Military history

Chapter 24

Williams tried to keep his walk slow. Perhaps he should have started out running. No one would have blamed him, but it would not look right if he accelerated now. Another musket ball struck the ground a few feet from him. The range was not long, even for a smooth-bore firelock, and the stupidity of what he was doing only made him more determined to saunter as gently as he could up the slope. The nearest French skirmishers were eighty yards away on the mound. The ones on the far side of the road with less cover were farther, perhaps a hundred yards. A good man stood a decent chance of hitting his mark at that range, and even a conscript might get lucky. He felt the wind of a ball whizzing past his cheek. They were getting far too close, but still he walked. The sound of the rifles was sharper as his men on the hill tried to pick off the French. Muskets gave a duller boom, but some of those shots were from the men with the riflemen and not all were French. At least that would throw the enemy off their aim.

‘Try not to get yourself killed, sir,’ said Groombridge. The quartermaster sergeant had walked out across the slope to meet him, matching the officer’s coolness and copying his stupidity. It was close to dawn and the clouds to the east were a glory of reds and pinks.

‘I think they will come soon,’ said Williams. ‘My guess would be infantry first to clear the way for the horsemen.’

‘No sense in staying hidden, then.’

‘No, Mr Groombridge. As soon as they get to our side of the bridge fire and then just keep on firing as fast as you can.’ The quartermaster sergeant gave a brief nod. ‘Your lads all ready?’

‘Yes, Mr Williams. All present.’ He emphasised the last words. No one from any of the groups had slipped away in the night. Williams had feared that some would have run, unwilling to fight under a leader they did not know. ‘They’re up for a good mill,’ said Groombridge. ‘Tired too, but for many this is the first real chance to get at the Crapauds.’

A musket ball flicked between them as they spoke. They heard a drum beating on the far side of the river and they saw French infantry jogging out to form on the flat beside the road. Williams counted about eighty, with blue jackets and trousers and short black gaiters. That made them light infantry. They had green epaulettes and tall yellow plumes with a green top, and that made them an elite company. Each soldier had rolled his greatcoat and wore it across one shoulder. They had no packs, and had probably piled them so that they could fight unencumbered. He guessed it was one company with thirty or so men detached as a skirmish line on the rocky mound and along the bank.

One of the French skirmishers fired and Williams’ forage cap was flicked from his head. He leaned to pick it up, and bowed ironically. A flurry of shots did not come so near, and then a rifle shot was rewarded when one of the Frenchmen sprang up on his knees, clutching at his shoulder.

‘In the Royal Artillery, it is the custom to march when going away from a gun, but always to run towards it, hurrying to get at the enemy.’ Groombridge emphasised the words, and Williams caught the amusement in his voice.

‘An excellent tradition. May I wish you luck, Mr Groombridge.’ Williams held out his hand. After a firm but brief shake, the two men turned and jogged back to their positions. As he went, Williams saw cavalry forming behind the infantry. These were chasseurs in green, so more new arrivals. He could not see the Poles or the cuirassiers, but spotted Dalmas and the engineer Maizet behind the infantry.

Mulligan grinned happily as the officer passed. His men lay or crouched in the depression, still hidden from the French, although the previous day’s fight had warned the enemy of their presence.

Across the river a whistle blew. The dozen Frenchmen among the rocks all fired at once, balls flattening against the boulders crowning the higher hill and Williams’ little group of sharpshooters. They ducked instinctively, and half of the eighteen voltigeurs on the other side of the road dashed towards the bridge. The Yorkshireman was up again, lying between two rocks, and he fired, followed by the other two riflemen. A voltigeur corporal leading the group was thrown back like a rag doll and fell over the parapet. The men in green passed the rifles back for the redcoats with them to reload and took their muskets instead. Three more shots, and another Frenchman was down, hissing in pain because his kneecap was shattered.

The drums began the rhythm of the charge and the French light infantry started to advance. The column was narrow, just four men wide to fit across the confined bridge.

‘Old trowsers!’ said Williams, hearing the sound, and some of the men who had been at Vimeiro in the summer grinned.

Three dead horses were piled where they had left them the previous night, forming a low barricade and blocking the bridge, at least to other horses. The leading voltigeurs were already over this barrier and dragging at the dead animals, pulling them to either side so that the column and then the cavalry could pass. On the hill, the three men from the 95th were given back their loaded rifles and slid them forward to aim. The Yorkshireman was happier with the feel of his familiar weapon and lined up the fore and rear sights to point at a Frenchman’s back as he leaned over a dead horse. He squeezed the trigger and the butt slammed back against his shoulder. Beside him the other two men fired and the target was lost in the smoke. He saw the flick of stone chipped from the boulder and then the musket ball fired by one of the Frenchmen on the rocky mound ricocheted up. The now jagged ball whipped a furrow through his face, smashing the bridge of his nose and destroying both eyeballs to send him for ever into darkness. He slid down, turning on to his back, and his hands tried to wipe away the blood that must be covering his eyes, but he could not. One of the others swore, and then pulled the man to lie in safety before taking his rifle and beginning to load.

One Frenchman lay slumped on top of a dead horse. Another was crouched down, a trail of blood dripping from his mouth, but other men were kicking the stakes down.

The front of the column was at the bridge. A lieutenant led them, because the company’s captain was sick of fever and lying in some hospital hundreds of miles away. He was a small man, his face scarred by sabre and a shot that had smashed through several of his teeth. He had seen the Prussians run at Jena, and had fought the Russians in far worse cold than this at Eylau. A few ragtag English were not about to give his men much trouble. The skirmishers in front were kneeling now. Those on the left fired up the road at a target he could not see, while the men ahead of him levelled their weapons to cover the ground where the cuirassier captain had told them the enemy were hidden.

Vive l’empereur!’ he bellowed out with his men as the drummer paused between rolls. Their boots were on the stonework of the bridge, trampling the grubby snow stained so heavily with the blood from the previous day’s fight. A line of redcoats appeared just where Dalmas had said. The muskets of his skirmishers banged almost immediately, and one of the British was flung back, a neat hole in his forehead.

‘Present!’ Mulligan’s voice was loud. The French lieutenant saw the men bring muskets up to their shoulders, making them look as if they had turned a little to the right. The line was two deep, the second rank even shorter than the first where the men stood lower down the slope, their muskets pointing through the gaps between the men in front.

‘Present!’ Jowers’ men raised their firelocks. They could see the front of the column now, could hear the French shouts and the beat of the drum. Beside them the gunners waited. Parker involuntarily whipped his hand back when a ball from one of the voltigeurs pinged off the barrel of the twelve-pounder.

From the far side of the river, Dalmas spotted Groombridge and his men yanking the blankets off the gun and rolling it forward. He had wondered whether the British had another cannon. It did not matter.

‘Get ready,’ he said to the chasseur captain. ‘Go as soon as they have cleared room for you to pass.’ The man twisted his moustache and grinned like the fool he was, but at least he could be relied upon to be a brave fool. He drew his sabre, and without waiting for his order his chasseurs did the same. Dalmas looked back to see his cuirassiers waiting on the road. That was his reserve, the force with which he intended to shatter any resistance that survived.

‘Fire!’ called Corporal Mulligan. The volley was better this time, the shots coming almost as one until he pulled the trigger on his own firelock a moment later, having waited for his aim not to be thrown off by the shout.

The French lieutenant collapsed, choking on his own blood from the ball in his throat. The drummer was already dead, his tunic dark as liquid pulsed from his heart. One of the skirmishers lay moaning and two men from the column had dropped.

‘Fire!’ Cooke gave the order before Williams had opened his mouth and the twelve-pounder leapt back on the twin trails, flame and smoke vomiting from its muzzle. His eyes had barely recovered from the shock when the other cannon fired and this discharge seemed even louder, and that did not make sense. Groombridge had loaded a twelve-pound ball as well as a bag of grape and had increased the charge of powder to give it force. It was a bad habit, and one that in time ruined the barrel, but he was not inclined to worry too much about the future.

One-and-a-half-inch balls ripped through the smoke. One of the skirmishers fell, the left side of his skull ripped off. Another man’s musket was shattered and the jagged end of one half followed the grapeshot to drive deep into his belly. Men died at the front of the column, and the range was so short that the balls punched through flesh and bone and passed through to hit the man behind. The bar from one of the rounds of grape buried itself in the dead drummer’s forehead.

With the men crowded as they were on the bridge, the cannonball from Groombridge’s gun created even worse carnage. The slope meant that it simply snatched the plume from the man in the front rank, but the ball was dipping and the head of the man behind disintegrated in a red spray of bone, flesh and brains. The third man’s chest exploded in ruin before the twelve-pound shot struck the man behind him at the waist and cut him in half. In the fourth rank the man was lucky. He was slightly to the side and the ball just missed, tearing off much of the cloth of his trouser leg and leaving the thigh swelling into a bruise, but the skin unbroken. All three men behind him lost legs as the shot smashed through bones, and then it bounced and rose to slice another four voltigeurs in two before it was past the column and humming into the chasseurs, taking the head of one of the horses.

The bridge was awash in blood. The column staggered. Now was the time to press on, but the lieutenant was dying and it was a young sergeant who screamed at the men to charge through the smoke and take the line ahead of them. There was no drum to beat the charge, but enough of the stunned survivors cheered and staggered forward.

Williams heard a dull explosion behind him followed by a sound like a heavy slap, and something knocked him down. One of the gun crew, the number seven, had hit Williams’ left side as he was flung backwards, the long rammer embedded deep in the man’s own right arm. It was an easy mistake. When he had reversed the ram so that the end with the sponge went into the barrel, the number seven had driven it hard into the muzzle to clean out anything left from the fired charge. The number nine on the right of the muzzle was supposed to press his leather-encased thumb over the touch-hole to prevent any air getting in. Otherwise the sponge risked driving burning embers on to any remaining powder and gases, and the air would ignite it again. The number seven’s own enthusiasm to reload had let him thrust the sponge in before the other man was ready.

Williams was wet from the man’s blood, and part of his jacket was scorched by the man’s smouldering uniform. The officer pushed himself up.

‘Fire, damn it!’ he yelled at Jowers, who was as stunned as everyone else by the horrific accident.

‘Right, lads, present!’ The sergeant recovered and was determined that his men would not fire wildly, so took a moment to calm them. The French voltigeurs were close to Mulligan’s men when he shouted out, ‘Fire!’

The blue-uniformed men stopped, barely five yards from the fold in the ground. Three more fell in the snow, and one was the sergeant, who was hit in both legs and cursed because his men had been so close. Another voltigeur dropped his musket and clutched at his bloodstained sleeve, but his comrades were raising their weapons and fired a ragged volley. A Highlander in the buff facings of the 71st was hit in the chest and fell back down the slope. More French ran up, but they stopped among the firing men to thicken the line. As they fired, Mulligan’s men managed a second volley of their own, and to Williams it seemed as if the flames of the muskets met because they were so close. Men dropped on each side.

‘Go on, man!’ Dalmas yelled at Capitaine Lancel, and the chasseur at last walked his horse forward towards the bridge.

‘Sorry, chum,’ said Cooke as he yanked the rammer from the horribly wounded man. It seemed to start the pain, for he screamed and would not stop. Williams looked aghast, but the horse artilleryman ignored him. ‘Right, lads, do your jobs. You, Kendrick, put the charge in.’ Cooke himself rammed it down, using the sponge because the other end of the ram was a mangled mess.

‘Load, you bastards!’ yelled Jowers as some of his men turned to stare at the screaming man. ‘You!’ He pointed at a man in green facings. ‘Get him away.’

The redcoat was not used to the rifle. He was from the 52nd, who did practise live firing at targets, and felt himself a good shot, so when he lined up on the French cavalry officer he aimed ahead of him to allow for the movement. Ignoring the smoke and chaos, and the occasional shot from the French skirmishers hitting the rocks around him, he waited, and then smoothly pulled the trigger.

Capitaine Lancel knew that he was lucky, so that it did not surprise him when a ball smacked into his left thigh but did not seem to do much damage. There was little pain and he laughed aloud as he gave the order to trot. His green overall trousers were already growing dark and his saddle was quickly wet as his lifeblood drained from the severed artery. The officer felt light headed as he threaded past the dead and dying light infantrymen.

Over the bridge, Lancel turned left through the kicked-down stakes and his men followed him. The officer saw the thin line of British infantry and the cannon beside them, and then his eyes flickered and it was hard to see or think anything. Lancel slumped sideways off his horse to lie in the snow. His men knew what to do. The enemy was there, and what French light cavalryman needed to know more than that? They spurred towards the English, a ragged stream of a dozen or so men.

The rest of the squadron was still filing over the bridge, and Groombridge was glad that he had chosen to reload with shot rather than grape because it was a beautiful target. He lowered the portfire himself.

The twelve-pounder’s roar was less deep throated than the first time, although the recoil seemed no less savage, and Groombridge had to yank one of his men back by the shoulder to stop him from being flattened by the wheel. They had run the gun back after the first shot, following the ruts in the snow as well as they could, but it was never possible to get back into the exact position. The muzzle had turned slightly, and although the alignment was good the shot flew at more of an angle, slicing diagonally across the bridge at shoulder height. It took the leg off a chasseur and broke the spine of his bay horse, crippled the two horses next in line and smashed the shoulder of a fourth before disembowelling the rider.

Two horses folded instantly, and another crumpled down on its front legs. They formed a barrier which the riders behind were going too slowly to cross. The chasseurs stopped, and one fell when his horse reared up in terror.

In the house, Jane heard the cannon fire again and thought that that must be a good sign. The musket shots were fainter, but she told herself that as long as the guns were firing then the fight continued and had not been lost.

‘Gun ready, sir!’ Cooke called just as Jowers’ men brought their muskets up to their shoulders. The chasseurs were bearing down on them, a trumpeter in a pink jacket riding with the leaders, his trumpet swinging on its cords and his sabre raised high.

‘Fire!’ The cannon added its deep call to the ripple of musketry.

‘Fix bayonets!’ Williams could not see how much damage they had done, but the only horse to burst through the smoke had no rider and he had to believe that the volley and the grapeshot had halted the cavalry. There was no time to reload, only enough to take one final wild gamble. His own sword was already in his right hand, a pistol taken from one of the dead Poles in his left.

‘Charge!’ and he turned the order into a long, guttural yell of defiance. The men were shouting too. Another horse barged him as he ran through the thinning cloud of smoke, but there was only blood on the saddle and no sign of a rider. Beside him, the kilted Highlander from the 79th drove his bayonet into the chest of the trumpeter as he knelt on the ground. Other chasseurs lay dead or moaning, and Williams trod on a man’s hand because he did not see it and nearly tripped, but then fell against the chest of another horse. He was on the chasseur’s left side, and the man struggled to control his frightened mount and cut down. Without thinking Williams rammed the pistol into the rider’s stomach and pulled the trigger. A fountain of blood jetted from the man’s lower back and sprayed across the rolled blanket behind his saddle.

Williams ran on. There were a dozen chasseurs still mounted, but the charge had been broken and the men milled, so that the redcoats ran in between them, stabbing with their bayonets. Jowers died when a French cavalryman cut down, beating aside his musket and carving a long sliver from the wood, before the man whipped the tip of his blade up to lunge into the sergeant’s throat. The Frenchman fell when Cooke slammed the sponge against him, and when the man landed on the ground the big artilleryman reversed the broken pole and drove the jagged end through the chasseur’s body. Williams had not realised that the gunners had come with them, and it was too late to do anything about that.

He sliced at the head of a horse, missing it, but making the animal swerve to the side so that the rider’s blade missed and only clipped his shoulder wing. He threw the empty pistol at the man’s face, and the distracted Frenchman was run through the body by the slim bayonet of a man in the yellow cuffs of the 26th. The Frenchman gasped as the wind was knocked from him.

Williams ran on. The Highlander was ahead of him and he watched the man slam the butt of his musket into the forehead of a voltigeur. He shouted a warning as another Frenchman slid past his guard, but the bayonet jabbed into the Scotsman’s stomach. Williams slashed with his sword, cutting open the voltigeur’s face before the man could withdraw his blade. The light infantryman reeled back, hands pressed to his long wound, so Williams lunged at his companion as the man staggered to recover from the Highlander’s blow. Mulligan appeared from nowhere, the bayonet on his musket bent and bloodied, and the big man knocked the wounded Frenchman down with one hand.

The enemy were going back. The few chasseurs still mounted were already flowing back across the bridge, with the voltigeurs mingled among them. Men slipped on fresh blood or tripped on corpses as they fled, and some were not fast enough and fell to the hungry bayonets of the redcoats, but they were going back.

‘Form on me!’ Williams needed the men in some sort of order, needed them formed, and had to stop any fool from chasing the enemy to their side of the river.

‘Rally!’ Mulligan’s voice boomed across the valley and more men responded. Between them, they shook the survivors into a rough line halfway between the bridge and the fold in the ground.

A redcoat grunted as a ball fired by one of the skirmishers smashed through his ribs. He sighed as he slid to the ground. Williams’ line was very exposed. The remaining riflemen and redcoats on the hill were firing, but more of the voltigeurs were recovering and going to reinforce the skirmish line.

Dalmas saw the moment and raised his sword high. He led, more than two horse lengths ahead of his company of cuirassiers, and they were all big men on tall and heavy horses. He drove the horse on, heading straight for the heap of dead and dying animals, and as he came close he felt that incredible surge of power as his big horse clenched and then extended its muscles, soaring over the barrier. Its hoofs landed, skidded just a little in the slick blood and recovered, and now that he had shown his men how to do it Dalmas was sure they would follow.

‘Front rank kneel!’ Williams gestured at the men to go down and form a hedge of bayonet points when he saw the cuirassier ride straight at the bridge. No one was loaded, and his hope that the bridge would be impassable was quickly dashed.

The company followed, as they had followed Dalmas in many a bloody charge. They went fast, and the men in the front rank were already rising in their stirrups when Groombridge lowered the portfire and set off the quill in the touch-hole of the old twelve-pounder. It was loaded with grape this time, and the heavy balls struck the front rank of the enemy just as they jumped. Inch-and-a-half balls drove through armour, creating a jagged hole, and then spun through and split the back of the cuirass open like the petals of some ghastly flower. Two of the three riders in the front rank died instantly. All three horses were killed at the same moment as the heavy projectiles smashed into them. They tumbled forward, flopping and sliding instead of landing. The third rider did not get even a scratch, but was thrown from his dead mount, and his helmet struck hard against the base of the parapet, snapping his head back and breaking his neck. Behind them, the other cuirassiers stopped, horses unwilling to go over the chaos on the narrow bridge.

‘God bless the artillery,’ said Mulligan.

Dalmas reined in short of the line. There was no one behind him and he could see the rear rank of the British infantry reloading.

Merde,’ he said, and turned his horse, urging it into a trot. Williams went to follow, but stopped when a volley of some half a dozen shots came from the far bank. His hat was plucked from his head again, and this time there was a fierce sting as the ball grazed the side of his skull just above the ear. Mulligan was thrown backwards by another shot.

‘Back to cover!’ yelled Williams, gesturing to the men, even though his head throbbed with pain. The dead horses covered the bridge, except at one place on the left where only one animal was jammed against the parapet. Dalmas saw it and sent his horse at that point. He knew his aim had to be precise, for too far one way and the horse would refuse or fall among the still-thrashing legs of the dying horses. Too far the other way and it would smash into or over the wall of the bridge. The horse was only trotting, but the power was there and his line was true as it surged high and over, landing firmly on the roadway. The satisfaction was brief, for he knew that the attack had failed and that his time had run out.

Corporal Mulligan was dead, the hole above the bridge of his nose seeming too tiny to have hurt such an enormous man. Jowers was dead along with three more and at least a dozen wounded. Williams put the remaining man from the 71st in charge of his ad hoc platoon, simply because the man looked experienced. The light infantryman from the 52nd replaced Jowers.

‘Get back and reload the gun,’ he told the unemotional Cooke. ‘They may come again.’ If they did, Williams did not know how he would stop them. More than half of the ammunition for their muskets was gone. He lay for a moment on the snow and breathed heavily, looking up at the sky. He would have to ask Mr Groombridge what time it was.

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