Military history

Chapter 19

‘Plucky fellows!’ said Sir John Moore, focusing his telescope on the two Frenchmen riding over the hump of the bridge. The movement was slow, almost nonchalant. The first man was dressed in the heavily braided blue coat of a French general and a thick white plume crowned his cocked hat. His horse was a grey, so light as to look wholly white even against the snow of the fields. A few paces behind him came an ADC, dressed in a spectacular hussar-style uniform of red and green. All around them, balls flicked up puffs of dust and chips from the stonework as the sharpshooters of the 95th were drawn to such an irresistible target.

‘Damned lucky fellows at least!’ conceded Sir Edward. He could see the French general raising his glass to study them, just as they were in turn watching the Frenchmen.

Sir John moved his telescope to scan the far bank of the river. ‘They must be forming in the depression behind the bridge. I do not believe it will be long now. Any sign of their infantry?’

Colborne answered his question. ‘Not yet, sir.’


‘No sign of them.’


Wickham was happy enough that the enemy had only cavalry up so far, although to him it seemed just a matter of time before they were reinforced. There seemed little point in waiting here to fight them. Better to pull away, and turn only now and again to fend off the cavalry. There should be no great danger if the rearguard kept moving and prevented the enemy from bringing up their other troops. Considerably more vexing was the generals’ insistence on watching the affair from among the skirmishers of the 95th. Surely the ridge to the rear offered not only a better platform for observation, but also greater security, which would permit the calm exercise of control over the fighting. Wickham had been waiting up there, after his escape from the chaos in the village. Then that damned vulgar Scotsman MacAndrews appeared and ‘helpfully’ pointed General Paget out to him. He worried again that the major held him responsible for the loss of his fool of a daughter. Wickham silently cursed him, and cursed again the unkind fate that had driven him from the comfort of Lefebre-Desnouettes and his carriage. He wondered whether there was any prospect of cashing the Frenchman’s promissory note for thirty dollars won in their card games.

There was noise from the others and Wickham returned his focus to the bridge. The French general raised his sabre high, and seemed to be calling to the men behind him. He and his aide still remained untouched by the fire of the riflemen.

Paget admired the courage of the French leader, although he also doubted his wisdom. No doubt he had seen the drunks and stragglers in the last few days, and judged the British to be all such men. The Frenchman was brave, and that was to be admired. He was also an enemy, making his courage dangerous.

Sir Edward reached into his jacket and pulled out a small purse, shaking it so that the coins inside jingled. ‘This goes to the man who spins that saucy fellow on the white horse,’ he called out. The closest of the 95th grinned, and a moment later one of them dashed out into the road, running along towards the bridge.

‘Tom’s off,’ said a sergeant. ‘Lot of brandy in that purse!’

The lone rifleman pelted down the road. Then he stopped and lay down on his back in the churned snow. He cocked his right leg over his left and rested his rifle’s muzzle down just next to his ankle.

Trumpets blared, and grey-uniformed hussars, their tall plumes nodding, came trotting in column of fours across the bridge. Their officer and a trumpeter led them, and the general and his ADC were at least three horse lengths farther in advance.

The rifleman waited. Another trumpet signal and the horsemen urged their mounts into a canter. They were moving quickly now, sabres pointing forward at the charge, and hoofs flinging up lumps of snow and ice.

The rifleman waited. The French general was already within range, but he was a fast-moving target. None of the other greenjackets was firing, wanting the enemy to move on into the trap and also silently urging on the lone man on the road.

With a sharp crack the rifleman fired, the recoil driving the butt back into his armpit as he lay. A thick cloud of smoke covered the target, but all his instincts told him that his aim was true. The general was flung back in the saddle by the blow, and blood was already spreading across his chest. His aide drove spurs into the flanks of his horse, sending the animal into a full gallop in his rage to get at the assassin. He pounded along the road, and at the same time a roar of anger came from the hussars behind.

The rifleman loaded. It was an awkward task to perform while lying down, and would have been impossible with the longer musket, but long hours of training paid off. The ADC was barely ten yards away when the rifle cracked again. The ball hit the officer’s forehead, just beneath the peak of his gaudy shako, and had enough force to take a chunk out of the back of his skull. The dead man fell, but his right boot caught in the stirrup and he was dragged along by the panicking horse, his mangled head bouncing against the ground.

The lone greenjacket fled for the shelter of the trees and his comrades. The hussars were close behind, and were gaining on him, but then more and more of the 95th opened up. Men and horses started to fall. The neat ranks of the hussars dissolved. Some men were still pressing on, the officer and his trumpeter at the head of them. Others had fallen, or were trying without success to turn off the road and reach the skirmishers. Another squadron of hussars came across the bridge and the energy of the new advance set everyone going forward again. A third squadron came up behind, and in the rear of them were chasseurs in green.

Hanley turned when he heard the noise. Gunners in their blue jackets and tall tarleton helmets were rolling their guns out from behind the church wall. These were horse artillery, with lighter-weight carriages than the heavier pieces of the foot batteries. All the gunners were fit and most of them were big men. Even so, and in spite of the cold, their faces were red and sweating as they pushed the grey-painted gun carriages into position and then went through the movements of loading. As they worked they shouted and repeated orders.

He turned back to look past the grenadiers. The French hussars were very close.

‘Wait for the guns!’ said Pringle firmly. ‘Wait!’ Hanley wanted to give the order, to let the men fire and hide the enemy in smoke. He became sure his friend had left it too late. He could see the Frenchmen’s mouths open wide, noticed that all had moustaches and odd pigtails on either side of their foreheads. The horses were straining at their bits, lips back and yellow teeth bared. He remembered the sabres falling, and the dull smacks as the steel sank into flesh when he had fled from the massacre at Madrid. ‘Please God,’ he thought. ‘Fire! Damn it, fire!’

The guns went off first. There were six of them in place. Each was a light six-pounder, but instead of a solid six-pound shot they were loaded with canister. The metal tins contained seventy-two musket balls, each of which weighed one and a quarter ounces. The canisters burst as they left the muzzle, spraying the balls in a focused cone that jabbed towards the enemy.

Hanley flinched at the noise, so much so that he did not notice that most of the grenadiers did the same. An appalling force punched at the air above them, as a cloud of smoke covered the sky over their heads. Pieces of smouldering wadding scattered over them. One dropped on to Hanley’s hat and stuck there.

The grenadiers were still below the smoke when the canister balls struck the hussars. Little fountains of red blood blossomed on men and horses, often several at the same moment. Riders and mounts screamed and tumbled. A dozen horses were down, some of them dead or wounded and others tripped by the fallen. Hoofs thrashed in wild agony, and the head of one fallen but otherwise unscathed rider was crushed by a blow. Hanley was appalled at the carnage, closer than anything he had seen in the battles of the summer.

The charge was stopped. Dead horses and men blocked the road, and just thirty paces behind them the Grenadier Company waited with its second rank at the present and ready to fire. The hussars behind turned and went back the way they came. Rifle shots continued to empty saddles, but Pringle kept his volley. His job was to protect the guns, and it was better to let them do the execution. They fired a second time, and even at the longer range the canisters brought down four or five men and horses.

‘Well, I think we spoiled their day,’ said Pringle. His men grinned back. The French cavalry were already fleeing back across the bridge.

‘Mr Hanley, sir?’ The officer saw Dobson’s lips move, but his ears were still throbbing from the explosion of the cannons and he could not make out the words until the old soldier repeated them. ‘Mr Hanley?’

‘Yes, Dobson.’

‘Your hat’s on fire.’ Hanley jumped with surprise, and then snatched the smoking cocked hat from his head. He tossed it into the snow, stamping on it. The grenadiers roared with laughter.

The riflemen were in equally good spirits as they watched General Paget give the promised purse to the man who had brought down the French leader. Moore approved, for it had been an intrepid piece of work. It was truly amazing to see the gallantry which the soldiers were exhibiting now that they were squaring up against the French, and so hard to believe that the same soldiers were so recently drunken and disobedient. While General Paget had been flogging a succession of offenders, Sir John had presided over the execution of a man by firing squad back with the main body of the army at Villafranca. The man had looted, and that was common enough, but he had also struck an officer, and that could not be excused. There was no reprieve and the regiments were ordered to march past the open grave before it was filled.

It was an object lesson, and he earnestly hoped the men would profit from it, even though the recent days had done much to shatter his old faith in the British soldier. The behaviour at Villafranca had been as shameful as that at Bembibre or Astorga. Yet there was a desperately feral quality about many of the soldiers. Men without boots or greatcoat looked hungrily at those who still had them, as if willing them to die so that they could take these treasures for themselves. It was good to be fighting, for that showed the men at their very best and gave him simpler problems with which to grapple. The French required a suitable object lesson of their own to make them keep their distance. He feared what would happen if the rest of the army was called upon to fight in its current state.

Sir John extended his glass again and scanned the area around the bridge. He could see nothing, and a second cavalry charge seemed unlikely. Infantry might be another matter, if the French had any. Something drew his attention among the trees and scrub farther along the far bank. Figures in green jackets were moving there. ‘What do you make of it, Colborne?’

‘Dragoons,’ came the answer after a few moments. ‘Yes, I can see the helmets.’ A century earlier dragoons had been infantrymen who rode to battle, but then fought on foot. These days such a tactic was rare, and he could not think of an occasion when British dragoons had dismounted to fight, but it seemed that the French were willing to try it. He knew they carried muskets almost as long as those of the infantry, rather than the short carbines of his own hussars, so that they were prepared for the job. He focused the glass on a pair of the enemy. They ran clumsily in their high boots, but the spacing between pairs was good and whoever was leading them had some idea of how skirmishers should fight.

‘Sir Edward, would you be kind enough to send a company of the Ninety-fifth to the bank on either side of the road. I shall support them with half of the Fifty-second. I wonder whether the enemy believes there to be a ford?’

‘I shall have the men extend and keep a close eye on them. The water will be damned cold if there is a way across.’

Throughout the afternoon firing was constant across the river. Skirmishers took cover behind walls, trees and boulders, or crouched in dips in the land. Much powder was expended for little loss on either side. The French dragoons were reinforced by infantrymen and this encouraged them to press across shallow parts of the river. Sir John sent the rest of the 52nd down to reinforce the skirmish line. Soon afterwards Colborne rode to the 106th and ordered MacAndrews to commit first the Light Company and then the grenadiers to aid the riflemen north of the bridge.

Pringle led the company across the fields beyond the church. The snow was deep in places, and several men fell as they doubled over the uneven ground. Captain Headley and the light bobs were to the left of the 95th, so Pringle moved in beside the Light Company. Half of the grenadiers remained formed in line, while he led the rest forward and extended them as a chain of skirmishers.

Hanley remained with the reserve, and tried his best to remember the drills MacAndrews had taught them back in England. It occurred to him that he had never before been required to give an order in battle. At Roliça he had begun the day carrying one of the regiment’s two Colours, and managing the heavy flag as he marched in the centre of the line had kept him too occupied to think much of anyone else. At Vimeiro he had taken station at the rear of the Grenadier Company. Pringle had given the orders, and he had simply obeyed like any other redcoat. Throughout this retreat he had simply followed everyone else, doing what he was told, and in truth too consumed by his own discomfort to think much about anyone else’s.

This was different. Pringle was some way away, and the company not formed up alongside the rest of the battalion and moving in accordance with the mind and instructions of someone in higher authority. His detachment looked impassive, and yet he felt them all watching him, waiting for him to give orders which could mean life or death to any or all of them.

It would have been amusing if it was not so terrifying. They were looking to him to make decisions – to him, William Hanley, unwanted bastard child and failed artist, who had never been responsible for anyone in his life. He was only in the army at all because he had no money and no other opportunity left to him.

‘God help them,’ he said softly to himself as the absurdity of it all grew.

‘Sir?’ asked Sergeant Rawson.

‘Nothing, Sergeant,’ he said, and turned away to stare to the left, so that no one would see the grin he could not suppress. In that direction there was a low hillock, somewhat beyond the farthest pair of grenadiers. Its slopes and top were covered in grey boulders only half hidden by snow. Hanley was looking at the little rise, and then saw a head wearing a shako appear. A musket flamed and then the head was hidden by dirty smoke. Two more shots followed almost immediately, and then a third.

No one was hit, but the pair of grenadiers nearest the hillock were crouching, trying without much success to find cover. One of them fired back. Pringle was at the far end of the line, a high wall, and the uneven ground prevented him from seeing what was happening. Other shots came from across the river, and now one of the grenadiers was down, clutching his shoulder.

A quick hope that someone else would see the threat and respond flickered to life and then died away. There was no one else. Sergeant Rawson’s silence had somehow gained a stronger air of expectation.

Hanley had counted four shots. If the French fought by pairs then that meant eight men. It was important to keep some reserve.

‘Sergeant Rawson.’


‘Take sixteen men. A few French have sneaked up on to the rise there. Go on and clear them off.’

‘Sir.’ Rawson raised his powerful voice to give the commands. ‘Eight files on the left will follow me! Fix bayonets.’ Amid the scraping, Hanley noticed Dobson beside him.

‘Mr Hanley, sir, the words “go on” do not become an officer,’ whispered the veteran.

Rawson took his men in line towards the hill. The French noticed the advance, and four muskets flamed. The shots went high, although one clipped the top off the plume on a man’s shako. Hanley watched them, wondering whether even now he should listen to Dobson’s advice and lead the charge himself. It was not fear which had made him send the sergeant, but the thought that he ought to stay and be ready to commit the rest of the reserve if they were needed to shore up another part of the line. He was doing his best to think before he made decisions.

Rawson halted his men.

‘Present!’ The muskets were levelled. ‘Fire!’ The shots came close together, like a brief roll of thunder. ‘Come on, boys!’ and the redcoats surged up the slope. Shots rang out from among the boulders. Hanley saw Rawson stumble, dropping the half-pike he carried as a badge of rank, but it seemed to be just a patch of ice, because the man was up again, not bothering to retrieve his weapon. Then he fell again, and did not get up.

The grenadiers swarmed up around the boulders. A whistle blew, and Hanley realised that Pringle was waving his arm to beckon him forward, and there was no longer any time to think.

‘Follow me!’ he called, and jogged forward the hundred yards to the skirmishing line. Pringle gestured at the men to line a wall. A group of several dozen Frenchmen in dark blue jackets and trousers were splashing across the river.

‘Let ’em have it, lads!’ The grenadiers fired into the enemy, forced to cluster because the ford was narrow. Several were hit, collapsing into icy water. It still surprised Hanley to see a man so animate, running, well balanced and so alive one minute, and then an instant later falling, loose limbed, just like a sack of potatoes.

The light was going, and this seemed to be the signal for the French to give up their efforts at crossing. They had heard the cannon fire again, which suggested an attempt at the bridge, but the lack of any more salvoes suggested that the attack had not come to anything. The British still fired across the river at the least sign of movement.

Sir John Moore and his senior officers and staff rode behind the firing line.

‘They’re like mastiffs,’ Sir Edward Paget said to Moore. ‘Can’t wait to slip the leash and get at ’em.’

The general nodded, but still found it hard to trust the constancy of such enthusiasm. It would anyway be of little avail without discipline to set courage to a proper purpose. He gave orders for the reserve to begin to withdraw, and take the road to Villafranca. The rest of the army should already have marched much earlier in the day. The retreat would continue, and he suspected that the French would dog them all the way. Paget’s mastiffs would have plenty of chance to fight.

As they marched back to rejoin the battalion, the grenadiers were in high spirits. Only one man had been wounded, and even he appeared to have every chance of recovery. Rawson had died on the hill.

‘Shot through the lungs,’ Dobson told Hanley and Pringle. ‘Weren’t your fault, sir.’ The big man looked the lieutenant squarely in the eyes. ‘Just bad luck. Will we catch up with the baggage tonight, sir?’ The question was to Pringle.

‘Of course, his wife. Well, widow, I suppose.’ Pringle did not know the very proper Mrs Rawson well. ‘I am not sure. Perhaps tonight, perhaps tomorrow.’

‘It’ll hit her hard.’ Dobson spoke from recent experience. ‘Still, she’s a good lass.’

The 106th marched the remaining miles to Villafranca under a cold starlight. Several fires burned in the town, and when they went through the main street everything was bathed in a red glow. A big house was burning, and there were more fires where broken wagons and piles of debris had been set on fire. The dead mules and horses were simply left where they had been slaughtered. Slumped forms of men lay in the alleys. No orders were given to rouse them and the regiments did not trouble to discover whether they were drunk or more permanently at rest. The 106th did not leave behind a single straggler that night, and MacAndrews was reliably informed that the other regiments in the reserve preserved an equal record.

Five miles took them to Villafranca, and then another sixteen beyond that to a cluster of ramshackle houses where they stopped and got a few hours of poor rest. There was salt beef in some quantity, hard and tinged with yellow, but the little biscuit available was worm-infested and sour. Fires were lit to boil water and soften both. Many men were too tired to wait. They ate what little they could and then huddled down to sleep. Mrs Rawson cried softly and let Dobson put his arm around her as she cradled Sal’s head in her lap.

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