Military history

Chapter 28

‘Halt!’ MacAndrews’ order was more of a remark than an instruction for the 106th had already stopped in its tracks as soon as they heard the French guns. He flicked open his watch and saw that it was just past two o’clock. No wonder everyone from the general down had assumed that Marshal Soult was not planning any attack. Both armies had waited all through the morning, the French on a higher ridge and the British on a lower line of high ground some two miles south of Corunna. The Reserve Division was ordered to be at the harbour to begin embarkation at four. Sir John had chosen them to go first of all the infantry as an acknowledgement of their services as rearguard.

General Paget rode past. ‘Turn them around. I dare say we’ll be going forward soon!’ He sounded positively cheerful. MacAndrews sensed that the 106th and all the other regiments shared his enthusiasm. They had been happy to head for the ships. In spite of the likely discomforts of transport ships, it would mean days or weeks of little work and light discipline, and rations would be more reliable than in the last few weeks. It was not to be for the moment, and he could see no sign of regrets. They turned about, frustrated only because no order had yet arrived for them to move forward.

They were on the right of the British line, but held back some distance from its centre. The French held a peak some way ahead of them, which he could just see over the closer crest. Paget had explained to them earlier that the general was deliberately making his right appear weak, so that Soult would see a path through to the harbour. He wanted the French to come that way, to tire themselves crossing a land cut by gullies and split into small walled fields. With some of their energy already gone, the enemy would suddenly be hit by two of his divisions, with the Reserve Division in the lead. It was just a question of waiting for the order. MacAndrews patted his horse on the neck and sat listening to the guns pounding.

The French guns were loud, and the answering noise of the British artillery seemed almost puny by comparison. Soult had forty guns, a dozen of them lined wheel to wheel in one battery shooting down at close range on to the village at the centre of the British line. Sir John had barely a quarter of this number, and three of those were back with the reserve. The rest of his guns were already on board ships, along with all the cavalry. There was not room for most of the horses and only the best were being taken. Hundreds more had been slaughtered in the streets or on the beaches.

Bobbie shied as Williams tried to take the mare past a row of dead cavalry chargers. The troopers had struggled to kill them efficiently with their pistols. Tearful men had flinched, and wounded rather than killed, so that some horses suffered horribly. They were then ordered to cut their throats as a surer and quicker means of killing, so the earth around the bodies stank from the dried blood, and his mare would go nowhere near them.

Giving up, he took her to the side and turned back into town, threading through the streets to go out by a different route. When they heard the opening salvoes of the enemy artillery, all of the officers detached from their battalions had immediately asked Wickham for leave to rejoin their respective corps. Most were on foot, and so were trudging as best they could, but Williams knew that Bobbie was close by and did not think that Pringle would object if he borrowed the mare. Wickham, whose own pair of horses had already been embarked as too valuable to be left behind, let him borrow a saddle. He declared that he would like to go himself, but must remain at his post, but Williams did not even bother to listen.

He passed along a stretch of quayside, and wondered on which of the ships the major’s wife and daughter were. Miss MacAndrews’ behaviour still baffled him, and he had thought over their conversation – and indeed all their conversations – many, many times without reaching any certain conclusion. He threaded through the streets, got lost, but managed to obtain directions from a sentry and eventually emerged on the main road.

In half an hour he saw the columns of the reserve waiting, their Colours flapping in the breeze. Before he reached the 106th, General Paget’s chief of staff beckoned to him.

‘It’s Williams, isn’t it? Where is Captain Wickham?’ he called out.

‘Still at the harbour.’

‘Indeed. Well then, we are short handed and you have a horse, so you must serve in his place. Take this to General Moore.’ He handed a folded note. ‘Follow the road till you reach a little village. Then cut due south over the fields for Elvina. He should be there.’

‘But, sir …’ Williams tried to explain that the horse was not his.

‘Damn it, sir, do as you are told!’

Williams rode off, passing close to the 106th. ‘Your family are embarked, sir,’ he called to Major MacAndrews, who acknowledged with a wave.

Pringle pointed, lifted his glasses off, and then put them on again as if to confirm what he was seeing. ‘He’s taking my damned horse again!’ he shouted out, and the grenadiers laughed.

The sound of cannon fire grew heavier as Williams approached the centre of the battlefield. He passed wounded men, limping or supported by comrades. By now he could hear bursts of musket fire, both sporadic shots and heavy volleys, and then the wind carried chants of ‘Vive l’empereur!’ and the beating of many drums, which fought against the skirl of bagpipes. He could still see little, as the ground rose in front of him and hid the fighting. There was a volley and then a cheer that he knew to be British.

He came over the low rise and saw a line of Highlanders driving back the head of a French column. More redcoats were charging alongside them, and disappeared into a maze of low houses and walled gardens. Their regimental Colour was a red cross on black, so they must surely be the old ‘dirty half hundred’. A battalion to his right was inclining its right wing so that the line now formed an L shape. Once in position it resumed steady platoon volleys to the front and side, the fire rippling up and down the companies.

There were a few horsemen clustered near the battalion. Moore stood out. His horse was unusual, for it was a light cream colour with a black face, but that only enhanced the impression he made. It was obvious that the rider was in charge, and as Williams rode towards him he felt a sense of awe at simply being in the man’s presence. Sir John noticed him, nodded in recognition, without stopping as he dictated an order to one of his aides. Graham waved to him. Two more men waited with messages. The second was delivering his as Williams reined in beside them.

‘Sir David’s wound is grievous, but does not appear mortal,’ said the staff officer. ‘He may lose an arm.’

Sir John acknowledged the report. ‘I pray that he does not. Ride now, and inform Sir John Hope that he succeeds to the command if I should fall, now that Sir David is unable.’ The man rode off.

‘Now, Mr Williams, I see that we have you at staff work after all.’ Major Colborne took and scanned the message he had brought. ‘Sir Edward informs us that the Reserve Division is in position and awaits your orders. Judging from the time he cannot have received your instructions.’

‘You know the ground, John. Ride to Paget and take him along the stream to drive back the enemy right, but tell him not to go too far.’

‘Sir.’ Colborne immediately set off. Williams was about to follow, when the general stopped him.

‘Stay, Mr Williams, I may well have need of an additional officer as the day goes on.’

The fighting in the village was hard to follow. They heard bursts of very heavy firing, and French and British cheers. The 50th had surged right through the houses, but the attack had lost momentum and some had become cut off when the French counter-attacked. The Highlanders of the 42nd were on the edge of the buildings, firing steadily. One company was on the slope, and Sir John now rode over to them to get a better view of the combat.

Round-shot from the French battery skidded over the grass, sometimes falling between the horses. One ball took the leg off a Highlander below the knee. The man screamed in his agony.

‘Carry him back to the surgeons,’ said Sir John with quiet authority to a sergeant standing in his place at the rear of the company. ‘My good fellow, don’t make such a noise – we must bear these things better.’

The soldier did not reply, but his cries slackened as two of his comrades supported him between their shoulders. Soon afterwards the company charged down to reinforce the fighting. The broken ground gave few chances for whole battalions to fight in formation. Companies went in on their own, and often found themselves split up into little clusters of men, fighting small, savage and often private battles.

It was soon clear that the momentum was shifting back to the French. The two British battalions were forced back from the village on to the slope behind.

Sir John sent orders for the two battalions of the First Foot Guards to come to their support. Williams took the order, and would long cherish the reaction of the brigade commander at the sight of his battered forage cap. His expression mingled profound distaste with a strong disbelief that any officer could so resemble a scarecrow. Yet reaction to the order was prompt, and as he cantered Bobbie back to the general, the Guards were already marching over the crest.

Some of the companies of Highlanders saw their relief coming, and so their officers took them backwards. Williams came up to Sir John just as he reached one of the retreating companies.

‘Why, sir, are you withdrawing?’ asked the general.

‘We have used all our cartridges,’ said a young, gap-toothed captain, ‘and must go to fetch ammunition.’

‘My brave Forty-second, join your comrades.’ He pointed down the slope to where much of the battalion was still engaged. ‘Ammunition is coming, and you still have your bayonets! Recollect Egypt!’ The last time the regiment had fought in a battle had been eight years before.

The captain saluted, and Williams thought he saw him exchange a glance with one of his sergeants. ‘Fix bayonets,’ the sergeant called out in a voice tinged more by London than the Highlands. There was the familiar clicking sound as the sockets were screwed on to the muzzles of their firelocks. The company went back down the slope with quiet determination. To Williams they looked unstoppable. Sir John raised his hat in salute.

‘Fine fellows,’ said Graham. ‘Good Scotsmen,’ he added to one of the general’s English ADCs.

Bobbie had been chewing the grass and now took the opportunity to rub green-tinged spittle all over the rump of the general’s cream-coloured horse. Williams felt his head shift, and glanced down in horror to see the handsome charger so abused. He was still pointing back towards the two columns of approaching Guardsmen, but now his main hope was that the general had not noticed what his mare was doing.

Sir John Moore was jerked from the saddle and flung down on his back just by the feet of Colonel Graham’s horse. Williams thought he just glimpsed a blur of movement as the eight-pound shot whipped past. The general sighed softly, but did not cry out and seemed unscathed. Then he shifted, trying to push himself up, and Williams saw the blood on the left side of his chest near the arm. An ADC sprang down from his own mount and took the general’s right hand. Williams joined him. The blood was spreading quickly and they unwound Sir John’s crimson sash and tried to staunch the flow. With Graham and another aide, they lifted him as gently as they could – there was only the slightest involuntary hiss of pain – and laid him with his back resting on a soft bank of earth.

‘I must go and inform Sir John Hope,’ said Graham in a voice of forced calm. Moore gave a gentle nod of approval and the colonel left them.

‘How do the Black Watch fare?’ The general’s voice was weak, but had lost none of its confidence or precision. He was staring intently at the line of Highlanders as they charged once more. Williams assured him that the 42nd were advancing. Another shot hit the turf not far from them and skidded over their heads. The ADC gestured to Williams and with the help of a Highlander they took the general back behind the cover of a stone wall. A surgeon was near by, plying his trade in the shelter of a large boulder, and the man immediately came over.

Williams watched as he examined the wound and his heart sank. Sir John’s left shoulder appeared smashed by the glancing strike of the ball. His arm hung by no more than a strip of skin. Much of his jacket had gone, exposing pieces of bone and bare muscle over his chest. The blood kept pulsing, even though it was hard to believe that it could continue flowing at such a rate.

The doctor’s expression betrayed nothing of the hopelessness of the situation. He cut away a fragment of jacket and a couple of buttons forced into the ruin of the shoulder.

‘I can do no more at present,’ he said.

‘Thank you. But my good man, you can do me no good – it is too high up.’ Sir John’s face was very pale, but his voice was steady.

‘We should get him away,’ whispered the aide.

‘Sergeant,’ Williams called to an NCO of the 42nd. ‘Bring five men and a blanket.’ The Highlanders came quickly. They were big men, and two were old soldiers who had fought under the general’s command at Alexandria. Their touch was tender as they lifted and slid Sir John on to the blanket. The general gasped when his sword became tangled between his legs.

The aide went to unbuckle it.

‘It is as well as it is.’ The instruction was firm. ‘I had rather it should go out of the field with me.’

‘You will need it again, before too long,’ said the staff officer. Williams tried to agree, but the words refused to come out.

The general leaned his head to stare at the wound. ‘No, Hardinge, I feel that to be impossible. You need not go with me. Report to General Hope that I am wounded and carried to the rear and place yourself at his disposal.’

Williams appeared to be forgotten and so walked behind the Highlanders as they carried the general down the track. He had let go of Bobbie’s reins and could not see the mare anywhere. A sense of helplessness oppressed him, and he went with the general in the vague hope that his presence might serve some useful purpose or give even the slightest comfort.

Bobbie ran for a long time, fleeing the noise and the stink of battle. She splashed through a little stream and ran on, weaving her way between the rocks and enclosures of the fields beyond. Hanley saw her first.

‘Isn’t that your disreputable mare?’ he said to Pringle. The Grenadier and Light Companies were in advance of and to the left of the battalion, occupying a boulder-strewn ridge. Ahead of them a long skirmish line formed by the 95th extended to the right. The greenjackets were pressing forward steadily, and there were puffs of smoke and shots as they skirmished with the French. The fight was moving away, but the flank companies of the 106th were ordered to stay where they were and secure the low ridge. The rest of the battalion advanced in column behind the 95th.

Pringle followed Hanley’s gaze and saw the mare walking slowly now. He whistled and called her name. Bobbie stopped, and began to crop at the long grass.

‘Damned animal,’ said Pringle. The French were now some distance away, and certainly beyond the range of any accuracy. He jogged forward, calling to the horse softly. The mare turned its back, and then walked away from him.

‘Be like that,’ he said, and gave up, walking back up the slope to the grenadiers. He heard hoof beats closing rapidly and the mare was beside him, messily nuzzling his face, before he reached the company. ‘There’s a good girl. Mucky as ever. Now where have you been?’

‘We saw Bills riding him about an hour ago,’ said Hanley.

‘Yes, I should not think anyone else would have such barefaced cheek. Hope we haven’t lost him again.’ He looked carefully, but could see no traces of blood on the saddle.

‘He’s probably fallen off,’ said Hanley, but there was doubt in his voice. MacAndrews had mentioned that both General Moore and General Baird had been hit. It made everything seem less certain.

‘Oh, you bitch!’ Pringle had been inspecting the rest of the horse when Bobbie chose to lash out and caught him on the thigh, knocking him over. ‘Damn all bloody horses to hell!’ He got up, rubbing his limb. ‘I don’t know why I bought you in the first place.’

‘Must be for her charming temperament,’ suggested Hanley. ‘Or your looks, my darling.’ He smoothed her long head and then pulled his hands away to avoid her snapping teeth.

‘I sometimes wonder if she is still loyal to Napoleon at heart!’

They turned to look as the 95th reach the low crest ahead of them. The brigade continued to advance, but the grenadiers were ordered to wait and hold their position and so they stood and watched.

‘We’re winning, aren’t we?’ asked Hanley, and Billy Pringle was once again baffled by his friend’s lack of confidence when it came to understanding the business of soldiering.

‘Oh yes, we are winning the battle.’ He thought of the ships waiting to carry them away. ‘What it has all been for is another matter, because it rather looks as if the war is lost.’ Pringle paused for a moment. ‘I do hope Bills is unscathed.’

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