Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011


On a bright June day in 1764, a young shepherdess from the Gevaudan area of Southern France returned to her farm in a terrible state. 
Lunch: meat and no veg
Her dress and undergarments were in rags and she was so frightened that she could scarcely speak. When asked to explain what had happened, she said that a ferocious creature - a beast - had savagely attacked her. She’d only avoided death because her herd of oxen had driven off the wild animal.
Local villagers dismissed her story as nonsense. They claimed that a wolf - maybe rabid - had attempted the attack. 
Was this the beast?
The shepherdess stuck to her story and it soon transpired that she had not been lying. Just a few weeks later, on 30 June, a 14-year-old girl was eaten alive by a strange and ferocious animal. Two weeks later, another girl was dragged down and killed: soon after, three 15-year-old boys from Chayla l’Eveque were also killed. This spate of attacks were followed by many others, all of them fatal.
On 6 October, a young man from Pouget returned home with appalling wounds. His scalp was slashed open and he had suffered terrible chest injuries. He claimed he’d been attacked while walking through an orchard. He could only identify his attacker as ‘a beast’.
The beast: tore our victims' entrails
By January, 1765, the attacks had taken a more sinister turn. One day, a young man named Jacques Portefaux and seven of his friends were attacked by the same wild animal. The story of their heroic defence - they eventually drove it away - soon reached the ears of King Louis XV.
Antoine kills a beast. But is it THE beast?
He immediately despatched two professional hunters to kill the beast. They spent months killing wolves, but never caught sight of the beast itself: they were eventually replaced by Fran├žois Antoine, the king’s Lieutenant of the Hunt.
On 21 September, 1765, Antoine met with success. He killed a large grey wolf measuring almost two metres in length and 80 centimetres in height. It weighed 60 kilograms and bore scars on its body that attack survivors claimed to have inflicted.
Antoine's beast
Antoine informed the king: ‘We declare by the present report… that we never saw [such] a big wolf that could be compared to this one. This is why we estimate it could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.’
That ought to have been the end of the story but at the beginning of December, 1765, the beast emerged once again and severely attacked two children. In the weeks that followed, dozens more adults were killed in the fields.
Eventually, local people took matters into their own hands. In June, 1767, after a large pilgrimage at Notre-Dame-des-Tours, one of the lords of Gevaudan organized a hunt: among the hunters were Jean Chastel, a 60-year-old man with a solid track-record as both a marksman and a deeply religious man.
He had stationed himself at a place called Sogne d’Auvert, near the village of Saugues, and was reciting his rosary when he suddenly noticed a giant beast standing close to him.
With commendable calmness, he shouldered his shotgun  - previously loaded with consecrated bullets - took aim and fired.
The beast was paralysed for a moment, in shock from the force of the shot. Seconds later, it was knocked off its feet by Chastel’s dogs.  It fell down dead.
Did Chastel kill the beast?
The animal was examined by all the local dignitaries who were amazed by its strange features and huge size. They declared that it was not a wolf : rather, it was a monster of unknown origin.
Chastel tried to take the beast to Versailles, but the corpse putrefied in the stinking heat of summer and had to be buried. It was never officially identified.
Mystery surrounds the nature to the beast to this day. Some claim it was a giant wolf; others, more fancifully, cite its attacks as evidence of werewolves.
There are also claims that it was a stray hyena or even the surviving example of a mesonychid - a prehistoric carnivorous dog.
One thing is sure: Chastel’s bullet put an end to the beast’s attacks. After years of fear and mayhem, the people of Gevaudan in Southern France were finally free from nature’s most terrifying serial killer.

NOW AVAILABLE AS EBOOKS (as well as in paperback): 
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War
Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922  in UK. (Not yet available in USA)
Samurai William: The Adventurer who Unlocked Japan. in UK, in USA
Coming Soon in UK and USA: Big Chief Elizabeth (27 Oct),Nathaniel's Nutmeg and White Gold, early 2012. 
And one for the children... Call Me Gorgoeus, available at in paperback: and in the USA in hardback:

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The attack was fast, furious and conducted with great brutality.
Attacked: out of the blue
Mary Rowlandson glanced out of her window at sunrise on Thursday, 10 February, 1675, and was appalled to see dozens of native American Indians streaming towards her home town of Lancaster, on the Massachusetts frontier.
They attackers were wielding cudgels and muskets and slaughtering anyone who got in their way.
Mary was thrown into a state of panic. Her husband, Joseph, the minister to this small frontier town, was away in Boston. Mary had no one to help protect her three young children, Joseph, Mary and Sarah.
A few of her neighbours, who were taking shelter in the same building, tried to put up resistance. But Mary realised it was futile.
Some in our house were fighting for their lives,’ she later wrote, ‘others [were] wallowing in their blood, the house on fire over our heads, and the bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head, if we stirred out.’
Mary on the march
Mary’s brother-in-law was fatally shot and collapsed dead. Her nephew, William, broke his leg and had his head smashed to pieces. Mary herself got a bullet in her side, while her young daughter, Sarah, just six years of age, received a bullet in her bowels and another in her hand.
‘It is a solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their blood…’ wrote Mary, ‘all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out.’
When the fighting finally came to an end, only twenty-four inhabitants remained alive. All were seized and taken hostage.
So began a terribly captivity that was to last more than eleven weeks. In the freezing chill of winter, Mary and her children were forcibly marched through the wilderness as the Indians attempted to elude the colonial militia.
The first night in captivity was one of extreme fear. ‘This was the dolefulest night that ever my eyes saw,’ wrote Mary. ‘Oh the roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell.’
Spirited away - and held for eleven weeks
She was desperately worried about her daughter, Sarah, who was suffering from the two bullet wounds.
The second night it snowed heavily. Mary and the other prisoners had no shelter: she knew it was only a matter of time before little Sarah succumbed to her wounds.
Yet more than a week passed before Sarah finally died. ‘About two hours in the night, my sweet babe like a lamb departed this life,’ wrote Mary.
In all the time since their capture, she had swallowed nothing except a few gulps of cold water.
The prisoners were now split into groups, taken to different villages and forced to work as slaves. Mary’s surviving children were taken from her, leaving her totally distraught.
‘I had one child dead, another in the wilderness, I knew not where, the third they would not let me come near to.’
Metacomet, aka King Philip
She did, at one point, glimpse her second daughter, who had been exchanged for a gun and was now a slave. She was not allowed to talk to her.
Mary was soon on the march again, for the Indians were growing increasingly worried about being trapped by the colonial troops.
After more days of enforced walking, she was finally led into the settlement ruled by Metacomet, the most powerful chieftain in the region; the settlers knew him as ‘King Philip’.
Here, at last, she was given food by Metacomet himself. ‘He gave me a pancake, about as big as two fingers. It was made of parched wheat, beaten, and fried in bear's grease.’
The bestseller that followed
She had by now been a captive for almost a fortnight: for the next nine weeks, she was to be constantly on the march, eventually covering more than 150 miles. She endured hunger, violence and the freezing weather. All the while, she was mourning her lost child and praying that her other two children would survive their ordeal.
After many adventures - and bitter hardships - the Indians at long last conceded to negotiate with the colonists.
The negotiations were long and complex, but on 2 May, 1675, Mary was ransomed for £20 raised by the women of Boston in a public subscription. She was finally free to return home.
It was not quite the end. She had a few more agonising days to endure before learning that her two surviving children had also been released.
Their lives could at long last return to some sort of normality. But it would never be the same without little Sarah.

NOW AVAILABLE AS EBOOKS (as well as in paperback): 
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War
Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922  in UK. (Not yet available in USA)
Samurai William: The Adventurer who Unlocked Japan. in UK, in USA
Coming Soon in UK and USA: Big Chief Elizabeth (27 Oct), Nathaniel's Nutmeg and White Gold, early 2012. 
And one for the children... Call Me Gorgoeus, available at in paperback: and in the USA in hardback:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


It was a truly terrifying situation.
Grenfell: born to survive
A lone man was adrift on a floating island of ice and drifting steadily out to the wild ocean. Behind him lay the snow-swept coastline of Newfoundland. Ahead lay the lonely, ice-filled sea.
Wilfred Grenfell knew that his chances of survival were extremely slim. He also knew that he had taken a risk-too-far in attempting to cross the gigantic Newfoundland bay.
But it was the quickest route to the local hospital and his journey was a matter of life and death for a young boy in the hospital. The lad had poisonous gangrene in his leg and needed it treated - and possibly amputated - if he was to have any chance of pulling through. Only Grenfell could perform the operation.
Newfoundland in winter: the big chill
His journey across the sea-ice had begun well. He was well prepared, with a change of garments, snowshoes, rifle and oilskin clothes. He also had a team of six dogs who were to pull his komatic or heavy sledge.
As Grenfell pushed out into the bay he suddenly grew alarmed. The heavy sea had smashed the ice into blocks that were held together by wafer-thin skins. Some of these skins had melted leaving great gaping chasms between the blocks.
Brin and the unfortunate Watch
With great effort he made it across to a stable island of ice. From here, it was a further four miles across slushy ice to the rocky headland. He set off undaunted and was close to the landing point when disaster struck.
He suddenly found himself crossing ‘sish’ - a slush-like porridge of ice. One moment he was afloat; the next, he was sinking.
‘There was not a moment to lose. I tore off my oilskins, threw myself on my hands … and shouted to my team to go ahead for the shore.’
But the dogs were frightened and also began to sink in the slush, along with the sledge. Soon they were all flailing in icy water, ‘like flies in treacle.’
After thrashing through this icy water, Grenfell managed to reach an 'ice pan' or miniature floating island of ice. With heroic effort, he pulled himself onto the pan and then got his dogs onto the ice as well. But the wind was now whipping a gale and they found themselves pushed out to sea, where the ice pan was certain to be smashed to pieces.
Grenfell was icy cold, for all his equipment had been lost. ‘I stood with next to nothing on, the wind going through me and every stitch soaked in ice water…’ He felt sure he would meet with a quick death, for the sea was growing wilder and wilder. ‘Immense pans of Arctic ice, surging to and fro on the heavy seas, were thundering into the cliffs like medieval battering rams.’
Grenfell out on the ice
Yet he was a born survivor and now used every survival technique he had ever learned. He cut off his moccasins and split them open to make a makeshift jacket.
Still freezing, he realised that his only course was to start killing the dogs. 
He made a slip-knot from leather, pulled it over one of their necks and stabbed it through the heart. He then hacked off the skin and wrapped the bloody pelt over his shoulders. Two more dogs were also killed and he used their skins to keep warm.
It was by now growing dark: he had already been adrift many hours. He hadn’t eaten for 18 hours but kept himself from hunger by chewing a rubber band.
Through sheer willpower he survived the icy night, with the wind whipping across the ice and causing frostbite to spread through his feet. When the sun finally rose, he tied together the thigh bones of his slaughtered dogs and then tied his shirt to the end, making a rudimentary flag. It was his last hope of being sighted.
He was in a sorry state: ‘my poor, gruesome pan [was] bobbing up and down… stained with blood and littered with carcasses and debris.’
Grenfell and his bloody clothes

What he did not know was that he’d been sighted some hours before. A man on the cliffs had seen him and raised the alarm. Now, rescue was on its way. Four men were rowing with tremendous effort through the slush, aware that their village comrade could not keep himself alive for much longer.
Grenfell didn’t see them coming, for he was badly afflicted with snow blindness. But he never gave up hope of being rescued.
At long last, they were upon him: they had reached his ice pan. ‘As the man in the bow leaped from the boat onto my ice raft and grasped both my hands in his, not a word was uttered.’
Grenfell, in common with his rescuers, knew that he’d had a very lucky escape.
As for the boy who he was intending to treat in hospital, he was successfully operated and made a full recovery.
‘We all love life,’ was how Grenfell finished the gripping little narrative of his survival. ‘I was glad to be back once more with a new lease of it before me.’

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War

Available here for just £5.30
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail
'Engaging, page-turning and thought-provoking... a fascinating subject' Victoria Hislop

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The island was small - just over a mile in length and half a mile wide.
It was also unpopulated for many years, which is why it was selected by British military scientists.
Holiday on Gruinard Island: don't forget the suit
In 1942, Gruinard Island, off the west coast of Scotland, was infected with high doses of anthrax. Scientists wanted to test whether or not anthrax would be efficacious in a massive biological attack on Nazi Germany.
The plan - codenamed Operation Vegetarian - was to drop linseed cakes infected with anthrax onto the German countryside. The effect would have been catastrophic: Germany’s cattle population would have been wiped out, leading to the death of millions through starvation.
'We shall fight them in the meadows'
The discussions about biological warfare were conducted at the highest level. Winston Churchill himself debated it with his Chiefs of Staff. And the outcome of their discussions was to lead to a top secret order from North America of half a million anthrax bombs.
The 1942 tests on Gruinard Island had to 
be carried out in total secrecy. The island was bought by the government under a compulsory purchase order. Soon after, 80 sheep were shipped to the island and spores of the anthrax bacterium were exploded close to the animals.
Anthrax: government health warning
The anthrax strain was Vollum 14578, a lethal and highly virulent type that took its effect within days. The sheep rapidly began to die.
The scientists were stunned by its efficacy: they realised that a mass detonation of anthrax over Germany would pollute the land for decades, making it totally unsuitable for human habitation.
More alarming was their inability to decontaminate Gruinard Island. Once the anthrax spores were there, they were impossible to remove.
Dead sheep: it worked - a rare anthrax photo
Churchill changed tack and considered the use of poison gas instead. ‘I want you to think very seriously over this question…’ he wrote to his Chiefs of Staff. ‘I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay us to use poison gas.’
But by the spring of 1944, anthrax was back on the agenda and this time Churchill approved an order for an initial stockpile of 500,000 anthrax bombs.
Gruinard: island of death
He said he had engaged in ‘most secret consultations with my Military Advisers. They consider, and I entirely agree, that if our enemies should indulge in this form of warfare, the only deterrent would be our power to retaliate.’ An important - and oft forgotten clause - is the fact that he would only drop anthrax on Germany in retaliation for a Nazi biological attack on England.
The Inter-Service Sub-Committee on Biological Warfare said that the initial anthrax order ‘was based on an appreciation that the number would be sufficient for retaliatory attack on six large enemy cities. It has now been concluded, however, that it may be necessary to arrange provision of 8 times this number of bombs in order to achieve results on the scale originally envisaged...’
A puff of smoke on Gruinard. But it'll kill you.
The production of the initial order took time - far longer than the experts had expected. ‘The plant for manufacturing the filling of the bombs [with anthrax] should be in operation by the end of the year (1944) … We could not, therefore, engage in this form of warfare on any effective scale before the spring of 1945.’
By 1945, a top secret report to a Cabinet Defence Committee revealed that even deadlier anthrax weapons were now on trial.
‘Judging by its effect on monkeys,’ read the report, ‘[it] might kill half the population of a City of the size of Stuttgart in one heavy bomber raid and render the site of the City uninhabitable for many years to come... It is clear, therefore, that biological warfare is potentially a most deadly weapon and, if it is ever used in warfare, may have revolutionary effects.’
One Gruinard house for sale: strangely, no buyers.
But the end of the war was by now just around the corner. A new deadly weapon - the atomic bomb - had been developed and anthrax was no longer needed. The biological weapons project was quietly dropped.
But on remote Gruinard Island, the effects of a deadly anthrax attack remained a reality for decades to come.
The island was contaminated and strictly off-limits until 1990, when the removal of top soil and spraying of the island with formaldehyde solution finally rendered it safe.
There is still no one living on the island. The only inhabitants are a flock of sheep who munch on the grass, blissfully unaware of the deadly spores that until recently infected their island home.

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War

Available here for just £5.30
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail
'Engaging, page-turning and thought-provoking... a fascinating subject' Victoria Hislop