The cavalry passed the squares, ineffectually prodding their swords and lances at the unperturbed infantry, then wheeled off out of view, probably arcing back towards the crest at a point out of sight from Alexander’s viewpoint. Alexander was frustrated, they had now stood for hours in various positions without doing anything, yet the battle raged furiously just beyond them.
Despite his rules of engagement, Alexander finally lost patience and ordered his guns to open up on the French lancers on the horizon. The guns had been laid for the range since their arrival and they needed no further alignment, the right hand gun boomed out and he stood with his eyeglass to observe the fall of shot.
No sooner had his cannon opened fire than a previously unseen French battery was unmasked to the left of the cavalry; Alexander spotted the plumes of smoke as the guns discharged. A great whoosh of wind roared through the troop and beyond, the pressure waves of cannonballs passing close by, bloody big ones at that! A loud scream behind him forced Alexander to turn, it was Gunner Philip Hunt of John Bretton’s division, a ball had shattered his left arm, it hung limp and mangled by his side as he sunk to his knees in agony. The profusion of blood, his screams of pain and deathly hue shocked Alexander, it was the first casualty in his troop and it was his fault! He turned away shame faced, unable to bear the guilt, but determined to show a brave unconcerned face to his men. He left it to John Bretton and his men to escort Hunt back to Surgeon Hichens who would undoubtedly have to amputate the remains of his arm. Those had been powerful shots; the French must have hidden a battery of twelve pounders at least! Alexander ordered the guns to cease firing, he could take the hint, his battery was no match for such huge brutes! Alexander rebuked himself mentally, he had been ordered not to fire and again his failure to keep to orders had caused suffering to others and nearly landed him in very hot water indeed!
All settled again, the enemy battery fell silent and the scene descended into a monotonous continuation of the darting circles of the skirmishers. To the left the cavalry had completely disappeared and the infantry had lain down again.
Alexander watched as a surgeon from one of the infantry regiments walked up to G troop to view the battle that still raged in the valley. A shower of heavy rain started, most just stood and attempted to ignore the water flowing down their faces and drenching their uniforms, but the surgeon promptly opened up a large black umbrella to ward off the deluge. He looked completely out of place, standing on the ridge holding up his umbrella whilst cannonballs whistled past; indeed he became a figure of novelty and the whole troop watched his perambulations. Obviously the French gunners had also found him a good mark, an aiming point! The massive cannonballs bounding over the ridge seemed to progressively close nearer to him, which alarmed him and persuaded him that this was not a healthy place for his meanderings. It seemed that the whole French artillery was seeking the prize for knocking this specimen off the ridge. The surgeon became aware of the unwanted attention he was attracting and decided that he should retire. His retreat however was not particularly dignified being rushed; indeed he dashed back down the slope out of view of the French. He continued to hold his umbrella up to protect himself from the rain as he ran hell for leather toward safety. Indeed, he was so wrapped up in his thoughts of escape that he did not take due care of his footing. He skated on the slimy mud recently rewetted and collapsed into the sludge, completely covering his fine uniform in thick mud. He continued to hold his umbrella aloft throughout, even now when the rain would have been welcome in removing some of the earth from his uniform. All the men watching laughed raucously, this whilst death and destruction continued merely yards away. For one short moment they forgot the danger and enjoyed the farcical sight, indeed the relief of tension was immense, the laughter became almost uncontrollable. The surgeon became aware of the jesting at his expense and slunk to the rear, to a more appropriate station for a gentleman of his profession.
Some of the horse teams of Bolton’s battery stood just to the left of Mercer’s troop. A cannonball smashed through the horses causing the animals to move about nervously, their handlers having to fight hard to control them. They shied away from one horse in particular and as the horse turned toward the troop the drivers could be seen turning away in horror or shooing it away; the reason for their alarm became all too apparent. The horse stood impassively with no sign of injury until its face came into view. The cannonball had smashed into the horse’s head and completely removed it’s snout from just below the eyes. Its eyes appeared melancholy and it edged forward toward the troop as if imploring help from its masters. The men looked away from the awful sight, but for one man. Farrier Robert Price stepped up to the poor animal and patted the mare’s withers whilst whispering calming words to ease its suffering. Unseen to the horse, Price drew back his arm, revealing his sword to the watching gunners, then with a swift thrust he plunged the blade deep into the soft under belly right up to the hilt, through to its heart. The surprise was complete; it collapsed immediately and expired within moments. Price placed his foot on the mare’s stomach and withdrew the sword, which he wiped clean of blood with a rag from his pocket. He showed no sign of emotion, he had simply shown great mercy to the poor animal, it had not suffered for long, others less fortunate dotted all over the battlefield would suffer for many hours.
Suddenly there was an almighty explosion, which knocked some of the men completely off their feet. Dazed, they turned to see a great mushroom cloud of thick white smoke slowly forming above the fields. An ammunition wagon had received a direct hit; three men that had stood near by were completely gone, literally blown to pieces! A boot struck Butterworth’s shoulder, picking it up he realised that a severed foot remained within, it must have belonged to one of those poor bastards, he just tossed it away with little thought.
Another mass of French cavalry appeared on the main ridge; as they advanced a squadron of Belgian cavalry moved to meet them. The two lines approached each other, the horses trotting calmly and the men pointing their swords towards their opponent’s breasts. Alexander watched as the two lines closed and awaited the horrendous crash, which must surely follow. They neared, when without any word, the two lines opened a little, allowing the opposing horses to pass each other. The cavalrymen struck out with their swords, a few hit home and a handful of men sank from their saddles but most thrusts were parried. The lines had passed completely through each other following this short ineffectual clash. Alexander was amazed; it appeared choreographed as if it had been orchestrated in advance. The opposing cavalry then filed off and returned over the crest honours even.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Gold, who commanded two-foot artillery batteries approached the troop, he was known slightly by Alexander, whom he obviously wished to engage in conversation.
He seemed worried, “I do not think our position looks good Alexander.”
Alexander was shocked, “Do you not think we can hold the French?” he enquired.
“The front line is under extreme pressure and most of the troops are young and inexperienced. I fear these cavalry attacks will force a break through soon. Have you considered your retreat?”
Alexander immediately realised that he had no contingency plans worked out at all. If they were forced to retreat he had not given any thought to his course of action. Charles Gold was an experienced artillery officer and was right to consider all the possibilities, but Alexander found him too pessimistic for his liking.
“I have made no plans, but we could retreat on the roads through the woods” he answered nonchalantly.
“I think that will be unlikely, Alexander” he countered, “For if there is a general retreat the roads will be blocked with wagons of the commissariat, they are always first away.”
“Then what should I do?” asked Alexander.
“Spike your guns, Sir, then ride like the wind with your horse teams, for the Cuirassiers will show little mercy.”
Alexander had not realised that the battle was at such a critical stage, as there seemed little to concern anyone in this quarter of the field. As they spoke, Alexander became greatly worried, this officer of vast experience was predicting a disaster and he could feel his confidence sapping away. He became aware that Staff Sergeant John Hall was standing behind the guns with a mallet and metal spikes, to ram into the touchholes of the cannon if they were to be lost to the enemy. ‘Spiking’ put the cannon out of action for days at least, as the hole would have to be bored out again in a workshop.
They watched the ridge as another mass of French cavalry crested it and swarmed around the expectant infantry squares. Perhaps Gold was right, the number of cavalry appearing over the crest made Alexander wonder if the front line still stood, yet there were no signs of men fleeing. Some of the Belgian infantry appeared to be a little nervous but they stood and prepared to fire at the approaching cavalry.
A noise to the front of the battery made Alexander look to the right and he quickly ascertained that it was coming from infantry formations in the valley. Everyone was convinced that they were French in their dark blue coats.
Alexander gave the order to Fire.
Just as they prepared to apply the slow match to the touch hole of the first gun, Gold cried out, “Cease fire, they are Belgians!”
He was right; the battalion closed and crossed the ridge just in front of the guns on the march to support the front line. That had been close to being a terrible mistake.
Alexander turned his gaze back to the crest but the cavalry had disappeared again! He had no idea where they could have gone.
Alexander drew his fob watch from his jacket pocket; it was nearly three o’clock. He remembered his training, retreat in daylight was much more difficult, the pursuing enemy could not be easily lost, but there was at least another six hours of light to go.
A horseman suddenly galloped up, stopping hard alongside Alexander and Gold. They looked up and were surprised to be staring into the face of Sir Augustus Frazer himself. His blackened face was contorted with worry; his eyes reddened by the smoke of battle making him appear monstrous. Looking more closely, they could make out the smeared smoke stains on his face, he had been crying!
“Are you all right, Sir?” Alexander enquired.
“Norman Ramsay is dead” he replied solemnly.
The news struck hard, Alexander couldn’t believe it.
“Struck by a ball, during a lull we buried him.”
Sir Augustus seemed far away, deep in thought for a few seconds, then snapped himself out of it and bellowed, “Left limber up, follow me as fast as you can!”
Was this retreat?
It seemed like a lifetime to Johnny Kincaid, despite the terrible noise of battle all around, cannon and musket fire mingled with the cries of the wounded and dying, all he seemed to be aware of was the pounding of the ground as the French horsemen approached, he could feel the earth actually vibrate beneath him. He sat calmly awaiting the sword point penetrating his uncovered breast to send him on his way across the Styx. The pounding grew louder and louder until it became a deafening roar but was suddenly accompanied by the sound of metal clashing on metal, great cries of anguish and pain, then just as quickly the thunderous noise seemed to have abated. Johnny dared to take a peep, he couldn’t believe his eyes, the Cuirassiers were gone! What could have happened?
A resounding cheer to his left caused him to look across the front line where the French infantry continued to attack; there was his answer. He watched the Cuirassiers riding like the wind back towards their own lines; they were already passing the sand pit chased by a swarm of red and blue uniformed horsemen of the Household cavalry! The Horse Guards in red and Lifeguards in blue on their huge horses had obviously charged the Frenchmen just before they reached the Rifles and had swept them back into the valley. As he looked toward the Fifth Division still engaged in a firefight, he was in time to see the infantry wheeling back to make gaps in their line. Through the spaces poured the Union Brigade, the charge of the British cavalry smashed into the already shaky French columns. The foul-mouthed Iniskilling Dragoons, the massive Scots Greys with their towering fur hats and the English Royal regiment of Dragoons tore into the massed ranks of the enemy.
The French were taken completely by surprise, they had thought the battle was theirs and had no warning of this attack, the cavalry being hidden behind the ridge.
The attack was frenzied, the cavalrymen struck with their swords as hard as they could, their arms ached from the repeated blows. Swords flowed with French blood; the cavalrymen gave no quarter, simply hacking at anything in their path. The horses became intoxicated, tearing at the French with their teeth and trampling them underfoot. It was a sheer bloody massacre, the French infantry were unable to turn and run for the masses behind barred their way, there was little room in the crush to even manoeuvre their muskets and swords to defend themselves. The screams of their victims raised the blood of the cavalrymen to even greater heights; their faces took on a demonic look as they slashed away without mercy. Many Frenchmen dropped their weapons, falling to the ground in feigned death, hoping to avoid the horse’s hooves and survive the carnage. Most stood and received horrendous injuries, heads literally split in two, decapitations, arms hacked off, those slightly luckier receiving horrible gashes on the head, arms or torso as swords cut through the flesh but jarred against bone.
This all occurred in the space of a few minutes, by then the rear of the columns had started fleeing and the masses of French infantry simply dispersed, the cavalry chasing them, all soon disappearing into the high corn. The Rifles like the rest of the Fifth Division cheered ecstatically for the cavalry had saved them from near certain defeat.
A French Cuirassier officer, a mere lad, lay just in front of the battalion, Major Andrew Cameron took pity and stepped out to lift him in his arms, he carried him all the way back to Mr Burke.
A sergeant of the Scots Greys appeared from the cornfields again, brandishing a French eagle above his head, they cheered till they were hoarse; he’d probably get a commission as an officer for that! The Eagle sat atop the regiment’s flagpole, the flag carried the names of the great battles in their past, but the little brass eagle was their prized possession as it was presented by Napoleon himself. It meant complete disgrace to lose it; many brave men would have died trying to protect that eagle. Johnny allowed himself a smile and turning to Jonathan Leach commented “That was too bloody close for comfort, I really thought our time had come.”
Jonathan nodded, “Very true, but let us now enjoy the fruits of our success.”
Three companies were ordered forward again, they moved down the road to recover the sand pit and knoll. Johnny noticed in passing that during the late attack the two guns of Hew Ross’s battery left at the abattis had been damaged beyond use and the gunners had gone. As they moved forward, the Rifles encountered masses of French soldiers who were almost dazed by what had happened. Many that had feigned death arose to find British infantry approaching and gladly surrendered rather than face those terrible cavalry again.
Detailing off parties to move further into the valley, Jonathan watched as a handful of Riflemen easily collected a few hundred prisoners. All that could walk were escorted in; some badly wounded Frenchmen were helped in by their comrades. The rest would have to lie out there until the battle ended. The Rifles had to prepare for future attacks and even their own wounded were lucky to get any help back to the surgeons at Mont St Jean.
Johnny Kincaid now had time to check himself over, he was unwounded but his pride was deflated. He couldn’t believe his own stupidity in not checking his weapon; if one of his men had been guilty of such a crime he would have been put on a charge and flogged. More to the point, he was extremely lucky to still be alive; his guardian angel must be working hard for him today he thought. He offered up a silent prayer of thanks to his maker. A snort from Beth made him assess his faithful horse as well. He noticed that Beth had been injured in the late attack, her right ear was missing, it had been removed close to her head, probably by a musket ball. Dismounting, Johnny continued to check her over, a musket ball had also caused a furrow in the hindquarter of Beth’s left leg, but she was bearing her weight on it and seemed in no discomfort, she had been lucky too.
George Simmons watched as the French prisoners were marched through, tramping sullenly up the road and over the ridge to the rear. He felt proud of his men, moments earlier they had wished nothing more for these Frenchmen than instant death, now they were offering them what assistance they could.
Johnny Castles helped one who was faint from loss of blood and near to collapsing, on the left side of his head all the skin was peeled away from the skull the cranium being perfectly visible; it had obviously been caused by a fearful sword slash.
Palmer helped hold the great flap of skin in place by wrapping a large grey handkerchief around his head and tying it tight. Another prisoner, only slightly wounded, signed his thanks for their care and took over helping him on, he was his brother, they had fought alongside each other for nine years.
Tom Crawley and Jem Connor stood on the roadside watching them go by, offering those obviously in desperate need a mouthful of water from their own canteens, when they surely needed it themselves.
The men cleared the pit, throwing the bodies out onto the rim of the crater, forming a human rampart as preparation for the next attack.
Johnny watched a detachment of Horse artillerymen come down from the ridge on their horses, with poles bundled behind them that looked just like lances. They were rocket troops! He hadn’t seen them in action before so he watched.
The artillerymen halted at the base of the ridge and pulled a number of rocket heads from their saddle packs. Two men could be seen using crimping tools to attach the heads to the long stakes, which formed the tail. Another was laying them on the ground in a neat line facing the French, who could not be seen at all through the high corn. When twenty rockets had been laid on the ground, a trail of fuse was run along the bases of the rockets. It was lit and all the rockets fizzed into life virtually in unison, each wagging their sticks a little then exploding into life. The rockets soared at incredible speed through the high corn towards the French lines. The artillerymen could not see the effect of their fire but fired a few further salvoes, and then having exhausted their stock they retired back behind the ridge.
By now all the prisoners were gathered in and the infantry were back in their positions. It was incredible Johnny thought, ten minutes ago this ridge was covered by some seventeen thousand French and ten thousand or so British and Belgians. Now only the dead and dying remained. The French had been scattered and had lost about two thousand prisoners he guessed.
The Household and Union Brigades had disappeared toward the French lines and he wondered what had happened to them. The sight of a few bedraggled Scots Greys returning on the road, their horses blown, heads hanging limply, led him to fear that the news that they would bring was not good.
The sergeant indicated for the rest to continue back to safety, behind the ridge, whilst he stopped for a moment.
He turned to Johnny, “Wull Sir, efter we smashed through yon infantry, we rode straight across yon valley tae their cannon. Wull we labours into them gunners, hacking them down left and right, didnae spare no horses or drivers even though they’s mere laddies. Half those guns will nae bother you agin today, I’ll wager.”
“But where’s your brigade now?” George Simmons interjected.
The sergeant stared George hard in the face with a look of complete contempt for daring to break into his speech. Johnny demurred and he continued.
“Trumpeters blew ‘Recall’ but nae one listened, as their blood was up, even our reserves got mixed in. Well Boney sent his answer, lancers! Bloody hundreds of them. With oor horses blown it was like sticking pigs, lads didnae stand a chance. Near wiped us out.”
With that he turned and rode after the remnant of his squadron. Johnny and George said nothing but stared in horror towards the French lines. All those fine lads on such noble horses destroyed, it was unbelievable. As they continued to watch, small groups of cavalry returned, maybe a third might return all told, but they wouldn’t form much of a fighting force again that day.
A few wounded men limped through, some leading their worn horses, many of these showing the scars of battle. As they passed, the lads gave them what help they could.
George was interested to hear one Lifeguard corporal talking.
“Dem Frenchies don’t like them bloody rocket fings, when I lays on the ground wounded I could hear ‘em. Cursing them rockets as the Devil’s weapons and we wus trying to burn 'em all alive! they says.”
George smiled, those rockets could go anywhere, and their unpredictability was what made them even more frightening, it would unnerve them if they attacked again, knowing such weapons were ready for them.
There was the occasional sound of a big rocket still roaring overhead, George was attracted by the sound that emanated from the ridge. There he could see more of the rocket artillerymen; these were using some kind of frame. He had heard of these ‘Bombarding Frames’ before, but had never seen one. Two long iron legs were planted into the ground and attached to them was a twelve-foot ladder. This formed a tripod and by climbing the ladder an artilleryman could place two big rockets in the holders at the top. Once set and attached to a train of gunpowder, they could be ignited from down on the ground. He watched as a pair were lit, they fizzed into action then roared high into the sky; he followed their trails of smoke across the valley to the French until obscured by the smoke of battle. These thirty-two pounder rockets could fly over three thousand yards, causing consternation well behind the front lines. However an officer rode up to the sergeant operating the Bombarding frame and following a short discussion they were removed, obviously someone was nervous where these rockets may land, as they had been known to double back on themselves.
For the next couple of hours little happened to break the monotony for the Rifles, the French batteries had obviously been remanned and fired continuously at the British front line, but there were few targets in their view. Most were speculative shots hoping to strike the units formed behind the ridge, softening them up before any renewed infantry attack. The fire was nowhere near as hot as earlier; obviously the cavalry charge had led to a shortage of gunners to man the great battery properly. The Rifles took their share of this fire, with the added nuisance of skirmishers who had returned into the valley and darted about taking pot shots at anything in view. There were few casualties however and really both sides seemed comfortable with the stand off following the earlier excitement.