“I have ridden non stop, for my regiment has already moved to Enghien. The Prussians fought yesterday and good old Blucher won, so they say at Brussels. I hope that he has left some French for us! I am endeavouring to catch my regiment before they engage, I must retain my honour!”
Alexander understood, any officer absent from the fighting without good reason would be liable to have his honour impugned and would become a social outcast.
“Take care Charles, we will be up with you presently.” He shouted as Dance spurred his horse forward again.
Charles sped on, seemingly oblivious to the discomfort his horse was showing at the long gallop he had performed, he simply drove him harder and was soon out of sight.
The road wound down a steep declivity as it entered a river valley, once near the river the track was a perfect bog and the horses sank to their shoulders. With a supreme effort, each team led by their drivers on foot slowly dragged themselves through the quagmire and reached the hardened road again. Each team made the way more difficult for those that followed, the muddy banks became slippery and each successive cannon seemed to sink deeper into the mire despite bales of cut reed being thrown under the wheels to aid their passage. The final teams required the aid of those already safely through onto firmer ground to drag them through. Eventually all were through but everyone was now wet, cold and muddy, not a particularly pleasant feeling on a long ride. Having gained the firmer ground, Alexander ordered pales of clean water to be drawn from the river to douse everything, to remove the black mud; the warming sun, which had now broken through the early mists of dawn, could then do its work.
This was their final trial before arriving in view of the great park belonging to the chateau at Enghien, their rendezvous point. A number of cavalry units were already in residence in the park; they were relaxing and feeding their horses and themselves at numerous welcoming fires. Alexander halted the guns and sought out Lieutenant Colonel Macdonald, but he was not to be found and on enquiry nobody had seen him or knew of his whereabouts.
Alexander did not order the horses to be fed, as they confidently expected to be ordered into bivouac here, when they would have ample time to feed them. He felt more relaxed, especially as this halt would allow the provisions carts to catch them up. A regiment of dragoons were resting nearby and Alexander sought out their Commander for any news or advice on which to base his further actions, as he did not feel he could turn to Newland. The officer was curt and ill mannered; he had no time for such idiotic interruptions.
“I know nothing of you Sir” was the only answer Alexander could obtain.
Other regiments of cavalry were constantly passing in a long procession; they were taking the road to a village marked Braine le Comte on Alexander’s map. However on enquiry of those passing, he discovered that no one had received any orders beyond Enghien and seemed to be marching on in the simple hope of meeting somebody that could enlighten them. Most were unaware of where the road led; they simply continued to follow the previous regiment rather than do nothing. Alexander was amazed, so this was what it was like on campaign, utter confusion!
Alexander espied the approach of Sir Hussey Vivian and his Brigade consisting of three hussar regiments. Following them closely was his friend Major Robert Bull and his entire horse artillery troop, which unusually consisted of six howitzers.
Bull called out to Alexander.
“Alex, do you know what is going on?”
Alexander shook his head, “We have no orders beyond meeting Macdonald here, but I cannot find him. Do you know anything?”
Robert was just as puzzled, “Sir Vivian does not know, but is marching on and as I am attached to his Brigade, I go too. I would recommend you would do well to follow on with us.”
Alexander decided to bite the bullet and took a moment to discuss the situation with Robert Newland; as usual they disagreed.
Alexander argued, “We must follow the others as we will achieve little here.”
Robert was vociferous in countering this, “We must not proceed beyond where we are ordered; do not forget Norman Ramsay! Do you wish us all arrested on Lord Wellington’s orders? If Macdonald comes here for us and does not find us that is what will happen!”
Alexander understood Robert’s argument but once again decided to overrule him; this was becoming a dangerous habit. The next brigade approaching in the convoy were the Household cavalry, huge men on their beautiful horses, they appeared to be preparing to halt for a rest. Thus, a gap appeared in the column of cavalry and Alexander ordered the gun teams to fill the void and march on.
As the sun climbed toward its zenith the march became tougher still. The heat became oppressive and the glaring light exhausted their eyes. They boiled alive in their tight fitting tunics made worse by their heads sweltering inside the heavy cumbersome helmets. Mouths were parched crying out for refreshment, but canteens had been emptied hours ago. Stomachs were empty and rumbled loudly in protest at the enforced famine. The horses visibly deteriorated as the heat bore down on them and their energy waned through lack of nourishment. Still they plodded on; through mile after mile of hedge-lined roads in the vain hope of finding somebody that knew what was happening.
Eventually the village of Braine le Comte came into view; it was little more than a small collection of low houses lining the roadside. Richard Hichens rode into the village as the troop rode around it to avoid the bottleneck of the narrow streets. He returned shortly with three bottles of fine claret. Without a corkscrew a sabre did the trick, the neck of each bottle was removed with a sharp blow of the blade. The contents were eagerly consumed by the officers straight from the bottle; they held the jagged glass to their mouths and poured the liquid, despite the obvious danger on a moving horse it was a welcome relief to their suffering.
The hussars who had led them here had stopped to rest on a common, Alexander did not need to be told twice, the moment that they halted, he ordered the horses watered from the welcoming stream that gurgled along a shallow culvert nearby and fed with the supply of corn that they had brought with them. The nosebags had been filled that morning and at last once placed over their muzzles; the horses could flick the sacks skyward to enjoy their contents. The gunners collected all the canteens, and then proceeded to fill them at another stream that flowed through the nearby village; this source was cleaner than the waters of the culvert, which were now heavily muddied by the horses’ hooves. Cossack greedily lapped up the water from the stream, Bal and the other dogs squeezed between the horses to gain a space to sate their own burning thirst. The men could have their fill of water but food was non-existent and would be so until Mr Coates and the carts caught up.
It was now four o’clock and the sun continued to beat down upon them mercilessly, surely they would be ordered to halt for the day now, thought Alexander. Minutes later the hussars were ordered to fall in and they resumed their march along the road; the march was not to end yet.
The troop had to keep in touch with the hussars and the march was continued before the horses had finished their feed. The nosebags were pulled away; much to the displeasure of the horses, some jostled and kicked out, and others bared teeth and attempted to bite the drivers. It took some coaxing and whipping to drive the horses on again, but once under way they maintained a good steady walk behind the hussars.
A small cluster of houses, a poor excuse for a village even by Belgian standards, announced their arrival at a point where the road rose steadily to cross a major height, at least high enough to be thought as such in this region of flattish land. At the foot of the hill, the street was completely blocked by the carriages and baggage wagons of some Hanoverian corps. They were completely jumbled and tempers were already frayed long before Alexander’s guns arrived and attempted to force its way through. This was obviously more than some could bear, a few turned and glared or offered profanities in German; others less friendly cocked their muskets and pointed them at Alexander and his troop. The message was clearly understood and Alexander ordered his team to halt whilst the Hanoverians slowly sorted the mess out, which would allow the troop to proceed. The hussars had avoided this problem detouring through the gardens of the houses lining the road, bypassing the congestion. Alexander watched them in frustration at the impossibility of following their route with the cannon, as they rejoined the road beyond the constriction and proceeded up and over the hill.
Eventually the Hanoverians cleared the way, allowing G troop to move on. The hill was extremely steep and the road wound in a tight zigzag to its summit. Despite the reduced inclination of the road’s engineering, it proved extremely difficult for the horse teams to haul the guns up. Alexander was forced to double the teams on each gun and carriage, leaving the other half of the equipment at the village. Following great exertion, these enlarged teams successfully reached the summit. The teams then unhitched and returned to the base of the hill to raise the other half of the guns and wagons. The descent back to the village proved even more hazardous, the horses being pulled back hard by the drivers to avoid them increasing their speed and losing all control.
Finally, having hauled the remaining wagons to the top of the rise, the teams were reallocated to their carriages before Alexander called a halt so that the horses could regain their strength. He noted with pleasure that the road ahead appeared to run across a gently undulating plain, the climbing seemed to be at an end.
Everybody was glad of the rest, such exertion on such a hot, sunny day sapped the strength, men and horses gasped to regain their breath and sought water to relieve their uncontrollable thirst, but it was not to be had so easily, for the canteens had been drained during the Herculean effort of climbing the hill.
Bombardier Thomas Masterton looked back down the steep descent they had just climbed then turned to John Hincks.
“That hill reminds me of Busacco Sir, bloody steep it were, one battery lost control of a six pounder as they rolled it to the edge to fire down on Johnny. Bloody great thing rolled over the edge, nearly took two gunners with it, crashed all way down to the bottom and landed in’t woods, total mess it were!”
“For certain, I am glad that we have passed it,” replied John casually.
“We must get on, Sir Vivian and the hussars are already out of sight” ordered Alexander, as he peered through his small spyglass for any sign as to where they had gone.
The road soon entered into a great wood, the trees packed tightly with an abundance of dense foliage, which completely obscured the harsh rays of the unforgiving sun. The road passing through this woodland area brought a welcome respite, easing their sufferings. The stifling heat in their heavy, constricting uniforms was a nightmare; it felt like they would literally explode from the build up of heat within. Soon the cool shade of the woods refreshed them; the horses also showed their appreciation for this welcome shelter from the glare of the sun and became less fractious. The woods stretched for over a mile but eventually the troop re-emerged into the harsh sunlight, causing them to shade their eyes from the sudden glare, it was most unwelcome.
A low rumble became audible; Alexander looked puzzled, “Thunder on such a fine day?”
Robert Newland looked stern and pointed up the road, “That is not thunder, it is the roar of cannon, it comes from beyond that wood ahead, observe the smoke.”
Alexander could see a plume of grey-black smoke drifting just above the trees of a large wood a few miles away; the road appeared to be running in that direction.
The atmosphere within the troop changed dramatically, everyone suddenly became very serious, the laughing and joking, the gaiety and singing, the light heartedness stopped abruptly. All clearly understood that they were soon to enter upon a battlefield where life turned to death with little warning, a few genuflected as they whispered prayers for their own deliverance. Every ear strained for further sounds that would indicate what was occurring beyond the woods. Only the sound of cannon fire could be heard, it grew in volume very slowly almost imperceptibly as they approached, but it remained stationary, which indicated to the old hands that the forces fighting were struggling for supremacy, neither side seemingly able to drive the other away.
Suddenly from nowhere a lone rider appeared riding across a field to their left, as he approached Alexander recognised the elusive Macdonald, the very same that he had been seeking for orders since early that morning.
Lieutenant Colonel Macdonald was breathless from his rapid ride and barked his order “Mercer, G troop is to attach itself to Lord Edward Somerset’s Household Brigade, which consists of the Lifeguards, Horse guards and the King’s Own.”
Alexander could not believe that was all he ordered, “Do you know of their present whereabouts so that I may join them? What of the fighting ahead?” he asked incredulously
Macdonald was clearly angered by the questioning and answered abruptly, “I am not acquainted with their present location, but they are ordered to join Lord Wellington at the cross roads four miles ahead of you called Quatre Bras, find them there. Your orders are to join them, not to join the fighting!”
Instantly, Macdonald flicked his whip across the rump of his horse and sped off, back towards the noise of battle.
Henry Leathes looked perplexed, “Alexander, you knew that the Household Brigade was behind us, yet you said nothing!”
Alexander bellowed a rallying call for all to hear, “We will proceed toward the sound of the guns; Lord Edward Somerset can join us! March on.”
Alexander caught sight of Robert Newland’s disapproving look, well he was still in charge and he would do what he felt was right and hang the consequences!
As they began to trot on, a cabriolet dashed along the road from behind them, passing the troop at the gallop. Bal and the other troop dogs chased after it barking and nipping at the wheels until they were called off. Sitting inside was an officer of the Guards, obviously in a rush to join his regiment at the fighting. He was dressed immaculately in the finery of his regimentals sitting back in his carriage taking snuff with a nonchalant air whilst the manic driver lashed the horses constantly with a long whip. Alexander felt mixed emotions at the sight, here was a gay fop, and he’d probably been bought a commission in the Guards as a child by his papa and had probably never seen action before. His contempt for his lack of professional knowledge was tinged with pride and awe. How one so young, no more than eighteen, could dash on to death and destruction with such nonchalance simply to maintain his honour and family tradition for military prowess. However much you despised this breed of overbearing, pompous sons of lords, Alexander had to concede that they instinctively knew how to fight and die as gentlemen.
By now the noise of battle was becoming very loud indeed; it seemed that they would soon taste their first action of the campaign.
On the road ahead of the Rifles a great lolloping carthorse drew into view pulling a battered old farm wagon. It creaked and screeched along the rough roadway, the axles not having any grease applied since originally built some ten years hence. But, the noise that captured their attention was the soulful groaning emanating from the straw bundle on the back of the cart.
As they neared, it became clear that the cries of pain and anguish were originating from a dozen wounded men lying on the straw, each a vision of agony. Ashen faced, many half naked, besmirched with grime and blood, they implored water as the troops passed. A few had remnants of uniform indicating that they were Belgians; on enquiry they told of a terrible battle raging ahead where they had been holding a crossroads against incessant French attacks since early morning. Surgeon Burke mounted the cart and inspected their various wounds, two were already dead, and no sooner than he had pronounced this than their corpses were unceremoniously dumped into the roadside culvert to rot. The others had terrible wounds, one man had taken a glancing blow from a cannonball, it had ripped his side open and smashed the ribs, through the gore his lungs could be seen rising and falling with each painful breath, he was in agony and would not last long. Some had injuries from musket balls, others with flaps of skin hanging from heads or limbs where swords had slashed them. The younger men felt queasy at the sights and a few were violently ill, this was their first real vision of the horrors of war but it would be far from their last.
They marched past rapidly.
“Christ I hope that doesn’t happen to me, oi’d rather doi quick than linger for days in such pain” one of them whispered to his mate.
Ned Costello turned to face them, “Lissen lads, the ball wid your name on wull get youze wherever youze goes and whenever it loiks. Sometimes the same ball can even have two names on it. At Arcangues in ‘14, the same ball went through the heads of Lieutenant Hopwood and Sergeant Broverton together, it killed dem both stone dead it did to be sure!”
The march continued with renewed vigour as the occasional deep-throated roar of cannon could now be heard a little clearer. They passed through a large village and filed over the narrow bridge at its southern end. As they progressed nearer to the fighting, they encountered more flotsam from the struggle, wounded crawling or helped by fellow soldiers, carts of more wounded and supplies, local villagers fleeing the scene in terror, mothers dragging along screaming children, fathers pulling their prized cow or horse, or a cart of their meagre possessions saved from the ravages of war, it was becoming a living nightmare.
Still they forced their way forward through this mass of jetsam, the sound of cannon fire and even volleys of musketry were heard much closer and more regularly. By two o’clock in the afternoon a small group of houses and farm buildings clustered around a crossroads came clearly into sight. Beyond lay a plain rising slightly into the distance with a substantial wood bordering the plain on the right hand side. They could see the Belgians in ranks near the houses still desperately holding the crossroads.
In the open country beyond could be seen dark masses of men in motion directly towards the crossroads.
As the First battalion of the Rifles marched rapidly up to the crossroads area, the men became aware of a group of senior officers on horseback huddled together in conversation nearby.
“Aye up ‘tis the Duke himself, we’re sure of a foight then” shouted Tom Crawley.
The Duke of Wellington was conversing with their commander Sir Thomas Picton, the Prince of Orange and their Aides de Camp. The French had obviously spotted this group and cannonballs regularly bounded past them at no great distance, making their horses stir nervously. The officers seemed oblivious to the iron balls of death raining down upon them; occasionally spattering them with mud as they passed so close. They instinctively controlled their horses with their legs; nothing distracted them from listening to the orders of the Duke as he pointed out their various positions. Having received the movement orders for the troops, the aides turned their steeds and sped in all directions with great celerity to deliver their orders to the units arriving along the road. These young officers of such noble birth took pride in delivering orders as rapidly as humanly possible; they raced on their thoroughbreds along the roads and lanes at break neck speed. It was a point of honour to deliver a message to a unit four miles away within fifteen minutes. One aide hastened the short distance towards the Ninety Fifth, Colonel Barnard and Johnny Kincaid rode out to meet him.
As he approached, Sir Andrew called out in recognition “Edward, what orders do you carry from my Lord?”
Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s senior aide de camp and right hand man pulled his horse up as they met.
“Andrew take your battalion to the left of the plain, take that village you see which is named Thyle on the maps and hold it at all costs. If you cannot capture it then take control of the copse you can see this side of the village. This will allow us to use the road running east from this cross roads to communicate with our Prussian allies. It is imperative that the Duke can receive reports from them at all times.”
Sir Andrew turned to Johnny, “Order the battalion forward at the double.”
The men didn’t need to hear the order twice, this was it, they would show those frogs what they were made of.
Somebody shouted from one of the British line regiments stationed nearby “Away the Sweeps”, they smiled, for they knew it was the nickname of the Rifles because of their dark green uniforms.
Somerset continued to explain the situation to Barnard and Kincaid.
“It seems that Bonaparte has launched an attack at the junction of our two armies. He has caught us unprepared; indeed his Lordship says he’s humbugged him! My Lord has met Blucher today as he prepares to face a sizeable French force near Ligny and Sombreffe eight miles from here. He saw the French and says there were at least forty thousand of them there. The Beau says that the Prussians were ill posted and thinks they will be beat. We are forming our army here; the road to the left is our link with the Prussians, which you must hold. We are unsure of the enemy numbers in our front but they are very numerous.”
“Where is Napoleon?” enquired Sir Andrew.
“We don’t know” Somerset replied, then spurred his horse with a parting “I must away.”
Johnny understood the reasoning for the question. Napoleon had managed to gather his army between the two allies before they had had time to gather their own forces. This would allow him to detach a small force to occupy the one whilst he led the bulk of his army to destroy the other, wherever he was would indicate the main attack. A classic example of ‘divide and conquer’, Napoleon was certainly proving how brilliant a tactician he still was.
They marched across the crossroads and then filed into the head high wheat in the fields beyond, the officers on horseback guiding their direction as the men had lost all visibility beyond the wheat directly to their fore. Halfway, Johnny noticed that a French regiment of infantry was marching towards the same village from the opposite direction, “Run lads” he shouted, “or the French will get the village first”.
They broke into a trot, but it was impossible, as they tried to push through the wall of wheat unsure of their direction and weighed down by their packs they stumbled and staggered over the uneven ground, the wheat tripping them at every step. The sun beat down mercilessly and they quickly became exhausted and overheated within their tight tunics. It was no use, the French had a head start and an easier passage along a track, Johnny could see them reach the houses and take cover in the buildings.
Sir Andrew bellowed, “To the woods lads, take the woods.”
Johnny inclined his horse to the left and led his men toward the trees. He could see that a detachment of the French was now also racing forward for the woods. This time the Rifles would win the race; the leading files suddenly cleared the wheat and came directly upon the edge of the copse. Johnny dismounted and handed the reins to one of the men to hold. He led the others to the far side of the woodland, where they arrived to see the French no more than twenty yards away. The men didn’t need telling what to do; they automatically dropped to the ground, took aim and let loose a devastating volley. The French officer and twelve of his men fell, the rest turned and fled back to the safety of the houses. The lads cheered and hugged each other, first round to them, that would make the French think again! Some of the raw recruits stood contemplating the novel scene, yes there was jubilation but there was also horror. Some of the French lay wounded screaming in agony and crying piteously for help.