I’m writing the last chapter of Leo’s Story, my book connected to The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor. Have I mentioned it is due June 1?Because today is Memorial Day, I could not think of a better blog than one I wrote in 2007, titled “Fallen Soldiers.” Who knew we would still be mourning fallen soldiers five years later?Here is that blog, adapted for today.Memorial Day is the day set aside by the US after the Civil War to honor military personnel who have lost their lives in service to their country. Memorial Day remains poignant for Americans today.
As the daughter of an Army officer, I have a particular regard for soldiers, which led to my Three Soldiers Series: Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady; Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress; Valiant Soldier, Beautiful Enemy. In my other books some of the heroes are soldiers and I almost always mention the war with Napoleon.I love my Regency soldiers. I secretly yearn to write some Napoleonic war romances, sort of like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, only love stories. I own a brazillion books on the Napoleonic war and its soldiers. It seemed fitting today to tell you about one of them: Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula Letters and Diaries of Major The Honorable Edward Charles Cocks 1786-1812, Julia V. Page, editor (1986, Spellmount Ltd)
Major Cocks served in various capacities in the Peninsular war. He was attached to the regular Spanish army for a time and also with the 16th Light Dragoons. He worked as an intelligence officer behind enemy lines, performed special missions for Wellington, and was a field officer commanding soldiers. His family wanted him in Parliament, but Charles, as he was called, loved soldiering more than anything else. He was the consummate professional soldier, very much in his element in the war in Spain.
In a letter to his uncle, Charles wrote:
Few regard soldiers in their true light, that is as a body of men giving up many individual pleasures and comforts for a general national advantage, coupled certainly with the hope of personal fame and at the same time preserving more individual independence than any class of men….Men unused to war and ignorant of its ways regard slodiers as pernicious characters because they always figure them as intent on the desruction of their enemy, but a soldier only meets his foe now and then and he is every day engaged in reciprocal offices of kindness with his comrades….for my part I think there is much less ferocity in putting your foe to death when you see him aiming at your life, than in coolly rejoicing in your cabinet at home at successes purchased by the blood of thousands–Your dutiful and affectionate nephew, E. Charles Cocks
On October 8, 1812, Charles was acting as a field officer in the seige of Burgos. In the hours before dawn he led his men up a slope to regain the outer wall. When he reached the top, a French soldier fired straight at him. The ball passed through his chest, piercing the artery above his heart. He died instantly.
That morning Wellington strode into Ponsonby’s office, paced to and fro without speaking for several minutes. He started back toward the door, saying only, “Cocks is dead” before he walked out. Later Wellington wrote, “He (Cocks) is on every ground the greatest loss we have yet sustained.” When Wellington stood at his graveside, ashen-faced and remote, none of his officers dared speak to him.
Admiration for valor, gratitude for sacrifice, grief at loss. Today is not very different than 1812.The first book was dedicated to my father. My father, Daniel J. Gaston, pictured here circa 1940s, was not called upon to make a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice. He reached an advanced age, long enough to see his daughters well-situated and happy, and his grandchildren grown. He died peacefully in 2001 before my writing career took off.The second book was dedicated to my uncle, Robert Gaston, who served in WWII and who remains a proud veteran to this day, and to my cousin, Richard Witchey who served in the Vietnam War.The third book will be dedicated to another cousin, James Getman, an officer in the Coast Guard who lost his life one winter over 30 years ago while readying his vessel for service.
Do you have a soldier, real or fictional, who deserves tribute?
Would you like more war romances? Do you have any favorites?
To all our soldiers……Thanks
In researching my latest hero, a Sharpe-based soldier, I’ve been delving into Scott Hughes Myerly‘s British Military Spectacle. I highly recommend the book; every page has some essential, interesting nugget of information, even if you’re not writing a battle-scarred hero, as I am.
In reading it, I’ve been alternately horrified and impressed at how the British Army used dress to control its soldiers.
As Janet pointed out yesterday, many British soldiers were boys or men who had no choice (“Prison/deportation or the Army?” is just as obvious as Eddie Izzard‘s “Cake or death?”) or were coerced to join.
To keep their soldiers–some of whom were blackguards, to say the least–in line, their superior officers demanded perfection in appearance. Keeping the men busy cleaning their kits kept them away from alcohol, which was one of the Army’s biggest problems (Sharpe mentions this frequently, always trying to destroy whatever alcohol is within his men’s vicinity). Myerly says, “The ideal of perfection was central to the art of nineteenth-century military management, especially in connection with martial display.”
Myerly then goes on to say that “Officers were sometimes obsessed with presenting a correct and pleasing appearance, which often resulted in the total neglect of other significant considerations, even if these were vital to the army’s success.”
Wow. To prove the point, Myerly discusses the headgear required, sometimes two feet high, made of material that was ridiculously hot in the summer, got drenched in the rain, and blew off whenever there was a strong wind.
On one dress occasion in 1829, Wellington, in full military regalia, was blown off his horse by a gust of wind. In 1842, Queen Victoria demanded that a 73 year-old Wellington wear all the proper military gear, which made him trip and fall.
The stocks soldiers wore around the neck had to fit tightly, and were sometimes made too tight so as to make the blood go into the soldier’s face and make him look hale and hearty, even if he hadn’t been eating properly.
Soldiers had to wear uniforms sometimes designed by people who had no idea what a battlefield was like (King George IV, I’m looking at you). The uniforms were impractical, binding, difficult to maintain and expensive. But they looked good, and that was all that mattered.
As Billy Crystal‘s Fernando Lamas character says, “It is better to look good than to feel good.”
It’s clear, from history, that this kind of restrictive insistence on proper attire worked to keep the Army intact and submissive. Of course it chafes at our notions of freedoms as well.
How about you? Have you ever had to wear a uniform? Follow a dress code? Did it make you feel more official? Did you hate it? Did you like not having to worry about choosing what to wear?
Today I’m talking about the ordinary soldiers, the kids who signed up for the king’s shilling out of patriotism, were fooled by unscrupulous recruiters, or because they had so few options. And they were kids–for the most part under twenty. Here’s a typical story of how a Waterloo veteran came to join the army a few years after his father was deported to Australia for sheep-stealing, when he found himself the head of the family at age fifteen.
One in four soldiers died that June day in 1815. Waterloo was an unusual battle because it was the bloodiest so far in British history; it was also unusual in that all survivors, of whatever rank, were awarded a medal.
There were no war memorials with the names of the fallen, however humble, erected in villages or town squares, although this memorial, composed of the battlefield dirt itself, was raised at the site in Belgium. Locals claim it’s haunted and full of bones, and they may be right. Ordinary soldiers didn’t count; as far as war reports went, they were anonymous, only numbers. Their corpses were raided by war profiteers for teeth–for years after, false teeth were known as “Wellington teeth.”
It’s heartbreaking to think of the families waiting and as time passed, realizing that their son, brother, or father had been killed. They might not even be lucky enough to receive a letter, such as this one from Private Charles Stanley to a friend in Nottinghamshire, describing the everyday life of a soldier. Almost certainly, they’d never know the circumstances of their loved one’s death.
We have one gud thing Cheap that is Tobaco and Everrything a-Cordnley Tobaco is 4d Per 1b Gin is 1s 8d Per Galland that is 2 1/2 Per Quart and Everrything In Perposion hour alounse Per Day is One Pound of Beef a Pound and half of Bred half a Pint o Gin But the worst of all we dont get it Regeler and If we dont get it the Day it is due we Luse it wish It is ofton the Case…I hope you never will think Of Being a Soldier I Asure you it is a Verry Ruf Consarn…
You can read more of his letter at militaryheritage.com. Private Stanley was one of the many who didn’t come home.
Here’s an excerpt from the brilliant movie History Boys, where a poem about a young soldier who dies far from home, Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy, is discussed.
And here’s the poem:
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined–just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew–
Fresh from his Wessex home–
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellation reign
His stars eternally.