We marched up the hill in the morning fighting the bitter cold. It had been raining for days, and our boots sunk into the deep mud it had left behind. by the time we had made it to the top, a thick fog had rolled in from the west obscuring all visibility below. We heard the not so distant barking of orders from officers to subordinates. No doubt they knew we were here. Our platoon had been on the move for days, but a burning passion kept us going.
Napoleon had landed his armies on British soil. Our homes were under attack.
We all read about it in the papers, but no one believed it to be true. Napoleon had sent his armies by air aboard a massive fleet of balloon transports. Though many had perished crossing the English Channel, many survived. Enough to give us a run for our money.
Although the prospect was terrifying, we had been given assurances. Most of Napoleon’s forces were concentrated to the south in the Siege of London. He had precious few artillery pieces and no doubt they were all accompanying his main force. All we had to contend with were smaller raiding parties he had sent North to pillage and send back supplies to feed his army. The whole platoon had all wished to see combat on one of our patrols, and our wish had been granted this day.
The army had become an unorganized mess since the invasion, so we took what we could get. Most of the men were new conscripts with no combat training or experience. They were all so confident and full of life. I envied them. The only people worth knowing were the veterans. There were only three of us.
Crawford was a stoic Scot with a permanent scowl fixed onto his face. We had both fought the French in Spain a few years before, and knew how terrifying the looming battle would be.
Williams also fought in Spain, though Crawford and I had never met him before a few weeks ago. His hands trembled whenever he heard the French tongue. He had definitely seen his fair share of war in that godforsaken peninsula.
Though not a veteran of combat, First Leftenant Cliff, our platoon commander seemed a capable man. Though like the greenhorns he constantly spoke of glories and spoils after our victory. That scared me.
We fell into line at the orders of Cliff and took a strategic position among the piles of boulders just past the crown of the hill. Everyone was silent as we waited for the first shot to be fired. What came next shook us all.
A horn sounded and we heard a stampede of hooves. We had been preparing for an infantry charge up the hill, but this was much worse. We had no time to reposition. One of the conscripts screamed in terror. He got up from behind a boulder tried to throw down his weapon and rout. Cliff quickly drew his pistol and shot him down. Then he began rapidly barking orders.
‘Get behind those rocks and fix bayonets! When those bastards pass through they should NOT be able to see you! When I fire, form up and follow suit!’
We crouched behind our rocks as if it were our saving grace. Crawford glanced up at me while attaching his bayonet and whispered.
‘Just like the peninsula, eh boyo?’
Just like the peninsula I thought to myself. I looked to Williams, who had begun shaking uncontrollably since the sound of horses began. He was now clam and collected.
The sound of hooves grew louder until we saw the horses charge past. I looked up and saw that no soldiers were atop the steeds. In fact, no saddles had been attached at all. These horses had been nothing but a diversion. I turned to notify Cliff, but before I could the sound of hooves had vanished over the hill and a more familiar sound filled the air. The sound of infantry screaming as they ran toward us.
Cliff screamed to us to fall back into line three men deep in front of the boulders and fire by rank on his order. We all rushed into formation. Many of the recruits tripped on their way to the line. Cliff waited until we were all in formation to give the order.
‘Front rank! Fire!’
We unleashed a volley of lead down the hill followed by a cacophony of screams. Us veterans had chosen to be in the front rank as an example to the men. As soon as we had fired we knelt down to reload. They did the same.
‘Second rank! Fire!’
The second rank fired and knelt down to reload by our example.
‘Third rank! Fire!’
The third rank fired a volley in the same fashion, but by then the French soldiers had appeared through the fog. They were yelling and firing wildly at us.
‘Front rank! Fire!’
Only Crawford, Williams and I had reloaded in time and squeezed off well placed shots into the mass of men. The conscripts stood to brace for impact.
‘Prepare to charge!’
We tightened our formation and faced our bayonets out toward the enemy. No one spoke a word except for Williams who had madly begun versing scripture.
We all yelled valiantly at the top of our lungs like men possessed as we ran down the hill. We crashed with the deafening sound of wood on wood and metal on flesh. Crawford and I had stuck together and pushed a poor Frenchman flat on his ass. Williams ran from behind us to sink his bayonet into the man’s chest. The thick fog had still not cleared and it seemed empty as Crawford, Williams and I searched for another man.
We found one on top of one of the greenhorns. Bashing his face in with the butt of his musket. Crawford charged and kicked the man off. I quickly sunk my bayonet into his throat.
Williams was locked in a fight with a man nearby. Both had lost their weapons and were rolling around in the mud. I grabbed the Frenchman’s gun and fired a shot into his side. Williams quickly gained the advantage and proceeded to smash his head with a nearby rock. I turned my attention back to Crawford only to find him staring at me, standing limp. He fell and revealed a French soldier. His uniform soaked in the blood of Crawford’s back.
I screamed like a wild beast as I charged him. I parried away his musket with my own and slammed him to the ground with the full force of my body. He fell and stared at me with wide eyes.
‘cède! cède!’ he yelled with his arms up to his ears, but I ignored his pleas.
I positioned my bayonet in between his eyes and thrust it downward. He squirmed in agony as I drove it deeper into his head. A slow death is what he deserved. Finally his skull gave way and my bayonet moved forward without obstruction. The Frenchman twitched once and stopped moving. I sensed someone watching me and dug out my weapon to face my new enemy. Williams stood there, disturbed by what he had witnessed. I stared back with a coat of blood over my face.
Soon afterwards, a horn from down the hill sounded a retreat. The French forces routed into the fog and soon vanished into obscurity. Cliff gathered the remaining men and ran after them. But after a few minutes we could no longer hear them. Only Williams and I were left among the field of lifeless corpses sinking into the mud. I stared at the man I had killed so viciously and then at Crawford’s bleeding back. The only part of him now sticking above the mud. Williams came to my side and looked down with me at our fallen comrade.
‘It wasn’t a fair trade’ I whispered.
‘It never is.’ Williams replied.
“Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”- Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington