Henri A’Trique, my ancestor, was a member of the French minor nobility who escaped in a fishing boat from the siege of La Rochelle. He was a Huguenot but with little respect for his leader, Henri of Navarre. In his opinion, worshipping in the same manner did not justify dying in a family squabble, even if the family was royal.
Landed near Great Yarmouth, Henri set about making a living by buying dried salt cod and peddling it round the shires of Cambridge, Bedford and Northampton. He had no experience of actual work: his father was hereditary factor to a duc and Henri would have succeeded him in due time. He proved to be a shrewd businessman so he soon moved to salting and smoking on his own account. The family did well over the years by dint of hard work by Henri and his English wife.
They always talked French at home and they applied French style and taste to their manufactory. As a result, a century after settling in Norfolk, they were modestly well-to-do when the revolutionaries in France started killing off the aristocrats who had been the chief purchasers of the delicacies prepared by the A’Trique family.
By the time the Continental Blockade was introduced the business was in ruins. Eighteen year old Michel, called Michael by everyone but his Mum and Dad, could see that the family savings would soon be consumed and he was angry with the sans culottes for destroying his livelihood. Two years earlier the family would have bought him a lieutenancy but straitened circumstances made that impossible.
Undaunted, Michael took himself off to Cambridge and joined the army that Mr Pitt was preparing to teach the upstart French a lesson in manners. Michael was literate having been in school when the bottom dropped out his world but the recruiting sergeant was semi-literate at best and full of that arrogant impatience that characterises the Englishman given a little authority. Despite several attempts that did not altogether endear Michael to his new superior, the sergeant recorded a phonetic version of his name. Since an army pay book is in the nature of an official document, my name is now spelled ‘Attrick’.
The family were so well known in Norfolk that their French ancestry was never an issue so the attitude of the sergeant surprised young Michael. Clutching his King’s shilling he sat drinking a modest half-pint of mild ale thinking things through while he waited to march off with his fellow recruits. He resolved to stick with the English version of his name and suppress the fact that he spoke French like a native.
You can see the original spelling of our family name on a handful of gravestones in the neglected graveyard of a little village in Normandy, although I have been unable to trace any of my relatives, however far removed. Nor have I been able to trace the origin of the name apart from a suggestion that it may be a corruption of a Viking name or title.
Michael Attrick did not like the army and, since he was bright and articulate, it is only fair to acknowledge that the army probably did not like him. He described his service as months of boredom punctuated by hours of stark terror. He marched across substantial areas of Portugal and Spain in pursuit of Napoleon’s Grande Army sharing an insanitary tent with seven comrades in arms.
He had little in common with his fellows and, despite learning Spanish from the interpreters that travelled with the regiment; he had even less success in getting close to the locals. It was probably not his fault: the peasants had seen too many uniforms passing over their land. At least Wellington’s troops paid for what they took unlike the French. Worst of all were the little warriors, Spaniards who lived in the hills harassing the French and raiding their supply columns.
Michael tried to be cynical about the battles he was forced into but the truth was that it was only the certainty of being shot by his own side that kept him facing the enemy. He was careful not to show any special skills, aptitude or interest taking what comfort he could in standing shoulder to shoulder with the other targets while malignant musket balls whined past.
By the time he reached Egypt he was actively looking for a way out. In the hot and insanitary conditions a new layer of fear was added with soldiers sickening many of them dying since medical care was rudimentary when it was available at all. The old order of regiment, brigade, division and so on was in chaos with officers and men being moved around to fill gaps. Although determinedly self-effacing, Michael had still been known to his lieutenant and the other en in his troop. Now, however, he found himself mixing with strangers under unfamiliar officers: only the uniform enabled them to identify each other.
This got Michael thinking and he was eventually presented with a daring opportunity. If he had still been in Spain, speaking the language, he might have risked desertion but in Egypt there appeared to be no way out. East and west was desert, south was a wasteland populated by cannibals, or so he had been told, while the British Fleet closed off the route north. Discipline was much less strict in Egypt but in practice all this meant was that it was easy to get out of camp to drink in the local bars or court disease in the brothels.
Then Michael met a sailor in one of the bars who had been press-hanged in Leith. George McPhail had been a cobbler and he soon discovered that he had a morbid fear of heights so his service on board a frigate was constantly terrifying. Under the Articles of War the only acceptable excuse for refusing to clamber up the shrouds was that you were already in a shroud with a cannon ball sewn in at your feet/.. To add insult to injury only the officers wore shoes l[i] When Michael told him that the army was only terrifying during actual conflict he raised envy in the simple heart of George.
The pair was enjoying a warming moan about life when a shipmate appeared and dumped George’s duffle bag beside him. The navy was having the same problems with illness as the army so a supply ship was unable to set sail for England because there were too few hands to man her. The midshipman in charge of George’s division had no hesitation in offering the services of possibly the worst sailor in the navy.
Michael cut short his new friends complaints that a supply ship would be even worse than a ship of the line; he had a proposal to make that George readily agreed to. They nipped behind a wall and changed clothes, George being delighted to be back in boots.. Michael liked the sea and had sailed his own ketch when the family finances were sound, so he had no fear of serving as an able-bodied matelot.
The exchange took place close to the dockside in Alexandria, Egypt and with that sense of irony that distinguishes our family to this day, he settled in the town of the same name in Dunbartonshire after an uneventful voyage. George proved to be a valiant soldier: some years later Michael’s parents got a letter from a captain informing them of the death of their son while leading a bayonet charge.
Since then things have gone on in a largely uneventful way. We count one felon, hung, one provost, who should have been, and a succession of skilled wet fish and game purveyors to the elite of the Vale of Leven. We no longer speak French.
On balance I am proud of my heritage but the name just seemed a bit un-Scottish for my first attempts at story telling. I am now working on a Liberty-Bodice Ripper and I do think that the original spelling has a cachet, a certain je-ne-sais-quoi so I will publish as