Friday, 23 June 2017

A last word (for now) on Waterloo

I was pleasantly surprised at the interest shown in last week's post on the battle of Quatre Bras. It quickly got almost twice as many page views as my best read posts over the nearly seven years (seven years!!!) I've been doing this. It does suggest a lot of interest in the events surrounding the battle of Waterloo, so this week I'm posting a slightly edited version of an article that I wrote for Antoine Vanner two years ago on his excellent Dawlish Chronicles blog.

Waterloo 200 years on – and its lessons for today

This month marks the 202nd anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Do the events of 1815 have any lessons for us today? Quite possibly, they do.

Although, with the benefit of hindsight, we all know that Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, the generals and politicians of the time had celebrated his fall with the capture of Paris in 1814. The Corsican Corporal's exile to Elba seemed to mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars as clearly as the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War. 

Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray

As with the end of the Cold War, the British were quick to cash in the peace dividend. The country had been at war more or less continuously for 21 years since France declared what would become known as the War of the First Coalition on 1 February 1793. At the height of the Napoleonic wars the British had over 200,000 British men under arms (supplemented with a further 50,000 foreign and colonial troops). The cost of the war had been horrific. The direct economic cost to Great Britain is usually put at £831 million (a figure quoted by no less a body than the Royal Statistical Society in 1915). In 21st-century value terms the sum would, of course, be massively greater. The cost led to an increase in the national debt to £679 million, more than double the country's GDP. Such an enormous amount of money meant significant disruption to the economy of the whole country. The number of young men taken away from the land in order to fight impacted on agricultural production and the significantly increased taxation also hit the economy. In 1814, the British Treasury issued perpetual bonds (now known as consols) to consolidate some of the outstanding debt. Some of these bonds have still not been paid off and form part of 2015's National Debt.

Little wonder that, as soon as Napoleon was apparently safely ensconced on Elba, the government took immediate steps to reduce military expenditure. Most obviously, troops were demobilised. Other economies included such things as abandoning the line of semaphore towers that connected London to the Channel ports. Ten thousand muskets stored in the Tower of London were sold off.

The folly of these economies was obvious as soon as Napoleon returned to France. The semaphore towers were rushed back into service. The muskets were repurchased (at a substantial loss to the government) before their new owner had even had time to remove them from the Tower. 

More critically, Wellington desperately needed troops, but there were few troops to be had. Many of those that were available were new recruits with no experience of battle. More experienced men had either been discharged or sent to America to reinforce troops fighting a completely separate war over there (the war in which the British famously burned down the White House).

Just as nowadays we are assured that in times of war the Regular Army can be efficiently and effectively supplemented with troops from the Army Reserve (the old Territorial Army), so, in 1815, there was a militia that could be called up to serve "in time of war or insurrection". But though Bonaparte was back in Paris, was Britain at war? Legally, it was not, and so the government dithered, refusing to call up the militia until the last moment. When militia troops did arrive, it was so late that many of them went into battle wearing their militia uniforms rather than those of the regiments with which they were now serving. Although paintings made after the event all show Hougoumont defended by Guardsmen in their scarlet, many of the defenders had not yet been issued with Guards tunics.

Closing the gates at Hougoumont by Robert Gibb
(with acknowledgement to the National Gallery of Scotland)

Wellington asked that he should have 40,000 British infantry and 15,000 cavalry to be sent to Belgium. All he got was around 30,000 British soldiers of all arms, only 7,000 of them veterans.

Wellington was particularly angry that his Staff officers had been dispersed and he was unable to rely on the coterie of veterans who had surrounded him during the Peninsular War. Wellington was a great believer in what would nowadays be called cronyism. He ran the army with a group of men he had grown up with and felt comfortable alongside. Now they were scattered – dead, serving in North America, or otherwise unavailable for active service. Instead, Wellington found himself surrounded with increasing numbers of well-connected young men who sought service on his Staff as a good career move. He wrote, "I am overloaded with people I have never seen before; and it appears to be purposely intended to keep those out of my way whom I wish to have." He ordered back to his side any of the men that he thought that he could trust, even those he had some personal antipathy to. Men who thought they had seen the last of military life found themselves once again under the Colours. The irascible Picton was recalled so unexpectedly that he famously arrived with no uniform at all and rode into battle (and to his death) in civilian clothes.

Unsurprisingly, Wellington was unimpressed with the force available to him: "I have got an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced staff."

The meeting of Wellington and the Prussian Commander, Bluecher by Daniel Maclise
(National Army Museum and Parliamentary copyright with all rights reserved)
In the end, of course, Wellington won. But it was hardly the great British victory it is painted as. Forty per cent of the troops in the army Wellington commanded were German-speaking and, of course, it was the arrival of Blucher's Prussians that finally saved the day. Earlier in the afternoon there had been panic in Brussels, as the civilian population was convinced that the Allies had lost. It was, indeed, as Wellington is regularly misquoted as saying, "A damn close run thing". A British army, ill-prepared and outgunned, pulled through because, in the end, but fighting men stood their ground, dying by the thousand, sacrificed to what we would now call defence cuts and Whitehall bungling.

The lesson of Waterloo is that you never know where and when you might have to fight. The militia was mobilised too late and, though they appear to have fought bravely, Wellington was always concerned that their lack of experience could all too easily have resulted in them breaking under fire. Two hundred years later we do not have the stomach to see British soldiers die in those numbers but we do not appear to be taking the steps that are needed to ensure that we do not put an “infamous army” into the field again.

A Word from our Sponsor

My book, Burke at Waterloo, has a lot about the battle and the run-up to it, but it is first and foremost a spy story. It starts in Paris with British agent, James Burke, hunting down Bonapartist spies. (There really were an awful lot of them about.) The pursuit moves north and, when Napoleon escapes from Elba James Burke finds himself fighting alongside Belgian troops, so he sees the Battle of Waterloo from the perspective of the Belgian cavalry. It's an exciting read and will give you an idea of what Waterloo and the buildup to the battle would have felt like. It's only £2.99/$3.64 on Kindle and also available in paperback. If you enjoy reading about Waterloo, you will probably enjoy the book.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The battle before Waterloo (the one everyone forgets)

The battle of Quatre Bras took place exactly 202 years ago today. Arguably, it was a much more important battle than Waterloo. The French came within a whisker of winning it and, had they done so, the Allied forces would have been unable to stop Napoleon taking Brussels. Yet few people know about it.

The battle features in my book, Burke at Waterloo and I blogged about it on the 200th anniversary. That post became one of my all-time top ten most-read blog posts, but I know that I have more readers now and I imagine that many of you never saw it. So here it is again.

Quatre Bras

Wellington fought two battles against Napoleon in June 1815. The first was 200 years ago today – two days before Waterloo.In England, a tiny hamlet like Quatre Bras would probably be called Four Ways. It was a few houses and some farms clustered around a crossroad on the main route north from Charleroi to Brussels. Napoleon was pushing as fast as he could toward the Belgian capital, desperate to get his army between the armies of Prussia and Britain so that he could pick his two opponents off one after the other.

Wellington had not expected Napoleon to move into Belgium through Charleroi and only a small force was positioned on that road. These were troops under the command of the Prince of Orange. Books like Sharpe's Waterloo present Prince William as an incompetent ass and his troops as cowards. You can't really blame Bernard Cornwell for taking this line: it's been a commonplace since Wellington returned victorious from a battle which everyone in London needed to believe had been won by the British. The role of Prince William and his Netherlands Army was played down then and has been played down ever since. Only recently have people began to question this story.

Prince William had 7,000 men and eight guns at Quatre Bras when the French arrived with 20,000 men and 60 guns. Another 20,000 Frenchmen were marching north to join them. There was, it seemed, no realistic prospect of Prince William's troops holding the position. Indeed, by 2:30 the French were close to taking the crossroads. Prince William's forces had increased to sixteen guns and 8,000 men, but this was all that stood between Marshall Ney and Brussels.
Nobody knows why Ney hesitated. It seems likely that Napoleon's orders had been unclear and that Ney was reluctant to commit himself without definite instructions. It was the first of a series of command blunders that suggest that Napoleon was no longer the brilliant general in complete command of his forces, as he had been before Elba. Some of his most solid and dependable marshals were no longer available to him and he was forced to put too much reliance on Ney, who, though undoubtedly brave, was not a master of strategy. 

Brunswickers at Quatre Bras by Richard Knotel

While the French hesitated, Wellington was desperately moving forces from Brussels to defend the position at Quatre Bras. Throughout the afternoon both sides moved more troops into the fight. On several occasions, it seemed that the Allied positions must be overrun, but, every time, reinforcements arrived at the critical moment. The fighting was intense. Much of it was in fields of rye which grew up to eight feet high. The infantry could not see each other. (It's quite possible that if Prince William had been able to see how many French he faced at the beginning of the fight, he would have withdrawn.) There was extensive use of skirmishers and the cavalry often advanced in very loose order, unable to group for a classical charge because of the amount of woodland at key points around the battlefield. The result was a very fluid fight, much of it very close quarters. At one point, the Duke of Wellington himself was almost captured, riding a little too far ahead of his line. He famously escaped by fleeing at a gallop toward his own troops and ordering them to lie flat as his horse jumped across the British soldiers who then rose to their feet and drove off the French cavalry that had been pursuing their general.

Black Watch at Quatre Bras by William Barnes Wollen

At the end of the day, both armies were in a similar position to where they had been when the engagement had started. To the east, though, Napoleon's troops had been successfully driving back the Prussians in a separate battle at Ligny. Wellington feared that, as the Prussians withdrew, Napoleon would be able to do exactly what he had planned: defeat the British the next day at Quatre Bras and then turn his army against the isolated Prussians. Wellington therefore took the decision to withdraw back toward Brussels, in the hope that he would be able to form a common front with the Prussian army further north. We now know that that was exactly what happened. The Prussians were able to join up with Wellington's forces at Waterloo, and it was their arrival which finally produced an Allied victory. At the time, though, Wellington was taking an enormous gamble. With no proper communications with the Prussian army, he could not be sure that they would not just retreat for home. In fact, there were elements in their command who wanted to do just that, and Napoleon was confident that they were not going to assist the British forces. The French, then, saw Quatre Bras as a victory. The day after the battle, the British were withdrawing northward, and the French were in pursuit. The British, by contrast, have always considered Quatre Bras as an Allied victory. An overwhelming French force was held at bay for a full day, with the British making an orderly withdrawal to a previously planned position in order to meet up with the Prussians at a strategically optimal point.

In fairness, I think that Quatre Bras is best regarded as a score draw. The French were not defeated, but they were delayed. The British were able to withdraw in good order and prepare themselves at Waterloo for the battle that would take place there two days later. What is clear is that if Ney had smashed through Prince William's lines at the point when he had overwhelming superiority, the French troops would have been on Brussels before the British could position themselves to mount an effective defence. It is quite probable that Napoleon would have ended by defeating the British. The Prussians, already beaten at Ligny would have withdrawn to Prussia, leaving Napoleon in control of Belgium. Many of the Belgian army would have rejoined the Eagles.

Could victory at Quatre Bras have saved Napoleon? In the long-term, probably not, but he would have seen off the British and Prussian Armies and been in a much stronger position to negotiate some sort of settlement with the great powers. It is possible that the young Prince William, inexperienced and totally out of his depth – and maybe only trying to hold the position because he lacked the strategic understanding that it should have been impossible to do so – changed the course of European history. It is also clearly true that the British victory at Waterloo was made possible because of the outstanding courage of the Dutch and Belgian troops who were later to be dismissed as "Waterloo cowards".

A Word from our Sponsor

The battle of Quatre Bras is described in reasonable detail in Burke at Waterloo. ("A good general account of the battles described." - Amazon review) Burke at Waterloo is available on Kindle at a ludicrously cheap £2.99/$3.64. Click HERE for the link. It is also available in paperback.

Friday, 9 June 2017

James Brooke: the fact behind the fiction

It seems a lot more than two weeks since I was in Windsor talking about the life and times of James Brooke.

Me, talking about James Brooke

Brooke is the central character of my first novel, The White Rajah. The story is a work of fiction, but Brooke was a real person and the main events in the book are all true. Some of Brooke's comments are lifted verbatim from his letters, so he literally speaks to us in his own voice.

James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant (National Portrait Gallery)

Why write a book about a man who, although quite famous in the mid-19th century, is almost unknown today? There were two reasons. When I first came across James Brooke, on a visit to Kuching in Borneo, I was immediately fascinated by the man and what he had done with his life. He had set off to the Far East as a merchant adventurer with some vague notions about extending British influence. His driving motivation seemed to be simply a yearning to escape from the mundane world of the respectable British middle classes. He was, I suspect, the sort of man who would be fun at a party but you would hardly trust with a serious business venture. By a combination of pure luck (being in the right place at the right time) and a willingness to take risks to seize an opportunity he found himself the legitimate ruler of Sarawak – a small country in Borneo. Although other authors have written about him (notably Nicolas Monsarrat, whose book is also called The White Rajah) it's been a while since he has been a popular figure in British fiction. George MacDonald Fraser went some way to remedy this with a walk-on part for Brooke in Flashman's Lady, but I thought he deserved more. I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching his life and wanted to share it with as many people as I could.

The second reason was that I wanted to write a story about why good people do bad things. I imagined a fictional war on some remote island where our hero, who had become involved in the conflict out of the best of motives, ends up committing a horrible atrocity. In today's world understanding how these sorts of things happen is probably as important as it has ever been. When I tried to imagine the background for such a story, I realised I already had it. Brooke was such a man. He set off to be an enlightened, liberal ruler and, by and large, was. However, when marauding pirates from neighbouring tribes threatened "his" people he was happy to call in the Royal Navy to put an end to the problem, which they did with such enthusiasm that reports of the subsequent massacre led to questions in the House of Commons, half a world away.

The massacre at Beting Marau

It's easy to take the view that Brooke was just an evil colonialist, killing the native inhabitants whose country he had stolen from them. In fact, this is far from the truth. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – had already had their country stolen from them by the Malays and Brooke, by taking rule from the Malays, almost certainly improved the situation of the Dyaks. All the evidence is that he really cared about these people and that is part of the reason why he was so ruthless in putting down other native tribes who did not live in "his" territory.

Nowadays it is common to see the whole issue of colonialism in very black and white terms, but it really was much more complicated than that. Brooke's story therefore offers an opportunity to see how somebody with the best of intentions, wishing only to do good, could end up in a position where it is easy to denounce him as a murderous imperialist.

I'm biased: I think Brooke was a hero, albeit a flawed one. However, I have tried to be even-handed in the telling of his story. The story is told from the point of view of Brooks interpreter, a man who is caught up in the events but still sees them as, to an extent, an outsider. He is so shocked by the massacre that he leaves Brooke and Sarawak, convinced that what had happened was wrong.

I hope that you might read the book and make your own decision. It's available on Kindle for just £1.99/$2.44. Click  HERE for the Amazon site. You can also buy it in paperback.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Book review: Violation by Sally Spencer

I haven't done a book review for a while, so I thought I'd throw this one in as an extra blog this week.

I've really enjoyed the Inspector Blackstone stories set in late Victorian London, so I welcomed the chance to see what Sally Spencer did with a contemporary detective tale. 

Given that the stories I've read are all set in England, I was surprised to find this firmly established somewhere in the American rustbelt. Our hero (and first person narrator), Mike Kaleta, is an East Coast liberal who has moved to this tiny town where his wife's father is the mayor. His marriage, though, has collapsed and he is now a liberal fish out of water in a police department staffed largely by thugs and headed up by an idiot. The only exception is Caroline Williams. Rule-bound and officious as she is, the only woman on the detective force is, inevitably, attractive.

Kaleta and Williams are set to work together to solve a series of paedophile sexual assaults. I must admit to finding the detail of some of these assaults quite unpleasant and I'm not sure how suitable this kind of crime is for what is, essentially, a lightweight novel. Still, the seriousness of the crime does provide some grist to what might otherwise be an overly predictable tale of corrupt officials, dirty cops and a heroic committed crime busting team. At first I thought the story, which pulls up every cliché of hard-boiled crime fiction, far too predictable. (Kaleta’s romance with Williams is inevitable from the moment that he tells us how much he hates her whilst trying to guess what her legs look like under her uniform.) I suspect Spencer would say that she was aiming for homage rather than rip-off and eventually I decided that she does pull this off. She’s not Raymond Chandler but her style has wit and a hard-boiled humour. Turning down a courtesy blow-job from the town whore, Kaleta says, “I hate to look a gift-mouth in the horse.” In a story-so-far aside he tells the reader, "Only a couple of days ago I forced two cops off a cliff, and now I've sunk to lying. By tomorrow I'll probably be stealing from the cookie jar.” More importantly, the prose bowls along, carrying the reader with it. As the plot develops it becomes a little less predictable than you might have expected, although anyone paying attention will have spotted the evil villain more or less when they first appear with "Evil Villain” stamped across their forehead. Still, the twist at the end is worth waiting for and I found that, for all my reservations, I had genuinely enjoyed the read. I'll probably read another (for a sequel is as predictable as Kaleta’s enthusiasm for bourbon). I hope Ms Spencer won't be upset, though, if I admit that I would read another Inspector Blackstone story first. But then I write about the 19th century, so that's what you'd expect, isn't it?

'Violation' is available on Kindle for £2.99/$3.85

Friday, 2 June 2017

Adventures in time and space

We got back from Buenos Aires just under two weeks ago. Most of Burke in the Land of Silver is set there and it's a place I love to visit, enjoying walking the streets that the real James Burke would have known in 1806.

The Manzana de los Luces is one of the oldest buildings in Buenos Aires

Almost as soon as we were home, I was off to Windsor (admittedly not that far from here). There, practically in the shadow of the castle's 12th century Round Tower, I gave a talk on James Brooke (1803- 1868), hero of The White Rajah. 

Me and James Brooke: he's the one on the left
The next day we were off to Wales, where we worked our way north to Fort Belan. It's the only fort dating from the American War of Independence to have survived in Britain. Why a fort in Wales because of a war in America? Because American privateers had been known to raid towns on the West Coast of Britain (notably Whitehaven) and a fort to protect the approach to Caernarvon seemed like a good idea.

The battery at Fort Belan, guarding the Menai Strait.
I'll be writing a lot more about Fort Belan and the Napoleonic re-enactors I met there in a future blog.

Hijinks with the Anglesey Hussars at Fort Belan

For now, though, we briefly move a couple of thousand years back, with a flying visit to the Iron Age hill fort at Dinas Dinlle.

Iron Age ramparts at Dinas Dinlle

Dinas Dinlle is only a couple of miles from Fort Belan. Looking at these two fortifications, so close together in space but so distant in time, was fascinating.

Over the Menai Strait in Anglesey we were able to explore yet another fortification. Edward I's Beaumaris Castle was started in 1295 but never completed. It is, though, very beautiful and has World Heritage status because of the perfection of its design.

Even without the castle, Beaumaris is a spectacularly pretty town, though a local told us that almost a third of the houses are now holiday homes. Still, they are very colourful holiday homes.

A visit to Anglesey also gave me the chance to call in on Plas Newydd, the home of the Earl of Uxbridge, who led the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo (as featured in Burke at Waterloo). He lost his leg in the battle and his wooden leg is on display at Plas Newydd. It is supposed to be the first articulated artificial leg ever made and the Earl (by then a Marquess) was said to have walked seven or eight miles a day on it into old age.

After Beaumaris, I wanted to have a look at Conwy Castle, also built by Edward I, but, unlike Beaurmaris, completed. Conwy not only boasts one of the finest castles of the period (like Beaumaris, a World Heritage site) but also a nearly complete town wall. The town was cleared of the native Welsh and became almost an extension of the castle. Even today there is remarkably little development outside the old walls.

Some of Conwy's walls, as seen from the castle
Conwy has prospered over the centuries and the Elizabethan merchant's house at Plas Mawr is a remarkably well-preserved and beautiful building.

Even as we drove south from Conwy, our trip through history was not quite over. We turned off the main road at Llanelltyd to find Cymer Abbey, built in 1198 and closed as part of Henry VIII's Reformation. It was always a small place and little remains, but the ruins of the Abbey church give a tiny glimpse into a long-vanished world.

A few days away in Wales have taken me from around 2,500 years ago, through an era of castles and abbeys into the world of Burke and the Napoleonic wars. Living in Britain, I tend to take all this for granted, but this break has highlighted just how lucky a historical novelist is to live here.

I'm back in London now, with no plans for more than the odd day away for a few months. I'll be trying to catch up with everyone I've neglected since the beginning of April and blogging about Argentina and my talk on James Brooke and the efforts of the Anglesey Hussars at Fort Belan. For now, though, I have post to catch up with and novels to write. I'll be back on-line soon. Until then, why not buy a book about James Burke or one of the John Williamson series? Just click on the covers for links to the Amazon pages.

Friday, 26 May 2017

An astonishing tale from World War I

My plan this week had been to write something about James Brooke, perhaps following up any ideas that had come out of my talk on his life last night. Then I remembered that I have to spend Friday driving to Wales. I'm going to see the Anglesey Hussars at Fort Belan on Monday and we're making our way there by slow stages.

Anyway, all this activity means I don't have time to put my own blog together today, so I'm delighted to be posting one of the contributions that Marsali Taylor sent to cover my holiday break.

Marsali has a particular interest in women’s history. She has written Women’s Suffrage in Shetland and transcribed the diaries of an old lady she knew when she was a child: Ysabel Birkbeck, who was an ambulance driver on the Russian Front in 1916. Marsali is in the process of revising her edition of the diaries, Forgotten Heroines, using Birkbeck’s own typescript. She hopes the final version will be published later this year.

Marsali's web site is at and her Facebook page is

Aunt Ysabel

When WWI began, Dr Elsie Inglis, one of Scotland’s first women doctors, offered the War Office two front-line units staffed entirely by women. ‘Go home and sit still,’ she was told. Her reply was to create the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service, funded through the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. They established the first hospital outside Paris, attached to the French Army, and Dr Inglis herself went to Serbia. She and two others remained there even under German occupation, while the equally intrepid women with her marched over the Serbian mountains to safety.  When Serbia was relieved, Dr Inglis returned to Britain. She was already ill with the stomach cancer which was to kill her a year later, but she once more led a unit of 75 women to go with the Serbian army to the Romanian front.
         I came to the story of the indomitable Dr Inglis through my equally indomitable Aunt Ysabel. She wasn’t actually my aunt; we spent my childhood summers on her brother’s estate in the Highlands, and she lived in the next cottage along, six miles by boat from the road end. She had a head of snow-white curls, and wore the faded blue tunic and wide trousers of a Chinese peasant, a dress she’d adopted as a teenager when visiting her missionary brother-in-law. She bathed in the burn, read by Tilley lamp and cooked on an ancient gas stove, using provisions sent by post from the Army and Navy stores in London. Chaffinches flew in and out of her kitchen, and she’d take you round the back of the cottage to show you the story of the night’s wildlife in the muddy patch there: ‘That’s the dog fox’s pawprint – that’s an otter cub.’  

Aunt Ysabel at the helm of Mine.

         What I hadn’t known, as I’d helped carry buckets of stones to make a new jetty for Mine, her dinghy, or forced down her tar-black tea on picnic expeditions, was that Ysabel Birkbeck had driven an ambulance on the Russian Front in 1917 – until we bought her house after her death, and I found her diaries, two black-bound books bulging with tiny photographs and watercolour sketches.
         Reading the diaries made me really see how World War I was the turning-point in Edwardian women’s emancipation.  The Buffs, as the drivers called themselves, to distinguish themselves from the ‘Greys’ or medical staff, were mostly ‘surplus’ county daughters who’d resigned themselves to a life of good works and flower arranging.  This was the most interesting time they’d ever been offered, and they were determined to make the most of it.
         The women sailed from Liverpool in August 1916. They learnt Russian and mechanics on the journey out, and met Serbian officers who were to become friends (characteristically, in this photo, Aunt Y is the one talking to the cat).

         They had a fancy dress party to celebrate arriving in Archangel (Aunt Ysabel went as Puss in Boots ‘with wire whiskers stuck through a soft Balaclava helmet and wearing my jacket and field boots and at the beginning of the evening a rope tail.’)  Their two days in Archangel included a visit to the house of Peter the Great, and tea at the Cafe de Paris. They left by train, singing It’s a long way to Tipperary behind the Ship’s Band – ‘formed of firemen and stokers – till roars of cheers drowned out our song. Hundreds of Russian soldiers, which we had not seen because of the dark, were massed on either side of our way. They cheered as I have never heard men cheer ...’ From being surplus daughters, they’d become heroines.  

         When their train arrived at Odessa, they were treated as the guests of the city, and invited to the Opera, where the Grand Duchess Mary Pavlova asked to meet them, and accidentally coined a phrase which the drivers gleefully used to describe themselves thereafter: ‘Are you a chouveur?‘ she asked one of them, and ‘shovers’ they all became, an appropriate designation given the time they were to spend shoving their cars out of mud holes. From the train, they went on a barge for three days – with food only for one day. 

         They arrived at last on the ‘road’ to Medjidea, where the hospital was to be set up: ‘a worse road than I had dreamed one would ever drive a car over. Water filled the holes and it was impossible to guess a puddle from a pit.’  The heavy kitchen car got stuck, and had to be hauled up by hand. 

         They got to work almost straight away. This watercolour is labelled ‘Road to the Front – shelling ahead.’  

         Ysabel wrote in her diary, ‘My car was the first to be loaded, two stretcher cases, one head case – delirious – and another with a fractured thigh. It was for them the horror, and I, to lessen it as far as possible, and so I drove them back and the memory of it will always be there till I die... the plain, and all those tracks, and not to know the shortest way home, with the wounded screaming at every jolt.’
         They had less than a month at Medjidia before they had to retreat, some by road, some by rail, among chaos and brutality – ‘One saw on every face what we have since called “the mark of the Exodus”. We have all agreed not to talk about it ... we have all seen things we are trying to forget. No, we never, never shall.’ 

         The entire unit was awarded the Serbian gallantry medal (the same medal as the men, to their satisfaction) and some, like Aunt Ysabel, were given an extra medal for courage under fire – in her case, changing a car tyre while under aeroplane fire.
         Safely over the Danube, Ysabel was laid low by a severe case of jaundice, but she was determined to stay, and soon they were back at work, attached to the Russian cavalry near Constanta. Skirts over their breeches were forgotten; they wore layers of greatcoats, and were  reproved by Dr Inglis herself for swearing. In this photo, Aunt Ysabel is on the left; the lively woman by the sentry was ‘Jack’ Holmes, Mrs Pankhurst’s driver.

         By now they’d learnt to flirt in French, German and Russian, and their time here included a magnificent ball, given by the General, with a display of Cossack dancing and singing –  ‘Long coats, tiny waists and shaggy black hats made them fierce and wild-looking ... they stamped and leapt with amazing agility and lightness ... they sang in harsh, rather thrilling, voices of love and war.  When they paused, and I went to the door, I heard guns and it – was it like the night before Waterloo?’
         Rain turned the roads to mud: ‘mud that works its way into ones boots, one’s pockets and one’s hair, mud through which one has to struggle a foot deep at every step.’  It was not a retreat this time, but ‘the retreat. Romania is to be abandoned...’ They spent the night surrounded by soldiers, singing, and were proud to be the last cars across the Danube before the pontoon bridge was destroyed.
         They ended up back in Odessa. Their Model T Fords had survived three months of the roughest treatment, and were due for a rest and overhaul. For the first time the women were bored, as they worked under two male mechanics sent out from Britain: ‘Truly we worked as British workmen should, and do, the whole world over. Slackness has entered our bones. Punctually, at 1, we knocked off for the full dinner-hour...’

         They still managed to have fun at the Opera, and Birkbeck persuaded a sledge owner to let her drive his horse. She and her friend Teddy were sent of to Remi with a ‘bolshoi pacquet’, and were taken under the magnificent wing of a Georgian officer, Alexandre, who was bound for the front.  They returned in a hospital train owned by a Grand Duke. 

         They couldn’t drive during the winter months, because the roads were snowed up, so Birkbeck and others applied for leave. The plan was to go home via St  Petersburg, but they arrived there in March 1917 – just in time for the Revolution. They had another narrow escape when someone fired on the new regime’s police from their hotel. English sang-froid coped even with that: ‘Such a mob as poured into our room – soldiers, factory hands, old men and young – all carrying firearms or knives. We cordially welcomed our visitors (never anger a man with a gun) – and gave them cigarettes ... ‘ After that, they showed one new officer how to wear his sword-belt, and cleaned the rooms of three officials.
         They finally escaped via Finland, and weren’t allowed back; the British Government was desperately trying to get Dr Inglis and her women out of revolutionary Russia. Dr Inglis refused to go until the Serbian regiments, the last Serbian men, were recalled with her. She arrived in Newcastle in November 1917, and died there two days later. A service was held for her in Westminster Abbey, and she was buried in her native Edinburgh.
         Birkbeck and her friends headed for France instead, joining FANY. She was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Bronze star for her coolness and courage ‘in continuing to transport wounded under violent bombardment’ at Verdun. When WWII came, she returned to London, and drove an ambulance once more in the explosive nights of the Blitz. This photo shows her celebrating VE day. 

         She was an amazing lady. I feel privileged to have known her.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Dancing tango in Buenos Aires

We’re just back from Buenos Aires so I’m going to indulge myself with the odd blog post about it. It is loosely relevant to my books, of course, because Burke in the Land of Silveris mostly set there. Burke, though, never gets to dance tango, because that didn’t exist in 1806 when he arrived in the city. For us, though, tango is one of the joys of being here. We get to dance tango in all sorts of places, from a sort of house party in San Telmo, to a courtyard in one of South America’s oldest buildings, to a bandstand in a park. The range of different styles and different approaches to the dance was wonderful. London’s growing tango scene offers some variety (even a bandstand in a park) but there is nothing like the range that you get in Buenos Aires. That’s one of the reasons that people travel from all over the world to dance there.

Of course, although we enjoyed all these different environments, we spent most of our time in regular clubs, safe from the increasingly frequent and violent rainstorms that can make journeys outside an adventure at this time of year.

Of all the traditional clubs, the most traditional that we danced at was El Beso which, on a good night (and we were lucky to dance there on good nights) has one of the strictest lines of dance I know.

Tango enthusiasts in London talk a lot about line of dance. It’s the procession anti-clockwise round the room that characterises the most formal tango. Suffice it to say, you don’t see a lot of it in London, which is maybe why dancers there attach an almost fetishistic importance to it.

Dancing in El Beso pushes the concept of line of dance about as far as it will go. It is a unique experience. You have two or three feet between you and the couple ahead and two or three feet between you and the couple behind. Once the place starts to fill up there will be a second line of dance that means you have perhaps three feet toward the centre of the floor. Thanks to tables tight against the floor stepping outwards is just impossible.

This being Buenos Aires people do promenade rather than showing off on the spot, so the ronda moves slowly but steadily throughout the dance. You have your space and you stay in it. If the ronda slows, you take a small step towards the centre, maybe with a simple figure and then back into your space. It sounds limiting and dull, but it isn’t. You don’t have to plan your exciting step sequence; you don’t have to worry about navigation. You make one of the small range of steps open to you and you make them small and as near perfect as you can manage. It’s tango zen, both demanding and liberating.

Why, then, am I irritated by the constant obsession with line of dance in London? 

Because El Beso illustrates perfectly why it is never going to happen in London and an almost-but-not-quite-perfect line of dance can be worse than a relaxed free-for-all. (Buenos Aires has them too. An evening at Milonga X a few years back won’t be forgotten in a hurry.)

For the kind of dancing you see in El Beso to work everyone on the floor has to be totally committed to making it work. You can probably cope with one couple who don’t keep in place. You can maybe even cope with two, provided they are doing their best. After that it just breaks down. Because the joy of a very strict line of dance is that you are dancing not just with your partner but with the whole room. And if you don’t respect the room as much as your partner, it just isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t happen in London and, contrary to legend, it doesn’t happen on most floors in Buenos Aires either. The strict line of dance is to the average Saturday night what pate de foie gras is to meat-paste – but not everybody wants to eat pate de foie gras all the time and we would get very annoyed if people took to Facebook to tell us that people who prefer other meat-based products are ignorant and stupid and shouldn’t be allowed in decent restaurants. Yet not only do people insist on lecturing others about strict line of dance but some even put up little diagrams explaining how the rest of us should move around the floor. It’s just passive aggression and we’re better off without it.

Dancing tango in Buenos Aires is lovely. It’s a unique experience. One of the reasons I like Argentina is its almost heroic resistance to globalisation. Most people speak little or no English; Amazon has failed to make significant inroads and bookshops flourish; chain stores (besides Carrefour) have yet to displace local businesses. Argentina is its own place and dances tango in its own style. At El Beso (as in most traditional clubs), men and women sit separately. You are shown to your seat and that’s where you sit. There’s no free for all and swapping of seats as you do in London – or would if London venues ever offered enough seats for everyone to sit down. Light levels are high enough for communication from the men’s seats to the women’s to be possible by the subtle glance – the cabaceo that invites a woman to dance. The London version of these traditions is an embarrassing compromise. It desperately tries to balance modern notions of freedom and mingling of the sexes with a tradition based in the values of the 19th century Catholicism which was the background to the dance in Argentina. One of the joys of travel is to appreciate the differences between cultures and one of the joys of coming back home is to bring back ideas that will integrate with your own world, not to seek to impose alien values on it.

I really recommend El Beso. If you want to dance like that, it’s the price of an air fare well spent. I’m looking forward to going again. But not everyone wants to dance there and many people lack the technical skills required anyway. They are going to dance the way people dance in almost every other club in the world – vaguely anti-clockwise and doing their best not to kick anyone. Provided they manage not to kick me, that’s the most I have the right to ask for. It ought to be the most anyone else asks too.

Meanwhile, next Thursday ...

That’s enough about tango for now (though for some reason posts about dancing are almost always popular). Next week I’ll be writing about James Brooke, hoping that someone says something interesting at the talk I’m giving about him in Windsor on Thursday (the 25th). What do you mean, you haven’t got tickets? It’s at 7.30 at Waterstones and you can buy tickets HERE. I hope you can make it