Today’s Napoleonic fiction read is a belter – True Soldier Gentleman by a writer and academic called Adrian Goldsworthy.
It’s about officers in the Peninsular war – so is it another Richard Sharpe clone? Well, let’s have a look.
The book opens in Madrid in 1808 as we meet a young ex-pat English artist, William Hanley, witnessing the Spanish uprising against the French occupation forces. Here’s a short snippet:
As Hanley threaded this way through the narrow alleys of Madrid he heard sporadic shots. Within half an hour he had passed half a dozen corpses. Four were French soldiers, very young and thin. One had tried to grow a pathetic moustache, but now lay stripped of all his uniform apart from a dirty white shirt which was covered in a mass of dark, almost black, blood from his cut throat. The fourth Frenchman was older, grey haired and fat. He still wore his officer’s uniform as he hung with his arms and legs nailed to the large timber gates at the back of a nobleman’s house.
The young English artist, an illegitimate son with little money returns to England and joins the army as an Ensign with 106th Regiment of Foot. As you probably know, there was no 106th Regiment fighting in the Peninsular so Goldsworthy is able to crow-bar his characters into virtually any action of the war. It’s a great device, similar to Bernard Cornwell and his legendary “South Essex”.
As the 106th regiment begin to gear up for war, we meet some more of the key characters, including my favourite – Hamish Williams. I find him interesting as he is what was known as a ‘Gentleman volunteer’. Volunteers were a very interesting group of soldiers during this era. They were generally young men from decent families who couldn’t afford to purchase a commission…they would therefore be allowed to join the regiment and fight in the ranks alongside the men, but would mess with the officers and were considered to be ‘gentlemen’. If they performed well, then eventually it was likely that they would be commissioned. According Goldsworthy, one in 20 commissions in the Peninsular were obtained this way.
The book follows then follows the progress of the 106th as they prepare to travel to Portugal. We get a brilliant insight into their pre-deployment training, which seems to involve rather sophisticated war games. I found this portion of the book, with the regiment still at home in England, a little slow but I also had to appreciate that this is the first in a series and so the author is trying to introduce a large cast of characters. It was also good to see a slice of every day regimental life such as the introduction of the officer’s mess concept by the units Commanding Officer, Colonel Moss.
Eventually the regiment is dispatched as part of Sir Arthur Wellesley’s expedition to liberate Portugal, and this is where the book finally picks up pace. The 106th are battered at the battle of Roliça – here their exploits are very closely based on those of Colonel lake’s 29th Foot, which I talked about extensively in my podcast episode about Roliça. Here’s a short excerpt from the book to give you a sense of the authors excellent prose, we join the story as elements of Moss’s battalion emerge near the top of a steep gully:
Before they could advance some red-coated soldiers appeared on the crest among a patch of bushes. The men had deep blue facings and fronts to their jackets. More appeared, and they began to walk down the slope towards the men of the 106th. ‘Who the hell are they?’ Toye said aloud. ‘Must be Fane’s men,’ replied Moss with assurance. The French wore blue, or those loose greatcoats they had already seen. Only the British Army wore red. A formation of redcoats marched in step directly in front of the 106th. They were in company strength, an officer with his sword held high marching on their right. ‘Bloody fools must be lost,’ said Moss. ‘They’re going the wrong way.’ The scattered group of redcoats now raised their muskets upside down in the air and began to shout. ‘Suisse! Suisse!’ They were nearest to Headley, who began to walk towards them. He looked baffled. The formed company kept moving towards the 106th and then halted on command. ‘Where are you going?’ yelled Moss. ‘Who is in charge?’ The red-coated soldiers raised their muskets to their shoulders, the men looking as if they turned to the right. There was a series of clicks as musket locks were pulled back. ‘What the devil . . .’ Moss was stunned. ‘We’re English, you damned fools.’ The officer’s sword swept down. ‘Tirez!’ The red-coated soldiers from one of Napoleon’s Swiss regiments pulled the triggers of their muskets. Flints sparked and set off the powder in the pans which flared and ignited the main charge. The noise and the flame and the bursts of smoke were almost simultaneous as the volley thundered out at the 106th.
As someone who has studied the battle I leant a lot from that passage – until I read it I hadn’t realized that the French defenders faced by the 29th Foot’s real life attack were actually Swiss, in redcoats…I only found a few subsequent references to it in the sources, but it is correct.
The battle scenes in general felt very realistic, with crisp dialogue and just enough historical detail to make a geek like me happy without totally interrupting the flow of the story.
The book did though have one bizarre subplot involving a group of dastardly Russians roaming the battlefield in search of treasure that I found rather strange and pointless – I wont give away the plot but for me it was a distraction and didn’t add much except for a weird potential love interest and what appeared to be some sneaky hanky-panky.
Anyway let’s wrap up this review…So what were my final ratings?
For quality of writing I’d give this an 8 out of 10 – really nice but not exactly the same sort of beautiful prose that we found in our previous review – now we shall be entirely free.
For plot believability I’ll give 7 out of ten – it would have been 9 or ten but the Russian officer roaming the battlefield of Vimeiro cost it a couple of marks in my eyes.
For historical accuracy I have to be generous and say 10 out of ten – if there were mistakes I didn’t spot them.
So that’s a total score of 25 out of 30 – one mark higher than now we shall be entirely free.
In conclusion I think Adrian Goldsworthy has done a cracking job and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.