An Irregular Regiment (Book 2 in the Peninsular War Saga)
It was cold. Along the lines, men were stirring, coming awake in the foggy morning with chilled reluctance. Autumn had brought mist to the heights above Bussaco and the camp nearby and although the days had been mild and pleasant, there was an almost wintery feel to the early morning.
Private Jamie Hammond shifted sleepily in his bedroll and cocked an ear for signs of life outside. It was still almost dark but almost four years of army life had given him a sixth sense for the state of the camp and he could tell that there was movement outside and was judging his moment. He was on mess duty at present and given yesterday’s orders it was particularly important that hot food was provided this morning.
“You awake, Hammond?”
The voice was that of his Corporal, a Londoner like Hammond himself. During the few weeks that he had been with the 110th light company, Hammond had found himself forming a cautious bond with the other man. Carter was thirty, a tall loose limbed man with a long humorous face and a dry wit which appealed to Hammond. He had an instinctive distrust of officers and NCOs born of the brutal regime of his previous regiment, but even after a few weeks he was finding the 110th a very different experience.
“I’m up,” Hammond said, uncurling himself from his bedroll. Outside the tent he sat on an upturned crate to pull on his boots and coat, shivering slightly. Carter appeared beside him and Hammond waited until he was ready and then accompanied him up the lines to collect water. It was not Carter’s job, but in the 110th Hammond had realised that the workload was often shared unexpectedly. Around them the camp began to awaken with a variety of men shuffling about muffled in coats, struggling to light fires and wielding cooking pots and kettles.
On the way back, passing the larger tents of the officers, a voice hailed them and Carter paused. Sergeant Michael O’Reilly, wrapped in greatcoat and looking chilled, wandered over with a tin mug of tea in his hand.
“Morning Carter. Hammond. Bloody cold.”
“It’ll warm up, Sarge. Probably just about the time we’re sweating our way up that bloody ridge with full packs.”
O’Reilly grinned. “It won’t be that bad, Carter. Wellington’s had his engineers clearing access roads for us. The worst of it will be no fires or hot food. Hope the bloody French come quickly. He’s not fed properly he’ll be a pain in the arse in three days.”
He jerked his head towards his commander’s tent. Carter grinned. “Might not be this time, Sarge. Never seen him in such a good mood as this week. It could last through the battle although I’m hoping even she won’t be up on the ridge with us. I wouldn’t put it past her, mind.”
“Neither would I. God help the French. No, she’ll be down at the hospital with Norris.”
“Just going to get the fires lit, Sarge,” Hammond said. Carter nodded.
“I’ll be there in a minute, Hammond,” he said, and he and O’Reilly watched as the younger man moved along the lines.
“How’s he doing?” O’Reilly asked.
“Good. Not seen him under fire yet, but he’s a good lad, fits in well. Bit wary, mind, but given what he’s been through I’m not surprised.” Carter pulled a face. “I’ve seen some floggings, Sarge, but what some bastard did to his back beggars belief.”
Michael nodded. “Bloody mess. Don’t blame him for deserting. The surprising thing is that he was willing to give the army another go.”
“Yes.” Carter eyed his sergeant with a grin. “I’d love to know the rest of that story.”
“You’ll have to wait until he tells you, Danny. It’s not mine to tell. To be fair, none of us know all of it yet, but I’ve got a feeling he’s going to stay so we probably will. Morning, sir.”
They were joined by two officers, both wrapped up in heavy greatcoats. Captain Johnny Wheeler was holding two mugs of tea. He passed one to Carter who took it with a smile of thanks and wrapped both hands around it.
Michael nodded towards the commander’s tent. “He up yet?”
Captain Carl Swanson grinned. “He’s awake,” he said, and the four men laughed.
“Jesus, doesn’t he get tired?” Michael said.
“Apparently not,” Carl said. “We should move his tent further away, mind, the rest of us don’t get much sleep and we’re not enjoying it as much as he is.”
Carter was laughing. “Leave him alone, you bastards,” he said. “I bet you give him grief every time he steps outside that tent. He’s been married less than a week and he’s back on the bloody battlefield. Wellington could have let him miss this one, it’s not like he’s not done his bit. Has he even had leave since after Assaye?”
“Not really. Unless you count time in barracks, and it’s not like he ever relaxes then.” Wheeler laughed. “I’m making the most of this to be honest, we can say what we like to him at the moment, Carter, you can’t wipe the smile off his face.”
“Let’s hope the French don’t bloody manage it then,” Carter said. “Wouldn’t fancy their chances if they piss her off this week. I’m going to get some breakfast. If I’m living on cold food for the next few days I’m going to make the most of this.”
The laughter had drifted down to the commander’s tent, and Major Paul van Daan turned his head and smiled at his wife. “I think it’s time I was up,” he said regretfully.
“I know.” She snuggled closer against him. “I need to go and roust out my orderlies and get down to the hospital. It’s just so warm here.”
Paul pulled her up closer and kissed her in a leisurely fashion. “On the other hand, I’m going to get roasted the minute I go out there,” he said. “It’s not much of an incentive compared to what I’ve got in here.”
“They’ll get over it eventually,” Anne van Daan said, amused. “It’s a novelty for them to see you in such a good mood. They think I’m the cause of it.”
“You are the cause of it,” Paul said, and slid his hand across her stomach and up to her breast. She gave a little gasp at his touch and he felt her heart quicken under his hand.
“Paul – we cannot!” she said huskily.
“I actually could, love. And I’m damned sure you’d like to. Although it would probably be dereliction of duty. What a pity. You are looking particularly beautiful just at this moment. On the other hand, I’m in charge of the regiment. Do I care?”
He bent his head to her breast and she made a little sound, hastily suppressed. “Stop it,” she whispered. “I am quite certain that they are out there laughing about this.”
“Well they’d have had a good chuckle about an hour ago then,” her husband said, continuing to tease at her nipple with his tongue. “Don’t worry, love, it’s part of camp life. Privacy isn’t possible here. Have I ever told you that when you begin to be aroused, your skin turns a particularly delicious shade of pink? And I love the sounds you make – the ones you’re trying so hard not to make just now.”
He slid his hand between her legs and Anne tried to bite back her response, and then he lifted himself onto her and she gave up the unequal struggle and made a little sound of enjoyment. Paul laughed and kissed her.
“You sure, bonny lass?”
“Get on with it, Major, before they come in to find out if I’ve murdered you,” his wife whispered, laughing.
“They wouldn’t bloody dare,” Paul said softly, and shifted. “That feel good?”
“Very good. Don’t stop now.”
Anne seemed to have forgotten the need for quiet and his own consciousness of sounds outside the tent quickly disappeared as he lost himself in the girl in his arms. When they were done he rolled over onto his back, catching his breath. He was trying to remember the early days of his marriage to his first wife. He could recall being surprised at how much he enjoyed waking up with her beside him each morning but he was fairly sure he had not found it this difficult to get out of bed at all.
He lay still for a moment and Anne pushed herself up onto one elbow and leaned over him, the tousled curtain of black hair tickling his face as she kissed him.
“I am quite sure,” she said mischievously, “that some of your men spend a considerable amount of their time wishing that they were where you are right now.”
Paul grinned. He was sure she was right. Since Anne had joined them, he was enjoying watching the officers and men of the 110th trip over things because they were gazing at his wife. “As long as none of them is wishing that he is where you are just now, dearest Nan, I am well content,” he said, and she began to laugh and could not stop. He was laughing too, and he pulled himself reluctantly out of the bed and reached for his clothes.
Stepping outside, he accepted a tin mug of tea from his orderly and moved along the lines towards his officers. A pretty brown haired girl came towards him and he smiled. “Morning Teresa. She’s awake.”
“Good morning, Major.” Anne’s maid went past him and ducked into the tent and Paul joined his officers.
“Anything from Hookey yet?” he asked.
Wheeler shook his head. “No. Half the lines are barely stirring. Can’t blame them, it’s bloody cold this morning.”
“Although you’re looking nice and warm, sir,” Michael O’Reilly said pleasantly. His commander lifted a hand and smacked him across the back of his head. The others were laughing.
“You’re an impudent bastard, Sergeant. Don’t let my wife hear you, or she’ll be out here with a bayonet.”
“I doubt she’s got the energy,” O’Reilly commented, moving out of reach. Paul grinned and made his way up the lines towards the neat rows of smaller tents, which the men of the 110th shared, four to a tent. Cooking fires had been lit and the women and mess orderlies were busy with breakfast but few of the men had appeared.
“Get up you lazy bastards!” he yelled, thumping on the canvas of the nearest tent. “If the French decide to make an early move you’re going to be caught with your trousers down, and that’s not a sight that I need to see in the morning. If I don’t see you out here feeding your faces and ready to march in half an hour I’m going to start throwing a few of you in the river!”
“That should get them moving,” Captain Swanson said with a grin. “How the hell has he got the energy at this hour? I can barely speak.”
“He’s been awake longer than the rest of us,” O’Reilly said, still laughing. “And let’s face it, wouldn’t we all be in a good mood if we were in his place?”
Their voices reached Paul, and he smiled, still rattling tents and watching his men drag themselves reluctantly out into the cold air. He had married less than two weeks ago and both he and his regiment were still adjusting to the arrival of his new bride in their midst.
It was a second marriage for both of them. His first wife had died giving birth to his daughter less than four months earlier, and like Anne she had often travelled on campaign with him. He could not imagine his officers making open references to his sex life with Rowena. They had liked and respected his fair-haired gentle wife, but if they had speculated on the state of his love life with her he was completely unaware of it, and he knew she would have been appalled at the idea. Her shyness had meant that he had found opportunities when they were living in tents, to make love to her away from the camp, and although he was sure that his friends must have known why their commander and his wife often took long walks or rides into the surrounding countryside in the evenings they would never have remarked on it. She was, and had remained, his lady in the eyes of both officers and men, treated as if she were a delicate creature in need of protection and shelter. He had been very fond of her, and still missed her at times with an ache of regret at her death.
The sound of a musical laugh made him turn and he surveyed his new wife from a distance. She had just emerged from their tent and was regarding Sergeant O’Reilly with an expression which told him that she was about to utter a crushing remark and was just deciding on the exact wording. She was dressed in her working clothes of a plain dark gown, and she wore no embellishments other than the long glory of her black hair, which fell loose to her waist. He felt the accustomed wave of sheer happiness at the sight of her, followed by a stab of desire, which he ought not, after the previous night and morning, have been capable of feeling at all.
She was unlike Rowena in every possible way, which was surprising given that they had been such close friends. Rowena had been a lovely woman, and from their early stolen trysts in the woods close to his family home in Leicestershire she had welcomed his lovemaking. But he was still adapting to his new bride’s surprisingly uninhibited enjoyment of the sexual act. Her own first marriage had been unhappy and brutal, so she had come to his bed with no experience of a loving relationship, and he had expected that she would need some time and some coaxing before she was fully comfortable in his arms. He had been wrong. She had proved to be a passionate and imaginative lover, who made no attempt to hide her desire for him, and the combination of her almost delicate beauty with an earthy sensuality of which she was in no way ashamed or embarrassed, made her completely irresistible to him.
He had loved Rowena but he had never been faithful to her, and it had been a regret at her death that he must have hurt her so often. At his wedding to Anne in the crumbling church in Viseu he had made his vows with a very different determination to keep them. After less than two weeks he found it hard to imagine any circumstances, which would cause him to break them. Apart from anything else, he thought with some amusement as he went back up the lines towards her, she would probably stab him if she found him with another woman.
His mess sergeant, George Kelly, was handing out bowls of steaming porridge as he approached. Paul took one and passed it to his wife. “I think they’re awake,” he commented, glancing down the lines of tents, which were now bustling with activity.
“I should think Marshal Massena is awake as well, the racket you’ve been making,” his wife commented. She seated herself neatly on the ground next to the fire and began to eat. His sergeant, with a commendable lack of formality, which made Paul want to laugh, sat beside her and passed her a tin mug of tea.
“Here you are, girl dear. You must be in need of sustenance, I should think.”
Paul paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth and regarded Michael with disbelief. His wife blushed charmingly which was something he was beginning to think she could do to order, she used it so well.
“One more remark like that from you this morning, Sergeant O’Reilly and you’re going into battle with a bone saw sticking out of your left eye!” she said succinctly, and took a mouthful of tea. “Thank you, George, this is good.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am. Plenty more if you’re hungry. I think Sergeant O’Reilly might have just lost his appetite.”
Paul finished his meal, his eyes on his wife. The enormity of her self-possession in this masculine environment was breathtaking. He watched as she finished eating and allowed Kelly to take her bowl and cup and Captain Swanson to pull her to her feet, and she distributed smiles as rewards and then looked around her. “Anybody seen my orderlies?”
“Not yet, ma’am,” Corporal Carter said approaching. “Want me to go and kick them out of bed for you?”
“If they’re not already up and loading my supplies they’ll get more than a kicking,” Anne said. “Morning Danny. Have you been fed yet?”
“Yes, ma’am. Hammond is on mess duty this week, which means it runs like clockwork. He’s after my job, that lad, I’ve got my eye on him. But I won’t say no to more tea.”
Anne went to collect a tin mug and fill it, and Paul watched her hand it to his corporal with a smile. He was so accustomed to the ways of his regiment that he seldom thought about it, but since Anne had joined them he found he was seeing it anew through her eyes. She had fitted in seamlessly with the informality of the 110th and it felt as though she had always been part of it. Rowena had travelled with the regiment for many years but he reflected that he had never seen her taking tea to his corporal.
Anne came over and touched Paul’s arm. “Looks like the General’s orders are here, love.”
Paul turned. Major Drydon, one of Wellington’s ADCs was riding towards them. He looked tired and cold and Paul wondered how early he had been roused from his bed this morning. He looked as though he had been up half the night, and not as pleasantly occupied as Paul had been.
“Good morning, Chris. What news?” he asked.
Drydon dismounted. “Orders, Major,” he said, handing Paul a folded note. Paul took it.
“Why in God’s name doesn’t he just tell you?” he asked. “Doesn’t he trust you?”
“No, Paul, I don’t think he trusts you,” Drydon said with a grin. “Best to put it in writing so that there’s no confusion when you decide to do something completely different to what he’s told you to do.”
“Good idea,” Anne said, coming forward with a tin mug. “Although he can’t think it will make any difference to the outcome, he’s known Paul for years. Have some tea, Chris, you look as though you need it.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Drydon took the mug. Paul observed his expression with some amusement. Anne was not new to Wellington’s army, having been married for two years to an officer in the quartermaster’s department. The death of her husband and her subsequent marriage to Paul had caused a scandal of impressive proportions, and Paul was well aware that Wellington had attended his hasty wedding purely to ensure that Anne’s reputation survived enough to enable him to continue to receive her.
The entire army assumed that Paul had been sleeping with Captain Robert Carlyon’s lovely wife long before the death of either Rowena or Carlyon, and although the ladies of headquarters would be obliged to follow the commander’s lead in accepting the new Mrs van Daan, he knew that they resented having to associate with a woman they considered an adulteress. Their menfolk were less censorious although just as avidly curious. Paul suspected none of them blamed him for whatever he had been doing with Captain Carlyon’s young wife for the past two years, but they were all slightly surprised that he had chosen to marry a girl whose virtue was so thoroughly suspect. At the same time not one of them was immune to her charm, and watching her laughing up at Drydon, Paul reflected that in six months she would have them as thoroughly under her spell as Lord Wellington and the rest of the 110th.
Drydon was looking around him. “You’re about the only regiment looking anything like ready for action so far today, ma’am,” he said, sipping his tea.
“Oh the Major has been up for hours, so he has,” O’Reilly said, and then caught Anne’s eye and grinned. “Sorry, ma’am. Forgot.”
“At this point, Michael, if I were you I’d find somewhere else to be,” Captain Clevedon said laughing.
“On my way, sir,” the Irishman said. He saluted and took off in the direction of the lines shouting orders, which brought the light company from relaxed groupings into perfect lines within two minutes. Drydon watched admiringly.
“I’d love to know how you do that,” he said.
“Sergeant O’Reilly is showing off,” Paul said absently, reading Wellington’s note. He grinned. “Apparently we are to get into place alongside General Craufurd’s light division, gentlemen.”
There was a shout of laughter. “Jesus, I’d like to have been there when Craufurd got his orders,” Carl said. “Are we under his command, Paul?”
“It doesn’t say so, but I think we may assume that we are. After the Coa he recommended to Wellington that I should be either cashiered or shot, and refused ever to command the 110th again, with particular reference to the light company, Carl. A bit harsh in my opinion because we undoubtedly saved his arse that day, even if one or two of us might have been a bit mouthy about it!”
Carl Swanson, who commanded the light company was laughing. “Mouthy? Paul, he actually could have had you up on a charge that day, even I was shocked when you let rip at him and I’ve known you all my life.”
His commander gave a grin. “I did lose my temper a bit,” he admitted. “But he was just as angry because he knew he’d been in the wrong, we should never have been on that side of the river, it was directly against Wellington’s orders. He’ll get over it. He’s a bloody good general and he knows what we’re worth. Wellington has put us next to him because he knows when the time comes Craufurd will do the right thing. And I like serving under the grumpy old bugger. With that single exception at the Coa, he seldom puts a foot wrong. We’ve also got the two Portuguese battalions that Wellington mentioned, so I’d better get down there and introduce myself, tell them what I expect. Let’s get them moving, gentlemen. Nan…”
“I’ll take Bella down with the wagons to the hospital, love, and get out of your way. I expect to see you at the end of the battle and not before and if you get carried in to my surgery because you’ve done something daft you’ll be sorry. And take care of this lot, I’m getting very attached to them.”
She reached up to kiss him, and Paul drew her into his arms and kissed her with leisurely enjoyment. When he released her she smiled around at his officers and went off to find her horse and her supply wagons, her maid at her heels. Paul watched her go until she was out of sight then went back to his tent to finish getting ready, conscious of the amused sympathy of his officers and men watching him. Most of them felt that Lord Wellington could have granted him some leave with his new wife. Paul suspected that if he had asked for it, it might have been granted, not for his sake but for Anne’s. Wellington was very fond of his wife. He had not asked and she had not mentioned it.
One of the many differences between Anne and Rowena was his new wife’s alarming level of independence. She did not appear to require him to take care of her in the way that he was used to and it had not occurred to her to question his presence on the battlefield any more than she expected him to question her intention of working in the hospital alongside the surgeons. Paul knew that many of his officers were baffled by what they saw as his lack of control over his wife. Personally he found her competence immensely restful. He knew, without needing to ask, that he was free to do his job without further concern about her and that she would not require anything more from him until his work was done.
The ridge at Bussaco was one of the best defensible positions that Paul had ever seen. Starting at the Mondego River, a long, narrow, steep sided ridge ran to the north west, reaching its highest point at Bussaco where it turned north and lost some of its height, but not its steep sides, and continued on into the mountains. Wellington’s engineers had been busy clearing an excellent access road, which would mean that his troops had good mobility up and down his somewhat thinly stretched line.
With his men in position, Paul wandered along the line, stopping occasionally to speak to one of the men. Private Hammond watched him curiously, hearing the laughter which followed his progress. Eventually he paused by Carter and Hammond.
“Settling in, Hammond? Try not to listen to anything Corporal Carter tells you, will you? He’s a bloody liar for one thing, and he drinks too much.” Paul reached into his coat, drew out his flask and passed it to Carter, who grinned, unstoppered it and drank. He passed it to Hammond who did the same after a slight hesitation, then handed it back to Paul.
“See, I told you,” Paul said, shaking his head. “Drunkard.”
“The thing is, Hammond,” the Corporal said confidentially, “the Major likes to drink with the enlisted men. Not so keen on the officer’s mess. He tends to get into fights there.”
“There’s a nice steep cliff just over that rise, Carter, and I doubt we’d find much of you left after you hit the bottom,” his commander said cheerfully.
“I’ll be extra careful, sir. Don’t think your lady would like it, mind, do you?”
“Probably not, she’s unaccountably fond of you.” Paul studied Hammond for a moment. “I’m hearing very good things of you, Private Hammond.”
“Thank you, sir.” Hammond said. “I’ll try not to let you down.”
They watched as he moved away. Hammond shook his head. “I don’t get him. He’s a bloody strange officer,” he said.
Carter laughed. “Isn’t he? You’ll get used to him, though. I remember him way back in India when he first joined. Arrogant little sod, he was. Followed the rules he felt like following and couldn’t be arsed with sucking up to the senior officers. I didn’t think he’d last a year, to be honest. Then we saw our first action under him, got attacked by Maratha cavalry while we were escorting a supply train. I swear to God you’d have thought he was a veteran, he didn’t hesitate And he didn’t hang back shouting orders either, he was in there fighting alongside us. Cool as you like, never seen anything like it from a lad of twenty-two. These days I can’t really imagine serving under anybody else.”
“No. He’s certainly different. Very friendly with the men. How does he keep discipline? Don’t they take advantage?”
Carter grinned. “Not twice. You wait until you hear him get pissed off, you’ll wish you were the other side of the Coa. Still makes me flinch after all these years. He can afford to be friendly, the men would die for him.”
“Yes, that’s what I’d heard of the 110th. Always thought it was just army legend, most of them don’t live up to it.”
Carter grinned. “Wait and see,” he said. He eyed the younger man and Hammond knew what was coming. He had been expecting it. A few weeks in Corporal Carter’s company had been enough for him to recognise that his fellow Londoner was both intelligent and shrewd.
“Hammond – how the hell did you come to be here?” Carter said, lowering his voice. “I bloody know there’s more to this story than anyone is telling me.”
“Like I told you at the start, I deserted. Ran into Sergeant O’Reilly and he talked me into giving it another go.”
“I believe some of that, I’ve seen what those bastards did to your back. I’d have deserted as well. But I’d swear there’s more.”
Hammond glanced at him, weighing him up. He liked Carter immensely, but that in itself would not have been enough to convince him to confide. But it was also very obvious that the Corporal enjoyed a close and easy relationship with his commander and the other officers of the 110th.
“Not sure what I’m supposed to tell you,” he said. “If it was just about me…”
“It’s going no further than you and me, lad,” Carter said. “I normally know everything that’s going on around here, but I’ve missed something. And I’ve got a feeling you know what it is.”
Hammond jerked his head, making up his mind. “Come for a walk, I don’t want the rest of the light company earwigging.”
They walked up the lines towards a small copse of trees away from the bulk of the army. “You know what happened with Mrs van Daan and her first husband?”
“I know all about that bastard,” Carter said grimly. “I was privileged to watch him smack her across the face in the middle of Viseu with half the officers in Wellington’s army watching. If Captain Wheeler hadn’t blown his bloody head off, he was in my sights, believe me.”
Hammond smiled slightly. “Captain Wheeler didn’t,” he said quietly. “I did.”
Carter stopped and stared at him. “Excuse me?” he said.
“I shot Captain Carlyon. Captain Wheeler took the blame. He said that he’d be believed. I’d have been hanged. Still can’t believe he did that for a deserter he’d only just met.” He met Carter’s eyes and shrugged. “You know she was on her own up there, pretty much. I was trying to get to Oporto, hoped to stow away on a wine ship, trying to avoid Captain Vane or Sergeant Roberts catching up with me and finishing what they’d started.”
Carter eyed him steadily. “It was a risk, lad. They shoot deserters.”
“You know what, Corporal? I’ve been shot and I’ve been strapped to a post and flogged three times in six months and they’d just ordered another five hundred. My back hadn’t healed properly. I think it was going to kill me. I think it was meant to kill me, and I’d rather take my chances of a firing squad. At least it’s quicker.”
Carter nodded soberly. “Fair point. I’ve been flogged a couple of times although not for years and nothing like that. Something wrong with those bastards if you ask me. So you ran into the Major’s wife. Although she’d still have been Mrs Carlyon then.”
“Came on the farm – it was obvious it had been used as barracks but seemed deserted now. I slept in the barn overnight. Following morning I was just about to leave and she wandered in. Must have heard me. I was trying to reassure her, but she wasn’t scared. Asked if I was hungry and I was bloody starving. She invited me into the kitchen for food. Her maid was up at the hospital, nobody else about. To be honest, I was worried about her. Still can’t understand him leaving her there on her own like that though I didn’t know anything about her bloody husband. When I was ready to go she made up a bag with food for me. I was on my way when I saw him ride in.”
Hammond nodded. “Didn’t know who he was, but she was on my mind. Kept thinking that a lovely looking woman like that should not be on her own up there. I thought I’d just double back and have a quick look. Make sure she was all right. If it all seemed fine I was just going to leave quietly again.”
Carter was studying him with amused blue eyes. “And it wasn’t fine.”
“No. He’d got her pinned up against a wall, and he’d been hitting her, she was bleeding. He was pointing a pistol at her, threatening her. I didn’t know who the bloody hell he was although I could see he’d an officer’s uniform. But I wasn’t going to walk away and let him do whatever the hell he was doing to her. I warned him. He didn’t back down. So I shot him.”
Carter gave a long low whistle, eyeing his new recruit with considerable respect. “You must have known you could end up on a rope for that, lad?”
“I thought I probably would,” Hammond admitted. “I didn’t know what the hell I’d walked into, but I couldn’t leave her in that state, he’d beaten her bloody.”
“He was a bastard. Hit her all their married life.”
“What for, sleeping with a senior officer?” Hammond said unexpectedly.
Corporal Carter shook his head, pulling a face. “That been worrying you?”
“A bit. I’m not stupid, Corporal. They got married about two weeks after I shot Carlyon. Don’t tell me they fell in love in two weeks.”
Carter smiled slightly. “They didn’t. But nor were they having an affair. Carlyon was a bloody lunatic. I’m friendly with Teresa, Mrs van Daan’s maid, and she tells me he hit her from the day they married, and the Major was nowhere near then. He mistreated her, lad. You shouldn’t feel bad about killing him.”
“I don’t really. No excuse for what he was doing to her that day. I liked her, she’s a lovely woman and if that’s how her husband treated her you couldn’t blame her if she did turn to Major van Daan since it’s clear how he feels about her! She was in a bit of a state, shaking all over, so I got her up to her room and I sat with her for a bit. Couldn’t walk off and leave her like that. I thought I’d wait until her maid got back and then run for it, but next I knew there was a noise outside and Captain Wheeler and Sergeant O’Reilly had arrived. I thought that was it for me, but turns out not. The Captain sent me off with the sergeant, and he went to the Provost Marshal and told him he’d walked in on Carlyon beating his wife and shot him. They don’t seem to have doubted him.”
“They wouldn’t; he’s got a good reputation, the Captain. Good think Major van Daan wasn’t there. I’m not sure anybody would have believed he’d not done it. He beat the shit out of Carlyon in the middle of the officers’ mess when he found out what he’d been doing to his wife. Couldn’t have been more public.”
“He’s got a temper.”
“He might have but he’d never hit a woman and he can’t stand men who do,” Carter said.
“I agree with him. Anyway, here I am. Pleased I did it. It’s a funny regiment, this, nothing like my old one, but I like it.” Hammond studied his corporal. “What made you think that story wasn’t true?”
“Got a nose for a lie, lad. Honestly? Something about the way the Major is with you. He’d have given anybody a second chance, that bit wasn’t odd. But he really likes you, and normally it takes him a while. I’m glad you told me. I’m guessing you didn’t start out as Hammond?”
“No. But I’m getting used to it now.”
Carter laughed. “I doubt you’re the only one in this regiment under a name he didn’t start out with. I’m glad you told me, lad. I’ll keep it to myself. Although if the lads from the light company knew what you’d done for her, they’d make a hero out of you.”
Hammond smiled slightly. “She’s well liked for an officer’s wife.”
“It’s more than that. I once stood in a barn and watched that woman step between me and a French dragoon who was about to cut my throat. She’s not just another officer’s wife.” Carter smiled and shrugged. “You’ll understand after another few months. Some of us were on the retreat from Talavera with her, she got left behind with the medical staff. What she did for our lads those weeks…well you know what it was like.”
“I do,” Hammond said feelingly. “I was wounded, probably should have stayed in the hospital but they said the French were on their way and I didn’t fancy a prison camp so I got myself up and back on my feet for the march. Nearly bloody killed me.”
“We got all our wounded out, the officers found a couple of wagons. But it was a miserable month.” Carter glanced over at his commander who was further down the hill. “Although I don’t recall either of them looking that miserable. He got shot in the chest, nearly died. She dug the shot out and nursed him. I’m not a sentimental man but watching them together that month…” He shook his head. “I liked his first wife, I was sad when she died. Childbirth. But I am not sad that you shot that bastard Carlyon, Hammond. It was a good days work.”
Paul moved back to his command position where his officers, looking slightly gloomy in the thin fog, with no prospect of hot food, were huddled in great coats discussing Wellington’s battle plans. He joined them. The Portuguese officers were looking slightly ill at ease. It was Paul’s first time commanding Portuguese troops. In the early stages of his time in Portugal, they had the reputation of being ill-trained, ill-equipped and likely to run at the first sign of trouble. Since then, they had been under the rigid training of Marshal Beresford who had been placed in charge of the Portuguese army, and they had apparently improved in both training and morale. They were still mostly untried in the field, and Wellington had taken the precaution of dividing them up among his most experienced troops. He had given Paul two battalions, both commanded by young and inexperienced officers. Their English was good, and they seemed keen to engage with his officers and to listen to their views on how and when the battle might commence. Paul had decided that he would send in his light company and first and second companies first and then allow the third, fourth, fifth and sixth to bring in the Portuguese. He was hoping that Beresford’s training had paid off. The British were in a strong defensive position, but the line felt uncomfortably thin to him.
It was a miserable few days, enlivened only by daily visits from the local Portuguese population. Most of them were loading carts and wagons to move themselves and their families down behind the lines of Torres Vedras, and they had been instructed to leave nothing that the French could live off. Wellington was intending to scorch the earth as far as possible to make it impossible for Massena’s army to survive the winter. To the delight of the soldiers, a constant stream of farmers toiled up to the ridge bearing gifts of fruit, wine, bread and meat which they gave freely to the men or sold at very reasonable prices to their officers.
On the fourth day news came that Massena’s army had been sighted and Wellington was grimly pleased that the French marshal had taken the route he wanted him to. Paul sent his officers and NCOs through his regiment with ruthless thoroughness to confiscate any form of alcohol and to make sure that his men were armed, ready and capable of fighting. He observed that Black Bob Craufurd was doing the same with the rest of the light division. From a distance he caught the General’s eye and saluted with a grin. After a moment, Craufurd returned the salute, and then made his way down from the disused windmill where he had set up his command post.
“Major van Daan. Men ready?”
“Yes, sir. Waiting for your orders.”
Craufurd gave a grim smile. “Waiting to see if you’ll obey them, sir.”
“I almost always do, General.”
“It is the insertion of the word almost that I take issue with, Major van Daan.” Craufurd studied him. “How are your Portuguese?”
“They’re keen enough. Won’t know until they’re under fire. What’s the plan?”
“I want your light company out as advanced skirmishers alongside my rifles. They’ll draw the French in, I’ll keep in sight with the 43rd and keep the rest of your men and the 52nd out of sight.”
Paul gave a grin. It was a familiar tactic of Wellington’s who had more than once made excellent use of concealed troops. “Yes, sir. I’ll put my experienced men at the front and then pull the Portuguese in behind them, when they see the French falter they’ll gain confidence.”
“You sound very confident yourself, Major.”
“That’s my job, sir.”
“It is. I understand congratulations are in order.”
Paul nodded. “Ten days ago. I’m sure you’ve heard about it in detail from the headquarters gossips, sir.”
“Bunch of old women,” Craufurd said contemptuously. I wasn’t there the day Carlyon hit her in the middle of Viseu but if I had been I’d probably have shot him myself. They’ve been gossiping about you for years with that girl, no idea what the real story is and don’t give a shit. Hope you’ll be happy.”
Paul was touched. “Thank you, sir. I’ll pass it on to Nan, I know she’d value your support.”
Craufurd laughed. “I like that girl, always have. Not one of these namby pamby females who faint at the sight of blood. Saw what she did on those wards after Talavera. Bloody amazing. You’ve done well for yourself.”
“I think so, sir. Thank you. I’ll await your orders.”
“You better bloody had, Major, or your wife will be a widow before the end of the morning, because I am not taking any of your crap again!” the General said, and moved back up to the windmill, taking out his telescope. Paul went back to his officers, laughing. Craufurd had the reputation of being the harshest disciplinarian and the rudest man in the army but Paul was very fond of him although he knew that his own unconventional approach drove Craufurd mad. For all their differences he knew that Craufurd was one of the few officers who shared his own concern for the welfare of his men, and the light division would follow their irascible General into anything.
The French did not reach the foot of the ridge until night, and in the early hours of the morning, the Anglo-Portuguese army lay under arms and waiting. The valley was shrouded in thick fog, and apart from occasional shots exchanged between the rifles and tirailleurs there was little action. Gradually the mist began to clear as dawn came, and the sounds of battle commencing could be heard from the right as Reynier’s Corps launched an attack on Picton’s 3rd Division. Given that they were firing uphill, the French guns were ineffective, and Lightburne’s brigade fired volley after volley. The combined effect of this along with the fire of two six pounders sent the French into chaos.
There was a second attack further to the south, which quickly degenerated into a long range fire fight which did little damage to either side. General Foy was bringing his force up to the centre of the battlefield against the forty fifth and three Portuguese battalions and had some success at forcing his way through. He was unaware that Wellington had already ordered Leith’s division to move along the lateral road from the south-west. Paul, whose view was limited from his position concealed behind the ridge, paid silent tribute to the engineers who had cleared the road so effectively that it made it easy to move reinforcements from one part of the battlefield to the other. Paul glanced up as one of Wellington’s orderlies reined in close by.
“Sir, Ney is moving his two brigades up against us in columns. Be ready.”
Paul nodded. He glanced further along the line and saw the black browed figure of General Craufurd stomping along towards him.
“Your lads ready, Major?”
“Hold them until you get my order.
“Yes, sir. On your word.”
Craufurd glanced over at the watchful lines of the 110th. “Bunch of insubordinate bastards,” he said dispassionately.
“They are, sir.”
“Bloody brave, though. Proved that at the Coa. Let’s see what they can do.”
“Yes, sir.” Paul repressed a smile as he moved back to his men. It was probably the closest his irascible commander could manage to an apology. Craufurd could never admit to a mistake and had justified his own near disastrous action even to Wellington. Paul had written to Craufurd with an apology of his own. He had been furious at Craufurd’s risky decision and even more furious when the general had forbidden him to take the 110th back to cover the retreat. He had done so against orders, relying on his faith in their ability to hold discipline during a difficult retreat and it had worked spectacularly well.
Paul appreciated Craufurd’s willingness to forgive. At the time Black Bob had been furious and had given Paul a dressing down in front of the entire light division which had made Paul feel like a junior lieutenant. He had responded with a few words of his own, and he was ruefully aware that he could have been in serious trouble both over his direct refusal to obey the order to retreat and his scathing criticism of a very senior officer. He had ridden back from the battle still seething and had arrived to the news that Robert Carlyon was dead, leaving Anne beaten and bloody. Managing that situation had driven Craufurd from his mind.
Since then he had married Anne, and in his own happiness it was impossible to hold on to a grudge. He had told his new wife what had happened and she had laughed and shaken her head.
“Paul, you don’t want to be on bad terms with Bob Craufurd, you like him too much. He’s senior to you, and from what I hear you were appallingly rude to him, very publicly. He can’t make the first approach. Write to him.”
He had done so and had received a stiffly worded acceptance of his apology. It had been enough. He was glad to be up here under Craufurd’s command, and his commander’s endorsement of his marriage warmed him. The General had met Anne many times at headquarters parties and on the wards of the military hospitals where she worked and they got on well.
Paul could hear them now, the steady drum beat of the approaching columns. He turned to O’Reilly.
“They’re coming,” he said, and raised his voice softly. “110th at the ready!”
“Ready, sir,” Wheeler called back, and the order was passed along the lines. There was no bugle call on this occasion. Craufurd wanted the presence of such a large force to come as a shock to the French.
Michael checked his rifle and looked over his shoulder. “Nice and steady boys,” he said. “No need to be heroic here, the bastards have no idea they’re about to walk into us. Wait for my word, now.”
“Light company ready, sergeant?”
“Ready as they’ll ever be, sir.”
Paul moved along the ranks his eyes checking for potential problems. They could hear the marching of the French coming closer through the mist and he saw the green jackets of the 95th further up beginning to move forward in skirmish formation. He nodded to Michael.
“Corporal Carter,” Michael called.
“Will your lads pay particular attention to not letting the Major get himself killed today? You know how clumsy he is, and if I have to take him down to the hospital with a hole in him, his wife is likely to be after us with a scalpel.”
Paul looked back, startled, and then began to laugh. “Corporal Carter!”
“Let the lads know there’ll be extra grog for the man who shoots Sergeant O’Reilly for me today. Make it look like an accident.”
There was a muted rumble of laughter. “Do it now for you if you like, sir!” one of the sharpshooters called. “No need for extra grog, be my pleasure!”
“You’d better hope the French get you today, Scofield, you cheeky bastard!” the sergeant said, laughing. “Ready now boys.”
“Get going,” Paul said, and Captain Swanson called the order and led his men forward.
They watched as the skirmishers moved over the ridge, taking down individual Frenchmen with accurate rifle fire. It took some time. Paul grinned as he realised that his light company were getting carried away with their feinted attack and were actually pushing the French column back. He imagined that Craufurd was cursing them for delaying the French advance. He could not sound a retreat without alerting the French to his position so he settled down to wait for Carl and O’Reilly to pull them back. Eventually he saw them moving back up the ridge, saw Carter and young Hammond laughing, having just received an earful from their exasperated sergeant. The rifles of the light division were already back up the ridge and the French came on, causing the English gunners to limber up and pull back. Still they waited. The French came closer, pressing on, thinking that on this part of the ridge at least they had the English on the run. They could only see the thin line of the 43rd.
Craufurd held his nerve. The leading column was within twenty-five yards of the crest, and Paul could see the individual faces of each Frenchman when he heard Black Bob yell. “52nd and 110th – avenge Moore!”
It was an emotive cry. There were men of both regiments who had seen Sir John Moore fall at Corunna and he had been beloved of the men he commanded. Paul had done his early training under Moore and had always believed him to be one of the best commanders of light infantry in the army.
“Fire!” Paul roared, and along the line the 52nd and the 110th rose and fired a staggering volley of rifle and musket fire at point blank range into the enemy. No man at the front of the columns was left standing. Along the line his men were reloading, as the shocked Frenchmen reeled, and then steadied and clambered over the bodies of their comrades and ran into a second devastating volley. Some of his riflemen fell back to reload and manage a third, but the rest fixed bayonets and Paul drew his sword.
In the roar of the musket fire and the screams of wounded and dying men, Paul moved his lines steadily forward. He had deliberately allowed the experienced men of the 110th to bear the brunt of the first attack and seeing that they were holding their own without difficulty he ran back to his two Portuguese battalions leaving Johnny to lead the 110th on. These were raw inexperienced troops but he was hopeful that with him at their head they would stand.
He was not disappointed. As the musket fire tapered off, the men were fighting with bayonets and swords, and he led his Portuguese into the fray. With the example of the 110th already cutting their way through the French lines, they did not hesitate, and before long the French advance had halted and the whole line was wavering. Paul’s marksmen found time to reload again, and as another barrage of fire crashed into them the French began to run. Some of the Portuguese chased after them, and Paul bellowed to stop them. Without being able to see what was happening all along the ridge he would not risk them charging through French lines and being cut off and hacked to pieces.
A small party of horsemen approached from the north. “Nice work, Major van Daan,” Lord Wellington said. “Our allies are looking good today.”
“Our allies are looking bloody brilliant, sir,” Paul said. He was delighted with the performance of his Portuguese, and he could sense the high spirits of the troops. They had worked hard and trained well, but nothing improved morale as well as a successful action.
“Think you can make them even better, Major?” Wellington asked quietly, and Paul looked up sharply.
“Given some time, definitely, sir.”
“I’ll bear that in mind. They’ll remain under your command for the time being until we have a chance to talk.”
Wellington looked along the line to where Craufurd was approaching. “General Craufurd. Superb work, sir. Couldn’t have gone better. I think that will more or less do it for the day. They might rattle away at us a bit, but they’ve got the point. Well done, sir.”
Craufurd’s face lightened slightly. “Thank you, sir. Good tactics.” He glanced at Paul, and his mouth twitched into what was almost a smile. “Well done, Major van Daan.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Wellington smiled as he watched Craufurd move back down the lines. “Nicely handled, Major. Your diplomatic skills have improved since India.”
“I hope so, sir. I was an arrogant young bastard then.”
“You still are, Major. You just hide it better. Hold the line and be ready in case I need you elsewhere, you’re the fastest battalion I have. But I think we’re mostly done.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll keep picking them off as we see them. Good shooting practice for the lads.” Paul raised his voice. “Carter! O’Reilly still alive, is he? Why? Get on with it, lad, haven’t got all day!”
“You’re a murdering bastard, so you are, sir!” an Irish voice called, and Michael emerged through the smoke which hung like a pall over the battlefield and realised that Wellington was listening with great interest. “Oh sorry, sir, didn’t know you were here. Major van Daan is just trying to talk the lads into shooting me, sir.”
Wellington gave one of his alarming cracks of laughter. “Is he? Well I’d better get out of here then in case he decides to set them on me! Hope you survive the day, Sergeant.”
“Thank you, sir, appreciate your support,” Michael said. He watched as the general rode off up the line. “Peterson is down, sir, shot through the shoulder. I’ve sent him up to the back to get treated. Can’t have him lying around to trip over if they come again. No other casualties.”
“Good. Carl, do you know how the other brigades are doing?”
“All good I think. They’d no idea we had so many men. Brilliant tactics.”
“Aye, Hookey knows his work. They don’t know they’re beaten yet, but they are. Let’s keep it up, nice and steady. If it’s French, shoot it.” He looked at Michael and grinned. “Or Irish and wearing sergeant’s stripes.”
“Very funny. If I get caught in the crossfire you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face, so you will.”
“Stay alive, Michael. If I get you killed, she’ll murder me. She likes you, you’re always on her side if we fight.”
“We’re all on her side, sir, in case you’d not realised. She’s prettier than you. And possibly a better soldier too, now that I’ve seen her in a fight.”
Paul laughed. “She fights dirtier than you do, Sergeant.”
“Good. I hope she shoots you on sight.”
All across the ridge the French were being beaten back. Merle’s division thrust up the ridge in columns and was met by Picton who had swiftly marshalled his defenders by making use of the road along the ridge. The French were met at the crest by the men of the 88th and the 45th along with two Portuguese battalions in a concave line. The French tried unsuccessfully to deploy into line but came under such heavy fire that they broke and fled down the slope. The final French charge was beaten back by Denis Pack’s Portuguese brigade, and there were no further major attacks. By midday the battle was all but over although there were skirmishes up and down the lines throughout the rest of the day.
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