Tom smiled, “Thank God for that” he inwardly thought, “Easy” he stated nonchalantly.
Sergeant Fairfoot looked at Palmer, “You won’t be so cocky next time, will you?”
“No Sergeant” he murmured apologetically.
Turning around to the rest, he bellowed “Ten rounds each lads, set up targets on those stands at one hundred and fifty paces”, no one volunteered to hold the targets!
The training continued regularly and eventually Robert Fairfoot felt confident in reporting the men ready for action to Captain Leach. As he walked towards the billet of Lieutenant Simmons at Monsieur Overmar’s house, a local merchant, Robert bumped into an old colleague from the second battalion of the Rifles; he had heard vague rumours about his friend and raised the subject that had intrigued him for weeks.
“How’s Mary then Mark?”
“You telling me you ain’t heard?” he asked incredulously.
“Well I’ve ‘eard stories, but what’s the truth then?”
“When I goes home after the War, I finds Mary wiv anover guy, living in a little ‘ouse down Walfamstow way wiv faav kids, she had two when I left!”
“What did you do?” Robert probed incredulously.
“Got hold o’ geezer’s scrawny neck, but Mary screams, army says oi’d snuffed it back at Badajoz so what was she to do? So I says give us sixpunse for ‘er. He gives us the money and I waarks.”
“That all?” Robert enquired.
“Wull, Ned Costello was wiv me, so we goes to Black ‘Orse an’ drinks ‘er ‘elf, wot else? Devil takes ‘em I says!”
They arrived outside Monsieur Overmars; Mark Sugden bid his fellow Sergeant adieu and sauntered on. Mr Overmar’s house was a fine three-storey residence in the merchant quarter; he was ushered through to the garden. There in the summerhouse were the officers, entertaining a number of the local ladies of polite society.
Lieutenant George Simmons had fallen on his feet with his billet, he had wonderful rooms overlooking the gardens, and the others had helped him acquire a servant and cook, then set his rooms up as the battalion mess. Good food and wine with handsome, rugged young officers had attracted the local ladies to their dinners.
Robert Fairfoot knew that he would find Captain Leach here; indeed there he was supping a glass of claret in the evening sunlight.
Jonathan Leach saw Robert approaching.
“Sergeant Fairfoot, good evening, how goes training?”
Robert replied, “The men’s ready Sir” then paused, finally asking the question on his lips, “Sir is it true that Boney’s on his way?”
Jonathan looked intently then replied thoughtfully, “We have heard the rumours ourselves, but nothing official is happening here, so we don’t rightly know what to believe. However it would be wise to maintain our readiness.”
Robert nodded, “Aye Sir”, he saluted and strode away purposefully.
George Simmons enquired, “Do you really know anything Jonathan?”
“Do you really think they would tell me George?” he replied. “There are no orders from headquarters, I doubt Napoleon would be mad enough to invade.”
Edward Chawner broke the contemplative mood, calling out, “Whenever the call comes lads, there’ll be plenty of balls flying and that’s the quickest way to promotion!”
They all creased with laughter, soldiers humour, the death of a senior meant promotion up the ladder for all.
“A toast... to warm work!”
Just as they finished the toast George cried out in delight, “Hey look its Harry”.
They all rushed over to greet their old comrade. Captain Harry Smith was originally from the first battalion Ninety Fifth and had shared all their trials and tribulations in Spain. Since then, he had been put on the staff of Sir John Lambert and had gone to America with him, whilst the others had returned home from France.
“How are you Harry, what are you doing here?”
“I’m here with Sir John Lambert who commands the Tenth Brigade, I continue as his Brigade Major.” Then turning to the young man who had arrived with him, he announced. “This gentlemen is my brother Charles, who joins you as a Volunteer, actively looking for one of your berths!”
They roared with laughter again, Volunteers were gentlemen who could not afford to purchase a commission as an officer. They hoped to prove themselves worthy in battle and gain a commission without charge when a vacancy occurred, usually by the death of an officer. He would mess with them but would fight with a rifle as a common soldier, an odd situation, but there was no shame in it.
“And where pray is the beautiful Juana?” Jonathan enquired.
“I am here my friends,” Juanna purred softly in her delightfully thick Spanish accent as she stepped out of the shadows.
They were overjoyed to see her again; she had been with them in Spain from the time of the storming of Badajoz. That terrible night was seared into their memories; after suffering horrendous losses the troops had gone on an orgy of murder and rape throughout the fallen town. Harry had taken her out of the town to safety, she was a young girl of fourteen but she had stayed with him ever since. Everyone loved Juana, with her long straight black hair falling down her back, dusky complexion and beautiful white teeth, she was a great beauty and Harry was a very lucky man. Indeed they were all very jealous of him.
The evening swept on, the wine flowed freely and the party was enlivened by animated conversation of the old days, the good and bad times. They were carefree and life was good, indeed many were looking forward to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball the following evening as it promised to be quite a social event.
George Simmons relaxed on a chaise longue quietly enjoying his cigar and glass of port, the mellow smoke rising slowly in the still night air. He observed the numerous officers of the ‘mess’ enjoying the occasion into the early hours, but he couldn’t help thinking that this good life could not last, rumours abounded of a French advance.
George watched them intently; for young men they all moved stiffly, some even needed a cane for support. They had all received numerous wounds throughout Spain and Southern France, which had aged their young frames prematurely. There was Major Alexander Cameron with a stiff left arm and weak side from a severe wound in Egypt some fifteen years ago and a limp from a ball through his thigh at Vitoria; Willie Johnstone, the first man into Ciudad Rodrigo, had a stiff left elbow ever since it had been shattered by a ‘grape shot’ at Badajoz, he hadn’t been able to play his favourite fiddle ever since; Johnny Kincaid still got severe headaches from the musket ball that had dug a trench across the top of his head at Foz de Aronce; William Haggup held his stomach when standing, a stance he had maintained continuously since a ball ripped across his stomach at Nivelles, he’d nearly spilt his guts that day!
George rubbed his own thigh, which still throbbed occasionally. He still remembered the pain of the ball tearing into his right thigh. What wounds would the future bring them? He mused.
Johnny Kincaid sidled up close, “What will you get your young lady when we reach Paris, George?”
“Some fine lace I suppose, but I have promised her a lock of Bonaparte’s hair, that’s what she really wants!”
Johnny guffawed “No tall order from your Mary then!”
George smiled faintly, reflecting on his betrothed brought solemn thoughts of his future flooding forth.
Johnny Kincaid caught his mood and summed it up very succinctly “Wonder how many of us will live to see Paris, eh?”
Neither spoke again, they sat and drank in solemn contemplation of home and family until exhaustion drove them to their beds.
“Sergeant, Sergeant, you must wake up!” The words accompanied by a rough shaking of his shoulder wrenched Robert Fairfoot from his slumbers.
He opened his bleary eyes and peered into the featureless face of whoever was waking him so harshly. There was so little light from the poor candle flickering at the doorway that he could not make out his assailant. The unusual clipped accent gave him away.
“What the bloody hell is going on, Casima?”
It had to be Casima; he was the only one with that shear quick speech and unmistakable pigeon English. Casima Casima was a short lad with jet-black hair and the dusky skin of the orient. Casima was originally from the East Indies and had travelled to England as a sailor on one of the Honourable East India Company’s ships, merchant ships carrying the riches of the Far East to Europe, but armed like minor war vessels because of the threat of pirates and French frigates. Somehow Casima had volunteered into the Rifles in England but he seemed a round peg in a square hole.
“It is Maher Sergeant, he gone mad, he murdered man! They arrest him. You must see him.”
As Duty Sergeant, Robert had to sort the matter out; he rose and dressed quickly, taking two men from the Guard with him, he proceeded with all haste to the Magistrates. He had the duty magistrate awoken by the court clerk and he eventually met Robert in his chambers. He was far from pleased at being woken in the middle of the night and did not hide his annoyance. However, following discussions with a police sergeant who had been summoned, he informed Robert that Private Maher had lost control when drunk; he had quarrelled with a local man outside a public house and as he had his musket with him, had shot him dead. He claimed self-defence and there was some evidence to support this, but he would be held until enquiries were complete and the Magistrate decided whether there was to be a trial or not.
Robert could do no more, he reported to Edward Chawner the Duty Officer, and returned to bed.
He had long expected Maher would eventually lose it one day. Since his harsh imprisonment by the French, he had developed a dark brooding nature, which had warned of something sinister lurking inside him and now it had finally broken out. Well he would have to sweat it out in gaol for a very long time before trial, he could hang for this.
The following morning, the 15th of June, Ned Costello and a number of his company strolled through the bright streets of Brussels, their mongrels happily trotting alongside, eyeing the girls and enjoying the local beer at the many bars.
They sat outside a bar enjoying the warm sunlight of early summer and viewing the passing world, as it was a ‘rest and recreation day’.
Palmer suddenly sat bolt upright, “Look lads, the ‘death’s heads’, keep your dogs safe!”
The lads laughed, he’d seen some of the Black Brunswickers, German troops led by the Duke of Brunswick himself. They were always dressed completely in black apart from light blue collars and cuffs, a silver skull and cross bones on their caps completing their macabre appearance. They had worn those colours ever since the last Duke had died fighting at their head in Prussia in 1806. His son, the present Duke had sworn vengeance on the French and had formed a force of infantry, cavalry and artillery from the mass of his subjects who had fled to England to escape the French occupation of his homeland.
The infantry had fought alongside the Rifles in Spain as skirmishers; early on they had been good troops, being all patriotic Germans. But as the war had dragged on and with the homeland no longer available as a recruiting ground, they were forced to recruit the scum of the earth including French, German and Italian prisoners of war who had been coerced to defect. These often joined simply to await an opportunity to escape back to their own side, which they succeeded in doing in terrific numbers. Lord Wellington would no longer allow them to go on picket duty for the army, to stop them running away so easily.
That’s when they had got their reputation for stealing anything, including the dogs around the camp for food! Some officers had guards mounted on their packs of hunting hounds, used for recreation when in camp, just to keep them safe. Lord Wellington used to join the foxhunts; he liked nothing better than to chase the hounds across the barren plains of Spain.
The Brunswickers were much improved now, as during the peace the rubbish had been weeded out. The Duke was now able to recruit in his homeland again, now that it was free of French domination and he had rapidly filled his ranks with loyal subjects. The Brunswick Corps was also billeted in Brussels alongside the Fifth Division.
Later, whilst walking the town the lads crossed paths with a group of surgeons, ‘Sawbones’.
“Good day to you Mr Burke and Mr Robson” Ned called out in recognition.
Mr Burke was the battalion Surgeon and Robson his Assistant Surgeon; they had seen them safely through Spain, now they were checking their equipment in case of need again.
“Good day lads…...ah Rifleman Jones, how are your piles?” Joseph Burke enquired maliciously.
“Look you they’re fine Sir” he replied sheepishly in his lilting Welsh accent. The others laughed heartily, he had walked funny ever since he had run the gauntlet of French fire at Arcangues, they’d shot him in the rump!
“Ned your leg okay?”
“Aye no complaints Soir”
“Let me cut it out Ned”
“It don’t bother Soir, I begs you leave it be!”
Ned instinctively felt his left thigh; the ball was still there under the skin after three years, he ran his fingers over the hard lump in the fatty flesh.
They had retreated fast at the Coa, thanks to a mess up by old General Craufurd. Climbing a wall, Ned had been hit in the leg just below the right knee and fallen. Good job John Little had carried him back until he also copped a ball in the arm and dropped Ned like a ton of bricks onto the hard unforgiving earth. As he fell, Ned felt another ball enter his left thigh and was only saved by his mate William Green, who had carried him over the bridge to safety at the church where Mr Burke was tending the sick. Poor William had copped his home ticket at Badajoz later and was safe back home, lucky sod!
Surgeon Burke had checked Ned over, the first ball had gone straight through without any serious damage, the second in the thigh lay near the artery, it was dangerous to probe for and thank God that Mr Burke was not like a lot of surgeons who amputated first, then thought later. Ned had recovered well and only remembered the ball when it became agony in the cold weather. It had slowly worked itself near the skin but he still had no intention of having it cut out.
Mr Burke then turned on Tom with a wry smile, “Aah, Crawley, how goes the hand?”
“It’s foin Sir, oi must be off!” Tom darted away looking very uncomfortable.
They all roared with laughter, his hand had been injured slightly at the Nivelle last year, but they knew why Tom ran.
Tom had a real fear of medics ever since he was taken violently ill back in 1811. He had screamed and writhed in agony from the excruciating pains in his stomach. After two days, the lads had forced him to see Mr Burke who had proscribed an emetic to cleanse his system of whatever was upsetting his gut. The cramps were awful and Tom swore that he had been poisoned and became delirious. Eventually the emetic had worked, a major evacuation relieved his pain, and he was saved. Mr Burke had checked the faeces and was amazed to find that the cause of his problem had been a three-inch lizard!
“Here he is lads”, Mr Burke shouted proudly, whilst holding up a jar of alcohol in which he had preserved the offending lizard. No wonder Tom had left!
They bid the surgeons farewell, hoping not to need their services for a very long time.
As they were leaving, Mr Robson called “Have you heard lads, Sir Thomas Picton has just arrived, he wants the Division to muster tomorrow.”
They groaned openly, that tough Welsh bastard would ruin the good life they had been enjoying; he’d work them till they dropped.
“He may be a brother Welshman, but he is a rum fellow!” declared Jones.
“Aye he will run us bully ragged” added Ned.
“Let’s have a bloody good time while we can” added William Mc Nabb helpfully, they agreed and promptly set off on a tour of the bars of the City to embark on an almighty drinking session.
Meeting up with Robert Fairfoot, they all piled into a bar near the Grand Place. After numerous rounds of drinks, their stamina waned and Robert Fairfoot started to fall asleep in his chair. He was brought sharply out of this stupor by the deep voice of Captain Leach, “Sergeant Fairfoot, are you drunk on duty?”
“No Sir” he blustered as he sat bolt upright and rapidly sought to clear his mind.
The bar full of men just roared with laughter!
Robert raised his heavy head and there was instant recognition.
“Hetherington you bloody nuisance!”
Josh Hetherington smiled and feigned complete innocence, Robert sat back and relaxed with an inward smile, not for the public, he had to maintain his status. He could see the joke, but he couldn’t show that he enjoyed it or they may think it all right to hoodwink him again. Josh was a light infantryman and had fought alongside the Rifles at many a battle and shared many a bivouac. He was a fine figure in his red jacket, grey trousers and tall black shako, a real lady killer, the Belgian ladies seemed to have a thing for the ‘lobsters’. Josh was a great joker, a boon to have around the camp fires on cold wet nights to perk the spirits. Ned Costello and Josh were bosom pals, Ned was quick to stand, shaking his hand in warm welcome and hugging him with real joy at such a happy reunion.
Robert looked at Josh; the happy go lucky cockney, who had developed a great ability for mimicking and ventriloquism. He still remembered the funeral for a soldier in Spain back in 1810. As the procession for the old sot of a hospital attendant at Elvas passed through the town on route to the cemetery, the pallbearers had heard knocking and cries of “O Jesus wept, where the hell am I? O God no! For pity’s sake let me out!” The bearers had immediately lain the coffin down and used their bayonets to prise the lid off the wooden box. They were met by the nauseous whiff of putrefying flesh; it was obvious that the old soak was well and truly dead! They were all bemused, but Robert and Ned had spotted Josh quietly mingling into the great crowd that had formed. The sod! It had been him.
They had quietly forced their way out of the crowd maintaining an air of dignity until they had turned the corner of the street, when they had fallen to their knees in convulsions of laughter. It was fully an hour before they could compose themselves, for passing locals looked at them with pity, their expressions of sympathy toward the English soldiers whose minds had obviously been turned by the unrelenting midday sun, simply rekindled their fits of untrammelled laughter.
With Josh in town, it would surely be a night to remember!
Whilst the majority of the officers lounged at George Simmon’s mess that warm evening, Johnny Kincaid preferred to spend some time alone. He could not shake off a feeling of melancholy and despair, which he could not explain. He just knew that something awful was going to happen soon. Was this a premonition of his impending death? He remembered numerous stories in Spain of brave men who on the night before a battle had felt such depression and pronounced their impending demise to their friends. They were invariably right and for such superstitious men as soldiers are; the omens for his future were decidedly poor. He had always wondered whether these thoughts had made them less careful, often taking the lead in the battle as they were sure of their imminent demise therefore ensuring their own deaths, or whether it truly was a premonition warning them to prepare to meet their maker. He pondered his own situation, he thought longingly of home and family in Scotland, his comrades and his own relative youth, he had hoped that God would allow him a little longer in this realm. But there had been no battle on the morrow, all was quiet, he eventually concluded that he was simply having an off day, a little home sick and had allowed his paranoia to take over. He strolled along the formal pathways through the formal gardens of the parc de Bruxelles, watching the traffic passing along the wide boulevards that bordered the parc. They included numberless officers of the various nations forming the Allied army, entering and leaving Lord Wellington’s Headquarters. It seemed quite busy, much more movement than on other days that he had been here, but there seemed to be little haste which would indicate impending trouble.
He wasn’t going to the Ball that evening which the Duchess of Richmond was hosting in some shed prettied up for the occasion, neither were any of his chums, only Harry was going with Juana as he was on the staff. They weren’t man and wife but Georgian society worried little about such niceties.
He suddenly observed Major The Honourable Henry Percy of the Fourteenth Light Dragoons, whom he knew slightly as an Aide de Camp of Lord Wellington himself, one of his ‘family’, as he called his team.
Percy looked pensive and deep in thought as he strolled through the park.
“What ho Henry, any news?”
“Hello Johnny. That I cannot say, but are your saddle packs all ready to move instantly?”
“Nearly so” Johnny replied nonchalantly “At all events I don’t suppose they need to be ready before tomorrow.”
Henry replied earnestly “If you have any preparations to make, I would recommend that you do not wait so long!”
The reply sent a spark of electricity through him.
It was 9 p.m. and the searing summer sun was setting slowly, Johnny quickly returned to his friends to spread the word. Everyone arranged their belongings, packed everything they might need and retired to their beds at an early hour to gain some rest.
For who knew what tomorrow’s sun would rise upon?
The sultry still night air was harshly fractured by the call of a solitary bugle, this was quickly picked up by others and soon every bugle and drum in the army had taken up the call as it rapidly spread across the City; they all played ‘The Assembly’.
The men were roused from their slumbers by the melodious call or were brutally kicked awake by colleagues; in stark contrast, the officer’s servants politely awoke their charges.
“Sir, they are playing the Assembly, you must arise immediately”.
The words whispered by his bâtman brought Johnny Kincaid out of his somnolent dreams with a start.
“What hour is it?” he enquired, his room was pitch black; he felt as though he had only been asleep for a few minutes.
“’Tis Eleven o’clock Sir” was the reply that confirmed he had managed only one hour’s sleep!
He arose gingerly, stumbling in the utter darkness that was hardly pierced by the faint glow of the solitary candle held by his servant. He splashed his face with the ice-cold water from his shaving bowl, quickly donned his uniform and emerged from his billet into the cool night air. He noted that it was a cloudless night and the stars shone clear and bright. His servant was stood waiting for him, he had already prepared his horse, his saddle packs were already full following the warning he had received that afternoon. He mounted and rode out into the streets of Brussels on route to the assembly point in the Place Royale and the streets bordering the Parc de Bruxelles. The roads were rapidly filling with soldiers as they tumbled out of the houses; many half dressed still donning jackets as they stumbled along. Most were still groggy from the little sleep they had snatched and the beer that they had been revelling in hours before. As this tide of humanity neared the City centre, many more emerged directly from the bars to increase the crush once they had quickly finished their libations. They crowded together and soon the streets were a seething mass of uniforms all moving on the square. Wagons loaded with ammunition and horse teams dragging cannon also moving in the same direction caused bedlam.