Each company of the 3rd Battalion of Detachments wheeled to the left, changing from line back into column. General MacKenzie’s ADC had come to summon them and now he led them to form up behind the Guards’ brigade.
‘Forward march,’ called Pritchard Jones. ‘At the double.’
Williams’ Light Company was at the head of the column, jogging through the long grass, packs and equipment bouncing as they went. The men’s faces were stained dark from the powder of their own firing. They were thirsty from the saltpetre in the gunpowder, which got into their mouths every time they bit off a cartridge, and their bodies ran with sweat from the brutal heat of the sun and the man-made warmth of musket and gun. Williams heard men panting, gulping for breath as they kept up the pace.
The French batteries could see them again when they came from behind the woodland. A bouncing shot kicked up muck from the earth just ahead of the Light Company. Another grazed the flank of the colonel’s horse, somehow missing his leg, but tearing flesh from the poor beast. The horse sank down on to its haunches, its immensely long tongue hanging out of the side of its mouth and its eyes rolling.
Pritchard Jones sprang off, staggered slightly as he hit the ground, and then recovered. Williams could see the tears in his eyes as the colonel pulled a pistol from his saddle holster and aimed it at the animal’s forehead. The horse stared at him, not moving, and Pritchard Jones pulled the trigger.
‘Keep moving! Keep moving!’ he yelled as the Light Company began to halt around the dead animal.
‘Come on!’ called Williams, and the men parted to flow around the corpse before reforming and jogging on. A shell exploded over to the right. Williams saw another lying in the grass unexploded and was glad it did not lie in their path because a careless kick might easily have reignited the fuse and set off the bomb.
Pritchard Jones ran at the head of his battalion, his sabre held up by his side to stop him from tripping over it.
‘Come on lads!’ He turned to run backwards, facing his men and encouraging them. The ADC trotted beside him and had to keep holding his horse back.
The Grenadier Company was at the rear, running past any of the men who fell. They saw the dead and wounded torn horribly by cannonballs. One man had been eviscerated when a shot hit him in the belly and his entrails, pale and already teeming with flies, were stretched across a good five or six yards. A grenadier was struggling so much to keep pace that he did not see the body and slipped on the wet meat. He staggered, staring down aghast, and then he was bending over as he vomited.
‘Get back in rank!’ called Dobson, who knew that it was better not to brood.
With a gentle thump a shell landed in the grass at the man’s feet, spun for a moment, sparks flying from the fuse, and then erupted into flame, smoke and flying metal. The grenadier was ripped apart, limbs, flesh, blood and pieces of equipment flung amid the shards of casing.
Dobson and Hanley had their legs knocked out from under them as they were sprayed with blood and flesh. The officer could feel an appalling stabbing pain in his right thigh and he heard himself whimpering like a child. Dobson rolled over, pushing part of the dead grenadier’s arm off himself, and grasped at the wounds in both of his calves. He tried to get up, but immediately the pain seared through him and his legs folded.
‘Goddamn it,’ he hissed.
The Grenadier Company ran on, following the battalion.
Hanley was stunned, and could not quite believe it as the redcoats kept going, without anyone even looking back. He called out, but his voice was hoarse and weak and lost in the noise of the French guns. Pushing himself up on his hands, Hanley tried to rise, but there was simply no strength in his right leg. He slumped down, sobbing, and then rolled on to his back because that eased the pain a little.
The 3rd Battalion of Detachments doubled on through the dry grass. For a moment one enemy battery was almost perfectly positioned on their flank and a single shot bounced down the rank and took the heads off half a dozen men from Truscott’s company. The next man was left unmarked but stone dead and the man to his side was unconscious. Redcoats coming up behind dodged the corpses and doubled on.
‘Here!’ The ADC raised his arm to mark the spot.
‘Sergeant Rudden, put the left marker there!’ shouted Williams as the Light Company wheeled back into line. The rest of the battalion did the same. Sergeants kept the men moving and then jostled and shouted at them to redress the ranks.
‘Reload!’ Some of the men did not move, for their muskets were still charged, but most went automatically into the well-drilled routine, made a little more difficult because bayonets remained fixed.
The artillery fire slackened suddenly, leaving ears stunned and struggling to cope with the heaviness of silence. A few shells fell for a minute or two more, but then the battery commanders decided that even the shells fired high by the short-barrelled howitzers risked hitting the advancing French infantry, and they ordered the crews to cease fire. A twisted piece of casing from one of the last shots wounded Lieutenant Hatch in the face. Two men began helping him to the rear until a sergeant bellowed at one of them to get back into the ranks and not use this as an excuse to escape from the field.
Williams saw the Guards battalions stand up in front of him. French batteries still pounded the slopes of the Medellín Hill, but that noise was distant. Shouted orders came from behind him to the left, and he looked back to see the 45th and the 31st advancing to form line level with the 3rd Battalion of Detachments.
Then he heard the drums. ‘Old trowsers! Old trowsers!’ he said softly in time with the beats and drum rolls of the French pas de charge – the rhythm of the attack. Rudden looked at him oddly. ‘Takes you back to Vimeiro,’ he said, and the sergeant nodded in acknowledgement.
The drums came closer. Williams could not see the French columns beyond the Guards. Dust came up to add to the gently drifting smoke as the only trace of the enemy. The drums were louder and closer, and chanting that had only been indistinct now came as phrases.
Everything was louder and stronger than in Portugal the previous summer.
‘Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!’ More men marched and chanted in this attack than there had been in the entire French Army at Vimeiro. Far fewer redcoats waited for them.
‘En avant! Vive l’Empereur!’ The shouting was close now, and Williams saw the Guards begin to march forward to close the distance with the enemy. From farther down the line came the sound of volleys and cheering. Williams waited for the Guards to fire. They did not.
Without warning the Guards cheered and went straight into a bayonet charge.
‘Typical bloody Guards,’ he heard Rudden mutter. ‘Have to do it their own way.’
Williams could not see it, but the French must have given way. The Guards rushed forward a couple of hundred yards, their neat lines becoming ragged as they went through the Portina stream. Only then did the battalions halt and begin firing on the enemy. He saw their front blossom into smoke. Then the Guards were going forward again.
Up on the hill with the French commanders, Espinosa had watched the French attack close with the English. There were twelve battalions in the lead, each column separated by enough distance so that they could form into line if necessary. Voltigeurs ran ahead of them and sniped at the little dots that were the English skirmishers.
The twelve battalions went forward. Soon the light troops ran back on either side and the French closed with the thin line of redcoats.
‘My lads have broken two of their brigades already,’ said Marshal Victor almost absent-mindedly.
Then things happened quickly, far faster than Espinosa expected. Some of the red lines fired at close range and then all were charging. From the distance the columns seemed to stagger, some firing back while others tried to deploy. A few men ran from the back of the formations, and then it was dozens, and in a moment entire columns turned into a loose swarm streaming to the rear.
The redcoats came after them. Espinosa saw the little flashes of colour as their flags streamed behind them.
‘Damn,’ said Marshal Victor.
British battalions became crowds of men almost as confused as their fleeing enemies. They came on, across the stream and on to the plain beyond. Below them, in front of the great battery, some redcoats were even running up the slopes of the big hill.
‘Ruddy fools think they have won,’ said Marshal Victor, his assurance returning.
The fleeing French infantry came through their own gun line. Crews had already loaded with canister, and were waiting for this moment. Officers shouted orders, but the targets were getting so close that they were scarcely needed.
‘Fire!’ yelled battery commanders. Guns slammed back and sprayed the lethal swarm of musket-sized balls at the enemy. Redcoats fell as men were snatched back by the blasts of canister. The battalions stopped in their tracks. Men started to load and fire back. Then the guns fired again and more men dropped into the dry grass.
Drums beat the pas de charge and the second line – another twelve battalions of fresh and first-rate infantry – moved forward. Voltigeurs ran out ahead of them, the tall yellow and green plumes on their shakos bobbing with the motion. As they got closer the light infantrymen would halt, sometimes kneel to steady their aim, and the muskets would fire and bullets pluck men down.
‘It looks like our friends are winning,’ said Velarde tonelessly.
‘Oh my dear God.’ Colonel Murray grimaced as he sat on his horse with the general’s staff on the highest point of the Medellín Hill. They could see almost the entire battlefield from this position and now they could see a disaster.
The King’s German Legion battalions broke first. They had chased the French across the valley and up the other side until they were only a few hundred yards from the enemy’s artillery line, and now those guns cut great swathes through the disordered Germans. A new line of infantry columns came through the smoke and the Germans at last ran back.
Within minutes most of the First Division, four battalions of the Legion and two of British line were streaming back across the stream as fast as they had chased the French. The Guards were more stubborn. In rough groups they clustered together and fired at the enemy.
It did not slow the French advance for very long. Tall Guardsmen dropped as they were shot by the voltigeurs, who were in open order and used cover well and so made themselves elusive targets. The columns of the second line came on steadily as many from the broken leading battalions stopped running and began to rally. Dragoons in dark green coats and with brass helmets manoeuvred to hunt down the little groups of Guardsmen. One of the columns fired a volley.
The Guards came back, all order gone, and although some still turned and fired at the enemy, they kept going back and the French came after them.
Sir Arthur Wellesley looked out and saw that the centre of his army was gone. On the far right was MacKenzie’s brigade. He glanced in the other direction, and saw the French beginning a cautious advance into the valley north of the Medellín. It was too dangerous to take many troops from the hill in case the attack developed.
‘Tell Donellan to double his battalion down on to the plain and form behind the Germans. Tell him to let them through and then stop the French.’ It was a simple order. General MacKenzie seemed to know what he was doing without needing to be told. That would make four British battalions to halt twelve French. He must hope that they could do this long enough for the First Division to rally and re-enter the fight. Another ADC went to bring a cavalry brigade forward to plug some of the gap, but cavalry could not drive back good infantry on their own. At best it would slow the French.
‘We did want this battle, did we not?’ whispered Baynes in Murray’s ear.
The Guards came back, running to either side of the 3rd Battalion of Detachments.
‘We’ll be back to help you soon, sir,’ said a sergeant as he passed Williams. Roundshot flicked one huge Guardsman aside like a rag doll and then skidded low to take the legs off two men standing beside Ensign Castle carrying the flag.
‘Close up to the front!’ ordered Pritchard Jones.
Sergeants repeated the instruction all along the line. ‘Close up to the front!’ When men fell the normal practice was to pull the wounded or dead behind the line and then edge towards the centre to fill the gap. If losses were heavy, this would keep the line two deep but make the frontage ever narrower. Pritchard Jones wanted his battalion to hold the same width of ground no matter how many men he lost, and so if the front rank man fell, the man behind was to step into his place.
‘Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!’ Williams could see the French columns. Their voltigeurs had run back to join their regiments, for the French commanders wanted to press their advantage and smash these last formed English battalions.
The drums beat and they were louder now because once again the guns had friendly troops in front of them and stopped firing.
‘Vive l’Empereur! En avant, mes enfants!’ Officers flourished their swords as they went ahead of the front rank, trying to inspire their men to win glory. The senior men were in their heavy blue jackets, but the soldiers of the closest battalion had wrapped these and folded them into their packs. Instead they wore their belts and equipment over the white-sleeved waistcoats that went under the jackets in normal times. Even so they sweated in the searing heat of the sun.
‘Vive l’Empereur!’ Mouths opened wide as the men chanted. The French marched with their muskets resting on their shoulders, as if they did not even need to fight to brush any enemy aside.
There was shouting and cannon fire from over on the far right, and Williams guessed that the Germans and Dutch were attacking again, but that was not his fight. Two columns were coming at the 3rd Battalion, their heads facing either end of the line, so that one was almost directly in front of him. The other must have faced Pringle and the grenadiers, and Williams made himself say a silent prayer for them.
‘Vive l’Empereur!’ The French were close now. At the head of the column rode an officer with an ornate shako topped by a tall white and red plume. He had an immense moustache, and an even bigger belly.
‘En avant, mes amis!’ His mouth opened to show badly stained teeth as he urged his men on. ‘Ne tirez pas!’ Men who fired tended to stop to reload rather than pressing the attack, and the fat chef de battalion was determined his men would not make that mistake.
‘Make ready!’ There was a rattle as muskets were brought up to shoulders and levelled at the oncoming column. The French saw the British line ripple, almost as if the men were turning to the right.
‘Ils se rendent!’ called the officer optimistically and spurred his horse forward. ‘Ne tirez pas!’
‘Fire!’ shouted Pritchard Jones.
Hanley groaned. Neither he nor Dobson could walk. They were more than four hundred yards from the battalion and Hanley had to push himself up on his arm to be able to see them through the long grass. It was uncomfortable, and most of the time he simply lay on his back and stared up at the sky. He could hear the flies buzzing even over the noise of battle as they covered the mangled remains of the two soldiers.
Dobson sat up just next to the officer, propping himself up on his pack.
‘Looks like the lads are giving them hell, sir,’ he said. With some difficulty he went through the motions of loading his musket.
‘What are you doing?’ asked the officer.
‘Best to be careful, sir.’