They all laughed.
John Hincks turned to Alexander, “What do you think, do you wish to employ him?”
Alexander declined, “He sounds a good catch but I have Millward.”
Karl interjected with a wry smile and a wink, “My master never goes hungry, either!”
Again they laughed, Henry Leathes stepped forward, “Come Karl, you may work for me as I starved too often in Spain!”
Karl was soon set to work, Henry trusted that he would live up to his promises, in the evening he would be able to entertain the mess with his exquisite singing, he would hopefully be a very useful find.
Ordering his officers to organise recovery of the stores, Alexander decided to withdraw to the town, seeking his orders, but more so to escape the continuing madness.
With a little good fortune, Alexander identified his horse, saddle and a bridle. Mounting ‘Cossack’, he edged her through the throng and into the winding streets of Ostend, Bal scampered alongside. The crush was a little easier here but everywhere there were wagons and canon, parked with drivers lolling over the barrels of the guns as if they hadn’t a care in the world. After a very considerable time and with extreme difficulty, he eventually found the abode of the Town Major, in the Place d’Armee, a handsome square forming the heart of Ostend. Lieutenant Colonel Gregory of His Majesty’s Forty Fourth Regiment of Foot seemed to have little idea why Alexander should seek him out and was irritated by his intrusion.
“I have no orders for you, nor anybody else, Sir. The only order I possess is for all units to march on to Ghent immediately. I am not able to furnish anything more, good day”, and with that he closed the door in Alexander’s face.
Alexander turned his horse back toward the beach front with no idea what he was to do for his men that night.
The words “Alexander, good to see you!” broke his train of thought; he looked around not recognising the voice immediately, and then beamed as he was confronted by an old acquaintance.
“Percy, perhaps you could advise me what to do.”
Major Percy Drummond, a dashing young man in his artillery uniform and sporting a black moustache twisted up to form fine points, soon eased his concerns. Percy was in charge of the Reserve Artillery of the Army, he was experienced of campaigns in Belgium and his advice would be readily accepted.
“There are some large sheds attached to a saw mill one mile along this road, just beyond the town barriers. My unit used it last night but we are now on route to Ghent. I would thoroughly recommend you take advantage of its shelter tonight. The shed will accommodate your troop with ease. I fear we will shortly suffer ill weather.” He pointed skyward, the thick black cloud approaching from seaward on a rising breeze spoke of stormy weather; it was time to hurry back to the beach to organise his troop.
The view on his return was far from encouraging, equipment still strewn far and wide and pandemonium reigning throughout. Alexander took charge, ordering his men to reclaim the remaining bridles and saddles from the voracious sea. The flood tide was now rising fast and what was not collected rapidly would be lost forever. The skies darkened ominously, the winds rose, causing an eerie screeching and groaning in the masts of the myriad vessels in the harbour. Suddenly the skies broke, initially droplets the size of marbles fell spasmodically, then a huge fork of lightning lit the whole arena, which was closely followed by a cataclysmic crash of thunder and the floodgates opened fully. Alexander had never seen rain like it, they were drenched to the skin within seconds, vision was reduced dramatically but they had to continue. Somebody had the bright idea of borrowing storm lanterns from the nearby ships. By the lanterns glare they continued to search for missing pieces of equipment well into the evening. The lightning and rain added to the scene of madness, Alexander thought it reminded him of the views of purgatory and hell printed in the Bibles he had seen as a small child.
Eventually, all but two horses were accounted for and the last sweep of the beach had not revealed any other equipment lying on the sands. It was time to rest for the night, Alexander called out above the noise of the rain and the now less frequent thunder, for the troop to form up on the roadway and harness the horses. The tangled mess of harnesses took an age to sort and it was nearly midnight before they were ready to march to their shelter.
Alexander led the way, leaning forward on the neck of Cossack, into the wind and rain, his one hand holding the reins, the other holding his helmet, which seemed to have no intention of staying upon his head. In the darkness, the way to the sheds was extremely difficult to find, everything had looked very different in daylight. Two men were stationed in front with a storm lantern each, to check the way and act as beacons for those following. Slowly they edged their way through the narrow streets of low brick houses that constituted Ostend. They passed across a rickety wooden bridge over what looked like a canal in the dark. They took their time, each team of horses passing over before the next started to cross; the bridge creaked and groaned with each effort. As the third team crossed there was an almighty crack and suddenly the bridge gave way in the centre. Horses and men plummeted into the darkness; the shouts and cries brought everyone running. Luckily, the canal was little more than a storm drain and as yet had only a little water flowing through it, but what it lacked in water it made up for with a great depth of black mud! Once it was quickly established that by a miracle no horse or man had been injured, the rest burst out laughing. Even the men struggling to extricate themselves and their horses from the putrid bog smiled, they had to laugh or go mad!
A patrol of Belgian soldiers policing the streets came upon the scene and with a smattering of French from Alexander they were eventually able to understand the need to find another way over this ditch for the remainder of the troop. They indicated another route and Alexander had them proceed with the tail of the troop toward a nearby stone bridge they knew of.
Once reunited, Alexander led his party on through the winding dark, unlit streets, the only noise being the splashing of the rain, the rhythmic drumming of the horses’ hooves on the cobbled streets and the clanking of metal scabbards on their legs as they rode along. They passed cafes still open, the lights on and groups of Belgians drinking and laughing in the warmth, it just brought their own miserable plight into sharp contrast. They were drenched to the skin, cold, famished and lost; the glory of campaigning seemed a distant dream now. The final insult came when they arrived at the outer barrier of Ostend, manned by a belligerent Belgian officer and a handful of troops.
He spoke in broken English “Dere gate is closed until de morning.”
Alexander had lost all patience and glowered at this irksome official. “Open it, or we will push it aside.”
The officer had no intention of agreeing so easily, but Alexander’s obvious anger and his hand moving to grasp the hilt of his sword made the Belgian think again. He ordered his men to raise the barrier and the troop proceeded out into the countryside.
Here the ground was extremely slippery, the road seemed to run along the ridge of a dyke and the horses struggled to maintain a firm footing in the dark. Deep shadows either side of the road indicated that the banks fell away steeply, allowing no room for error. They proceeded gingerly, every few yards a horse would stumble and the column had to stop and wait. The road seemed to go on forever, they were progressing so slowly it might take all night. Job Price the Farrier brought worse news, “The oil is running out in the storm lamps, Sir”.
Alexander despaired of finding the sheds, so he ordered the men to enquire the way at a house, shrouded in darkness hard by the road. The occupants took an age to answer the violent rapping at their door and it took a lot of persuasion to get them to open the door at such a time of night. Eventually however, the door opened a crack and an old man thrust his head topped with a dirty nightcap around the edge of the door and informed them that they had come too far, the sheds were a mile back! The chill spring wind and freezing rain continued unabated. The cold seeped into their very bones; they hadn’t known misery like it.
They trudged back, slipping and sliding again until more careful reconnaissance discovered a short lane leading off to the barns. At two o’ clock in the morning they finally arrived and pulled back the huge door to reveal a large, spacious, dry, welcoming haven brimming with sweet smelling straw. The look of pleasure on the men’s faces as they surveyed the scene before them would rival the happiness at finding Shangri la itself.
The horses were lined along one side of the barn, their saddles removed and a mountain of hay laid for their feeding. The men then lay on the remaining straw along the opposite face, soon all were snug and warm despite their saturated clothing and their troubles seemed a far distant memory.
Henry Leathes strode over to the adjoining house and woke the occupants by repeated knocking at the door. He managed to explain whom they were and that they would only use the barn that night. The house was that of a miller and his wife, they were more than happy to accommodate them and invited the officers into their humble abode rather than use the barn with the men.
Alexander eagerly agreed and crossed the yard to enjoy the hospitality of the miller. As they entered the cottage, the rich aroma of coffee brewing on the stove miraculously revived their worn frames. Having been restored by the steaming coffee and black bread, they were offered accommodation. Alexander declined the generous offer of a bed for the night; the thought of having to put those sodden clothes back on cold in the morning was more than he could bear. He plumped for a large high backed wooden chair in front of the roaring fire, where he could slowly steam himself dry. Only William Ingilby and Richard Hichens took up their kind offer of beds. The others sat around the fire and chatted for a while with their hosts in broken Flemish and sign language, but sleep finally stole up on them all, Alexander smiled faintly, in a perverse way he wouldn’t forget today in a hurry!
Lieutenant Colonel Sir Andrew Barnard rode purposefully towards the silent ranks of the First Battalion of the Ninety Fifth Regiment, acknowledging the salutes of his officers as he passed. Removing his bicorn hat for a moment to run his chubby fingers through the thinning remains of his tightly curled quaff, he ran through his speech one last time. He knew that news of the messenger’s arrival would have already swept like wild fire around the camp, and that there was an air of great expectancy. The troops had been awaiting orders to sail to Canada for weeks. The American’s had taken the opportunity of attempting to wrest the Canadian Provinces from King George whilst the British Army was fully engaged in the life and death struggle with Napoleon’s armies in Europe. However, three years of desultory conflict amongst the forests of the border territories, had failed to provide any clear victor despite the American’s numerical advantages. Now that the war with Napoleon was ended, Wellington’s veterans could be provided to finally defeat these upstart colonials and save Canada. This must be the order to embark at last.
Sir Andrew rode ramrod straight in the saddle despite the constant dull ache in his side, he was immensely proud to command this battalion in their distinctive green uniforms. He had shared their triumphs and sufferings throughout the late campaigns in Spain and Portugal, indeed they had seen him suffer with them. He still remembered their anguished faces and genuine concern for him when he had been shot through the lungs and then fallen from his horse upon his sword hilt. He had thought that he was dying as he had lain there, the acute pain searing through his mangled body, struggling to catch a breath as he coughed up blood. Lieutenant George Simmons had been first on the scene and had turned him on to his back; the wound had been to his left side smashing his ribs; indeed his lungs were clearly visible through the gore. George had some medical knowledge, having served as an Assistant Surgeon with the Royal South Lincolnshire Militia for four years before gaining his commission in the 95th and he viewed his patient with a professional eye. The hole in his chest had been large enough for George to insert the whole of his hand into the wound. There had been so much blood, that he had thought that there could not be much left in his veins and that he must surely die. His mouth was constantly filling with blood; eventually after some difficulty, George had managed to stem the bleeding, so that he could breathe more easily. Sir Andrew had looked up at him and asked, “George, speak the truth, have you ever seen anyone survive such a serious wound?”
“Of course I have, Mr Burke will soon have you sorted” he had lied. George had known that there was little chance of him lasting the hour. However, Simmons had ordered two men to carry him to the field hospital a little way behind the regiment for the surgeons to do their best. Following a long recuperation in France constantly being looked after by a devoted George Simmons, and then in England, he had eventually proven the surgeons wrong and recovered. He had gladly returned to duty when the battalion returned home and they had welcomed him back heartily.
A short tug on the reigns compelled his faithful steed to halt in front of the six hundred men formed on the parade ground and pulling himself high in the saddle he summoned all his reserves to project his voice to the straining ears.
“The King has work for us again lads, but it is not to be Canada.” The surprise on the faces of his audience was all too palpable and their sharp intake of breath was clearly audible. He would not keep them in suspense for long however. “The Ogre has slipped his cage. General Bonaparte is back in Paris, he has overthrown the legitimate government of the King of France and we are to join Lord Wellington in Brussels immediately!”
A great cheer arose; this was better news than they had ever dreamed of.
A smile escaped from the stern face of Sir Andrew, “Let’s show Johnny Crapeau how to dance on the battlefield again, and this time we will let old ‘Boney’ himself watch”.
‘General Bonaparte’ George Simmons mused, only the British still refused to recognise Napoleon Bonaparte’s right to the title of Emperor of France with which he had proclaimed himself eleven years ago in 1804. He had controlled France since 1799, had completely rewritten their ancient laws and customs; overhauled the public finances and created an awesome military machine particularly on land. With these soldiers, Napoleon had destroyed all the massed armies of the ancient royal houses of Europe. They had fought against him in a vain struggle to halt France’s revolutionary ideas spreading throughout mainland Europe. Victory had followed stunning victory for the ruthlessly ambitious Napoleon; he placed his relatives or his marshal’s on the thrones that he had won or to the kingdoms that he invented out of the chaotic system of princedoms and free states that had plagued medieval European politics. His reforming zeal to eradicate the suffocating ancient feudal rights of these states had brought him huge support from the chattering classes of Europe. However, experience of French occupation had altered their views radically as the coffers of these provinces had been systematically looted to fund Napoleon’s insatiable demands. The reforms that had released the under-classes from feudal tyranny had also freed their minds and they strove for a new order. Napoleon had unwittingly sewn the seeds of his own downfall by awakening feelings of nationhood. Underground movements had formed, working for a united Germany, Poland or Italy. Open rebellion had broken out in Spain in 1808 and the Spanish guerrillas were ably aided by Britain’s only army, led by Wellington, eventually driving the French from the Peninsular. When Napoleon finally overreached himself and left the flower of his army frozen to death in the wastes of Russia, open revolt had broken out everywhere. The genius of Napoleon had miraculously manufactured a new army from seemingly nothing and held off the inevitable for a further two years, but eventually the combined forces of all Europe had finally led to the loss of Paris and Napoleon was ‘persuaded’ to abdicate by his Marshals. Napoleon was banished to the tiny Italian island of Elba. The war weary peasantry of France welcomed a return to monarchy, but more especially to peace. Napoleon was now so unpopular that he had to travel incognito to his new kingdom, constantly in fear for his life.
The Bourbon family had learnt nothing whilst in exile and rapidly lost the support of the populace as they cavalierly removed lands from those that had legitimately purchased property after the revolution, returning it to the nobles that had loyally fled with the King. These sycophants were preferred over the able ministers of government that Napoleon had placed in office; even the army became disgruntled at the advancement of royalist officers that had seen the war out from the drawing rooms of London, placed over the experienced officers that had fought bravely for Napoleon in every quarter of Europe. After a year in Elba, recognising the exact moment to act, Napoleon had landed in France with a mere eight hundred of his guard, but within two weeks he was back in control of France at Paris, the King having fled again. The allied powers were assembled at Vienna to redraw the map of Europe that Napoleon had torn to shreds. News of Napoleon’s return caused the dissolution of the Congress with the agreement that all the countries of Europe would wage war upon Napoleon until he was defeated again. The declaration of war was specifically against the person of Napoleon and not the French nation, a particular honour to his genius. The armies of Prussia under Marshal Blucher and the conglomerate army of Dutch, Belgian, British and Germans under Lord Wellington sat upon the northern frontiers of France. The ponderous Austrians would take weeks to mobilise in the south and the fearsome Russians would take months to march from their homeland. It was therefore arranged that Wellington and Blucher would commence the invasion of France.
Reinforcements were to be forwarded to Belgium as quickly as possible to strengthen the British contingent of Lord Wellington’s army. The men of the First Battalion of the 95th Regiment were delighted to rejoin their old commander. For five hard years they had fought throughout Portugal, Spain and Southern France under his leadership. He had always looked after their stomachs, never wasted their lives and best of all he always won! They were always confident of victory with Wellington.
Major Alexander Cameron, a tall slightly built man with a great quaff of jet-black hair topping a long dour face, stepped forward to order the battalion to dismiss. He had also been with the battalion throughout Spain, his thigh bore the marks of a musket ball gouging a furrow in the muscle at the battle of Vitoria and he still nursed a weakness on his left side where a French bayonet had nearly finished off him in Egypt, back in 1801.
The battalion roared their approval as Sir Andrew turned his horse slowly and rode off towards the stable block to settle his horse. Passing his Officers still drawn up in line on the edge of the parade ground, he snapped, “Gentlemen, have everything prepared to move at a moments notice.”
Lieutenant George Simmons, a stocky Yorkshireman, looked on the ranks of the 1st Battalion 95th Rifles with pride and felt the emotion well up within. Together with many of these men he could see before him, he had fought for five long hard years, across Portugal and Spain; many showed the horrible scars collected during those tough fights. However, they had never faced the greatly admired Napoleon in person before, they held a grudging professional respect for him, but now they would see how they measured against his best. The boyish looks of the raw recruits intermixed with the veterans suddenly shook his confidence. Many had died in Spain and many more had finished with fighting when they came home in 1814, so the ranks were swelled with fresh faced innocents who had never experienced a shot in anger, could they cope with what was to come?
Scanning the ranks of the formed companies he picked out a few well known faces, Private Costello, a portly Irishman, who had survived the terrible carnage of Badajoz, and became rich at the battle of Vitoria having found a sack full of gold coins in the French wagons abandoned after the battle; James Burke, a tall muscular man who had survived all the great sieges of the Spanish war and Sergeant Robert Fairfoot, a tall stocky man and with a presence that made him stand out in the crowd, he was a greatly experienced non commissioned officer, that kept the men fully in check. With men like these one could go anywhere and do anything, the new boys would learn fast or die.
Looking around at the officers, Captains Jonathan Leach the senior captain, Edward Chawner and William Johnstone a tough Scot, ‘Willie’ to his friends; Lieutenants Allen Stewart a giant of a Scotsman who had been slightly wounded at Badajoz; Orlando Felix and John Gardiner both other casualties of Badajoz; John Fitzmaurice who with only two other men had captured a cannon and its horse team near Vitoria and John Stilwell, ‘Scamp’ to his fellow officers, as he was rumoured to be an illegitimate son of the Duke of York, but then again who wasn't? They all stood out as his friends and brothers in arms throughout Spain. Their worn, lined parchment skin and sunken cheeks spoke of years of hardship and endeavour beneath a harsh Iberian sun. Many walked with pronounced limps from old injuries poorly healed but they stood proud and regarded them as badges of courage.
Even George walked with a severe limp, he had been shot in his fleshy thigh at the River Coa but the one he remembered vividly was the musket ball that fractured his right knee cap in 1814, he still felt a niggle there to this day and couldn’t bend it properly.
The following days passed quickly in preparing the battalion for embarkation to Belgium. The men packed their haversacks, received rations for three days ahead and the stores of tents, rifle ammunition, camp kettles and sundry other items which were brought out of stores, checked and packed.
The officers had their bâtmen prepare their travelling equipment including dinner services, tents and private stocks of fine foods and wines. One didn’t know how long this war was to last, the previous conflict was supposed to last only a couple of years but had raged virtually non stop for twenty one years, with a phoney peace for a year half way through it. When fighting, they would have to travel light, leaving their supplies far behind in the baggage. Lord Wellington was very particular on this subject, woe be the man caught with his baggage wagon at the front! However, there would be plenty of time between the fighting, when the tedium of camp life was only to be eased by the enjoyment of fine foods and wines shared with the ladies of local society. Some officers even took their own cooks with them on campaign, many wives would insist on coming too!
The officers spent their time concluding outstanding business, ensuring their estates were in order, wills written and most importantly, horses purchased. Officers were required to purchase their own horses both to ride themselves and to carry their wives, servants and baggage, a very expensive luxury, which some less affluent officers would have to forego. A good riding horse could cost thirty guineas or more and a mere baggage horse, fifteen guineas. This was a huge amount of money when a Captain earned 5 shillings and 8 pence per day.