Military history

Chapter 27

It was hard for Wellesley to read the battle. His centre brigades had attacked early, before the flanking forces could make their

presence felt. Men had made their way as best they could up the four main gullies in the steep slope. He could see little of their progress no matter where he went. The sound of firing had massively increased, and had for some time contained full volleys as well as individual shots. There were very few French visible and only occasionally could he spot groups of redcoats. It was difficult to resist the urge to head up one of the gullies and take personal charge of the fighting. He could sense the same instinctive reaction in his brigade commanders as he rode from one to the next. They could go up soon. He needed to give the attack more time, and follow only when he could usefully direct the fighting.

MacAndrews took his line to within twenty paces of the French before he halted the men. It was a gamble and meant they took three enemy volleys. The first dropped a dozen redcoats, the second half that, and the final ragged flurry of shots sailed harmlessly over the heads of the 106th.

‘Present!’ he ordered. ‘Make ready!’ The Frenchmen could see what was about to come. Even at twenty paces the muzzles of the English muskets looked huge and ominous.

‘Fire!’ MacAndrews’ command was followed by an almost perfectly timed volley, filling the air between the two lines with thick smoke. ‘106th will fix bayonets!’ yelled the major before any of the men could begin to reload. ‘Fix!’ Men reached back to grab the hilt of the spike bayonets. ‘Bayonets!’ They drew the blades and put them on to the warm muzzles of their muskets.

‘Charge!’ MacAndrews rushed forward. In his hand was not his regulation sword, but the basket-hilted broadsword he had grown accustomed to during his service with the Highlanders. It was a heavier blade and well sharpened. A handsome thing, and a fine tool for killing.

In this case there was no need. The French line had been wavering before the volley had scythed through its ranks. Men had dropped – some silent and some screaming. The sergeants behind the three ranks struggled to keep the men in place, but when the British cheered and came through the smoke, the French infantry broke. The 9th charged a moment later from another direction and completed the rout. When MacAndrews reached the French position there were only some thirty dead or wounded men sprawled in the grass. Their comrades were already disappearing over the crest of the ridge. The prisoners and their escort had already gone. The 106th followed. MacAndrews did not want to let them get too far, but hoped to reach the crest itself.

‘There were two Frenchies in among the boulders. Wearing red, the cheeky buggers. They got Mr Redman with a bayonet. I settled them.’ Dobson spoke flatly, but there was a defiance in his eyes suggesting that he was in no mood to answer more questions. Blood on his long bayonet backed the story. Yet Williams found it hard to believe. The two men had looked docile to him. Somehow he simply knew that Dobson had found out about the ensign and his daughter. Williams wondered whether murder had been done. It was a shocking thought, but then so many things had already shocked him today. He wondered whether he could do anything about it and then surprised himself by contemplating even whether he should.

‘Who’s this?’ asked Dobson, jerking his thumb at the French officer.

‘I am Sous-lieutenant Jean Galbert of the Emperor’s 70th Regiment,’ the man replied in confident English, much to Williams’ amazement. ‘And I am your prisoner. Or at least the prisoner of your officers, when they arrive.’

‘All alike, aren’t they,’ said Dobson. ‘Bloody gentlemen. Oh, sorry, Pug.’ He gestured at the volunteer. ‘Now see, monsewer, Mr Williams here is an officer. Well, will be after this.’

That surprised Williams. He had not thought that anything he had done might be enough to gain him his commission. The battalion had lost the colours and he had retrieved them. Even thinking that made him wonder whether Dobson was right. Then the nagging thought returned that he might be a party to murder.

There was the sound of shouting and of men forcing their way through the undergrowth. The grenadiers burst through the trees. Captain Wickham was with them, and Sergeant Darrowfield behind him. The captain looked wild and so different from his normal suave and controlled manner. He was shouting at the top of his voice and waving a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.

Galbert rose to greet him. Wickham did not break stride, but ran towards the Frenchman. He pressed the pistol to Galbert’s chest and pulled the trigger. A gaping wound erupted in the French officer’s back as he was flung backwards. Wickham ran on, still yelling and cheering wildly.

‘He’s drunk,’ said Dobson mildly. Darrowfield shrugged as he passed, but carried on after his officer. Most of the grenadiers followed.

Williams looked down at the dead Galbert. ‘Murderer,’ he said in a hoarse whisper. ‘You damned murderer!’ he screamed at Wickham as the captain charged on. Dobson grabbed him round the shoulders and stopped him from giving chase.

‘He’s drunk. No sense in him. It’s just bad luck.’ Williams was shaking with fury.

Half an hour later Major MacAndrews had gathered more than six hundred and fifty men from the 106th. Several companies were badly depleted, but with some improvisation the battalion was formed in line in something approximating its normal order. The right wing companies were stronger, close to their full complement, reduced only by a few casualties and stragglers. On the far left of the line, the Light Company had only forty men under the command of Lieutenant Black, the former militia officer. Companies Eight and Seven were so weak that they had been merged into one, as had Companies Six and Five. There was also some shifting of men between the other companies to make them viable as manoeuvre units. Altogether the Left Wing mustered barely two hundred men. The colour party – the flags held by the next most senior and junior ensigns and guarded by other sergeants – was placed between Companies Four and Three in what was now the rough centre of the battalion. Stragglers kept coming in, and for the moment Lieutenant Anstey was tasked with forming them into a squad that would act as reserve. To the right of the 106th, the 9th Foot formed their own line and waited. On the crest, they were overlooked by a higher fold in the ridge which hid the French from them. MacAndrews conferred with the colonel of the 9th and an ADC of General Hill’s, who had climbed up to find out what was happening. They agreed to hold the position for the moment.

At first the French probed the British position tentatively. Two companies of voltigeurs came over the higher crest and began to snipe at the British battalions. In response the light companies went forward and spread out across the slope, working in pairs and trying to drive the enemy back. More serious was the arrival of two French field guns, manhandled into position on the ridge. At such a close range, the gunners had to push the cannon foward until they were actually pointing downwards at the British.

The first balls went high, so the artillerymen reduced the charge of powder. This time, when the guns were fired and leapt back up the slope on their carriages the balls struck the far left of the 106th’s line, each eight pound shot smashing two men to pulp. Yet the angle was difficult and this success was never equalled by later salvoes. There was anyway little time for the gunners to practise. Almost immediately two French battalions marched over the crest. They came in column, two companies abreast and the other six companies in pairs at quarter-distance behind them. To Williams it was as if a succession of smaller lines came over the ridge. The French cheered and beat their drums in the rhythm of the charge. Officers ran out ahead, wildly gesticulating with their swords. One man was almost dancing in his urge to show contempt for the enemy. The voltigeurs parted to let them through. A few shots were fired by the British skirmishers before the whistles of their officers called them back and they withdrew to take up their positions on the left of the battalions.

Both British battalions let the French come close. At thirty paces they came to the present and fired. Men were felled all along the front rank of each column. Miraculously the dancing officer emerged unscathed. The French stopped, muskets came up to their shoulders, and their leading companies fired a ragged volley. The colonel of the 9th was struck in the chest, but refused to be moved until the attack had been repulsed. Next to Williams, Private Murphy was hit by a ball that ripped off the top of his right ear. He cursed long and hard in Gaelic, but did not pause as he reloaded his musket. Other men fell and were dragged out of the ranks. Sergeants yelled at the men to close up towards the centre.

The British fired a second volley and then charged. Both columns recoiled, the men in the rear companies turning and running, those in the very front going back more gradually, and a few pausing to fire the odd defiant shot. Just behind the crest their officers managed to stop them and began to re-form. The two British battalions halted and re-dressed their ranks. They were now closer to the enemy. One of the French guns loaded a canister, a metal case filled with musket balls. When the gun fired the case disintegrated as it left the barrel and the balls sprayed out like the blast of a giant shotgun. Seven men from the Grenadier Company of the 9th were flung backwards as if by the slice of a great scythe.

The adjutant of the other battalion ran over to tell MacAndrews that their colonel was dead, and that the senior major advised driving forward to the crest. MacAndrews agreed. The light companies were sent forward again to snipe at the French gunners and to keep the voltigeurs in check. Then the two lines went forward at a steady pace. The guns got off two rounds of canister and cut more swathes through the redcoats before the gunners lifted the trails and wheeled the cannon back over the crest to limber up. The voltigeurs could not resist both the light companies and the full battalions and followed a few moments later. The redcoats cheered as they reached the top of the hill. Then they were struck by the volleys from the two French battalions, now re-formed into line and waiting on the far slope. Captain Mosley took a ball in the shoulder, which spun him round. He staggered, but remained with the company, trying to ignore the pain. The 9th replied first with a volley. MacAndrews ordered platoon volleys from the 106th, sections of a company firing in sequence so that the fire rippled up and down the line and never stopped.

Private Scammell turned over the sergeant’s body and searched his uniform with practised hands. His mate, Private Jenkins, kept watche were lumps along the seam of the dead sergeant’s tunic and so Scammell slit it with a knife and revealed the coins hidden there. He smiled to himself and held the silver up to show Jenkins. There was an officer underneath the sergeant. The man lay on his back and both his face and chest were covered with dark blood. Scammell recognised him as the new one from the Grenadier Company, but neither knew nor cared about his name. Well, he thought, let’s see if he’s rich.

The officer stirred and his eyes came open. He gasped for breath. Hanley gasped again when he saw the predatory expression on the face that loomed over him. Then the man smiled a gap-toothed grin.

‘You all right, sir?’ asked Scammell, disappointed, but as ever willing to make the best of things. ‘Can you stand?’ Hanley nodded. He tried to speak, but his voice was no more than a croak. His chest and throat ached as he sat up.

‘You’re a lucky bugger, sir, begging your pardon.’ The private was cheerful and held up a twisted piece of metal. It was Hanley’s gorget, the horseshoe-shaped ornament worn by all officers on their neck. A ball was buried deep in the brass. ‘If it had missed that you’d be dead.’

They helped Hanley up. Breathing was hard and painful, but a quick inspection showed that he was not actually wounded. ‘Where is everyone?’ He managed to get the words out with difficulty.

‘The battalion, sir? Somewhere up there. Me and Jenkins here have been trying to find them. Still, we’d better take you back to the surgeon,’ said Scammell hopefully.

‘No. No. The battalion.’ Hanley was firm. He did not know why, but simply wanted to be with friends. He wondered what had happened to the colours.

Scammell shrugged and the two privates walked with the officer up the slope. They did not hurry. The firing was heavy from beyond the crest, so that suggested that the battle was there, and so probably was the battalion.

Williams had lost all track of time. His mouth was dry from biting off cartridge after cartridge and tasting the salty gunpowder. His cheeks were stained black and his shoulder ached from the recoil of the heavy musket each time he fired. Dobson loaded and fired in front of him and there was no time to think of what the man may have done. Simply go mechanically through the motions of loading, just like during the long hours of training, and then fire forward into the smoke. He could not see the French, but they were there, and now and again balls plucked through the dense cloud. With a dull thump like a man slapping a ham, one shot hit Private Tout, standing beside him.

He looked puzzled and turned towards Williams. ‘Oh, sir, they have killed me,’ he said in a flat voice, and then toppled backwards.

Williams had just raised another cartridge to his lips. He paused for a moment. Then he bit off the ball, put a pinch of powder into the pan, dropped the musket’s butt to the ground, poured the main charge down the muzzle, and spat in the ball. The ramrod slid easily from its holder. He reversed it, thrust down once and then twirled it again before sliding it back into the rings. Musket back to fold into his bruised shoulder, pull back the hammer. He aimed at where he had last seen the French. Let his breath half out and squeezed the trigger. The noise was indistinct over the general clamour of battle, but the butt slammed into his shoulder and he began again.

Billy Pringle stood on the right of the Grenadier Company and so on the very right of the battalion’s line. Properly that was the captain’s place, but Wickham had succmbed to the excitement and the brandy and was now sleeping both peacefully and soundly in the shelter of a copse guarded by a lightly wounded private. He was the only officer remaining with the company, although fortunately the sergeants had been spared. There was anyway little enough for him to do. The neat platoon volleys had degenerated into every man firing as quickly as he could load. There were no more orders to give for the moment, so he simply stood and tried to look brave and confident in the hope that it might encourage the few men able to see him. He could dimly see the French line through the curls of smoke. Worse, he could see them moving a cannon into place on the flank of the infantry.

Someone appeared at his side. It was Hanley, looking pale and bloodstained.

‘I thought you were dead!’ Hanley looked blank, and so Pringle yelled even louder to be heard over the rolling gunfire.

‘You mean I’m not!’ Hanley had cupped his hands around his mouth to shout. As he lowered them, he felt a sudden pain above the elbow of his left arm. He looked to see his sleeve torn and blood spreading darkly.

‘Damn,’ he said. Pringle produced a handkerchief and began to bind the wound. Beside them a group of blue-jacketed men from the Royal Artillery struggled to roll a light six-pounder gun up the slope. Most of the men of the half-battery were there, all combining to drag just one of their guns up to the top of the ridge. Pringle was amazed they had managed it. He watched the gunners go through the well-practised routine of loading and took great satisfaction when the crew stepped back and the match was applied to the priming tube. The gun leapt backwards as it roared. For once the smoke seemed to clear and Pringle saw three of the French gunners plucked away from their own cannon as the canister threw up dust around it.

Lieutenant Brotherton appeared, once again acting as adjutant.

‘Tell the men to cease fire, Billy.’ He leaned forward to shout the instructions. ‘We’re going forward again.’

As the British infantry had gone higher up the ridge, Sir Arthur Wellesley had found it easier to follow their progress. The fighting was heavy, but it was clear that they were making headway. It was time for him to move up, and for a while he lost all general perspective of the battle as he rode his horse up the easiest route he could find. Soon he and his staff were passing the debris of battle. An ADC was sent to bring up the 20th Light Dragoons from the reserve, telling them to follow this path and then to form in a single rank at the top of the ridge. It might just convince the French that he had more cavalry.

The enemy was already giving way. He doubted that more than a third of his own army had yet been engaged and those troops would not have outnumbered the French. Even so they were forcing the enemy from one position to the next and that at least was encouraging. Less satisfying was his inability once again to molest the French as they withdrew. The enemy’s retreat was disciplined, and well covered by their Chasseurs. His cavalry were too weak to do much to interfere, although their mere appearance may have hastened Delaborde on his way. The French commander was forced to abandon three of his cannon when there was not time to get them through a narrow defile. They did take the horse teams, and without those the guns were of little use to Wellesley at the moment. Still, they were a mark of success, and an encouragement to his – his only for a short time, but still his – new and young army.

Delaborde was almost as content as he rode back alongside one of his infantry battalions. They had delayed the enemy, and infted at least as many losses as they had suffered. The redcoats had shown courage, but did not seem to be the equals of the Emperor’s men in skill. His opinion of General Junot was low – the man was a hussar at heart and they never had any brains – but even he should be able to smash the British once he had mustered a large enough army. Delaborde had done a good deal to give him the time for this and would have to make sure that the Emperor was aware of his achievements. The rest was up to Junot.

Williams raised his canteen in the vain hope that there might be just a drop of water left. He had never been so thirsty. His tongue felt huge and swollen, his mouth like sandpaper. Most of the battalion was sitting in a rough line across the ridge where they had fought. The French had gone, and he assumed other regiments were following them. There was still the occasional musket shot, but he had heard no heavy firing for some time.

He stood beside Pringle, but neither was in any mood to talk. They were simply weary, and in both cases their ears were still ringing from the noise of volleys. Hanley had gone back with the other wounded to have his injury dressed and all the canteens found on the dead had been sent back with them. Captain Wickham had also gone with the party, and Williams was glad that he did not have to look at the man, for his anger was still raw. Dobson had gone with the carrying party and for the moment the volunteer was also glad that there was no need to talk to the old veteran. It was easier not to think and not to care. He knew that if he lay down, even sat, he would be asleep within moments. Pringle no doubt felt the same, and to set an example to the men forced himself to stand. The lieutenant suddenly turned and grinned at Williams.

The volunteer tried to speak, coughed, and then managed to croak, ‘It isn’t quite how I expected.’ He meant the way the battle had simply stopped, at least for the 106th. There had been little drama. The enemy pulled back and they were too exhausted to chase them any more. There did not seem much pattern to anything, and already his memories of the day were becoming jumbled.

Pringle just shrugged. Then he brightened as he saw a staff officer ride up to MacAndrews. Hopefully this meant orders, and in due course rest.

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