Military history

Chapter 28

The mood was strange in the mess of the 106th that night. It was not until late in the evening that the tent was set up and the wooden tables and stools laid out. Everyone was tired, yet MacAndrews sent Brotherton around to make sure that all officers who were capable of attending and not supervising the outposts came to the evening meal. It was simple enough fare, all of it cold and accompanied by a modest supply of cheap wine. Moss’s luxuries were a thing of the past, as was the colonel himself. So much else had changed, and a visual reminder of this was the bullet-riddled and bloodstained colours crossed over each other and propped up against a stand of sergeants’ half-pikes at the end of the tent.

At first the talk had consisted of greetings and enquiries about others. Hatch went pale when told that Redman had fallen, but managed a feeble joke about anything to avoid paying him ten shillings. Some officers were known to be dead. Others were with the surgeons and had a more or less good chance of recovering. Thomas still clung to life, although when MacAndrews had visited him his face had looked grey and it was hard to believe that the adjutant could possibly survive. Even if he did, his soldiering days were over and the best he could hope for was half pay or a good profit from selling hiscommission, which might stave off the worst ravages of poverty. Several officers were missing, Toye and Headley among them. At first it was not known whether they had simply not been found, and lay dead or wounded in some bleak hollow on the ridge, or whether they had been taken.

Williams was able to say that he had seen them led off as prisoners. When the armies came back into contact no doubt messages would pass across the lines and include lists of captives taken. In time prisoners of equal rank might actually be exchanged for each other and return to their own side. Throughout the long wars with France the behaviour between British and French armies had been correct to the highest standards of the civilised world. The savagery of the French campaign against the Portuguese was no obvious reason for ending this.

That made him think of Wickham shooting Galbert out of hand. Anger was fading to a dull contempt, but there was also a real fear that such random murder could just as easily be committed by a Frenchman. He was too tired to be really afraid for the captured officers of the 106th, even poor Derryck. Weariness combined with resignation, for there was nothing that he could do. Dobson had anyway once told him that the dangerous moment was just after surrender. If a man was not murdered in the first hour then he would probably be treated well.

Since Major Toye was missing, that left MacAndrews the senior officer in the battalion. Captain Howard held a brevet majority and had done so for several years, but that meant only that he was a major when on detached service. In the regiment he was simply a captain and not even the most senior, for there were two others above him. Pringle and Truscott tried to explain this three times to Hanley without any success. To him it was baffling that the army should have two parallel systems of rank for its officers, so that a man might be called major or colonel, but was only a captain in his own regiment. Hanley’s wound had been cleaned up, stitched together and bound. He had been fortunate because the ball had not struck the bone.

MacAndrews was for the moment in charge of the 106th. He accepted this in a matter-of-fact way, unwilling to get too excited, for it might prove very brief. Toye might return, and it was quite likely that even if he did not someone would purchase the post left vacant by Moss. A few months ago, as an ageing captain without prospects, he would not even have dared to dream that he might lead a battalion into battle. Now he had that chance, and he would do his duty. He quickly dismissed thoughts of seizing the opportunity to make a name for himself. Moss had tried to do that, and it had led to something close to a disaster as well as to his own death. The 106th had fought hard and – most important of all – had recovered its colours. They had come out without disgrace, but still had much to prove. That was more important than any ambition of his own.

At the end of the meal MacAndrews stood. He did not have Moss’s flair for making speeches. He also knew this was not the time for a lecture. They were good men, most of them around the table, and they did not need to be advised. It was never pleasant to lose comrades, but the growing chatter had suggested they were coping. It was simply part of the soldier’s life. There was also no need to announce that he was now in command. He was senior and so naturally assumed the role. Nothing needed to be said.

‘Gentlemen,’ MacAndrews began once the hubbub had subsided, ‘I am pleased to pass on the compliments of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley, who was gratified to commend the attack of the 106th and the Ninth Foot. We are to be mentioned in his dispatch.’ They pounded the tables at that, at least as enthusiastically as they used to do for Moss’s speeches. Sacrifice was always better when it was recognised. Being mentioned in a dispatch was an honour to the regiment and something of which they could all be proud. MacAndrews raised a hand for silence.

‘We have lost some good fellows today. They have gone, but the 106th lives on. Gentlemen,’ he raised his glass, ‘I give you the King and the Regiment.’

‘The King and the Regiment,’ echoed the men almost in perfect unison.

‘So what precisely happened?’ MacAndrews looked straight into Williams’ face as he asked the question. It was close to midnight, and the major had been working solidly since the evening meal. There was so much to be done – updating the regiment’s muster role, balancing the companies and making sure that all officers required to replace their seniors were aware of their new duties. It had generally all gone smoothly, but it had taken time and the major could have done without this additional problem.

‘We became cut off from the rest of the company as we climbed up the ravine,’ said Williams. ‘Dobson and I got to the top first, a short while before you and the main body arrived over to our right. Sergeant Darrowfield joined us with some of the men and we prepared to turn the enemy flank, and if possible recapture the colours and the prisoners. Mr Redman arrived and took charge. We went forward in small groups and after some fighting managed to recover the colours. Mr Redman was our only casualty when he and Dobson ran into two Frenchmen in red uniforms who were hiding. Both of the French were also killed. Soon afterwards Mr Wickham arrived.’

MacAndrews watched him for a moment, wondering whether any more detail would be offered. He had already spoken to Darrowfield and Dobson, and had tried without much success to get some sense out of Wickham. He had also seen Redman’s body and those of the two Swiss – their identity had been confirmed by some deserters from the same regiment – soldiers around him. The corpses had been stripped. It was always amazing how quickly this occurred. Soldiers looted and so did their families. The local villagers seemed even quicker off the mark, and more inclined to take anything just in case it might be of use or value. Redman still had his white shirt and drawers on. All three men had been killed with bayonets. One of the Swiss had been stabbed through the throat, and the other had several wounds to the stomach. Redman had been killed by a single neat thrust to the heart. There was a look of surprise on his pale face and vast bloodstains on his shirt, which might explain why it had been left, although the looters had stripped the Swiss, whose wounds must also have bled. MacAndrews guessed that Williams had also visited the spot. Darrowfield had been evasive, while Dobson had simply told his story briefly and baldly. He and the ensign had dived for cover into the hollow. The two enemy soldiers had killed Redman and he in turn had killed them.

‘Were there many Swiss there – the men in red?’ the major asked.

‘I only saw two. Nearly fell on top of them when I went up.’ Williams had learnt from the other soldiers – most of all from old Dobson himself – to avoid the gaze of officers and remain at attention staring blankly ahead. MacAndrews stood and walked from behind the little camp table, coming so close that that old trick would not work.

‘Did they seem notably aggressive? Quite a few men from the Fourth Swiss Regiment have deserted to us.’

‘Not at the time. They let me pass. However, they were probably too surprised to act. I know I was.’ Williams smiled with this confession and then immediately realised it was a mistake. MacAndrews’ gaze was hard.

‘Yet moments later these cowering soldiers – probably men trying to give themselves up – furiously attacked and killed one of our officers?’ MacAndrews let the question hang.

‘So it seems.’

‘Do not toy with me, sir.’ The major was shouting, and Williams barely managed to stop himself from jumping back. MacAndrews calmed himself. ‘It is not unknown for disgruntled privates to kill unpopular officers in the confusion of battle.’ His tone was quiet now. ‘God knows I have known it happen often enough. Sometimes the officers may be considered to have deserved being killed. Sometimes not.’

He paused again. Williams said nothing. It was obvious that MacAndrews shared his belief that Dobson had killed Redman. Maybe he too knew of the probable cause, for MacAndrews had an ear for everything that went on in the battalion and no doubt was aware of the gossip about Jenny.

MacAndrews’ face was now just a few inches from Williams. ‘Such things happen, but can never be condoned. If a man so much as raises his hand to an officer he is flogged. If the attack is serious he is hanged or shot. There can be no exceptions. Not even for men of good record and proven courage.’ The Scotsman let that sink in. ‘Therefore, I must ask you on your word as a gentleman, whether you know that Ensign Redman’s death was not at the hands of the enemy.’

Williams’ throat was dry. He licked his lips and coughed before he was able to speak. ‘I do not know otherwise, sir, and saw nothing.’

MacAndrews noted the precision of the reply. For a good minute he stared at the volunteer.

‘There remains the matter of the French officer who was captured.’

‘I saw Captain Wickham kill him,’ replied Williams firmly.

‘He was leading a charge, was he not?’

‘That is true, but Sous-Lieutenant Galbert had surrendered to me and been disarmed.’

‘It may interest you to know that Captain Wickham has formally commended you for your bravery, and recommended that you immediately be commissioned into this regiment as ensign.’ In fact Wickham had remembered little of the day, but had readily responded to MacAndrews’ suggestion.

‘That does not change the truth of what I saw. I do not believe I can accept this reward at the recommendation of such a man.’

MacAndrews returned to the table and sat down on the canvas chair behind it. He studied the volunteer for a while.

‘Does it matter from whom the recommendation comes?’ he asked after a while. ‘You have the makings of a good officer.’

‘Not from such a man who would murder the helpless.’

‘That is a strong word. The blood of any man can run very hot in battle.’ MacAndrews held a low opinion of Wickham and felt nothing but contempt for his behaviour, but could do nothing about that.

‘He was drunk, sir.’ Williams made no effort to conceal his own scorn. Until today he would never have dared so openly to criticise his company commander. Yet he felt oddly different. Nothing had prepared him for the reality of battle. For the sights, at times ghastly and at other times strange, or even oddly beautiful. The smells had sometimes been even more shocking. He could never have guessed that human bodies could be so mutilated and that they would stink so much when it happened.

MacAndrews paused again. ‘Many men drink in battle.’ That was true, but Wickham had gone far beyond mere Dutch courage. He had not been able to do his duty by the end of the engagement. Still, some otherwise brave men struggled the first time they went into battle. MacAndrews could pardon that, as long as it did not happen a second time.

Williams felt the silence pressing in on him. He could only half believe that he was refusing to take the commission which he had longed for. Yet he knew he could not face himself if he owed his rise to such circumstances. ‘I regret, sir, that I cannot accept Captain Wickham’s recommendation. I do wish to continue serving as a volunteer with the 106th Regiment if I am granted that honour.’

‘Think carefully about this. You behaved with considerable gallantry and recovered colours whose loss would have been an appalling stain on the honour of this regiment. That deed is greater than those usually performed by gentlemen seeking a commission.’ MacAndrews was unsure whether to be impressed or vaguely annoyed by the Welshman’s stubbornness. He wondered how he would behave in the same circumstances, knowing that his own pride and sense of what was right might have made him just as big a damned fool. ‘Would it change matters if I made it an order?’

‘I still could not in honour obey,’ said Williams mulishly. Realising what he had said, he added, ‘With the utmost respect, sir.’ A thought he been playing with for some time voiced itself. ‘Perhaps it would be a kind thing to tell Mr Redman’s parents that he fell leading a gallant charge to recapture the colours.’

MacAndrews permitted himself a tiny smile. A damned fool in love with honour and still seeing the romance in soldiering. That did remind him of himself, but he was not about to admit that.

‘Redman came nowhere near the colours,’ he said. ‘You went first anyway.’

‘Nevertheless, he was in command, sir, and led the main body.’

‘As you say,’ MacAndrews relented. There were so many letters to write and at least this would make one of them easier. It would be harder to phrase the words to the colonel’s father – and his affianced. Damn, he had forgotten her. He looked again at Williams. ‘Very well. You are dismissed, Mr Williams. Good night to you.’

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