The noise from the right of the line became very intense; the clouds of smoke grew thicker and darker, obliterating any view of proceedings beyond a few hundred yards. Obviously, the fighting had switched to the right of the line, but they had no way of knowing what was happening, they simply had to hold their own front and trust that the other divisions would sustain the pressure as firmly.
Mostly, they trusted Lord Wellington to see them through, he had vanished from his observation point at the crossroads, a sure sign that important things were afoot elsewhere, as Wellington had a knack of always being at the scene of greatest danger.
This quiet spell allowed the men to relax a little, but they maintained a constant vigil, as Old Boney wouldn’t have finished with them yet.
Harry Smith rode down to the sand pit to discuss the situation with Jonathan Leach.
“All quiet Jonathan?”
Leach turned, “Ah Harry, seems they have more important work elsewhere. How do Sir John Lambert and the Tenth Brigade fair?”
“We have not been called forward yet and have only taken casualties from stray shot, but I dare say there will be plenty of time to make our mark. Indeed, I witnessed the recent attack of the French and their repulse; it seemed close for a while.”
“Aye, thank God for the cavalry, I do not think we would have done without them.”
Sergeant Robert Fairfoot broke in to the conversation.
“Begging your pardon Soir, but Johnny Frenchman’s forming up again.”
Spyglasses trained on the French ridge came to rest on a number of dark masses of infantry; they were forming up to attack.
Suddenly a commotion to the rear made them all turn back towards the cross roads, a mass of French Cuirassiers had appeared behind the reserve companies, a moment of extreme danger. Luckily, the reserves commanded by Major Cameron were in the sunken road and the cavalry could not descend the steep banks down to them. Indeed, those behind pushed a few horsemen too near the edge, their horses lost their footing and they crashed down the embankment to the roadway. Men and horses broke their necks or limbs in the fall, those horsemen that survived tried vainly to rise from the ground, but couldn’t without releasing themselves from their body armour. They were like so many upturned turtles floundering, unable to right themselves. The Rifles watched in unconcealed merriment, the Cuirassiers slunk away in shame once divested of their shells.
Their way forward was impossible and attacked from the rear by the remnants of the Lifeguards; the mass of Frenchmen sought escape in other directions. Many moved along the crest and found a point at which they could pass over the ridge and return into the valley. One group however, tried to enter the roadway and return via the crossroads. This group ran up against the abattis blocking the road, it was now too sturdy to push aside thanks to George and his men. They were like rats in a trap, the Rifles poured a number of volleys into them and hardly a man or horse survived. It was annihilation; the bodies lay thickly one upon another. Indeed some men and horses died together, they lay stretched on the ground, the horse still as if in the act of running, the rider dead still sat astride, maintaining his grimace of determination even in death.
Drums beating, bugles blaring loudly and a sudden increase in the level of cannon shots brought their thoughts back to the threat in front of them. The columns of French infantry were marching toward the farm and sand pit area. As the columns neared the buildings, the defending Germans poured in a very destructive rifle fire, but the French marched on determined to take this temporary fortress once and for all.
The columns enveloped the three sides of the farm again, but this time they seemed to attack with greater determination and ferocity. A large column also marched on, to the left of the sand pit and then turned to fire upon the Rifles within the hollow and those lining the hedge on the knoll. The Rifle companies fired as fast and accurately as possible, the numbers of Frenchmen falling to their volleys was terrific but greater numbers kept pushing forward, maintaining the pressure.
Johnny Kincaid had watched as a few hundred extra German Riflemen ran down from the ridge and entered the farm on the remaining side free of Frenchmen, to aid in the defence. Lord Wellington and his entourage appeared on the ridge near a single elm tree, he had observed the need to reinforce the farm just in time. His knack for being in the right place at the right moment showed again.
The noise was deafening, the French cannon had ceased firing as the infantry had approached their target, but the British artillery fired as rapidly as they could into the masses around the farm. The continuous firing of rifles made their ears ring; the men had to shout to make themselves heard. The Riflemen were exhausted, parched from the caustic gunpowder in their throats, eyes smarting from the thick smoke emanating from their rifles, deafened, they just kept loading and firing mechanically, their lives depended upon it.
Suddenly a roar emanated from the French, some were climbing over the walls of the farm and onto the rooftops to fire down into the courtyard. The fighting was obviously continuing in the farm but the level of firing from the defenders seemed to be diminishing fast.
A small group of the Germans started to emerge from the rear of the farmhouse and flee towards the ridge; some forty or so ran towards cover in the sand pit.
One of them was obviously an officer, as he ran in with his men Jonathan Leach caught him by the shoulder.
“What is happening at the farm?”
The German crouched gasping for breath, he struggled to speak. Jonathan eyed the cuts on his head, the sweat and smoke blackened face and uniform. After a few gulps of air the officer shouted in broken English.
“Major Baring, vee ‘aff lost the farm, they vill attack here next I think.”
Jonathan offered him the remnants of his small whisky flask that he had been saving to celebrate his own survival.
The German took it gratefully and sipped it, but ensured he did not use it all, he was only too aware of the sacrifice Jonathan made.
“Vee ran out of ammunition, vee fought with clubs and stones but vee could not stop them!”
Jonathan put a comforting hand on his shoulder, he felt for Baring, he had just seen his battalion destroyed; he tried to understand how he felt. He didn’t make the pain worse by asking the question on his lips. Why had no one asked him for ammunition? They had plenty with the reserves, as they used the same weapons. Obviously Baring’s requests for ammunition had been sent to his own units, no one had thought of the Rifles.
There was no time to ponder this further; the French had indeed turned their attention fully upon the Rifles now. They appeared from the rear of the farmhouse and fired into the sand pit from the farm’s rear garden.
It was far too hot to stay any longer and Jonathan gave the order to retreat again. As before, they raced back to form on the reserves with French musket balls chasing them along the road.
This time the reserves stood firm and the forward companies formed up on them, they would retreat this far but no further. They took stock of their losses, George Simmons had seen Captain Edward Chawner hit in the chest and carried to the rear; Captain William Johnstone was hit in the elbow smashing the bone, that was him out of action following his previous wound at Quatre Bras.
Sir Andrew Barnard slumped to the ground; a shot in his side had disturbed his already weakened constitution. He was escorted to the rear; he couldn’t continue to command the battalion.
Henry Lees ran up to Jonathan, “Sir Andrew and Major Cameron are both wounded, that leaves you in command as Senior Captain.” Jonathan nodded, he was ready.
Alexander Cameron lay on the ground just to their right, George Simmons went to him. A bugler was already attending him, holding an old handkerchief long since white tightly to the Major’s throat. The bugler looked up at George “Shot in neck, Sir, bad” and shook his head.
George understood, he took Alexander’s hand for a moment looking on his tortured features, and then hurriedly returned to the front.
Robert Fairfoot scanned the faces of the men; they were still determined to fight. He had seen a number of them fall too, Jem Connor the tailor was amongst them, he had been hit in the chest and lay on the road. Tom Crawley and Johnny Castles ran back down the road, took an arm each and dragged Jem back to the battalion. He looked pale, the wound was bad but they obtained permission to carry him to the surgeons. Whilst the lads pulled Connor back to safety, Fairfoot had recognised the body of a fellow sergeant lying on the cobble stones, Robert turned the body over and was met by the fixed staring eyes of death, it was poor Thomas Morgan the Welshman, with a ball hole drilled very neatly in his forehead.
The French infantry swarmed over the sand pit and the knoll. They moved forward to try and dislodge the Rifles from the hedge bordering the roadway, which now acted as their front line. The battalion had retired far enough and poured in a veritable hail of rifle balls, making any further advance for the French suicidal, but Ross’s remaining guns were forced to leave the ridge to avoid being overrun.
A French horse artillery unit moved up to the farm of La Haye Sainte and pushed two cannon into position to fire upon the Rifles. The gunners set their aim and fired a round each of canister but their first shot was hurried and caused little damage.
This was a serious threat and could not be ignored. Johnny Kincaid picked out Johnny Castles, John Palmer, Thomas Charity and William Mc Nabb; he took them just forward of the battalion, onto the roadway.
The lads knew what to do; at a range of less than one hundred yards their Baker Rifles were highly accurate. Their first shots brought down three gunners attempting to load the cannon. Another volley, which brought down two more persuaded the artillery men that this was not such a good idea and as quickly as they had come they went again, leaving their cannon behind.
Jonathan Leach observed the fighting from the rear of the battalion; his ability to view the scene properly was much improved as he stood on the top of the ridge. He was able to see the men maintaining the firefight and he could see that their fire had clearly dampened the enthusiasm of the French infantry to advance further. Indeed, their officers could be seen vainly trying to drive their men forward with the flat of their swords.
Just to the right of the cross roads, he could see the Prince of Orange clearly organising a counter attack on the farmhouse. The German battalion marched forward in line towards La Haye Sainte, but half way down the slope, a mass of French Cuirassiers hidden by the farm buildings suddenly emerged. Infantry in line were too good an opportunity to miss, they instantly charged and the infantry formation broke as they ran into huddles, desperately trying to form impromptu squares, but they didn’t stand a chance and they were overwhelmed in seconds. Jonathan ordered the right hand section of Rifles to fire on the cavalry but they couldn’t initially because it was impossible to avoid hitting their allies. As soon as they had over ridden them, annihilating all, the rifles exploded into life knocking many a horseman down in sweet revenge. The Cuirassiers were further threatened by the remnants of the Lifeguards and retired, their bloody work complete.
The Rifles were horrified to observe that the retreating horsemen slowly trotting back took time to halt and drive their swords into any infantryman lying wounded that they passed. That was cold-blooded murder; it made their blood boil for retaliation and the worst culprits became especial targets for the best shots.
The cannon and musket fire was incessant, death stuck out his bony fingers regularly, and his appetite continued insatiable. The constant close calls of death led everyone to become blasé to the danger; they couldn’t remain frightened of the whiz of the balls forever.
George Simmons stood laughing and joking with Charles Smith, the Gentleman Volunteer, amongst this madness both had miraculously escaped any injury.
“Well Charles plenty of opportunities for your commission today, indeed if we take many more casualties you may be in line for a Colonelcy!”
Charles seemed shocked by all that he had witnessed but maintained his manly facade. “Is it always like this, George?”
“No, this is one of the hardest battles I’ve seen, a regular pounding match. I dare say the farmers will welcome this, we’ll make good compost, they’ll grow a bumper crop here next year!”
The grim humour seemed appropriate for the charnel house they stood in. George looked behind them, there was a regiment lying formed in square, literally dead in formation, the sad remnant of the regiment still proudly standing around their tattered flag.
George suddenly felt a searing pain in his left side, he instinctively held his stomach, the pain was excruciating and he sank to the floor struggling to breath, and all went black.........
Sir Augustus Frazer rode off at a gallop; G troop was soon limbered and chasing him. The gun teams rode in single file of sub divisions, the wagons bounding across the fields behind them, drivers and gunners desperately holding on to their seats as they tried to remain onboard. If anyone fell off it would mean almost certain death under the hooves and wheels of the following teams.
By driving Cossack hard with his spurs, Alexander succeeded in catching up with Sir Augustus. Bal ran at full speed and kept up with his master as he rode hard. Alexander noticed in passing that the right sleeve of his jacket was torn open but that there was little blood indicating to him that it was a mere graze. Frazer turned his head to converse with Alexander as they galloped on together. Both urged their horses to close the gap between them for ease of communication, but even with their boots almost touching Sir Augustus had to shout loudly to be heard over the din of battle, which increased markedly as they approached the crest.
“I am placing your troop in the front line to protect the infantry, which is extremely hard pressed. A mass of heavy cavalry has massed across the valley and it appears that your front will be charged very soon after you arrive. The Duke’s orders are very positive however, that in the event of their cavalry persevering and charging home, you will not expose your men unwisely defending the guns, for you will certainly be destroyed. Rather, retire at the last moment into the protection of the adjacent squares of infantry, when the French cavalry retire again you may then occupy your battery and reopen firing, for the cavalry will not stop to spike your guns. This order must not be disobeyed!”
Alexander nodded his understanding of the orders and they galloped on, they were now ascending the reverse slope of the ridge and would soon crest it, when Alexander hoped that the battle would be revealed to them properly.
The surgeon Hichens had also caught up and drew alongside Alexander as they crested the rise. The sound of cannon and musketry fire, shouted orders screams and cries, became much louder, death was now very close at hand.
The smoke was now becoming very thick, indeed as they crested the ridge, little could be seen beyond a hundred yards. The smoke was acrid; it irritated the lungs, burned the throat and was accompanied by an incredible rise in temperature. The air was suffocatingly hot and still, it appeared that all the firing and smoke had produced a localised effect upon the weather; it was like standing next to the blacksmith’s furnace on a hot day! The dead and dying lay strewn around, the odd horrific injury had been witnessed over the last few days but now they were plentiful, you could no longer look away, they were all around. Men with limbs shattered or completely torn away by cannonballs, decapitated or literally blown apart, horses sitting with legs smashed or standing with entrails strewn across the ground, patiently waiting for death to call. The troop made the scene even worse, for they had no time to move the injured and dead aside, the horses simply trampled over them, injuring further, cannon wheels crushing all in its path. Everyone tried to look away as the troop galloped on inflicting sickening mutilations, but they simply had to get through. Some of the men genuflected and offered a small prayer for their souls as they neared the fighting.
Strange noises penetrated their ears, a buzzing, like a swarm of bees could be heard in all directions accompanied frequently by a great crashing noise, but nothing could be seen through the smoke.
Hichens looked around continuously in total bewilderment, “My God Mercer, What is that?”, then again “What is all this noise? How curious, how very curious!”
Alexander smiled but said nothing; he was too busy assessing the situation.
A great whoosh! And a rush of wind striking his face set Hichens off again.
“There, there, what on earth is it all?”
Henry Leathes took pity on the poor bewildered man.
“It is the passing of musket balls that buzz and the whoosh was that of a cannonball passing close by. It is getting a little dangerous here, indeed I would be careful of stretching your hand out, as it would most likely be ripped off, the balls are so thick!”
Robert Newland joined in, “Hichens, it is far too warm here, you are in grave danger, retire beyond the crest.”
Hichens was aghast, “My place is with the troop!”
Robert disagreed, “No your place is to be out of the firing line, as Surgeon we will need you unharmed to care for those that will be injured. It is important that you are there for us, retire just beyond the ridge, the wounded will be brought to you, where they will be safer. Go now before it is too late.”
Hichens turned his horse to ride back, his face told clearly that he was not happy with his orders, but all knew that Robert was right.
Sir Augustus pointed out a spot in front of two squares of darkly uniformed troops.
“There is your position, you are to protect those Brunswick squares until the cavalry come close then retire within them.” He repeated.
Sir Augustus turned his horse to leave but then shouted a final order, “Be economical with your ammunition, do not waste your shots, replenishment will be difficult!”
He meant impossible.
Alexander took stock of the situation rapidly; he was only too aware that any mistakes now certainly would be fatal to some or all of his men. The responsibility was onerous but he had no time to consider this now, he could already see through odd gaps in the smoke, the French cavalry approaching in the distance.
Alexander arrived only a few moments before the troop and indicated each gun’s spot. The position ran along a track way, it was slightly sunken with earthen ramparts two feet high on each side. The guns would set down on the track itself, the wheels were high enough however for the muzzles to fire over the rampart. The ground to the front fell away slowly into the shallow valley between the Allied and French ridges. Alexander could see the formed lines of French cavalry trotting up the incline, moving slowly but surely, to maintain formation.
Looking towards the still arriving G troop, he judged that the guns could deploy just before the cavalry arrived.
He became aware of the two Brunswick squares that he had been ordered to support. Cannonballs smashed into the Germans crashing right through the squares, tearing large gaps in their formation. Alexander could see the officers and sergeants shouting and pushing the soldiers to fill in the gaps that were so dangerous with the cavalry around. Mercer recognised these young lads as the same ones that had fled at the mere sound of G troop approaching them from behind on the retreat from Quatre Bras. Today they weren’t fleeing, these brave lads stood, despite the punishment they were receiving. They had never experienced anything like this; indeed their faces betrayed that they were only coping by becoming mere shells, standing like the living dead with little understanding of what went on around them, just like so many skittles waiting to be bowled over.
Alexander quickly decided that these young men would only stand if he helped to protect them, but he felt that the sight of his gunners running from their cannon into their squares would be misunderstood. They were likely to think they were fleeing the cavalry and such a sight could tip the balance against them standing any longer, there was a grave danger that they would run too. Alexander swiftly came to the conclusion that he would have to disobey orders again! His officers and men knew nothing of the order to retire if attacked and he decided to say nothing. He knew that this may put his men at great risk, but he must try, and hang the consequences!
The first gun of Henry Leathes’ division arrived and unlimbered rapidly; the men were oblivious to the danger in their front but still worked at top speed, just like in practice. Seconds behind, each gun arrived to be unlimbered in turn; the teams then led off to the rear a little.
Alexander was nervous, he watched them unlimber methodically and quickly, but it still seemed an eternity as he glanced at the French cavalry, now only one hundred yards away.
Alexander bellowed out the order “Load Canister”, the ammunition was dug out of the ready use lockers on the wagons and rammed home on top of the cannonballs already in the barrels, ‘double shotting’ it was called, particularly devastating at extremely close range. The touchhole was primed and finally gun number one stood ready to fire, the others would be ready soon, but would it be soon enough?
The lines consisted of hundreds of French Cuirassiers with Horse Grenadiers further behind, trotting slowly up the incline on their big horses; they moved at barely more than a walk as the horses carried a great weight with these cavalrymen wearing their gleaming body armour back and front. As the troop was set just below the line of the ridge, it was likely that the Frenchmen had no warning of the cannon facing them.
Alexander bit his lip as he fought the urge to order the guns to fire, he wanted the first discharge to really devastate them, and he had to wait until the horsemen neared the top of the incline. Alexander needed the target to be as large as possible and he cared little if the balls struck either horse or rider, either negated their potential as cavalry.
The Cuirassiers held their swords high and shouted “Vive le Empereur”, it was meant to strike fear into the enemy and bolster their own morale. As comrades together they would conquer, that was the message.
As the French horsemen reached the top of the rise they came into view of the Brunswickers. A desultory fire was brought on from the squares, but it was ragged and ill aimed, indeed Alexander knew that the signs of hesitation and nervousness in the faces of these young Germans would not be missed by these experienced French campaigners.
Finally the moment had arrived, the leading files of cavalry were now aware of G troop’s presence and he was pleased to see that it had caused some hesitation in the French ranks. Still they came on as the ranks behind pushed the front files, but the front rankers were understandably less keen to proceed as they would bear the fire from the cannon’s mouth. Alexander counted himself down; they were less than fifty yards away, three, two, one, now!
He stood up in the saddle and drew a deep breath then bellowed the eagerly awaited order.
The slow match was applied and the first nine-pounder cannon roared, belching flame and smoke. The numerous balls splayed out as they left the muzzle, tearing into the flesh of horse and human. The body armour clanged as the balls struck them and passed right through, they were not designed to protect them from cannon fire!