Friday 17 July 2015

A Lighter Side Of The Peninsular Campaign

It's my pleasure to welcome the wonderful Joana Starnes to the salon today, with a look at the lighter side of the Peninsular campaign.

William Holmes Sullivan: “Capture of the Eagle
William Holmes Sullivan: Capture of the Eagle
In this year of the Waterloo bicentenary, there are so many illuminating posts on various historical sites, detailing the events and describing the countless other military engagements that have led to the ultimate Allied victory against Napoleonic France.

I have taken the liberty to address a lighter side of the gruesome conflict that had gripped Europe for such a length of time. In doing so, I am perhaps reinforcing the stereotype. It is often said of Regency aficionados that they view the era through rose-tinted glasses. That they choose to focus on the glamour, the balls, the manners, the high-society people in elegant apparel – whilst ignoring the dark realities of the time, such as the plight of the dispossessed, the lengthy wars that have crippled the country or the plain fact that even the muslin-clad ladies whose carefree lifestyle they admire were not immune to the tragedies of death in childbirth or the ravaging effects of tuberculosis and all manner of other diseases that threatened to carry them off, before the happy advent of antibiotics.

All this is true. The same is said in some circles of Jane Austen: that she had insulated her work from the trials and tribulations of the outer world, making it all about the frivolous pursuits of courtship and marriage. Yet for my part I agree with those who posit that it was done on purpose. Yes, there were grim realities that had affected her deeply. She was touched by the Terreur, through her cousin Eliza de Feuillide, who lost her husband to the guillotine. She had brothers in a navy at war and would spend a large proportion of her life wondering if she would ever see them again. We all need our forms of escapism from unforgiving reality. So how can we disagree with her when she writes, in the closing chapter of Mansfield Park Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can […]’?

Which is why today I have chosen to share some delightful passages I have found in Sir Arthur Bryant’s ‘Years of Victory’, when I was researching the Peninsular Campaign in the hope of giving some grounding and colour to my novels. I am not altogether sure how many of my readers are actually looking for historical detail, but I must admit I enjoy the research immensely. Somehow, it anchors the narrative into reality – and when by some fortunate circumstance the events I imagine happen to fit chronologically with real occurrences, it feels like the cake has just acquired an extra layer of delicious icing.

To return to Sir Arthur Bryant, his account of events preceding and following the Year of Waterloo makes for a gripping read. There are stark accounts of battles and heavy losses. There are descriptions of atrocities, shockingly on the par with far more recent conflicts. However, there are also heart-warming stories, such as the one of the night of March 19th, 1810, when a greatly superior force of Voltigeurs attempted to surprise a detachment of the 95th Rifles at the bridge of Barba del Puerco. A French general had learned from an informer that the English officers were in the habit of imbibing liberally at nightfall, so the French sought to creep upon them. Yet the outcome was a far cry from what they had expected. The sentry’s alarm had roused the impeccably trained men in a matter of minutes and, before they knew it, the entire regiment was charging down the hill towards them in flapping shirts, but with cartridge boxes at the ready, led by Colonel Beckwith in his dressing-gown, night-cap and slippers.

To me, this paints a wonderful picture. There is the humorous element of course – how can there not be, when we are talking of the commander of the regiment leading his men in nightcap and slippers? – but it is also a story of valour, of rising to the occasion in ways that confounded their opponents.

I was also entertained by the following account, irreverent as it might be. At Villa Viçosa, the officers of the 23rd Light Dragoons – survivors of the charge at Talavera – dressed up one of their confederates as an English bishop in red velvet breeches, white gaiters trimmed with lace, an old dressing-gown and clerical band and collar and, arming him with a long cane stuck into a large ripe lemon, processed behind him bearing their helmets in their hands, while the devout locals cheered in a frenzy.

There were more stories on the par with this, some garnered from Captain Gronow’s ‘Reminiscences and Recollections of Camp, Court and Society 1810 – 1860’.

Gronow told of wild Captain Dan MacKinnon, who had the effrontery to impersonate His Royal Highness the Duke of York with great pomp and circumstance at a grand banquet given in his honour by the mayor of St Andero – until, wearying of the evening’s tedious gravity, he suddenly plunged head-first into a bowl of punch, to the surprise and extreme indignation of his solemn hosts.

He also told of the same narrowly missing a court-martial when he contrived to disguise himself as a nun in Vizeu Convent near Lisbon, on the day when their Commander-in-chief was to visit the sacred place, and regaled Lord Wellington with the shocking spectacle of a nun turning on her head and throwing her heels in the air to reveal not only a wealth of petticoats, but also the boots and breeches of a British officer.

I have neither friends nor family in the armed forces and thus no idea of the ways in which modern-day soldiers seek to blow off steam. Yet, wearing the same rose-tinted glasses, I find that the above-mentioned anecdotes are a reflection of simpler times, when people would be able to take delight in much simpler pleasures; when grown men and women would amuse themselves at Christmas with tricks and games that modern-day children would scoff at. I cannot say I would be prepared to live in those times – I value the access to state-of-the-art healthcare too greatly. Nevertheless, exploring it from the relative tranquillity and unquestionable comfort of the twenty-first century is very rewarding – as is to occasionally ‘party like it’s 1799’.

* * * *

Note: All Peninsular War references are from Sir Arthur Bryant, ‘Years of Victory 1802 – 1812’, Collins, London (1945) pp. 362-6 and 377-95.

Joana Starnes lives in the south of England with her family. She is the author of:

From This Day Forward ~ The Darcys of Pemberley, a Pride and Prejudice Sequel
The Subsequent Proposal ~ A Tale of Pride, Prejudice and Persuasion
The Second Chance ~ A Pride and Prejudice – Sense and Sensibility Variation
The Falmouth Connection, a Pride and Prejudice Variation

She is currently working on ‘The Unthinkable Triangle, a Pride and Prejudice Variation due to be released in September 2015.

You can find Joana Starnes on Facebook at or on

 Written content of this post copyright © Joana Starnes, 2015.


Sarah said...

From my husband and sundry acquaintances, and the reminiscences of Spike Milligan I have to say the impression I have gained is that the British squaddy and his officers are much the same in later periods of history. Pointless practical jokes relieve both the boredom of what Milligan describes as 'military waiting' and help to blow off some of the tension from anxious times or after a frightening period of too much military excitement.

Joana Starnes said...

Great to know that some things don't change, Sarah :)
Greetings from one Spike Milligan fan to another. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

What a lovely post! I love Bryant's books, he is so readable one can imbibe knowledge without effort. I think he was probably one of the first authors I read when researching this period. These people worked hard and played hard, and it's good to laugh sometimes.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for commenting; Bryant is wonderful!