Military history

Chapter 16

Bodies lay everywhere. In this alley it was hard to walk and not tread on human flesh. Major MacAndrews wished that his wife had not insisted on coming with him. He could see that she was at least as tired as he was, and a natural protectiveness convinced him that she was less able to bear it. It was also a shame that she should have to see this. There was no reason to expect that they would find any sign of their daughter, or indeed his missing officer. Nevertheless, they both tramped through the streets, as they did at each new town on the road. Behind them came the grenadiers and Number One Company. The rest of the battalion was allocated to clear up different parts of the town.

There were hundreds stretched in the mud of Bembibre – perhaps even thousands. Most were men, but there were a good number of women and even a few children.

‘Good God alive,’ said MacAndrews as he looked down at a child of no more than ten, bare legged and sprawled beside her mother. He could no longer remember a worse New Year.

‘Animals.’ It took a good deal to shock his wife. ‘Just animals, or perhaps worse because beasts cannot know right from wrong.’

Nearly all the men wore filthy and stained red coats. Here and there was the dark blue of an artilleryman or hussar, and just occasionally the green of a rifleman. A few moved, stirring slightly or moaning. The rest lay completely still, snow beginning to gather on them. Everywhere were dark red pools. From many an open mouth a thin stream of thick red liquid trickled.

‘Is the whole damned army drunk?’ Esther asked her husband. It was not a joke. In her voice was a doubt he had rarely heard before in all their long years of marriage. Amid such appalling scenes of collapse and disaster, her worst fears no longer seemed impossible. She shook her head, and some of the familiar spirit returned. ‘No wonder you lost America.’

MacAndrews took her hand, then had to let it go as they stepped around a circle of half a dozen redcoats and a couple of their women, all passed out where they had been licking the same pool of spilled wine. Behind them, the men of the 106th prodded, kicked and yelled at the prostrate figures. A few were already dead from the cold.

The Grenadier Company worked its way down a section of one of the side streets. Hanley stayed outside, supervising the men as they woke the sleepers in the street and dragged the dead clear of the track, while Pringle led parties of men into the buildings. In one house his grenadiers found a cellar flooded with wine where a row of barrels had been sprung open. Three redcoats floated where they had drowned when they grew insensibly drunk. The air was heavy with the smell of strong wine. Billy Pringle struggled to breathe as he leaned against the wall.

‘Waste of good wine,’ he managed to croak, and then with a gesture set the men to work clearing up. There was neither sign nor scent of any corruption, and he wondered whether that was because of the cold or the alcohol. Concentrating on such an unimportant point kept him from facing the full squalor of the scene.

Hanley watched almost dispassionately as grenadiers came out of the house carrying the sodden corpses and piled them up outside next to the wall. As he had often found since joining the army, the sights of war had an unreality about them. The still, silent stack of bodies added to the impression of some overly romantic painting of a massacre, although in all those he could remember the corpses were far more decorous. None of the men looked that different from his own soldiers, and he found himself staring at the grenadiers, trying to guess whether they were stirred by disgust or envy at the sights. Then his thoughts were interrupted when Sergeant Rawson growled at two of their men who had lifted the skirts of some drunken women and were comparing observations.

There was not enough water to waste by pouring it over the prostrate forms. Some could be shaken or struck awake. Murphy and Eyles began lifting men, so that Dobson could slap them with great vigour across the face. It worked in most cases. They even started wondering in jest how many blows from the veteran would be needed. One Highlander took no fewer than six, and as the man staggered off, the bruises were clear on his face. Hanley wondered whether there was a danger of making the victims even more insensible. The 106th were tired, and had hoped for rest once they arrived rather than this arduous duty. He was sure they were beginning to relish the violence, taking out their anger on the men who made this task necessary. Even so, a good third of the drunkards could not be roused, and many more were doubtless concealed in the houses.

The two companies reached one of the main roads, just as Sir John and his staff passed. Hanley watched as the general nodded to Major MacAndrews, and raised his hat courteously to the major’s wife, but the general’s gaze remained high, almost as if he could not bring himself to look at the chaos. Bembibre was in wine country – the 106th had marched past a long succession of well-tended vineyards as they came down into the town. As the leading divisions arrived at the town, soldiers had dispersed in search of the cellars. Some of their officers were too tired to stop them, many more lagging behind exhausted and reaching the town long after the damage had been done. The few that tried succeeded only in preventing some of the redcoats from joining their fellows. When casks were smashed to destroy the contents before harm could be done, soldiers and their women lapped like dogs at the liquid and the mud it had fallen into. The other divisions had marched this morning for Villafranca, leaving behind this debris.

‘Infamous, quite infamous.’ Hanley just caught the words as Moore passed.

Once the general and his staff were gone, the grenadiers hustled the recovered men into the road, and jeered them as they began to stagger off towards the gate and on to the road to follow their regiments. Among the drunks were a few men with bandaged feet, whose exhaustion had made them fall behind. There was some sympathy for their plight, although not as much as Hanley would have liked to see.

On the whole, the discipline of the 106th held. The entire battalion was quartered in a cavernous church that night. MacAndrews had the Colours stacked on the altar and sentries placed to honour them, and also to prevent the rail and everything else being torn up for firewood. The commissaries had brought them meat from slaughtered oxen. It was tough, but could eventually be boiled so that it was good enough to eat. There was little apart from the meat to add to the stew, until a crate of stale biscuit was discovered and distributed to be added to the liquids boiling in the camp kettles. The grenadiers acquired a couple of sheep, and Hanley guessed that Eyles was capable of other impersonations apart from making chicken noises. There was some wine passed around, but nothing excessive, at least under the gaze of the officers. Dobson had also given loud expression to his enjoyment in hitting drunks, and the big man had made it clear that he stood ready to dole out similar treatment to anyone there.

Hanley sketched for the first time since the retreat. The light in the church was not good, and he tried to capture the weird shadows, and the ungainly, in some cases almost grotesque, figures of the ragged soldiers and their women. He and Pringle chatted with each other and with some of the other fellows until weariness caught up with them. They slept well, and to everyone’s surprise went undisturbed by any fresh alarms.

Parade the next morning revealed twenty-eight men absent from the battalion. It was fewer than MacAndrews had feared, although still a shameful enough total. As far as he could tell, the other regiments in the reserve had suffered similar losses. Pringle and Hanley were both relieved to see Dobson in his place beside Rawson on the flank of the company formation. None of the grenadiers was missing, and both officers suspected that this was due in no small measure to the veteran. They hoped that his new-found abstinence would last, as would his determination to impose the same restraint on others. Pringle was sure that one or two of the men had vanished during the night, and had no doubt been out scavenging, breaking into houses, and stealing wine and valuables. The mutton shared with the officers last night was surely only a tiny part of what was taken. Fear of Dobson, more than fear of the sergeants, let alone concern for his and Hanley’s vigilance, had meant that all were back by dawn, and at least fairly sober.

The battalion soon resumed the task of routing out the drunks and stragglers. It was colder this morning, and the 106th’s enthusiasm for the task had worn thin. It was no longer a game, and the general feeling was that such fools should be left to their fate. A few of their own missing men were found, some emerging sheepishly with bulging packs from houses. MacAndrews had Sergeant Major Fletcher search each one and throw away any likely plunder.

Few of the drunks could be roused. Those most inclined to recover and press on had mainly been found the day before. Time seemed to have permitted few to sober up. Some may well have done so during the hours of darkness, only to drink themselves into a deeper stupor.

The Grenadier Company swept along one of the longer streets, doing what they could to get the stragglers moving. Pringle and Hanley walked side by side, but at first neither had anything to say and they strolled along in silence. Before long parties of hussars began moving back through the town.

‘Reckon the French are snapping at our heels,’ said Pringle.

Hanley was stamping his feet to keep warm. Even with his cloak over his jacket he felt chilled to the bones. ‘About time. I have grown tired of this place.’ For all his fatigue, he was looking forward to the march and the warmth it would bring.

‘Yes, the French are welcome to it.’

‘I am beginning to feel that way about all of Spain.’ Hanley was obviously in low spirits. As they watched two of the grenadiers lifted one of the prostrate drunks and shook the man. He protested, but slumped to the ground as soon as they let go. They kicked at him and swore at him, smashing the bottle he clutched in his hand. The soldier – his jacket had yellow facings – refused to get up, and so with a final curse they left him.

Two hussars trotted past. ‘Did I tell you that I had a chat with some of the fellows from the Twenty-eighth yesterday,’ began Billy Pringle. He loved telling a good story and was always eager for the latest gossip in the army. ‘One of their captains has been pretty sick so was travelling stretched out in a cart, rolled up snug and warm and sipping champagne no doubt.’

‘Lazy devils, captains,’ muttered Hanley.

‘Well, there he is, going on his merry way, when he hears some noise and notices an hussar riding past. “Hey there, dragoon!” our gallant captain calls out. “What news?” Much to his surprise the hussar looked angry. “News, sir? The only news I can give you is that unless you step along like soldiers and don’t wait to pick your steps like bucks in Bond Street of a Sunday with shoes and silk stockings, damn it, you’ll all be prisoners!” ’

Pringle was already beginning to laugh at what he knew was coming. As usual it was infectious, and his friend could not help grinning in anticipation. ‘“Who the devil are you?” says our hero from his chariot. “I am Lord Paget, sir, and pray who the devil are you?” So the poor unfortunate captain goes white as a sheet and stammers out his name. Then the general makes him get out of his cart and march with the men!’ Billy had gone bright red, his face creased in the deepest amusement. Hanley found this as entertaining as the story itself.

Ensign Hatch appeared from an alley, leading a file of redcoats from his company.

‘Seen anybody we know?’ he asked cheerfully.

Pringle had not yet recovered himself, so it was Hanley who shook his head, assuming that Hatch was asking after stragglers from the battalion.

‘Well, easy enough to understand a fellow deciding that captivity might be a good deal more comfortable than struggling on with the rest of us.’ The ensign was still smiling, but Hanley was not quite sure whether there was an edge to his voice.

At that moment Brotherton rode past, calling out that the regiment was to muster on the far side of the town. The French were coming and it was time to go. They left the remaining drunks. In spite of all the efforts there still seemed to be hundreds lying unconscious in the streets and houses.

The 106th had not brought its full band on campaign, but MacAndrews had insisted that a dozen fifers bring their instruments. He formed these up with as many drummers beside the battalion and had them play during the muster. When the division moved off, they marched at the head of the battalion. Hanley had never particularly liked the thin music of these instruments, but had to admit that now he found himself standing tall, and marching with an enthusiasm for more than simply getting warm. The music appeared to call out to the stragglers, and a few dozen swayed to their feet at its call, and trickled out of the town to follow the column as it began to climb the long slope beyond the town.

Major MacAndrews was on horseback for the moment, and the added height allowed him to see the untidy little procession of the division’s baggage, a mile or so ahead at the crest. He could not single out his wife, but there was reassurance in knowing she was there. Halfway up the slope their brigade was ordered to halt and form up facing back towards Bembibre, covering the last outposts of the cavalry as they pulled back. The French cavalry were already entering the town, prompting the whole place to stir into life like a disturbed anthill. The 106th watched as men and women who had lain like corpses were seized by an instinctive terror of the enemy and sprang to their feet. Hundreds were running.

It was too late. The French cavalry were not inclined to burden themselves with too many prisoners. Perhaps they were also angry at their repulse by the British days before, or contemptuous of such a rabble. The 106th were too far away to hear the screams. They saw the glitter of swords being drawn, watched as the horsemen broke up and rode among the mob of fugitives, hacking down efficiently and without mercy. They killed men, women and children alike. Pringle had passed Williams’ telescope to Hanley, and so he saw more detail as one green-jacketed chasseur chopped down to fell a plump woman in a drab and tattered dress, then urged his horse on, passing a fleeing soldier and decapitating him with a single cut. He snapped the glass shut, and wished he had never looked. He could not see Hatch, who must have been back with his own company, otherwise he would have asked the ensign whether French captivity still appeared so comfortable.

‘Bastards.’ Hanley heard Dobson’s angry comment beside him, interrupting his thoughts. For once, that particular insult did not seem so distasteful to him. The grenadiers were gripping their muskets tightly in silent rage. None of the fugitives reached the safety of the reserve. The French came out of the town, but formed up warily when they saw the British rearguard. There was no attempt to molest the withdrawal, and the enemy simply watched, shadowing them from a distance. Battalions retired alternately until they reached the crest, so that several were always formed in case the enemy pushed on. They did not, and soon the whole division was marching together, leaving the hussars and some outposts of the 95th to cover the rear. Twice more in the day all or part of the division stopped, when it seemed that the enemy cavalry was coming closer. Nothing happened before they again resumed the retreat.

In the early afternoon the 106th were left behind. The road curved around a spur, and this, combined with a straggling patch of woodland, allowed them to form line so that they would become visible only when the leading Frenchmen turned the corner. The battalion eagerly anticipated the volley they would pour into them when they did. The rest of the division marched on, moving as noisily and visibly as they could, and only a few patrols of hussars remained behind, for the valley was too narrow for the cavalry to operate effectively in any numbers. It was no doubt this that made the French cautious. After half an hour the hussars came to report that the enemy had halted. Reluctantly, MacAndrews took his men back to rejoin the rest of the reserve.

No one paid much attention any more to the dead horses, oxen and mules which lay by the roadside. There were human corpses as well, some of them women, and a few the tiny forms of children. It was a long time since anyone had thought of stopping to bury them. Nor was much attention paid to the stragglers from the divisions ahead of them, some sitting mutely, staring into nothing, others stumbling on with feet wrapped in bloodstained rags.

‘Better hurry, boys, or the French will get you!’ called Murphy to some they passed. The sergeants more formally yelled at them to press on and rejoin their regiments. The lucky ones were given lifts behind one of the hussars, but they were few.

Hanley counted nineteen milestones before they stopped, outside the village of Cacabellos with its bridge. They formed up again in columns at quarter-distance facing towards the enemy, but the French failed to appear. The men were allowed to stand at ease, and he heard more talk than had been usual in the last few days. They knew the rest of the army was in Villafranca, just five or so miles farther on, and there were hopes expressed that it contained plentiful food, good billets and a rest. Best of all were rumours that the general would at long last let them loose on the enemy.

‘He’s been biding his time,’ said Murphy. ‘Luring them on before we hit ’em hard.’

‘We’ll show ’em ,’ said a private named King, whom Murphy disliked intensely. Today his overall goodwill permitted him to accept the man’s support.

‘Sure we will! Just like Portugal. Mark my words, our Johnny-boy will give them a drubbing they’ll long remember.’

‘Bastards need a lesson,’ was Dobson’s only comment, but Hanley thought his tone was dubious.

Johnny-boy himself arrived not long afterwards. His horse was lathered in sweat, and his normally impassive face alight with cold rage. Sir John had just come from Villafranca, where all the worst indiscipline of Bembibre was being repeated. The redcoats broke into homes, stealing and threatening the inhabitants. They broke into army stores, scattering, destroying or spoiling as much as they took. Doors were ripped off hinges, anything wooden prised away and burnt. Nothing and no one appeared to be safe in this drunken rampage. Hearing that even the Reserve Division was shedding stragglers and had left men behind at the start of the day, Sir John was determined to shame at least these back into order. He reined in his light bay with some savagery, making the animal rear in front of the battalion columns.

‘All my life I have been proud to be a soldier of Britain. This red coat,’ he stretched his arm out wide, ‘is as much a badge of honour as my sword.

‘Now I am ashamed. Ashamed to wear the same uniform as men who so forget both honour and duty as to misbehave so very disgracefully in the very face of the enemy.’ Graham did not believe that he had ever seen Moore so publicly angry. ‘Men lie drunk instead of attending to their duty. They steal and destroy instead of listening to their officers. Some of those officers neglect their men and permit them to perpetrate such abuses.’ MacAndrews was unsure it was quite proper to criticise officers in front of their men. Such damning verdicts, even if justified, were hardly likely to encourage obedience to those very men. Yet he understood the fury and shame of the general. The 106th behaved better than most, and that consoled him, but he confessed that even in the battalion there were more abuses than he would have liked.

‘So many men were left behind at Bembibre. I have never wanted one of the men under my command to die or fall into enemy hands without great need or useful purpose. Yet now I cannot envy the French. What sort of victory have they won over hundreds of British cowards – for none but unprincipled cowards would get drunk in the presence, nay, the very sight, of the enemies of their country. What a rare prize for Bonaparte!

‘Such conduct is infamous, utterly infamous. I am ashamed to be the commander of such a parcel of cowardly rogues. Sooner than survive the disgrace of such infamous misconduct, I hope that the first cannonball fired by the enemy may take me in the head!’ MacAndrews was not unusually superstitious, but the phrase struck him as unlucky.

Graham followed the general as he galloped off, back along the road to Villafranca. The battalions of the reserve remained in column.

‘Poor old fellow,’ Dobson muttered, even though he and the general were of an age.

‘Don’t think we’re to blame,’ whispered Sergeant Rawson in reply. ‘Sergeants not doing their jobs in other regiments.’

‘And officers,’ chipped in Murphy.

‘Hush, man! It’s the sergeants that matter. Now quiet yourself, here comes our own ray of sunshine.’ Rawson had noticed General Paget walk his horse forward. Now that Sir John had disappeared, their own commander, a man to whom temper came naturally, would take over and let his men know that they had crimes enough of their own.

‘I have nothing to say about the other divisions of this army. You are the Reserve Division, the corps chosen to occupy the place of honour. When a single one of you gets drunk, it brings shame on your regiment and shame on your country. The French are over there!’ He pointed down the road along which they had come. ‘If any one of you gets drunk, his dishonour threatens disaster to the entire army. We cover the retreat, and you cannot damned well do that if you are lying stretched out in your own puke.

‘I don’t care what you rogues think you have done in the past. Every moment now you must consider yourselves in the place of greatest honour on the field of battle. There can be no excuses, no pardons. As a reminder, the division will camp here, outside the village. You have all damned well lost the right to sleep under roofs and can bloody well make do with the bare earth and the sky for covering. This is your punishment. I shall share it with you, but the worse punishment is to lead men such as you. You shall not disappoint me again!’

As they were dismissed, Murphy let out a long breath. ‘Do you think we have upset him?’ Privately he worried about his wife and baby having to sleep in the cold.

Orders arrived that no soldier would be permitted among the houses unless at all times commanded by an officer or NCO. Work parties went in for food and fuel. The commissaries were able to organise a reasonable amount of both. Food was again mainly meat from slaughtered bullocks.

It stayed dry, but the temperatures dropped and Pringle distinctly saw the frost gathering on Williams’ backpack as it lay beside him. Each company managed to make one decent fire, and in turn the kettles from individual messes were supported over the flames to cook.

Pringle was visiting the sentries when they heard an unearthly sound of mingled moans and slithering. The nervous grenadier crossed himself and then aimed his firelock as they saw a dark shape crawling towards them on the ground. His companion reached a more optimistic conclusion.

‘Wild hog,’ he said, and licked his lips.

Billy Pringle told them to lower their weapons and ran to the shape, for he was sure now that it was a man. Later, as four men carried him in a blanket up to one of the fires, he was no longer so certain, and wondered whether he was looking at a corpse who simply had not actually stopped breathing. Hanley almost vomited at the sight. The man had dragged his shirt up over his head, whether for warmth or against the pain, and when they peeled it back it stuck several times on dried blood. His nose was split by a sabre cut, one of his ears gone altogether and the other a twisted remnant. Both cheeks were slashed open, and even his lips were hanging by slim threads of flesh. There were cuts to his arms and legs, and his jacket was slashed and stained in more places than they could easily count. They put him by the fire, and he thrust his fingers into the embers before he could feel any warmth.

‘Frostbite,’ Pringle whispered to Hanley.

In an uncanny voice which had more of a wounded animal than a human being about it, the man told them that he had been left behind in Bembibre. When he tried to eat, the fragment of meat fell out from his mutilated cheeks. Some wine went down, although as much or more spilt in every direction. They carried him to the village, getting him to one of the carts soon to head for Villafranca.

‘Quite a day,’ said Pringle, sighing as they watched the man carried off.

‘Then make the most of it, tomorrow could be worse,’ replied Hanley.

‘What do you think, Dob?’ asked Pringle, noticing that the old soldier stood near by.

‘Biggest balls-up since Flanders, sir,’ came the reply. It was easier to laugh than to think.

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