True Soldier Gentleman

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 27th January 2011

In the early summer of 1808, the young and ambitious new colonel of the 106th Foot is keen to take his men into action against Napoleon’s all-conquering armies. And the chance comes sooner than expected when war erupts in Spain, provoked by the shocking massacre of civilians by French soldiers in Madrid.

As the raw recruits march and drill in the English countryside, the officers each have their own reasons for looking forward to some real soldiering. For Hamish Williams, lacking the means to purchase a commission and serving in the ranks as a Gentleman Volunteer, proving himself in action is his only hope of advancement. For the easy-going Billy Pringle, the rigours of a military campaign might keep him from the drinking and womanising that threaten to be his undoing. For Hanley, a failed artist forced by poverty to pursue a military career, it’s a chance to discover the limits of his distaste for soldiering. While for the suave Lieutenant Wickham, the battlefield is the perfect place for some judicious social climbing.

But as they set sail for Portugal under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley – an ambitious general desperate for his chance to prove that Napoleon is not unbeatable – the only thing they can be certain of is that they have left the civilised formalities of Regency England far behind, as they plunge headlong into a savage and brutal war against a seemingly invincible enemy.

‘Williams had lost all track of time. His mouth was dry from biting off cartridge after cartridge and tasting the salty gun powder. His cheeks were stained black and his shoulder ached from the recoil of the heavy musket each time he fired. There was no time to think. Simply go mechanically through the motions of loading, just like during the long hours of training, and then fire forward into the smoke. He could not see the French, but they were there, and now and again balls plucked through the dense cloud. With a dull thump like a man slapping a ham, one shot hit Private Tout standing beside him.

He looked puzzled and turned towards Williams. ‘Oh sir, they have killed me,’ he said in a flat voice and then toppled backwards.

Williams had just raised another cartridge to his lips. He paused for a moment. Then he bit off the ball, put a pinch of powder into the pan, dropped the musket’s butt to the ground, poured the main charge down the muzzle, and spat in the ball. He aimed at where he had last seen the French. Let his breath half out and squeezed the trigger. The noise was indistinct over the general clamour of battle, but the butt slammed into his shoulder and he began again…’