Alexander smiled, the villager’s loyalties were mixed, they had been under Napoleon’s rule for twenty years suffering from his excessive demands for men and money to feed his ambitions; they had craved independence, but the Allies had failed them by linking them with the hated Dutch as a joint Kingdom at the end of the war. That was nothing less than a betrayal for many Belgians. Since then the clamour for Napoleon’s return with his false promises of Belgian independence, within the benign and supportive French Empire had found many supporters. The Allies were operating in nominally friendly territory, but few doubted that their support would last only as long as they were in the supremacy.
As they cleared the town, the road formed a slowly ascending chaussee wide enough for four carriages to travel abreast, lined with great elm trees. The intensity of the firing was so great that they felt that the battle must be just over the brow of the hill and they pushed their teams on as hard as they could. The crimson skies of sunset were truly beautiful; however the red orb slowly descending below the horizon marking the end of such a glorious day meant that new and greater fears arose. They would shortly be entering the field of conflict in at best half light, when friend and foe would be difficult to distinguish until it was too late, apprehension started to gnaw at them.
The road was becoming heavily congested with the flotsam of war, there were numerous Dutch, British and particularly Belgian casualties, but even more plentiful were their helpers; some wounded had up to ten men each aiding them to retire to safety. This did not bode well, for when men found such poor excuses to retire in such numbers, then their units are no longer capable of offering meaningful resistance. They all cried warnings of the French, of their success in defeating the Allied armies and their imminent arrival on the scene.
Amongst the steady stream of casualties hobbling along the road was a solitary Scotsman in his kilt and black feather bonnet using his broken musket as a crutch. He called out to the troop as they struggled up the slope.
“Ha ye any rum to ease the pain, lads?” the Scotsman enquired.
Alexander stopped the troop to enquire whether the French were winning.
“Na, na Sir, it’s aww a damn lie, they was fetchin’ yet wun I left ‘em, but it’s a bluddy business aww reet and thars na sayin what may be end o’ it. Oor regiment was nigh clean swept off and oor Colonel kilt jist as I cum awaa.” He replied assertively.
Richard Hichens, the Surgeon, dismounted to examine the brave Caledonian’s wound. He discovered that the infantryman had received a French musket ball in the knee joint, Richard felt all around the wound squeezing the flesh firmly.
“There is no exit wound, so the ball must still be in the leg. I will need to get it out or the leg will become gangrenous. Hand me my medical case.”
Alexander ordered the troop to march on and wished them luck with the operation; Richard could catch up when it was completed.
The case opened to reveal a ghastly array of tools, saws, gouges, and files all forming a collection better than many self-respecting carpenters would own!
The Scotsman sat on the grass verge with his damaged knee raised. Richard took a scalpel in his delicate hands and immediately set to work. Initially he removed any damaged tissue from around the wound to allow the good flesh to heal unhindered by decaying matter, which could otherwise become fatally infected. The Highlander was lucky, as his uniform formed of a kilt and long woollen socks left his knee uncovered. This meant that there was little fear of fragments of uniform being driven deep into the wound with the ball. That was the main fear when wounded by a lead shot, as it was universally believed by all military and medical men that the cause of gangrene and septicaemia was not the lead ball itself but the fragments of dirty material dragged into the wound along with it. That was the main reason why so many sailors stripped almost naked during the great sea battles when manning the guns between decks on those great oak leviathans. In most cases where the ball was lodged deeply in the flesh with little practical possibility of extraction without killing the patient, it was standard practice to leave well alone, letting the wound heal, sealing the ball away, where it would hopefully not infect and give little more than irregular twinges. Often, many years later the ball would work a route to just below the surface of the skin of its own accord and then could be removed with ease by simply piercing the dermas to allowing it to pop out. In this case, as the ball was near the knee joint, which would leave the man with a stiff unbending leg, Richard proceeded to extract it.
He could feel a lump deep below the surface when squeezing the flesh. He cut across the entry wound widening it to allow his fingers to probe deep into the leg without tearing the skin apart. He pushed hard and his finger slowly disappeared into the flesh and gore up to the second joint of his digit. There his finger became aware of a solid object; feeling around it confirmed that it was the blighter. With great force, he managed to prise his instruments into the wound and eventually grasped the ball and removed it.
“Got it,” he exclaimed ecstatically.
Extracting the ball gently, he then bound the knee with a lint bandage.
The Scotsman had not grimaced once nor let forth a word of complaint or cry of pain; once it was over he hauled himself back onto his feet and thanking Hichens, simply turned and continued on his way, hobbling along with the aid of his makeshift crutch.
Richard watched him go, that was a truly brave man he thought. Packing his equipment away in his leather holdall, he raised himself up onto his fine horse and trotted on to find the troop again.
The last vestiges of daylight were fading fast as the troop crested the rise and finally passed the great wood which they had been approaching for an age; the noise of battle was now overwhelming, indeed the jarring screech and feint glow of the burning fuses of occasional shells passing overhead and landing beyond told them that they were now in the battle zone. Unseen explosions, bugle calls, musketry and cries of pain and suffering focused the mind; they could see little in poor light, this tended to cause their imaginations to exaggerate the awfulness around them. All were deathly quiet straining to catch every sound, afraid of what would suddenly appear before them.
They passed a tavern, which was obviously open for business; it seemed to be slightly incongruous in this wilderness. The light from its windows showed a crowd of soldiers revelling at this watering hole, whilst obviously discussing their adventures of so recent past. Uniforms of all the Allied nations could be seen within, cavalry, infantry and artillery all carousing as if they did not have a care in the world, yet the fighting was only slowly spluttering to an enforced close with the termination of daylight a few hundred yards away. Numerous horses were tethered outside; all looked worn and dishevelled from the hard riding they had obviously endured. The sounds of raucous laughter wafted on the breeze, which struck Alexander as completely remiss.
“This is a strange time and place for laughter,” He stated gruffly.
But as Henry Leathes replied, “Sometimes the sights of the battle mean that men cannot sleep without strong liquor to deaden their senses, the laughter is simply a manic reaction to the build up of tension and the horror of what they have endured. Do not condemn them too harshly, for we know not what they have suffered.”
The road skirted the trees, as they travelled along the road bodies of troops occasionally came into view resting at their arms in the adjoining fields, they displayed the blackened faces of men that had been in heavy fighting, their eyes glaring starkly white in the fires reflection. Wounded men were passing continuously, more sat or lay by the roadside unable to proceed any further, some begging for help or the Lord’s mercy, a few sobbed from the sheer pain, others lay silent awaiting their maker’s final call with dignity. Death had already called for many to cross the Styx with him, the corpses lay scattered across the road and in the hedges, and many more must surely lie unseen within the woods. Alexander wondered that they were all naked as the day they were born, but the vultures, fellow soldiers or local villagers had robbed them of everything often before the body was cold.
The troop trotted wearily on through this vision of hell, the horses were completely worn down and the men drooped with exhaustion despite the scenes and dangers around them. Nobody dared halt the horses for fear they would not restart their march and the men were also far too tired to make the effort, so any bodies stretched across the roadway were simply ridden over. The sickening cracking of bone and the squelch of tissue were listened to with horror by all, but everyone chose to pretend it wasn’t happening and tried to blot the sickening images from their minds. The unmistakable splintering of skull and flattening of brain tissue was particularly gruesome, but still no one stopped.
Finally they came to a cross roads encircled by a cluster of houses and farmsteads. It was clear from the number of fires lighting up the darkness of a starless night that a large part of the army was encamped here. The sounds of fighting had petered out, and the only sound was restricted to the occasional pop of musketry between the opposing pickets as the armies set down the boundaries of their respective territories for the night.
As the Rifles retraced their steps toward the crossroad they came across the scene of devastation left by the blast of the ammunition wagon. Among a number of bodies scattered about the road one particularly stood out. Lying face down in the mud was a figure in a floral dress.
Tom Plunket suddenly appeared to welcome them, as the Second battalion had just arrived having marched all day, entering the battlefield from the Nivelles road.
Tom called out, “Hey lads! Have youze seen my Mary?”
Mary was a camp follower that Tom had feelings for; indeed he was talking of marriage to legitimise her position. She was a homely woman of mid height, stockily built, with a rugged face. She had followed them in Spain and had stayed with them through thick and thin. Her previous man had been killed at Arcangues. Camp followers were a Godsend; they were there to provide food and drink after hard marches, for a price of course, to tend lovingly when sick or hurt and to provide womanly company as well. It was fully understood that once the husband was dead the women would latch onto someone else before they were even cold, as without a protector she would receive no rations and could not survive. Tom was her latest partner; there was little love, more mutual support to survive. Mary would keep his spare food for her man and his friends; she would stay closer to them than the commissariat. When they ordered baggage away, they all went far to the rear, not to be seen again for days. Mary however always contrived to stay near the front; she was under nobody’s orders!
Tom suddenly spotted the body in the roadway and recognised the dress instantly.
“Mary? Jesus No!” he exclaimed.
Running up to the body, he spotted some movement of the arms and called back “She’s aloive tank God”. Tom took hold of her shoulder and pulled her over onto her back.
“Christ” Tom started. Her face was missing!
The explosion had seared the flesh from her face even her nose had disappeared! Her face was now just a pool of gore. They lifted Mary and carried her to Mr Burke at the farmhouse, who held little hope of recovery.
As they dragged themselves back to the farm, the wounded were taken in for the surgeons to treat. The unwounded survivors collapsed on the ground to get rest, many falling asleep as soon as their heads hit their earthen pillow.
“You not dead yet Moore?” shouted Robert Fairfoot.
They all laughed loudly.
It had worked; he had broken their stupor and breathed new life into the men. Back in Spain, John Moore had caught fever and been pronounced dead. He’d come round in the chapel of rest at midnight whilst his body awaited burial the next morning; he’d never taken jokes about his death well after that!
One of the men fell to the ground and started to convulse, in the darkness no one knew who it was.
“Woss wrong, sumun hit?” someone cried out.
Robert Fairfoot walked over to check.
“John give us your strap” Robert screamed.
Robert forced the man’s mouth open and put the leather strap between his teeth for him to bite on.
It was ‘Long Tom of Lincoln’, as the lads called him. Tom was one of the older men of the battalion at forty-two, a six-footer, lanky and awkward. He had fits, Mr Burke called them epileptic seizures or something, he’d always had them, but it never stopped him being a good soldier though. The fit passed and the lads quickly settled down to sleep without cover under a starless sky, after the day’s exertions they would sleep anywhere.
The officers sat together around a warming fire and discussed the day; some dressed minor wounds themselves, so that they could remain with the battalion when the fighting continued the next day as it surely would. Major Alexander Cameron had a small contusion on his side; Captain William Johnston had a flesh wound, as did Lieutenant Orlando Felix.
Even the officers had nothing to cover themselves with, as the baggage was miles away to the rear. George Simmons had recently gone back into the fields with three men to bring in one of the men who had suffered both legs broken by a cannonball. He was now better off than the other officers, having taken a large cloak off a dead Cuirassier as his reward on the walk back. Those like Johnny Kincaid who had food, grabbed something from their pack to share with their colleagues, the rest suffered hunger pangs in silence. Soon, however, sleep took them all, it was near eleven o’clock.
It had been a long and eventful day.
As G troop arrived at the crossroads, the apparition reappeared; Macdonald suddenly emerged from the blackness like a spirit and swiftly approached them.
“Ah Mercer, you have made it, the army has endured a very hard fought battle here at Quatre Bras and has been victorious. Have your troop bivouac in the field here for the night; I will bring orders in the morning.”
The troop wearily pulled off the road into a field adjoining a farmhouse. The limbers and cannon were parked and the horses unharnessed. Despite their utter fatigue, the men automatically followed their training and sought to settle the horses. The limited hay supply they carried with them was to be preserved, as there was no sign of Mr Coates and the carts. Therefore half the men set out with sickles to cut down the tall wheat standing in the fields beyond. The remainder sought out water for the poor beasts. It transpired that the only water supply nearby was a deep well in the courtyard of the farmhouse and it took no less than two hours for the men to draw enough water to refresh all their steeds. The clamour for water at the well continued all night long as a continuous stream of soldiers made their way to raise the bucket to quench thirsts.
The horses being satisfied, the men now thought about themselves, the Peninsula hands searched out their meagre supply of cooked morsels from their haversacks, which they had saved for such an occasion, the lesson was hard learnt by the inexperienced who had kept nothing. The officers had nothing either, their sumptuous breakfast was now a dim memory and their stomachs voiced disapproval. Richard Hichens the Surgeon had rejoined and his servant beamed proudly as he carefully removed a large gingham cloth from his saddlebag, it contained the remains of the large game pie they had enjoyed at the breakfast table at Strytem that very morning. It was joyfully accepted and portioned out amongst the officers, but the morsel each received barely touched the stomach cramps they endured. Alexander passed around his cigars and they all lit up and puffed away as a release from the gnawing in the pit of their stomachs.
There was nothing for it, they lay down around the fire pulling their coats and blankets close up to protect them against the cold whilst attempting to ignore the hunger pangs and noise at the well, they eventually settled into a fitful sleep.
The frequent pop of musketry woke the Rifles, it was still dark but they rose instinctively and formed up, was it a French attack? George Simmons as commander of the picket line went out to discover the cause of the firing; he could just make out the sentinels in the darkness. He approached them as they fired sporadically into the night.
“What’s happening, are they attacking?” George whispered.
“Blessed if I knows Sir, they started firing to the roight of us and we just joined in.”
George realised that it was probably a false alarm; everyone had the jitters at night and if one fired then they all did, firing at shadows.
“Cease firing,” he ordered, “Stand to and strain your eyes and ears, let’s see if they really are advancing”
Slowly the firing eased and indeed it soon became clear that there was no sound of movement, confirming that the French were not attacking.
Leaving the pickets in more relaxed mood, George returned to the battalion and they stood down. The men lay down again and attempted to sleep, but their efforts were largely in vain. Still occasional musket shots were heard as some sentry thought that they had seen movement in the shadows; it kept everybody on the alert.
Some finally relaxed and started to drift off to sleep when they were rudely awoken by the bugle call for ‘stand to’ again. It was fast approaching daylight and as they had always done in Spain, they were formed ready to fight one hour before dawn. They stood for over half an hour in the darkness until the grey light of dawn slowly but surely started to bring the ground around them clearly into view. They stood until a white horse could be seen at a mile, which was the traditional benchmark. The hour for surprise attacks was then over, clear visibility confirmed that the enemy were not attacking and the bugle call for ‘Stand down’ was gratefully heard.
Now the men could light fires to warm themselves and brew tea and cook food if they had any left. The young lads now realised why the veterans had taken their full rations at Brussels, where the hell was the commissariat with their victuals? The old hands knew.
“Victuals won’t come t’day. We left Broosels too quick; wagons will still be there. If we goes for’ard today you’ll not see them tomorrow neither!” Tom Crawley mused.
Some cadged food from their friends, others scoured the abandoned farm buildings and cottages for a morsel, but many others had already tried there in vain. A few went into the fields to harvest some wheat to bolster a scrap of meat they had boiling in a pot to bulk it out into a soup. Most simply sat and warmed themselves at the fires desperately trying to forget the gripes and rumbles in their empty bellies.
The weather was much cooler today; they shivered in the chill morning air, aching in every joint, for the damp and cold had gnawed deep into their very bones during the night. A few like George had found a cloak or coat from a dead man, French or British, they didn’t need them anymore. Nobody had wanted to carry their greatcoats yesterday, then it had been glorious sunshine and the coats were so heavy, they had all been put on the carts. What they wouldn’t give now for a greatcoat and food; they had learnt a valuable lesson for the future, but that was no comfort now.
As they rested near the farmhouse they ensured that their weapons were clean and ready for use; they used brushes and oiled cloths to remove the black powder residue from the barrel after yesterday’s firing. A clean weapon could mean the difference between life and death, dirty weapons were apt to clog and misfire.
They talked and joked over the previous day’s exploits, the close shaves and their moments of individual glory. Dead colleagues were mentioned in passing but most were lucky to get a moments thought; they considered the present only; there was nothing they could do about what had already passed.
“Hey Tom ‘ow comes Johnny Frenchy ain’t attacked yet?”
“Dunno” Tom Crawley replied, “Maybe Prussians beat them good an’ they’ve gone.”
“Nah, the Froggie pickets are still there, mark my words boys they’ll come” Robert Fairfoot piped up.
Johnny Castles dashed up to the group, he breathed heavily from the exertion, “Hey lads, hussars just come back from the Proosians, they’ve been beat bad by Napoleon. Reckons they’s coming fur us next”.
Robert looked stern “If it’s true, we’ll have to retreat, this ain’t no ground to foight Napoleon on.”
The lads quietened, they still talked, but the spirit had gone out of their discussion. Nobody dared say it, but everyone was concerned; without the Prussians help retreat was inevitable and retiring with French cavalry on your shoulder was no joke. They knew that they would probably be ordered to hold the rear, so they would certainly take the brunt of any attack. Yesterday might look like a picnic by the end of this day!
Remarkably all was still quiet, it was gone nine o’clock before the order was passed for the walking wounded to set off for Brussels along the high road; the order confirmed a retreat.
Ned Costello pulled himself upright and began to walk along the road to Brussels. His comrades said nothing to him, he was alone now, useless and weak, the others had more important matters to attend to, and Ned understood that, he had done just the same to others before.
Tom Plunket sauntered into the farmhouse building housing the hospital to enquire after Mary.
Surgeon Burke took him aside, “Tom we’ll put her in a cart with the others”.
“Will she live?” Tom asked plaintively.
Joseph Burke was solemn, “I didn’t think she would see this morning Tom, but she is resting well. If Mary can survive the journey to Brussels she might live, but I hold out no real hope, her wounds are very severe.”
Tom released Mary’s hand and wiped a single tear from his cheek, then strode back outside into the cool morning air, there was nothing he could do for her, it was up to the Good Lord now.
George Simmons and Johnny Kincaid were also in the farmhouse looking down on the lifeless body of young William Lister. His form was pale and still, Joseph Burke held a looking glass to the lips, there was no breath, and no pulse confirmed his demise. The poor lad had lain in agony all night; it was a blessed relief for him, as he had no hope of surviving his wounds. The burial, party approached silently; wrapping the body in his own blanket they carried him to a freshly dug hole and laid him to rest. A layer of earth and a few stones marked the shallow grave, Padre Williams spoke a few words and it was all over. Opportunities for advancement were already appearing for the volunteers!
Ned’s hand ached like hell, he bore the pain with stolid forbearance as a soldier was expected to do, but it gnawed at him constantly; he wished that there was something he could take to numb the ache of his throbbing fingers, but he had no rum. He forced himself to walk on, pushing his tired body to make each further step. The road was already very congested; the followers of the army with their wagons and animals were aware of the retreat and were determined to be gone well before the French arrived.
Faintly at first, above the cacophony of sound from the throng he heard the cries of a child, as he walked it became louder. Ned found himself getting closer to the cries, they were now to his right in the hedge and he decided to investigate. Crossing through the thorny hedge with some difficulty Ned entered a large open field; he peered into the slight morning mist lying like a blanket on the damp fields. There! He could just see a small boy sitting on the damp grass crying his eyes out whilst holding the head of a young woman who lay beside him. One look at the cold pallid features of the pretty lass showed that death had already been to claim her soul. A large red stain on her temple showed where a stray musket ball must have struck her last evening. Ned crossed himself and blessed this innocent, then looked to the boy. He appeared to be about three years old, he was soaked through and shivering and could not understand why his mother would not wake up. With great difficulty, Ned lifted the boy onto his shoulders, he had no pack or rifle now but this was still a heavy load for an injured man and lifting him hurt his hand like billy’o. He got back onto the road and trudged even more wearily towards Brussels, pushing his feet forward mechanically, not allowing his brain to dwell upon the pain and burden nor the long distance to go.