Military history

Chapter 32

The sun rose over the hills to the east, from where the French would come, if they came at all. Williams pulled the peak of his shako down as far as he could to shield his eyes from the glow. Soon he would no doubt be cursing the heat, but for the moment the first hint of warmth was very welcome. Along with the rest of the army, the 106th had stood to an hour ago and since then had been standing in line, just behind the long ridge to the west of the village of Vimeiro. The night had been cold and uncomfortable, for they had been ordered to sleep in their uniforms, with packs and muskets ready to hand. Old hands had stuck their legs into the arms of their greatcoats and buttoned them on upside down. Then, with their blanket wrapped over the top, they had slept soundly. Williams had tried this once and found it far too restrictive.

So instead he wore the coat normally, used his pack as a pillow, and pulled his blanket over the top. He felt a mixture of elation and weariness after their strange adventure, but even if he had calmed enough to get an hour’s sleep then the cold would have kept him awake. He would never have believed that a place could be so hot in the day and yet so savagely cold at night. Not wanting anyone to think him nervous, he had pretended to sleep, listening to Pringle snore away for a good half-hour. Truscott had gone back to his own company, and Hanley had been silent, but Williams wondered whether he too had lain awake during the short time for rest they had. He was sure that Dobson went to sleep as soon as he lay down, for the old soldier had a remarkable knack for napping at any opportunity.

It had been a relief when the bugles had blown to rouse them. It was still dark, and Williams felt numb, his limbs lifeless as he stamped and rubbed his hands, trying to get warm. Activity had helped, as had the cup of piping-hot tea brought by Pringle’s soldier servant. Billy Pringle actually disliked tea, but had so far failed to convince Private Jenkins of this. He took a few sips, thanked the ever cheerful soldier, and then passed the cup round.

The army had been ordered to be ready. Rations were issued, ammunition pouches filled, and packs worn as the battalions roused themselves in the darkness. There was a smattering of shots from the piquet lines, as sentries discharged their pieces, checking to see whether the powder had grown damp. In a few cases it had, and then the redcoat added a fresh pinch to the pan and tried again. Those muskets which failed to go off after this had to be painfully unloaded.

Williams had flinched at the first shot, but was relieved that no one seemed to notice in the dark. He still felt drowsy and cold, and tried to convince himself that it had only been the shock of the sudden noise. Yet suddenly he knew that he was going to die today. When he closed his eyes he saw the Russian soldier levelling his musket and the fear flooded back. He had been lucky – they all had. It was hard to believe that his luck would hold.

It was all for nothing. The pride he had felt in refusing to be commissioned ebbed away and he called himself a fool for missing the chance. At least then his mother could have been proud of a dead officer son. It was not death itself he feared, for even in the cold pre-dawn he had stubborn confidence in his religion. He just knew that he wanted to live. There was so much left undone – so much he did not understand or had never known. Once again Williams was glad of the darkness for he knew his eyes were glassy. A vision of Jane MacAndrews sprang immediately to mind. How could he have been such a fool not to speak more clearly? Did she know how he felt? He had assumed his admiration must be obvious, but as he thought about it he knew with dread certainty that the girl was most likely completely unaware of the strength, and most of all the sincerity, of his devotion.

The rumour had gone around the battalion that the major’s wife and daughter were here, although how this was possible he could not imagine. He had not seen them, but now he prayed that they were and longed for just one sight of the girl before he died.

Williams started when a hand touched his shoulder.

‘Sorry,’ said Hanley. ‘But could you give me some help with these belts?’ Although his left arm remained in a sling, he insisted upon performing his duty. Williams took the sword belt and sash and eased the belt over Hanleys\6s right shoulder. It was easier to be looking after someone else than thinking.

‘Damn, but it’s cold,’ Hanley continued. ‘Maybe it’s because we are so near the sea. That wind just goes through you.’

‘There, that should do. How is the arm?’ asked Williams.

‘Oh, fine. I’m just wearing this to get some sympathy!’ Hanley joked, but in truth the pain in his arm was much stronger than it had been, and the slightest movement made him wince. Fear was growing that the Russians had done serious damage, and his mind raced as he pictured himself under the surgeon’s knife. What sort of artist would he be with one arm? For all that he tried to sound casual.

‘I knew it,’ said Pringle, looming out of the shadows. ‘I am in command of a company of idlers.’

‘That seems appropriate.’ Hanley reached down to lift his sword slightly from his scabbard. ‘You know, I didn’t even draw this last time. It’s probably blunt anyway.’

‘Well, club ’em with it,’ suggested Pringle.

‘If there’s time I can have a go with my whetstone,’ offered Williams.

‘How do you carry so much, Hamish? I reckon if I said I needed a pianoforte, dining table and ten chairs, you’d offer to whip them out of your pack.’ Pringle’s laugh was a little louder and higher pitched than usual. He stopped abruptly and lowered his voice. ‘Now, William, you are behind the company today with the sergeants. Make sure everyone stays in their place and keeps up. Hamish, you are on the left next to Darrowfield and his rear rank man. If anything happens you take over and become left marker. I know I can count on both of you.’

‘Do you know anything?’ asked Williams tentatively.

‘Yes, she’s here, but no, I haven’t seen her.’ His laughter this time was less forced. ‘Or did you mean about the less important question of what the army is doing? Waiting, as far as I know. No advance has been ordered, but we are to be ready for one. Or to meet an attack. The French are out there somewhere.’

General Delaborde cursed the rising sun and the slow progress of the French columns. Under his breath he exercised particular inventiveness in cursing his commander, but as Junot and his staff were riding just a few yards ahead he had to be discreet. At least the damned man was acting. The British were expecting reinforcements to arrive soon and it made sense to attack now. Some thirteen thousand men – somewhat fewer than the British believed – had been concentrated from the garrisons and columns scattered around Portugal. That should give them an advantage of a few thousand over the British. The French had fifteen battalions of infantry, more than had been mustered in one place since the previous autumn. Twenty-four guns rumbled along as fast as their pitiful teams could pull them over these bad roads. That was more than the English had had when he met them at Roliça. They certainly had more cavalry than the enemy, although as they toiled through these hills any fool could see that this was scarcely ideal cavalry country – but then Junot was an old hussar, so whether he thought at all remained to be proved. Still, there might be an opportunity for their use, and at the very least it should help to locate the enemy.

At that moment a dragoon cantered up to give a report to Junot’s staff. The rising sun made the man’s copper helmet glow red. Cavalry had their uses even in this country. Delaborde could not make out the large white numerals on the soldier’s saddle-cloth which would identify his regiment. Not t mattered. The three Dragoon regiments with the army were all provisional formations, formed from detachments taken from the depots of all the different line regiments and grouped together to form a temporary unit. It was not an ideal arrangement. Officers and men did not know each other well, and all were aware that their careers would not be made in such an ad hoc formation. Still, they were French cavalry and would be more than a match for the small number of English horsemen. The Portuguese cavalry were not even worth considering.

Delaborde urged his horse towards the group of staff officers around Junot, ignoring the ADC, who had turned towards him at the general’s beckoning.

‘Henri, we have good news,’ said General Thiebault, the chief of staff, moving his horse in front of Delaborde. Junot pressed on, ignoring the approach of his subordinate. ‘The English are not moving and are camped at some squalid little place called Vimeiro.’

‘It’s night, why should they move?’ Delaborde was in no mood to be cheerful. He knew Thiebault to be a good soldier, and knew what his brigade had done on the Pratzen Heights at Austerlitz. He also knew that the chief of staff was clever, and well read for a former private soldier, and that for all his talent there was no one he trusted less. Thiebault never shared credit, but was generous with blame and acid in his readily expressed views of others.

‘Nevertheless, the duke’s plan appears to be leading us to a great victory.’ As always with Thiebault, his words were carefully chosen.

‘We’re not going to get there by nine.’ Delaborde was deliberately gruff. ‘Worse than that, he’s split up my division. More than half of my lads are off poncing about with Brenier somewhere over there.’ He waved his arm back to the north-east. The brigade he had led at Roliça had been detached and marched by a different road.

‘They will swing round the enemy’s left flank and pin them just as we attack them from the front. It is a neat plan.’

‘If they arrive on time and if the British sit around with their eyes closed.’

‘As I say, our patrols report that they are not moving. Why should they expect an attack?’

Delaborde snorted at that. ‘We’ve spread out too far. Half of my division is with Brenier, and the other brigade coming up behind us. How the hell am I supposed to control them?’

‘As you know, the divisions were only formed a few days ago. Our brigades are used to operating independently.’ Thiebault remained suave. ‘I am sure the duke will make excellent use of both you and the brigades.’

‘Better than if we fought together as a division?’ Thiebault shrugged, but Delaborde did not want to leave the matter. ‘I tell you, he is scattering the army when we should be concentrated. These aren’t just peasants or militia. It’s an army.’

‘A small part of a very small and minor army. The English are famous for their sailors, not their soldiers. It is not as if we are facing Russians or Austrians.’ The reminder of Austerlitz was blatant.

‘True, but it is an army none-the-less. I have fought them. They can manoeuvre and are stubborn when they fight. Oh, we can beat them, but only if we treat them with respect. We’re not chasing rebels any more. This will be tough, and I for one would be happier if the army was still concentrated.’

‘Much must be risked in war,’ Thiebault declared airily. ‘We have surprise on our side.’

‘The sun is almost up. I’ll wager you a thousand francs that they see us coming.’ Delaborde gave a knowing grin. ‘You can afford it, after all.’ Stories of Thiebault’s looting were legendary even in the army that had stripped Portugal of everything it could find.

The chief of staff refused to be drawn. ‘I must rejoin the Duke. Perhaps you should check on your second brigade.’ Delaborde resumed his cursing of the army’s high command as he rode back down the column.

The 106th stood down with the rest of the army when it was fully light and the enemy were nowhere to be seen. The men breakfasted and set about the many tasks that had been too difficult in the dark. Hanley borrowed a small mirror from Truscott and after he had shaved Pringle and Williams took their turn. After he had finished Pringle rubbed his smooth chin and smiled.

‘It does make it easier to think, doesn’t it,’ said Hanley.

Williams then set about cleaning his musket, checking the flint and spring. He honed the already sharp point of his bayonet and did his best to put an edge on Hanley’s sword.

‘Probably be better off finding an armourer with the Light Dragoons,’ suggested Truscott, who had come to retrieve his mirror.

‘Where are they?’

‘Somewhere down in the valley, I think. This side of the village,’ ventured Truscott.

‘Is there time for me to go down, Billy?’ asked Williams.

‘Better not risk it. We might be sitting about for hours or moving in five minutes. Mirabile dictu, Sir Arthur has failed to confide in me.’

‘Oh, the benefits of an Oxford education. “Wonderful to relate” even sounds pompous in English. Anyway, I had better return to the less erudite conversation of Four Company. Private Knowles has secured a ham for us, so I have no doubt that the three of you will arrive when it is time to dine. That being so, I might just as well invite you. You can provide the wine.’ Truscott waved lazily as he headed off.

Williams wanted to read his Bible and soon walked off to the edge of the brigade area. It was Sunday and a Highland regiment from the next brigade was holding a church service. They had posted sentries facing outwards around the semicircle of seated men as a reminder of the days when the Presbyterian kirk had been illegal. The minister had a quiet voice and Williams could catch only a few of the words. He sat on a rock, laying down his pack and resting his firelock against it, and tried to read. His eyes scanned the pages, but the words did not seem to register. It was not fear now. His mind just seemed empty.

‘Am I interrupting?’ The voice was the one that filled his dreams. Williams sprang to his feet, turning as he did so, brushing against Jane MacAndrews, who had been leaning to look over his shoulder. She stepped back in surprise, steadied herself, and then smiled.

Williams was overwhelmed by her beauty. Her face seemed so fresh, her eyes so bright, and that striking red hair mutinously strayed from under the broad-brimmed straw hat she wore. A ribbon bound the brim close to her face to guard her white skin against the power of the sun’s rays. He recognised the russet riding habit she had worn in England and that time by the river. The apology decayed to murmurs and then collapsed into silence. Williams just looked at her, struggling to find the courage to speak. His resolution of the early morning, that he would tell her how he felt or at least how highly he esteemed her, battled with his shyness and lost.

Jane was a little puzzled and eventually decided that this conversation would require considerably more effort. ‘Well, I must say I am surprised. I had expected to find you at least a captain by now!’ She laughed and Williams laughed easily with her. There was no malice in the joke, and he thrilled because her tone conveyed genuine affection. Jane MacAndrews smiled again. In spite of his freckles and peeling skin she thought him not ill favoured in appearance and bearing.

‘Still just a humble volunteer.’ He was tempted to tell her of his refusal of a commission, something which he had not even spoken to his friends about. Instead he let his curiosity triumph. ‘Has your father said anything?’

Jane made a face. ‘Father has said nothing to me at all save for a brief hello and an even briefer kiss. Mother has not had much more luck with him. Did you know he gave up his tent to us and slept outside rolled in a blanket?’

Williams shook his head. ‘I would guess that he felt obliged to share the fortunes of the men. I am sure he must be pleased to see you both.’

‘Hmm, perhaps. He is probably a little angry as well. I don’t believe he thought Mama and I would be able to make our own way out to Portugal.’

‘He commands the battalion. He has to appear strict, but I am sure deep down he is glad that you have come.’ Williams took a deep breath. ‘I know that I am.’

‘Mama will be pleased,’ said Jane mischievously. ‘She likes to be welcomed.’

‘I . . . that is, I did not . . . of course, a fine lady.’ The girl struggled to keep her face impassive as Williams babbled nervously. Even at nineteen she felt so much older and wiser than these young boys. ‘That was not my meaning. Miss MacAndrews, I . . .’ He coughed and struggled on so that Jane almost felt a little cruel. Almost. ‘Miss MacAndrews, forgive my bluntness, but you are . . .’ Williams floundered.

‘Ah, here is Mr Hanley, with my fine steed.’ Jane was rather relieved at the distraction. She had hoped that their earlier moments of intimacy and friendship would by now have allowed Williams to overcome his shyness. Yet once again he was nervously inarticulate in her presence, and she was beginning to find this slightly annoying. ‘I have not ridden a donkey since I was a child. Mama insists on calling hers an ass, and then pretends not to understand.

‘It is good to see you, Mr Williams. Now, would you favour me with a lift, for that is quite beyond poor Hanley at the moment.’

It took a moment for Williams to understand her meaning, and then he leaned forward and cupped his hand. The girl’s brown leather boot seemed light and delicate in his hand. In truth she needed only the slightest of lifts, and no doubt could have managed without assistance.

‘Good day to you both,’ she said, and with a flick of her crop headed away. ‘I wish you good fortune and pray for your safety.’ The two men watched the girl go. She looked so out of place surrounded by an army and yet exuded utter confidence.

‘So did you tell her?’ asked Hanley.

‘Tell her what?’

Hanley looked at his friend. ‘Well, you know best.’

Williams thought for a moment. ‘Are my feelings that obvious?’

‘Oh no, a blind and deaf man might not notice.’

Williams sighed. ‘I managed tell her that she is.’

‘Is what?’

‘I did not get that far.’

‘Well, she is, and there’s no doubt of that.’

Hanley had not spoken much of his past life, but Williams had guessed a lot. ‘You are more experienced in these things. I do not really know and haven’t felt . . . Well, I have never felt like this. Do you understand ladies?’

‘Understand women!’ Hanley could not help laughing. ‘I doubt there is a man alive who really does that. There is only one consolation. They don’t understand us either.’

There was a ripple of noise along the ridge. Men pointed away to the south-east, shading their eyes with their hands to look into the sunlight. Excited conversations broke out. Williams and Hanley followed their gaze. There was a thick cloud of dust above the horizon, the sort thrown up by thousands of marching feet and the iron-rimmed wheels of heavy guns and wagons. The French were coming.

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