Brigade: The Further Adventures of Inspector Lestrade

Brigade

The Further Adventures
of
Inspector Lestrade

M J Trow

Copyright © 2013, M J Trow

All Rights Reserved

This edition published in 2013 by:

Thistle Publishing

36 Great Smith Street

London

SW1P 3BU

They that had fought so well

Came thro’ the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of Hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

A Day To Remember

Alex Dunn took Edwin Cook’s hard-boiled egg and peeled it carefully. He watched the pieces fall away beyond his stirrup leather and munched the egg gratefully. He’d had no breakfast, nor indeed any dinner the night before. His stomach was telling him loudly that his throat had been cut. Then, suddenly, there was a stir right front and he wished he hadn’t made that mental analogy. A staff officer – Louis Nolan, wasn’t it? – galloped past the waiting lines to where Lucan sat his horse. He was the fourth galloper that morning, but Louis Nolan usually meant business. Dunn finished his egg and turned in the saddle. Away to his left Roger Palmer was scribbling a note on the smooth surface of his sabretache.

Dear Father
, Palmer’s pencil was a stub and his hands were cold.
Just a hurried note
… His pencil snapped. He tucked the paper in his sabretache and followed Dunn’s gaze along the line. Harrington Trevelyan was wrapping his sword knot around his wrist. Palmer did not approve of Trevelyan’s forage cap. It was not regulation and Palmer was ever a man for regulations.

Henry Wilkin was delighted. He’d never really known why he’d become a surgeon. Up to the armpits in other people all day, what sort of life was that? A serving officer now, that was different. Mind you, if Yates hadn’t reported sick, he wouldn’t have been here this morning. If Nolan’s gallop meant action he’d have to rely on his sword because his bullet pouch was full of laudanum – the legacy of a medical man. He really must quit the medical service. As if to take the first step in that direction, he urged his horse forward to the front of F Troop. Cook glared at him, snorting something about damned quacks, and Wilkin backed up a little. George Loy Smith was too old a hand to let a horse’s arse in his face bother him. He was adjusting his stirrup leather when Wilkin attempted his backward manoeuvre. He straightened up and tilted his busby back into position, tucking the chain under his great auburn beard and snarled at Bill Bentley to spit out his tobacco. No soldier of his troop was going into action with black spittle on his chin. Bentley hadn’t really heard him, unto he felt the sergeant-major’s hand sting him smartly on the shoulder. He had been day-dreaming. Today was his Emma’s birthday. She was eleven. And Bentley had been remembering the day of her baptism at Kilmainham. He had been a private soldier then, but proud in his regimentals carrying the baby to the font. She had been the most gorgeous baby in the world, snuggling into her dad’s pelisse.

Seth Bond sat on the wing of C Troop. He was shivering from cholera and couldn’t keep his horse still. He tried to keep his mind occupied by watching the altercation at the front. The staff officer was waving his hand behind him, scarlet in the face and defiant. Lord Look-On seemed bemused, uncomprehending. The staff officer wheeled away to join the 17
th
to the left. It was the first time Bond had seen the generals actually talking to each other – Look-On and the Noble Yachtsman. He couldn’t catch more than a muffled conversation, what with the champ of bits and the muttering of the men behind him.

John Kilvert on his right was wondering why he had enlisted at all. He too had spent most of the night throwing up over his boots and was glad no one had offered him any breakfast. He wished he was back in Nottingham, selling wines and spirits. He wasn’t likely to become mayor now, and the chance faded by the moment as he saw Cardigan walk his chestnut to the centre of the brigade.

It was not Cardigan’s appearance that worried William Perkins, unless of course His Lordship were to place a beady blue eye down his trumpet this morning. He had traded some of his French photographs for Bentley’s tobacco, but was dismayed to find that Bentley had used the photographs to fix a gap in his tent. He was even more dismayed to find that someone – he thought immediately of Jim Hodges – had wedged a plug into his mouthpiece. Still, Joseph Keates was trumpet-major for the 11
th
. If called upon to sound, he would have to hope Keates would cover for him. In the noise of an advance, no one could tell.

William Pennington was new to all this. Was the Mercantile Marine, he mused now as he sat his horse in B Troop, so awful that he should have left them? Perhaps it was the porter in Dublin that day in January, perhaps it was the glittering uniform of the Bringer, perhaps the bounty of £9, perhaps … but the moment for self-doubt had gone. John Parkinson nudged him in the elbow and nodded to the front. Cardigan nodded stiffly to John Douglas, tall and silent in the saddle in the centre of the 11
th
. They were going. Alex Dunn slid his sword upwards so that its extra three inches flashed in the sun breaking weakly on the tattered brigade below. Loy Smith barked as he saw that idiot Hope gallop into place to his right. The cripple was riding a troophorse of the Greys. Where the bloody hell had he been? Having a fit somewhere, he supposed. Well, he’d give him hell for it when this was over.

Stillnesses and sudden hushes don’t happen, Pennington was telling himself. But he was sitting in the middle of one anyway. Ahead stretched a long valley, parchment-coloured sand and rubble. On the hills to the right, a line of guns, Russian guns. On the left, more of the same. What was ahead? He couldn’t see, but he felt panic grip his heart. Loy Smith turned in the saddle.

‘Alls et, Mr Pennington?’ and he gave a fatherly glance to Edwin Hughes, sixteen years old and less than regulation height. He’ll outlive us all, the sergeant-major thought to himself.

‘The Brigade will advance,’ came Cardigan’s hoarse, chesty bark. ‘First squadron of the 17
th
Lancers direct.’

And the shrill notes of the trumpet drowned his words. For a second, three, perhaps four, the 11
th
, Prince Albert’s Own Hussars sat motionless, each man a prisoner of his private thoughts and fears. Then they broke forward, shifting position as on the parade ground at Maidstone at Lucan’s order for the 11
th
to fall back and the 17
th
to take the lead. The dark-coated Lancers fronted the brigade, their pennons snapping in the wind that crossed the valley. It was the noise that Pennington remembered most, the snorting of the horses and the jingle of bits and from time to time above the incessant sound of hoofs, the growling of Loy Smoth to his men.

‘Draw swords.’ It was Colonel Douglas, freeing his own weapon as Cardigan increased his pace. He could see the leaders – Mayow and FitzMaxse – beyond the line of the 17
th
. The swords of the 11
th
shot clear.

‘At the slope,’ Loy Smith reminded his troop. Bentley cradled the blade against his shoulder and tightened his rein. They were at the trot now, rising and falling as a man. Still the lances were upright. Still Cardigan was leading. Like a church, thought Palmer. He moved neither to left, nor right, the sun flashing on the gold lace of his pelisse. He felt the line quicken, following the last of the Brudenells.

Loy Smith saw it first, as his wise old eyes saw any irregular movements in the line. The staff officer, the one who had brought the last order, was spurring ahead, out from the left wing of the 17
th
, chasing Cardigan, but cutting across to the right. He was waving his sword arm and yelling, but Loy Smith couldn’t catch the words. The 17
th
began to waver. They were turning. Douglas checked his horse. Dunn began to pull his charger to the right. Was the Brigade turning? There was no trumpet call. Why wasn’t there a trumpet call?

A whistle, moaning high above the wind. Louder. Louder. A crash and a burst of flame and smoke. The staff officer crumpled, hooked over like a crab in the saddle, but his right arm was still upright. The terrified horse swerved, wheeled round, reins hanging loose, and charged back through the lines. The 17
th
negotiated the mêlée and the lines reformed. One by one the serrefiles and troop sergeants and the centre men saw it and heard the unearthly scream. What was left of Louis Nolan flashed past them all. His face was a livid white, his eyes sightless and his lungs and ribs visible where his gold-laced jacket had been.

‘Look to your dressing,’ Loy Smith reminded his troop, knowing the damage that sight could do to his callow boys. The moment was past. Nolan had gone and the 13
th
saw him fall under their hoofs.

The trumpet sounded the gallop. Swords came up from the slope, ready and vertical in men’s fists. The crash of artillery fire increased, drifting along the lines of horsemen. And those lines were steady now. Dunn held his sword arm out to his side to correct the pace of the horsemen behind him. Was Cardigan mad? he found himself wondering. The enemy was visible now, despite the smoke – a row, perhaps a double row of reeking guns ahead, more on the hills on each side. It was a trap. A valley with a closed end. The 17
th
’s lances came down, level, thrusting, twelve feet of ash and steel slicing through the air. The wind cut through the horsemen, each man now bracing himself for the impact. The roar of cantering horses moving into a gallop drowned the noise of the guns. But in the centre, where Pennington and Parkinson were riding knee to knee, the guns were evident. Charles Allured, on Parkinson’s right, went down, his horse bucking and screaming. On Loy Smith’s flank, Joseph Bruton slumped over the neck of his troophorse. Isaac Middleton caught him momentarily, but lost his grip and the soldier fell.

‘Mend your pace. Watch your dressing.’ Loy Smith’s calming words rang out above the slaughter. A shot smashed into a horse’s head at Bond’s elbow and the blood spattered over his jacket and face. He could hear Robert Bubb to his left crying as his horse went down.

How long, thought Douglas, how long can we endure this? The 17
th
were closing ranks in front of him, as the murderous shot tore into them.

‘Keep together, Eleventh!’ he shouted, but knew as always it was his troop sergeants who were the steadying influence, the backbone. The roar of hoofs and cannon was unbearable. Horses were racing now, vying with the riderless mounts to get to the Russian guns and silence them. Cardigan had vanished into the smoke, the lances of the 17
th
jabbing the blackness ahead. Behind Bentley, Pennington’s horse staggered, reeling to the left. Pennington struggled to keep him upright, but couldn’t see where he was going. Men were standing in their stirrups, sword arms extended, yelling themselves hoarse in the confusion and noise. Loy Smith swore he heard Hope, that mad Welsh bastard, singing ‘Men of Harlech’, but it could have been Keates’ trumpet notes, lost in the din. David Purcell was blown out of the saddle on his right, and he saw Tom Roberts fall back, clutching his leg.

Then, for Douglas at least, the smoke cleared. He was on the guns. To all sides, grey-coated Russians were scattering. There were horses and men heaped around the cannon, blackened and hot with the rapidity of fire. The remaining 17
th
were leaping over them and Douglas leapt with them. A knot of the 11
th
, led by Loy Smith, were behind him. All semblance of order was lost, the lines so beloved of Maidstone and the Curragh gone in the frantic rush for the guns. Dunn was scything about him, hacking at the gunners. Palmer and Trevelyan rammed home their spurs into their chargers; flecked flanks and leapt into the battery smoke. Flames and screams were all about them. Will Spring felt a searing pain in his shoulder and his horse dragged him for several yards before his foot fell free of the stirrup. Gregory Jowett tried to reach him, but he was beaten back by the weight of numbers.

In the mill beyond the guns, Bond and Bentley found themselves together. Neither man could believe his eyes. Cavalry. Russian Cavalry. Perhaps four or five time their own number were advancing along the sand towards them. What was left of the 17
th
and 11
th
were fighting in tiny knots, steel flashing and ringing in the sun. There wasn’t time for a word, or a glance, before the two sergeants were parrying for their lives. Bond wheeled his horse, hacking behind him in the most difficult cut of the 1796 Manual. Bentley did likewise, but his opponents were lancers. He felt a lance tip jab through his busby, parting his hair for a second time that morning. Another thudded into the saddle, an inch or so from his groin. He was turning in air like a man possessed, snapping off one lance pole, then another. As he hacked, he prayed. But it wasn’t Almighty God who cantered to his side, but Lieutenant Alexander Dunn, scything down one Russian, then two. He wheeled his charger across Bentley’s.

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