Authors: Robert Brightwell
Tags: #Adventure, #Historical, #Action
‘Cuesta knows Victor is here all right,’ said Mayne, with a look of disgust now on his face. ‘Have we not been tracking him this week past and sending the good general daily messages of warning as Victor got closer to the bridge there?’ He gestured at the horsemen around him. ‘Cuesta has sent me fifty cavalry and claims he can spare no more. They are brave men, but precious little use on horseback in defending a bridge. Quite who Cuesta needs his men to defend against I’m not sure.’ He looked at our men back on the crest. ‘If you are to help us then I need you to leave your horses behind and man the line opposite the bridge. You will have seen we need every man we can get down there.’
I would have told him to go to the devil, for anyone could see that sooner or later the French artillery would pound that thin line of defenders into submission, and then their infantry and cavalry would storm across and slaughter the fleeing survivors. But that stupid ass Downie got in first, piping up like the head boy on school trophy day. ‘Oh yes sir,’ he gushed, ‘we would be happy to help. We have our orders but clearly stopping Victor getting through must take priority.’
‘Wait a minute,’ I exclaimed, as this was getting out of hand. ‘With respect sir, surely you don’t expect to hold the French off indefinitely? If they don’t pound you into submission now they will come across at nightfall or try to outflank you. May I ask how many men do you have down there?’
‘We have around eighteen hundred,’ Mayne replied. ‘Twelve hundred of those are from the Portuguese
militia regiment. Not all of those soldiers had muskets but I see that situation is being addressed now.’ We looked down and the haphazardly dressed soldiery were picking over the dead at the end of the bridge, looting the bodies and helping themselves to muskets, cartridge boxes and other equipment. We were close enough to see the flash of a knife that one of the militia used on a wounded Frenchman, who had presumably objected to being robbed. ‘The other men, dressed in green, are from my regiment, the Loyal Lusitanian Legion.’
I looked up at that. ‘Is Sir Robert here then?’ I asked.
‘Major General Wilson,’ Mayne corrected me, ‘is away at the moment, but messages have been sent to him and he will bring whatever force he can as soon as soon as possible.’ Mayne looked at me curiously for a moment and then added, ‘Are you acquainted with the Major General?’
‘Yes sir, I had the honour to serve with him in Russia a couple of years ago. But unless he arrives in the next hour or two with several thousand men and more artillery,’ and here I gestured at the empty countryside we had just travelled through, ‘I still don’t see how you can hold that bridge for more than a few hours. They have thousands of men over there.’
‘Aye,’ said Mayne grimly, ‘ten thousand infantry, fifteen hundred cavalry and twelve cannon to be precise. But you are right, it is a desperate situation, which is why if the worst happens we have placed a mine under the bridge to blow it up.’
Even Downie now seemed to realise how precarious things were. ‘But sir,’ he replied, ‘they could attack Lisbon or Wellesley’s flank if they get through. Surely the safest course is to blow the mine now as no help seems likely?’
Mayne took a deep breath while staring at the bridge; he had clearly been pondering this dilemma for a while. ‘You may be right,’ he conceded at last. ‘But that bridge was built in the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan, it is nearly two thousand years old. It is the only bridge across the Tagus in the area. When Wellesley comes he will need it to advance into Spain. I want to preserve it if we can.’ Well, I thought, this was madness of the first order. After all an appreciation of history has its place, but that place is in a museum or gallery. When preserving some old Roman bridge starts to put me in the path of thousands of murderous Frenchmen things are going too far. I realised that I would have to gammon the old fool into blowing that mine or Downie would have us manning the breach in some desperate last stand.
‘Sir, I know that in Almeida you deceived the French into thinking you had ten times your number,’ I said to Mayne. ‘But that was in a fortress with walls unknown men could hide behind. Here there are no walls – they can see exactly how many men you have.’
For a moment Mayne did not respond. He stared over my shoulder to where Butterworth and the other troopers were letting their horses graze on the sparse grass. Then a slow grin spread over his face and he looked at me. ‘Really, Captain Flashman, after what I have heard about Sir Robert’s Russian adventures I would have expected you to show more ingenuity.’ With that he reached into his pocket, pulled out his telescope and started to scan the route we had come from.
‘What are you doing sir?’ I asked him, puzzled.
‘I am watching Wellesley’s army march towards us! We are standing on our wall young man, standing on it right now,’ he repeated.
Downie and I looked at each other dumbfounded. Was the old bastard mad, I wondered? We looked in the direction he had pointed his telescope and of course there was no one there; Wellesley’s army should now be a hundred and fifty miles away in Oporto. ‘I’m sorry sir, I don’t understand,’ admitted Downie.
Mayne looked at us and grinned again before resuming his inspection of the phantom army. ‘You gave me the idea. When considering your strategy you must always put yourself in the enemy’s shoes,’ he said. ‘They know Wellesley has landed, that is why Victor is here. They have assumed he will take on Soult first so Victor is advancing to take the British army in the flank and capture Lisbon. But what if Wellesley has humbugged them and is coming after Victor first. The last thing Victor wants is his army divided by a river with a narrow bridge if Wellesley and his larger army come over this hill. He would not want his men on this side of the river at all with Wellesley in the area – he would want them on the other side. He could then sit back and watch the redcoats try and cross the bridge, and slaughter us as we have them in their attacks.’
Wellesley arrived in Alcantara half an hour later. Through their telescopes the French saw a man wearing a plain blue coat and black bicorn hat arrive on the ridge top, accompanied by several British staff officers. Wellesley was seen to stare at the French positions through his telescope, including the group of French officers in the church tower that were returning his inspection. He then pointed out various positions to his staff officers on a map he pulled from his saddlebag. Colonel Mayne was seen rushing to meet the general, saluting and pointing out his own defences. Most ominously from the French perspective, the front of a column of British infantry could be seen as it marched up to the ridge crest. Wellesley noticed and ordered them back down the far side of the hill out of sight. He could be seen gesticulating to other hidden men to stay back and then he sent the staff officers riding in both directions along the ridge crest to ensure that the British soldiers stayed on the other side of the ridge, out of sight and out of reach of enemy cannon.
Even if I say so myself, it was a fine performance, for it was me in that plain blue coat and bicorn hat. I have acted a few parts in my time but rarely one with so much at stake. I don’t know where they found the blue coat, but the bicorn hat was from the Spanish cavalry officer. It had been adorned with gold braid but that was stripped off to form epaulets for my new staff officers, troopers Chapman and Doherty. The infantry column was made up from Sergeant Butterworth and the rest of the troop, without their horses and with their sword belts and helmets, replaced by infantry packs, muskets and shakoes lent by soldiers of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion. Downie, as their officer, rode at their head. Even close to they looked quite convincing, and from a quarter of a mile away I was sure that those watching from the church tower would not spot anything wrong.
It was strange looking through my telescope at the tower and the gold braided figures inside it. Victor must have known about the Legion’s deception at Almeida. You could almost sense him wondering if we were bluffing and whether he dared to call that bluff. Mayne invited General Wellesley to join him in his headquarters by the Legion’s cannon, so I allowed myself to be led in that direction. Once out of sight of the enemy I slumped in relief, but the deception seemed to have worked. The enemy guns had not fired for nearly an hour now and looking down, their infantry did not seem to be preparing another attack. We celebrated our success with a glass of brandy. While Mayne claimed that he had always known the plan would work, I noticed that his hand shook slightly as he poured the strong spirit. It was rough local firewater that made you gasp. As it was burning my throat Mayne talked about what he thought would happen next.
‘Victor thinks he has seen the British advance guard and will assume that the British army is strung out on the road behind. It would be reasonable to expect it to take the rest of the day for the army to gather on the reverse slope. But tomorrow they will expect an attack and if one does not come they will get suspicious again. We have bought ourselves a day, two at most. He may well be sending scouts along the river looking for another bridge or a boat to see precisely what is on our side of the hill. When he does realise he has been tricked we will hold out for as long as we can. If we have to, we will blow the mine. Then we will retreat six miles down the road to hold another bridge at a place called Seguro and try and hold him up for a day or two there. Sooner or later Wellesley will come and we will not be bluffing, but we need to buy him all the time we can.’ He looked at Downey and added, ‘In the meantime I would be grateful if you would take your dragoons dismounted down to the riverbank. The presence of your red jackets will give the militia confidence.’
Downey of course agreed and even I thought it would be reasonably safe for the rest of the day. Not a shot was being fired now by either side. An unofficial truce had come into effect between the two armies. The French looked as if they had swallowed the deception or were not prepared to risk challenging it for the time being. Certainly it would take someone on a fast horse and a boat at least a day to get on our side of the river to see what was behind that hill. I was back in my red coat and it would have been bad form to run out on them immediately. I thought I would stay for the rest of the day and then in the evening I would insist on taking my message on to Cuesta. In hindsight it was a huge mistake.
As we walked down the little valley beside the bluff towards the river I began to feel a strange sense of foreboding. I tried to dismiss it as we turned along the bank towards the bridge; I put it down to the hundreds of enemy troops who stared curiously at us as we approached. At the river we could see how tall the bridge was. It had to be, for the river was a fast flowing torrent fifty feet below us in a ravine with steep rocky banks. You could not see the surface of the water unless you leaned right over the edge of the bank. The first two arches of the bridge on either side were over this sharply sloping land, only the central two spans were over the water. The arches were huge; it was a tall and graceful structure and astonishing engineering for its time.
The troopers were back with their original weaponry of their carbines and sabres but Downie and I just had our pistols and swords. When we reached the bridge I saw that the green jacketed troops were sorting the French bodies. The dead were being piled into a rampart across the end of the parapet while those still living were being deposited on the bridge itself. French soldiers under a flag of truce were carrying them away. The militia were all grinning at us and some were even cheering and shouting ‘
’. It may not have been just the enemy we had fooled about the presence of a large British force. It all added to the deception, I thought, and we were just introducing ourselves to the English commander of the green jacketed troops, Captain Charles, when all hell broke loose.
To this day I am not sure what gave us away. Perhaps Victor had an exceptionally good telescope that showed him that a British officer’s features were identical to those of Wellesley. More likely he realised that dismounted dragoons were not the obvious reinforcements for the men guarding the bridge if there were regiments of infantry just over the hill. Whatever the reason, he suddenly decided that we were bluffing.
Our first warning was shouting from the other side of the river. The French soldiers helping the wounded on the bridge abandoned their charges and went sprinting back to their side. Captain da Silva, who seemed to be the commander of the nearby militia, was yelling at his men to take cover when there was a rumble of cannon fire. Cannon balls crashed into the hillside, smashing rocks into lethal stone splinters. Men ran for cover as the French infantry on the far side of the river – around a hundred and fifty yards away – let fly, creating a deadly hail storm of musket shot. Muskets were not accurate at that range but they did not have to be when you had a thousand men on either side of the bridge blazing away and flailing our bank with lead. Your correspondent did not hesitate to run a few yards up the slope and hurl himself behind the biggest rock he could see. Unfortunately two militia men were already there, but even in those circumstances rank has its privileges and they grudgingly made room for me between them.
We clung together to keep our bodies behind the stone. It was big enough to stop musket shot and we heard several balls whine away off it, but if hit plumb centre by a cannon ball it would have smashed and take us with it. We lay there for what seemed an age, with the Portuguese muttering prayers for their deliverance and me issuing rather more Anglo Saxon oaths about the French bastards on the other side of the river and the moronic Downie that had got me into this mess.
After a while the musket fire slowed to a steady crackle as the number of potential targets had diminished. I put my head up to see what was happening. A score of bodies were scattered on our side of the river, including a dead dragoon. Many more were wounded though and they were screaming for help. Men ran from cover to drag comrades to shelter and Captain da Silva was yelling for his men to take cover near the end of the bridge to meet the next expected assault. My new militia friends reluctantly obeyed, darting across the hillside, keeping their heads down. This left the rock just for me, and as another cannon ball smashed into the packed trenches of men at the end of the bridge I saw no reason to leave its relatively safe shelter.
From my higher vantage point I could see another French column massing for an attack across the bridge. The French cannon were all aiming for the trenches now and survival in them became a random affair. Cannon balls were smashing through walls and bouncing off rocks, and combined with the constant fire of musketry from the far bank. Now, though, the cannon on the bluff behind us were cracking out. I saw the effect of two of their balls ploughing furrows through the massing blue coated troops at the far end of the bridge. But they just closed ranks again and inevitably the dreadful drum beat started as the vast mass started towards us.
,’ a thousand voices roared in unison as prompted by a flourish of the drummer, accompanied by the tramp of a thousand boots on stone. It might not sound much on paper but when you are waiting at the sharp end of a French column it is a terrifying prospect, which is why many of their opponents have fled the field at the sight of them. Certainly some of the militia now started to edge back; they had already beaten one column but there seemed no end to them, and the awful cannon fire that preceded their attacks. Two of the militia threw down their guns and started to run back up the valley path.
‘Stop,’ roared da Silva, ‘you are honourable men, do not abandon your comrades.’ To my astonishment they did stop, and after a glance between them they turned and started to walk sheepishly back down the path. Da Silva must have known how shaky the morale of his men was for he stepped out of his trench and stood in front of a waist high rock just a few yards away from mine to address his soldiers. ‘You have already beaten one of their columns,’ he shouted. ‘You know you can beat another. Do you want to go back to your houses like whipped dogs with the French taking what they want from you? Or do you want to show them...’ At that point his words were lost in another salvo of French cannon fire. One ball whistled over my head, smacking into the hillside just behind and causing a rock fall that cascaded around me, but I barely noticed it. My attention had been fully taken by the effect of another French cannon ball.
By an awful chance the ball had bounced and taken da Silva in the chest. With his lower half against the rock behind, it had literally cut him in half. His chest and head disappeared in a gout of blood and guts across the hill side, but for a few seconds his bottom half remained standing against the rock. Like me, most of his men stared transfixed by the awful sight. Grotesquely his legs now started to twitch and move of their own accord before sliding down the surface of the rock.
There must have been other shooting going on at the time but I do not remember it, I was just transfixed by that ghastly horror. As the legs finally fell onto the ground the spell seemed broken, not just for me, but for the rest of the militia. We will never know what da Silva was going to say, but his death had the opposite effect of what he wanted to achieve. The two would-be deserters now turned again and started sprinting away up the path, but this time they were joined by the rest of the regiment.
In a moment a thousand men were charging past me down the path away from the bridge, with a handful of the green jacketed troops mixed amongst them. Headlong flight was certainly the order of the day for Flashy now, but as I turned to join them I realised with horror that the last rock fall had trapped my foot. I desperately tried to wrench it free but it was stuck solid.
I needed help and I tried to grab at some of the men rushing past roaring, ‘Help me you bastards, I’m trapped,’ but they just shook me off with wild panic in their eyes. ‘Come back you bloody cowards,’ I yelled at their retreating backs. I could not believe it; the yellow livered swine were absolutely leaving me to my fate. Not that I blame them now you understand, why I have done the same a score of times and I would not be here writing these memoirs if I hadn’t. But when you are the poor devil being abandoned, well it puts a different perspective on things. In a moment and a cloud of dust they were all past me while I was sitting on the ground with both hands desperately clawing at the slab of rock that held me fast.
Not everybody had deserted me though; looking up I saw that the vast majority of the Legion had stood firm, as had the dragoons. Captain Charles of the Legion was ordering his men to the barricade of bodies at the end of the parapet. I yelled at Downie and some of the dragoons to help me, but they could not hear over the increased fusillade of musket fire as the French shot at the retreating militia.
Oh dear God, I thought, I cannot die here, not like this after all I have been through. For I could see as plain as day what would happen. There were at least a thousand men in that column now marching across the bridge and no more than four hundred now crouched at the barricade. They would be beaten and the survivors would run away like the militia, leaving Flashy trapped and helpless to face the vengeful fury of French soldiers who had lost comrades in the attack.
‘Help me,’ I roared again. ‘Light the mine,’ I added as an afterthought, but both calls were drowned out by the double
of the howitzers from the bluff behind.
There is a split second between a howitzer being fired and the shells exploding where you find yourself holding your breath. At least I did then, for never had shells been more important and I think that day, never were they more perfectly aimed. For both landed amongst the crowded mass of men marching towards us. From the hill during the first attack I had heard the screams, but now I was close enough to hear the pitiable calls for help from the wounded. I also heard the roars of rage from the survivors who knew that they would be up against the barricade before the guns could fire again. It seemed to give them extra vigour. If there was an order I did not hear it, but instinctively the French broke into a charge. Yelling and screaming with bayonets to the fore the whole column broke into a run. That’s it, I thought, we are done for now.
In their looser formation the French came though the archway at the halfway point on the bridge without breaking stride, and were three-quarters of the way across the bridge when the green coated soldiers opened fire. They had organised themselves into eight ranks of roughly fifty men that stood in a short column at our end of the bridge. Many were protected from the enemy infantry on the far shore by the bridge parapet, and the enemy cannon had ceased firing to avoid hitting their own soldiers. The front rank took aim at no more than a hundred yards and fired. Many of the leading French running troops fell, but before those behind could recover the Lusitanian front rank dropped to their knees and the second rank fired, and then the third and so on. I watched in astonishment as over the next minute eight volleys were fired down the bridge, and against such a tightly packed mass of men they could not miss.
The musket smoke was such that after the first few volleys they were firing blind but from my position, slightly to one side, I could see that our side of the bridge was covered with blue coated dead and wounded. Occasionally a French soldier would charge through several volleys, but then there would be the crack of a carbine as he got close and I saw that the dragoons were stationed on their knees at the front to deal with anyone who got too close with their short range weapons.
With eight volleys fired the Lusitanians now stood to reload. It would have been the ideal time for the French to resume their charge, but they could not see the opportunity through the smoke. Instead a French officer now started to organise the troops into ranks to fire volleys in return. With green jacketed soldiers now standing they made a bigger target and I saw some fall. But just after the French had fired their first volley the howitzers fired again and once more the French troops started to edge back.
It was the finest piece of organisation and volley fire that I had seen, helped a great deal by the fact that the French could not outflank them and were trapped on the narrow strip of the bridge. Through the clearing smoke the Lusitanians saw the French helping their wounded back the way they had come. Grins spread over their powder stained faces and they shouted and cheered their delight.
‘Will one of you blighters come over here and get me free,’ I yelled as the noise subsided.
‘I say Flash,’ called Downie, looking up from the rampart. ‘I wondered where you had gone.’ He paused before adding hastily, ‘Obviously I did not think you had run,’ while blushing red to prove that was exactly what he had thought.
It took four of the Lusitanians using their muskets as levers to move the rock, but mercifully my ankle was not even sprained. At last mobile again I ran over to where Downie and Captain Charles of the Lusitanians were talking at the end of the bridge. Before I could even say a word there was the roar of cannon from the opposite bank and the renewed crackle of musket fire. We dropped down to our knees to get the cover of the bridge parapet.
‘They can see how few we are now,’ shouted Charles above the din. ‘They are going to pound us until we are too few to defend the bridge or run away like the militia.’ He was right. Already two balls had slashed bloody trails through the tightly packed ranks of Lusitanians who were now falling back to the dubious shelter of the shallow trenches.