‘And the soldiers likewise demanded of him saying, “And what shall we do?”’ intoned Billy Pringle as they sat around the dying fire. He had a mug of tea in his hand, and knew that Private Jenkins was pretending to clean Pringle’s sword while watching his officer to see that he drank.
Williams took up the quote. ‘And he said unto them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be content with your wages.”’
‘That last would be so much easier if we were actually paid,’ said Truscott.
‘Yes, the doing violence to no man may also prove a little hard to achieve today,’ added Pringle. He took a sip, grimaced, and passed the mug to Williams.
‘Well, at least we should not have any trouble to avoid making false accusations,’ said Williams, before taking a good few gulps of the tea. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Jenkins smiling encouragingly at the setting of so good an example to his own officer.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ declared Truscott. ‘I believe friend Pringle here is getting heavier.’
Pringle had lifted a bowl and was spooning up the contents with the greatest reluctance. They had been issued grain, but there were not enough mills and so most had boiled it like rice. It was better than no food at all, or at least that was what they had to tell themselves. The captain’s distaste was obvious.
‘More tea?’ said Williams maliciously.
‘Looks like the French are eating rather better.’ Truscott set down his cup and pointed with his one arm towards the enemy lines, where smoke rose from thousands of cooking fires. ‘Nice of them to stop the battle for lunch.’
Hopwood had overheard them. ‘Would it not have been more fitting to speak of gentlemen in England now a-bed et cetera?’
‘A-bed at two in the afternoon?’ said Williams. ‘The lazy dogs.’
‘What I would not give for a feather bed,’ said Pringle wistfully, ‘and a good plum pudding.’
‘And?’ Truscott expected more.
‘I am too tired and hungry for the and!’
The drums began to beat.
‘Stand to!’ bellowed Sergeant Major Fisher.
Pringle took one more tiny sip of tea to please his servant and tossed the rest into the dry grass.
The 3rd Battalion of Detachments formed line two deep at the rear of the brigade. Ahead of them were the 1/45th with their deep green regimental Colour and facings, and farther to the left the 2/31st with buff-coloured facings and a yellow flag. The brigade – Major General MacKenzie’s own, although he now also commanded the division – had crossed the Portina and then not reformed into the correct order, so that the senior corps, the 31st, was not in the place of honour on the right. The 3rd Battalion were the most junior even of the temporary regiments in the army. They would normally be in the centre of the brigade, but today the general had decided to form a second line and this had fallen to their lot. Williams remembered how on so many occasions he had tried to explain the rules of seniority to Hanley. It was doubtful his friend even now comprehended the matter, but it was really so absurdly simple. He wondered where Hanley was; it would have been good to see him. Truscott and Pringle no doubt felt the same. A man liked to have his friends near by on a day like this.
Ahead of the brigade were two battalions of His Majesty’s Foot Guards and he was sure they never questioned the system, or their own place at its summit. The Guards were forming with a good deal more formality and shouting than a line battalion. They were excellent soldiers, but somehow strange and alien. Williams knew that Bonaparte recruited his own Imperial Guard from the ranks of the rest of the army. It was hard to imagine such a system working with King George’s men.
The Guards were the rightmost – and so senior – part of the First Division, whose remaining three brigades took the front line up on to the slopes of the Medellín. General Hill’s Second Division remained on the Medellín itself. They had repulsed the night attack and the one this morning. From the distance Williams and the others had seen little of the fighting. It was said that there were heavy losses, although those of the French were higher.
‘Battalion will incline to the right by companies. Forward march!’ The sergeant major’s voice carried with ease and brooked no argument. Each company wheeled on its right marker, and turned to face ninety degrees so that now instead of a line they were in a column of eight small lines all facing to the right.
‘Halt!’ The sergeant major took a deep breath, and Williams wondered whether the spirit of the Guards’ NCOs was spreading, for his next command hammered at the ears of the waiting battalion. ‘Forward march!’
Pritchard Jones rode at their head and the 3rd Battalion of Detachments marched behind the rest of the brigade and then wheeled back into line. They halted to dress ranks. ‘Get a move on, get a move on!’ called the sergeants, copying Fisher’s desire to impress any observers. Finally they marched forward one hundred paces so that they were in line and to the right of the 1/45th.
‘Looks like we have become senior,’ said Williams to Sergeant McNaught. The Highlander gave him a gap-toothed grin.
Pringle’s Grenadier Company was at the far end of the line, and from there he could see the Fourth Division, standing in formation among the scrub and stunted trees near to the little redoubt Williams and his men had helped to build. Spanis gunners were manhandling big cannon into the fortification to reinforce the tiny three-pounders already there.
‘Look, sir,’ said McNaught, and Williams turned to see a puff of smoke up on the lower ridge on the French side of the stream. A few moments later the distant bang carried to them. In less than a minute all of the French guns opened fire. Williams wished he had a watch to know what time it was. He wondered for a moment where Miss MacAndrews was and what she was doing. That concern seemed distant, but it was pleasantly if briefly distracting. A muscle in his left thigh was quivering. Williams knew it was nervousness. Waiting was almost worse than the fighting. Almost.
None of the first salvo came near them, but whether the French gunners altered their aim or new batteries joined in the bombardment, soon shot was ripping up the ground where the Guards stood ahead of them. Shells exploded and the first screams began.
A heavy twelve-pounder ball smashed two Guardsmen to bloody ruin and then skidded at waist height towards the Light Company.
‘Steady, lads,’ said Williams, because it was his duty, and then could not help shutting his eyes. There was a ghastly slapping sound and two of his men were sliced in two at the waist, their entrails flung out and blood spraying to soak those around them.
‘Drag the bodies away,’ called Sergeant Rudden from his station behind the line. ‘Close up there!’
Pritchard Jones rode along the front of the battalion.
‘Lie down,’ he ordered. ‘Lie down.’ Other regiments were doing the same. Williams wondered whether the Guards had a special drill to lie down by numbers.
Officers could not lie down. Williams watched his men drop to their knees and then spread themselves flat on the ground. He knew they were grateful for it, even the ones now lying on the foul offal left by the dead men. It was his job to show no fear, and to stand or walk up and down the Light Company’s line while the men took cover. They could see little through the long grass, while he was able to watch what happened, but that was not the main reason. An officer and a gentleman must show his men that there was nothing to fear and that victory was certain.
‘Keep your heads down, boys,’ he said. ‘They cannot hit you if you stay down.’ That was almost true. The French gunners were firing through an ever-growing cloud of their own smoke. With the redcoats on the ground in the long grass, and their Colours laid down beside them, there were no longer good aiming points. Cannon did not snipe at lone officers. Yet the gunners knew roughly where the British were, and they turned the screws which elevated the barrels and then lifted the trail spike to aim the whole gun at the right places. Shot and shell slammed into the fields where the redcoats hid themselves. After that, it was all a matter of chance.
A shell exploded among the company from the 4/60th and wounded two men, jagged pieces of casing slicing into their legs. Then one of the redcoats who had served with Sir Robert Wilson was struck on the hand by a bouncing shot which then skimmed over the man behind, doing no harm. The wounded man stared dumbly at an arm now ending in a wrist and just mangled fragments. His face was pale from the shock and loss of blood, but he stumbled to the rear, refusing offers of help.
‘Keep your heads down.’ Williams repeated the phrase. He could see that the Guards were taking worse punishment. The losses were not devastating, but the awful fury of the artillery tore men apart so that each wound or death seemed worse than two or three times as many men falling to musket shots.
The guns continued to pound. The French artillerymen had rested since the morning and they toiled with enthusiasm, reloading quickly and running the guns back into position time and time again. Many had undone or taken off their heavy blue jackets and now worked in their shirtsleeves, sweat running down their faces and backs. Williams spun around as a shell hit a caisson stationed behind the lines and the wagon exploded in a great gout of flame and black smoke, flinging debris high into the air, and with it the little figure of a man, legs and arms splayed out like a frog’s and miraculously in one piece.
He lost track of time, and suddenly realised that he was singing the ‘Minstrel Boy’ under his breath. He wondered whether a hymn might be more appropriate, but there was something reassuringly determined about the words and the tune and he began to sing out loud.
‘Quiet,’ said a voice from the ranks of the Light Company. ‘We can’t hear the French properly!’ Men laughed and Williams marvelled at how well they kept their spirits. He sang on and some of the men joined in, voices thin because they were pressed against the ground, but somehow there was a joy in the defiance.
The French guns pounded away. Williams felt the wind of shot punching the air above his head. He sang, repeating the same verse over and over again. A shell landed ten yards ahead of him, spinning crazily in the grass, its fuse throwing off sparks, and then the earth erupted as soil and red-hot fragments of iron were flung into the air. A moment later a piece that had gone high tumbled down and gently tapped the end of his boot.
More earth puffed up and this time it was a heavy shot which bounced and then skidded low straight at the Light Company. It went directly at a man leaning up on his elbow to talk to the man beside him. Williams saw the redcoat’s face freeze in utter horror and then the shot struck him squarely on the neck, smashing him into pieces of flesh, bone and torn backpack, his musket broken into fragments. The man lying behind him flinched and looked upwards so that the shot shattered his skull to ruin before going higher and bouncing on behind them.
Something hit Williams hard in the chest and he fell, unable to breathe and his chest feeling as if it had been struck by a hammer. He lay on the ground staring up at the clear blue sky, unable to think or feel the seriousness of his wound.
‘You’re all right, sir,’ said McNaught, leaning over him. ‘You got hit by part of Horan’s musket.’
Williams felt the lump of jagged wood and ripped barrel lying beside him. He could breathe again now, but each gulp of air was painful.
‘Lie still, sir. You’ll be fine in a minute.’
He struggled to say thank you, but the words were weak. McNaught gave the tiniest of nods. ‘The Frogs are none too friendly today, sir.’
‘No,’ gasped Williams at last. McNaught helped him up. The officer’s chest still throbbed and he wondered whether any ribs were broken. He swayed a little as he stood, his eyes struggling to focus. The Scottish sergeant stayed with him until he looked more steady and then went back to the rear of the company.
‘Reckon the Frogs heard your singing, sir!’ came a voice from the ranks.
Another shot hit the ground just ahead of the company, bounced over the lying men and smacked into the sergeant’s pack as he was lowering himself into the grass. McNaught was flung into the air, flying four or five yards back and slamming into the ground, limbs spread and kilt about his waist.
Williams ran back to him, his side aching. McNaught lay still, bare buttocks much paler than his tanned face and legs.
‘Sergeant, Sergeant!’ Williams touched the man’s shoulder. He could see no sign of blood. ‘Are you hurt badly?’
‘I’m fine, sir.’ McNaught’s voice sounded mildly puzzled. ‘It just hit my pack. It’s in my bloody pack.’
Williams saw that the backpack was badly torn, and rummaged among the clothes inside until his fingers sprang back from something hot. He grabbed a spare shirt and took hold of the sphere, lifting it out and rolling it in the grass beside them. He realised he was laughing nervously.
‘It’s a shot!’ he said. ‘A twelve-pounder shot!’
‘Bloody Frogs!’ McNaught’s voice was full of wonder as he pushed himself back up. ‘Those bloody French bastards shot my pack.’
‘They’ll stop that out your pay, McNaught,’ said Rudden cheerfully.
‘Show them your arse again, Sergeant,’ called a voice from the ranks. ‘That’ll frighten ’em!’
An ADC rode up, reining in beside Williams. ‘The Light Company is to advance and reinforce the skirmish line of Camp-bell’s brigade. I will lead you.’
‘Sir,’ said Williams, acknowledging the order. ‘Light Company on your feet.’ The men moved faster than he expected, eager to do something rather than simply lie down and take punishment. The NCOs chivvied the men, but there was little need.
They jogged forward, following the staff officer as he led them to the right, into the much denser maze of vine trees and olive groves. No shot hit them as they moved and Williams guessed the French were concentrating their fire on the open ground.
A captain from the 53rd with the tall green plume of a Light Company officer in his cocked hat greeted Williams, relieved to have someone on his open flank. The ADC galloped off to carry further orders.
‘We’ve put skirmishers fifty yards ahead,’ explained the captain, ‘with the support line here.’ Williams just managed to glimpse some patches of red in the trees and bushes ahead of them. ‘There is something of a clearing in front of the skirmishers so that should give us warning.’
Williams formed a reserve in two ranks under McNaught and took Rudden and the other half of the Light Company forward to extend the skirmish line. He did not like the ground, which reminded him too much of yesterday’s surprise attack, but at least the Fourth Division men seemed to know their business.
‘What do you think of the position, Sergeant?’ he asked Rudden.
‘It’ll do, sir, it’ll do.’
‘Good luck. I had better return to the supports.’ Williams felt guilty about that, but he was the only officer in the Light Company and he could not be everywhere. His place was with the fresh men, ready to lead them up to reinforce the skirmishers or to cover them if they retreated.
‘Mr Williams, sir! Sergeant Rudden!’ One of the 43rd had spotted movement ahead of them on the far edge of the clearing. Men appeared, wearing dark green-jackets and with tall green-tipped yellow plumes in their shakos. They moved stealthily, spread in pairs as skirmishers.
‘Españoles!’ shouted a voice.
‘They’re Spanish, sir,’ said Rudden with only a slight trace of doubt. ‘What the hell are they up to?’ It was hard to keep much sense of direction in this dense country, but there did not seem any good reason for their allies to be coming from that side.
‘Don’t fire, they’re Spanish!’ ordered someone from the 53rd’s Light Company.
The men came out of the shadows and Williams saw their buff leather crossbelts clearly and remembered the bitter fight to rescue General Cuesta.
‘Make ready!’ he ordered. ‘They’re French!’
‘The lying sods!’ said Rudden bitterly. ‘Commence firing!’
Half of the skirmish line dropped to their knees, some of them crouching behind the trunks of the low trees. Men pulled triggers and fired at the men in green from the Nassau Regiment in French service. Farther to his left, Williams saw men in white uniforms coming through the trees, and then they and the Germans fired a volley into the uncertain British skirmish line. A few of the 53rd dropped and the others wavered in confusion at an ally suddenly turning into an enemy.
There was weight behind the French attack. The green-jacketed men pushed on into the clearing. A couple were down, one of them screaming horribly, but pairs of skirmishers came forward. Behind them came a denser mass of men in green, but with tall red plumes and red epaulettes. Williams guessed they were grenadiers at the head of the main column – or as much of a column as it was possible to form in this broken ground.
‘We’ll not stop them here,’ he shouted to Rudden over the noise of firing. ‘Fire and retire.’ The Light Company of the 53rd, less prepared for the onslaught, were already going back. ‘I’ll go and be ready to cover you. Give us as much time as you can.’
Rudden nodded. ‘Prepare to fall back!’ he shouted. ‘Fire and retire!’ Now each man waited for his partner to load. Then he sought a target, fired, and sprinted back ten yards before crouching to load himself. A man dropped, struck in the calf by a ball, and he cursed as his comrade dragged him back into cover.
Williams ran through the long grass. A ball smacked into the branches of a tree beside him, but he did not think anyone was aiming at him. He saw the 53rd reforming a skirmish line a little way back and that was good, but he knew that the light troops would not be able to stop this attack on their own.
McNaught was waiting with the reserve. ‘The French are coming in strength.’ Williams’ chest still hurt and the running had only made it worse. ‘Three or four battalions at least. We will try to slow them, but we don’t want to get cut off and surrounded in this scrub. Take half the men back fifty yards and form to cover us. I’ll wait for Rudden’s men.’
‘Sir.’ The Highlander shouted orders.
‘Right, lads, we have some rogues in green coming at us,’ said Williams, standing on the right flank of the eighteen men making up his little line. ‘Let our boys back through and then give the Frogs a surprise.’
They did not have to wait long. Two men appeared supporting the man hit in the leg. A moment later more redcoats followed, ran back a short way and then crouched to reload. There were shots, and the remaining men came through the trees, Rudden jogging just behind.
Williams called to him. ‘Bring them back!’ He could see more of the green-jacketed skirmishers pushing forward to his right as the 53rd fired and withdrew, and he did not want Rudden’s men cut off. The sergeant waved his hand in acknowledgement, and shouted an order which sent all his men scurrying back past the formed line. Then he turned, took careful aim and fired his own musket back through the trees.
‘Present!’ Williams ordered.
The Nassau skirmishers rushed past the line of cork trees, eagerly chasing their enemy.
‘Fire!’ yelled Williams, and the little volley erupted in dirty smoke and the rank smell of black powder. ‘Back!’ he shouted. ‘Back!’ They ran, rushing past McNaught’s group and then farther past Rudden’s men. They stopped again, repeating the process. One or two men fell, but they knocked over more of the enemy even if they could not stop them.
Bugles sounded the recall. Another staff officer was bellowing at the light companies to retire on the main line and so Williams led them back into a much wider clearing. He could see the 53rd to his left, and it was good to see their red facings, just like those of his own regiment. Then another line of redcoats marched up beside them. There was a single small flag fluttering in the centre of the battalion. Williams smiled when he saw the dragon.