Black smoke blew dirty embers into Williams’ eyes and made him blink.
‘On reflection, it may have been unwise,’ he said to a captain from the 5/60th foot, whose green-jacketed riflemen extended the piquet line on the flank of the Light Company.
‘Too much of a temptation,’ said the captain. It was four days after the aborted attack and Williams and the 3rd Battalion of Detachments were once again on the west bank of the Alberche. ‘The lads would not like to think of the Frenchies sleeping snugly in their old camp.’
Marshal Victor’s men had made themselves very comfortable during their stay, running up row on row of little thatched huts. The British had now burned them because the French were coming back. Williams had also felt that the redcoats – and many officers – had enjoyed the simple boyish destructiveness of setting torches to the roofs. Then the wind picked up and blew strongly from the east, sweeping the clouds of thick smoke across the river. As outposts of the division, the Light Company could see very little.
The Spanish were behind them once again, having passed through them earlier in the day. On 24th July General Cuesta had led his army in pursuit of the French. The British stayed at Talavera. Sir Arthur would not advance until the promised supplies and transport were delivered and none had appeared. Daily rations were reduced once again. In three days the Spanish were back, chased by a heavily reinforced Marshal Victor, and the Third Division was part of a British covering force sent out to protect them as they retreated. The redcoats burned the old French huts because they were there, and because it would have seemed a shame to let them stand.
‘If you will excuse me, I had better check on my left flank,’ said Williams.
‘Well, good day to you. Do not forget that we’ll be going back any minute now so make sure the order is passed along.’
Williams passed Rudden. ‘Anything to report, Sergeant?’
‘No, sir. Can’t see a lot, though.’ There was the faintest hint of disapproval in his voice, as if Williams were personally responsible for the smoke.
‘I know. Be ready to pull back to the brigade.’
The brigade major appeared, riding carefully between the stunted trees and scrub. With him was Hanley, who hailed his friend and dismounted to walk with him as the piquet line pulled back.
‘What news?’ asked Williams as soon as the Light Company was formed up and moving. He let McNaught lead them, and walked at the rear.
‘The French are coming. Forty-five, maybe fifty thousand of them with King Joseph and Sebastiani’s corps as well as our old friend Marshal Victor.’
Williams whistled softly. The numbers were daunting, far bigger than anything he had ever seen. With the Spanish and British there might soon be almost one hundred thousand men meeting to shoot and stab each other. ‘Will the Spanish fight?’ he asked.
‘Cuesta was all for making a stand on the other bank of the river.’
Williams shook his head at such folly.
‘It took hours for Wellesley to persuade him to cross to this side,’ continued Hanley. ‘The old man is boasting that he made Sir Arthur go down on his knees and beg.’
‘Why?’ Williams was genuinely baffled.
‘Well, he has so few victories to his name.’
‘Maybe Dobson and I should not have rescued the old fool.’
Hanley laughed. There was a simplicity about his friend which was so very refreshing after the last few days. ‘He is grateful. Indeed, there is a gift waiting for you – at least if any of his staff remember about it. It is a fine Andalusian mare.’
‘Side of beef might be more welcome.’ Williams and the others had watched the Spanish drovers and servants driving large flocks of sheep and herds of pigs and cattle ahead of their army. Their allies appeared to be enjoying everything they failed to provide for the redcoats.
The Light Company marched for a mile, following the main track through the trees until they reached a patch of more open ground filled with parties of redcoats. Several battalions were there, their arms piled into neat pyramids, their packs off and laid out in rows for each company. Some groups had already lit fires and were starting to cook, although no doubt the stews they were making were short on everything apart from water and wistful hope.
‘Looks like we are settling in for a while,’ said Williams. It was barely one o’clock and seemed too early to halt for the night, but perhaps they would rest for a few hours. ‘Will you stay and see Billy?’
‘Afraid not, so give him my best.’ Hanley had spotted the general and his staff riding up to a walled farmhouse with a pair of high towers. No doubt Sir Arthur wanted to look out from the position and see whether there were signs of the enemy. ‘I had better report to Colonel Murray.’
Williams watched his friend ride away and then glanced back the way they had come. There were small groups of soldiers stood to arms as an outpost line to protect the camp. The men were not far away, on the edge of the clearing where the groves of low trees again started to become thick.
‘Sergeant Rudden, Sergeant McNaught!’ he called. ‘Would you join me for a moment.’
The two sergeants looked startled to be summoned. Williams suspected they were wondering what new folly their officer had dreamed up to keep them and the men from rest. Nevertheless, discipline took over, and the two NCOs marched over to join him. ‘Corporal, lead the men in, we shall catch you up shortly.’
Williams pointed along the line of outposts. ‘What do you think of our piquets?’ he asked. ‘Would the Forty-third have them posted there?’ He wanted Rudden’s advice for his regiment had been trained as light troops by Sir John Moore himself. McNaught was experienced, but was a battalion company man. Even so he saw the same thing that Williams had spotted.
‘They cannot see anything,’ he said with his usual air of long deliberation.
‘Yes, it would not have done at Shorncliffe,’ added Rudden. ‘The line should be farther out or the bivouac set up farther back. And that is fine for the support line, but I did not see sentries set in advance. There should be an outpost line. One man can see as well as ten so individuals should be farther out to give early warning. I doubt that any of our sentries can see the river and the fords. Not with the smoke, any road.’ He thought for a moment, judging whether or not to ask a question, but the officer seemed to want his opinion. ‘Do we expect the French, sir?’
‘They are close, that we do know. I confess I do not know how close. There may be no immediate danger, but . . .’ Williams made up his mind. ‘When we reach the battalion let the men stand at ease, but keep them together, keep their packs on and muskets with them.’
‘The laddies will not thank us, sir,’ said McNaught. ‘It’s been a long day.’
Williams grinned at him. ‘Then blame the officer – and pray I am wrong. Join the company. I shall find the colonel and see if something can be done.’
Hanley ran up the spiral staircase to the tower. He had just glimpsed Velarde tying up his horse in the yard and ducked into the doorway of the tower before he was spotted. There were no other Spanish officers around and he wondered what the man was doing here. Hanley himself was waiting for a message. The priest had told him to go to the Casa de Salinas three miles east of the town and wait for a messenger from two o’clock.
The steps wound around in a tight circle and seemed to go on and on. His thighs ached and he was breathing hard, so that it was a great relief to see the bright light of day and come out on to the top of the tower. Sir Arthur was looking with his glass towards the east and with him were Stewart, General MacKenzie and a staff officer he did not recognise.
‘Oh, hello, Hanley,’ said Stewart affably. ‘Anything to report?’
‘No, sir, I was looking for Colonel Murray.’
‘In the other tower. Too much of a squeeze to fit us all in here. Still, now that you have joined us take a squint through your glass and tell us if you can see anything, because I am damned if I can.’
Hanley did as he was told, looking out of the opening facing northwards, since the other three men filled the one looking east towards the French.
‘Have we seen anything apart from cavalry, MacKenzie?’ barked Wellesley in sudden question.
‘Only cavalry patrols so far, Sir Arthur,’ came the reply.
Hanley waved to Murray in the tower at the far corner of the courtyard, but could not attract his attention. He glanced down, but could not spot Velarde anywhere below, and so obeyed his instructions and panned the telescope over the redcoats milling in the camp. It was always strange to see men shouting, laughing and singing and yet be too far away to hear the noise. A file of Germans in their green coats faced with red, and grey trousers, jogged through the tent lines, their short rifles held at the trail. Another group – redcoats with yellow facings this time – walked along carrying pails of water. Farther ahead he saw the line of outposts. Thin smoke drifted between the trees beyond them and he spotted some soldiers in blue with tall green and yellow plumes walking casually back towards the camp.
Another quick look down into the courtyard and there was still no sign of the Spanish officer, but Hanley did see a civilian in a dark green jacket and russet headscarf strolling confidently through the open gate. The man was one of Espinosa’s couriers. He could not see Velarde, and then a chill thought struck him.
Hanley lifted his telescope again and looked where he had seen the men in blue. There was no sign of them, for the smoke was blowing thickly again. Then something wavered on the edge of vision and he shifted his gaze, focused and saw them clearly – wide-topped shakos with high, nodding plumes, green epaulettes, white belts and blue tunic and trousers. There could be no doubt.
‘French voltigeurs, sir!’ Hanley had not meant to shout, but needed to draw the generals’ attention and his voice ended up louder than he had meant.
‘Don’t be a damned fool,’ said Stewart.
‘Where?’ cut in Sir Arthur.
‘There, sir!’ Hanley pointed. ‘Just beyond our piquet line.’
‘By God, you are right,’ said Sir Arthur and the first volley rippled along the edge of the scrub.
Redcoats dropped. Hanley was looking straight at a man wearing his white shirt and carrying his jacket over his shoulder and suddenly there was a wide red stain spreading across his back and his arms went high and wide, head back, as the man toppled forward.
Another volley of some thirty or so muskets and then isolated, aimed shots from skirmishers. More men fell. Others stood staring dumbly at the enemy, who had come from nowhere.
‘By God, they are French,’ said Stewart in a strained voice.
A ragged line of French light infantrymen advanced through the scrub and into the clearing. They halted and a sergeant dressed the three-deep line as an officer swished his sabre impatiently on the flank of his company. More shots came from skirmishers, and another formed company pushed its way through a grove of cork trees. The French light infantry reached back to draw their bayonets and screw them to the muzzles of their muskets. Light glinted off the points. The officer raised his sword and the line came forward.
The British were not ready. The piquets were weak and several had already been overrun. A few men died when they tried to fight, but they were still sluggish with surprise, and slowed the enemy not at all. Most gave in and were pushed to the rear under the guard of a few French sentries.
The men in the camp had no weapons. Some fell beneath the bayonets of the advancing French or held up their hands and were taken prisoner if the first Frenchman to reach them was calm and under orders, or were stabbed when the enemy were not and the passion of the attack was too great.
Most ran. They could not fight and several quickly saw no reason to die or be taken without purpose. Redcoats fled, stamping through or jumping over campfires and barging anyone out of their way. They ignored the shouts of officers and sergeants or even their friends and they ran. More and more joined them. Hundreds were fleeing.
The French pushed onwards, killing anyone who tried to stop them. Skirmishers still fired and men died as they ran. Hanley saw one pitched into a cooking fire and even from this distance could hear his screams as his clothes caught fire and he tried to roll and douse the flames. No one helped him. A whole brigade had gone from an ordered camp to a fleeing mob in a matter of moments.
‘Time to go, gentlemen,’ said Sir Arthur, and bounded towards the doorway. Stewart and MacKenzie followed him. Hanley waited, knowing the stairs were narrow and transfixed by the scene. There was something unreal about watching from this high tower, like a spectator in the Roman arena. Thank God the French could not get cavalry through the thickets for the British were helpless. Hanley turned to go, and saw more French coming round from the other side, and fear gripped him for he might have left it too late and had no wish to be a prisoner again.
He bounded down the stairs, slipped, banged hard against a wall, but kept going down and somehow recovered his balance so that he pelted out through the door and into the courtyard. A body lay beside the wall, and he saw that it was Espinosa’s messenger, and it seemed an age ago that he had spotted the man. His pockets were turned out and there was a ghastly wound to his neck which left a pool of blood around him.
A musket banged from close by and plaster was flicked from the farm wall beside him as a ball dug into it. Hanley knew the dead man had had his throat cut by a blade and not a shot, but he could not wait longer and ran for his horse, glancing behind him to see a single French light infantryman kneeling in the gateway to the east. Then with a shout half a dozen more Frenchmen appeared and began to level their muskets.
Hanley ran for his horse. Sir Arthur and the other senior officers were already mounted. He saw Murray among them, and then Hanley unhitched his own mount, struggling to hold it as shots flew past so close that he could feel them snapping through the air. The general and his staff set off at a canter through the far gateway. Hanley had a foot in the stirrup, and hauled himself up as his mount started to trot after them. He lost his balance, his right foot slammed down on to the ground again, but he managed to turn this into a bounce and swung himself up. There were shouts from the French, running footsteps, and then Hanley was in the saddle, his right foot over the horse but swinging free, and there was no time to look for the stirrup and he kicked his horse hard, so that it ran on, and he grabbed its mane with one hand to keep himself on as the animal jerkily pounded through the gateway after the senior officers.
Williams met the brigade major before he found Pritchard Jones.
‘Oh, I shouldn’t worry yourself about that,’ came the reply when he explained his concern. ‘We shall not be here all that long. Just an hour or two until the Spanish are out of our way.’ Then he noticed a captain of the 31st walking past and immediately gave him a warm greeting. ‘Oh, hello, Ned, good to see you.’
The captain’s head was jerked back as a neat hole was punched in his forehead. The ball continued and ripped a great chunk out of the rear of his skull, spraying blood and brains like a burst wineskin. Williams heard the bang of the shot almost immediately and that meant it was close.
He ran back towards his company, pulling his musket from his shoulder as he did so. He saw Frenchmen off to his left, but ignored them, and there were plenty of others to keep them busy. The camp stirred like a disturbed anthill and there was a strange buzzing noise as men asked what was going on or shouted to each other. Then they started to run. Williams heard French cheers and shouted orders, and the sound of rustling as redcoats fled through the long grass and scrub.
Some redcoats were formed two deep, the front rank kneeling, and as Williams sprinted towards them he saw the white facings, and then spotted Rudden. The line fired a disciplined volley, blanketing their front in white smoke. There were more redcoats to their right in another group, and then beyond them McNaught and his Highlanders.
‘Well done!’ Williams called to Rudden as he reached the line. The men were loading, ramrods scraping in barrels as they thrust down. ‘Keep at it.’
There was no one to their left. Williams glanced in the other direction and saw green-jacketed riflemen. He was about to order Rudden’s men to wheel back and face at more of an angle to cover the open flank until he saw another company of the green-jacketed Germans running up to extend the line. Their captain smiled as he passed. ‘Uninvited guests, ja!’
The 3rd Battalion of Detachments ran, just like all the other battalions save one. The Light Company fought alongside the Germans of the 5/60th for a good ten minutes. They gave a little ground, but not much, and Williams lost only one man wounded in the leg. He wondered why the French did not push harder, but so far he had seen only men in the blue of the light infantry so perhaps there was only one regiment close enough to attack. If so then it had done enough damage. Over to the left Williams could see dozens of bundles of red rags dotted in the grass throughout the camp. More had been taken.
The Germans began to cheer and Williams turned back to see an intact battalion advancing steadily to support them. Beside the big union flag or King’s Colour was a Regimental Colour with a deep green field matching the shade of the men’s facings. That meant the 1/45th, who had a reputation as a disciplined and steady corps.
Williams blew his whistle. ‘Send out skirmishers!’ he ordered, and half of the Light Company ran forward of the line, spreading themselves into a chain. The men moved as pairs, just as they had practised, and when one man fired his companion waited for him to reload before discharging his own weapon.
‘Forward!’ The rest of the company formed the supports to protect against a determined enemy attack and to feed men forward into the firing line if there were casualties. Three groups of a dozen men, each formed two deep, marched through the grass.
Williams did not go far. The French gave ground a little. Skirmishers fired on both sides and bullets thumped into the many vines and cork trees, which gave both sides good cover. Few men fell on either side. Patterson of the Highlanders had the tip of his nose torn off by a ball just as he turned to talk to his rear rank man. He screamed a stream of Gaelic oaths at the French, and at his comrades, many of whom could not resist laughing.
‘Always sticking your nose in the wrong place, Pat!’ called one.
The enemy were far from beaten and kept up a steady fire, but had not been reinforced. The British were able to recover the packs and muskets abandoned in the camp and pick up most of their wounded. Then they began to withdraw.
A somewhat chagrined brigade major ordered Williams back to his battalion. ‘Leave the riflemen to cover with the Forty-fifth as supports,’ he said. ‘And well done, old boy. Pity I didn’t see what you saw.’
The Light Company marched back and found Pritchard Jones forming the other companies in column at half-distance. Williams brought his men into their correct position at the rear. They swaggered into the formation, conscious that they were the only ones to stand their ground and hold the enemy back.
Sergeant Major Fisher stamped to attention and reported to the colonel that five men from a water-carrying party were missing, presumed taken, one dead and seven wounded. A dozen casualties was much less than in the three corps that had taken the brunt of the attack. Few French had come near the 3rd Battalion of Detachments, but the officers and men had fallen into confusion anyway and fled with the rest.
‘Bloody shambles,’ said Pringle in the brief moment he and Williams had to talk. ‘Never seen anything like it.’ All of the grenadiers had kept their muskets, even during the flight, but the battalion had gone back four or five hundred yards before anyone could get them to stop. ‘Wellesley himself galloped up to rally us. We were all trying to show we didn’t need his help and had it all in hand. Hanley was with him, so at least he managed not to get captured this time!’
Sergeant Major Fisher raised his voice. ‘’Talion, ’shun!’
Williams and Pringle dashed back to their companies, the grenadiers at the front and the lights at the rear of the column.
The 3rd Battalion of Detachments and the rest of the Third Division marched back towards the town in sullen silence, ashamed of the suddenness with which they had collapsed.
One of the Highlanders started to whistle a Scottish air. It was a familiar tune, and soon all the Light Company joined in, even Private Patterson, with a bandage tied around his face and over his nose. The other companies strode on silently through the dry grass and scrub.