200 years ago this week v. modern life…

I’ve been slacking recently and not covering the bicentenaries as they’ve occurred.  And for that I apologise. 

But though some of that is down to mea culpa–I’ve been battling an advanced case of writers’ block, aka Writers’ Himalayas–another part is just modern technology being, er, modern technology. 

That is to say, when it works, great; when it doesn’t, not so good. 

All last weekend, the broadband connections went in and out of service.  By Tuesday it had opted for a complete demonstration of moody teenager passive resistance “Don’t want to.”  And it didn’t.  Quite successfully for nearly 24 hours. 

So, what bicentenaries have occurred in the past week? 

Well, chiefly, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, which officially commenced on 24 June 1812.

(And yes, it turned out to be one of the dumbest, most hen-witted, most inconceivable self-inflicted human disasters in the history of mankind.  He was good at setting new standards though, was Napoleon.)

So what happened, you ask? 

Well, it’s like this. 

Napoleon got the brilliant idea that he wanted to be big cheese of all of Europe.  And one of the methods by which he planned to achieve this big cheesiness was total French domination of trade on the Continent.  (Which is a simplistic view of the Continental Blockade, I know.) 

But he reckoned it was a good idea.

Sadly, the rest of the Continent didn’t find it so much fun to be without the means to trade their goods with nations such as Britain, and this brought about a great deal of unemployment, poverty, destitution, did I mention poverty, destruction of industry, food shortages, etc.  

Anyway, by 1811, Russia had decided the Continental Blockade just wasn’t, er, in their best interests economically speaking…so they’d re-opened their ports to British shipping and trade.  And this, as you will imagine, made the little Corsican despot hopping mad.  So he set about planning the demise of Russia.

(Stop laughing.  This boy thought big.)

Meanwhile, it transpires that Lord Wellington, the British Commander in Chief of the operations in the Peninsula against French troops, wasn’t the only one who’d been studying Napoleon’s “form”.  A number of Russian generals and advisors to the Tsar had as well.  And what they reckoned was that he would eventually not be able to stand the idea of anyone disobeying his will (by opening up trade with Britain once more) and would invade.  But, as I say, they’d been looking hard at how he’d won all those impressive victories at Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram…and they’d seen that what he liked best was to mass his huge army against his enemy and fight a battle of total annihilation.  And when he was directing that process, there was none better. 

But what would happen if Napoleon and his men were deprived of that “big” battle?  What would happen if they had to be on the march for months on end without ever gaining a decisive victory?  He knew (and they knew) that politically he couldn’t afford to be away from Paris for more than a year.  How would he cope with an elusive enemy who wouldn’t stand and give battle?

And this, the advisors and tacticians reckoned, was the way to destroy him.  (And they did want to destroy him.  Never doubt that.  He was hated throughout Europe and many Prussians and Russians and Italians openly referred to him as the anti-Christ.)

So, throughout the year of 1811 and during the first months of 1812, Napoleon built the greatest army Europe had ever seen.  The Grande Armee.  Numbering on paper some 590,687 troops, over 157,878 horses, he had among other things special extra-sturdy carts for transporting guns and goods all those extra miles into Russia.  And during the early months of 1812, he had all these troops massed all along the Russian border–in Prussia and Poland and Silesia.  Not only that, but the actual number of French and allied troops in the theatre of operations was more like 678,000.

(The Russian diplomat/spies working in Paris–Count Karl von Nesselrode and Prince Aleksandr Chernyshev–kept the Tsar fully informed.) 

(If you’ll remember that in 1800, the population of London stood at 1 million–that may give you some sense of scale.  His army was larger than half the population of Europe’s largest city.) 

By June, Napoleon and his troops had taken over Poland.  Thrown out the previous government and set it up along lines which suited himself and his requirements–not the wishes of the disappointed Poles who’d been hoodwinked into believing that he meant to free them and bring them liberty, fraternity and all that good stuff.  He wasn’t about that–he just wanted their able-bodied men in his army, most particularly their Polish lancers.  (French occupation of Poland in 1812 is one of the country’s darkest hours.) 

And then, with a certain degree of sabre-rattling–allegedly he was hoping that the Tsar wouldn’t tolerate the invasion of his sacred country, but would see this huge army massed on its borders and come out and beg for peace–he got ready to cross the River Niemen into Russia proper. 

On the night of the 23rd June, he worked up the rousing speech which would be read out to his soldiers on the following day, and had the presses of his propaganda unit all ready to print and distribute the thing.  And this is what he wrote:

Soldiers!  The Second Polish War has begun.  The first ended at Friedland and Tilsit: at Tilsit Russia swore an eternal alliance with France and war on England.  She is now violating her promises.  She refuses to give an explanation of her strange behaviour unless the French eagles retire beyond the Rhine, thereby leaving our allies at her mercy.  Russia is tempting fate!  And she will meet her destiny.  Does she think we have become degenerate?  Are we not longer the soldiers of Austerlitz?  She has forced us into a choice between dishonour and war.  There can be no question as to which we choose, so let us advance!  Let us cross the Niemen!  Let us take the war onto her territory.  The Second Polish War will be glorious for French arms, as was the first; but the peace will conclude will be a lasting one, and will put an end to that arrogant influence which Russia has been exerting on the affairs of Europe over the past fifty years.

Russian sources suggest that a truer number of forces crossing the Niemen on the 24th June would be 450,000.  Plus, probably some 50,000 civilians who followed in the wake of the army.  Not least because although Napoleon had intended that there should be ample provisions for his men in Prussia and Poland before they crossed into Russian territory–the reality was somewhat different.

A bad winter and a late spring thaw had meant that the poor farmlands of Prussia and Poland were sown even later than usual, thus the harvest, upon which Napoleon expected his soldiers to live, hadn’t happened. 

The grain was still green.  The horses ate it and got colic.  The men ate it and died of dysentery.  And it’s probable that between a third and a half of French forces died before the crossing of the Niemen. 

Still across the River Niemen they would go.  At ten o’clock on the evening of the 24th, three companies of the 13th Light Infantry crossed the Niemen silently in boats.  Shortly thereafter three pontoon bridges were put in place by General Jean-Baptiste Eble and his men. 

The invasion had begun. 

A year later, there would be less than 30,000 survivors.  (Some put the number as low as 7,000.)  

Of the 32,700 Bavarians who crossed with Napoleon, by 1 January 1813, only 4000 were still alive–that’s 12% of the total.  Of the 52,000 troops belonging to the Army of Italy which crossed into Russia in June, only 2844 men reassembled in January–just over 5%. 

As I said, one of the greatest self-induced human disasters of all time.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.


200 years ago today ~ War and a new Government…

I shall be brief. 

You may recall that on 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. 

Now today this might have triggered a new Parliamentary election or an election of a new leader of whichever party held power, or even the accession of a Deputy Prime Minister to the post of Prime Minister. 

However, 200 years ago, the post of Prime Minister was in the gift of the Prince Regent.  And the chappie who accepted that gift-post needed then to fill the other various Cabinet positions from among his political allies, friends and even relations.

With Perceval’s death, many had expected the Prince Regent to turn to his former drinking cronies, the Whigs–those to whom he’d always promised power when he wasn’t in a position to give it–to find and form a Government from amongst their ranks. 

But that’s precisely what the Prince Regent didn’t do.

Instead, he turned first to Sir Richard Wellesley, Lord Wellington’s elder brother and another former drinking partner.   

Still, there was a problem. 

Too many of the current Cabinet Ministers and others in the Tory party distrusted Wellesley.  Also, he’d had published a critique of Perceval’s premiership after Perceval’s death, in the Times.  You couldn’t top this for being dishonourable. 

So, Wellesley needed to elicit the support of some of the front bench of the Whig benches.  However, the two biggest shots, and obvious choices, were Lords Grey and Greville and neither of them would join a Cabinet that did not promise to push through Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. 

And the problem with that was?  The Prince Regent was wholly against the idea and would have none of it. 

Hence, Wellesley had to eventually tell HRH that he couldn’t do the job, he couldn’t form a Government.  Full stop.

Then, on 21 May, a chap by the name of Wortley called for a vote of ‘confidence’ in the Government, claiming that “…the administration which was now upon the eve of being formed was inadequate to meet the exigencies of the times…” and “that the present government was not very strong, even with the aid of Mr. Perceval’s great talents…and that they were certainly worse than weak without them.”

Nice, eh?  We’ve got a little governmental crisis here, we’re in the midst of a world war, so what shall we do?  Oh, I think add the toppling of the Government to it, don’t you?  Great idea! 

The Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, speaking in the House of Commons, addressed the motion thusly:  “At no period of our history was it more necessary that a Government should be formed of the united talent and honour of the nation…” 

He announced his readiness to resign from his position as Foreign Secretary.  Then he added, “But for the moment, but for the moment, the whole attention of the administration should be bent to the great difficulties in which the country is placed, and, above all, to conducting the war on the Peninsula on the largest possible scale.”

The Government lost the vote by four votes. 

The Prince Regent now did as was expected of him.  He turned to the Whig peer, Lord Moira. 

And Lord Moira had the cunning plan to form a coalition government by bringing in George Canning (Lord Castlereagh’s rival and enemy–they’d even fought a duel over Canning’s backstabbing ways–which ended with a bullet in Canning’s thigh…Whoops.) and his chums. 

But that didn’t work out so well either.  There were a number of people who didn’t quite trust Canning after the behaviour which had led to the duel.  He wasn’t, as it were, considered a gentleman

So…there we are…sitting in Brook’s Club on 8 June, with the Whig MP, Thomas Creevey , who was writing to his wife and telling her quite jubilantly that Lord Moira had been made Prime Minister that day.  When what should happen, but Castlereagh walked past him and stopped to have a brief word. 

Whereupon Creevey finished his letter this way:  “Well this is beyond anything, Castlereagh has just told us that Moira resigned the commission this morning, and that His Royal Highness had appointed Lord Liverpool Prime Minister.  Was there ever anything equal to this?”

The new administration was in place by 200 years ago today:  Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister; Lord Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office and became Leader of the House of Commons as well; Lord Sidmouth took over the Home Office…

The first order of business that the new administration undertook on 16 June was to repeal the Orders in Council–those Orders which had brought the 50-year old United States to the point of declaring war with Great Britain. 

But their action came too late.

For on the very same day, the United States Congress–led by the War Hawks and President James Madison, who were eager to take full advantage of Britain’s large-scale military commitments in the Peninsula against Napoleon’s troops there to launch their own land grab of Canada, and fully expecting their favourite ally, Napoleon to conquer Russia–declared war on Great Britain. 

There were those who expected that with the repeal of the Orders in Council, the alleged cassus belli, the Americans back down by saying, “Righto, that’s us sorted,” and war would be averted. 

But that sanguine hope was not to be fulfilled. 

And there you have it.  A busy day all round, wasn’t it?

Speaking of the weather…

Talk about the weather?  It’s one of those things novelists are told never to do.  Not ever.  It’s boring, the writing teachers and the literary cognoscenti tell us.

But here in Britain, we talk about the weather constantly. 

This week, we’re talking about the incessant rain which has been chucking it down, tigers and elephants-style, for the past ten plus days.  We’re talking about how it’s driving us mad. 

We’re talking about how it took more than 24 hours to dry out the clothes we wore for riding last week–our waterproofs, that is.  We’re talking about the fact that yesterday the cottage of some friends was flooded.  And with more rain forecast, it’s likely they’ll be flooded again.

We’re talking about how fast and how high the river is that runs alongside our house…

And we’re all cynically laughing at the Met Office and the government who only weeks ago were telling us we were in the midst of a terrible drought and that we’d need a hosepipe ban all summer long if we were to avoid serious water shortages.  Ya, right. 

As I say, it’s constant.

We’re not the only society to be weather-obsessed either.  I’m told the Scandinavian languages have dozens of words to describe snow, but very few words for things like bikini and scalding sand. 

So, when one goes to write historical fiction, how does one tackle this?  Because when you look back through history, particularly at any pre-industrial society, you’re looking at a group of people who were even more weather obsessed than we are today. 

Because for them, it wasn’t just a matter of what shoes shall I wear tomorrow, and transportation wasn’t a matter of a dash from the warm insides of a well-insulated house to a warm car to the warm office. 

No.  It was about walking or riding on roads that were eight inches deep in mud; it was about the kinds of shoes the horses needed to be shod with; it was about catching cold and becoming seriously ill; it was about one’s only set of clothes never quite drying out and the rain coming through the thatched roofs; it was about the ground being thawed for seedtime and the harvest being spoiled by rain.

The moods of the weather frequently determined the difference between destitution or survival.  Quite literally.  

For the governments 200 years ago, the harvest (bad or good) might mean the difference between bread riots or domestic tranquillity.   Bread riots might mean the militia had to be called out.  Bread riots might lead to martial law. 

The weather, in a lot of ways, might even be considered a prime player, the one constant character in all their lives.  Because in many ways, it was.  It determined the fate of vast military invasions, retreats, and battles. 

Europe and Britain were in the grip of a mini-Ice Age during the second half of the 18th century and into the next several years of the 19th century.  The winters were exceptionally cold and very snowy with blizzards becoming commonplace.  (I know it’s hard to believe!) 

On 15 December 1796, a fleet of 43 ships had sailed from the port of Brest in France bound for Ireland, carrying an invasion force of 14,450 troops and a further 41,644 men.  Following them was a further 17,000 men sent by the French Directory to aid in an Irish insurrection and a French take-over of the country. 

And yet, because of the weather, this new French Armada made no more headway than had the Spanish Armada of 1588. 

During the journey much of the fleet was blown off-course by the strong winds and gales.  And even as the Republican ex-pat Irishman Theodore (Wolf) Tone was composing his address to rouse his countrymen to insurrection on the 22nd December, gale force winds and a blizzard swept across the west of Ireland. 

By the 24th, only 6,500 of the original invasion force could be accounted for.  And the leader of the expedition, General Hoche–believed to have been blown off course into the Atlantic–was lost. 

But by Christmas Day, the weather had improved and those French Republican troops in Bantry Bay were enheartened.  The fleet was not 500 metres from shore.  And the Irish defences, let’s be honest, were paltry–perhaps a total of 1400 troops altogether?  A cake-walk, surely. 

But by Boxing Day morning, the storm had returned–a severe gale battered the fleet, the fog was so thick one could barely see the length of a ship, and freak waves were breaking on the decks, smashing windows, flooding cabins.  And when the intelligence suggested that the storms had grown so violent that they could not be expected to ride it out,  they raised anchor and were blown “so far to leeward as to look like specks on the water.” 

By the 6th January, only two ships remained in the Bay, and by the next morning, they too were gone–fled back to France. 

Extra-ordinary, isn’t it? 

The weather continued extreme over the next decade and the years 1808-1813 saw harvests ruined by cold summers, lack of sunshine and perpetual rain.  So much so that the British government had to buy grain from the fledgling United States to feed the British army operating in Spain during those years. 

And the year of 1812 was even worse than previous years.  A very cold winter lingered on for weeks past the normal thaw.  The incessant rain had made Britain’s clay soil so thick and heavy as to be unploughable.  When the farmers finally did get the fields sown it was three weeks later than usual.   The summer was cold and dull.  And harvest was a rushed affair–with farmers struggling to get in their crops before the autumn frosts. 

But if it was bad in Britain, it was worse in Europe, 200 years ago.  For that was the summer that Napoleon invaded Russia–with his 550,000 troops.  And here’s the thing–French troops didn’t have long supply trains back to depots.  No, they lived off the land where they were stationed. 

Napoleon had laid his plans for invasion based on the grain and crops being ripe and ready for harvest as his troops marched through Prussia, Poland, Silesia, Lithuania and Russia.  But the harvest–as in England–was three weeks late. 

There was no ripened grain.  Not for the troops.  Not for their horses.  And a drought had reduced the streams and rivers to mere trickles…Half his troops and horses were dead before they ever crossed into Russia proper.  That’s what the weather did. 

And it was the weather too that finished them off on the retreat from Russia–for the winter arrived early–on 6 November…Estimates of the number of men who survived range from 7000 to 30,000.  Out of a total of 550,000.  And over 175,000 horses were lost too.

The winter of 1813-14 was so cold in Britain that the Thames froze solid for a month and a Great Frost Fair was held on the ice, with stalls and kitchens and even a main road… 

The weather in the winter and early spring of 1814 was foul too.  Incessant rain in France, followed by sharp frosts which iced over the fields and froze the deeply rutted roads solid, made Napoleon’s preferred rapid marches impossible for his troops as he strove to fend off the multiple invading armies.  The years of bad harvests meant that there was little to feed his troops either–and they deserted in large numbers. 

Even at Waterloo in 1815, the weather played a part.  The night before the battle, the rain pitched down upon the thousands of soldiers–some danced (yes, they literally did) instead of sleeping just to keep warm.  Cavalry officers slept standing in between their horses, partially covered by horse blankets, keeping warm with their animals and keeping the animals calm amidst the thunder and lightning.

The rain caused the red dye of the British infantry’s redcoats bleed into their white belts…And in the morning, the fields were seas of churned mud almost too slippery for the most measured cavalry charge.  (Somewhat like at Agincourt in 1415.) 

You see?  The weather changes everything.  It changes outcomes; it changes our outlooks, it brightens; it dampens; it can drown us.  Weather was their friend, their foe, their constant companion and an endless source of conversation.  

Until the 19th century, Britain was an agrarian society and a maritime society.  They listened to the wind, they listened to the steady beat of the rain on their tile roofs and worried how high would be the river at the ford, they knew the ragtime slap of water on leaves. 

And I do believe that when we leave the weather out of books about Britain, we’re leaving out–maybe not her soul–but we’re omitting a most vital and formative element of her character…

As I drove into Salisbury last evening, the cloud was so low and the rain so fierce that the splendid spire of the Cathedral (as painted by Constable) was no more than a spike of darker grey amidst the silver fog…

That’s what the weather can do.  Wonderful, isn’t it?

(And for the record, it’s now not been raining for six whole hours.  Huzzah…)

200 years ago today ~ the Trial of John Bellingham

Imagine what would have happened if Winston Churchill had been assassinated in May 1944. 

Instantly all sorts of frightening scenarios flood the mind, don’t they? 

Would Britain have won the war?  Was it a Nazi plot?  Who or what was the next target?  How would security have been expanded?  Could it have been expanded?  Would Hitler have used the event and the terror it caused to launch an even more appalling strike?  An invasion, perhaps?  Who would have taken up the job of Prime Minister?  Who was left?   

The possibilities are endless.  And, as I say, frightening.

Well, exactly 200 years ago today, this is exactly the situation in which Britain found herself.  The assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 changed everything! 

Not only that, but Perceval was Chancellor of the Exchequer too.  So you might say that the assassin, John Bellingham, had taken out heart of government with a single shot. 

And, as in my imagined scenario of 1944, all of Europe was at war and had been for a long, long time. 

Times were turbulent, both domestically and abroad.  There was hardly a country in Europe whose government or hereditary ruler hadn’t been deposed by Napoleon, mafia-style, and one of his feckless siblings put on the throne.  Whole countries had been absorbed by others and turned into French satellites.  Across the Atlantic, the Americans had been gearing up for a war in which they could land-grab Canada.  At home, there were the Luddite disturbances in the north, the harvests had been bad for several years running, and the King was mad.  And they were fighting a war against a military genius with an empire which ranged from Spain to Russia…

Insecurity was normal.  

The most immediate effects of the assassination were felt, as was to be expected, here at home.  Hence, during the evening of the 11th, the Cabinet met for hours, hammering out a series of security measures which they trusted would keep the peace and prevent panic from overtaking the realm: 

Sharpshooters were installed atop government buildings.  The Household Guard–those troops responsible for guarding the King and Queen at Windsor and the Prince Regent in London–their numbers were trebled.  The mails were stopped until further notice.  The militia was called out in mass to patrol the streets of London.  The Thames River Police were given orders to search vessels for possible conspirators. 

Nevertheless, fear, panic, terror and distress gripped the nation as the news filtered out from the capital.  It was no non-event, such as history books might suggest.  No, it had more in common with the terrorist attacks of 7/7.

Not only that, but the British were right to suspect the hand of France in it.  Because, let’s face it, by 1812, the French Emperor was good at coups. 

So, at 5.25 p.m. on 11 May 1812, when Bellingham fired that fatal shot at point-blank range, the MPs tore about the place, shouting it was a conspiracy, and searching for accomplices.  There was precedent!

Yet, though it took many people time to accept this, there were no co-conspirators.  Indeed, though the British didn’t know it, Napoleon had left Paris for Dresden on the 9th May, on his way to joining his half a million troops massed in Prussia and Poland, ready for the invasion of Russia. 

Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, was one of those who doubted that Bellingham’s action had been part of a conspiracy or coup.  Even as he assuredly kept his intelligence agents busy looking for enemy agents and the “Black Chamber” of the Post Office was opening every foreign letter…

Which might have been some comfort.  But not much. 

So what next? 

On the 12th, Parliament voted a handsome annuity to Perceval’s wife and 12 children in recognition of his service to the country.  Lord Castlereagh tried to speak to the motion, tried to articulate his affection for his friend and colleague, but broke down sobbing and had to be escorted back to his seat. 

London itself appeared to be under martial law–what with the number of militia on every street.

And, there were ramifications.  Very serious ones.  First off, they needed to find a new Prime Minister.  But what would happen to the war effort?  Would another Prime Minister continue the fight against Napoleon, would he support Wellington’s efforts in the Peninsula, would he secure the troops Wellington needed, and the supplies?

Meanwhile, what of the assassin, the man who had unleashed this latest bout of insecurity upon the nation? 

Since the early hours of the 12th, Bellingham had been incarcerated at Newgate prison, in a cell adjoining the chapel. 

All day the 12th and the 13th, as Castlereagh was speaking and weeping, and as Perceval was being laid to rest, Bellingham was visited by the sheriffs and other public functionaries.  He remained cheerful and was quite clear in all his conversation that when he came to trial, it would “be seen how far he was justified.”  And he repeated that he considered the whole a private matter between himself and the Government which had given him carte blanche to do his worst…

Four days after the death of the Prime Minister, on the 15th May 1812, Bellingham was brought to trial at the Old Bailey. 

At 10.00, the judges took their seats on either side of the Lord Mayor.  The recorder, the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis Wellesley and nearly all the aldermen of the City of London crowded onto the bench.  The court was packed with MPs, jostling among the throng.

At length, Bellingham, wearing a light brown surtout coat and a striped yellow waistcoat, appeared–his hair was unpowdered, the press noted.  He appeared undismayed by the whole.  He bowed to the Court respectfully and even gracefully, some said.

The Attorney General opened the case for the prosecution and several witnesses were called.  Several more witnesses were called in defence to testify that they considered Bellingham insane.  Eventually, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield gave the summing up, and the jury retired to consider the verdict.  

Fourteen minutes later, a guilty verdict was returned.  The death sentence was passed and Bellingham was ordered for execution on the following Monday–the 18th. 

From the moment of his condemnation, Bellingham (as was custom) was fed on bread and water.  Any means of suicide were removed from his cell and he was not allowed to shave–which bothered him.  On Sunday, he was visited by a number of religious gentlemen to whom he resolutely maintained his innocence. 

But what of the rest of the world?  What of the war? 

With the sudden vacancy at the top, those men who’d longed for power began shifting about, seeing this as their opportunity.   The Opposition party, the Whigs, thought that their moment had arrived and hourly expected messengers to invite them to a meeting with the Prince Regent, during which they would happily accept his offer to form a government–which for the war effort would have been nothing short of disaster. 

Meanwhile, Richard Wellesley (brother to the Duke of Wellington) had intended to launch a savage attack on Perceval and his conduct of the war prior to the 11th.  But when he’d sat in the House of Lords, with his notes before him, he’d gone blank and hadn’t made the speech.  Yet, within a day of Perceval’s death, those notes had been found and their gist printed in The Times

The nation was appalled by such bad taste and as one turned against Wellesley. 

Still, strangely, the Prince Regent did send for him (Wellesley was an old friend and gaming companion), though not to offer him the Premiership.  No, it was only to assess how many friends Wellesley could find who would be willing to serve in alongside him in a Cabinet. 

That list turned out to be woefully short. 

Just one man–George Canning–said yes.  (And George Canning was known not to be a gentleman.  Indeed, there were just as many men who wouldn’t serve alongside Canning…)  Too many were offended by his complaints that Perceval had not been willing to spend enough in support of the war and Lord Wellington’s troops, while at the same time trying to negotiate with Whigs who criticised Perceval for spending too much and who had declared themselves against the was effort in Spain and Portugal. 

Next, the Prince Regent would turn to Lord Moira, a Whig, to see if he could form a government…which would have been a very different sort of government and would most assuredly have seen Britain suing for peace with the Americans and with Napoleon–thus ending Wellington’s career.  (Would Napoleon have been defeated without him?) 

The Whigs were jubilant and loud in their triumph.  The officers and under-secretaries at the Admiralty and at Horse Guards were appalled.

But again, Moira turned to George Canning and his followers for support, so this went nowhere.  Even as the country seethed with instability and uncertainty. 

Eventually, another of William Pitt’s disciples (as Castlereagh and Perceval were), Lord Liverpool, was appointed Prime Minister by the Prince Regent.   He kept much of the existing Cabinet appointments intact–Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office, but added Leader of the House to his list of duties.  And the war against the French was pursued even more vigorously to the total defeat of the French Empire and the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

But, 200 years ago today, they didn’t know all that…and on 15th May, they couldn’t even begin to imagine it.

Sing, O Muse, of the Sabre’s Rage…

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several queries about various types of swords and duelling–which seems somehow to have been a natural development from conversations about horses.  Not clear how that works.  But anyway…

Then too, previous guest blogs by Master Swordsman, Terry Kroenung, have sparked a great deal of interest…and, as it happens, further questions.  

So it seemed the obvious solution to me (he took some persuading) to have him back for another go–that is to say, to have Mr. Kroenung empty his encyclopaedic brain out onto the page again–this time on the subject of sabres, cavalry charges, sabre wounds and all that other equally fascinating and invaluable information.

So, without further ado, here he is:   

“Any hussar not dead by thirty is a blackguard.
– General Antoine de Lassale (who inconveniently lived to age 34)

Sabres are cool.

“Which is not to say that they are practical, easy to handle, or should be one’s first choice when the Huns gallop over the horizon.  But they are admittedly cool.  Sexy, even.

“Much of this comes from their association with dashing Napoleonic hussars in furred busbies and ornately-braided dolmans, thundering at the charge to slash the hated foe.  Much like:

“Admit it.  You swooned a little at the sight of that, didn’t you?

“Sabres and their antecedents have been around forever.  Even the mediaeval period claimed a version.  One of the last statements of Shakespeare’s King Lear is “I have seen the day when with my good biting falchion I would have made them skip.”  Heavy cleaving weapons just feel right in a fellow’s hand.  (Lady readers are invited to apply whatever Freudian analysis they wish to this.)

“The word sabre comes from a Turkic verb meaning to hit or strike, which led to the Hungarian term szablya (to cut). Christian encounters with the advancing Ottomans naturally led to development of weapons similar to theirs.  For our purposes, since we are guests on the estimable Bennetts’s blog, we desire to concentrate on the Napoleonic cavalry version, which owes much to Bonaparte’s foray into Egypt.  There the sword of the Mameluke cavalry made such an impression that the impertinent [upstart Mushroom] Corsican sported one himself.

“Properly-speaking, a sabre is a type of backsword.  That means that it is a one-handed weapon with a single cutting edge and a roughly triangular cross-section.  The back of the blade, the side with no edge, is thick and flat, lending strength.  Pirate cutlasses and Highland broadswords are also considered backswords.  In fact the Gaelic name for the latter, claidheamh cuil, literally means ‘backsword.’  They are meant to cut large chunks of anatomy from one’s opponent, though the point is still serviceable.

“In the interest of convenience we shall focus on the most famous example of our period, the British Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre, employed by hussar regiments.  Hussars, indeed all light cavalry, performed scouting and screening functions.  Direct combat with the enemy was the job of heavy cavalry.  But war being what it is, messy and inconvenient, the overdressed gentlemen of the hussars had more than satisfactory opportunity to hack at their impertinent opposite numbers.

“The P1796 weighed 2 pounds and its curved blade measured 33 inches from hilt to tip.  That curve was pronounced, some 3 inches from center (more on the reasons for this later).  Its designers, John Gaspard Le Marchant of the British cavalry and Birmingham sword cutler Henry Osborne, desired a light and manoeuverable weapon which would be simple of manufacture and efficient in the cut.  The result met all expectations.  Indeed, this weapon is considered one of the finest mass-produced edged weapons in history.  So splendid was it, in fact, that the German military used it for 100 years.

“As disturbing evidence of this blade’s effectiveness, I offer this excerpt from George Farmer’s memoir of the Peninsular War (1811).  He is recounting trooper Wilson’s last act on earth (his French opponent has already skewered him), which was to:

let fall upon the Frenchman’s head such a blow, that brass and skull parted before it, and the man’s head was cloven asunder to the chin.  It was the most tremendous blow I ever beheld struck; and both he who gave, and his opponent who received it, dropped dead together.  The brass helmet was afterwards examined by order of a French officer, who, as well as myself, was astonished at the exploit; and the cut was found to be as clean as if the sword had gone through a turnip.

“I now pause to allow you to savour that image…

“There are unconfirmed reports that the French actually complained to the British that their cavalry sabre’s cuts were too brutal even for Napoleonic warfare.  After absorbing the above account, comment is superfluous.

“One of the reasons for the sword’s terrific slashing ability was that the tip actually swelled, rather than tapering to a point (visible in the photo above).  Unusually, the end of the blade is actually wider than its base.  This gave added weight and impetus to the blow, but at the cost of diminished thrusting capacity.  Some troopers even ground down their tips to enhance the P1796’s stabbing potential, though that naturally defeated the purpose of the original design.

“This is not to say that the weapon was useless for thrusting.  On the contrary, the point would easily pierce a man through.  It is a common misconception that curved swords are only efficacious in the slash.  Not true at all.  A straight sword will, of course, do a better job when thrust into someone, but a curved blade’s tip has no trouble incommoding anyone unwise enough to open himself up to it.

“Here is an unnerving demonstration of a reproduction P1796.  The thrusting potential is displayed at approximately 1:45 of the video, with the terrifying cuts (severing bone) delivered immediately thereafter:

“While conventional wisdom holds that sabres were curved to deliver a more efficient or more vicious cut, this is actually not the case.  Research with high-speed cameras has shown that cuts with curved or straight blades cause equivalent damage (i.e., a lot).  It is also inaccurate that a curved blade draws through the flesh more, creating a nastier wound.

“What is true, however, is that a curved blade takes up less space in a melee.

“This is also why the vaunted pirate cutlass is short and curved, to avoid entanglement with bodies and rigging on a crowded ship’s deck.  In a cavalry engagement organisation breaks down immediately.  A premium is placed on swinging in wide arcs.  It’s a natural movement when panic shuts down rational thought, as when you find yourself surrounded by screaming men and snorting steeds.  I give you a sample from Winston Churchill’s account (he was a 4th Hussar before transferring to the 21st Lancers) of the charge at Omdurman in 1898:

The collision was prodigious. Nearly thirty Lancers, men and horses, and at least two hundred Arabs were overthrown. The shock was stunning to both sides, and for perhaps ten wonderful seconds no man heeded his enemy. Terrified horses wedged in the crowd; bruised and shaken men, sprawling in heaps, struggled, dazed and stupid, to their feet, panted, and looked about them. The Dervishes fought manfully. They tried to hamstring the horses. They fired their rifles, pressing the muzzles into the very bodies of their opponents. They cut reins and stirrup-leathers. They flung their throwing-spears with great dexterity. They tried every device of cool, determined men practiced in war and familiar with cavalry; and, besides, they swung sharp, heavy swords which bit deep. The hand-to-hand fighting on the further side of the khor lasted for perhaps one minute. All who had fallen were cut at with swords till they stopped quivering, but no artistic mutilations were attempted. The enemy’s behavior gave small ground for complaint.

“Cavalry sabres are poor fencing weapons at the best.  Designed for a slash at high speed, they are not a wise choice for extended thrust-and-parry work.  The user’s arm will give out much sooner than if a better-balanced dueling weapon were employed.  A one-on-one dismounted engagement might begin like this:

“But in a couple of minutes would likely end this way:

“It is worth noting that the infantry employed sabres, too, as well as civilians.  These versions tended to be better-balanced for give-and-take, since one did not have a horse to get one out of trouble after a couple of swings.  They were more often straight and like a traditional backsword.

“If you are dying (possibly a literal outcome) to duel with a sabre, here is a 3-part video tutorial about the basic techniques.  One never knows when even the most esoteric skill may come in handy.  (My personal favorite is employing the sabre’s curve to arc around your opponent’s successful parry.)

“During the Napoleonic wars the French stressed using the point on horseback, as being more lethal and controlled.  Bonaparte’s heavy cavalry (cuirassiers, clad in helmets and breastplates) were renowned for this and their long straight swords were designed to make maximum use of the preference. 

But once in a melee they were at a comparative disadvantage because their blades, some 3-4 inches longer than the British P1796, were more likely to catch on men, horses, and equipment, particularly as a cavalry engagement is very fluid and a clear avenue in one moment can become clogged with bodies the next. 

“Plus, the cuirassiers’ swords weighed 50% more.  If you think the difference between 2 pounds and 3 pounds is slight, I invite you to violently swing a metal rod in each hand as violently as possible and see which arm falls off first.

The French reasoning was that most cavalry engagements only lasted for one rush and that a thrust was more likely to prove decisive.  But the British, who have preferred the good manly edge to the effete Continental point since at least the 16th century, argued that once that initial shock became a free-for-all, the cut was more natural, more useful, and was better at demoralizing the enemy.  Even a superficial cut shed more blood than a fatal thrust, and a solid slash at the face or arm (which the British cavalry manual taught were the optimal targets) would leave a nose or hand on the ground and spurting gore all over the victim and his mates.

“Bad for morale, that.

“The French knew of the British predilection for hacking, of course, which is why their hussars affected cadenettes.  Sometimes woven around wooden rods and accompanied by a similarly-reinforced queue at the nape of the neck, these heavy hair braids afforded some protection against slashes to the head.  In addition, the bag appending from the crown of the busby could be secured to the shoulder, creating a shield of sorts.  One does wonder at the efficacy of all of this, however, after viewing the P1796 cutting demonstration video above.

“As an aside, there are many erroneous beliefs as to why a cavalryman might hold his sword edge up, elbow to the sky as he rides in a charge.  As it turns out, this is not for any arcane tactical reason, but rather one of simple biomechanics.  If you want to carry your sword point-first, the arm tires less easily in that position than if you hold the thumb or the back of the hand up.  I have tried this with a sabre at home.  It is true.

“As conclusive proof that sabres are cool, I offer a more civilized use for this deadly marvel of engineering: the sabrage (the fun begins at about 1:30).

“Try that with your wretched musket!”

Stage coaches, Mail coaches and mere whipsters ~ Sue Millard tells all…

Now this is so tremendously cool I can hardly bear it!  (I may need to start fanning self…) 

Because today, for your edification and delight and pedantic gratification, I have here, on this very blog, someone who can tell you absolutely EVERYTHING about carriage driving and coaches and stage coaches and Mail coaches and the lot! 

It’s this kind of knowledge that I call thinking in old money!  It’s so wonderful!  Sesquisuperlative, even.  (Breathe, Bennetts, breathe…) But it’s absolutely essential to the historian or novelist who wants to go beyond the mere pretty picture to a practical, tangible understanding how they lived 200 years ago.

Hence I am chuffed to bits to be able to introduce you to Sue Millard, who’s going to take us through the paces.  (I know, bad pun!  Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself.) 

She’s an experienced carriage driver–so listen to her, she knows what she’s talking about–she’s written on a novel about same (horsey heaven for the equine-minded!).  And I hope and pray I can talk her into writing another blog about curricles and phaeton driving for me/us.  So be extra-extra-nice to her.

Sue Millard: 
“I read a good deal of historical fiction.  I’m also a carriage driver, with 30 years of practice, and in order to research my current novel (Coachman!) I’ve ridden as a passenger for ten miles behind four horses put to a road coach.  So an author’s book will find itself in flight across my desk if it displays ignorance about carriage driving.  Even my much-read copy of Regency Buck, with Heyer’s fabulous curricle race from London to Brighton, has pencilled exclamation marks here and there.

“Driving is a huge subject, so in the space available I’ll concentrate on the commercial coaches: the stages, and the Mails.

“A Mail coach was one contracted to the King’s or Queen’s Post Office, and was painted black and maroon, with red wheels and undercarriage. Its primary function was to carry post as efficiently as possible, seating only 8 passengers (four inside, three on top and one beside the coachman).

“The guard, who was responsible for the safe arrival of the Mail, sat in lonely austerity on a single seat behind, loading and unloading mailbags, keeping the driver up to his schedule, and completing his waybill with times of arrival and departure from set points on the journey.  A letter could travel from London to Liverpool in 24 hours – so the Mail was speedy, and expensive, but not restful.

“A stage coach was a commercial proposition, carrying up to 15 passengers – four insiders, and three bench seats on the roof each carrying three outsiders (or four skinny ones), and perhaps two beside the coachman.  Stage coaches tended to allow for meal breaks, so I’m sure they were more popular with the innkeepers than the Mails were.

“Routes and timetables were published, but routes were combined where customers proved scarce.  Some offered daytime-only coaches during winter, then put on an additional night coach in summer.  Others, ‘butterflies’, ran in summer only.

“Stage coaches were brightly painted in their company’s colours, and had names, like Red Rover, Reliance, Regulator, Albion, Greyhound, Emerald, Rocket.  Every named ‘coach’ was really four vehicles – one going up the road, one down, and one spare at each end of the journey in case of breakdown.  Mails, on the other hand, were known by their destination out of London, like ‘the Liverpool Mail’.  Only the Exeter Mail was known as ‘Quicksilver’.

“Commercial coachmen drove anything between forty and sixty miles, this distance being called their ‘ground’, and guards, particularly on Mails, might travel very much farther, sometimes remaining with the coach for a full day’s journey.

“Often ignored by authors is the army of support staff, the yard men, porters, and ostlers.  They fed and watered and groomed and harnessed the right animals at the right time so they were ready for the coach to arrive, and often to depart only a minute or two later – yes, to unhitch four horses in that time, and put the fresh team in.  John Parker’s grooms hold the modern world record for a change of 21.2 seconds.

“A coachman adjusted the reins and bitted the horses to suit their tempers and his hands.  A ‘whip’ was the term for a skilful driver, who could use the lash, either folded or unfurled, to move the horses over sideways, as a rider would use his leg, thus keeping the pole and splinterbar going in the correct direction before the coach made a tricky turn.  He would only make the lash sting if a horse played up, and to use a five foot stick with a ten foot lash on that offender alone, perhaps in the dark or in windy conditions, truly required great skill.

“Only the older coachmen of a more brutal era used the ‘short Tommy’ which was kept to thrash the last ounce of effort out of an exhausted team.  William Chaplin, the greatest of the London coaching proprietors in the 1830s, was instrumental in having this infamous tool more or less banned from the City.

“Unlike riding, driving is COLD work!  Coachmen wore gloves, heavy coats, aprons to keep off the rain, neckcloths ditto and waterproof beaver hats.  They were relatively inactive, and they had no central heating from a nice warm animal!

“For passengers, travelling inside was noisy and claustrophobic and smelly if the windows were closed, plus the chance of motion-sickness if you had your back to the horses.  Travelling outside was cold, even in summer (think of British seaside holidays), and in dry weather the dust of the road smelled and tasted of dung.

“Coaching teams of four achieved an average of between 9 and 14 mph over ten-mile stages, by combining walk/trot/canter as the ground permitted.  At the end of their stage, the team was changed for a fresh one.

“Horses worked in neck collars with hames, in order to deal with the weight of the coach, which could be up to 3 tons when loaded. Horses lean their weight into the collar, which is attached to the bars, that pull the coach, by long leather traces, from the Latin verb that gives us ‘tractor’ and ‘traction’.  And only on modern Christmas cards have horses ever been put to a coach without traces.

“The horses were directed by the reins or ‘ribbons’.  Basic braking was effected by pole chains from the wheel-horses’ collars to the pole-head, and steering both by the chains and by the traces acting on the solid splinter-bar above the front wheels.

“The soundtrack to the Road is the heavy grinding of iron tyres on stone; the wonderful rhythm of sixteen trotting horseshoes; the ripple of the chains from the wheel-horses’ collars to the pole; the chatter of the bars at the pole head when descending a hill; the scream of an iron brakeshoe chained under a hind wheel by the guard – and the occasional oath when the friction-heated shoe is taken off again!”

For more information, Sue also has a blog:   http://suemillard.blogspot.com/ and a website:  http://www.suemillard.f9.co.uk/  Do check them both out. 

London Bridge and shooting the rapids…


It’s Friday afternoon and I have now successfully procrastinated–for most of the day…

But obviously it is Friday afternoon and I haven’t deposited a blog in anyone’s general direction for over a week. 

And so I ask myself, what would you like to read about today?  And I shrug hopelessly, “I don’t know.”   And then I think, “Well, what do I know about…”  At which I roll my eyes.  There’s lots of stuff. 

However, for reasons I can’t explain, but probably Freud would enjoy analysing (good thing he’s not about then, isn’t it?) I’ve been thinking a lot about the River Thames as it was in early 19th century London and the fact that it only had three bridges across it:  London Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster Bridge. Continue reading