Sharpe came out of the trees about three hundred yards from the American lines, and looked upon an utter disaster. He stood for a minute, appalled beyond words at what he saw. If Patrick Harper had been there, he would only have been able to gasp out "God save Ireland."
The proud British army that only this morning, had set out with flags flying and drums beating, now lay in bloody tatters across the battlefield before Line Jackson. Cannon fire and rifle shot still lashed across the field, but the battle was done. From the tree line to the river, the ground was strewn with bodies and body parts wearing scarlet, tartan, and rifleman green. He could easily have walked across the field on the backs of the dead without once touching the ground. At a guess, the dead and wounded numbered close to three thousand, nearly half the force. Whole battalions lay in marching order where they had been shot down. Through a shroud of gunpowder smoke that drifted across the field, he could recognize the 93rd Highlanders, and the 21st. The crows were already busy on the dead. Dying horses kicked feebly, neighing pitifully. A cacophony of low moans, screams, cries, prayers, even delirious laughter drifted across the field from the throats of thousands of wounded who lay helplessly, begging for help that might be too late if it came at all.
And as Sharpe looked on this scene of devastation, a cold anger began to brew in his heart. If there was one thing that Sharpe hated, it was waste of life. In his book, an officer had the right to sacrifice his men's lives, but he had no right to throw them away. And that was what had happened here. These men had died uselessly, without any realistic chance of victory. Nothing had been achieved, nothing proven, except for the stupidity of their officers. These men had been thrown in their thousands against the Yankee line, and in their thousands they had been mown down. Uselessly.
But then, the smoke drew apart a little more in the center of the American line. A little over a quarter mile away, Sharpe could see a column of British soldiers lying on the ground, some fifty yards from Line Jackson. And he could see that many of them were still alive. They crouched in the dirt as iron death whirled above them, unable to advance, unable to withdraw. All they could do was lie there and wait for the Americans to finish them off. And then he saw their regimental colors, lying on the ground, flapping in the light breeze. It was the South Essex.
His old regiment had been hurled against the Jonathan's line, and then thrown back bloodied. But they weren't all dead. And there was still a chance to save at least some of them. And to save their honor too.
A few days before, Sharpe had watched helplessly as his men died. He was never going to let that happen again. Ever. He didn't have to think about it. He set off across the battlefield, making a beeline towards his old regiment. He no longer felt his injuries. He had to gingerly step around the wounded strewn in his path, around severed arms, legs, heads, torsos and less identifiable fragments. And with every step, his anger increased.
He came across an officer with a great piece of his scalp hanging across his eyes, walking in a continuous circle with his saber slashing the air.
Success had depended on surprise. When that was lost, the battle was lost. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
He passed a corporal sitting on the field with his hands to his face, weeping. But he was weeping blood. He lowered his hands, and Sharpe saw that his eyes were empty, bloody holes in his face.
The columns had been blasted apart, often without a chance to fire a shot in return. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Random rifle balls and grapeshot exploded around Sharpe, but he ignored them. Sometimes he was shrouded in smoke. Shards of shot tattered his overalls and tunic as they whizzed by him. But he had eyes only for the South Essex, ever coming nearer. And for the poor souls all around him whose last moment was captured in death.
He stepped around a soldier who was continuing to march towards the American line, his musket properly resting on his shoulder. He had no legs, and was marching on the stumps.
It was clear that the 44th had failed to bring the fascines and scaling ladders forward. Without them, it would have been impossible to surmount the Yankee ditch and rampart even had they reached it. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Americans behind the line stared in amazement at this blood drenched figure in a tattered green uniform, holding a big cavalry sword in his left hand, with his right hanging useless at his side. They could not believe that an enemy soldier would simply walk across the front of their line, so they just stared and let him pass without trying a shot.
Sharpe passed a horse kicking feebly, its entrails trailing in long blue ropes, its eyes begging for mercy. Its rider lay dead beneath it. Without pausing in his stride, Sharpe sliced through its throat left-handed, ending its agony in a final shudder and a weak spurt of blood.
The myth of the Redcoat's superiority over the Jonathans had been the one reason for Pakenham's overconfidence in the face of mounting odds. The night battle, the reconnaissance in force, the artillery duel, should have dispelled this myth and warned him he was up against veteran frontier fighters. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Sharpe was three hundred yards from the Essex now, he could recognize some of the soldiers. They stared incredulously at him as he approached, indifferent to his own safety.
Sharpe stepped over a straight line of twenty mangled bodies laid out feet to head, where a round shot had gone the entire length of the column.
The battlefield was as flat as a tabletop. The men marching into the mouths of the guns would have had no cover for the weapons' full range. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Lawrence Smiley of the Tennessee Rifles broke out of his shock as Sharpe limped past him not a hundred yards from the ditch. He brought his long rifle up for the easy kill, took aim and fired. The sparks and smoke flew, the rifle ball flew out with its crack!
And Sharpe walked on unscathed. Smiley stared after him in astonishment. How in Jehosephat's name had he missed at that range?
Sharpe came across a mound of dead soldiers that was taller than he was. They had been shot down one after the other and piled up on themselves. Moans from within the mound indicated that some of them were not yet dead.
The cover that the morning fog might have given was squandered by the signal rocket, which warned both sides that the attack was coming. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Sharpe's lips were compressed in a tight line, but inside he was seething rage. These perfumed gentlemen with their fine uniforms were very good at sending men to die. But if you cornered them and asked what those men died for, it was rare indeed that they could tell you. The question never even entered their minds.
Two mounted officers rode up to him. Sharpe recognized Colonel Mullens and his toady Captain Wylly of the 44th. Mullens was belligerent, eager to cover up his own blunder by finding fault elsewhere.
"You there, Sharpe! What do you mean by skulking around the battlefield like this? Why aren't you with your men? Are you shirking your duty - "
Mullens stopped with a gasp as Sharpe turned his cold eyes upon him. He looked into those eyes and saw his tombstone engraved in them. If he said another word, Sharpe would kill him. He pulled back his horse, his face pasty with fear, and quickly rode off, with Wylly right behind.
Sharpe went around a shallow puddle with a dead soldier lying face down in it. He had been wounded, and too weak to crawl out, had drowned in six inches of water.
Thorton's attack across the river, so crucial to success, had obviously failed. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Sharpe came across the bodies of five soldiers killed by a round shot that had hit where they had crouched on the ground, killed them, and killed the officer who had been haranguing them back to the assault with drawn sword, and who now lay by them.
Even when the soldiers had tried to escape the rampart's murderous fire, their officers had still urged them on, in yet another useless effort. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
As he looked up and down the American line, he could see the bodies of perhaps two hundred British soldiers who had reached the ditch and died there.
Two hundred out of over six thousand. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Across the battlefield, through the drifting smoke, came an eerie,wailing sound, a single bagpipe. Sharpe recognized the tune: "Amazing Grace." He looked where the 93rd had been mowed down without a break in their formation. He could see a mangled, bloody thing that bore little resemblance to the man it had once been, lying against his comrade's bodies, working the pipes.
The 93rd had been marched straight across the Yankees' line at point-blank range, exposed to murderous fire. They never had a chance to shoot back. Pakenham had attacked anyway.
Now he was only a hundred yards away from where the Essex lay. They had gone to battle with around eight hundred men. As far as Sharpe could tell, their front ranks, close to three hundred, were almost all dead. Towards the rear of the column lay some four hundred who were unwounded and could march unaided. Mixed in with the living and the dead were the wounded, some just waiting to die, some who couldn't be moved but might live, and perhaps a hundred who could make it off the battlefield if they were helped. That made five hundred men whom Sharpe would save or die trying to save.
And it wasn't enough to save their lives. If that were all, they could just crawl off the field on their bellies like so many worms. But if they did that, they would never be worth anything as soldiers again. They would never recover from the disgrace. He had to save their pride, save them in a way that would remind them that they were brave men and that there would be other battles in their future where they could erase this humiliation. They had to believe that they would know victory again. He had to save them with honor.
He walked up to the rear of the column where the living crouched. He stood before them, and his voice rang out in his best parade-ground style. They all heard him clearly.
"Now listen up! My name is Major Sharpe. You all know who I am. I'm going to get you out of here. And you're going to leave this field as soldiers! The Jonathans are not going to see us run! If you do as I say, you live! Now get to your feet!"
Men who had been lying with their faces pressed into the mud looked up cautiously at him, naturally drawn to the reassuring sound of an officer's voice. It gave stability to a world that had been turned inside out. He knew what to do. He would get them out of this death trap. Wouldn't he?
But still, death was whizzing right over their heads, missing them by inches, and sometimes not missing. They had seen half their number mown down like grass. How could they stand up in the middle of that? A few got off their bellies and onto their hands and knees, but none got to their feet. Sharpe saw their hesitation, their reluctance to stand up and make themselves targets for the Jonathan's cannons and rifles. He picked out men that he remembered from Spain.
"Kirby, remember how you stood and faced down the Crapauds at Talavera! Show me the same stuff now! Peters, we sent them running at Salamanca! This is no different! Now stand and help your mates get up! Horrock, remember, you're a hero of Vittoria. Get up! Sergeant Huckfield, remember Badajoz. This is nothing next to that! Now help me get the lads moving!"
Gradually, in ones and twos, the men were getting up, stooping to help their friends to their feet. But it was still too slow. At Sharpe's end of the line, he saw Captain D'Alembord. Dally was Sharpe needed more help. Then, among the front ranks, he saw it. sitting up, a hand to his bleeding head, dazed. Sharpe ran up to him, gripped his arm and shook him.
"Dally! Dally! Can you stand up?"
Dally looked vaguely at Sharpe for a second, then nodded and scrambled to his feet. Sharpe propelled him towards the rear of the column.
"Help me get these lads on their feet."
Sharpe looked across the front rank of dead men. At the opposite end, he recognized Harry Price. He ran to him. Harry was on the ground, but stirring, apparently stunned but unhurt. Sharpe had no time for more talk. He grabbed him by he scruff of the neck and hauled him towards the rear, hoping his head would clear in the process. It appeared to. He stood under his own power, shaking his head and looking at Sharpe in confusion. By now, almost everyone in the South Essex who could stand had done so. Facing him, what had been the rear rank now became the front of the column. Sharpe spoke urgently to both Captains.
"We're going to make a fighting withdrawal back to camp. Dally, form the column up by half-companies, and make sure they support the wounded who can walk."
D'Alembord nodded, turned, and shouted out.
"Column will form up by half-companies. All wounded who can walk shall be supported."
Shuffling out from among the dead, the South Essex formed up into a new column, fifty men wide by eight deep. Some hundred of the wounded were supported in the midst of the column by their mates, arms around their shoulders. Sharpe turned to Price again.
"Do we have any drummers left?"
Price nodded and turned.
"Drummers Williams, Jeffreys, and Kirk, front and center."
Three of them remained, young, scared lads of no more than fifteen in yellow tunics faced with red, their drums hanging from around their necks. They came running up to their Captain, and Price positioned them across the new front rank. Sharpe scanned over the column, saw the King's Colors and the flag of the South Essex.
"Colors to the front!"
Two soldiers snatched up the colors from their dead bearers and rushed to the center of the front rank, holding the flags high for all to see. Sharpe's voice rang out like a trumpet.
"Prepare for fighting withdrawal. The three rear ranks will march at guard!"
The drummers began a steady, marching cadence. The column began to move, their eyes fixed on their colors, away from the American line, back towards the safety of camp. But they were so close to the first, so far from the second. Their rear three ranks walked backwards, timing their steps to the drumbeat. They held their muskets ready to fire if the Americans tried to stop them. Sharpe trotted to the rear of the column to walk backwards with them.
Amazingly, in the few minutes it had taken Sharpe to get the South Essex up and moving, the Americans had not noticed them. Smoke had partially obscured them, and the Americans were relaxed, knowing the battle was finished. But the South Essex's period of grace was over.
Lieutenant Armande Latois had been a gunner for Napoleon, now he worked for Lafitte, and was leader of the crew manning the brass 18-pound culverin that formed battery no. 7 of Line Jackson. He had found grim satisfaction in shredding the Goddams that had come within his arc of fire, the same troops that had driven his country's army out of Spain. Now, as the smoke was clearing, he casually glanced across the field of the dead, and started in astonishment. A British column has risen from the dead, and was now heading across the field, flags flying and drums beating! He motioned to his crew.
"Load canister. Target that column!"
They would not escape. None of them.
Sharpe saw the activity around battery number 7, the gun being run back, the swabbing, worming, loading. He had to time this right.
The column came to a halt.
"Rear rank, kneel! Pres-ent arms! Aim low!"
As one, the rear rank knelt, bringing up their muskets to target the battery. The second and third ranks stood behind them, aiming their firearms. The range was about seventy yards. Sharpe raised his left arm and brought his sword down.
One hundred and twenty muskets rattled out their loads in a dense cloud of fiery tongues and white smoke. Every musket was targeted on battery no. 7. Their numbers compensated for the lack of accuracy. Most of the lead balls ploughed into the mud rampart harmlessly. A few rang and ricocheted off the brass barrel or the wooden carriage. And a very few found living targets among the gun crew. Sharpe's command voice rang out in the echoes of the volley.
"Rear ranks forward. Continue march."
As the column resumed its progress across the battlefield, the three ranks that had fired turned and quickly made their way between the ranks ahead of them, forming the new front three ranks behind the drummers and colors, reloading as they marched. The new three rear ranks turned and marched facing backwards, timing their steps to the drumbeat, their muskets ready.
Lieutenant Latois picked himself off the ground along with his crew. All except two. One was wounded in the arm. One was dead. He peered across the battlefield. The Goddamns were getting away. He snarled at his crew.
"Get that gun loaded!"
Sponging and worming was done, all that remained was priming and loading. The crew hastened to their tasks.
Again, Sharpe could see them rushing about their tasks like a nest of ants. The range was now ninety yards, the outer limits for the Brown Bess.
The column halted. Again, they targeted the same battery, but expanded it to include a six pounder just to the right of the culverin, a small carronade farther right, and a brass twelve pounder to the left, all of whose crews were loading now.
"Rear rank, kneel! Pre-sent arms! Aim low!"
Sharpe could see the charge being rammed down the culverin's throat. He raised his sword and brought it down.
Again, one hundred twenty hot orange tongues licked out from their gunpowder cloud and smashed into the rampart. Again, a very few found their target.
Lieutenant Latois started back as a hot lead ball dug a bloody groove through his left cheek. The gunner was thrown back lifeless with a hole in his head. Four more fell, one dead, three wounded. The batteries to either side had also taken casualties.
"Rear ranks forward. Continue march."
Again, the South Essex began its progress towards safety. The drums beat their steady cadence. The colors flapped in the breeze. The rear ranks trotted to the front, the new rear ranks faced the American line, muskets at the ready. In the center of the column, the wounded hopped along, their arm over a comrade's shoulders. They were beginning to hope. They would make it!
But Sharpe, at the rear of the column, saw hope die. They were now a hundred and ten yards from Line Jackson, beyond any chance of accuracy with their muskets. And they had attracted the attention of every gunner in the American line. All up and down the rampart, he could see them loading and targeting his column. Rifles by the hundreds were poking over the mud rim. A crack! sounded from somewhere to his left, and one of the rearmost rankers fell, his mates closing the gap. They were still well within the Jonathans' range. There would be no escape.
It had been a good try. In a few moments, every gun in the American army would blow the South Essex to pieces, and him along with it. His voice rang out.
The column halted, their trust in Sharpe complete.
"Rear rank kneel! Present arms!"
One hundred and twenty muskets aimed once more towards the American lines. Sharpe prepared to order one last, futile, defiant volley before a hurricane of iron tore into him and his five hundred men. Well, it was good company to die in.
He hoped that Lucille would learn that he had faced the end bravely.
He raised his sword . . .
"All guns, hold your fire!"
There was no mistaking that voice. Sharpe looked back towards the American line. Riding along behind the rampart was a rider on a white horse. General Andrew Jackson pulled up behind battery no. 7 and raised his arm. All the gunners waited for his command. From across the battlefield, his steel blue eyes lanced out towards the column of the South Essex, their muskets poised, and the bloody figure in a tattered green uniform standing next to its rearmost rank, his sword raised. His eyes met Sharpe's, and iron will faced off against iron will. Time seemed to stand still on the battlefield.
Sharpe saw a chance, and took it. His voice rang out across the battlefield defiantly.
"General Jackson! This is the South Essex, the finest regiment in the British army! I'm taking them out of here, with their colors flying!"
Sharpe's unspoken meaning was clear. If Jackson tried to stop him, he'd pay as bitter a price as Sharpe could exact.
Jackson looked up and down the battlefield, at the awful wreck of the enemy army, at the piles of bodies that stretched from one end to the other. He had won a great victory here, there could be no disputing it. He could afford to be generous.
He admired courage, even the courage of an enemy. Such bravery as this should be rewarded. And though he'd never admit it to any man, he actually liked the British rifleman called Sharpe. His voice carried over the field, and all men heard him.
"Your courage does your country honor, sir! You may quit the field."
Sharpe breathed a sigh of relief. His gamble had worked. They would live, at least for another day. He turned to his column.
"Resume march! All ranks, face forward!"
The South Essex marched off the battlefield, drums beating and flags flying.
Lieutenant Latois swore. The General must be mad. He turned to Jackson, who sat on his horse watching the column escape. His match was poised over the touchhole.
"General, one shot and I can destroy them -"
"Hold your fire, sir. I gave my word, they may withdraw."
"But General . . .
Jackson's legendary wrath blasted forth.
"By the Eternal, I am not in the habit of repeating myself, sir! Hold your fire!"
Latois looked at the linstock in his hand, its slow-burning match glowing, poised over the touchhole. All he needed to do was touch it, send a stand of canister smashing into the Goddams, and say that he misheard the General. What could Jackson do then? He lowered the linstock . . . and then the cold barrel of a pistol pressed into the back of his head.
"Touch that match and you'll not live to see where the shot falls." said Cornelius Kilick.
A second pistol pressed into Latois' left temple.
"And if he misses, mon ami, then I shall not." said Jean Lafitte. "Now drop it, s'il vous plait."
Grumbling, Latois dropped the linstock to the ground.
Andrew Jackson looked out at the column of the South Essex as it withdrew from the field. He turned to his aide.
"Captain Gilpin, you will do me the kindness of seeing that this incident is not mentioned in any report. If word gets out that I let the enemy off scot-free, I'd never live it down."
Gilpin nodded, and Jackson looked back at and the tall figure in tattered bloodstained green that walked with drawn sword besides the departing column. He shook his head and smiled in reluctant admiration.
"Damnation! Give me a thousand men like him and I could lick any army on the face of the earth. Or even the United States Congress!"
With the release of tension, Sharpe was beginning to feel his wounds and his exhaustion. It was getting hard to walk, he was feeling light-headed. But now was no time to show weakness before the men. He still had to restore their spirit, to remind them that they were soldiers and would know triumph again. The repair work would start now. He trotted to the head of the column and addressed the drummer boys.
"Do you lads know 'The British Bayoneteer?'"
The drummers nodded eagerly and began to pound out the beat. Sharpe turned to Price.
"Harry, you've got a singing voice. Use it, and make sure everyone hears you."
Price swallowed in discomfort, hummed a little to get the pitch, and began. His voice was hesitant at first, but grew in strength as he sang.
"Eyes right, my jolly field boys,
Who British bayonets bear,
To teach your foes to yield boys,
When British steel they dare!
Now fill the glasses, for the toast of toasts
Shall be drunk with the cheer of cheers,
Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!
For the British bayoneteers."
Sharpe fell back along the column, gesturing with his great sword.
"Sing! All of you, sing! That's an order!"
Sharpe knew that the first key to fighting like a soldier was acting like a soldier. And that included singing a soldier's fighting song, even in defeat. First one voice, then two, then five, ten, a hundred, and then almost the whole column was singing for all they were worth, even the wounded as they limped along.
"Great guns have shot and shell, boys,
Dragoons have sabers bright.
The artillery fire's like Hell boys,
And the horse like devils fight.
But neither light nor heavy horse
Nor thundering cannoneers,
Can stem the tide of the foeman's pride,
Like the British bayoneteers!"
This verse rang hollow, especially in view of what the thundering cannoneers had done to them that morning. But there would be other mornings, other battles, and that they must remember. They would triumph again, and then this verse would mock them no more. Sharpe joined in on the final verse.
"The English arm is strong, boys.
The Irish arm is tough.
The Scotsman's blow the French well know,
Is struck by sterling stuff.
And when before the enemy
Their shining steel appears,
Goodbye! Goodbye! How they run, how they run!
From the British bayoneteers!"
Next time, Sharpe thought. Next time, the enemy would be the ones to run. And the South Essex would be one of the regiments that put them to flight. Price began the first verse again, with the entire column joining in lustily. They were beginning to believe in themselves once again.
Near the British forward headquarters at the De La Ronde mansion, Colonel Mullens was making his report to General Lambert as they both sat on their horses looking in the direction of the battlefield. Captain Wylly was at his elbow, corroborating every word. They heard the singing first, and then the drums, and then the small column of the South Essex, five hundred men, came around the bend with flags flying. Lambert stared incredulously as Mullens pointed hysterically.
"There sir! There he is! Threatened my life he did! If I didn't ride like the devil, I wouldn't be here to tell the tale. I demand Major Sharpe's immediate court martial-"
"Oh be quiet, Mullens,"
Mullens face turned the color of curdled cheese.
"I beg your pardon sir?"
"I said 'be quiet.'"
Sharpe marched the column up to General Lambert as they finished the third round of the third verse. He turned.
The South Essex halted smartly, the drummers stopped. Sharpe sheathed his sword and saluted left-handed.
"General Lambert, Sir! I have the privilege of presenting to you the South Essex, with their colors, Sir!"
Lambert nodded appreciatively.
"Carry on, Major."
"Sir!" Sharpe saluted. He turned to Dally, who looked at Sharpe in amazement. His hair on the left side was matted with blood from a long wound that stretched across his scalp. His face was a mass of black and blue. His right arm had a gaping hole in the shoulder and the sleeve was solid caked blood. Another puncture wound lay right over his heart. He bore five gruesome looking slashes across his chest, stomach and face, with another two across his back. Dally wondered what was keeping the man on his feet.
"Captain D'Alembord, see to the men. Get them bivouacked, and make sure that they have some hot food. And get the wounded to hospital."
Dally saluted crisply.
"Sir!" then to the column "Column, forward march!" The South Essex proceeded towards their bivouacs, still singing the "British Bayoneteer." Sharpe headed towards the 95th's bivouac. Colonel Mullens watched him go, open mouthed. He turned to Lambert.
"Are you just going to let him go-"
"Hold your tongue sir! You would do well to start preparing your defense for your own court martial. I'm sure we'll all look forward to your explanation of why you and your troops were not in place with the ladders and fascines as you were ordered to be! As for that man, he has salvaged whatever honor the British army shall have today by withdrawing those troops in good order."
Mullens lapsed into an abashed silence, while Lambert looked after Sharpe's receding form and shook his head in admiration.
"Damnation! What a soldier!"
Sharpe had drained the last dregs of his strength. Every step was an effort of will, every movement brought new agony. His breath came in labored gasps, and the day seemed to be growing dimmer as the ringing in his ears increased with every heartbeat. But he couldn't collapse, not yet. There was still one task to perform.
He came to the 95th's bivouac. Fredrickson was laid out near where he had fallen, with two riflemen standing guard. Sharpe staggered over and stood before his body. In death, his friend's face had a look of peace in it that Sharpe had never seen before. He kneeled down and put his hand on Fredrickson's cold forehead. Neither of the guards heard what he whispered.
"Rest easy, friend. I got him."
He then removed something from his tunic and placed it in Sweet Williams' stiffening right hand. He turned to one of the riflemen, gesturing to the body on the ground.
"See that he's buried with that."
Gripped in Fredrickson's fist was a scalp, still fresh and bloody. A scalp shaven bare, except for a crest running down the center. A crest of flame red hair.
Sharpe stood and stared down at his dead comrade.
At least they had parted as friends.
All the exhaustion and pain and anguish that he had held at bay came flooding in on him in an unstoppable wave.
He wondered vaguely why everything kept tilting back and forth.
God, I hurt.
He was unconscious before his head hit the ground.
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Last update 18/7/01