The salvo rolled along the line as Spanish gunners touched the burning match of the linstock to the tube of powder thrust into the touch hole of each dark bronze cannon. It flared and an instant later the main charge boomed out and the cannon jumped back a good two feet. The charge was small, for there was no ball or shell loaded in the barrel, and so there was not the dreadful violence of artillery firing in battle. The booms were flatter, the plumes of smoke smaller and the recoil gentler, but still this was a powerful battery and the flames were vivid against the darkness of night.
Hanley’s horse flicked its ears back at the noise and stirred underneath him. He patted its neck to calm it and pressed slightly with his heels to stay at a steady pace, trailing at the rear of Sir Arthur Wellesley’s party.
‘We’ve woken someone up,’ muttered Sir Charles Stewart, an immaculately dressed cavalryman riding beside the general.
Torches flamed into light and bonfires were ignited across the rolling plain. They began to walk their horses along the front of the parade.
Hanley smiled. The sight was dramatic – well worth a picture if he could impress the scene on his memory. It reminded him of the stories of Austerlitz, where Napoleon’s veterans were supposed to have lit torches to cheer their Emperor the night before the battle. Before he had seen the French massacre a crowd in Madrid, Hanley had possessed a great enthusiasm for Bonaparte, and followed his legend with eagerness.
‘Must have taken a quick bit of organising to be ready to do this in the dark,’ he said.
‘Pity they did not simply give the dragoons a map!’ replied Colonel Murray mischievously. Sir Arthur had been invited to review Cuesta’s army, and a squadron of Spanish cavalry sent to escort the British officers fittingly. Unfortunately, the dragoon officer lost his way on the return trip to his own army. They rode for miles and arrived over four hours late, by which time the sun had set.
The cavalry were first. Each squadron was in two ranks, officers to front and rear, dark standards hanging limply from their shafts, and drawn sabres flickering redly in the firelight. On and on the line stretched, squadron next to squadron, some six thousand men with a frontage almost two miles long.
‘Assuming they did not plan it this way from the start,’ mused Hanley. ‘Darkness hides many sins.’
Murray grinned at such cynicism. ‘Not completely.’ Plenty of the troopers were having to fight their mounts to keep them in position. The shadows only hinted at ragged uniforms and missing equipment, but Hanley saw bare feet in stirrups, horses of all shapes and sizes mingled together, and he could not help thinking back to the almost instant collapse of many of these squadrons at Medellín barely three months ago. Baynes rode beside them and he wondered whether the merchant was also thinking back to that day.
High mounds of fresh excrement lay in long lines beneath the horses and the smell was penetrating.
‘Botched the feeding,’ said Sir Charles Stewart loudly. Hanley suspected he suffered from the familiar British conceit that no foreigner would understand criticism voiced in English. Sir Charles was supposed to oversee the gathering of intelligence for General Wellesley. From the little Hanley had seen of him it was hard to imagine anyone less suited to the task, and he was glad that his own dealings were with Murray. ‘Need to give the brutes four hours or more to digest their grain before bringing them onparade,’ continued Sir Charles. ‘That’s how the Life Guards stop St James’s getting covered in dung.’
‘Perhaps not a planned deception, then,’ said Hanley.
‘Human frailties explain a good deal more of this world than human ingenuity,’ conceded Murray.
Hanley lowered his voice. ‘May I ask, sir, your opinion of General Stewart?’
Baynes snorted with laughter, but let Murray reply. ‘I trust you are not asking me to comment on a superior.’
‘I see.’ Hanley’s teeth caught the light as he smiled.
‘The general is a gallant officer.’
‘Indeed, most gallant, and does not know the meaning of fear,’ added Baynes, unable to resist.
‘Which has unfortunately led him to injudicious and costly affairs at the head of our own cavalry,’ conceded Murray.
‘He is also the brother of Lord Castlereagh. Who is by all accounts a man of considerable intellect,’ said Baynes, his voice heavy with implication, ‘and a most efficient Secretary of State.’
‘We have not troubled Sir Charles overmuch with the detail of your activities,’ said Murray, his voice just audible over the creak of leather and jingle of harness as the Spanish and British senior officers at last reached the end of the cavalry squadrons and turned to the right to process along the front of the infantry battalions.
‘Tall fellows.’ Sir Charles appeared to have been struck by a sudden diplomatic urge, and raised his voice until he was almost shouting. ‘As fine material as ever I saw.’ The compliment did not carry great conviction. Even Hanley could see the rawness of the foot soldiers. Their faces were so desperately young, what uniforms they had were ill fitting and evidently uncomfortable. Muskets were held awkwardly by boys more used to pitchfork and scythe.
‘Poor devils,’ said Hanley before he could stop himself. Noticing Murray’s glance, he felt obliged to explain. ‘They look so much younger than the cavalry.’
‘They do. Inevitable, I suppose.’
Hanley did not understand.
‘Much easier to get away when you’re mounted,’ explained Baynes.
‘Of course.’ Hanley was surprised that he had not recognised that grim and obvious truth. ‘At least they all look willing.’
‘They do,’ said Murray. ‘So does the old boy up front.’ He nodded in the direction of the Spanish commander. Captain General Don Gregorio de la Cuesta looked a pale shadow of the bullishly confident man Hanley had seen in March. He looked thin and ancient, and moved only with difficulty and in obvious pain. Two servants walked on either side of his horse to support him in the saddle. They kept a slow pace, and therefore so did Sir Arthur and his staff. Hanley saw the Spanish general speak only twice and then briefly.
There were plenty of infantry. Hanley counted twenty battalions and judged that most mustered more than seven hundred bayonets. The army was as big or perhaps even bigger than the one at Medellín. It took a long time to pass them all in review and then they took up a position to witness manoeuvres preformed by parts of the army. The cavalry took more time to jostle into position and then their lines on the ride past were ragged. An infantry battalion painfully deployed from line into column and then back again, but ended with irregular gaps between the companies.
Hanley thought the Army of Estremadura looked much like its commander – defiant, but still badly hurt and only barely limping on. It was a miracle that it was in the field at all, let alone taking the offensive. Then he remembered watching another apparent miracle being cut to ribbons by the French cavalry and tried to dismiss the thought as unlucky.
It was late into the night when the generals finally began to discuss the campaign. Before they did so the Spanish divisional commanders were each presented to Sir Arthur Wellesley. In turn the senior officers approached, bowed with considerable dignity and then withdrew. They were not to be included in the council of war.
As the Duke of Alburquerque left he greeted Hanley warmly and nodded amicably to Baynes.
‘I must go. Apparently our leader does not require the advice of his senior officers,’ he said. Hanley found his candour even more surprising than the exclusion. The Spanish general strode off quickly to join his own staff.
‘Many feel the duke ought to be in charge.’ Velarde had appeared from nowhere, joining the group of British and Spanish officers waiting outside the open flaps of the tent. ‘Including your own Mr Hookam Frere, I understand.’
‘My dear colonel,’ said Baynes, his face even redder than usual in the firelight. ‘I am sure our envoy in Seville wants only to assist the junta in every way in his power.’
‘I am sure.’ The two men stared at each other, before Velarde smiled. ‘I am glad you are safe and with us again, Guillermo.’
‘Medellín brought death to many and promotion to some. I hear you have seen Espinosa?’
‘He is well and loyal to King Joseph.’
‘No doubt.’ Velarde paused for a moment. ‘I should not trust him too far if I were you.’
‘That is prudent,’ said Hanley. ‘He is a traitor, after all. At least to somebody.’
‘As you say. You may not be the only one paying him.’
Velarde laughed and startled the officers near by, who glared at him. He stared back, and they spoke no more until the others lost interest and returned to their own conversations.
‘They are Palafox’s men,’ he said with amused contempt. ‘Foolish enough to believe the pamphlets and want him to guide the country.’
‘Dictatorship?’ said Baynes, as if he had heard the idea for the first time.
‘Leadership.’ Velarde shrugged. ‘At least that is what they would call it. A Caesar to drive the Gauls back to their own benighted country.’
‘You did not answer my question,’ said Hanley.
‘I believe not. However, how could a poor colonel afford the services of a man like Espinosa?’
Cuesta slammed a fist down on the table and for one brief instant stood tall before his shoulders slumped again and his whole body seemed to shrink.
‘I imagine he disagrees,’ said Baynes drily.
Sir Arthur and Don Gregorio had only one common language and since the Spaniard resolutely refused to speak French, his chief of staff acted as interpreter. Negotiations were slow.
‘Little trust, I should guess,’ observed Velarde.
‘Alliance is never easy,’ said Baynes in bland response. ‘Yet it is in mutual interest.’
‘Of our countries, yes. Of individual men, well, that is a different matter.’
There was another disagreement between the generals.
‘Difficult to trust a man who has written asking for you to be replaced,’ said Velarde. ‘Well, I must go. Greater rank brings greater burdens. Good night to you both.’
‘Is that true?’ whispered Hanley after the Spaniard had departed.
There was no denial, which seemed as solid confirmation as there could be. ‘Clever devil, that one,’ said Baynes at last. ‘Wouldn’t trust him an inch, but I do rather like him.’
It was long into the next day before agreement was reached. By the time the British party returned to their own camp the sun was setting.
‘We need ’em, Murray, we need ’em,’ Sir Arthur told his quartermaster general on the ride back to camp. ‘We have an opportunity to strike before the French concentrate their forces. It will not last, but now that London have given us permission to advance into Spain we must achieve something. Without the Spaniards we are simply too few, and we cannot wait for them to shape up.
‘They probably want six months, maybe even a year, before they will be anything like a real army, but by God we need them now, although I am not sure what we will do with ’em if it comes to a fight.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Put them behind stone walls, and I dare say they would defend them, but to manoeuvre with such rabble under fire is impossible. I am afraid we shall find them an encumbrance rather than otherwise, but we cannot do without them. I would wish for a less obstinate fellow at their head, but nothing can be done about that quickly.
‘We also rely on them for food and transport. How much has come in so far?’
‘Very little,’ replied Murray. ‘Certainly far less than we need, let alone than we would wish. Most of the men have been issued biscuit rather than fresh bread or even grain. Meat is not yet so short, but we are consuming our own reserves quickly. Carts and mules are promised, but few have arrived. There is still no means of bringing the reserve ammunition or even the treasury forward from Abrantes.’
Hanley looked at the arid brown fields rolling away on either side. This was a poor country, even before armies began marauding through them. He could not help thinking of Marshal Victor’s letters with their talk of deserts and starvation.
Sir Arthur Wellesley was not inclined to be understanding. ‘We must tell Frere to press the junta to meet their promises. I shall write to Cuesta as well in the strongest terms. He is a difficult, foolish man, but must understand that I cannot advance if my men have no food. I will begin no operation till I have been supplied with the means of transport which the army requires.
‘How do the men behave?’
‘There have been many incidents, sir. The men are hungry and see the villagers as unwilling to help the friends risking their lives to free their country.’
‘So they see this as licence to plunder.’
Murray nodded. ‘All too often.’
‘Infamous. This army cannot bear victory any more than Sir John Moore’s army could bear defeat. The fault is all too often with the officers.’
‘They are hungry too,’ ventured Murray. ‘There have been particular problems with the battalions of detachments. Officers and men do not know each other.’
‘Well, damn them, they must learn or I shall order them to inspect their men each hour, just as I did with Donkin’s brigade after those Irish rogues took to plundering. We must have discipline even if we hang dozens of the rascals. Continue as we are and soon every peasant’s hand will be raised against us as it is against the French.
‘Where is the fellow who is to ride to Wilson?’
Murray was used to his commander’s abrupt changes of subject. ‘Hanley,’ he said, and gestured for him to come forward and ride beside them.
‘Ah yes, I recollect. You go in the hope of receiving more information?’
Hanley nodded. ‘I expect to be contacted on the fifteenth, sir.’
‘Good. The more we know the better. A courier has already gone to Wilson, but you may confirm his instructions and share intelligence with him. Our army will join with the Spanish of General Cuesta at Oropesa and then advance together on Marshal Victor at Talavera. Wilson’s brigade guards our northern flank. He has his Portuguese and some Spanish regiments. I wished for more, but . . .’ Sir Arthur trailed off for a brief moment. ‘That does not matter. We do not believe that Marshal Soult can press against us from that direction so soon. Tell Sir Robert to send word if there is the slightest hint that this is not true. Anything your man tells us in that regard is invaluable.
‘A second Spanish army under General Venegas marches on Madrid from the south. Orders should reach him at the latest three days from now.’ The general glanced at Murray, who nodded in confirmation. ‘Very good. He is to pin the French corps of Sebastiani and King Joseph’s reserves around Toledo. They must face him or Madrid will fall to him. Cuesta and I will march against Victor with more than double his men. He must fight and be beaten or retreat and let us take Madrid.’
It seemed so clear, and so very simple, and yet Hanley struggled to take it all in. In January Sir John Moore’s army had escaped from Corunna on board ship. In March Cuesta was shattered at Medellín. Now, in July, there seemed every prospect that King Joseph would be chased from Madrid once again.
‘Share any information you gain with Wilson. He is to use his initiative and alarm the enemy towards the rear of his right flank, but since the force of his corps is not sufficient to make a serious impression upon the enemy if he is found to be strong in that direction, Sir Robert must act according to circumstances, endeavouring to give the enemy as much jealousy in regard to his operations as possible.
‘But he must also be ready always to respond to new orders – quite possibly to join the main army or cover us more closely. Tell him he must report every day so that I can be sure of his location. He must also assist in every way with regard to supplying the main army.
‘You are clear?’ Hanley nodded. ‘Good. You will ride as soon as you have a fresh horse. Murray will detail an escort from the Fourteenth Light Dragoons.’
Before he left, Murray had another word with him. ‘The general has good reason to insist on Brigadier Wilson reporting to us each day. Sir Robert is . . .’ the colonel struggled to find the right words, ‘particularly inclined to independence. For months he has told the authorities in Lisbon that his Legion is part of the British Army and so not subject to their orders, although he earnestly wishes to co-operate with them. He then tried to convince Sir Arthur that the Legion were Portuguese troops and so not under the control of the British.
‘We really do need him to cover our flank and guard against any surprise from the north.’
‘Will he not do that?’
‘He should,’ said Murray. ‘Indeed he should, and probably will. Yet he is by nature a gambler and may not tell us if he scents the prospect of some dramatic stroke.’ Murray smiled ruefully. ‘You were not to know, Hanley, but in many ways it is to be regretted that Wilson received the chest of gold smuggled to him by the lady.’
‘I understood the money went to the Spanish at Ciudad Rodrigo.’
‘Well, some of it probably did. Some went to pay Sir Robert’s soldiers and secure supplies and new clothing for them. It means we have one less means of exerting control over him.’
‘Where did the money come from?’ asked Hanley, who had simply assumed it was sent by the Spanish high command to their garrison.
‘The junta in Seville.’ Murray spread his hands. ‘Or at least someone or some group in the junta. I fear we began this war with the grave misapprehension that there actually was a single government or leadership guiding the Spanish cause. Perhaps they are now reaching the same conviction in regard to us.’
‘I am not sure I follow,’ said Hanley.
‘Sir Robert Wilson and his little band may be readier to join in certain schemes than a British lieutenant general with heavier responsibilities and far greater prudence. Brigadier Wilson has prodigious talent and great dash, but I do not believe he can be accused of prudence.’
A day of hard riding took Hanley to Wilson’s column, where he found Sir Robert enthusiastic and impatient. ‘The Spanish were late and as slow as snails in arriving, while my own fellows spent almost a week repairing worn uniforms, but I am now ready to advance. Praise God, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime. At last we fight this war as we should.’
The messenger from Espinosa was already waiting, held in custody after announcing himself a friend at the outposts.
‘Soult is given command of Ney and Mortier as well as his own corps and is to prepare for a fresh occupation of northern Portugal. He is tasked with capturing Braganza,’ said Hanley as he summarised the letters.
‘Good. That will keep Soult far away and unable to intervene.’ The news did not appear to come as a surprise, and Hanley had the sense that Sir Robert was feigning interest. ‘The man brought duplicates directly to me,’ he explained. ‘I suspect that rogue Espinosa is receiving double pay for the same documents. It does not do any harm to review what he says just to ensure that he tells us both the same, but I am already planning accordingly.
‘Who knows,’ he added, and his eyes sparkled with excitement. ‘We may beat everyone else into Madrid.’
Hanley decided to keep one secret, for he guessed that a ciphered note included in the packet of letters gave two addresses where Espinosa might leave a new message before the next monthly delivery. If Sir Robert already knew then no harm was done. If not, then perhaps it would be better to carry the information to Wellesley and Murray first and then pass on anything important to Wilson.
‘General Wellesley did ask me to remind you to stay close to the army.’
‘Oh my dear fellow, of course, of course. But when each of us is close to the city, then I think you will have to race hard to snatch the lead from my little column. I’ll make the French believe there is a third big army coming against them and they will not know which way to face.’ He laughed for sheer joy. ‘We’ll smoke ’em out again, just like last time!’