Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
He re-joined the Emperor again in the Atlantic and read on. His father’s writing was academic, which was unsurprising, but he told a good tale, and one that Steven had not heard before. All the characters from that storm lashed rock in the swelling Atlantic were introduced to him as newcomers. Sir Hudson Lowe, Bingham, Admiral Cockburn, Dr O’Meara, Count de Montholon, Las Cases, Gourgaud, Bertrand. Bertrand?
“Caterine, there is a Frenchman in here called Bertrand.”
“Yes, I know. Count General Henri Gratien Bertrand. Is that him?”
“Yes, the very same. Are you related?”
“My father always believed so, but we could never prove it. Anyway, we had a direct ancestor at Waterloo, Colonel Jean-Francois Bertrand of the Imperial Guard. He was an ADC to Cambronne.”
“What happened to him?” he said with a growing suspicion.
“He was killed.”
“By the Prussians?” he asked hopefully.
She smiled a little sad smile. “No, by les Anglais.”
“I am sorry.”
“You weren’t there, were you?”
“No, just Doctor John. I would probably remember if I had been there.”
“Perhaps they met.”
He was silent. If they had met it would have been on a doctor patient basis, and in the charnel house of 18th June 1815, Steven imagined that Allied doctors would have been overwhelmed caring for their own, without thoughts for the enemy. He went back to the computer and read his father’s words, and he found himself becoming more understanding of and closer to, the dead man. His father had found solace in his world, the world of history, when the real world had impinged too much on him. Steven wondered if he, too, was finding the same shelter in the world of 200 years ago, as the world of 2002 pressed down upon him.
He read through Napoleon’s five and a half years on St Helena, with mixed feelings. They had given the bastard a chance in 1814 on Elba, and he had done a runner and caused mayhem in Europe all over again. They could not allow it to happen a second time. Even so, for a man of his creative abilities it must have been hell. The intentional niggles introduced into island society by the rival households, Napoleon’s and Hudson Lowe’s, now seemed so bloody childish. He relived, with growing horror and distaste, Napoleon’s minutely catalogued final illnesses, and their possible causes, and the eventual painful and degrading death suffered by the man who, rightly or otherwise, had once been master of most of Europe.
Steven leaned back in the black swivel chair. “It isn’t finished.”
“No, it isn’t. He was working on it when he died.”
“Did Dad have any thoughts on what killed Napoleon? Did you not say something about poisoning?”
“Your father had thoughts on almost everything. Yes, he believed that the Emperor might have been poisoned. It is all in his notes.” She pointed. “That lot over there.”
He surveyed the pile of papers. “Oh, God!” He examined the piles of papers.
“There is also a lot of material on disk, which I can fix up for you.”
“Thanks, but not for a day or two. I need a little light relief. I’m going to join the good doctor again.”
“Give him my regards.”
He settled down with the journal. He had become accustomed to the rather angular writing style, and few passages now evaded his understanding although the occasional word baffled him. The journal did not appear to have been written at the same time as events occurred, but it did have an immediacy about it, which suggested to Steven that Dr. John had gathered together a series of notes, or a diary, and had written up his journal on a regular basis. This theory was supported to some degree by the different shades in the colour of the inks used. The handwriting worsened over time, which reminded Steven that the man had been a doctor after all, not a profession noted for the clarity of its handwriting.
In 1807 I reached a turning point in my career. Life in York was passably fair but presented no challenges to me. My career was not unsuccessful, and I determined to advance myself as a surgeon. I entered the examination for membership of the Royal College of Surgeons and was pleased to be adjudged successful in my endeavours. At the same time, I met with a Miss Emma Pook, the daughter of a wealthy merchant in the wool trade in York and must confess I was much taken with the lady’s charms. Some months after our first meeting I summoned the courage to ask her to be my wife. She was most courteous in her refusal but explained that she hoped to do better in the choice of her spouse than a country surgeon. I was devastated and sought solace in my work, an attempt which failed most unhappily.
The war in Europe had been dragging on for some fifteen years, without apparent signs that it would ever end. The newssheets had long spoken of an impending invasion by Napoleon, but, by God’s good grace, it had not yet happened. Harry had spent some three years with the Colours and had become a full lieutenant. During a period of leave, we dined together in Northampton, and, knowing my interest in medical affairs, he told me of what he considered to be the scandalous situation prevailing in the Army. Harry’s particular fear was what would happen to the wounded of the British Army in the event of its fuller involvement in fighting in Europe.
My life in York was still a matter for grief, as on occasion, I would meet Miss Pook in the street, to my embarrassment and her amusement. I spent some months thinking about my brother’s words, and in the spring of 1808, I applied to the Army Medical Board for a position as a surgeon in the service of the King. I was delighted to be successful at the first attempt and was appointed as Assistant Surgeon in the 2nd Battalion of the 48th Regiment. We were but two surgeons, rated as lieutenants and dining with the officers, but without their military authority over the men. My fellow surgeon was a young man from Dublin, Michael Fitzgerald. The battalion could not boast of a Regimental Surgeon, but we were assured, one was to be appointed shortly. As I was to learn, more things are promised in the Army than are delivered. I returned briefly to York to settle the small debts I had incurred and to say farewell to Miss Pook. If the lady was saddened by my departure, she concealed it well, her final remark being, ‘If you are joining the Army, you are a fool, sir’. I swear that I will never understand women, should I live to be three score years and ten.
Steven scratched his head and gave Tigger a friendly little poke. “Isn’t that the truth, mate?” The cat grunted.
“What are you two plotting,” demanded Caterine from her computer screen.
“Just boy talk,” Steven assured her.
I would like to record that training was afforded to Fitzgerald, and myself, but such was not the case. In April of the following year, 1809, our regiment landed at Lisbon to serve as part of Sir Arthur Wellesley’s force in that country. We still lacked a Regimental Surgeon.
The city was an indescribable place, of dirty streets and buildings, with inhabitants who well matched their surroundings. It appeared that all human functions were performed in the streets, and, as the weather was warm, the stench was appalling. We had been in encampments just outside the city for but a few short days when Sir Arthur marched north to Oporto, where on 12th May we surprised the French under Marshal Sault and took the city from him. The 2/48th were among the first troops across the Douro.
I am delighted to report that our casualties were, by God’s good grace, light, with perhaps twenty men killed and less than 100 injured. My small Regimental Hospital, set up with such care, was hardly needed. The surgeons in the British Army had light work this day. We assisted the French wounded, and a number of their doctors remained behind, brave fellows.
We had but little time to savour our victory as we marched south almost at once, leaving some Portuguese to hold the city. I feared for any French prisoners left in Oporto, as they were roundly hated by the Portuguese, and we saw much evidence of the barbaric treatment one of the other.
The journal went on to describe the marching of the British and Portuguese forces through central Portugal to Merida and further on into Spain. The first Battalion of the 48th came from Gibraltar to join the main Army, and there were many joyful reunions between old comrades, including Harry and John McCann. Both were in Hill’s Division, and John’s narrative spoke in glowing terms of Major General Rowland Hill, or ‘Daddy’ as he was universally called by the soldiers. The two brothers met in Merida and spent an alcoholic evening.
It was with the most delicious joy that Harry and I met again, for the first time in two years. We exchanged news of our dear mother, and our friends in the regiment, and I fear that we partook too liberally of the local wine. I excuse myself on the grounds of our long absence and in the knowledge that neither Harry nor I knew what Providence had in store for us.
We marched further into Spain. It was said that Wellesley intended to give battle to Marshal Victor, with our Spanish allies. Allies or no, it was increasingly difficult to secure quarters or even food on our marches, and many nights it was normal to roll one’s self in one’s cloak and sleep with empty stomachs on the ground.
The two armies came together on 27th and 28th July at Talavera and fought for nearly two days under summer conditions which were the hottest for many years. The battle was hard fought, and the French behaved with much gallantry, but we were victorious in the end. No one, British or Portuguese had entertained thoughts of a contrary nature, so great was the esteem in which our commander was held by all.
During a period when a cease fire was being observed, though not one declared by the rival generals, I left my small hospital in the care of Fitzgerald, and I went down to a little stream to fill our water bottles. The stream, for such it was, marked the centre ground between our forces and theirs, and was called the Portima by name. I spoke with a French captain of infantry, across the stream, as two gentlemen might converse on meeting on board ship from Dover to Calais. He spoke passable English and with my little knowledge of his language, we managed a civilised discussion for five or ten minutes. He offered me his brandy and in exchange, I gave the fellow a mouthful of my Holland.
Within the hour the battle recommenced, and I never saw him again. I hope he survived. It is difficult to hate your enemy when you have shared a drink with him. Very soon my own regiment became engaged and Fitzgerald and myself were too busy for discussions with Frenchmen.
The work of a surgeon on the battlefield is, by necessity, repairing as best he can, those who might survive, and leaving to the mercy of God those who will not.
We suffered in excess of 5000 casualties, and I was unable to rest for several days, as I stood amidst a mounting pile of legs and arms doing what I could for the poor fellows. After patching the worst of the casualties just behind the lines, I arranged for their transport to the General Hospital which had been established in a convent in the town of Talavera. Here I assisted the staff surgeons in their work.
God preserved Harry, who came to visit the field hospital, but the poor boy left quicker than he had arrived.
I was much impressed by what I saw of the King’s German Legion, most of whose members were Germans from Hanover, their land having been occupied by the French.
After Talavera, the Allied armies, harassed by the French, and lacking in supplies, withdrew westwards towards Portugal, leaving many of their most seriously wounded in Talavera, which was soon occupied by the French, who, according to Doctor John, treated them ‘passably well’. The journal went on to describe the delight of the Army that their commander had become Viscount Wellington. It was to be a year before the Allies fought another battle, and time was taken up by a great deal of marching hither and thither, and more social pursuits, like fox hunting.
In the spring of 1810, Dr McCann was transferred to the first line battalion of the Kings German Legion, to provide them with some medical coverage. His journal expressed his regret at leaving his own county regiment, but he was delighted to be promoted to Regimental Surgeon, a position equivalent to captain, and as such he outranked Harry. The two brothers still met each other frequently, and both were devastated in June of 1810 to receive news from England that their mother had died, at the age of sixty.
Steven turned to Caterine …. [Episode 9 continues tomorrow]
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and privately self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019