Friday, 8 December 2017

James Burke



People often ask where writers get their ideas from. In my case, they can come from almost anywhere but, because I write historical novels, my starting point is often a person or an incident that catches my eye in a work of non-fiction. I've been lucky in that I haven't had somebody sitting over me and demanding that I produce a book straightaway so I can usually be quite relaxed waiting for something to strike me.

The James Burke books, though, came from a straightforward search for a commercially viable historical character to write about. I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling and she said that I should look for inspiration in the lives of Europeans living in the area that is now Argentina during the period of Spanish rule and immediately afterwards. She had met me in Argentina and knew I was interested in the country and its history and she told me that there were fascinating lives amongst the early pioneers.

I started reading books about South America, looking for people who were doing exciting enough things to be worked up into a novel. I think my friend was hoping for a serious tale of exploration and triumph over hardship – something like Elizabeth Morgan’s Ticket to Paradise, a brilliant story about early Welsh settlers in Patagonia. What I found instead was the story of James Burke: soldier, womaniser, spy and a crucial figure in the little-known British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806
.
There is very little that is definitely known about James Burke, but the little that there is forms the basis for a wonderful story. Starting his military career fighting for the French, he changed sides and worked as a spy for the English. It seems likely that his lovers included a queen, a princess, and the mistress of a Spanish viceroy. He travelled extensively around South America, riding across the Andes in the snow and gathering vital military intelligence throughout the area. It's likely that the information he obtained was crucial to the British invaders in 1806. (He can hardly be blamed if the occupation was so badly handled that they were soon driven out again.)

With such gripping raw material, the first book about James Burke, Burke in the Land of Silver, sticks pretty closely to the facts – at least as far as we know them. The story takes Burke from the West Indies to Argentina, Brazil, and Spain. There are devious plots, thrilling fights, wicked women and a villain all the more deliciously evil for being a real historical character. Buckles are swashed and bodices are ripped. I had huge fun writing it and I hope you’ll have fun reading it. And at the end, you will find you have painlessly acquired a basic understanding of Spain’s role in the Napoleonic Wars and some of the early history of Argentina.


Burke in the Land of Silver will be republished by Endeavour Press on 5 January, to be followed by the other two books I have written about James Burke. Two new James Burke books are all ready to follow if all you lovely people buy the first three.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Nice things said about my books



In my last blog post I reviewed a couple of historical fiction books by authors I enjoy. In this post, with the republication of my books drawing ever closer, I’m going to take the opportunity to mention some of the things that other reviewers have said about my efforts.

Burke in the Land of Silver

"James Bond in breeches" - Paul Collard
"A well-crafted adventure yarn with exotic settings and plenty of suspense." Historical Novel Society

Burke and the Bedouin

“A “Boys’ Own” adventure (but also very suitable for ladies who like a little derring-do!) … at its best in the vivid action sequences and set pieces, such as the Battle of the Pyramids and the climactic Battle of the Nile.” Historical Novel Society
“An entertaining light read, set in a corner of the Napoleonic Wars which is often neglected.”  The Review

Burke at Waterloo

“Historical fiction as it should be written.” – Paul Collard

The White Rajah

“An involving tale of adventure, intrigue and unlikely love.” Historical Novel Society
“This book works on so many levels.” The Review
“It's ages since I've started reading a book and then been 100% annoyed at the world that it won't let me just sit there and finish it all in one go, but The White Rajah by Tom Williams has totally been that book!” By Slanted Light
"An interesting tale, well told." Bloomsbury Review

Cawnpore

“All that historical fiction should be: absorbing, believable and educational.” – Terry Tyler in Terry Tyler Book Reviews
“For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.” Historical Novel Society

Back Home

Back Home was runner-up for historical fiction in the awards that Rosie Amber’s book review team give out following an on-line vote.

"I enjoyed every word of this novel. It's so cleverly written, with low-key humour in parts, the research used subtly and unobtrusively." – Terry Tyler in Terry Tyler Book Reviews

“It is perfectly paced and has an authentic voice which gives a real sense of time and place.” Whispering Stories blog

Save the date

Burke in the Land of Silver will be republished on 5 January and should be available for pre-order before that. I'll let you know the date as soon as I do. The other books will be coming out every couple of weeks, until early March.

If you live in North America, all my books are currently available through Simon & Schuster. Can I mention that they make excellent Christmas presents?



If you want to check out other books on these blogs, here are some useful addresses:
Whispering Stories: http://whisperingstories.com

Friday, 1 December 2017

Two historical novels you might be interested in


The Last Legionnaire by Paul Fraser Collard


This is the fifth Jack Lark story. It starts with Jack coming back to his childhood home and takes a while to get into its stride with the return of Ballard, the spymaster from Lark's earlier adventures. Ballard, for reasons he refuses to explain to Lark, is determined to find a man who is serving with the French Foreign Legion in Italy and to bring him back, by force if necessary, to his home in England.

The plot rambles a bit, with some implausibilities here and there, but the point of it is to get Lark to the Battle of Solferino. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but I should have.


Ballard's summary of the politics behind the battle (basically the French and the Sardinians were trying to drive the Austrians out of northern Italy) neatly provides the historical background that you need. From then on it's just a matter of manoeuvring Lark into a situation where it seems perfectly natural for him to disguise himself as a French legionnaire and join the fighting.

Lark finds his man, who is duly returned to England, but the story does not quite resolve itself. I think there is supposed to be a shock revelation toward the end, but I doubt it will come as that much of a shock to many people and the end of the story leaves Lark very clearly set to start straight into another adventure.

One thing I have always respected Collard for is that he does not flinch from the brutality of 19th century warfare and, if there is a certain repetitiveness as Lark thrusts his bayonet into victim after victim, that probably represents the reality of battle. Solferino was, as Collard’s usual useful historical note explains, a battle that left nearly 40,000 casualties. For Lark, it represented his first contact with the reality of what we might think of as modern warfare, with rifled artillery enabling whole units to be mown down before they even engage the enemy. The historical note explains that the horror of Solferino led eventually to the formation of the International Red Cross.

This is far from the best of the Jack Lark books, probably because it is really about a single battle rather than a campaign, so much of the book is filled out with sub-plots, some more engaging than others. Still, it told me a lot about a battle that I had not known anything about before. Solferino did mark a development in the way that men wage war and it deserves to be better known. Collard has done us a service by writing about it, and, if the book does not entirely work on its own, it has set the characters up well for the next in the series. If you are Jack Lark fan, you will enjoy The Last Legionnaire, but if you have not read him before it's probably not the place to start.


Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson


It's always disconcerting to pick up a book and discover that it's the fourth in a series where you haven't read the first three. I would definitely have enjoyed the book more if I had started at the beginning of the Crowther and Westerman books, but Robertson provides enough background to the characters and their history for you to get along even if you are, like me, starting in the middle.

Circle of Shadows is a mystery set in late 18th-century Germany. Germany at the time had many tiny independent states where the rulers compensated for their relative obscurity, as rulers go, by building ever more elaborate palaces filled with courtiers who took part in ever more elaborate ceremonials. This fictional state is about to celebrate a royal wedding, so the amount of ceremonial has been dramatically ramped up. The last thing anybody wants in the middle of all this is a mysterious murder, let alone the series of mysterious murders that confront Crowther and Westerman when they arrive from England to sort all the confusion out.



Although the killings are ritualistic and quite unpleasant, this is essentially a traditional "cosy crime" story, albeit with a well realised historical background. I am generally irritated when books present 18th-century women doing things that they would be unlikely to have got away with in real life, but readers clearly enjoy female detectives and, in Harriet Westerman, Robertson has produced a credible character. Harriet is a widow – a position that gave women of the period a degree of independence. She is also presented as an unusually feisty lady and would probably be even more convincing if I had read the first book in the series. In any case, it is the background that is historically well observed. The story is not intended to be wildly realistic and there is a definite hint of magic about the resolution.

If you enjoy detective stories and you enjoy historical novels, this nicely written combination of the two should serve well for Christmas. But you might like to start with the first book in the series: Instruments of Darkness, as you ask.

A word from our sponsor

What of my own books? If you look at the next blog post, you will see some of the nice things people have said about them.

If you are living in North America, you can buy my books either as e-books or as paperbacks (because paperbacks always look better under the tree) from the Simon & Schuster website. If you are in the UK, you will have to wait until January when Endeavour will start republishing the book series, to be followed by the John Williamson Chronicles in February. Make a note in your diary!

Friday, 24 November 2017

Napoleon on Elba



Last week's post was particularly popular (posts about Napoleon always are), so this week we carry the story on to Napoleon's time on Elba.

Able was I ...


When Napoleon accepted his defeat in April 1814, he accepted also the idea that he would go into exile. Exile was to me made a less onerous punishment because the French government promised to pay him six million francs a year as his pension.

It was suggested that he might go to Corfu or Corsica, the country where he was born. However he chose Elba, an island between Corsica and Italy.

Enfola Beach, Elba. Photo: Michael Joachim Lucke

Besides his pension he had been promised that he would retain the status of a sovereign, so the Emperor of France became the absolute ruler of this island of about 85 square miles, and a few smaller islands around it. As the ruler, he was entitled to his own army, although, compared to the armies he had once led, it was little more than an honour guard, with around 700 men.

At first, Napoleon seemed reconciled to exile. The pension, he had observed, was “a great deal for a soldier as I am”. He was to be joined by his sister, Pauline, who was too ill to travel with him when he first left France, and he expected his mother, his wife and his son to move to Elba later.

He threw himself enthusiastically into public works: building new roads, improving the quality of the streets, and making plans for the development of the iron mines that were the country's main industry. To the irritation of the Allied powers, he started to recruit new soldiers from Italy. Arguably, as the recognised ruler of Elba, he had a perfect right to do this. In any case, he pointed out that with Moorish pirates regularly operating in the area he had a duty to maintain an army large enough to garrison the defences of Elba and its surrounding islands.

Flag designed by Napoleon for Elba

Princess Pauline did not arrive until June, but her appearance at Elba substantially improved social life on the island with balls, concerts, and theatrical performances enlivening the place. What had originally been a guardhouse to the mansion that Napoleon had made his home was turned into a theatre, where plays were performed by the princess herself, her ladies and the officers of the guard.
Whether the 700 soldiers of Napoleon's private army were amused by the new social opportunities we do not know, but it is certain that they were bored and Napoleon himself referred to them affectionately as his "grumblers". The soldiers who had accompanied Napoleon to Elba were all volunteers – indeed, some officers had resigned their commissions and enlisted in the ranks so that they could go into exile with their leader. They constituted some of his most loyal troops, many of them battle hardened. Napoleon regularly reviewed them and insisted that they continue to train. Artillery enthusiast that he was, he had them practising regularly with both regular round shot and heated shot. Despite this, though, there is no doubt that they found life on Elba, though comfortable, profoundly dull.

Napoleon's enthusiasm for his new realm gradually waned. To his dismay, the French government reneged on the promise of a pension and the cost of maintaining his court and his army vastly exceeded the revenue that could be extracted from Elba’s iron mining and its other limited revenue-raising opportunities. Servants were let go, building plans were abandoned and Napoleon, from keeping himself busy inspecting his projects around the island, began to sulk around the house, putting on weight.

Napoleon on Elba

The arrival of his mother, to whom he was devoted, improved his mood, but he was genuinely distressed when it became clear that his wife and son were not to join him. His wife was Marie Louise (who had replaced Josephine in 1810). She was the daughter of Emperor Francis II of Austria and the Austrian government was unhappy with the idea of her and her son forming the focus of Napoleon's new court. She was persuaded not to join him and Napoleon seems to have accepted this, but he could not come to terms with the idea that he would never again see his son.

The shortages of money and the absence of his son soured his mood. He regularly received news of the situation in France from his supporters there as well as studying the French and British newspapers. By the spring of 1815, he was convinced that there were plans to force him from Elba – plans which he said he would resist by force. “Avant cela il faut faire une brèche dans mes fortifications, et nous verrons.” He believed that the Allies might send him to St Helena and subsequent events suggest that this may have been in their minds.

Faced with what Napoleon saw as a threat to his future on Elba, the refusal of the French to pay his pension or the Austrians to allow his son to visit the island, he looked at the disenchantment of the French with their restored monarchy and decided that he would be better off returning to Paris.

Napoleon's brief experiment with ruling a small island in the Mediterranean was coming to an end and the events that would lead to Waterloo were being set in motion.

An aside on that palindrome


Napoleon never created the famous palindrome, 'Able was I ere I saw Elba.' The first recorded use of it is from 1848, long after Napoleon's death. It appears in an American publication, Gazette of the Union, Where it is credited to an anonymous Baltimore author, known only as JTR.

Further reading


For a detailed account of Napoleon's time on Elba see The Island Empire by the anonymous ‘author of Blondelle’, published by T Bosworth in 1855 and available in Google Books.

A shorter summary is available in Life and Campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte translated from the French of M A Arnault and CLF Panckoucke, published by Philips Samsung and Company of Boston in 1857 and also available in Google Books.

For a detailed discussion of the origin of the palindrome, see Quote Investigator: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/09/15/saw-elba/

A word from our sponsor


Napoleon was right to believe that there were many people in France who hoped for, and in some cases actively worked for, his return. Amongst other plots, there was one to assassinate Wellington, who was representing British interests in Paris. This period is the background to the beginning of Burke at Waterloo, which is to be republished by Endeavour Press on 2 February. (It should be on pre-order from early in January.)

Of course, Napoleon did leave Elba and eventually met the British at Waterloo were James Burke played a small, but crucial, role. [Spoiler alert: Napoleon lost.]

Friday, 17 November 2017

Losing an Empire - Take 1



Another straightforward history blog this week. It's about Napoleon, as posts about l'Empereur seem particularly popular.

We all know that Napoleon finally lost his empire at Waterloo. What people often forget was that this was the second time he had lost it.

Napoleon was initially defeated in 1814. His series of brilliant military victories were followed by some dramatic defeats – notably the failure of his Russian campaign.

For the attack on Moscow, Napoleon gathered his forces into a spectacular Grand Army of 680,000 men. Although the force was hampered by the condition of the roads as the Russian winter approached, Napoleon successfully reached Moscow and occupied the city. The conventional wisdom of warfare at the time was that once your capital was lost you admitted defeat and sued for peace. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Czar Alexander was unsporting enough not to surrender, so Napoleon found himself stuck in Moscow with no obvious way forward. The situation would have been bad enough in any case, but much of Moscow was destroyed by fire – either as a result of carelessness by the French or deliberate arson by the Russians. Napoleon was now stuck there with winter setting in and no obvious way forward. After a month, he moved his forces out of the city and attempted to engage the Russians, but the Czar's army avoided a pitched battle.  

Supplies were running short and his army was no longer in any position to continue an offensive campaign. Napoleon decided to retreat.

Painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov

The retreat from Moscow has become the stuff of legend. The French army had a policy of living off the land, foraging for food in the countryside that it was moving through. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying food stores in all the areas that the French would have to move through. Unable to find food, struggling with roads that had turned to mud under the weight of the traffic, trapped in the Russian winter without proper winter clothing and constantly harried by Russian troops who refused to form up for battle but who raided the column mercilessly, Napoleon’s Grand Army was reduced, according to some estimates, to just 22,000 men.

The losses suffered by the Grand Army were never to be made good – there simply weren't enough men of fighting age available to replenish their ranks.

Napoleon now faced the wrath of the Russians, the Prussians and the Austrians. What is often forgotten is that, by moving against Russia, Napoleon committed the classic error of European strategists and found himself fighting a two front war. When we talk about Wellington's Peninsular campaign we usually think of it as being confined to fighting in southern and central Spain and Portugal. Napoleon had had significant successes in Spain but once he left the country and concentrated his efforts on Central and Eastern Europe, the French armies there were noticeably less successful. By 1814 Wellington had driven them north and actually crossed the Pyrenees into France itself. He prepared to march on Paris, but was too late. The combined Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies had already got there.

Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray


With the fall of Paris, the French government (unlike Czar Alexander after the fall of Moscow) surrendered to the Allied powers. Napoleon, whose armies were south of the city, wanted to advance northward and try to recapture it, but the government no longer supported him and his marshals refused to carry out his plans. On 11 April 1814, Napoleon signed his abdication as Emperor and he then headed south to Fréjus (near Cannes) where he boarded the British ship HMS Undaunted, which was to carry him into exile on Elba.

A word from our sponsors


The Napoleonic wars provide the background to my series of books about James Burke. Napoleon's exile to Elba was, as we all know now, was not to mark the end of his influence in France. Even while he was exiled, Bonapartists were plotting his return and their attempts to assassinate Wellington is the starting point for Burke at Waterloo.

After being unavailable in the UK since summer, all three books about James Burke are being republished by Endeavour in January and February next year. I'm hoping that they will be available to pre-order in December and I will certainly be writing more about that over the next few weeks.

Burke served in the peninsula too. My book about his activities there has already been written, but publication depends on sales of the first three. In the past I haven't been able to work myself up into the paroxysms of anger that many authors show over book piracy, though I know that there are people who have stolen my books. Sadly, nowadays piracy is getting so bad that it is affecting people's ability to publish. If you enjoy the Burke books, please buy them. If you don't pay for them my publishers won't commission any more, which would be a shame as I've enjoyed writing them and I know many people have enjoyed reading them.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Exciting news!

I've changed the header on the blog. The new one is not a thing of beauty, but it's there temporarily to let everyone know that the James Burke books are about to be republished by Endeavour Press. There will be new covers then and a new header here.

The last few months have been very frustrating for me because my books have been unavailable outside North America since I left Accent Press. When I left Accent the idea was to be published by Endeavour Press, but I didn't realise how long it would take for my books to become available again. Actually, it was only a few months, but when you have had six books published and suddenly nobody can buy any of them it leaves you feeling a bit bereft. I'm therefore really excited and delighted to say that I have a re-publication dates for all my books.

The first to come will be the three existing books about James Burke and publication dates will be:

JAN 5: Burke in the Land of Silver
JAN 19: Burke and the Bedouin
FEB 2: Burke at Waterloo



All three books should be available to pre-order a month before publication. They will be published as Kindle e-books, which are available exclusively through Amazon. They will also be published in paperback, although they may not be available immediately the e-books are out. You can order paperbacks through your local bookshop, but you are much better off just going to Amazon.
The John Williamson books are also being republished by Endeavour and will be coming out in February/March.
I will be saying a lot more in the next few weeks about James Burke and why you should be reading the books, but for now I just wanted to let you know that we have a definite publication date. Readers in the United States and Canada have been able to buy my books all year through Simon & Schuster, but it has been frustrating not to be able to sell my boys to UK readers since I moved publisher in the summer. Everybody has told me that Endeavour are brilliant publishers and I am hoping that James Burke will be able to get to a much larger audience from January 2018.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Armour then and now



My research efforts have taken me down the sewers of Paris, onto the battlefield at Edgehill, and even through the snows of the Andes on horseback. Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier than that. My son has, for the past nine years, served as an officer in the Royal Logistic Corps of the British Army. His first-hand experience of trying to stay awake on sentry and how long it takes to dig a trench have filtered into the life of James Burke and his colleagues. These days, however, you are more likely to find him in a lab coat than in the mud as his current work sees him providing technical advice on ammunition and equipment. In between answering questions from the Army and police he occasionally has time to discuss the colour of gunpowder smoke or the explosive power of a 19th century mill (wait for the next Burke book). Here he is to talk about his personal pet subject of military history: body armour.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Body armour is an often overlooked piece of equipment. It isn’t as sexy as guns so tends not to get much screen time in Hollywood. Besides, in a movie it’s easier to just have your baddies miss than protect your heroes with ceramic plates that would cover up their toned abs. The exception is found in history. When we watch films set in the days of yore you can’t have a shot without a knight in his armour astride a noble steed.


And yet, a little over 200 years later Sharpe and Burke were fighting Napoleon dressed like this:

Renactors from the British 95th Rifles


Cut forward 200 years again and the fashion has swung the other way. Today’s soldiers go to war almost as armoured up as their medieval counterparts.

US solider, Iraq 2008

Why the change? Why the change back? The answer lies largely with one man.

The story of defence technology is a perpetual cycle of better weapons leading to better armour, leading to better weapons. In the 1300s the longbow was the guided missile of its day. The bleeding edge of military technology, her devastating bodkin arrows were cutting down armies in a similar way to the machine guns of the First World War. However, by the 16th century, the longbow was already being phased out in favour of firearms. The thin plate of Richard of York just couldn’t stand up to a bullet and armour was becoming ever thicker, heavier and all encompassing. Pretty soon knights were being lifted onto horses by winches, but the gunpowder and firearms development kept pace. By 1530 arquebuses so large and powerful they resembled portable cannon, complete with support stands, were in use in Spain and Italy. The days of the heavy knight were over.

By the time of the English Civil War, the use of armour was limited. With the demise of individually commissioned knightly armour came the opportunity to dress your armies in uniforms. In England, the Civil War marked the beginning of the idea of uniformed armies. At the start of the war, the infantry on both sides wore their civilian clothing but gradually the idea of issue clothing took hold. The Parliamentarian forces were more likely to wear some sort of uniform, as the Parliamentarians had more financial resources (they controlled London with its economic power) and were thus better positioned to provide clothing to their troops. An early order from Parliament said “that all soldiers should have delivered unto them at their first marching coats, shoes, shirts and caps, in all to the value of seventeen shillings for every man”. The issue of armour, though, was limited. Helmets, backplates and breastplates were issued to pikemen, though often only the front ranks would be armoured, the rest relying on thick leather or cotton clothing to provide them with some sort of protection. Musketeers usually didn't wear armour at all.

Civil War soldiers at Edgehill (Thanks to the Sealed Knot)

As an aside, it's worth noting that the clothing here was "uniform" in the sense that standard clothing was issued. Uniforms were not used to distinguish between opposing armies. People often wore coloured sashes to indicate which side they were on. Given the quality of dye technology at the time, the colours were often not that clear and there were frequent instances of clashes between different units on the same side or, indeed, of people failing to attack the enemy because they were unaware of which side they were on.

Cavalry was a different matter. There was no central supply of uniform to the cavalry by either side. The dress of cavalry troops was left to the commanders and often reflected the personal vanity of the senior officers. (This remained this case with some units even in the Napoleonic Wars.) The King's Lifeguard of Horse became known as "The Troop of Show” because of the fineness of their uniform. Most cavalrymen wore leather coats known as "buff coats" which were considerably more expensive than the clothing issued to the Foot. The average cost of a trooper’s buff coat was between twenty-five and thirty shillings with officers coats costing considerably more. Back and breastplates were supposed to be worn over the coat (although, in practice, they often weren't). The armour and thick leather did offer practical protection, but the clothing worn by cavalry officers was at least as much about display as functionality.

Today’s Household Cavalry wear armour as a nod to their past. Photo by Marco Verch

By the time of Waterloo the British had almost completely done away with metalwork on their uniforms. The French Carabinier-à-Cheval still wore breastplates (cuirasses) and after the battle British intelligence agents were sent to investigate the dead to see how they had performed. The results were not good.

Cuirass holed by a cannonball at Waterloo
It seemed that the days of body armour were over. Conventional wisdom held that it was not possible to stop a bullet with anything that could be worn on the man and for 50 years the engineers and scientists of the day stopped trying, in much the same way they had given up alchemy 100 years before; it simply couldn’t be done.

Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in Australia in 1854. In October 1878 he, his brother and two friends killed a sergeant and two police constables. The “Stringyback murders” caused the Kelly gang to become outlaws: a parliamentary act authorised police or private citizens to kill them without trial. However, Ned and his gang evaded capture and embarked on a series of ever more daring bank robberies. By the time the Act lapsed in 1880 the reward for the Kelly gang was £8,000.

In June of 1880 the police tracked and surrounded Kelly and his gang to a hotel in Glenrowan. A shootout ensued that lasted most of the night and, as day broke, Kelly made his break. A large man, he seemed to tower over the police in his knee length great coat and head obscured in the morning mist. The police would, according to fokelore, later describe Kelly as a demon or the devil as he moved coolly amongst the bullets, seemingly unharmed by the firepower raining down on him. Eventually he was shot in the leg by police sergeant Steel and the truth came out.

As their robberies had become more dangerous, Kelly and his gang had commissioned a blacksmith to make them suits of armour out of ploughs. Each weighed around 40 kg and covered the head, shoulders and thighs. Worn under their greatcoats it wasn’t immediately visible to the police, who had dismissed intelligence reports of the Kelly gang’s imperviousness to bullets as tall tales. However, with Kelly down and a high profile trial and hanging to follow, the truth was plain to see and the press ran with the story everywhere.

Kelly’s armour is still on display in Victoria, complete with 18 bullet strikes
The story of Kelly’s armour was the talk of the civilised world. (Imagine if today the Hatton garden robbers had been found to use newly discovered force fields or teleporters.) Questions about why British troops weren’t using Kelly-style body armour were even asked in parliament. The four suits of armour were split up and sent across the globe (even today there is some confusion about where they all ended up) and Europe’s armies and scientists turned to developing Kelly’s suits into mass producible equipment. Thirty years later the militarisation prior to the First World War would accelerate technological innovation yet further and by the outbreak of war suits not dissimilar to Kelly’s were on display amongst all the major powers.

The Germans favoured a 'lobster' armour that was fairly effective but heavy and cumbersome. (It tended to be reserved for machine gun crews who didn't need to move a lot.)

German WWI “lobster” armour. (Photo by Halibutt)
The British design was generally considered better, as the bravery citation for Lt. Hugh Cowell Kinred, 14th Bn. Gloucester. Regiment, reveals: "For conspicuous gallantry. When a bomb thrown by the enemy fell at his feet in the trench, he at once threw himself on it, and was blown into the air and much bruised and cut by the explosion, his life being saved by his steel waistcoat. His plucky action saved many casualties."


As body armour proved itself in battle over and over again, it became increasingly prevalent. Although in 1914 very few soldiers were equipped with any sort of armour, by the end of the war the Brodie helmet would become synonymous with the British Tommy. Body armour was here to stay, all thanks to the notoriety and ingenuity of four bushrangers from Victoria.

A Word from our Sponsor

I love writing these blogs – or getting other people to write for me – but the idea is to encourage you to read my books. I've been fairly quiet about this lately because since the summer they have only been available in North America. Come January, though, all three of my books about James Burke and his adventures during the Napoleonic wars will be republished by Endeavour Press. They should be available on pre-order soon after Christmas. I'll be writing a lot more about this between now and then, but if you could promise yourself that you will buy one as a slightly delayed Christmas present, I'd be thrilled. Wonderful as it is to know that so many people read and enjoy this blog, it would be nice if that translated into more sales of the books.

Thank you.