Monday, 15 June 2009

To the east the guns fell silent. The last clouds of powder-smoke drifted away on the late afternoon breeze. General Rauppen-Schlepper rode slowly down the main street of Wentwitz, accompanied by his staff, their ears assailed now by the cries of the wounded. They had to ride carefully, to allow their mounts to pick their way with equine delicacy among the bodies. His experienced eye took in the scope of war damage suffered by the town, the dead and wounded laying in clumps here and there, the abandoned wagons of the enemy’s train. For the first few hundred yards the blue coats of Hetzenberg were in equal numbers to the black of the Margraf’s army. But as he rode nearer to the bridge the ground was exclusively black. Men from the hospital train already moved here and there, finding those who yet lived and giving them what succor they could. Here the General paused and leaned on his saddle bow as he gazed at the bloody and bullet-scoured stonework of the bridge. “Dear God, but this was an awful business!”

“Pure slaughter, sir,” Captain Scharfe said with feeling, his face screwed up in repugnance. “There must be an entire regiment lying dead here!”

“Very close.” Rauppen-Schlepper looked at the source of the destruction. “Hullo! What’s amiss there?”

As one the gunboats were lowering their colors to half-staff. As the headquarters party watched a hand aboard the Acheron raised a black pennon in place of the commission pennant. “It seems Captain Creighton fell at his post, gentlemen,” Rauppen-Schlepper said sadly, doffing his hat in salute. His party did likewise. After the appropriate interval he replaced his hat and beckoned to a galloper. “Hail the Acheron and ask her to come to the wharf. I would like to speak with whoever commands now.”

The man saluted and trotted about his errand. Within minutes the gunboat’s oars emerged and stirred her into motion. Rauppen-Schlepper dismounted and walked down to the wharf. He waited quietly until Acheron was made fast to the bollards and the brow run out. Commander Horngebläse came slowly across the brow and saluted, his face tired and showing dark powder stains. “Give you joy of the victory, sir.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Rauppen-Schlepper shook his hand. “It seems it was not without cost to you, however,” he added, gesturing to the black pennon and the bullet-pierced fabric of the boat.

“I’m afraid not, sir. Captain Creighton died early in the encounter.” He spread his hands. “At least was quick,” he said sadly.

“I suppose that’s all we can ever ask for. The command of the flotilla devolves to you, I gather.”

Horatio nodded. “By virtue of my new rank, sir.”

“What do you intend to do next, young fellow?” Rauppen-Schlepper asked kindly.

“We shall drop downriver to our depot at Lehmangraz as soon as possible, sir. We need to bury our dead. Our ammunition is low, too and we must effect repairs and make up our losses.” He wiped his hand over his face. Rauppen-Schlepper noticed the young officer didn’t glance once in the direction of the bridge, where his guns had made such slaughter.

“No doubt His Grace will require your services for the upcoming siege of Randstadt.”

“I think so, sir. Once we have made good we shall head back upriver with all dispatch and seek further orders.”

“What you propose sounds reasonable to me, Commander. Before you depart you will need to write a full report and casualty list. I shall delay sending off my own report until you have finished yours. In that fashion they may be sent together.”

“I thank you for your consideration, General. You shall have my report delivered to your headquarters within the hour.” Horatio saluted. “If I may be excused?”

“Certainly, certainly. And thank you for all you and your crews’ efforts this day.”

“Sir.” Horatio returned aboard the Acheron. Rauppen-Schlepper refrained from shaking his head and returned to his horse. We ask so much of our young men and expect them to bear our demands. Yet how long can even the strongest stand when presented with the evidence of his effectiveness such as this?

* * *

Colonels Babbington and Brabenachel sat in the courtyard of an inn off the main street. It had escaped damage and the staff returned once they were sure the fighting was over. Colonel Brabenachel had ensured his wounded were being taken care of. His report had been made to General Rauppen-Schlepper and now his recombined regiment was going into billets close by. Although tired he felt secure in having done his duty and was content to relax. He could afford to indulge his curiosity. “What do you propose to do now, Colonel?” he inquired of the mercenary.

Babbington put down his teacup and carefully dabbed his lips before replying. “We have no further interest in this war, my dear fellow. The moment your general gives the word we shall march for the Free City of Cottbus.”

“Cotbuss.” Brabenachel nodded sagely. “Were you not employed there until you took the Margraf’s ticket?”

“Yes, but I don’t think we shall be turned away.” Babbington waved his hand languidly. “The last I heard the City Fathers had failed to employ any white company to replace mine. I’ll apply a suitable request for employment, perhaps at a reduced rate.” His smile didn’t quite hide his pain. “Wild Geese must soon learn to swallow their pride.”

“I see.” Brabenachel raised his wineglass. “I wish you success, dear sir. You were a worthy opponent and I hope we shall not meet again on the field of battle.”

“I thank you, sir.” Babbington raised his teacup. “Happy trails to you too!”

* * *

General Kuchler stood by his horse atop the knoll and watched as the remnant of his army trudged by. No colors flew, no band played. What fight had remained in them during the retreat had been scourged by the last battle amid the streets and especially on the bridge at Wentwitz. They’re beaten, and beaten hard, he thought, grim-faced. At least old Rauppen-Schlepper does not seem inclined to pursue. For that mercy let us give thanks.

Not far away stood the customs post that marked the border between the two realms. The douanier and his two assistants stood in front of the small building, watching wide-eyed as the shattered hopes and dreams of their master flowed by. And what of me? Kuchler pondered, returning the salute of a wounded officer who passed by, his head swathed in a bandage. Dare I show my face at Schloss Bagelwein again? He touched his breast where a locket hung next to his skin. Perhaps there is at least one to intercede for me.

* * * * *

So ends the aftermath to the Battle of Viehdorf. I shall return to Hetzenberg soon, but for now I have my wedding to plan and arrangements to make. Our happy event is to take place on 3rd July (which is one way of remembering our anniversary!). After that, I hope to present the Siege of Randstadt, and the continuing adventures of Mary Amadeus and Ursula...

Friday, 12 June 2009

The Bridge at Wentwitz

As the jagers withdrew from the riverside and the firing died away in the town a lull fell upon the flotilla. The gunboat crews had time to pay proper attention to the numerous wounded and to drink from the scuttlebutts and wash the grime of battle from their faces. For Horatio it was a time to take stock of the situation.

He leaned on the bullet-splintered quarterdeck rail and glared at the destruction wrought by the flotilla’s guns on the riverfront houses. A plume of smoke had begun to rise over one, and he wasn’t comforted by the fact the adjoining houses were mere piles of rubble and so acted as a firebreak. All this death and destruction, caused by the Margraf’s greed!

Midshipman Steiner came up and silently offered him a cup of water. Horatio took a sip, swilled it around and spat it into the river before drinking. “Thanks,” he said, handing back the cup and turning his mind back to practicalities. “Where did you put the Captain?”

“He’s in the main cabin, sir. We covered him with his coat.”

“Well done, lad.”

Steiner shrugged sadly. “He was a fine officer, sir. We’ll miss him.”

“Yes, we shall. Once this is over I’ll write to his family.” He looked at Steiner. “It’s one of the hardest duties to befall an officer, Mr. Steiner. I hope it doesn’t come your way too often when you rise to your own command.”

“Yes, sir,” Steiner replied, looking somber.

“Carry on.”


The midshipman walked forward. “Deck there!” cried the port side lookout. “Flag of truce approaching on the wharf!”

Horatio stared at the three black-clad figures as they approached. Two were officers, a brigadier-general and a captain who held a stick with a white flag. The third was a stocky drummer boy who, as Horatio watched, launched into a flurry of beats that became the recognized rhythm of the parlay.

“Dip our colors in acknowledgement,” he snapped to the bosun. With that signal the deputation walked up to the shot-torn wharf-side and the drumbeat stopped.

“Do I have the honor of addressing the commander of this flotilla?” the general called across the water.

Horatio thought ruefully of Captain Creighton, lying dead below. Dead men's shoes…“You do, sir.”

“I am General Kaffe-Klatch, commanding the infantry contingent of His Excellency the Margraf’s army.”

“What can I do for you, general?” Horatio asked.

“We acknowledge our defeat in the recent action at Viehdorf. The army of Hetzenberg is pressing us closely but we do not seek to prolong this confrontation. Our army seeks passage across the Wentwitz bridge in order to leave your soil. Will you permit us to cross unmolested, sir?”

Horatio looked at the destruction along the riverside and thought of the men who’d fallen in action that day and in all the long days since the invasion began. The crew was looking at him, and he sensed their mood. He shook his head slowly. “General, your Margraf sent you onto our soil in an act of pure conquest and destruction. You were defeated, but not enough to match the damage you’ve done, I feel. You seek to escape across this bridge? Then you must take your chances, sir!”

The general drew himself up, outrage plain on his face. No doubt a sharp retort formed on his lips but he contented himself with saying “Then nothing more remains to be said,” and sketching a bow.

Horatio watched the trio walk back the way they’d come. “Crew to general quarters!” he roared. “Prepare for action! Clear away the mortars!”

* * *

On the street near the church General Kuchler received the bad news from his subordinate with regret. “It is much as I feared, General,” he told Kaffe-Klatch. “We must run the gauntlet, it seems. Even so, I think the damage inflicted on this army can be kept to a minimum if we make haste.”

Some of the assembled regimental officers stiffened at this. Their collective thoughts were as one. Make haste? Are we to run across the bridge as if we’re rabbits afraid of the hunter?

Lieutenant Weissmuller was uncomfortable in such exalted company but as the de-facto commander of the jager contingent on the west bank he had to be there. All bar one of the other officers treated him with a degree of condescension. The exception was Colonel Babbington, who shot him a look of sympathy. When the orders group broke up Weissmuller found the mercenary colonel walking by his side. “I don’t know about you, lieutenant,” the Colonel said, “but I, for one, am going to lead my boys hell for leather across that bridge.”

Weissmuller shot him a look then nodded. “I shall do the same.” He shuddered. “I’ve seen what those gunboats can do with their quarterdeck guns alone. I’m dreading the execution they’ll exact on us with their main armament!”

“Justifiably so.” Babbington paused to fill his clay pipe and Weissmuller stopped politely. A sputter of musket fire from the rear of the column announced the Hetzenberg army was closing in on the rearguard. Babbington cocked his eye in that direction. “At the moment I’m seriously reconsidering my legion’s employment by the Margraf,” he said. “Times like this tend to focus one’s mind wonderfully, don’t you find?”

Without waiting for a reply Babbington saluted him and walked away whistling The Black Joke. Weissmuller stared after him then turned and sought out his own troops, his thoughts grim.

* * *

The Tuhellenbach Hussars led the way. Their coming was announced by a rumble of hooves that raised the echoes in the street. Horatio watched as the gaudy horsemen surged into the open and rode hard for the bridge, their rudimentary guidon fluttering. From his place by the main gun Steiner looked at him, the query plain on his face. Horatio shook his head. He liked horses and saw no reason whatsoever to slaughter the poor creatures. “Let them pass,” he called. “There’ll be other targets yet.”

The crew watched stone-faced as the stream of cavalry flowed across, their passage like a continuous rumble of thunder. Some of the horsemen looked across at the gunboats, waiting patiently on the river like huge menacing water beetles. They can’t believe their luck, it seems! Horatio thought. Ride on, gentlemen! You won’t die this day!

On the hooves of the hussars came the jagers, scuttling green-clad figures utilizing every scrap of cover they could find. They too moved at speed. Horatio pursed his lips then nodded to Steiner. Time for some serious payback…

* * *

“Whose bright idea was this?” Kleiner shouted, running hard for cover against the bridge parapet.

“Shut up and keep moving!” Träger bawled pushing at his friend’s back. He cast one terrified glance at the gunboats and saw the figures working around the huge guns behind the bulwarks. “Oh shi -!”

He dived, landed on top of Kleiner who roared as if a cannonball had struck him.

The world around them disintegrated in a welter of sheer noise. Grapeshot smashed into the ancient stonework or howled through the air with a diminuendo whine. The ground shook beneath them and Träger stared horror-struck as a jager who’d moved too slowly vanished in a cloud of red gore.

“Come on!” The Old Man was suddenly there and grabbing their arms. “They’ll take time to reload those brutes. Move!”

* * *

“Shall we fire the mortar, sir?” Steiner called eagerly.

Horatio shook his head. “No, wait for a denser target!” he shouted back. “And make sure those fuses are cut short!”

He watched coolly as the jager scuttled across the bridge to join their fellows on the other side. We got some of them! Even skirmishers can’t dodge a double hatful of grape from three big guns!

A rattle of drums and squeaking of fifes announced the next candidate for destruction. Close on the heels of the last jager came a line infantry regiment, colors flying proudly, each man stepping out at the regulation pace. Horatio nodded. “All squared away there, Mr. Steiner?”

“Ready, aye, ready, sir!”

“Fire the main guns on my command!” Horatio shouted, making sure his voice carried to the other waiting gunboats. The regiment marched onto the bridge. Not a man looked over the parapet at the deadly menace on the river. “Fire!

The great guns roared, Acheron bucked and the deadly grapeshot expanded outward in a cone-shaped cloud to tear into the marching ranks. Cocytus and Phlegethon added their quota of destruction and screams and cries rose above the ringing in Horatio’s ears as he waved to Steiner. “Gun crews clear! Stand by the mortars!” The men ran to their places. Steiner bent over the squat brutish mortar to light the fuse then stepped back. “Fire!

Acheron shuddered again, snubbing at her anchor cables as the huge weapons belched flame into the sky. Horatio watched anxiously. Fuse-cutting was a fine art and even experts got it wrong sometimes. The great bomb rose, a black blur in the sky, the fuse a red sparkling streak. It rose then descended to burst directly over the head of the shattered column. Cocytus’ bomb fell short, dropping harmlessly into the river but Phlegethon’s fell plumb on the bridge itself. Men were flung into bloody red rags and what discipline remained was lost as the ranks broke apart and fled across the bridge. “Reload!” Horatio snapped feeling sickened at the slaughter. Streams of blood flowed through gaps in the parapet to trickle into the river. This is sheer butchery! But none of us chose it!

* * *

Colonel Babbington watched sadly as the next regiment took its place at the entrance to the bridge, colors flying defiantly. General Kuchler was engaged in earnest discourse with Kaffe-Klatch. There seemed to be some kind of argument going on there. He turned and looked up the road. The Seinfeld Cuirassiers were coming in, the big troopers and their mounts picking their way past the abandoned wagons of the train. Their colonel saw him watching and raised his sword in salute as he passed by, his face a smudged blank, left arm tied in a sling. Babbington returned the salute. Just my legion between what’s left of the army and the ‘Bergers now, it seems.

The sound of fifes and drums made him glance back toward the bridge but he hurriedly turned away as the guns roared from the river. Hardening his heart to the sounds of carnage he walked steadily toward his shrunken band where it was drawn up in line and facing up the road out of town. “Captain Tobermory!” he called as he walked up to the command group. “We shall go light. Pray remove the Margraf’s colors from the staff and order the men to reverse arms.”

Tobermory saluted his features grave as he gave the order. Babbington watched, peacefully puffing on his pipe. “There’s a time and place for everything,” he murmured.

Thursday, 11 June 2009


The surviving jagers worked through the side streets and alleys of Wentwitz, trading shots with the elusive militia, ever alert to the possibility of ambush.

Since the death of the captain Lieutenant Johann Weissmuller had felt keenly the pressures of leadership upon him. The situation of his unit was not the best. “We want to avoid serious trouble, sergeant,” he said as they neared the approach to the bridge. “I’m acutely aware of our dwindling ammunition supply. It will not permit a sustained fight.”

“I think we will avoid trouble for now, sir,” the Old Man growled. “The town militia seems to be disengaging and we’re closing with the bridge.”

A volley of musketry crashed out not far away. “But those two line companies are still in play,” Weissmuller observed. “Send two men to scout ahead and pinpoint the enemy’s location.”

“Very good, sir,” the Old Man said, saluting. “Kleiner! Träger! At the double..!”

* * *

“It’s time to open the door and let our guests out, gentlemen!” Colonel Brabenachel said, relief coloring his voice as he watched the militia appear on the street. After a long, steady but fraught retirement his men had reached the approaches to the bridge. Now we can draw back into the town and let this unwanted rabble go.

Fahnjunker Gruber trotted up and saluted. “The militia is ready to comply with your wishes, sir. Their leader says they’re still in contact with those jager but he thinks they’re not going to contest the matter further.” A grin cracked the dirt and sweat on Gruber’s face. “They seem to have had enough, sir!”

‘Haven’t we all, lad!” Brabenachel turned to shout his orders. “Captain Reis, on my command withdraw your company by platoons and head over there,” he said, pointing to the northern suburb. “Captain Vogelmesch, you are to follow when Reis’ company is clear. Lieutenant Walschen, you are to withdraw in time with your parent company and rejoin it once you are clear of the street.” The officers responded. Brabenachel took a kerchief from his pocket and pinned it on the point of his sword. “Cease fire!” he called, stepping forward through the ranks.

The enemy moved forward but stopped on command when their officers saw Brabenachel approach holding aloft a white flag. Their ranks parted and the colonel of the leading regiment stepped forward. “You wish to parlay, sir?” he called.

“I do, sir. I am Colonel Brabenachel, commanding this detachment.”

“Colonel Jertz, commanding the Margraf’s Third Regiment of the Line.”

“Your servant, sir,” Brabenachel said with a bow.

“Yours, sir,” Jertz responded. “Your regiment fought us well at Viehdorf.”

“Thank you, Colonel. You were worthy opponents.”

Each bowed to the exchange of compliments. “What may I do for you, Colonel Brabenachel?”

“My companies will withdraw into this northern suburb and allow you uncontested passage, sir,” Brabenachel said, indicating the direction. “We will ensure the militia follows our movement.”

“I thank you, Colonel.” Jertz smiled. “We could, or course, have made a passage ourselves…”

“Eventually, perhaps,” Brabenachel smiled, “but not without further grievous loss of life. I will add, Colonel, this arrangement will not extend to the riverine navy forces currently awaiting you on the river. They are not under my command.”

Jertz stroked his moustaches thoughtfully. “I see. Your navy has established a certain reputation for effective action.”

“I’m sure they will be delighted to hear it.”

Jertz regarded him. “This matter needs to be addressed by a higher ranking officer than I. For now, shall we agree that we can maintain our positions in this street without further hostilities whilst your companies withdraw?”

“That will be satisfactory.”

“I shall contact you as soon as we have received instructions, Colonel,” Jertz said then bowed. “Your servant, sir!”

“Likewise, sir!”

* * *

“What’s going on, men?” the Old Man asked as Kleiner and Träger trotted back.

“A lot of bleedin’ bowing and scraping, sergeant, is what.” Kleiner grinned but shut up when Träger nudged him in the ribs. The lieutenant was frowning at their levity.

Träger saluted him. “The ‘Bergers parlayed under a flag of truce, sir; then they and the militia withdrew into the streets the other side of the main drag.”

“Interesting! What are our troops doing?”

“Standing there like lemons, sir!”

Träger nudged Kleiner again and the big man shut up.

“It sounds like they’re allowing us passage, sir,” the Old Man suggested, giving Kleiner a warning look.

“It does, sergeant. There is, however, still the question of crossing the bridge. If the enemy navy can be persuaded to let us pass, all will be well. If not…” His words hung in the air and those who heard them shivered. “Quite.” The lieutenant stiffened then nodded. “Let us make contact with the main column, sergeant. We need guidance from our superiors.”

Kleiner, Träger and the Old Man exchanged glances but there was nothing to be said in the face of a direct order. “Very good, sir,” the Old Man said, saluting. He turned to the waiting jagers. “All right you clowns, move it out!”

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Crisis nears

“It appears the enemy light infantry commander split his force, Mr. Steiner,” Horatio observed, his telescope to his eye as he studied the figures scurrying from cover to cover near the bridge entry on the east bank. “Those fellows over there are jagers from the same regiment.”

“I think his tactic worked up to a point, sir,” Steiner replied. “The jagers on the west bank caused enough trouble for us when they made the breach in our defenses and let those hussars through.”

“Yet now they’ve been neutralized and will seek to reach the east bank and safety.” Horatio lowered the instrument and looked to the west as another volley of musketry raised the echoes. “Colonel Brabenachel is still holding out, and drawing closer to us by the sound of that firing.” He rubbed his jaw. “Make ready. I have the feeling we’ll be needed again soon.”

Steiner touched his hat. “Aye aye, sir.”

* * *

“Fire!” Another volley crashed out, the bullets slashing into the enemy infantry crowding into the street.

“I don’t know about you, Reis, but I sense an increasing urgency if not desperation in those fellows,” Colonel Brabenachel said in a near shout as the two companies began yet another withdrawal by fire.

Reis grinned, the light of battle in his eyes. “They’re pressing hard sir, but we’re slowing them down!”

Yes, but at a cost, Brabenachel thought, looking at the dwindling numbers of his men. One Gravy company commander at the head of the column had forced his men into a rudimentary firing line and the volley had stung. If the enemy pauses to organize a proper firing line then we shall be finished.

Just then a figure staggered up to the headquarters party and Brabenachel recognized the fahnjunker he'd sent as messenger to the gunboats. How long ago was that? He wondered as the exhausted and battle-stained youth gave him a wavering salute. Only an hour ago at most yet it seems like a lifetime! “Fahnjunker Gruber! Where have you been, sir?”

“Fighting alongside the militia, sir,” Gruber gasped. “Forgive me, Colonel; I had no choice.” He pointed back toward the river. “A company or so of enemy jager got into the town and prevented me from returning until now. We drove them back and the gunboats hurt them some, but they’re still occupying a part of the town south-east of here.”

“South-east, you say? What’s the condition of the militia?”

“They’re about spent, sir.” Gruber shook his head then flinched as a stray musket ball whirred overhead. “They fought well but they’re up against professional soldiers and their Major is dead, too.”

Brabenachel clapped the youth on the shoulder. “You’ve done well, Gruber.” He glanced down the street toward the river. To his relief he saw the bridge was now in plain sight. “Cut along to whoever now commands the militia and desire him to withdraw to the main street. He is to keep those jagers from our backs until we can link up with him. Then together we shall withdraw into the north-west part of the town and hold out there. Repeat your message.”

Gruber did so faithfully and Brabenachel nodded. “Very good. Rejoin me once you’ve delivered it.”

Gruber saluted and ran off down the street. Brabenachel drew a deep breath, winced at the hot pain in his arm then returned to the fray.


* * *

“Right, listen up, you dozy sods!” the Old Man growled, glaring at the reduced number of jagers assembled in a warehouse forecourt. “The Lieutenant’s going to tell you what we’re about to do. Kleiner! Stop picking your nose and face front!”

The shout rose even above the sporadic crash of musketry in the streets. Kliener slammed to attention, earning a withering glance from the sergeant. When the NCO turned to the lieutenant Kleiner looked at Träger. “Is it me or has the Old Man got a bug up his ass today?” he whispered.

Träger shrugged and surreptitiously helped himself to a slug of schnapps from his water bottle. A roundshot howled overhead like a lost soul. “I can’t imagine why.”

The lieutenant stepped forward to address them. “Men! Our plan to gain entry to this town worked. The enemy is in a state of confusion…”

“They’re not the only bleedin’ ones,” Kleiner grumbled under his breath, still sore after discovering the ‘gypsy’s’ deceit.

“We now have to cross the bridge to rejoin the rest of the battalion on the east bank.” The Lieutenant raised his forefinger to the heavens, a gleam in his eyes. “There lies safety, gentlemen, and a drink to toast a job well done!”

“Safety? Does he mean the east bank or Heaven?” Kleiner asked mournfully, looking at the officer's finger.

“Since we have to cross that damned bridge with those nasty gunboats watching I think we’ll soon find out,” Träger sighed, shouldering his musket. "And if you ever dare appear before the pearly gates Saint Peter'll spit in your eye!"

* * *

A quarter mile away General Kuchler sat on his horse tapping the hilt of his sword with impatience. Too slow, too slow by half! He thought, watching the regiments attempting to overwhelm the defenders of Wentwitz. Old Rauppen-Schlepper may not be a firebrand but he has an unnerving, dogged persistence in pursuit. If we don’t clear the way within the next half-hour I shall be forced to turn and fight here. He glanced to either side. Like most of the Eisenwasser Valley the local terrain was relatively flat. And this is not good ground. There is nothing I can anchor a flank upon.

“Sir!” an aide called out in relief and pointed ahead. “It appears the enemy is giving way.”

Sure enough the regiments were pressing forward faster now. Kuchler drew in a deep breath and murmured a short prayer of thanks. “Then let us proceed with dispatch, gentlemen! We have tarried here long enough.”

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Colonel Brabenachel withdraws

The squadron of Tuhellenbach hussars who threatened the position from the west had been blooded in the dismounted action but they were by no means finished. Colonel Brabenachel saw that plainly as they withdrew toward their army’s main column. He brushed off an orderly who was attempting to bind the wound in his arm and headed instead for the churchyard gate. “We shall have to move fast, Walschen,” he told the platoon commander, a worried looking junior lieutenant. “Those other hussars must be cleared away from the street if we are to withdraw safely. Take your platoon and see to it.” Seeing the young man’s emotions written plain in his face Brabenachel clapped him on the shoulder. “Cheer up! If you’d wanted a safe job you should’ve become a lawyer.”

That brought a smile to Walschen’s lips even if he did still look pale. “My father said much the same thing, sir,” he replied then drew himself up and saluted. “With your permission?”

“Go ahead.”

The platoon formed up swiftly as orders were barked. Brabenachel noticed at least one man had swapped his tricorn for a captured hussar busby and had stuck a lilac bloom plucked from a bush near the gate under the bag. The effect looked rather absurd. “Jokers!” he muttered fondly as they trotted out onto the street and formed a line.

Further up the street near the corner the scattering of hussars fired their carbines. The range was long but one of his men dropped. The others gave a deep growl of anger but remained under control, stepping forward smartly at the command with their firelocks at the high port. “Plato-o-oon halt!” Lieutenant Walschen snapped when they’d moved some twenty paces. “Present your firelocks! Shoulder your firelocks! Aim! Fire!

The volley crashed out, flooding the street with thick yellow-white smoke. Before the wind swept the cloud across his vision Colonel Brabenachel saw it had been a telling volley. At least a dozen of the enemy were down and out of the fight. But Walschen wasn’t finished yet. “At ‘em boys! Charge!

With a roar the platoon charged up the street and through the thinning musket smoke, their iron hobnailed boots striking sparks from the cobbles. The hussars had had enough. They didn’t stand to contest the issue, preferring instead to take to their heels and seek their mounts.

Satisfied that all was under control Colonel Brabenachel turned his attention to the next problem. The enemy’s main column was much closer now. There’s barely enough time, but we can do this! He thought.

* * *

Privates Kleiner and Träger of the Sobelsburg Jager hunkered down behind a shattered wall and peered out at the gunboats on the river. “Those bloody things are putting a real crimp in our plans,” Kleiner grumbled, trying to force more of his great bulk into the scant cover. “There’s no way the others can get across now.”

“Never mind the others, you great clown!” Träger snapped. “How the bleedin’ hell are we going to get over?” One of the gunboats fired and the two men ducked. Somewhere just out of sight a great rumbling and a cloud of dust announced the final collapse of a house under the onslaught.

“Where’s the Old Man?” Kleiner demanded, looking around for their sergeant.

Träger jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Back there, talking to the lieutenant.”

“What good will that do?” Kleiner scoffed. “He’s still wet behind the ears.”

“Yeah, but he’s learning. The Sarge will take care of him.” Träger peered over the wall. “I can see the others!” He pointed across the river to the street leading down to the bridge. “That’s Schmidt’s platoon!”

“About bleedin’ time!” Kleiner leapt to his feet and waved his musket over his head. “Over here, you useless bastards!”

His movement drew a flurry of musket shots from the gunboats as Träger dragged him back into cover. “You stupid great lump! Do you want to get killed?”

“I won’t get killed,” Klenier grinned as bullets smacked into the other side of the wall. “A gypsy told me I’ll die in bed aged ninety-three after a night of passion with a pastor’s twenty-year-old daughter.”

“A gypsy?” Träger cocked his head and narrowed his eyes in thought. “Where was this?”

“In the camp outside Sobelsburg.”

“Do you mean that raddled old hag in the brown dress with the big wart on her nose that was hanging around the quartermaster’s stores?” Kleiner nodded and ducked as a piece of brick bounced off his helmet. Träger rolled his eyes. “She’s no gypsy! That was Corporal Brun’s mother making some extra cash out of saps like you!”

Kleiner looked at him wide-eyed. “You mean she was a fake?” Träger twisted his lips and just looked at him. Kleiner risked a glance over the wall. “Oh hell! Run!

Without asking why Träger took to his heels and followed Kleiner as he bounded over the broken ground, legs pumping. Behind them the wall disintegrated under the impact of a six pound roundshot.

* * *

Colonel Brabenachel summoned his two companies and formed them up across the road and facing the enemy. With their flanks secured by the church and the merchant’s house he had no fear of them being turned by the remounted hussars. Walschen’s platoon was still detached and formed up facing back into the town to guard against any further surprises from that direction.

Closer, Brabenachel thought, watching the oncoming enemy column and gauging the moment. Closer. They’re not deploying into line! No doubt they seek to brush us aside through sheer momentum, but they’ll regret it. Those fellows are acting tired. There’s no go in them. A little closer… now!

“Now, gentlemen, if you will!”

His subordinates took up the drill. “Present your firelocks! Shoulder your firelocks! Aim! Fire!

The volley crashed out, shredding the lead ranks of the oncoming column. It staggered and slowed. “Fall back and reload, gentlemen. Lieutenant Walschen,” he said, turning to address that worthy, “you may lead the way but keep pace with us.”

“Yes, sir!”

Colonel Brabenachel walked backwards, keeping his face to the enemy and checking the dressing of the ranks, but his subordinates were keeping them closed up. Mentally he measured off the distance left to cover until they reached the river. It’ll be close, but we can do it.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Under pressure

The sudden crackle of musketry from the town caught the occupants of the church by surprise. “What the devil?” Colonel Brabenachel exclaimed, crossing to the east-facing window of the tower. Captain Reis had just arrived in the tower room to report his company had deployed. Together they peered out over the rooftops and saw the first clouds of dun smoke rising on the breeze from the direction of the river. “Has the militia engaged the enemy or are they shooting at crows for sport?” Brabenachel demanded.

“I’ll send a runner to find out, sir,” Reis said heading for the stairs. Brabenachel continued his watch, anxiety for his flanks rising in his mind. The heavy concussive boom of a gun shook dust from the rafters. That settles it. Creighton wouldn’t fire his heavy ordinance for nothing.

A fresh volley of musketry sounded from much nearer and Brabenachel crossed swiftly to the west window. As he feared the Tuhellenbach hussars were moving forward in skirmish order, using the available cover well. Damnation! He thought, and felt guilty at even thinking such a word in a church. Caught between two fires! “It seems the enemy wants to play at last,” he said aloud, keeping his expression cheerful for the sake of his staff. “We shall oblige him, gentlemen.”

With his half-dozen strong staff on his heels he clattered down the tower stairs to take direct control of the situation. Bursting out into the sunshine of the churchyard he saw Captain Reis had his company lined up and ready to tackle the hussars on the road beyond the town. Even as they leveled their firelocks on the churchyard wall a new threat presented itself.

Hooves clattered on the road up through the town. Brabenachel turned to see a troop of enemy hussars riding up the street at the trot, pelisses flapping. They dismounted at long pistol shot and deployed, the horse holders heading to the rear. “To arms, gentlemen!” he snapped and his staff drew pistols and swords. The enemy opened fire. Carbine bullets sang through the air and smacked into the ancient church. Chips of pale stone sprayed the area leaving ugly scars on the wall. Somewhere a window shattered. “Captain Reis, a platoon over here if you can spare ‘em!” Brabenachel called, drawing his own pistol and heading for the gate that opened onto the street.

He was just in time. With a rousing shout the hussars charged the light wicket gate. Soon Brabenachel was fighting for his life.

* * *

“Fire!” Horatio roared. The six-pounder thundered, the charge of grapeshot atop the six pound roundshot tearing into the rapidly-crumpling fabric of the wharf-side houses. Cocytus and Phlegethon added their own contribution to the devastation. Glass, plaster, laths and whole timbers flew into the air. Under Horatio’s direction the three gunboats had shifted their moorings to a staggered formation so each could direct their quarterdeck guns at the enemy without damaging their neighbor. The heavy bow guns remained pointed at the bridge; with the enemy in the town he didn’t want to leave it uncovered.

Crouching to peer through the gun-port Horatio sensed the return fire from the jagers was slackening. Even so, they’ve done their job. Those hussars got into the town. Where the hell is the militia?

* * *

The Wentwitz militia had been caught by surprise but their outrage at being attacked in their own town, even their own houses, swung the balance between flight and fight. They gritted their teeth and took the fight to the enemy.

The jager were experienced hill and woodsmen from the country around Sobelsburg in the Margravate but their knowledge of urban warfare was not the best. Although they pushed the militia back far enough to create a gap through which their hussar supports could ride, they soon found themselves under pressure. Matters were not helped by the discovery their reserve ammunition had been inadvertently soaked during the river crossing upstream the night before.

‘Whose bright idea was it to use rafts, anyway?” one grumbled then swore as a fresh salvo from the gunboats brought tiles smashing into the street.

“What did you want, the Margraf’s own pleasure barge?” his comrade retorted then pointed quickly. “There! That doorway!”

The grumbler saw the flash of an enemy uniform and took a snapshot. He grunted with satisfaction as the man cried out and dropped in a heap into the street.

“You two! Fall back!” their sergeant shouted.

“Yes, sergeant,” they said obediently and covering each other behind wall and midden heap, the jagers began to withdraw, leaving Major Eisen coughing out his life where he fell.

* * *

Colonel Brabenachel’s arm ached like fury from a deep cut but he fought on, holding the gate against all comers. Then the platoon from Reis’ company ran up and he was elbowed aside without ceremony. Bayonets flashed as the infantry pitched into the hussars who soon saw sabers alone were no use against such a determined foe. As one they fell back then ran to their mounts, leaving a half-dozen dead and pursued by bullets from unengaged soldiers in the merchant’s house across the road. But as Colonel Brabenachel wiped the blood from his blade he saw the hussars had done their duty.

Away up the road out of town banners flew over the leading regiments of the enemy’s main force. The nearest was no more than a couple of hundred yards away and coming on with a regular tread. In the town itself the hussars retreated into the cover afforded by a side street, but they were soon back and trying the range with their carbines.

A pretty mess! Oh, well... “Captain Reis! Vogelmesch!” he shouted. “Prepare to fall back on my command, if you please!”

Friday, 5 June 2009

Action at Wentwitz

The Tuhellenbach Hussars dismounted and shook out into a skirmish formation. Colonel Brabenachel watched from the vantage point of the church tower as they spread out on either side of the road and closed to within long musket shot of his position – then stopped. He could see the hussars’ busbies and flashes of gorgeous colored britches and pelisses amongst hedgerows and between the trees of an orchard, but there they remained, with no apparent intention of closing further.

Hmm. This is unexpected. He gazed out of the high window and drummed his fingers on the dusty sill. After a moment or two of thought he took his telescope from an orderly and directed it to the south-west. Musket smoke drifted there some two miles away, showing a brisk engagement was in progress. It was hard to make out the sober black coats of the enemy against the countryside but their banners were clear enough. Beyond he could see the familiar sky blue of Hetzenberg uniforms as the pursuers pressed closer. With a pang he recognized the magenta standard of his own regiment as it redeployed. His subordinates over there were competent men and blooded now. They would handle the necessary maneuvers without risks, but for a moment he wondered how the regiment was doing, and wished he were with them.

Yet here was the point of most danger. The whole enterprise had been a war of attrition, and he was under orders to see the enemy was treated to a good kick in the britches before being seen off the premises.

A clatter of shoes on the wooden stairs announced a new arrival in the tower. Brabenachel turned to see a portly middle-aged man in the somber olive green of a militia officer ascend the last few rungs and halt, panting on the threshold. “May I be of service to you, sir?” Brabenachel inquired courteously.

The man gasped a few more times, his face an unhealthy puce, before answering. “I rather hope to be of service to you, Colonel. I’m Julius Eisen, Major Eisen of the Wentwitz militia. My men are formed up in the town square and shall be deployed wherever you see fit, sir.”

“Come, that’s generous of you,” Brabenachel replied, knowing full well that he outranked any mere officer of militia but he was prepared to be magnanimous. He thought quickly. “I think you would be best engaged in covering the southern aspects of your town. I propose to hold the enemy here on the high road for as long as possible before withdrawing through the town, fighting as we go. Your men shall cover our left flank and fall back in time with us. Once we reach the wharfs we shall both retire out of range under the guns of the gunboat flotilla, and let them do their work. Do you understand, Major?”

Eisen drew himself up and saluted. “I do sir, and we shall endeavor to do our best to support you.”

“Good man. See to your preparations, please.”

Eisen departed and Brabenachel turned his attention back to the skirmish line of hussars. Not a man moved there. What are they waiting for?

* * *

Horatio tossed the chicken bone over the side into the river and wiped his lips on a napkin as he looked around. The Wentwitz town militia had formed up on the main street near the western approach to the bridge but the other streets were largely deserted.

A blue-clad officer appeared on the main street and threaded his way past the militia. He trotted toward the short jetty off which the flotilla lay peacefully at anchor. “Messenger coming up,” the lookout called unnecessarily from above.

Horatio thrust the napkin in his pocket and moved to the side. “What news?” he called as the man drew near.

The officer came to a halt on the jetty and saluted. “Colonel Brabenachel’s compliments, sir, and he is in position at the church on the edge of town. The enemy hussars are dismounted nearby but they aren’t closing yet. The Colonel intends to withdraw this way when the enemy does advance and presses the engagement. The town militia will support our left flank.”

“That sounds good to me,” Captain Creighton replied coming up to stand by Horatio. “My compliments to Colonel Brabenachel and thank him for his courtesy in keeping us informed.”

The officer saluted and trotted away. As he passed the assembled militia he gave a casual salute to a florid-faced and obviously sweating militia major who had just arrived. Horatio watched as the man barked orders and the militia stumbled over each other in their attempt to execute them. The two hundred or so men moved off in a bunch rather than anything resembling a military formation “Oh, dear me!” Horatio sighed. “This doesn’t look promising, sir.”

Creighton watched them pass into the streets south of the bridge. “No, they seem to be a pretty band of jack-puddings!”

“Sir!” the lookout yelled and as one the officers tipped their heads back to regard the masthead. The lookout was pointing frantically to the fields near the edge of town. “More enemy cavalry – hussars - approaching!”

“Beat to quarters! Man the port quarterdeck gun!” Horatio roared running back to the high poop. The drum began to beat as he clattered up the ladder to stare across the narrow gap of water. Gray and crimson-clad troopers were riding across the meadows at a round trot, carbines deployed and resting on their thighs. A rudimentary guidon fluttered over the lead troop and Horatio remembered their original banner had been captured along with their colonel at Viehdorf. They’re out to restore their reputation today, it seems! He thought grimly. I shall speak to the lookout later. They should never have come so close without being seen!

The gun crew clustered around the port side six-pounder. Captain Creighton was standing close by, hands behind his back, glowering at the oncoming cavalry. “I think…” he began to say when a sudden fusillade of musketry sounded. Blood spurted from his mouth and he dropped to the deck with a look of astonishment. Musket balls smacked and clattered into Acheron. One ball ricocheted off the gun barrel and struck the loader’s arm. The man gave a cry and staggered back, his hand clutching the savage wound. Horatio ducked and looked for the source of the firing. The windows of the houses overlooking the river seemed full of powder smoke and dark green-clad figures.

“They’re enemy jagers!” someone shouted. “They’ve infiltrated the town!”

Even as full understanding washed over Horatio’s mind the sound of fierce musketry rose again, much greater than before. Bullets crashed into woodwork and whirred spitefully overhead. Another gunner went down and Horatio swore under his breath. Still holding his arm the wounded gunner crawled over to the prone form of Captain Creighton. After a brief check he looked back at Horatio and shook his head.

Horatio felt a brief stab of regret for Creighton’s death but knew he had other priorities now. “Return fire on those houses!” he roared to the gun crew. “Reload with grape!”

The gun-captain swept his linstock to the touchhole and the six-pounder roared. Acheron shuddered sideways in the water and Horatio heard the crash of masonry as the ball struck home. The stink of burnt powder filled the air. Horatio stood and ran back across the quarterdeck to shout orders to the other gunboats. We’ve got to stop the rot here or Colonel Brabenachel will be between a rock and a hard place!