For all the death and destruction they meted out, the Rifles could not stop the French advancing. The column just kept coming on, but it did veer a little to the Rifle’s left, towards the main crest, which obviously appeared to offer a less hostile and painful route.
As the columns passed the sand pit the Rifles fired into their flank, forcing the columns to deploy more skirmishers to keep the rifle fire down.
The units that advanced on La Haye Sainte wrapped themselves around three of its sides as they endeavoured to break in to this ad hoc fortress. Skirmishers from this attack approached the gardens behind the farm and the abattis, firing through it at the more exposed side of the sand pit.
It was now getting too hot to handle, threatened on three sides, it was time to reconsider their options!
“Tis too bloody warm dis” shouted Mc Nabb “oim orff”.
He hadn’t moved two feet from his firing position before he came face to face with Sergeant Robert Fairfoot, his loaded Baker Rifle in his good hand. He gently placed the muzzle under Mc Nabb’s chin.
“Back in loin Mc Nabb or Johnny Frenchman won’t get the chance to kill you, cause I’ll do you moiself!”
Mc Nabb had little choice; he turned back to the firing line with a sulky look.
French infantry constantly encroached on their rear, attempting to envelop them completely. A few, a little more brave than the others moved forward, thrusting their bayonets towards the Rifles. George Kitchen sprang forward at one Frenchman; knocking his bayonet aside with his rifle he drove his sword bayonet, which he held in his left hand deep into the Frenchman's chest with such force that the point emerged from his back. The Frenchman fell with a slight groan; George put his foot on the body to increase leverage to extract his bayonet but as he did so he became vulnerable to attack. Another bayonet suddenly threatened him and he gulped hard as the point approached his stomach. He closed his eyes to the inevitable and braced himself for the searing pain to come.
There was a thickening thud, a loud cry and he was knocked over. George reopened his eyes to find the Frenchman lying dead across his legs, his skull smashed. He looked up into the grinning face of Palmer who held the remains of his rifle in his hand. The butt of the rifle was very useful as a club; he must have hit him hard as the wooden stock was broken and twisted. Palmer threw it away as useless.
“Bloody close that ‘un” he said offering his hand to help George up.
George pulled himself upright patting Palmer on the shoulder, “You just earned my tot o’rum for a year, tanks mate.”
The touching moment of comradeship was broken by the whiz of a musket ball narrowly missing Palmer’s nose.
“Jeez dis is too hot” he exclaimed.
The welcome cry of “Fall Back” finally came loud and clear. Jonathan Leach as Senior Captain in the sand pit had held on as long as he dare, but any delay now would be sheer suicide. Discretion was now the greater part of valour, the companies were taking casualties quickly and were in danger of being completely overrun, so flee they must. They all ran towards the reserve companies, behind which they would reform. The company on the knoll joined this movement, two hundred or so men running a race for their lives.
The French did not delay, they swarmed into the sand pit and sent a tremendous fire after the fast retreating Rifles. Johnny Castles for all his bulk kept up with the front-runners, he’d learnt to be fast ever since Arcangues, Jones was just behind running with his free hand on his backside for protection, as he didn’t fancy another ball there! Even Thomas Charity, weak as he was summoned up huge reserves of strength, it was amazing what the will to live did to a man!
The hundred yards felt like a mile. The balls whipped by, sounding like supersonic flies buzzing past. Some however struck their mark; Lieutenant Stilwell was hit in the back, falling forward stone dead. Lieutenants Molloy and Wright fell with shots in the legs; Lieutenant William Shenley was hit in the arm. Men were falling like ninepins. Eventually the relative safety of the reserve came in sight, but what was happening? They were retiring as well!
Johnny Kincaid could see this retrograde movement clearly from his horse and spurred Beth on.
“Hold your position” Johnny roared “What is the meaning of this retreat? We must stand. Companies Halt, Face Front, Engage the enemy at will” he bellowed.
“I ordered the retirement Johnny.”
Johnny looked to identify the speaker, it was Henry Lee.
“We were simply retiring to allow your units to form here; we could then act as your reserve again.”
Johnny had no time to discuss the near disastrous error now; he had rectified the mistake and turned toward the front-runners from the sand pit and knoll, ordering them to form up behind the reserve.
As the battalion formed up rapidly again on the rising ground beside the roadway, every rifle was able to take revenge on the still advancing French columns. George Simmons and Jonathan Leach arrived last and stood gasping for breath.
Johnny Kincaid spurred Beth to the left flank of the battalion. Further to his left he could see the French masses marching on, seemingly impervious to the destruction from the artillery fire, now raking them with canister shot. The tins full of musket balls were fired by the cannon at very close ranges, the can split on firing peppering the target with the balls, causing much greater destruction than a single solid ball at one hundred yards and less.
The gunners fired incessantly, the sweat ran off them in rivulets as getting that extra shot in could be the breaking point for the columns at this stage. Dozens dropped with each discharge from the guns but they strode on undeterred.
The Belgian unit that had been under cannon fire for so long and had stood their ground heroically; had found that the firing had eased as the columns advanced, but now the French neared and nothing appeared capable of stopping them. A few more found wounded comrades to help to the rear, and then a small trickle started to retire without excuse, which rapidly turned into a flood. It was the final straw; they turned and ran over the crest and past the Fifth Division who were standing in second line. As they retreated, some of the British regiments booed and hissed them, some even struck out or called them “Cowards”, but away they went. Many like Johnny sympathised with them, they had been left on the exposed crest and their morale destroyed by murderous cannon fire, few troops would stand after that punishment, not even British. They should be booing the bastard that had left them out there!
The French infantry gained renewed strength from the Belgians flight, nothing now stood before them, and the crest was theirs. A cheer went up; the drummers beat harder as victory was theirs for the taking. As they crested the rise, the British and Belgian units suddenly came into view; the front ranks of the French ceased celebrating as they stared down upon a sea of muskets pointed directly at them.
The order “Fire” rang out and two thousand flintlock muskets snapped shut almost simultaneously decimating the French ranks. Men who seconds before had been cheering, now fell screaming in agony. They were not to be stopped so easily however, those behind still pushed on; victory must be theirs. They burst upon the Belgians in the front line pushing them back upon the Fifth Division. Johnny watched as these British regiments resisted manfully, but the odds were four to one against them, numbers would surely win.
He watched the fight unfolding; he could still make out Sir Thomas Picton leading his Division and could see him lead them forward. Suddenly Picton’s head went back, there was blood, his body slipped from his horse and lay crumpled in a heap on the ground, he was obviously dead. Still his troops battled undeterred by his death.
Johnny noticed a rider approaching fast it was Sir James Kempt.
He called directly to Johnny. “Do not quit that spot.”
Johnny proudly replied “You can rely upon it.”
It was enough, there was to be no retreat whilst a man stood alive. Johnny turned his horse and rode to the cross roads to view the fighting here. Johnny knew the battalion would fight, but the crisis was upon them and the chances of success looked slim.
Johnny looked again towards the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte where fighting continued, the Germans still managing to hold out. Suddenly a frightened shout was heard.
He looked up to see a mass of Cuirassiers riding from the right of the farmhouse, across the road and directly towards him.
Johnny grasped the hilt of his sword to draw it in a desperate attempt to defend himself, as they galloped towards him swords held straight out in front of them, pointing directly towards his breast. Johnny pulled again at his sword to extract it from its protective scabbard, but nothing happened. Johnny’s sword had rusted solid with all the rain, he sat still and closed his eyes to await death patiently and calmly as a gentleman officer should.
He uttered a short prayer as he waited.
“God.. Help me!”
Alexander hauled himself upright, his hands planted firmly on his hips to ease his aching back. He surveyed the scene around him from his spot in the middle of the muddy potato field. Putten was right, the other artillery troops and all the cavalry had simply disappeared! G troop stood in grand isolation.
Alexander suddenly became aware of the deep-throated sound of a heavy cannonade. What was happening?
They all made haste toward the troop, but having hurried back Robert Newland simply confirmed that no orders had arrived for G troop and that they were simply waiting.
Even so, Alexander decided to be fully ready for the order when it finally came. “Put the horses to” he bellowed.
Instantly all was bustle, the horse teams were harnessed to the wagons, the men replaced their jackets ready for the off and fires were extinguished as all thought of food was forgotten in the excitement.
Alexander ordered the officer’s kettle of soup, which he had slaved so diligently for in the potato field, to be hung under one of the carriages, where it could be retrieved to finish later. He watched in total horror however as William carried out his order and hung his pot under the carriage, but only after he had emptied the full contents, their only rations, onto the fire to extinguish it! Now where were they to get food from? There was still no sign of, nor word from Coates and the provision carts.
Alexander scanned the fields that had been filled with troops so recently; nothing was now to be seen of them at all except their tracks in the mud and the flotsam they had left behind. The only thing that confirmed their continued presence nearby was the unmistakable din of artillery fire and great plumes of dark smoke rising from just over the ridge that lay directly to their front.
Once everything was loaded and hitched up, the troop stood and waited with no idea of what to do next.
There they whiled away the minutes, but they waited for what seemed an eternity and Alexander looked to Robert and Henry for some guidance on what to do.
“Have we been forgotten?” he asked.
Robert looked grave, “Possibly, but unless directly ordered never move, for Lord Wellington will not forgive you if he sends orders and we are not where he expects.”
Alexander considered the implications for himself, but decided that a slow move nearer to the front would still be advisable despite the warnings of the others. They would be closer to the fighting when finally called into action and could still be seen from here if any order did arrive, providing that they remained this side of the ridge.
As the troop moved slowly up the rear slope, an officer on a fine grey mare crested the ridge from the firing line. Surveying the scene quickly, his gaze fell upon G troop and he spurred his horse directly toward them. He approached at break neck speed and Alexander rode forward to converse with him, perhaps he brought orders. As the rider neared, Alexander could make out the uniform of a foot artillery officer but did not immediately recognise him.
The horseman drew up hard as he reached Alexander; he was breathless from exertion and could hardly speak as he gasped for air, the veins stood out on his forehead denoting his extreme agitation.
“Major William Lloyd” he blurted out, then gasped for another lung full of oxygen before continuing, “My battery is under intense pressure, we need urgent help!”
Alexander tried to calm him, “Where is your battery situated?” he asked in a strong controlled voice.
“Over on the right of the line, the French are attacking in immense hordes,” he stammered almost incoherently. “Where are you going at present? Have you no orders? You must help us!” he continued to bluster.
Alexander sought to ease his hysteria, “We have no orders, none what so ever, I have not seen a soul.”
Lloyd looked imploringly at Alexander, “Then for God’s sake, come and assist me, or I shall be ruined. My brigade is cut to pieces, the ammunition is nearly expended and unless we are reinforced we shall be utterly destroyed!”
Alexander did not hesitate, “We shall come to your support immediately!”
Robert Newland shouted, “Alexander no, remember Ramsay, you must await orders!”
Alexander turned on Robert and answered sternly, “I cannot wait and see them slaughtered, when we could save them. We go, hang the consequences!”
Lloyd took Alexander’s hand, “God bless you, I will ride back and hold out until you can support us.” He turned his horse’s head up the slope and galloped back over the ridge into the thick of battle.
“There goes a brave man, let us go and help him” Alexander bellowed.
Robert knew that further argument would not dissuade Alexander from his decision and like any good second in command, determined to carry out his chief’s orders to the best of his ability. He had made his concerns known but had been overruled, now he must do his duty to his utmost for their lives would depend on it.
The troop cantered up the slope directly toward the sound of heavy cannonading and intense musketry fire. From their position, nothing could be seen but a thick cloud of acrid smoke billowing up from the inferno beyond the horizon. They urged the teams forward towards the crest but every stomach churned with the fear of death; no one knew what to expect of the different world they would enter as they descended the opposite side of the ridge. They were frightened, but they drove on, the bond of unity and of family within the troop gave them the inner strength to face the unknown together.
Their steeled determination was suddenly disturbed by the command “G troop, halt. Halt immediately I say.”
The drivers instinctively hauled back hard on their reins and the horses slowed as quickly as they could and ground to a halt. What was wrong?
“Who gave the order?” Alexander enquired.
Alexander turned to see the inimitable Colonel Macdonald galloping up alongside him. How was it he just appeared from nowhere at such moments? Alexander wondered.
“Captain Mercer, where are you going? You have no orders to move!”
Alexander became agitated, “Major Lloyd has requested help to save his battery, and I have promised our aid.”
Colonel Macdonald was clearly angry, “Mercer you have no orders from me, you are to remain in reserve as Lord Wellington demands until he sees fit to order you into action. You are not to move of your own volition!”
Alexander disagreed “We are wasted here, Lloyd needs help, I gave him my word!”
“Your word is not your own to give!” Macdonald sneered, “Remain here until you receive further orders.”
Macdonald then spurred his horse on and disappeared over the ridge as quickly as he had come.
Alexander could hardly control his temper; Macdonald was becoming a real thorn in his side. He worried for Lloyd, how would he ever explain to him when they met again?
Robert looked on, he knew that something like this would happen, Macdonald was right, but he was not about to rub salt in Alexander's wounds.
“Shall I order the troop to dismount?” he enquired gently.
Alexander raised himself from his stupor, he recognised Robert’s gesture with gratitude, he was still in command. “Order the troop to dismount Robert.”
Cannonballs were occasionally bounding over the crest and landing near the troop. Some landed solidly in the sodden mud and buried themselves relatively harmlessly, showering all around with brown sludge; others striking rocky outcrops bounced just like cricket balls had on the cobbled streets when they were lads.
There they stood, waiting impatiently with not a living soul in sight. But for the sounds of conflict and dark ominous smoke, one could imagine oneself in an English park on exercise.
Driver Thomas Dibbin suddenly looked up and pointed, “What the bloody ‘ell are they doing here?”
Everyone looked at once and were amazed to see a smartly dressed civilian gentleman on a beautiful stallion; two young lads also mounted on fine horses flanking him. They cantered slowly across the fields, the gentleman pointing in various directions; he was obviously explaining the battlefield to his tender companions. Finally they crested the ridge and descended into the battle beyond, quite unperturbed by the death and destruction all around.
Everyone sat silently, not believing that anyone would take such fine youths into death’s lair if they didn’t have to. There were plenty of kids in this battle including drummer boys of fourteen and fifteen, but they were in the army and had to carry out their duty; not one of them would be mad enough to enter this field of death and destruction as a civilian. Balls and cannonballs were no respecter of civilian credentials.
Henry Leathes announced, “That Gentlemen, was the Duke of Richmond and his two fine sons of Earls. I met him briefly at his wife’s ball the other night, before we were hurried back. Some baptism of fire for his boys, eh!”
Another horseman came dashing through the mud, as he neared the bespattered uniform of an artilleryman became obvious. His steed was worn and dirty, for the horse had been used unsparingly throughout the last three days to rush orders and messages.
He proceeded directly to Captain Mercer.
Alexander greeted an old acquaintance, “William do you have orders?”
The messenger saluted and passed his message.
“Captain Mercer, you are to follow me. I am to indicate where you are to deploy.”
Alexander was ecstatic, “Then pray lead on Bell, action at last!”
Virtually as quickly as the order to move was given, the whole troop was galloping after Lieutenant William Bell, the Staff Adjutant to Sir Augustus Frazer himself, everyone was desperate to join the action. As they rode across the fields, they suddenly became aware of masses of infantry in reserve, they had not been alone at all; the folds of the ground had simply hidden these nearby troops from view. They were lying down to reduce casualties, indeed some were sleeping soundly despite the firing just a few yards away.
They rode some distance, to the extreme right of the army, but still in the reserve second line. Finally Bell indicated their new position and the order was given to unlimber. The teams slowed, the gunners dismounted and prepared the guns for action; the drivers withdrew the teams and advanced the lead ammunition wagons to a position where a dip in the ground just behind the guns hid them from the enemy, hopefully out of danger of their shot, but close enough to provide ammunition to the cannon.
Alexander surveyed his position with William Bell; they were situated on a low ridge, which ran back almost perpendicularly from the crest on which the army’s front line was deployed. It joined the main ridge just behind a large chateau and wooded area some one hundred yards away, which had obviously been the scene of much of the early fighting, as plumes of thick smoke billowed from the chateau’s buildings. A Union Jack still fluttered from its walls, its brave defenders still held out, and good luck to them, whoever they were, he thought. This ridge was designated as part of the reserve, but the French ridge also curved round with it and the extreme left of their army obviously held the opposite heights, therefore they were now effectively on the wing of the front line. Between the opposing ridges stretched a shallow dip which was now the stage for numerous Allied and French skirmishers to take pot shots at one another and dart back and fore in the same merry dance that had amused Alexander so much before.
Bell pointed across the valley to the French heights, which were about eight hundred to a thousand yards away. They could make out a line of lancers, the pennants on their lances fluttering in the breeze, formed on the opposite ridge watching them.
“You are merely to watch those cavalry, to deter them from making any attempt to attack at this point. You are specifically ordered not to engage unless attacked!”
Bell wheeled his horse and rode off again.
There they stood waiting again, amusing themselves by watching the skirmisher’s antics as the front line ebbed and flowed across the floor of the valley with neither side seemingly able to gain the upper hand. They also watched the small puffs of smoke emanating from little French four pounder cannon attached to the lancers vainly attempting to reach them. Their balls fell harmlessly into the valley, as the range was well beyond these puny cannon, only the skirmishers felt any minor discomfort from their efforts.
Only fifty yards to his left front, Alexander could see Captain Samuel Bolton’s foot artillery battery also deployed facing across the valley. He observed that they were busy firing at a target outside of Alexander’s field of view and Bolton’s battery was also under enemy artillery fire. Men and horses were occasionally hit but strangely Alexander could not see any assailant and G troop were not really under fire at all.
Samuel came across from his battery to converse on their adventures for a short while but he was hurriedly called back to his troop as they resumed firing, Alexander still could not see the cause.
The only slight annoyance to his battery came from a few unseen howitzers that lobbed occasional shells at them. These guns were obviously of large calibre as they could reach them comfortably. Their high trajectory could be traced as the metal spheres appeared whenever a wisp of smoke rose across the valley. The shell would climb steeply and then arc slowly, eventually plunging deeply into the sodden earth where they sat fizzing away until they finally exploded, sending a great plume of mud into the air. There was a fear of fragments causing injury, but the men were worried more by the potential threat than the real danger, as few actually suffered more than a spattering of mud!
A few stray balls bounded over the main ridge to their left and threatened more destruction than the French artillery fire to their front. One round shot bounced across the face of the troop and struck an ammunition truck; the ball smashed it’s way through the thin wooden walls, but as it crashed out of the opposite side of the second box on the wagon, it ran out of strength and remained jammed, half revealed in the wall of the box. It caused a great deal of merriment in the troop despite its near fatal path through their ranks only seconds earlier.
Alexander trained his gaze upon the main ridge; the ball had made him aware that presently, this was the greatest threat to his unit. As he watched further balls bound over the crest and crash through the reserve infantry that were lying down to avoid its worst effects; he suddenly became aware of the infantry rising to their feet and forming hollow squares. Each face of the squares were four ranks deep, the rear ranks standing with muskets aimed ready to fire and front ranks kneeling, wedging the stock of their muskets against their boots and offering their bayonets outwards. The squares reminded him of so many hedgehogs with their prickly spines protruding for defence. As the infantry completed their square formations, the crest of the ridge became dark with the massed ranks of French cavalry!