A Redoubtable Citadel – Chapter One
It was early evening and already the skies were growing darker. All day the guns had fired, a deafening bombardment of the city walls which left men with their ears ringing even after the noise had stopped but it was becoming quieter now, with longer gaps between shots and the volunteers of the 88th Connaught Rangers stood immobile, so quiet that it was possible to hear the breathing of the next man as they waited for the order to begin the assault. They were all volunteers, this band of men, forming the Forlorn Hope, the first men over the breaches. Survival would bring glory and in some cases promotion but survival was very unlikely.
Sergeant Nathaniel Higgins was not one of the volunteers but they were his men and he ran an experienced eye over them and approved their steadiness. At the front of the line were two officers, also volunteers and neither of them from the 88th. The older of the two was a dark eyed Captain of thirty-five and Higgins had been told that he was up on a charge of killing a fellow officer on a duel. Disgrace was his only future and the chance to lead these men to death or glory was probably his best option. The younger was no more than a lad, probably twenty, an Ensign and too young for this. He was pale and sweating, but seemed calmer than Higgins would have expected, and he wondered what had driven the lad to this desperate end. Debt or a woman, Higgins supposed. Sometimes the young fools did not seem to realise what they were doing when they volunteered for this or how unlikely they were to survive. They saw it as the road to glory and quick promotion. Looking at this lad Higgins was fairly sure he knew exactly what he was doing. Intelligent grey eyes were studying the walls.
Reaching into his coat Higgins took out his battered flask and drank, then touched the boy on the arm and offered him the rum. The young officer took it and drank with an attempt at a smile, handed it back.
“You all right, sir?” Higgins said, and the boy nodded, his eyes still on the fading bulk of the citadel of Ciudad Rodrigo, looming up in the falling darkness.
A sound broke through the silence and Higgins jumped. It was a shout, a bellow so loud that every man of the forlorn hope also jumped and turned, peering through the darkness. A tall figure was striding from the waiting lines towards them and he did not appear to be in the least concerned at the stir he was causing.
“Oh bloody hell,” the young ensign said, and he sounded, Higgins thought, suddenly more terrified than he had seemed to be of going over the wall.
“Mr Jackman. Am I seeing things or are you actually standing there with the Connaught Rangers when you should be back in line with your men?”
The tall figure resolved itself into an officer, fair haired and hatless with a long legged stride. Close up Higgins was aware of a pair of startling deep blue eyes which were fixed with ominous intensity on the young ensign. Jackman snapped to attention and saluted, and Higgins did the same realising that the man wore a colonel’s insignia on his red coat.
“Sir. Yes, sir.”
“Don’t give me ‘yes, sir’ you bloody idiot! What the hell are you doing here?”
“Volunteered, sir. Sorry, thought you’d know. Sergeant said commanding officers would be informed…”
“I was informed, that’s why I’m bloody well here chasing after you when I ought to be back there putting the fear of God into my lads! What made you think you had the right to volunteer for this suicidal piece of lunacy without my permission? Get your kit and get your arse back to your company before I kick you so hard you’ll scale that breach without your feet touching the ground!”
Higgins cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Colonel. But the lad is right. He’s entitled…”
“Not when he’s nineteen and being a bloody imbecile he isn’t!” the Colonel said. He looked at Higgins. “You going over there, sergeant?”
“Not with this lot, sir. With my men afterwards.”
“Good man.” Suddenly the colonel smiled. “Sorry, I should have introduced myself before, we’ve not met. Colonel Paul van Daan, 110th.”
Higgins stood to attention and saluted. The extraordinary scene was suddenly much clearer; he had heard of Colonel van Daan who had been given command of the newly formed third brigade of the light division. There were many legends in the army, most of whom, in Higgins opinion, fell woefully short of their reputations but he was already beginning to see why men spoke of Paul van Daan with something bordering on awe. The colonel looked at the Captain commanding the troop.
“Name and regiment?”
“Captain James Harker, sir, of the ninth.”
“Ah. I rather see why you’re here.” Van Daan studied him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t on that disciplinary board. I hope you make it, Captain. If you do, come and see me, would you? I’ve heard good things about you and you might feel that a change of scene would do you good if you get to carry on in the army. I’m always short of good officers.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Van Daan’s blue eyes shifted back to Ensign Jackman. “Captain Manson has informed me that you are in debt, Mr Jackman.”
“Yes, sir. In pretty deep. Can’t pay. Debts of honour, sir.”
Paul van Daan studied him. “To whom? Don’t tell me any of my officers are fleecing their juniors, I’ll skin them alive!”
“No, sir. I owe most of it to an officer of the Highlanders, a Major. Got into a game up at the headquarters mess…”
“Mr Jackman, when you were offered the chance to serve in my regiment, did anybody give you any information about my rules on gambling?”
Jackman’s face was visibly scarlet even through the darkness. “Yes, sir. Not to gamble above our means and never with a senior officer. Sorry, sir. But it’s not in the army regulations.”
“Fuck the army regulations, most of them are bollocks anyway, you’re in the 110th and the only regulations that matter are the ones I tell you matter! And it serves you right for going to the headquarters mess anyway, the food’s dreadful and the wine is worse. No wonder Wellington never goes near it! I will deal with the Major who thinks it is a good idea to flout my rules and gamble with my juniors at a later date. If he is extremely lucky he’ll get his head blown off before I catch up with him!”
Higgins gave a choke of laughter. “They’re in reserve sir, won’t be engaged today.”
“He bloody will when I get hold of him! Captain Harker, can you manage without this young fool? Despite his evident idiocy in matters of finance, he’s a surprisingly useful officer and I’d like him to go over with his men.”
Harker was smiling. “Gladly, sir.”
“Good. Jackman, if it becomes necessary I will settle your blasted debts of honour myself and you can pay me back gradually. And if I ever see you near a card table for anything greater than a penny a point I am going to shoot you in the head and display your bloody body as a warning to others. Now piss off back to your company and be thankful that I don’t have time to kick the shit out of you as you richly deserve! Move!”
He stood watching as the young ensign took off back towards the lines. Several of the men were laughing, and one at the back raised an ironic cheer. Paul van Daan turned, smiling, and surveyed them.
“Any more of that and I’m starting on you lot,” he said, and they cheered again. The sombre mood had lightened considerably. The colonel moved forward, speaking to one of the men. Higgins stood with Harker, watching as the tall figure moved along the line. He heard laughter and an exchange of banter and there was a new atmosphere among the men. Higgins thought with some appreciation, that they stood a little taller and held their weapons with new determination.
A voice called out of the darkness, and Paul van Daan turned. “What is it, Jenson?”
“Compliments of General Craufurd, sir. He’d like to know if you’re planning on joining the assault today or if this is just a social occasion for you.”
Paul van Daan broke into laughter. “He’s a sarcastic bastard,” he said. “I’m coming, Jenson. These lads have work to do anyway, I’m holding them up.”
He stood back and turned to Harker. “Good luck, Captain. You’ve good lads there, you might do better than you’d think today.” The blue eyes moved back to the men. “All of you are invited to a drink up with us once this mess is over. And you know my lads only loot the best wine and brandy so stay alive and don’t miss it. I need to get back before Black Bob Craufurd starts threatening to shoot me or cashier me again. Good luck.”
He saluted, and they stood to attention without an order, to return the salute.
“He do that often, sir?” one of them called and Colonel van Daan laughed.
“Twice a week at least, I swear it. The only reason I’m still here is he doesn’t want to upset my wife.”
Another of the men laughed. “I’ve seen your wife, sir, I don’t blame him.”
Paul van Daan smiled, waved and then headed off into the darkness back towards his men.
Higgins turned back to the Forlorn Hope and found Captain Harker smiling. “That was unexpected,” he said, and he sounded more human than Higgins had heard so far.
“Yes. You met him before, sir?”
“No. Heard of him, of course. One of Wellington’s rising men. He must be five years younger than me and brigade commander already. But on that performance I can see why. Not sure I’ve ever seen an officer that easy with the men.”
Higgins nodded, passing his flask again. “His men think the world of him, you literally can’t criticise him in front of one of the 110th they’ll punch you. And of course, he’s got that wife, which can’t hurt.”
“His wife?” Harker said, puzzled.
Higgins grinned. “You not seen her, sir? Can’t have, or you’d remember her.”
“Very. She works with the surgeons. I got taken in after Fuentes with a bayonet wound. She didn’t treat me but she was working at the next table. Pregnant, she was, if you’d believe it, and she was digging shot out of a corporal of the rifles. It must have bloody hurt, the air was blue with his language. After about five minutes she puts down the scalpel, looks him straight in the eye, and says ‘Corporal, if you need to swear that much, use a different word, I’m tired of you bellowing the word fuck into my ear every thirty seconds.’ Swear to God, sir, he didn’t make another sound.”
Harker began to laugh. “You’re not serious?”
“As I stand before you! She must have had that baby by now. Loveliest looking girl I’ve ever seen, apparently Lord Wellington’s all over her, can’t hurt his promotion chances.”
Harker shook his head. “I doubt that’s why he got promoted, Sergeant. Looks like our orders coming up.” He studied Higgins. “Thanks. You’ve helped.”
“That’s all right, sir. Look after my lads, the Colonel was right, they’re good. Try and make it out alive if you can.”
Harker gave a wry smile. “Not sure I’ve got much reason to.”
“You make it over and survive, sir, you’ll get a pardon. And if that happens I’d go and have a chat with Colonel van Daan.”
“You think he meant that?”
“I doubt he’d have said it if he didn’t, Captain. Looks like you’re off. Good luck, sir.”
Paul van Daan heard the call of the bugle as he arrived back at his lines. He waved up at General Craufurd and saw his commanding officer’s ironic salute through the darkness. There would be some time before the order came for the light division to advance and Paul paused to drink from his water bottle, surveying his men. They were quiet now, talking softly to each other if at all and he knew that for each of them it was a moment to quell the knot of fear in his belly, to review weapons and orders, to speak a word to a good friend, and to think of the people they had left behind them; wives, girlfriends, parents or children.
He looked up at the citadel and thought of his wife. He had left her several hours ago, holding their three month old son in her arms, smiling at him as he kissed her goodbye. They had been married for more than a year now year and he had loved her for two before that, the memory of his first wife who had been her friend, still bitter sweet; the memory of her brutal first husband casting no shadow on their happiness.
He knew that by now she would have deposited Will with his nurse and be waiting in the surgeon’s tent, her maid and her orderlies ready to assist her. Around her the other surgeons regarded Anne van Daan with a mixture of admiration, disapproval and exasperated affection. She should not have been there, doing what she did, but her undoubted talent for her unofficial role as army surgeon to the 110th had become well established over the past few years. Dr Adam Norris, who had first taken the monumental step of training her after she had volunteered to help with the nursing, had never wavered in his faith in her abilities and she had the support, surprisingly of Dr McGrigor, the surgeon general, and Lord Wellington who commanded the army, but some of the older surgeons complained bitterly that she was allowed to continue. Since she was unpaid and unqualified there was no medical board they could report her to, and her success level was high, causing men who knew of her to beg to be taken to her table when they were carried in. With the shortage of medical staff at all levels along with Anne’s position as wife to a senior officer nobody was willing to take the step of forbidding her to enter the hospital.
“Thinking about Nan?” a voice said, and Paul glanced sideways and smiled at Major Carl Swanson who commanded his first battalion and had been his closest friend since childhood.
“Yes. Hoping she’ll have the sense not to overdo it. Not that she’ll even consider resting more, but Will is still so young.”
“I see Ensign Jackman is back with his company.”
Paul grinned. “Silly young bleater. Thank God for Leo Manson. When I get off this field I am going to get hold of Captain Kent and ask for an explanation as to why he didn’t know what was going on there.”
Carl smiled. “He’s mostly pretty good, Paul, but I imagine Jackman was too ashamed to come forward.”
“So why did Captain Manson know about it?”
“Because he’s an interfering young bastard who knows too much about everything,” Carl said with a grin.
“Exactly what I like to see in an officer.” Paul studied his friend. “Keren all right?”
Carl gave a wry smile. “Yes. It’s odd. I used to watch you saying goodbye to Rowena and then to Nan and some part of me was envious that you’d a lass to kiss you and wait for you to come back. And now I realise it’s actually pretty painful. She’s very good. Doesn’t cry or make a fuss. Paul….”
“Look, this might sound a bit mad because I should have dealt with it before, but actually it’s bothering me. I don’t have a will, never had that much to leave, although I’ve invested my prize money and it’s doing all right. If I die up there, what I have will go to my parents. They won’t care about it, never had any money and never really noticed the lack. But Keren…will you make sure she’s all right? Once this is over I’m going to borrow Wellington’s man of business and get it drawn up properly.”
Paul smiled slightly. His friend’s relationship with Keren Trenlow was entirely unofficial would have been frowned upon in a different regiment. Keren was a miner’s daughter from Cornwall who had come out with her sweetheart who had died of fever before he ever saw a battle. Alone and desperate, Keren had taken up with a private from Paul’s third company who had beaten her regularly. Anne had taken the girl under her wing when Paul had intervened and Keren had worked for her doing laundry and mending to earn her keep. Anne had become very fond of her and had spent time teaching her to read and write, and at some time during the last campaigning season Paul had been surprised to realise that instead of finding herself a husband among the enlisted men as he had expected, she was sharing the bed of his oldest friend.
He had begun to suspect that the girl was becoming more than a convenience to Carl. On campaign the 110th was very informal and as they ate around the camp fire or in some borrowed barn, she was to be found permanently beside him. Paul had watched in some concern to start with, but what he had seen had reassured him. She was bright and practical and very adaptable and seemed to be easing herself into Carl’s life and he did not think she was doing it for money. With no means of his own, Carl lived off his pay and prize money as many of his officers did, and marriage to a girl of his own social class would have been difficult if not impossible. It was becoming clear to Paul that he had found something with Keren that mattered to him.
“I’ll see to it,” he said quietly. “Don’t worry about her, Carl. Apart from the money, Nan loves her dearly, we’ll make sure she’s taken care of.” He studied his friend. “There’s not…?”
Carl shook his head. “Not yet. But if this carries on, sooner or later she will be. And God knows how we’ll manage that, because I don’t think she’ll want to leave and I wouldn’t want her to.”
“You’re not going to get yourself killed, lad, that’s an order,” Paul said. “But in case you’re worrying, your girl and your child, if there’s one on the way that you don’t know about yet, are my responsibility. I promise.” He nodded towards an approaching figure. “Looks like we’re on our way. I wonder how it will go up there with the Forlorn Hope?”
“It’s never good, Paul. You shouldn’t have gone up there, it only pisses you off, and someone has to be first.”
“I know. I could give Wellington a list of officers who could go over instead of Harker and would never be missed. General Sir William Erskine, for example. And if he were still here, Major Longford. Although curiously I don’t feel quite as bad about him as I used to, must be mellowing.” Paul surveyed his friend. “Look after yourself. You know how I hate storming a bloody city. And remember…”
“Don’t you dare give me instructions which would insult a greenhorn, Colonel!” his friend interrupted and Paul grinned and turned to Wellington’s ADC who had arrived with orders.
Wellington’s army had marched on the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo immediately after Christmas after an unusually short time in winter quarters. He had received intelligence that Bonaparte had ordered Marshal Marmont to send 10,000 troops to help Suchet capture Valencia along with another 4000 to reinforce the central reserve and the time seemed right for an attempt on the border fortress. Paul had been present the previous summer when Wellington had been forced to abandon his siege at the other great border fortress of Badajoz and although the French had been driven out of Almeida, their garrison had managed a daring escape under the noses of the Allies; a subject that it was still unwise to raise in Lord Wellington’s presence.
Wellington’s forces had marched in bad snowstorm conditions; the worst snow Paul had seen in many years. He found himself fuming at the state of his men’s uniform, particularly their footwear, as they battled through the appalling weather, shivering in threadbare coats and trousers and patching their shoes as best they could. Some of them had boots looted from dead Frenchmen and they did rather better but Paul was conscious of how badly equipped they were. Most of the men did not have tents and were to be found huddled under makeshift blanket tents or sheltering under trees. The men of the 110th and 112th were all equipped with tents and he was amused and a little touched to see them offering shelter where they could to the Portuguese and KGL of the third brigade, cramming six men into four man tents during the freezing nights. He had ordered tents for the rest of his brigade using money saved in other areas but they had not yet arrived.
The cold weather and poor conditions had been a source of anxiety for Paul given that Anne had only recently given birth and was nursing their young son. He had seriously considered insisting that she stay in Freineda or even go back to Lisbon until the weather improved, but he had hesitated, knowing how upset she would be. Shortly before their departure he had been surprised and touched when his commander in chief had approached him and placed his carriage at Anne’s disposal. Knowing that if conditions proved too difficult she could return to their comfortable billet near Freineda in the comfort of a carriage and along good roads reassured him, and he was amused by the panache with which she settled herself and their baby into a tent. Their son slept warm beside them on their mattress and Paul awoke each morning with a sense of well being despite his disturbed nights.
On arrival at the fortress on the 6th January Wellington and Lt Colonel Fletcher had surveyed the approaches and made their plans. Ciudad Rodrigo had a main wall more than thirty feet high which appeared to be in poor condition but the French had built a redoubt on the 600 foot hill known as the Grand Teson to the north. Intelligence suggested that the garrison consisted of some 2000 men which would make it difficult to mount an effective defence of the whole fortress.
On January 8th, Wellington sent in his light division under General Robert Craufurd to storm the Grand Teson. The attack came as a complete surprise to the French and the redoubt was taken with minimal losses. The allies began digging trenches to and positions for the breaching batteries. It was a hazardous enterprise at night as the picks hitting a rock resulted in sparks which made it easy for the French to direct their fire, but a few days later the trenches were complete and batteries were installed.
By then, Wellington had received further intelligence concerning Marshal Marmont’s movements and was determined to speed up the siege. In subsequent fast actions the San Francisco Convent and the Santa Cruz Convent were stormed and a sortie by 500 men of the defenders was fought off.
The batteries opened fire on 14 January and work began on the second parallel, to provide closer batteries and a safe covered route for assaulting troops. In five days, the guns opened two effective breaches, one in a wall and a smaller one in an exposed tower. Paul, whose last experience of a siege had been the frustrating failure to take Badajoz the previous year was surprised at how effective the bombardment had been and cautiously optimistic about the storming. His dislike of sieges and storming a town was legendary in the 110th and the officers and men who had served with him from the start of his army career ten years ago told a variety of entertaining stories about his bad temper when his regiment was called upon to take part in siege warfare. Paul laughed with them but he knew that they were right. He had immense faith in Lord Wellington’s command on a battlefield and even more faith in his men’s fighting skills but when storming a town these advantages counted for little.
The light division had been instructed to storm the lesser breach, while Picton’s 3rd division had been given the greater breach on the northwest. Paul walked up to meet his commander and found the two commanders of the other brigades already with him. Both men were relatively new in post. Colonel George Drummond had died of fever the previous September and Colonel Sydney Beckwith had been invalided home in August which placed Paul in the strange position of being the longest serving of the three brigade commanders albeit the youngest. It had cemented his position in the division. He was known to be close to both Wellington and Craufurd, and while Beckwith and Drummond had tended to look upon him as something of a young upstart at times, he found relations with Vandaleur and Barnard far easier.
Robert Craufurd glared at Paul as he saluted. “There you are! What the devil was that racket about earlier, I thought you were going over to the French!”
“Thought about it,” Paul said. “But I remembered in time how badly they tend to overdo the garlic in their cooking. I was retrieving one of my ensigns from an ill-judged attempt to join one of the forlorn hopes.”
Craufurd gave a crack of laughter. “He looking for early promotion, Paul?”
“He was looking to avoid gambling debts to some Highland Major who’s been fleecing him at the headquarters mess,” Paul said grimly. “I don’t know who, but I’ll find out.”
“It’ll be Brodie,” Barnard said. “He’s known for it. Cards and swordplay. He’s a devil with a blade and he keeps up his lifestyle by challenging men to a friendly bout and betting on it. A couple of very promising young officers have had to sell out to meet their obligations, I’ve heard.”
Both Craufurd and Paul were staring at him. “Does Wellington know?” Craufurd demanded.
“He can’t, or Brodie would be up to his neck in it,” Paul said briefly. “Don’t worry, sir, I’ll deal with him after this mess is over. Trust me it’ll be the last time he tries to make money out of one of my junior officers. And if he kicks off about it, he can try challenging me to a friendly bout and having a bet on it.”
Craufurd gave a bark of laughter and the other two men smiled politely. “I admire your confidence, Colonel,” General Vandaleur said. “I believe he’s very good.”
“It isn’t called confidence, General, it’s called arrogance,” Craufurd said. “We’ll discuss Major Brodie another time. For now, we’re going in over the lesser breach. Call them in around the San Francisco convent, I’d like a word with them before we go in. Vandeleur, your lads will lead us over, Barnard to follow. Colonel van Daan will bring his lads up behind to correct all of our mistakes.”
Barnard shot Paul a startled glance and seemed relieved to see him laughing. Neither of the other commanders had completely got to grips with Craufurd’s acerbic tongue and were not always sure when he was being genuinely offensive or when he was joking.
“It’s what I do best, sir,” Paul said. “You got any orders you particularly want me to ignore today or shall we just see how it goes?”
“You disobey an order of mine today, Colonel and I will shoot you in the head!” Craufurd said explosively.
“No you won’t, sir, you’re too fond of my wife,” Paul said with a grin. “I’ll bring them up. You going to make a stirring speech? I might make notes.”
“You should, Colonel,” Craufurd said shortly. “Then you can make another one telling them the best wine shops to loot when they get in there!”
Paul laughed aloud, aware of the shocked expressions of the other two men. “I would, sir, but I don’t know them, not been to Ciudad Rodrigo before.”
“Well for those in doubt, follow the 110th, they’ll find them! Get going!”
Paul was amused as he stood at the head of his brigade, listening to Craufurd’s speech. He was aware that not all the men would hear it all but the words would be passed among them and probably embellished. Craufurd was disliked by many of his officers but adored by his men despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, and his speech was unashamedly aimed at them, sentimental at times but guaranteed to touch their hearts.
“Soldiers,” he said finally, his voice carrying through the crisp cold evening air. “The eyes of your country are upon you. Be steady. Be cool. Be firm in the assault. The town must be yours this night. Once masters of the wall let your first duty be to clear the ramparts and in doing this, keep together!”
They cheered him with riotous enthusiasm and he smiled down at them, black browed and stocky, a man at home in his command and knowing himself loved. “Now lads, for the breach!”
They stirred, checking their arms, ready to move, and Paul stepped forward and stilled his brigade with a yell which surpassed anything his commanding officer had managed.
“Third brigade halt!”
The men froze and snapped to attention. Paul stepped up onto a chunk of broken masonry and looked down over them.
“Wine, ale, liquour – I don’t give a damn, providing you bring some back for me and I’m picky so make it good!” he said, and there was a gust of laughter through the brigade. “But if I catch any one of you looting houses or hurting the locals and I swear to God you’ll wish you’d died in that breach. As for the women – every single one of you bastards knows my views on rape and you touch a lassie against her will I will personally cut off your balls and nail your prick to the doorpost! You have been warned. Officers and NCOs make sure everybody heard that message, will you?”
“That’s all right, sir,” RSM Carter said pleasantly. “I’m fairly sure they heard that message in London at Horse Guards.”
There was more laughter and Paul grinned and jumped down. “Let’s get going, Sergeant,” he said. “You know how I’ve been looking forward to this. If there is one thing about my job that I hate the most….”
There was a roar of responsive laughter which drowned out the end of his sentence and Paul went to join Colonel Wheeler at the head of the 112th. “Ready?”
Wheeler was smiling. “Paul, I wish I had your gift. You manage to make your dislike of storming a town into a regimental legend and I’d swear they all go over there determined to show you how easy it really is!”
Paul gave a wry smile. “Then they’re idiots, Johnny. Because it isn’t easy and some of them are going to die. And I actually do hate it. But we need to do it so let’s get it over with.”
The light division storming party was led by Major George Napier of the 52nd who had volunteered for the duty. His request for volunteers to join him had resulted in half the division stepping forward. Paul had run his eye over those of his brigade who had been chosen and observed with a combination of amusement and relief that the men who had volunteered were all from his newer recruits. His veterans watched them go with a tolerant eye, preferring to go over with their own officers. Wellington’s army was very hierarchical, and the third brigade was a relatively new addition to the light division having been formed back in April from the two regiments then under Paul’s command, the 110th and 112th, two companies of the 95th, the Portuguese battalions he had commanded since Bussaco with some additions, and a battalion of the King’s German Legion. Although Paul’s men had fought alongside the light division for many years he was amusedly aware that the men under Craufurd regarded his brigade as newcomers, and the 52nd, 43rd and 95th who comprised the bulk of the division were longer established regiments who did their best to look down on the more recently formed 110th and 112th.
Paul did not care and his attitude had filtered down to his men. The 110th had been fighting in the Peninsular since 1808 and had developed a reputation of one of the best regiments in the army. They were a particular favourite of Lord Wellington who frequently used them as an independent unit to carry out tasks he considered especially important, and their commander’s reputation for unconventionality and a complete disregard for army traditions was legendary throughout the army. Paul knew that his experienced troops would rather be commanded by their own officers whom they trusted implicitly than follow a volunteer whose quest for glory might well get them all killed.
He knew that the order of brigades going into the battle had been set purely in order of numerical precedence and he was passionately glad that his was the third and newest brigade on this occasion. He had no desire to be first over the walls and saw no glory or possible advantage in throwing his men against the lethal blast of fire from the French guns. From the rear of the attack he gave orders to his rifles and the sharpshooters of the two light companies to target the defenders on the ramparts. In the darkness and confusion accurate shooting would be difficult but some of his men were very good and he hoped they would be able to even up the odds before they reached the bloody melee of hand to hand fighting with sword and bayonet in the breach.
The assault began at eight o’clock. Paul stood in line with his men, glancing over at the steady ranks. Through the darkness his eyes sought and found his closest friends, Colonel Johnny Wheeler who now commanded the 112th; Major Carl Swanson at the head of the first battalion of the 110th; Captain Leo Manson, newly returned from brief leave in England to command the 110th light company; Captain Michael O’Reilly at the head of the 112th light company. There were friends too among the NCOs and men of his regiments; Sergeant Danny Carter and Sergeant Jamie Hammond of the 110th and many of the others, some of whom had been with him since he was a young lieutenant in India ten years ago. He could not bear the thought of losing any one of them although he went into every battle knowing that he might.
The bugles called and Paul stepped forward, drawing his sword. As he began to move his mind cleared of thoughts of his friends, thoughts of death and thoughts of fear, and focused solely on the breach in the citadel wall, already packed with the red coats and green jackets of the light division.
To the left, Napier’s storming party had three hundred yards of open ground to clear and moved across it fast, running to the top of the glacis and then leaping down the scarp, a depth of around eleven feet. They scrambled up the fausse braie which was a low defensive wall outside the main walls preceded by a ditch. Once there the forlorn hope headed towards the left while the stormers went straight to the breach.
The opening of this smaller of the two breaches was narrow and had caused Paul some concern from when he had first seen it. He was unsurprised to see as he led his men into the darkness, that the French had placed a gun at the top which nearly blocked the opening. Looking upwards he could see the forlorn hope and the stormers coming together at the top and he swore.
“Christ, there are too many of them up there, they’re going to get stuck. Carter!”
“Working on it, sir, but it’s bloody dark, can’t see what we’re doing and don’t want to hit our own men!”
He could hear the crack of rifles as his skirmishers dropped into firing position, aiming at the gunners, but there was an enormous crash of French artillery and he saw the first wave of attackers blown away by grape shot and musket fire from the ramparts. Some of the men were firing their muskets back, forgetting in their panic that they were not loaded for the storming. As he made his way out of the darkness of the ditch and up towards the press of men in the breach, Paul could hear Major Napier yelling to his men to use bayonets and he saw other officers scrambling forward. There was no sign of Napier although Paul could hear his voice and he wondered if George was hit.
He heard suddenly the bellow of General Craufurd. His commander had gone up to the left of the advancing columns and climbed directly up to the top of the glacis and was yelling instructions to his men. Paul could hear him clearly, the familiar rasp of his voice shouting encouragement and orders and could see the short, stocky figure outlined against flashes of fire.
“Jesus bloody Christ what is he doing up there, he’s going to kill himself!” Paul said, and lifted his own voice in a bellow of rage which cut through the noise of battle impressively. “Sir, get down from there you stupid bastard, you’re in two fire lines!”
He saw his commander’s head turn at the sound of his voice and knew that he had heard, and then the French muskets were upon him, firing not only from the ramparts but also from the fausse braie opposite. The ditch was narrow with no cover and at that distance there was no possibility that the muskets would miss.
“Robert, get down!” Paul yelled again. He was frantically trying to push his way through the close press of men scrambling up the breach and he saw his commander take a step as if suddenly realising his exposed position. There was another burst of firing and Paul saw, with sick horror, Craufurd’s body lurch suddenly and begin to fall. He fell slowly at first and then rolled faster, tumbling down the steep slope of the glacis.
A Redoubtable Citadel (Book 4 in the Peninsular War Saga)
To be published in September 2017