Finally, the day of the grand review had arrived and at first light Alexander gave the order for the troop to proceed on the road to Grammont. Only the cannon and gun crews were required, the remainder were to stay at the chateau with Robert in command.
Alexander was happy to put a few miles between the two of them for a while. Following a poor map that he had removed from a book in the chateau’s library, they had managed to find their way. They travelled some ten miles over pot-holed roads, where they had been forced to stop frequently to cover the holes with earth and brushwood before they could proceed. Eventually, the village and a large plain bordering the meandering River Dender came into view. Many cavalry regiments could already be seen on the broad plateau, they were grooming their horses after their long dusty journeys.
Alexander ordered his troop into the position indicated to him and ordered the three Lieutenants to organise their men. They had to groom the horses, clean all the leather work, shine up the brass cannon and fittings, then brush their own uniforms down to remove the dirt and grime from the dry earth roads. Horses were fed and watered; the men quenched their own thirst from their canteens, washing the dust out of their throats.
A group of horsemen approached and the alarm went up that Lord Wellington and his guests were arriving early!
“The Duke, the Duke, the Duke’s coming!” blurted Death.
However, the consternation soon subsided once the riders had been identified.
‘Tis only the Duc de Berri and his aides, Stand down lads’ barked Staff Sergeant Hall.
The Duc must have preceded the official guests on purpose, to upstage them and to display his own importance.
It was not to go to plan, for the senior officer politely but firmly refused him a salute. The troops were not ready and he was not entitled to one, as he was not formally reviewing them. This answer was not to the Duc’s liking, his face went puce as his blood pressure rose visibly; he argued, but got the same reply from the brave officer. Finally he snapped, let rip with an almost unintelligible burst of profanity, then turning his horse sharply he struck out at the poor beast with his whip and disappeared in a great cloud of dust, hotly pursued by his entourage. The troops had watched proceedings whilst affecting an air of total indifference to the Duc. His departure brought forth a great roar of laughter, which would not do anything to improve his temper.
Driver Thomas Dibbin stood just in front of Alexander cleaning a horse collar; he looked up as the Frenchmen dashed away and shouted a parting shot.
“I wouldn’t be one of them there French fellows at drill upon the common tomorrow for a penny, if they’re not proper bully ragged, I’m damned.”
Alexander smiled, he was right, the Duc would be furious for a week!
The review was to be an impressive affair to reassure the Prussians that the British were serious in supporting them during the planned invasion of France to oust the usurper Napoleon. There were three lines of troops spread across the total expanse of the plain. The front rank consisted of lines of hussars in their garish, brightly coloured uniforms, with numerous rows of braid stretched across their breasts, in strong contrasting colours. A jacket of matching bright colour was worn fashionably over the shoulder with the right arm out of its sleeve, the jacket was known as a pelisse. It was all topped off with a great felt or fur hat of black or brown. These light horsemen copied the colourful uniforms of the original Hungarian hussars that had struck terror through the Turkish hordes of yore. Interspersed between the hussar regiments were the troops of horse artillery including G troop. The second line consisted of heavy dragoons; great brutes of men on giant horses, all wore scarlet uniforms with vertical stripes of gold and navy running down the chest and copied in the cummerbund; white belts and grey breeches with a broad red band running down the leg. A great brass helmet with a flowing black comb trailing over the shoulders completed the dramatic outfit; they contrasted strongly with the hussars.
Between each regiment of the dragoons there were foot artillery batteries stationed with their nine pounders. There were also a number of massive twenty-four pounders of the siege artillery. The third line contained further foot artillery units linking light dragoon regiments. These cavalrymen sported dark blue uniforms edged on the collar and cuffs with various bright colours that denoted individual regiments. The regimental colour was repeated on a large central panel of the jacket covering the chest and also formed the colour of the stripes on the grey trousers. This uniform was topped by a large bell shaped shako; adorned with a red and white cockade and tassels of gold.
Alexander and his troop were not to be outdone, with their own uniforms aping the hussars in style. They were dressed in their jackets of deep blue with yellow-gold braid and matching off the shoulder pelisse, the sleeves and collar edged in artillery red. The foot artillery did not sport such an extravagant version of the uniform, their blue jacket had little braid, they had no use for a pelisse and their infantry style ‘stovepipe’ shako was not as impressive as their counterpart’s fur crested ‘tarleton’ helmet.
The overall effect of the parade was extremely impressive, the contrast of uniforms and colours, the sheer presence of six thousand cavalrymen and dozens of cannon in superb condition was awesome, Blucher could not help but be impressed!
At two o’ clock, the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blucher arrived, followed by a great mass of senior officers and orderlies. Ten cannon roared their salute as they entered the field.
The Duke was, unusually for him, dressed in full uniform, scarlet jacket adorned with medals, white breeches and black bicorn tipped with feathers. Blucher appeared in the sombre, deep blue jacket of the Prussian army with little adornment, he would have been difficult to recognise but for the stars and medals that adorned his jacket. His grey hair and long white moustachio softened his worn, hard features and dark piercing eyes. ‘Marshal Forwards’ as his troops affectionately knew him, was every inch the old warrior, the men wanted to impress him with their bearing and sat awaiting inspection firmly at attention. The generals took an age inspecting each cavalryman in minute detail and it seemed to be an interminable length of time before they reached G troop. Blucher immediately showed his delight at the superb display of horses and equipment.
“Mein Gott, dere iss not von ‘orse in dis battery which if not goot enough for a Veldt Marshal!” he exclaimed.
Wellington and his staff roared with laughter and were clearly delighted with his reaction. Alexander permitted himself a smile, but quickly stopped when he caught sight of the scowl appearing on the Duke’s face. The Marshal inspected the troop in great detail asking Alexander a mass of questions about their capabilities. Alexander was extremely gratified by the obvious interest he displayed. After a full inspection, Blucher turned to Wellington.
“I vish dat vee may see dis vonderful battery in battle, vot a sight.”
They moved off to review the others and Alexander had plenty of time to contemplate the compliments of the old warhorse. It was in stark contrast with the Duke, who had not uttered a word, just that scowl. Nobody expected anything more from his Lordship; it was his way. He had very high standards and you knew that if he didn’t like what he saw, then you wouldn’t have to wait long to learn of his displeasure. The review ended with a march past in salute to the two generals.
Following the inspection, the troop was ordered back to the chateau in the charge of Henry Leathes. Alexander joined the senior officers on a ride to Ninove for the banquet that was to further welcome their Prussian guests. At the formal meal Alexander was seated between Colonel Arentschild the famous German Legion light cavalryman and Strenewitz hero of the Prussian hussars. Conversation was lively as these two great cavalry leaders reminisced over their exploits.
Following an extravagant meal of eight courses and unlimited wines, coffee was served. Alexander was stood in the great drawing room of the chateau, discussing the day with Arentschild, when the Duke approached. Ignoring Alexander, Wellington conversed with Arentschild for nearly half an hour regarding the situation on the frontier. Alexander had no retreat as he stood in a bay window; he was forced to stand in silence whilst the two conversed across him. Initially the conversation was interesting, he listened avidly to the latest reports and understood that presently all was quiet and that the armies would invade France early in July as previously agreed with Blucher. Alexander smiled when he heard Wellington refer to Bonaparte as ‘Jonathan Wild the Great’, a reference to Napoleon’s regime. Wild had been a notorious criminal, an organiser of robberies and receiver of stolen property; he had been hanged at Tyburn in 1725. Alexander smiled at the subtle dig at the French Emperor and his nefarious ways of financing his army. Finally, his Lordship stepped away and Alexander could move freely again, he had not even indicated that he was aware of Alexander’s presence, a fine return for the success of his inspection that morning!
Returning to Strytem the following day, the tedious routine resumed, they had now been there seven weeks and there was no sign of a change. Alexander mused over the problem of keeping the men away from the local lasses and more importantly, the Geneva Gin! The men frequented the hostelry alongside the church in the village on mass after stabling the horses each night; it was usually also crowded with locals. Luckily there had been no major disturbances, just some minor fracas that ‘Petit Jean’ had managed to quieten down; he was proving an extremely helpful ally.
That evening, whilst walking with Bal enjoying a cigar in the lanes near the chateau, Alexander neared farmer Walsdragen’s residence. He spotted the gamekeeper that was always scouting the woods around the farm, but mysteriously never caught any rabbits! The sight of a half dressed wench and a shriek of laughter told him why; Walsdragen’s daughters were the game!
Passing the farm, a loud scream harshly rent the silence; it was a cry of extreme pain and was followed rapidly by loud groans and wailing.
Alexander was at a loss as to what could have happened, but it could not be good, he instinctively ran towards the farm. As he reached the farm door, it opened and Walsdragen emerged, tears rolling down his cheeks. He stepped forward seemingly unaware of Alexander, then sank to his knees groaning loudly, tearing at his hair in a frenzy. Soon other members of the family emerged, clearly upset, some of the women moved to console Walsdragen. Two men carrying a shovel stepped aside and cut a clod of earth, taking the sod back into the house they proceeded upstairs; Alexander was drawn after them in his desire to discover what had happened. Reaching the master bedroom Alexander stared at the dreadful sight of Walsdragen’s wife lying on the bed ashen faced, the sheets sodden with her blood; she had clearly died in childbirth. Alexander strained his hearing for the sound of a baby, but the sight of a woman placing a blood stained rag enclosing an immature foetus on the corpse’s chest told him that there was no hope. He watched as the farmers gently placed the clod of earth beneath her head for a pillow, as local custom required, then retired discreetly. Alexander felt sorry for Walsdragen despite his previous confrontations; no man deserved such sadness in his life. Passing the distraught farmer he could think of nothing to say that would console the wretched man, he simply placed his hand on his shoulder and squeezed hard as a sign of comfort, and then walked on, the message would be understood.
The following evening a loud rapping at the main door of the chateau foretelling visitors found John Bretton sat at dinner with Alexander. The servants opened the door to Sergeant John Nisbitt, the sergeant of the division at Yssingen village. He reported that a gentleman in a dark blue tunic had arrived at his post and demanded in a very imperious manner that the accommodation at the chateau and village be prepared for Lord Uxbridge and two hundred cavalry that would arrive within the hour. When told that there was no room, he required to know which units were stationed there. The sergeant had told him of the division of the troop in residence there, when the gentleman had ridden off to report this to Lord Uxbridge and to gain further orders. The officer had strangely ridden off just as Lieutenant Henry Leathes had reappeared from his ride. The sergeant had then been ordered by Henry to report the incident and he had immediately ridden to the chateau.
John Bretton looked pleased “Lord Uxbridge here tonight, it will be a jolly evening.”
Alexander laughed “Do you not see Henry, Uxbridge has no business here; he is in Brussels as second in command to the Duke. Our clever fellow must have been a spy, you will not see him again as he has gleaned all the information he wanted.”
Sergeant Nisbitt looked aghast.
“Do not fret Nisbitt, you were not to know, return to your unit, he will be well gone by now.”
The following morning, the sun arose into a sky uncluttered by even a wisp of cloud, promising another bright summer’s day. Around mid morning Alexander saw the other officers off on the road to Brussels. They were invited to attend the Ball being arranged by the Duchess of Richmond that evening. Alexander would stay to command the troop as he had little liking for formal dances. It was a lonely evening on his own, but he settled with a copy of Homer’s 'Iliad' from the library and eventually drifted off to sleep in a chair. Nearly eight weeks here had made him relax; he had no worries of anything happening whilst the other officers were away. It was the night of the 15th June 1815, a date that he was never to forget!
The month the Rifles had resided in Brussels was one of the best times they had ever known. The people had made them thoroughly welcome, food and beer were plentiful and cheap, and the girls were not only very beautiful but also very friendly! Many a romance started to blossom for those whose wives hadn’t followed, the lads relaxed, indeed the threat of war seemed a million miles away; but all knew that Napoleon and his armies were preparing for the contest and rumours abounded that he was going to attack Belgium first. If he could take the capital city of Belgium and drive the British into the sea and Prussians back to Germany, he would be on the road to continental supremacy once again.
Lord Wellington would not allow his men to become jaded and out of practice. Three times weekly the battalion must manoeuvre using battlefield tactics, live firing was used to accustom the new men to the noise of their rifle and the hefty kick it made into the shoulder when fired. Captain Jonathan Leach and Sergeant Robert Fairfoot put the Rifles through their paces, he ensured that the men had their pairs, each experienced peninsula man with a rookie. They would rely upon each other completely in battle, the pairs worked together in harmony, one firing, the second reserving his fire whilst the first reloaded, then vice versa. You were at your most vulnerable when loading, your partner covered you and with one up the spout of his rifle he could fire on any real danger threatening you. They worked hard to build this rapport and total understanding of each other; complete trust was the only way to survive.
The Baker rifle was their weapon and a damn good one it was. Most of the army was issued with muskets, the good old ‘Brown Bess’ as everybody called it affectionately. Couldn’t hit a barn door at 100 yards! That’s why the ‘lobsters’, as they called the red tunic’d infantry, fired on mass, if three hundred fired together some would hit the target. As the French attacked in huge ‘columns’, solid blocks of men, designed to overwhelm the opposition by sheer weight of numbers; the musket had a much greater chance of hitting someone when fired at such a mass of humanity. When you loosed off three rounds per minute as well trained infantry could, then they caused a lot of casualties. The large lead balls produced horrendous injuries, they flattened on impact tearing gaping holes in flesh and organs, splintering bone into hundreds of shards and often slowed enough to come to rest deep in muscle where it could cause discomfort but more dangerously, infection and gangrene. A couple of rolling volleys immediately followed up by a bayonet charge and the French would run away, at least they always had in Spain; they had never been keen on cold steel!
The Rifle troops had a very different role and Sergeant Fairfoot checked his men’s understanding. The recruits had trained thoroughly but they hadn’t used the tactics for real, it needed to be second nature, automatic, if you stopped to think you were dead.
He watched the pairs working together, advancing against an imaginary foe along the hedge lined country lanes in the rolling countryside bordering the City of Brussels. They darted from one point of cover to another, taking up firing positions to cover the others movement; it was like watching an army of ants darting about in all directions with no obvious aim but actually all working to one overall objective.
Robert Fairfoot watched their progress with an eagle eye.
“Murphy get your fat head down, do you want it shot off?”
“Costello, if you don’t run faster than that, you’ll be on latrine duty for a week!”
“Maher, who are you covering?”
“Treacy, Sergeant” was the reply.
“Well Treacy I’d be bloody worried if I was you, Maher’s dreaming. Wake up Maher; did the Froggies take your brain out in prison?”
This went on every other day for a few weeks, then the men started to work well together, their trust and understanding was now instinctive and eventually Sergeant Fairfoot was satisfied.
Target practice was another exercise that was regularly practised to maintain their proficiency. The Baker rifle was a much more accurate weapon than the musket; any half decent shot could hit a man at two hundred yards. The problem was that it was a nightmare to load, the quarter turn rifling on the barrel which made it much more accurate than the smooth bore muskets, also made it much tougher to drive the firing charge and ball down the muzzle. Sometimes the fit was so tight that a small wooden mallet was needed to drive it down to the bottom of the barrel. Even experienced riflemen needed at least a minute to load and fire. This was why most troops didn’t use the rifle; it was too slow to stop a determined massed enemy force. Even infantry could cover the two hundred yards of its range in a few minutes, closer than one hundred yards the troops with muskets were just as accurate and could fire three times as fast! No, that was a fight they couldn’t hope to win.
Riflemen had a different role; they were to counter the French tactic of sending out clouds of ‘skirmishers’. These light infantry spread out up to a hundred yards ahead of the main force, taking cover and firing to upset the formed ranks of the opposing troops, whilst the columns closed, screened from attack until close in ready to break through. All armies used skirmishers to protect their formed infantry in varying degrees, but most still supplied them with muskets; even many British light infantry units had muskets. The opposing skirmishers fought against their counterparts for supremacy, which would then allow them to damage the massed ranks behind. The Ninety Fifth were designed to counter the clouds of French voltigeurs and were one of the few units in any army supplied with rifles. This gave them a great advantage at distance and five years of fighting had given them a psychological supremacy over the French.
Sergeant Fairfoot checked their understanding of the tactics; he picked out Private Palmer, known as the ‘Bomb proof man’, having survived a shell exploding next to him back at Badajoz in 1812. He was a bleeding miracle man, didn’t even get a scratch!
“Palmer, list your targets”
“Officers Sergeant, on horses first as they are usually senior officers and the fancier dressed the better. Rich pickings if you can get to the body later!”
The men laughed.
Robert Fairfoot did not smile “Steady lads, who else Palmer?”
“Junior Officers, Standard bearers, drummers and buglers… and any one looking like they are giving the rest the courage to keep advancing;…..oh! and Sergeants, Sarge” he beamed.
The men laughed again.
“All right Palmer” Robert admonished. Then an evil thought flashed through his mind.
“Now let’s see how your shooting is men. Plunket step forward and show them how to shoot, Palmer you hold the target.”
“But Sarge” blurted Palmer.
“What’s wrong Palmer, don’t you trust Plunket? Get going, measure out two hundred paces and hold the target up.”
Palmer looked worried and ambled disconcertedly out to the distance set.
“Get a move on Palmer” Fairfoot chivvied him.
Eventually he reached the correct distance; he reluctantly stood holding the raffia disc measuring twelve inches in diameter, high above his head whilst Plunket took aim.
Plunket was the best shot in the regiment, possibly the best in the army. He actually served with the second battalion of the Ninety Fifth, which had been in Belgium a month before the first battalion. He had been requested to come over for a few days to improve the shooting skills of the newer Riflemen. Tom was famous for hanging back on the retreat to Corunna to pick off General Colbert leading the French advance. He had taken his time, despite the French cavalrymen closing rapidly and his one shot struck the General, killing him outright. He then bolted for the cover of his colleagues, just reaching safety before the swords of the pursuing horsemen pricked his back. Tom was another Irishman, of middle height, brown hair and piercing grey eyes, he had become famous in the newspapers at home and he had risen to Sergeant. But, Tom liked the bottle a little too much; he was often to be seen dancing the hornpipe on a hogshead barrel or quarrelling with the locals when three sheets to the wind. He had actually tried to shoot his company officer Lieutenant Stewart one day when very drunk; luckily the guard having been alerted by his loud threats caught him and locked him up before he had found Stewart. They would normally have shot him for such a very serious offence, but he was only broken back to Private. His fame at home had saved him, the army not wanting any public embarrassment over its most famous ranker. That had been back in 1809 and he had stayed at Private ever since. To be fair to Lieutenant Archibald Stewart, he had never mentioned the incident again nor held a grudge against him.
Now, to take aim Tom chose to lie on his back, feet facing towards the target, just as he had with the shot that had General Colbert’s name on it. He lifted his head to look down the line of the barrel which rested between his feet, he judged the initial rise of the ball as it left the barrel and the amount the ball would drop over two hundred paces, allowed a little for the light wind blowing on his right cheek and set his breathing into a slow deep pattern as he waited for the perfect moment.
Tom drew his breath and gently held it as he settled for the shot, his finger squeezing the trigger smoothly without snatching, to maintain his aim.
God, he wished he hadn’t had so much rum last night! He thought.
The rifle suddenly exploded into life, flame spewed from the barrel.
“Jesus” Palmer exclaimed as the target was torn from his hands.
The lads all cheered as Palmer bent down to recover the target and pushed his finger through the hole where the ball had passed through, a bull’s eye!