Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
Steven turned to Caterine who was at her usual pursuit of working at the computer. “Coffee?”
“What?” She frowned at him.
“Would you care for a coffee?”
“Tea, please. That would be wonderful. While you are in the kitchen, please feed Tigger. He is scratching around out there and making a nuisance of himself.”
He returned with the tea, and a coffee for himself. “Voila!”
“Did you give Tigger his supper?”
“Dammed cat! He would eat at every hour of the day or night.”
“Peutetre, but did you feed him?”
“Yes, I fed him, the greedy little bugger.”
“Are you enjoying the journal of Dr. John?”
“It’s fascinating. Did you plant that journal in the old man’s office?”
“Plant? What is plant?”
“Did you leave it there for me to find?”
“Of course not! I knew nothing about it. Why, are you becoming hooked?” She said it as ‘ooked’, and he smiled.
“Yes, madame, I am becoming ‘ooked’”.
“I must read it. Sometimes I speak to you and I cannot get one word out of you.”
For a moment he was tempted to say that he was becoming hooked, but not only on the book. The shadow of Maria fell over his shoulder, and he simply smiled again, and said. “You knew that I would, didn’t you?”
“I think you are your father’s son.”
And Steven slipped back into his other world, the world of 1810. It was a comfortable world, a world of danger, but not to him. He was soon more familiar with the Portuguese/Spanish frontier than it seemed he ever had been with his life as a detective in London. He recognised this as a form of escapism, a place where he could not be hurt, could not be insulted. It was somewhere where no one died, because they were all dead already. Spencer Perceval was the Prime Minister, and he and his Government, seen through the eyes of Dr John McCann became more real to Steven than Tony Blair and his Cabinet.
Wellington’s army spent the spring and summer of 1810 on the frontier, and while there were no major battles to be fought, there were several hard skirmishes which kept the medical staff busy. Dr John favoured, as far as possible, to treat his ill and wounded in the Regimental Hospital, rather than in the supposedly superior and semi-permanent General Hospitals. He noted that twice as many men died in the General Hospitals than in those run by Regimental doctors. He was appalled at the outbreaks of ‘fever’ which occurred only too often, decimating the patients in the Generals. Several of his medical colleagues died in this way. He noted too and wondered at how the health of the soldiers improved in spring and summer. Steven began to greatly admire Dr John, for his courage and devotion to duty. As a modern man, however, he found it incomprehensible the faith that the good doctor had in ‘bleeding’ and ‘blistering’. He shook his head in disbelief, and Caterine, watching him, smiled.
Away to the North, Marshal André Massena had re-equipped his Army and quickly took the twin frontier fortresses, Ciudad Rodrigo, in Spain, and Almeida in Portugal. Wellington retreated until, at the great ridge at Busaco, in central Portugal, he turned to face his pursuer
On the night of 26th September, we camped among the pine trees on the top of the ridge. My division was in the centre of Wellington’s line, and off to the right, somewhere in that dark night I knew that Harry was waiting, as I was, he for the killing, I for the mending. I prayed to our mother and father, surely both in the bosom of the Almighty, to keep us safe on the morrow. I prepared my little hospital back about half a mile from the crest and alongside a track which ran north and south. At three in the morning I wrapped myself in my cloak and slept soundly.
I awoke just after six to the rattle of musket and rifle fire, the usual prelude to battle, as the skirmishers on each side played cat and mouse. It was a misty morning; the clouds clinging like shrouds to the ground and to the men. I shivered; it was not a good omen. I hurried forward, the better to give succour to the afflicted. I carried with me a medical kit which experience had instructed me would be of immediate need to those stricken in battle. The more badly injured the drummer boys took back to the Regimental Hospital.
I saw little of the battle, even after the lifting of the mist, but from all accounts the French attacked uphill with great gallantry and were thrown back down again with great losses. Our own losses were light, thanks be to God, and Harry with Hill’s Division saw but little of the action. Our parents had surely interceded for us with Providence. The fighting was over by noon, in time for a good lunch for the men, and a hurried mouthful of cold mutton and a glass of red Portuguese wine for me. A great deal of skirmishing filled the afternoon, but the battle was over, that we knew. After attending to our own injured, we turned to the French and rendered what assistance we could. We have frequently had good cause to bless the humanity of their surgeons, and they may rely on the English.
Praise must be given to the Light Division, under the command of the fearsome General Craufurd. Black Bob he is called by the troops, and never in my view has such a name been so well earned. The Portuguese gave a fine account of themselves, much to the praise of their British brothers in arms. Good reports are also coming in of the Legion’s Hussars.
In the morning mist of 28th September came the order to withdraw, as rumour had it that Massena’s cavalry had penetrated the Duke’s left. I bundled my poor fellows on to their rough transport and we proceeded to the south with as good a pace as was possible in our carts. I attest that there is nothing rougher than the carts except the tracks, for they were not roads, over which the injured were being transported. We used requisitioned Portuguese carts, pulled by mules or bullocks. The axles of these contraptions were strangers to grease and gave off the most unearthly shrieking sound when on the move. It is said that the local people prefer them this way, as the noise frightens away the Devil. I know not what effect it has on that fellow, but it drove my poor brave lads half-crazy, many preferring to get off the cart and walk. During the morning, as the mist cleared to reveal our hasty progress to the south, a horseman came level with the cart upon which I was attempting to render some aid to a dying man. I looked up and looked away again, towards my unfortunate patient.
The horseman was addressing me, and I looked at him again. It was the Duke.
“My Lord, I apologise, but I recognised you not.”
“Good fellow, concern yourself not. You are doing your duty, and I mine. What is the state of the injured?”
“We are in much better state than the French, my Lord. I have great hopes that the majority of the wounded will survive until Coimbra.”
“Or Lisbon, doctor, or Lisbon. What is your name?”
“McCann, my Lord. John McCann. I am Regimental Surgeon to the First Line Battalion of the Kings German Legion.”
“McCann is an Irish name. Are you Irish, Doctor McCann?”
“No, my Lord. My father was, but I am English, like yourself my Lord.”
Wellington raised two fingers of his right hand to his bicorne in salute and smiled a little as he turned his horse away.
“Thank you, Doctor McCann. Do your best for them. They fought most bravely.”
My admiration and devotion for our Commander was born that day and was never to leave me. It increased on 8th October when the Army began crossing into what became known as the Lines of Torres Vedras, which we had not seen before. We stared in wonder at the towers and protected redoubts, which had been constructed to the orders of the Duke. Massena and his fellows were obliged to camp outside the Lines, in the rain, getting more and more hungry by the day. We stayed within the Lines, well fed and in comfort. The Peer was the toast of Lisbon.
While sitting out the winter of 1810/11 behind the Lines, Dr John met the sister of Captain Heinrich Kemper, an officer of the first line battalion badly wounded at Busaco. Maria Kemper was twenty-three and came out from England to nurse her badly injured brother. With the doctor’s help she was successful, and Heinrich later returned to duty. Maria was described as ‘‘of a most sweet and pleasing countenance. Her eyes were of the deepest brown, her hair pulled back on her head almost severely, and with the most delicate and charming of manners.’
Steven reflected that John’s wife just had to be called Maria. He shivered a little, his now familiar feeling stealing over him, but felt at the same time that he was getting to know his ancestor very well.
John McCann and Maria Muller were married in January 1811 in the Protestant Church in Lisbon, and life took on new meaning for the thirty-year-old doctor. Brother Harry, newly promoted to Captain, stood by his brother’s side.
And the war went on. In May, John fought at Fuentes de Onoro, while eleven days later his old regiment, the 48th was cut to pieces at Albuera in the south. Harry escaped with a sabre slash across his left arm. Dr John noted in his journal that his old comrade, Michael Fitzgerald had been struck by shrapnel and had been removed to the hospital in the town. The French were held at both places and driven back, but disease and infection ravaged Wellington’s Army causing more loss than the enemy in the field had achieved.
No further large battles were fought in 1811, although Hill, without the 48th, had a stunning victory in October over a force of 5000 French under General Girard at Arroyo dos Molinos. The fortresses of Ciudad Rodigo and Badajoz both fell to Wellington in January and April 1812, at terrible loss in the case of the latter. ‘Black Bob’ Crauford died at Ciudad Rodrigo, to the deep sorrow of the whole of the Light Division. Craufurd was not loved perhaps but was deeply admired.
Maria had insisted on accompanying her husband on his travels and had become an unpaid nurse. The slaughter at Badajoz was immense and all medical staff were kept extremely busy, for three or four days. Although his own battalion had not been involved, Dr John spent up to eighteen hours a day on his feet, probing, extracting, cleaning, dressing, stitching and amputating. His wife bore all of this with stoicism not associated with women of her station or the times. John noted his delight when, in his dispatch home to the Prime Minister, Wellington praised Dr McGrigor and ‘the Medical Gentlemen under his direction.’ This was the first occasion on which Army doctors had been so honoured.
After Badajoz Maria met up with Juana, the fourteen-year-old Spanish girl rescued from pursuing British soldiers by Captain Harry Smith, the Brigade Major in the 95th Rifles, who later married her. Juanita, little Juana, became a firm favourite with Wellington, a man who liked pretty, intelligent women, and through this contact Maria also formed part of the Commander’s circle. John McCann got to see the Duke more and more, and his admiration for the man grew accordingly.
And Maria tramped through Spain and Portugal with her husband, sharing his tent, or billet where they were available, or rolled in her cloak next to him, in front of a wood fire, if wood could be scavenged.
Steven looked up. “This is a great story.”
“Oui?” She stopped working on the computer. “Dr John is interesting?”
“Not just him, but also this story of Juanita.”
Caterine was intrigued. “Who is Juanita?”
He told her the story and ended with the naming of the towns of Harrismith and Ladysmith in Natal after the two main characters. He did not mention Maria McCann. He thought that he did not want to tell her that she had also been called Maria. Anyway, Caterine would find that out for herself when she read the journal.
“Steven, that is a wonderful story. Is all that in the journal?”
“No,” he was a little embarrassed now. “The South African thing came later. I just knew the last bit.”
“You are a romantic Englishman,” she teased him. “Are you the only one?”
“The only one,” he assured her and returned to 1812.
On 22nd July 1812, after weeks of manoeuvring, the British and Portuguese force struck a stunning blow outside Salamanca and routed the French under Marmont. Both the 48th and the 1st Line KGL were present. Three weeks later the brothers, Maria and Captain Smith and Juanita marched into Madrid with the conquering Allies, to a tumultuous reception from the citizens. The good doctor was overwhelmed, and wrote, ‘It was a heroic time.’
“Caterine, I want to go out there.”
“Out where, darling?”
She had never called him that before. He got up and kissed her cheek. “Spain, Portugal, Waterloo. The whole dammed lot. Waterloo will do as a starter. Will you come?”
“Can I bring Tigger?”
He shook his head gravely. “Sorry, pas des chats.”
She wrinkled her nose in disapproval, but then she smiled, again achieving the transformation that pleased him so. “I will think about it and let you know.”
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