Remembering Blood on the Snow
On the 1st May 2016 I blogged about HEART OF OAK, following a question from Stephanie Moore Hopkins on her own Layered Pages blog about characters in fiction. Stephanie sent over some questions and one of them was:
What are the common movements your characters make?
A thoroughly good question indeed. So I sat back and thought about that. It was easy, right? Um, no. You see, I never intend my protagonists (I'm talking about the Soldier Chronicles series in general, rather than my unpublished works which stretch from Hastings 1066, medieval period, Tudor and Elizabethan) to be similar or take the same decision or act the same. I want each one to clearly be individual. Right? It's what I wanted when I started to write them, but this single question dissolved my thinking straight away. I feverishly looked back on the novellas - from LIBERTY OR DEATH to the latest TEMPEST - and worryingly considered perhaps there was some discrepancy.
Luckily, even with Lorn Mullone, who is in two of the six stories (so far), the characters do have their own voice, BUT they do share a common theme and I answered with this:
"England expects that every man will do his duty" Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson signalled from HMS Victory when the sea battle of Trafalgar was about to commence and I think it's entirely relevant to this question. My protagonists are always beset (in some way or another) a task that they will try their best to achieve. It's about going up against something required of them, almost a test, and it could be perceived a 'life lesson'. Will it make them? Break them? Whatever happens at the very start of the story they will have changed by the ending.
HEART OF OAK sees Captain of Marines Simon Gamble tasked with infiltrating the Maltese island of Gozo and capture a fortress all of which is under French control. The story starts in 1799 and by then, a French army under General Napoleon Bonaparte had sailed to Malta, captured it, plundered it, before moving onto North Africa to pursue a dream of a French colony. His true aim was to secure first a base in the Mediterranean and then Egypt, which could threaten British trade links with India (land crossing). After a skirmish moving across Gozo, Gamble's second-lieutenant is murdered by a French captain and escapes to the fortress. Gamble hopes to kill the Frenchman in the assault and NOTHING will stop him.
So when I got to thinking about BLOOD ON THE SNOW, I wondered if the protagonist, Jack Hallam, would do the same. Were there common movements? Would he risk everything to avenge a friend? Risk his career and his friendships? Yes, without a doubt. Despite their physical differences, they are both cut of the same cloth. But that's ok. The two stories are very different and I do try to make each one distinct. There's nothing worse then reading about a character/characters of a series when the story is the same and there is no further scope of development. Samey plot/character gets boring. Gamble and Hallam are soldiers at heart, both good men and they have their flaws. Phew.
OK, so why blog about BLOOD ON THE SNOW?
I have written about a separate story arc that I would like to try the traditional route with (a publishing dream) and the first of the books is called THE DESERT LION. The Soldier Chronicles started off as backstories to the major characters of that book, which is set in 1801, Egypt, when the British arrive to throw out the remnants of Bonaparte's army. Going back to what I said about HEART OF OAK earlier with the French taking the Maltese island in 1798 and then landing in Egypt, things by 1799 have taken a downward turn for them. Soon after landing Horatio Nelson carelessly obliterated their entire fleet at The Battle of the Nile, stranding the poor Frenchmen. However, numbering in their thousands and still relatively fighting fit, they marched many miles across the border into Syria to take the vital port-city of Acre. Sir Sidney Smith, a rogue and a brilliant naval commander, had formed an unlikely alliance with the city's commander (nicknamed The Butcher for his liking of torturing prisoners in despicable ways) and helped defend the city. This is the action which Gamble was involved in. The French suffering from the plague and battle losses withdrew back to Egypt and Bonaparte secretly left to go back to Paris. By 1801, a disillusioned French army hung onto Egypt. THE DESERT LION begins and Jack Hallam is a central character, a grizzled veteran of the Revolutionary Wars, but what was he like earlier in his career? He has a nickname 'Old Steadfast'. How did he acquire that?
BLOOD ON THE SNOW is Hallam's story. He has such a presence in THE DESERT LION that I wrote his backstory first (even though BLOOD ON THE SNOW is the third novella in the series) to flesh him out. The story is set during a testing time early in the war at a time when the British army was struggling. Hallam is a lieutenant in the 28th Regiment North Gloucestershire Regiment. I chose that particular regiment because of their action in Egypt and retraced their steps to find out where it was based. I could have settled for the fighting of St Lucia or Gibraltar, but it was during the Flanders campaign that honed the regiment, and some historians believe that it also help design the blueprint of the modern army that ended up in Portugal 1808 and won the Iberian Campaign. Flanders showed where the army was weak with its outmoded concepts and structure.
The Flanders Campaign of 1793-1795 was conducted during the first years of the French Revolutionary War by the allied states of the First Coalition and the French First Republic. The allied aim was to invade France by mobilising its armies along the French frontiers to bully it into submission. In the north, the allies’ immediate aim was to expel the French from the Dutch Republic and the Austrian Netherlands, then march directly to Paris. Britain invested a million pounds to finance their Austrian and Prussian allies. Twenty thousand British troops under George III’s younger son, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, were eventually tied up in the campaign.
Austrian Prince Josias of Saxe-Coburg was in overall command, but answered directly to Emperor Francis II, while the Duke of York was given objectives set by William Pitt the Younger’s Foreign Minister, Henry Dundas. Thus, from the outset, mixed political machinations and ignorance hindered the operation. The French armies on the other-hand also suffered. Many from the old royalist officer class had emigrated following the revolution, which left the cavalry severely undermanned and those officers that remained were fearful of being watched by the representatives. The price of failure or disloyalty was the guillotine. After the Battle of Hondshoote, September 1793, the British and Hanoverians under the Duke of York were defeated by General Houchard and General Jourdan. Houchard was arrested for treason for failing to organise a pursuit and guillotined.
By the spring of 1793, the French had virtually marched into the Dutch Republic and Austrian Netherlands unopposed. In May, the British won a victory at Famars and then followed up the success for the siege of Valenciennes. However, instead of concentrating, the allies dispersed their forces in an attempt to mop up the scattered French outposts. The French re-organised and combined their troops. Dundas requested the Duke of York to lay siege to Dunkirk who had to abandon it after a severe mauling at Hondshoote.
By the end of the year, the allied forces were now stretched. The Duke of York was unable to offer support the Austrians and Prussians, because the army was suffering from supply problems. Dundas was withdrawing regiments in order to re-assign them to the West Indies. The French counter-offensive in the spring of the following year smashed apart the fragile allied lines. The Austrian command broke down as Francis II called for a withdrawal. At the Battle of Fleurus, the defeated Austrians; abandoning their century long hold of the Netherlands, retreated north towards Brussels. The loss of the Austrian support and the Prussians (who had also fallen back) led to the campaign’s collapse. The French advanced unchecked.
By the autumn, the Duke of York had been replaced by Sir William Harcourt, but with rumoured peace talks, the British position looked increasingly vulnerable. The only allied success of that year was that of the ‘Glorious First of June’, when Britain’s Lord Howe defeated a French naval squadron in the Atlantic, sinking a ship and capturing six.
The winter of 1794 was one of the worst any one had ever imagined. Rivers froze, men died in the sleep, disease was rampant, and the soldier’s uniforms fell apart. It was an extremely harsh winter, because the army was starving due to the collapsed commissariat. Troops started to steal from the local inhabitants. The officers were too lazy or indifferent to control them, and discipline amongst some units broke down completely.
By the spring of 1795, the limping British reached the Hanoverian port of Bremen. They arrived back in Britain, weak, ill and emaciated. Some never fully recovered and left the army.
The Flanders Campaign demonstrated a series of weaknesses in the British Army. The Duke of York was given the role as Commander-in-Chief and brought forth a programme of reform. It created the professional army that was to fight with much success throughout the Peninsular War.
The allies abandoned the Low Countries. Britain did attempt to undertake a second invasion of the newly proclaimed Batavian Republic in 1799 under The Duke of York, but it faltered and proved equally disastrous.
Notoriously, a children’s rhyme about the Holland campaign mocked the leadership of the Duke of York:
Oh, The grand old Duke of York, He had ten thousand men; He marched them up to the top of the hill, And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up, And when they were down, they were down, And when they were only half-way up, They were neither up nor down
However, there is another satirical verse attributed to Richard Tarlton, and so was adapted where possible, the latest being The Duke of York. The oldest version of the song dates from 1642:
The King of France with forty thousand men, came up the hill and so came downe againe
Many officers who would continue to serve their countries received their baptism of fire on the fields of Flanders. Arthur Wesley, the future Duke of Wellington, was colonel of the 33rd Foot and saw his first action at the Battle of Boxtel. The Austrian Archduke Charles fought in Flanders, as did several of Napoleon’s marshals: Jourdan, Ney, Murat, Mortier and Bernadotte. The Prussian General Sharnhorst, another great reformer of the Napoleonic Wars, saw battle under the Duke of York.
The Flanders Campaign may have ended in failure, but the 28th was one of the regiments that remained unwavering and dependable. Lord Cathcart wrote in his General Orders, ‘‘Whenever danger is to be apprehended and difficulties to be surmounted, you have the 27th and the 28th to call upon’’.
The 28th returned home in May 1795, and later embarked for the West Indies. A gale known as ‘Admiral Christian’s Storm’ sprang up when the convoy was at sea and four companies of the battalion made it safely to Barbados to assist in the capture of St Lucia in 1796. The other six companies returned home and were sent to garrison Gibraltar. The complete regiment went on to Malta and sailed with Sir Ralph Abercromby’s Expeditionary Army to Egypt.
You can see what a person was up against during the campaign. Drunkenness, lethargy, corruption and a self-promoting/self-serving drive that some officers had - also in one of the worst winters recorded. I wanted my protagonist right in the thick of it. I named him Hallam from my own family genealogy and he was christened John, but there were so many (historical) John's in THE DESERT LION that I subsequently changed it to Jack to avoid confusion.
I remember writing the opening during the winter of 2008. A relationship of ten years to a girl from Iceland had failed and I was left in alone in the house we had bought together and it was a weekend. I felt friendless, sad, and angry and I seemed to channel that into the characters. It was cold and I imagined British redcoats crossing snowy field. It was not a tight march of disciplined troops in immaculate uniforms. It was a rabble of desperate men:
It was dawn in Holland.
Under a blue-grey winter sky, a column of soldiers marched across frozen crop fields. Snow had fallen during the night, and in the morning, the world had become a crunchy white bleakness. The wind whistled as it whipped across the fields, ice hung from fence posts and sheeted the tufts of grass so that each blade looked as though it was encased in glass. The bare furrows were hard and slippery, puddles were iced-over, and the men’s breath plumed above their heads.
The soldiers were from a company of the 28th, a British regiment raised in North Gloucestershire, and their destination was a farmstead half a mile away. The feeble sun clung to the horizon, throwing their rushing shadows far ahead of them like a newspaper’s exaggerated caricatures. The wind tugged snow from the ground, whirling it in a glittering dance, and straight into their faces. Most of them wore their thick issue greatcoats, but some were without winter dress altogether. The British army had suffered horrendously from the Flanders climate; the men’s coats had literally fallen apart. Some redcoats had been issued with simple jackets without any lace and facings as replacements, some wore local homespun coats that looked crude and ill-fashioned, and some even wore clogs made from willow-wood, because their boots had rotted away. The unlucky ones, without the winter coats and gloves, had tied scraps of cloth around their hands and bare feet. The smart bright red of the uniform had long faded to a dull purple, or pink, and was now so heavily patched with mismatched cloth that the men resembled vagabonds rather than soldiers. Their unshaven faces were wrapped in scarves made from common sacking, or what they had looted and begged along the way. Some had lost their black round hats, and either wore forage, or simple peasant hats tied in place under the chin with twine.
Their vacant expressions and sunken cheeks, made dirty through weeks of campaigning, betrayed that they were exhausted and bitterly hungry.
The Duke of York’s British and German Army had joined their Austrian and Dutch allies by landing in the Austrian-owned Netherlands, and had marched expecting an easy victory. But the French, swept away with their new republicanism, had turned on them with an unforgiving fury, speed and superior numbers. Defeat after defeat had left the British fighting alone, but the winter brought more misery, and they were forced to retreat across the frozen Gelderland in the fervent hope of reaching the harbours in the north where ships would take them home.
They had marched for days. It was a struggle with the roads being flooded, iced over, or left as glutinous traps. Time after time, they had stopped and waited while a gun carriage, or wagon was shifted by brute force. Rain and snow fell with barely a break, and the few Dutch they saw stared at them with suspicious eyes. There were no cheers of welcome for their allies. There was nothing but marching, pain and cold.
An officer, mounted on a black charger, trotted to the front of the company; the horse whinnied, hot steam pluming from its wide nostrils. He looked ashen and seemed to wince in rhythm to the horse’s stride.
‘Damn your haste!’ he said angrily. ‘What’s the hurry, man? Do you need to void your bowels?’ His sneering comments were directed to an officer who marched confidently ahead of the men.
‘We’re late, sir,’ the officer said reproachfully. He was a lieutenant and just stared ahead rather than turn to face his superior. Flecks of snow dotted his bicorn hat and his long chestnut-coloured hair that was tied back with a frayed black bow.
Captain Andrew Clements hawked once and then spat onto the ground. ‘Late? Late for what exactly? You have a whore waiting for you, Lieutenant? Is that it?’ He had an insolent face, cold and antagonistic. He held a canteen to his mouth, gulped and then wiped his unshaven chin that bristled with black and silver hairs.
Lieutenant Jack Hallam ignored the remark. He knew that the canteen contained rum and that Clements was already drunk.
He usually was.
‘Pick your feet up, Private Tipton,’ Sergeant Abraham Fox bellowed. ‘I’ve seen Dutch girls who are more soldierly than you are!’ Fox was a dark-eyed, burly man, and his face was a horror of ancient scars. He turned to the rest of the company. ‘Pick up your stride, all of you!’ 'That’s the way, Sergeant,’ Clements said, hiccupped and then burped. ‘Onward, you laggard scum!’
Hallam glanced behind; the men marched quietly and solemnly. They might look like beaten tramps, but the 28th had spent the last two weeks fighting a rear-guard that had astounded even the most cynical adversaries and brought praise from the generals. Men may have died in their dozens from the miasmic fever caused by the swampy countryside, and crippled by frostbite, but the despondency in the men of Number Eight Company was irrevocably due to Clements.
The forty-year-old captain frowned constantly as if everything bothered him. He had dark hair turning white, protuberant eyes, and such a languid demeanour that he always appeared to slouch. His family was exceedingly wealthy and owned a thousand acres of woodland in the Forest of Dean, but he was never one for sharing such personal information, especially to his fellow officers. A month ago the brusque captain had ordered Private Wheeler to be flogged for suspected thievery of a pocket watch. However, it turned out that the popular private had not been the culprit and died from his wounds, caused by the four hundred given lashes. It became apparent that Clements had simply misplaced his watch, and Wheeler had died for nothing. The captain was not reprimanded and that galled Hallam severely. Clements verbally abused the men, even more so when he was drunk, so the remarks were frequent and daily. And so by now, December 1794, morale, already strained, had dipped to an all-time low.
Hallam knew the men deserved better than contempt, and when Clements was indisposed, he personally took command and encouraged and praised them. The captain had once told him querulously that the ranks were filled with ‘every deplorable piece of refuse imaginable’. To control and forge the men into the professional soldier’s hours of monotonous drill and harsh punishments were relied upon. There had been a skirmish a few days back and the men had performed admirably; every movement had been a drill-master’s delight and every command was obeyed crisply as though they were performing on parade for the Duke of York. Clements paid them no heed. He had sat scowling from his saddle, no doubt suffering from a hangover, but Hallam had congratulated them and witnessed a spark of appreciation. It wasn’t much; a tiny flicker of gratitude, but it was a start and one he wanted to build on.
Hallam is young and keen to show his worth, but will not be swayed by men of higher rank or men socially higher on the scale. Hallam is from Buckinghamshire and I was asked once why wasn't he from Gloucestershire where the regiment was linked to as all British regiments had been for a few years. The majority of the battalion would be, but a small minority would have transferred in so I thought that was ok. Besides, I originally decided 'an outsider' would create some tension with men of another county, but that idea was weak when I discovered by years of conflict many battalions sometimes weren't even 50% from the same county.
Hallam might be keen to show that he was an able officer because he wanted to command a company of his own (except that officers of that time - if they had the funds - could purchase the next rank up and had nothing to do with ability at all) but had to have a drive. A story demands it. What else could Hallam want during the campaign? It would be survival, of course, but he also had a reason to live and that was his young wife.
Hallam was from Wendover in Buckinghamshire and at twenty-nine was newly married. He had met Isabel at a ball held in her home town of Lyndhurst, in the New Forest, when the battalion was on standby to join the army in March of this year. He hated such occasions. He disliked dancing, had no interest in small talk, but as soon as they were introduced he had felt his heart strings being pulled. Soon, they had both fallen deeply in love.
Isabel was a thin girl, not yet twenty, beautiful, loving, and considerate. He absolutely adored her – physically and spiritually. They got married in a tiny parish church on a beautiful day, just six weeks after meeting, and just days before the regiment had sailed away. He remembered the parting; she had kissed him hard, her tongue shimmering, exhilarating and loving as she curled it around his. She drew back, eyes glinting with tears.
‘Come back to me, Jack,’ Isabel had pleaded. ‘Please come back.’
He had held her tightly, not wanting to let her go. ‘I will, my love. I promise.’
Hallam brought out a silver locket from his pocket. It gleamed brightly despite the morning’s bleak sunlight. He had it made for the wedding. Inside was a small miniature of her portrait. He touched her softly painted face with a finger nail. It still felt odd being married, even after eight months, but it was a good feeling nonetheless.
It's all Hallam wants to do in BLOOD ON THE SNOW - to see his wife again. I wrote the tagline to the story ''Fight not for glory, but to survive''. I think it brilliantly summed up what the men were thinking of. I also wrote his desperation for Isabel because I was desperately lonely myself. Jack pines for his love. Love is at the heart of the story. Ensign Julian Stubbington was created to be Hallam's 'student'. I wanted Hallam to go through Flanders as though it were a huge lesson for him. Poor Stubbington had his fate chosen when I outlined the story, but his death had such an impact on Hallam that it changed him to become a better officer - one who will listen and teach, rather than ignore and preach. I did cry a little when Hallam realises he has been killed. Both of us suffered from the guilt. Captain Andrew Clements - I had a lot of fun writing him. I did work for a manager who was an alcoholic and a lot of the time he was funny, good fun and sadly a lot nicer than he was when he was sober. Clements isn't based on anyone though. He was there for Hallam to topple him and to show what a good officer could do with his men rather than treat them with contempt. Clements epitomises those officers who are instantly dislikeable and those few who were likely to be killed by their own men, rather then the enemy. I fear that Clements would be cashiered for incompetence after the campaign before he had a chance to be murdered though. Good riddance to rot! The story ends on Christmas Day and it leaves Hallam even more desperate to reach home, but it was a beautiful way to conclude, one of my favourite books of the series so far: He sat back in the chair, sagging slightly, and unfolded Isabel’s letter again and smiled. It was dated 25th May, and she wrote that she was two months pregnant. The baby must be due any day now and Hallam could already be a father, and the feeling was so wonderful that tears pricked at his eyes. If it was a boy, he would name him William after his own loving father. The sound of singing outside the room echoed up along the street. German voices and they were singing carols. Soft music played. It was Christmas and he was a captain and a father. A father! He took a long swig of the brandy, eyes glistening in the firelight. It was a magical Christmas
BLOOD ON THE SNOW - Holland, 1794, and all hope is lost. Faced by appalling weather and pursued by an overwhelming enemy, the very survival of the British Army is at stake. With little supplies and ammunition, Lieutenant Jack Hallam of the 28th Regiment must prove himself by leading his company through the full horrors of the withdrawal, where morale is desperately low, and where looting and ill-discipline are rife. The men must endure freezing temperatures, disease and battle if they wish to see home again, and if any officer can accomplish this feat, then that man is Jack Hallam. BLOOD ON THE SNOW is a gripping tale of honour, bravery and self-sacrifice in the darkest of times. Fight not for glory, but to survive. ***** WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT BLOOD ON THE SNOW ***** ''From the very first page BLOOD ON THE SNOW is a terrific page-turner and there's a steadily increasing excitement that leads to an all-stops-out finale. Fantastic!''
''David Cook writes with such realism that he is, in my opinion, fast becoming a master of historical storytelling.''
''Cook throws us into his most vivid and thrilling action-packed story to date where the sound of musket fire, the roar of cannon, and the chill threat of the French Dragoons, brings the harrowing Flanders Campaign to brutal life in an intense battle of survival.''