Category Archives: History books

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.

Sikkim and Scotland

Andrew Duff, author of Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom reflects on how he put his book together, and the connections he found between that distant province and his home in Scotland. 

In September 2014, just as the fever over the Scottish referendum peaked, I found myself writing the closing chapter of my first book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom (the story behind India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975).

I had often thought of comparisons between Scotland and the tiny Himalayan kingdom perched between Nepal and Bhutan. Here was a small, self-contained country whose people were generous and welcoming in a way that would not have been amiss in the Scottish Highlands. The terrain, too, sometimes conjured up thoughts of home: Sir Francis Younghusband, the adventurer whose infamous 1904 expedition passed through Sikkim en route to Tibet, found that the rivers reminded him of nothing more than a day fishing near Kelso.

The connection went deeper. I had first discovered Sikkim thanks to my grandfather, who had moved from Scotland to India in 1920. Two years later he had walked into Sikkim from nearby Darjeeling. He had left notes and photographs of the journey which I used to pore over as a child, captivated by the pictures of enormous mountains, rushing streams and spectacular Buddhist monasteries perched on hilltops. It looked so different from the image of India that dominated the UK media.

In 2008 I decided to take a one-way flight to India, with my grandfather’s Himalayan notes and photographs tucked in the bottom of my rucksack. By April 2009 I had reached Darjeeling where I began to follow my grandfather’s footsteps, walking down 5000 feet to the river that marks the border into Sikkim.

Sikkim - 8pp mono plate section















It was a magical journey through an extraordinary landscape, but it was in a hill-top monastery that I started to learn something about Sikkim’s past – and moved towards the next Scottish connection.

The monk told me the remarkable tale surrounding India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975, and about the last King Thondup’s marriage to American Hope Cooke, who some in India had believed was a CIA agent. The story seemed improbable enough, but when it turned out the monk had been the right hand man to the King, I was completely hooked.

On my return to the UK, I started to dig further into the story. I found two Scottish women who had taught at a school in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok. Both had been close to the palace, and had written weekly letters home throughout the 1960s and 1970s when the relationship between Sikkim, India and China had been at its most tense, spilling over into war in the Himalayas.
One of them put me in touch with Hope Cooke (still alive in New York and who had her own affinity for Scotland via her first governess). Although she was unwilling to interview about the events in Sikkim, she encouraged me to delve deeper into the story, again emphasising Sikkim’s Scottish connections.

King Thondup and Hope Cooke

As I read her extraordinary confessional autobiography Time Change, I discovered another Scot at the centre of Sikkim’s drama: the so-called Kazini of Chakung, the wife of the main politician in Sikkim opposed to King Thondup and Hope Cooke. It took some time to track down the Kazini’s true identity; in Sikkim there are many who still think she was Belgian. In fact she was a Scottish adventuress par excellence: already through two husbands by the time she met the Kazi, she had been Elisa-Maria Langford Rae when they married. I eventually discovered she had been born plain Ethel Maud Shirran in the small town of Doune, in Central Scotland. Her amazing capacity for reinvention fitted with a story that just grew and grew. That she should have ended up in a book alongside Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong, Kufikar Ali Bhutto, and Indira Gandhi would have tickled her immensely.

When my book comes out next month, I’m sure there will be those who draw analogies between the referendums held in Scotland last September and that held in the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim when it was absorbed into India in 1975. In truth, the circumstances were very different. During the late stages of my research, for instance, I discovered British and American intelligence records that confirmed what many had told me anecdotally: that Sikkim’s referendum had not been left to chance. In fact things had got so bad that one of the missionary teachers had resorted to writing home in broad Scots (to confuse the Indian government censors who were opening every letter) when she wanted to get the message out about the dubious actions of the Indian government and its intelligence agents in Sikkim. It made me reflect on the extraordinarily polite and peaceful conduct of the Scottish referendum.

There are many more connections between Scotland and Sikkim, many of which hark back to more than a century before any of the examples given above. But that’s another story!

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it – mostly from a cottage in the Angus glens – and that it might lead to more connections between Scotland and this fascinating corner of the world, now India’s 22nd state.

Andrew Duff

Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom is available for pre-order now on the Birlinn website, and will be available in all good bookshops from 14 May

October: the month of the history books

2014 will be a massive year for Scotland.

It’s Homecoming which means there’ll be literally hundreds of cultural and sporting events to welcome visitors to Scotland, plus lots of things to see, do, eat and drink! There are some major international sporting events, including not least the Ryder Cup, which is going home to where golf was founded at Gleneagles. Gleneagles obviously has huge history with golf, but also with the Ryder Cup, so 2014 is shaping up to be one of their biggest years. The Commonwealth Games are taking place in the summer which means athletes from all over the world will be gathering in Glasgow to compete for glory. It’s the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn – the one where Scotland won! It’s also when Robert the Bruce united the nation for the first time; interesting timing. It will also be 100 years since the start of the First World War, and there will be a host of events to commemorate this terrible anniversary.  And of course there’s a little matter of a referendum on the future of the political landscape of the nation and beyond – this time next year we’ll know whether the people of Scotland want to remain part of the United Kingdom or strike out on their own as an independent nation.

So before all of that kicks off, maybe it’s time for a little reflection on things past. As such, we’ve declared October the month of the history books. Here at Birlinn Ltd we have a long and proud tradition of publishing such books, especially those with a Scottish slant, so we’ve got a wealth of titles to choose from on our own list which is where our recommendations come from today. As always with this blog though, we’ll be broadening our horizons and bringing you the best from across the world of publishing in the next few weeks.

To kick off then, here are a few recommendations of some of our brand new releases, but every week we’ll be focusing on a different aspect of history, so stay tuned folks!

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

Tapestry pbk

This summer’s must-see exhibition was the community arts project The Great Tapestry of Scotland. Bringing together the talents of Alexander McCall Smith, Alistair Moffat and artist Andrew Crummy, plus over 1000 stitchers from all over Scotland organised by superwoman Dorie Wilkie, the Tapestry covers the history of Scotland from prehistory to the present day in over 160 panels. Longer than the Bayeux Tapestry, it is an incredible thing to see and here is the book of the making of one of the biggest projects Scotland has ever seen! In The Great Tapestry of Scotland, The Making of a Masterpiece, Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat tell the story behind the finished work of art, and some of the individual tales are incredibly heart-warming.

Scottish Cookery

It’s Homecoming next year and nothing makes us feel more welcome than a bit of home-cooking, so here’s Catherine Brown’s classic Scottish Cookery. First published in 1985, this brand new edition has lost of none of the charm, or more importantly the excellent recipes. This is not just a cookery book however, it’s also a look at the history of food in Scotland, and the important relationship we have with our local produce that goes back centuries.

Jewel in the Glen

The Ryder Cup returns to Scotland next year, and more importantly, it returns to the home of golf itself, Gleneagles. The course and hotel have a long history associated with golf’s toughest contest, and the whole story is laid out in lavish detail in Jewel in the Glen by Ed Hodge. Ed is a former caddy himself, and knows the sport, the course and the competition inside out. The book, which was published in conjunction with the Gleneagles Resort, is full of interviews with professional golfers from past and present as well as people who have a connection to the hotel and competition, including Andy Murray and his family. Jack Nicklaus wrote the foreword, and if that isn’t enough to tempt you, then the hundreds of photos from the first competition onwards should do it!

Empire of Sand

2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, one of the bloodiest and senseless conflicts of the modern era. ‘The war to end all wars’, was of course a complete misnomer and it led indirectly to the Second World War just a couple of decades later. It also led to a new world order and the formation of the League of Nations, and perhaps lesser known, the mandate system in the Middle East. Walter Reid’s seminal text, Empire of Sand outlines Britain’s role in shaping the modern state system in the Middle East in great detail for the first time. Looking at the formation of Iraq and Jordan, and the infamous drawing of lines in the sand to create new nations, Reid examines how far Britain can be held responsible for the resulting instability that still plagues the region today.

A New Race of Men, Scotland 1815-1914

Finally, we recommend Michael Fry’s brand new publication, A New Race of Men, Scotland 1815 – 1914. Fry is a hugely respected author and historian and in his new book he examines what he describes as Scotland’s greatest century. Bookended by the Napoleonic wars which ended in 1815, and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the intervening years saw an outpouring of creativity and inventiveness from Scotland – everything from combine harvesters to anaesthesia – and Scotland’s biggest contribution to the progress of mankind. Underneath the surface though, the nation was riven by urban poverty, environmental destruction, religious suppression and moral ambiguity. These contradictory faces of Scotland have had long lasting consequences on our national psyche and in the run up to the Referendum 2014 Fry’s book is an essential read.