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Remembering Heart of Oak

I was honoured back in 2016 to answer a series of questions from Stephanie Moore Hopkins for her Layered Pages blog titled 'Characters in Motion'. Stephanie asked me to talk about the habits of my protagonist and I answered that thought-provoking question by talking about Simon Gamble from HEART OF OAK, the second of the Soldier Chronicles. This is set during the liberation of the Maltese Islands which see's Gamble and his Marines sent behind enemy lines to capture an impregnable fortress called Dominance on the island of Gozo.


The book's title references a very popular military song and the chorus goes:


Hearts of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men,

We always are ready: steady, boys, steady!

We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again. The chorus encapsulates what the story is about: fighting, courage and triumph. 


So why talk about Gamble? Well, I try to make all my protagonists as human as possible. I never make them perfect because that is incredibly unrealistic. Perfection? Pah! In my opinion there is no such thing. I can't stand it when you read about someone who is 'perfect'. It's sickening. And do any of us (who aren't blinded by love or addled by drink) know of someone who is perfect? In our hearts, we don't.


Now being completely honest with you, I start by making the protagonist someone who I would like people to have a drink and chat with. Really? Yes. It's that simple. Give them a back story so the conversation would be interesting, but I make each one an individual. No clones. Now Simon Gamble, a captain of a British Marine company, was described by one reviewer as a Richard Sharpe-esque character, which I think is a rather unfair summation. I should be flattered that a character of mine should be of the same cloth as Bernard Cornwell's immensely popular Rifle officer, but they aren't really alike. Richard Sharpe is a thief, a murderer and a man thrust into a position he is more than capable of, but  some people don't agree with that. He is no gentleman among his fellow officers. He joined the army to escape a hanging, which was a common practice with the British legal and military system of the time. A man gaoled and awaiting death for a petty or serious crime could find himself donning a brick-red serge coat and escape his execution by a magistrate. However, to join the British Army in the period, which the Soldier Chronicles takes place (1793-1815), he might find that disease would likely kill him first long before a French bullet could. Sharpe is one of the lucky one's to survive skirmishes, battalion volley's and bayonet charges. He is also unique in that he marched in the common ranks as a Private before acquiring a battlefield commission for saving Arthur Wellesley's life at the Battle of Assaye. This act was not unheard of, but quite rare. Richard Sharpe is a true hero.

Would you have a drink and chat with Richard Sharpe if you could? Absolutely. The things he could tell you about what's he's seen and done. So how could  - or perhaps should I compare Simon Gamble to Richard Sharpe? Well, I can't to be honest and I don't. Two different characters. The Sharpe novels number twenty or more volumes and Cornwell has been writing about him for thirty plus years. Sharpe is an institution and Bernard Cornwell is a National Treasure. Hard to scale those heights with just my novella.


The Soldier Chronicles are novellas and so I don't want pages and pages of backstory when the stories are snapshots of history - the story starts straight away and plunges into action and adventure. However, Gamble does have a backstory. He is designed to be a man at ease in warfare, a warrior-like figure, ruthless, daring, steadfast and because of this, he is disfigured from battle wounds and emotionally scarred. An unpublished prequel story to HEART OF OAK called VANQUISHER is about Gamble and his marines at the Siege of Acre under the command of Sir Sidney Smith. Unfortunately, Gamble's young second-lieutenant, Bob Carstairs, is killed during the fighting and this leaves Gamble hugely affected by it. A few months later HEART OF OAK begins and Gamble has tried to blot out the pain and sadness with anger and a hatred of the French as a race. Misguided? Pig-headed? Careless? Yes, Gamble certainly is. He is flawed. He is wounded and he is troubled. When he goes after a captured French captain murders Sam Riding-Smyth to escape, Gamble cannot shake revenge from his bones. He see's this as the point of no return. The Frenchman must die, it's the only course to follow and Gamble will hunt him down until the end of time. Two officers under his command dead. Is Gamble cursed? Is he unlucky? No, this is the price of war. It's unfair and heart-breaking. It taps into the feeling that soldiers have when they are in tough situations together. They speak of a bond closer than family. They would die for each other, if needs be, and the letters written by survivors of those fallen 'brothers' on foreign fields (even in modern times) shows the profound affect it has. There is a grief that, in some cases, cannot even be spoken about. Soldiers returning from the battlefields of WWI and WWII, for example, refused to discuss what they had witnessed with anyone. Some later did, but it took many years and it was still painful.


Gamble and Sharpe share a few characteristics such as loyalty to their men, unwavering resolve and a determination to see the enemy defeated. And that's why I decided Gamble would command a company of hard, tough and war-like Marines. With all the Soldier Chronicles stories, each are connected to another story; THE DESERT LION that I'm trying to get traditionally published. It all sounds a bit vague and forgive me, but until it get's published one way or another I won't talk about it. Call it superstition, if you like. So the connection to THE DESERT LION is the result of Simon Gamble being created back in 2008 when I had finished the novel. I named him Simon after a friend of mine and just wanted a simple surname like Brook, Cutter, Clarke, Savage . . . and then I thought about his character and everything about him is a risk. Gamble. Bingo!


I wrote his backstory and decided to flesh him out. I described him immediately as ''twenty-nine years old, average-looking with a soldier’s face; sun-darkened, harsh and scarred. If you were to pass him in the street, you would pay him no attention, but if you saw his sea-blue eyes, then you would see that they sparkled brightly, accentuating his rough exterior to give it an odd gentleness that made him memorable.''


Archibald Powell, his rough-hewn sergeant was easier to name. I wanted another tough soldier, someone born in England's docks; a typical brawler, and had his background as a man whose father was a possibly Scottish soldier or seaman of the Seven Years War that had stayed in Plymouth. Powell grew up to fight in the army during the war against the American colonists and acquired his unique twin throwing axes after saving the life of a Shawnee native called Blue Jacket. By HEART OF OAK, Powell carries a musketoon: a firearm with a flared muzzle, and a boarding pike. He is a grizzled man, ever-ready for war. All the Marines are.


Accompanying Gamble in this story is his lieutenant, Henry 'Harry' Kennedy, a level-headed and intelligent man in his twenties who is described as, ''immaculately dressed in his scarlet coat with its long-tails, silver lace, white gloves and a silver gorget.'' Kennedy is well-mannered and educated, and in a way, is Gamble's conscience. Gamble, an officer, but certainly no gentleman is described as wearing: ''His scarlet coat and crimson sash were patched and heavily stitched and he was armed with a cutlass, a straight-bladed sword of extraordinary ugliness. It had a rolled iron grip, a thirty-inch blade, and curiously tied to the pommel was a scrap of a tattered silk. It had belonged to his mother; a parting gift for her young son who promised to return home with enough money to pay for his father's grievous arrears that had cost the family their home. A bone-handled dirk and a large pistol were tucked into his belt, which were also hooked to it in case he dropped them overboard during a fight aboard a vessel.''


The scrap of silk grounds Gamble and reminds him of a failure he has to correct. His story arc goes beyond the Battle of Trafalgar, so it's possible he lives long enough to see his family name restored. With any band or soldiers there is camaraderie and this goes back to the bond they all share. It's important to show this even at the beginning:


'The lads are in high spirits,' said Kennedy.

   'So they should be, Harry,' Gamble said, watching the rocky crest above them with his eye piece, 'they know we're about to do some killing.'

   'Won't we take any prisoners, sir?' asked Second Lieutenant Samuel Riding-Smyth, with abhorrence at the thought of killing all of the Frenchmen. He was petrified and fought down vomit, which was souring the back of his throat.

   'Oh, Sam,' Kennedy said, shaking his head with an act of despair.

   'What happens if they surrender?' Riding-Smyth looked pained.

   Gamble grunted in frustration. 'If you want to take any prisoners, then that's your prerogative,' he announced, but was still watching the limestone hills. 'Do you know the Frog word for surrender?'

   'Capitulez, sir,' suggested the worried lieutenant.

   Gamble lowered the brass tube angrily. 'Fine, Sam. You ask any Monsewer you come across to capitulez. You shout really loud though, as the buggers will be gunners and we all know that gunners are deaf. You shout and hope they lay down their arms and that they don't meet Sergeant Powell first.'

Riding-Smyth 's eyes slid to the grizzled, broad-shouldered sergeant who stared back at him intently, and for good measure, patted one of his axes with a long exaggerated growl.

   'It suits me, sir,' Powell declared. 'The bastards will be easier to kill if they keep nice and still. Saves me the bother.'

   'I will shout, sir,' the young officer said zealously. 'I will indeed!'

   'Good,' Gamble said, turning to his men who were formed up and waiting with expectant faces. The ball was about to start. It was time to dance. 'Company! Forward!'

   'We're not really going to kill all the Frogs, are we?' Kennedy enquired as they advanced up the narrow beach.

   'Of course not,' Gamble gave him a sly wink. 'That's why a boat will remain here. I'll send the prisoners back to the Prince of Waves,' he said, giving the Sea Prince its nickname, 'along with any keepsakes.'

   'Very good,' Kennedy said, then frowned. 'I thought you spoke Frog?'

   Gamble scanned the grassy bluffs ahead. 'You mean Guernésiais?' he asked, of the language of his native Guernsey that had roots in Norman French. Kennedy nodded. Gamble's mouth twisted. 'I understand the words, but I choose not to speak it. It's the language of our enemies. And I will not foul the air by muttering it.'

   'You truly hate them, don't you?'

   'I hate them all,' Gamble said loudly. 'As every Englishman should. Death to the French and every goddamn last one of them.'

   'I've heard that French is the language of love?' Kennedy said with an impish grin.

   Gamble laughed sourly. 'The whores don't care where you're from. Just if you have coin to pay them.'

   …you shall pay life for life, a voice uttered in Gamble's head. He'd heard the saying many times since Acre. Too many times now. A friend had died and the words kept coming back to him. He adjusted his bicorn and looped the scope over his shoulders with its leather strap, trying to force the words from his mind, but without much success.

   'Why don't we turn the prisoners over to the locals, sir?' Riding-Smyth enquired, catching up with his two superiors.

   'Because that's a death sentence,' Gamble replied brusquely.

   Kennedy fiddled with the gorget at his throat, a purely decorative horseshoe-shaped piece of metal that harked back to the days when officers had worn armour like medieval knights. 'As civilised men, we could not simply allow that to happen. Even to our bitterest enemies. However, knowing that they will be fed whatever Slope the Ship's Cook can boil up in his infernal copper cauldron is punishment and revenge enough.'

    Riding-Smyth chuckled. 'At every mess time, I pray to God that He will keep me safe from harm.'

   'He must be watching over you,' Kennedy said, 'because as of yet you've not suffered from any of the maladies that frequent the decks.'

   'The Lord has truly been kind to me,' Riding-Smyth replied vehemently.

   'You've obviously not been introduced to the lower deck whores, young Sam,' Kennedy said wryly. 'When you get back on-board, I'll have a dose of mercury on standby.'


Here: Gamble reveals his hatred for the French, a rage that will grow as the story unfolds. It also brings up his guilt that is plaguing him over Carstairs's death. ''You shall pay life for life'' is scripture taken from Exodus 21:23 and, although I'm not religious, it symbolises an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Revenge.


HEART OF OAK is a story of vengeance and discovering just what that entails. It's a treacherous path. Gamble almost ruins his career and loses his friends in the process. Luckily in the end he realises it. There isn't meant to be a moral to the story, but this is close enough I suppose.


Sergeant Powell wiped sweat from his face with a red sleeve, and took hold of his officer’s arm. 'Is it over now, sir? For the love of God, say it is?'   Gamble turned to stare at the corpse. Blood flowed out from the body like unravelling strands of red hair. Gulls cried overhead. 'Yes, Archie,' he said, the sun catching his ocean-blue eyes. He smiled, relief washing over him like a wave. He fought back tears, knowing that he had been narrow-minded, obstinate, selfish, and that blind anger had almost wrecked his career and ultimately his friendships. 'It's over. It's damned well over.'   A gun banged three times outside the city, a salute to the French and the start of a new chapter in Malta's history. A golden sun glowed on Valletta's domes, roofs and steeples.   It was a day in September on an island in the Mediterranean and for now the world was at peace.

I really enjoyed writing the story and I've been asked if I'll do another story featuring Gamble. I'm sure we'll see him and his Marines again in the not too distant future. I have always been fascinated by the Corps of Marines. Gamble just seemed to fit in with them. I spent months researching about the Corps and wrote this piece for the English Historical Fiction Authors website back in June 2014: The Corps of Marines can trace its commencement all the way to the year 1664 when Britain was at war with the Dutch Republic for control of the seas and trade routes. It became apparent from the Dutch success that infantry units were needed on-board ship what with the increasing use of firearms. The first recognised raised unit was called the ‘Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot’ and soon after was known as the ‘Lord High Admiral’s Regiment’. These were infantrymen recruited from the Trained Bands of London and were the very first soldiers drafted for the roles of marines. The wholly musket-armed ‘Holland Regiment’ that John Churchill, later the 1st Duke of Marlborough, served in as a marine, wore ‘gold’ coats rather than the standard red. Today, the British Marine Corps Colours are still one part yellow to signify the ‘gold’ colour of their ancestral coats. From the late 17th Century through to the middle of the 18th Century there were other regiments raised as marines, or Foot Regiments converted for sea duty. They fought throughout the War of the Spanish Succession, and the fragmented battles of the War of Jenkins’ Ear with notable successes on both land and sea. Once the wars were over, the units returned to their land roles. The Corps of Marines, the infantry fighting element of the Royal Navy, were formed on 5th April, 1755. There were fifty companies in three Marine Divisions; headquartered at the major ports of Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth under the command each of a colonel commandant. Horatio Nelson was Chatham’s colonel in 1795. The marines went on to serve with distinction during the American War of Independence, especially at Battle of Bunker Hill, where they were marked for their ‘cool ability under fire’. Regularly enlisted like the Army, and not by impressment (press-ganged as some myths dictate) they primarily provided the Royal Navy with a force of troops that could fight on land as infantry, of manning the ships guns, acting as marksmen against enemy crews and for close quarter boarding action at sea. Their secondary function was to supress mutiny among the seamen. In fact, their quarters always separated the RN officers’ and sailor quarters. They ensured security details and supported discipline of the crews. The ratio of marines on-board each ship was generally at a ratio of one marine per ship gun. After the Act of Union was passed in 1801, which incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom, there was an influx of Irish volunteers. After 1805 nearly ten percent of each company were comprised of foreigners, mainly Maltese, German, Spanish and Portuguese. Each company on paper was to comprise one captain, two first lieutenants, two second lieutenants, eight sergeants, eight corporals, six drummers and one hundred and forty privates. Each Marine Division also had a grenadier and a light company, but they were abolished in 1804. With disease, shortages and battle-caused deaths, it was highly unlikely that the paper figures were ever met. The marine companies were dispersed throughout the fleet and where needed on land. The marines had their uniforms supplied by the Navy Board, but their dress was that of the infantry. They wore the red coat, with white collar and cuffs. Plumes were the standard colours, white-over-red for battalion companies, green for the light and white for the grenadiers. Officers wore scarlet coats, with white lace and white gloves. Gorgets, worn at the throat, were purely decorative horseshoe shaped pieces of metal that harked back to the days when officers had worn armour like medieval knights. Officer’s carried straight bladed cutlasses with a thirty-two inch blade, a pistol and most commonly a dirk. The marine privates were armed with the Sea Service Brown Bess muskets and the sergeants carried halberds, and then later spontoons or half-pikes. The marines were nicknamed by the sailors ‘lobsters’ because of the red woollen coat, and ‘bootnecks’, a semi-derogatory term derived from the dark leather 'stock' worn round the neck inside the collar which forced a soldier to keep his head up. "Take my sea boots off your neck”, was a saying to imply the marines were wearing a piece of leather cut from the sailors footwear.

In 1802, largely at the recommendation of Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent, the marines were re-titled ‘Royal Marines’ by King George III for services to their country: “In order to mark his approbation of the very meritorious conduct of the Marines during the late war, His Majesty has been graciously pleased to direct that in future the corps shall be called the Royal Marines.” The white facings (collars and cuffs) were given a royal makeover, changing to ‘Royal Blue’. The bicorn was replaced by the black ‘round-hat’ made of felt, but the red coat was retained. The Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) was formed in 1804 to man bomb vessels. They wore blue tunics of the Royal Artillery and nicknamed ‘un-boiled lobsters’ or ‘blue marines’. In 1805, a fourth Marine Division was created at Woolwich and by the end of that year the corps numbered thirty thousand, the largest it ever saw during the Peninsular War. The Corps of Colonial Marines were two units raised in 1808 from former American slaves for British service. They were created at different times and both disbanded after the wars. They were recruited to address the shortage of military manpower in the Caribbean. The locally-recruited men were less susceptible to tropical illnesses than were troops sent from Britain and knew the terrain. The Corps followed the practice of the British Army's West India Regiments in recruiting escaped slaves as soldiers, but were loathed to view themselves as mere ‘slave soldiers’. They were free men and they represented a psychological threat to the slave-owning American society by being armed. They were highly thought of and as competent as their European comrades. They also received free land grants in Canada in return for their commendable service, achieving freedom in which the 'Land of Liberty' had denied them. Three additional Marine Battalions (numbered 1-3) were raised from among the Royal Marines specifically for action in Portugal, Northern Spain, the Invasion of France, the Netherlands, North America and the Caribbean. They were disbanded in 1815. Throughout the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, the Royal Marines were present in every major sea battle: St Vincent, Camperdown, the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, the Dardanelles, Cape Lissa and Aix Roads. They always formed part of any cutting out excursion - seizing an enemy ship by using their ships' boats and taking it from its anchorage by boarding it. They were used in amphibious landings and in 1812, helped disrupt coastal traffic, captured several towns, particularly Santander, and tied up the French Army of the North by not allowing it to reinforce the French Army of Portugal, which was then subsequently defeated at Salamanca. During the Hundred Days Campaign, a RMA company was garrisoned (amongst others) at Ostend to protect Wellington’s rear in the event that the allies would have lost against Napoleon, and would had to retreat to the ports.

After 1815, the Royal Marines would serve its country again around the globe in many actions. However, it was during the wars of 1793-1815 that the force encapsulated the code and spirit of the great fighting force that today is revered throughout the world. In 2014, the Corps celebrated its 350th anniversary by completing a series of global physical challenges in honour to their proud heritage.


HEART OF OAK -  It is December, 1799, and Captain of Marines Simon Gamble has been sent behind enemy lines to capture an impregnable fortress called Dominance on the Maltese island of Gozo. Gamble must lead his lightly-armed men against the prime veteran soldiers of France, in a daring and brutal fight where there can only be one winner. Success means freedom for the Gozitans from their French oppressors; failure means the marines face an unmarked grave on foreign soil. A hero and a soldier to some, but certainly no gentleman, Gamble; battle-scarred and haunted by the horrific bloodshed at the Siege of Acre prior to this mission, must fight a new guileful enemy, even if the price means death or dishonour. This is Gamble's toughest fight yet, and one he knows he cannot afford to fail. For the ultimate battle will be for revenge.

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