In this blog I look at my recently published book, Those Bloody Kilts, and look ahead to my forthcoming book on The British Infantry NCO in the Great War.
Those Bloody Kilts examines the experience of the Highland soldier during the Great War of 1914-1918. The experience of the Highland soldier had been somewhat romanticized and glamourized in popular accounts, the conventional picture being the semi-mythologised bayonet-toting hero from a martial race. In this book I have endeavoured to move away from the myth and explore the reality of his experience, working entirely from the evidence provided by the soldiers themselves.
The book is the culmination of research over a period of about ten years. The principal sources were the letters and eye-witness accounts of the Highland soldiers themselves, drawn from the Imperial War Museum, the Liddle Collection and the Regimental Museums, notably the Black Watch, at Perth, the Gordons at Aberdeen, the Argylls at Stirling, and the Highlanders Museum at Fort George, embracing the Seaforths and Camerons. The first two collections have been well exploited although not for this purpose, and there is of course new material constantly being received by the IWM. The revelation was the amount of material available in the regimental museums, extremely rich, but much less exploited.
The casual reader will find many first-hand examples of the life of the Highland soldier; the practicality of the kilt, the use of the pipes, comradeship, support from home, and behaviour in battle, with many fascinating or touching extracts from soldiers’ letters and diaries. I hope that he will be touched, amused, inspired, saddened, and occasionally shocked by the experiences described. The serious researcher will find a challenging analysis of the Highland soldier’s experience, the extent to which he was different, the dynamics of interactions within a battalion, the significance of identity, and the way morale actually worked.
All, I think, may be surprised at the normalcy of the Highland soldier, and the variations and contradictions in his behaviour. Thus, the pipes came increasingly to be used, not to pipe troops into battle, but to build morale behind the lines; alongside some informality, there co-existed the iron rod of discipline; alongside compassion and understanding between officers and men, there were some abject failures; amongst touching examples of comradeship are found disturbing examples of selfishness; amongst moving examples of compassion towards the enemy are found disturbing examples of brutality; and among inspiring examples of courage are found disturbing accounts of shattered nerves. It is therefore a ‘warts and all’ picture I present. But while I have been happy to debunk myths, I have, I believe, maintained respect for both the soldiers and regiments concerned.
This is my first book, and I am honoured to have been named Second Runner Up in the Best First Book category for 2019, by the Society for Army Historical Research. I am grateful that this has given me a platform for my second book, also to be published by Helion, on The British Infantry NCO in the Great War, with publication around 2025. Although much has been written about the life of the officers during the Great War, much less has been written about the N.C.O.’s. The book will examine the social background of the N.C.O.’s, and their roles and effectiveness in battle, in training and behind the lines. It will consider the role of the N.C.O.’s in maintaining discipline, maintaining morale and providing support both upwards and downwards. It will consider the relationship between N.C.O.’s and their officers and men, and between themselves at the same and different levels. As for Those Bloody Kilts, the research will be based on the recorded experiences of the soldiers themselves. The potential source material is vast, and this will be a labour of love.
As regards myself, I am a retired Civil Servant, living in Chessington, Surrey. I have a degree in geography from the University of Oxford and a PhD in the same from Durham, on the settlement of Armenian refugees in Syria and Lebanon after the First World War, and in the distant past had a couple of chapters published in geography texts based on this research. After completing my doctorate, I spent the bulk of my career involved in mapping and geographic support to the Armed Forces within the Military Survey organisation, while in my last eight years, I worked in MOD HQ. In addition, from 1980 I spent eight years in the Territorial Army (Royal Engineers), and retired as a captain in 1988. I took early retirement from MOD at the end of March 2008, in order, inter alia, to pursue my research interests.
Having played with Airfix figures from a tender age, the first metal figures I ever bought were five Hinchliffe ECW figures (an officer, drummer, and three musketeers). From the long-vanished ‘Bridle Models’ in Shirley, Croydon. This would have been 1973/4. I was about 12 years old. But I remember it as if it was yesterday – Dad inquiring if I really intended to blow my pocket money on little metal men at a princely 9p each. Plus a jar of Plaka orange, for the Earl of Essex’s army… The figures were duly decanted into a classy little blue Hinchliffe box of my very own. Five pristine silver figures, nestling in blue tissue paper… It was the start of something.
A mere 47 years and several different ECW armies later, I’ve finally reached the inevitable outcome of that profoundly formative childhood experience: I’ve started my own modest range of ECW figures, Bloody Miniatures.
Back in the glorious 1970’s, at school and the local wargames club, everything was WRG rules and big battles. I bought, painted, played with, and sold on more armies from more periods than I can now remember.
But I stopped wargaming at the age of 20 – other priorities, other hobbies: university; girls; career; mortgage; marriage; kids – you know how it goes.
I also got incredibly bored with the formulaic nature of wargaming back then. Endless bickering over the minutiae of 100-page rule books and gerrymandered army lists. Uptight people shunting (often unpainted) blocks of single-pose figures across upturned Subbuteo cloths. Games yes, but no fun at all. Entirely devoid of joy.
But the Force is strong, dear reader, and by my late 30s, I was back into it – only to discover a hobby transformed. Much better figures (inexplicably now 28mm, not 25mm) and many more of them. And in such different and interesting genres too. Pirates! Darkest Africa! Cossacks! Vikings! Also much less slavish adherence to the same old doctrinaire rulesets. So I started collecting and painting again, becoming quite proficient at both.
Over the ensuing 20+ years I’ve amassed several thousand figures, done a huge amount of modelling and painting, and become quite a well-known painter, mainly via my activities on Lead Adventure Forum.
I’ve built sizeable armies, but only play ‘large skirmish’ style games with them – often multi-player, and only with like-minded friends, with each player controlling, say, 20 – 60 figures. I use elegantly simple rules, but always play with beautiful figures and on extravagant terrain. For me, wargaming is about the visual aesthetics of the miniature worlds we create, and the narrative and period flavour which invariably emerges from a fun game played with good friends. There’s no arguing over complicated rules, nor fretting about pinpoint historical accuracy. Truthfully, it’s an entirely different hobby.
Despite having already owned (and sold on) three ECW armies, I couldn’t resist investing heroically when the excellent Bicorne and Renegade 28mm ECW ranges first came out. I built a sizeable collection – although for some reason, rarely played with them. Then one day, a year or two ago, I got them out, looked at them, and reminded myself how much I loved the figures, and the English Civil War setting in particular. Such turmoil. Such drama, fire and fury. And yet so peculiarly British and parochial.
So I began to build out my collection again. I also started playing ‘The Pikeman’s Lament’ (which happens to feature eye candy photographs of my ECW figures). Some people are a bit sniffy about Dan Mersey’s rulesets, but they suit my tastes perfectly. Plenty of period flavour, but dead simple mechanics. Almost guaranteed to deliver a fun, fast-moving game, whether for 20 figures a side, or 200.
I realised however, that despite the loveliness of Nick Collier’s sculpting (he did both the Bicorne and Renegade ranges), my 450-strong ECW collection had certain limitations. Even with myriad variants from those two huge ranges, they were all in basically the same set of stock poses – marching, firing, loading, advancing, and so on… Many different hats, but essentially a lot of similar figures. Oozing period character of course, because Nick is an absolute virtuoso at portraying mid-C17th soldiery. But somewhat limited and formal in pose. Ideal for set-piece battles; slightly lacking variety and individuality for skirmish type games.
Having taken indecently early retirement after a 35-year career in marketing, I suddenly found myself pondering a small range of my own to plug this gap. Could I? Should I?
Then Covid-19 and lockdowns arrived, so I decided to put dead time to good use. I managed to make contact with Nick, who thankfully was entirely up for it, and so Bloody Miniatures was born. The mission? To create a range of figures to complement his ECW ouevre for Bicorne/Renegade, but portraying the sort of characters never seen in ‘traditional’ ECW ranges.
The range is currently a small but perfectly formed four packs, with four more on the way. We’ve scoped out some 20 packs in total, including such gems as ‘ladies defending a siege’, ‘the Squire’s woodsmen’, and ‘moss troopers’. It probably won’t include rank and file types, since these are already very well catered for, so would rather defeat the object. One week in, and they’re selling like hotcakes and I’m getting lovely feedback. Including on the red tissue paper wrapping. Just my little nod to Hinchliffe… Now where did I put that Plaka orange?
Sixty years ago, on Sunday 13 August 1961, the citizens of Berlin woke up to a whole new reality – a divided city. In the early hours of the morning, East German police and border guards had created a physical barrier around the British, American, and French sectors of the city, cutting them off from the surrounding Soviet zone. The Berlin Wall was born.
Much has been written about the Berlin Wall, the Death Strip, the brave escape attempts, and the numerous human tragedies associated with it. My latest book, Cold War Berlin: An Island City Volume 2, The Berlin Wall, 1950 – 1961, explores the subject in some detail, but in this second volume of my mini-series on Cold War Berlin for Helion & Company, I’ve also tried to explain the background to the decision to build the Wall, the personalities involved and the wider political situation that prompted Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader to take these drastic steps. This blog post investigates that side of the Berlin Wall story.
East Germany (the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR, the German Democratic Republic) was formed on 7 October 1949 out of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany in response to the creation of West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, FRG) on 23 May 1949, which was made from the British, American, and French occupation zones. Joseph Stalin, the leader of Soviet Union and the wider Communist world, gave the go ahead to Walter Ulbricht, the head of the East German Communist Party (the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany), to form a sovereign state, although there was never any doubt that the DDR was a ‘satellite’ or ‘client’ state of the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, Stalin had successfully built his Iron Curtain, a buffer zone of Soviet ‘puppet’ states between the Soviet motherland and the warmongers in the West, and the DDR was the last piece in that puzzle.
Berlin, the former capital of the Third Reich, was located 100 miles inside the DDR, and was divided into four sectors, administered by the four victorious Second World War powers in a similar way to the former occupation zones of Germany. However, although the former British, American and French zones had merged to become West Germany, the British, American and French maintained their individual sectors of the city, collectively forming West Berlin. East Berlin, the former Soviet sector was now the capital city of the DDR, while the Federal Republic had its capital in Bonn. This unique territorial split would be the cause of considerable international strife throughout the Cold War.
The DDR was founded as the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ State’ under veteran Communist Walter Ulbricht. An avowed Stalinist, Ulbricht had succeeded in securing an unassailable position in East German politics through his relationship with the Soviet leader, with the Soviet Military Administration in Germany and through extensive lobbying in Moscow. He’d also managed to purge any meaningful opposition, with the SED ruling supreme, and with Ulbricht, as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party, as its unquestioned leader.
Despite his status, Ulbricht was not respected by the Soviet leadership, and was tolerated as an able administrator rather than as an inspirational leader. However, Ulbricht was Machiavellian and a talented manipulator, who often got his own way by sheer persistence, wearing down his opponents. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, his ultimate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, did not share Stalin’s tolerance of Ulbricht, but was not yet strong enough to replace him with someone more compliant.
The DDR adopted a centrally planned Soviet style economy, with forced collectivisation of agriculture and privatisation of businesses. History had shown that such economies were doomed to failure, but Ulbricht persisted with Stalinist policies, even as Khrushchev was trying to liberalise some aspects of the Soviet Union. As well as being highly inefficient, with managers being promoted because of the political connections rather than their ability, the economy also suffered with most industrial production being exported as reparations to the Soviet Union, or to generate ‘hard’ foreign currency needed to purchase raw materials. The industrial sector had also not recovered after being comprehensively looted of infrastructure by a vengeful Soviet Union immediately following the war.
For the average East German, this meant a very poor standard of living, with constant shortages of food and consumer products. The reach of the Party could also be felt in every corner of society, where education and employment opportunities depended on party affiliation and fealty. Woe betide any deviation from the party line, where transgressions would have lifelong implications for the transgressor and their families. The infamous East German secret police, the Staatssicherheitsdienst or Stasi, had its tentacles everywhere and dissent was crushed with characteristic German efficiency.
For a growing number of East Germans, the suffocating repression and constant promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ led them to make the monumental decision to uproot their families and flee to the West. Such behaviour was frowned upon – the State called the refugees Republikflüchtlinge, literally those that flee the Republic, but immediately after the East German state was created, an increasing number of ordinary East Germans voted with their feet and moved to the West. This exodus was made easier by a long porous border between the DDR and the FRG, and several reception centres just inside West Germany began processing hundreds and then thousands of refugees a week. In 1950, an average of 3,804 East Germans a week made it to the West. By 1952, this was steady at 3,508/week. These were normal citizens who had turned their backs on Ulbricht’s workers’ paradise; skilled workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, administrators, managers, along with a proportion of dissidents who had escaped the clutches of the Stasi. Most were young, educated and of military age – exactly the sort of people East Germany could not afford to lose.
Ulbricht had to stop the exodus that was bleeding his country dry. With Stalin’s blessing, he enacted the ‘Decree on Measures regarding the Demarcation Line between the German Democratic Republic and the Western Occupation Zones of Germany’ (26 May 1952) and closed the 1,400 km border between East and West Germany. This began with barbed wire, then with chain link fences, before developing into one of the most fortified borders on the planet (second only to the border between North and South Korea). This should have solved the problem for Ulbricht, but all it succeeded in doing was funnel the would-be refugees to Berlin. Travel within the DDR was unrestricted, and once inside the East German capital, it was reasonably easy to hop over the inter-sector border into West Berlin. Once there, refugees were directed to a purpose-built reception centre at Marienfelde, where they were processed and eventually flown over to West Germany to begin their new lives.
Berlin became the ‘escape hatch’ for the DDR and by 1960, an average of 3,831 refugees a week were making it to freedom and the number just kept increasing. In 1961, the crisis had reached a head. In the 12 years since the DDR was formed, about 2.8 million people had fled to the West out of a population of around 17 million (approximately 1 in 6), which was not sustainable for Walter Ulbricht’s socialist state. Ulbricht had been continually lobbying his Soviet masters for a solution to this crisis, and Khrushchev knew that he could only deflect the East German for so long. He needed stability on his western flank, and it was clear that he needed to act before the country reached meltdown.
Khrushchev sensed an opportunity with the election of the youthful John F. Kennedy as US President in November 1960 and even before Kennedy was inaugurated, he began ramping up the pressure on his new adversary. Khrushchev had given Kennedy’s predecessor, President Eisenhower, an ultimatum to quit Berlin back in 1958, but the Soviet was forced to back down and withdraw the threat to declare a unilateral peace treaty with the DDR and terminate the Potsdam protocols giving the victorious powers access rights to the city. In January 1961, however, he reinstated the ultimatum as a way of pressuring the President-elect and also placating Ulbricht. At every opportunity, Ulbricht nagged his boss about his country’s plight: moaning about the population exodus; complaining about the Western radio stations who were broadcasting uncomfortable material to his citizens; and accusing the West of using Berlin as a spy base against the Warsaw Pact (which wasn’t too far from the truth). He also blamed the Soviets for the state of his economy (which was only partially true) and used his many contacts in Moscow (known collectively as the ‘Ulbricht Lobby’) to lean on Khrushchev. For some months he’d been suggesting that the only solution was a hard closure of the inter-sector border between East and West Berlin, to effectively close that ‘escape hatch’, and he took the opportunity of Khrushchev’s new ultimatum to reiterate those demands.
Khrushchev didn’t want to be rushed and ignored Ulbricht’s increasingly plaintive cries while he tried to get the measure of the new US President. This came to a head in June 1961, in a very heated summit meeting between the two leaders in Vienna.
Kennedy was soundly outmatched by the wily old Bolshevik, but Khrushchev had discovered that his opposite number was not going to let go of Berlin without a fight. Ulbricht was quick to jump on the bandwagon post-Vienna and renewed the offensive on his boss to act decisively on Berlin. Picking up on some mixed messages coming out of Washington, Khrushchev began to think that Ulbricht’s closure plans might solve a number of problems, not least in getting that troublesome East German off his back, and indicated that he may consider a hard border closure. On 15 June 1961, Ulbricht called a press conference in East Berlin, which a number of Western journalists attended. Ulbricht droned on, bragging about what he would be able to do once the peace treaty with the Soviets had been signed and in a surreal piece of real-life theatre, Ulbricht, in an answer to a journalist’s question about the state border at the Brandenburg Gate, famously volunteered that ‘Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten’ – ‘Nobody intends to put up a Wall’, when no one had previously mentioned anything about a Wall. The significance of this was missed by almost everybody in the room.
The following day brought the biggest one-day exodus of East German refugees, numbering 4,770, which equates to an annualised total of 1,740,000, out of a population of just 17 million. On 6 July Ulbricht was informed that the Kremlin had approved in principle his proposals to seal off the sector borders in Berlin and that he should proceed with detailed planning for their implementation, although the East Germans had already been secretly working on the plans for some months. Ulbricht was delighted and tasked Erich Honecker (who ousted Ulbricht as leader in 1976) with responsibility for the detailed planning and subsequent implementation. The plans were submitted to Moscow on 25 July, and on 1 August, at a meeting in Moscow, Ulbricht was given the go-ahead. The date was set for Sunday 13 August 1961 and Berlin’s fate was sealed.
The operation to close the inter-sector border between East and West Berlin was christened Operation Rose and went down with typical Prussian efficiency in the early hours of Sunday morning. The operation itself, christened Stacheldrahtsonntag (Barbed Wire Sunday) by the West, is described in detail in the book, as is the Berlin Wall’s development until that fateful day in November 1989 when peoplepower tore it down, but it’s interesting to reflect on the decision to lock the East German population up behind a Wall, in effect creating a giant prison. The West were quick to point out the failings of a system of government that had to lock up its own people to stop them escaping, and this was borne out in the eventual collapse of the DDR, followed a couple of years later by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end to Soviet Communism. In the intervening 28 years, it is truly tragic to consider how many lives were ruined by Walter Ulbricht’s obsession and history has gone on to demonstrate the complete moral bankruptcy of his regime.
Some 10 years ago I started researching my Swedish heritage, my mother being the daughter of Baroness Anne-Marie Armfelt (1904-87), a descendent of General Carl Gustav Armfelt (1666-1736). Having documented a remarkably extensive family tree and armed with my life-long interest in military history I started to delve in more detail into some of the most interesting personalities I had discovered on this journey.
I was soon drawn to researching the career of Carl Gustav Armfelt, inspired by a framed photograph of the David von Krafft Armfelt portrait at Drottningholm, one of many items I inherited from my grandmother, following her death in 1987. Having tracked down a copy of Eirik Hornborg’s 1953 book Karolinen Armfelt och kampen om Finland under stora nordiska kriget and commenced translating it for my own interest, I was inspired by his enthusiasm and empathy for his subject and thought that this may be of interest to a wider audience. I am delighted that Helion agreed and, with the enthusiastic support of Eirik Hornborg’s grandson, Professor Alf Hornborg at the University of Lund, the result is the first comprehensive account of the Great Northern War in Finland to be published in the English language.
Armfelt was born in Ingria, at the easternmost limit of the then Swedish Empire. Commencing military service in 1683 at the age of 16 as a corporal in the Nyland-Tavastehus cavalry regiment, to advance his career he went to France in 1688 and learnt the soldier’s trade through eleven years active service in the army of Louis XIV, returning home in 1699 and then serving his country until the Treaty of Nystad finally ended hostilities in 1721.
Too little is known about Armfelt’s life outside of the war for a comprehensive biography to be written so of necessity Hornborg’s account concentrates on his military career and is thus in equal measure an account of the campaigns in which he fought. In addition to the two most well known Finnish battles of Pälkäne 1713 and Storkyro 1714, and the Trondheim campaign 1718-19 with its tragic ending – the Carolean Death March – the book covers many lesser known engagements such the battle of Systerbäck 1703, the Ingrian campaign of 1708 (launched as a diversion in support of Charles XII’s invasion of Russia) and the Russian seaborne landing by the Tsar’s new galley fleet at Helsinki in 1713. After the war Armfelt never returned to his Ingrian homeland, which had been lost to Russia, but settled in Finland where he remained until his death in 1736.
Hornborg provides some brief notes on Armfelt’s descendants, perhaps the most famous being his great grandson, Gustav Mauritz, who was instrumental in obtaining Finnish autonomy from Russia after the war of 1808-09 and consequently seen by many in Sweden as a traitor. Certainly he ranks low in Hornborg’s opinion – brave, yes, but fickle, vain and selfish.
On the direct line of descent to my grandmother, his son Vilhelm (1715-61) entered military service in 1729 and reached the rank of Major. He had been wounded at Lappeenranta during the Russo-Swedish war of 1741-43 and was killed by Prussian Hussars in a skirmish during the Pomeranian War of 1757-62. Vilhelm’s son, Adolf Carl (1751-1807), saw service only between this war and the subsequent war with Russia of 1788-90 so did not see action, but Adolf’s son, Colonel Axel Armfelt (1785-1867), my grandmother’s great grandfather, fought in Finland, Germany and Norway during the Napoleonic wars and was decorated for bravery.
Amongst my ancestors on my grandmother’s mother’s side were Arvid Wittenberg, veteran of the Thirty Years War and Charles X’s invasion of Poland in 1655, and Henrik Horn, who’s exploits included commanding the Swedish fleet in the disastrous battle of Køge Bay in 1677 during the Scanian War under Charles XI, despite being an army general with no naval experience! Anne-Marie’s great grandfather was Captain Carl Magnus Hultin who, like Axel Armfelt, also served in the Swedish army during the Napoleonic wars. He published his memoirs in book form in 1872; such memoirs are rare, and I am well on with translation and research into another fascinating period of Swedish history. Watch this space …
You can purchase Carl Gustav Armfelt and the Struggle for Finland during the Great Northern War here.
Helion recently published my biography of Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm (1768-1838), entitled The Sea is my Element. This Scottish sailor spent his entire active career at sea, commanding half a dozen ships as a captain, and then flying his admiral’s flag aboard several others. Mark Myers’ painting on the cover of the book depicts the ship with which he was most closely associated, HMS Donegal, as she races through stormy seas to join the British fleet after Trafalgar.
Like many ships in the Royal Navy, the Donegal was a prize, a ship captured from the French and transformed into a Royal Navy asset. A large 74-gun ship built to a very successful design by the naval architect Jacques-Noël Sané, she had been launched in 1794 at the Mediterranean naval base of Toulon. Initially named Barras, after an important political figure in Revolutionary France,as the political winds changed her name changed as well, ending up as Hoche, commemorating a famous revolutionary general who had died in 1797. The shipwas captured in 1798 by a British squadron as she attempted to land a force of French soldiers on the northern coast of Ireland to assist the Irish insurgents seeking to overthrow the British connection.
Since the ship was quite new and had suffered relatively little damage in the battle, she was purchased into the Royal Navy, and given the name Donegal to commemorate the location of her capture. As was customary, the ship was refitted to British standards: her masts and rigging were altered to make them more robust, and the French guns were replaced with slightly smaller British ones. At the same time the dockyard installed a new figurehead, portraying a fierce, kilted Irish warrior.
When rearmed the ship carried thirty 32-pounder guns on the lower deck and thirty 18-pounders on the upper deck, along with sixteen 12-pounders and eight close-range carronades fore and aft. In all, she could fire an 850-pound broadside at an enemy ship. By comparison, at Waterloo Wellington’s forces had a total of about 160 guns firing shot totalling roughly 1600 lbs. So the Donegal’s armament (remembering she had two broadsides) was more powerful than all the artillery of the allied army in the culminating battle of the Napoleonic Wars. These ships were massively-armed floating gun batteries, capable of inflicting enormous destruction on enemy vessels.
Between her commissioning in late 1802 and early 1805, the Donegal was commanded by Sir Richard Strachan, who had made his name as a frigate commander in the French Revolutionary War. The ship formed an important unit of Lord Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet watching the French fleet at Toulon, and in 1804 captured a Spanish frigate. By January 1805, the rigours of blockade and storm had taken their toll of Strachan’s health, and he asked Nelson to be allowed to return to Britain to recover. Rather than lose a valuable warship, the admiral agreed that Captain Pulteney Malcolm, who had been sitting at anchor in the Bay of Naples for 14 months, could switch ships with Strachan. This allowed Malcolm, who had been pestering Nelson for a more active role, to join the fleet off Toulon in the Donegal, while Strachan took Malcolm’s ship, the leaky Renown, back to a British dockyard for repairs.
Thus began Pulteney Malcolm’s six years in command of one of the finest two-deckers in the Royal Navy. The ship was widely agreed to be among the most handsome in the fleet, and Malcolm took great pride in her appearance. For instance, in September 1810 he decided to have the crew paint the Donegal, but was upset that it rained soon after, streaking the wet paint. As he told his wife, it made his ship look like ‘a painted hag, returning by daylight from a fashionable party’. He claimed that he would be ‘as anxious to repair her charms on the return of sunshine, as the Lady would be before she makes her appearance in the world’. Sailors often attributed human characteristics to their ships.
Appropriately enough, many of her 640 crew were Irishmen—Malcolm delighted in their activity, though he regretted their tendency to get drunk whenever the opportunity presented itself. His style of man-management was both intelligent and humane. Punishments on board the Donegal were limited—only the captain could award floggings, since, as he said, he also had the power to mitigate such penalties. Malcolm was proud that he had never ordered a man court-martialled, and that many of his ex-shipmates approached him for assistance after they had left the vessel. He also encouraged competition with other ships in the squadron, to keep the men healthy and on their toes, fostering what today would be called ‘unit cohesion’. This approach explains why the ship received the nickname ‘the happy Donegal’ during Malcolm’s time in command.
This period (1805-1811) represented the height of the naval war against France, and the ship was involved in a number of dramatic events, as well as the protracted, grinding task of blockade. In the first few months of Malcolm’s command, the Donegal took part in Nelson’s long chase of the enemy Combined Fleet across the Atlantic and back, and came very close to participating in the Battle of Trafalgar, being the last big ship to leave the British fleet before the battle, and the first one to return. A few months later, she played a prominent role in the Battle of San Domingo, being instrumental in the capture of two French ships-of-the-line. Years of strenuous activity followed, as the ship and her crew blockaded the French ports of l’Orient and Cherbourg, were present at the Battle of Basque Roads, and landed the future Duke of Wellington and his army on the shores of Portugal. Throughout this time, Malcolm had only two, relatively brief periods of leave. During the first, when the Donegal was temporarily commanded by his friend (and ex-Bounty mutineer) Peter Heywood, she helped drive three French frigates ashore at Sables d’Olonne near Rochefort. During Malcolm’s second leave, the ship was used to transport the Marquess Wellesley (Wellington’s older brother) to and from Spain, requiring the crew to spend several months anchored in Cadiz harbour, waiting for the diplomat to complete his assignment.
By the spring of 1811, the Donegal needed a major repair. This would require her to be decommissioned, with her officers and crew being discharged and sent to other ships. Malcolm was sorry to leave his home of six years, but recognized that the work was overdue. After waiting a year or so in reserve at Portsmouth, she was moved around to Chatham for a ‘middling repair’, which cost over £50,000, and took about 18 months. This substantial investment (about two-thirds the cost of building a new ship) indicates the Admiralty believed the Donegal to be a valuable asset, with years of useful life ahead of her. However, by the time she emerged from the dockyard, the war was over, and her services were not needed. The ship spent the next 14 years in reserve, mostly at anchor in the backwaters of Sheerness, awaiting the next call to arms.
This came in 1829, when, after a £21,000 refit, she was recommissioned as a guardship, essentially a vessel manned and ready to go to sea at short notice. In 1832, Pulteney Malcolm walked her quarterdeck once again, but now as a vice admiral in command of the Channel squadron, which was used to conduct trials of new ship designs. Despite a reputation for speed, the Donegal proved rather slower than more modern ships, but this was partly attributed to the growth of weed on her hull since her last docking. She remained Malcolm’s flagship throughout the summer of 1832, and then again when he re-joined the ship for a difficult six months commanding an Anglo-French squadron blockading the Dutch coastline. This was his last encounter with the vessel in which he had made his reputation, but she soldiered on in active service for another ten years, finally going to the breakers in 1845. Malcolm did not live to see the end of his ship, since he had died in 1838, after a career of nearly 60 years, mostly spent at sea. The Royal Navy named two later warships Donegal, but neither became as famous as Malcolm’s ‘happy Donegal’.
The Sea is my Element: The eventful life of Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm 1768-1838 is available to purchase here.
Personally, I am very glad that the French Revolutionary Wars are finally increasing in prominence, as they surely are with the From Reason to Revolution series. As a schoolboy and undergraduate I studied the Revolution itself but the wars it occasioned were always something that was going on elsewhere; to be manipulated by the various political factions in the National Assembly or a threat to the existence of the newly fledged Republic. The wars themselves rarely got a mention. I always thought this was odd as the Napoleonic Wars which came immediately afterwards are immensely popular with writers, wargamers, and those with an interest in history. The French Revolutionary Wars involved many of the same characters as those later wars, colourful costumes, a plethora of set piece battles, and can hardly be bettered for sheer drama. The great victories thrown away through folly, the brilliance and ineptitude shown in equal measure by both sides, and the chaotic unpredictability of the French Republic at war make for an exciting area of study.
Whilst working at the Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment I came across reference to the Helder campaign. This, I read, was a campaign fought by the British army alongside Russian allies, to provoke a counter revolution in the Netherlands. Two battalions of the regiment had fought in this campaign but I had never heard of it and could find little written about it. So, I was drawn to this period through a lack of information, the exploration of something familiar and yet unknown. I later wrote my Masters dissertation on the failure of the Helder campaign and was moved to research the Duke of York’s previous campaign; that fought in Flanders 1793-95. This, as it turned out, was quite a large subject and is known to us today largely through the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand old Duke of York’, so I felt that this was a large gap in the history of the period which needed filling.
The Duke of York, as the nursery rhyme would imply, did little to enhance his military reputation in the course of this campaign which, like the later one, ended in an ignominious withdrawal on the part of British forces and the surrender of the Netherlands to French forces. There have been attempts in recent years to revive the reputation of the Duke of York; to paint him as an early Eisenhower, holding coalitions together with his diplomacy and a general able to defeat his enemy when allowed to exercise independent command. Unfortunately there is little evidence of any of this when we look closely at the conduct of this operation. As the famous Gillray cartoon, ‘Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders’, suggests, York seems to have lived well on campaign (he was accompanied by a vast retinue of cooks and liveried footmen) while his troops struggled with supply issues. An English lady visiting the Duke said that he was constantly surrounded by a coterie of young staff officers and rarely dined with the commanders of his army which did not endear him to them or give him the opportunity to discuss issues with the army. When the outgoing Hanoverian commander, Marshal Freytag went to report to his Elector (George III of England) York wrote a very telling letter to his father, the King, saying that he wasn’t to believe anything the old veteran said about York being perpetually drunk.
York didn’t spend very much time with his army and when it wasn’t actually on the march he tended to find comfortable quarters away from camp. At the battle of Beaumont the army had to wait, drawn up to repel the French attackers, while York was fetched from his bed. It is not unsurprising therefore that the army, which is said by some to have been the worst to have ever left England, suffered some problems with indiscipline. In a war that was being pitched to the British taxpayer and the world in general as a crusade against the beastly excesses of republicanism, the British army committed a number of atrocities against the civilians it was supposed to be saving and upset almost as many allies as its commander did.
York’s biggest failing as a commander was perhaps the way in which acted towards his allies. In the later Helder campaign he was accused of being loudly critical of his Russian allies and it seems he was no different in Flanders. A young man, son of the King, fond of drink and rowdy company, he probably saw nothing wrong with his behaviour but his letters home are full of contempt for his allies, whom he blamed for every mishap he encountered.
This book has a number of themes but perhaps the central one is the difficulty of keeping coalitions together. The force that York was part of consisted of; troops of the Austrian Empire; Germans, Hungarians, Croats and Slavs, the Prussians and the Dutch, as well as various mercenary troops in the pay of Britain. All of the states involved had different motivations for being in the coalition and hoped for different things from the war. The various contingents were commanded by professional and experienced soldiers who doubtless resented York’s, widely broadcast criticism.
Whilst the personal feelings of the commanders did not have as much effect on the future of the coalition as the manoeuvring of their political masters, it almost certainly affected relations between the armies. Some commentators have even alleged that Austrian generals deliberately abandoned York to his fate at the Battle of Tourcoing due to their personal antipathy towards him. Remarkable as this is, by the end of the campaign the Dutch, the very nation that the British contingent had been sent to defend, were exhibiting more sympathy to the invading French than to their erstwhile allies and began negotiations while the British were still in the country.
So, this is a tale of personalities and alliances; it is also an account of a large number of battles. The campaign in Flanders seems to have been extraordinarily hard-fought: although the battles achieved little as the action see-sawed across Flanders, some towns changing hands several times, there were lots of them. For me one of the most interesting parts of this story is phenomenon of the republican war machine; the genesis of total war. This is a period that holds an almost mythological status in the annals of French military history; the ragged, starving, but ideological armies, led by men soon to be household names (Carnot, Jourdan, Vandamme, Macdonald, Bernadotte and Bonaparte to name a few) saved the republic from autocratic forces bent on its destruction. What we see is the entire resources of a nation flung with abandon against its enemies. This book examines the effectiveness of the forces they raised and casts a critical light on the legends.
After two years of bloody but fruitless campaigning the coalition failed. The vast hydra-like forces of the French Republic wore down the allies’ will to fight. Although generally successful on the field, the coalition lacked the clarity of vision to concentrate its efforts and was overwhelmed by French numbers and aggression. Numerous defeats did not seem to dent the republican war machine and as the coalition foundered it returned to the offensive. The Prussians went back to pick over the carcass of Poland, the Austrians fell back to their own territory, and the Dutch surrendered, becoming a satellite of France until 1814. York was removed from his post and sent home to command the army from Whitehall while his men endured one of those harrowing retreats which dot the landscape of British military history. They would return eventually, but spent most of the war nibbling at the rind of France in limited amphibious operations.
Since 1st January 2021, the UK has no longer been a member of the EU. This means that deliveries to EU countries are now subject to the receiving EU country’s rules and regulations for purchases from outside the EU. This is similar to what has always been the case for buying goods from, say, USA.
The EU has further changed its regulations from 1st July 2021, bringing more, smaller purchases within their VAT regulations and making them subject to charges.
The effect of this is that buyers of UK goods may now have to pay VAT, Customs duties and a handling charge imposed by the buyer’s country’s postal service. Previously, none of these charges would have been applicable. Goods passing through the buyer’s country’s Customs in this way may also be delivered more slowly.
There is a new mechanism – the EU VAT One Stop Shop (OSS) – that is intended to let sellers from outside the EU charge VAT according to the rates in the buyer’s country when goods are purchased. This requires the seller to store and charge different VAT rates for each country they are selling to in the EU. There are other bureaucratic steps necessary, as well as modifying websites, to enable this.
An alternative is for the UK seller to have an agent/distributor in any EU country, from whom all EU purchases would be made by buyers. As this would be inside the EU, external charges would not apply, although the buyer’s country’s VAT rate probably would apply.
Helion is investigating both of the above options – OSS and an EU distributor – but it will take some time to get any arrangements put in place. There are currently substantial delays in getting the OSS set up, both on the UK and EU sides, and an agent/distributor is a long-term business partnership that cannot be put in place overnight. As a relatively small business, Helion does not have the resources to focus purely on this issue in the short term.
Quite a lot of UK sellers have ceased supplying to EU countries altogether. Helion does not intend to do this, but buyers should be aware that their own country may well charge them VAT, Customs duties and a handling fee from now on for purchases from Helion.
Our recent From Reason to Revolution title The Sword and the Spirit, edited by Zack White, is based on papers given at the 2019 BCMH ‘War and Peace in the Age of Napoleon’ conference. In one of the keynote papers at the conference, and in the opening chapter of the book, historian Dr Ed Coss outlined the findings of a collaborative psychological analysis of Napoleon Bonaparte. In this blog post, Dr Coss outlines the methodology that the team pursued and gives an outline of the conclusions drawn.
Napoleon Bonaparte is presumed to be, and almost always presented historically as, a stable genius, somehow unfettered by personal quirks and nearly immune to the psychological trauma of nearly two consecutive decades at war. A careful examination of his words, and those who heard and recorded them, by five trained American Army psychologists casts serious doubt on this portrayal. Their independent appraisals were surprisingly aligned. These mental health professionals agreed that Napoleon seemed to exhibit behaviours consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Depression (possibly bi-polar), and maladies possibly related to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
This exploration began as a series of conversations among mental health clinicians who also happened to be my students in military history. As we examined Napoleon’s behaviors and decisions, particularly in Spain and Russia, the psychologists began to wonder whether or not Napoleon had been impacted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We initially assumed that this was the case. We resolved to put a team together and begin an appraisal.
For this study, it was decided to allow the five trained psychologists to read and independently interpret primary source historical material that I gathered. A decision was made to limit this research to either Napoleon’s words or those of the men who were in the room with him. As the psychologists investigated and appraised the available first-person accounts, consistent behavioral indicators appeared to emerge. Napoleon, as it turned out, met only 3 of 24 standards for PTSD, according to the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Napoleon seems to have had few to none of the dreams, flashbacks, or distress when presented certain stimuli related to the battlefield. Napoleon gave the impression that he was free of almost all relevant symptoms. This surprised the team. Upon reflection, however, what we had overlooked was that his near-total lack of empathy acted to shield Napoleon from the kinds of sadness, regret, and guilt that most soldiers experience. This human failing, this inability, according to Psychology Today, to ‘experience another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own’ and which is ‘crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately’ protected Napoleon’s psyche. Thus, we were wrong in our initial diagnosis.
Any clinical assessment of Napoleon without actually conversing with him and so many years removed from his era has limitations, of course. The American Psychological Association, in fact, explicitly warns mental health professionals that it is unethical to offer public psychological assessments of anyone not in their care (or for any patient). The exception is when analyzing historical figures, and those examinations have guidelines. This ethical challenge needs be acknowledged at the outset, so as to allay concerns that the methods used herein to examine the psychology of the historical figure of Napoleon were questionable, whimsical in nature, or that the psychologists and the author have in any way attempted to bypass mental health or historical standards in the commission of this work.
As the psychologists independently read and assessed the more than 400 historical comments or personal interactions related to Napoleon, the team unanimously concluded that he strongly exhibited behaviours consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, meeting the criteria in seven of nine categories, two more than the DSM-5 requires for identifying someone with this disorder. This conclusion came only after sharing assessments, careful debate, and the recognition of the limits of this study, acknowledging that the team members were never in the room with Napoleon and that the appraisal could never be definitive. Still, the names of his seven qualifying categories capture clearly the kinds of telling behaviours that are part and parcel of this disorder and were, most likely, exhibited nearly every day by Napoleon: Grandiose; Fantasies of unlimited success, love…; Believes he/she is special; Has a sense of entitlement; Interpersonally exploitative; Lack Empathy; Arrogant.
Moreover, the clinicians all believed that Napoleon’s behaviours appeared to align with someone struggling with Major Depression. Because all these behavioural episodes seem to align with those delineated in the DSM-5 for bipolar-depression or Major Depressive Disorder, it would be fair to speculate that Napoleon may have struggled with one or both of these mental illnesses for much of his adult life. Thus, Napoleon may have experienced a series of unpredictable emotional highs and lows, alternating manic episodes of varying degrees with depressive experiences and self doubt.
The team was also surprised that Napoleon’s two instances of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the result of two accidents involving horses, have not been considered by scholar’s assessing Napoleon’s decision making and conduct. This is especially true of Napoleon’s coup of 18 Brumaire, which saw Napoleon overthrow the Directory, but only barely and after serious missteps; the coup occurred just ten days after Napoleon’s first TBI incident. The APA’s guidelines state that in addition to ‘neurocognitive deficits, there may be associated neurophysiological, emotional, and behavioural complications.’
Altogether, these mental health disorders impacted Napoleon every day of his adult life. It would seem that these individual and collective debilitations likely inhibited Napoleon to a greater degree than has been surmised. This is a matter of no small import to readers examining Napoleon’s behaviours on the 200th anniversary of his death. It is hoped that the chapter will give the reader pause and cause him/her to reconsider Napoleon’s mental health and its impact on his words and actions.
The story of the discovery on 23 August 1659 of the fugitive Sir George Booth by the innkeeper of the Red Lion in Newport Pagnell, dressed as ‘Mrs Dorothy’, and his arrest and confinement in the Tower of London ‘close prisoner for high treason, in levying war against the Parliament and Commonwealth’, might be found in the pages of a historical novel. However, three weeks earlier Booth had led an armed revolt in Cheshire. Having been let into Chester on 2 August by the city authorities – the military garrison seeking safety in the castle – he mustered an estimated 3,000 horse and foot, ‘well mounted and armed, with drums beating, colours flying and trumpets sounding’ on Rowton Heath. Booth delivered his manifesto or Declaration, which roused his men and appealed for others to join the cause.
My first book published by Helion in 2020, More Like Lions than Men, was a study of the Parliamentarian forces in Cheshire commanded by Sir William Brereton. Knowing about the military and political events of 1659, I noticed that other than a trickle of journal articles on the rising’s causes – mainly produced to mark its 300th anniversary – no comprehensive study existed. Also, more general narratives made little headway into the wider objectives of its leaders and participants. Such works have been chiefly reconstructed from the biased accounts of the victors, whereas a body of manuscript and printed sources remained untapped by many writers.
The main aims then, were to challenge notions that the rising was (a) a local event, poorly led, organised, and executed by Booth and his supporters; and (b) a failed attempt at restoring the Stuart monarchy. I was interested to understand, from the perspective of historical sources, the motivations its leaders (mainly Presbyterians, some who had fought for Parliament during the civil wars, and former royalists), and how they articulated these in a broad sense. In his manifesto Booth made no mention of the exiled Charles II, focusing instead on the untrustworthy Rump Parliament in governing the country through army interference. In calling for a free parliament, Booth asserted that without this freedom there could be no settled basis for religion, liberty and property.
Booth’s rank and file (it has been argued) came from his friends and pressed tenantry. However, though extensive evidence for their recruitment, arming and organization is wanting, many were officers of proven ability – including Myddelton, Colonel Henry Brooke and the Welsh royalist Sir John Owen – who had experience of leading troops in civil wars. Some of the lower ranks were also military veterans, although others were new to the rigour of war. Booth – a leading member of a Presbyterian gentry family that dominated Cheshire politics in the early-modern period – had been a colonel in Sir William Brereton’s Parliamentarian army and described by Sir John Meldrum in 1644 as ‘a young gentleman of great expectation’. But his increasing opposition to Brereton lessened his effectiveness, and he resigned his commission the following year.
Even though the government response was rapid and proportional, Booth’s greatest problem was the disastrous failure of intelligence gathering and poor tactical awareness by himself and his senior commanders. Apparently oblivious to the arrival of Lambert’s veteran brigade in Nantwich on 15 August, after a forced march from London of nine days, through ‘very unseasonable’ weather, they were also stunned by the landing of 6,000 troops from Ireland at Beaumaris commanded by Colonel Jerome Sankey. Though Booth had an estimated 5,000 men under arms, his forces were split between Chester (where most of the horse was), and Warrington (where the bulk of the foot remained), some two day’s march away. Such unpreparedness is surprising, given that news of Lambert’s movements had reached Cheshire a week before. Likewise, Booth knew by 7 August that his position was increasingly isolated because much of the promised assistance from other parts of the country had failed to materialize. Exactly what he was trying to accomplish is hard to know, but a rift had already occurred with his subordinates over the rebellion’s strategic aims.
Reality soon kicked in. Following the first contact with Lambert’s scouts in the fields around Tarporley on 17 August, Booth sought negotiation. He told the major-general that he was ‘surprised to see him at the head of an army against him, who had only declared for a free parliament, offering to confer on an accommodation’. Nevertheless, Lambert was resolute, he was ordered to force the rebels into submission, and bloodshed could only be prevented by the laying down of their arms. Most probably, the declaration for the King by Myddelton at Wrexham a few days earlier had added fuel to the fire. The cry of Booth’s men was ‘Have at all’, and the Parliament’s ‘God with us’.
The seventeenth-century topography of Winnington Bridge is somewhat masked by alterations to the River Weaver, the industrial facilities of nearby Northwich, and modern housing developments. It is possible, nonetheless, to identify the main features of the battlefield from contemporary accounts and (where viable) field walking.
The fight was swift and one-sided. Booth fled with some cavalry to Chester (via Lancashire). Liverpool and Chester were seized the following day, but Sir George had gone. Of Winnington Bridge, Lambert reported, the rebels ‘were quickly beat, and put to a total rout, throwing down arms and colours, and we had the pursuit of them a great way in lanes and enclosures. Their foot are all broke and disbursed. If it had been a champion country, few of them had escaped to carry home news’. A royalist correspondent would report, ‘Sir George Booth … is poorly come off, and all his glorious pretext of a free parliament and the subjects’ liberty, which in his forehead he carried, is all ended under a wench’s petticoat, which makes many conclude him to be either a fool, knave or coward’.
You can buy For a Parliament Freely Chosen: The Rebellion of Sir George Booth, 1659 here.
The city of Astorga, with its magnificent cathedral, convents, monasteries and other fine buildings, both civic and private, offered the perfect sanctuary to the Army of the Left, whose erstwhile commander in chief, General Blake, had been recently replaced by the Marqués de la Romana. The new commander in chief had been coordinating his movements with Sir John Moore since the 15th November, as both men sought to evade the converging French armies by reaching Astorga in the foothills of the Galician mountains where the British commander thought he might be able to make a stand, having by then secured his escape route to Corunna. La Romana was to the north of Moore’s two columns as the allies retreated, the British general having asked him to destroy the bridge over the Esla at Mansilla de las Mulas before continuing on his westerly retirement. Unfortunately, the marqués’s exhausted and poorly equipped men were surprised by Soult when he made a dash for Mansilla, scattering the demoralised Spaniards and capturing the bridge intact. Those soldiers of La Romana who were able to regroup then set their faces towards Astorga.
As mentioned above, the sick and wounded of La Romana’s army had already begun to trickle into Astorga before Milburne arrived, and his first task was to assess the condition of the casualties whilst at the same time making an inventory of the various buildings and medical supplies available, all of which he would need as he began to organise a system of hospitals. In his narrative of the campaign, written after his escape to England, he described how the frostbitten and wounded of the Spanish Army of the Left were crowded together with the rest of the men, without any attempt to separate them from those with contagious conditions, such as the strain of typhus which was sweeping through their ranks. Most of the casualties he discovered lying on the bare floors of the buildings in which they had sought shelter, or under the arches of open piazzas in and around the centre of the city. Some were still lying in the carts which had been used to convey them to Astorga.
Milburne soon came to recognise the lack of surgical care available to those in need of it, readily discernible by the number of unattended and undressed wounds he encountered. His first priority was to attend to these casualties of the fighting, but his main concern was directed towards the isolation of the sick in an effort to contain the outbreak of typhus previously referred to. He sought out Lieutenant General Fraser, commander of the British troops already at Astorga, and impressed upon him the need to take action designed to avoid the contagion taking hold amongst Moore’s troops, who were expected within the city at any moment. He suggested to the general that the Spanish sick be moved and concentrated in marked buildings; any accommodation thus cleared was to be disinfected and made ready for occupation by those of the wounded who were free from disease. In response Fraser wrote to the Junta de Astorga, requesting them to grant special powers to Milburne for removing the sick to places outside the city walls. They responded by investing full authority in him, assigning the city’s comptroller, Don Josef Orm and a local surgeon, Sr. Tardio, to the task of assisting the British surgeon in his work to examine and classify all of the sick and wounded. Once this had been completed the patients were assigned to the appropriate buildings.
To add to Milburne’s work, on 29 December the French prisoners taken by the British during the recent fighting at Benavente began to arrive at Astorga, many of them wounded and requiring the attention of the British surgeon and his Spanish assistants. On the following day Sir John Moore arrived at the city, only to leave on the 31st with the reserve of his army and its rear–guard of cavalry, all en-route to Villafranca del Bierzo. Moore had by then abandoned his plan to stop the French on the frontier of Galicia. La Romana also entered the city on the 30th.
When the British marched away Milburne placed his services, his stock of medicines and his surgical instruments at the disposal of the Spanish, but the French arrived at the gates of Astorga before he was able to organise the care of those left behind. Desperate to avoid capture, the surgeon was forced to make his own escape towards Villafranca, taking as much of his stock with him as he could cram into the saddlebags of a pair of mules procured for him by the Junta de Astorga.
Milburne caught up with Moore’s rear–guard at Manzanal and continued with it to Bembibre, where he was lightly wounded as the French cavalry skirmished with its British counterpart. Soon, as the weather worsened and his animals fell sick, he was forced to abandon his medical equipment and follow in the wake of the army as it entered the mountains of Galicia. As he did so he was to witness many scenes of suffering and despair along the road to Corunna, as the severe conditions took their toll of British soldiers, Spanish muleteers and various camp followers, including the wives and children of British troops.
Finally, on 10 or 11 January, the army arrived at Corunna, but the naval transports required to convey it to England were not yet anchored in the harbour, instead, they were still at Vigo and had to be sent for. This meant that Moore was forced to prepare a defensive perimeter outside the town to protect the embarkation points to be used when the fleet arrived. Inside the town the British Artillery and Engineers began to improve its batteries and fortifications with the willing assistance of Spanish troops and civilians. Looking on, the surgeon was full of praise for the efforts of the Spaniards, at one point witnessing two young women armed with sabres and dressed as soldiers, helping with the work.
On the 14 January the fleet of British warships and transports arrived, allowing the evacuation of the army to commence. On the following day the French began their attack upon Corunna, and during the next few days the surgeon was to become a close observer of the fighting, often placing himself in the British front line. In the early morning of the 17th, the last of the British units still on the battlefield began their withdrawal and most of them were aboard ship before daybreak, the French being somewhat hesitant to follow up after the mauling they had received during the fighting. They had failed achieved the victory they were expecting. With a small rear-guard under the command of Beresford manning the port defences along with a number of their Spanish allies, the French, once they had stirred themselves and attempted to approach the harbour, were halted by the spirited exertions of the mainly Spanish defenders, thus allowing the men of Beresford’s force to embark without molestation, Rear Admiral de Courcy eventually announcing that: ‘… the army has been embarked to the last man’.
Retaining his status as a private citizen attached to the Spanish Army, Milburne was forced to apply for passage to England aboard a ship of the Royal Navy, and in doing so offered his surgical expertise to Dr. Shepter, Inspector of Hospitals, who provided him with a letter of introduction to Staff Surgeon Taggart, the man responsible for the sick and wounded aboard the hospital ship, Alfred, along with his Assistant Surgeon Roe. The Alfred set sail for Plymouth in the early hours of 19 January 1809 and arrived there late on the following day, taking advantage of some apparently highly favourable winds.
In his letter to Castlereagh, which he included in his publication, A Narrative of Circumstances Attending the Retreat of the British Army Under the Command of the Late Lieut. Gen. Sir John Moore, from which much of the information comprising this article was taken, Milburne included a return of the sick and wounded aboard the Alfred as she sailed for home. She was just one of many ships bearing casualties to England, and his detailed list of the sick and injured is included below. It will provide the reader with some idea of the general condition of the army after its gruelling winter retreat across northern Spain, and it may be worth reflecting upon how the Spanish troops, whose experiences were said to have been somewhat worse than those of the British, had suffered during the campaign:
List of Casualties aboard the Alfred
Cases of dysentery: 68
Cases of fever: 56
Trifling complaints: 20
Little is known of Milburne after his return to England, but in her book, British Liberators in the Age of Napoleon (2013) Graciela Iglesias Rogers makes an interesting note, stating that he was with Whittingham’s division in Mallorca (1810) and Menorca (1811) and eventually attained the rank of Inspector of the Spanish Royal Hospitals in the Balearics. One of the issues Milburne became involved with during his time with Whittingham related to two of the Royal Navy’s ships, HMS Invincible and the famous HMS Temeraire which, on arriving at the islands in August 1811, were required by the authorities to go into quarantine at Mahon in Menorca as a precaution against the possibility of their crews spreading yellow fever amongst the local population. Milburne visited the sick aboard the ships and declared their ailments to be non-contagious, a view he later set forth in an article published in the Diario de Palma, as stated by Rogers in her book. This instigated a public row fought out in the press between Milburne and a local Spanish doctor, who used the Semanario de Menorca to voice his opposition to the British surgeon’s pronouncements. One of the accusations made against him was that he was placing the interests of his compatriots above those of the island’s population, when insisting that the sick from the ships be transferred to hospitals ashore. To which Milburne replied that he was acting ‘not as the friend of a particular society, but of the entire human race’. Things settled down when the Royal Navy, perhaps realising the delicacy of the situation, afforded partial compliance with the demands of the islands’ governors by leaving. On inspection of the logs belonging to Invincible and Temeraire for the months of August and September 1811, it is possible to find several references to the sick amongst their crew, as well as the recordings of the death of several sailors, the majority belonging to HMS Temeraire
Whether Milburne ever returned to England after the war or decided to live out his days in Mediterranean climes is as yet unknown, but it is difficult to imagine that someone with such a zest for life did not find a suitable outlet for his energies during the ensuing peace. Perhaps he lies buried in a Balearic cemetery just waiting to be discovered – or to be left in peace, far from controversy’s reach.
Read the Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part I here.
Napoleon’s Stolen Army: How the Royal Navy Rescued a Spanish Army in the Baltic is available to buy here.