A tattered red flag rose slowly above the decaying wooden fort that commanded the entrance to Ostend. The signal indicated that the depth of water within the harbour was now sufficient for the multitude of impatiently waiting craft to enter safely. Thomas Jeffrey, the Master of the merchant vessel Sabus, was a short dumpy man, his haggard features and dark sunken eyes told of many sleepless nights plying his exacting trade. He sported a two-day stubble which helped to conceal his cankered teeth, a stained jacket and trousers caked in grime completed his dishevelled appearance. As Master however, he was King of his vessel and bellowed the order for the helm to be set. He directed the helmsman to keep the bow of the vessel aimed at the point of a spire silhouetted against the grey sky of an overcast dawn. It peered above the low grass speckled sand hills, that lined the shore, the only indication of the great port that lay beyond them.
“Have to aim well up above the harbour because the current will set us down to leeward”, he explained to Captain Alexander Mercer who stood nearby. Alexander continued to stare at the sullen morning sky in stony silence; he had little interest in such nautical niceties. Alexander was a stout young man of average height, a quaff of light brown hair, thick long sideburns and a magnificent drooping moustache whose points nearly reached his chin. He wore a navy blue tunic; heavily laced across the chest in yellow gold, contrasted by grey riding breeches and calf length black boots. He trailed a silver metal scabbard containing his curved cavalry sword, which continually clattered upon the wooden planking of the deck. A dark blue hussar style jacket with broad cuffs of scarlet and again laced heavily in yellow; was draped decoratively over the left shoulder. Under his arm he caressed a brass helmet surmounted by a great black brush of hair that curved over the crest. He was every inch, the epitome of high military fashion.
Alexander shuddered inwardly as the Masters’ words finally struck home, the prospect of missing the harbour entrance was not an attractive one. The gloom of an overcast sky and a chilly light sea breeze was outdone by the worrying sound of the breakers crashing heavily upon the beach to the left of the entrance, it did not add to his feeling of comfort. The sails having been unfurled a little by the small band of chattering seamen that seemed to anticipate unerringly every order of Jeffrey’s before he could speak, increased the ship’s speed. The vessel slowly crabbed toward the gap in the wooden piled pier, which marked the entrance into the harbour. Even to his untrained eye, Alexander could see that the current was setting fast to the left where the roar of the waves dashing upon the sands and the great billows of spray warned of impending disaster.
Alexander now watched the crew intensely as they lay out a huge hawser in a coil on the fore deck, “What is the rope for?” he enquired. Jeffreys looked at him with a wry smile, curling his upper lip and with a knowing glint in his eye, “You’ll soon see” a seaman answered nonchalantly, then turned back to watch the local Belgian pilot’s handling of the ship.
Alexander watched the helmsman struggle incessantly to keep the bow pointing toward the spire, perspiring heavily as he fought with the great wheel in anticipation of the ship’s movement.
Orders for the trimming of the sails made Alexander look up and survey the ship. The Sabus was a vessel of some two hundred and fifty tons, quite big for a merchantman. Two masts towered above him, both square rigged with their yards and rigging looking a jumble of ropes to a landlubber like him. He watched with bewilderment as orders from the Master caused the small crew to scamper through the rigging to furl the sails or to pull on great ropes that angled the yards that little bit to catch the breeze square on to the sails. He marvelled at the tough unceasing work for these sailors. They were an extremely hardy breed, there was no watch system here like the Royal Navy, these merchant seamen were up on deck whenever required, night or day, rain or shine.
A sickening scraping sound quickly followed by the heart wrenching noise of cracking timbers brought Alexander’s meandering thoughts abruptly back to the present. Alexander felt himself impelled towards the deck as the vessel lurched to a sudden halt, only saving himself by grasping hold of the standing rigging as he plunged forward. Righting himself, he was aware that everyone was shouting at once, the utter confusion was self-evident. He caught sight of the Belgian pilot, jumping insanely on his small cocked hat and swearing vociferously at all and sunder, thankfully no one could understand Flemish. The ship had struck the pier just to the right of the harbour entrance; it’s prow towering over the wooden sea wall; obviously the current had not set them down as much as had been expected!
A handful of sleepy Belgian soldiers, burst out of a small wooden guardhouse on the pier. They were dressed in dishevelled blue jackets with white cross-belts and grey trousers. Judging from their state of dress, they had been sleeping on duty, following a heavy night. They appeared dazed and shocked to see the bowsprit of the Sabus towering above them, as they ducked underneath it to move to a safer location. Manic screams from the pilot accompanied by unintelligible gesticulations from the crew confused them even more. Eventually some of the soldiers began to comprehend the situation and managed to organise their comrades. The huge hawser that had been so carefully coiled upon the deck was now thrown from the bow onto the pier, one of the soldiers managed to catch the rope by the great eye in its end. With the aid of his companions they hauled on the hawser, it was obviously very heavy and they struggled despite their number. Eventually they managed to haul enough ashore to lay the eye over a great iron bollard set into the wooden pier. Seeing this, the sailors turned the shipboard end of the hawser around a pair of bollards on the fo’csle in a figure of eight pattern. Everyone seemed to visibly relax a little now that things were under some form of control.
Alexander suddenly noticed that during this distraction, despite the confusion all around, the seamen aloft had furled the sails to stop the wind driving the ship onto the pier causing further damage. The current was steadily pushing the Sabusto the left, towards the harbour entrance; the hawser was let out slowly to control the ship as it scraped along the wooden wall. The ship slowly set down to leeward and eventually cleared the end of the pier, the soldiers immediately released the rope, letting it fall into the sea and it was slowly hauled inboard. This bemused Alexander; surely they would now drift down and smash onto the opposite pier of the harbour amidships! But no, a new current had obviously taken control of the ship, the tide flooding in to fill the port carried the ship safely through the harbour mouth and with a few studding sails reset, she sailed gracefully up harbour.
Alexander observed that they had now joined a slow procession of craft, all entering on the flood, many were local boats, fishing smacks and coastal craft, but interspersed among them were a number of large ocean going merchant ships similar to Sabus. They had probably all been hired by the Transport Board hurriedly over the last two weeks to carry the army to Belgium as quickly as possible. Indeed the Sabus had sailed from Harwich along with the Adventure and Philarea three days previously, all full of troops.
Transporting was a profitable business, so Mister Jeffreys had informed Alexander. Because of her copper sheathing allowing faster speeds, he would get twenty shillings per ton per month from the Transport Board, better than could be earned hauling coals down from Newcastle to London!
Alexander’s thoughts now started to wander again; they drifted back to just seven days before, when he had been sat at his desk at the Royal Horse Artillery barracks in Colchester. The despatch rider had brought the order for his battery, ‘G’ Troop, to prepare for immediate embarkation at Harwich. Major Alexander Fraser, Commanding Officer of all the Horse Artillery at Colchester, had appeared whilst he was still cogitating over the order. Fraser was a stern disciplinarian who ruled by fear, he glared at Alexander and demanded.
“Well Mercer, you have your orders, how quickly can you be ready to march?”
Alexander was thrown into confusion by this sudden demand; he was not fully prepared for the question, something Alexander never liked. “A week at least Sir, some of the horses are not at their best either” he blurted out, red faced.
Major Fraser’s expression told Alexander that he disagreed and was none too pleased with his answer. He looked sternly at him and ordered, “Take whatever equipment you need, and the best horses of all the troops here, but mind that you are ready in three days!”
Alexander took the hint and excusing himself, ordered his servant Millward to inform the other officers that they were to meet in the Officer’s Mess in five minutes. It did not take them long to gather, they knew that something was in the wind. Alexander surveyed his five fellow officers as they stared intently at him, eager for the announcement. Robert Newland, his second in command, stood imperiously aloof, attempting to maintain an air of nonchalance and exchanging knowing glances at the other ‘veteran’ Lieutenant William Ingilby. They had been through it all before and were not going to show any signs of excitement at the call to war. The remaining trio, Lieutenants Leathes, Hincks and Assistant Surgeon Hichens held none of their emotions back, their eagerness for confirmation of the orders was obvious. They cared little for the disdainful looks of the seasoned officers, they yet knew only of the glories of war. Alexander could not conceal his own delight, he had little experience of campaigning himself and shared the latter’s enthusiasm.
“Gentlemen, we are ordered to Belgium immediately, all must be ready to leave in three days, do whatever is necessary to achieve this.” His grave demeanour whilst speaking, broke into a grin as Richard Hichens proclaimed, “I’ll get my father that Cuirassier’s helmet yet!”
Those three days were ones of complete haste, everybody urgently checking equipment and preparing it for use, but by the third day everything was arranged. The men were given leave to bid their loved ones farewell on the last night and to Alexander’s intense pride, ‘G’ troop mustered the following morning complete in men and equipment. Nobody was missing, nor intoxicated.
Major Fraser had gruffly congratulated Alexander on such a fine turn out and had ordered them to march. They rode out onto the great post road from London to Harwich, all gaiety, and eager for glory. Alexander’s black Labrador ‘Bal’ ran alongside his horse, mingling with the rest of the pack, as more than a dozen of the men had their dogs with them. It had been a glorious summer’s day and they had stopped to water and refresh the horses at Maningtree. Proceeding, they had finally arrived at the bustling seaport that afternoon. The transport vessels were in harbour awaiting their arrival but the tides were not right to sail immediately. Some of the men and equipment had been embarked before dark; the rest spent the night in the local barracks. There were soldiers everywhere, some dusty and dirty from their long marches, many lounging outside the public houses, relaxing in their undress uniforms awaiting embarkation orders. It seemed that the entire British army was here awaiting transport to Belgium. Sailors passed regularly, many with a woman or two on their arms, others rolling along blind drunk, offering a fight to any landlubber crossing their path. The soldiers were wisely ignoring them, but Alexander knew there would be trouble later when the soldiers had also got a belly full of beer.
A thick fog had greeted them in the morning, but nothing would stop the embarkation. The horses were coaxed onto large wooden floats, slowly pulled alongside the ships, and hauled aboard in a canvas harness. The horses did not like the experience and the operation took hours, indeed some men were injured as horses fought out of their harnesses and fell into the sea, taking the seamen with them. All the horses were recaptured unharmed and were eventually safely settled in stalls built for them in the specially adapted hold.
For a second day, the wind had been blowing strongly into the harbour and they could not sail. Leaving the men and horses aboard, the officers had retired for a more comfortable night at the ‘Three Cups’ public house, where an excellent meal and bed were available. Sleep was a luxury not to be found with all night drinking and the creaking floorboards constantly plied by the clientele, but the transport would certainly be less comfortable.
They had finally sailed the following day with a favourable breeze but having cleared the harbour, they were forced to anchor as the fickle winds turned against them once more. It seemed that fate meant to delay them; they all feared that the great battle, which everyone was predicting, would be fought before they arrived.
The following morning, the wind swung at last and the passage to Ostend could begin in earnest. The Master had gauged the trip at some thirty-six hours; and sure enough, this morning, the third day at sea, the low sandy hills of Belgium had been visible low on the horizon. Having picked up a pilot, who jumped deftly from a small cutter that wafted briefly alongside, they had soon approached the harbour of Ostend where they had awaited the signal to enter, as the Master had informed Alexander that the harbour dried out at low tide.
The Sabus continued to glide through the harbour, with the few studding sails set, she was making little more than two knots, just enough to maintain steerage way. Outside on the open sea, this speed had seemed interminably slow, Alexander thought, but in the harbour passing objects at close proximity, it suddenly felt much faster, almost too fast! Alexander watched the local inhabitants taking their stroll along the promenades for the air, all dressed in their Sunday best; they watched the ships with interest. In front of the Sabus were a number of jetties already thick with masts and Alexander could not see where the ship could berth, there did not seem to be any room.
Alexander ruminated on the adventures to come, he hoped that inexperienced as he was, that he could see them through their trials safely. He recalled his joining the artillery at the tender age of sixteen, when he had immediately been sent to help suppress the Irish rebellion of 1799. After that, apart from a very short and unsuccessful campaign in Buenos Aries in 1807, where General Whitelocke had been forced to capitulate, Alexander had always served in England. His professional abilities and knowledge was second to none, but he was aware from the warnings of his senior officers, that life on campaign was something that could not be taught in advance, he would learn by his mistakes, a comforting premise! Indeed, he was really only the Second Captain of G Troop, but his senior, Lieutenant Colonel Dickson, a Peninsula veteran and a favourite of Lord Wellington, was presently seconded to headquarters in command of the siege train.
Alexander surveyed his fellow officers, Lieutenants John Hincks; John Bretton; Henry Leathes a supernumerary officer awaiting appointment and who had seen a little of campaigning in Spain, and Richard Hichens the Assistant Surgeon. They were a fine set of young men and he was happy to know them as his ‘band of brothers’. Then there was Robert Newland and William Ingilby; who were a totally different kettle of fish! Robert had only been promoted to Second Captain last year, reward for a successful term as a Lieutenant, serving for a considerable time on campaign in Spain. Ingilby had also served in Spain for many years. Alexander was clearly the senior Second Captain by time served in the rank, but Robert had much the greater experience of life on campaign, of which he never seemed to fail in reminding everyone, much to Alexander’s irritation. Robert felt aggrieved at Alexander, he would normally have expected to be second in command of a troop with his promotion, not a third hand just because Lord Wellington had other work for Lieutenant Colonel Dickson. Their working relationship had so far been professional, but Newland regularly questioned Alexander’s decisions and was supported by Ingilby, who continued to chase a Captaincy on Newland’s coat tails. There was no love lost between him and them; this could become a major problem in the future.
Alexander’s reverie was abruptly ended as the Master bellowed out a barrage of orders.
“Hard-a-larboard”, caused the helmsman to haul the great wooden wheel fully over to the left, he puffed hard as he wound the wheel around a few times to its full extent even though helped by another seaman. Initially there was no movement of the ship, the bow still aimed straight up harbour, then, slowly, with an almost imperceptible movement, the bow started to creep to the left. The turn gained momentum and soon became obvious, but where were they going? There was only a beach to their left, were they turning back to sea? Soon the bow started to point directly toward the beach.
“Midships” brought the grunting helmsman into action again, turning the wheel back to the right. The speed of turn slowed and soon the ship settled on a course directly for the centre of the beach. Surely he wasn’t going to run them aground!
“Brace yourselves” left them in no doubt, a loud scraping along the hull followed by a violent break in their momentum told them that they had beached.
Master Jeffreys turned with a smile, “Welcome to Ostend, Gentlemen”. His job was done.
A noise ashore caused Alexander and his fellow officers to turn and look over the ship’s side. A party of some twenty British sailors were running across the wet sands toward the ship, splashing through the shallow water and clambering up the wooden hull of the merchantman. Most were nearly naked but for tight pantaloons, besmirched in oil and dirt, soaked through. They were all young, well built and athletic, skin darkened by the sun, and eager for work. One of them, slightly older than the others and obviously in charge, said nothing, simply pointing out the horses and piles of leather equipment. The sailors simply commenced picking the stores up and hurling them over the ship’s side onto the wet sand!
Alexander was dumbfounded, “Who is in charge here?” He demanded.
A voice behind him spoke firmly, “That would be me Sir, Captain Hill Royal Navy, at your service”. Hill had a face ravaged by years before the mast, his face weathered and cracked by the salt air and sun. A few tufts of fine grey hairs above the ears were the only traces of a long forgotten head of hair. The crown of his scalp was clearly marked by a dark scar where a Frenchman’s sword had failed to break his skull a few years before. His naval uniform had seen more glorious times, he was now retired from those ‘wooden walls of old England’ and forced to see out his days overseeing the landing of supplies for the army. He rarely had the joy of congenial company and held out his hand in friendship.
Alexander snubbed the proffered hand and haughtily proceeded to lecture this ageing sailor, “This haste is madness Captain Hill, you must slow down the speed of disembarkation, to enable us to maintain the equipment” he demanded.
“Afraid not, can’t help it Sir, Duke’s orders are positive that no delay is to take place in unloading the troops as they arrive and the ships sent back again, so you must be out of here by dark”. Hill was not a man to be trifled with.
Alexander became irritated with this officious man, “I urge you to stay your men, as the loss incurred in horses and equipment by such reckless haste is unnecessary, it is already three o’clock, we cannot sensibly disembark all before nightfall”.
Captain Hill was unmoved, “Can’t help it, no business of mine, Duke’s orders are positive”. He signalled to his team to continue. Soon the ship was a scene of utter confusion, horses being hoisted overboard and plunging into the water, then left to roam along the beach; equipment falling into the sea for the tide to claim and men clambering ashore as best they could.
Master Jeffreys had seen it all before, “Mister Mercer, they will not listen to you, but the tide is now full and will soon ebb, your men must reclaim their equipment before it floats out to sea”.
Alexander ordered teams of gunners to recover the equipment and pile it further up the beach, the drivers attempted to catch and calm the jittery horses. He surveyed the scene, it was utter chaos, three other transports had now beached alongside and were rapidly spewing their cargoes onto the sands in similar fashion. Alexander watched in horror as the neighbouring ship discharged the beautifully kept chargers of a dragoon regiment unceremoniously into the cold sea, straight from the warm hold below. They were forced to wade or swim onto the beach; Alexander shuddered at the loss of condition to these fine horses.
The beach itself was bedlam, nervous horses trotting all about in confusion. Dragoons chasing across the sands in an attempt to catch them looked a sight with great boots and spurs tripping them up. Soldiers and artillerymen dragged packs and equipment out of the water and piled them on the beach. Many women had travelled with their men-folk; they sat forlornly on piles of old trunks, with young children and dogs scampering around them, just waiting for someone to offer aid. The locals did not help the confusion, the local merchants crowded the area with little stalls offering their wares to the ‘Ingleesh solljer’, bakers with their breads and cakes; butchers with scrawny looking chickens and great ham joints; young lads hawking lemonade or beer; fine ladies offering beautifully worked lace items for their loved ones at home and a large number of not so fine ladies that offered company to those that could pay! Alexander had seen nothing like it and gawped at the madness for some hours in total disbelief.
Turning to Mister Jeffreys he asked, “How much longer do we have before the flood tide returns Sir, as they are still removing the horses”.
Mister Jeffreys answered immediately “We have about four hours before the flood tide sets in properly, Mister Mercer”.
Turning to the obstinate naval officer, Alexander shouted, “Then may I suggest Captain Hill, that it is impossible to complete disembarkation this day, for we have no more than a few hours, which cannot be sufficient to complete the horses and all the wagons as well. Indeed if we attempt to set the wagons down they are more likely to sink into the sand or be swept out to sea. What do you think Lord Wellington would have to say of that, Sir?”
Captain Hill was forced to submit to this argument but did so with extreme bad grace from this impudent officer. He ordered his team to finish all but the carriages that day and bid them speed this process to get quit of the damned ship! With little need for the hint, his men proceeded to complete the jettisoning of equipment with all haste and it now became a mass of knotted leather straps on the tide line.
Somehow a young man had wormed his way up alongside the artillery officers, he was dressed in a faded green livery jacket and ragged trousers, topped with a glazed black bicorn. He was about five foot six in height, a healthy youth with a very beautiful face for a male.
He spoke in French. “Gentlemen, may I crave your attention”, this succeeded in stopping their discussions and making them listen. He continued in good French, “My name is Karl, I am twenty years of age, I have served in France with the famous General Vandamme for seven years, including marching to Moscow with him. Unfortunately, the General was unable to maintain my employment after the retreat; I was left in Saxony to make my own way back to my native Flanders. I wish to enter the service of a gallant English officer, as I can be very useful. I speak Dutch, French, German, Russian and Italian fluently and I speak Spanish tolerably, I am a faithful servant, I cook, I cut hair and I sing!”