Military history

Chapter 25

Wellesley watched the French battalions withdraw over the plain towards the higher ridge and was impressed by their discipline. If he had had more cavalry he might have been able to make things difficult for them, but the French had as many or more green-jacketed Chasseurs as he had dragoons from the 20th. Switching his gaze, the British general could see Ferguson’s flanking column approaching. He turned to the right and saw the head of the Portuguese force doing the same thing. Evidently General Delaborde had seen this and timed his retreat nicely, withdrawing past the little cluster of whitewashed houses that made up the village of Roliça. His horse shifted beneath him, but the movement to calm the beast was wholly unconscious. Unsurprised by the failure of his subterfuge, he resolved to try again.

It took some time to reorganise the British Army for a new attack. The plan would be the same. An advance by the main force to pin the enemy in place, and then the flanking columns would envelop the enemy. Wellesley rode to each of the brigade commanders in the centre, warning them not to commit to a full attack until Ferguson and Trant had got behind the French on the ridge.

The plain became much more broken as the 106th neared the high ground. The line became ragged, in spite of the best efforts of the sergeants to keep the men in place. Moss kept advancing. The French were no longer visible, having pulled back behind the crest. As the battalion came closer to the slope even the enemy skirmishers dotted along the top of the ridge disappeared from view. The ground was rocky and the mounted officers had to ride with great care. Moss decided to dismount, realising that the going would only get worse and that there was little chance of getting a horse up the steep slope. Anyway, it was better to lead the charge on foot – just like in Egypt. As soon as the colonel dismounted so did both majors.

It had taken the French artillery some time to take up new firing positions on the ridge. This had spared the advancing redcoats a good deal of fire. By the time the enemy gunners opened up, the 106th and other battalions in the first line of the arormation were largely obscured by the slope. Regiments in the rear were less fortunate and came under a steady fire. Pringle happened to turn his head at the very moment a round-shot struck the line a few hundred yards behind the 106th. There was a plume of dust just in front of the redcoats, then a smear of red blood as shattered pieces of musket, equipment and flesh were flung into the air. He could dimly hear the sergeants bellowing at the men to close ranks. The regiment had yellow facings and a yellow colour. That would make them the 9th Foot from Hill’s brigade.

Moss stumbled on the loose boulders and nearly fell, but just managed to steady himself. The main slope was very steep, but a gully opened ahead of the 106th and seemed to offer a better path to the top. Heavy firing broke out somewhere to the left. It was not volley fire, but the individual shots of skirmishers. Moss could not see where it came from. Even the 82nd had disappeared from view, hidden by the folds in the ground. Moss jumped up on to a boulder. Behind him he could see the 9th still advancing. To his right were a few pairs of skirmishers from the light companies of Hill’s brigade – the green plumes were clear. Otherwise it was very hard to see anything.

The skirmish fire grew even heavier. The attack was clearly going ahead, and it was time to play their part.

‘Mr Toye, Mr MacAndrews, would you be so good as to join me.’ Moss decided to be especially casual in his instructions, fighting back the excitement within him. Toye was only a few yards away. MacAndrews had to come through the line next to the colour party and join them.

‘We’re going straight up the ravine,’ said Moss. ‘I will take the left wing with Major Toye. You bring the right wing up to support us. We’ll form column at quarter-distance. It will not be neat, but if we feed one company in at a time it will give us some control.’ He turned to look back at the gully. ‘I doubt it gets wider. The main thing is to press on, get up there as fast as we can and then form when we reach the crest and find some space. Major MacAndrews, I’d be grateful if you would tell the colonel of the Ninth what we are doing and ask for their support.’ Moss had an impish grin. ‘No time to lose, let’s move.’

Orders were issued. The manoeuvre was untidy, but it brought the Light Company to the mouth of the gully and the others ranked behind them. MacAndrews kept the right wing off to the side before putting them into column to give the other companies a little more space. In the meantime he remounted and rode back the three hundred yards to talk to the commander of the 9th.

Moss licked his lips, and then gave the order to fix bayonets. Men slid the long steel spikes from their scabbards, slipped the rings over the muzzles of their muskets and clicked them into place. Moss and the other officers drew their swords. With the two wings operating separately, the colour party was put between the second and third companies in the column. Hanley and Derryck could not see the colonel over the heads of the men in front, but they could hear him.

‘Boys, we are going to take this hill from the Frogs. I am going first. If any man beats me to the top I’ll give him a guinea. Now, 106th, follow me!’

Moss set off at a jog. The gully’s slope was gentler than the craggy ridge, but it was still steep. Ranks and order quickly disappeared. The ground was soft, with patches of loose scree. Men stumbled, fell and cursed as they struggled upwards. Soon, the muscles at the backs of their legs were aching, and most were breathing hard. The gully had been shaped by a stream fed by rainwater and over the years the stream had moved. Channelned off the main gully and some men followed these. Moss was still at the front, and Major Toye was using his sword as a stick as he tried desperately to keep pace. Men from the Light Company were around him, and a sergeant helped him up when he slipped and slammed into the ground.

There were bushes and briars growing out of the sides of the sunken path. Some could be trampled and others had to be avoided. French cannon were firing from up on the ridge and more than once round-shot bounced low across the banks of the gully. Then a shell fired from a stubby-barrelled howitzer arced slow and high to drop into the little ravine. It spun crazily as the fuse burned, then the powder inside exploded with a fierce crack and sent jagged fragments of the iron case scything through the air. One piece sliced the top off a sergeant’s skull as neatly as a boiled egg. Another slammed into a private’s pack, knocking him down and shredding his blanket, but leaving the man unharmed.

The colonel kept going as straight as he could, following the path that looked most direct even if it was not the widest. The men behind tended to follow the more obvious routes. Companies split and mingled. The younger and fitter men, and the more aggressive, pressed onwards, while others slowed and fell back. The colour party stuck together and followed the colonel. The slope was usually steep enough for Hanley to see Moss now. He was thirty yards ahead, but along with Derryck and the sergeants guarding them both, the group managed to keep in sight of their commander.

One group of soldiers took a side path and quickly emerged on the slope itself. A crackle of shots from French voltigeurs dropped one of them immediately. The men raised their muskets to fire in reply. Then another of them was hit, this time in the knee. The man screamed and was dragged back into the gully by his comrades. The other wounded man lay on his back, his stomach a mass of blood. He moaned pitifully and called out for his mother. From the shelter of the gully’s banks the redcoats fired back at the French skirmishers.

At the mouth of the ravine MacAndrews could not see any of the advancing men. It had taken some time to form his right wing into column. There had been no sound of volleys from above, so that at least was encouraging. The artillery fire was slackening and there were periodic shots from skirmishers. Anyway, there was nothing to do now but follow orders.

‘Come on, boys,’ he called, and led the five companies up the ravine.

Even Moss was beginning to struggle as the slope took its toll. Yet he knew they were now a long way up and that the top could not be too much farther. He had slowed to little more than a brisk walking pace. He did not look behind him. A good officer must trust that his men will follow him, and anyway he had no doubt that they would. The gully was now wide enough only for three men to pass. A man from the Light Company was almost abreast of him. A sergeant from a centre company was on the other side, jabbing his half-pike’s butt into the ground and using it to drag himself upwards. Moss grinned at them and somehow found the energy to run again, bounding up the next few yards of the gully. Its banks were growing lower and suddenly he ran out on to a wide grassy field. They were not at the top, but the slope up to the crest was gentler and not long. They were in a horseshoe-shaped depression, with spurs of higher ground on either side and stretching behind them. No enemy were visible.

The colonel allowed himself a moment to breathe deeply. The sergeant beside him looked bright red in the face. The light company man dropped to his knees and was panting. There was the sound of boots on the soft ground from behind them as more men arrived.

‘Don’t worry, boys, you’ll each have your guinea anyway.’ Moss now allowed himself time to turn back and look down the slope. A few dozen men were fairly close behind. He could just see the colours turning round a bend in the gully. It was harder to see anyone else. Captain Headley of the Light Company jogged up beside him and seemed both cheerful and unruffled by the rapid scramble up.

‘Warm day, sir,’ he said.

‘Ideal for walking,’ replied Moss. Major Toye looked close to collapse, but straightened up as he arrived. The blade of his sword was dirty for several inches along its length from where he had stuck it into the ground. Even worse, it had bent slightly out of shape from carrying his weight. Toye held it up and could not help grinning.

‘You should join the Lights,’ joked Headley. Like all Light Company officers he carried a sabre with a curved blade instead of a straight sword.

Moss cut them off. ‘Sergeant Keene!’ A flash of memory had supplied the man’s name just before he spoke.

‘Sir!’ responded the sergeant, who had reached the top just behind Moss and was delighted to be recognised.

‘Form a line, right marker over there!’ Moss pointed to the spot. There were already some thirty men with them from all the different companies of the left wing. The sergeant chose a corporal for the right marker and formed them up next to him. As more soldiers arrived, they were added to the left of the line. In a few minutes there were sixty men in two ranks facing up the slope. Three sergeants stood behind the line along with a single drummer and two young ensigns. Moss and Toye stood just to the right of the formation and Headley to the left. The colour party arrived and took post in the centre behind the little line.

Before they could advance some red-coated soldiers appeared on the crest among a patch of bushes. The men had deep blue facings and fronts to their jackets. More appeared, and they began to walk down the slope towards the men of the 106th.

‘Who the hell are they?’ Toye said aloud.

‘Must be Fane’s men,’ replied Moss with assurance. The French wore blue, or those loose greatcoats they had already seen. Only the British Army wore red.

A formation of redcoats marched in step directly in front of the 106th. They were in company strength, an officer with his sword held high marching on their right.

‘Bloody fools must be lost,’ said Moss. ‘They’re going the wrong way.’

The scattered group of redcoats now raised their muskets upside down in the air and began to shout.

Suisse! Suisse!’ They were nearest to Headley, who began to walk towards them. He looked baffled. The formed company kept moving towards the 106th and then halted on command.

‘Where are you going?’ yelled Moss. ‘Who is in charge?’

The red-coated soldiers raised their muskets to their shoulders, the men looking as if they turned to the right. There was a series of clicks as musket locks were pulled back.

‘What the devil . . .’ Moss was stunned. ‘We’re English, you damned fools.’

The officer’s sword swept down. ‘Tirez!’ The red-coated soldiers from one of Napoleon’s Swiss regiments pulled the triggers of their muskets. Flints sparked and set off the powder in the pans which flared and ignited the main charge. The noand the flame and the bursts of smoke were almost simultaneous as the volley thundered out at the 106th.

It was difficult to fire down a slope. Men instinctively aimed too high and most of the bullets sailed above the heads of the 106th. Hanley felt the King’s Colour being plucked at by the musket balls. One shot was true, and struck George Moss squarely in the forehead, flinging his head back as the lead ball drove deep into his brain. He was dead before he hit the ground, an expression of intense surprise on his face.

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