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:

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

My book, Burke at Waterloo, has a lot about the battle and the run-up to it, but it is first and foremost a spy story. It starts in Paris with British agent, James Burke, hunting down Bonapartist spies. (There really were an awful lot of them about.) The pursuit moves north and, when Napoleon escapes from Elba James Burke finds himself fighting alongside Belgian troops, so he sees the Battle of Waterloo from the perspective of the Belgian cavalry. It's an exciting read and will give you an idea of what Waterloo and the buildup to the battle would have felt like. It's only £2.99/$3.64 on Kindle and also available in paperback. If you enjoy reading about Waterloo, you will probably enjoy the book.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The battle before Waterloo (the one everyone forgets)

The battle of Quatre Bras features in my book, Burke at Waterloo. My blog post about it became the most widely read post on this blog, so an edited version now appears on my new blog site at

Go and have a look at it there. (And, while you're there, explore the new WordPress site.)

Friday, 9 June 2017

James Brooke: the fact behind the fiction

It seems a lot more than two weeks since I was in Windsor talking about the life and times of James Brooke.

Me, talking about James Brooke

Brooke is the central character of my first novel, The White Rajah. The story is a work of fiction, but Brooke was a real person and the main events in the book are all true. Some of Brooke's comments are lifted verbatim from his letters, so he literally speaks to us in his own voice.

James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant (National Portrait Gallery)

Why write a book about a man who, although quite famous in the mid-19th century, is almost unknown today? There were two reasons. When I first came across James Brooke, on a visit to Kuching in Borneo, I was immediately fascinated by the man and what he had done with his life. He had set off to the Far East as a merchant adventurer with some vague notions about extending British influence. His driving motivation seemed to be simply a yearning to escape from the mundane world of the respectable British middle classes. He was, I suspect, the sort of man who would be fun at a party but you would hardly trust with a serious business venture. By a combination of pure luck (being in the right place at the right time) and a willingness to take risks to seize an opportunity he found himself the legitimate ruler of Sarawak – a small country in Borneo. Although other authors have written about him (notably Nicolas Monsarrat, whose book is also called The White Rajah) it's been a while since he has been a popular figure in British fiction. George MacDonald Fraser went some way to remedy this with a walk-on part for Brooke in Flashman's Lady, but I thought he deserved more. I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching his life and wanted to share it with as many people as I could.

The second reason was that I wanted to write a story about why good people do bad things. I imagined a fictional war on some remote island where our hero, who had become involved in the conflict out of the best of motives, ends up committing a horrible atrocity. In today's world understanding how these sorts of things happen is probably as important as it has ever been. When I tried to imagine the background for such a story, I realised I already had it. Brooke was such a man. He set off to be an enlightened, liberal ruler and, by and large, was. However, when marauding pirates from neighbouring tribes threatened "his" people he was happy to call in the Royal Navy to put an end to the problem, which they did with such enthusiasm that reports of the subsequent massacre led to questions in the House of Commons, half a world away.

The massacre at Beting Marau

It's easy to take the view that Brooke was just an evil colonialist, killing the native inhabitants whose country he had stolen from them. In fact, this is far from the truth. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – had already had their country stolen from them by the Malays and Brooke, by taking rule from the Malays, almost certainly improved the situation of the Dyaks. All the evidence is that he really cared about these people and that is part of the reason why he was so ruthless in putting down other native tribes who did not live in "his" territory.

Nowadays it is common to see the whole issue of colonialism in very black and white terms, but it really was much more complicated than that. Brooke's story therefore offers an opportunity to see how somebody with the best of intentions, wishing only to do good, could end up in a position where it is easy to denounce him as a murderous imperialist.

I'm biased: I think Brooke was a hero, albeit a flawed one. However, I have tried to be even-handed in the telling of his story. The story is told from the point of view of Brooks interpreter, a man who is caught up in the events but still sees them as, to an extent, an outsider. He is so shocked by the massacre that he leaves Brooke and Sarawak, convinced that what had happened was wrong.

I hope that you might read the book and make your own decision. It's available on Kindle for just £1.99/$2.44. Click  HERE for the Amazon site. You can also buy it in paperback.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Adventures in time and space

We got back from Buenos Aires just under two weeks ago. Most of Burke in the Land of Silver is set there and it's a place I love to visit, enjoying walking the streets that the real James Burke would have known in 1806.

The Manzana de los Luces is one of the oldest buildings in Buenos Aires

Almost as soon as we were home, I was off to Windsor (admittedly not that far from here). There, practically in the shadow of the castle's 12th century Round Tower, I gave a talk on James Brooke (1803- 1868), hero of The White Rajah. 

Me and James Brooke: he's the one on the left
The next day we were off to Wales, where we worked our way north to Fort Belan. It's the only fort dating from the American War of Independence to have survived in Britain. Why a fort in Wales because of a war in America? Because American privateers had been known to raid towns on the West Coast of Britain (notably Whitehaven) and a fort to protect the approach to Caernarvon seemed like a good idea.

The battery at Fort Belan, guarding the Menai Strait.
I'll be writing a lot more about Fort Belan and the Napoleonic re-enactors I met there in future blogs.

Hijinks with the Anglesey Hussars at Fort Belan

For now, though, we briefly move a couple of thousand years back, with a flying visit to the Iron Age hill fort at Dinas Dinlle.

Iron Age ramparts at Dinas Dinlle

Dinas Dinlle is only a couple of miles from Fort Belan. Looking at these two fortifications, so close together in space but so distant in time, was fascinating.

Over the Menai Strait in Anglesey we were able to explore yet another fortification. Edward I's Beaumaris Castle was started in 1295 but never completed. It is, though, very beautiful and has World Heritage status because of the perfection of its design.

Even without the castle, Beaumaris is a spectacularly pretty town, though a local told us that almost a third of the houses are now holiday homes. Still, they are very colourful holiday homes.

A visit to Anglesey also gave me the chance to call in on Plas Newydd, the home of the Earl of Uxbridge, who led the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo (as featured in Burke at Waterloo). He lost his leg in the battle and his wooden leg is on display at Plas Newydd. It is supposed to be the first articulated artificial leg ever made and the Earl (by then a Marquess) was said to have walked seven or eight miles a day on it into old age.

After Beaumaris, I wanted to have a look at Conwy Castle, also built by Edward I, but, unlike Beaurmaris, completed. Conwy not only boasts one of the finest castles of the period (like Beaumaris, a World Heritage site) but also a nearly complete town wall. The town was cleared of the native Welsh and became almost an extension of the castle. Even today there is remarkably little development outside the old walls.

Some of Conwy's walls, as seen from the castle
Conwy has prospered over the centuries and the Elizabethan merchant's house at Plas Mawr is a remarkably well-preserved and beautiful building.

Even as we drove south from Conwy, our trip through history was not quite over. We turned off the main road at Llanelltyd to find Cymer Abbey, built in 1198 and closed as part of Henry VIII's Reformation. It was always a small place and little remains, but the ruins of the Abbey church give a tiny glimpse into a long-vanished world.

A few days away in Wales have taken me from around 2,500 years ago, through an era of castles and abbeys into the world of Burke and the Napoleonic wars. Living in Britain, I tend to take all this for granted, but this break has highlighted just how lucky a historical novelist is to live here.

I'm back in London now, with no plans for more than the odd day away for a few months. I'll be trying to catch up with everyone I've neglected since the beginning of April and blogging about Argentina and my talk on James Brooke and the efforts of the Anglesey Hussars at Fort Belan. For now, though, I have post to catch up with and novels to write. I'll be back on-line soon. Until then, why not buy a book about James Burke or one of the John Williamson series? Just click on the covers for links to the Amazon pages.