Henry Leathes attempted to reassure him. “Do not fear so my good fellow, Lord Wellington and our army will not let him come here.”
The Belgian turned to Henry in all seriousness, answering. “I ‘ope you are right Sir, but you Inglish have not fight with Napoleon ‘imself before and he has beaten everyone else!”
Henry looked downcast at the truth of the answer, but William Ingilby chipped in, “Napoleon is a mere bludgeoner like his Marshals. Lord Wellington saw them all off, Ney, Soult, Massena, Marmont; he had the beating of them all. I’ll wager thee Sir, that Wellington has the beating of Napoleon as well or I’m not a Yorkshireman!”
They all laughed, all knew that the fighting ahead would be hard, but they would not dwell on what might happen in the future and was out of their control. They would enjoy the moment and live for today, a wise lifestyle for a soldier!
Wine, Beer and Port flowed freely as they vied to outdo each other in their generosity of order for the table; they drank and cavorted until the early hours, when they slowly dispersed to bed.
Early morning saw them on the road again, having gained little sleep. The officers were sad to leave their comfortable berth; by contrast, the men were very glad to leave the dank, gloomy cells at the stables. Almost everyone suffered the pains of a hangover and conversation was sparse for the next few hours.
Two further days of light marches over similar countryside, halting each night at small villages similar to those previous, eventually brought the troop into the streets of Ghent. The City, sitting astride the River Scheldt, spoke eloquently of wealth. Fine merchant’s houses were interspersed amongst the trappings of a grandiose past as a great medieval trading centre. A fine castle, ornate Cathedral and great Cloth Hall, all indicated great power and importance but all were now showing signs of age and wear.
They rode past a large building site; an eager army of labourers were laying the foundations of some great edifice. A passing gentleman informed them that it was to be a fine new University, due to open the following year, a symbol of Ghent’s continued importance.
They proceeded on toward the cavalry barracks, which was to be their billet during their stay in this fine city. However, as they entered the gateway of dirty red brick to the barrack blocks, it became evident that someone else was already in residence and the troop halted abruptly. Alexander rode forward to discover who had taken their berth. As he approached closer, he could discern English voices and the semblance of Horse Artillery uniforms on some of the men busily feeding horses or mucking out stables. He stopped to observe the scene and to identify somebody in authority to inquire of. His eyes suddenly set upon an officer strolling across the yard, checking on his men’s work. Alexander’s eyes brightened and he called out in the pleasure of recognition of an old friend.
“Alex, how long have you been here?”
Second Lieutenant Alexander Macdonald turned and beamed a smile of welcome recognition. “Alexander Mercer, how the devil are you?”
Alexander Macdonald was Second in command of Major Norman Ramsay’s ‘H’ troop of Horse Artillery. The two knew each other from long periods of tedious garrison duty in Colchester. Mercer looked upon Norman and Alex as the prefect Horse Artillery officers and had learnt much from them. Both had extensive experience in action and of campaigning, having served throughout the Peninsula war in Spain in various Horse Artillery units before joining together to make a formidable team.
“We are all well Alex, but I see you have our intended berth!” Alexander replied.
Alex looked apologetic, “I am afraid we have no room for your troop, we have been here ten days and do not yet know when we are to move on.” Then recognising some old faces behind Alexander, he shouted “John, Henry, William, greetings, I trust we can expect your company at our mess tonight!” He bent to pat Bal, who sniffed around his boots in recognition of an old friend.
Alexander’s brother officers returned the compliment and promised to visit once they were installed somewhere in the city. The horses and carriages were eventually ensconced within the cavalry barracks for safekeeping, but the men would have to be billeted elsewhere. Eventually, the local authorities allocated lodgings and the troop dispersed to locate their individual havens. They were to be spread all over the city, some more than two miles away; this would make the maintenance of discipline and organisation virtually impossible. There was precious little choice in the matter and with seemingly no threat of attack or urgency in their movements, he felt fully at ease.
Alexander rode slowly through the winding streets of central Ghent vainly searching for his own berth in Bruges Straet. Halting regularly to seek the aid of passing locals, he eventually drew Cossack up outside a tall four storey wooden house. Thin flakes of garishly coloured paints betrayed how strongly coloured the house had once been; it must have once been a splendid sight with its rich carvings and ornate trimmings. Time had ravaged the facia, dirt and grime besmirched it, and it shouted decayed opulence. Alexander rapped at a low dark door, which was eventually answered after what seemed an age by a short rotund, elderly gentleman who accepted his billet papers with little enthusiasm. He did not proffer his name and Alexander did not pry, he simply accepted the rooms offered and the extremely valuable perk of the use of a cook to prepare his food during his stay. Passing this information to his brother officers via Millward, a mess was quickly set up at his rooms, which were undoubtedly the best of the officer’s billets. With a pooling of their little stocks of food and a contribution from each for William to purchase further food, wines, and cigars, they soon settled into a luxurious lifestyle. There was precious little furniture to speak of, but with a little ingenuity and hardihood, the mess became a roaring success. Each evening they conversed whilst enjoying exquisite food and the finest wines and port. It was then the height of luxurious indulgence to relax and smoke their cheroots.
William Ingilby would utilise his wealth of great stories regarding the hardships of life on campaign in Spain as only a Yorkshireman can. He particularly liked to talk of Norman Ramsay, who had become famous throughout the army for his exploits at the battle of Fuentes de O’noro.
Norman was the beau ideal of all Horse Artillery officers, tall, handsome, dashing, brave as a lion, he was the hero of the corps.
“You should have seen him that day” he would say, “Grand it was. There was Norman with two guns in the middle of the battle suddenly surrounded by hundreds of French cavalry. Does he surrender? Not on your nelly! Out of the great mass of horsemen, dashing forth at breakneck speed with unstoppable force, Norman sword in hand forces a way through the surrounding Frenchmen and is followed closely by the two horse teams, guns and all. Never would I have believed it possible, if I had not seen it with my own eyes! Too bad he’s a Scotsman, for he would make a bloody good Yorkshireman!”
Then he became serious, “However, Lord Wellington dealt with him harshly after the glorious battle of Vitoria”
They all nodded agreement; the story of Norman Ramsay’s arrest was common knowledge throughout the Artillery and had embittered many against Wellington.
“Norman was ordered to stand ready at a certain point and await further orders. Well, some jumped up son of a Lord ordered him to enter the battle to help an Infantry Brigade, which was under pressure. Norman’s answer that he dare not move unless expressly ordered by Lord Wellington was turned against him by this youth, regarding Norman’s actions as that of a coward! I would not have hesitated to strike the youth from his horse, but Norman felt his honour impugned and moved to help, where his efforts did turn the tide and aided the victory. Trouble was, Lord Wellington had other important work for Norman’s troop and sent orders for their timely intervention at the desired point. His fury at hearing that Norman’s troop was not to be found, knew no bounds. Despite the general elation of a great victory, Norman was unceremoniously arrested for daring to disobey Wellington! Despite the efforts of all the senior officers with the army, he remained under arrest in his tent for three weeks, lost any chance of a mention in the battle dispatch and therefore did not gain a promotion in rank as all those who were mentioned did! Lord Wellington made a scapegoat of him, to make a point; after that, everyone knew the consequences of disobeying him. For pities sake do not cross the Duke!” he warned earnestly.
They all nodded solemnly, they recognised Wellington’s success, but felt that he had always failed to appreciate the work of the artillery and was very slow to praise them.
Henry Leathes added “Not only that, Wellington ignored all the senior artillery officers with the army, using Alexander Dickson to command the artillery. He transferred him to the Portuguese army, where Lord Wellington could promote officers without having to gain Horse guard’s permission. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel so that he was the senior artillery officer in the joint army and therefore commanded all the artillery from Vitoria onwards, a very unfair use of power!”
They all nodded agreement, except Robert Newland who blurted “That’s our Commanding Officer, you are talking of, mind your tongue, Sir!” Dickson was nominal head of their own troop, but he was seconded to command the Siege Train, the heavy twenty-four pounder cannons for battering fortress walls, they had seen little of him and they had scant loyalty for him.
The artillery officers were all pleased that they did not belong to the War Office, but to the Master General of the Ordnance’s department. They were proud of the differences between them and their infantry and cavalry counterparts. Firstly, they were convinced that they were the only true professionals in the army, as they all had to pass out of artillery training at the Royal Military Academy before serving. The infantry had had no such training until recently, their Royal Military College being set up by the Duke of York just thirteen years ago and even now many officers served in regiments without any formal training.
Secondly, they were not allowed to purchase promotion, all advancement was by seniority, hence the rankling over the Dickson scam. They felt their system ensured supreme professionalism and avoided infants commanding troops as had happened a few years back in the infantry. At the time of taking command of all the allied artillery at Vitoria, the Ordnance Board rated Dickson as a mere Captain!
They were a disgruntled bunch, but thoroughly professional, they would not fail in their job and trusted Wellington to uphold his famed fair play this time and give them their due credit.
The group ignored a loud rapping at the outer door, whilst they conversed; Millward went out of the room and following an animated conversation in the parlour, returned and approached Robert Newland to whisper a message in his ear.
Robert rose abruptly and bid the others excuse him a moment, then strolled out to the lobby where Quartermaster Hall was now standing. Following a short discussion, Hall left and Robert returned to the room. Standing in front of the group, he spoke.
“There has been trouble in the bars tonight, the Wee Gee’s and Gunners have been brawling again! Hall has arrested a few ringleaders and broken it up, all have been ordered back to their billets and it is quiet now.”
They sighed; this bickering rivalry was a constant problem. There was an awkward anomaly in the system; the gunners belonged to the ordnance, but the drivers, known throughout the army as the ‘Wee Gee’s’ actually belonged to the Corps of Royal Artillery Drivers. The Transport Board ran this body and had their own officers but they rarely served with the men. Each battalion of drivers was broken up into teams of about eighty-four men and allocated to the troops of artillery, they then fell under the Troop Captain’s orders but the rivalry between gunners and drivers was always there. The gunners looked upon the drivers as an inferior bunch. In Spain there had been many stories of the drivers selling equipment they were supposedly transporting to the army to Portuguese merchants. Indeed, working so far away from their officer’s supervision did lead to many problems. However, there was no easy solution.
The moment of conviviality having been broken, they all proceeded to their own billets and bed. They would have to talk to their teams in the morning and try to rebuild a rapport between them, hopefully sober they would settle down to work together again.
During that morning a messenger arrived; he carried orders for Alexander’s troop to form a Guard for the displaced Louis XVIII, who was residing nearby in a palace at Alost. John Hincks, John Bretton and William Ingilby were ordered to attend with selected gunners on the finest horses, to form the Guard of Honour. Robert Newland had put William Ingilby forward; the brash Yorkshireman was a strange choice as he was a rough diamond, however he was an exceptionally experienced and professional soldier, he would not let Alexander down. They rode five miles out of Ghent to the chateau in a beautiful wooded valley, where they were introduced to the newly formed Garde de Corps, the King’s Bodyguard.
“They are mere boys and fal-de-rah’s” William whispered. The others fought to suppress their laughter; John Hincks could not speak for fear of releasing a roaring laugh, tears rolled down his cheeks.
The small unit, formed of youth’s from the families of the gentry that had fled with Louis, hardly commanded the respect of seasoned soldiers. However, their military powers were unlikely to be tested, as Louis would not remain if Napoleon’s army ever approached. They were a friendly bunch however, and joyfully welcomed the artillery officers into their mess. Duties were hardly onerous, as the corpulent Louis never travelled afar. Their time was spent drinking and indulging in mess sports as young officers always have, wrestling and fencing being particular favourites. They were destined to remain here in idle luxury for a week. Passing the exercise yard one morning, William nudged John Hincks and pointed to a grey haired officer putting his horse through its paces. “Do you know who that is, John?”
John peered at the rider, but had no idea, “No who is it?”
“That is the great Marshal Marmont, the toughest General we fought in Spain and France until Lord Wellington beat him roundly at Salamanca. He has stayed loyal to the King this time; he’ll be highly honoured if we win the crown back for Louis, if not Napoleon will wring his neck!”
They stood and watched the old warrior in awe for some time; he did not deign to notice the prying English officers and eventually duty called them away.
All enjoyed this restful period at Ghent, but the order to finally proceed further towards Brussels on the 24th April, to a village named Dendermonde, was received with enthusiasm. A change of scenery was welcomed and bidding farewell to their hosts, the troop formed up on the appointed morning and set out on the road again.
They travelled along the muddy roads of Belgium at a steady pace, with little to occupy their time other than enjoyment of the beautiful countryside that they passed. Their first day’s march ended at the tiny village of St Gille, where after some discussion with the local dignitary, the park of guns and horses was established in the only available enclosed area, the churchyard! Proceeding to billets on the local farms, a peaceful evening and sound sleep was enjoyed by all.
Morning broke and soon after dawn the troop reassembled at the churchyard to tend their charges.
Gunner James Putten approached the churchyard first and pulled himself up onto the stone wall, as if to gain a better view of something. Turning back to the others he shouted.
“Bloody ‘ell, come and ‘ave a butcher’s at this, I don’t believe it!”
The men rushed over to the wall, jostling each other to gain a better view; a great hubbub grew rapidly. Alexander pushed himself forward demanding access to view whatever had caused such consternation. He finally forced his way through the throng to the wall, where peering over the parapet he groaned at the bizarre scene that he beheld. The heavy horses and even heavier wagons had been too much for the deceased to bear. Hooves and wheels had sunk into the graves, the coffins having collapsed under the weight imposed on them. The horses had sunk to their bellies in these pits and in their wild attempts to extricate themselves; they had upset the contents of numerous graves. Human bones and fragments of clothing were sprinkled lightly on the dew-drenched grass, skulls with sightless eye sockets stared accusingly at them in remonstration. Alexander ordered the horses and gun carriages to be hauled out of the plots, which took fully an hour. The bones were thrown back into the holes with no certainty of which grave they had come from and all was re covered with sods of earth. The scene looked in relative order again and Alexander hoped that the locals would remain ignorant of the disaster. He also prayed that the spirits of the departed would excuse their incursion and as they did not require their mortal remains any further, that they would forgive the undoubted mixing of their bones. Alexander and many of his men crossed themselves in superstition before setting off on the road to Dendermonde.
They arrived at Dendermonde after a short march and remained there for some eight days, enjoying excellent accommodation with the locals. They were again spread over miles, at various farmsteads, but there was little option. Everything was peaceful, there were no urgent orders and they simply relaxed with the families that they had been put upon. The eight days passed slowly for Alexander and the other officers. They spent the time in riding around the countryside and in the evenings the entertainment consisted of cards or singing around the pianos of the better off families where they were billeted. The men, having fed and watered the horses and maintained the equipment, found solace at the local hostelry or partook of the fruits of the farmer’s stills.
Orders suddenly came at midnight on the 1st May. The Sergeant Major awoke Alexander from his deep slumbers, “Sir, messenger just arrived” and handed over a small note which Alexander could hardly see.
Alexander read slowly in the dim flickering candlelight supplied by Staff Sergeant Parsons, ‘Proceed immediately with all haste to Strytem’, it read.
Alexander rose immediately and ordered Staff Sergeant Parsons to have the bugler sound ‘Boot and Saddle’, the cavalry reveille. Within minutes the harsh notes of the bugle broke the still night air. All was rush, confusion and noise as men stumbled out of their billets into the cold night air and hurried to saddle the horses. By the aid of lanterns, the men struggled to complete the strapping of the horses and then attach them to the carriages. It was difficult to work when the mind was stultified by a sleep so harshly broken, but within an hour the troop was mustered from the outlying farms and prepared to move.
The noise and confusion had woken all the inhabitants of the village. They hung out of the bedroom windows peering into the darkness or congregated in a huddle alongside the road in their nightwear to watch the troop form up. The lady of the house that Alexander had stayed in rushed up to him to enquire what was the cause of such a commotion in the middle of the night as he desperately searched for Strytem on the map he had removed from a book in his host’s library,.
Alexander turned to the lady who was in her fifties dressed in only her night attire, her face betraying the fear she felt. She fronted a deputation of the village folk all looking just as afraid. Alexander sought to allay their fears and answered as best as possible.
“Madam, we are ordered to Strytem immediately, my orders do not state for what purpose, but I assure you that a midnight call would indicate urgency.”
William added, “Lord Wellington only calls when there is a need.”
This had done nothing to calm his hostess, so Alexander added kindly “It would appear that whatever is afoot is far from here, you will all be safe here.” He hoped that this was true.
Robert Newman appeared to announce that the troop was ready to march and Alexander ordered the advance towards who knew what?
The urgency of the midnight order had sent expectations soaring within the troop, as they moved on Strytem everyone conjectured on the reason for such haste. Was the Allied army about to advance into France or had Napoleon invaded, what was the emergency? As they felt their way through the Belgian countryside by the feint light of the crescent moon, tempers frayed. Alexander worried over his paltry map stolen from his hosts, he fretted over keeping to the correct road, Newland constantly goaded him for their slow progress.
As the early morning light finally broke, they began to pass other artillery units camping peacefully in the adjoining fields. On enquiry, they discovered that they had received no orders to move and it eventually became evident that there was no crisis looming at all. Eventually, Alexander surmised that the order had been routine but over zealously administered. Expectations crushed, the adrenalin surge that had maintained them lapsed and they rapidly became greatly fatigued, but on they must march.
By mid morning they had finally discovered their destination. After passing through the drab collection of hovels forming the village of Strytem, G troop marched alongside a high stone wall, which skirted the road for some considerable distance beyond the village. Dramatically, a sudden break in the stonework revealed the chateau of Strytem in its full glory.
Built of grey stone, its features were heavily masked by copious blankets of ivy, it boasted a high square tower with gothic roof and extensive ornately leaded windows; it stood magnificent in the sunlight. The house was formed of a central block with two small wings, the whole surrounded by a moat of malodorous stagnant green water.
“This is going to be an exceptional billet,” Henry Leathes announced.
As the troop snaked up the winding driveway and drew up in front of the chateau, two figures emerged from behind the great wooden front door and approached Alexander. The one, a dishevelled old man bent by toil, dressed in an old military coat and dirty nightcap, who appeared to be a gardener. A fresh-faced damsel, dressed as a maid, accompanied him. The gardener spoke Flemish, which neither Alexander nor his colleagues could understand, but they caught the gist of his ramblings. His master was usually in Brussels and rarely called at the chateau, there was nothing here for them and they would be better moving on.
Alexander indicated that no matter what, they were staying and signalled to Newland to give the order. The troop drove the cannon and wagons through a narrow archway that barely allowed room for manoeuvre into a wide courtyard within the stable block. The officers would utilise the chateau and the men and horses would be spread throughout the nearby homesteads, a subdivision at each of the larger farms. One division was to be located at the farm of Mr Walsdragen, a gruff surly old farmer, none too pleased to have them, especially as his wife was heavily pregnant. Having settled the horses down, the men proceeded towards their separate billets.
The officers entered the chateau to be met with rather a bleak view; furniture was scarce throughout the house and drab faded tapestries darkened the walls; all appeared unkempt and dilapidated. Each officer chose a room for their stay; Alexander used his perk of seniority to choose first. He discovered a fine room on the ground floor, with views through the formal gardens to the woods beyond. This was to be his chamber for the term of their stay; he thought it would be delightful. Millward laid Alexander’s bedroll on top of an old sofa, Bal jumped up onto the old flea ridden bed; it was obviously to his liking. Doors in the apartment led to each of the wings and another to the upstairs, a fourth hidden behind an old faded tapestry led into a delightful little private chapel, which Alexander had little need of.