Military history

Chapter 34

The 106th sat in line and waited. They were on the long gentle slope where the valley curved round to the north. The Light Company had gone forward along with the 82nd’s Light Company and the detachment from the 60th Rifles which had been added to the brigade two days before. The men were still a little uncertain about the soldiers in green jackets and red facings, most of whom were foreign and looked grim. MacAndrews thought they were excellent soldiers, although in his case he remembered the fine Hessian riflemen from America. For the last few days it had been bothering him that he could not remember the name of the captain with the glass eye whom he had come to know well. The man used to take out the eye and wear a patch in battle in case he lost it. Damn it, he wished he could think of the name. Must be in his sixties by now at the very least.

Waiting was always one of the hardest parts. However dreadful the situation was once the fighting began, you had little time to think, and anyway bigger problems to occupy you. Waiting meant that the mind wandered, or still worse became empty and made a man sluggish. MacAndrews needed to set an example. He took a gentle stroll along the front of the battalion, exchanging a few words with each of the company officers. Brotherton went with him, but the two men said little. It was important to exude confidence and look relaxed. What was said hardly mattered, and he lacked Moss’s talent for dramatic speeches. What was that slogan of his – always ready and always steady. The words weren’t bad, but it seemed so false.

MacAndrews liked walking. When the action began he would mount, for the small difference in height for a man on horseback allowed him to see a good deal more. For the moment he was happier on foot. He nodded to Pringle when he reached the far right of the line. Brotherton chattered away to the lieutenant with some nonsense about cricket.

‘Hello, lads, good luck. I know I can count on you.’ MacAndrews’ voice was gruff when he spoke to the men of his old company. All sorts of thoughts came into his head of other things he could say – advice about aiming low and keeping in formation. They did not need it. They were well trained and if they were not ready now then nothing would change that. To say more risked babbling away and making everyone nervous. Better to appear unruffled, even cold. He was not there to make people like him.

MacAndrews wandered back along the line towards the colours in the centre. He looked up the slope at the rear of the 82nd. They were in the front line with the 106th three hundred yards behind them in reserve. To the left was Major General Ferguson’s brigade, with the 71st Highlanders next to the 82nd and beyond them the 36th with pale green facings and the 40th with buff. These were supported by Brigadier General Bowes’ brigade in reserve level with the 106th. The 6th Foot with yellow facings were closest to them and the 32nd Foot, nominally from Cornwall and with white facings, were on their left. All seven battalions were sitting on the parched grass. Three guns were deployed on each flank of the first line and the gunners busied themselves with the tasks that gunners always seemed to have to perform. As usual there was much shouting, and the noise drifted across the otherwise silent air.

‘Feeling homesick, sir?’ asked Brotherton, for by chance the major was looking at the Highlanders. In truth MacAndrews was pleased to be next to the Scottish regiment. They were not quite his old 71st, for that regiment had been disbanded after the American War when as usual Britain had rushed to cut the expenses of its army. This was a new corps, but they had already made a name for themselves, and there was something familiar about the faces he saw underneath the dark-feathered bonnets. The regiment had been involved in the South American debacle and their uniforms had suffered as a result. Only the pipers still wore kilts, for material had been short, and the rest were clad in tartan trousers. The men looked fit and ready, and everyone spoke highly of Lieutenant Colonel Pack, who commanded them. Yet he did not know the regiment and nothing could bring back the one he remembered, or indeed his own youth.

‘It will be good to hear the pipes again,’ he said after a moment.

‘Just like Savannah?’ said Brotherton happily.

‘Have I told you about that one?’

‘I may just have heard it! Anyway, today we don’t want them to know we are waiting.’ The pipers were silent. So were the parties of bandsmen that had followed their regiments, but were today without their instruments and ready to carry the wounded.

General Solignac was surprised to see the English soldiers. There must have been close to one thousand of them in a thick swarm of skirmishers near the top of the ridge ahead of him. He stared intently through his telescope. There were some men in green and he guessed these were light infantrymen of some sort – perhaps armed with rifles.

‘Do the English use rifles, Pierre?’ he asked one of his ADCs, who was always studying books about the armies of the world. It was strange how easy it was to buy copies of the drill manuals of other nations. Not that the tedious detail contained in them was much use.

‘Yes, General. They have formed a special corps.’ Pierre was not actually sure about this, but had a vague memory and had long since learned that it was always better to sound positive.

Solignac grunted. ‘Not to worry. They are slow to load and a man who likes to do his killing at a distance tends to be shy when anyone gets close. Push to the bayonet and they’ll run.’

The sight of the enemy soldiers was such a big surprise because Solignac’s brigade was supposed to be in reserve, sent to support General Brenier’s brigade in its attack on the English left flank. Yet there was no sign of Brenier and they had heard no shooting so he could not have already come into contact with the enemy.

‘Should we wait, sir?’ asked the chef de battalion of the 12th Light Infantry. Solignac had already marked him down as a cautious man.

‘The Emperor does not reward hesitation.’

‘But General Brenier?’

‘Is nowhere to be seen.’ Daft sod was probably lost, thought Solignac. ‘The enemy are in sight and we have three excellent battalions of the finest soldiers in the world.’ Actually he knew they were all third battalions, who until recently would have remained at their depots, but Solignac wanted his commanders to feel confident.

‘There may be supports.’ The cautious light infantryman voiced another doubt. How had the damned man ever got promoted this far!

‘Then they are badly deployed, which means these English don’t know what they are about.’ Solignac was dismissive, but resisted the temptation to show his scorn for the man. ‘We will drive up that hill and then get down into the valley the other side. After that the way is open to come in behind their entire army. Gentlemen,’ he looked at each of the three battalion commanders in turn, ‘back to your regiments. I want you in column of attack. The Twelfth on the right, the Fifteenth in the centre and the Fifty-Eighth on the left and back about a hundred yards. Keep deployment intervals.’ That meant there would be enough space between the columns for each one to form into line if necessary. The columns had a two-company front, with each company in three ranks. The Voltigeur Company – the battalion’s specialist skirmishers – would deploy forward, so there would be three rows each of a pair of companies and a seventh company in reserve behind that. Attack columns moved fast and sent a succession of waves against the enemy. The disadvantage was that only a minority of the men could fire, hence the need to be able to deploy into line if they came up against strong opposition. ‘Come, gentlemen, let’s show these English that they should have stayed in their ships. I want to attack in fifteen minutes.’ Actually he expected the preparations to take nearer twenty-five minutes, but there was never any harm in giving them a sense of urgency. ‘Move!’

General Brenier was still more than a mile and half away. He had been ahead of Solignac until they reached a steep gully near a cluster of farm buildings. There was no bridge, and the track simply went down one steep bank and up the far side. The ADC who first reported it was gloomy and Brenier could see why. The men and horses could get across, but they would need to dig at the bank and make a path for his four cannon. That would take too long, so instead he looped around, following another branch of the trackway which went farther north.

Solignac had reached the same spot an hour later. It took his men half an hour of sweat to drag their three eight-pounder guns across. He pressed on, the reserve having become the spearhead of General Junot’s flanking attack.

The drums began to beat and Solignac’s three battalions marched forward. Two were from light infantry regiments, who felt themselves to be the cream of the French army. Some of their officers wore Hessian-style ots like the glamorous hussar regiments. All had jackets much shorter than the long-tailed coats of the line infantry, but today these were rolled up on top of their packs. Instead they wore their blue-sleeved waistcoats. Some men still had their regulation blue breeches and black gaiters, but many had lost these to wear and instead sported a range of replacements. A good number had loose trousers made from the red-brown cloth most used by the Portuguese peasants. The 58ieme were a line regiment and they sported the long loose coats worn by so many of Junot’s soldiers. In the centre of each column a gilded eagle was proudly carried. The line regiment’s standard had its flag attached, bearing its name and battle honours, along with a general call to valour and discipline in gold letters. The light infantry battalions had each left the banner in store and carried the eagle without any decoration on its blue staff.

Three companies of French voltigeurs ran ahead of the attack. In the final years of the last century – the first century in the new calendar of the Revolution which Napoleon had only recently abandoned – French light infantry had shattered the armies of royal Europe. Fighting as individuals, using cover and keeping to no rigid formation, they had sniped at the enemy lines, eating away at them slowly until they collapsed under the weight of a formal attack by the French supports. It was simple and it worked and the French were very good at it.

Yet today there were only about four hundred and fifty voltigeurs against almost twice as many British skirmishers. Three companies of these were from the 60th and their rifles began to pick off the more conspicuous Frenchmen long before they could hope to give an accurate reply with their muskets. Officers and sergeants were singled out, along with any man who came on too boldly. The range was long, and only a few shots struck home, but it was enough to stop the French skirmishers. Only when the formed columns came up did the British light infantry give ground. They did so grudgingly, stopping to fire intermittently. Men dropped from the columns as well as among the voltigeurs, but it was not enough to slow them down. Solignac saw the thick line of redcoats retreat behind the ridge and scented victory.

The British lines had got to their feet as soon the firing began. Ranks had quickly been dressed, encouraged by barks of command from the sergeants. The waiting continued, but the anticipation was now more immediate. Pringle glanced along the front rank of his company. The faces looked a little pale, even though most had been heavily burnt by the sun since they had arrived in Portugal. Expressions were blank or a little pinched. He turned back to face up the hill. A few figures came across the crest, some obviously limping or helped by comrades. The firing was coming nearer.

A few minutes later the light companies and riflemen appeared. They came down the slope quickly, running back to rejoin or shelter behind the first line. Pringle could not catch the order, but he saw a ripple of movement as the 82nd fixed bayonets. It seemed eerily quiet now that the shooting had stopped and he could hear great shouts coming from the direction of the enemy. There was an even louder cheer when the first French column breasted the rise. A second appeared almost immediately afterwards some distance to its right. The French infantry were dressed in blue and marched proudly on in ranks that were still remarkably well formed given the rough terrain.

One column was in front of the 71st, the other approached the 36th. Pringle wondered for a moment why his own brigade was not being attacked, but then a third column, this time dressed in drab coats, appeared and headed towards the 82nd. Each French formation was some eighty men wide. Successive three-deep lines followed the first.

The three cannon to the right of the 82nd boomed out, the heavy carriages leaping backwards in recoil. They were firing canister and ripped great holes in the front of the drab column. Men were flung back or pitched forward like rag dolls. The column did not check. The French soldiers stepped around the dead and dying, and as the sergeants hustled them back into place the ranks closed up and once again the formation appeared immaculate. As company followed company, men stepped over the mangled bodies, but no one stopped. Over on the far left the other British cannon fired, but Pringle could not see the damage they did. The French columns came on. In the next burst of shouting Pringle could just make out the words ‘Vive l’empereur!

Smoke plumed out all along the front of the 36th and the Highlanders as a great roll of musketry echoed down the valley. The 82nd fired a moment later. The range seemed long to Pringle – maybe eighty yards or even more – but he watched as the front companies of the French column quivered. Drab-coated men fell all along the line.

The French stopped. A few men tried to flee, but were forced back into their places by the sergeants standing behind the third rank. Officers ran out ahead, trying to urge their men to follow. Most instead raised muskets to their shoulders and fired a ragged volley.

The British were advancing. The 82nd gave three cheers and advanced at a steady pace. To their left the other regiments matched them. They moved forward, bayonets lowered to present a row of sharp points, but the men marching at normal pace and keeping in step. Pringle watched as the front ranks of the nearest column seemed to sway like a flag in the wind. He wished he could borrow Williams’ glass to watch more closely, for it was fascinating being a spectator. He looked down the line to where MacAndrews sat on his horse but there was no indication that they were about to move.

Some Frenchmen reloaded and fired again when the British were no more than twenty-five yards away. A few men fell among the 82nd and were left behind as the line kept on. Then there was a louder cheer and the redcoats were let off the leash. Led by an officer on a grey horse, they surged forward and screamed out a challenge as they charged the enemy. Pringle noticed that the highlanders somehow seemed to speed up faster than the two English battalions on either side of them.

The French held on until almost the last moment, and Pringle expected to see the lines meet and fight a bitter battle with bayonets and the clubbed ends of muskets, but then the enemy were running. The men higher up the slope and farther from the charging redcoats went first, turning in flight. Soon the enemy were streaming back over the ridge, with the redcoats running on in pursuit. For the moment order had gone. The red lines disappeared over the ridge.

A staff officer rode to the centre of the 106th. Shortly afterwards MacAndrews gave the order for the battalion to form up four deep. It was an unusual order, with each company halving its frontage and doubling its depth. It made the battalion more manoeuvrable and allowed it to form square more quickly, but it was something they had rarely practised. There was a muttering until the sergeants bellowed out for silence. The change was made smoothly enough. Then they began to advance in support of the 82nd.

Wounded men were hobbling or being helped or carried by bandsmen down past them. Other redcoats lay dead, or still moaning softly in the dry grass. One raised an imploring arm at Williams as they marched past. He shook his head and hated himself, but kept in formation, having to check his stride y, but iturry to catch up as he and the men behind him passed over the man. Nearer the top of the hill the bodies were thicker, and most were French. There were also lots of the rough white cowhide packs the French used scattered about the slope. Dobson scooped one up, and to Williams’ amazement managed somehow to rifle through it one-handed, still holding his musket to his shoulder with the other. He produced a bag which seemed to contain some sort of meat and contentedly reached back to push it into his haversack. Then he dropped the French pack. He had never once broken stride.

When they reached the top, they looked out to see the red lines some way ahead. They were now scattered and broken into groups, but still surging forward. They were also splitting into two bigger clumps as the Highlanders and the 82nd went more to the right. The French were fleeing, the teams pulling their guns frantically trying to keep pace across the uneven plain. MacAndrews nodded with approval when he saw the 82nd and the Highlanders halt to re-form. It gave him more time to catch them up. They were soon going forward again, however, and he could see that their lines were more than a little ragged. The French guns became trapped at the foot of a slope which for a short distance was too steep for them to climb, and a great cheer went up as the Scottish infantry fired a volley and then surged forward to capture them.

Sudden movement caught MacAndrews’ eye. To the right of the two lead battalions of redcoats, new columns were spilling over the high ground. They were dressed in the long drab coats of French infantry and beside them was a squadron of cavalry with green jackets and brass helmets. The French were coming and were heading straight at the flank of the ragged British lines. General Brenier had finally arrived.

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