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Windrush

Windrush

Book excerpt

Prelude

Chillianwala, River Jhelum, India, 14 January 1849

'Are your men ready, Sir John?'

'All ready, Sir Hugh.' Colonel Murphy scanned the ranks of the 113th. They stood at attention along the fringes of the scrubby jungle, listened to the batter and howl of the artillery and tried not to flinch as the occasional Sikh round-shot landed in front of their position.

'It's their first action, isn't it?' General Sir Hugh Gough glanced to his right and left, where his army was preparing for the battle ahead. He had 12,000 men, tired after a three-day march through the Punjab heat, while Shere Singh commanded at least 32,000 Sikhs, well dug in and supported by sixty-two pieces of artillery.

'Yes, sir; we are a new regiment, and this is our first time outside England.' Murphy felt that familiar flutter of excitement as a bugle called far to his right. He hid his smile.

'Not your first, though, eh?' Gough controlled his skittish horse as the Sikh artillery probed for the range. 'You knew the Peninsula, I believe.'

'Yes, Sir Hugh; Talavera and Salamanca, and Kabul in Afghanistan more recently.'

Gough nodded. 'Well good luck, Sir John; blood the men well and bring honour to the flag.' With his white fighting coat, distinctive in that array of scarlet British and Indian soldiers and set against the dark green and dun of India, Gough kicked in his heels and moved to speak to the colonel of the 24th Foot. A score of vultures circled above them, waiting to feast on the carnage to come.

'Blasted birds always know when there's to be a battle,' Major Snodgrass grumbled. 'They are a harbinger of death.' He withdrew a silver flask from inside his jacket and sipped at the contents. 'I hate them.'

'Put the spirits away, Snodgrass,' Murphy ordered. 'The men will be nervous enough without seeing their officers' tippling.'

'The brandy helps.' Snodgrass took another pull before he obeyed. 'Here we go then.'

The 113th was in three lines, – eight hundred fighting men in formation, with their sergeants placed with each section and the officers leading from the front. In the centre, hanging limply in the appalling heat, the Queen's Colours and the Regimental Colours acted as a talisman and rallying point, as British colours had done in a hundred battles in India in the past and would in a hundred battles in the future. A puff of air as hot as any blast furnace ruffled the regimental colour, so the number '113' was partially displayed against a virgin yellow-buff field.

'Time to put a battle honour on our colours,' Murphy roared out to his regiment. 'Heads up lads: the Sikh Khalsa has a reputation for being brave and resourceful warriors, but he has never met us before! Keep together, keep in step, never mind the noise and win glory for yourselves, the regiment and the Queen. Come on the 113th!'

Most of the men looked to their front, as required by discipline and tradition. Others slid their eyes sideways to their colonel; some swallowed hard, a few chewed tobacco or sucked on a stone to combat the ever-present thirst of India. One man was praying, the words a low mutter underneath the grumble and roar of the guns.

In front, the 24th marched bravely forward, flanked on one side by the sepoys of the 25th Native Infantry and on the other by their colleagues of the 45th. The mid-afternoon sun was like brass above, bringing thick beads of sweat to faces not yet accustomed to the Indian heat. The red coats vanished into the scrubby jungle.

'Keep the distance!' Murphy roared. He looked across the ranks of his regiment. 'Show them your Colours, 113th!'

'Only the bayonet!' Senior officers passed the words to junior officer who snarled the orders to sergeants and the private soldiers, 'General Gough's orders are no firing; only use the bayonet.'

Murphy looked at Major Snodgrass and raised bushy eyebrows. He made no adverse comment about his senior officer, but he looked at his inexperienced infantry and wondered how they would cope. The Sikhs had proved to be the toughest enemy the British had ever faced in India, and General Gough had now further handicapped the already outnumbered and tired British soldiers.

The nearest men to Murphy were marching steadily with their muskets at the correct angle and boots thumping on the brick-hard ground. Sweat glistened on red faces that peeled with sunburn, while their uniforms constricted their bodies in tight swathes of red serge. They looked uncomfortable, hot and nervous as they marched forward to face the enemies of the Honourable East India Company and, by association, enemies of the Queen.

'Will the Sikhs fight?' Snodgrass asked. He reached for his flask again but withdrew his hand when Murphy frowned. 'We've fought and beaten them so often that surely they must know they haven't a chance?'

'They are the Khalsa,' Murphy paused, nodding approval as a sergeant roared to get his section to straighten the line. 'The Sikh Army is the finest native fighting force in India, tough professionals with European training, artillery as good as ours and an unbroken history of victory. They also outnumber us and are in a strong defensive position. Yes, they will fight.'

As they entered the jungle, the British had to break formation to negotiate tangled bush and dense thickets of trees and undergrowth. From ahead there was a sharp outburst of musketry and again the deeper, savage boom of artillery.

'It's begun,' Murphy said. 'Steady the 113th! Onward to victory!'

There was a surge of cheering as the British made contact with the enemy, and the cannonade increased. The acrid smell of powder smoke drifted through the scrub, faint but stronger with each step they took.

'That's the Sikh infantry firing on the 24th,' Snodgrass said. 'The 24th might need our support soon.'

'Quicken the pace, boys!' Murphy ordered. 'We don't want to meet the Khalsa in penny packets.' He looked right and left. In the confines of the scrub, he could only see a fraction of his regiment at any one time, but it appeared to be steady enough, despite some sections dropping back as they became entangled in the undergrowth.

The cheering from the right and ahead mingled with screaming, and still, the Sikh artillery roared. There was regular volley fire from the Sikh muskets, a sure sign of well-disciplined infantry.

'The 24th is getting a pounding, 'Murphy said and nodded as a glistening-faced messenger approached.

'General Gough's compliment's sir, and could you move the 113th to support the 24th as quickly as the occasion permits.'

Murphy nodded. 'Thank you, my boy, and please tell the general that the 113th will be in support directly. He has my word on it.' He watched as the ensign turned about and vanished into the bush. The boy could not be more than seventeen, the same age as Murphy had been when he first went to war forty years ago.

'Come on, men! The 24th need us!' Dismounting, Murphy ran forward to lead his regiment. He drew his sword and lifted it high in the air, then swung it in the direction of the enemy. 'Quick march the 113th!'

He heard movement behind him as he strode toward the Sikh lines. His men were following; one of the only two regiments in the British Army that had no battle honours on its colours. The hundred and thirteen virgins, the Baby Butchers, his men; the 113th Foot was advancing into battle.

Murphy hacked at an overhanging creeper and emerged in a large, sun-dappled clearing. He saw uniformed men ahead, drawn up in a tight formation. They wore the yellow turbans of Sikh gunners, and they stood behind a row of cannon. As the 113th emerged from the jungle in dribs and drabs, a section here and a company there, the Sikh officers barked orders, and the gunners crouched to their cannon.

A shiver ran through the scattered 113th; men stared at the wicked mouths of the waiting artillery in alarm or glanced over their shoulders at the concealment of the jungle.

'Forward lads!' Murphy encouraged. 'There's no going back now; take the bayonets to them, capture these guns!' He led the charge, knowing his regiment supported him, knowing that British infantry always reacted best when the danger was at its height.

The clearing, the maidan, stretched before him, with the Sikhs waiting in disciplined lines, matches smoking at the locks of their cannon, bearded faces smudged in the late afternoon sun. Murphy brandished his sword and ran into the heat. He no longer shouted; he hadn't the energy or the breath.

The Sikh officers waited until they had a sufficiently large target before they gave the order to fire. Their line exploded in a succession of orange muzzle flares, and gushing white smoke followed instantaneously by a volley of twelve and eighteen- pound cannonballs that raced toward the disorganised 113th. Men fell in ones and twos and entire sections, but Murphy remained untouched.

He took a deep breath of smoke tainted air. 'Take the bayonet to them, men!'

The Sikhs fired again, grapeshot and canister this time; lead balls that spread and butchered men by the dozen. Murphy felt a feather tickle his left arm. He shouted again, 'Charge!' and stepped forward, but his legs would not answer.

He looked down; the ground was rising to meet him as he fell soft beneath his face. He turned to watch his men win their glory. 'Come on the 113th' he tried to shout, but the words emerged as a meaningless ramble. 'Where are my men? Where is my regiment? Where are my darling boys?'

He saw only bodies on the ground and the screaming, writhing wounded; that and the backs of the 113th as they turned and ran back into the jungle. He saw Snodgrass standing with tears pouring down his crumpled face and the brandy flask held in a trembling hand.

'My regiment,' Murphy said. 'My brave boys, my 113th and then there was only blackness.

Chapter One

Malvern Hills, England, Winter 1851

Grey clouds smeared the sky, bellying downwards and depressing the already sombre mood of the funeral procession that wound in the shadow of the hills. Black horses walked slowly, heads bowed and plumes nodding as they dragged the hearse along the bumpy, rutted road. A procession of mourners followed; some in black draped carriages, most on foot and only the occasional scarlet uniform added a splash of colour. In front, walking with head bared and shoulders hunched, a drummer tapped a beat slow to accompany the steady tramp of two hundred feet.

Nobody spoke. Nobody heeded the thin rain that descended, damp and insidiously miserable, to seep through woollen cloaks and turn the road into a ribbon of sticky mud under the surrounding wooded slopes. Nobody sobbed or wept as the long column eased between leaning lichen-stained gate posts and entered a graveyard where grey tombstones sheltered beneath weeping trees. Bare branches thrust to the sky as if clutching forgiveness from an uncompromising God.

With a creak that sounded like a cry of despair, the hearse stopped. The horses stood silently in their traces, and the mourners shuffled to a halt, standing unmoving under the steadily increasing rain. Only the drummer continued with his repetitive, unending tap.

A man emerged from the hearse, his face set into professional solemnity as rain dripped from his tall black hat. Stepping slowly to the rear of the carriage, he called for the pallbearers to step forward.

'That's us,' Jack whispered to his brothers, aware that every eye was on him. Taking his place, he slipped his shoulder under the coffin and took the strain. His brothers filed into place behind him, silent save for the swish of boots through muddy grass. There were six pallbearers; the three sons of General William Windrush and three officers of his regiment. They moved forward in unison as the drummer continued his slow, rhythmic tapping and the priest, erect and slim with his black cloak sweeping the ground, held his Bible as if his soul depended on it.

As they manoeuvred around a dismal yew tree, Jack looked at his surroundings, from the mist that dragged across the long ridge of the Malvern Hills to the ancient graveyard centred on a church whose walls were slowly crumbling back into the soil. Gravestones protruded from the ground like despairing hands, some decorated with skulls and bones, others surmounted by weeping angels, but most indecipherable as years and weather removed all traces of the names and pious statements that long-dead hands had carved there. In this parish, there were only a handful of names, but none of the stones bore the appellation Windrush. The masters of Wychwood Manor boasted a seperate crypt, and it was to this that the mourners made their slow way.

“Windrush” The name erupted from the marble slab that surmounted the pillars at the entrance. The letters were bold, uncompromising, and when the iron gates between the pillars opened, lamplight highlighted seven steps leading downward into chilling darkness. Unhesitating, Jack moved on, unheeding of the weight of the coffin that dug into his right shoulder.

Beyond the steps, the ground was stone-flagged, the air chill and damp. The light cast weird shadows, highlighting a host of names. Unconsciously he repeated them to himself:

Colonel William Windrush killed at Malplaquet. Major Adam Windrush died of wounds in Germany. General Adam Windrush died of fever in India. Colonel William Windrush lost at sea.

Nearly every Christian name was William or Adam. Jack wondered as he had often before, why he had been named differently, breaking centuries of tradition. Ever since the Glorious Revolution, the oldest son had always been William, with any succeeding male being Adam, and then George. His name was an anomaly, but his mother had ignored any questions he had asked.

The stone lid was open, the tomb waiting to enclose the latest Windrush to die for the Regiment and in the service of the country. The dark space was friendly somehow, welcoming a Windrush home rather than confining him to eternity. This crypt was where every male Windrush hoped to repose; this was where Jack would end in ten, twenty if he were lucky or maybe even thirty years. With hardly a pause, he helped ease the coffin down as the mourners filed inside, their numbers crowding the crypt, their breathing echoing from the stones, their feet shuffling in soft harmony.

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