The battalion stood to arms yet again and patiently watched the rest of the army slowly march away down the road to Brussels. Eventually the fields around them emptied of men and then all that could be seen were a few cavalry pickets to the front. They knew they were the rearguard but they hoped that they hadn't been forgotten!
The scene became somewhat unreal and eerie, little now indicated the proximity of the enemy in vast numbers and only a few cadavers lying near the crossroads, the hair on their heads stirring in the breeze mimicking life, told of the severe fighting there the previous day.
That morning at Quatre Bras, the sounds of the brisk fire of musketry had also awoken Alexander. It was not fully daylight yet and he was so tired that he simply rolled on his side and fell back into a deep sleep. He was unconsciously aware of the noise and its association with danger, but fatigue simply overwhelmed him.
John Bretton sat up abruptly from his earthen mattress and asked nonchalantly “I wonder what all that firing means?”
The words sparked through Alexander’s head like a bolt of lightning, suddenly he was wide-awake and on his feet to assess the situation.
The immediate good news was the sight of Quartermaster John Hall and the ammunition wagons, they must have arrived in the night whilst he slept and they had somehow found them in amongst all the other units. At least he now had a unit able to sustain itself in action for a reasonable period; his only remaining embarrassment was the lack of food supplies as there was still no news of Mr Coates and the wagons.
Alexander quickly scanned the fields to discover an explanation for the heavy firing but could see nothing in the half-light. It seemed that either the skirmishers of each army were out sparring early or the men were simply clearing their muskets of the overnight damp.
The troop had unknowingly lain near the Ninety Fifth Rifles overnight and Mercer watched them perform their roll of skirmishing for the army, ensuring that the French did not encroach upon the cross roads. Alexander watched an officer of the Rifles tour his pickets which were strung across the plain, he couldn’t know that he was watching George Simmons at his work.
There was little interest by the rest of the troop in the brisk firing; indeed many individuals still lay sound asleep. They hugged the ground almost hidden by the grey morning mist; indeed they appeared like so many rounded rocks just peeping above the surface of the sea.
All of a sudden Macdonald was stood at Alexander’s shoulder; he had an unnerving knack of appearing as if from the ether itself. Tapping Alexander on the back, he proceeded to relay orders for G troop.
“The Fifth Division are marching back along the Brussels road, you will follow them in the retreat.”
The word seared through Alexander as effectively as if a dagger had been plunged into his breast. The talk last night was that they had snatched a victory from Napoleon’s grasp and everyone was expecting orders for an advance to complete their success. Alexander was shocked at the order to retire; he was simply mentally unprepared for the bombshell. The men nearby had caught the gist of the conversation and a low murmur of discontent spread rapidly. An air of depression soon settled on the troop as they sat in the chill dank atmosphere of the morning.
Macdonald remained oblivious to the reaction and continued.
“Major Ramsay’s troop will remain in the rear with the cavalry to cover the retreat.”
He paused unsure whether to continue, then steeled himself and said, “I will not conceal from you that it actually falls to you to carry out this duty”.
Alexander felt incensed; Macdonald was offering him a way out of rearguard duty because of his inexperience. He stared at the Lieutenant Colonel struggling hard to contain his rage; he so wanted to strike out.
“I beg you give the devil his due and me mine!” he snapped.
Macdonald acquiesced in his demand for the place of honour in the rearguard and stepped away smiling inwardly, Mercer had been offered an honourable way out but he had chosen to prove that he could equal the great Ramsay, just as Macdonald had hoped.
A great outcry emanating from the farmhouse caused everyone to look, was it the French? All eyes scanned the horizon for the cause of the commotion with little success. Suddenly, a confused mass of soldiers of all the allied nations emerged from the farmyard firing so erratically, that some observers actually jumped up fearing a cavalry surprise. Then from between a mass of flailing arms and legs, a large sow emerged squealing expressively, imploring mercy from its pursuers as it ran for its life. The onlookers laughed and cheered, encouraging the chasing pack. Bayonets and swords hacked at the pig in rapid succession and soon it succumbed to the blows. Within seconds of collapsing on the ground, a few hard blows from musket butts smashed its skull and dashed the brains out. The swords and axes fell on the still pulsating body to dismember it. The crowd then fought frantically for a morsel of the still warm flesh and turned away in triumph brandishing their bloody treasure. The carcass was stripped completely clean in less than a few minutes; entrails and all, starving men are never particular about offal. The dreadful execution and dismemberment played out before Alexander’s eyes would have normally provoked feelings of utter revulsion in him, now he, like his fellow hungry men just saw an act of necessity which provoked little emotion from him. The excitement over, everyone resumed their own space on the ground and awaited the order to move.
Thoughts of food crowded their minds, particularly those who had missed out on a share of the pork. There was still no sign of Coates or the supplies and their stomachs protested loudly but there was little hope of relief. It was some twenty-four hours since they had received anything substantial to eat. The officers sat and smoked cigars, some men preferred their pipes, the tobacco helping to quell the hunger pangs and making their privations a little more bearable. Alexander reproached himself for his poor decision, allowing the farmers to utilise their carts until the moment that they were required. He had made a number of mistakes to date through his lack of experience, which Robert Newland was always so quick to point out. So far, he had not been completely ruined by any of them, but he worried that with the French at hand any more errors might lead to a terrible disaster.
Each corps moved in turn from the left and proceeded along the wide Brussels chausee; looks of concern and dejection told on every face.
The elation following yesterday's victory, when a mere handful of infantry without cavalry or artillery support had stopped the French advance, was harshly deflated by the order to retreat. The army having finally been brought together and therefore being much stronger, led them to confidently predict an advance; retreat was incomprehensible to them.
British armies were never good at retreating, it always brought the worst out of the men, they would always prefer to stand and fight even with little chance of success, a real back to the wall mentality.
Alexander and his troop sat leisurely on the ground watching the various regiments march off; the warming sun made the wait pleasant and they enjoyed being able to relax.
“Hello Alexander, what goes?” brought him instantly out of his daydreams.
Looking up, Alexander registered the uniform of a fellow horse artillery officer, dusty and grimy from hard riding, he realised that the long features and dark hair were familiar, then it struck him, it was Alexander Dickson, rightful commander of the troop!
“The troop appears in fine shape Alexander, look after them well for me.”
Alexander found his voice “It is good to see you again Sir, I hear that you are attached to the siege artillery.”
Dickson looked pained, “I dare say Lord Wellington needs me for the post, but I wish I were with you in the battles to come, there seems little chance of any siege work at present.”
Alexander looked at his dusty uniform and worn horse, “You have travelled hard!”
“I am just returned from that debacle at New Orleans, it was sheer bloody murder. Attacking the American’s prepared defences head on was madness, two thousand peninsula veterans killed and wounded for nothing. The Duke would have taken more care of his men, General Packenham may well have been his brother in law, but had he survived, his Lordship would have seen him court martialled.”
Alexander pointed to the French who now started to appear on the far hills, “They will be here soon, the army retreats to Brussels.”
“Then there must I go,” answered Dickson, and bidding his troop adieu and good luck, rode off.
At twelve o’clock with the sun at its zenith one of those dandies of Wellington’s ‘family’ rode up at frightening speed and reported to Sir Andrew Barnard.
“Sir Andrew, Lord Wellington now deems the army to have retired beyond immediate danger. You must retire with the Ninety Fifth now, along the Brussels road. The Earl of Uxbridge with his cavalry shall shield your retrograde movements. My Lord urges haste but caution as the French will not be far behind.”
“Enough Sir!” Sir Andrew snapped, “I know what is to be done, you have carried your orders, now be gone Sir.” He did not relish being told his job by some young whippersnapper.
The battalion formed up into column formation and commenced their retreat. The cavalry formed between them and the French to screen them. This did not stop the officers regularly casting a nervous glance over their shoulders to ensure the French did not break through. British cavalry were excellent fighters but were apt to be very gung ho; they would forget their task of protecting the battalion if a good opportunity to attack the French arose. The road was clear of impedimenta, the rest of the army were already gone and they were able to march at a good pace.
Ned Costello was a few miles ahead of the battalion and here the road was heavily congested slowing everything. The army had marched past and Ned had been forced to step aside for them; it had made him feel dejected that he might be left behind. He spurred himself on, he must keep going and avoid stumbling, as the wagons would crush a man with their heavy wooden wheels. The congestion grew and finally the traffic came to a virtual halt. A narrow bridge over a river constricted the road and a mass of wagons and gun carriages waited their turn to cross. This was dangerous thought Ned, if the French arrived now there would be panic. There was no way past, so he sank to the ground on the roadside and chewed on the remaining meat in his pack, sharing his food with the boy. He looked on as Staff officers arrived and organised the crossing, shouting, gesticulating and striking both horses and drivers with the flat of their swords to make them listen and obey. Soon the mess was unscrambled and the bridge slowly cleared.
As one of the wagons passed, a woman called out.
“Ere that’s young Meg’s boy, Tom.”
Ned jumped up “Youze know ‘im?”
“Aye Meg’s boy Tom, come ‘ere Tom, ‘er man’s in’t Royals. Where’s Meg?”
Ned shook his head, “Took a ball, no chance.”
“Oi’ll take care of the little bugger till I can get him to ‘is dad,” she offered.
Ned was pleased to be relieved of the burden and happily handed Tom up to the woman, he would have a much better chance with her. Ned watched the wagons cross the bridge and then followed them, as he did so he looked back to see the Rifles coming up the road closing with him rapidly. Beyond them he could see a few cavalry units but further beyond them on the rising ground in the distance, numerous dark masses were visible, more appearing with each minute. Napoleon and his army were finally on their way. Fortune had smiled on Wellington, whilst they had commenced retreating the French had rested and reorganised, Napoleon had missed a massive chance to destroy them. The army would take some catching now, with this thought Ned turned and followed the army; he wasn’t going to be left behind.
At noon, even the Rifles had moved out along the Brussels road and all that Alexander could now see in advance were a few cavalry videttes dotted across the fields. The scene was now a very melancholy one, as apart from the few horsemen, all that could be seen were numerous corpses which were in especially large numbers around the cross roads, the carnage here had been tremendous. Here the highlanders had been slaughtered in great numbers and an abundance of red-coated bodies could be seen, black feather bonnets and kilts stirring gently in the mild breeze. Intermixed with them were numerous mangled horses and French Cuirassiers, they had all sold life dearly.
Looking to the rear of the troop, Alexander could see an impressive line of light dragoons, the brigade of Sir Ormsby Vandeleur, all dressed in their smart blue jackets, the three regiments simply identified by different coloured cuffs, buff, yellow and scarlet. They stood in a long line two horses deep, some three hundred yards to his rear near some houses. Their imposing presence gave the troop great confidence in such an exposed and advanced position.
Still no orders came to move, there was little sign of movement from the French and Alexander became curious. Mounting Cossack he rode slowly forward far beyond the cross roads, but still he could see little save the cavalry pickets off to his left. Coming upon a thicket, Alexander egged Cossack forward to push on through, but the horse suddenly halted and refused to proceed, Bal growled and barked at something he did not like. Alexander peered cautiously into the bush to identify the cause of Bal and Cossack’s discomfiture. Hidden beneath the foliage was the naked corpse of a young man, he had been a handsome youth, an embryo moustache had just started to sprout on his upper lip and his demeanour in death was serene and peaceful. There was no wound or gore to indicate a cause of death. The sight of such waste brought on a feeling of sadness within Alexander, in stark contrast to the sights of the cross roads, which had failed to stir any emotion at all. The youth’s horse lay dead alongside; they would both soon form ample meals for the carrion crows and wolves. Alexander rode slowly back to the troop, no wiser for his reconnaissance.
On his return, he discovered that Sir Augustus Frazer had ordered the troop’s ammunition wagons to withdraw so as not to impede any retreat, especially if it became necessary to retire in haste. This left the troop with only their fifty rounds per gun in the limbers again; Alexander hoped that this would not cause a problem.
One o’clock came with no change, the troop stood ready to move as they had for the last few hours.
Lord Uxbridge and his Aide de Camp appeared from the rear and rode beyond the troop where they halted, tethered their steeds and sat down on the ground whilst they surveyed the front with their small spyglasses.
A large body of cavalry in dark uniforms appeared approaching them slowly; Lord Uxbridge seemed unperturbed and continued scanning the fields to his front. Alexander assumed that they must be Prussians, as the videttes also showed no sign of alarm.
Suddenly all changed, the videttes must have suddenly recognised them as French and they all galloped back frantically to the safety of their regiments. Alexander was uneasy for Uxbrige’s safety, as he still sat scanning the front seemingly oblivious to the commotion all around. He was even more concerned for the troop as no orders appeared, how long was he to stay there so exposed?
Alexander was aware that he was much too far in front of the dragoons for safety and decided to retire on his own authority.
Immediately Robert Newland voiced his disapproval, “You must wait for orders; the Duke will have you arrested if you command a movement without his instruction.”
Alexander ignored him and ordered the troop to gallop back toward the light dragoons, then halted them again some fifty yards in their front. The men proceeded to unlimber the guns ready to fire, Alexander planned to give the French one salvo then retire behind the dragoons.
As his troop aimed the already loaded guns, Sir Ormsby Vandeleur appeared at Alexander’s side, he was quite obviously furious.
“What are you doing here, Sir? You encumber my front and we shall not be able to charge. Take your guns away immediately, Sir!”
Alexander attempted to explain his intentions, but Sir Ormsby would not listen.
“Instantly I say take them away” he insisted.
Alexander tried again, but only succeeded in irritating Vandeleur further.
“No, no, take them out of my way Sir!” he ordered.
Alexander saw that further discussion was futile and drew breath to bellow the order to limber up.
Before he could utter the words, Lord Uxbridge galloped up and asked, “Captain Mercer, are you loaded?”
Alexander nodded. “Indeed Sir”.
“Then give them a round as they rise over the hill and retire as quickly as possible to allow the dragoons to charge.” He ordered, Uxbridge then retired to the Dragoons to wait for the right moment.
Alexander gratefully continued preparations to welcome the French with a six-gun salute.
Uxbridge called across, “They are coming up the hill”, and then betraying his own anxieties, added, “Do you think you can retire quickly enough afterwards?”
Alexander replied with a confidence that belied his inner fears “I am sure of it my lord.”
Uxbridge smiled at his assurance, “Very well then, keep a good lookout and point your guns well.”
The dark grey skies above them contrasted vividly with the bright sunlight reflecting off the hills on the horizon. A lone horseman crested the rise; he was silhouetted majestically against the golden sunlight, the squat shape and large bicorn spoke only one name, Napoleon!
The guns remained silent, the thought of destroying the ‘Ogre’ did not even cross their minds, war was still a gentlemanly pursuit, and one did not fire deliberately at opposing Generals. A few horsemen rode up and joined him on the crest, probably a few of his Staff, the legendary French Marshal’s such as Ney and Soult, Alexander pondered.
Still he waited until formed squadrons of cavalry finally appeared in sufficient numbers so that they started to obscure the horizon.
Alexander drew a deep breath and thundered out the order “Fire”.
The six cannon roared, kicking backwards furiously, the nine-pound iron spheres being propelled forward to smash everything in their path.
Alexander did not pause to view the course of the shots or the damage caused.
“Left limber up” he bellowed, the horse teams galloped back to their cannon, the guns were hitched up and the gunners mounted in an instant. They worked perfectly in harmony as they had practised so often. Alexander was proud of his troop, all had performed to perfection and they were galloping to the rear in a moment.
The roar of the cannon seemed to reverberate throughout the heavens above. The black clouds suddenly opened to release an almighty deluge that was accompanied by harsh flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder so loud that all mortal sounds of war were completely drowned out. It seemed that God wanted to show the futility of man’s weapons in comparison with the frightening power of the elements.
As G troop rapidly rode to the rear of the dragoons, the French blazed a few cannonballs from their horse artillery, the balls bouncing across the plain, splashing muddy water with each bound but striking little.
Captain Edward Whinyates’ Rocket troop stood just to the rear of the dragoons contrary to his orders to retreat with the army, in the hope of finding an opportunity to prove the value of rockets. His troop suffered the only casualty from the French fire, a cannonball striking a carriage and driving a large wooden splinter hard into Whinyates’ servant’s leg. The splinter was about a foot long and the point had driven right through his leg. The poor man screamed in agony as he grasped his thigh and fell into the mud writhing in pain. Two colleagues raised him back on to the carriage; they harshly yanked the splinter out and bound his leg. He was lucky, it hadn’t hit an artery and hopefully he would survive, if the wood was all out, his leg shouldn’t become gangrenous.
Alexander heard Lord Uxbridge command the dragoons to retire; the French were obviously in too great a number for his small force to stop them. In fact they were in grave danger of being overwhelmed, and the ordered trot of a slow deliberate retreat started to quicken as the pressure grew. G troop was soon galloping to keep up with the dragoons; it was becoming a veritable race. Above the noise of incessant heavy rain, thunder and hooves splashing in pools of water, came the frightening howls and yells of the French cavalry as they pursued them menacingly. Their blood was up, this was their opportunity to destroy the English cavalry before the very eyes of their Emperor and gain revenge for yesterday’s failure.
The Rifles approached the river and the town of Genappe beyond; there they had to slow down to file across the narrow bridge. As they waited to cross, the skies that had been growing darker and more brooding by the minute, finally unleashed their burden. A horrendous crash of thunder presaged an extremely violent storm. The rain fell, it was torrential, some old hands remembered the monsoons out east, this was just as heavy, but here it was freezing cold rain and didn’t just last a few minutes. It was unrelenting, soon everyone was soaked through, the roads became awash with streams of water and more importantly wet their rifles, dampening the powder and making them useless. Infantry in the rain had little protection from cavalry except their bayonets, but the Baker rifle was short and the sword bayonet was not particularly good, being long and cumbersome. The men felt vulnerable and they pushed on over the bridge a little more hurriedly.
As they crossed, Johnny Kincaid bellowed “Into the houses lads.”
The town consisted of a few dozen houses hugging the road on the north side of the bridge. They could shelter from the rain here and rest, as there was no immediate threat.
They piled into the houses and took up positions to cover the approaches to the bridge, glad to be under cover. Again they rued their decision to leave their greatcoats in Brussels for they were completely drenched, and they had little prospect of drying their clothes out.
A frightening flash of fork lightning lit up the whole sky, closely followed by a clap of thunder far louder than anything anyone could remember.
“Bloody hell, that was a big ‘un”, Johnny Castles exclaimed.
Daniel Kelly nodded agreement, “that was bigger than the one a couple of nights after Vitoria, remember?”
“That one struck Lieutenant Masterman of the 34th on his horse didn’t it?” chipped in Jem Connor.
“Aye” agreed Kelly, “they were burnt to a cinder both of them, poor buggers!”
Suddenly Johnny Kincaid could be heard again, “Out, out, form up!”
The men obeyed immediately, something was up, and they reformed the column in seconds, despite the sustained downpour. The British cavalry were retiring in haste; French cavalry were very close behind them. The march had to be continued; they trudged along the road, which now resembled a swamp, mud and deep pools of water everywhere. They slipped and slid along, the mud grasping at their footwear tearing them from their feet, boots disappearing into the quagmire never to be seen again.
G troop galloped hard toward the bridge over the river, with the town of Genappe in view just beyond. Alexander became aware that the dragoons were also converging on this passage across the river and he feared the French might catch the troop in the inevitable congestion. He peered through the gloom and heavy rain vainly trying to identify another passage over the river. There appeared to be no alternative and he continually urged the troop to dash for the bridge. The rain was so heavy that visibility was reduced to a few feet at times and the port fires keeping the slow matches burning were extinguished. They rushed on for the protection of the town helter skelter.