Monthly Archives: June 2015

Staged for Disaster – An extract from Scotland Forever by Iain Gale


Scotland Forever



An extract from Scotland Forever by Iain Gale


 Opening Moves

Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the island of Elba on the 26th of February, 1815. He had with him only 1,000 men. Landing on the south coast of France at Golfe-Juan near Antibes, the man who as the Emperor of France had once ruled most of Europe led his tiny army north.

At Besançon on the 10th of March he was confronted by Marshal Michel Ney, one of his most trusted gener­als, and a regiment of foot. Ney had promised the French King, the Bourbon Louis XVIII, to return with Napoleon ‘in an iron cage’. But such was his former master’s mag­netism that Ney’s troops went over to Napoleon, and Ney himself joined them.

Following a triumphant march through France, the Emperor arrived in Paris on the 20th of March at the head of two Divisions comprising some ten thousand men.

News of his escape was laughed at by the allied generals and politicians attending the peace negotiations in Vienna; until they realised that it was not in fact a joke. Then panic gripped Europe, as people wondered if this man would plunge them into another twenty years of world war.

In fact Napoleon wanted peace, and tried his best to obtain it. He wrote letters to the Prince Regent of Britain and the Russian Emperor, proposing a peaceful resolu­tion of the conflict. But the Allies steadfastedly refused his entreaties and declared war not on the French nation, but on Napoleon himself.

His response was swift and effective. Within two months Napoleon had assembled an army of half a mil­lion men, with some 200,000 in the field along with 360 cannon. They were mostly veterans and loyal to the man who for two decades had led them to glory.

It was a remarkable feat and it almost bankrupted France. It cost 5 million francs a month to supply the Armée du Nord, and they also needed new weapons and horses. Across France the munitions factories turned out 40,000 muskets a month, although bayonets were more of a problem.

Uniforms too were a mess. Regiments broke the Roy­alist fleurs de lys off their shakos, and some managed to find brass eagles with which to replace them. In particular there was not enough body armour to supply Napoleon’s legendary cuirassiers, his elite heavy cavalry, and one regiment went into battle without it.

Horses too were in short supply. The Emperor’s disas­trous campaign in Russia had cost no less than 180,000 horses and there just weren’t enough of them. Nev­ertheless, by June 1815 Napoleon was able to field an impressive army which to any observer would have had at least the appearance of the Grand Armée of 1805.


His opponents had three times as many men on which to call. 200,000 Russians under Barclay de Tolley were marching to the French border along with the same num­ber of Austrians under Schwarzenberg.

The Duke of Wellington, victor of the Peninsula, had managed to scrape together 112,000 men at his head­the veteran Marshal Blücher had marched to join him from Germany. But importantly the armies were split, and Napoleon knew this. He had 123,000 men in the north of France with another 100,000 across the nation.

The only way to tackle his enemies was piecemeal, dividing Wellington and Blücher and dealing with each army in turn. To Napoleon’s advantage he was fighting in his own territory on interior lines and thus needed fewer men. He also had other considerable advantages.

Wellington’s army was not what he would have wished for. After six years of campaigning in Spain and Portugal, it was run down. Britain had also just fought and lost a war in America during which, famously, British troops had burned down the White House.

Most of the Peninsular veterans had been sent home, to fight in America or to suppress rioting in Ireland. The last thing that Britain wanted was a European war.

Wellington’s British army, a total of just 15,000 men, comprised 25 battalions of infantry and six regiments of horse, but many were at half strength. In addition to this, many of them were untried in battle and some were very young.

Apart from these troops he had an army of allies: Han­overians, Nassauers, Brunswickers, Dutch and Belgians, making up the grand total of 112,000. A month before the battle of Waterloo, he called it ‘an infamous army, very weak and ill equipped and a very inexperienced staff.’

Of course, using his experience, Wellington did every­thing he could to strengthen this force. He brigaded green regiments with veterans. In each army corps he placed Dutch-Belgian divisions alongside British. The reserve was made up of British, Dutch and Germans. The historian J. W. Fortescue describes how this fil­tered down to the brigades:

In every British Division except the First, foreigners were blended with redcoats. Altens and Clinton’s had each one brigade of British, one of the Ger­man Legion and one of Hanoverians. Picton’s and Colville’s had each two brigades of British and one of Hanoverians . . . In Cooke’s division of British footguards, the three young battalions were stiff­ened by one old one from the Peninsula.

Blücher’s army was similarly unimpressive. Prussia too was impoverished by war, but the King of Prussia ordered mobilisation and managed to get 130,000 men in the field. The staff was split between Blücher leading from the front and von Gniesenau, the mastermind who formed the strategy.


Napoleon took the initiative and on 15 June split his own army. The left wing of 50,000 men and 100 guns was to be commanded by Ney; the right, of the same strength, by Marshal Grouchy. Napoleon himself would have the reserve with the Imperial Guard infantry, an infantry corps and a reserve cavalry corps, 30,000 men with 150 guns. He would be able to detach units from each of these three wings as required.

His staff were vital. Soult was his chief of staff, with by the Minister of War, Davout. But some key men from his early campaigns were missing. There was no Lasnes, no Massena and no Murat. Worse than this, the staff were plagued by mistrust and jealousy.

And another key figure was missing. His chief of staff Berthier, who had been with him through his campaigns, had died in strange circumstances after falling from a window in Bamberg, Bavaria, on 1 June. So Napoleon had to make do with Soult, who had been beaten by Wel­lington in Spain. He was best known as a plunderer of fine art, and after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814 had been Louis XVIII’s Minister of War. Soult was not what Berthier had been, an efficient military secretary. He was a battlefield general and was miscast by Napoleon.

From the start, though, whatever the Emperor’s defi­ciencies, the Allies were on the back foot. They knew that they needed to attack, but they would have to wait for the Russians and Austrians for this to be possible. Wellington prayed that Napoleon would not attack before this. The only thing they could do was post pickets to try to ensure they knew where the French were.

Wellington was increasingly paranoid that Napoleon might try a feint and believed that his adversary would try to cut his lines of communication to the sea at Ostend. But Blücher’s lines of communication were on the east, into Germany, and the old Feld-Marschal had to protect these. So even though they had already agreed that if one were attacked the other would help, the Allied command­ers had their own conflicting demands.



The moment of truth came on 15 June, when at 3.30 am the Prussians were attacked at Thuin, south of Charleroi across the Belgian border.

The French had been on the move since 3 am, with light cavalry scouts in front and an endless train of marching men and wagons. Soon there was a bottleneck, and other things began to go wrong. General Vandamme did not receive his movement orders as the messenger fell off his horse and broke a leg. A general deserted to the allies. But battle had been joined. Jerome Bonaparte’s 6th Division of the 2nd Corps opened fire on a unit of Prus­sian Landwehr in Ziethen’s I Corps, and as the pressure was applied, the Prussians began to pull back.

By morning the French were in Charleroi fighting what remained of the Prussian resistance and Napoleon sat down beside a local inn and watched the columns march past on their way to the front. By nightfall on the 15th, the French had broken through and divided the armies of Wellington and Blücher, just as Napoleon had planned.


Wellington received the news of first contact at a ball that evening held in Brussels by the Duchess of Richmond. His response is well known: ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me.’

His reaction was to mobilise immediately and move towards Quatre Bras, a strategic crossroads south of the capital. Then he went to bed. He was woken at 1.45 am by his Quartermaster General Sir William de Lancey, with the news that it was worse than they had thought and that Napoleon was actually beyond Charleroi.

Napoleon, who himself had hardly slept, was informed at 6 am on the morning of the 16th that the Prussians had grouped at Sombreffe. He was pleased. This was far too far south. Too far from Wellington.

Napoleon rode to the village of Fleurus, and finding his intelligence to be correct, positioned his army to do battle with the Prussians and sent a message to Ney’s left wing, which was advancing towards Wellington at Qua­tre Bras, to send d’Erlon’s army corps across to help him defeat Blücher.


Wellington meanwhile was concentrating on the cross­roads and rode there, arriving at 10 am. He asked De Lancey for troop dispositions and was assured that the Reserve would be with him at midday and the rest of the army soon after.

In fact De Lancey was being somewhat being eco­nomical with the truth, and even as Wellington wrote a message to Blücher assuring him of his support, it must have been evident to his subordinate that such support would be impossible in the given time-frame. Unaware of this, Wellington rode across to a windmill near the village of Ligny to meet Blücher and assure him again in person of his support. Then he rode back to what there was of his own army, but not before commenting that Blücher was placing his men on a forward slope where they would be exposed to French gunfire and blown to pieces.

The stage was set for potential disaster.

Birlinn Creative Director, James Hutcheson, on Stref’s Peter Pan Graphic Novel


The comic strip ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’ ran in the New York Herald from 1905 until 1911. Today, it is fondly regarded as one of the most successful comic tales ever (it’s still being published). Its creator Winsor McCay (c. 1871–1934), was a pioneering animator who pushed the boundaries of that new art form in the early part of the last century. In fact, Walt Disney sited him as an important influence on his own animation work. It is not too far-fetched to conjecture that Dudley D. Watkins (the 1930s originator of Oor Wullie , Desperate Dan , and many other DC Thomson comic characters) might also have been aware of McCay’s work. Consequently, it came as no surprise to me when I met Stephen White, one of Wullie ’s current illustrators, and that during our conversation, he extolled the virtues of McCay and the influence he had had on his own work. This was particularly evident in a personal project Stephen was working on: his interpretation of Peter Pan . In this new version of Pan, you can see the influence of both McCay and Watkins, but this is very much Stephen’s work and his particular perception. It is heartening to meet someone who not only has a grasp of the history and traditions of the comic strip form, but who also has the ability to exercise his own vision. This new edition of Peter Pan not only encapsulates the original text as J. M. Barrie wrote it, but also uses a form which portrays the story the way the author might have wished it to be seen.

PP 2

Radio 4’s Book of the Week in July – ‘Sixty Degrees North’ by Malachy Tallack – An Extract

An extract from Malachy Tallack’s book Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home published on 13th July 2015; and will be Radio 4’s book of the week running from publication day.

Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home


Malachy Tallack


I can remember the day: silver-skied and heavy with rain. It was early winter and I had just turned seventeen. The morning had been spent in bed, sick and sleepless, but by lunchtime boredom made me move. I stood up and shuffled towards the window, pulling a dressing-gown around my shoulders. The house in which I spent my teenage years faced east over the harbour in Lerwick, Shetland’s capital town. From my room on the second floor I could see out onto our little garden, with the green picnic bench and the wooden trellis set against a low stone wall. Beyond, I could see fishing boats at the pier, and the blue and white ferry that chugged back and forth to the island of Bressay, just across the water.

Sixty Degrees With Stickerlo-res
Shetland lies at sixty degrees north of the equator, and the world map on our kitchen wall had taught me that, if I could see far enough, I could look out from that window across the North Sea to Norway, and to Sweden, then over the Baltic to Finland, to St Petersburg, then Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. If I could see far enough, my eyes would eventually bring me back, across the Atlantic Ocean, to where I was standing. I thought about that journey as I looked out over the harbour, half-dressed and shivering. Though I’d never travelled anywhere at this latitude before, I imagined then that I could see those places from above. I felt myself carried around the parallel, lifted and dragged, as though connected to a wire. The world turned and I turned with it, circling from home towards home again until I reached, inevitably, the back of my own head. Dizziness rose through me like a gasp of bubbles, and I fainted, briefly, landing on my knees with a jolt on the bedroom floor. Exhausted, I hauled myself back up again and into bed, and there I fell asleep and dreamed my way once more around the parallel. That dream, that day, never left me.
A few months earlier, my father had died. He left me one morning beside a lake in Sussex, not far from where he lived, and I spent the hours that followed fishing beneath August sunshine. It was the kind of quiet, ordinary day on which nothing extraordinary ought to happen. But it did. By the time the afternoon rolled towards evening and I began to wonder why he had not returned, he was already dead – killed in a car crash on his way to visit my grandmother in hospital. Waiting there alone, I clung to hope for as long as I could, but I had already imagined the worst. And though eventually I walked away, in search of someone to tell me what had happened and somewhere I could spend the night, part of me was left there beside the lake. Part of me has never stopped waiting.
On that evening, all of the plans I had came to an end, and when I returned to Shetland the following week it was with nothing in front of me. My parents had separated years before, and while I lived with my mother and brother in the islands, my father was in the south of England, at the other end of the British Isles. That summer I had been offered a place to study music at a school of performing arts in South London, and so I went to live with my dad. I had found a direction and followed it. When he died, just before the first term began, that direction was lost forever. I had no choice but to go north again, and once there I had no idea what I would do. On the day I stood beside the window, dreaming of the parallel, I had been stranded for months, lost and half-hollowed by grief. I was looking for something certain. I was looking for a direction.
Over the years, Shetland has made much of its latitude. When I was at high school, our youth club was called 60 North. Later, there was a fishing industry newspaper with the same name. And a tourist radio station. And an online magazine. And a skip-hire company. And a beer, brewed in Lerwick.

Part of this ubiquity is down to a lack of imagination, and part of it to a kind of brand mentality: selling our northern exoticism, or something like that. But there is more to it, I think. Sixty Degrees North is a story that we tell, both to ourselves and to others. It is a story about where – and perhaps also who – we are. ‘Shetland is at the same latitude as St Petersburg,’ tourists are informed,
‘as Greenland, and Alaska’. And they are told this because it seems to mean something. It seems to mean more, for instance, than the fact that Shetland is at the same longitude as Middlesbrough, or as Ouagadougou. To be at sixty degrees north is to be connected to a world that is more interesting and more mysterious than the one to which the islands are usually bound. To highlight it is to assert that this is not just a forgotten corner of the British Isles; Shetland belongs also to something else, something bigger. Once it was at the geographical heart of a North Atlantic empire, enclosed within the Norse world in a way that provokes nostalgia even now, more than five hundred years after the islands were pawned by the king of Denmark and Norway to Scotland. Unlike political or cultural geographies, the sixtieth parallel is certain and resolute; it is impervious to the whims of history. Shetland belongs to the north, upon this line with no corners to which it may be consigned. At sixty degrees, Shetland is as central as anywhere and everywhere else.
But what of those other places on that list we recite to tourists? What do we share with them, beyond a latitude? What exactly is this club to which we so enthusiastically belong? Looking at a map, it is possible to claim that the sixtieth parallel is a kind of border, where the almost-north and the north come together. In Europe, it crosses the very top of the British Isles and the bottom of Finland, Sweden and Norway. The line skirts the lower tip of Greenland, and of South-central Alaska. It slices the great expanse of Russia in half, and in Canada it does the same, marking the official boundary between the northern territories and southern provinces. All along the parallel are regions whose inhabitants are challenged, to some extent, by the places in which they live. They are challenged by climate, by landscape, by remoteness. And yet those inhabitants choose to remain. They make their peace with the islands and the mountains, the tundra and the taiga, the ice and the storms, and they stay. The relationships between people and place – the tension and the love, and the shapes that tension and that love can take – are the main focus of this book.

It was more than a decade after that day beside the window, when I dreamed my way around the world, that I finally set out to do it for real. I had spent half of those years away from Shetland. I had been to university, in Scotland and in Copenhagen, then lived and worked in Prague. I had found new directions and pursued them. And then I had come back, through choice, finally, rather than necessity. During those intervening years I thought so often about the parallel, imagining and reimagining the line, that when eventually I decided to follow it, I hardly paused to ask myself why. Now, though, I think I know the reasons.

It was curiosity, first of all. I wanted to explore the parallel, and to see those places to which my own place was tied. I wanted to learn about where I was and what it meant to be there. I wanted to come back laden with that knowledge, and to write it down.
Then there was restlessness – that fizzing pressure within that makes me long for what is elsewhere, for what is far away. That restlessness, that joy and curse that I have known for most of my life, brings unease when I ought to be content; it brings contentment when I ought to be uneasy. It sends me out into the world, almost against my will.

But finally, and perhaps most potently, it was homesickness that made me go. It was a desire to return to somewhere I belonged. My relationship with Shetland had always been fraught and undermined by my own past, and somehow I imagined that by going – by following the parallel around the world – that could change. To make such a journey, in which the final, certain destination must be home, was an act of faithfulness. It was a commitment that, for the first time in my life, I felt ready to make.

And so I went, visiting in turn each country on the sixtieth parallel. I travelled westward, with the sun and with the seasons, to Greenland in spring, North America in summer, Russia in autumn and the Nordic countries in winter. But I began by finding the line.