Military history

Chapter 20

‘Pong!’ Private Mazey was almost screaming in frustration at the Spaniard’s inability to comprehend his own language. ‘Pong!’ The soldier was barely five foot two, and he stood up on the balls of his feet in an effort to look down on the baffled farmer. The elderly man shook his head. Impatience seethed within the Englishman, causing him to lapse back into his own tongue. ‘We want bread, you damned rogue!’ Another thought struck him. ‘And hogwar.’

Miss MacAndrews pushed her way past the watching soldiers and smiled warmly at the farmer. She had Jacob cradled in her arms. The man’s expression softened. The young woman was pretty, and as the father of six and the grandfather of a dozen or so, he was well disposed to children.

If Jane could not frame an elegant sentence in Spanish, then at least she could pronounce simple words and expressions more clearly than the agitated redcoat. ‘Bread and water,’ she explained. Enlightenment spread quickly across the man’s face, dark from long years of hard toil in the hills. Then he shrugged, doubting that he had enough to satisfy the foreign soldiers, but hoping to avoid trouble.

The stragglers had almost doubled their numbers and so halved the time it would take for the convoy to devour its own food. On the second day, Williams rode out again and returned with another twenty men left behind by the main army and wandering off into the hills to avoid the French. There were also two women, one of whom was struggling to carry a one-year-old daughter, while a boy only a few years older clung to her filthy skirts. Both women were barefoot and had lost their woollen stockings. Williams had placed each in turn on the horse as they went back to join the others, giving them a little rest. One of the men was virtually blind, another had hands so swollen that he could hold nothing. The blind man still carried his musket, but three of the others had no weapon at all.

Food for so many became a more urgent problem – greater even than keeping the baby supplied with milk. One village was generous, giving them yellow loaves of Indian corn, cheeses and wine. The senior man in another claimed that they had nothing, and simply let them break the ice on the well and draw water. Williams was away, but Groombridge refused to let the men take what was not offered. The straggle of houses looked too poor anyway to offer them much.

On the third day Williams stayed with the convoy. A German from the King’s German Legion Hussars was among the fugitives he had found the previous day. On foot he was short and bow legged, and much darker of hair and skin than he expected a German to be. Johann Brandt spoke English with a thick accent, but seemed to have a good understanding of the language and he struck Williams as a serious soldier. Sitting on Bobbie’s back, the man looked at ease, anticipating the mare’s moods and controlling her with signs that were barely visible. Williams told him to ride towards the grand road and bring back any stragglers. The hussar showed his tobacco-stained teeth as he smiled, saluted and then sent the mare straight into a canter up the gentle slope of the valley.

Groombridge looked doubtful. ‘Do you think he’ll be back, sir?’

‘Did you believe that I would come back that first day?’ asked Williams.

‘You’re an officer, Mr Williams.’ The reply was not necessarily an answer.

They pressed on, with the women in the wagon along with any of the soldiers too weary to walk. One of the draught horses went so badly lame that it was pulled from the traces and had to be shot. The private from the 32nd had been a butcher before he enlisted, although the mess he made of cutting up the carcass suggested to Groombridge that he had not been any great loss to his profession. It still provided them with meat, tough and unappealing, but food none the less. One of the team pulling the wagon suddenly shuddered, and then folded down on its knees, eyes rolled up to show the whites. They unharnessed it and dragged the dead animal free. There were still enough to keep the teams even, but all of the animals were struggling to maintain the pace.

In the early afternoon fifteen redcoats appeared at the crest and marched down to join them. The one at the rear held the reins to a pack mule and they were led by an immense corporal, who topped Williams by several inches. He stamped to attention when he saw the officer, back ramrod straight, and then snapped a salute straight from the manual.

‘Mulligan, sir!’ The report was made in a bellow. ‘First Guards.’ His jacket had the shoulder wings of the Grenadier Company.

‘Oh Gawd,’ came a faint voice from one of the soldiers behind Williams. The officer ignored it. Corporal Mulligan reported that he had been ordered to catch a runaway mule carrying the company records. By the time he had found her, the regiment had gone and even the rearguard was out of sight. Then the French appeared, and he had to shift for himself. He had been cut off for the last three days, but had come across these other men and organised them. Earlier today, they ran into Brandt, who told them about the convoy. The German had ridden on to look for more men.

‘Glad to have you with us, Corporal.’

The men were a mixture. There were two Highlanders from the 71st in ragged tartan trews, a man from the 79th in a kilt, and a smattering of men from other line regiments. One pair at the rear of the little column wore the red facings of the 106th. Williams knew the faces, but it was not until the bigger of the two men spoke that he could place them.

‘Good to see you, Mr Williams, sir.’

‘I am glad to have you, Scammell.’ The reply was not fully sincere, but an instinctive courtesy. Scammell and his usual companion Jenkins were among the incorrigibles of the 106th. Every regiment had such men, whose enlistment was usually an alternative to prison or the gallows. They stole or worse at every opportunity. Scammell had been flogged back in the summer, without in any way altering his character. It struck Williams that many of the men he was collecting may have chosen to leave the army, or fallen out through indiscipline rather than accident.

Mulligan confirmed the suspicion, when Williams and Groombridge spoke to him privately a little later. ‘There has been a lot of drunkenness. A lot.’ The corporal scarcely looked like an abstainer. He was perhaps twenty, certainly no older, but had the assurance and authority of a far more mature man. ‘There has been much crime and indiscipline.’ His voice carried a hint of painful disappointment. ‘Not in the Brigade.’ The tone now suggested the impossibility of such a thing. ‘Or in general with the artillery and some other corps, but most of the line …’ Williams felt that he ought to be insulted by the distaste with which the man said the word. All too sadly it confirmed everything they had heard.

The news was generally depressing, although Mulligan had one more optimistic rumour to recount. ‘I heard some of the gentlemen saying that the general plans to stop and fight at Lugo.’

If the army halted, even for a few days, it gave them more chance of catching up. Williams guessed that they were already farther north than the main army, although still some way to the east. Their progress was slowing. The horses were wearing out and more than a few of the men needed to take a turn on the wagon if they were to keep up.

‘Pity we haven’t got newer guns,’ said Groombridge, as they watched an exhausted man being lifted into the wagon. ‘Those limbers have seats on them and we could carry the lame that way.’

The teams were struggling. The left lead on the wagon was limping badly, as was one of the animals on the second gun. They shot both and carved them up. Without salt, it was hard to preserve anything, and the meat would be the main meal for that evening. Its taste was unlikely to please. They took the odd horse off the gun and added it to the three left with the wagon.

Before nightfall, Brandt returned, leading Bobbie by the reins and trailing another score of stragglers. Williams nodded to him in greeting, and the German saluted and then grinned broadly.

‘Well done, Brandt.’ There was no need to say that it was relief to see the hussar return when he could easily have ridden away on his own. ‘Now get some rest. I’ll have to send you out again tomorrow. It is the price of being the only cavalryman among us.’

The men the hussar had brought were a mixed bag. There were two more riflemen, a sergeant from the ‘dirty half hundred’, a lance bombardier from the Royal Horse Artillery, and all the rest redcoats, along with one man’s wife. They managed to cram everyone into a walled farm, which had a barn big enough for the animals. Taking axes from the wagon, they brought down a tree and built a big fire in the centre of the yard, boiling a mixture of horse meat, rye and the last of the biscuits into a mixture which required stubborn endurance from anyone attempting to eat it. The sole merit was that there was ample for everyone, and some left over to be warmed for breakfast.

The sergeant’s name was Jowers. He seemed capable enough, if a little sullen. The lance bombardier appeared to have been given the stripe because of his powerful muscles rather than any sign of wit or ability. Williams gathered the men around the fire after they had eaten. He did not want to make a great speech, and also felt that he did not have the right words.

‘Most of you have met me by now. For those who have not, my name is Williams. We are away from our regiments, but we are still soldiers. We are going back to the army and then we’ll give the French a thrashing!’ He was a little disappointed that this produced no more than a few grins. His right thigh felt as if it was quivering, and he could remember few occasions on which he had been so nervous. ‘I know that I do not have to remind you of your duty. It’s not going to be easy, and we’ll all be a bit thinner, but we will get home.’ There was no reaction, and he rather regretted saying anything. When he left to make sure that the women were settled and that the farmer and his family were not being harassed in any way, the NCOs rounded off the occasion.

‘If you don’t do your duty, I’ll have the hide off your back!’ said the quartermaster sergeant in the harsh vowels of Kent.

‘If you get drunk, I’ll shoot you myself,’ added Jowers.

Mulligan smiled contentedly. ‘God save the King, and all sergeants!’

The German hussar went off again the next day, but the hills lying between them and the main road were turning into mountains. It was harder to move through the deep snow. Six men staggered in to join them in the first half of the day. Brandt returned with another five later in the afternoon. It seemed unlikely that there would be any more.

Another horse dropped dead before they had been gone an hour. Then one more went lame and had to be killed. It left them with three teams of four. On the flat they could still keep both guns and the wagon rolling along at a gentle pace, but there was little flat on the road. When they came to a slight rise, the men helped to push. Bigger slopes – and there were plenty of these – meant unhitching one team to add it in turn to the others before coming back and repeating the process. They climbed steadily. In some ways Groombridge was more worried about getting the heavy guns safely down an ice-covered slope than up it. They had no rope, and only a single small pulley, and he doubted that they would manage the task.

The longest, steepest hill needed all twelve horses for each of the guns. The wagon managed with just eight, but all of the passengers walked. Williams trudged through the snow carrying the little boy on his back. Miss MacAndrews went beside him, Jake wrapped up and held tightly to her.

‘You seem to have acquired your own army!’ Her eyes sparkled. They were scarcely alone, but it was the closest they had come to intimacy for days and the thrill coursed through him.

‘I am expecting promotion to general at any moment!’

‘Or a knighthood!’ Jane calmed Jacob as he gave a brief wail.

‘Well, perhaps as a start. Although I suppose that I must be patient. And few generals must rely on a cavalry of one!’

‘Yes, and with only three eyes between horse and rider!’ The girl chuckled.

‘What was it you said about the hero needing to overcome adversity of all kinds?’

‘Ah, now you make use of too accurate a memory to throw unwise words back in my face.’ There was much of her old challenge in her sharp expression, mingling with the amusement. ‘You are a general indeed, employing every weapon to win your objective.’

‘Well, it is so rare an experience for me to gain even the slightest advantage in one of our conversations that you should not blame me for exploiting it. No doubt even this small success will soon be overwhelmed by your response. I suspect I make a poor showing as a general, and still worse as a hero.’

‘Confessing to a virtue less than perfect?’ Jane was looking straight up into his eyes.

‘There, the attack comes at once, unbalancing me in a trice.’

‘Perhaps. Yet, if your memory was truly good, you would recall that I recommended some such imperfection in a true hero.’

Miss MacAndrews’ hair was dishevelled, the scarf with which she covered it had worn thin. Her skin seemed pale and strained, her jacket and dress were dirty, with half a dozen little tears and buttons missing. He knew she must be tired. They had travelled a long way in the depths of winter, and she had been nursing an infant for most of it. The weariness was there in the eyes, as was the worry. Perhaps she was less perfectly beautiful than at other times, although his loyalty was inclined to dispute so outrageous a claim. It did not matter. Williams admired her more than ever before. If her beauty was truly remarkable, the character she had shown in these last days demanded respect and adoration that was far, far greater.

‘I do not feel myself to be any sort of hero, Miss MacAndrews.’ He spoke the words softly, not wanting the closer soldiers to hear.

‘You are doing well enough,’ said Jane, and then gasped because her smooth-soled boot slid just slightly beneath her. There was an instant before the girl recovered her balance. It was long enough for Williams to grab her elbow as a support. Excitement coursed through his veins. It was the first time they had touched since that night. Memory of her feel, her warmth, of the taste of her lips and the heady thrill of holding her, overwhelmed him in vivid recollection.

‘Thank you.’ Jane’s wide mouth parted to reveal her neat teeth, and her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Thank you, Hamish.’

It was perhaps the first time that he had felt the slightest affection for his Christian name – not for what it was, but simply because she had used it. He had not released her arm.

A curse and the sound of a body falling interrupted his thoughts. The old soldier from the 92nd had stumbled. Williams went immediately to help him up. As they continued on, the man leaned against him. The little boy on Williams’ back put his own arm round the Scotsman’s head in an effort to help.

‘Thank you, sir. My bones are getting old.’ The man’s breathing was noisy, broken now and then by a grating cough. ‘You are a fine man, sir. Almost good enough to be a Scot!’

‘My mother is a Campbell.’

Private Donald MacDonald considered this for a while. ‘Aye, well, you cannae chose your ain folk.’

They kept going in spite of the snow that began to fall. At one point Williams hinted that perhaps it was time to consider abandoning one of the guns and splitting the team between the other vehicles. Groombridge’s expression showed the pain and disappointment as his tolerably approving opinion of the subaltern was sadly dashed.

‘The guns are our Colours, sir,’ Groombridge said, by way of reluctant explanation for his determination to keep moving the field pieces on. ‘And a damned sight more useful than your flags, if you will forgive the liberty. Even old wrecks like these.’

Williams had heard of the near-sacred awe the artillery reserved for its guns, but had not until now appreciated its depth. He dropped the subject immediately. The quartermaster sergeant’s nod was much like a pat on the head.

Late in the day they reached a village. The people were at first suspicious, and seemed to be more numerous than in any of the places they had passed through. Williams made all the men in greatcoats remove them to show their red jackets. Once they had been accepted as English, the mood warmed. It was a large place, and winter stores were opened to feed the newcomers. There was ample wine, and before Williams thought of it Groombridge and Mulligan had placed sentries outside the two main stores.

Slow and painful conversation – supplemented by some basic exchanges in Latin with the priest – explained the swollen population and brought new fears. The French were in a place some ten miles or so down in a lower valley to the east. Williams was not quite sure of the distance as the locals talked of leagues and he knew that these were a different length in Spain to Britain.

Equites cataphracti et lanciarii.’ The young priest, rarely called upon for such exotic vocabulary, furrowed his brow as he struggled with the words. Williams nodded in enthusiastic assurance of understanding.

Sí, sí, Colloseros,’ a visitor from the other village offered his support. The combination of armoured horsemen and lancers sounded depressingly familiar. Williams wondered what fate kept bringing this same French officer across his path. There seemed no particular reason for a small detachment to be here. Then the locals began to speak about a bridge across the River Mimho. It was on the old road they were following, just a couple of leagues ahead, and only a few north of Lugo. Was there a good road leading down to Lugo itself?

.’ There was no such detail on his map. He wondered whether General Moore had better charts, but Williams feared that he was beginning to understand.

Dalmas’ big horse sped along the road, its large feet drumming on the packed snow. The two lancers were slighter men on sleeker horses, and yet they still struggled to keep up. His mind was alive with the opportunity. He had found what the Emperor wanted; the way to trap the enemy before they reached the sea. It had taken a week of fruitless searches and long rides, but the chance was now there.

The Emperor had gone, called back to Paris by urgent business of state. Marshal Soult was in charge of catching the English. Dalmas had never served under him, but the Duke had a reputation as a shrewd man. He should see the possibilities, give Dalmas the men he needed and then exploit the success in suitable force. It had all been foreseen in the Emperor’s orders. Give him a company of voltiguers, mount the light infantrymen behind some light cavalry – no matter whether hussars or chasseurs – and Dalmas would have the bridge secure before the British could do anything about it. He had left eight lancers there for the moment. More than that would struggle to find cover in the little stone cabin that was the only shelter they found anywhere near by.

The rest of the squadron were back in a village where the men and horses could stay in reasonable condition and be fed. Dalmas reckoned that there should not be any enemy in the area strong enough to deal with his men at the bridge. If there were, then he doubted that they would be able to stand up to his full force. It was a risk, but seemed a reasonable one for him to take. Reinforced, he could leave the infantry to guard the bridge and take the cavalry to find the best route to the British. If Soult sent more horsemen and backed them with a brigade or more of infantry then General Moore would be in serious trouble. His whole army might be caught. At the very least they would snap up everything at the rear of his army.

Jean-Baptiste Dalmas knew that he was so very close to fulfilling the task the Emperor had given to him alone. Almost everything was in place. It was a shame that the small man with the piercing eyes would not be here to praise him in person, to pinch his cheek and promote him. Still, the rewards would come, and he could be patient. Once again the confusion of war was fixing itself into a pattern he could control. Dalmas galloped on to see Marshal Soult and make it all happen.

In the village where he had left his men, an old woman with long and filthy white hair screamed abuse at a lieutenant of cuirassiers. Three small urchins added their wails to the noise. She struck at his breastplate, yelling that her daughter had the fever and that no one should come into the little room with its pitiful fire. The tall soldier ignored the blow, and looked past her to see a hunched shape in a bed piled high with blankets. There was a smell of sweat and excrement. He stepped back, hands held up palm outwards to placate the old witch. He left, and told the men to steer clear of the little one-roomed house at the end of the alley.

The woman bolted the door and hoped none of the French would return. She walked to the bed and looked down at the face of the girl lying there. Her forehead was still hot, her skin waxy, and the long dark hair which might normally have been most becoming hung lankly around her.

It was not her daughter, but a stranger found by her grandchildren out in the fields. She had fallen from her mule and been barely conscious. When they took her to their house and laid her out on the bed, the old lady quickly spotted the traces of recent childbirth – presumably ending in tragedy since there was no sign of a child. That had been days ago, and the fever had soon come upon the stranger. The Spanish woman looked after her without thinking why, just as she looked after everyone else who came her way. No one in the village recognised the girl. In her dreams she spoke words in a language no one knew so it seemed that she was foreign – English most likely. That was one reason for hiding her from the French. Another was that they were invaders, who forced their way into people’s homes and stole their food or worse.

Soaking a piece of rag, she pressed it over the girl’s forehead. The fever would break in the next day or the girl would die. The woman said a prayer, and had asked the priest to do the same. There was nothing else to be done apart from watching over her.

Jenny murmured again without waking.

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