Tag Archives: Spain

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell

16 Feb

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell (332p)

Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Badajoz, January-April 1812

The third novel he had ever written, and originally published in 1982, Sharpe’s Company continues the story of British Rifleman Richard Sharpe during the Napoleonic Wars. It is a new year, 1812, the most tumultuous year of the Napoleonic wars, and Britain is finally ready to march into Spain itself. Standing in its way were the twin fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and the monstrous, towering citadel of Badajoz, which the British must take if it were to drive France out of occupied Spain.

The story begins with the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, which was the northern barrier into Spain. Sharpe and Harper lead an assault on the French and are apart of the party which successfully breaches into the city, overwhelming the French defenders and capturing Ciudad Rodrigo. Unfortunately, during the assault Sharpe’s commander and long-time friend Col. William Lawford is severely wounded when a mine is detonated, losing an arm and retires from his post as commander of the regiment. Sharpe, saddened by the lose of his friend, has new issues to worry about as Lawford’s departure meant a new colonel would arrive, and that also placed Sharpe’s captaincy (his gazette had yet to be confirmed) over the Light Company in severe jeopardy. It gets worse for Sharpe, though, when his old enemy, Obadiah Hakeswill makes his return. Hakeswill’s hatred of Sharpe and Sharpe’s of Hakeswill sees them soon feuding when Hakeswill makes his first attempts to wrap the Light Company around his fingers by attempting to rape Sharpe’s mistress and the mother of his child, Teresa Moreno.

Lawford’s replacement, Col. Windham, arrives into camp as Sharpe finished dealing with Hakeswill. With him is Sharpe’s replacement: Cap. Rymer. Sharpe is demoted back to lieutenant and placed in charge of the baggage train as the regiment digs trenches around Badajoz. While visiting the men the French attack but neither side is able to use its weapons due to the rain and it turns into a fight with shovels and spades, eventually seeing the French attackers run back to the city. But in Sharpe’s absence the baggage train had been ransacked – by Hakeswill – and the sergeant made his move against Harper, planting a prized possession of the colonel’s in Harper’s belongings. Harper is flogged sixty times as punishment and demoted to private, handing full control of the company to Hakeswill as Rymer is incapable of leadership.

As Britain prepares for its assault on Badajoz, Windham is charged with leading an expedition to blow up a section of the fortifications. Before the attack, Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, a gift from Sharpe, is taken from him by Hakeswill, as it is a non-regulation weapon. When the Light Company takes longer than expected Windham sends Sharpe to find out the cause of the delay. Sharpe arrives to see the Light Company doing nothing due to Rymer’s incompetence. Sharpe fires at a French sentry and decides to blow the wall himself. Riflemen give him cover fire as he attempts to light the fuse on the powder barrels and barrels explode, but the wall is too strong to be destroyed. As Sharpe falls back into the dam he is shot in the leg by Hakeswill, using Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, until being rescued by Harper.

Sharpe recovers from his wounds quickly enough but is dealt another blow by Windham – he is removed from the company all together under the pretence of allowing Rymer to gain control of the Light Company. Hakeswill continues to control the company, however, and soon sees to it that the Rifleman attached to the South Essex<sup>1</sup> are stripped of their honours, rifles and green jackets, and all returned to the level of redcoat privates. Sharpe intervenes and humiliates Hakeswill by pretending to shoot him with the discarded rifles, to which Hakeswill vows revenge by getting to Teresa, who is in Badajoz, before Sharpe does. Sharpe seemingly might not even be participating in the battle after Wellington picks his brain over the strength of the breach; the general refuses Sharpe’s request to lead the Forlorn Hope (called forlorn as it meant certain death, “somebody has to go first”) and instead will guide those men into position and falling back. Wellington explains his reason to Sharpe as he thinks Sharpe is too valuable otherwise sacrifice during an attack which will likely result in a heavy loss of life.

Sharpe nevertheless ignores Wellington’s order and finds his way back to the Light Company. Upon arrival he finds them devastated by cannon fire, Rymer dead and Windham attempting to lead the attack on the breach. Sharpe resumes leadership of the company and takes them over the breach. Captain Knowles, Sharpe’s old lieutenant, is the first into Badajoz and his men overrun the remaining French defenders and begin to break into homes, raping women and pillaging and destroying. Hakeswill had also managed to climb into Badajoz after conveniently disappearing during the siege, and armed with a bayonet and pistol he sets off in the direction of Teresa Moreno’s home. Knowles reached Teresa’s house first but Hakeswill, who had been following, climbed to the upstairs room where the baby Antonia is and as Knowles enters, Hakeswill shoots him. He then threatens to kill the baby unless Teresa has sex with him as Sharpe and Harper had fought their way across Badajoz. They meet Hakeswill face-to-face in Teresa’s bedroom, only wresting away the child and Teresa when Harper provokes Hakeswill’s madness, but the rogue sergeant escapes through a window, running off into the Spanish night as a deserter. Following the siege Harper is returned as a sergeant and the riflemen have their green jackets returned to them, and Sharpe is praised for his bravery and loyalty, now officially made a captain of his Light Company.

I liked Sharpe’s Company quite a lot. It is one of the Sharpe novels written before the series really took off, still in Cornwell’s infancy as a writer. Thus, like all the early Sharpe novels, it’s a simple story with an easy to follow plot. By no means is it a by the numbers adventure tale – which, unfortunately, some of the later Sharpe novels closer resemble – because in Sharpe’s Company, Cornwell began to properly expand the character and his world by introducing more side characters with their own backgrounds and roles to the story. Hakeswill represents this and would later become extended beyond just the one novel, becoming Cornwell’s favourite villain. Other developments to Sharpe’s character also include facing adversity from within the army, which I enjoyed as something different because at times Sharpe’s independence and free will of the norm is often taken to beyond believable lengths. In Sharpe’s Company he is often brought back down to earth and that’s an important aspect to any character’s development. So to is the emphasis on the bond Sharpe has with his men because such a bond is a crucial side to successful groups of men. Cornwell went to great lengths to explain how and why Sharpe has such a command of the Light Company, a change from the common mistrust and feelings of lack of support that he endured in the earlier novels.

Easy to read, Sharpe’s Company is certainly up there among my favourites in the Sharpe series. There is a certain rawness to the story and the feel of the novel itself that, I think, many fans of this genre and novels like this will find appealing. Obviously, if you had read the previous Sharpe’s there is no reason for you to stop as the remaining novels – the “original series” – are all fantastic. As I always say when reviewing Sharpe novels is if this review has interested you into reading the Sharpe series than go back to the start and read from there. While this novel would actually be great as a stand-alone anyway you would be really missing out on what is a truly fantastic historical fiction series by one of this generation’s great storytellers.

8.5/10.

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“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell

23 Jan

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 1811 (387p)

Sharpe’s Battle is the twelfth book in the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. Written in 1995 at the behest of the production company behind the Sharpe television series (and thus out of order from the original series), it was ordered by them to provide added filler in the series and is dedicated to Sean Bean. It tells the story of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro in May of 1811.

Sharpe and the rest of the South Essex had been tasked to do dull patrolling and scouting on the fringes of the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, a wild and lawless land where neither side had any control. The villages are deserted and people are scarce, but there is a reason for that – the detached French battalion of Brigade Loup, led by the ruthless Brigadier Guy Loup. Sharpe encounters Loup in a recently ravaged village, capturing two of his men caught raping teenage girls. Sharpe, without authorisation, orders them to be executed. Despite Loup’s pleas to hand the men over and allow him to discipline them, Sharpe carries out the executions by firing squad and makes an enemy of Loup off the bat, the fur skin covered Frenchmen swearing vengeance on Sharpe and his men. Back at army headquarters, Sharpe is tasked by Wellington to take temporary command of a Spanish guards regiment sent from the exiled King Ferdinand, the Real Compañía Irlandesa, and train them into proper troops. But that isn’t really the plan. Suspicion is rife that the guard is full of French spies and so Sharpe’s real task is to treat them so mercilessly and make them so miserable that the guardsmen resort to desertion rather than real army life.

The Real Companies Irlandesa is in fact a guard made up of Irish Catholic exiles (most of whom were Spanish born by several generations) and hopelessly inadequate for the task. Many desert on the first few nights while Sharpe butts heads with their insufferable commander, a womaniser drunkard who seeks glory by suicide named Lord Kiely. The fears of French spies are made true, as well, by the arrival of Doña Juanita de Elía, who is Kiely’s lover but also in the employ of the French spymaster, Pierre Ducos (Sharpe would meet him later). Sharpe’s attempts to organise the Real Companies Irlandesa prove nightmarish with desertion rife, useless weapons and inept commanders, but he opts to defy Wellington and Hogan and tries to make a unit out of them after all. Things start to improve until an American newspaper surfaces in the camp, proclaiming brutalities committed by British garrison soldiers in Dublin, which threatened to cause a mutiny among the Irish troops until Sharpe dismisses it as folly. Soon after, a Portuguese infantry battalion arrives at the fort and the following night, Loup attacks the fort. The Spanish and British hole up in the barracks, but the Portuguese infantry are butchered. Sharpe fears they are all doomed, but a massive explosion kills dozens of Loup’s attackers and he departs from the fort quickly. Sharpe and Harper discover that Tom Garrard, an old friend of Sharpe’s in Portuguese service, blew up ammunition carts, causing the explosion, and sacrificing himself in the process.

The Spanish demand an inquiry into the assault and Sharpe and Runciman are set up as a political sacrifice. To avoid this fate, Sharpe attacks Loup’s hideout, but Loup’s Battalion is missing because he has been tasked to join Marshal Andre Masséna, on the move to relieve the besieged fortress of Almeida and on a collision course with the Viscount of Wellington. Meanwhile, Lord Kiely has killed himself in disgrace and the true saboteur among the Real Compañía Irlandesa is revealed as Father Sarsfield, a close friend of Wolfe Tone. Sharpe is then set to administrative duties to guard the ammunition carts and is essentially barred from participating in the coming battle, but he still finds himself involved anyway and links up with “Black Bob” Crauford and the Light Division, finding himself at the summit of the battle where he enacts his revenge on Loup while Wellington wins narrowly his battle. With Loup dead and Masséna defeated there is to be no court of inquiry against Sharpe, leaving him exonerated and back in the good graces of Wellington’s army.

I did not mind the television version – which differs in its conclusion after the first attack by Loup – and I did not mind the novel version of Sharpe’s Battle either. However, it is far from the best in the series and I immediately got the impression Cornwell was writing within parameters. I am sure the production company, who made the request for it to be written, had some set ideas of what they wanted Cornwell to write and thus provide them with a basis of the story. Much of the dialogue from the film is taken straight from the novel. It is little wonder it is dedicated to Sean Bean because the dialogue in the novel was written for Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe, not Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe that appears in the first series. That is often the main criticism levelled at the second series of Sharpe novels, that it is Sean Bean’s Sharpe in written form, and I can see where the character has changed, particularly because this was only written to be made into a movie. Mostly the change is in the dialogue because Sharpe never says “bloody this!” and “bloody that” every few sentences in, for instance, Sharpe’s Eagle, he doesn’t give inspirational speeches, and he is never that cocksure about himself around superiors and blue bloods out of the field. One of Sharpe’s most defining characteristics is his self criticism and immediate demur response to those above him, yet in the novel Sharpe brazenly talks in a way that would probably see him lose his commission in Sharpe’s Eagle. Simply because Sean Bean is allowed to do as such in the films.

As it is, the novel is fine, but it does have a bit of a “well okay” feeling to it at times. In the first half of the novel, before the producers changed the ending, I knew what would happen as I had already seen the film. No matter, I still enjoyed it enough. The action is what one can expect from Cornwell and the bloody and gritty battle of Fuentes de Oñoro makes for a captivating read in its own right, particularly since it is almost wholly told without Sharpe present. However, much of the business with the Real Compañía Irlandesa was often annoying and unnecessary, not to mention implausible – Sharpe even says as much. Just how on earth can an American newspaper be able to report on goings on in Ireland scarcely a month after they had happened and have a printed copy floating among the ranks in Spain? I didn’t get it, and even the most uneducated soldier would have realised it was a forgery. I would be willing to bet money, however, that that was a request from the production team and not something of Bernard Cornwell’s creation as he is far more inventive than that.

I doubt I would ever read Sharpe’s Battle again unless it takes me on a whim. Like I said, it is not a bad novel by any means. It is just a tad on the ho hum side. There were parts I really did enjoy and there were parts that I could have skipped. So should you read it? Well, it depends. If you are working your way through the series, like I am, then I guess it is probably the thing to do. But if you are a casual reader with no interest in reading the lot then don’t bother, Cornwell has written far better books than this one and it would be a shame to spoil your opinion of him.

6.5/10.

“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian

26 Dec

“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian (401p)

Following the death of C.S. Forester in 1968 publishers sought a replacement to the acclaimed Hornblower series of high-sea adventure tales, and so British author Patrick O’Brian was tasked with succeeding Hornblower with his series, the similarly acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin novels. Master and Commander is the first in the twenty part series, depicting the budding friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s doctor best friend, Stephen Maturin, as they trawl across the Mediterranean in King George’s Royal Navy.

It is 1800 and Jack Aubrey, a shipless lieutenant in Port Mahon, Minorca, is wasting away in port. Aubrey meets Stephen Maturin, a poor half-Irish and half-Catalan doctor and natural philosopher, at an evening concert at the Governor’s Mansion. The two of them do not quite get along during this first encounter. A duel almost occurs when Jack Aubrey gets elbowed by Maturin to stop humming while the string quartet is playing. Later that evening, on his way back to his living quarters, Jack Aubrey finds out that he was promoted to the rank of Commander and has been given a command. His joy overcomes his animosity towards Stephen Maturin and they quickly become good friends. The ship’s surgeon having left with the previous captain, Maturin is asked by Aubrey to sign on in that post. Although Maturin is a physician, not just a mere surgeon, he agrees, since he is currently unemployed.

Also introduced into the story are Master’s Mates Thomas Pullings, William Mowett, midshipman William Babbington, and James Dillon, Sophie‘s first lieutenant. Dillon has a secret background as a member of the United Irishmen which crosses with Stephen’s own. Aubrey improves Sophie‘s sailing qualities by adding a larger yard which allows him to spread a larger mainsail. She then is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships. During their journey east, the new captain, Aubrey, takes the opportunity to get to know his sailors and work them into a fighting unit. As he does this, he and the crew explain many naval matters to Maturin (and to the reader) since the doctor has never served aboard a man-of-war.

After the convoy duties, Lord Keith allows Aubrey to cruise independently, looking for French merchants. After a number of prizes are taken, they meet and defeat the Cacafuego, a Spanish frigate, losing a number of crew, including Dillon, in the bloody action and gaining the respect of other naval officers. However, Captain Harte, the commandant at Mahon, has a grudge against Aubrey because he has been having an affair with his wife. His malevolence ensures the victory brings Aubrey and his crew no official recognition, promotion, or significant prize money. On her following escort duty, Sophie is captured by a squadron of four large French warships after a pursuit and a brave but hopeless resistance. The Battle of Algeciras begins, and after a short period as prisoners of war, they are exchanged, missing the fighting. Back at Gibraltar, Aubrey must undergo a court-martial over the loss of his ship, but he is cleared of the charges.

When the movie adaptation of this series – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – was released I was keen to see what’s what and started reading this, but put it down as I found the intensive naval jargon a confusing mess and too difficult to get into, so I just gave up and read something else instead. Now, some five years later, I decided to give it another chance now that I’m a few years older and a little more well read. Reading it now it is easy to see where the high praise for O’Brian comes from because it is very much a good read with an interesting setting, backed up by a simple plot. The characterisation is very strong and developed with all the main characters having their own voice and personality – Aubrey is big and bluff and jovial while Maturin is a different sort, an intelligent secretive man totally out of place aboard a nineteenth century man of war. The supporting cast are equally well set out and interesting with their own unique personalities and backgrounds. It is obvious O’Brian knows the period well and has paid an intensive level of attention to making sure the novel is as close to the reality of the Napoleonic Wars at sea is possible, so all in all, it reads not as a novel about that period but rather as a novel in the period.

But as I said when I reviewed the first novel in the Hornblower series, naval fiction is not for everyone. It is hard to recommend because it is so technical and there is so much to consume and nowhere is this truer than with Patrick O’Brian. It is a maze of jargon and things that are difficult to remember. O’Brian tries to get around this when Maturin is given a tour of the Sophie, where most of the important things are explained, but even then it is given in the manner that you should just know this, and that is that. His style also doesn’t help to create an overly thrilling novel either with long passages of relatively uninteresting descriptive narrative or a style of dialogue that is very flowery. I consider myself to have a pretty good vocabulary but at times I had to reach for the dictionary. Combined with the often multi-page sections of dull narrative and a distinct lack of action, it can be a difficult to novel to get completely absorbed in. It is still clear why O’Brian’s novels are held in such high esteem and I respect that a lot, but I don’t think it’s for me, not yet.

7/10.

“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Oct

“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell (371p)
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Barrosa, Winter 1811

The most recent novel in Bernard Cornwell’s acclaimed Sharpe series is Sharpe’s Fury. Written in 2006 this falls eleventh in the chronological order, and tells the story of the Battle of Barrosa in 1811.

Sharpe and his men are detailed to blow up a pontoon bridge just over the border in southern Spain, but their mission goes awry when a French regiment of the line intercepts them, stranding Sharpe and a small number of riflemen on a broken pontoon with his superior officer. Sharpe is infuriated that the colonel of the French regiment, Henri Vandal, broke the agreement they made and kept his prisoners, among them the likeable Lt. Bullen. They eventually make their way to the last remaining Spanish city not in the hands of France: Cádiz. There, Sharpe finds something else to keep him occupied because anti-British conspirators in the city are blackmailing the British ambassador to Spain, who just so happens to be the Duke of Wellington’s youngest brother Henry Wellesley.

Two years prior Henry suffered the indignity of his wife running off with Lord Harry Paget, later Lord Uxbridge of Waterloo fame (whose fictional daughter is the mother of Harry Flashman), and was now a love-stricken divorcée. Henry had written a series of love letters to his new mistress, a high-priced whore named Caterina Blázquez, and those letters had fallen into the hands of a group, led by a manipulative priest named Montseny, wanting to blackmail the British out of Cádiz by publishing them in a newspaper, so Britain must get them back before the true identity of the author is made public.

Sharpe is chosen by the embassy’s official to get them back – Lord Pumphrey is he, the effeminate diplomat that Sharpe met in Copenhagen (Sharpe’s Prey). Working together Sharpe and Pumphrey eventually destroy the newspaper and retrieve most of the letters, thus sparing Henry Wellesley the embarrassment of his private life being made public. The final third of the novel then takes Sharpe and his small number of riflemen – Harper, Hagman, Perkins, Harris and Slattery – to the Battle of Barossa, as Sharpe wants to get revenge on Col. Henri Vandal for taking Bullen prisoner. As Graham’s allied forces battled Marshal Victor’s French side into a relatively pointless yet bloody draw, Sharpe eventually makes his way across the battlefield to meet Vandal, capturing him amidst the scenes of Sgt. Patrick Masterman’s capture of an imperial eagle.

This is one of my least favourite Sharpe novels. I just found it hard to care about Sharpe’s Fury and the whole time I felt as though I would have rather read something else, like I just wanted it to be over so I could tick it off the list. Yes, of course, it has all the usual expectations of any Sharpe novel – the Battle of Barrosa is told excellently, the villains are good, and the intrigue in Cádiz was quite interesting. I liked that part. Henry Wellesley made for an interesting character, so different from his more illustrious brothers, and I was delighted to see Lord Pumphrey return, as it is a great character. But overall I just struggled to care, I found myself having little interest in the novel as a whole, partly because I somewhat knew what the outcome would be. As a big fan of Sharpe and Bernard Cornwell I persevered and eventually finished it, but I shan’t remember much about it after the letters were retrieved, or have any real interest in reading it again.

I wonder if Cornwell himself cared all that much about this one either – it came in between two novels in his current Saxon series, so it is entirely possible he only wrote it to appease Sharpe fans wanting another novel. I find Sharpe’s Fury difficult to recommend for anyone to read. It offers nothing to Sharpe’s overall story due to the constraints of the ten novels that follow it; the author can hardly add a new dimension or part of his story when ten more novels succeed it, so readers won’t miss out on much if they skip it. I guess one thing that was different about Sharpe’s Fury is that a senior officer in Sir Thomas Graham did not come across as a big-headed incompetent idiot, making it a nice change from the usual description of officers in Sharpe novels. If you are interested in reading it then you know what to expect and it is interesting enough for what it is, but for casual fans not interested in reading all twenty-one don’t bother, go and read one of the better ones. You will not miss much.

6/10.

“Wellington: The Iron Duke,” by Richard Holmes

30 Sep

“Wellington: The Iron Duke,” by Richard Holmes (303p)

Wellington: The Iron Duke is a 2002 non-fiction biography of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by British military historian Richard Holmes. Through a combination of contemporary diaries and letters written by Wellington (an extraordinary number of which have survived) and those of his age as well as biographers and titbits from other studies, Holmes constructs the story of Wellington’s life from childhood to death with a more centred focus on Wellington’s military career.

The opening chapters of Iron Duke deal with Wellington’s childhood and upbringing in Ireland, particularly the difficult life he and his family had following the death of his father Garret Wesley when Wellington was eleven. I say Wesley because that, as it turns out, was the family name until Richard Wellesley changed it in the 1790s. Wellington led a relatively boring early life – he was the third son and an average student at Eton with no direction ready for his adult life – so Richard dominates the early part of the novel. Richard deals with the crippling finances of the Wesley family, the political problems in Ireland and the cut throat environment of British politics.

He eventually lands Wellington an army commission (that being the usual career of the third son) in the 73rd Regiment of Foot as an ensign in 1787. Wellington’s early army career was, like his childhood, on the dull side as he transferred in an out of regiments. From the 73rd he became a lieutenant and aide-de-camp in the 76th, a brief transfer as a lieutenant in the 12th Light Dragoons in 1789, then he moved to the 18th Light Dragoons as a captain in 1791, until eventually he purchased his majority and lieutenant colonelcy in the 33rd in 1793. Wellington had yet to even see military action though, and in between that period of regiment hopping he dipped his toes into the ferocious world of British politics as a member of parliament, but instead chose to dedicate himself to his military career after his marriage proposal to Kitty Pakenham was rejected by her brother.

Wellington first saw military service in the early years of the war against Revolutionary France. He is given his first command, in charge of a brigade at Boxtel, and while the battle was unsuccessful he learned several lessons that would remain with him right through to Waterloo. After returning he spent another year in politics but wanted out from there again, and so he made preparations to go on campaign again. He had been intended to go to the West Indies (and probably to his death) but fate and the sea proved to be in his favour and their ship was blown back to Poole, so Wellington, now a full colonel, was sent to India instead in 1796. Richard Wellesley, as well as second youngest brother Henry, was to join him in India as the Governor-General. The Wellesley brothers plan to shape India in their vision by putting the entire subcontinent under British command, and Wellington leads the way by participating in the defeat of Tippoo Sultan at Seringapatam. Wellington is made commander of Seringapatam and through his influence with Richard is eventually made into a major-general and given dual command of the successful defeat of the Maratha Confederacy at Assaye.

The bulk of the novel concerns, quite obviously, the biggest success of Wellington’s career: the Peninsular War. Wellington is forced to deal with a lot of loopholes and political nonsense before he departs for Spain, chiefly because the Whig Party attacked them for their conduct in India. He also marries Kitty Pakenham a dozen years after he was rejected, although they had both changed drastically. Wellington was now very much the man history remembers him as – cold natured, meticulous, committed and completely wrapped up in his work. He enjoyed a less than warm marriage to Kitty and they were almost always distant from each other.

Wellington soon rises to the top in Spain after a false start. While back in England he submitted his plan to Lord Castlereagh and is made commander of all British forces in Portugal. Over the course of the next six and a bit years, through his attention to meticulous detail and planning, Wellington storms through Spain and drives the French right out. Without getting into too much detail, Holmes gives a concise analysis of Wellington in the Peninsular War, particularly focusing on how he felt he needed to be in control of everything otherwise the war would be a total failure. After the Peninsular War is over there is the brief interlude during the Peace of 1814, but an entire chapter is dedicated to Wellington’s most famous battle: Waterloo.

The final quarter of the novel deals with the second half of Wellington’s life, which was less successful as his military career. Holmes mainly pays attention to Wellington’s inability to move with the times, stating that he was still very much an 18th century Georgian man, but also theorising that one of his main failures as a politician is his dislike of the general populace and a major disapproval of the way Britain had headed in all those years he had spent away. He was completely against integrated democracy and steadfastly believed that the country should solely be in the hands of “men of taste,” in his words. He was also against party politics and believed that the prime minister should have the role of day-to-day management of the country, working for the monarch and not being constrained to the ills and wills of the party. That is not to say Wellington’s time in office was a total failure, though – he did see the passing of the Catholic Emancipation, but otherwise his time as prime minister is far less glorious as his time as commander-in-chief.

Holmes concludes the novel with an epilogue giving his finals thoughts on Wellington’s life and character. It is his character that Holmes finds most intriguing, and his theory behind Wellington’s devotion to duty and tendency to distance himself from affection comes, as it usually does, from childhood where Wellington led a lonely life as Richard dominated the family. It was that upbringing that made him such a humble and modest but also such a great man.

Iron Duke is quite easy to read for a non-fiction biography. Holmes’ concise to the point approach to Wellington’s life makes this a quick read, and at only 303pages it took me no time to finish it. Perhaps it is not the most intricately detailed biography on Wellington ever written, but Holmes does not address the pointless – he never bores us the colour of Wellington’s socks on 13 June, 1804 or whenever – so the reader is only left with the more important details of Wellington’s extraordinary life. Holmes does an excellent job throughout of explaining Wellington’s personality. In modern times he would be called a control freak due to his constant need to be present and able to fix the mistakes of others. After reading it you get the proper impression of what Wellington must have been like as a commander (“failure is not an option” could have easily been coined by Wellington) and it takes little effort to imagine being one of his underlings. Holmes also pays attention to Wellington’s relationship with his brothers – with Richard it was strained and frosty, but Wellington was seemingly quite close with Henry and William. There are a number of excerpts from surviving letters by Wellington to them where he is unusually candid, but his letters to Richard are cold and formal.

If anything, Iron Duke is more of an entry-level introduction to the Duke of Wellington’s life. That is not to say it has been dumbed down, far from it, but Holmes just gets to the point quicker and his analysis of Wellington’s life, at any stage, is concise and easy to understand. It is also honest and Holmes has no problems discussing Wellington’s often sordid private life, namely the string of mistresses he kept throughout his life. I would not recommend reading this if you have already read Elizabeth Longford’s (herself a great grand-niece of Wellington by marriage – husband Francis was the great-great-great grand nephew of Kitty Pakenham) two volume The Years of the Sword biography on him, as this is far less exhaustive. You are unlikely to read anything new, especially on Wellington’s domestic life, and it would be all too familiar. But Holmes’ writing style is easy yet informative and allows the reader to understand Wellington as a person, as a general and as a politician simply enough so they feel like they know the Duke of Wellington at the end of the novel without being bored by the pointless and irrelevant.

9/10.