Chapter 16

News came from the north and it was good.

‘Soult’s beaten,’ announced Truscott to the assembled officers of the 106th. ‘General Wellesley slipped across the River Douro under his very nose and hounded him out of Oporto and back through the mountains. He has lost a few thousand men and all his guns.’

That was indeed good news and particularly satisfying since it was Marshal Soult who had pursued Sir John Moore’s army all the way to Corunna.

‘That begins to even the score,’ said Pringle.

‘We may have a chance to do more soon,’ continued Truscott. ‘The formation of the Third Battalion of Detachments is confirmed and we are to be part of it – indeed, the largest single contingent of the battalion. We are to march to Abrantes at the end of the week.

‘As you may gather, this means that there will be a good deal to achieve in a very short time. We are relieved of some of our duties, which will be taken on by the advance party of a new battalion just landed. I fear, Mr Williams, that this means your participation in the theatrical arts is terminated.’

They laughed, and then Hopwood raised the question on almost every mind.

‘Who will command, sir?’

‘I understand that an officer is to be appointed. Until he arrives our senior captain will oversee the formation of the battalion.’

‘Many congratulations,’ said Pringle heartily.

‘Misplaced actually. Major Wickham has returned from attachment to the staff and of course naturally takes over.’

Pringle said nothing, but felt his heart sink and exchanged meaningful glances with Williams and Hopwood. Wickham was usually affable – untrustworthy with money or women, but pleasant enough as company. Yet his lack of interest during the fight with the French chasseurs was worrying. Pringle did not seriously doubt Wickham’s courage, although he knew Williams had stronger feelings on the matter. He was unsure about the major’s ability and judgement and that was not encouraging. Yet Wickham’s apparent unwillingness to exert himself unless in the presence of persons of influence was profoundly worrying. A battalion drawn together from the flotsam and jetsam left behind by other corps needed strong leadership, which in the beginning it did not get.

‘I trust you, old boy,’ Wickham told Truscott. ‘And I had better keep my ears open at headquarters to find out what they want us to do.’

They saw little of the major. Truscott did most of the work, assisted by Pringle and several of the others. Some of the officers drawn from other corps were just as eager and capable. Others struck Pringle as the kind of men their regiments had probably been happy to leave behind. A few were willing, but barely fit enough for their duties.

The same was true of the men. The hospitals were combed for men well enough for active duty and this yielded a harvest of the genuinely recovered, the unmasked malingerers and good, keen soldiers trying desperately to hide their physical weakness. Others came from the parties posted to the stores and other services, where duties were often light and the prospects of profit frequent. One sergeant proved so obese that he was unable to fasten the buttons of his jacket around his stomach.

Pringle burst out laughing when the man was dismissed and stamped out of the room in a passable impression of discipline. ‘Clearly the fruits of a righteous life,’ he said to Williams. ‘God help us if he breaks down on the march and we have to carry him.’

On the second day they received the most welcome addition of Mr Dawney’s improvised company of mounted men, finally released by Sir Robert Wilson after a series of increasingly strident orders to this effect. Wilson kept the mules and horses for his own purposes, so the redcoats were infantry once again by the time they reached Lisbon. They were good men, if inclined to independence, and the months of skirmishing along the border had forged them into a good unit.

There were seventy men from the 4th Battalion of the 60th Regiment who had somehow found their way to Portugal instead of joining their fellows as garrison of Corunna at the end of the previous year. Officially the Royal Americans, almost all were Germans or Swiss.

‘Will they be able to understand us?’ wondered Truscott.

‘The lieutenant speaks pretty good English, and the ensign is an Irishman,’ said Pringle. ‘The sergeants ought to be able to comprehend orders at least. Although I cannot help wondering why their Fifth Battalion hasn’t taken them – or the German Legion?’

‘The Fifth Battalion are riflemen, trained and equipped as such, so I doubt they would welcome men from a marching regiment.’

‘Perhaps that explains it,’ conceded Pringle. ‘However, I wonder whether they have asserted their independence too zealously.’

‘Good. We need men with pride. Shall we add them to our strength, sir?’ Truscott took advantage of a rare appearance by Wickham to seek his opinion.

‘By all means take them. Now I fear I must leave you.’

Pringle presumed such active involvement had left the major fatigued. Truscott was not inclined to sympathy.

‘There is the question of the new muskets, sir.’

‘Muskets?’

‘For the convalescents, sir. The stores assure me that these men should have kept the firelocks issued by their own corps, but very few have them. They will not issue new ones without the signature of the officer commanding this battalion.’ Truscott beckoned to a clerk and the corporal dutifully held up a piece of paper.

‘Very well.’ Wickham signed and was off before greater burdens could be placed upon him.

‘Thank you, sir,’ called Truscott after the retreating figure. He turned to the corporal. ‘Take it to Browne and have him copy it on to the other requisitions. Oh, and tell him if Major Wickham’s signature appears anywhere else I’ll have the hide off his back.’ The captain noticed Pringle’s curious expression and explained. ‘Private Browne came to us courtesy of the provosts and has considerable dexterity with pen and ink. That should allow us to prise everything else we need from the most reluctant of quartermasters.’

Pringle smiled at his friend. ‘It is a good job you are mostly honest.’

Altogether they had enough men from the 106th to form four decently strong companies. With Dawney’s men and Lieutenant Shroeder’s Germans that made six. The convalescents made up a seventh and a party of twenty-five light infantrymen from the 43rd and thirty men from the Royal Highlanders formed the nucleus of an eighth. Truscott preferred to keep the companies relatively strong and of similar size and so threaded additional men into them rather than attempting to form the full ten companies of a proper battalion.

In just a few days the 3rd Battalion of Detachments had a ration strength of 748 sergeants, corporals, drummers and privates. The men of the 106th were in their ragged uniforms, and some of the other men no better, and somewhere in the ranks was to be found virtually every facing colour known to the army. Some men had no shakos and wore forage caps instead. Their trousers were of brown, black, grey and blue as often as the regulation white, and most were heavily patched. A few of the Highlanders had their kilts, but most had replaced the thick wool garments with cooler cotton trousers.

‘You’re a magician,’ said Pringle to Truscott when the whole battalion paraded for inspection for the first time.

‘Pity there are no Colours,’ Truscott said wistfully. ‘Well, cannot be helped. Take post, Mr Pringle.’

‘Sir.’ Billy Pringle saluted and marched smartly back to the right flank of his Grenadier Company, which formed the right of the whole line. Hanley stood behind the company with the sergeants. Williams was at the far end of the battalion, attached now to their ‘Light Company’, consisting mainly of the men from the 42nd and 43rd. They were short of officers and could not afford the luxury of two lieutenants as well as a captain with the grenadiers.

‘Present arms!’ The voice echoed across the parade ground from the acting sergeant major, a neat and capable Yorkshireman from the 9th Foot. Sergeant Major Fisher was already making his presence felt. Pringle believed him to be a godsend and Truscott was of much the same opinion.

The movements were scarcely immaculate. There had been little time to drill as companies and none as a battalion, but the men were all experienced enough and if there was some variation in the timing it was certainly not disgraceful.

Wickham rode past beside the newly arrived officer commanding, a brevet lieutenant colonel with the deep green facings of the 24th. He was a small, stocky man, with thick and very black eyebrows spreading over the wide forehead of his large face. Together the colonel and the major took the salute, walking their horses along the line before wheeling back to face the centre.

‘Men of the Third Battalion,’ said the colonel. ‘My name is Pritchard Jones and I have the honour to command you.’ His voice was deep, with a musical tone and the soft accent of North Wales. ‘You come from many corps, all with fine reputations. Do honour to your regiments by your conduct here and return to them with pride when the campaign is done and the French driven from the field!

‘Dismiss the men, Sergeant Major.’

Pringle felt himself warming to the colonel when the officers were gathered an hour later. There was a confidence and bustle about the man without his seeming overbearing. He was full of praise for the work of Wickham, which was a little disappointing if unsurprising, and also of Truscott and the others, which was deeply satisfying.

‘We march tomorrow, gentlemen,’ he announced, ‘so I will not detain you long as I know you have much to prepare. I simply want to meet you all and for you to meet me. We are strangers, sadly, and must somehow manage to create in weeks the trust in each other which in a regular corps is the product of many years.

‘I mean to drill as we march. One hour of drill, every day, after camp has been pitched. Longer, if ever we get to rest.’

Pringle noticed that Pritchard Jones was watching their faces to judge their reaction, already gauging the mettle of his subordinates.

‘Any idea where we are going, sir?’ asked Captain Grant of the 42nd, who commanded the Light Company. He was a tall man, almost as big as Williams, but his frame was sadly shrunken and his skin left with a yellowish tinge by the fever which had kept him in Lisbon the previous autumn.

‘The border first. The orders are for the army to concentrate at Abrantes on the River Tagus. After that everything adds up to Spain,’ answered Pritchard Jones, and then he grinned. ‘Although I fear the general has yet to tell a mere brevet colonel of his plans in any detail!’

He had something to say to each of the officers, including the subalterns, praising their regiments or asking after acquaintances within them. It struck Pringle again how small the army was. He took its tribalism for granted.

When greeting Williams and hearing he was from Cardiff he launched into a language no one understood.

‘I fear I do not speak Welsh, sir,’ apologised Williams.

The colonel added another comment in the same language and then reverted to English. ‘That is a shame, but no fault of your own. In any event they do not speak well in Glamorganshire and have the most heathen accent from living so close to English Monmouthshire.

‘I am glad to have a fellow countryman with us – and also one promoted for gallantry, if I am not mistaken. And smartly uniformed too. Do you sing?’

‘At every opportunity,’ said Hanley cheerfully before Williams could reply.

‘Excellent, truly excellent, for no Welshman should lack music in his soul.’

Pritchard Jones was true to his word. They marched long before dawn the next morning, and covered a good fifteen miles before laying out a camp. Only the colonel and a few of the officers had tents, but since the nights were now warmer it was comfortable enough to be wrapped in a blanket and lie under the stars. Before they could rest, the drums beat to muster and they drilled. For three evenings they practised as companies before training as a battalion on the fourth. By the end of the week they had improved a little, which was just as well as they were now close to Abrantes.

‘Any of the wives of your company good with needle and thread?’ the colonel had asked Pringle after the first day’s parade was dismissed.

‘A few of them,’ he replied, more than a little puzzled. The colonel’s uniform was well tailored and did not appear in need of repair. Standing next to Pritchard Jones, Pringle was struck by how very short he was. He could not have been more than five foot one or two, and yet had a huge head and very broad shoulders which spoke of great physical strength.

‘Send two of them to my tent in half an hour.’

‘Yes, sir.’ That was a little unusual, and made him think how little they knew about their new commander. Regiments were families, and like families often did their best to conceal from outsiders the eccentricities and weaknesses of their members.

‘Tell them to bring their husbands,’ Pritchard Jones added, and his thick eyebrows seemed to leap up his forehead as he chuckled to himself. ‘Just in case anyone has a squalid imagination.’

They kept up a good pace each day, continued to train after they camped, and every night Mrs Murphy and Mrs Dobson with their husbands were summoned to the colonel’s tent. Pritchard Jones would then take one of his horses out for a lively hack. The women disappeared inside and Dobson and Murphy smoked and told yarns outside. When Pringle tried to find out what was going on the answer was always the same.

‘Regretfully unable to answer, sir. Colonel’s orders, sir. No disrespect meant, sir.’

‘Carry on,’ was the best Billy Pringle could come up with in response.

The sun seemed to grow hotter each day. Many of the men were already burned to that dark brick-red shade which only the British seemed to develop. They marched covered in a thin shroud of pale dust, lips as dry as sandpaper and parched tongues filling their mouths. The sensible ones tried to make their canteens last as long as possible, and some of the veterans put a stone in their mouth to suck on and keep the thirst at bay.

The battalion lost twenty men on the march and that was fewer than Pringle had feared. The weary were lifted on to pack mules to ride when they could not keep up, but the health of some of the convalescents broke down in spite of this care and the men had to be left behind. A pair of healthy men tried to fall out until the sergeant major found them and expressed his opinion forcibly.

On 12th June they saw Abrantes ahead of them. Before they marched the last two miles into camp, Pritchard Jones halted them and formed them into a hollow square.

‘Well done, my brave boys, well done indeed. We will soon be joining Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army. Those of you who were there will remember how he hammered the French last year. We will make sure that he does it again this summer.

‘We don’t have Colours in a provisional regiment, but I thought there ought to be something to show the Frogs who we are.

‘Here is our flag!’

Dobson and Murphy, along with two of the Germans from the 60th, marched in through the open corner of the square, their faded and patched coats brushed and their belts bright white with pipe clay. They escorted fifteen-year-old Ensign Castle, a lad of truly startling ugliness and boundless ignorance who had proved himself unsuited to any of the duties so far assigned to him. Truscott was doing his best to tutor the boy in the barest rudiments of drill and was finding the task frustratingly slow. ‘I do believe he even forgets his own name,’ he had told Pringle wearily. ‘Yet he is willing enough, and eager to please.’

Now the young officer looked as proud as a king as he failed to keep step between the escorting corporals and held aloft the new banner. It was smaller than the standards properly carried, both for lack of material and Pritchard Jones’ desire not to do anything so presumptuous as make proper Colours. Three foot high and three and a half foot long, it was fixed to a plain staff without spearhead or tassels.

Pringle suspected that Williams would be delighted, for the flag was of a red dragon on a green field. Actually, Pringle thought it looked more like a dog, but even if it did, it was a noble, fierce-looking beast and he liked it.

‘Three cheers for the colonel!’ The voice was the sergeant major’s and the response was genuinely enthusiastic.

Behind their new flag, the 3rd Battalion of Detachments marched in to join Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army, which was mustering again after the defeat of Soult. For many regiments that had meant long marches over bad roads and through mountains. They had the confidence of fresh victory, and the lean faces of weeks on poor rations. Pringle knew most of his men envied them, even if many were barefoot or had toes sticking out and soles flapping from worn-out boots. One of Private Browne’s convincing forgeries had given every man in the Provisional Battalion two new pairs of boots.

‘Make sure no one sells their spare pair,’ ordered the colonel. The men of the 3rd were mainly away from their regiments and officers and NCOs who knew them well. Some may well have worked for such an inconspicuous position, but even the good men were apt to have less respect and fear for authorities who were strangers. There had been some looting, and a nasty incident where a private had threatened a Portuguese peasant because the man would not hand over his mule to carry a footsore comrade.

‘By the sound of it things have been worse in the corps marching down from Oporto,’ Pritchard Jones told his officers. ‘Especially some of the regiments full of Irish militiamen. Fortunately they fight as well as they rob otherwise they would be sent home.’

They continued to drill. Sir Arthur Wellesley had decided to group his brigades into divisions and the 3rd Battalion of Detachments found themselves assigned to the Third Division under Major General MacKenzie. Soon there was brigade and divisional training as well as battalion drills.

‘I think I have marched farther than we did on the road to get here,’ said Hanley to Pringle after an especially long day under a sweltering sun.

‘Well, you know the army – keep on moving even if you aren’t going anywhere.’

‘Major MacAndrews would be proud,’ said Williams cheerfully. He longed for another letter from home in the hope that his sister would write of more contact with the major’s family.

‘Yes, I rather think he and Colonel Jones are two of a kind,’ said Hanley.

Pringle nodded thoughtfully. ‘I surely hope so.’

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!