Williams was more than two miles away across the great plain and he knew before Hanley that the Army of Estremadura was beaten. For a long time the Spanish made good progress, and he almost began to doubt the instincts which told him that the real battle had scarcely begun. His past experience of the French assured him that they were never so easy to beat. Yet Baynes was a most genial companion, asking a stream of questions and listening with great enthusiasm to the explanations, professing an egregious ignorance of all things military.
‘Is that a usual deployment?’ the red-faced merchant had asked, as they rode behind a battalion of infantry. The French had given a good deal of ground, falling back to a gentle ridge, and it was taking time for the Spanish line to close with them again. They could see an enemy artillery battery deploying on the higher ground, with infantry forming to protect each flank. Green-coated dragoons were farther back, covering the whole position.
‘Not common, perhaps,’ replied Williams, ‘although a similar formation is included in our drills and no doubt also in the Spanish. In most circumstances the Spanish form in a line of three ranks. It is solid, and allows the first and second ranks to fire their muskets. I am not certain whether the Spanish practice is for the third rank to fire as well. In some armies this is the custom, but in others it is not, and the men either wait to fill casualties or pass forward their loaded muskets to the men ahead of them.’
Baynes was nodding and smiling encouragingly, although it was hard to believe that he did not already know these things. ‘And yet I perceive this line to be deeper. There are five – no, six – ranks at least.’
‘Yes, it is a line of double the normal thickness, and so six rather than three deep.’
‘To what end?’ The merchant guided his horse around the corpse of a man dressed in green jacket and grey trousers. His collar and cuffs were black and his belts were buff. His face had the familiar waxy pallor that left them in no doubt that he was dead. Williams had not seen anyone dressed in such a uniform in the Spanish Army, and guessed that the corpse was one of the enemy skirmishers.
‘It makes the formation more solid,’ he explained. ‘In addition the line is less wide, and so it is easier to maintain good dressing – I mean a certain neatness and order about the ranks and files – as it advances. The chief disadvantage is to reduce the number of men able to employ their muskets against the enemy.’
‘I see, I see.’ Ezekiel Baynes was beaming. ‘Yes, that is most clear. And in the circumstances of today, does this strike you as an appropriate formation? I hope I have used the military word correctly.’
‘Most exactly,’ said Williams, returning the warm smile. ‘Yes, I believe it may serve handsomely enough. The French have many cavalry, and young soldiers have a better chance of facing a cavalry charge if they are in deep formation.’
The men of the closest Spanish battalion looked very young indeed, some no more than boys. A few men – mainly the older ones – had white uniform jackets with green front and facings. The rest had no more than white waistcoats.
‘And as an old campaigner, what do you think of our allies, Corporal Dobson?’ asked Baynes, readily including an ordinary soldier in their conversation.
‘They’ve plenty of pluck, your honour. Good lads, by the look of it, but most of them are still children.’ Williams saw the same ungainly movements in many of the Spanish infantry, who held their muskets in a way that looked awkward. ‘Could do with a few months of training to make ’em ready.’
‘Alas, I am sure that you are right,’ conceded Baynes. ‘Yet needs must at times like this.’
‘Oh, aye, sir, probably can’t be helped. Mistake to put everything in the shop window, though,’ added Dobson, who had also taken to the friendly merchant. Williams had seen the same thing, but was reluctant to voice open criticism of any general, even one of another nationality.
‘Well, I hope I understand selling goods, but confess I am at a loss,’ said Baynes, although his look was intent, and Williams half wondered whether his ignorance was feigned.
‘There is no reserve,’ explained the officer, emboldened to speak by the veteran’s frankness. ‘If one regiment fails then there are no fresh troops to plug the gap.’
‘Then we must pray that none fails.’ Baynes was clearly listening, and Williams was sure also comprehending, but nevertheless preserved his infectious optimism.
The French battery opened fire in a rolling salvo. Williams guessed that there were around a dozen guns. The sound was less deep than the full boom of heavy cannon, which suggested lighter pieces, probably those used by the fast-moving horse artillery, and so most likely four-pounders.
‘Well, we had better see what is happening,’ said Baynes in a jolly tone, and immediately set his horse off at a trot towards the noise. Williams and Dobson followed and the merchant took care not to outstrip their mules. They were heading farther left, towards the higher ground held by the French.
A battalion was advancing at a steady, controlled pace, the soldiers still with their muskets resting on their shoulders in the march position. All wore white jackets, but the facings were a mix of blue, green, red and black. Each man had a tall fur cap, with a richly decorated bag at the back matching the colours of their facings.
‘Are these not grenadiers like yourselves?’ asked Baynes, betraying the military knowledge Williams had always suspected he possessed. ‘The bravest of the brave.’
The Spanish practice was to take the elite companies from their individual regiments and combine them into temporary battalions well suited to leading a charge. The grenadiers’ fur caps made them stand out from the rest of the army, but it was their pride that truly set them apart. The men were capable and confident, and simply their bearing marked them out from the raw soldiers in almost all other battalions.
‘Good lads,’ muttered Dobson.
The French guns fired again. With the range little more than two hundred yards, the gunners were using canister. Each metal tin burst as it left the muzzle, spraying dozens of musket-sized balls in a cone stabbing towards the enemy. At this distance the balls were spreading widely and each shot was lucky to claim two or three victims. Williams watched as a pair of grenadiers were pitched back. The line closed around them and marched on. There was a tall officer at the rear, directing the sergeants, who kept the line steady. He turned for a moment, glancing at the flanking units, and Williams noticed that he wore spectacles. In fact, even from this distance he reminded him of a slimmer version of Pringle, with the same quiet competence.
The battalions on either side of the elite unit wavered as men dropped. The one closest on the left stopped. A man brought his musket down to aim vaguely at the enemy and fired. Another followed, then two more, and in a moment flame and smoke ran along the front of the line. One or two men fell, and Williams suspected they had been hit by balls fired by the rear ranks of their own formation.
A gentle breeze washed over them, bringing smoke and the stink of powder. Williams’ eyes smarted and he blinked to clear them. The grenadiers pressed forward, marching steadily.
‘Good lads,’ said Dobson again.
The battalion to the right of the grenadiers checked, and Williams could see that some men were lowering their muskets. Then General Cuesta and his staff galloped up behind them. Don Gregorio’s voice was loud, his manner commanding as he bellowed at the infantry. The battalion started going forward again, although by now it was some way behind the grenadiers.
Again the battery fired. One gun commander must have adjusted for the range badly, because there was a strange whirring noise as a small cloud of balls passed a few feet over Williams’ head. Baynes looked up like an excited schoolboy having the time of his life.
‘Glad I’m not taller!’ he declared happily.
The grenadiers marched on. Most of the gun commanders had aimed well and as the Spanish soldiers went forward they left behind clusters of dead and moaning men, fur caps strewn on the grass and their white uniforms torn and stained red.
Three horsemen sped forward from the general’s staff to urge the grenadiers on.
‘There he goes, the silly fellow,’ said Baynes fondly, for Colonel D’Urban was one of them, charging with his sabre held high and view hallooing in a voice that carried over the noise of battle. General Cuesta led more of his staff over to the battalion on the left, yelling at the soldiers to stop firing and press on.
Williams felt useless. The Spanish officers seemed to have everything under control but it would almost have been better to march forward musket in hand beside the grenadiers than to be a mere spectator.
Baynes obviously sensed his mood and reached over to touch his arm gently. ‘You stay with me. Colonels are allowed to play the fool, but the same licence does not extend to ensigns, Mr Williams.’
The French battery fired again and the range was now murderous. Holes were torn all along the front of the battalion, as men were plucked backwards in the first, second and sometimes even third rank. The line seemed to stagger as if it were a live thing.
‘Poor sods,’ said Dobson.
One of the Spanish staff officers was down, but the man quickly kicked himself free of his dead horse and jogged forward. D’Urban was unscathed. Sergeants yelled at the grenadiers to close ranks. Their officers urged them on, their swords pointing at the enemy, who were now so very close. The battalion recovered as men closed to fill the gaps left by the fallen. At an order muskets dropped down to the charge. The men cheered and the cheer turned into a scream of rage as the grenadiers charged, bayonets reaching out for the gunners who had hurt them so badly.
Perhaps it was instinct, a sudden blur of movement glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, or just blind chance, but Williams turned and saw that the French dragoons were moving forward to threaten the right of the attack. A glance in the other direction showed that the green-coated horsemen were also advancing against the left. Squadron followed squadron and he judged that there were four or five regiments aiming to counter the Spanish attack.
The general realised the threat and, leaving much of his staff to steady the infantry, the old man galloped over to the brigade of cavalry which formed the far left of his own line.
‘That’s where it will be decided,’ said Williams, and without fully knowing why he urged his mule to follow the Spanish commander. Baynes was surprised, for he was still watching the grenadiers surging forward to reach the French guns, D’Urban riding among the leaders.
‘Come on, sir,’ said Dobson, and he and the merchant went after the ensign.
‘Not too close, Mr Williams!’ called Baynes. ‘You have no duty there.’ The three of them halted some hundred yards or so to the side and watched as Cuesta went to inspire his cavalry. Unlike the infantry they were formed in two lines of squadrons. One regiment wore bright yellow jackets and tight yellow breeches with cocked hats worn squarely east-west. Other dragoons were in dark blue. It was the closest Williams had been to the Spanish cavalry, and for all the bright colours there was much to prompt concern. Horses were of all sizes and shapes, and many looked scarcely broken, stirring in the formation, and snapping or kicking at their neighbours. Some of the riders seemed just as inexperienced. A few had no stirrups, or old bridles where the leather was tied together. There were dragoons without high black boots, wearing simple civilian shoes or even barefoot.
The French dragoons were walking their horses forward, their lines silently immaculate. Spanish officers urged their men on, but the commands were often lost in the noise as many of their troopers shouted praise of the king or hurled abuse at the French. The front line of squadrons went forward at a walk, and instantly the lines were ragged as the untrained horses refused to stay in place. Officers raised their swords and then swept them down as the trumpet sounded for the trot.
Their men abruptly halted. Then some began to turn, while others yelled encouragement and tried to persuade their comrades to go forward together. Officers joined in the shouting. The French dragoons kept on at a walk, their straight swords resting on their shoulders.
General Cuesta rode between the two lines of his cavalry, calling out in his deep voice for the men to remember their country and drive the enemy back. Williams could not understand the words, but the force of the man’s determination was obvious and for a moment infectious. The leading squadrons began to walk forward again.
Trumpeters, riding grey horses and keeping station just behind the colonel of each French regiment, sounded a new call. The dragoons went faster and the Spanish resurgence died as nervous riders and horses panicked.
Both lines of Spanish horsemen fled. Williams saw the general bawling at them to stop, and then the old man was surrounded by a mass of his own troopers, barging and pushing as the herd ran from danger. The general fell and was lost from sight. Then Williams thought he caught a glimpse of him lying on the ground, beneath the scrimmage of horses.
‘Take Mr Baynes to the rear, Dob, and look after him,’ said Williams, and swung down from the mule, unslinging his musket. He did not look back, but ran straight towards the spot where the Spanish commander had fallen. Sprinting to a pair of unkempt vine trees, he crouched down behind one and began to load his firelock. Most of the Spanish cavalry were streaming straight back along the riverbank, but some veered to pass near him. The men stared blankly ahead, hunched down in the saddles.
Baynes saw the expression on the veteran’s face. ‘I can take care of myself, Corporal Dobson.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Dobson with a nod. ‘Would you please take care of this for Mr Williams?’ He unhooked the long telescope from the mule’s harness and handed it across. ‘Obliged to you, sir.’
The veteran jumped down and ran after his officer. Baynes shook his head, and then turned his horse and spurred into a canter away from the battle. French dragoons were already among the stragglers of the Spanish cavalry, stabbing at the backs of the fleeing riders.
Williams crouched down, still not quite sure what to do, but happier now that he had a loaded musket. Dobson was expertly charging his own piece as he knelt beside him. The little vines were not enough to conceal them, but as the French dragoons swept past none of them was inclined to trouble much over the huddled redcoats when there were so many mounted enemies to chase. There was too much noise to speak and little need for it. Dobson strongly suspected that the officer had no real idea of what he planned to do and had simply felt an impulse to help.
A yellow-coated cavalryman dropped from his horse, arms flung out to either side, and tumbled on to the ground beside them. Williams dragged the Spanish trooper behind their modest shelter so that he would not be trampled. Blood pooled underneath the wounded man. Dobson looked at the wounded soldier, and then glanced at Williams, and there was no need to say that there was no hope.
They could see little, but then the press of horsemen rushing past and around their sanctuary began to thin, and a little after that the dust started to disperse. Williams guessed that most of the French cavalry would be wheeling to take the Spanish battalions in the flank and roll up the whole line. There was nothing to stop them.
He peered out from behind the branches of the stunted vines. Trumpets sounded as the general’s escort squadron arrived at last and charged the French. A whirling melee broke out as they threaded in among the enemy cavalry, blades clattering against blades, and men grunting with effort and screaming in pain as the blue-coated cavalrymen mingled with the dragoons in green. A few riders managed to force their way through the French and headed towards the spot where the general had fallen. Bodies were scattered there and almost all were in Spanish uniform. One was in dark blue, and Williams glimpsed heavy gold lace on the sleeve when it stirred.
The officer tapped the corporal on the arm and the two redcoats emerged from their cover and went cautiously forward. One of the Spanish horsemen fell, a dragoon’s sword thrust between his ribs, but the French trooper struggled to free the blade and was quickly hacked from his saddle by another of the Spanish officers. A shot – clearly audible over the cries and metallic clashing of swords – and the Spaniard was staring blankly forward with a neat hole above his right eye. He slumped to the side, hands lifeless, but sword still suspended from the strap around his wrist.
There were some ten skirmishers in the same deep green jacket and buff equipment Williams had seen on the corpse. Tall green plumes with yellow tips decorated their shakos and they had the epaulettes of an elite company.
There were more shots, but the two remaining Spanish officers rode on unscathed. Three French dragoons were walking their horses through the debris of the routed Spanish wing. A sergeant with a red stripe on his sleeves carried a captured standard, its crimson flag hanging lifeless in the still air. It was a trophy that would guarantee praise, reward and promotion, and the dragoon assumed the officers were riding to recapture the symbol of their pride and turned to carry it to safety. The other two Frenchmen stood to cover his escape, their swords ready. By chance their horses were just a yard or two ahead of the fallen Spanish general, who had not stirred again. The skirmishers came on, lured by the prospect of fresh corpses with full pockets, and Williams was relieved that the men who had fired did not bother to reload. No one paid any attention to the two scruffy redcoats, walking slowly on.
There was heavy firing away in the direction of the main line of Spanish infantry, followed by a great, almost unearthly moan unlike anything Williams had ever heard. Then there were screams, individual voices lost, but together joining one long, extended cry. The two Spanish officers reached the French horsemen and now the noise of steel on steel was closer.
Several of the green-uniformed skirmishers knelt down to rifle bodies. One of the fallen Spaniards moved and cried out in pain, but the infantryman ignored his complaints and lifted him so that he could pull off the man’s tunic. He laid the man down again with some tenderness, but ignored his scream of agony, and started to run one hand along the seams of the coat, feeling for any coins sewn into the lining.
The NCO leading the skirmishers noticed the two British soldiers. He called out in a language Williams did not understand, but knew was not French.
‘Amis!’ called Dobson, before the officer could think what to say.
The NCO looked suspicious. He reached back to draw his bayonet from its scabbard and said something to his men. It was awkward to load and aim a musket when the bayonet was fixed, and so most skirmishers preferred not to attach the blade until absolutely necessary. Several of the closest men also drew their own blades. One slung his musket and instead reached for the short sword carried by the French elite companies and known as the sabre-briquet.
Dobson stopped, raising his musket so the butt was snug against his shoulder. Then he fired, the noise appallingly loud just beside Williams’ ears, and shot the NCO through the throat. The man’s unfixed bayonet and musket dropped to the ground and he clutched at his collar as his knees gave way and he slumped forward.
Williams followed the veteran’s example. He saw one of the skirmishers pulling back the flint to cock his musket and guessed that the man was loaded and so aimed at him. He made himself wait, hoping to steady the weapon, but then pulled the trigger more strongly than he should have. The powder flared in the pan and an instant later set off the main charge, but by the time the musket slammed back against his shoulder the muzzle was pointing a little down. The ball slapped into the skirmisher’s left thigh and the man gasped in pain as he was knocked from his feet.
Dobson was screaming out a challenge as he charged, musket down and bayonet reaching hungrily forward. Williams followed a moment later and wished he had time to draw his sword as he no longer carried a bayonet.
There was a shot, and Williams felt a ball pluck at his sleeve, but there was no pain and he ran on. One of the French dragoons had vivid red blood spreading over the pink front of his green jacket from a great cross-bodied slash. His companion cut suddenly, slicing the fingers off the left hand of one of the Spanish officers. The man hissed in pain, and his horse reared, thrashing its hoofs and forcing the group apart, as he let go of his sabre and grabbed the reins with his right hand. There was time and space for the dragoons to turn and break away, following their sergeant, who could now be sure that his trophy was safe.
Dobson beat aside the thrust of one of the skirmishers and then flicked his bayonet back to jab under the man’s ribs, twisting the blade to free it as the man yelled and fell. Williams came against the greenjacket with the short sabre, and brought his musket across his body to parry the slash which carved a notch in the wood. The officer’s instincts took over and he kicked the man in the groin before the skirmisher could raise his short sword for another attack. Then Williams reversed his firelock and slammed the butt into the face of the doubled-up greencoat.
Williams ran on. The uninjured Spanish officer cut down at one of the green-uniformed men, but the blow was stopped by his shako and the man simply sagged before pushing away from the ground to run off. Dobson was standing over the general, his bayonet ready, and none of the enemy chose to challenge the large, grim-faced man. The skirmishers retreated, for there would be other bodies to loot. Two of them took the arms of the man wounded in the leg and supported him as they went back.
The man Williams had knocked down rose up on all fours. Blood was streaming from his nose, broken by the blow to his face. The officer slung his musket and lifted the man, giving him a shove in the direction of his friends. ‘Clear off,’ he said, and then felt a fool for saying such a ridiculous thing.
Thankfully none of the enemy was still loaded and they seemed willing to escape. There were no other enemy infantrymen near by, and he guessed that this file of men had gone far from their supports.
The wounded Spanish officer walked his horse to stand guard facing the French. He hid his pain, and from a distance no one would know that he was incapable of fighting. The other Spaniard dismounted and was crouched down beside the general. Williams joined him as Dobson began reloading.
Don Gregorio de la Cuesta was conscious, but he said nothing and his eyes stared blankly. He was badly bruised, and his almost bald head shone, as his wig had fallen to the ground, but as the Spanish officer gently ran his hand over the general’s limbs it seemed that no bones were broken.
‘Canteen, Dob,’ said Williams, and the veteran looped the strap of his wooden canteen off his shoulder and passed it down. The general managed to swallow a little of the water.
There was a drumming of hoofs and Williams looked up, fearing a new threat, but instead it was a handful of Spanish officers and three troopers from the general’s escort. Colonel D’Urban was with them and nodded cheerfully when he saw the redcoats.
‘Well done, Williams, well done indeed. And you too, Corporal Dobson. Now we must get him away.’
‘What about the French?’ asked Williams.
D’Urban’s face became grim. ‘They are fully occupied killing an army.’
There was one spare horse, and the general was lifted into the saddle, one of the troopers holding him around the waist. Dobson and Williams jogged either side to help support him.
They saw no French for five minutes as they followed the riverbank and the low hollow cutting on the side of the ridge where Hanley had sketched and Williams had slept a few hours ago. A couple of hussars joined them, and as they climbed on to the hill they were amazed to see a few grooms and servants still waiting in place for their masters. The two redcoats were given horses.
Williams turned to look back across the plain before following the others as they began to move off. Three months ago he had watched as a Spanish brigade was caught in a hopeless position and massacred by French cavalry. Now the same thing was happening to an army ten or twenty times the size. Many regiments had dissolved into hordes of fugitives streaming to the rear. Hussars in brown and blue and dragoons and chasseurs in green rode among them, hacking down without mercy.
A few battalions held together. Williams shaded his eyes to stare at two well-formed squares of men in dark blue.
‘The Royal Guard,’ said D’Urban, who had come to fetch the ensign. ‘Good soldiers, but there is little they can do.’ The French were moving up artillery to shatter the squares at close range while the cavalry kept them in the tight, vulnerable formation. ‘We must go.’
They saw few French, and as their numbers grew, the enemy pursuers were reluctant to close and went off in search of easier victims. A body of some fifty or so dragoons threatened to do more, but then a line of white-uniformed grenadiers marched up from a hollow and levelled their muskets at the enemy. They were led by the tall, bespectacled officer, who had lost his bearskin cap and had a bloodstained bandage around his forehead.
The French dragoons withdrew. After two miles they saw no enemies at all, and had gathered hundreds of stragglers. No French reached the army’s camp, but Baynes was waiting there to greet them. With him was Wickham, sitting on a camp stool, but with the reins of a Spanish trooper’s horse looped over his elbow. The man looked pale, and ready to retreat again, but was otherwise unscathed.
Baynes was not his usual genial self. ‘I fear there is bad news.’ He looked at Wickham, who looked more weary than sad.
‘Hanley has fallen,’ he said flatly.