Alexander timed the unlimbering of each team to the moment of the first shot discharged on his fob watch. They all achieved timings of less than two minutes, a good speed; obviously they had not lost their edge.
They loosed off a further five blank charges each, then using a decayed farm ruin at the far end of the field as a target, they practised three rounds each with real ball. Little was left of the barn walls following two excellent shots from Staff Sergeant Hall’s team.
Alexander called out to John Hincks “Your division do you proud, Sir. The others need to learn from your team, such accuracy under pressure is essential, well done.”
Alexander was highly pleased with the days practise and ordered the march back to the chateau, they would celebrate tonight!
Their return in the fading light of dusk was marred by the sight of a deputation of local farmers arguing with Mr Coates on the chateau lawns. The group spotted the returning troop and immediately turned to approach Alexander. He reined in Cossack to halt, as the troop continued past him, through the archway and on into the stables.
Alexander could see anger on the faces of the Belgian landowners.
“What is it Joshua?” he enquired.
Coates looked exasperated, “I have informed them of our need for carts, fodder and provisions, but they refuse to release them until you returned. I wish to form a park and magazine at Mister Walsdragen’s farm, but they are not happy to comply.”
‘Petit Jean’ was present and was obviously deputised by the others to put their case. He stepped near to Cossack, patting the horse as he spoke softly but with authority.
“Captain Mercer, the farmers cannot work without their horses and carts, they wish to keep them on the farms until needed, they promise to deliver them within an hour of you calling for them.”
Alexander recognised their concerns and relented, “Please tell them that they may use them until we order them away, but they must hand them over immediately I order.”
Joshua was horrified, “Alexander, you cannot do this, it will take far too long to form them when you need them. Their promises are rash, my experience in Spain tells me that we must requisition now, or hang the consequences. Indeed the rations we have accumulated so far for the horses are totally inadequate and I need to collect a great deal more. As the saying goes, ‘the more flesh a horse carries the more he has to lose and therefore the longer privation he will endure’.”
Robert Newman interrupted, “I think you should reconsider, it is a bad decision Captain Mercer.”
Ingilby nodded his silent agreement with Newman.
Such a public challenge angered Alexander; his irritation with Robert was growing deeper daily.
“The decision is made and I stand by it, you will not question my decisions, Mister Newman,” he snapped back.
Robert was not so easily diverted. “You must reconsider, it……”
Alexander raised his palm firmly, plainly indicating to Newman for silence. He was determined to crush this threat to his authority. “Captain Newman, you will retire or I will be forced to refer your challenge to a Court Martial.”
Robert Newman rode off, crest fallen but indefatigable in his aim to undermine Alexander. His contempt for him had reached new depths, how could he not listen to his experienced opinion?
Alexander had decided to trust the farmers and he tried to calm Joshua. “It is my decision and I will be accountable for it as the senior officer.”
He was aware that this was the first occasion that he had overruled his more experienced colleagues, and hoped that he would not live to rue his firmness. However, he could not now lose face by altering his judgement, he would tough it out. The deputation left in high glee having achieved their goal and peace was restored.
The days rolled by, some mornings, the low growling sound of distant cannon fire could be heard. It had initially caused some consternation, but the farmers had informed Alexander, that it was the Belgian artillery based at Mons carrying out regular firing practise.
Time passed monotonously in a continuous round of field practise followed by relaxation at the chateau. Occasionally when they arrived at the field, King Louis’ Garde de Corps, whom they had known at Ghent, was already using it for drill, causing them to stand and wait. Other days they arrived before the Garde, when they were in turn forced to wait whilst G troop went through its paces. The Garde numbered some two hundred men, many little more than youths; they were dressed in the various uniforms of all the colours of the rainbow, which they had worn in the French army before fleeing with the King. They were put through their paces by the Duc de Berri the King’s brother, a short, dumpy, surly character with a bellowing voice and a vocabulary consisting entirely of expletives.
One morning, one of the troop dogs took exception to the Duc’s horse and barked constantly whilst nipping at the horse’s legs. The horse was worried by the hound’s antics, shying and kicking in an effort to rid it of this nuisance. The Duc lost his temper and drawing his sword, thrashed left and right in a determined effort to dispatch the cur. The antics amused all who watched, which made the Duc even more furious. The Frenchmen fought valiantly to control their stifled laughs through gritted teeth, sounding like so many engines releasing steam. G troop had no such problem with controlling their reactions and roared loudly. The dog was repeatedly called without success by Butterworth, until eventually the rascal grew bored of nipping at the horse and retired quietly to his master. The Duc slumped forward onto his horse’s neck from sheer exhaustion. Eventually regaining some composure, he raised himself until he stood in his stirrups and with undisguised anger ordered his corps to march off the field.
Driver Thomas Dibbin shouted after them “I’d not be in their boots for one hundred guineas tonight!” everyone nodded their agreement.
“Aye, they’ll be sorry for laughing at him!” added Gunner Death.
Alexander rode up alongside Butterworth, “Keep that bloody dog under control!” he barked.
“Aye Sir” he answered meekly.
Alexander turned away to ride back to the head of the troop and couldn’t resist a small chuckle at recent events.
In the interminable days that followed as week followed week, the two units continued to meet at the field regularly, but little love was lost between the commanders and rarely a word was exchanged during the changeover.
Once inspection was complete, if it were not a practise day, Alexander would often ride out alone for exercise on Cossack or Nelly his second horse. Passing through the surrounding villages, he encountered numerous camps of the various cavalry and artillery units dotted throughout the neighbourhood for ease of supply of victuals. The area had rightly been chosen as a very fertile spot with plenty of forage for the vast number of horses belonging to the cavalry and artillery. At a number of these camps, he would stop to pass a few words with old acquaintances and to exchange news, not that there seemed to be much happening. Sometimes he rode near to Brussels itself and came across the Brunswickers practising in the fields and hedgerows. Their Duke was aware that they were largely raw recruits and had them camp with sentries out and guards formed, they were to constantly act as if the French were no more than a mile away, which helped them to learn and understand their trade quickly.
On the 19th May, Sir George Wood, the Commander of all the Artillery under Lord Wellington, had ordered an inspection of his horse artillery troops. It took place at G troop’s practise field near Denderhaut, all six troops lined up alongside each other making an impressive display. Alexander was proud to stand as a troop commander alongside such men as Robert Bull commanding I troop, James Webber Smith of F troop, Norman Ramsay of H troop, Hew Ross of A troop and George Beane of D troop. Virtually all had served in the Peninsula and possessed great experience of command, this made Alexander all the more nervous, but made the accolade of the best turned out troop an even sweeter moment. Many of the officers in the various troops were old colleagues, Alexander and his team richly enjoyed the opportunity to rekindle old friendships. Alexander mused how they all sported non-regulation effects as Lord Wellington had little care for the fineries of dress code, he cared much more for the calibre of the man within. Ramsay sported a garish red and yellow striped light cavalry belt, Bull and Newland sported a ‘full set’ of moustache and beard; Alexander himself sported a fine non-regulation moustache. After the inspection, Sir George invited himself and Sir Augustus Frazer to their mess at the chateau where all enjoyed a convivial evening, the various servants being organised beautifully by Karl. Sir Augustus commanded the Royal Horse Artillery; he enjoyed a particularly high reputation, having served throughout the Peninsula War with distinction. He was a thorough gentleman, modest and a total professional, everyone’s beau ideal. Talk turned to the current political situation.
Alexander dared to ask the question they all wanted answered. “Are we likely to move soon, Sir George?”
Wood looked thoughtful for a moment, considering his reply carefully. The general banter in the room quietened as everyone awaited his reply with interest.
“Latest reports from Grant in France to Lord Wellington do not indicate any threat from Napoleon’s army at present.”
Everyone knew of Colquhoun Grant and his daring exploits in Spain. Grant was probably the only man who had Wellington’s utter trust; working as one of his ‘Exploring Officers’ deep behind enemy lines, but always dressed in his full scarlet uniform to avoid an ignoble death as a spy if caught. He and others like him hung around the edges of the French forces, collating reports from their own observations and those of the local landowners. Their only defence on being discovered was a remarkably fleet horse, to outstrip any French cavalrymen. If he was now in France gaining intelligence, Wellington was sure of ample warning of the French army’s movements.
Frazer added, “It is planned that our army will march in concert with the Prussians in early July, when the Austrians, Russians and Spanish are ready to launch their own invasions from the South. Napoleon cannot win; he cannot hope to stand against over half a million men! We will have a pleasant stroll to Paris, mark my words Gentlemen!”
Robert Newland proposed a toast, “To the downfall of the Monster!” which was cheered by all,
Two days later, a messenger rode into the courtyard of the chateau; he was hot and thirsty from his hard, exhausting ride. Alexander eagerly took possession of the numerous reports and orders he had brought and bid William take the despatch rider to the kitchen for refreshments, whilst he saw if there were any urgent replies required that could return with the dragoon.
The first he opened was a very welcome order from Sir Augustus Frazer; he was to send the five six pounder cannon back to Ghent, where they were to be exchanged for larger nine pounders. Alexander was pleased to issue orders for Robert Newland to command the teams which would proceed to Ghent the following morning, as the nine pounders packed a much more powerful punch. The six pounders were a little weak for modern warfare, indeed the French preferred twelve pounders, which Napoleon, an ex gunner himself, called his ‘Pretty girls’, but many French units still carried 6 pounders as they did. They did indeed pack a punch, but had been no match for nine pounders with shrapnel shells in Spain. He could thank Sir Augustus Frazer for convincing Wellington of the need to improve their firepower.
Another official notification was from the Ordnance Board, which had decided that his troop was overborne with officers, and in their wisdom ordered that William Ingilby was to transfer to Sir Robert Gardiner’s troop, which was short of officers. That had been Robert Newland’s old unit, when a Lieutenant in Spain. It had the advantage of depriving Newland of his arch accomplice in his campaigns to undermine him. Alexander was not unaware that Ingilby often felt frustrated with him, but when all was said and done, Alexander would miss the miserable bugger of a Yorkshire man! Ingilby would have to set off in the morning, so they would arrange a good send off that night.
A letter from Sir George Wood brought news of a major review of the troops by Lord Wellington and Marshal Blucher the Prussian Commander in Chief, on the 29th May. The review would take place at Grammont and afterwards all commanding officers were invited to a grand banquet at Ninove, cavalry headquarters. Sir George also let slip that farmer Walsdragen had written a complaint regarding Alexander to headquarters, despite his decision to leave them with their carts, but not to worry, Sir George hinted that somehow it had been lost in the system! Alexander breathed a sigh of relief, as Lord Wellington was known to react violently to serious complaints from locals, he tended to side with them without seeking the officer’s own version of events, at least that’s how the officers saw it. He suggested that the division presently stationed at Walsdragen’s farm be moved, Alexander immediately ordered them to move to another chateau farm about a mile further away at Ysingen, Henry Leathes as their divisional officer would have to live out there with them.
Having completed the official business, Alexander turned with joy to the two letters from his family in England, which Bombardier Masterton had sorted from the bundle of ordinary mail the messenger had also brought. Alexander could easily recognise the handwriting on the envelopes; the one was the untidy impatient scrawl of his father, the other the painfully perfect script of his meticulous sister. All at home were well, their letters spoke of family, friends, neighbours, horses and dogs, all trivial but read through three times over. He poured over every word, bringing thoughts of home flooding to the fore of his mind. It was a bitter sweet experience; the excitement of receiving news of loved ones soon succumbed to feelings of dejection, as thoughts of missing family life and friends washed over him. One was left with a good feeling from knowing that all was well, but tinged with a longing for the day that would bring them back together again. One could wonder why they put themselves through such torture, but the look of utter misery on the faces of those that did not receive any letters at all answered that. Some contact with that sane, normal world was infinitely preferable to no contact at all.
The next day was one full of fretting for Alexander, he worried that orders to move would arrive, or the French would attack, whilst Newland and his cannon were away in Ghent. Following a quick, formal farewell William Ingilby he rode off to his new appointment. Alexander watched him ride out of the grounds and wished him well. He strolled along the path skirting a large wood on the edge of the estate with Bal tucked at his heels. He planned to take a long walk in the pleasant sunshine, partly to refresh himself following the heavy drinking of last night as they saw old Ingilby off; and secondly, as a futile attempt to distract himself from his worries. He did not even reach the gate at the end of the wood before his plans were destroyed. A very angry farmer Van Hyden, who owned the farm adjoining the chateau, beset him. Accompanying him was ‘Petit Jean’, who marched up to Alexander triumphantly hauling John Butterworth along by his collar. Van Hyden tried to explain through his anger, but his Flemish was rushed and incoherent from rage, ‘Petit Jean’ explained succinctly in French.
“This man has been arrested, caught in the act of stealing potatoes from Mr Van Hyden’s garden.”
Alexander was angry; Lord Wellington would blame him for his men upsetting the locals, if this ever got to his ears.
Turning to Butterworth he spoke harshly, little concealing his frustration. “Well what have you got to say for yourself?”
John Butterworth showed no remorse, indeed he was indignant. “I did take some potatoes up, Sir, but they were just a few for to add to my meal and he does have plenty.”
“That is no excuse, you know the penalty for stealing” Alexander warned.
“But, he struck me Sir, with his cane, there was no need for that!” indicating Van Hyden’s walking stick propped alongside him.
‘Petit Jean’ understood and roared as his rage erupted!
“Merde, cochin!” he raged at Van Hyden and proceeded to strike the farmer across the head with his own cane. Alexander understood enough Flemish through the tirade of expletives to indicate that ‘Petit Jean’ was horrified that the farmer had struck a soldier, how dare he? Van Hyden fled, squealing like a pig, the policeman continuing to strike him, as they disappeared towards his farm.
The amazing scene had lightened Alexander’s anger and there was little chance of a complaint going to Brussels now! Turning to Butterworth he warned, “You are a lucky man Butterworth. You appear to have got away Scot free this time........but do not fail me again!”
John Butterworth full of contrition meekly saluted and skulked away, professing his gratitude until he turned the corner of the chateau and was out of sight. He stopped to rest his head against the stone wall, a broad grin played across his face as he pulled dozens of fine new potatoes from his deep pockets. That had been close but he’d got away with it again!
Alexander continued with his walk in a vain attempt to ease his worried mind, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t clear his head. He strolled around the neighbourhood until evening eventually came, when the chill in the air as the sun slipped over the horizon urged him to return to the chateau. With no alarm coming, he unwound a little as he lazed in the mess, but he did not completely relax until the sound of hooves clattering on the cobbled yard below, finally announced the return of the teams with the new nine pounders. He needed a cigar and a hefty bumper!
Each day followed another with the same monotonous routines, everyone longed for a move, something new to do. Eventually, they had even learnt to sleep despite the interminable racket of the frogs. The noise had become bearable with the windows all closed to dull the sound. However, now that the evenings were turning warm and sultry, windows had to be left open to avoid suffocating. The frog choir seemed to grow audibly each night and it became unbearable again, plans would have to be made to destroy or drive the frogs away. Striking them with wooden staves on the banks succeeded in killing hordes. The scene soon became disgusting, ooze and slime was splattered everywhere from their numberless corpses. All fell silent and they retired to the mess to celebrate their victory, but within half an hour it was obvious that they had not won the war! A few hardy frogs had reappeared, reconnoitred the scene of carnage and long before an hour had passed, thousands of relatives had joined the mourners, croaking their sorrow. Three evenings of this carnage did not improve anything, still they returned in greater multitudes. This led to more drastic measures being suggested in their desperation. Henry Leathes idea was explosive charges; Alexander declined it as too excessive! Richard Hichens and John Bretton had a theory that the frogs disappeared into the water whilst the attacks progressed; they would destroy them by using their cudgels from a rickety homemade raft. The men enthusiastically helped collect the spare butts and planking to construct the wooden platform. They were glad to relieve the boredom of the evenings, and they were amused to conjecture on their success. Launch day eventually arrived with great hopes of finally solving the problem. Having pushed the raft out on to the water gingerly, they were relieved to see it float unaided. The platform was just wide enough for the two to stand at each end, still allowing them the room to swing their weapons of death. They were cheered as John and Richard crawled onboard and the raft was propelled towards the centre of the moat. Having gained confidence in the solidity of the raft, they struck all around at the numberless targets that bobbed on the surface. They did kill huge numbers, but more seemed to emerge as quickly as they destroyed them. Exhaustion crept upon them but desperation drove them on, they struck out more and more wildly in a vain attempt to succeed. Their movements becoming more and more violent they rocked the platform wildly, until the inevitable finally occurred. One edge of the platform descended deep into the water and the boards slowly arced up and over as the raft turned turtle. Both occupants were propelled into the stinking waters! Having floundered for a few seconds, their splashing ceased as the realisation dawned that they could simply stand up in the moat. . The waters reached only up to the chest at its deepest. The cheers and roaring laughter of the spectators sent them into fits of apoplexy. They dragged themselves through the stinking pool to the edge where eager hands helped haul them from the putrid waters. They stood dripping with ooze, their shirts green with slime.
Their servants ran into the chateau to order vast amounts of boiling hot water to allow them to bathe. Alexander stopped his roar for a few seconds to receive the parcel he had sent William to fetch from his room. With all seriousness he offered the box to Richard. Opening the package, Richard smiled in recognition; it was a large bottle of eau de cologne.
“You will need all of that to hide the stench!” he proffered, before resuming his roar. Everybody joined the fun; they would not live this one down for a good while!
Drastic action was going to be required to eradicate this frog problem Alexander thought as he mulled over the days occurrences, he would have to devise a better plan.
Next morning, he called for the old gardener and ordered him to let the sluice open, to drain the moat and so kill the frogs. The Belgian argued against it, he claimed that the Prussians had tried it only the year before but had given up because of the stench. Alexander was adamant that it was to happen; the weather had turned cool and cloudy again, so the smell should be minimal. The gardener grumbled loudly as he closed the fill channel and opened the drainage sluices. The water levels in the moat started to drop very slowly and after two days only half the water had drained away revealing a thick layer of green slime and the bodies of thousands of frogs. Then the sun peeped out from cover again and the temperatures soared, so did the smell of putrefaction! The smell was unbearable; but still they struggled on for another day, walking around the chateau with handkerchiefs held to their noses. By that evening the frogs had diminished markedly in volume, they were winning! It was decided to continue for another few days to empty the moat completely, the stench would be worth it. However the following morning, the foul smelling waters ruined their breakfast and being unable to stand it any more, Alexander ordered the sluices reset to fill the moat again. The purgatory was not so easily finished, it continued for three whole days, whilst the waters rose high enough for the slime to sink beneath the surface and the air to begin to purify. At least the frogs had been defeated Alexander mused; the fetid stench had been worth it.
Late that evening Alexander lay in his bed enjoying the peace, his eyelids felt heavy. A croak! Then another! Soon dozens of the amphibians were vying for the accolade of loudest voice. Unbelievably the frogs had returned, in just as large numbers as before.
Alexander, like all the others, lay in bed infuriated by their inability to eradicate the problem. However, after a while listening to the interminable racket, sleep had finally stolen up on each of them. They soon realised that they had become acclimatised to the din at night and slept despite it, so they agreed to leave the frogs in peace. Alexander and the others were forced to admit total defeat!