Military history

Chapter 21

Williams inched his way through the snow. His arms were cold and stiff, and protested as he forced them to keep pulling him onwards. Somewhere behind him were Mulligan and three men, all with muskets and fixed bayonets. Farther back, on the boulders that stood at the bend in the road, were Jowers and another five. He wished he knew all of them better, and had to admit that he was not even sure of the names of some of the privates. Scammell was with Mulligan’s party. At least he could be relied upon for stealth if not for honesty of character. None of the muskets was loaded. He had insisted on that, fearing an accident which would betray their presence.

He was close now, and could see the silhouette of the man pacing beside the wall of the bridge. His hat was square topped, so presumably he was one of the lancers, although on this night he cradled a carbine with fixed bayonet.

Williams had a knife, and only that. To take a loaded pistol when he denied his men loaded firelocks would have been unfair, as well as unwise, since there was the same risk of it going off by chance. His sword was too awkward to take when he knew that he must crawl the last hundred yards. The knife had come from the village. It was long and narrow, of the sort the Spanish favoured, and the old man who had given it to him seemed genuinely excited by the prospect that it would be employed against the French.

The sentry turned and came back across the bridge towards him. Williams froze. He had cut a hole in a sheet and wore the thing over his head so that as he lay his jacket and part of his trousers were sheathed in white. Cloud covered the moon’s glow, and so the light was poor. He doubted that there was much chance of being seen, as long as he did not move too suddenly.

The lancer stopped. Williams heard a faint humming. It sounded like one of the fandangos the Spanish loved, so no doubt the man had heard it since coming to Spain. Williams knew something about the boredom of long spells on guard. He watched now as the Pole stamped his feet, and then turned to walk diagonally across the bridge.

Williams crawled forward. As his arms brushed against the snow the noise sounded deafening to him, but the sentry did not react and just continued his quiet singing. He turned again and Williams went still, trying even to temper his breathing in case this should give him away. He wished that he had Dobson with him, and then thought of poor Sally, and of Jenny, run off to goodness knew what fate. At least the baby was well. Williams tried to force his mind back to the task in hand.

It seemed to take an age, stopping and waiting each time the man’s pacing meant that he was facing in his direction. Williams was getting close. The dim light shone on the sentry’s bayonet when he turned, and his sabre clinked as it hung awkwardly. That sound must have been there all the time, and Williams wondered why he had not noticed it. He was almost at the end of the wall on the closest side of the bridge. The noise of flowing water was soft, but seemed to be coming from some way away. He hoped it would help to cover the noise he was making.

The sentry walked towards Williams and he could not believe that the Pole failed to spot him. The serious soldier in him was apt to despise a man who paid so little attention. Useless cavalry, he thought, and then struggled to stop himself from giggling because he sounded like some crusty old infantryman such as MacAndrews or Dobson. The Pole turned away.

Williams pushed himself up with one hand and drew the knife with the other. He stepped forward as quietly as he could. The Pole was still singing and then heard boots crunching on the ice. Williams dashed at him as the sentry began to turn, but the man’s movements seemed sluggish. The ensign’s left hand pushed aside the muzzle of the lancer’s carbine and grabbed him by the epaulette. The man gasped and then the slim blade slid underneath his chin, pointing upwards. It was less neat than he had intended, but he used all his strength to pull the man farther on to the blade. The Pole gasped, spitting blood over him, and more blood pumped from the wound in his neck. He let go of the carbine, and as it fell the bayonet stuck in the sheet. Desperately the man tried to grab Williams’ arms, but his strength was already going. He went limp, became dead weight, and the officer gently lowered the corpse to the ground.

The knife was embedded so firmly that he could not pull it free. As they had marched to the bridge during the night, Williams had tried to think of a way to deal with any sentries without killing them. He had not been able to come up with any plan that seemed likely to succeed. There was no time for regrets. He put the man’s hat on, and lifted his carbine, so that if anyone should approach they would assume the sentry was still in place – ideally until it was too late.

Mulligan was with him almost immediately, along with Scammell and one of the men from the 52nd. The other man had gone back to fetch Jowers and his men.

‘Neat work, sir,’ hissed the guardsman. Williams passed the hat and carbine to the man from the 52nd and took his musket and bayonet. The man was reluctant to give them up, which was an encouraging sign.

Earlier they had seen light from a low building on the far bank. When all of them were on the bridge, Williams left their own sentry in place and led the rest towards it. Up close, they could see only a single door. The back of the building butted against the slope. There was a heavily shuttered window in the wall facing the bridge. Williams put a man either side of it. He gestured for everyone to load and found himself automatically going through the familiar routine. He had only a single cartridge, but if things worked there should be no need to reload.

The door looked less solid than the shutters. He tapped Mulligan on the shoulder and the big man took a step back. Before he could launch himself at the door, it opened, and the dim light of a single candle dazzled men who had spent the last hours in darkness. The man at the door grunted in surprise.

A musket flamed, so close that the yellow tongue touched the Pole’s chest as Scammell shot him through the body. Mulligan barged the dying man out of the way, tripped on the threshold and his bayonet impaled a man who was rising from beside the door. The lancer screamed in agony. Another of the cavalryman was pulling a pistol and Williams stepped through the door and fired, the shot appallingly loud in the small room. Mulligan forced himself up, wrenching the bayonet from the wounded man, who shrieked again with pain. Williams had the musket levelled, ready to stab at the slightest hint of resistance. The Poles raised their hands quickly, but their faces looked vacant, still stunned by the rapid onslaught.

Williams wanted to rest, and felt that he could easily lie down on the dirty floor and sleep for days, but there was so much to do. He gave orders to Jowers and Mulligan to deal with the bodies, treat the wounded man, and ensure that the prisoners were kept under guard. Then he took one of the Poles’ horses and rode back to fetch Groombridge and the rest of the little column. It took hours for the guns and wagons to negotiate the trackway as it twisted and turned through a series of ravines on the road down to the bridge. The horses were giving out altogether, and the ensign blamed himself for not having thought of this and brought the other horses taken from the Poles to add to the weary teams. The sun was rising when they finally arrived, and the task of organising began afresh.

In full daylight Williams looked at the little stone bridge and wondered whether it was worth it – and indeed would be worth what he felt might happen here. There was a patch of deep red among the ice where he had killed the sentry. That man, and the other two Poles who had died in the attack, were wrapped in their cloaks and laid out by the stone house. Now that the wagon and tools were here he must get the prisoners to bury their own dead. The man Mulligan had bayoneted in the stomach was still alive, although his chances seemed poor.

‘Eighty-seven men, four women, including Miss MacAndrews, begging your pardon, one child and two babies.’ Lance Bombardier Cooke gave the list in a monotone, without any trace of interest or insight. ‘Nine of the men sick and have trouble walking. Sixty-eight muskets, about eight hundred cartridges, as well as the ones in the wagon, and three rifles with forty cartridges, and they say powder and ball for another fifty or so.’

‘You can add eight carbines and one hundred and sixty cartridges to the list,’ said Williams. He and the four NCOs stood on the bridge. ‘How much ammunition for the guns, Mr Groombridge?’

‘Some,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Each has a chest with fifteen rounds of grape and twenty shot and charges ready for use. There is another two dozen of grape in the wagon, and the three barrels of powder. There was a big convoy carrying proper reserves of ammunition to the Dons. God knows what’s happened to it.’

‘Well, we shall have to make do.’ Williams was trying his best to appear supremely confident.

‘So you are planning on staying put, sir?’ Mr Groombridge’s tone contained no hint that such an order could possibly be disobeyed, but was scarcely a ringing endorsement of its wisdom.

‘General Moore is taking the army to Lugo. He is probably already there. The talk is that he may turn and fight. That may be true or it may not. He’ll be on good ground and it depends on whether the French have the pluck to attack him. From everything we have heard the army needs time to rest and pull itself together.’ Williams used a stick to mark out a rough map in a patch of snow.

‘We are upriver from him. This is the closest route for the French to cross and we know their cavalry are in the area and know about it. They wouldn’t have left anyone here unless they were coming back. The villagers told us about a squadron or two. They are bound to be fetching more men. If they get cavalry across here in any force then they can come round the general’s flank. They can do that quickly. It will not be too long after that that there’ll be infantry as well. If they are quick they can hit our lads in the flank before they know what’s going on. Whatever happens, it will mean the general will have to pull out as best he can and fight off the French from two directions.’

They were listening. Cooke showed no sign of comprehension, but the others looked intent, and that was something.

‘The only place to stop them is here. With our handful we cannot hope to delay them in the open. Here they’ll be packed together as they cross. They won’t be expecting to meet real infantry here, only local peasants. They certainly won’t be expecting cannon.’

‘We have guns, Mr Williams, but no crews.’ Groombridge was raising a difficult question, but it was encouraging that he did not see it as conclusively damning the plan. ‘There is only myself and Cooke here. The Wee Gees know how to drive horses, but they have never fired a gun in their lives.’

‘Then you will have to show them. You teach and lead one crew, and the lance bombardier will take the other.’

‘Yes, sir. Very good, sir,’ said Groombridge. Cooke’s expression remained unaltered. ‘How long do you reckon we have to achieve this?’ asked the quartermaster sergeant.

‘Hopefully most of today. Perhaps all?’

‘Well, that’s all right, then.’ Groombridge seemed more amused than despondent. ‘May I ask on what you base that guess, sir?’

‘No, you may not.’

‘Ah, I thought so.’ He considered for a while. ‘Sounds about right, though. We’ll have to use them close up. Can’t teach men to aim well in that time. Doubt we’ll be fast either. So, while I’m performing this miracle, what will everyone else be doing? I assume you have already thought about the other possibility, sir. If there is no bridge then the French can’t cross it.’

‘Yes, but could we blow it up?’ asked Williams. ‘I am no engineer, but it looks pretty solid to me.’

‘Typical bloody Spanish; do a really good job when you don’t want them to,’ answered Groombridge. ‘To be honest, sir, I do not know. We don’t have that much powder.’

‘Well, get the artificers to have a look and see if they can prepare things. I do not believe we can rely on that, so we must prepare for the defence. We have to be able to hold them today and probably most of tomorrow. By that time the general will either have sent us help or told us to abandon the attempt.’

There was another obvious alternative, but none of them chose to speak it aloud. ‘Right, apart from the gun crews, we’ll split everyone else into three groups. The riflemen with half a dozen others will give us some skirmishers. Everyone else is split into two platoons. You will lead one, Sergeant Jowers, and Corporal Mulligan will take the other. Split them up any way you like. From now on keep them together. You’ll work as a group and fight as a group.’

Williams gave each of them their tasks before sitting down with paper and pencil borrowed from Groombridge to write a message. He thought for a while about how to address the commander of the army, and for a moment the impudence of what he was doing seemed appalling. He kept things simple and soon it was done.

Brandt carried the message, riding on Bobbie and leading one of the lancer’s mounts. As Williams watched him go, Jane looked up into his face and tried to read the officer’s thoughts.

‘You understand, I trust, why I had to remain,’ she said. ‘That hussar will be a better messenger.’

‘I had hoped to send him back down the road to look for the French.’ Williams told himself that his desire to send the girl back to the army was for a practical reason, and not simply because he wanted her safe. After a while, he added, ‘Yes, I do understand.’ He did not look at her, but watched the diminishing figure of the hussar. Behind them, they heard Groombridge’s voice bellowing out instructions.

‘The number seven stands to the right of the muzzle. His job is to ram the charge and sponge out the barrel. The number eight stands to the left …’

‘I could not hope to take the baby with me.’ Jane continued her explanation quietly, but firmly. ‘At least, not if I was to ride quickly.’ Williams had suggested that she pass the child to one of the women.

‘Yes,’ he said. He still looked away, afraid that if he saw her then he would not be able to stop himself from taking her in his arms.

‘And surely the dispatch will be treated more seriously if delivered by a dragoon.’

‘Probably.’

‘I do understand your concern, and know that your suggestion was a mark of trust, and also intended to remove me from danger.’

‘A lone ride through mountains in the midst of a war may not be entirely without peril.’

Jane was pleased to see the faint smile. ‘But I simply could not leave when others had to stay.’

‘They are soldiers.’

‘And the women, and the children?’

‘They’re followers.’

‘And I am the daughter of an officer, raised to understand duty. What would your men think if they saw me ride away to safety? They would think that you had no hope.’

Groombridge sounded frustrated. ‘The number nine stands between the right wheel and the muzzle. Before the gun is fired he steps back outside the line of the wheel. And if you don’t we’ll be scraping you off it!’

‘Most of them must realise already that there is little hope.’ He tried to shake off the doubt. ‘If we are lucky, and they do not come too soon or in too great force, then perhaps …’

‘So I will stay to show that I am confident of success. More than that, it shows that you believe in it.’

His smile became broader. She understood as well as he could possibly have hoped. ‘We had better win, then. I should be broken hearted to disappoint them.’ At last he turned to her, and Jane felt she saw more genuine respect mingled with his admiration than she had ever seen there before.

‘I should emphasise that my assistance does not extend to digging your ditches or learning to fire your cannons.’

‘Shame. I was rather relying upon you.’

She slipped her hand into his.

Corporal Mulligan stamped to attention and saluted. ‘Mr Williams, sir. Would you mind showing us where you want these stakes?’ He had sent a party away from the river, looking for timber. They found a farm, just under a mile away, but hidden behind the hills. The women and children, along with the sick incapable of fighting, were to go there and shelter. Most of the roof was still on the house. The barn was a ruin, and the men had pulled down as many of the timbers as they could and chopped them into six-foot lengths.

‘Certainly.’ The girl’s fingers uncurled from around his without any other visible sign. ‘I will come with you now.’

Williams tried to imagine how the French would come. The road bent sharply as it came down a deep cutting towards the bridge. The low rocky mound stood to the left, and gave them more cover to form up. It was the obvious place to occupy with sharpshooters who would fire at any defenders on or behind the bridge. To the right of the road was an open field leading up to the sheer cliffs which dropped down to the river. Anything forming there was in plain sight and had little cover. So if the French had only cavalry then they would form up behind the mound and back on the road and then charge straight across.

The bridge was narrow, and at most three horsemen could cross at a time. Once they were over, the road wound sharply left again, looping round the slope to which the little stone shack clung. There was another round hill on this side, larger and higher. The riflemen could go there, and with luck dominate any enemy skirmishers on the far bank. Behind the hill, beside the road and out of sight, would be one of the cannon under Cooke. Twenty yards back on the other side of the road the ground dipped a good five feet or so and Mulligan and his platoon would wait there. Jowers and the rest of the men would be on the road next to the gun, as would Williams himself. Groombridge and the other twelve-pounder would be in the lee of the shack. There was not quite enough room to hide the big gun, so they would try covering it with blankets, including the white sheet Williams had worn the previous night. The French would see something odd, but if they were not expecting to meet artillery they might not know what it was. Perhaps.

Williams had toyed with the idea of blocking the bridge with the wagon, but that would have given the enemy cover right on the crossing itself. Instead he wanted to lure them on, bring them across and then savage the head of the charge. To do that he needed to make sure that they could not spread quickly to either side of the road and swamp them with numbers. Hence the stakes.

‘I want a line either side of the road. Put them about a yard out, leaning towards the road, and then sharpen the tops.’ He thought for a moment. ‘How wide is a horse?’

Mulligan pondered for a moment. ‘Couple of feet, I suppose.’

‘I want it so that a cavalryman can’t squeeze through between them.’

‘How about we put them a yard apart and then have another line a couple of feet back and in the gaps.’

‘Excellent. The ground’s hard so it won’t be easy.’

‘We’ll manage, sir.’ The corporal was holding a bulky sledgehammer.

‘I got the idea from Agincourt,’ said Williams.

Mulligan shook his head. ‘Don’t know the gentleman, sir.’ The officer was not quite sure whether the man was serious.

Williams walked on to the bridge. The two artificers had prised up one of the stones. Underneath was hard-packed gravel.

‘Going to be hard to shift,’ said the older of the two men.

A shot split the peaceful air. ‘Cavalry!’ shouted the sentry up on the rocky hill. Williams looked and spotted a lance pennant just above the point where the road dipped into the ravine to come down to the bridge. Far too far even for a rifle shot. ‘Two of them, sir!’

So much for surprise, he thought wearily. It was only a patrol, but they would have seen red coats and blue and would know that there were soldiers – British soldiers – around the bridge. Maybe there was one more surprise. Williams turned back to the artificers.

‘Make a trail of powder leading back from this hole. Do it so that they can see you.’

‘What’s the point, sir? We haven’t even made space for a charge, let alone put one in place.’

‘Yes, but they won’t know that, will they.’

And perhaps, Williams thought to himself, just perhaps, it will make them rush.

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