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One Man’s Battle

A short story

British siege works for the Storming of Badajoz on 6th April 1812 in the Peninsular War: picture by Philippoteaux

Training, if that’s what you could call it, had stressed rapid reloads. Volley fire demanded it. They had been told that the ability to fire three to five rounds a minute was what would save their lives, and was what separated them from the lesser, foreign, armies.

They were the God-damns. The British regulars, and right now they fought for the security of their country against the savage, ever-victorious army of Napoleon. They were in Spain. At least Joseph thought that they were in Spain. The past few weeks had been a confusing whirlwind of marching, fighting, and rain. He hoped that Nosey was less confused than he was.

The smell. Oh, the smell was horrendous. He was long used to the odor of a thousand unwashed bodies marching in the humid heat of Portugal, but this was beyond anything he’d smelled before. He doubted he’d ever get used to this.

Rain had turned the ground surrounding the city’s walls into a fetid quagmire of clay, shit and death. The first assault had failed miserably and the dead bodies that it produced still lay haphazardly along the approach to the breach in the wall. They culminated into piles closer in, to form yet another obstacle they’d have to overcome in order to assault the city.

Joseph cursed the recruiting officer for perhaps the thousandth time since he’d taken the King’s shilling two months ago. He’d been fed a string of lies and half truths, and he’d eaten them up like a pig at its trough. His father would have beat him if he’d ever gone back home. The recruiter had assured him that the army would provide for his every need, and so, he had simply left. He’d left a note with a sergeant who had promised to deliver it to his family, but he doubted that it had ever been delivered.

He had been surprised when he missed his family. Nothing, to that point had made him ever want to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a bookmaker. There was money in it, sure enough, but it was tedious work, and Joseph wanted something more. At least he had thought that he did. He wasn’t sure any more.

The promises of booty, advancement, women, and the opportunities for heroism had completely hoodwinked his adolescent visions of the future.

A trickle of cold water ran down the back of his shako hat and continued it’s frigid course between his shoulder blades. He shivered.

Orders had come down to form up in the exact same place they had days before during the failed attempt on the city. This was it. He shivered again, this time it wasn’t because of the cold. The city had responded to the maneuvers with cannon-fire. Great gouts of earth flew into the air as the heavy balls smashed into the ground. Luckily the sopping mud absorbed more of the balls momentum than had it been dry, causing many of the munitions to plough deep furrows and stay, rather than bounding forward tearing into the red-coated ranks.

One ball splashed into a deep puddle nearby, sending up a geyser of muddy water before taking off a man’s leg below the knee.

He screamed. Of course he screamed. Joseph almost screamed. He was terrified. Two men came and helped the injured man out of the file, taking him under the armpits and carrying him to the hospital tent.

He wished he could help someone to the tent. No, he would fight. He would not be a coward now. Even as he thought it he felt slightly better, until a whistle sounded and the files moved forward in unison.

If he cried would anyone notice? He decided, with the rain he should be safe. Their own cannon fire whizzed over their heads as they started the climb up to the city’s defenses. John, another new recruit like himself, bent over and vomited in the mud. The man behind kicked him in the rear and the sergeant balled out obscenities at him until he stood and caught up to his place in line.

Lieutenant Roberts walked behind the rearmost line of the company as it marched into enemy canon fire.

“Dress your ranks!” He called.

Sergeants yelled at the offending parties until the difficulty of the terrain made any attempt at an orderly march impossible.

They were close enough to the enemies firestep to feel the impact of enemy musket fire in full now. A man clutched his chest next to Joseph and fell to the ground. There was little attempt at order as they rushed forward now, knowing that the only way out of this hell was forward. A man fell in front of Joseph and suddenly he could see the objective. The breach. The hole in the wall that had been hammered there by their cannon fire for weeks.

The British cannons had gone silent, afraid now of hitting their own troops as they scrambled up the slope of crushed stone that spread out like a fan from the breach.

Joseph stepped over a dead man and took aim at a man on the rampart. His musket’s smoke obscured whether he’d hit the target or not, but he knew he had to keep going. His bayonet was affixed to the end of his musket and he pushed it in front of him while he climbed through the smoke that his and other guns expelled.

He began to feel like this soldiering thing wasn’t so bad. He had not been shot after all, and he was getting close to the breach. Men, wearing the blue-grey of the French uniform stood in the hole, blasting down at the army struggling up the slope. He looked around himself and saw that he was almost alone. Two other men pushed forward, as high up the slope as himself. He stopped behind the miniscule cover that a barbican offered and reloaded his musket, scraping his knuckles on the bayonet.

He was shaking, his heart sounded like a stampeding horse in his head, and he knew he was sweating despite the cold and damp, but he was alive. He felt alive. A french musket ball flattened itself into the wall next to him. He took aim at one of the men in the mouth of the breach and fired. The man doubled over and fell backward, out of sight.

His voice cracked as he yelled his excitement and he pushed forward up the slope, charging the one remaining man in the gap. This was what it was like. This is what the recruiter promised. Exhilarated, he pushed the bayonet into the man’s guts just as he’d been trained to do and stood upon the summit of the slope. He had done it. First through the breach. His father would be proud. His mother would cry when she learned of his bravery. Nothing could equal this moment. He raised his musket above his head and cheered, spurring his comrades on to greater efforts. They echoed his cheer and surged forward around him. He had done it. The fear that had so infected him early on in the battle was all but gone now. His mother would be so happy.

Joseph didn’t feel the musket ball that killed him, it struck his head and passed through his brain before he could even register the impact. His body slumped forward, propped up, momentarily by the crumbling edge of the wall, before being pushed out of the way by the onrush of British soldiers as they moved into and through the gap in the wall.

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