The dead officer lay very near to them, he was a youth of no more than eighteen years, the top of his head had been shot away and the spongy material within spattered the grass. His piercing blue eyes stared accusingly at them in death; it caused their celebrations to become muted.
Tom Crawley stepped forward and kicked the head so that it turned away. “Can’t aboid it when they eyeballs you.”
The remainder of the battalion moved up through the wood and spread out as the companies settled down to defend this natural boundary.
Suddenly there was a strange strangled cry from the rear.
“Sergeant Fairfoot, its Will Smith, ‘ees gone mad!”
Robert turned to see Smith dropping to the floor, he curled into a foetal position for a moment and then seemed to be convulsed by spasms, which caused his legs to straighten again and become rigid. It lasted no more than a minute then stopped, he lay still, and they knew instinctively that he was dead. Robert simply shrugged; he had seen it happen all too often before. Sheer exhaustion and excessive heat had killed many in Spain just like that. They unceremoniously pushed the corpse to the edge of the wood and Tom Crawley lay behind him, using the body as protection and as a rest for his rifle; which helped steady his aim. Will wouldn’t care now!
The shout went up “Here comes Old Trousers”, the nickname they gave the French, named after their drum roll for attack. The French approached in column behind a cloud of skirmishers, peppering the woods with their musket shots, trying to drive the defenders out.
The Rifles had the advantage of superior weaponry and the cover of trees to protect them, but the work became very warm. They took careful aim and dropped many officers and sergeants in an effort to disrupt the attack, but soon the French were close enough to use their muskets accurately and they poured in a storm of lead balls in a strong reply.
Ned had rarely seen them fight so hard, he found a tree wide enough to cover his body from which he emerged to fire, and then retired into cover again to reload. It was a good job that he had used the tree, he thought, as he heard two solid thuds as balls struck the trunk at his back. When it was this dangerous he had to steel himself to be brave enough simply to step out and fire again.
As he reloaded, he spotted Moses Blythero who was a great ox of a man and Joshua Mc Bain, they were two of the new lads; they were standing away from cover and rooted to the spot like statues.
“Fur Chris’ sake, get down lads” he called.
They couldn’t hear him, they were rigid with fear and the balls whizzed around them. Inevitably, Moses was hit in the stomach and screamed in agony as he fell, Joshua just looked at him but didn’t move, suddenly Joshua’s head exploded as a ball struck and his body slumped to the floor.
“What a bloody waste”, Ned thought, but this was no time for maudlin, he stepped out to fire and struck the bastard who had done for Joshua. The Frenchman was hit in the groin and dropped clutching his crutch.
“That’s for Mc Bain,” he hissed.
Within a few minutes Ned had forgotten that Joshua had ever existed, the living were all that mattered.
The French finally gave in and returned to the village, leaving the field dotted with their dead, many others lying horribly wounded implored help, but no aid would come to them today.
Robert Fairfoot, as all the Sergeants did, stepped out from cover and checked for wounded and dead. Stepping over the bodies of Moses Blythero and Joshua Mc Bain, he discovered another corpse sitting against a tree. The head of the corpse was a bloody mess; the ball had struck square between the eyes. Robert cupped his hand under the chin and raised the head to look carefully into the face. It was difficult to make out the visage; there was so much congealed blood that recognition was nigh impossible.
Then he twigged, it was Battersby. Well he wouldn’t be able to run away this time!
Robert remembered that back in Spain, Battersby had met up with a very beautiful young girl, he couldn’t remember her name. Well, she had an old suitor, a dragoon, who wouldn’t believe that it was all over between them. One day the dragoon caught them together and threatened Battersby and the girl. She told him they were finished, so drawing his knife he stabbed her numberless times then turned for him. Battersby had run like the wind back to camp, the fiend on his tail. The camp guard had captured the dragoon and he had been duly hanged for murder. The girl had been the prettiest in the whole camp and pregnant to boot! Battersby had never got over the tragedy; well he was at peace now.
Robert heard a whispered “Sergeant Fairfoot, here”, Robert turned to see Lieutenant William Lister lying in the undergrowth, he knelt by his side and observed a large red stain on his tunic, he had been shot in the chest and coughed blood.
“Four men here now” Robert bellowed.
Casima, Castles, Connor and Kitchen stepped up.
“Carry Mister Lister back to the farm at the cross roads, Mister Burke’ll take care of him.”
They lay a blanket on the earth and lifted Lister gently onto it; they carried him by hauling the blanket up by the four corners. They tramped back to the farmstead at the crossroads through the fields of flattened wheat, Lister moaned in agony as he bumped along. Eventually they arrived at the farmhouse, which was set up as a hospital; they found Mr Burke who ordered them to lay Lister on the kitchen table. Joseph Burke then quickly assessed the injury, one lung was collapsed and he feared that the ball might have clipped an artery.
“We’ll soon have you mended William” he stated confidently, and then turning away he led the men back to the doorway.
“Tell Major Cameron that Mister Lister will not make the night.”
What a waste Joseph Burke thought, William was only twenty-five.
There was a lull in the fighting at the woods and Johnny Kincaid watched as the rest of the Fifth Division deployed in line along the road between this copse and the cross roads, then advanced into the wheat fields.
To his left he could see a single French Cuirassier with his great iron breastplate glistening in the sunlight. He was spotting for his regiment and the troops in line obviously couldn’t see him over the tall wheat.
Johnny shouted to Daniel Kelly, “Take that man down”.
Daniel took very careful aim and fired, the Cuirassier’s beautiful chestnut horse snorted, then dropped like a stone. The Cuirassier fell to the ground with his charger and struggled to pull his trapped leg from under the animal’s body. Eventually he managed to extricate himself, he was furious and as he stood up he drew his sword and waved it at the Rifles, shouting defiance. The words “Coquin” and “Merde” hung on the breeze.
Finally Daniels grew bored of listening to the insults, he took aim again and this time the Cuirassier fell stone dead across the body of his horse.
“Wull that’s foinally shut him up,” he snorted.
Despite the loss of their spotter, the French cavalry regiment arrayed in column started moving towards the thin red line of British infantry. They advanced at a steady walk. The tall wheat concealed each protagonist, they closed rapidly, completely unaware of the close proximity of the other.
The Rifles from their vantage point could clearly see the danger to their comrades and they attempted to warn them. Some waved their arms and shouted others fired at the cavalry to put them off. But the cavalry were not so easily deterred and the infantry could not hear their shouts.
Suddenly the cavalry discovered them and immediately broke into a charge; infantry in line were too good a target to miss. Some infantry units spotted them as they approached and hurried orders to “Form Square” were heard and instantly obeyed. It was the only chance of survival for the infantry; any delay would almost certainly be fatal. The Cuirassiers passed by these ragged squares so hastily formed, receiving their erratic fire with nonchalance, for they had turned the line and had spotted one regiment that had not realised the danger and was caught still in line. Johnny groaned inwardly and watched helplessly as the Cuirassiers speared the infantry on their straight swords. Infantry have always found defending against the height and long reach of horsed assailants difficult to contend with when massed, alone it was impossible. This time was no exception; it was all over in seconds, a hundred or more dead and dying, a massacre.
The Cuirassiers’ blood was now up and they sought to emulate this against a highland regiment, easily recognised by their kilts and feather bonnets, which stood next in front of them. These hardy Scots did not run or attempt to form square, they realised that they were too late for that. Instead, they stood in line and met them with a hail of lead balls, which spattered against their breastplates like rain on an iron roof. The breastplates were supposedly ball proof, but the number of Cuirassiers that fell proved that they certainly were not. The Cuirassiers had seen enough; they broke and fled back towards their own lines in little groups. Many horses had been struck and had fallen, dashing their riders to the ground. Those who had lost their steeds sought their way back nervously across the fields of trampled wheat on foot. They had to pass the infantry in squares again, which sent them packing with a few shots. They no longer had any thought of attacking anyone.
Johnny’s men took a few shots at long range to help them on their way.
A battalion of Brunswick infantry had been sent to bolster the defence of the wood and with this sizeable reinforcement Sir Andrew Barnard decided that they were now strong enough to go on the offensive. He ordered that the few houses forming the village of Thyle were to be taken.
Captain Edward Chawner, Lieutenant John Gardiner and Lieutenant John Fitzmaurice were ordered to advance with two companies of ninety men each, one of whom was Ned Costello. John Fitzmaurice commanded Jonathan Leach’s company whilst he was away on staff duty.
Discarding their packs for speed, they ran frantically towards the stone buildings, the air was suddenly thick with musket balls whistling around them like a swarm of bees.
James Burke was running next to Ned when he suddenly clutched his stomach and fell.
“Ned oim done fer” he cried.
Ned stopped and grasping James’ collar dragged him the final few yards to the nearest building. The wooden door was bolted but didn’t stand up to a ‘Rifleman’s key’, a ball through the lock and a shoulder charge. Ned fell through the door as it gave to his shoulder and he landed on the cold hard slabs of stone that formed the kitchen floor. Others trampled over his body with little ceremony to take covering positions at the windows. He winced as each booted foot dug deep into his back and rump as his colleagues passed him. He had never realised before how bloody heavy his mates were! Finally, they had all passed and Ned slowly raised his head to be met with the angelic vision of a young girl of fifteen sitting next to him offering him a glass of water. He shook his head to rid himself of the hallucination, but on looking again she was still there.
“Wot the hell are youze dooing here?” he asked incredulously.
The girl smiled and in very softly spoken broken English replied.
“I am eere for my father gone to Brussels; I look after ‘ouse”.
“Well you’ll be lucky if this house is standing soon” Ned replied.
She appeared unconcerned, and held out the water again, “My naama if Marie”
“Oi’m Ned, now get yousell over dere out of harms way”.
Suddenly there was an almighty crash, a thick cloud of dust and brick showered everything.
“Blood and sands, Froggie artillery!” Ned exclaimed.
Marie was still there seemingly unperturbed by the cannonball smashing through the upper floor of the house. She moved to help James who was lying by the door; Ned rose gingerly as he held his aching back and straightened himself. Together they sat James upright in the corner of the room. He was extremely pale, clearly in great pain but thankful for the water Marie offered. The wounded and dying always had a tremendous thirst and they took great comfort from the relief of a mouthful of water. Ned took a good look at his friend’s wound and immediately knew that it would prove fatal, but James would probably endure weeks of lingering agony before finally dying.
They were the worst of injuries; everyone wanted a quick death, no slow agonising demise. Ned did not offer James comforting words, he knew that he had realised the score already.
No more cannonballs came; it must have been a stray shot. From a small window Ned observed the road, which they were tasked to keep open for communications with the Prussians. It was a veritable hail of bullets, nobody could possibly live through it, the road was deserted except for a few corpses. Eventually the firing eased and a desultory fire at opportunistic targets took over, both sides simply clung to what ground they held.
Johnny had settled into a stupor in the wood, it had been a long, fatiguing day and now that it had quietened, weariness overwhelmed him. He looked at his pocket watch, four o’clock.
The cry went up “Mister Kincaid Sir.”
He strode towards the source over on the left side of the copse where it skirted the road. As he approached the highway Johnny was amazed to see horses through the undergrowth, where had they come from? As he emerged from the trees his face came directly up against the great head of a jet-black horse, it was unkempt, dishevelled and its eyes shouted fatigue. As he altered his sight upwards he stared into the similarly exhausted eyes of a cavalry officer. Twenty men accompanied him, all were dressed in dark green uniforms, with oilskin covers over their helmets, they were Prussians. Their small horses were in terrible condition; indeed in England horses in such poor fettle were usually shot for humane reasons.
Their Captain spoke in broken English.
“Vee comm to see that Vellington’s army fight”
“Lord Wellington will hold here, is your army joining us?” Johnny enquired.
“Nein vee are fighting Napoleon himself at Ligny, Marshal Blucher ‘opes Vellington vill ‘elp us soon”.
Both quickly realised that they had their own battles to win before there would be any help each for other.
The Prussian Officer had noted that there were few troops at the cross roads and that much of Wellington’s army still had to arrive, they would not be able to join Blucher today.
The cavalryman bid farewell and the Prussians dashed back down the road towards their own army, seemingly impervious to the hail of shot that they enticed. They seemed to bear charmed lives however as no one was struck and they soon disappeared from sight.
Lord Wellington sent a further reinforcement of a Hanoverian regiment to help hold the wood. They were young and ashen faced, the stray shots and noise of battle clearly discomforted them. They fired erratically at anything that moved and soon frantic messages were coming back from the Rifle skirmishers to the front, ‘to kindly not fire upon them’!
Johnny tried to make the Hanoverians understand that they were firing on his men, but they did not comprehend. Eventually after three messages, each one more irate than the previous, Johnny decided to stop them firing at all. He managed to get their officers to move them back into the core of the wood for everybody’s safety, where they couldn’t cause any more harm! There they stood quietly, unable to see any targets to shoot at and feeling fully protected in the centre of the copse. They now stood bravely awaiting orders; they were not terrible troops just inexperienced Johnny thought.
Slowly but surely over the last few hours more troops had been arriving and Lord Wellington now felt able to take the offensive. From their position, the Rifles could hear heavy firing emanating from the great wood on the opposite side of the plain. The sounds slowly moved to their left through the trees, towards the French line, obviously whoever it was in there were winning the woodland for Wellington. Eventually this battle eased as the French were expelled from the woods completely. Orders arrived for the centre and left of the army to advance and push the French back.
The men prepared their weapons ready for the advance, the French were no fools, they would have sensed the preparations for an attack. The Rifles emerged from the copse and the houses, scampering forward always seeking their next cover, pushing the unit bodily forward.
The Hanoverians emerged behind them and formed into line as ordered, they would form the reserve to protect them. These raw soldiers were much more confident now. The musket ball’s whistle had lost its mystery and advancing always raised the spirits, it was always much better than standing taking punishment from the enemy. They were becoming useful soldiers at last.
The French scampered away before the attack; however, they regularly turned to fire as they fell back beyond the village. As the Rifles overran the village, they met the French reserves and the volume of lead in the air steadily grew greater until it got to such a level that they were afraid of raising their arms for fear of having them shot off. This was worse than being in the woods, with little cover to protect them they just kept moving forward, hoping the French would break and run before they had to taste cold steel.
“Bugger” Lieutenant John Gardiner exclaimed as he fell just in front of Ned Costello. He sat on the ground and held the calf of his left leg, a ball had passed straight through the muscle, and it hurt like hell. The good news was that it had missed the bone and hopefully hadn’t hit any arteries. He sat and watched the lads go forward.
“Well done the Ninety Fifth, keep them running” he cried.
After a few minutes all that remained around were the dead and wounded and John forced himself to his feet. Picking up a discarded musket, he turned it face down to use the butt end as a crutch. He proceeded to hobble back towards the cross roads to get a dressing put on his leg by Joseph Burke.
A few yards further on Ned Costello spotted a Frenchman levelling his musket and taking deliberate aim at Johnny Castles, he couldn’t miss that great tub of lard. Ned raised his rifle and took very quick aim at the Frenchie and squeezed the trigger.
“Jesus Chris” Ned roared, as the rifle flew from his hands, his fingers were suddenly in agony. Ned surveyed his right hand, it was a mass of fresh blood, and it stung like hell. Looking closely, afraid of what he would see, Ned realised that two fingers had been hit by a musket ball and were shattered. One of the fingers was hanging on by a thread of skin; that had been his trigger finger. Whilst he stood there, a second ball hit the mess tin strapped on to his backpack making a great clanging noise; it was too hot to hang around here.
“No bloody use staying ‘ere now” he growled.
He felt a little faint and shocked, the pain seared through his arm; with his good left hand he pulled out a large stained grey pocket-handkerchief, it had seen better days. He wound it around his hand and formed a knot by holding one end in his teeth; he tightened it as much as he could bear to stop the flow of blood. He needed to go to the rear, as he couldn’t fight anymore. He wearily trudged back towards the cross roads, occasionally looking over his shoulder to see how the lads fared. They seemed to be steadily advancing, but they were taking casualties.
Ned walked past the farmhouse again; looking up at the building he spied Marie standing at an upstairs window watching the battle. Marie saw him and waved; she was obviously all right and wasn’t going to leave. Ned waved back and blew a kiss, he wished her well.
Robert Fairfoot led his men forward until the French retired out of range.
“Our work is near done”, he exclaimed to Castles who was bent double gasping for breath.
His arm suddenly hurt like mad, so much that he dropped his rifle. A ball had entered his right arm and broken the bone, it was sheer agony. He picked up his rifle with his left hand; he saw a Frenchman and wanted to fire. Seeing Captain Henry Lee he walked over to him and explained.
“By all means use me as a rest and fire away at Johnny Frenchman” he replied.
Robert continued firing until the French had retired out of range Henry lees helping him reload. Only then did Robert think about the pain in his arm, he had lost a fair drop of blood, which made him feel faint. Henry Lees bound his wound and used his handkerchief as a sling.
The advance was over; the men returned jubilant, the officers and sergeants reformed the unit and many with a story of daring do or of lucky escapes recounted their exploits. It was dusk, fighting was likely to finish for the night; the muster needed to be taken and wounded cared for. The roll call soon told its own story, the battalion of six hundred men had lost sixty killed or wounded.
General Alten brought forward his fresh Hanoverian troops to relieve the Rifles, they were to fall back and rest at the crossroads.
They trudged wearily back, carrying or helping along the wounded, there was no time to do anything for the dead.
Suddenly a huge explosion near the cross roads made everyone start, an ammunition cart must have exploded, probably caused by a stray spark.
It was well away from them and no concern of theirs so they just trudged on.
Alexander observed another officer riding rapidly towards the troop. He rode at a gallop directly at him and brought his horse up hard, just feet away before colliding with Cossack. It proved to be an Aide de Camp of Sir Hussey Vivian.
“Whom do you belong to?” he enquired.
“The Household Brigade, Lord Somerset” Alexander answered.
“Well never mind, there is something serious going on to judge from the heavy firing ahead and artillery must be wanted. Therefore, bring up your guns as fast as you can and join us Hussars. Can you keep up?”
Alexander smiled, “I think so Sir”
“Well come along without delay, we must move swiftly”.
The troop was ordered to march immediately; they broke into a canter to catch up with the Hussars now visible beyond a small rise. Alexander was a worried man, they were likely to be in action very shortly and he had no idea where his ammunition wagons were. That meant that he had no more then fifty balls per gun on the gun limbers, it wouldn’t last long in a serious action.
They approached a small town, its houses clustered around the road; Alexander identified it as Nivelle on his map. The intensity of the cannonade and the pall of thick black smoke billowing into the blue sky led him to think that the fighting was just the other side of the town. The inhabitants were stood in the street looking in the general direction of the firing, not knowing either what was happening or what to do. They watched the maimed blood bespattered wounded that had struggled this far from the fighting often with the aid of a colleague or two for support, with a mixture of compassion and revulsion. The remnants of uniform told Alexander that these were Dutch and Belgian troops, many were pleading for help, which the inhabitants seemed happy to proffer, but more alarmingly they cried out that all was lost, Napoleon was coming!
The troop hurried on up the main street of Nivelle to cheers and the heartening cries of “Vivent les Anglaise” as they passed. Some held out their hands to stroke or pat the horses and to shake hands with the riders in a show of support and solidarity as they sped past. Young maidens threw kisses to “Mon Braves”, the men raised their hats in salute, the support of the population encouraged them greatly.