Military history

Chapter 10

Lieutenant Colonel Moss arrived the day after the two wings of the 106th had reunited. He ordered an immediate parade and inspected the men. Then he led them in two hours of battalion drill, driving them hard, wanting every formation change performed at his own rapid speed. After that he gathered the officers together in the main room of the inn where he had set up his headquarters. The regiment’s two volunteers were included – Forde had nodded amicably to Williams – and altogether thirty-seven men sat on the high-backed wooden chairs and benches around the dark oak tables. Moss looked down on them from the open first-floor corridor which ran along one of the narrow sides of the tavern. There was a solid wooden banister, but George Moss was never one to lean. Occasionally he gripped the bar hard with both hands, to stop himself from pacing up and down. The faces were watching him expectantly. It took an effort to wait a few more moments just to be sure that he had their attention.

‘Gentlemen,’ he announced. ‘I intend the 106th to be the finest regiment in the British Army.’ They liked that, pounding the tables with their right hands. Moss waited for the din to die down.

‘We shall be the best because I expect you all to be the best. The 106th is the youngest regiment of the line. As yet, it has not seen action. I know some of us have with other corps. I know Mr Anstey was with us in Egypt.’ That was true, but Anstey was surprised the colonel was aware of it. ‘Captain Mosley is an old India hand. If the enemy come at us with elephants he’s the man who will know what to do!’ Moss let them laugh, pleased that Mosley joined in. ‘Mr Kidwell has seen more service than I have enjoyed hot dinners.’ It was good to include the former ranker and now quartermaster in his praise.

‘Finally we have our two majors, and they were fighting before we were born. However, for the benefit of our younger gentlemen I am able to quash the rumour that Major MacAndrews was at Agincourt.’ They liked that, although one or two needed a whispered explanation before they got the joke. Moss had brought confirmation that MacAndrews was to be gazetted as major. Lieutenant Wickham had also purchased his captaincy and would now command the Grenadier Company. He certainly looked the part of a dashing flank company officer.

‘Now comes the answer to the question you have all been asking. In a week’s time we will march for Portsmouth, there to join with the Twentieth Light Dragoons and some gunners and embark on board transports.’ There was hush now, the faces eager and craning up to find out which of the rumours was true. ‘From Portsmouth we shall sail to the Irish Sea and join a much stronger force of some eleven thousand men off Cork. It is commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley.’

There was a burst of conversation and Moss let them talk. Wellesley’s victories in India were well known, and he was young and aggressive. Moss had seen a little of him in Ireland and liked what he saw, sensing a man after his own heart. In a few years, it should be General Moss leading one of England’s armies on a great expedition.

Moss raised his voice. ‘From Ireland we shall sail again to land in Europe and confront the legions of Bonaparte.’ The hubbub increased in ume. He raised his hand and brought silence. ‘Our destination – Spain! We are to help the Spanish chase out the French invaders.

‘Gentlemen, we are going to war!’ Cheers now as well as hands pounding on the table. Moss raised his own hand. ‘At last we have the chance to show what the 106th can do. I know that none of you will disappoint me. On and off the field you shall conduct yourselves as English gentlemen. Do that, and we shall drive the King’s enemies before us like the dogs they are!’ That had them cheering again. Moss let them go on longer this time. A servant arrived bearing a tray. The colonel held up his hand until there was silence.

‘As officers you will lead your men. You must always go first.’ He paused for a moment. ‘And I shall always lead you.’ Moss raised a glass. ‘Gentlemen, the King.’

They rose to their feet for the toast. Standing straight, they raised their glasses. ‘The King’ came from thirty-seven throats.

A moment later, Moss gave them another. ‘The 106th and glory!’ This time the emptied glasses were followed by three cheers for the colonel.

Moss gave the regiment a light day by his standards. There were company drills for an hour, and then a thorough inspection of the regiment’s tent lines. Everywhere there was activity and excitement. News that they were to go on campaign had spread rapidly and lent a new urgency to everything.

One of the colonel’s new regulations was greeted with enormous enthusiasm. He had announced it at the end of this morning’s parade. The army had decided to abolish queues and the practice of putting powder on hair. The new code had not yet been formally announced, but Moss had decided that the 106th would lead the way. Sufficient clippers had been found – somehow the RSM had known how to procure such things at short notice – and as the afternoon wore on each company took delight in removing the hated queues. In barrels of water the men washed out the equally loathed white powder, which mice were apt to nibble at while they lay asleep. Barbers were appointed for each company and one by one the long pigtails were chopped off. Hair was now to end just above the collar. Every company had built a fire and burned the hair in a strange ritual. Each left behind a pool of lead, for the end of each queue was weighted down by a musket ball.

‘Well, that should stop witchcraft,’ said Hanley as he watched the grenadiers go through the process. There was something very pagan about the scene, but Hanley was the only man in the company who already had short hair and so did not need to be shorn.

Williams looked a little disconcerted, while Pringle was curious. ‘How so?’

‘Parts of the body have power. You are supposed to be able to control the person if you have part of them.’

‘Well, you have travelled and know about these things. Anyway, I don’t think the French employ magicians so you needn’t worry,’ said Pringle.

‘Heathen nonsense, anyway,’ asserted Williams. He was waiting for the barber, his long fair hair hanging down past his shoulders.

Hanley and Pringle exchanged looks. ‘You know, Bills,’ said the lieutenant, ‘I sometimes think you might have been happier serving with Cromwell’s Ironsides.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t taken part in a witch-burning for ages.’

Pringle laughed, but decided to change the subject. It always seemed wiser to avoid discussion of organised religion with the earnest Wiliams.

‘So, Hanley,’ he said, ‘do you welcome the prospect of going back to Spain?’ Hanley had told them a little of his travels in the last few years. He thought for a moment before replying.

‘Yes, I believe I do. When I left Madrid I was full of hate for the French. The things I saw them do there . . .’

There did not seem to be any more. ‘Well, you must tell us everything important about the place. You know, what are the women like?’

‘Very pretty. Brown eyes and trim figures. And unpredictable. Curse you one minute and then kiss you the next.’

‘Doesn’t sound that different from here.’

‘Well, it’s hotter, and the curses are stronger. Their nails are sharper too.’

‘You must teach me some useful expressions. “Is your husband away for long?” – that sort of thing.’

‘Isn’t it enough to have the French to fight without outraged husbands?’ asked Williams, being as flippant as he could on what he felt was a serious subject. In his case, he was utterly sure that no Spanish lady could possibly compare to the exquisite Miss MacAndrews.

‘I shall be discreet.’

‘You never have been before, Billy,’ said Wickham as he strode up behind them, trying to keep pace with Lieutenant Colonel Moss. The new captain of the grenadiers looked immaculate. He had long ago cultivated thick sideburns, which had always looked a little odd when his hair was powdered. Now they set off the thick and curly brown hair, which seemed just a little neater than anyone else’s. He had had his hair cut privately, like the colonel and a few other officers. Most had cheerfully joined in with their men. There was something of a holiday atmosphere that day in the 106th’s camp. The officers’ wives were all discreetly absent, but many of the men’s wives watched and cheered on the haircutting. Hanley noticed Dobson’s pretty daughter, and was shocked when the girl winked at him again. No wonder her father was worried.

Moss waved the men down as the nearest sprang to attention. This was not a formal visit. ‘Discretion is to be expected of all my officers,’ declared Moss. ‘Any lady must always be treated with utmost respect. So always take your boots off.’ The laughter was genuine and even Williams joined in. Moss was already popular.

‘Mr Hanley was telling us about Spain, sir,’ volunteered Pringle.

‘Yes, I heard. I shall make sure I am careful not to get scratched too heavily.’ More laughter. ‘How long did you spend in Spain, Mr Hanley?’

‘Nearly two years, sir.’

‘And you speak the language – beyond enquiring about the whereabouts of husbands?’

Hanley grinned. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Excellent, that may prove very useful. I know that I can rely on all of my grenadiers.’ Moss had raised his voice to carry as far as possible. His quick stride had already taken him past the chair where Dobson was having his queue cut off.

‘Bet this must feel odd for an old soldier like you,’ said the colonel cheerfully.

‘Glad to see the back of it, sir.’

Moss smiled warmly. ‘Well, there is one thing I do know, and that is that the French will never see the backs of us!’ They cheered that. Moss was already halfway towards the lines of Number Three Company, and siply waved vaguely back in acknowledgement. He was pleased, and decided to try the same joke again. George Moss was going to war again at last.

Lisbon gleamed white in the bright sunlight as the pilot boat came alongside the Russian merchant ship. Its captain yelled at the group of soldiers to get out of the way as his men prepared to take the ship into the Tagus, and tried to ignore the deliberate hesitation before the surly, one-eyed sergeant in charge gestured to the men and took them below.

No one disturbed Count Denilov, who leaned on the rail and stared hungrily at the city. Three days earlier they had let the general’s wasted body slide down a board and into the sea, the soldiers firing a salute with their muskets. His orders – vaguely worded, but commanding full co-operation with the bearer and his deputy in the pursuit of their mission – were now in Denilov’s pocket. He had also taken the purse of gold coins intended to finance their mission.

It was more money than he had carried for some time, but would have been only a drop in the ocean of his debts. He had left Russia because all that remained for him there was suicide or a debtor’s prison. Voluntary exile had been one way out, but had little to commend it. This mission was an opportunity, another game of chance, and already the hand was going his way. Denilov had the general’s orders and now his authority. Admiral Siniavin would have no choice but to assist him in spite of his modest rank, for he was a representative of the Tsar himself. It would give him access to the French high command, and to the remaining aristocracy of Portugal, including those who resented the invader.

There was a war on, and he knew that wars meant chaos, and also opportunity for a bold man. It was a question of sniffing around to catch the scent of profit. The French were looting widely and no one was likely to be able to trace the source of anything he was able to grab for himself. If fortune smiled, then he might go back home rich again and with the fresh prestige of performing a service for Tsar Alexander. If not, then a good man with a sword should have no trouble finding employment in Napoleon’s armies, especially since he would bring with him the names of disloyal Portuguese nobles, and knowledge of the concerns of the Russian court.

To Denilov, Lisbon looked ripe for the plucking.

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