The golden mid-morning sun blazed in the sky casting the verdant European countryside in an amber glow. The sound of birdsong and the chirp of insects drifted lazily along the pleasant breeze, the glory of God’s creation was evident everywhere one looked. Any farmer worth his salt would view this bountiful landscape, safe in the knowledge that it would be a good harvest this year.
However, no farmer was present this day and the men who stood, in long crimson lines, had no eyes for the natural splendour on display, instead they stared with scarcely disguised apprehension at the wallowing dust cloud upon the southern horizon.
These were the forgotten sons of Britain, men who had escaped the gallows pole, been duped by the recruiting sergeants or had simply been young and naïve, searching for an adventure in far off lands. Whatever their history they had all come to the same fate, taking the king’s shilling and embarking on a cruel and hard existence fighting his enemies.
This day the Eagles of France were on the march and headed straight for them, a mighty clash of arms would help seal the fate of Europe and much blood would be spilled. This was an era in which blood counted for much and could have a man doomed to a life of poverty or bestow upon him one of wealth and privilege as evidenced by the officers who stood or were mounted on horseback at the front and centre of the British formations. But today all blood was welcome sacrifice to the glory of mighty Mars, God of War.
General Sir Colin Halkett sat atop his stoic charger and surrounded by his aide-de-camp, viewed the approaching enemy through a golden telescope. After a moments contemplation, he lowered the glass and motioned to a young Ensign to his right.
“Mr Barnaby, my compliments to Major Dempsey pray advance the 95th to the château over upon the right and there to fortify it against attack. Let’s give the Craupards something to think about on their flank”
“Yes sir,” said the young man and he turned his steed to make for the command of the Rifles at the gallop.
Men dressed in the dark green of the Rifles emerged from a hay-field and dashed across the open pasture to a group of buildings, hopping the fence and scattering through the courtyard. Doors were kicked down, and they flowed into buildings in small groups, finding the best firing positions or applying themselves to the act of creating loopholes in the walls with their sword bayonets.
One weasel-faced man, thin and scraggly, was more concerned with another enterprise and he ransacked the kitchen until his eyes finally alighted on the object of his desire, a bottle of brandy, old and dusty, which he held in his hands like a new-born. Uncorking the bottle, he took a long draught until an explosion of pain as the bottle was struck from his hand and shattered against the wall leaving him bent double, wracked with coughing.
Upon recovering he exclaimed “What the bloody ‘ell!..” But came up short upon seeing the imposing figure of the squat but powerful sergeant-major standing over him.
“Perkins you ‘orrible little whores son! What are you up to you drunken little bugger? Don’t you know thievin’ is a ‘angable offence?”
“I wasn’t doing nuffin Sarn’t Major!” Replied Perkins, putting an air of hurt to his expression and giving his face an even more rodent-like appearance.
“Poppycock! Now get to your post you vile bloody bastard!” Boomed the sergeant major, and seeing that the Rifleman was making for the closest window, checked him with an outstretched arm.
“No my lad, I’ve got a much better place for you to earn your pay today!” He cooed with an evil glint in his eye “Outside on the southern fence by the pig sty would be an agreeable posting for you Perkins, stop you getting ‘omesick it will.”
Cursing under his breath Rifleman Perkins made towards the door, his shoulders stooped in resignation. The sergeant-major stepped to the window, casting his gaze upon the French mustering to the south.
A single cannon boomed out from the centre of the French line shattering the calm and marking the commencement of hostilities. A dirty white cloud billowed up from the muzzle, and the shot screamed across the sky over the head of the 33rd Regiment of foot before thumping into the ploughed earth 10 feet to their rear.
A still silence hung for a moment and was then ripped asunder as a cacophony of explosions thundered from the whole French battery. The projectiles arched across the sky and screams of agony issued forth as the deadly missiles crashed into the red-coated ranks.
“Have the men lay down” Commanded an officer, mounted on a white gelding which skittered nervously at the fury of the cannonade, and the call was taken up by the sergeants and ensigns.
As the men lay flat on the uneven earth it was time for the officers to earn their keep, setting an example by standing up under the onslaught of shot and shell. A tall lieutenant, with dark hair and olive complexion, stood next to the prone colour party. He gazed into the palm of his hand in which lay a silver locket, open to reveal the image of a woman with bright eyes and a mischievous smile.
“Sophia” He breathed, and closing his eyes, thought back to the last night they had spent together before he was called back by a skinny young runner in the early hours of the morning. The thought provided a single point of peace as the fury of the maelstrom battered at his senses.
“Hot work today sir!” came an adolescent shout from his side and annoyed by the intrusion he looked to the young ensign with a frown wrinkling his brow. Seeing the barely restrained fear writ across the youth’s face softened his annoyance, and he thought to make some kind reply to bolster the ensigns confidence.
However, before the words would come to mind, the young man’s head exploded before his eyes, struck by a round shot, and the decapitated body crumpled to the ground. The lieutenant stared with fascinated horror at the corpse, too shocked and appalled even to register the gobbets of blood and brain matter which flecked his face and uniform.
His reverie was broken only by the sound of bugles trumpeting from the French position. Turning, he saw a dense mass of men break through the thick smoke headed straight for the 44th to their immediate left.
The 44th Regiment ranked two-deep at a hedgeline overlooking a vast golden hayfield, watched the approaching French columns with a mixture of apprehension and eagerness. A regiment of British Hussars charged impetuously forward and checked the right-most column, but two more came on inexorably.
British 6pdr cannons fired in enfilade, cutting great bloody swathes through the densely packed formations but they faltered for not a moment, and with the thunder of the drums punctuated at intervals by the cry of “Vive L’Empereur!” they doggedly closed the distance.
“Present!” Came the order and the red coats brought the butts of their muskets to their shoulders. A moment passed as the officer judged the distance.
“Fire!” A thunderous volley exploded from the British line, great gouts of powder smoke obscuring their view in an instant. Lead impacted sickeningly with the front ranks of the closest column and men fell screaming, only to be replaced by those behind.
“Reload!” And the much-practised drill of loading was taken up by all, British musketry would show its true worth in the this bitter struggle for the hedgeline. Volley after volley blasted forth into the head of the French column which shook like a wounded beast before the onslaught.
General Halkett watched the stoic defence of the 44th with ill-concealed apprehension, catching snatches of the violent conflagration as the smoke parted momentarily. His attention was redirected by an exclamation from one of his aids and he pointed his telescope to the right flank.
“By God they’re assaulting the château!”
The French formation reached the château’s southern fence and broke up as individual men engaged with the British defenders who had harassed them so unmercifully throughout their approach with a hail of deadly-accurate rifle fire.
Rifleman Perkins became embroiled in a savage melee, hacking and slashing with his sword-bayonet tipped rifle. He dodged a bayonet thrust and lunged at the wielder’s face who fell back clutching at his ruined eyes, blood seeping between his fingers. Suddenly a blow struck his shoulder knocking him off-balance and as he stumbled aside a flash of steel missed his head by mere inches.
Recovering his wits he threw out a savage kick, catching his aggressor in the knee and without thinking slashed his blade across his throat. Arterial blood sprayed into the rifleman’s face, blurring his vision and with a cry of agony he registered the white-hot pain as a sword stroke opened his belly, spilling long loops of purple-red intestines to the floor. He sank slowly to the cobblestones with a look of horrified astonishment written plain on his face.
French troopers hurried past the prone form of Rifleman Perkins, pushing further into the courtyard to take up the fight against the valiant men of the 95th, who bitter yard by bitter yard repelled the attack and after an hour sent the French assault, shattered beyond reclamation, limping back to the safety of their own lines.
General Halkett watched the French attack on the château repulsed and seeing the momentum swing in favour of the British, sighed inwardly. The day was coming to a close and having halted the French in their tracks he knew that they would have to vacate the field. British reserves, sent by the Duke of Wellington, could be seen marching to his aid on the Northern horizon at that very moment.
Men had been carried into the surgeon’s tent all day and as night closed in the bloody work continued under the dim light of candles as they desperately endeavoured to save the lives, if not the limbs of the hideously wounded men.
A man lay sleeping in a cot amongst the wounded; his pitch-coloured hair plastered to his brow with fever sweat and his once dark complexion turned sallow with shock and blood loss. His leg had been amputated at the knee after a round shot had skidded through the ranks of prone soldiers to his front, before shattering his shin bone beyond saving.
His eyes were closed, and his mouth worked in a fevered delirium. Across his breast lay a hand held tightly closed, until, with an involuntary twitch it opened and closed spasmodically, spilling onto the sheets a small object which glittered in the flickering candlelight. A scratched and scuffed silver locket, spotted with blood, open to reveal a woman’s beautiful face, marred only by a spider’s web of cracks in the retaining glass…