Friday, 21 July 2017

Docklands

Last weekend saw us on one of our occasional visits to Docklands. Every time we strike out East, I am amazed by how much there is to see and promise myself that we will go more often, but given that Docklands is in London and we live in London, it's a surprisingly long way to travel and we keep putting off. The result of all our procrastination is that it was not until now that we visited the Docklands Museum, housed in one of the few of the original warehouses to have survived since the docks opened in 1802.

No 1 Warehouse, West India Quay  (Photo: PLA website)
It’s a fascinating glimpse into a vanished world. I thought I knew about the London docks and their importance in the 19th century, but I really had no idea just how huge the network of docks was. The map below (published in 1882) gives some idea of the size of the port.

River Thames with the Docks from Woolwich to the Tower
For almost a century and a half the docks in London made it a major commercial centre. For much of that time, this was the busiest port in the world. I do recommend a visit to the museum. It's free and open every day, and it gives a fascinating insight into the docks and their effect on London.

Until the docks were built, ships in the Thames moored in the river and their cargoes were carried ashore on barges known as "lighters". The men who rode these barges were called lightermen. Once the docks were built it looked as if there might be no business for the lightermen. The docks were built with their own warehouses which had a monopoly on cargo on the dock estate. However the lightermen negotiated a law giving them free access to the docks which meant that cargo owners could have their cargo shifted to warehouses outside of the docks. Lighters continue to be used through the 19th-century. We were very lucky in seeing some in action on the Thames at the weekend as part of the Thames Barge Driving Race. It gave us some idea of the amazing physical demands of this way of life.



The reason for making our trip this weekend was because it was a rare opportunity to visit the River Police Museum in Wapping. The River Police (originally the Marine Police) were set up in 1798 and proudly claim to be the first police force established in Britain, ahead of the City of Glasgow police in 1800 and well before the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. Their museum is a random collection of things that interest police who work on the river. I’m pretty sure some of it will interest most people.


I find that in museums like this, it can be the little oddity that sticks in the mind. Expect my next book to feature a nib wiper.


Public spending cuts mean that the River Police have now been reduced to a single station, but they continue to operate as they have for over 200 years.


The docks in my books


The London of my books was a huge port city. When we first meet John Williamson, he's a sailor and in Back Home he returns to the docks when he wants to find men to help him in some nefarious undertakings. He can't get into the new walled docks, designed specifically to keep people out, but he meets sailors in the warren of streets around them. The docks were the centre of a maritime community and there is an excellent exhibition about 'Sailor Town' in the Docklands Museum.

Back Home, like all my books, is not easy to get hold of at the moment. I've just moved from Accent to Endeavour. Endeavour should have my books back online in about three months. Feel free to bombard them with emails telling them how much you are looking forward to buying the books as soon as they come out again.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Two books this Tuesday



Two very short reviews this week.

Legends of Persia by Jennifer Macaire

This is by way of a coda to my review of The Road to Alexander a couple of weeks ago. I finished that review by saying that later books in the series were likely to be a lot better than the first. Jennifer Macaire then very kindly sent me the second book to see if I thought I was right. I'm pleased to say that I was.

Legends of Persia has all the strengths of the first book and none of the weaknesses. Ashley is now a well established character. The change from the Ashley of the first book is clear from the very beginning where she is playing at snowball fights with Alexander's best friend. The Ashley of The Road to Alexander would never have indulged in anything as frivolous as a snowball fight. This Ashley is a warm, generous person who it is easy to sympathise with. Yes, she can still be  cold and harsh, but usually when there's a good reason, as when Alexander finds himself tricked into marriage with Roxanne. Generally she comes over as rather a nice girl and, unsurprisingly, in this book she wins the affection of Alexander's officers and soldiers in a way which she does not in the first.



Alexander, too, has become a much more three-dimensional character. He is beginning to feel his age and struggles to recover from battlefield injury. He is more emotionally mature, as well. He seems much more concerned to find Ashley's missing son than in the first story and the idea that the search for their child is a driving force for both of them gives the book a much stronger sense of direction. It is less a series of exciting but unrelated incidents than volume one. Not that the book is short of exciting incidents and it enthusiastically continues to describe the heroine's sex life in titillating detail. The sex, though, also seems better integrated in the story, at one point becoming central to the narrative. I'm not going to drop a spoiler here, but if you enjoy accounts that  capture both the erotic power of sex and it's essential ridiculousness, you are in for a treat. (If you don't like stories that feature the erotic power of sex you really ought to give this book a miss.)

It goes without saying that Macaire's prose continued to carry me along with its deceptively straightforward style. All in all, I can thoroughly recommend this story. It's part of a much longer saga, so the ending is not entirely satisfactory, but it is at least an ending and not one of these awful cliffhangers that some writers of series feel will encourage people to buy the next book. I certainly don't need that sort of encouragement. If Macaire doesn't send me a review copy of the next volume, I'm going to have to fork out and buy my own copy.

Betwixt by Evie Gaughan

Another short review, this time because it's a very short book – just a short story really. 

It's possible, I suppose, that you have never read a story in which a young woman arrives at an isolated cottage to find a mysterious figure who seems somehow out of time. If so, you'd better stop reading because this will contain spoilers.

For those of us who have read ghost stories like this before, this one brings no surprises. Given that most of us must have realised very early on that the mysterious figure is a ghost seeking his long lost love, the question is just how well or badly does Evie Gaughan tell this very traditional story. And the answer is that she tells it very well indeed.

You could argue that revisiting such well trodden territory is a waste of everybody's time, but it's a short story and it wastes very little time and storytellers have been revisiting old territory since time immemorial. You could argue that this what the best storytellers all do.

Ms Gaughan manages to pack a lot of detail and characterisation into not a lot of words. It's a beautifully written little tale and I'm glad to have read it. Recommended.

My own books

The contract with Endeavour is signed and they will soon be republishing the three books in the series about the real-life James Burke and the three featuring (the fictional) John Williamson. There will be more books about James Burke, too. Unfortunately, this is probably going to take about three months, during which my books are no longer available on Kindle. You can buy some of them in paperback, although this may be an expensive option. 

I keep blogging, because at the moment I'm getting around two thousand hits a month and it seems wrong to just abandon you all because I don't currently have any books to sell. I will let you know when they are coming back online and I hope that some of you will buy them then

Friday, 14 July 2017

Nana Sahib and the Cawnpore massacre



Tomorrow is the 160th anniversary of the massacre of the women and children who had survived the siege of General Wheeler's forces in Cawnpore. It was, from the British point of view, the worst incident of the Indian Mutiny, a war (for Indians are right to call it a war rather than a mutiny) notable for violent horror.

The massacre was blamed by the British on a local ruler called Nana Sahib.

I think that the idea that Nana Sahib was evil incarnate is wrong. (So is the modern Indian notion that he was a noble warrior for independence.) As with so much colonial history, the nuances of right and wrong were much more subtle than either old-school jingoists or modern revisionists seem to be able to accept. That's more or less the theme of my book, Cawnpore. So I welcomed the opportunity when Heather Campbell of The Maiden's Court invited me to contribute a piece justifying Nana Sahib's actions. It was also a great chance to write a first person justification of a war crime.

This first appeared in the Maiden's Court just over a year ago. It was an interesting exercise for me. I hope it's interesting for you as well.

Two Sides to Every Story: The Butcher of Cawnpore: Hero or Villain?

In 1857, British rule in India was challenged by an uprising across the north west of the country. Even today, opinions as to exactly what happened and how we should view it are polarised. To most British people who have any interest in it at all, it was the Indian Mutiny. To many Indians, it was the 1st War of Independence.

British India in 1856
The conflict was extremely brutal, with outrages committed by both sides. However, the most appalling single incident occurred at the end of the siege of Cawnpore.

Cawnpore was not a major military centre and in 1857 there were not that many troops based there. Many of those who were in the lines at Cawnpore were sick men recuperating away from their regiments. When the Indians rose against them, General Wheeler, commanding the British forces, took those troops he considered would be loyal (mainly European, as opposed to locally recruited Indians) together with the civilians in the station into what became known as the Entrenchment. This was a few buildings surrounded by a low earth wall, which offered only minimal protection to those inside.

At the start of the siege on 6 June 1857 the Entrenchment offered some sort of shelter to around 60 European artillerymen, 84 infantrymen, and about 200 unattached officers and civilians and 40 Indian military musicians. In addition there were 70 invalids who were convalescing in the barrack hospital and around 375 women and children. They were surrounded by thousands of Indians, who included cavalrymen and who were supported with significant amounts of artillery.

The British held out until 25 June when they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender. Wheeler considered that surrender was an honourable option, given the almost certain death of the women and children in the Entrenchment were the siege to continue.

The Indians agreed that the British should evacuate Cawnpore by water. The British therefore marched out of the camp to the nearby river, where a small fleet of boats was waiting for them. However, as the British started to board the boats, the Indians opened fire. Only four of the soldiers from the garrison escaped alive. Most of the women and children survived but were held captive until 15 July, when the decision was taken to kill them all. The killing was crudely and ineffectively carried out, with many apparently reliable accounts of women and children being still alive when they were thrown into the well which was used for the bodies.

When British troops arrived to lift the siege, they found the site of the massacre covered in blood. Their revenge was horrific. Indian prisoners were made to lick the blood from the floor before being executed. "Remember Cawnpore" became the battle cry of British troops engaged in putting down the uprising and in exacting retribution afterwards. Nobody is sure how many Indians were killed. In many villages that the British army marched through, any man who could not prove that he had not joined the uprising was hanged. I will not dwell on the details of what became known as 'TheDevil's Wind', not because I want to gloss over the horror of the behaviour of British troops, but because the details are so appalling. (In fairness, I have rather glossed over the details of the massacres as well.)

Cartoon by Tenniel showing Britannia avenging the deaths at Cawnpore

The leader of the Indians at Cawnpore was a man called Nana Sahib. The British hunted him for years, but never caught him. It is widely believed that he died peacefully in Nepal. He was, if you like, the Osama bin Laden of the 19th century, yet today he is widely hailed as a hero of the Indian independence movement and his face has appeared on Indian stamps. This is his side of the story.



Nana Sahib’s story


My father was the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. He was a mighty lord who rose against the British who had come into his country and despoiled it. He fought valiantly against the invaders, but he was defeated and exiled from his own country to the miserable little village of Bithur, not far from Cawnpore. The British allowed him to retain his title and a small pension and he made his peace with them and lived alongside his enemy until he died in 1851.

I was an adopted son – a common practice in my country when a great lord has no sons of his own – but the British refused to recognise me as Peshwa and no longer paid the pension that they had paid to my father.

Despite the loss of my lands, my title and my pension, I tried to be a good friend to the British. They had ruled in India now for a hundred years and many Indians had accommodated to them. But their rule was becoming more harsh. Where once they had made honourable peace with men like my father, now they seized their lands, ignored their titles, and denied them the respect they were due in their own country. They began to send Christian missionaries who tried to tempt my people from their faith. They told us we must abandon our old customs.

Those Indians who served in their armies (for there is no disgrace in serving the army of any lord once he has proved himself a power in the land) were not accorded the respect they had been. Their officers, who had once loved this country, were replaced by arrogant fools who did not understand our ways. There were rumours that they might be sent overseas, where they would lose their caste. Then there was the terrible business of the new cartridges. The cartridges were greased with the fat of cattle and with the fat of pigs. This was an insult to all the Hindus in the Army and to their brothers who were Moslems.

Finally, the people of India rose up against these injustices. I was not sure what to do. I had been friends with the British and I hoped that things could be settled without violence, but it was soon apparent that there must be a war and that the British would finally be driven from our country. My people looked to me, for they still called me “Peshwa” and acknowledged me as their leader. Now that it had come to war, it was my duty to lead my people against the British in Cawnpore.

The British fought bravely: I will give them that. Hundreds of my troops died as we attacked their fort again and again. In the end, I agreed to lift the siege if they would go. They said they would and asked for boats to sail down the Ganges to rejoin their people. But this had to be a trick. The British were being defeated everywhere. Where could they hope to go? No, once they were on the boats they could set up a fort somewhere else and attack us from there. My generals told me I would be stupid to let this happen.

What was I to do? They had surrendered, but there was nowhere they could go. We had an army in our midst that could turn on us at any time. The British, we Indians had learned over the past hundred years, were liars. They had promised my father he could keep his title and then took it from me because I was adopted: a cheap trick. They had stolen the Kingdom of Oudh on the same pretence – that the new King was adopted, and therefore could not inherit. We could not trust them.


My general, Tatya Tope, told me what to do. He arranged to have artillery hidden across the river from the boats and for his men to conceal themselves along the banks. When the British came to the boats, we opened fire. They still had their muskets. It was war: these things happen. We tried not to kill the women and children, but we took them captive and kept them safe. 


Then news came that a British force was on its way to relieve the siege. Everybody was terrified. The British were killing people who they thought might have ever harmed any of their troops and they would kill us all if they heard what had happened by the river. It was essential that any of the British who might speak against my sad, but necessary, actions should be silenced. I had no choice: the women and children would speak against me. They had to die. So many Indians had died under British rule and the British always said that sometimes these things were necessary or that sometimes these things just happened. But would they have happened if the British had not stolen our country? Had we asked these women and children to come and live amongst us, ordering their Indian servants to do this and to do that as if they were slaves? Bringing their foreign ways, their terrible food, their arrogance and their ignorance? They looked down on us as savages and sneered at our ways. Well, they’re not sneering now.


The British beat us in 1857. I was driven into exile and watched as the white men tightened their grip on my country. But I know that our time will come. It is not right that the Indians should live under the rule of the British and one day we will rise up and we will defeat them and I will not be hated by the rulers of India, but loved by them as one of those who showed the way to regaining our own country.

'Cawnpore'

The story of Cawnpore and the clash of cultures that led to the massacre is the subject of my book, Cawnpore. The narrator is English, but in love with an Indian. Caught between the two camps, he sees the tragedy developing around him, but is powerless to stop it. Can he survive the massacre and, if he does, can he save anyone else from the horror?

Cawnpore is shortly to be re-published by Endeavour and will be available on Kindle and in paperback. I'll be letting everyone know about the re-launch here on my blog, on my Facebook author page and on Twitter. Cawnpore has had fabulous reviews and I hope you'll all be rushing to buy it once it's available again!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Tuesday Book Blog: The Traitor's Wife

Still catching up on book reviews, this week is a tale from the 17th century. It's not my period and anything with a title like that suggests the sort of romance I would normally shy away from, but it was a gift and eventually I read it. I am very glad I did.

The Traitor's Wife by Kathleen Kent

I'm not generally a fan of stories featuring women of the 17th century who are too self-willed to find husbands. It's difficult for people today to understand the cruel realities of a woman's life then or the simple difficulties of day-to-day life for anyone, not least a single maid. Kent's book, though, confronts those realities head-on. Her single woman is living in the American colonies and the harshness of existence in a world of disease, Indian raids, vicious weather and minimal comfort is convincingly portrayed.
This isn't just a story about life in the American wilderness, though. The tale centres on Thomas, the one man Martha feels for and who reciprocates her love. But Thomas has a secret: he is one of the men who slew King Charles I and the second Charles has sent hired killers to bring him back to England. The story then moves between London and the New World with flashbacks to the Civil War. It makes for a sometimes disjointed but always gripping tale which imposes modern judgements on the characters much less than most writers do. Their moral qualms and the compromises they make to stay alive are viewed sympathetically, though Charles II is somewhat harshly drawn - but, then again, he was probably not a particularly nice man.

This is, at heart, a love story, but one where kisses and lingering looks are usually secondary to violence and betrayal and sudden death. You cannot be sure, right to the end, if all will work out well and the historical note suggests another bitter twist after the story in the book is over.

It's not a perfect book. One section, in particular, is told in the first person and the voice, for me, lacked conviction. The rambling nature of the plot can leave the reader out of joint as people once thought dead turn up alive and others reveal themselves as not at all what you might have expected. An apparently irrelevant prologue only turns out to be a vital clue to one character's motivation in the closing chapters. Kent has, however, created a convincing world of real people. It's a world well worth a visit.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Battle for Fort Belan!



Last week’s blog post was about Fort Belan. I was there to see a display by the Anglesey Hussars and friends – people who spend their weekends re-enacting the Napoleonic wars.

I've met re-enactors through my writing. If you want to describe a Napoleonic battle, you need to talk to a re-enactor. The historian will tell you what the general was planning and why the battle took place where it did, but it's a re-enactor who will give you the best idea of the experience of the man on the ground. (Contemporary accounts like The Recollections of Rifleman Harris are also invaluable.) So I was really excited at the prospect of seeing some of these guys in action.


Besides talking through their uniforms and equipment (I never realised that the braiding on cavalry uniforms could actually protect against a sabre), we were treated to a display of musket drill. Actually, as you can see, there was a range of weapons, including a rifle and a carbine, but the men (and women) performed creditably – though their rate of fire might not have had the French quaking in their boots.


We were shown rather bigger guns, too. Here they are ramming wadding down into one of the cannon that marked off the hours during the afternoon. Sadly, there was no actual cannonball – although ammunition was displayed in the Fort.


                                     

Even without an actual cannonball, the amount of wadding that can be discharged is quite impressive. When this 24-pounder was fired, it had to be pointed out to sea.



The muskets and cannon fire black powder. According to their supplier, these re-enactors use more black powder than anybody else in Wales except for quarrymen.

I really like horses, so the chance to get up close with these gorgeous animals and their beautifully turned out riders was a lot of fun.


The horses were not typical of the rather heavier animals that would have been used in Napoleonic warfare, but don't they look lovely? [Since I posted this, someone has picked me up on it, suggesting that they are by no means under-sized. I'm not an expert on horses and I'm not suggesting they're too small - they're probably rather on the big side, but they are unlikely to have the strength of horses back then. To take one example, you can't use even blunt (ball) spurs with them, because their skin damages much more easily than a Napoleonic mount. Horses like this are built for speed more than hard use. But it really isn't my area of expertise and I'd welcome comment from people who know more about it than me.]

I did enjoy watching the riders showing off their skill with sabres.


Take that, Monsieur Frog!


The climax of the day was a skirmish where our brave lads drove the French out of the fort. Artillery covered the infantry as they charged forward.


Presumably Wellington was in command. His views on the cavalry were less than favourable and the horses are being held well back here, while the Navy lead the way into the fort.


It was all great fun. If you are interested in Napoleonic warfare or just want a good afternoon out, I can really recommend a day with the re-enactors.

A word from our sponsor

I'm not urging you to buy any of my books this week (unless you want a paperback). My books are temporarily unavailable on Kindle while I move between publishers. I'll let you know as soon as they are available again.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

If it's Tuesday, it must be time for another book blog

I'm still catching up on all the book reviews I've been meaning to post. This week's offering is:

The Road to Alexander: Jennifer Macaire

Ashley comes from the future where they have time travel. She has the chance to travel back in time to meet one famous character and interview him. She has always had a crush on Alexander the Great so she chooses to go back to meet her hero. She is supposed to spend just twenty hours in the past but something goes wrong and she finds herself trapped in 333 BC. Fortunately Alexander has taken a shine to her and she finds herself travelling with his army, first as his concubine and later as one of his several wives.


I found this one of those books that was easy to read, but easy to put down for quite long periods. In part, this is because the story, though full of incident, is pretty much summed up in the first paragraph of this review. Alexander and Ashley have explicit and amazing sex, she travels with the army, something happens, Alexander and Ashley have explicit and amazing sex, they travel on, something happens… You get the picture.


Part of the problem, for me, was Ashley's character. She is, by her own account, an ice maiden. Apart from her ability to fall madly in love with Alexander (did I mention the explicit and amazing sex?), and, later, Alexander’s best friend/lover, Ashley finds human relationships difficult. She is hampered, too, by the fact that she can't open up honestly to anybody as no one must ever know that she is from the future. It is only when she finally admits the truth to Alexander and lets her emotions show in a tearful outburst that I begin to warm to her as a character, but unfortunately this is the climax of the book. It does bode well for the second novel in what is set to be quite a long series.


While Ashley is cold and aloof, Alexander is very emotional and very open (cue lots of explicit and amazing etc etc). He is also spectacularly good at everything and almost godlike. In fairness, Macaire does make him a spectacularly bad singer, which we are reminded of from time to time to give him his single human frailty. On the other hand, at one point the book compares him explicitly to Jesus Christ, which makes him a difficult figure to identify with, even if he’s not about to win Pop Idol any time soon.


The fact that the two main characters are respectively detached and godlike makes for an absence of humanity at the core of the book which is what makes it so easy to put down. At one point Ashley is captured by somebody (it says something that I can't remember who) and held in complete silence in a temple where she discovers that she is pregnant and has a baby which is taken away from her. This material, which some authors would spin out into a book all by itself, is covered in just four pages. The driving force for much of the rest of the story is her attempts, having escaped and rejoined Alexander, thanks to a convenient earthquake, to track down and rescue the child. This mission keeps being interrupted by the odd conquest, battle, betrayal and all the other incidents of Alexander’s rather spectacular life. Thanks to this, for whole chapters at a time the reader can forget about the baby, as, it seems, can Ashley.


The thing is, this isn't really a story about Ashley at all. It's a story about Alexander the Great and his astonishing achievements. Like Ashley, Macaire seems more than a little in love with Alexander and she certainly knows a lot about him. She claims, in an end-note, not to be a historian, but she's the only blogger I know who can post in Ancient Greek and it's clear that she knows her stuff. Sometimes her research gets a little intrusive (as early on, when Ashley detours into a local village for, it seems, the sole purpose of describing daily life in a small village at the time) but enormous quantities of historical detail are incorporated in a thoroughly readable way. Everything from military tactics to medicine to diet to feminine hygiene products is covered in an easy prose style. Macaire’s prose does carry you along, free from any jarring notes. I am old-fashioned enough to think that the quality of writing is an important element in any book and it is one of the things that kept me coming back to this, even when a lack of sympathy with Ashley might have made it easy not to bother.


The time and effort that has not been spent on making the principal characters warm and human has instead gone into making the period vibrant and alive. If you are interested in Alexander the Great, you will find much to interest you in this book. If you like historical fiction because you enjoy learning about daily life in the past, this is definitely a rewarding read. There is also no doubt that if Macaire ever wants to branch out into erotic fiction, she will be up there with the best of them, so that’s another potential attraction.


Overall, it's clear that I have mixed feelings about The Road to Alexander but I did enjoy it. If you're into well researched historical novels, you'll probably enjoy it too. I suspect that now that the characters are established and Ashley has begun to open up as a human being (and even Alexander is becoming a more rounded character), the second book in the series will be even better than this one.


A quick word about my own books


If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I am just in the process of changing publisher. This means that my books are temporarily unavailable on Kindle until my new publisher (Endeavour) is ready to put them into production. Meanwhile, most of them are still available in paperback. I'll let you know as soon as the existing e-book's are back online. For Burke fans there's a special treat as Endeavour are to publish the latest (fourth) of Burke's adventures – this time during the Peninsular War

Monday, 3 July 2017

My best endeavours ...

As of this morning, I am no longer published by Accent Press.
I am really grateful to Accent for publishing the James Burke books. They took on "Burke in the Land of Silver" and encouraged me to write two more volumes in the series. Unfortunately, Accent are undergoing a process of consolidation at the moment and are not in a position to publish the next book, which will be about Burke's adventures in Spain during the Peninsular War.
Fortunately, Endeavour, who publish quite a few historical authors, have said that they will publish the next Burke book and are taking over the existing three. As soon as the contracts are signed, I should therefore be an Endeavour author. Endeavour will also be taking over the John Williamson books..
All this means that, for a short while, my books will not be available on Kindle. (They were there when I checked a few minutes ago, if you want to grab a copy while you still can.) I will let you know as soon as they are back.
I have heard great things about Endeavour and I am looking forward to working with them. I'll let you know as soon as the next Burke book is available. Trust me it is – in every sense – a blast!

Friday, 30 June 2017

Fort Belan



A few weeks ago I mentioned that I'd made a trip to Fort Belan on the North Wales coast. The reason was to see the Anglesey Hussars together with some other re-enactors who were displaying their skills there. It was a fascinating day, both because of the display by the Hussars and because of the opportunity to explore Fort Belan itself.

I don't like to be too dogmatic about the history of Fort Belan. While we were there we heard subtly different accounts and the guide to the place (A Maritime Fortress by Michael Stammers) often produced yet another, slightly different again, version. Even the name seems to be a subject of debate. Over the centuries it has been called Abermenai barracks, Fort St David and Belan Fort.

Fort Belan stands on the Menai Strait at a point where the channel is between 300 and 400 yards wide. This position allows it to command the sea approach to Caernarvon. (In theory you could approach Caernarvon by circling around Anglesey from the North, but tides and currents would make this a difficult manoeuvre in a sail powered vessel.) Building seems to have started in 1775. This is well before the beginning of the wars with France, so the first and most obvious question is: "Why build a fort just there, just then?"

Location of Fort Belan (Google maps)

The answer is to protect Caernarvon from American privateers. This was by no means a foolish concern, in 1779 Fishguard, on the Pembrokeshire coast, was bombarded by an American vessel and privateers regularly attacked ships in Welsh waters. (In 1797 when we were at war with France, Fishguard was again attacked, this time with the landing of a French expeditionary force.)An artillery battery at this point on the strait made military sense.

The gun emplacement guarding the Menai Strait
The fort itself, though, makes no sense at all. As you can see in the photograph of the cannon, the walls provide no protection for the crew. Generally the height of the walls is too low to provide any real defence for those inside the fort – as can be seen by this photograph of the Anglesey Hussars scaling the walls with a ladder no higher than that used by many window cleaners.


The Hussars, who, like most re-enactors, have a terrifyingly thorough grip of military tactics, also point out that the wall does not have a proper fire step so the defenders would not be able to raise themselves over the wall to shoot and duck down to hide from any response. Yet the fort has not one, but two, convincing entrance gates with the thickness of the first perimeter wall being quite impressive.

Note the impressive thickness of the wall at this gateway
The two gates used to be connected by a drawbridge which, sadly, has been replaced by a rather boring path.

Once through the first gate you face a second
The original building was simply intended as a barracks for the gun crews. It's likely that the walls around the barracks were not added until between 1824 and 1827.

Fort Belan and its garrison were not the responsibility of the government. The Wynn family, major local landowners (Thomas Wynn was ennobled to the Irish peerage as the first Lord Newborough), built the fort and raised the Caernarfonshire Militia that were probably its first garrison. When the militia was unavailable, either because it was deployed on active duty or during periods when it was temporarily disbanded, it seems likely that the Wynn family maintained a basic staff at the fort at their own expense.

The original barrack blocks have now been converted to holiday cottages

If you see the fort and its garrison as being essentially a vanity project by a rich local landowner with political ambitions (as many local militias were), then the architecture of the fort begins to make more sense. The barracks needed some sort of perimeter wall built around them and Thomas Wynn did like building walls. So he decided to build them as a castle - but more in the nature of a folly than as a working fort. In the end, Thomas died in 1807 and a shortage of money meant that no work was done until the second Lord Newborough, Thomas John, came of age in 1823 and began to build again. Like his father, he was an enthusiastic builder. He began a huge stone tower in Glynllifon Park, designed as the family mausoleum and he built walls around the barracks. This is the comparatively modest walls with the crenellations shown in the photograph of the second gate. The much more impressive walls housing the first gate seemed to have been built still later, quite possibly at a time that the family built a private dockyard for their steam yacht in around 1845. These were probably principally designed as another folly but, following the Rebecca Riots, which broke out in mid and south Wales between 1839 and 1843, rich landowners may have felt that a strong set of walls that could shelter the local militia in times of unrest had real practical advantages.

Fort Belan therefore combines a real military purpose (to house the garrison for the battery) and possible value as a place to base militia at times of riot with elements of the whimsy demonstrated by the British upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The fort did actually serve a military function in World War II when it was the base for the local Home Guard and two rescue launches.

It is now privately owned and offers self catering cottages. You can contact Fort Belan through their webpage: http://www.fortbelan.co.uk/

Next week I'll be writing about the Anglesey Hussars' heroic storming of Fort Belan and some of the other things they demonstrated on our visit. Here's a taster to be going on with.


A Word from our Sponsor

A day with the Anglesey Hussars is fun for everyone, but I was particularly interested because I write about the Napoleonic Wars as the background to the adventures of real-life spy James Burke. James Burke's exploits are published by Accent Press and the books are available as paperback or e-books on Amazon. Click any of the covers on the right of the page here to be taken to the Amazon page.



Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Tuesday is book blog day. For now, at least.



This is not a book blog, but I've read a few books lately that I want to review, so I'm making the next few Tuesdays book blogging days. Think of these as bonus blog posts alongside the history and the stuff about writing. And tango. Never forget the tango.

Anyway, here's the first one. Caution: may contain spoilers.

Two Nights by Kathy Reichs


Are you on NetGalley yet? If you're not, I really do recommend it. You get the chance to see copies of brand-new books, many by less well-known authors but including some bestselling names who are looking for early promotion of their next title. The only disadvantage is that you might be expected to write a review. Of course, nobody can make you write a review but I like to play fair. Which brings me to Two Nights by Kathy Reichs.

Ms Reichs is best known for her books about Temperance Brennan, the forensic pathologist. Two Nights, though, introduces a very different heroine, Sunday Night.

Back in the days of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, your detective story hero could just be introduced as a "consulting detective”. Nowadays they all come with a back-story and, in a crowded field, the back-stories become ever more extravagant. Sunnie Night’s past is revealed to us bit by bit in what is essentially a separate story interspersed with the main narrative. You know when you get to it, because it's all written in italics. There are literary agents who will reject on sight any book with italicised segments and I have considerable sympathy with this approach. I like my back-story to be just that. It should be the reason why our hero/heroine behaves in the way that they do and the reader should learn about it through the actions of the protagonist in the story, not as a separate author’s note. There must be exceptions, of course, (there always are) but this seems a good ground rule and Reichs less breaks it than hits it with a baseball bat, runs over it with a steamroller, and then feeds the pieces into a paper shredder.

The back story is traumatic and appalling (mad cults and mass suicide feature) but it doesn't seem to be all the baggage that Sunnie Night is toting with her. We will presumably learn in later volumes just why she was thrown out of the Army and perhaps even more about the police career that was ended when she was partially blinded in one eye. Reichs seems to have laden Sunnie down with every psychological trauma she could offer, ensuring that she will stand out from all those other private eyes in books like this. She certainly needs to, because the story, slickly plotted and entertainingly written as it is, is just another bog-standard thriller.

Night is hired by a rich woman to hunt down the terrorists who killed her daughter and kidnapped her grand-daughter. The terrorists do that convenient thing that villains in this sort of book do and try to kill the investigator. One day they’ll learn that if they just lie low and do nothing the PI, in the absence of any clues, will have to give up and go home. But no, they always have to try to off our heroine who, being a crack shot and brilliant at hand-to-hand combat (naturally) offs them in an almost irritatingly casual way. At least the cops are irritated, allowing the by-play between sassy private eye and world-weary cop that comes with this territory.

Eventually one of the villains leaves an email where Night can find it and, with an unlikely burst of insight, she realises that the terrorists plan to blow up the Kentucky Derby. This leads to the compulsory climax in which our heroine searches through the crowds at the Derby until she sees the evil villains and takes them down. It’s going to look great when it’s filmed, as it pretty well inevitably will be.

So, rubbish then? Not quite. Because writing a thriller that keeps you bowling along looks easy but is a skill that not many writers have. Kathy Reich has honed her craft to the point where even such an unpromising plot outline can turn into a more than decent read. It would be better without the italicised back-story and I’d be happier if I could feel more sympathy for Sunday Night who goes through life picking fights with everyone and seriously annoying most of the people she comes in contact with, including her readers. But if this is the sort of book you like, then you’ll like this one. I doubt anyone will love it, but I’m sure Sunday Night would agree that she wasn’t put into the world to be loved.


Friday, 23 June 2017

A last word (for now) on Waterloo



I was pleasantly surprised at the interest shown in last week's post on the battle of Quatre Bras. It quickly got almost twice as many page views as my best read posts over the nearly seven years (seven years!!!) I've been doing this. It does suggest a lot of interest in the events surrounding the battle of Waterloo, so this week I'm posting a slightly edited version of an article that I wrote for Antoine Vanner two years ago on his excellent Dawlish Chronicles blog.

Waterloo 200 years on – and its lessons for today


This month marks the 202nd anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Do the events of 1815 have any lessons for us today? Quite possibly, they do.

Although, with the benefit of hindsight, we all know that Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, the generals and politicians of the time had celebrated his fall with the capture of Paris in 1814. The Corsican Corporal's exile to Elba seemed to mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars as clearly as the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War. 

Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray

As with the end of the Cold War, the British were quick to cash in the peace dividend. The country had been at war more or less continuously for 21 years since France declared what would become known as the War of the First Coalition on 1 February 1793. At the height of the Napoleonic wars the British had over 200,000 British men under arms (supplemented with a further 50,000 foreign and colonial troops). The cost of the war had been horrific. The direct economic cost to Great Britain is usually put at £831 million (a figure quoted by no less a body than the Royal Statistical Society in 1915). In 21st-century value terms the sum would, of course, be massively greater. The cost led to an increase in the national debt to £679 million, more than double the country's GDP. Such an enormous amount of money meant significant disruption to the economy of the whole country. The number of young men taken away from the land in order to fight impacted on agricultural production and the significantly increased taxation also hit the economy. In 1814, the British Treasury issued perpetual bonds (now known as consols) to consolidate some of the outstanding debt. Some of these bonds have still not been paid off and form part of 2015's National Debt.

Little wonder that, as soon as Napoleon was apparently safely ensconced on Elba, the government took immediate steps to reduce military expenditure. Most obviously, troops were demobilised. Other economies included such things as abandoning the line of semaphore towers that connected London to the Channel ports. Ten thousand muskets stored in the Tower of London were sold off.

The folly of these economies was obvious as soon as Napoleon returned to France. The semaphore towers were rushed back into service. The muskets were repurchased (at a substantial loss to the government) before their new owner had even had time to remove them from the Tower. 

More critically, Wellington desperately needed troops, but there were few troops to be had. Many of those that were available were new recruits with no experience of battle. More experienced men had either been discharged or sent to America to reinforce troops fighting a completely separate war over there (the war in which the British famously burned down the White House).

Just as nowadays we are assured that in times of war the Regular Army can be efficiently and effectively supplemented with troops from the Army Reserve (the old Territorial Army), so, in 1815, there was a militia that could be called up to serve "in time of war or insurrection". But though Bonaparte was back in Paris, was Britain at war? Legally, it was not, and so the government dithered, refusing to call up the militia until the last moment. When militia troops did arrive, it was so late that many of them went into battle wearing their militia uniforms rather than those of the regiments with which they were now serving. Although paintings made after the event all show Hougoumont defended by Guardsmen in their scarlet, many of the defenders had not yet been issued with Guards tunics.

Closing the gates at Hougoumont by Robert Gibb
(with acknowledgement to the National Gallery of Scotland)

Wellington asked that he should have 40,000 British infantry and 15,000 cavalry to be sent to Belgium. All he got was around 30,000 British soldiers of all arms, only 7,000 of them veterans.

Wellington was particularly angry that his Staff officers had been dispersed and he was unable to rely on the coterie of veterans who had surrounded him during the Peninsular War. Wellington was a great believer in what would nowadays be called cronyism. He ran the army with a group of men he had grown up with and felt comfortable alongside. Now they were scattered – dead, serving in North America, or otherwise unavailable for active service. Instead, Wellington found himself surrounded with increasing numbers of well-connected young men who sought service on his Staff as a good career move. He wrote, "I am overloaded with people I have never seen before; and it appears to be purposely intended to keep those out of my way whom I wish to have." He ordered back to his side any of the men that he thought that he could trust, even those he had some personal antipathy to. Men who thought they had seen the last of military life found themselves once again under the Colours. The irascible Picton was recalled so unexpectedly that he famously arrived with no uniform at all and rode into battle (and to his death) in civilian clothes.

Unsurprisingly, Wellington was unimpressed with the force available to him: "I have got an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced staff."

The meeting of Wellington and the Prussian Commander, Bluecher by Daniel Maclise
(National Army Museum and Parliamentary copyright with all rights reserved)
In the end, of course, Wellington won. But it was hardly the great British victory it is painted as. Forty per cent of the troops in the army Wellington commanded were German-speaking and, of course, it was the arrival of Blucher's Prussians that finally saved the day. Earlier in the afternoon there had been panic in Brussels, as the civilian population was convinced that the Allies had lost. It was, indeed, as Wellington is regularly misquoted as saying, "A damn close run thing". A British army, ill-prepared and outgunned, pulled through because, in the end, but fighting men stood their ground, dying by the thousand, sacrificed to what we would now call defence cuts and Whitehall bungling.

The lesson of Waterloo is that you never know where and when you might have to fight. The militia was mobilised too late and, though they appear to have fought bravely, Wellington was always concerned that their lack of experience could all too easily have resulted in them breaking under fire. Two hundred years later we do not have the stomach to see British soldiers die in those numbers but we do not appear to be taking the steps that are needed to ensure that we do not put an “infamous army” into the field again.


A Word from our Sponsor


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Friday, 16 June 2017

The battle before Waterloo (the one everyone forgets)


The battle of Quatre Bras took place exactly 202 years ago today. Arguably, it was a much more important battle than Waterloo. The French came within a whisker of winning it and, had they done so, the Allied forces would have been unable to stop Napoleon taking Brussels. Yet few people know about it.

The battle features in my book, Burke at Waterloo and I blogged about it on the 200th anniversary. That post became one of my all-time top ten most-read blog posts, but I know that I have more readers now and I imagine that many of you never saw it. So here it is again.

Quatre Bras


Wellington fought two battles against Napoleon in June 1815. The first was 200 years ago today – two days before Waterloo.In England, a tiny hamlet like Quatre Bras would probably be called Four Ways. It was a few houses and some farms clustered around a crossroad on the main route north from Charleroi to Brussels. Napoleon was pushing as fast as he could toward the Belgian capital, desperate to get his army between the armies of Prussia and Britain so that he could pick his two opponents off one after the other.

Wellington had not expected Napoleon to move into Belgium through Charleroi and only a small force was positioned on that road. These were troops under the command of the Prince of Orange. Books like Sharpe's Waterloo present Prince William as an incompetent ass and his troops as cowards. You can't really blame Bernard Cornwell for taking this line: it's been a commonplace since Wellington returned victorious from a battle which everyone in London needed to believe had been won by the British. The role of Prince William and his Netherlands Army was played down then and has been played down ever since. Only recently have people began to question this story.

Prince William had 7,000 men and eight guns at Quatre Bras when the French arrived with 20,000 men and 60 guns. Another 20,000 Frenchmen were marching north to join them. There was, it seemed, no realistic prospect of Prince William's troops holding the position. Indeed, by 2:30 the French were close to taking the crossroads. Prince William's forces had increased to sixteen guns and 8,000 men, but this was all that stood between Marshall Ney and Brussels.
Nobody knows why Ney hesitated. It seems likely that Napoleon's orders had been unclear and that Ney was reluctant to commit himself without definite instructions. It was the first of a series of command blunders that suggest that Napoleon was no longer the brilliant general in complete command of his forces, as he had been before Elba. Some of his most solid and dependable marshals were no longer available to him and he was forced to put too much reliance on Ney, who, though undoubtedly brave, was not a master of strategy. 


Brunswickers at Quatre Bras by Richard Knotel

While the French hesitated, Wellington was desperately moving forces from Brussels to defend the position at Quatre Bras. Throughout the afternoon both sides moved more troops into the fight. On several occasions, it seemed that the Allied positions must be overrun, but, every time, reinforcements arrived at the critical moment. The fighting was intense. Much of it was in fields of rye which grew up to eight feet high. The infantry could not see each other. (It's quite possible that if Prince William had been able to see how many French he faced at the beginning of the fight, he would have withdrawn.) There was extensive use of skirmishers and the cavalry often advanced in very loose order, unable to group for a classical charge because of the amount of woodland at key points around the battlefield. The result was a very fluid fight, much of it very close quarters. At one point, the Duke of Wellington himself was almost captured, riding a little too far ahead of his line. He famously escaped by fleeing at a gallop toward his own troops and ordering them to lie flat as his horse jumped across the British soldiers who then rose to their feet and drove off the French cavalry that had been pursuing their general.


Black Watch at Quatre Bras by William Barnes Wollen

At the end of the day, both armies were in a similar position to where they had been when the engagement had started. To the east, though, Napoleon's troops had been successfully driving back the Prussians in a separate battle at Ligny. Wellington feared that, as the Prussians withdrew, Napoleon would be able to do exactly what he had planned: defeat the British the next day at Quatre Bras and then turn his army against the isolated Prussians. Wellington therefore took the decision to withdraw back toward Brussels, in the hope that he would be able to form a common front with the Prussian army further north. We now know that that was exactly what happened. The Prussians were able to join up with Wellington's forces at Waterloo, and it was their arrival which finally produced an Allied victory. At the time, though, Wellington was taking an enormous gamble. With no proper communications with the Prussian army, he could not be sure that they would not just retreat for home. In fact, there were elements in their command who wanted to do just that, and Napoleon was confident that they were not going to assist the British forces. The French, then, saw Quatre Bras as a victory. The day after the battle, the British were withdrawing northward, and the French were in pursuit. The British, by contrast, have always considered Quatre Bras as an Allied victory. An overwhelming French force was held at bay for a full day, with the British making an orderly withdrawal to a previously planned position in order to meet up with the Prussians at a strategically optimal point.

In fairness, I think that Quatre Bras is best regarded as a score draw. The French were not defeated, but they were delayed. The British were able to withdraw in good order and prepare themselves at Waterloo for the battle that would take place there two days later. What is clear is that if Ney had smashed through Prince William's lines at the point when he had overwhelming superiority, the French troops would have been on Brussels before the British could position themselves to mount an effective defence. It is quite probable that Napoleon would have ended by defeating the British. The Prussians, already beaten at Ligny would have withdrawn to Prussia, leaving Napoleon in control of Belgium. Many of the Belgian army would have rejoined the Eagles.

Could victory at Quatre Bras have saved Napoleon? In the long-term, probably not, but he would have seen off the British and Prussian Armies and been in a much stronger position to negotiate some sort of settlement with the great powers. It is possible that the young Prince William, inexperienced and totally out of his depth – and maybe only trying to hold the position because he lacked the strategic understanding that it should have been impossible to do so – changed the course of European history. It is also clearly true that the British victory at Waterloo was made possible because of the outstanding courage of the Dutch and Belgian troops who were later to be dismissed as "Waterloo cowards".


A Word from our Sponsor

The battle of Quatre Bras is described in reasonable detail in Burke at Waterloo. ("A good general account of the battles described." - Amazon review) Burke at Waterloo is available on Kindle at a ludicrously cheap £2.99/$3.64. Click HERE for the link. It is also available in paperback.