Lieutenant General Sir John Moore flicked open his handsome new telescope, but even with its excellent lenses he could make out very little of the landscape. The hill they were on was open to pale winter sunlight, but most of the ground beneath them was smothered in thick mist, which was only slowly rising and burning off. There was certainly no obvious trace of the enemy, but Marshal Soult was out there somewhere, his army corps holding the villages around Saladaña and Carrion to the north-east.
‘Two divisions and a brigade of cavalry. Perhaps fifteen or sixteen thousand men?’ Colonel Graham knew that the general was running through the calculation one more time and did not require comment. More than a decade older than his forty-seven-year-old commander, he understood when to keep silent. His trust in Moore as a general was absolute, while he still saw himself as no more than an enthusiastic amateur.
‘They have not moved,’ the general said very definitely. ‘The prisoners the hussars took confirm that. By the way, did you hear Georgie Napier say how worried he was when he found a cellar full of them last night who seemed to have had no treatment for their wounds? He gave orders for a surgeon along with food to be sent. An hour later he went back and found them playing the fiddle and dancing reels!’ Sir John permitted himself the luxury of laughter. The rest of his staff were out of earshot, and although he was never obsessively serious with them, there was nevertheless a sense of some freedom having only the older Graham beside him.
‘Suggests a good spirit at least,’ the colonel commented.
Moore nodded. Soult was out on a limb. The French marshal must by now be aware that the British were close. He would guess that there was force behind the cavalry attack at Sahagun, although he would probably not know how much. Sir John knew the names of Soult’s divisional commanders and the numbers of their regiments. He also knew that for the last weeks Napoleon had been assuring the recently arrived marshal that the British were fleeing back to Portugal, and that only a few thin remnants of the Spanish armies were in a position to oppose him. Sir John knew this because he had in his sabretache a dispatch, written by Marshal Berthier, the Emperor’s chief of staff, to Marshal Soult – or the Prince of Neufchâtel and the Duke of Dalmatia as they styled themselves, happy recipients of the deluge of titles issuing from the self-proclaimed Emperor. It listed the various French armies in Spain, giving strengths and positions. None was near enough to offer immediate support to Soult, and this was Moore’s chance. For a brief moment he would have an all too rare advantage in this campaign.
‘We will give the men another day’s rest,’ he said firmly. ‘The infantry have come a long way and have earned it. We’ll begin tomorrow evening, march through the night, and be at Marshal Soult on the twenty-fourth.’
Graham waited, but Sir John did genuinely appear not to have marked the date. ‘Christmas Eve,’ he pointed out.
Moore looked blank for a moment and then smiled, shaking his head. ‘Of course. I had quite forgot. Hah, my grandfather would not approve. He was a minister, you know.’ Graham nodded. ‘However, he was all in favour of smiting the ungodly, so I dare say would forgive us.’
Moore wondered for a moment whether he had been indelicate. Graham had been caught up in the early days of France’s atheistic Revolution. Not long married, a Grand Tour of Europe had ended abruptly when his young bride succumbed to illness in the prime of her life and beauty. Returning home through France, he had been powerless to prevent a mob tearing open her coffin and desecrating her corpse in an alleged hunt for illegal weapons. Graham had turned soldier in the ebb tide of his life, waging relentless war against the Revolution and the Empire which followed it. Sir John knew all this, although the two friends had never spoken of it. He hoped that he had not awoken painful memories, and was relieved at the simple response.
‘Amen to that. So no plum pudding this year. Ah well, let us hope to see the New Year in well.’
‘Pray God we do,’ said Sir John, for both men knew how precarious their situation was. They might beat Soult, but the French would concentrate against them in time and they could not resist such great numbers. ‘Is Romana ready to move with us?’
Graham nodded in confirmation. ‘He assures me that he is.’ The Marquis of La Romana commanded the only Spanish army near by. A year earlier Napoleon had sent him with the finest regiments of Spain’s army to garrison the coast of Denmark against British depredations. The Emperor already contemplated the conquest of his ally, and found this convenient pretext to reduce the force likely to oppose him. Then ally became occupier, and the old enemy a new friend. La Romana’s division – or at least more than half of his men – were taken off by the Royal Navy and carried back to fight the invader of their homeland. That had been months ago, and since then the regulars, their numbers bolstered by enthusiastic but poorly trained recruits, had been badly mauled by Napoleon’s veterans. ‘However, I doubt that even half his men have muskets,’ conceded Graham.
‘At least he is willing. The firelocks and cannon we brought for them have not yet arrived, I presume.’
‘As usual the transport is lacking. It took weeks for the Galician junta to help Sir David to obtain the animals and vehicles necessary to move his own division from Corunna.’
‘Were they willing?’ asked the general acidly.
‘Yes, I believe they were, but they had already given much of what they had to La Romana.’
In May uprisings had erupted throughout Spain, in sudden anger at the French occupation, and the imposition of Joseph Bonaparte as king. They had been suppressed – Hanley had witnessed the brutality of the French reprisals in Madrid – but the news provoked a wave of fervent enthusiasm for Spain and the Spanish cause in Britain which had not yet died away. The government sent the expeditionary force to the Peninsula, which eventually ended up in Portugal. The French were defeated there in August, but it was not until October that Sir John’s army began to advance into Spain. The aim was to assist the Spanish in evicting the remaining French armies from their country. All of the ministers agreed upon this objective as a most worthy one. London gave its approval, and after considerable thought instructed Sir John to find some way of achieving it. It was generally expected that the means would become apparent to him in due course as opportunities arose.
Everything about it was untidy, unplanned and poorly organised, and from the beginning Moore had viewed the situation with the deep distaste of a man who took his profession seriously. None of his predecessors in command of the forces in Portugal had made any effort to prepare for the move to Spain. No supplies of stores had been gathered along the proposed route, nor even the most basic information sought about the main roads. The Portuguese army seemed equally unsure over whether or not the main road past Almeida was capable of use by artillery and heavy transport at this season, but were mainly inclined to feel that it was not.
So when the advance began the British were divided along two widely separated routes. Most of the infantry went by the direct, northern road, while the cavalry, almost all of the artillery and a few battalions as escort followed a wide loop into Spain, by which they almost came in sight of Madrid before swinging north to join the others at Salamanca. At that peaceful university town, Sir John had concentrated most of his army, although a significant body led by Sir David Baird did not arrive until later. Small detachments and even entire battalions were still on their way to the main force. Fortunately the French had been in no position to exploit this vulnerable dispersal.
‘What is the Spanish situation overall?’ Sir John asked his friend, already guessing the answer.
‘As you would expect. The juntas do too much or too little, and none of it is well co-ordinated.’ The French had taken over the Spanish state and its administration, such as it was. Throughout the country, patriots had formed regional juntas, and done their best to organise an administration capable of running the country and, most important of all, directing the war effort. ‘I think that on the whole there are now more reasonable men in positions of authority than there were. It has been a while since anyone has talked of invading Portugal! Well, at least as a serious ambition. They still bicker with one another incessantly.’
‘And the generals?’
‘Are much the same. La Romana is one of the best, and some of the others seem good. Like the juntas they do not always agree. Of course, they lack our own country’s dedication to restricting the senior ranks to men of genuine capacity.’ Moore smiled at the arch comment. ‘Money is by far the biggest problem.’
‘That I understand.’ Moore had been demanding more funds from almost the moment he assumed command. Everything needed to be in appropriate coin for Portugal and Spain, for the locals were unwilling to trust printed notes in the nervous climate of war. London had proved unable to supply him with Spanish silver dollars in anything like the necessary quantities.
‘They have no money,’ Graham continued. ‘The soldiers are not paid, and the commanders have little money to supply provisions, so all too often they go without food. It is not to be wondered at if they leave. It is enough to make a man consider whether the Royal Navy has been doing Britain quite so good a service as we used to think by preying on Spanish merchant ships. Or indeed that our governments have been so wise in stealing – forgive me, liberating – their colonies.’
‘That money would be in Bonaparte’s hands now.’
‘Probably, but it must be confessed that we contributed a good deal to making Spain such a poor country before the war began, when they were still our enemies.’
Moore had little concern for the past, and knew he must focus on making no errors in the coming days. It had been planned for the British Army to move to Burgos, and support the Spanish armies which formed in a rough line to meet the French onslaught. The British were still far away, and the line incomplete, when Napoleon, leading with his usual energy, savaged one Spanish army after another, cracking the line open. When news of this reached him, sent by Graham as he travelled tirelessly from one Spanish camp to another, meeting with generals and juntas, Sir John had decided to withdraw. He even began preparations, knowing that his flight without meeting the enemy would appear ignominious and probably ruin his career. In his darkest moments he wondered whether, as a man known for his Whig associations, and never reluctant to criticise those in power for corruption or folly, there were plenty of Tory ministers hoping for this outcome, desiring him as a scapegoat for their own unrealistic plans.
That fear had not changed his mind, nor had the attempts to plead, bully and even subvert his authority made by the government’s minister in Spain. Moore had stayed, and then advanced, because the soldier in him was so habituated to duty that he was determined to do what he could for his country and its ally. He would strike at Soult and win a victory. It would not win the war, and it might merely delay a French victory that seemed almost inevitable. Yet it should dislocate Napoleon’s plans, at least for a while, giving time for the Spanish armies in other parts of Spain to recover a little and improve their resources. The trick was to win this small victory, and still bring the British Army away in one piece. That would not be easy, and it was all down to the decisions he would make.
Graham looked at his friend and knew him well enough to discern the strain he was undergoing. As they rode down the hill he talked lightly of Scotland, of people and places they both knew. When they rejoined his staff there was work to be done, planning routes and orders of march, but he could see that Moore’s mood lightened just a little. The ADCs were all bright young men in every sense. Their commander was unusual in insisting on true ability and experience in his staff, and not simply friendship and connections. He had confidence in their diligence and capacities, as well as a strong affection for all of them. This trust was returned with a devotion verging on the idolatrous.
They worked as they rode, escorted by a small detachment of hussars, and passing more cavalry patrols as they went. The general paused to greet each officer. Nearer the camp numbers of messengers went back and forth, going about their business, and more than a few men from the staffs of his subordinate officers were also out and about. Sir John stopped for a while to talk to Captain Scovell, who oversaw the guides – a villainous collection of Swiss, Italians and other foreigners, many of them deserters from Napoleon’s army – who carried some dispatches, acted as translators, and showed the route for marches to the rest of the army. Riding on, they were steadily joined by most of the general officers with the army, and others of field rank, until there were some thirty or forty riders in the group. Most conspicuous were the two ladies, both well mounted on greys, and dressed in extremely fetching habits, whose green and blue stood out among the array of red coats.
General Paget introduced Mrs MacAndrews and her daughter to Sir John, who expressed himself honoured to make their acquaintance.
‘Your husband commands the 106th, does he not?’
‘Yes, we left them at drill.’ Esther MacAndrews guessed that the general must be of an age with her husband, but was not inclined to resent the different opportunities granted to some. Born into one of the wealthy families of ‘Rice Kings’, owners of large slave-worked estates and a grand house in Charleston, she had run away with two British officers escaping from captivity in the last months of the Revolutionary War. One was her lover, whose child she was carrying, but that man had fled and abandoned them when the local militia closed in. The other was MacAndrews, then a lieutenant, youthful and lanky, whose very black hair was already flecked with grey. They had escaped, fallen in love, and married when they arrived in the British lines. She had never regretted any of the events, or the unorthodox, often threadbare life they had lived together. MacAndrews’ hair was now wholly white, his frame spare and ungainly, and in every way apart from height he was so different from the classically handsome general.
Colonel Graham flirted prodigiously with mother and daughter alike, at times crowding out the younger ADCs, who were drawn inexorably towards Jane. Moore had already observed that the older man delighted in the company of every woman he met, flattering and praising in a way that was as relentless as it was harmless. One or two lieutenant colonels had also brought their wives with them on the campaign, to his knowledge, and he was sure that other officers had done the same. It surprised him to find such a young miss of respectable family with the army, and he hoped that the father’s judgement was not so poor in other matters. He urged his horse on, and let the younger officers swarm around the ladies, for there were too many serious matters requiring his attention to indulge in such pleasures. Yet one thought had struck him, and he could not resist raising it with one of his aides.
‘Do you see a likeness, James? In the major’s wife?’
Captain the Honourable James Stanhope had failed to follow his leaders’ change of subject and looked politely baffled.
‘To Lady Hester?’ Stanhope’s sister was the ardent admirer of the general, and the two of them corresponded, although the brother was unsure whether she was realistic to hope for a closer bond. Sir John’s Calvinistic sense of duty had so far denied him the indulgence of wedlock. Yet his enthusiasm now was most marked. ‘I do not mean so much as to looks, as spirit.’
For all his praise, Moore was saddened to see any ladies with the column. An even greater cause for concern were the wives and children trailing behind each regiment. It was the normal custom, but he felt it a bad one, especially in winter with the prospect of an arduous and harried flight through the mountains, a fear that was most likely to be realised. Before leading the army from Portugal he had offered passage home for all the soldiers’ families. Only a handful had accepted. He had also instructed each battalion to leave their dependants behind. All too many commanders had felt this cruel and had ignored the order. Such lenience was likely to prove misguided, but there was nothing that he could do to remedy it. Other problems and mistakes loomed larger in his mind. For all his appearance of calm, Sir John remained a deeply worried man.
The cavalcade following him was universally more cheerful, encouraged even beyond its usual spirits by the presence of the ladies. Apart from Colonel Graham, few of the staff officers managed to enjoy more than a minute or two beside either of the ladies. Wickham chose his moment carefully, pushing his horse close alongside Jane’s grey as the girl was watching her mother being drawn away by the colonel to peer through his telescope at a distant peak.
‘You are a most elegant ornament to our hunt, Miss MacAndrews,’ Wickham said, raising his hat.
Jane turned, surprised by his sudden appearance and the familiarity of his gaze. Yet several voices sounded in hearty assent, and so she felt obliged to acknowledge the compliment with a thin smile.
‘Do you speak of war as sport, Captain Wickham?’ asked the girl, very aware that he was looking at her intently.
Jane decided it was better to draw others into the conversation. Wickham was a handsome man, with a manner both bold and highly assured. Jane’s heart beat faster with mixed excitement and fear from his obviously predatory intent.
‘Certainly – perhaps the highest field and challenge of all.’ Wickham was closer to her than any of the others, and when he dropped his voice to no more than a murmur only Jane heard him add, ‘save one.’ His gaze, which had been roving over her promiscuously, now fixed on her eyes.
Jane felt herself blush, and was again annoyed at her weakness. She barely listened as the nearest officers spoke enthusiastically of hunting as admirable preparation for warfare.
‘A good officer must naturally be a bold hunter,’ said a major, whose long jaw and yellowing teeth gave his own appearance more than a hint of the equine. ‘Do you ride to hounds, Mr Wickham?’
‘Whenever my duties permit,’ lied Wickham, whose lack of funds had prevented his keeping a stable good enough for him to excel. There was little purpose served by cutting a poor figure, and so he hunted only when an acquaintance could be persuaded to loan him a decent mount.
Wickham had turned to look at the major, but Jane knew that his next words were aimed at her. ‘I do dearly love the chase,’ he said with emphasis. ‘Whatever the distance, whatever the going, once I have a view I am not to be denied.’ He smiled modestly. ‘Although not perhaps on this poor old fellow.’ Wickham patted the gelding on the neck, and slowed its walk, letting others close around Miss MacAndrews just as her mother returned to the girl’s side.
Pleased with the brief conversation, Wickham happily chatted to some other staff men, and affected indifference to the girl’s presence. Without ever catching her eye, he took satisfaction in noticing that Jane glanced in his direction more than any other.
The monks cowered in a way that seemed abject to the French officers, and the leader of the delegation struggled to deliver his petition, making the interpreter’s job more difficult. The grossly fat man kept making obeisance and was so flustered that at one point he actually used the nickname of Malaparte. The interpreter made the appropriate change, but it was clear that the Emperor had heard and was amused by the lapse.
The room was not large, even though it formed the whole first floor of the house. Beneath was the kitchen and a few smaller rooms, and above a single stairway led to two bedrooms, occupied for the moment by the Emperor and the Prince of Neufchâtel. One side of the room was crowded with staff officers, summoned to make reports and receive orders. Two tall men stood near the back, and although neither had met before they were drawn together by the association of their regiments. Each carried a silvered cuirassier’s helmet under his right arm, hand grasping the black fur band and letting the horsehair crest hang down. Their left hands supported the hilts of their long, straight swords, held up awkwardly because they were on foot. Surprisingly one of the men, a little less tall than his colleague, but far broader in the body, also wore the cuirass itself, something which most officers abandoned on all occasions apart from parade and battle. If the man felt its weight and discomfort then he refused to show it.
‘You would never have credited it,’ whispered the taller man to his burly companion. ‘Yesterday they were cursing him with every breath as we slogged up that pass. “Shoot him! Go on, Henri, shoot the old bastard!”, “Kill him, and then we can get some rest!”, “He’s close enough, I couldn’t miss from here!”, “If he doesn’t stop and let us rest, I’ll do it any minute, I swear I will”, on and on as they waded through snow waist deep. The Emperor and Marshal Lannes clustered together with a group of us, heads down and leading them on. Not what you’d expect the master of Europe to be doing.’
‘Only if he were a different man.’
‘That is true. We made it in the end, although for the last patch they put him and most of us on to a gun carriage and dragged us up. The men got billets in the villages, warm beds, food and drink. Today I saw those same soldiers screaming out “Vive l’Empereur!” at the tops of their voices.’
The noise from the monks subsided, and since his fellow cuirassier seemed disinclined for farther talk, the taller man fell silent. There was still a degree of confusion, but the main plea was for protection for the convent buildings, and security for the relics and treasures kept there. The Emperor confirmed his existing order forbidding all plundering and any mistreatment of the local population as long as they welcomed the French and offered no resistance. He repeated some of his proclamations, reminding them that he wished only the best for the Spanish, that his brother King Joseph brought honest government in the place of corruption and decadence. If they spurned his friendship then they had only themselves to blame for the punishment they received. He even threatened to send his kind brother to another realm and take the crown for himself. The interpreter struggled to convey the menace with which this was delivered, but the suppliants were already sufficiently terrorised, for they had heard so many stories of French atrocities. If some tales had grown in the telling, they were not to know, and in any case the truth was terrible enough.
The monks were ushered out, and the Emperor and Berthier dealt with each of the officers in turn, apart from the two cuirassiers. The Emperor sat on a chair beside a table, on which a map was spread. Far bigger maps, pinned together where they overlapped, covered a good third of the floor. They waited at least five minutes after all had been done before summoning the taller officer and giving him orders to carry. The other man wondered whether he had been forgotten, but simply stood there patiently. There was an even longer pause before the round-faced Prince of Neufchâtel called to him. His uniform was a glorious confection of lace.
The thickset man marched stiffly in his knee-high boots and stamped to attention. ‘Sire!’
The Emperor’s pale eyes looked at him squarely from under that famous lick of hair. As so often he was wearing the dark green undress uniform of the Chasseurs of his Imperial Guard. He pointed. ‘I remember you from Eylau.’ Dalmas nodded. ‘And before that I gave you the cross. That was at Boulogne.’ Another nod. ‘We have travelled a long way since then.’
The Emperor paused, and his chief of staff asked sharply, ‘Where is your squadron?’ It surprised Dalmas when the prince appeared to recognise the name of the village. He had never heard it before in his life until they reached it just before dawn this morning. ‘It is not on this map,’ continued Berthier, ‘but should be about here.’ He pressed his thumb into the paper.
‘My own company, of forty-five men, and another from the Legion of the Visula with seventy-three.’
‘As good as any in the army.’ Few cuirassiers had been sent to Spain, for the big horses they rode were too valuable to suffer on the bad roads and eat the poor fodder available.
‘You think your cuirassiers suitable for detached duties?’ the Emperor interrupted. ‘You carry no carbines, so cannot fight on foot.’
‘The legionnaires have them.’ Dalmas’ tone was matter of fact.
‘Yes, the Poles are good men, why not take more of them?’
‘I trust my men. They are the best.’
The Emperor was pleased with such assurance. ‘I asked Marshal Ney for a good man, and he has sent me you.’ Actually he had asked Ney for his best man, not just the prettiest uniform on his staff. ‘I want someone who can fight like a demon and think like a thief. He may well get killed,’ he had warned.
Dalmas managed to conceal his surprise. He was a supernumerary ADC on the marshal’s staff, recommended by a wounded divisional commander unable to serve, and not one of red-faced Ney’s own protégés. Supernumeraries usually got only the difficult jobs, the ones that brought danger with little hope of glory. Silently he wondered whether he was being given a task likely to prove a death warrant.
The Emperor was pleased that his praise had not provoked unnecessary bluster. Ney may have chosen well. ‘I have a task for you …’ He began by explaining the wider situation. With Madrid in French hands, the Spanish armies almost all routed and the British in retreat, the French had been gathering for a new invasion of Portugal and southern Spain. In the last days he had learned that the British were not in retreat, but still moving forward. ‘I do not know whether to call it courage or folly, but either way we have a chance to destroy them. All of the forces near Madrid, including my Guards, are now moving north as fast as they can. Marshal Ney is coming to join us and Soult is already there. Some of Junot’s men, back from Portugal, are on their way to support the drive.
‘This is what will happen.’ The three men knelt on the floor – an awkward posture for Dalmas in his high boots – crawling over the maps as the Emperor explained the choices facing Sir John Moore and his own moves to counter them. The British must retreat. The route to Portugal was closed so they must go to the north-west coast and one of the Spanish ports – probably Corunna or Vigo. His own armies were swinging round in a wide arc, rather than rushing headlong at the enemy. The Emperor talked of the ground, of the few roads able to take an army, the mountains they cut through and the rivers and bridges – especially the rivers and bridges.
‘I may cut off the English at Benevente. The odds are sixty-five to thirty-five in my favour, but much depends on when General Moore realises that I am coming. If we do catch him there then it is probable that you will not have a chance to do very much.’ Dalmas was to take his mixed squadron on an even wider loop to the north-east. He was to avoid any contact with the British, but try to get behind them. Marshal Soult was ordered to give him a company of infantry, a capable engineer and more cavalry squadrons if he wanted them. His force was to get behind the enemy. If possible – and the Emperor believed this to be unlikely, but worth the attempt – get behind their columns and destroy a bridge to slow them down so that they would be caught. More probably, his task would be to find and take a bridge that would allow the French to envelop any position where the English tried to stand. In short, he was to help keep them on the run.
‘It is not a duty for which specific instructions are appropriate. I need a man who can use his judgement.’
‘Sire.’ Again it was pleasing that there were no usual protestations of determination. The captain simply stood up, and nodded.
‘Good. I know that I can trust you. I only wish that the English army was three times the size. If one hundred thousand English mothers had to mourn the loss of their sons then we might have peace at last.’
Dalmas barely remembered a world at peace. He had been a soldier now for ten years, far longer than his spell as a schoolteacher in St-Omer. A conscript like almost everyone else, he had discovered that he liked the army, and thrived on the excitement of war. He had also discovered a talent for the business, and so he had risen through the ranks and become an officer. His anticipation of farther advancement remained fierce. This was an opportunity to win the favour of the Emperor himself, who never failed to reward a good soldier. Dalmas would do his best to win that favour. The prospect of peace could look after itself.
He stood and stamped to attention. Helmet still under his arm, he bowed rather than saluted. As he left, the Emperor was already dictating a new set of orders for one of the marshals in the south of the country.