The Battle of the Pyramids

It’s till summer, so here’s a short post to allow you the maximum possible time out in the sun.

Today (21 July) is the anniversary of the Battle of the Pyramids, which gave Napoleon control of Egypt. It features in the upcoming Ridley Scott film, Napoleon, and you can see it in the trailer. Here’s a screenshot:

It looks great, doesn’t it?

Sadly, the reality didn’t feature the pyramids nearly so prominently. Napoleon understood PR in an astonishingly modern way. He wanted the French public to celebrate his glorious victory and announcing that he had won a battle at Embabeh wasn’t going to have nearly the impact of his saying he had won the Battle of the Pyramids. Here, in an 1808 painting by  Louis-François, is a more realistic representation.

You can see the pyramids on the horizon, but it’s hardly the way Ridley Scott has presented it.

The battle was fought against the Mameluke army that held Egypt on behalf of the Turks. (That’s a very simplified summary of the situation but more than enough for now and, I suspect, more than you’re going to get from Ridley Scott.) The Mamelukes were regarded as fine soldiers but had never really faced a disciplined European army like the French. The Battle of the Pyramids turned into a rout and ended up little short of a massacre with the Mameluke army trying to escape across the Nile towards Cairo. Here’s a description of the end of the battle from my book, Burke and the Bedouin.

Some managed to escape to the south before the French army swung round far enough to close off that possibility. Most, though, forced to choose between yet another futile charge on the French lines and diving into the river, chose the latter.
Brilliant horsemen as they were, few were able to swim their mounts even to the half-way point, and Burke watched in horror as the cream of the Mameluke Army perished in the Nile. They were joined in their doomed flight by the infantry who had been left in the camp. With the French pouring over the ramparts, they saw their only chance of survival to be flight by water. Although there were boats moored ready, the sheer number of terrified men leaping abort them led several to sink. Fire from the French crippled many others. In the chaos and confusion, boats collided and rammed into the shore, often drowning not only men on board but others who had been desperately trying to swim clear. A few craft eventually pulled out into the stream out of range of French fire but most of the men who took to the water died there.
Through his telescope, Burke saw a reserve force which had been positioned between Cairo and the Nile. They should have offered some final resistance to the victorious invaders. Their commanders, though, had obviously watched the disaster and drawn from it the same conclusion as he had. There was nothing now that could stop the French army. The forces across the river turned and fled away from the city. Now, on both sides of the Nile, dust billowed into the air to the south as the remains of a once mighty army ran for the safety of the desert lands of Upper Egypt.


Burke’s mission to watch out for French plots in Egypt is overtaken by events when Napoleon invades the country. On one side: a French army, 35,000 strong. On the other: James Burke and Bernadita, the Spanish woman he has saved from captivity in Cairo.

From the Battle of the Pyramids to Nelson’s victory on the Nile, James Burke’s adventures in Egypt find him at the eye of a desert storm. Can he frustrate French plans and get Bernadita safely out of country? And are the pigeons he had to carry to Alexandria going to be any help at all?

James Burke’s second adventure is set against the background of one of Napoleon’s less well-known campaigns.

It’s real history – but not the stuff you learned at school.

Who are you and what do you want from me?

Usually these days, I write my Friday blogs on Thursdays or, at very least, have a good idea by then of what I’m going to talk about. This week, though, I’m sitting here in the middle of the morning with very little idea of what I’m going to say.

Part of the reason for this is that I am in the throes of tidying up the latest Burke book, Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras, ahead of sending it out to beta readers. (If you are interested in beta reading the book, do let me know.) The book sees Burke back in the Peninsula. I wrote it because, having visited the Lines of Torres Vedras, I was so fascinated by them that I wanted to base a novel there. It’s likely to do me no harm commercially, because I’ve been looking at sales and it’s clear that books that are most obviously related to Napoleonic campaigns that people know are the ones that they want to read. That’s Burke in the Peninsula and Burke at Waterloo.

The lines of Torres Vedras are interesting in terms of military historical fiction, because any stories set there are unlikely to feature any serious fighting. The lines were such a strong defensive position that, after one initial probing attack, the French hunkered down to wait Wellington out. A mistake, as it turns out, as Wellington had prepared for this and was in a much better position to wait than they were. So what am I writing about? Well, we know that there was a spy ring broken in Portugal in 1810 and spying is Burke’s job, so expect evil plots amidst the fortifications.

Anyway, while I’ve been removing redundant paragraphs and hacking away at cliches, I haven’t been preparing my blog. What I have found time to do was to read Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare. Love him or loathe him, it’s a fascinating book and I would have quite liked to review it, but it seems to rouse such strong feelings that I fear my blog might just turn into a battlefield of Napoleonic proportions. If people would like to see a review, do let me know. Just be aware that I approve comments before they show on my site and, though I have never blocked one so far, I’m very happy to block anybody who posts with some of the more virulent views I’ve seen expressed for and against Harry and Meghan.

I’ve also been giving a bit of thought to a possible third book in the Galbraith and Pole series. The first two seem quite popular, but while I can reasonably expect that fans of James Burke will look at Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras, people who read my historical fiction do not necessarily have any interest in my Urban Fantasy. What about you? Are you reading this because you are interested in historical fiction or because you have read my urban fantasy books? Or maybe you just like reading my more random stuff here.

I mainly post history related stuff on my blog, but occasionally I’ll write something about fantasy. Which would you rather see? Or do you enjoy both?

One of the reasons that it can sometimes be difficult to work out what to write about it is that I do post largely into a void. I get the odd comment and sometimes people take up some of the things I’ve talked about on Twitter (I’m @TomCW99), but mostly I just put stuff out there and hope that somebody enjoys it. WordPress assures me that quite a lot of people read my stuff and they can’t all be bots. Why not let me know who you are and what you want in Comments (below) or get in touch through my ‘Contact’ page? And if you do want to read a book review of Spare, let me know that too.

Back to Torres Vedras for me. Chat next week.

Wellington’s Smallest Victory

Wellington’s Smallest Victory

I’ve long been fascinated by the way in which the British claimed Waterloo as a British, rather than an Allied, victory – particularly as only a minority of the troops under Wellington’s command were actually British. The insistence that the British essentially pulled off victory on their own accounts for the way that the Prussian contribution is regularly dismissed. Nowadays we often read that the Prussians arrived late at the battle and that they had no effect until the very end. Some accounts even suggest that the final advance by the British would have taken place successfully whether or not the Prussians had been there. 

This rewriting of history started on the evening of the battle when Wellington rejected Blucher’s suggestion that it be called the battle of La Belle Alliance (after the inn where Blucher and Wellington met at the end of the day), insisting instead that it be called Waterloo, after the town (not on the battlefield) where Wellington had set up his headquarters the night before the fighting started.

The most blatant rewriting of the Prussian involvement centred on a model of the battlefield created by William Siborne, a young army officer who was commissioned by the government to produce a large scale model as a permanent commemoration of Wellington’s victory. Siborne took his commission seriously, corresponding with hundreds of the officers who were at Waterloo, including Prussian officers and, although many were reluctant to discuss it, the French. As a result he was able to produce a picture of the battlefield representing the situation at 7.00pm, just after the fall of La Haye Sainte. Siborne considered that this was the crisis of the battle.

At this point, Prussian troops were already attacking the French in Plancenoit while others had linked up with Wellington’s left, enabling him to strengthen his centre. Hundreds of detailed models of Prussian soldiers were placed to reflect that. Yet if you look at the model today (it’s on display in the National Army Museum) these soldiers aren’t there. At the crisis of the battle, just before the decisive charge by Wellington’s troops, the French are faced only by the British. The Prussians, as so many people still believe, weren’t there. They arrived too late to have any decisive impact on the battle.

There is Plancenoit in the distance, with a suspicious absence of attacking Prussians

I love that model and I’ve visited it several times. I knew it misrepresented the Prussian position and I understood the politics behind it. But this Christmas I was given a copy of Peter Hofschroer’s wonderful book, Wellington’s Smallest Victory and now I know how the model came to be so inaccurate.

It’s a story of a naïve young man who set out to produce something that was to be both the historical record of a famous victory and a significant work of art in its own right. The project ran out of control, taking over his life, and he became quite obsessive about its accuracy. What he did not realise was that he was taking on the Duke of Wellington himself, who had no intention of allowing Siborne’s model ever to see the light of day with the Prussians in place.

It’s a story of a powerful man using money and position to crush somebody who threatened the image he had created for himself. Wellington, it is fair to say, does not come out of the story well.

Hofschroer’s book is incredibly detailed. Very occasionally it even verges on the boring with its accounts of exactly who corresponded with whom as the government tried to deprive Siborne of money owing to him. The detail is important, though, as Hofschroer is presenting a version of the battle of Waterloo which many people, after 200 years of propaganda, will find difficult to accept. He is also attacking the reputation of Wellington, somebody who was practically a demigod while Siborne was working on this model and who is still seen as one of the Great Britons of the 19th century.

The meticulous descriptions of exactly which troops were where helps the reader visualise exactly what was going on and will probably provide new insights even for those already very familiar with Waterloo. Hofschroer also extends the scope of his book to cover Wellington’s response to Prussian setbacks at Charlesroi and Ligny. Again, his account is detailed and convincing and does not show Wellington in a good light. Given how much time I spend reading accounts of Napoleonic battles, it’s worrying how much I struggle with many of these books, but Wellingtons Smallest Victory reads like a crime thriller. It’s gripping.

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Keeping up to snuff

I like to blog about interesting places I’ve been, especially if they have a historical connection. So Monday’s day out can’t pass without a mention.

My son’s brigade was responsible for providing a squadron to mount the guard at Buckingham Palace and he went along to represent brigade headquarters and to generally admire the performance of the squadron. I was invited to gawp through the railings at Buckingham Palace and then to join him and other guests for lunch at Saint James’s Palace.

Although I have lived in London all my adult life, I have never been to see the changing of the guard. It’s worth a visit, if only for the music. Both the Old Guard (the one being changed) and the New Guard bring their bands with them and, besides the marching to and fro and the occasional shouted order, much of the hour or so of the ceremony is spent listening to music – and very good music as the Army takes its music seriously.

The Old Guard and their band

I did wonder (along with most of the tourists watching the spectacle) why it took so long and why there was so much time was spent with apparently nothing happening except for the captain of the Old Guard and the captain of the New Guard pacing backwards and forwards across the Buckingham Palace forecourt. The reason, I was told over lunch, is that Buckingham Palace and Saint James’s Palace are guarded by the same squadron so people have to come and go from Saint James’s Palace which is a brisk walk halfway down the Mall. (American readers please note: the Mall is a wide road leading up to Buckingham Palace, not a place full of shops.) The pacing backwards and forwards is to give the captains of the guard an estimate of how long it will take for the sentries from St James’s Palace to arrive so the ceremony can run smoothly. Obviously, this way of time keeping predates the wrist watch but never let a technical advance get in the way of ritual. Anyway, the whole thing was terribly impressive and the uniforms most spectacular. The New Guard were Gurkhas, so they could not compete with the Old Guard and its busbies, but their drill was perfect. Gurkhas take their soldiering very seriously and I am confident that His Majesty was in safe hands. Actually, security at Buckingham Palace is handled by the Metropolitan police with the military just there as a backup, though at the Tower (technically an Army headquarters) the police aren’t involved.

94 Squadron Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment (QOGLR) mount guard

Because it was the King’s birthday, we got a bonus on Monday, with the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery trotting past the palace on its way to fire the birthday salute in Green Park.

By a happy chance the changing of the guard ended just as the gun salute was starting, so we had the pleasure of seeing that as well. Watching the immaculately turned out gunners kneeling at attention (yes really) in straight lines while the guns fired one after another, it was strange to imagine that this drill was originally all about the very serious business of getting your gun into battle at speed and getting out again at speed if things went badly. I doubt any of Wellington’s gunners looked nearly as smart as these.

On to St James’s Palace, built by Henry VIII as a hunting lodge when this part of London was forest. It looks quite small from the front but it’s a large complex which includes Clarence House where the King is living. Most of the working royals have apartments there to provide a London base and soldiers on ceremonial duties at Buckingham Palace are based there too.

The Officers’ Mess is rather lovely. You realise it is not as other officers’ messes when you see the sword rack – and when you realise that it’s genuinely needed as otherwise where would officers park the swords they were wearing?

Officers’ messes will all have some sort of silverware or artworks that reflect the history of the regiment but this mess is used by a lot of different regiments so it has some especially lovely things in it. I was particularly excited by Marengo’s hoof. Marengo was Napoleon’s horse. (He was one of several but reportedly his favourite and Napoleon was riding him at Waterloo.) After Waterloo, Marengo was brought to England as spoils of war and when he died (aged 38) one of his hoofs was made into a snuff box.

It’s still in use. Did I take snuff from Marengo’s hoof? Of course I did.

There’s also hair from Marengo’s mane.

There’s a silver statuette of Wellington in pride of place on the table so here, at least, we celebrate the winner of Waterloo rather than (as, notably, at Waterloo itself) the man who lost.

It was the Napoleonic links that most excited me, but there are some other fascinating things there. The most precious, historically, is this portrait of Queen Victoria – unfortunately impossible to photograph without catching a reflection.

It is supposed to be one of only four that do not show her wearing black. Apparently on Albert’s death she had all the paintings she could lay her hands on retouched to show her in mourning. If true this would explain why so many modern representations of the young Victoria look uncannily like this one.

It was an excellent lunch and a special day. I hope you enjoyed sharing at least part of it.

The British Invasion of Buenos Aires, 1806

The British Invasion of Buenos Aires, 1806

On 27 June 1806 Buenos Aires fell to the British. It’s one of the least well-known campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars but the first of the James Burke books, Burke in the Land of Silver, centres on the run-up to this battle (not that there was really a battle) and its aftermath (which was much more exciting).

Why did Argentina matter?

The British invasion of Buenos Aires is often overlooked, 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.

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. Popham was quoted at the time as saying, “It was a bit bumpy,” as his ships nearly grounded on sandbanks. According to some accounts Popham was helped to navigate the unfamiliar river 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.


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.

Burke in the Land of Silver

Burke in the Land of Silver is the first of the stories I’ve written about James Burke. All my stories have a solid basis in historical fact, but this one is the closest to a true story. Burke’s adventures, including his improbable romantic entanglements with royalty, are pretty close to what actually happened. The story grew out of my love for Buenos Aires and I have visited many of the places featured in the book. It’s a rollicking good read, as well as an excellent introduction to a little-known bit of Britain’s military and political history. It’s available on Kindle at £2.99 (buy it quickly: this price won’t hold forever) and in paperback at £7.99.

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.