The front of the column was a shambles. Men lay in the grass, blood dark red on their white waistcoats. The plump chef de battalion had been plucked from his saddle and his frightened horse dragged him along until his foot came free and the body dropped to the ground, the right boot still dangling in the stirrup as the animal sped away.
‘Reload!’ The men of the Light Company were already reaching back for new cartridges.
‘Ne tirez pas!’ Williams distinctly heard the shout and yet the two companies at the head of the French column fired anyway. It was less of a volley than a few shots turning into a cascade.
One of the 43rd was hit in the throat, the ball punching through the leather stock he wore according to regulation. The man clutched at the wound, but the blood was pumping out like a fountain and his face was already pale.
‘Close up!’ shouted Sergeant Rudden, tapping the rear rank man on the shoulder to indicate he should step into his comrade’s place.
Another man, this time one of the Highlanders, was shot through the bowels and was dragged back behind the line before the space was filled.
‘Steady, lads,’ called Williams. He had his own musket in his hands and pulled back the hammer ready to fire. Seeing the men were ready, he gave the order. ‘Present!’ His own firelock nestled against his shoulder. Williams gave the men a moment. ‘Aim low, boys! Aim low!’
‘Fire!’ Sergeant Major Fisher gave the order and the whole of the battalion loosed its volley.
Williams felt the musket slam back on to his shoulder, and then slipped easily into the old routine of loading. He fired once more, like everyone else simply levelling and firing as soon as he was ready. They could not aim. The smoke was so thick that no one could see the enemy, and it was simply a question of pointing the muzzle in roughly the right direction and pulling the trigger.
‘Aim low!’ called the officers over and over again because instinct made men fire too high and it was so very easy to miss even the densest of columns.
Men fell. Williams saw some of the men in his company as they were hit. A man with yellow facings on his jacket had the fingers smashed on his left hand as he held his musket. Patterson, his nose still bandaged from yesterday’s skirmish, was shot through both thighs as he stood with his side towards the enemy. He was dragged back, crying out even though he tried to bite down on his lip to stop himself. Skerret stepped forward into his place and within minutes a ball took him in the right eye and drove deep into his brain. Sergeant McNaught pushed another Highlander forward into the front rank.
The French drums had stopped and there was no more chanting. Bullets continued to snap through the smoke. One struck the firelock of a man from the 43rd, smashing the wood so that the butt hung down limply. Williams gave the man his own musket.
‘Keep firing, boys! Aim low!’
A figure came through the smoke, eyes wild and teeth bared. ‘En avant, mes enfants,’ shouted the officer, trying to drag his men forward. Williams reached for his sword.
‘Look out, sir!’ yelled Rudden, and then half a dozen muskets banged and the white front of the Frenchman’s jacket bloomed scarlet as he was pitched back. Two more shapes loomed out of the smoke; one was a sergeant.
Williams’ sword slid readily from his scabbard and he turned the motion into a parry that knocked aside the sergeant’s bayonet. The other Frenchman raised his musket to his shoulder and pulled the trigger, the ball taking the man using Williams’ musket in the chest so that he sank down with a sigh.
The sergeant moved to lunge again, but he slipped on the pool of blood gushing from the dying officer and Williams dodged the blade. His sword flicked up to bite into the man’s neck and he raked the wickedly sharp point to slice through the man’s throat and come free. He revelled in the balance of the Russian sword as he spun back to block a tentative jab from the other Frenchman. Rudden was coming up beside him, as was another man, but Williams yelled in anger as he beat the man’s musket aside and drove his sword into the Frenchman’s belly. The man grabbed at the metal, cutting his fingers on its well-honed edge, and the officer kicked him over as he pulled the blade free.
‘Keep firing!’ shouted Williams. It had all taken so very little time and already the fight seemed almost unreal. His sword was dripping with blood and the French infantryman sobbed as he lay in the grass until a bullet from one of his own comrades smacked into the back of his head. No more Frenchmen seemed to have followed through the smoke and it was hard to know whether they could have held them if they had.
‘Well done, sir,’ said Rudden, and was then knocked down as a ball thudded into his right arm. He dropped his musket. ‘I’m hit,’ he said, as Williams had heard so many others utter the same phrase. The sergeant’s arm hung uselessly.
‘Go to the rear, Sergeant Rudden,’ said Williams, and tried to smile. ‘I’ll look after your fellows.’
Men were falling all along the line. Some were able to walk back to the surgeons, and others were simply pulled back behind the line to wait as best they could. Some would never move again. In the rare moments when no one fired, the air was filled with moaning and cries of pain.
The lieutenant in charge of the Germans of the 4/60th was hit in the leg, and hobbled to the rear with his arm around the shoulders of one of his men, who had a ball in the side. His ensign, a popular, eager youth who had just celebrated his nineteenth birthday a week ago, was hit badly, ribs broken and a wound to the chest which bubbled with foam. Four of the Germans carried him away in a blanket, moving as gently as they could.
Sergeant Major Fisher took a ball through the neck, which somehow managed not to cut any of the vital blood vessels, and when he was bandaged, he walked stiffly and unaided back to the surgeons.
Still the men loaded and fired. Their shoulders were bruised from the kick of their muskets. McNaught caught one of his men tipping some of the cartridge on to the ground to reduce the recoil and screamed at the man, telling him that he was on a charge and a disgrace to his regiment. Men skinned their knuckles as they rammed down and caught their hands against their fixed bayonets.
Williams had lost all sense of time. He did not know how long they had fought or how many times the men fired. His corporal was dead, and that left McNaught as the only NCO, and so he made one of the 43rd an acting sergeant, but then that man was hit in the foot and used his musket as a crutch to go back to the rear.
‘Keep firing, boys, keep firing!’ Williams’ voice was hoarse from shouting, his mouth dry, even though he had fired only a few rounds.
News came that the colonel was down. Truscott walked along behind the Light Company.
‘Well done, lads, well done, we’re hurting them. Take more than Frogs to beat us!’ he shouted encouragingly. ‘Aim low!’
‘Pritchard Jones took one through the lungs,’ he said to Williams. He spoke more softly, but still loud enough to be heard over the din. ‘So I’m in charge.’
‘Congratulations,’ said Williams, and meant it, even though it seemed a little foolish under the circumstances.
‘Well, the way things are going you might be in charge soon enough! An officer from the Guards has come and says they will be back in line soon, but General MacKenzie is dead so I am not sure who has the brigade.’
‘Good. Is Billy unscathed?’
‘Was the last time I saw him.’ Truscott looked solemn. ‘I’m afraid Hanley was hit and left behind when we moved up. Sergeant Dobson too.’
‘No idea.’ He patted Williams on the shoulder with his one hand. ‘Keep up the good work, Bills.’ Truscott glanced along the rear of the Light Company. There were barely a dozen men left in the second rank. ‘Like that everywhere,’ he said. ‘Well, good luck to you.’
‘Keep firing, lads, keep firing,’ Captain Truscott called as he walked back to the centre of the line.
The men loaded and fired. Throats were parched, limbs weary and faces black with powder smoke, and still they found the strength to load and bring their muskets back up to their shoulders.
‘Steady, boys, pour it into them!’ croaked Williams as loudly as he could.
He heard the slapping sound as a ball struck a redcoat and flung him backwards. There was no man left in the rear rank at that spot, and it took McNaught a moment to yell at someone else to step into the gap.
A corporal ran up. ‘Mr Williams, sir?’ The man was from the 106th, but although he recognised the face Williams could not think of his name.
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘Mr Truscott’s compliments, sir, and you are to prepare to charge. The men are to take off their packs first.’
‘Fine.’ Williams turned and strolled out to the flank of the company. There had been a wide gap between his men and the grenadiers on the right of the 45th. Now there were several hundred Guardsmen formed in two ranks filling the space.
‘Well, hallelujah,’ said Williams to himself. He tried to shout and then coughed to clear his throat. ‘Cease fire! Cease fire!’ All along the line the order was being repeated. One of his men fell screaming as a ball broke his femur.
‘Take off your packs!’
The men looked puzzled and reluctant. Everything they possessed was in their packs and no man wanted his lost or stolen. Then they began to push the straps back and let the heavy burdens sink to the ground.
‘Fox!’ shouted McNaught at the wounded man. ‘Stop that caterwauling and stay here to watch the Light Company’s packs. Lose anything and I’ll have the hide off your back.’
‘Yes, Sergeant,’ came the response, as habit took over.
‘Get ready, boys,’ called Williams. ‘Let’s chase these French rascals off our land!’
A bullet whipped through the air beside him.
‘The Third Battalion will advance. Forward march!’ Truscott’s voice carried along the line and Williams thought that he had never heard his friend shout so loud.
The line was ragged. Some of the men had slight wounds, bound up with stained cloth from whatever they could find. They were in almost a single rank, with just a few men here and there walking behind.
Williams could see nothing because the smoke cloud was so thick. He held his sword out and had to think before he could remember why there was dried blood on the blade. Another man cried out as he was struck, but the rest pressed on and the dirty white smoke began to thin. The men felt far lighter and strangely refreshed without their heavy packs.
He came through the bank of smoke and there were the enemy, no longer in ordered columns, but clustered, the braver souls near the front, the rest flinching away from the appalling fire. Many lay on the ground, dozens, probably hundreds of them, more it seemed than the redcoats had lost.
‘Charge!’ shouted Truscott, and officers took up the cry.
‘Charge!’ yelled Williams, and he ran forward, sword thrusting towards the masses of men in white. Muskets fired. One ball plucked at the long tails of his coat as it streamed behind him. A man from the 43rd doubled up as he was hit in the groin, but his sharp cries were lost as the battalion cheered.
The French seemed to quiver and they were close when the remnants of the columns dissolved into rout. Not all of them fled. Two men in front of Williams were loading and one brought his musket up and pulled the trigger before he was ready so that his ramrod cartwheeled past the officer’s head with a weird thrumming sound. Then the man dropped his firelock and fled.
Williams yelled as he hacked across the face of the other man, sending him reeling back. Around him the men of the Light Company stabbed or clubbed down any of the French infantry who stayed to fight or failed to run quickly enough. The spirit seemed to have gone from even those who did not retreat, and Williams knew that it had been a very close thing and that he and the other redcoats might well have been in the same position if the French had managed to charge.
Fear and exhaustion fed the British anger, and the men killed hungrily, as if in payment for the pain they had suffered. One quiet soldier from among the convalescents stabbed three French fusiliers until his bayonet was bent back on itself from striking too hard against bone.
The French broke. All of the second line and the rallied men from the first fled as the British battalions came forward at them. They ran to the rear, dropping muskets and flinging down their packs to go faster.
‘Grab the packs, boys!’ shouted McNaught practically. ‘They’ve got food!’
They reached the stream, running past the dead and wounded of the earlier fighting.
‘Halt!’ Truscott was shouting. ‘Don’t cross the stream!’
‘Stop, lads!’ shouted Williams. They did not want to sweep on too far like the First Division in case more French waited for them. Yet in truth the men were so weary that it was easy to halt them.
The French guns began to fire. Batteries had targets again and the gunners took advantage for they did not know that the British were too weak to keep advancing.
Ensign Castle’s head was shattered by a twelve-pounder shot. His torso stood for a moment, blood fountaining up on to the little flag he had carried so proudly. Private Hope from the Grenadier Company lost both his legs below the knee to another ball which skimmed low through the grass.
‘Lie down!’ ordered Truscott. ‘Take cover in the stream bed!’ Williams and McNaught got the Light Company moving, but the men were reacting sluggishly, the brief surge of passion from the charge now spent and only exhaustion left.
Billy Pringle was giving the same order when a bullet fired at absurdly long range by a sullen voltigeur smacked into his stomach. The force was mostly spent, but even so it slashed a long groove through jacket and flesh. Pringle sobbed in pain as he slumped down.