Men and officers alike were draped and bundled in whatever scraps of cloth they had begged or stolen on the march, the soles of their boots held in place by knotted twine. Their unshaven faces were wrapped with filthy scarves against the bitter wind. Their eyes were red-rimmed and vacant, their cheeks were sunken, and their eyebrows whitened by frost.
Some men had lost their shakos and wore peasant hats with floppy brims. They looked a beaten, ragtag unit, but they were still Riflemen and every Baker rifle had an oiled lock and, gripped in its doghead, a sharp-edged flint. Major Dunnett, who commanded this half Battalion, marched them westwards. They had been marching since Christmas Eve, and now it was a week into January. Always west away from the victorious French whose overwhelming numbers were swamping Spain, and every day of the march was a torture of cold and hunger and pain. In some Battalions all discipline had disappeared and the paths of such units were littered with the bodies of men who had given up hope.
Some of the dead were women; the wives who had been permitted to travel with the army to Spain. Others were children. The survivors were now so hardened to horror that they could trudge past the frozen body of a child and feel nothing.
The Sharpe Novels by Bernard Cornwell
They had marched expecting victory, but the Emperor had turned on them with a savage speed and overwhelming numbers, so now this small British army retreated towards the ships that would take them home. An hour from the village they reached a stream crossed by a stone bridge. British cavalry waited there with news that some artillery was floundering on a slope two miles ahead. The Riflemen waited. They had done this a score of times in the last two weeks, and doubtless they would do it a score of times again.
If they were lucky this day no Frenchman would bother them, but the probability was that, sometime in the next hour, the enemy vanguard would appear.
That vanguard would be cavalry on tired horses. The French would make a token attack, the Riflemen would fire a couple of volleys; then, because neither side had an advantage, the French would let the greenjackets trudge on. It was soldiering; boring, cold, dispiriting, and one or two Riflemen and one or two Frenchmen would die because of it.
The Riflemen formed in companies to bar the road west of the bridge. They shivered and stared east. Sergeants paced behind their ranks. The officers, all of whom had lost their horses to the cold, stood in front of their companies. No one spoke. Murray smiled. When did your men last have so much ammunition? Look at him! He needed to be able to forage for food or ferret out shelters in apparently overcrowded billets.
He needed a nose to smell out rotten beef, scales to weigh ration flour, and stubbornness to resist the depredations of other Quartermasters. He did not need weapons, yet the new Lieutenant always carried a rifle as well as his regulation sabre. The two weapons seemed to be a statement of intent; that he wanted to fight rather than be a Quartermaster, yet to most of the greenjackets the weapons were a rather pathetic pretension carried by a man who, whatever his past, was now nothing more than an ageing Lieutenant.
Dunnett stamped his cold feet on the road. You can cover. Do you see anything, Quartermaster? His greatcoat hung open and he wore neither scarf nor gloves. Either he could not afford them, or else he was boasting that he was too tough to need such comforts. That arrogance made Dunnett wish that the new Lieutenant, so eager for a fight, would be cut down by the enemy horsemen.
Except there were no enemy horsemen in sight.
Perhaps the rain and the wind and the God-damned bloody cold had driven the French to shelter in the last village. Or perhaps the drunken women had proved too irresistible a lure. Whichever it was, there were no Frenchmen in sight, just sleet and low clouds driven to turmoil by a freshening wind. The four companies seemed alone in a wilderness of rain and frost, four companies of forgotten soldiers in a lost war, and Dunnett made up his mind that he could wait no longer.
The two flank companies turned and, like the walking dead, shambled up the road. The Riflemen liked Captain John Murray. He was a proper gentleman, they said, and it was a fly bastard who could fool him; but if you were straight with him, then the Captain would treat you fair. Murray had a thin and humorous face, quick to smile and swift with a jest. It was because of officers like him that these Riflemen could still shoulder arms and march with an echo of the elan they had learned on the parade ground at Shorncliffe.
Sharpe s01e07 Episode Script
The single figure, staggering and weaving, was a redcoat. He had no musket, no shako, nor boots. It was not much of a joke, merely the imitation of a preacher who had once lectured the Battalion against the evils of liquor, but it made the Riflemen smile. Their lips might be cracked and bloody with the cold, but a smile was still better than despair. The redcoat, one of the drunks abandoned in the last village, seemed to flap a feeble hand towards the rearguard.
Some instinct had awoken and driven him onto the road and kept him travelling westwards towards safety. He stumbled past the flensed and frozen carcass of a horse, then tried to run. The shapes were grotesque apparitions in the grey rain. Dark shapes. Scabbards, cloaks, plumes and carbine holsters made the ragged outlines of French cavalry. The redcoat twisted off the road, jumped a frozen ditch, then screamed like a pig in a slaughteryard. A Dragoon had caught the man, and the long straight sword sliced down to open his face from brow to chin. Blood speckled the frosted earth. The drunken redcoat fell to his knees, crying, and the Dragoons rode over him and spurred towards the two companies which barred the road.
The small stream would be no obstacle to their charge. Perhaps eighty of the rifles fired. The rest were too damp, but eighty bullets, at less than a hundred yards, shattered the single squadron into a maelstrom of floundering horses, falling men, and panic. The scream of a dying horse flayed the cold day. He seized one of the damp rifles which had not fired, scooped the wet sludge from its pan, and loaded it with dry powder from his horn. Fire as you will!
The new Lieutenant peered through the dirty grey smoke to find an enemy officer. He saw a horseman shouting at the broken cavalry. He aimed, and the rifle bruised his shoulder as he fired. He thought he saw the Frenchman fall, but could not be sure. A riderless horse galloped away from the road with blood dripping from its saddle-cloth. More rifles fired. Their flames spat two feet clear of the muzzles. Their first charge, designed only to discover what quality of rearguard faced them, had failed, and now they were content to harass the greenjackets from a distance.
The two companies that had retreated westwards under Dunnett had formed now. A whistle blew, telling Murray that he could safely fall back. The French beyond the bridge opened a ragged and inaccurate fire with their short-barrelled carbines. They fired from the saddle, making it even less likely that their bullets would find a mark.
A few rifles spat a last time, then the men turned and scrambled up the road.
They forgot their hunger and desperate tiredness; fear gave them speed, and they ran towards the two formed companies who could hold another French charge at bay. For the next few minutes it would be a cat and mouse game between tired cavalry and cold Riflemen, until either the French abandoned the effort, or British cavalry arrived to drive the enemy away.
- Notes on Digital Signal Processing: Practical Recipes for Design, Analysis and Implementation, Portable Documents.
- Take-Out, Part 1.
- Sharpe's Rifles: Lesson Plans.
- Read e-book Lesson Plans Sharpes Tiger.
- ALSO IN THIS SECTION.
- Olive Flame Weightloss Diet Booklet.
- Dirty Deeds Done Cheap.
Murray gave the mule a cut on its backside with his heavy sword, making it leap forward. The greenjackets were trained to the skirmish line, to the loose chain of men who took shelter and sniped at the enemy, but on this retreat the men in green formed ranks as tight as the redcoats and used their rifles for volley fire. The French advanced gingerly to the bridge. There were perhaps a hundred of them, a vanguard mounted on horses that looked desperately tired and weak.
No horse should have been campaigning in this weather and on these bitter mountain roads, but the Emperor had launched these Frenchmen to finish off the British army and so the horses would be whipped to death if that meant victory. Their hooves were wrapped in rags to give purchase on slippery roads. Fix swords!
The long sword-bayonets were tugged from scabbards and clipped onto the muzzles of the loaded rifles. The command was probably unnecessary. The French did not look as though they would try another charge, but fixed swords was the rule for when facing cavalry, so Dunnett ordered it. The Lieutenant loaded his rifle. The enemy Dragoons dismounted. They left their horses at the bridge and formed a skirmish line that spread either side of the road. There was none.