Forester, C. S. Rifleman Dodd.

Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co, 1989.

It’s 1810 and Wellington is making progress in his Peninsular Campaign. Presently, he’s in Portugal, withdrawing strategically toward the defenses of the Lines at Torres Vedras, which the French don’t even suspect have been constructed to fatally frustrate them. One of the most useful regiments in “Big-Nose Arthur’s” army is the 95th Foot.

These are the green-coated riflemen who can hit the enemy at two or three times the distance of a musket, and whom the French have learned to be very wary of.

And among the ordinary troops of the 95th is Rifleman Matthew Dodd, twenty-two years old, an illiterate ex-farm worker, a skilled soldier since he was seventeen, and a veteran of five campaigns in Spain. Scouting in advance of the skirmish line, Dodd gets cut off by an unexpected enemy advance and is regretfully left behind when his unit withdraws. He’s not about to panic — these things happen — but his prime directive now is to make his way south toward Lisbon and rejoin his regiment as quickly as possible. Because that’s “home.”

It’s a long march without much assistance, especially since he’s never bothered to learn the language (I mean, these people don’t even speak English), and he has lots of small-scale adventures along with way in order just to stay alive. When his first, direct attempt fails (damn French all over the place, jammed up against the Lines), he falls in with an inexperienced group of rural Portuguese militia, assuming it will only be for a few days, but the connection extends into several months. And during the winter he becomes their leader by virtue of his combat experience and that amazing rifle.

Actually, he performs a greater service for Britain by organizing the militia than he would have as just another member of the regiment, but that isn’t the way his mind works.

On several occasions, he comes into contact with the same French infantry squad, all untrained and inexperienced young conscripts, whose route roughly parallels his own and whom he has taken bloodily effective shots at a number of times. The French are starving, but more quickly than the Portuguese peasants. And at intervals in the narrative, the point of view switches to Sergeant Godinot and his buddies (whom Dodd is slowly exterminating), to give us a very different angle on events in which they both share.

Given the regiment and the venue, this short novel (only 150 pages) obviously invites comparison with Bernard Cornwell’s much later series about Richard Sharpe. (Sharpe would be a raised-from-the-ranks lieutenant in 1810, so Dodd could easily be one of his men.) Forester is best known, of course, for his iconic novels about the Royal Navy, featuring Horatio Hornblower, but he was perfectly capable of doing a very workmanlike job on land as well. But where Sharpe is the archetypal hero (though somewhat more bloody-minded than most), and Hornblower was a brilliant strategist and tactician, Dodd is just an ordinary grunt. He’s a careful soldier, he’s intelligent in matters of survival, and he has absorbed a good deal of military method along the way, but he has no great personal ambitions to be anything more than a private soldier and to eventually make it back to England. And he has a wide stubborn streak. There are no great battles here, no climactic scenes in which he overcomes hordes of the enemy, just ordinary, day-to-day, catch-as-catch-can soldiering. Even his successful attempt at the very end to destroy the efforts of a French bridge-building convoy turn out to be not as crucial as he assumed. In many ways, this book reminds me, in its flavor, of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, and that’s a compliment.

Note: This novel first appeared in England in 1932 under the title Death to the French, and was published in the U.S. a decade later as a twofer with The Gun, Forester’s other Peninsular War story. This new publisher, who brought it back into print after many years, has reissued a series of other classic war stories, both fiction and nonfiction, which are worth checking out.

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