prognosis for Joey although it’s looking very good at the moment. But it has given us a reality check.

The boys enjoying the sun this afternoon

I love my dogs. There is no part of me, that is ready to say goodbye to any one of them although when the time comes I will do the right thing. In the meantime I feel as though I’ve just both dodged a bullet and had a rehearsal for what might happen in the future.

 

Writing with Labradors. They don’t live forever but while they’re with me, I love them to bits.

 

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…

 

The Battle of the Clogs

Køge Town Hall, c. 1850

 

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of WellingtonThe Battle of the Clogs, also known as the Battle of Koge, took place in Denmark in 1807 when British and German troops under Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated a Danish force trying to defend Copenhagen which was being besieged in an attempt to persuade the neutral Danes to hand over their fleet to the British in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the advancing French. The campaign was seen as an unpleasant necessity but was not popular in England. The following is an excerpt from An Unwilling Alliance, set during the campaign.

In the huge market square he found more of his men guarding increasing numbers of prisoners. Some of the Danish troops had taken refuge in the buildings around the square. There were a few desultory shots fired, with no accuracy, but these were dying out now. The hussars and many of the 92nd had moved on through the town, chasing the remaining defenders south towards the bridges. The 52nd was moving around the square, battering on doors and clearing out small pockets of resistance in public buildings. They seemed very controlled and very disciplined and Paul left them alone and led his men over to the town hall where Danish troops, clearly out of ammunition, were throwing missiles down on the heads of a few members of the 43rd who were trying to batter down the door.
A red-haired captain was leading them. Paul approached him, dodging a wooden stool which crashed onto the cobbles beside him, narrowly missing him. The captain saw him and saluted.
“Sir. I’ve orders to clear them out of here.”
“Might take a while, Captain. Mr Swanson!”
“Sir.”
“Translate, will you? One of the officers will understand Swedish.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Tell them to surrender. We’re taking prisoners, not slaughtering them. They can look around the square and see that.”
Carl moved back quickly, avoiding a bucket hurled from the upper storey. He raised his voice and shouted up to the men at the windows. Paul waited. After a moment there was an enormous crash and his lieutenant jumped back to avoid the splash from what was clearly a chamber pot. It shattered on the stones and the smell of urine and excrement filled the air. A voice shouted back down and Paul raised his eyebrows to Carl who shook his head.
“Didn’t get all of that, sir, but I’m translating it as ‘no’.”
Paul looked around. More and more prisoners were being escorted into the square. He could see scattered weapons, discarded by the fleeing Danes, and poignantly, a selection of wooden clogs. In their haste to escape, the irregular troops had thrown aside weapons, if they had them, and kicked off the awkward wooden clogs to speed their flight. Some of the men now under guard were barefooted.
“Where’s General Wellesley?” he asked.
“Not here yet, sir. The 43rd are mopping up the remains down by the bridge, he might be there.”
“All right, we won’t wait. Sergeant O’Reilly!”
The Irishman jogged forward, saluting. “Yes, sir.”
“Four men. Collect up everything they’ve thrown at us that will burn and pile it up against the door.”
“Yes, sir.”
O’Reilly turned, calling out orders, and Paul watched as the men began to gather the splintered and broken furniture. O’Reilly carried a bench towards the solid wooden door of the town hall.
“Not that door, Sergeant.”
O’Reilly turned, surprised. Paul was looking up at the windows of the town hall. A lone officer, hatless and fair-haired, his coat soaked in blood, stood looking down at him and Paul had a strong sense that the man had not needed Carl’s Swedish translation. Paul met the other man’s eyes for a long moment. The Dane was probably about his age, surrounded by his men, desperate and angry and determined and Paul hated himself for what he was about to do.
He had seen the flutter at the window of the neighbouring house earlier, gone almost before it was visible, but he was very sure it had been a woman’s face. There had been no sign of a woman or child in the chaos of the battle through the streets. He suspected that many of them had taken refuge in nearby churches, but not all. Still looking up at the officer in the upper window, he pointed to the house.
“That door,” he said loudly and clearly. “Burn it down. And stand well back, because that’s a wooden building and once you’ve lit it, it isn’t going to stop with the door.”
Paul suddenly wished that he had not chosen Michael O’Reilly for this particular task. His sergeant ought to know him better, but he realised, seeing the expression on the Irishman’s face, that he had seen too many cottages and churches burned out in his native Ireland by the English and should not have been asked to carry out a similar order here in a neutral country. But it was too late and Paul could not back down without alerting the Danish officer.
The colour had drained from Michael’s face and the dark eyes were fixed on Paul in mute horror. Paul looked back at him steadily.
“Get on with it, Sergeant,” he said.
O’Reilly turned away, carrying the bench over to the house and his men followed, piling the broken furniture against the door. Long minutes passed and Paul could feel his heart hammering in his breast, his nerves stretched to breaking point, waiting for the officer to crack.
The sound came, not from above, but from the prisoners in the square, a high pitched yell of horror, a plea in a language Paul did not understand. He did not need to, to grasp the man’s terror. He was shouting, running forward, calling up to the men at the window, gesticulating in the direction of the house and Carl Swanson moved to catch him, holding him back, speaking to him in Swedish.
Paul had no idea if the prisoner understood, but suddenly there was movement in the town hall and a weapon landed on the cobbles, a gun, useless with no ammunition, but a symbol. More followed. Paul looked up at the fair haired officer again and recognised sheer hatred in the man’s eyes. Slowly and very deliberately, the officer reached for his sword. He unbuckled it and held it out, dropping it to the street. It hit the cobbles with a ringing sound.
Paul did not take his eyes from the man. “All right, Sergeant. Move the bonfire away from that door, would you? Set a guard, make sure nobody bothers the women and children in there. They can come out when they’re ready but nobody goes in without permission. Captain Wheeler, get this door open and get them out, line them up with the other prisoners. Be very careful, I don’t trust this lad.”
“Yes, sir,” Wheeler said quietly.
“Captain Young, once they’re all out, take your company through this building and make sure it’s clear. Once you’ve checked, we can use it as a temporary hospital and mortuary.”
“Yes, sir.”
Paul stood watching as his men moved about their duties. They were unusually quiet and he understood why. He had shocked them and he knew it. He had shocked himself. If the fair-haired officer had held his nerve, Paul knew that he would not have given the order to light the fire that might have killed whoever was hiding in the half-timbered house but even making that threat was unlike him. He had been desperate to end the slaughter and had found, instinctively, the way to do it, but it was going to be hard to live with for a while.
The Danish prisoners filed out of the town hall under careful guard. Paul stood watching them. Most of them were looking at the ground, not raising their eyes. A few shot quick glances over at the other house, now with half a dozen of his third company stationed on guard. The Danes were calm and silent. These were regular troops in full uniform and they had held out to the bitter end. Paul watched them go past to join the other prisoners and was glad it had not ended in slaughter.
The fair-haired officer came last and he was injured, worse than Paul had realised from below. He was supporting his right arm with his left and was soaked in blood.
“Wait,” Paul said. He was sure the man understood English. “You’re injured. We have a doctor on the way over from Roskilde. My men will show you where…”
“I go with my men.”
The voice was heavily accented but very clear. Paul took a step towards the officer, intending to look more closely at the wound and the man spat, hard and accurate, directly into his face.
There was an audible gasp from several of Paul’s men. Paul looked into the other man’s eyes and thought, inconsequentially, that the colour was like his own. He wiped the spittle away on his sleeve without looking away.
“I’ll send the surgeon up to you then when he gets here,” he said evenly and turned away.
“You are worse than the French.”
Paul did not turn. He felt an irrational urge to argue, to tell the young officer what he had seen and heard of in Italy and from veterans back from Europe but he did not. On this day, in this town, the Danish officer was right.

An Unwilling Alliance is the first in a new series following the fortunes of Captain Hugh Kelly but linked to the Peninsular War Saga and is available for kindle and paperback on Amazon.

Sir Home Riggs Popham

Portrait of Sir Home Popham in the museum

Sir Home Riggs Popham, who features in my recent book, An Unwilling Alliance, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve read about during my research and I am completely unable to make up my mind how I feel about him. As a novelist rather than a historian, I need to be able to present a historical figure in a way that is believable and fits in with the perspective of my fictional characters, but in the case of Popham I find my heroes as ambivalent as I am.

Popham had a wide and varied career and was the subject of much controversy during his lifetime. He was the subject of one court martial and several different investigations, none of which seemed to hold back his career to any great degree. He was a naval officer who seemed more comfortable with the army and was both admired and disliked by contemporaries. The Duke of York applauded his ability while Lord St Vincent seems to have loathed him. He was ambitious, talented and clearly very intelligent but seems to have had the kind of personality that made enemies as easily as friends.

Popham was born in Gibraltar in 1762 to Joseph Popham, consul at Tetuan. His mother died giving birth to him and his father later remarried. Between his two wives, Joseph Popham had twenty-one children. Home Riggs Popham was educated at Brentford School and then at Westminster and appears to have been admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, although it is not clear how much time he actually spent there. In 1778 at the age of 16 he entered the navy as a captain’s servant on board the Hyaena.

Popham’s early career in the navy was fairly typical. He was involved in a number of skirmishes and spent a few months as a prisoner of the French in 1781. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1783. Aboard the Nautilus in 1786 he was responsible for surveying the coast of south-west Africa, building a reputation as an excellent hydrographer.

Progress in the navy was often slow. There were more officers than good commands and many excellent men were unemployed and on half-pay awaiting a ship, including Popham in 1787. Obtaining leave from the Admiralty, he bought his first ship and sailed for India as a trader. He operated to and from India for several years, marrying the daughter of an East India Company officer, Elizabeth Prince, in 1788. During these years he continued with his surveying work, later publishing A Description of Prince of Wales Island with charts. He also discovered a new channel between the island and the mainland through which, in the spring of 1792, he piloted the company’s fleet to China and he was presented with a gold cup by the governor-general in council, who also strongly commended him both to the directors and the Admiralty.

Popham’s commercial activities, however, were causing some suspicion and in 1791 his ship was seized by an English frigate as a prize of war, brought into the Thames, and condemned as a droit of Admiralty for having traded in contravention of the East India Company’s charter. The case was far from clear and Popham appealed, eventually receiving £25,000 over a period of time, which left him with considerable losses. There were rumours that he had been smuggling. He had also failed to renew his leave and was consequently temporarily struck off the lieutenants’ list although he was reinstated in 1793.

In September of that year, Popham was appointed agent for transports at Ostend for the campaign in Flanders under the Duke of York. It was a job to which he was ideally suited, with his excellent organisational skills and understanding of logistics. He formed a corps of sea fencibles to defend Nieuport and distinguished himself to such a degree that on 27 July 1794 the Duke of York requested of the Admiralty that he be appointed superintendent of inland navigation and promoted to commander, an honour which earned him the nickname of ‘The Duke of York’s admiral’.

When the Allied forces retreated in 1795, Popham was in charge of the evacuation and proved himself so competent that in March of that year the Duke wrote to the First Lord requesting that Popham be promoted to the rank of post captain. It is very likely that this rapid promotion at the request of the army engendered some resentment among Popham’s naval colleagues.

During the invasion threat of 1798, Popham set up and commanded a district of sea fencibles. In May he submitted a plan for destroying the Saas lock at Ostend and was given, command of the expedition. The lock was destroyed, but because of worsening weather, the troops under Major-General Eyre Coote could not be re-embarked, and were obliged to surrender. The following year, Popham was sent to St Petersburg to attempt to persuade Tsar Paul to provide troops for a proposed landing in the Netherlands. He took the tsar and his family sailing which they apparently enjoyed so much that they presented Popham with a gold snuff-box and a diamond ring, and the tsar made him a knight of Malta. Popham secured the force needed and returned to England.

Later that year Popham was once again involved in inland navigation as an allied force under General Sir Ralph Abercromby landed on the Helder peninsula. It was poorly supported by the 10,000 Russian soldiers sent by the tsar and the campaign ended with another evacuation which Popham managed with his usual flair. He was awarded a pension of £500 a year and send back to Russia to try to mollify the tsar although Paul, furious at the failure of the campaign, refused to see him.

Back at sea, Popham began working on another project; the signalling system for which he is perhaps best known. His Telegraphic Signals, or Marine Vocabulary, provided ships with a flag system containing letters, words, and common phrases and enabled captains to communicate effectively. Popham’s code, was used by Nelson and his frigates at Trafalgar. It did not immediately supplant the official Signal Book for the Ships of War but was used to supplement it. Popham continued to improve the code over the next twelve years and it was widely used, finally being officially accepted by the Admiralty in 1812.

At the end of 1800 Popham commanded a troop ship with Abercromby’s army invading Egypt. Once there, he was commissioned by a secret committee of the East India Company to negotiate trade treaties with the sheriff of Mecca and other Arabian states as ambassador directly responsible to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Wellesley. Popham was successful only with the Sultan of Aden. In addition he continued his surveying work, later publishing an excellent chart of the Red Sea.

On his return to England in1803 Popham found himself at the centre of another controversy, accused of having incurred ‘enormous and extraordinary’ expenses on repairs to his ship, the Romney in Calcutta. A series of investigations followed, during which Popham published A concise statement of facts relative to the treatment experienced by Sir Home Popham since his return from the Red Sea to rebut the charges. It appears that the case may have been fabricated by Lord St Vincent’s secretary, Benjamin Tucker, in the hope of currying favour and trading on the First Lord’s well-known dislike of Popham. The matter finally went to a select committee of the House of Commons which reported that the figures had been grossly exaggerated and Popham was innocent.

Popham had political ambitions and hoped to become a lord of the Admiralty. He served as a Pittite MP in several different constituencies between 1804 and 1812 and some of his naval appointments were undoubtedly the result of political favour. With his wide variety of interests, Popham became interested in the invention of ‘submarine bombs’ which proved unsuccessful in practical use. He also took an interest in the idea of attacking the Spanish colonies in South America, an idea which had been debated for some years, and in 1804 submitted a paper on the subject to William Pitt, after meeting the Venezuelan patriot, Francisco Miranda.

At the end of 1804 Popham was appointed to the Diadem and in August 1805 he sailed as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope with a force under General Sir David Baird. The operation was a great success, with Popham leading his marine battalion during the attack, and the Dutch surrendered the colony. The squadron remained in Table Bay to guard against a possible French attack.

At this point, Popham conceived the idea of making an attack on the River Plate. Presumably he assumed that with the Tories, led by William Pitt, his patron, in power, he could expect tacit approval, particularly if he were successful. Reluctantly Baird allowed him to take 1200 men; the squadron sailed and at St Helena, Popham ‘borrowed’ a further 180 men. There he heard that Pitt was dead, but not who had replaced him.

 On 25 June 1806 the small force under the command of Brigadier-General William Carr Beresford landed near Buenos Aires. With the addition of the marine battalion it totalled 1635 men. The Spanish were surprised and there was very little immediate resistance. The city surrendered on 2 July and Beresford took possession. Popham sent an enthusiastic open letter to the merchants of England announcing this lucrative new market for their goods. He had spoken too soon, however. By 10 August a force of 2000 Spaniards entered the city, overran Beresford’s men and took them prisoner. Popham and his squadron could do nothing but blockade the river and wait for reinforcements.

On 3 December, with reinforcements arriving, Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling arrived to with orders for Popham to return to England. On his arrival on 20 February 1807 he was put under open arrest to await court martial on two charges: of having withdrawn his squadron from the Cape without orders; and of having launched his Argentine enterprise ‘without direction or authority’.

Typically for Popham, this incident received a mixed reception. In Argentina, Popham is often seen as the catalyst of the independence which followed the invasion. To the Admiralty he was an officer who had acted improperly; to the City of London he had made a bold attempt to open up new markets, and he was presented with a sword of honour. He was tried at Portsmouth in March 1807, was found guilty and severely reprimanded.

Surprisingly, Popham’s career does not seem to have suffered from this. In July he was appointed captain of the fleet with Admiral James Gambier in the expedition against Denmark, and this is where we meet him in An Unwilling Alliance. Several other captains, including Hood, Keats and Stopford apparently protested at this appointment although it was probably Popham’s experience in joint operations which caused Gambier to ask for his appointment. Popham was one of the three officers appointed to negotiate with Denmark at the end of the bombardment, along with Wellesley and Murray.

Popham’s next command was of the 74 gun Venerable during the disastrous Walcheren campaign. Popham’s role in this particular fiasco was interesting, since he seems to have been heavily involved in the planning of the expedition. The blame for the failure of the campaign, which should probably have been shared between the army, the navy, the planners in London and sheer bad luck landed squarely on the shoulders of the army commander Lord Chatham even though the enquiry officially exonerated him, but there may well have been some issues with the planning of the expedition from the start.  Dr Jacqueline Reiter, who has written a biography of Lord Chatham, points out in this post that although there was inevitable recrimination between the army and the navy after the campaign, Lord Chatham seemed to consider the Admiralty planning of the expedition responsible for the disaster, something with which Popham was undoubtedly involved.

Whatever the truth of the Walcheren fiasco, Lord Chatham’s active military career was over while Popham, still in command of the Venerable, was sent to northern Spain to assess possibilities for co-operating with the guerrillas and conducting a kind of naval guerrilla warfare against the French in support of Wellington. He was highly successful at this, keeping an entire French army ‘distracted’, and capturing Santander.

Popham seems to have received very little recognition for this achievement much to his disappointment. There is speculation that his controversial career had finally caught up with him. At the end of the war he was promoted to rear-admiral and made KCB but he was not employed on active service again. He seems to have lost whatever political influence he had once had and had made too many enemies during his colourful career.

From 1817 to 1820 he was commander-in-chief in Jamaica. They were not good years for Popham. He suffered badly from yellow fever and lost one of his daughters to the illness. His son, Home, also died of some kind of pulmonary illness. In 1818 Popham was made KCH but his health was failing. In June 1820 he suffered a series of strokes and wrote to the Admiralty asking to be relieved of his command.

Sir Home Riggs Popham and his wife sailed for England on 15 June. They arrived at the end of July and on 11 September, at Cheltenham, Popham died of a third stroke at the age of only 58. He was buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels at Sunninghill in Berkshire, close to his home, Titness Park. His wife died in Bath, aged ninety-four in 1866. They were considered to be a devoted couple.

The brief sketch I have drawn of Popham in An Unwilling Alliance is not enough to give a full picture of the man and I have a feeling I have a lot more to learn about him. Popham was clearly an intelligent and inventive officer whose achievements are quite remarkable. His work on naval communications was ahead of his time, his work at the Admiralty on the chart committee helped establish the excellent reputation of Admiralty charts. He was a scientific officer with a considerable talent for organisation and often worked better with the army than with the navy. He was a good captain, a loving husband and an affectionate father.

And yet there is always something else about Sir Home Riggs Popham. Suspicion and accusation dogged his entire career. Some of his exploits are extraordinary but I have the sense that he must always have been looking over his shoulder, waiting for his past to catch up with him. He received high praise for many of his achievements, but he does not seem to have been generally liked.

It is difficult to know whether Popham’s reputation as a “damned cunning fellow” is based on his actions or simply on a difficult personality. His achievements are remarkable but in an age when the ideal of a naval officer was Horatio Nelson, a scientist and surveyor who specialised in joint operations with the army was unlikely to become a national hero and it is ironic that some of Popham’s finest moments seem to have involved the evacuation of troops from difficult situations.

Whatever the truth of it, Sir Home Riggs Popham – elusive, enigmatic and controversial – is a gift to any historical novelist and I am looking forward to revisiting him during the Walcheren campaign.

An Unwilling Alliance is a novel of the 1807 Copenhagen campaign, available on kindle and in paperback at Amazon.  My next book, due out in November 2018 is An Untrustworthy Army, Book 6 in the Peninsular War Saga, dealing with the Salamanca campaign.

 

 

 

 

Publication of An Unwilling Alliance

Naval Action off Cape Santa Maria, Portugal, 1804

Today heralds the publication of An Unwilling Alliance, my ninth book, set during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807, a joint operation between the army and the navy. It is linked to the Peninsular War Saga and features Major Paul van Daan, the hero of the series but it also introduces a selection of new characters.

In 1806, Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years in the navy. He has a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money and intends to inspect the house he has just bought and to find himself a sensible Manx wife. His investment in a local shipping business introduces him to Josiah Crellin and his daughter, Roseen.

Hugh is quick to see the advantages of a marriage with Roseen Crellin. He also finds her very attractive. Roseen is unconvinced. She is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband and is still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart. However it proves to be difficult to dislike Captain Kelly.

Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills are another matter and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.

As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.

St Michael’s ChapelI’ve really enjoyed writing this book for a number of reasons. It is the first of my books to be set partly on the Isle of Man where I live, and I loved writing that section. The island is a beautiful place and being able to share a little of that with my readers has been very special.

It is also the first book to be based around the navy and I’ve enjoyed the research. I’m thoroughly enthusiastic about it now and am looking forward to future books on the decks of an early nineteenth century warship.

The book has taken me back a little in time to an episode of Paul van Daan’s earlier years. It was strange writing this and has made me realise how much he has grown up during the ten years or more covered by the first four books of the Peninsular War saga. It was fun to revisit the younger Paul before he settled down and learned some self-control.

It was also fun developing the new characters. Hugh Kelly and Roseen Crellin are very different to some of my previous characters. Hugh was the son of a  tenant farmer who drank himself to death.  He went into the navy as a boy and worked his way up, which has given him a far more down-to-earth view of the world than some of my other heroes. Roseen is slightly better born but still an ordinary Manx girl who has only been off the island twice. She is socially very awkward and proving hard to marry off; nothing like the socially adept heroines of some of my other novels. For all that, I love the way this relationship develops, by fits and starts. It feels very real to me and I have a feeling that Hugh and Roseen are going to be one of my favourite couples.

Copenhagen on fire, 1807

I have told the story of the Copenhagen campaign in a separate post. This is not a campaign which includes lots of exciting battles and skirmishes. The battle of Koge was over very quickly and although there was an ongoing naval duels for a couple of weeks between the smaller boats of the two nations, the Danish fleet was completely unprepared for the British invasion and its army was cut off from the capital. The Danes fought bravely with what little they had but it was an uneven contest.

I have tried to show a balance in the novel between the pragmatism of the British invasion and the discomfort felt by a lot of the people involved at an unprovoked attack on a neutral country. War was not always a glorious business and was also sometimes very tedious. Much of the campaign involved both army and navy sitting around waiting for the diplomats to finish their negotiations.

The title is also one of my favourites as it has several meanings. Roseen is determined not to make an unwilling alliance with a suitor she does not know and may not like. There is also an unwilling alliance between the army and the navy who often struggled to work together in joint operations. As for poor Denmark, it was trying desperately to maintain its neutrality while being pushed inexorably into an unwilling alliance with either France or Britain.

An Unwilling Alliance is a story of love, of friendship and of war on both land and sea. I hope readers of the Peninsular War Saga will enjoy this glimpse of a different moment in the life of the 110th infantry and I look forward to further adventures with Captain Hugh Kelly RN.

 

The Battle of Orthez, 27 February 1814

Memorial to Foy’s men at the battle of Orthez

The Bridge at OrthezThe Battle of Orthez took place on 27 February 1814. After the fierce fighting through the Pyrenees, storms and torrential rain prevented any action for two months.

Researching the second half of the war for my Peninsular War Saga is interesting. When I did the first trip through Portugal and Spain last year, I had already written four and a half books in the series in draft form. I knew where my fictional regiment was going to be during every battle and it was a matter of checking my research against actual locations to be sure that my story would work.

From book six onwards, I am in the dark. I know the history and I know what the Light Division would have been up to for most of the time, but now I am in a position to plan as I go along. I can look at the sites and visualise my characters there; where they were fighting and what they were doing. It is both exhilarating and slightly strange and I have to keep reminding myself that this is a holiday as well or I’d be back at the hotel and writing half the night…

Eventually Wellington cut off Bayonne when he crossed the Adour to the west of the city. Soult believed that the Allied attack, which required them to cross rivers, would be held up due to a lack of boats or pontoons but on 23 February, Hope sent eight companies from the 1st Division across the Adour  to form a bridgehead. During the evening, two French battalions were sent to investigate and were dispersed with the use of Congreve rockets. The following day,  34 vessels of 30 to 50 tons were sailed into the mouth of the Adour, moored together and a roadway built across their decks. By the evening of 26th, Hope had marched 15,000 men over the bridge onto the north bank. The Allies successfully captured the Sainte-Étienne suburb with a loss of 400 dead and wounded to the French 200 and encircled Bayonne on 27 February. From then on a very relaxed siege was maintained until 14 April when a French sortie led to the the bloody and pointless Battle of Bayonne at the end of the war.

Wellington pursued Marshal Soult’s army eastwards, away from Bayonne. Soult’s army was already weakened and Wellington hoped to divide them further while Soult hoped to trap the Allied army within French occupied territory.  Bayonne blocked the north side, three French divisions held a line along the Adour to Port de Lanne and the east was held by four French divisions along the Joyeuse River to Helette. From there into the Pyrenees, Soult’s cavalry patrols closed the cordon.

Wellington started his offensive towards the east on 14 February. Hill’s corps took the right flank, including the second and third divisions, some Spanish and Portuguese troops and Fane’s cavalry while Picton took his men down the left flank and Morillo moved through the foothills on the right. On February 15 Hill defeated Harispe’s division at Garris and forced the French back.

Beresford’s left flank corps advanced the following day towards Bidache. It consisted of the 4th, 6th, 7th and Light Divisions as well as some cavalry. Over the next two days both sides manoeuvred their troops. The French had greater numbers but Soult sent  Abbé’s division to help defend Bayonne, a move which left his army with fewer troops to fight Wellington. By 18 February, Soult had his troops in position on the Gave d’Oloron at which point the weather broke again, causing another delay in operations.

On 24 February, Wellington launched a new offensive. For this operation, Hill was reinforced by the 6th and Light Divisions. Beresford with two divisions mounted a feint attack against the northern end of the French line. Picton was supposed to do the same opposite Sauveterre but he exceeded his orders, having found an apparently unguarded ford about 1,000 yards from the bridge. Picton decided to send  four light companies from Keane’s brigade across.  After a steep climb, they reached high ground only to be overpowered by a battalion of the 119th Line Infantry from Villatte’s division. In their flight down the slope and across the river, they lost about 80 of the 250 men who were either killed, captured or drowned. Somewhere in my head I could hear the ghost of Robert Craufurd laughing, remembering Picton’s refusal to support him during his own unauthorised crossing at the Coa in 1810.

Meanwhile Hill built a boat bridge and sent 20,000 troops across the Gave d’Oloron at Viellenave de Navarrenz, a move which led Soult to pull back to Orthez. Wellington was not particularly keen to fight a battle at this point and tried to outflank the French, sending Beresford to cross the Gave de Pau downstream at Lahontan to circle around Soult’s right flank. At the same time, Hill’s corps moved directly toward Orthez. By 25 February, Soult had gathered his army at Orthez and was ready to fight the Allies.

The French marshal commanded 33,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers with 48 field guns. Wellington had 38,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers, supported by 54 guns. With Soult ready to fight, Wellington intended to send Beresford to break Soult’s right flank while Picton and three divisions attacked the French centre. Meanwhile, Hill’s corps was to attack Orthez, get across the Gave de Pau and attack the French left flank effectively crushing Soult between Beresford and Hill.

Orthez is a pretty little town with the Gave de Pau running from southeast to northwest. Since Beresford was already on the same side of the Gave de Pau, the river only protected Soult’s position to the east of Orthez. However, there is an east-west ridge on the north side of Orthez that ends at the village of St Boes to the west. It rises to about 500 feet with the road running along the crest, with threeknolls rising even higher, as far as 595 feet above the village. These knolls held French artillery.

Soult posted four and a half divisions along this ridge, one division in Orthez and one division in reserve. Going from right to left, the ridge was held by the divisions of Taupin, Claude Pierre Rouget, Darmagnac and Foy. Rouget was in temporary command of Maransin’s division. Harispe’s remaining two brigades held Orthez while Villatte’s division was in reserve north of Orthez. Reille commanded Taupin, Rouget and Paris on the right flank, Drouet commanded Darmagnac and Foy in the center and Clausel had Harispe and Villatte on the left flank. The cavalry was scattered.

Wellington planned to send Cole’s 4th Division supported by Walker’s 7th Division to attack the western end of the ridge under the direction of Beresford. Picton would lead his own 3rd Division and Clinton’s 6th Division in attacking the French centre and Hill’s corps was to feint against Orthez with a Portuguese brigade and hold his two divisions ready to cross the Gave de Pau to the east of Orthez. Charles von Alten’s Light Division was placed under cover behind the old Roman camp where Wellington set up his headquarters located between Beresford’s and Picton’s columns.

It was frosty but not frozen on the morning of 27 February, difficult for me to imagine yesterday, exploring the battlefield in soaring temperatures. At 8.30 the 4th division attacked Taupin at St Boes and quickly seized the church. Ross’s brigade swept into the village but were driven back by the battery on the Plassotte knoll. Cole brought up a KGL battery to duel with Taupin’s guns. This immediately became the target of the French batteries on the Plassotte and Luc knolls; two guns were hit and Captain Sympher was killed. Cole deployed a Portuguese brigade on Ross’ right and sent his line forward again. The result was a second repulse in which Ross was wounded and the counterattack by Taupin’s troops recovered part of St Boes. For a time there was a lull as the two sides fired away at each other from the houses, but the Portuguese had no cover and began to fall back. Wellington sent over the 1st Caçadores Battalion from the Light Division. Cole’s line collapsed just as the reinforcements arrived and Taupin recovered the entire village and drove the Allies back to their starting point. Ross’ brigade suffered 279 casualties and the Portuguese brigade lost 295.

Picton’s attacks against the French centre also met stiff resistance. He had split the 3rd Division, sending Brisbane’s brigade up the right spur towards Foy and Keane’s brigade up the left spur toward Darmagnac’s division. Keane was supported by Power’s Portuguese brigade while Brisbane was followed up the right spur by Clinton’s 6th Division. Since the valleys between the spurs were deep and muddy, both advances were restricted to narrow fronts.

Picton’s skirmishers quickly drove back the French outposts. When the leading brigades came under accurate artillery fire from the Escorial and Lafaurie knolls, Picton held back his formed troops and reinforced his skirmish line to seven British light companies which moved forward until they came into contact with Soult’s main line where they were unable to advance any further. For two hours, Picton waited for Beresford’s attack as the two sides skirmished.

Wellington adjusted his plans after seeing his flank attack fail converting his holding attack with the 3rd and 6th Divisions into a full  assault beginning at 11.30am. He threw every available unit against the French right flank and centre, holding back only the second and third battalions of the 95th, the Portuguese 3rd Caçadores and the 17th foot. He also withdrew the battered brigades of Ross and Vasconcellos and sent in the 7th Division.

The struggle for St Boes began again when Walker’s division and Anson’s brigade attacked supported by two batteries firing from the church knoll. Taupin’s tired men, who had been fighting for about four hours, were driven back behind the Plassotte knoll.

Brisbane’s brigade came under damaging artillery fire. The brigade finally reached dead ground where the guns could not hit them, but then came under intense fire from French skirmishers who began picking off the soldiers. Nevertheless the 45th fought its way close to the top of the ridge where Fririon’s brigade of Foy’s division held the ridgeline. On the left of Brisbane’s brigade, two companies of the 88th were guarding the divisional artillery battery as it began pounding the French line. Soult spotted the threat and ordered a cavalry squadron to charge. The cavalry overran the two companies, inflicting heavy losses, and then went after the gunners. The remaining companies of the 88th immediately opened fire on the French horsemen, mowing most of them down to a loss of 165 men. The 88th suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit at 269 killed and wounded.

At this point, Foy was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder which affected the French morale. Brisbane’s brigade was replaced in the front line by two brigades of Clinton’s 6th Division. These fresh troops fired a volley from close range and advanced with bayonet, driving the French down the ridge’s rear slope.  Berlier’s brigade of Foy’s division fell back after Fririon’s retreat exposed its flank. With Berlier gone, Harispe’s two battalions in Orthez were compelled to retreat in order to avoid capture. On the left spur, Picton’s two brigades under Keane and Power pressed against Darmagnac’s division. After Foy’s division gave way, Darmagnac retreated to the next ridge in the rear, where his troops took position on the right of Villatte’s division. The divisional batteries of Picton and Clinton immediately attacked the new French position.

Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade began to pull back after Darmagnac’s retreat which opened a gap between Rouget and Taupin. Wellington ordered the 52nd under Colborne to advance from the Roman Camp and drive a wedge into the French defensive line. Colborne led his men across marshy ground and then up the slope toward the Luc Knoll, winning a foothold at the top of the ridge on Taupin’s left flank. Wellington led the 3rd and the 6th in behind them and musket volleys created havoc in the French ranks.

In the thick of the fighting, Wellington’s Spanish liaison officer, Alava was hit in the buttocks by a spent bullet. As Wellington was teasing Alava, he was knocked off his horse when a spent ball struck his sword hilt, bruising his hip. Wellington remounted and continued to direct the battle. Against the advice of his doctors he ignored the injury with the result that he was later unable to ride for a week.

With both flanks turned, Taupin’s division retreated in haste to the northeast, the last French unit to be driven back. To the rear, Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade joined together and fought a hard battle against the pursuing Allies.

Buchan’s brigade skirmished with the French defenders of Orthez all morning. Having received orders to cross the Gave de Pau, Hill marched for the Souars Ford at 11:00 am and brushed aside the French troops defending the ford. Hill’s troops were soon across the river in strength and pressing back Harispe’s outnumbered division. They were joined by Buchan’s Portuguese who crossed at the Orthez bridge the moment the town’s defenders pulled out. Joined by some newly arrived conscript battalions, Harispe attempted to make a stand at the Motte de Tury heights but the raw recruits were too inexperienced and Hill’s men broke Harispe’s line and captured three guns.

By now Soult had realized that Hill’s column might cut him off and ordered a retreat which began well but quickly disintegrated into chaos down narrow paths and across country. Soult had lost six field guns and 3,985 men including 542 killed, 2,077 wounded and 1,366 prisoners while the Allies sustained losses of 367 killed, 1,727 wounded and 80 captured for a total of 2,174.  In addition, many of the recently conscripted French soldiers promptly deserted. Soult did not attempt to defend the Luy de Béarn with his demoralized army but retreated north to Saint-Sever on the Adour.

Soult realised he could not defend both Bordeaux and Toulouse. He decided to head for Toulouse. Wellington sent Beresford with two divisions to take Bordeaux which Beresford did on 12 March. There was a brief lull in the fighting while Wellington sent for more troops and Soult ’s men recovered. When the Allied army finally marched towards Toulouse, they were marching towards the end of the war.

Orthez is just over thirty miles to the east of Bayonne, a pretty little town on the river Gave de Pau. The original bridge, with its distinctive sentry tower in the centre, is still there and can be seen from the modern bridge. We drove through the town to view Wellington’s deployment area up past the church and then drove up towards Baights de Bearn to see the spurs where Picton’s men would have been deployed to the right of the road.

Further on it is possible to view the ridge to the right which the Light Division used to climb up to the village. The location of St Boes has apparently changed  since the battle but the church marks the area where much of the fighting took place and it is possible to walk down the road towards the Roman Camp to see where the Light Division was engaged.

Memorial to Foy’s men at the battle of OrthezTurning right after St Boes we drove along the ridge held by Soult’s men. The 52nd would have climbed up the gulley to the right to appear between Taupin and Rouget’s division. It doesn’t look like a particularly easy climb and given the time of year it may well have been very boggy. There is a memorial to General Foy’s men on the left-hand side further along the road.

Having flown into Toulouse to begin this trip, for convenience sake, we are doing the battlefields backwards. By this time Soult was very much on the run, his troops battered and exhausted with many desertions among the new recruits. But at the beginning of Wellington’s attacks on the Pyrenees the matter was by no means certain. Tomorrow the plan is, to visit some of the sites of the Battle of the Nive.

Cambo-les-Bains, 21 April, 2018