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Authors: Allan Mallinson

Tags: #Historical Novel, #Military

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BOOK: The Sabre's Edge
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After five minutes the companies changed to quick time, and sloped arms - prudently, thought Hervey, for the eastern sky was now lightening. He had walked these paths before, so to speak: the affair at the river, three years ago. How determined he had been to time the moment of the attack perfectly with the appearance of the sun above the jungle canopy. Almost a ritual, it had been, like the sun rising at the stone circle on the great plain at home in Wiltshire.

It was curious how marching freed the mind to wander. How many hours more would they have to wait in Wiltshire before this same sun rose on them? And how did it rise on his daughter? Did it fall directly on her, or did it light her room only indirectly? Did she wake to see it? Did she fear the dark when it was gone? How strange not to know the answers to such simple questions. But it had been five years, almost, since last he had seen her. Her first letter he carried in the pouch of his crossbelt, along with Henrietta's likeness, though he had taken neither from their oilskin in a year.

The sky was heavier than that day at the river. There was rain to come; they all knew it. But when? He looked back towards the town. A pall of smoke hung over the greater part of it, and, mean as the place was, he thought it as sorry a sight as at Badajoz or Vittoria, or any other of the Spanish towns that had fallen prey to the revels of the drunken soldiery in their celebration of victory. The Duke of Wellington had cursed the army often enough - the Sixth not excepted - for being too drunk to follow up victory. And usually the men had resented it; officers too. They had had to make long, wearying marches; they had had to fight desperately; they had lost friends; they thought they had earned their rowdy ease.

Not since Waterloo had Hervey been surrounded by so many redcoats, and even that day he was first amidst his own regiment (and at the very end in their van). It felt different from being in ranks of blue. Yet their common bond was discipline, the prime requirement of an army, for without it no other quality was guaranteed. Could it really be the lash that guaranteed these men's good order? Were the Eighty-ninth, and for that matter every other battalion of infantry of the Line, so different from his own?

The Sixth abhorred the lash. They had abhorred it since before he had joined. They took it as a point of pride that a dragoon was animated by something more noble than fear of a flogging. But the duke had always supported the lash, and his judgement had been long in the forming, and tested in the worst circumstances. He held that without it all the lesser punishments could not have effect. 'Who would bear to be billed up but for the fear of a stronger punishment?' Hervey had once heard him say. 'He would knock down the sentry and walk out!' And had he not heard many a man in the old light division say that Crauford had flogged them through the mountains to Vigo, and that had he not done so they would never have got there? But how far would men acknowledge that the lash kept them alive when the going became desperate? And did General Campbell have the determination to see the expedition through to Ava, as 'Black Bob' Crauford had seen the retreat through Galicia?

'Company will break into double time; double march!'

In another five minutes there was but a half-mile to go, and it was light enough to make out Shwedagon's soaring dome. Hervey thought it unlikely that the Burmans would have abandoned it unless they had no intention at all of fighting.

'It's like piss-proud Pat of a Sunday morning,' came a voice from the ranks behind.

A welter of reproach followed from an NCO.

'D'ye think there'll be much gold, Serjeant?' came another voice.

'Stick to the drink, Mick. You won't have to carry it as far!'

'He can't hold on to either for long!' came yet another voice from the ranks.

Hervey smiled. The banter was not so very different from the Sixth's, though he did not doubt the capacity for riot in the Eighty-ninth's wild Irish ranks. It was as well that its NCOs brooked no disorder.

There was a shot. Then half a dozen others. A couple of hundred yards ahead? It was difficult to tell. Hervey felt the momentum check just a fraction. Then came the shouting -
quick time!
- and the companies breaking from the double march. Serjeants barked out the step - left, right, left, right; pick it
up’
The ensigns raised the colours. The commanding officer took off for the front of the column. Runners began coming and going.

The thrill of action flashed through the ranks like a quickmatch. It would have been the same in the Sixth, thought Hervey - but perhaps more so here, for the ranks were tighter-packed, the men shoulder to shoulder rather than knee to knee. 'Skirmishers out!'

He heard the order ripple along the column. And then a bugle. He didn't recognize the call, supposing it must be for the light company. If
they
were deploying, it couldn't be many minutes before the battalion companies did the same.

'Number One Company,
halt!
Company will incline left; left
incline!
Company will form right, at the halt; right
form
!’

It took less than a minute for Number One Company to change from column of route to face front in two ranks, and with no more seeming effort than if they had been on parade. And this in spite of the semi-darkness and the broken ground.

'With ball cartridge, load!'

The best part of a hundred men reached as one into black leather pouches to take out a greased paper cartridge. They bit off the end, poured a little of the powder into the pan of the musket-lock, closed it, emptied the remainder down the barrel, spat in the one-ounce ball of iron, pushed in the paper tube and rammed it home with a clattering noise like a mill full of flying shuttles. Then up came the East India-pattern muskets to the port. Even after so many years Hervey found himself awed by the drill. Rough men, these; unlettered for the most part, the sweepings of the gutters. Yet they worked like the well-turned mechanism of a fine watch. He could feel the swagger in the drill, the pride and confidence in what each man was about, as if he were saying there was no one better at this - no company better, no battalion better; and certainly no army. The 89th Foot, well to the left of the Line, had no royal lace to distinguish the regiment, only green facings like many another; but the 89th (Prince of Wales' Irish) counted themselves second to none, and neither Burman nor monsoon would stop them getting to Ava if that was the general's command. It would have been the same too had the battalion been the 90th Foot, or the
91st.
Indeed it would have mattered not what number was worn on the pewter buttons or the blackened 'trotters' - except to the men who wore them. Hervey smiled to himself: the drill would be the same anywhere along the Line, and the spirit no less so.

'Company will fix bayonets; fix . . .
bayonets!

More clattering, then sudden silence. "Shun!'

Number One Company stood stiffly at attention. No man dared move a muscle lest it bring the withering rebuke of an NCO. It was a moment that could not long hold. Neither was it meant to; it was just the captain's final check before the off that he had his men in hand, as a dragoon might bring his horse up sharp onto the bit before pressing him forward to a gallop.

'Company, should-e-e-r
arms!

The line seemed to sway, eager to be on with it, though not a foot moved.

‘P
o-o-rt
arms!
By the right, quick march!'

It would be full light in not many minutes. Hervey strained to see their objective as they struck off, but too many shakos stood in his way. There had been no more firing. It didn't surprise him: the shots came from the outposts, for sure. They'd done their job: raise the alarm, then fall back. He wondered how many cannon the Burmans had, and how close they'd let the battalion come before putting the slow matches to the touch-holes. But he didn't suppose there was a man afraid, nor even for a moment anxious. As soon as the Burmans fired, the battalion would give them a volley and be in on them with the bayonet before they could reload. A ball might take a head off, and grape might tear through flesh and bone, but there was nothing anyone could do about it, so there was no point in having a care of it.

But there was no thunder of cannon, nor rattle of musketry. Only the sudden command, 'At the double!' And then they were running again, faster this time, not quite charging speed he imagined, but definitely faster. Still he could not see where they were doubling to, only the dome of the pagoda itself a couple of hundred yards away. In no time they had closed the distance without another shot, and officers and NCOs were shouting orders for sections and half-sections to follow. Up the steps to the pagoda itself, or to either side of its balustrades, or to beat out the cover to right or left, or to search the shrines that lined the great maidan at the bottom of the steps. They went at it like harriers into kale.

Hervey saw relief and disappointment in equal measure in the faces around him. The Prince of Wales' Irish did not load with ball cartridge here except to discharge it at a live target; they had discharged shot enough at practice ones these several past years. But at least there were not the screams of fallen comrades to heed. Could there be such contradictory feelings in any other craft? For his part, Hervey had no particular desire to blood his sabre again, nor to discharge the pistol that was lodged in his belt. His only thought was what this peculiar absence of resistance portended.

He came upon the commanding officer, a man not much older than he, who wore an expression of both determination and perplexity.

'What in God's name is going on, Hervey?'

They had first met at Vittoria, a dozen years before, when each man's sword had been red, for there had been no doubt what they were meant to be doing
that
day. 'I cannot say, Colonel. But there seem to be only two possibilities.'

'Indeed,' sighed the Eighty-ninth's man, ramming home his sword in its scabbard. 'And I wonder how long we shall have to wait to discover which it's to be. There's a degree of confusion so far that I haven't seen since Corunna.'

The captain of the light company came up and asked for orders, to which the colonel replied that his men should beat towards the jungle's edge.

It was exactly as Hervey would have done. 'I fancy the answer will only be found in there, sir,' he said as the captain made off.
C
I think sooner or later the general shall have to send patrols some way into the forest to see if the Burmans make a stand or no.'

'Ay,' sighed the colonel. 'And it won't be easy. But first Campbell had better strike upstream, for if the Burmans mount any sort of attack along the river we'll be at sixes and sevens. And fire boats'll be giving yonder commodore a deal to think about, too, I'll warrant.'

'Sir,' was all Hervey thought it necessary to say, for they were but Commodore Peto's own strictures of the night before.

'Well, this place has the makings of a decent billet, at least,' said the colonel, beckoning over his adjutant. 'Come, Merrick. Let us have a look inside that pagoda before Alltoft's men do it any great injury.'

Hervey smiled again. Here was the dry humour of one who sat permanently atop a powder keg, an officer whose easy victory might yet turn to ruin at the hands of the same men who had delivered him the prize. And Shwedagon was a place where riot even on a small scale would not do - a religious site of prominence, of some grandeur indeed. The general would certainly want to see it in one piece.

No doubt the colonel was half disbelieving in his good fortune in not having had the battalion ashore when the brandy was flowing. Hervey wondered how the Eighty-ninth's discipline would hold now they were no longer in close order. How active were the subalterns? How true were the corporals? Once, in Spain, he had seen an entire company fire its muskets at the windows of an empty palace rather than draw the charges; the smashing of every pane seemed to give satisfaction to men denied a shot at the French. And gilded carvings and finials were an awfully tempting target.

Now there was more shouting. ‘P
res-e-e-ent
arms
!

Hervey looked about to see what the sudden fuss was, and saw General Campbell coming up with Colonel Macbean, commander of the Madras brigade.

The general looked pleased. And well he might, thought Hervey. Yesterday had been one of mixed honours, at best, and this morning's work was a model of method and celerity by comparison.

General Campbell raised his hat to the saluting muskets. The guns will be up with you within the hour, Ireson,' he said, eyes twinkling, his red whiskers as bright as his coat. This without doubt is the key to Rangoon. Hold on to the pagoda, Ireson, and any attack on the town must falter.'

'Very good, General,' said Colonel Ireson, sounding matter-of-fact.

BOOK: The Sabre's Edge
2.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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