On the 14th May the men cheerfully met their other company commanded by Captain Francis Glasse as they marched into Brussels. This company had been in Belgium since returning from Spain and many an old friendship was renewed that night! All six companies were now together again, ready for the start of any fighting, which would surely come soon. Presently, the joint allied armies were preparing to attack France simultaneously. However, they were not ready yet and Napoleon wouldn’t dare attack, so they could relax and enjoy the sights of Brussels.
A few days later, Johnny Kincaid eventually arrived from his adventures and took up his office as Adjutant to the regiment. He had managed to buy a good horse soon after arriving at Brussels and started preparing the battalion for the orders that would surely come sooner or later, for war.
Bright rays of sunlight falling harshly upon Alexander’s face shattered his dreams; he felt the stiffness in his joints as he straightened his body in the chair that had formed his resting place. The grate was now dark and uninviting, there were no bright embers remaining to warm his exhausted frame. The others still slept, he quietly raised himself, squeezing between the somnolent occupants and stepped out of the stuffy house to fill his lungs with the sweet fresh air of dawn. He was very pleasantly surprised to find that at the rear of the dwelling, unseen last night, formed a small walled garden, beautifully kept, with all the spring flowers competing to bloom the most luxuriously. It was a sheer oasis of peace and beauty in a barren landscape of flat plains dissected by a multitude of watercourses. He took a few moments to fully absorb the scene and clear his mind of the previous day’s troubles. He was reinvigorated by the bright dawn light that already warmed his body and heralded a more pleasant day than yesterday. Alexander sat upon a wooden bench and enjoyed these few minutes of serenity, he thought of his mother; father and sisters enjoying a carefree life at home in England. He wondered if they thought of him that morning or if they still slept. He remembered balmy days by the river at home as a youth with his village friends and wallowed in this indulgent nostalgia. Such happy times saddened him when he compared his current situation, full of cares and responsibilities. He tried to change his thoughts away from home and eventually sauntered back into the house to wake his brother officers. The troop must prepare to return to Ostend as early as possible.
The miller and his wife had produced a breakfast of the freshest bread, cold meats and gallons of strong black coffee. They all ate ravenously of this feast, having partaken of little sustenance the day before. Soon, they felt fully restored and ready to face the trials and tribulations that would undoubtedly be their lot in Ostend that day. With renewed vigour, everybody worked quickly to prepare the horse teams for the strenuous task ahead. As soon as everything was complete, the troop set out on the road back to the town. Alexander wished their hosts well and proffered a gold coin to pay for their victuals, it was politely declined. In daylight, the narrowness of the road running atop the dyke and the steep drop to either side of some twenty feet, made them all very thankful for their safe transit the previous night.
Within a mere ten minutes they arrived at the barrier of Ostend, the journey in the dark stormy weather last night had taken more than an hour. The barrier was closed until eight o’clock and the officious Belgian officer whom they had encountered the previous night, stood glaring at Alexander and his men. A small crowd of labourers that worked in the town and farmers with carts richly laden with their produce, waited patiently at the gate, the troop joined the orderly line. Alexander took the opportunity to observe the fine stonewalls that formed the defences of the town. The angular revetments protected by great banks of earth from shot and shell and crowned by rows of canon of great calibre reminded Alexander of the works of that great fortress builder Vauban.
At the appointed hour precisely, the barrier was raised and the crowd strode on, allowing G Troop to proceed toward the harbour. The Belgian officer watched them pass with a thinly disguised smirk painted on his fulsome cheeks, he had won this time, they had been made to wait. Alexander would have loved to wipe the smile from his face, but the Belgians were allies and not to be upset at any cost, Lord Wellington’s orders.
Arriving at the harbour, exactly the same scene of mayhem as yesterday was being re-enacted, further troop ships arriving continuously merely added to the confusion. Captain Hill’s men had waited until this morning to unload the guns and carriages as promised, but they had obviously started at first light and a number of guns were already on the beach awaiting them. Alexander had previously detailed each officer and NCO to take charge of certain carriages or guns with their allocated horse teams. Having had the time to arrange the horses and to saddle and harness them properly, the operation went exceedingly smoothly.
Alexander found time to relax a little and took the opportunity to observe his surroundings. Groups of soldiers awaiting orders were already happily drinking ale in the morning sunlight, seated outside bars that had remained open throughout to capture the trade. Others were marching off, escorting baggage wagons; packhorses and mules tethered to the rear of the wagons strolling nonchalantly behind. A Field Artillery Battery that had presumably disembarked the previous night was still lined along the roadside, dying embers nearby told of fires lit to try and keep warm in the terrible weather. The horse teams were harnessed to the guns and stood throwing their sackcloth nosebags high into the air with a flick of the head to reach the oats lying at the bottom. The men lolled along the length of the gun barrels or across the ammunition boxes on the wagons, in an attempt to let the early morning sun dry out their saturated clothing. Small whiffs of steam rose from their bodies as the sun did its work.
The locals were back at honest toil this Monday morning and deliveries came and went. The Belgian delivery men wore blue smock coats, heavily embroidered with colourful ribbons, their heads adorned with a cap of white or red, not unlike a nightcap, these caps were invariably filthy. Most sported huge earrings as an embellishment. The men walked far behind their horse and carts, controlling them with a very long pair of leather reins. The women all wore lace caps and sported huge looped ear rings, blouses and long skirts heavily embroidered with colourful threads and they usually wore wooden clogs upon their bare feet.
Observing his own teams of horses, Alexander fretted to see such handsome creatures transformed into bedraggled, ill conditioned hacks so quickly. Their drooping heads and listless eyes told of the damage done to their condition by such hard service. Alexander realised the folly they were all guilty of; they mollycoddled the horses on garrison duty in England and when they were called into action on campaign, they were far too soft and lost condition very quickly. No wonder that Lord Wellington had sent recalled cavalry units home from Spain without their chargers. New horses could be procured at home, but those inured to the rough campaigning of Spain were irreplaceable and a great boon to newly arrived regiments. Before this practice became common, cavalry regiments could often only field a few squadrons at the front line, as most of the new horses were either sick or died! The men had fared little better and obviously needed time to recuperate a little. He hoped they would get the time needed before any fighting commenced. Their equipment was already torn, dirty, the metalwork rusting, indeed some swords and scabbards had rusted solid.
A piercing scream rent the air; it was followed in rapid succession by further blood curdling screams and shouts for help. All eyes immediately turned towards the source of these terrible sounds; it emanated from a group of Belgian women who were stood at the end of the pier. They huddled together as protection against the stiff sea breeze, whilst pointing seaward, the anguish etched on their faces was all too obvious. Dark storm clouds had again started to roll in, accompanied by a very strong wind, which was rapidly gaining in strength and presaging a full-blown gale. A number of small fishing smacks and brigs that lay outside the harbour were running for the protection of the wooden pier as the wind and seas grew alarmingly. One brig had missed the harbour mouth and was being rapidly carried down towards the beach and its huge breakers. The sea had whipped up extremely quickly and huge waves were now crashing against the wooden piers sending vast plumes of spray high into the air. The waves looked much taller than the brig’s masts and seemed to threaten to envelope it completely. However, each time a wave threatened to pass completely over it, somehow the brig mounted the crest and escaped submersion. The brig rolled heavily, the masts thrashing from side to side almost touching the water.
“If the masts touch the water, she will turn turtle and sink,” John Hincks observed.
Alexander said nothing, Hincks was right of course, but such statements often became prophecy and he did not wish to be part of such a terrible disaster. The brig was now close to the beach and everyone ran along the shoreline to help. The ship was no more than a dozen yards from the sands where they congregated, the crew aboard were clearly visible pleading for help, but there was no way to aid them. The surf constantly swept over the hull, the crew could be seen clearly, clinging on to the rigging, holding on for grim death, some tying themselves to the masts in their efforts to stay onboard. The tattered shards of sail flapped violently on the yards making a thunderous noise, the creaking and groaning of the ship’s timbers foretold her imminent death throws. Occasionally the sea lifted the vessel bodily as if made of matchwood, then hurling it against the sands in its determination to destroy the puny craft. As it crashed to earth, the whole hull shuddered and the masts vibrated wildly with the shock.
A small cheer of hope arose from the crowd as an oared boat pulled out from the harbour crewed by a few brave men prepared to battle the very sea for custody of the crew. As they closed with the brig, Alexander recognised amongst these heroes, the same pilot that had brought their own ship into port, he was leading the rescue team. The boat neared the stricken vessel, only to be swept disdainfully away by the disparaging waves. They made numerous attempts to close but were as often defeated by the scornful sea. Slowly however, they managed to manoeuvre alongside for short periods and individual crewmen were able to spring with a leap of desperation from the shattered hulk of the brig into the boat. Some hesitated to leap, but there was little alternative and eventually they all let go of their grasp on the ship to make the hazardous gambol. Most were eventually gathered in safely, but one missed the timing of his jump, plunging into the boiling sea. He was lucky enough to resurface alongside the boat and caught hold of the gunwale. With an extreme effort, two of the rescue team managed to haul him over the side, despite his heavy frame and saturated clothing. All seemed to be going better than could possibly have been hoped for as the boat closed for the last time. Tragically, by some terrible accident, the pilot lost his footing as the boat bumped alongside for the final crewman. He clutched for a hold of anything to save himself as his body fell across the boat. His head fell between the hulls of the two vessels at the precise moment of impact; his skull was instantly smashed to pieces. The crowd screamed in horror as the awful scene unfolded directly in front of them. Unnoticed during this drama, the last crewman had managed to jump across, landing safely in the boat. The cutter was now rowed with great urgency toward safety in the calmer waters of the harbour. They succeeded in pulling into the lee of the pier but there was no celebration of their success, they merely slumped in their seats from sheer exhaustion. Seconds later, a loud splintering noise dragged all eyes back to the brig as with a final sigh it gave up the unequal struggle and the vanquishing sea broke the hull into pieces. The triumphant waves raised the jumbled timbers of the stricken vessel, tossing them to the four winds in celebration of its great victory. The crowd ran toward the harbour and surged around the boat as it eventually landed safely. Some cheered the saviours of the crew, but most stood solemnly as all honours were bestowed upon the mangled remains of the brave pilot. His corpse was wrapped in a flag torn from a nearby ship and carried in stately procession to the local church. He had died a hero; they vowed to bury him as such and to care for his family, now bereft of their only provider. Once interred on hallowed ground to await burial, the crowd slowly dispersed. Alexander sat feeling very melancholy, however his thoughts were interrupted by a discreet cough, and he looked up into the face of the Quartermaster, John Hall.
Hall looked embarrassed, and sheepishly held out a small leather purse. “From the men Sir, for the Pilot’s family.”
Alexander choked back his feelings; he was proud of his men and happily added a few gold coins as his personal contribution before sending him to the town Mayor with the offering.
The excitement over, the troop was reassembled and settled back to await the Commissary with their rations before they could march. Eventually at three o’clock that afternoon, the wagons finally arrived and rations were issued to the troop. Finally, Alexander could order them to march for Ghent. The drivers took their positions on the wagons or the lead horses of each team and the gunners mounted their own horses. The orders given, the troop proceeded slowly through the narrow, winding, filthy streets of Ostend, the houses in daylight betrayed their dilapidation, how different it all had appeared last night. They marched past the foot artillery battery still waiting for orders on the quayside; Alexander noted the disdain shown by his men for the foot -sloggers. In the Foot artillery, the guns and carriages were provided with horses, which only seated the drivers, none of the artillerymen were mounted and had to march along behind, they were so clumsy and slow! Alexander looked at his battery with pride; they were the elite of artillery. In the army, they were often known as the ‘Flying Artillery’ because of their speed. Every man was seated, either on the carriages or provided with horses to ride alongside the guns. This meant that they would keep up with the cavalry and could gallop into action, unlimber and commence firing in minutes. They were the flexible, fast, hard punch of the army and were rightly proud of their high reputation. The horses were all dark brown or black and solidly built, they were trained to perfection in their teams, each reacting immediately to the driver’s orders. The men in their dark blue figure hugging, hussar style jackets with myriad lines of yellow gold lace across the chest and grey breeches looked every inch the soldier. It was topped off by a great black crested helmet with peaked front, a brown turban wrapped around and thick black brush of hair running fore and aft over the top of the rounded helmet.
In full gallop, the six teams of horses with cannons, a numerous train of support carriages and gunners on fine chargers riding alongside, was an awesome and spectacular sight. Alexander had every reason to be proud of the unit, he just hoped that he could command them as well as they deserved.
Near the barrier at the entrance to Ostend, Gunner John Butterworth, known as ‘Tuppence’ to his fellow Artillerymen, on account of the current price that a pound of butter cost, called out.
“Lefftenant Ingilby Sir, I thinks that them two horses is our missing ones, I’d recognise Hero any where’s”
William Ingilby rode over to the horses, which stood untethered, quietly munching on the grass at hoof on the earthen scarp of the defences near the barrier. He soon ascertained that they belonged to the Quartermaster’s stores by the tell tale triangular arrow shape being clearly branded into their hindquarters. The Belgian guard at the barrier confirmed that they had no idea whose horses they were as they had arrived alone during last night’s storm. William gladly reclaimed them for King George. Alexander was pleased, his troop was now fully horsed again and the loss of equipment from yesterday’s mayhem was now trifling.
As they cleared the outskirts of the town and left the shelter of the formidable defences, they were struck by the wind, which had picked up in strength again. It beat them with great violence as they started out along the road cresting the dyke. The men now found their grand helmets cumbersome and a damned nuisance. Without a word spoken, each moved independently to protect themselves from the freshening breeze. The mounted gunners leaned hard into the wind, keeping their body low over their horse’s necks, they held their reins in one hand and with the other they strove to hold their helmets on their heads. Those seated on the carriages sat with their backs facing the wind, burying their heads into their hands to be sure of retaining their helmets; it all struck Alexander as very humorous. He needed to lift his spirits, for the view in all directions was hardly appealing. For as far as the eye could see, there was an unbroken expanse of flat marshland. Small outcrops of reeds occasionally broke the monotonous scene that consisted largely of a sea of black pestilential mud, which was accompanied by a fetid stench. The road of mud and stones ran along the top of a dyke some feet above this marsh in a straight line for at least fifteen miles. Everyone concentrated hard on keeping the teams on the roadway; any that strayed would lose their footing and be lost in the quagmire.
Having travelled across this desolate and depressing plain for a few hours, they were all delighted with the sudden change of scenery. They were confronted with miles of flat, lush green pasture, populated by thousands of well nourished cattle and swine; indeed it appeared to be a veritable land of plenty.
Away from the sea, the winds eased and with a more cheerful outlook, the troop’s spirits rallied. They started to relax and enjoy their sojourn, animated conversation and laughter started to break out. Alexander was pleased to observe that their spirits were unharmed after the last two trying days.
A small hamlet came into view; it consisted of a huddle of a mere dozen houses, ringed by a smattering of isolated farmsteads dotted sparsely over the plain.
Alexander turned to Robert Newland, his irksome fellow Captain.
“That should be the village of Ghistel, Newland, we are to billet on these good folk tonight.”
Robert looked bemused, “We will struggle to find everyone a billet here. We will have to spread them far and wide in those farms. Not good for efficiency or control of the troop.”
Alexander agreed but was irritated, Newland always managed to make his comments sound like criticisms.
As they approached the few houses hugging the road, a tall man dressed in a long black coat and wide brimmed hat, looking every inch the Quaker, greeted them. He introduced himself as a Monsieur Van Heyden; he was effectively the village notary. He read the official order to provide billets for the night, which Alexander had procured from the Commissary, with little joy, but rapidly issued notes for each homestead with the number of horses and men to be billeted on each. Staff Sergeants Parsons and Hall detailed off each group. Having formed a park for the guns and carriages on a green in the village, they proceeded with their rations to the houses allocated. Few homesteads had room for their visitors in their meagre, low cottages. Most occupants happily offered their barns, now virtually empty of winter hay, as accommodation, which was gladly accepted by the men.
Alexander and his fellow officers were happy to accept accommodation in the better houses in the village; they enjoyed an evening’s relaxation in the company of their host’s families, who entertained their English guests with good grace. Alexander did not fear for his scattered unprotected troop, they were way behind the lines and fighting had not broken out. He would revel in the evening, it was a pleasure not having any cares for a while and he was determined to enjoy himself.
At dawn, the local cockerels serenaded the men sauntering from the scattered farms to muster at the artillery park on the village green. Some had to travel in from farms more than two miles away and the sun was well above the horizon before all were accounted for and the troop could proceed. The march this day was short and very unremarkable; they simply enjoyed the view and soaked up the warmth of the sun on this pleasant spring morning. After a mere two-hour ride, the spires of Bruges, that famous town of lace and canals peeked into view, marking the end of the day’s journey. They rode through its beautifully preserved medieval streets, crossing the multitude of canals on narrow stone bridges, just wide enough for the gun carriages. They passed through the impressive Markt, a wide square lined with ornate Guild houses, each painted a different colour. They craned their necks to view the octagonal tower that topped the Belfort, a thirteenth century bell tower rising over two hundred and fifty feet and dominating the square. On they went past towering churches blackened by age and then along streets of low stone cottages, through to the cavalry barracks, their home for the night. This was a much less attractive billet, with dark dank rooms for the men and poor cover for the horses, it was conceivably the worst building in Bruges. However, once the horses were settled for the night and the wagons and guns parked, the town beckoned, promising beer and congenial company for the men.
Alexander and the other Officers were billeted on the Hotel de Commerce in the main square, a fine edifice but sadly dilapidated. This was however, a pleasing opportunity to clean themselves up, as there had been little opportunity for a change of clothing since sailing. The hotel was small, dark and dismally quiet, but it did offer good food, rest and hot water, they had no reason to find fault.
William Millward had been Alexander’s servant for some twelve years and as has been said by others, no man is a hero to his servant; William proceeded with him to his rooms to collect his filthy shirt and necessaries for washing. Alexander wallowed in the luxury of the hot bath provided by the hotel. He reflected on the sudden changes of circumstances and wondered what further surprises were to come their way. Watching William shuffling around the room, laying out his clean uniform; he appreciated the loyalty and excellent service he had always enjoyed from this aging trooper. Millward was a proud man of some forty years, always upright and steady; he would never fail him. Alexander looked on their relationship as one of complete trust and hoped that William understood how completely he relied on him. He was the nearest thing that he had to a wife.
Finally, fully refreshed, he rose from the bath, and then leisurely dressed in his crisp, clean, spare shirt, starched to perfection, exactly as William had packed it in Colchester just over a week ago. Dressed, he met up with his fellow officers to enjoy a fine meal in the hotel restaurant. As they consumed their fair repast, Alexander took note of their surroundings; he observed the surfeit of staff with little to do and the general air of gloom pervading the hotel.
On enquiry, the Maitre d'hôte explained.
“Business is poor here for many years monsieur, because of Napoleon’s blockade of goods from England. Now all trade has stopped again because they fear his armies will come and destroy everything!”