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Marching with Marlborough

For those of you not yet acquainted with the Carey novels (what a treat you have in store), a little publishing history. Between 1954 and 1972 Oxford University Press published twelve historical novels by Ronald Felton, the headmaster of Okehampton Grammar School. Written under the nom de plume of Ronald Welch, and aimed at young readers, the novels had a martial strain, and ranged from the First Crusade and the Hundred Years’ War to the First World War via the Babington Plot, the Civil War, Wolfe at Quebec, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny; each described the wartime adventures of a member of the Carey family, who had lived on their ancestral acres in Wales since Norman times, and given loyal service to the Crown whenever the occasion arose.

A patriotic Welshman, Welch studied at Cambridge and served as a tank commander in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (hence the nom de plume) before becoming a schoolmaster, and his exciting, fast-moving adventures combine a soldier’s understanding of war, and the weapons of war, with a teacher’s instinct to instruct, albeit in the most painless and unobtrusive way.

Published in 1956, Captain of Dragoons is set in the reign of Queen Anne, during the early years of the War of the Spanish Succession, and the relevant member of the family is Charles Carey, ‘a tall, lean young officer of Dragoons, with a crop of black hair cut short for comfort under his wig, and a pair of inky black brows that were convenient warning signals that his quick temper was rising’; he is also one of the most brilliant swordsmen in the Duke of Marlborough’s army, and is given ample opportunities to display his prowess.

His story reaches its climax with the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 – but some background information might not come amiss at this stage, both for young readers and forgetful parents: Welch was writing for children who had grown up on a diet of Our Island Story, 1066 and All That and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, and were familiar from a young age – if by name only – with Marlborough’s victories over the French at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde and Malplaquet.

Charles II, the Bourbon King of Spain, never had any children, and on his death Louis XIV, the great ‘Sun King’ of France, declared that his own grandson would inherit the Spanish throne. Alarmed at the prospect of a dynastic union of their old enemies, France and Spain, the British led a Grand Alliance against the French which included the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Portugal and Savoy. War broke out in 1701, and the Alliance’s forces were led by the Duke of Marlborough, ably assisted by the dashing Prince Eugene of Savoy – both of whom Charles Carey encounters in the course of his adventures, rightly earning the Duke’s approval and admiration for his exploits as a soldier and as a spy behind French lines.

Captain of Dragoons is set in the Low Countries, France, the German principalities along the Rhine and the upper reaches of the Danube – where, at Blenheim, Marlborough thrashed a united army of French and Bavarians, so thwarting Louis XIV’s attempt to march on Vienna. The book opens with a skirmish between red-coated Britons (‘burly, red-faced men, sweating in their thick scarlet coats, and stumbling awkwardly on the rough surface of the road in their long black riding boots that came above the knee’) and blue-coated French soldiers, and from then on the action seldom flags. But the drama is not confined to the battlefield, for Carey soon discovers that there is a traitor in the camp – almost certainly a Jacobite, loyal to the memory of the ousted Catholic king, James II.

Welch is brilliant on the heat and dust of war, on muskets and short swords and finely balanced duelling pistols. He also has a keen eye for clothes, for ruffles of lace at the neck and wrists, and carefully combed wigs, and gleaming shoes with silver buckles; he notes of a sullen-seeming major that ‘his jackboots were so highly polished that the evening sun falling through the small window of the Adjutant’s office struck deep inky pools from the smooth surface’. And he conjures up a marvellously sinister, snake-like villain, a Jacobite and a brilliant fencer:

He was tall and thin, as thin as a skeleton, with long arms that ended in bony wrists and long claw-like fingers. The skin over his face was stretched so tightly that the bones stood out in hard white lines and bumps, as if they were about to break through the thin covering of flesh at any moment. His deep-set eyes under grey brows regarded Charles with a cold speculative air of enquiry, and his mouth was a thin red gash under the high arched nose which seemed all bone and no skin . . . his head was bare, shaven clean, a shining white death’s-head gleaming in the light from the lantern above.

That said, we know he’s up to no good – whereas the revelation of the real traitor in the camp is reserved for the last chapter, and comes as a complete and dreadful surprise. To give too much away would be the act of a spoilsport, but it’s safe to say that perhaps the most exciting chapters in the book are those in which Carey spies on the French – ingredients of which include the Bastille, the dismal court of the Old Pretender at Saint-Germain, and a visit to Versailles. Some fifty years after the war ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1714, Tobias Smollett published his splendid Travels through France and Italy, in which he ridiculed the French as a foppish, over-scented, rather dirty race whose lavatories were beyond the pale. Such attitudes still prevailed in the 1950s, as I well remember, and Welch’s ‘Froggies’ live up to the stereotype. French soldiers are swarthy and unshaven; Versailles may be grand, but it’s also cold, grubby and malodorous; Carey notes, disapprovingly, the Sun King’s filthy fingernails.

I never read Ronald Welch as a child – by the time Captain of Dragoons appeared I had abandoned The Black Arrow and The White Company for the more brutish twentieth-century adventures of the Saint and Bulldog Drummond – but making amends sixty years late has been an undiluted pleasure. My only complaint is that Carey spends too much time muttering to himself – grunting, whistling and grinning, usually ‘mirthlessly’. Had he done so in real life back in the 1950s he would almost certainly have been removed to a lunatic asylum, though nowadays we would assume he was talking on his mobile phone. But that’s how heroes behaved in those days – and it’s a very small price to pay. And anyone sensible enough to buy all the Slightly Foxed reprints of the Carey novels will almost certainly be making a sound investment.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 45 © Jeremy Lewis 2015

About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis is writing a biography of David Astor, the editor-cum-proprietor of the Observer in its glory days, to be published by Jonathan Cape.

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