Pringle grinned as Hanley ran up behind the Grenadier Company.
‘Good to see you,’ he said. ‘Any idea what is coming our way?’
‘At least three columns and a dozen guns in support. They are the Germans and Dutch of Leval’s division.’
‘Always nice to know who is trying to kill you!’ said Pringle cheerfully. He could tell the grenadiers were glad that their lieutenant had chosen to join them. Men counted on each other at a time like this.
Billy Pringle stood to the right of his company on the very right of the battalion. The ground ahead of him led up to a low bank, and beyond that the trees were so thick that it was difficult to see anything. He heard the bugles and shouted orders and saw the red figures of the light infantry running back from the wood to reform on their battalions. Pringle spotted Williams and was glad his friend was unscathed, but the Light Company was on the far left of the battalion and there would be no chance to speak to him.
The French artillery rumbled in the distance, but the 3rd Battalion was sheltered from their fire now that it had advanced. It was a relief, and made the battlefield strangely quiet. He could hear drums beating from somewhere in the trees, coming ever closer, and there was cheering as well, but it did not sound like the usual French enthusiasm, and then he remembered that Hanley had said the enemy were from France’s German allies. British, Germans and Dutch fighting each other because the French had occupied Spain after invading Portugal, he thought, and the idea seemed so absurd.
The drumming and the cheers came closer and now there was the sound of bugles blowing, different in pitch from the ones the British used.
‘For what we are about to receive,’ said a voice from the ranks of the company.
‘Someone always has to say it,’ said another.
‘Silence in the ranks!’ yelled Sergeant Probert with just a hint of nervousness.
Men in green appeared on the edge of the trees. Pringle could see them only from the waist up because of the bank. They hesitated for a moment, and then a great rush of men spilled over the bank and into the clearing. Ranks had broken up or bunched as the two battalions of the Nassau Regiment came through the trees, and so it was a crowd that surged into the clearing, but a determined crowd none the less. The German soldiers raised their muskets to their shoulders.
‘Third Battalion, present!’ called Pritchard Jones. Redcoats raised muskets to their shoulders. There was a roar of gunfire from the redoubt over to the right, the sharper cracks of the little British three-pounder cannon and then the deeper thunder of the heavy Spanish guns.
‘Fire!’ Smoke enveloped the front of the battalion. It took a moment before it spread to block Pringle’s view and he saw the German infantry vanish behind their own cloud of powder smoke as they fired. A thump and a curse of pain and one of the grenadiers in the front rank dropped to his knees, musket falling to the ground and one hand pressed against his side, where his faded red jacket was wet.
‘Bastards!’ said the man. All around him the other grenadiers let the butts of their firelocks slide to the ground as they reached back to their pouches and took out a cartridge. They bit off the top, which contained the bullet, flicked the lock back to half-cock and so opened the frizzen pan of the musket, and then gently tapped the open paper tube so that a pinch of gunpowder poured in. The rest of the powder went down the barrel, the paper on top, and then they bent over and spat the ball into the muzzle. Ramrods grated as they slid from the rings holding them followed by one hard thrust down the barrel to drive ball and charge down and make sure the force of the explosion would be concentrated behind the bullet. Then the ramrod was reversed, slid back into place, and the musket came back up, the right hand bringing the flint back to full cock as the butt slid back into place at the shoulder.
‘Fire!’ Pritchard Jones let the sergeant major give the order this time, his voice carrying over the shots and screams. Flints sparked, powder ignited and set off the main charge so that the butt slammed back into a man’s shoulder and then there was flame and more smoke to feed the cloud masking the battalion.
‘Well done, boys!’ shouted Pringle. ‘We’re hurting them!’ The Germans’ own volley was more ragged and did not come for a good few seconds after their own, and that was encouraging because it suggested that the 3rd Battalion was better practised.
The Grenadier Company began reloading again. The men were old hands now after almost a year of campaigning. Some of them cut corners, sticking their ramrods into the ground beside them when the soil was soft enough, or turning their pouch on its shoulder strap so that it lay in front rather than on the back of their hip.
The smoke blocked the enemy from sight, but did not hamper their bullets. One ball creased the cheek of a Grenadier, drawing blood and provoking a yelp of pain, and then the ball smashed through the teeth and lower jaw of his rear rank man. The wounded man clutched at his face, moaning horribly, but unable to scream, and spots of blood shook through the ragged hole in his cheek. Lance Sergeant Dobson took him gently by the shoulder to pull him out of the formation and directed him back to where the surgeons waited.
Again the cannon fired from the redoubt, the tightly packed metal canisters bursting as they left the barrels to spray great arcs of musket balls and pieces of metal, shredding the ranks of the blue-coated Germans trying to push on towards the little fort.
‘Fire!’ The third volley was the last the 3rd Battalion fired on command. Men began to load at their own pace, raising the musket to their shoulders and firing as soon as they were ready. The noise was constant.
‘Keep it up, boys!’ called Pringle as encouragement.
The Nassauers managed to come forward a few yards. There was little wind, but now and again the smoke thinned and Pringle could see bodies in green dotted around the clearing, but their comrades were closer now.
‘Bastards!’ The first grenadier to be wounded still lay in the grass in front of the company, and he would have to stay there until the fight was over. He was in pain, but still seemed more enraged than anything else. ‘Bastards!’
Pringle glanced to his right and saw that the nearest men of the 53rd had stopped firing and were fixing bayonets. Then it was as if he was kicked by a horse and he gasped as he was flung down.
Hanley was bending over him, face full of concern. Dobson stood behind.
Billy Pringle felt for the wound. It was a struggle to speak for the moment, but he managed to ask, ‘Glasses?’
‘Here you are.’ Hanley held up the spectacles. ‘You are a lucky devil, do you know that?’
‘Born lucky,’ said Pringle, the life returning. Hanley was holding up his sword on its belt. There was a dent and flattened metal near the top of the scabbard and beneath it the whole thing was bent out of kilter.
‘Cease fire! Cease fire!’ Sergeant Major Fisher’s voice forced its way over the general din, and officers and NCOs took up the cry. ‘Cease fire!’
‘Go on,’ said Pringle. ‘I need a moment.’
‘Grenadier Company, cease firing!’ bellowed Dobson with a strength Hanley knew he could never match. A couple of men fired, but the rest responded quickly.
‘Fix bayonets!’ Again the order was repeated in each company. Men reached behind, slid the blades from their scabbards and turned the ring so that it locked around the muzzle. Billy Pringle stood up and rubbed his side. It was sore and no doubt bruised, but nothing seemed broken. He took hold of the hilt of his sword since an officer ought to lead a charge sword in hand. The blade would not move. Instead he pulled the pistol from the crimson sash round his waist, flicked open the pan to check that the powder was still there, and held it ready.
There was a loud British cheer from his right.
‘There go the Fusiliers!’ The shout carried from the ranks of the 53rd. Then that regiment had their muskets to their shoulders and fired a more ordered volley before each man yelled and went forward, bayonets extended.
‘Come on, boys!’ cried a voice no one recognised. One of the grenadiers in the front rank screamed and dashed forward. Another followed, then the whole company was surging ahead. Pringle, Hanley and the NCOs ran after them. The same excited urge sent the whole of the 3rd Battalion charging into the smoke before Pritchard Jones had told Sergeant Major Fisher to give the order.
‘Charge!’ yelled the colonel as loudly as he could, putting spurs to his horse as men ran past on either side of him, one of them the young ensign with their green flag. ‘Follow me!’ he added out of habit.
A grenadier stumbled, blood spreading fast just where his white crossbelts met in the centre of his jacket. Pringle felt a ball flick his sleeve as he ran, brandishing his pistol. He saw the green-jacketed enemy, but there was confusion in their ranks and more and more men turned to flee. One tripped and a redcoat drove his slim bayonet into the man’s back, so that he arched his body away from the blow, screaming horribly. The grenadier could not get the blade free, and began kicking at the wounded German.
Pringle ran on, jumping over the corpse of another Nassauer who was sprawled in that ungainly way that only those deep in sleep could ever match. The green-jacketed men were pouring back up the little bank they had come down. A few slipped or were too slow and these died as the wild-eyed grenadiers caught them. Some of the enemy had been hacking at the bank with picks and spades, trying to cut a path for the horsed gun team following the advance. Behind them was a man in a blue jacket with red tails and a strange hat cocked on the left side and flat on the right. Pringle did not recognise the uniform, but the man was clearly a driver as he had just dropped his whip and was struggling with the collar of the lead horse, desperately trying to turn the animal.
A grenadier reached him and slammed the butt of his musket against the side of the driver’s head, knocking the man down so that his hat fell in the grass and was trodden on by the horse. The driver behind dropped his long whip and raised his arms in surrender. The grenadier shoved him ungently to the rear and the remaining driver followed. Other men came along with them. Pringle barged the drivers aside to get to the front, but knew that he could trust his grenadiers to deal with the prisoners.
He saw the blue-grey painted limber and field gun on the narrow track behind. A man in a shako, but with a similar blue jacket to the driver’s, raised a short carbine. One of the grenadiers was flung backwards, a ball in his forehead.
The German gunner looked shocked at what he had done, and instantly dropped the carbine and raised his hands. ‘Kamerad!’
‘They’re giving in!’ shouted Hanley, who was standing up on the bank.
Corporal Murphy pulled the trigger. He had not aimed, but the muzzle was less than a yard from the surrendering gunner and the ball drove into the man’s belly and ripped a jagged hole in his back as it came out. The man screamed and then grunted as Murphy drove his bayonet deep into the wound. He twisted the blade and the gunner cried out in his agony.
‘Stop, stop! They’re surrendering!’ shouted Hanley.
The Grenadiers flowed around the corporal and the gunners died on their bayonets. Some tried to run, but the path was narrow and the gun got in the way. Another tried to surrender, but was shot in the face, and the other three simply stared dumbly at their executioners.
Pringle uncocked his pistol, but did nothing to restrain the men because he doubted they would obey and was not sure that he should intervene.
Hanley looked appalled as he came up.
‘They left it too late to change their minds,’ Pringle said.
Sergeant Probert leaned his half-pike against a caisson as he opened the chest and looked at the shot. ‘Wrong size for our guns,’ he said.
Pringle nodded. It would have been a surprise if the French, let alone whatever little German prince these men served, would use the same calibre guns as their own army. ‘Get the horses away!’ Dobson took charge and unhitched the team, before sending it and the drivers back behind the main British line. Then the grenadiers sweated as they dragged limber and gun out into the clearing. An engineer officer and a party of men were already there with hammer and nails to drive into the touch hole of this and other guns captured by the Fusiliers and the 53rd. That would render them useless for the moment. More permanent arrangements could wait until the end of the battle.
The drums began to beat. ‘Form, Third Battalion, form!’ Fisher’s voice echoed across the clearing.
Pritchard Jones rode along in front of the reforming line. ‘Well done!’ he said again and again. ‘Most truly well done! Sir Arthur sends to say that you are the bravest fellows in the world and that he does not have the words to express his full pleasure at our conduct. Well done, my brave lads!’ The colonel was beaming.
‘General Leval went in early,’ said King Joseph. Espinosa thought he sounded only mildly disappointed, as if someone had used the wrong fork at a dinner in the palace.
‘His orders were clear.’ Marshal Jourdan sounded defensive, as if expecting to be accused of dereliction of his duties.
‘Doesn’t matter a damn,’ insisted Victor. ‘He’s tying up the enemy on that flank and that’s what does matter. Hard to see much inside all those trees. Can’t blame the fellow for pushing on. We won’t win a battle by caution.’
Espinosa could hear the marshal’s frustration and his obvious dislike of his colleagues, but also sensed his excitement. The guns thundered on in the background, but he was surprised how used he had become to their noise.
‘The rosbifs on our left are busy,’ continued Victor when no one said anything. ‘The ones on the hill cannot move because of the threat to that flank. Now we smash the centre of this second-rate army. Don’t we, General Sebastiani?’
Espinosa noted the emphasis on the word ‘general’.
‘As Your Grace says,’ agreed the general with little enthusiasm. Yet when Espinosa looked down into the plain he felt his heart sink. He had helped to convince the French leaders to attack because the British and Spanish needed a battle. Even at the time he had realised that the French might well need one too.
Two divisions of French infantry stood side by side on the open fields beneath him. Twenty-four battalions of men who had trampled Austrians, Prussians and Russians beneath them before they came to Spain now waited to crush the British. They were in two lines, the supports several hundred yards behind the first, each battalion in its own column ready to advance. Ahead of them the gun batteries still pounded the redcoats. It was hard to believe that anything could live under such an onslaught. Harder still to think that the few stunned survivors could stand against the assault of at least double their number of French veterans. Espinosa was very afraid that he had helped to bring defeat on the cause he loved.
‘Quite a sight,’ said Velarde, limping up beside him. ‘I think this will be a day to remember.’
Espinosa still struggled to trust the man, even though he was sure the message he had brought was genuine. This is what the English general had wanted.
Guns slammed back on their trails, jumping as they threw solid shot at the enemy lines little more than six or eight hundred yards away. They had been firing for an hour. Espinosa realised he was seeing the French Emperor’s way of war. There was an appalling violence to it.
‘With your permission, sire,’ said Victor in a tone that made it clear the request was a formality. ‘We shall order the main attack.’
‘Do so,’ said King Joseph, and ADCs flew off to carry the message.
The French guns thundered.