True Soldier Gentlemen
Madrid, 2nd May 1808 - French soldiers, led by cavalry from Napoleon's Imperial Guard, brutally suppress civilian resistance against the occupation. In the English countryside, the inexperienced officers and men of the 106th Regiment of Foot drill and train for war under their eager young commander, Lieutenant Colonel Moss. Britain has been at war with France, almost since the start of the Revolution, and yet its army has rarely faced the enemy on mainland Europe. The Royal Navy keeps the country safe from invasion, allowing Regency society to thrive in all its gaudy exuberance. For the young officers of the regiment, military routine is happily leavened with dancing and flirtation with the local ladies.
Hamish Williams has neither the money to buy as commission nor the influence to secure one, and so serves in the 106th as a Gentleman Volunteer. A volunteer wears the uniform and does the duties of an ordinary soldier, but lives with the officers, hoping to be promoted if ever battle creates a vacancy and he survives to fill it. Shy, awkward, and ever conscious of his poverty, he finds himself an outsider with the officers and the redcoats of the regiment. A big man, he serves in the Grenadier Company of the regiment, containing its tallest soldiers. In time he is befriended by two lieutenants, the studious Truscott and the easy going Pringle, whose own drinking and womanising threatens to be his ruin. They are joined by William Hanley, bastard child of a wealthy man and his actress mistress. Hanley joins the regiment as a last resort, having failed in his dream of becoming an artist, and fled Madrid in the wake of the French massacre. Left with no other source of income apart from the commission purchased for him long ago, he is a very reluctant soldier.
Most of the other officers tolerate the volunteer. A few loathe him. Some, like the suave Lieutenant George Wickham, realise that Williams has no important connections and so rarely think of him at all. For Wickham, the army is merely a necessary means of social climbing. The elderly commander of the Grenadier Company is one of the few men to have seen battle, and does his best to prepare his men for its chaos. His American wife and their beautiful and mischievous daughter Jane add fresh complications to the social life of the regiment. Williams immediately becomes Jane's hopeless admirer. Almost as big a part in his life is played by Dobson, a tough veteran who takes the volunteer under his wing, and the soldier's own precocious daughter, who is far too ready to make eyes at the officers in her quest for a better life.
Then suddenly everything changes, when the regiment is plucked from its comfortable social round and sent as part of a British expedition to the Iberian Peninsula. Led by Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), the army lands in Portugal, and soon comes face to face with the French. Dreams of easy victory are soon brutally shattered at the hands of an experienced and skilful enemy. Williams, Hanley, Pringle, Wickham and the rest find themselves exposed to the savagery of battle at Roliša and Vimeiro, and caught up in intrigue, romance, and murder.
|© Adrian Goldsworthy 2009|