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Napoleonic Lives

The subtitle of Carole Divall's new book Napoleonic Lives: Researching the British soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars tells you its main purpose. It is a detailed guide of how to find out information from all the different archives and museum collections written by someone who has spent a lot of time delving into these sources. I know a lot of people who are very keen to build up a detailed family trees and this is certainly the book for you. I would also heartily recommend it if you simply have an interest in the army of this period. Chapters cover different individuals from a range of regiments, including a man from the 69th who served on board ship as a marine, to cavalrymen and gunners. There is a also a chapter focusing on two army wives - Biddy Skiddy who is depicted so vividly in George Bell's Memoirs (& in a display in London's National Army Museum, showing her carrying her husband on her back when he was exhausted, and the lesser known Agnes Reston, a sergeant's wife who is described by Donaldson of the 94th in an episode I may one day incorporate into one of the novels.

I have always found the letters and memoirs of this period fascinating, and writing the novels has given me a good excuse to go back to them and look in much greater detail. This meant that reading the book was often a very nice reminder of some of the characters from these, both the authors and the people who figured in their stories. Even more fascinating is the comparison between the stories and the official archives - finding out more for instance about some of the famous writers such as Wheeler of the 51st. Sometimes these hint at fascinating little stories. So Sergeant Nicolson of the 42nd Highlanders, who served in Egypt, was left behind in Portugal when his battalion marched with Sir John Moore into Spain and the next year found himself serving in a Battalion of Detachments at Oporto and Talavera, figures in one of the chapters. Less famous than other memoirs, it is a vivid account, and especially interesting since he describes being left among the wounded when the army retired and his subsequent capture by the French. The introduction to his published memoirs state that he ran away from home and joined the army at the age of 15. However, his discharge papers state that he enlisted at the age of 20. Divall notes that the 1851 census confirms the age claimed in the memoirs, and make it likely that the lad added five years when he joined the army - something so familiar from the First World War.

As a research tool this is a great guide, but it is also a really good read in its own right. Beat the Drums Slowly is dedicated jointly to my editor and to Carole, who has been kind enough to read each manuscript and has stopped me from making mistakes when talking about regimental life. This book, and her others, are marvellous for these human, everyday stories of the period, and are heartily recommended. You can find more detail at her website

Some WWII novels

Over the winter I also came across Alexander Baron's From the city, from the plough about a fictional battalion of British infantry before and during D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. The author served in the army at the time and this shows throughout the book, although given his background it is unsurprising that the Londoners come across more convincingly than the country lads mixed in with them. It's a warts and all portrait. One officer is dangerously reckless and eventually shot by his own men. An old sweat appears who works the system for his own benefit. Yet on the whole it is more about the courage of the mixed bag of citizen soldiers, and the price they paid during the invasion. It's odd, but not too many modern authors can create a convincing picture of the 1940s. It almost seems harder to do this than to write about the distant past, probably because that is so distant that we don't know what it was really like. I had heard of this book for years, but this was the first time I saw a copy and I would heartily recommend it.

Another novel ringing with authenticity because the author was there is Geoffrey Powell's Men at Arnhem. I am not sure whether or not this is in print, but I recently came across a copy I bought years and years ago and re-read it with great pleasure. Once again it gives a vivid portrait of that generation and the way the British army worked.

Some novels

A couple of months ago I read Christian Cameron's Marathon, the sequel to Killer of Men set during the Persian Wars. I have written about this author in the past, and all I can really add now is that I think this series is even better than his earlier novels. (As an aside, I have not yet had a chance to read his novel about Alexander, but am very much looking forward to it). There has to be a lot of invention about any story set in the ancient world, but these have the right feel about them. I think he portrays the life in a city state very well, and presents the most convincing picture of Classical Greek warfare and battle in fiction and non fiction alike. Definitely recommended if you like historical novels and have a fondness for the period.

More recently I finished The Prow Beast, the fourth and final book in Robert Low's series of Viking novels which began with The Whale Road. As the author himself says in the note at the end of the latter - 'this is a saga, to be read round a fire against the lurking dark.' That sums them up nicely. These are terrific stories, frequently very violent, but conveying a wonderful sense of a different world. It's a nice change that the bulk of the action is set out on the Steppes, and includes visits to Constantinople - and even Masada in the second story. This is not my period, so I cannot comment on the historical background, but once again it comes across as convincing. If the Viking Age was not really like this, then it really ought to have been!

Waterloo Archive III

One hundred and ninety-seven years ago today, Napoleon attacked the Allied armies in Belgium, beginning the brief campaign that culminated at Waterloo on the 18th June 1815. So all in all, this seems like a good time to talk about the period, especially as I have just finished reading the third volume of Gareth Glover's The Waterloo Archive published by Frontline Books earlier this year. As usual it is packed with wonderful accounts of the Hundred Days, in this case written by British participants. There are lots of little details that sometimes contradict the now well established story of the Waterloo campaign. So for instance, in the very first letter - written by George Scovell famous as the code breaker - there is a dismissive denial of the often repeated tale of the Duke of Wellington leaping over the line formed by the 92nd at Quatre Bras. According to Scovell - 'I was with the Duke, and we were retiring before a charge of the enemy's cavalry, when the Duke cried out, "Make way men, make way!" and a passage was opened for us.' It may be less dramatic, but certainly has the ring of truth about it. In his account of the same battle, Lt. Malcolm of the 42nd says that the 'regiment formed squares of wings.' I had always assumed that the battalion formed a single square when charged by the French lancers and will have to go and look at what the other accounts say, for this is part of the famous incident when lancers are said to have got inside the square which then managed to close around them.

There is a lot of specific military detail of this sort in the volume, but I would also recommend anyone with a wider interest in Regency life to take a look. Included are letters written by The Earl of Uxbridge and his wife Charlotte during the former's recovery after losing his leg at Waterloo. The story of their romance reads like a novel, for Charlotte was originally married to one of Wellington's brothers. Uxbridge - then Lord Paget - had an affair with her and they eloped after his return from Corunna. When he departed for the Walcheren campaign, Charlotte returned to her former husband's care to be delivered of Paget's child. Later the divorce was completed and she and her lover married. These private letters speak of the deep love between the pair. So too do some other sets of correspondence between husbands and wives, most notably the exchange between Sergeant Tennant of the 3/1st Guards and his wife Ann, dealing with such everyday matters as what to name the child she was expecting when he left for Flanders. It is always especially interesting to see more of the lives of soldiers and their families, but perhaps the most striking thing is how modern these seem in their concerns. It can be difficult to rid ourselves of the stereotype of poorly educated soldiers. Even fuller are the frequent letters from Captain Ilbert RA to his wife Anne. Ilbert missed Waterloo itself, but provides a detailed picture of life for the army before and after the battle. He and his wife employed a code in their letters, perhaps to permit great intimacy, but the deep affection is obvious in the main text. Sadly, the captain died early the next year before he and his beloved wife were reunited.

Austen fans might well appreciate the deep concern of Lt. Johnston of the Inniskilling Dragoons not to ' ... familiarize myself with people in this country that I might be ashamed of in my own ... ' while stationed in France after Waterloo. He writes that 'one of my principles since I have been out in the world is to do everything in a gentlemanlike way or else not to do it at all ... nothing but my pride has carried me through many a trial.' A less 'proper' insight into the life of a regency buck comes from the letters of Cornet Kinchant of the Scots Greys, who tells of the 'bawdy houses' in Belgium. 'When you enter one of these houses you are ushered into a room adapted for the purpose and immediately 10 or 12 girls present themselves so that any one that may be a good judge of that species of biped may have an opportunity of selecting a capital goer.' It is understandably rare to find mention of such things in soldiers' published accounts, and even in private letters.

All in all, this is highly recommended for military enthusiasts and those with an interest in the period in general. More details can be found at Gareth Glover's website along with the many other fascinating documents this writer keeps hunting out and publishing. Historians owe him a big debt. His works continue to provide plenty of inspiration for my novels.

Ian Knight's website
Readers who have followed my earlier postings will know of my interest in the 1879 Zulu War. A while back I recommended Ian Knight's Zulu Rising which tells the story of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. It's without doubt the best thing on the subject. I have a stack of Ian's other books as well and have enjoyed them all. I was also fortunate enough to go on a battlefield tour of the sites back in 2008 which he guided. It was a terrific trip - even if the visit to Holbane ended in weather reminiscent of the Brecon Beacons! Ian is a great storyteller whose work has fundamentally changed our understanding of the 1879 war and the whole context of nineteenth century Southern Africa. He now has a website IanKnightZulu.comwhich includes details of the books, talks and tours as well as lots of other good stuff.

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