Book review: Keane’s Company by Iain Gale

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FOR Lieutenant Keane of the 27th Regiment of Foot serving in Portugal under General Arthur Wellesley in 1808, the irony was hard to bear – that almost the only time he didn’t cheat at cards (“Doesn’t everyone?” he asked) he was accused of doing just that. Keane called his accuser to a duel and killed him.

Keane’s Company

by Iain Gale

Heron Books, 342pp, £14.99

The Peninsular War against Napoleon was still in the balance. Wellesley needed to know who the Portuguese and Spanish guerrillas would support, he needed spies to win them over, and he needed to know what the French were doing.

He needed, in other words, a small group of clever but fearless soldiers who had nothing to lose by infiltrating enemy lines. And who better to lead it than Keane – who otherwise was facing a murder charge following his court martial?

Promoted to captain, Keane was allowed to select his team, most of whom (in true Dirty Dozen style) came from prisons where they too were facing death for theft and various other misdemeanours such as being too handy with their fists. All had skills relevant to the task ahead. Supplied with money, a captaincy and the ear of his commanding officer, Keane’s career seemed back on course.

His fellow officers looked down on him as an “intelligencer” but he relished the challenge and had the total loyalty of his team. They prepared for the next stage of the invasion and negotiated with the guerrilla leaders, most of whom were ready to support the highest bidder. Keane made sure that was the British. He knew that the Spanish guerrillas would fight “with us” not “for us”.

To the British soldiers, operating around the ancient Portuguese capital of Coimbra in the centre of the country, Spain and Portugal seemed backward, lacking the industries beginning to appear at home. They did at least have the support of the British owners of port-producing vineyards, and after taking Oporto, using Keane’s information, Wellesley was able to plan his invasion of Spain.

Keane’s main problems did not come from guerrillas or French armies. It was unwise to fall in love with the sister of the best friend of his duelling victim but that problem was resolved too. Keane seems to have immunity from all danger and the best logistical ideas in Wellesley’s army. “I can’t help thinking that our luck is bound to run out” he says – but of course, it never does.

Iain Gale lives in Edinburgh and is a journalist and lecturer on art and military history as well as a writer of historical fiction. On the strength of this well-written account of the army’s nascent intelligence service in the Peninsular War, his Captain James Keane is a worthy rival to Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe.