Chapter 25

The French tried again in daylight. The same division launched its three regiments up the slopes of the Medellín. There was an early morning mist down in the valley. On the lower hill held by the enemy there were also French guns, some sixty of them placed in a long line each one ten yards apart so that the battery stretched all along the top of the hill and down on to the plain. Their smoke fed the mist and made one great drifting cloud, so for a long time Hanley could not see the columns advancing.

Roundshot scarred the earth, flinging up dirt and stones and sometimes bloody fragments of the men caught in their path. Shells exploded in a circle of jagged metal shards. The British infantry were ordered to lie down, and this and the slope itself made them difficult targets for the French gunners. Yet France’s emperor was himself a gunner, and so was Marshal Victor, and the French artillery boasted that they were the finest in the world. Difficult did not mean impossible. Battery commanders ordered the crews to reduce the powder in each charge and so the balls no longer sank deep into the soil or bounced high overhead, but skidded lightly up the slope, grazing past it. The redcoats died or were maimed by ones and twos and many shots were fired before one struck home, but the enemy kept firing and none of the men on the hill had ever seen or heard so many French guns pounding away. This was the Emperor’s way of war, deluging one stretch of the enemy line with fire, pulverising it so that the stunned survivors cracked when his infantry struck like a hammer at the weakened spot.

Every now and again there was a slight pause in the appalling crashing and destruction of the guns, and it seemed so unreal that Hanley wondered whether his ears were too beaten to hear anything until he caught the faint sound of drums and cheering. He knew the sound of French infantry advancing from Vimeiro and he had seen them beaten there, but then there had not been so many guns. The barrage resumed and the redcoats on the hill suffered.

The sixty guns pounded the Medellín. Hanley saw a shell explode squarely on a line of prone figures. The man in the front rank had the back of his skull sheared off by a whirling fragment of the casing. To the right another man’s back was ripped open, while on the left a redcoat screamed because one leg had gone beneath the knee and the other was a mangled mess of broken bone and flesh. The sergeant in his place behind the double rank lay dead without a mark on him. In the middle of it all a soldier sat up, and could not believe that he was unharmed. The man shook as they dragged the dead and wounded back and closed up the formation, but took his place lying down again in line.

The guns ceased fire as they were blocked by their own infantry pushing up the slope. Skirmishers from each side fought their own private battle amid the mist and smoke. The British held back the French voltigeurs, but had to give way as the main columns came close. Bugles called, whistles blew, and officers and sergeants shouted for the light bobs to fall back on to the main line. They went reluctantly, stopping to fire down the slope. Men dropped in the front ranks of the columns, but they were far too few to hold them up.

‘Damn their filing, let them come in anyhow,’ shouted General Hill, impatient because the light companies were retreating so slowly that they were in the way of his main line.

Colonel Murray laughed out loud. Hanley did not understand.

‘That’s the first time I have ever heard Daddy Hill swear,’ Murray explained. ‘Damned good work by the way, getting those dispatches.’ It was not the first time the colonel had congratulated him on getting the package from Espinosa. ‘Puts us in a tight spot,but at least we know what is happening and can try to figure a way out. First thing is to beat Victor, of course!’

Orders were shouted and the battalions stood up, dressed ranks and prepared to meet the enemy. Hanley saw more than one soldier cross himself. Others knocked the embers out of pipes they had somehow managed to smoke as they lay under the pounding of the guns.

The French drums were clear now that the noise had slackened, every pause in the rhythm filled by chanting. Men from the light companies and German riflemen from the 60th jogged back through the gaps between the battalions to reform.

Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!’ shouted the French infantrymen, faces red and hearts pounding as they slogged up the slope towards the waiting enemy.

‘Come on, we have work to do,’ said Murray to Hanley and the other officers with him. ‘Can’t just stay here and watch the fun.’ He led them away behind the line to a point where they could see the valley to the north of the Medellín. There was high ground covered in scrub on the far side, but the valley itself was fairly open and could offer the French a way around the Allied position.

The French drums and chanting rose to a crescendo behind them. The enemy was close.

‘Good, it’s clear,’ said Murray. There was no sign of any French troops in the valley.

Hanley flinched as a sound like thick cloth being ripped violently in two erupted from behind them. He had heard volleys before, had stood in the ranks of the 106th as the noise battered at his senses, but even so it took him by surprise.

‘Our fellows,’ said Murray, as if commenting on a cricket match.

A few shots replied, then a smaller, ragged volley.

‘The French.’

A cheer came faintly on the air, and Hanley thought how odd it was that you could tell it was British even without catching any words. Each nation seemed to shout in its own distinctive way. There were more heavy battalion volleys, and the steady drum roll of platoon volleys as individual companies fired by alternate sections, so that fire flickered up and down the whole line.

‘Someone’s showing off,’ muttered Murray.

There were more British cheers, much nearer this time, and the closest turned into a long scream of rage. Hanley imagined the men surging forward, rushing at the enemy.

‘That should do it,’ said the colonel. ‘Thompson, you stay and keep an eye on things here. Sir Arthur is to be informed instantly if any French formations approach the valley.’ The staff officer nodded. ‘We shall go and look at the other side.’ Murray set off towards the crest. At the highest point Hanley glanced down and could see redcoats streaming down the slope, Frenchmen in blue running ahead of them. The attack was clearly shattered and once the French were far enough downhill the guns resumed.

‘Warming up,’ said Murray with a mischievous grin. He reined in where they could look to the south. This time the land was not empty. They could see all of Wellesley’s army stretched across the plain, with the infantry in two lines, the second line much smaller than the first, and the cavalry brigades behind them. Hanley tried to make out the 3rd Battalion of Detachments, but knew that he was only guessing. Beyond them were the Spanish, barely visible among the groves and enclosures on the edge of Talavera itself.

The line of the Portina stream was hard to follow. Hanley could see a few glimmers off the little pools left in some stretches, but otherwise guessed where the brook ran from the denser growth of bushes around it. For most of its line it was ahead of the British position, before it curved down towards Talavera itself.

It was easy to see the French. The whole wide plain to the east was covered in battalion after battalion. Hanley counted at least thirty and more were arriving. Dust clouds showed the approach of new units still marching to join the army. There were cavalry too, probing to the south in front of the Spanish position or waiting in reserve. The ground was not open, and sometimes the French columns disappeared among the groves and orchards, betrayed only by the glint of sunlight on musket barrels and bayonets.

Hanley had never seen so many soldiers and so many guns. He knew the numbers, and had known for days that there would be as many French as there were British and Spanish soldiers combined, and yet somehow nothing had prepared him for actually seeing the great host waiting.

‘Veterans in the main,’ said Murray, beside him. ‘Or what is left of the veterans each time Napoleon wins a victory and pays a bloody price for it. Well, at least they’ll be confident, and more likely to make a mistake.’

Hanley found it hard to be encouraged. There were so many of the enemy and they seemed to know what they were doing. Everyone told him that they would not attack Cuesta’s army and that his raw soldiers were not capable of advancing to threaten the French. So the whole weight of this massive army would hit the British sooner or later.

‘Five divisions,’ said Murray, lowering his glass after a long look at the French positions. ‘Oh, and the one that has already attacked twice. We’ve given them a mauling, but should not count them out. And plenty of cavalry if they do break through. Not a bad little army,’ he said with cheerful admiration.

‘Well, we had better report to the general and find out what he needs doing.’

They went back up to the summit for Murray had spotted the general and his staff sitting their horses up there. The French gunners had ceased fire and the silence seemed unnaturally still, almost as overwhelming as the noise of the fighting.

Hanley’s horse stepped carefully. There were bodies everywhere. Some had not been gathered from the night’s fighting, but many were fresh. Higher up the hill they were mainly in red, until red and blue mingled at a gruesome high-water mark of the French assault, and lowest of all the corpses were all in blue.

Murray went to tell the general what he had seen and the others waited a few paces to the rear. Baynes nodded cheerfully to Hanley. Velarde was with him, stubble thick on his chin. The sight made Hanley reach up to rub his own face and feel the bristles. There had been no time to shave. The merchant and the Spanish colonel came over to join him.

Sir Arthur Wellesley looked as neat and well groomed as ever, in spite of the fact that he had slept rolled in his cloak on the hilltop. Perhaps that was an advantage of being a general and having servants, and yet Hanley was left with the impression that it was largely a matter of willpower. Sir Arthur could not conceive of ever being less than immaculately turned out, and so it happened. Hanley hoped he could not conceive of being beaten and could somehow work the same magic.

‘They must come on again,’ said the general decisively. He had beckoned them closer now that Murray had completed his report. ‘We need to fight them here and give them a drubbing. Time is on their side, for it seems that old fox Soult is back and will be behind us within a week. I cannot fight him and these two corps at the same time, and so I must beat them now and be free to turn against Soult. The only question is whether or not they will attack with all their force and let me thrash them.’

‘King Joseph must be worried by the news that Venegas is approaching Madrid,’ said Colonel Murray.

‘Do we know that he has received that dispatch from his governor in Toledo?’ Sir Arthur sniffed with amusement at the thought that he was reading the King’s letters before the monarch himself.

‘He ought to have them today if they have not already arrived,’ said Murray.

‘We could make sure that he does.’ Baynes looked at each of them in turn.

‘Without risk of discovery?’ The general’s question was sharp and to the point.

‘With slight risk.’

‘Will it make Joseph run or fight?’

‘Probably he must fight.’ Murray took up the argument. ‘He could not leave a strong enough force to be safe against you and still have sufficient strength to beat Venegas. Soult is coming, but not quickly enough to be sure of overwhelming us by numbers alone.’

‘Does he know of Wilson?’ Hanley asked the question, but apart from a quick glance in his direction from Colonel Murray none of them expressed surprise at a junior officer voicing his opinion.

‘Sir Robert has only a brigade,’ the general mused aloud.

‘Perhaps, but the French will not know that for certain and he is close enough to Madrid to frighten the King with a new threat.’ Baynes sounded genuinely delighted by this new thought.

‘Not too frightened?’ asked Murray.

‘He still cannot afford to split his forces and cover us in sufficient strength. That is even more true if he has another threat to face. Even if he does withdraw then will that not leave Soult exposed when he does arrive?’

‘It is worth the gamble,’ said the general decisively. ‘I leave you gentlemen to arrange the details. Now I must ride to Cuesta. The old fool wants to decimate the regiments who ran yesterday. As if shooting two hundred of his own men is not simply doing the work of the French for them!’

As Hanley, Baynes and Espinosa rode down the hill there were redcoats digging lines of graves and others forming burial parties. It was half past ten and already scorchingly hot. Hanley looked up and saw vultures circling. The faces of some of the corpses were already turning black, their bellies swelling if they had not already been ripped open by shot.

The heat oppressed him. So did the thought of what they were about to do. Hanley wondered how many of the men now digging graves would themselves be lying in similar holes by nightfall. Would he be among them? That thought troubled him less than the responsibility. They were working to make the battle happen, to stir the French into a full-scale attack five times bigger than the fighting so far. Hundreds would surely die and thousands be cut down wounded if they succeeded. They were acting for the greater cause, for the good of the army and at the command of the general. Guiltily he also knew that part of him was enjoying the cleverness of it all.

The sense that there would be no more fighting for several hours spread quickly through both armies. Parties of French soldiers came forward to retrieve their wounded. The men in red and blue mingled again, most unarmed, but all without hostile intent. French and British alike sought out the dirty pools of water in the stream bed and filled canteens and bottles or drank from the filthy liquid. Through gesture and odd phrases they spoke and laughed together.

Velarde was confused, for he saw blue and red jackets mingling peacefully around the stream and that made it hard to know just where the French lines started, but the direction was clear and he knew that he must hurry. He dug his heels into the horse’s sides, his big spurs sinking into its flesh and drawing blood. The animal was tired, not in the best of health, and it stumbled as he forced it to stay at the gallop, flogging its haunches with his whip.

‘Stop him, stop that man!’ yelled Hanley.

Velarde pressed on.

‘Out of my way!’ he called at a party of redcoats, each carrying a dozen canteens back from the stream. The men looked up, unimpressed by a foreigner yelling orders. Velarde’s horse slowed, and Hanley worried that the infantrymen would listen to him and seize the fleeing Spaniard, but then they jumped out of his path at the last moment.

Velarde drove his heels even harder into the flanks of his mount and it gave another burst of energy, running on down into the bed of the Portina and then scrambling up the other side.

‘Watch where you’re going!’ yelled an ensign with green facings on his jacket.

‘Bloody Dons!’ commented a sergeant, the head of his half-pike thrust into the ground as he leaned over to fill his canteen.

‘Stop that fellow!’ called Baynes, but whether deliberately or not the merchant was some way behind. Soldiers looked up. It was hot and all suspected the battle would soon resume. No one was in a hurry to rush and obey the orders of strangers, and especially a civilian.

Hanley reined in, his horse half turning and throwing up a spray of dust as it stopped. He kicked his feet free of the stirrups and sprang down, drawing a pistol from his belt. The hammer slid back into place with a click and he folded his left arm so that he could rest the barrel to aim carefully.

The ensign saw what he was doing. ‘Hey there, steady on. No need to start trouble when the Frogs are friendly.’

Baynes came up behind him.

‘Be careful,’ the merchant said, ignoring the snub-nosed young officer.

Hanley had never killed anyone, and rarely fired a weapon in anger. He hoped he was not about to find out what it felt like.

Velarde was forty yards away, a great distance for a pistol, even one like this whose barrel was rifled.

A French sergeant was staring at him, hands twitching as he held his musket, and it was clear the man was ready to act and tell his men to fight if the English broke the unofficial truce. The man did not care about arguments between allies.

Hanley fired, and felt the strong kick of the carefully loaded pistol.

Velarde jerked with the blow, hand going back to press against the top of his left thigh.

‘That was either a very good or a very poor shot,’ said Baynes. The French sergeant had his musket almost up to his shoulder, but when the English officer held up his hands he told his men to stand down.

‘It was luck,’ said Hanley. He put a foot in the stirrup and grabbed the top of the saddle.

‘Yes, well, I believe a man could still take that either way.’ Baynes tried to catch his eye and was pleased when Hanley turned and looked at him, his expression betraying no emotion. ‘It should help him to convince them.’

‘And if he does not?’ asked Hanley.

‘Well then, I should imagine a bullet in the bum will be the least of his worries, don’t you?’

‘The north,’ said King Joseph firmly. ‘Attack straight up the valley on the left of their position and then swing round to destroy the rest of their army. It is simple. If we attack the hill we give the advantage to the English. Why take more losses? If you must fight then outflank them.’ The King smiled, his round face intelligent and full of concern. ‘But I really do not see why we need fight at all.’

Espinosa had rarely seen the King so firm in an opinion on a military matter. His chief of staff, Marshal Jourdan, repeated the same advice.

‘We do not need to fight, but surely a flanking attack is the only sensible way if we do.’ General Sebastiani was just as cautious, leaving Marshal Victor heavily outnumbered. The King of Spain and the French commanders stood on the lower hill, and could clearly see the British troops on the high ground to the west and in the plain below them.

‘The Emperor would want us to attack,’ said Victor, playing a strong card. He had always been known for his optimism. The title Duke of Belluno, an Italian town whose name literally meant ‘beautiful moon’, was said to be a pun by the Emperor’s sister on his old nickname of ‘Sunshine’. She disapproved of the shape of Marshal Victor’s legs in the court dress of breeches and silk stockings.

‘My brother would want us to win,’ said Joseph. In truth it was hard to know what his younger brother wanted, save that it would always be more than was humanly possible. ‘If we pull back behind the River Alberche – to the very position chosen with such skill by the Duke of Belluno – we shall repulse any attack they make. It was your plan just five days ago and should be our plan now.’

Espinosa could feel the caution growing stronger, the vacillating King ready to avoid taking the risk of fighting. He wondered whether he should show them the copies of the dispatches brought back by Velarde. Surely the real ones must have arrived by now?

An ADC galloped up the hill to join them just moments later. Papers were passed to a senior staff officer, and then to Marshal Jourdan. Junior men waited uneasily, not knowing what they would be called upon to make happen as soon as a decision was reached. Jourdan handed the letters to Victor and then whispered the contents to his own master.

‘Is there now any doubt as to what we must do?’ asked Marshal Victor once the report had circulated. ‘Soult is late, and your capital in danger, sire. We must crush the English here, this very afternoon, and drive off the Spanish so that you can return and deal with the army coming from the south. The English are the key. Your brother says that. Destroy them and your kingdom will be safe.’

Espinosa hoped he would not tip the balance too far, but decided it was worth causing one more worry for Marshal Jourdan.

‘There is another English force to the north-west of Madrid. Small, my lord, but with enough men to take the city even if they cannot hold it long.’

‘You know this definitely?’ asked Joseph, when told the news.

‘Yes, sire. One of my men rode across from the enemy this afternoon to tell me. He risked his life and was wounded during his escape.’

‘Badly?’ Joseph’s face radiated genuine concern. Espinosa knew him to be a sensitive, intelligent and kindly man, even if he had the morals of a Bonaparte.

‘Uncomfortably, sire.’

King Joseph chuckled. ‘Oh dear. Well, we must be sure to decorate him. Where is he now?’

‘Having his wound dressed.’

‘Good. See that he has everything he needs to make him comfortable.’ A true monarch, Joseph readily dismissed the matter from his mind. ‘Well, gentlemen, that leaves us no other choice. We will fight, but shall we manoeuvre around their left or attack from the front?’ Espinosa noted that the certainty of earlier was gone. The decision made, the King appeared to lose interest in the detail.

‘There is no time, sire. The day is already half spent. Part of my corps will advance through the valley to the north, but the main attack must come against their centre and it must be made with all our strength. Nothing must be held back. The English are raw soldiers and badly led. We surprised them twice yesterday. Pound them with our guns for an hour and then we will march through them, shatter them and take that damned hill. If we can’t do that, then we ought to give up soldiering!’

A single French gun fired from the top of the hill. The shot bounced on the slope below Sir Arthur Wellesley and his staff and then skidded just to the right, frightening some of the horses.

‘Is General Anson in position?’ asked Sir Arthur.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Murray, his glass fixed on the light dragoons moving to the far end of the valley to the north.

‘And the Spanish?’

‘Occupying the far side of the valley now, Sir Arthur.’ The general had decided that his left looked vulnerable. He had no infantry to spare, but General Cuesta immediately responded to his request and sent Spanish battalions marching north behind their ally to reinforce the position. Cavalry regiments were following, to bolster the numbers of the British horsemen moving into the mouth of the valley. Almost as appreciated was a battery of twelve-pounder cannons, twice the weight of anything the British had with them. The oxen drawing two of these big guns were at that moment being goaded up the slope of the Medellín.

‘I believe we are ready,’ said Sir Arthur.

The signal gun reloaded, the sixty French guns thundered out a new salvo. Most were aimed at the men on the plain where there was no cover, but a dozen or more still pounded the Medellín itself.

‘Give the order to lie down.’ His brigade commanders would probably already do this on their own initiative. The order was simply to make sure that it was done and he lost no men unnecessarily. Almost no armies in the world let their men lie down to shelter from artillery fire because it smacked of cowardice and they were not sure the men would be willing to get to their feet and fight when the time came. Sir Arthur thought such ideas folly and had no doubts about the fighting spirit of his men.

The cannon thundered across the valley.

‘God help us,’ said a staff officer under his breath. Clouds of smoke began to drift towards the Portina stream once again.

Hanley waited for his chance to speak to Murray.

‘May I return to my battalion, sir?’

‘If you wish. We should not need you.’

‘Feeling guilty?’ asked Baynes. ‘It is not a useful emotion.’

Murray glared at the merchant, who could not understand how a soldier felt.

Hanley simply shrugged, and set his horse off downhill.

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