‘It is a pity we do not have a band,’ said Pritchard Jones as the 3rd Battalion of Detachments paraded ready to march out from Plasencia with the rest of the Third Division. The other two battalions in their brigade each had their musicians who would march at their head playing a spirited tune. ‘Pity we do not have some decent bread as well,’ he added to his assembled company commanders. ‘Sadly we do not, and from today the ration is to be halved. You had better warn the men before it is issued to them.’
Williams did not relish the task, suspecting that many of the men in the Light Company would see him as personally to blame. He knew that he had not won their affection, and yet the weeks at Abrantes and the shorter rest at Plasencia had done much to improve the men’s close and open-order drill. They resented being driven so hard, but dislike or hatred of a lieutenant who made them train when others were resting had become a bond between the three groups. Williams took them on runs and long marches, carrying pack and musket as they did, and the men took fierce delight in competing with the officer. They were turning into a good company, but he was sure they did not thank him for it. It was becoming more and more of an effort not to respond to their hatred in acts of petty vindictiveness.
The army marched early in the morning of 18th July, following the road as it swung gradually back south towards the Tagus. The sun’s heat was savage, beating down like a hammer on the anvil of the hard-baked soil. Mostly the infantry marched in the fields either side of the road, leaving it to the army’s thirty guns, their caissons and wagons and what little transport had been gathered.
A thick cloud of dust hung in the still air. Williams’ new jacket looked a pale sandy colour rather than its bright scarlet. He had folded his new breeches and carried them in his pack along with a pair of soldier’s boots, a spare shirt, drawers, cleaning tools and other necessaries, his Bible, a translation of The Gallic Commentaries and a copy of Tom Jones, which he jealously guarded from Hanley’s predatory glances because it was a book for which Jane MacAndrews had expressed fondness.
Williams stopped to watch the company march past. One of the kilted Highlanders was flagging, his face ruddy and its covering of dust washed by little rivulets of sweat. He looked close to collapse, chest pressed hard by the tight belts of the army’s awkward and uncomfortable pack.
‘Not far now, Patterson,’ he said encouragingly, ‘we will be getting a rest soon. Here, let me carry your musket for a while.’
The soldier looked at him, his face blank, but his eyes suddenly hard. ‘No thank you, sir. I’ll manage, sir.’ The man beside him glanced at his comrade and then at Williams.
‘He’ll be fine, sir, he’ll be fine. No need to trouble yourself, sir.’
There was no point in making an issue of it. ‘Good man. Keep an eye on him, Skerret.’
Patterson staggered on. It was good that they were so determined, and not a man had fallen behind from the company since they crossed into Spain. Yet Williams still found the resentment troubling. He was sure that even the men from other corps had more readily accepted Captain Grant. Would they fight for him?
The colonel stopped his horse alongside.
‘Not as green as Wales,’ he said, as if noticing the brown fields for the first time. ‘I’ll wager you never thought that you would miss the rain, eh?’
‘Or the sea,’ said Williams wistfully. ‘I have never liked being on the water, but to walk beside it gives such peace, even on the rough days.’
‘Well, I imagine it will be hotter work for all of us soon. Do you realise Madrid is little more than seventy miles away? I do not believe they will let us march there unmolested. Still, that is for the days to come. The Light Company has shaped up well.’
‘Thank you, sir. They are good men, even if all would be happier with their own regiments.’ Williams wondered about mentioning his fears.
‘That is true of the whole battalion. You have done well, Mr Williams, so keep on earning such accolades.’ Pritchard Jones leaned down more from the saddle and lowered his voice. ‘It is never easy to lead a company, and harder still when the arrangement is temporary and you are the only officer present. Best not to expect too much after so short a time.’
Williams wondered how much the colonel knew and how he knew it. Was his own worry – or the men’s hostility – so very obvious? If he was visibly lacking in confidence then perhaps that was feeding the poor spirit.
Pritchard Jones straightened up again. ‘We are about to rest for ten minutes around that hamlet. Keep a close eye on the men. The First and Second Battalions have bad reputations for plundering. I do not want us to match them. Good day to you, Mr Williams.’
As far as Williams could see no one had the energy to wander. He suspected the main risk would be when they camped for the day and the men rested and had more opportunity to slip away unseen.
When the march resumed he noticed that Skerret was soon carrying Patterson’s firelock as well as his own, and that Sergeant Rudden of the 43rd had the man’s pack. There was some encouragement in the willingness to help a soldier who was not from his own group.
The second and third days were as blazingly hot as the first. The landscape rolled along with little change and it became hard to judge distance in any way apart from blistered feet and sore muscles. The 3rd Battalion lost a few stragglers, but fewer than some regiments, and this made Pritchard Jones happy. ‘I suspect we have already lost our weakest men.’
Throughout the day another thick dust cloud rose to the south, and by the evening British and Spanish armies were both camped outside Oropesa. There were over fifty thousand men in the combined armies when the advance resumed the next morning. Williams had never seen so large a force. The British followed a northern, lesser road, which wandered across the line of little hills and meant that at times he could look down and see the Spanish columns stretched out on either side of the main road. Once or twice the sun caught the sluggish waters of the Tagus itself.
Talavera was nineteen miles away and the French were still there.
‘Think Marshal Victor has had a bit of a shock, seeing the Dons marching against him so boldly,’ Wickham explained as he stopped to pass the time with the 106th’s officers during one of the hourly halts. ‘We are letting the Spanish take the lead and push in his outposts so that he won’t yet know that we are with them. There is a good chance he will stay to fight.’
‘Well, it will make a change from walking,’ said Billy Pringle, using his sash to rub the grime off his spectacles. He lifted them up and peered at the lenses. ‘Hmm, think I may have made them worse.’ A very faint rumble of cannon fire drifted towards them. ‘Apparently you are right.’
‘There is no need to sound surprised as you say that.’ Wickham laughed, and merriment clearly made him think of something else. He laughed even more. ‘Have any of you fellows received letters from home in the last days?’
‘No, nothing for us,’ said Truscott, flapping his good arm in a vain attempt to brush away the flies buzzing around his face. The tiny insects seemed to multiply with every minute of the day.
Williams simply shook his head, but listened intently.
‘Oh well, perhaps they will come soon,’ said Wickham.
‘If all carriers are not devoted solely to the comfort of the staff, that is,’ quipped Pringle. ‘We mere mortals of the marching regiments live a more frugal life in every way.’
Wickham smiled with the others. ‘Well, if we spend any time in Talavera I believe there is somewhere where I may treat you fellows to a good dinner at least.
‘However, my wife has written and tells me that everything is well with the regiment back in England. There is general satisfaction with the arrival of Colonel FitzWilliam.’
‘You have a connection, I recollect,’ said Truscott.
‘Yes, although less close than perhaps it ought to be. I doubt that decided his choice on purchasing command!’
‘Any other news?’ asked Hopwood.
‘There is general amusement at the tales of Mr Williams here and his romantic exploits – nights at the theatre in the company of such a “distinguished” lady companion. I believe you are now seen as quite the roistering young blade.’ Wickham clearly thought it hilarious and almost all the other officers were equally beside themselves with laughter. Pringle was amused because it was so ridiculous. Truscott merely smiled faintly, for he both knew Maria and the truth of the matter and also disapproved of open vulgarity. Hatch mingled triumph with almost hysterical laughter. His letter had worked and he knew now that this was a way to hurt his enemy. He would write again soon, and damn the truth if he could not dream up better stories to tell.
Williams said nothing, but could no longer bear to stay with them. He turned and walked back towards his company.
‘Off for another conquest, no doubt.’ Hopwood laughed without any malice.
Williams struggled to hold down his surging temper. Worries of Miss MacAndrews being swept away by the dashing and wealthy new colonel were now overwhelmed by the horror that she would hear these stories and think him faithless. He wanted to believe that she was wiser than that and knew him better than to believe him a rake. Yet for all her intelligence and wit, Jane MacAndrews was both young and of high spirits. Williams still winced at the memory of her rage when he had proposed marriage in Corunna.
The drums began to beat.
‘On your feet!’ bellowed Williams at the Light Company. ‘Up, you idle rabble, up!’ The men responded to the bark of command even though they were surprised and baffled by the ferocity of his onslaught. His two sergeants happened to be next to each other and exchanged glances, but knew enough to join in.
‘Fall in!’ shouted Rudden.
‘Get moving!’ called McNaught in his hoarse voice.
A few moments later the Highlander sergeant stamped to attention in front of Williams and yelled his report. ‘Company fallen in and ready to move, sir!’
Williams returned the salute absent-mindedly, but merely grunted in acknowledgement. They were at the rear of the battalion’s column and it was taking longer for the other companies to prepare. He took the briefest of pleasures in that.
‘Carry on, Sergeant. We shall be moving in a moment.’
As they marched the wind picked up a little. It brought no relief from the heat, and instead the hot air swirled the dust around and blew it into faces and eyes. At times it carried the distant popping of musketry as the Spanish vanguard skirmished with the French. Then a brigade of light dragoons passed them at the trot and flung up even more muck and dust into the breeze.
‘Damned donkey-wallopers,’ muttered one of the men from the 43rd.
‘Silence in the ranks!’ snapped Williams for no other reason than that he felt like shouting.
They marched on, and he brooded and once again wondered whether he had lost the only woman he had ever loved. Another letter from his sister might tell him more of Miss MacAndrews’ mood, and then he worried that the news would be bad.
He noticed that one of the convalescents had stepped out of the ranks and was leaning on his musket, panting for breath. For a moment Williams wanted to savage the man for his weakness or ignore him rather than risk another snub. He took a deep breath.
‘Come on, Hawkins, let me help you. Give me your musket.’ The redcoat handed over the firelock with some reluctance, but looked so ready to drop that it was a relief to pass it across. Williams slung the musket over his own. ‘Now, lean on me.’ They followed the company. Hawkins was a small man, so that it was a little awkward to reach up and put his arm round Williams’ shoulder.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.
McNaught dropped back from his station behind the rear rank. ‘I’ll take his other side, sir. Hughes!’ He called to another of the recovered convalescents. ‘Get his pack off. Carry it for ten minutes then pass it on to someone else.’
‘Well done, Sergeant.’
‘It’s my job, sir,’ came the blunt reply.
They marched past the town with its medieval walls, but did not go closer than threading their way through some lanes running between walled gardens. Following the light dragoons, the Third Division marched across a wide rolling plain of parched yellow grass. There were a few Spanish outposts ahead of them, but most of Cuesta’s army was farther south.
For a while the Third Division halted, and the men were given permission to sit on their packs and rest. Few had water left in their canteens and a stream running across their path proved to have dried up apart from a few foul-looking pools infested with insects. Snakes slithered in the grass along its banks, and one the 43rd gave a yell when he tipped a big stone and uncovered a couple of scorpions.
The redcoats were more careful after that. Some started looking for the poisonous creatures and fashioned little nooses out of thread. Then, when one man tipped over a stone, another looped the noose around the creature’s tail. A quick prod with a stick and the scorpion arched its tail over its head ready to sting. The noose was pulled tight and the beast was caught. In half an hour, several dozen were hung up and left dangling from branches on trees.
‘Serve the little sods right,’ said a redcoat with the yellow facings and back badge on his shako of the 28th Foot.
Gallopers rode up to the divisional commander, Major General MacKenzie, who then summoned the commander of his second brigade. Fifteen minutes later the men were marching forward again, most stepping gingerly in the grass now that the word of snakes had spread.
They advanced for a mile and found themselves among rows of vines and clusters of cork trees. There was the sound of artillery firing. Williams counted five, perhaps six, guns, which suggested a battery, and from the direction they were probably Spanish. He could see nothing of the fighting, but more guns responded.
‘Sounds as if the French are not going back too quickly,’ he said to McNaught.
The sergeant seemed to think about it, and Williams was not sure whether he was going to reply at all.
‘Aye,’ said the Highlander, as if at the end of long consideration. ‘They took some shifting in Egypt. We did it, though.’
‘That you did.’
‘Aye.’ No more seemed to be forthcoming.
The battalion halted, as did the only other visible battalion from the brigade. Williams could see the Grenadier Company of the 1/45th Foot over to their left. The regiment had green facings and a high reputation for discipline. He could barely see the end of the Battalion of Detachments’ own line in the other direction, and nothing of the 2/31st beyond them to the right.
As the sun dropped down over the horizon the trees cast long shadows and soon it was too dark to see much at all. Piquets went forward from each battalion, but after half an hour orders were passed for the remainder to stand down.
‘No fires,’ said Pritchard Jones.
‘Good,’ muttered Pringle to Williams, ‘at least that will stop Jenkins from concocting his foul brew.’
There was also no food, apart from whatever was left in the men’s packs, and there was little enough of that. A few still had remnants of hard tack. There was water from the River Albreche, some way to the front, but strict orders were given for only small parties of men to take bundles of canteens forward and fill them.
The night turned cold. Until the moon rose there was only a pale starlight. Men did their best to check their muskets and flints and look to their equipment. Williams could hear rhythmic scraping from all around him as men worked obsessively on their bayonets, honing the points. The sound was reassuring and reminded him of other nights before an action. Men worked in quiet determination as if the better the point the better they would fight, and in desperation, as if a sharp bayonet would keep them alive.
A strangely high-pitched gurgle squeezed on to the night air.
‘Skerret, you pig,’ said someone.
‘I’m hungry,’ said a plaintive voice in justification.
More squeaks and gurgles followed and then a sudden explosive breaking of wind.
‘That’s told them Frenchies we’re here!’
They were woken at three in the morning – at least those who had managed to get any sleep. Bugles and drums were forbidden and sergeants went around shaking each man by the shoulder. All around were the distinctly masculine noises of waking, as redcoats yawned and groaned, stretched and scratched, and finally stamped or rubbed life into their limbs. The Third Division’s women had been ordered to stay with the baggage train outside the town itself.
‘The French are on the high ground east of the river,’ explained Pritchard Jones to his officers. ‘We march south and join the First Division to attack across the fords. The Spanish will be to the south again, on our right. Together we outnumber Victor’s men more than two to one. Even if they realise we are coming they will not be able to stop a determined assault.
‘Back to your companies. The Thirty-first will lead off in column and we will follow.’
It was still too early for much talk in the ranks. The men marched in silence, but Williams could feel their tense excitement because it mirrored his own feelings. Fear remained a vague, lurking presence on the edge of his mind, and he imagined French volleys or blasts of canister from their guns scything through the battalion as they splashed through the river.
The route was not simple, winding between vineyards, copses and scrub. Several times they halted and waited, not knowing why they were delayed. The sky grew lighter. It was an hour before they were in position, ready to advance through a line of cork trees beyond which was the river. The sun rose red and brooding behind the black pillars of smoke from the French campfires.
The 3rd Battalion waited, formed in ranks, but with the men standing at ease. Nothing happened. They heard a French sentry giving a distant challenge of ‘qui vive!’, but then it was silent again. As the sun climbed higher the heat grew. Williams could feel sweat all down his spine. He never sweated on his face, but any warmth soon made his back wet with perspiration.
Bugles sounded and drums beat in the French camp without any particular urgency. Pritchard Jones and the other battalion commanders were summoned by General MacKenzie.
Williams and the rest of the battalion waited. They were all hungry, having gone more than a day without hot food and very little that was cold.
Pritchard Jones rode back and reached the Light Company on the left of his battalion first. ‘It’s called off,’ he said to Williams as he passed. ‘It seems the Spanish are not coming.’ He spoke calmly, as if this were a minor change to social plans between a few intimate friends. ‘Our brigade is to stay here for the moment and remain stood to.’
Williams felt flat and very tired.
‘Any chance of some hot food, sir?’ asked Sergeant Rudden.
‘Not yet,’ he replied. ‘Not until we are relieved.’
Williams felt the brief relenting of the men’s hostility was fading as quickly as the prospect of an engagement. Well, damn them, he thought, and damn the Spanish, and damn whoever was gossiping about him back in England. Damn Jane MacAndrews too, if she believed such lies about him. His rebellious anger lasted all of five minutes.