Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Raid on Lehmangraz - part two

The bulk of the new gunboat lying on the slipway concealed much of the compound from Horatio’s eyes as he emerged onto the parade ground. The militia platoon charged with guarding the dockyard was forming-up under fire – but the musketry came not from the road but from a number of enemy troops already in the compound. In the growing light Horatio recognized the enemy uniform, one he had last seen crossing the bridge at Wentwitz. “Jagers, by God!” He turned. “Bosun?”

“Sir?” the man shouted.

“We can’t get to the magazine. The enemy’s already in the compound.” He gripped the man’s shoulder. “Their aim must be to destroy the gunboats. Take the crews to the boats and cast off, quick as you like!”

The Bosun nodded and began shouting orders. Without hesitation the well-trained crews began to rush around the foot of the slipway, heading for the gunboats berthed snugly to their jetties. Horatio turned as a militia sergeant ran up and saluted. “Sir, the lieutenant’s compliments and we’ll do what we can.” He gestured toward the road. The jagers there had opened a brisk fire, but the militia was mostly screened by the palisade. Chips of wood flew from the fence as bullets struck it. “We’re under pressure sir, but we’ll hold!”

“Good man! My thanks to your lieutenant.”

The sergeant saluted and ran back to his unit. Horatio turned away, gripped the hilt of his sword and ran alongside his men. I don’t even know the lieutenant’s name, he thought. It’s something I’ll have to rectify. The snap and flare of musket fire from the farthest boat, Phlegethon, drew him onward. Those jagers have penetrated deep into our defenses! He felt a stab of agony in his heart. The boat guards will be overwhelmed! Will we be in time?

Their feet thundered on the dock planking. Horatio saw a crowd of jagers rushing toward the hapless Phlegethon. All fire from her deck had ceased.

At the farm Lieutenant Horst and his NCOs finally got his men into some semblance of order, after a flurry of confusion over dropped muskets, hats, pouches. All the while the sound of increasingly furious musket fire came from the east, the constant rattle interspersed with crashing volleys.

It’s like bloody Viehdorf all over again, Horst thought. Only now I’m the one in command. He looked back from his position at the head of the company column. Raw recruits, God help us! He hesitated, on the verge of giving a speech, but a fresh blast of musketry persuaded him not to. Instead, he drew his sword and pointed it to the east. “Marines, by the left, forward!”

The new Marine company stumbled into motion, some of the new recruits still having only a hazy idea about which foot was their left. Lieutenant Serle, a fresh-faced boy with some pretensions of military learning strode by Horst’s side. “Should we not put out flank guards?” he asked eagerly.

“We haven’t time for that nonsense,” Horst growled, leading his men down the farm track and onto the road. “The dockyard’s under attack. Speed is of the essence!”

The youth touched his hat and stepped back. “Very good, sir,”

Horst turned his attention back to the road. Speed is of the essence. I just hope we’re in time to foil whatever deviltry’s afoot!

Similar thoughts were passing through Schnoedt’s mind as the Lehmangraz militia began to form up in the street. Few men had bothered to pull on even the regulation militia coat. Most stood now in whichever garments they had to hand upon the summons being sounded. Schnoedt regarded them all, nodding thoughtfully. Raw troops, with a little training and a few superannuated veterans. Thank goodness we’ve had some recent experience of soldiering through guarding the dockyard. The now-constant crackle of gunfire drew his attention to the east. Clearing his throat, he raised his voice.

“Men! Our fellow citizens are engaged in battle even as I speak. It is our bounden duty to go to their aid.” He looked over the assembled ranks. “Look to the commands given to you and obey smartly. Good luck and may God favor us all!”

A militiaman stepped forward leading Umbrage, Schnoedt’s horse. Schnoedt swung up into the saddle, and drew his sword. “Forward, Lehmangraz!” he shouted, and urged the mount into motion.

As the militia headed out on the main road Schnoedt saw the Marine company issuing forth from the farm. New troops, and very raw, he thought not for the first time, yet they have a touch of arrogance about them more suited to a veteran unit. The Marine officer stumped along at the head of his men, a set and lowering expression on his face. Schnoedt thought of the few occasions he’d encountered Lieutenant Horst. That one might benefit from being lowered a peg or two. Let’s hope it’s not to all our cost.

The Marines swung onto the road, beating the militia to the junction by a short head. Schnoedt raised a hand to halt his men, allowing the last of the Marines to file by, noticing as he did so that some were out of step. A split second later a crashing volley ripped into the Marines, sending men falling like leaves. Within moments the reasonably ordered formation disintegrated.

Horatio’s feet thundered on the planking as he headed for Acheron. Her boat guards were firing as and when they could see a target, no easy task given the clutter of buildings and dockyard impedimenta in their line of sight. The firing from Phlegethon’s direction ceased even as Horatio reached Acheron’s entry port. He rushed aboard, his thoughts grim. “Let go all!” he roared as his men found their stations. “Helm amidships. Pole her out, don’t wait for anything or anyone!”

Propelled by sheer brawn Acheron began to move, the men detailed to the task sweating. Horatio looked to his left, across Cocytus and saw smoke beginning to rise from Phlegethon’s deck. A second later the first flames appeared, staining the darkening cload with yellow and orange. He felt his heart seized by a brief moment of sadness. His men exchanged shots with the smoke-wreathed enemy, but there would be no saving the veteran gunboat. He felt thankful his own dear Acheron lay in the berth nearest the barracks. And now enemy soldiers were appearing on Cocytus’ deck too!

“Heave!” he roared. Within seconds Acheron slipped free of her confining berth and onto the broad waters of the Adse. With maneuvering room opening up around his command, Horatio breathed a little easier. He glared at Cocytus. “Make ready the main gun!”