The joys of historical research (#125 in a continuing series)

I’m writing the next James Burke book. Or rather, I’m trying to write it but instead I am alternately bashing my head against a keyboard, playing an inordinate amount of Spider Solitaire, and writing this.

Burke in Ireland was a rather more downbeat book than most of the James Burke stories. I had set off to write the usual adventure yarn, but I was distracted by the sheer awfulness of British rule in Ireland at the end of the 18th century. The story I told was closely based on an actual historical event and historical facts meant it had to go in a rather gloomy direction. (Plus I thought that reading about Irish history might help people understand how we got to where we are today.)

Anyway, after that I decided I wanted to get back to the more light-hearted Burke (if stories that regularly feature torture and brutal death can really be described as light-hearted, but they sort of are). So the next book in the series is to revisit Baroness Orczy territory with Burke and the Pimpernel Affair seeing our hero freeing some British agents from a French gaol. The idea was something light and frothy with not too much need to get caught up in the historical detail.

Oh how the gods of HistFic must have laughed. It turns out that almost every element of the plot has involved quite a bit of actual history, from the routes used to smuggle British agents into Paris to the organisation of the gendarmerie. One scene, in which Burke is for once helping a woman to dress rather than undressing her, meant a visit to the V&A to see just how the dress would have been fastened. (My subsequent correspondence with the V&A is still on-going at this point.) Probably the nadir was reading the memoirs of Napoleon’s chief of police, Fouché (really not a nice man).

The V&A says buttons but it looks more like hook and eye to me

The thing that is driving me mad, though, is that the book features an escape from the Conciergerie in Paris. At the time of the story (1809) the Conciergerie was used to house political prisoners and spies. (There were some regular prisoners but they seem to have been there just until trial and they were probably housed in a separate area.)

Now the Conciergerie still exists. I’ve often noticed it on the Île de la Cité and now I know what it is I fully intend to visit. Only that’s tricky now because of covid. Plus even when I do visit it won’t help me that much. The Conciergerie has been substantially rebuilt since 1809 and an initial draft put the whole place the wrong way round because nowadays you enter through a completely different side of the building.

Conciergerie today (edited from Google Street View)

I’ve found plans of the ground floor in 1809, but they aren’t that useful because political prisoners were almost certainly kept one floor up. Part of that area has been “preserved” but preserved in a way that has completely destroyed the original architecture to make what is effectively a shrine to (of all people) Marie Antoinette. (And that, in a sudden burst of good taste, seems to be no longer open to the public.)

We do have descriptions of the first floor – or at least of parts of it. So, in an attempt to be realistic, I’ve had to try to reconstruct the plans of somewhere the actual geography of which is almost totally lost. The problem is that ‘almost’. Just enough is known to pretty well guarantee that, whatever I write, someone will explain that the corridor I’ve put from A to B would actually have had to have gone by C. (I’ve even found an old account that explains that pretty well the only specific location I’ve given must be wrong. Rewrites beckon.)

Conciergerie in 1790

So there are the geographical problems. Now we come to the organisation.

The Conciergerie is part gaol, part court-house, part archive, and part administrative office. It’s an old royal palace. If Fouché had an office there (and it’s quite credible that he did) security would have been an issue. It’s the sort of building where there might well be some civilian gaolers but there are also likely to have been military guards. I’ve assumed that with the fighting in the Peninsula and the recent war with Austria, quite a few of these will be veterans who have returned to France injured and who are either being allocated to less demanding duties or awaiting postings back to their regiments. Do I know this? No, but I do have some idea how armies work and it seems a reasonable assumption (and one of the reasons I’m mentioning it now is so that anybody who knows different can correct me). It seems that prisoners who are being held there for interrogation as spies will be under special guard and I’ve assumed the military. Probably not the gendarmerie, who consider themselves above that sort of thing. (Gendarmes were elite troops.) So I have guards watching over a small number of political prisoners/spies. I’ve put on just a couple of guards doing the actual static guarding. I think they will spend most of their time sitting down, looking at an empty corridor with a few cells, and being bored out of their minds. But eventually (and let’s not go into the details because spoilers) there’s a breakout attempt. There will be a fight. It’s the dramatic climax of a James Burke novel: of course there’s a fight. So the question of what the soldiers are armed with becomes pretty crucial. At which point I turn to the wonderful hive-mind that is Napoleonic enthusiasts on Twitter and they say (without having been given all these details): muskets.

At one level, muskets make a lot of sense. But they are heavy and these guys spend most of their time sitting in a guard room. And if you are, for example, entering a cell to kick someone who is making too much noise, a musket not only gets in the way but can rapidly become a liability when the prisoner leaps up and grabs it off you. It’s not as if you are going to have it loaded in any case. If you carry it loaded as you go about your daily business I reckon the chances of an accidental discharge are very high and the chances that it will fire when you want it too are quite low (but again this is an expert’s chance to tell me I’m wrong).

I’m guessing that you might have muskets in the guardroom so that you can present arms and generally look soldierly for officer’s inspection, but that they mostly stay there. I think by 1809 the chances of you having an infantry short sabre are low but that you might well carry a bayonet on your belt and use that at a pinch.

Who knows? Hopefully someone reading this who will put an answer in the comments or (given that this is WordPress and commenting isn’t always as easy as it should be) write to me at tom@tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk.

Anyway, those are some of the things to consider in escaping from the Conciergerie. Let’s not even start on court protocol in the Tuileries (I’m sure Napoleon had it all documented but I think I can assume nobody’s read it lately so that’s something I don’t have to worry too much about), or the state of the road from Paris to Malmaison.

When I wrote my contemporary fantasy Something Wicked, research meant a couple of trips to Brompton Cemetery. (There’s quite a lot about tango in it, but I knew that already.) It was much easier to write than historical fiction and (because fantasy fans are voracious readers) very profitable. No wonder I know several HistFic authors moving into fantasy.

I’m planning to stick with historical fiction for now – and not just James Burke. (If you haven’t read The White Rajah yet, please give it a go.) But I am tempted by Urban Fantasy. Meanwhile, if any of you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of French prisons in 1809, with special reference to the Conciergerie, please do get in touch.

1684: the birth of the telegraph

There’s a sort of game that historians play on Twitter. They keep track of the number of their followers by looking at events in the corresponding year. So yesterday my account (@TomCW99) racked up 1684 followers and I got quite excited because 1684 was the year that Robert Hooke invented the semaphore line.

Semaphores crop up in a couple of my books (or at least in the research I did for them).

I first came across a reference to semaphores when I was researching Napoleon’s escape from Elba. One of the French king’s bodyguards, Col Marie Antoine de Reiset wrote in his journal:

An astounding piece of news arrived yesterday. We learnt, by Telegraph, that Bonaparte had landed at Cannes, near Frejus.

The apparent anachronism is explained by the absence of the word ‘electric’ before ‘telegraph’. A check in the trusty Complete Oxford Dictionary (invaluable for historical novelists) gives the original meaning of the word ‘telegraph’ as: “An apparatus for transmitting messages to a distance, usually by signs of some kind.”

This was the idea that Hooke had presented to the Royal Society in 1684. He had intended it for military use, but his ideas were never put into practice. As so often nowadays, an idea that had been invented in Britain was left for another country to develop. Embarrassingly (given that we were about to go to war with them) the nation that did finally produce a workable semaphore system for military use was the French. In 1792, the engineer Claude Chappe developed the first successful optical telegraph. Eventually he and his brothers succeeded in covering France with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 3,000 miles. 

The British, though, were not far behind.

In Britain, semaphore was used to communicate between London and the fleet. (Note that the English tend to prefer the word ‘semaphore’ to ‘telegraph’ but they are the same thing.) Lines of semaphore towers were constructed. The first ran from London to Deal, Chatham and Sheerness and they were completed by the end of January 1796. The system was judged a great success – signals were said to have travelled from Dover to London, via Deal, in less than seven minutes. A line to Portsmouth, the home of the Navy, was completed in August 1796.

Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower

Semaphore can actually prove a remarkably efficient means of communication. Because of the importance of accurate time-keeping in navigation, it was important that the fleet had access to a reliable time signal and semaphore was used to mark the time at which the Time Ball was dropped at the Greenwich Observatory (marking one o’clock). By 1806, the semaphore line had been extended to Plymouth and the one o’clock signal was sent to the port there and acknowledged back to London in three minutes, an impressive achievement for a round trip of four hundred miles.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, the British were using a system of telegraphs developed by Sir Home Popham to communicate along their defensive forts in the lines of Torres Vedras (which will feature in a future James Burke book). Semaphore masts were installed at key points along the line s. The one shown here is a replica at Fort San Vicente.

The horizontal arms on the mast standing there today are not really long enough. When this was rigged up and working the arm would have stretched out as far as the five posts at the bottom. Ropes would have run from the arm to each of the five posts and balls mounted on these ropes would have carried the message. A model in the museum at the fort shows how it would have been set up.


The shorter arms on the modern reproduction are probably wise. There were problems with the original masts which could not bear the weight of the arms and which had to be replaced.

The system allows the masts to transmit one number at a time from one to 999. Each number corresponded to a word in a codebook enabling vital military messages to be transmitted very quickly. Anybody could see the signals but without the codebook they were meaningless.

Popham (never a man to fail to promote one of his ideas) convinced the Admiralty that his system was an improvement on the one they were using and, after trials with an experimental semaphore line between the Admiralty and Chatham in 1816, and its success helped to confirm the choice, Popham’s system was adopted.

The semaphore system was envisaged as a war-time measure, to be abandoned after the defeat of Napoleon and, indeed, it was run down as soon as he was sent to Elba. Napoleon’s escape, though, led to the system being restored to full effectiveness and it was then kept running until it was superseded by the electric telegraph.

The new-fangled electric telegraph had just started operating in India in 1857, just in time to feature briefly in my book about the Mutiny, Cawnpore. It was telegraph messages that warned the British as soon as the uprising started (the operator who sent the first message was killed for his pains) and without it, events may well have turned out differently and Cawnpore might have had a very different ending.

Acknowledgements

Photo credit: “Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower – geograph.org.uk – 18673” by Nigel Richardson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg#/media/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg

The photograph of the model of the semaphore in use was taken by Roundtheworld and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

A Word from Our Sponsor

If things like the way that semaphore was used in the Napoleonic Wars catch your interest, you might well enjoy my books about the adventures of James Burke. You won’t come across Popham’s telegraph just yet (the latest book features the battle of Talavera and Wellington’s retreat behind the lines of Torres Vedras, complete with semaphore masts, has yet to take place). You will, though, find a lot of other incidental detail about life at the time. All the James Burke books are available on Amazon both as e-books and in paperback. You can read more details about them on this website: click on ‘My books’ at the top of the page.

Cawnpore and the other books set in the age of the electric telegraph are currently unavailable. They will be republished over the summer.

The Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile

Last week was the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile back in 1798. Nowadays we associate Nelson so firmly with Trafalgar that his other victories can be overlooked. Back in the early 19th century, though, the Nile featured prominently on memorials like this one at Greenwich.

Memorial Arch to Nelson at Greenwich Hospital
Detail of cherub on arch

As with many battles, the name isn’t geographically accurate. The battle of the Nile didn’t actually take place at the Nile but at Abū Qīr Bay near Alexandria. Napoleon had invaded Egypt, his troops travelling in an enormous French fleet. After the troops had been successfully landed, his warships remained on the Egyptian coast ready to protect his lines of supply. They moored near the shore in the shelter of the bay.

Conventionally, naval battles were fought broadside to broadside, one ship against another. The French fleet was immensely strong. L’Orient, the French flagship mounted 118 guns. The French anchorage meant that the ships’ broadsides were facing out to sea, allowing an enormous concentration of fire to be brought to bear on any force attacking from the Mediterranean.

The British fleet that discovered the French lying at anchor was, on paper, vastly inferior. However, the British realised that the French had anchored slightly too far out into the open sea, allowing a channel between their line and the shore. The British split their force, some ships sailing between the French and the shore while others sailed between the shore and the open sea. With an onshore wind, the French were unable to manoeuvre away from their anchorage and the British sailed slowly down the line, each French ship being engaged one after the other by at least two British ships firing simultaneously from both sides.

The tactic was overwhelmingly successful. Of the 13 French ships of the line, nine were captured and two destroyed. No British ships were lost.

The most dramatic moment of the battle was the loss of L’Orient which caught fire and exploded when the flames spread to the powder magazine. The Captain’s young son had been ordered by his father to stand at his position until his father told him to move. His father having died, the son is said to have remained on deck and died. His death is commemorated in the poem, Casabianca:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled.

Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm, by Thomas Luny

After the battle, the British had complete naval dominance in the Mediterranean. With his lines of supply cut off, Napoleon’s plans to use Egypt as a jumping off point for further invasions were in disarray. Napoleon fled back to France the following year and the French army lingered on in Egypt until surrendering to the British in 1801.

Burke and the Bedouin

The Battle of the Nile is the climax of Burke and the Bedouin. William Brown is on board, the Orion, one of the British ships, and witnesses L’Orient’s sinking.

“It’s the Orient… The Orient is ablaze… The Orient is sinking.”

An officer appeared. “All hands on deck!”

Confused, William joined the procession of seamen clambering onto the deck. The night was still warm, but after the atmosphere of the gun deck, it was bliss to breathe fresh air.

Out here, the view was dominated by the blaze from the Orient. Sales and rigging were well alight and the spars were dropping onto the deck. Flames could be seen running along the joints between her timbers, where they had been sealed with tar. Here and there, the fire had spread to the timbers themselves. Against the light, the crew could be seen desperately throwing water onto the fire, but many had clearly already given up hope and were shimmying down ropes to escape into the sea.

“Stop gawping! Start dousing the deck.”

Buckets of water appeared, passed hand-to-hand up ship from the bilges or hauled to the deck from the sea below. While most of the men from the gun deck poured the water over the timbers at their feet, the crew who had been manning the sales aloft hauled buckets from the deck and soaked the canvas and ropes.

William could not understand the reason for this frantic activity, but it became all too clear after they had been at work for only a few minutes.

William had his back to the Orient when it happened. The night was lit up with a brilliant flash of light and, while his brain was still trying to comprehend what he had seen, the noise of the explosion rolled across the ship. William felt himself pushed forward by the force of the blast.

“Get down!”

William fell to the deck, along with the rest of the crew.

Debris from the wreck flew across the ship. Pieces of hot metal scoured tracks in Saumarez’s immaculate deck. Pieces of the Orient‘s hull – two yards long and three feet thick – were hurled at the Orion as if they weighed no more than pieces of paper. There was other debris too – things William did not want to look at too closely. Most of the bodies were in pieces too small to be recognised as human, but William saw what was clearly an arm, the fist still clenched, although whatever it had been holding was lost somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Like all the Burke books, Burke and the Bedouin is first and foremost a spy story. But I wanted to describe one of Nelson’s greatest victories for a generation that has no longer grown up with the tale. There are French spies and a beautiful woman and midnight gallops across the desert, but the story ends with the historical reality of the Battle of the Nile and the end of Napoleon’s dreams of conquest in the east.

Header picture

The picture at the top of the page is ‘The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798‘ by Nicholas Pocock.

Sir Home Riggs Popham in fact and fiction

Sir Home Riggs Popham in fact and fiction

As promised last week, I bring you more on Sir Home Riggs Popham, the man who took it upon himself to take an army to South America in 1806 on the grounds that there was a city worth invading and he had some spare men to invade it with. (It’s the incident that Burke in the Land of Silver revolves around.)

Popham’s exploits are so implausible that I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so here is proper historian (and historical novelist) Lynn Bryant to tell you more about the man. Take it away, Lynn. That’s ‘Weigh anchor and cast off’ in Popham’s world.

The mad but glorious world of Home Riggs Popham

During a recent interview on a Napoleonic history blog, I was asked if I had come across any real historical character that I would never write in fiction, because he would be too unbelievable. I didn’t have to stop to think about this one – Sir Home Popham, who features as the antagonist in both books in my Manxman series, was a real person, which is just as well because I would never have had the nerve to make him up.

Popham was a naval officer, a controversial figure during his own time, who is best remembered for the system of naval signalling that he designed in around 1800, which was eventually adopted as the Admiralty standard in 1812. There was a lot more to Popham, however, than a naval officer with a scientific bent. During his forty two years in the navy, he was a prisoner of the French, was accused of being a smuggler, was promoted at the request of the army, gained and then lost the favour of Tsar Paul of Russia, was investigated for fraud, became an MP, and was court martialled for an apparently unauthorised invasion of South America. That is not an exhaustive list of Popham’s activities.

Nelson’s famous message at Trafalgar used Popham’s flag code

So how did a younger son of an unremarkable family come to play such a significant role in political and international spheres in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? I suspect the key to Popham’s success lies in his usefulness. Popham was highly intelligent and a talented organiser, with a genius for logistics and this placed him in an excellent position to find favour not only with the navy, but with the army. During his career, he acquired a reputation for being the man to call on during joint operations and was frequently consulted in the planning of campaigns.

In 1794 Popham was appointed agent for transports at Ostend for the Flanders campaign. It was a job to which he was ideally suited and Popham made the most of it, winning the patronage of the Duke of York, who eventually wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty requesting his promotion to post-captain. 1798 found him in Ostend during the invasion threat, and the following year he was sent to St Petersburg where he successfully persuaded Tsar Paul to provide troops for a proposed landing in the Netherlands. Later that year, Popham was once again in charge of an evacuation during the Helder campaign and while the expedition was unsuccessful, Popham came out of it with his reputation further enhanced. He was elected to Parliament in 1804 and sat for various constituencies until 1812.

The breadth of Popham’s assignments is astonishing and an apparently simple job often turned into something more complex. A straightforward command of a troop ship during the Egyptian campaign led to a commission by a secret committee of the East India Company to negotiate trade treaties with the sheriff of Mecca and other Arabian states as ambassador directly responsible to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Wellesley. In 1804 he was involved in the extraordinary work of Robert Fulton in developing naval mines. And at the end of the year, he sailed as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition to take the Cape of Good Hope with a force under General Sir David Baird.

It should be no surprise by now, to find that with the Cape in British hands, Popham did not stick to his official orders to remain in Table Bay to guard against a possible French attack. Instead, he decided to take his forces to attack the River Plate in South America. There is no evidence that Popham had any authorisation for this invasion, but in 1806, he landed his troops near Buenos Aires. The city fell to English forces under Beresford, but this early success did not last, and in August the Spanish took back the city, imprisoned Beresford’s men and left Popham facing recall and a court martial.

Popham’s 1807 trial ended with an inevitable guilty verdict, but surprisingly he was let off with nothing worse than a reprimand, undoubtedly due to his friends in high places. Further postings followed; Popham was Captain of the Fleet during the Copenhagen campaign in 1807, and performed the same function although without the title, during the Walcheren campaign of 1809 when he was heavily involved in the planning of what turned out to be a disaster for the British forces.

Once again, Popham managed to negotiate the ensuing Parliamentary inquiry without formal censure, and with his reputation officially intact, but there is a sense that Popham was running out of friends. Prime Minister William Pitt died in 1806 and Lord Melville, Popham’s long-time patron, died in 1811. Melville’s son took over at the Admiralty in 1812 and Popham was sent to northern Spain to co-operate with the guerrillas and conduct a naval guerrilla warfare against the French in support of Wellington. He was highly successful at this, keeping an entire French army ‘distracted’, and capturing Santander.

Popham was keen to be sent back to Spain in 1813 to continue his work, but he was not. He was promoted to rear-admiral, but he was not employed on active service again, ending his days in a miserable posting as commander-in-chief in Jamaica, where he suffered from yellow fever, lost two of his children to illness and finally suffered a stroke. He died soon after his return to England in 1820.

So what went wrong for Popham? There is no doubt that along with his many talents, Popham had a genius for making enemies. Lord St Vincent, who was First Lord from 1801 to 1804 openly loathed him, and there are endless letters and memos from Popham describing his sense of persecution. Popham was also unpopular with many of his fellow naval officers. This may have stemmed from his early promotion to post-captain at the behest of the army, and there was a furious protest from several very senior captains in 1807 when Popham was appointed Captain of the Fleet ahead of them.

Popham was a relentless self-publicist. He was undoubtedly good at what he did, but his compulsive need to announce his successes in pamphlets, news reports and endless letters to the government and the Admiralty, seems to have infuriated even his supporters. Lord Wellington was genuinely pleased with Popham’s success in northern Spain in 1812 but was less impressed to find that Popham was sending direct reports to the English press and expressed it with typical Wellington candour in a letter to Lord Bathurst. 

“It might have been as well also if Sir H Popham’s exultation upon the success of his operations in diverting the attention of the enemy from me had not been published. I mention this, because I know that the French act a good deal upon any information from our papers which they deem at all authentic.”

Wellington’s dispatches 12 Sept 1812

By the end of 1812, Popham’s career was in decline. His expertise in planning was offset by his tendency to oversell his schemes, and he was quick to abdicate responsibility when things went wrong, as in Walcheren. His reputation for financial irregularity may or may not have been deserved, but accusations dogged him throughout his career, and there was a sense of “no smoke without fire” which made him appear untrustworthy. Popham was an intelligent and inventive officer who punched above his weight in terms of influence at the heart of government foreign, military and naval policy for many years, but he could be arrogant, self-important and disastrously indiscreet. I suspect by 1813 he had simply run out of influential friends.

There is so much more that I’d like to know about Popham. There is one biography of him, A Damned Cunning Fellow: Eventful Life of Rear Admiral Sir Home Popham, by Hugh Popham, which was published in 1991, and Dr Jacqueline Reiter is currently working on a new study, and has been generous in sharing her insights as I grapple with my fictional version of Popham. Popham appears in both books in the Manxman series and makes a very brief cameo appearance in my new book, An Unmerciful Incursion which will be published on July 31st 2020. Popham is pure gold for a novelist, and I love writing him, so he will definitely return in all his glory in book four of the Manxman series, which is set during his 1812 campaign in northern Spain.

Lynn Bryant

Lynn (with me)

Lynn Bryant was born and raised in London’s East End. She studied History at University and had dreams of being a writer from a young age. Since this was clearly not something a working class girl made good could aspire to, she had a variety of careers including a librarian, NHS administrator, relationship counsellor, manager of an art gallery and running an Irish dance school before she realised that most of these were just as unlikely as being a writer and took the step of publishing her first book.

She now lives in the Isle of Man and is married to a man who understands technology, which saves her a job, and has two grown-up children and a Labrador. History is still a passion, with a particular enthusiasm for the Napoleonic era and the sixteenth century. When not writing she spoils her dog, reads anything that’s put in front of her and makes periodic and unsuccessful attempts to keep a tidy house.

Lynn Bryant is the author of the five books of the Peninsular War Saga, set in Wellington’s army, and the two books of the linked Manxman series, which follows the fortunes of a Manx navy captain.

You can find Lynn on her website at http://www.lynnbryant.co.uk/ or on social media at the following links.

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/LynnBry29527024

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/lynnbryant1803/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/historyfiction1803/?ref=bookmarks

Don’t forget …

Burke in the Land of Silver (featuring Popham) has been republished and is now available as an e-book and in paperback.

Buenos Aires: 1806

Buenos Aires: 1806

The paperback edition of Burke in the Land of Silver officially goes on sale tomorrow (27 June) marking the anniversary of the surrender of Buenos Aires to the British in 1806.

Why did Argentina matter?

The British invasion of Buenos Aires is one of the less well-known incidents during the Napoleonic wars, possibly because it does not reflect particularly well on British military prowess. Spain’s South American possessions were important primarily because of the silver that they produced. Britain was anxious that, with Spain about to join the war on Napoleon’s side, the French should not get their hands on South American bullion. South America was also felt to be a relatively soft target, because of the unrest amongst the population there who were growing increasingly unhappy with Spanish rule.

Enter Sir Home Popham

Enter the extraordinary Commodore Home Popham. Almost forgotten until recently, Popham has suddenly become fashionable with both historians and novelists, and keeps on popping up all over the place. He deserves this newfound interest because Sir Home Riggs Popham was an extraordinary character, who will get a blog post of his own next week.

Sir Home Riggs Popham

Popham had been sent to the Cape of Good Hope carrying 6,000 men to capture the place, but the Cape fell unexpectedly easily, leaving him with a small army and no war to use it in. At this point, he decided that he’d head to Buenos Aires, taking 1,635 men with him (the rest being left to garrison the Cape). Deprived of a change for glory in South Africa, he would find it in South America. They sound pretty much the same, so why not?

Historians still argue about whether this decision was politically sanctioned or not. It was certainly never official, but there’s quite a lot of evidence that the government did encourage him to attack Buenos Aires.

Enter James Burke

Either way, Popham arrived in the River Plate in June 1806, where he sails into the story of Burke in the Land of Silver. The Plate is a difficult river to navigate and according to some accounts Popham was helped by a British agent. If so, it’s quite likely that the real James Burke was involved. Was he really? The joy of writing about a secret agent is that what exactly he did do is a secret. He may genuinely have been there, but we can’t know for sure.

A square rigged ship on the Rio Plate. (It’s a very big river.)

Popham was in charge of the force while it was on the water, but once it landed control was handed over to Colonel William Beresford. The illegitimate son of the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, Beresford had served under Wellington and was held by many (though not Wellington himself) to have a less than perfect grasp of military strategy. He landed his troops at Quilmes, fifteen miles from Buenos Aires. The Spanish did not have enough troops to mount an adequate defence and, as Popham had predicted, Beresford had an easy march, brushing aside the meagre forces sent to oppose him. On the 27 June 1806, Buenos Aires surrendered.

Things end badly

James Burke had arrived in Buenos Aires with instructions to prepare the way for a British invasion. He could congratulate himself on a job well done. But with the military victory easily achieved, Beresford had to move from winning the war to winning the peace. He told the locals he had come to liberate them from Spain, but he proved no better at handling the aftermath of war than some more modern occupying powers. A series of missteps turned the population against the British and the locals rose in revolt. The British were driven out of Buenos Aires, their tails between their legs.

Aftermath

With the Spanish rising against the French, Napoleon never did get his hands on that silver. The Spanish colonists became our allies again. James Burke did return to Argentina where I like to think he contributed to the struggle of the locals to free themselves from Spanish rule. Whether he did or not, the population did rise against Spain and the independence of Argentina was declared on July 9, 1816 by the Congress of Tucumán.

Nobody is quite sure what happened to James Burke after his ventures in South America, but evidence from the Army rolls suggests that he remained in the Army with a pattern of movement between regiments and ranks that suggested continued to work in intelligence until well after the war with France was over.

James Burke in my books

The next book after Burke in the Land of Silver is Burke and the Bedouin, which will be re-issued in July. It is set against the background of Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. This will be followed by a revised edition of Burke at Waterloo.

There are two new books about James Burke planned for later in the year: Burke in the Peninsula tells the story of his involvement in the Peninsular War immediately after the events in Burke in the Land of Silver. Burke in Ireland is the story of his very first foray into intelligence, working in Dublin in the run-up to the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

Picture credit

‘The Glorious Conquest of Buenos Ayres by the British Forces, 27th June 1806’ Coloured woodcut, published by G Thompson, 1806. Copyright National Army Museum and reproduced with permission.

Riflemen

Riflemen

While I’ve been self-isolating (one very mild case of coronavirus in the house, over now) I’ve had the chance to finish Robert Griffith’s Riflemen, a history of the 5th Battalion, 60th (Royal American) Regiment.

The first thing to say about this book, and the most important, is that it is very, very good. Technically it’s not the first history of the battalion, because a couple were produced early in the 19th century, but it’s the first modern history.

I’m not an academic historian, so I’m probably not the right person to say how these things should be done, but this seems a remarkable piece of historical research. Rob has spent a spectacular amount of time with army pay lists and battalion details in the National Archives. This book is the product of a considerable amount of original study. (I know that reviews don’t normally refer to the author by given name, but Rob is a well-known figure on the army historical research scene and calling him anything else just seems odd.)

Rob Griffith presenting at the National Army Museum

The 5/60th was formed in December 1797. Originally made up mainly of German (or vaguely Germanic) soldiers, it introduced many of the practices that distinguished rifle regiments, from tactics to the green uniform at a time when most British troops still wore scarlet. The 5/60th served the British Army until 1818 when it was lost with a reduction of the number of battalions in the 60th. Its impact on light infantry tactics, though, remained for many years.

The 5/60th was formed at a time when the 60th operated mostly in the West Indies – regarded as part of the Americas, hence the American (later Royal American) regiment. It was because the regiment served mainly in America that it was seen as a safe place to man almost exclusively with foreign soldiers, often with their own foreign officers. Despite this, the 5/60 first saw action in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. Later it saw active service in Surinam and garrison duty in Nova Scotia as well as the West Indies. It was the Peninsular War, though, that made the reputation of the 5/60th (though the 95th Rifles is the regiment best remembered nowadays, partly because of the efforts of the fictitious Sharpe). The battalion was awarded 16 battle honours for its campaigns in the peninsula and across the Pyrenees into France. It was still fighting at Toulouse when Napoleon abdicated in 1814.

I have to admit I did not find this an easy read. It has over 400 pages and there are three distinct but interwoven threads throughout. Firstly, it is the story of the men who served. Rob provides an astonishing amount of detail about individual men, from their lives before joining the regiment, through their service with brilliant insights culled from court-martial records, to the time and nature of their deaths. Detailed accounts are sometimes given of the medical treatment they suffered (and I use the word advisedly) before their deaths and these can make uncomfortable reading. I had the pleasure of listening to Rob lecture on the men of the battalion at the National Army Museum. In many ways it was better than reading the book, because anecdotes about real people bring home the reality of the times so well.

The second strand is information that puts the battalion into the wider military context. We get details of the need to build up the army and how this was done, how men were recruited and trained, with a lot of detail on the tactics that were taught. There’s a discussion of the rifle and the way it was loaded and fired. (Lying down with your feet to the enemy and firing from that position is counter-intuitive but apparently could work.) We learn about garrison life in various colonial outposts and how officers lobbied for, or bought, promotion. There is a lot about life on campaign with details of provisioning, medical treatment and arrangements (or the lack of arrangements) for sheltering the troops. If you are interested in the nitty-gritty of life in Wellington’s army – mainly, but not exclusively, the light infantry – this is a must.

The second strand, in particular, comes and goes with whole chapters on various aspects of military life interspersed with a chronological account of the campaigns of the 5/60th, which are inevitably dominated by the Peninsular campaign. It helps, I think, if you already have some idea of Wellington’s war. I imagine most readers will, and when Rob is talking about a battle I know or I place I’ve visited, I found the accounts enlightening. Without that background, though, the incessant marching, counter marching, flanking, advancing and retreating can just become something of a blur. It’s massively better than my ‘O’ level history (where the Peninsular War, for some unfathomable reason, featured heavily) but still not nearly as clear as some fictional accounts. (Lynn Bryant’s Peninsular War saga, for example, gives staggeringly accurate and understandable accounts of many of the battles.) Riflemen does benefit from some nice maps, though occasionally significant details are missed off. Rob also adopts the standard use of differently shaded blocks to separate cavalry and infantry with colour distinguishing the British and French forces. Sadly, the maps are all in black and white, leaving room for considerable confusion and far too many jokes about shades of grey.

I have always been interested in how Wellington moved from the often defensive warfare, largely in the south and west of Spain, to taking the war to the enemy and crossing the Pyrenees and this book gives a good overview of this. I do understand now why so many writers seem to overlook what should be a dramatic end to the story of the campaign. In fact, the move into France seems to have been very scrappy with few clear victories and defeats and even more marching to and fro than in Spain, but now with the added bonus of extreme cold. I honestly struggled with this bit, but I don’t think it’s Rob’s fault. Almost 400 pages in, accounts of the tides on the Adour robbed me of the will to live. I think the soldiers (with rather more excuse) were beginning to flag too. A disproportionate number of the 5/60th died in these last weeks of the war while the French, fighting on their home ground with decent numbers of men, were unable to turn the tide. I think both sides knew the war was over and were by now going through the bloody motions without conviction. The weariness the reader may well feel at this point is probably a fair reflection of the subject matter.

Obviously I found some parts of this book better than others and, for me, it could well have been a bit shorter. But other people will be gripped by exactly the bits I skimmed over while they may find the accounts of courts-martial (all gripping stuff in my view) irrelevant and dull. The fact is that this isn’t really a book to read carefully cover-to-cover (unless you are a very serious military history nerd, in which case your dreams have all just come true). It’s the definitive history of one battalion which had a disproportionate role not only in the war against Napoleon but also in developing the infantry techniques of the British Army. It’s an astonishing work of scholarship and an invaluable reference for anyone with a serious interest in this period. If you have a passion for almost any aspect of the British Army of the time, there will be something in this book for you.

Robert Griffith is to be congratulated on this excellent work.

A word from our sponsor

My interest in the Napoleonic era stems from the research that I’ve done for my books about James Burke. Burke was real person and although most of his adventures are fictional a lot of research goes into making the backgrounds authentic (though nothing like the level of research that Rob Griffith does). Eventually it gets to the point where I spent more time writing stuff like this than I do writing fiction. (I am working on a non-fiction account of the background to Waterloo, if anyone knows a publisher who might want it.) Nobody pays me for writing these blog posts, although I do now accept donations if anybody wants to buy me a coffee. What I would really appreciate, though, is if you bought one of books. They are all available on Kindle and cost £2.99 or less.

Thank you.