A large room on the first floor was identified as an ideal location for the mess; the few chairs and tables sprinkled throughout the multitude of rooms were dragged together by the servants to furnish it to an acceptable standard. Meeting there in the afternoon, they relaxed after their night ride. William Ingilby was amazed, “By the Lord Gentlemen, you ought to think yourselves very fortunate in getting such a quarter, for in the Peninsula the Duke himself was often glad to get as good a roof over his head, indeed it was often much worse.”
John Hincks and Richard Hichens smiled at each other, as all youngsters do at the hardships described by their elders; they felt like saying “Times change old man”, but neither dared!
Henry Leathes lolled on the arm of a sofa and pointed towards the great arched window at the end of the hall. It extended from the floor to its apex some twelve feet high; in the centre of the great window was a pair of French doors, which opened onto a balcony. From this terrace one could gain exceptional views of the formal gardens laid out below.
“That window reminds me of one such as that at the convent of Santa Augusta when we besieged the forts at Salamanca. The abbot had a beautiful dining room on the first floor with just such a window; its doors leading out onto a balustrade. It made a fine site for a gun to enfilade the forts. We hauled a nine pounder up there and had excellent fun lobbing balls over the walls of the nearest fort. Every time we fired, the glass rattled in the windows and we constantly expected the next discharge to bring the shards of glass showering down upon us. We were very glad when the forts decided to surrender!”
William Ingilby shuddered at the reminder of old times in Salamanca. “I nearly lost my head there!” he exclaimed, “When ordering number one gun to fire at the forts, the NCO on two gun mistakenly thought that the order was for him and lit the fuse. The damned thing went off directly behind me. I fell to the floor unconscious, my hair singed and my ears pouring blood. They thought I was killed.”
Robert Newland laughed, “I remember that, we thought that your head was clean off.”
Ingilby grimaced, “On recovering somewhat, I propped myself up against a wall, my head throbbing. I sat dazed for some time. Well, who should approach me just then? It was none other than the Duke himself. Well, he conversed with me for a good few minutes then left no wiser for my answers, for damn me if I could hear a thing! Damned painful it was, but after three days my ears suppurated and the relief was indescribable. I am still a little deaf in my left ear to this day”.
Newman looked at Alexander with a thinly disguised sneer. “Of course, you weren’t there were you?”
Alexander chose to ignore the remark; he did however feel isolated by their reminiscences, which highlighted his inexperience, it made him feel vulnerable.
There was a loud rapping at the great door below and the servants allowed admittance to a small deputation of local dignitaries. The group ascended the grand staircase and stepped into the room where they lounged, the Belgians stood fidgeting, nobody plucking up the courage to speak. They were arrayed in their fancy full state uniforms consisting of long dark blue waistcoats and blue and white striped stockings. One of the visitors, a rotund grey haired fellow, who was obviously the leader, stood just in front of the others. A taller gentleman with a strong military bearing, dressed in a short green jacket adorned with gold buttons and matching green trousers stood quietly just behind the little fat man.
Ingilby grew impatient of their procrastination and bellowed “Well Sir?”
The leader, whom it transpired, was a Mynheer Evenpoel, attempted to address Alexander in Flemish, another interpreted into French for him. They claimed that the district was unable to support the troop and that they should move on. The Prussians had been here only last year and they now claimed that there was nothing left.
Alexander replied sternly, “Lord Wellington’s orders are precise, that we should remain here. Your King has ordered that all of his countrymen are to aid us with whatever we need. Indeed gentlemen, it seems obvious that the land hereabouts is very fruitful and I am sure that any search authorised by me would yield ten fold what we require. You are aware that all requisitions for His Britannic Majesty’s Army are receipted for and that you will receive payment from the Commissariat. Therefore gentlemen, I will order my men to visit your homes forthwith!”
Alexander called over Quartermaster John Hall who had escorted the Belgian party into the room.
“Sergeant, have a foraging party ready to proceed within five minutes.”
Hall saluted, “Yes, Sir” and retired rapidly. Two of the Belgians followed Hall out and attempted to stop him, but the wily old Sergeant affected not to understand their protestations.
Hall proceeded to the courtyard where his barked orders for the men to assemble could be clearly heard in the room above.
“Gunners Putten, Butterworth, Death, Hunt and Springly, fall in.”
This caused consternation amongst the dignitaries, they appealed for a stay whilst they applied to Brussels for the troop to move.
The others returned to report to their leader, their voices betraying severe anxiety as they vied with each other to speak first. Eventually Mynheer Evenpoel turned to plead with Alexander again, repeating their intention of writing to Lord Wellington. This would take at least a full day and they had no provisions. Alexander replied. “I offer you two hours to provide the requisitions, or my men will visit your farms and take all they find, good day.” So saying, Alexander turned and walked away, moving over to the great window, he affected to gaze out at the preparations of the foraging party, surreptitiously glancing quickly at them. The Belgians argued vehemently between themselves, the tall slender man with the look of an old soldier stood aloof and had said nothing during the interview. He now spoke and the others immediately fell silent in awe; he simply indicated that they needed to comply in the set time or face the consequences and they left abruptly.
Just within the two-hour deadline, the door was again assaulted, this time only the tall gentlemen had returned. He advanced directly toward Alexander to speak with him. He had come to apologise that his compatriots had not even attempted to collect the supplies demanded. He offered to ride with Quartermaster Hall and his team to obtain the supplies himself. Horses were provided and they rode off down the great drive, the Dutchman leading, looking extremely ungainly on the troop horse, Alexander could only liken it to a giraffe riding a camel!
The party returned within a further two hours bringing three cartloads of provisions, far in excess of what was demanded. It emerged that the tall Dutchman was the ‘Garde Village’, effectively the Chief of Police in the district, a roll Napoleon had given to many old soldiers. They were to run his affairs locally and ensure compliance with his decrees. The locals knew him as ‘Petit Jean’, he had served with the French in Catalonia until a musket ball had torn two fingers from his left hand, and he had been forced to retire from the Imperial Army. As an old soldier, he obviously sympathised with the demands of Alexander and had persuaded the locals to comply as the lesser of two evils. Alexander realised he could be a useful ally and ensured that he was treated with respect by all, indeed during their stay, he was to prove invaluable in smoothing over any complaints impartially which greatly aided the process of reconciliation.
The afternoon’s excitement over; a pleasing supper, followed by port and cigars whilst being serenaded by the delightful voice of Karl, caused their tired bodies to demand sleep and they eventually proceeded to their rooms for the night.
It had been a warm pleasant day and the evening had remained sultry and humid. Alexander lay down to rest, fatigued from the strains of the day, Bal lay at his feet quietly content, and Alexander closed his eyes in search of a deep deep sleep.
But what was that dreadful din? Rising with difficulty from the warm comfortable bed, he stumbled over to the window in the darkness, catching his toes on a chair leg on the way. He hobbled to the window and pushed it wide to lean out. Now the noise was deafening! A cacophony of deep-throated croaks made him peer down into the moat glistening in the bright moonlight beneath his window. It was swarming with great bullfrogs and toads, all croaking their love chants on this hot evening. Closing the window and burying himself in his blanket helped little; he could not drown out the sounds of croaking. He tossed and turned for hours, covered his head with his pillows and stuck his fingers in his ears, to no avail; still the sound pervaded his brain. Eventually in frustration he arose; admitting defeat he climbed the steps up to the drawing room to read and smoke a cigar to ease his troubled mind. As he ascended the staircase Alexander noticed that the door to the mess was ajar, and a feint glimmer of candlelight shone from within. Pushing the door wide open, he discovered his fellow officers all-lounging around with dark, deep-set eyes from lack of sleep, loudly complaining of the awful billet. They had all admitted defeat, no wonder that the owner rarely came here, it was sheer hell!
Morning arrived to find them all lying uncomfortably around the drawing room, sleep finally having crept up on their exhausted frames. Alexander had curled up on a fur rug; Henry Leathes was stretched on a sofa; the others had lain on tables, chests, or tried to sleep in chairs. They were as stiff as boards, tired and wretched, but the delightful aroma of bacon cooking wafted in from the kitchens below. This began a revival, which culminated in a hearty breakfast, which succeeded in restoring them thoroughly.
Alexander stepped out onto the lawn to seek the morning sunshine, which was rapidly burning off the morning dew; he stood enjoying the warm rays on his face as he planned a war of vengeance against the frogs that had now strangely gone quiet. His machinations were disturbed as he caught sight of the feint figure of a horseman riding slowly toward the chateau through the morning mist that still sat on the wide lawns. The figure dressed in a blue jacket and bicorn hat finally neared and the gentleman spoke.
“Good morning, Captain Mercer I trust?”
“Indeed it is Sir, Alexander Mercer at your service, but you have the advantage of me, may I enquire your business with me?”
The gentleman in his mid thirties with dark wavy hair and thick moustache held out his gloved hand in welcome.
“Joshua Coates at your service, your Commissary, I am to organise the local farm carts into a team of supply wagons for you and prepare fodder and ration stores ready for any advance.”
Alexander was happy for this welcome addition to his team, the requisitioning of supplies was a thorny problem with the farmers and he relished handing over this aspect of his job. He took Joshua’s hand and shook it violently in his delight.
“You are most welcome Mister Coates; I trust that you are well versed in this role?” Alexander was well aware of the horror stories surrounding the Commissariat department and its staff. They were run by the Treasury, not the Army, thus as civilians they were not under army discipline. Many in Spain had been untrained and inefficient or downright corrupt, but then who would take a career where your normal fifteen shillings per day on home service actually fell to five shillings when on campaign! However, some had done sterling work in the Peninsula and Lord Wellington had arranged for the worst to be sent home. Those that finished the tour of Spain had gained a wealth of knowledge and performed their tasks relatively efficiently.
Joshua smiled “I trust five years in Spain, providing for Lord Wellington’s army, will have prepared me well for this task. Indeed, this is a fertile area, there are more carts and fodder within five miles of here, than I ever saw within a hundred in Spain!”
“Then I trust that you will form the stores as ordered and utilise my men for any task required to accomplish it. Come now and join our breakfast, there is plenty of good bacon, bread and coffee left.”
Joshua dismounted, tethering his horse to a nearby stanchion and walked with Alexander to introduce himself to the other officers.
An hour later, Joshua Coates left to visit the local farmers to requisition the horses and carts necessary for feeding the troop for a few days. He expected opposition from the farmers, as the loss of their carts would be a serious inconvenience. The official forage allowance for horses was fourteen pounds of hay and ten pounds of oats per horse per day. Each man was allowed a pound of meat, the weight including any bone and offal attached, a pound and a half of bread, a quarter pint of peas, an ounce of butter or cheese, an ounce of rice and a pint of wine per day. All this weighed nearly three tons just for one day’s rations for the whole troop! He would need to requisition quite a number of carts to supply the unit for any reasonable length of time.
Alexander had ordered the troop to muster fully equipped on the lawns of the chateau at 10 o'clock for ‘watering parade’ and a full inspection. It was vital that the horses were exercised and that the troop ran through their drills, to ensure that they had not become jaded during their long journey from Colchester. They would venture out to find a field where they could carry out manoeuvres. Alexander entered the stable block and mounted Cossack; he had been beautifully groomed by William. The beast was eager for action, snorting and pulling on his bridle in anticipation. Once mounted, Alexander pulled his legs in tight, silently ordering him forward. Cossack stepped out, head held high as he carried his master onto the lawn, to view his expectant troop. G Troop was fully formed up in fighting order, Alexander halted in front of the troop to cast a critical eye over the full team. The troop boasted six cannon, five six pounders and a single five and a half inch howitzer. Cannon were denoted by the weight of the largest solid iron ball that would fit down the muzzle to be fired. Their iron barrels gleamed in the sunlight, sitting on their grey painted wooden carriages with great spoked wheels. The carriage extended back beyond the barrel, angling downward to rest on the floor, this was termed the ‘trail’. The trail formed the third contact point with the ground, which with the wheels formed a stable platform for the cannon. The gun carriages differed fundamentally in design from Continental armies; they used a trail that had two solid arms angling back in a V shape with cross pieces to give added strength and stability. British guns only had the single solid trail, which made the frame much lighter and significantly more manoeuvrable. The foot of the trails had a large iron hoop bolted on to them. When the hoop was attached to a hook on the back of the limbers, the horse teams could pull the cannon along. Cannon were designed to fire balls on a horizontal trajectory, which smashed through anything directly in its path. Unfortunately targets could often hide behind cover and thus be protected from direct fire, hence the introduction of a howitzer into the battery. These guns looked very similar to ordinary cannon but had the ability to angle the barrel upwards via a simple screw or wedge mechanism, to ‘lob’ their fire over intervening cover and reach their target. Howitzers were strangely designated by a different method, the simple diameter of the barrel, such as the five and a half inch one they used. All countries tended to use mixed batteries of cannon and howitzers, all the guns were fundamentally of similar design and performance, but the British had a secret weapon, ‘shrapnel’. All nations fired shells from howitzers; these were spherical iron casings filled with explosive. The act of firing the shell from the muzzle ignited the shell’s fuse, it arced high into the air and would land from a steep trajectory, often sitting on the ground for a few seconds hissing loudly, as the fuse burnt down then exploded. The explosion sent shards of the casing in all directions causing serious injuries. The problem was that shells often smashed on impact on rocky ground or sank very deeply into the soft earth, where they exploded, showering those near with harmless mud. Those that landed properly could also be disarmed before the fuse burnt down by some intrepid individual plucking out the still burning fuse, or more often they sat hissing for a few seconds giving warning of the imminent explosion, allowing everyone to lie down or take cover before the blast.
Captain William Shrapnel had invented an alternative, the Shrapnel shell, more commonly called ‘spherical case shot’. He simply redesigned the common shell, thinning the casing and packing musket balls into the void along with the explosive. The fuse was cut by well trained gunners, timed to explode in the air at about head height, the casing and balls spreading outwards to shower the target below. One such shell could destroy a complete gun team or decimate a closely packed column of infantry. Amazingly, although it had been used with great effect throughout the Peninsula war, the French had never copied the idea and it remained a virtual ‘secret weapon’.
The troop was also confusingly termed a brigade, each Captain could command a three gun ‘half brigade’ each, if required to divide. The three lieutenants commanded two guns each, termed a ‘division’, each gun within the division was commanded by an NCO, known as a sub division, therefore the troop could operate efficiently at an individual level.
The troop was drawn up in its three ‘divisions’ for the inspection, each lieutenant reporting his own teams of two guns. The guns were all harnessed onto their limbers, the box seats of which held emergency ammunition but also formed a seat where two gunners sat. The drivers sat astride the left hand horses to control the teams of eight horses. Ten gunners for each cannon rode individual horses and lined up in pairs behind their gun. Behind each cannon was a wagon filled with the cannonballs, shells and charges for each gun, here the last three gunners of each team sat with a driver controlling the six-horse team. Further back stood another line of ‘reserve’ ammunition wagons, one to each of the three gun ‘divisions’. At the rear of all, stood the ancillary wagons, a cart for spare wheels; one set up as a travelling forge; another to transport an anvil for shoeing the horses and a wagon for the baggage; each cart was furnished with a driver and four horses. Thirty spare horses stood to one side; these were to replace any that may be lost in action. The Ordnance Board allocated each officer a horse and a pack mule, but most self-respecting officers had two more furnished at their own expense. The Surgeon, Mr Hichens was further issued a horse and pack mule for his chest. Alexander viewed this impressive array of military might and his emotions welled up within him, he was proud of his troop. One hundred and eighty nine officers and men and two hundred and twenty six horses and mules in total, it was a sizeable team with a powerful punch, he was awed by the responsibility. Four officers; a Surgeon; eight non commissioned officers; six bombardiers that cut the fuses to length; one farrier; three shoeing smiths; two collar makers; one wheel maker; one trumpeter; eighty two gunners and eighty drivers; that was his command. Only one man was absent, Gunner Rees Harris who had been sickly for months and had been left behind in Colchester.
He would do his best for them; he just hoped that it would be enough to get them through. He lifted his eyes and offered a silent prayer to the Almighty to give him his help, for now Alexander realised how little of campaigning he knew. Then he mentally upbraided himself for his fears, he must show total confidence, and they would get through somehow. He spurred Cossack forward to receive the salute and reports from the officers as he commenced a thorough inspection.
Alexander took an age to inspect every horse and their equipment to ensure that it had all been restored to perfect condition after the misuse it had suffered. The dousing in salt water had hardened the leather making it rub on the horses. All the leather had been dried, wiped to remove salt residue and repeatedly ‘blacked’ to regain its suppleness. The horses had been thoroughly groomed, their matted manes brushed through and having rested with ample rations, their eyes and coats gleamed, they were at their peak again. There was no evidence of long-term deterioration in their condition from their ordeal; they had come through their first major trial well. He was rightly pleased.
Alexander led G Troop out onto the road in search of a practice ground. The troop marched about four miles through a number of small villages, until entering a tiny hamlet marked Denderhaut on his map, Alexander discovered a large pasture, that was not in cultivation and would suit his needs ideally.
He ordered them into the field, parked the reserve carts near the entrance and put the gun teams through their paces. The six guns lined up at one end of the pasture, and then Alexander ordered Henry Bowen the bugler to order the advance, at which they trotted forward, and then broke into a gallop. Without warning, he indicated again to Bowen who sounded the sharp notes of ‘prepare to engage’. With scarcely a word uttered, the horses slowed, rapidly performed a full one hundred and eighty degree turn then halted. The cannon were now facing the ‘enemy’ and were unlimbered in seconds by the gunners, the trails striking the ground with a solid thud. The horse teams trotted to the rear and the gunner’s horses were led out of the way. The caissons having also advanced were now in position fifty yards behind the guns; ready to issue further ammunition once the limber supplies were exhausted.
The ‘aimer’ quickly judged the distance to fire unless ordered at a set range. This time Alexander bellowed, “Target three hundred yards, engage at will”. The aimers quickly looked through their sights, ordering the others to lever the trails left or right with their iron bars until the barrel pointed directly at the target; then turned the screw elevator to the desired range.
The men went through the routine like clockwork, the ‘sponge man’ swabbed the barrel out with a saturated fleece tied to a pole, which damped the hot cannon down, removed any burning embers still in the barrel and removed any carbon deposits that might impair it’s effectiveness between firings.
As the ‘Sponge man’ worked, the ‘Vents-man’ stepped forward to place his right thumb, which was encased in a leather stall, over the touchhole to prevent ingress of air prematurely igniting the explosive charge as the cannon was loaded.
Another stepped forward with the pre packed charge. The ammunition consisted of a mass of gunpowder packed with a wooden disc at one end, this formed a divide between the iron cannon ball and explosive, the complete assembly was then wrapped in paper or canvas. The ‘Charge-man’ placed this parcel in the muzzle and the ‘Sponge man’, using a ball shaped tool on the opposite end of his pole rammed the charge to the base of the barrel.
The ‘Vents man’ then removed his thumb from the touchhole and inserted a metal spike into the hole, which penetrated the paper wrapper of the charge, releasing some of the gunpowder. On the order to fire from the NCO in charge of the gun, the ‘Vents man’ applied a lighted slow match, which was twisted around a stick, to the touchhole and the charge would ignite. The resulting explosion drove the cannonball out of the barrel at high velocity.
The operation of loading and firing, if done slickly, took no more than thirty seconds. Indeed, any half decent team would be able to sustain a rate of twice a minute for a reasonably long period of time. The other team members were employed in fetching the ammunition from the wagons or dragging the gun back into position after each firing as they had a severe recoil, jumping backwards many feet on firing. The constant dragging of the cannon back into position was usually the greatest exertion for the gun teams in battle.