Death of a Battalion
By Dominic Fielder
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet.
There was no sorrow when I first saw the ledger; opening it in the National Archive at Kew felt reverential. I had dreamt of such a document but now here it was. A time capsule of the dates when Major Gunn, a British commissary officer had signed Hanoverian and Hessian troops into the service of George III.
I look at the images I have of those documents now and still find a new detail in them. They remind me of both the joy and necessity of research and how I need to find the time to return to Kew and study these documents afresh.
The research trip to Kew had been in search of a story and by chance I ended up ‘discovering’ the King’s Germans in the footnote of the ledger above.
In the latter part of 1794, with the tide of war turned hard against the Allies, two Hanoverian infantry divisions had surrendered in the town of Nieuport, the life-line and shortest supply route of the Duke’s army back to Great Britain. The war in Flanders was over in all but name. Although the ravages of the last few months leading to the final winter campaign yielded no large set-piece battles, the damage inflicted upon those soldiers who fought in a series of small and largely forgotten rear-guard skirmishes was great. There were a series of rosters dated between 1793 and 1795. Gunn had travelled throughout German principalities as the British government carried out a series of negotiations to purchase allied troops, particularly infantry, to make good their own shortages and fulfil promises of deployment quotas to Austria. Ultimately, there were never enough men, and by late 1794, the troops that filed wearily into their winter cantonments on the western banks of the Rhine, outside of Arnhem, were a shadow of the force that had marched towards France twenty months earlier.
At the time, Nieuport was a location that held little significance and there were two regiments to choose from, the 5th and the 10th. I may have tossed a coin; I can’t remember now. Either way, I ended up with the 10th and decided on the 2nd battalion. The plan was to tell their story, as truthfully as was interesting, within the bounds of fiction. And when the battalion died, there would be no sorrow. I would be free to tell the final tale of a confused retreat and my characters could be deployed as I saw fit. That was the plan.
Except that history has a way of wanting to interfere and the more that one researches, the more a writer feels duty-bound to tell it.
Nieuport had been a perennial source of worry to the British. The French had threatened it in September 1793 shortly after the British debacle at Dunkirk. Furnes had fallen as part of a clever lightning offensive in the spring of 1794 but Nieuport had held out, manned by a garrison of Hanoverian, Hessian and émigré French troops. Only when cut off and surrounded, by July 1794, did the defenders finally submit. Von Hammerstein, the Hanoverian commander, was offered a stark choice. The redcoats could march into exile with the honours of war but the émigré troops would be shown no mercy. Everyone of them was put to the sword as traitors of the revolution. Third brigade, to which the 5th and 10th belonged, would never see those winter cantonments that bordered German soil.
The challenge now though, on the cusp of writing a third book in a series of four that will tell this part of the war, is that 2nd battalion is no longer faceless. I’ve come to love the characters, even the ones that I created for readers to loathe. Throughout the next book, The Queen of the Citadels, they will be plunged into the forlorn struggle for Nieuport. Not all will make it, though each will fight tooth and nail as I type out the words that condemn them, no doubt. Those who do, will become the flotsam of an army, so badly scarred by its efforts in the low countries that six months after it crossed the Rhine, the ledger shows 433 men on sick parade and 1056 still hospitalised from the force of 15,000 that had left Hanover in March 1793.
When 2nd Battalion was no more than an appendage to a page, I had no qualms about their destruction. But now Sebastian Krombach, Lieutenant Erich von Bomm, Captain Werner Brandt, Colonel Jacob Neuberg at al are real to me and a small but loyal band of readers. In truth, some of that decision can be put off until book, An Imperial Betrayal (nobody knows it’s called that yet!). When the moment comes to wield the knife, my sorrows will not be single spies, but legion for the death of the 10th and my fine battalion.
The King of Dunkirk
The King’s Germans Book #2
May 1793: The French border.
Valenciennes, Paris then home! Every common soldier knows the popular
refrain so why can’t the commanders see sense?
The protracted siege of Valenciennes exposes the mistrust between the
allies. National interests triumph over military logic. The King’s Germans
find themselves marching north to the coast, not east to Paris. Dunkirk has
become a royal prize, an open secret smuggled to the French, who set a trap
for the Duke of York’s army.
Lieutenant Erich von Bomm and Captain Werner Brandt find themselves in
the thick of the action as the 14th Nationals, the Black Lions, seek their
revenge. In the chaos of battle, Sebastian Krombach, working alongside
Major Trevethan, the engineer tasked with capturing Dunkirk, must make a
dreadful choice: to guide a battalion of Foot Guards to safety across the
Great Moor or carry a message that might save the life of a friend.
The King’s Germans and the Black Lions do battle to determine who shall
be crowned the King of Dunkirk.
St Amand: 7th May 1793
The warm air was rich with the sights and sounds of insects carrying out their frantic activities in the calm of a late spring evening. What traffic there was on the road that wound through the Flanders countryside close to the French border were mostly wagons, private traders or those hired by the Commissary General. An army that was well fed, paid and had snatched victory from a certain defeat, eased the path to selling what little surplus the locals could spare. The man who had played a large part in that victory, according to the opinion of others, could share little of the celebratory mood that had blossomed after Rumes.
Von Bomm had absented himself from an invitation to the Duke of York’s table, to face the accusations of Baumann, his captain in 1st Grenadiers. Charged with disobeying a direct order in combat, Baumann had demanded the satisfaction of a court martial. The horse trotted an easy gait towards the 1st Grenadiers’ camp and von Bomm felt the sap within him rise. He had bested a Baumann before, he would do so again. A rugged, youthful complexion, powerful physique and blonde hair swept rakishly forward under his Korsisch hat, the young bachelor’s easy manner made von Bomm the focus of attention for the eligible ladies of Hanover.
He had fought three duels in his life. At eighteen he fought for the honour of an older woman who he thought he loved, three years later he fought to avoid a scandal when a woman had become besotted with him and alleged scandalous behaviour. That incident had been a clarion call for the handsome bachelor to amend his ways or at least try. There had been minor indiscretions along the way but for the last four years Erich von Bomm had led a more considered life.
Then there was the matter of Sophia; a simple misunderstanding.
He had found the daughter of a well-respected judge on the side of the road; her carriage having broken down. Offering the shelter of his buggy, he had ferried the poor girl home but when Sophia had left his care and retired to the safety of her father’s house, von Bomm had found a bag containing her dancing shoes. A sixth sense had made him open the bag and he found an unsigned note detailing an elopement. To return the bag to the front door risked the lovers’ secret plans being discovered; this did not sit well with von Bomm’s more romantic notions. In the height of the storm, he had attempted to scale a trellis framework to a window where a candlelight had recently been lit, only to be discovered in the act of ascending by a family servant.
The matter could have been explained away but no-one seemed to be prepared to listen. Sophia’s betrothed, Ludwig Baumann, had challenged von Bomm. The choice was stark. Either resign his commission and accept full responsibility as being the author of the note or face a duel to give Baumann, a seemingly boorish and snide Guards officer, satisfaction. In the matter of the duel Erich von Bomm had not even fired a shot, outwitting his opponent by positioning him into a strong headwind. The glare of reflected morning sunlight and the fierce wind whipping into Baumann’s face had made any attempt at an accurate shot tricky. The rider flinched a little in the saddle with the memory of the shot fizzing past him and slapping into the bark of a nearby tree. Then von Bomm had slowly raised his pistol in an exaggerated action, a cool calculated response; before the shot could be fired, Baumann had dropped his discharged weapon to the floor and pleaded for clemency.
Then there had been the meeting with Colonel Franke, two days after Rumes, when von Bomm had been allowed to return to his duties, such as they were for an officer facing the prospect of a court martial. The 1st Grenadiers colonel had simply asked him two questions, outside of the small talk about his health.
“Did you disobey a direct order from Captain Baumann in the face of the enemy?”
“Lieutenant, given time to reflect on the matter, as no doubt you have, do you consider the action of disobeying a senior officer was the correct course of action?”
“I have given the matter a great deal of thought, sir. I have questioned my own decisions and my conscience is clear. Had we given up Apple and Broken Tail house and fallen back across the road, two dozen or more wounded men would have died or been captured and the farm house that Captain Baumann was garrisoning, overrun.
Erich von Bomm paused, then his eyes met that of his colonel. “Yes sir, I firmly believe it was the correct course of action.”
Colonel Franke had listened to the words, his face emotionless.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I will not show favouritism between my officers. You are innocent until proven otherwise. I wish you to act as an aide to the Duke until a date is set for your court martial or the matter can be resolved within the battalion. For myself, I hope it is the latter but…”
Franke had paused, lost in thought, before standing and offering von Bomm his hand. “Thank you, Erich. I have communications to complete, return here in two hours to collect them.”
In the fitful nights of sleep that had followed, von Bomm had revisited the chaos of Rumes, hearing the flames licking at the walls of the building, feeling the inescapable heat and choking smoke that had caused him to push away the heavy blanket he was wrapped in and gasp for air. Then he was stumbling through the garden of Apple house, white blossom drifting around him on towards the church whose cemetery grounds were filled with redcoat bodies, faces and names that he knew. The last, a young grenadier clutching the lifeless body of the puppy the men had christened Broken Tail. The pair looked as if they were enjoying the lazy slumber of an afternoon amongst the ancient headstones, but it was a sleep from which neither would wake and the moment that always shocked von Bomm awake.
Adjusting the wide brim of his light infantry hat to shield against the glare of the evening sun, he nudged his horse into a trot. Four days had passed since the interview with Franke. The summons to camp had arrived mid-afternoon today. Whatever the outcome of the next hour Erich von Bomm was determined not to give in. He loved his life and career in the army. Redcoats had died but that was the lot of the soldier. He had played his part in delivering victory at Rumes and despite the dreams, could find no fault in his own actions. The fate of battle might rob him of everything he held dear in the blink of an eye, but he would be damned if Captain Leopold Baumann was to be given such powers over him.
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The King's Germans
The King’s Germans is a project that has been many years in the making. Currently I manage to juggle writing and research around a crowded work and family life. The Black Lions of Flanders (set in 1793) is the first in the King’s Germans’ series, which will follow an array of characters through to the final book in Waterloo. The King of Dunkirk will soon be released and I hope that the response to that is as encouraging as the reviews of Black Lions have been.
While I’m self-published now, I have an excellent support team that help me to produce what I hope is a story with professional feel, and that readers would want to read more than once. My family back-ground is in paperback book sales, so I’m very keen to ensure that the paperback design is something that I would be proud to put on my bookshelf.
I live in just outside of Tavistock, in Devon where I enjoy walking on the moors and the occasional horse-riding excursion as both inspiration and relaxation.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx