Military history

Chapter 23

The first attack came almost exactly as Williams expected. It was late afternoon, and the setting sun had already sunk past the peaks of the hills to the west. The sentry waved his shako on the tip of his musket and then sped down the low hill towards the bridge.

‘Make ready!’ Sergeant Jowers gave the order to the thirty men formed across the road. Williams was ahead of them, so that he could see the far bank better. Driver Parker stood holding the lighted portfire beside the left wheel of the gun, next to the motley line of redcoats. Groombridge had readily agreed to the suggestion that the bright West Country man should be attached to the gun commanded by the stolid Cooke.

Mulligan’s men were kneeling on the slope of the depression, ready to spring to their feet and into view at his order.

‘Don’t shoot unless they put men on the rocks!’ Williams called up to the rifleman he had placed on the high ground. The man, a villainous-looking rogue from Yorkshire, gave him a thumbs-up signal. Looking up, Williams saw that Groombridge had not yet uncovered his gun and was keeping his men out of sight behind the stone shack. He heard the sound of horses. The sentry was puffing as he ran up.

‘Fifty or sixty lancers. Might be dragoons behind!’ The man was from the 52nd, a regiment Sir John Moore himself had trained to the peak of efficiency. ‘No infantry that I can see, sir.’

Williams smiled, and nodded for the man to join on the end of Jowers’ line. He glanced back to see the first Poles come trotting down the road. An officer whose drooping blond moustache flapped in the breeze led them, his sabre raised high. The bugler beside him rode a grey horse and wore a yellow jacket. The two men were barely on the flat ground and passing behind the shelter of the rocks when the trumpet sounded. Lances dropped to the charge position, their red and white pennants whipping in the wind. The Poles spurred their horses into a canter, their column driving straight down the road and on to the bridge.

As Williams dashed back to join Jowers, the Polish officer was already on the bridge. A moment later, as he turned, the cavalryman was riding between the stakes, a bunch of horsemen behind him.

‘Fire!’ Williams yelled at Parker.

‘Fire!’ Cooke repeated the order, but the driver had already lowered the smoking match on to the touch-hole just behind the royal crest on the bronze gun. The powder sparked and the flame set off the main charge, making the heavy carriage leap back with a dull boom. All save Cooke flinched, for it was the first time they had been so close to the raw power of a cannon.

The canvas bag split as it was hurled from the muzzle and the nine heavy balls, each an inch and a half in diameter, split away from the iron base and bar to which they were fixed and flew off in a spreading cone. The bridge was no more than thirty yards away and the discharge was still concentrated when it struck the leading Poles. The officer’s lower jaw was shattered in an instant, but he was already dead from a second heavy ball which ripped through his ribs and burst out of his back creating a hole a foot wide. The trumpeter’s horse went down with the iron bar driven deep into its brain. His own wrist was smashed, the hand still clutching the trumpet flung away. Another man and two horses were flicked aside by the blast.

Williams did not catch Mulligan giving the command in the noise and chaos, but his platoon was standing, visible above the waist where they stood on the rear slope.

‘Fire!’ He caught the order, bellowed in a voice that augured well for the man’s future career in his regiment.

Smoke enveloped the line. The Poles were still pushing onwards, until the volley plucked five more men from their saddles, and dropped another horse.

Williams nodded to Jowers.

‘Forward march!’ he called, and the line stepped out. They covered the cannon, but Williams doubted there would be time for the crew to reload. On the bridge the Poles had stopped, their horses milling, and trying to avoid the dead and wounded men and animals. For the first time he heard the screams.

‘Halt!’ They were less than twenty yards away, exposed now to the far bank, but there had been no shots from his riflemen and he guessed the French had no one waiting on the rocky mound to snipe at his line. He wanted to be sure of doing as much execution as possible and so gave the men a moment to steady their breathing.

‘Fire!’ Williams gave the order himself and wished there had been a musket spare for him to use and add to the volley. Smoke blossomed, and if the shots were ragged by the standards of a well-drilled battalion, the aim was good. One Pole fell from his horse and plummeted screaming off the bridge into the ravine below. Two more men were dead, one horse slumped to the ground and another rearing, throwing its rider and thrashing its hoofs against the air in agony.

He looked over to the far bank and saw the French reserve, some thirty or forty cuirassiers. Their cloaks were tied to the backs of their saddles and the men’s steel armour and helmets caught the red light of sunset. If they came, then they might just be able to barge through the chaos of the bridge and get to them before anyone had reloaded. Then he saw the Frenchmen wheeling away. To his left Mulligan’s men were levelling their muskets once again, and he marvelled that they had loaded so quickly. The surviving Poles saw it as well, and began turning to go back. The rear of the company had never crossed at all, and these quickly sped away. Mulligan fired anyway. More men were hit by the lead musket balls. One dropped his lance and spread his arms wide, arching his back, before he fell to the side. Another horse folded, and the rearing animal jumped the wall and tumbled down into the ravine. The Polish officer’s horse, wild eyed but somehow unscathed, trotted past Williams.

‘Gun ready, sir!’ called Cooke, but there was no longer any need. The attack was over.

‘Well done, lads,’ said Williams. They had lost no one, for the French had never come close enough to use lance or blade.

Jowers drew them back alongside the gun so that they were all in shelter. Williams walked over to congratulate Mulligan and his men. They were grinning, excited, and not a little awed by the carnage they had inflicted. Two men were lifting one of the wounded Poles, propping him up against the wall of the bridge. Another pair went to the trumpeter, who was staring dumbly at the stump on the end of his arm. His face was already pale from loss of blood. Beside him a lance was still quivering from where it had been rammed into the hard ground. Once the men had loaded again, they began shooting the injured animals.

‘Visitors, sir!’ said the guardsman.

The cuirassier officer was riding towards them. Beside him was the man in cocked hat and dark blue, and behind came a trooper with a somewhat grubby, but recognisably white, handkerchief tied to the tip of his sword.

Williams paced forward on to the bridge to meet them.

It was the man in the cocked hat who spoke. ‘This is Capitaine Dalmas, who does not speak English,’ he explained. ‘I am Lieutenant Maizet of the engineers.’ The man’s gaze wandered past Williams’ shoulders to look at the carnage on the bridge. ‘My God,’ he said softly, and then realised that this was probably not the best way to conduct negotiations. The cuirassier officer growled at him. ‘The Capitaine asks me to translate his words exactly.’ It sounded much like an apology. ‘But he asks …he asks who the hell are you?’ Williams wondered whether the French had been considerably stronger.

‘Ensign Williams, 106th Foot. I command the advance guard. The rest of the battalion will be here soon.’

Dalmas laughed when he heard the translation. ‘He says that will be more prisoners for his brigade to take. You can surrender now to save everyone’s time.’

Williams shook his head. Dalmas was neither surprised at the answer, nor particularly bothered. Rushing the bridge had been a chance worth taking, and in such a gamble speed was everything, so there had been no point preparing the attack and so giving the enemy warning. He said something to Maizet.

‘We would like to recover our wounded, and so suggest a truce for the rest of the day.’

That seemed remarkably generous, and Williams could see no advantage in turning it down. ‘We will carry them this far. Two men can then come up and take each in turn.’

Dalmas spoke. ‘He says you seem very frightened of us.’

‘And yet you are the ones coming across under a flag of truce?’ Williams turned back and called to Mulligan to begin moving the men. Then he noticed that Maizet was looking at the stone lifted by the artificers. They had made no great impression on the gravel beneath. An engineer would know immediately that there was no charge prepared. Well, that was one less secret. He tried not to show any concern when Dalmas looked intently at the stone building. Had he noticed the gun, and realised what it was? If so, the Frenchman’s face betrayed nothing.

Night fell, but with the cloud for the moment gone the stars lit up a landscape still white in spite of the recent rain. Sentries could see well, although the mind could play tricks and the weird shadows invent threats or conceal real ones. Williams allowed half the men to rest at the start of the evening. They piled up all the timber too short to be made into stakes and built a fire, some way back along the road behind the gun. Men rested there, and ate another meal of boiled horsemeat and the last bread given to them at the village. There was a half-mug of wine for each man.

Mr Groombridge was the very proud owner of a timepiece, and it made it easier to regulate the watches. Men did an hour on guard, and an hour resting as best they could in their allotted position. Williams had wondered about changing his dispositions now that the enemy knew them, but could not come up with more advantageous positions. They were in the right place. Every two hours, the other half of each detachment would go to its position and take on the watch. Williams insisted that Mulligan, Jowers and Cooke got some sleep at the beginning of the night. He sent one of the men back to the house to send his compliments to Miss MacAndrews, and check that she, the other ladies and the sick had everything they needed.

Jane sent back her thanks. The women and children were well, but she feared the man with the swollen and frostbitten hands looked near to death. His limbs stank of corruption, and when she came close the girl nearly gagged. The feet of another of the men had the same foul odour. MacDonald the Highlander was coughing, and barely able to stand, but seemed remarkably cheerful. He crawled to each of the men in turn and talked to them whether they could understand or not. He had added his own message.

‘Tell yon Campbell that we are all fine. The luckiest fellows in the world to be warm and dry and cared for by fair lassies.’ The other women were plump and hard faced, and the old man had looked at Jane as he spoke. He sat back against the wall, breathing hard, his chest wheezing from exhaustion.

‘Still, if it weren’t for a bonnie lass, I wouldn’t be here.’

‘Someone you loved?’ Jane’s curiosity was pricked, and as she tried to change the bandage on a man’s foot and fought to control her nausea it was better to be distracted.

‘No, not really. She was a great lady, a duchess no less, and I was just a laddie of sixteen with not a penny to my name, but she was famous for her beauty. Fairest woman in the Highlands and spirited with it too. She had a son a few years older than me and he decided to form a regiment. They went around all the fairs that summer. Do you know they give you a shilling when you join?’

Jane nodded.

‘Of course you do, you being an officer’s lass. Well, the duchess put the coin between her lips.’ He puckered his mouth into a kiss. ‘And if a boy chose to join he stepped up and took the shilling with his own lips. Seven years or more for one kiss. I’m still here after twice that.’

‘Was it worth it?’ Jane managed to get the bandage tied. They were running out of cloth that was even vaguely clean.

‘Oh, aye.’ MacDonald laughed until he coughed, but when he had controlled the outburst he was still laughing. ‘But I were a cocky lad in those days. After I had my kiss, I took the shilling and threw it high into the crowd to show that that wasn’t the prize I wanted. They all cheered me and so I danced a jig. The bluidy sergeants soon knocked all that out of me when we reached the camp, but it were worth it.

‘You know, lass, you could raise ten regiments of your own!’ Several of the other men cheered this, and even the blind soldier declared that he would re-enlist.

Jane smiled, and was amazed that they could be so cheerful. The redcoat sent by Williams had told them of the fight. It was obvious that another was expected soon, and she tried not to think about what might happen. Better to keep busy. The girl went to feed Jacob, taking him from the arms of one of the soldiers’ wives, a kind enough, if startlingly plain, woman named Rose.

Dalmas found the chasseur captain’s ferocious lack of intelligence rather depressing.

‘So of course, I shot three of them in reprisal. The usual form.’ A chasseur had been stabbed in one of the houses of a village. The wound was no more than a nick on the arm, and the scratches on his face from a woman’s nails looked more painful. The captain did not seem to feel it mattered at all what the chasseur had been doing. He toyed with the waxed tip of his luxuriously upturned moustache. The man clearly felt himself to be a dashing figure.

‘I see,’ replied Dalmas. It was too late to do anything about it. Jean-Baptiste Dalmas waged war ruthlessly, but always intelligently. It worried him that in Spain the French armies were resorting to brutality so automatically. Not especially concerned by their morality, he strongly doubted the utility of such tactics. ‘The usual form?’

‘Yes. You know – firing parties of three, each musket loaded with two balls. Quick and simple. I got the Legère to do it.’ The captain implied that the task was somewhat beneath his men and best left to the infantry. A company of voltigeurs – the trained skirmishers of a battalion – had come with the chasseurs, each light infantryman riding uncomfortably behind a horseman.

The mixed force ought to have been at the bridge before dark, instead of arriving halfway through the night, had this primped-up fool not stopped to demand food from the peasants and then start shooting them. If he had had the company of infantry, Dalmas would not have made the crude attempt to rush the bridge and lost fourteen lancers.

Sourly, he wondered who was responsible for picking Capitaine Lancel of the chasseurs to aid him. Some colonel getting rid of their least reliable man, probably, or perhaps himself so stupid that he mistook bluster for ability. Dalmas could smell the sour stink of the sores on the horses’ backs. That spoke of bad practice in the squadron, of conscripts too lazy to care for their horses before themselves. The animals were slow, and with the added weight of the voltigeurs, they might not have arrived in time anyway. Dalmas decided to keep the remaining Poles back, and take them across the river once the bridge had fallen. The marshal had been too cautious to commit a cavalry brigade to his support until it was taken. So Dalmas needed the bridge quickly, and then the fastest of the Poles would carry his dispatch and start the cavalry brigade moving. If their horses were in as poor a state as these, then that move would probably be slow. The Emperor would have understood how much time mattered and hurried. Soult was too cautious, but it could still work.

He would attack at dawn. The infantry commander seemed a sensible enough man, and it would be better for him to see the ground. Dalmas told him to select a dozen men and send them to fire at the British sentries. That ought to disturb their sleep. His own men could rest and be ready for the morning.

The first shots came half an hour later, the flashes vivid in the dark. Williams had only just been forced to take some rest and was dragged out of his sleep by the uproar. Voices ordered everyone to stand to arms. He ran down the road past the gun and Jowers’ men as they formed up. Mulligan’s group had fired a couple of shots before the corporal screamed at them to wait until they had a proper target. There was no sign of an attack.

Williams peered into the darkness and blinked when another Frenchman fired. The shot flew just a few feet over his head and he ducked back. The riflemen on the hill started shooting.

‘Cease fire!’ he called. ‘Don’t waste powder!’

‘Waste powder be buggered,’ said the Yorkshireman under his breath. He could see the Frenchman quite clearly, a darker shape crawling in the snow. His rifle erupted in flame and smoke. There was a bitter cry of pain from the far bank, followed by agitated shouts. ‘Stop firing, lads,’ he said to the others.

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