Chapter 5

Hanley had never seen so much death. For as far as he could see in any direction there were bodies. Last May he had fled the massacre in Madrid. In August he fought at Roliça and Vimeiro and had been spattered with the blood, brains and flesh of men ripped to pieces by cannonballs. During the winter’s retreat he had seen the frozen corpses lying in the snow, many with trickles of wine still dribbling from their lips from when they had drunk themselves senseless and let the cold claim them.

He had seen nothing on this scale.

‘There’s Jacques,’ said a lean-faced hussar with pigtails on either side of his forehead and his dirty brown hair tied back with a black ribbon. ‘He’ll not have to worry about finding wine any more.’ Four troopers in the brown and sky blue of the Chamborant Hussars escorted the thirty prisoners back across the plains of Medellín. A man in the same uniform lay stretched on the ground with a great stain of almost black blood on his chest. His eyes stared blankly up at the evening sky.

The vultures were the worst. Scruffy, thin, and more grey than black, they had come from nowhere and now there seemed to be at least one for every corpse. He had never seen so many birds in one place.

A shot rang out as a French infantryman put a ball into the head of a Spaniard whose innards were spilled on the ground by a great slash across his stomach. The man had been moaning softly, and Hanley thought he could see scars on the pinkish intestines where a vulture had pecked and ripped. The Frenchman jabbed at the bird with his bayonet and screamed in rage. The vulture flapped its wings and hopped back a few paces until the man lost interest. The birds were already getting fat. Soon they would be fatter. Half an hour ago a sudden musket shot sent clouds of the carrion fowl into the air. They were no longer so easily frightened.

‘Poor Robert. Well, he won’t have to flog that dog of a horse any more.’ They were passing another man in brown and blue, this one with half his face carried away. His horse stood dutifully beside him, cropping the thin grass as if nothing had happened.

‘Take the reins and lead him off,’ ordered the corporal of the hussars.

They passed other Frenchmen. ‘Looks like Philippe has had his last woman.’

There were far, far more Spanish. The dead lay in every posture. Hanley passed men whose faces remained fixed in a rictus of appalling horror, cut down as they fled. Others lay in clusters, shot or hacked down as they stood in a knot and fought to the end. They passed a battery, whose crews had all died around their four guns. There were the shattered corpses of French infantrymen in a swathe of blue ahead of the position to testify to their stubbornness. French gunners were lifting the dead off barrels and carriages, as they prepared to tow the trophies away.

Blades had done most of the work. Half the prisoners marching with him had wounds to the head and shoulders from the French sabres. So had most of the dead. Severed hands and arms were dotted over the ground. So were heads. They passed half a dozen neatly decapitated men whose necks had been sliced evenly through above the collar.

‘That’ll be Sergeant Blanchard of the Tenth Chasseurs,’ said the lean-faced hussar in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘Saw him do the same to the Russians at Friedland. He’s a wicked bastard.’

Another trooper looked down approvingly. ‘Knows how to use a sabre, though.’

‘Use the point, lads, not the edge,’ said the corporal out of habit. ‘Always the point.’

They moved on, and still there were more corpses in white, brown, grey and blue coats. In Portugal the peasants and the camp followers had stripped the dead within hours. This did not seem to be happening here, and Hanley wondered whether there were simply too many dead or whether the nearest villagers were too terrified to scavenge. Most of the corpses had their pockets turned out. Papers wafted on the air as the breeze scattered precious letters from mothers, and from wives who were now widows, but did not know it.

Hanley felt alone. There were no officers with the group and the Spanish soldiers treated the foreigner with suspicion. They said little to each other, and nothing to him. It made it worse that as an officer he was permitted to keep his sword according to the usual conventions of war. The Spanish soldiers were unsure which side this tall man was on, with his ragged and unfamiliar uniform.

The hussars took them to a much larger group of two hundred or so prisoners, and left them for the infantry to escort. They waited while other parties were brought in. Hanley tried to talk to the dozen or so officers in charge of the captives, but none of the Spaniards had seen him before.

‘Long live Napoleon and his invincible troops!’ More than half of the prisoners raised the shout when a French colonel trotted past with his escort of a few dragoons. None of the officers joined in the cry, and several looked bitter. The captives were afraid, standing within sight of thousands of dead or dying men dressed in uniforms like their own. They did not know what fate lay in store and were pathetically eager to please their captors.

There were far more dead than prisoners, for in the first hour the French had not been inclined to accept surrenders. Their doctors did their best to help the wounded, but their own men came first and there were not enough surgeons to cope. Sporadic shots continued to echo across the fields as the suffering were killed quickly. Better that than wait for the vultures.

‘I am an English officer. My name is Lieutenant Hanley.’ A new party of prisoners straggled in to join the main group and Hanley tried to talk to a man in a light blue coat with a yellow front and the gold epaulettes of an officer.

‘My name is O’Donnell and I’m the Pope,’ was all the reply he got before the man barged past him. The man had spoken in Spanish and showed no trace of being Irish.

Hanley needed to talk. He was not a man who thrived on solitude, unlike Williams, who seemed to be quite content in a private world of silence when none of his close friends was near. Hanley wished the ensign were here, and then told himself that such a desire was selfish since that would mean that his friend would be a prisoner as well. Pringle would have cheered him up. Billy was always lively company, apart from those occasions when he was paying the price of a night’s drinking that was heavy even by his standards.

The English officer stood on the edge of the great huddle of prisoners, and wondered whether he should try to speak to one of the French guards. The folly of confirming the Spaniards’ suspicion of him was all that stopped him, and then the guards were shouting at them to move, clubbing with the butts of their muskets at anyone who did not go quickly enough.

‘Long live Napoleon and his invincible troops!’ Another mounted officer rode past and almost all of the Spanish rank and file took up the cry.

Hanley tried to work out how he had got here, but the memories of the rout were confused. He remembered the lancers and other cavalry fleeing, and the infantry battalions collapsing as the French hussars came from their front and at the same time swept round their flank. Men panicked and fled, and some shouted out ‘Treason!’ The duke also was shouting, trying to stem the flow, but then all the horses were running back in a wild stampede.

He could remember that Wickham was there beside him, and in the press of horsemen the man’s big hunter could not speed away. Velarde disappeared. There were screams and shots all around them, the thunder of so many hoofs pounding across the fields, and the dull, wet thuds of steel sinking into flesh.

Then the press began to thin, but all was confusion, French mixed in with the Spanish and every rider galloping as fast as he could in flight or pursuit. A French hussar was ahead and to his left and he watched helplessly as the man drove the point of his curved sabre into the back of a Spanish officer in a heavily laced blue coat.

Wickham gave the chestnut its head and was streaming away, flicking up clods of earth as he went. Hanley had lost his hat and his horse stumbled, sinking down at the shoulder, but somehow he kept his balance and the beast recovered and was running again. A Spanish dragoon was galloping ahead of him, and the man turned back, aiming a pistol straight at him. There was noise and the creak of leather close behind him, and the dragoon fired, a small cloud of smoke following the flash of flint which flared the powder. The Englishman felt the wind of the ball and heard a cry behind him and glanced back to see a French trooper clutching at his arm.

His horse tightened its muscles and then sprang to clear a fallen animal, and he noticed that it was Wickham’s chestnut and that the red-coated officer was sprawled in the grass, pushing himself up on all fours.

Hanley wrenched hard on the reins. His horse protested, snapping at its bit, but turned and came to a halt.

‘Come on, old fellow!’ he called, and was amazed that his voice sounded so calm and that his choice of words was so banal. He reached out his hand to pull the major up behind him.

Wickham saw him and sprang up, running fast to grasp the offered hand.

Something hit Hanley hard from behind and he was pitched down from the saddle, the wind knocked out of him as he landed badly on his face. There was movement all round him, boots on the ground, and horses rushing. He felt rather than saw his own mount spurred away.

Hanley pushed himself up. His left arm hurt where he had fallen, and he reached with the right to feel his shoulder. There was no wound, no sign of blood, but he was sure a bruise was swelling. Turning, he saw Wickham riding hard to the rear on his horse, and beside him was Velarde in his round hat.

The Englishman winced as he turned back and it was almost too late because a French hussar was bearing down, his arm raised across his body preparing to cut.

‘I am an English officer!’ he bellowed in fluent French, and just at the last instant the man checked his blow, and the sabre merely flicked across an inch or two above Hanley’s dark hair. An officer was following, his wounded horse making it hard for him to keep up the pace. The battle flowed on past them and Hanley was a prisoner.

Hours later he was still a prisoner and feeling lonely and isolated. He guessed that it was his own fault. If he had not stopped for Wickham then no doubt he would have escaped. Williams would be sure to tell him that the major was a scoundrel and not worth such a sacrifice. The thought made him smile, for he knew with absolute certainty that Williams himself would have gone back, for the man was as devout a worshipper of honour as he was of God.

‘Long live Napoleon and his invincible troops!’ The cry went up again.

This time the officer was less pleased. ‘No, no,’ he cried. ‘Long live King Joseph!’ The rider was dressed in a deep blue jacket smothered in gold decoration at the cuffs, collar and down the front. Beside him was a man dressed in a brown uniform, only a little less ornate, and Hanley suspected this man was Spanish.

‘Long live Napoleon and his invincible troops!’ The cry was taken up by more of the prisoners, including a few of the officers. This time it was a challenge.

‘No, I tell you, long live His Most Catholic Majesty King Joseph!’

‘Long live hunchbacks!’ came a muffled cry from somewhere in the column.

‘You, my man.’ The rider in brown pointed to one of the nearest prisoners, a boy of scarcely sixteen who wore a military waistcoat as his only uniform. ‘I’ll give you a silver dollar if you praise your king.’ Listening to his speech, Hanley was now sure that the rider was Spanish.

‘And I’ll have you shot if you don’t!’ said the other officer, angrily twisting his brown moustache.

‘Long live King Joseph,’ said the soldier without any enthusiasm or real understanding. Until two weeks ago he had never strayed more than a few miles from a tiny village where no king ever visited.

‘Good fellow,’ said the man in brown. ‘Here is your dollar.’ He tossed the coin down.

The man who called himself O’Donnell whipped out his sword in an instant. ‘And here’s the true payment of a traitor.’ He lunged from beside the young soldier, skewering his throat so that blood jetted down on to the front of his off-white waistcoat.

A French grenadier marching on the edge of the column raised his musket and cocked the weapon, aiming at O’Donnell. The two riders shouted at him to hold his fire.

‘That was murder,’ said the man in blue. ‘If I give the word then the private will shoot you.’

O’Donnell shrugged, but after freeing his sword he lowered it. ‘That was discipline,’ he said.

‘Barbarian.’ The Spaniard in brown was shaking his head. ‘So speaks the old Spain.’

‘Lower your musket, grenadier,’ ordered the Frenchman in blue, his gaze never leaving the captured officer. ‘Who are you, Sir?’

‘Major O’Donnell of the Irlanda Regiment.’ Several regiments of men descended from Catholic refugees from Ireland fought in the Spanish Army.

‘Be grateful that your king is merciful.’ The Spaniard raised his voice. ‘His Most Catholic Majesty King Joseph comes to sweep away the corruption and savagery of the old Bourbons and their creatures. Have you forgotten the Prince of Peace and how he lowered Spain to the dust? The King brings the light of justice as well as the sword of retribution.

‘I tell you that one day you will all shout his praises. And on that day you will be free men living in a glorious and strong Spain!’

‘Who the hell is this?’ The French officer had noticed Hanley in his torn red jacket and the GR plate on his sword belt. Before the grenadier could answer Hanley stepped forward.

‘My name is William Hanley and I am a British officer, and demand to be treated as such.’ After coming back to Spain it was an effort to find the French rather than Spanish words. He suspected Pringle or Williams would have made the speech more confidently.

‘Are you indeed? Well, you don’t look much.’ The French officer seemed more amused than anything else. His Spanish colleague saw an opportunity.

‘Is that why you fight?’ he almost screamed at the prisoners. ‘For the gold of Protestant England? For the heretics who steal our lands? Tell me, where are the dead Englishmen today? They spend the blood of Spain for their own ends, and you are fools enough to let them.’

His rage seemed to be sated for the moment, and his tone became one of gentle reason. ‘Join the army of King Joseph. Fight as free men for yourselves, your families and a better Spain. Any officer or man who wishes to enlist may speak to one of the guards. You could soon be free, earning pay and serving your country.’

There was no flood of volunteers, but the man did not seem especially disappointed. As he resumed his pleading, the French officer ordered the sergeant in charge of the guards to find a horse for Hanley. ‘The marshal will want to see you,’ he explained.

As Hanley rode his third mount of the day the whole situation felt bizarrely unreal. It was almost amusing to think that his being taken off no doubt confirmed the suspicions of his fellow prisoners.

They saw a group of staff officers up ahead, but before they reached them came a clatter of hoofs and harness and they were joined by Lasalle and his ADCs. The staff officers were gaudy, but outshone by their leader. Up close Hanley saw the gold lace on the green pelisse, and the immense baggy red trousers. The hussar general was not an especially big man, but he was an extremely handsome one and exuded a raw power and restless energy. He seemed delighted to meet the captive Englishman, especially since the man was civilised enough to speak French. Again Hanley was oddly reminded of their meetings with Spanish officers earlier in the day.

‘Well, my friend, it has been our day rather than yours, I think,’ said the hussar. ‘Even so it is a joy to meet a brave enemy. I’d offer you my hand, but I am still carrying my sabre.’ He winked. ‘It never does any harm to show a marshal a bit of blood and gore!’

Hanley liked him instantly, and that seemed absurd, for the same man had only a few hours before led a charge which slaughtered thousands of his allies. As he puzzled with the thought, they reached the marshal and his staff. A succession of French soldiers tossed captured standards at the commander’s feet. Most were the big white flags with the royal crest or ragged red cross carried by Spanish infantry, but a few were odd creations of the volunteer units, their dramatic slogans of victory or death now having an ironic touch.

‘Thirteen!’ he called in cheerful greeting to his light cavalry general. ‘And they tell me over a score of cannon!’

‘Himself will be pleased, then,’ said Lasalle with great non-chalance, and raised his bloody sabre in salute, prompting just the surprise and admiration he had anticipated.

‘Orders have arrived, my dear Antoine, from Himself no less. He wants you with him in Austria.’

‘Good, there is little glory in this damned country.’

‘Except today.’ The marshal obviously liked his general.

‘Yes, and a few others. I’ll be happier giving the kaiserliks a good kicking. That’s a clean war.’

Marshal Victor, the Duke of Belluno, wished that he too was going back to the great battles fought under the Emperor’s eye, but could not confess such a sentiment. ‘Have we a count of prisoners?’ he asked an aide instead.

‘One thousand at least, probably two thousand when they have all come in.’

‘We killed four or five times as many,’ said Lasalle as if speaking of a day’s hunting. ‘My boys were in a right mood because of that ambush at Miajadas. Oh, by the way, you can add one Englishman to the tally of prisoners. He’s tall, so you can count him as two if you like!’

Hanley was ushered forward.

‘This is Lieutenant Hanley,’ said Lasalle.

‘Well, even though enemies there is no reason we cannot be courteous. It is good to meet you, and even better surrounded by the spoils of victory.’ The marshal had traces of a once strong accent, which Hanley could not quite place. ‘I am sorry if that appears discourteous. Haven’t fought you English since Toulon back in ’93. Chased you away then as well.’

‘We keep coming back, though,’ Hanley replied, surprised at his own nerve, but it was difficult not to like these men. For many years he had admired all things French and thrilled at the thought of the Revolution and the new society it brought. The marshal was obviously a man of humble origins, and yet here he was a duke and the leader of a great army. Lasalle was a nobleman, but in the Revolutionary days that was a hindrance – sometimes a death sentence – rather than a blessing. These men had got where they were through talent, and that seemed just. It was a pity those talents were for war and destruction, but Hanley, the penniless, unwanted bastard son of a banker, wanted a world where merit counted for more than anything else.

There was much for the marshal and senior officers to do, and Hanley quickly found himself on the fringes of things, waiting for someone to remember his existence. A wild thought of grabbing one of the horses and galloping to freedom came and went almost as swiftly. He did not even know in which direction the Spanish Army had gone. It was odd to think that he was so warmly received by his enemies and obviously distrusted by his allies.

Then there was Velarde. Hanley was still trying to understand what the man wanted. He was almost sure that it had been the Spanish major who tipped him from his horse, but that made no sense. Why would the Spaniard want him dead? Or did he want him captured?

‘Ah, Hanley, I thought it was you as soon as you were brought in, and then they said your name. How are you, my friend?’ The speaker was a short and plump man who nevertheless looked elegant in his French-style white jacket with its green front, collar and cuffs. He wore a cocked hat with a tall white and red plume, but then he plucked it off his head in greeting and the setting sun shone off his almost bald head.

‘Espinosa!’ said Hanley, and for some reason was less astonished than he felt he ought to be. For the second time in the same day, his old life in Madrid reached out once more to claim him.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!