Windrush - Crimea
Inkerman Ridge, November 5th, 1854
Captain Dearden was dead; his mouth open in a soundless scream to protest at the agony of the Russian bayonet which protruded obscenely from his belly. Corporal O'Hara lay across Dearden’s body, writhing as he stared at the gaping holes in his chest and the blood that pumped from the ragged stump of his left arm. Beside him, Aitken crouched, choking on the blood that filled his mouth and ran in dark rivulets down his chin and chest. Half a score Russian infantrymen lay among them, shot or bayoneted, unheeded in death as the world had neglected them in life.
'Get the bodies,' Jack ordered. 'Pile them up into the breastwork.'
The men stared at him. Their eyes were dazed, their mouths slack with shock, but they did as he ordered, adding the corpses of friends and enemies to the low barricade of sandbags which was their only protection against the dropping musket balls and murderous round shot.
'Here they come again.' Coleman gripped the blood-sticky stock of his Minié rifle and staggered to his feet. The once-proud scarlet of his tunic was torn and shredded, his face powder stained, gaunt and unshaven. Blood congealed on the ragged hole in his trousers just above the left knee.
'Hot as hell and thick as thieves.' Thorpe spat blood on his hands and ran a grimy thumb over the length of his bayonet. 'Just listen to them.'
Jack peered through the shredded mist and rain. Across the ridge, the Russians were not yet visible, but they were vocal enough, chanting that same, deep-throated battle hymn with which they had advanced so often before. Was it three times or four? It might even be five; he couldn’t be sure, but he knew that each time they recoiled they left the small detachment of British weaker and fewer in numbers.
'Ammunition? Has anybody got any spare ammunition?'
Jack already knew the answer. They had used up all their own in repelling the Russian attacks and had robbed their dead comrades of what they had. He checked the ammunition pouch he’d lifted from the dead body of Brodie. 'I have three balls left.'
Thorpe spat again. 'That's one more than any man needs.'
There was no response to the attempted humour. Coleman poked his head beyond the breastwork and shuddered. 'Jesus, there's still thousands of them.'
Jack joined him. Coleman was right. A chance slant of wind blew a gap in the mist, revealing the full strength of the Russians. They seemed to stretch right across the ridge, an unbroken wall of flapping grey coats and wickedly long bayonets advancing slowly and steadily through the stunted, tangled oak trees of the Inkerman Ridge.
'I thought somebody said the Russians could never face British bayonets.' Logan curled disproportionately large hands around the stock of his Minié.
'Aye, but nobody told them that.' Thorpe tilted the barrel of his rifle, looked down the fouled bore and dropped in his last bullet. Once that was fired, he had only his bayonet and as much courage as remained after the long, long day of horror and death.
'Are we so important?' Raeburn raised his voice. 'Are we so important that they must throw the entire Russian army at us?' He looked around; his eyes red-rimmed with fatigue and wide with fear. 'There's only a few of us left!' At that moment he looked all of his seventeen years, a boy in a man's world, a child near to the brink of tears.
'It's not us that's important,' Jack told him. 'It's the position. If they take this redoubt and the battery, they have the lynchpin of the whole British line. We must hold.'
'Listen to him!' Thorpe mocked. 'If they take this redoubt! There's not even a gun left in the bloody thing! And who do you think you are, anyway? Bloody Wellington? Not Lord Raglan anyway: you haven't the stupidity!'
'I'm your officer!' Jack reminded. But he knew that hardly mattered just now. They were about to die beneath a torrent of Russian bayonets. He was the only surviving officer within this company of malcontents, an interloper in a closed society of men who had been fighting merely to exist since the day the world had cursed them with birth. He no more belonged here than he belonged anywhere else, but now it seemed that he would die beside these hard-faced, bitter-eyed men whom he would have despised in another place, another world.
The singing increased, accompanied by the rhythmic drumbeat of boots on the ground and the sinister swishing of the long grey coats.
'Up we go men!'
There was a weary sigh, a long drawn out curse and the half-hidden sound of somebody praying, but the red-coated soldiers rose from the slight sanctuary of their corpse-and-sandbag barricade and looked outward toward the advancing enemy.
The Russians were close enough so that Jack could make out details of their flat, expressionless faces as they marched forward. They had advanced before, and the company had sent them reeling back – as the tangled bodies on the ground proved – but this time there were many more of them and correspondingly fewer of the regiment to fight. He looked around the thinned ranks. They had started with nearly five hundred men, but now there were less than thirty fit to fight. They had probably a hundred rounds in total, and there must be two thousand Russians closing on them.
'They're brave men.' The Bishop gave a calm opinion. He sighted along the barrel of his rifle. 'Thank God for the grace of the Minié though. These beauties can kill two or three men at once.'
When God granted us that, I would have liked him to grant us another thousand men as well. We're the 113th, the worst regiment in the British Army. A regimental disgrace, that's what we are.' Thorpe gave a twisted grin.
'So why fight for that?' Coleman jerked a stubby thumb toward the flag that drooped from its staff.
Jack looked over his shoulder. He’d nearly forgotten than Colonel Maxwell had thrust in the flagpole a few hours and a lifetime before, but now it was there, flapping above them with the multi-crossed flag of Union, the symbol of British pride and fortitude and hope in the canton with that alien number embroidered in black across the buff field.
'If we're such a bloody disgrace, why fight for that regimental flag?'
'Drag the bloody thing down!' Logan agreed. 'It's nothing to do with us anyway!'
'What?' Jack stared as his youthful ideas of honour and patriotism surfaced once more. 'It's got the British flag on it!'
'The British flag!' Riley mocked. 'Would that be the same Britain that rejected you and me?'
Fletcher leaned against the sandbags and said nothing. He had no education, but he was as sharp and perceptive as any university-trained solicitor. His deep eyes switched from Jack to Riley and back.
'Yes. Take the flag down boys!'
Jack reached for the flap of his holster, remembered his revolver was empty and raised his voice. 'We will not surrender; the Russians are coming!'
The bayonet was cold against his throat as he stared into the slum-bitter eyes of Logan and heard that harsh gutter voice grate in his ear.
'You keep your neb out of this, Lieutenant. That's not our flag, and we're not fighting for it.' Logan's grin was entirely without humour or mercy as the ragged privates lowered the flag. Jack heard the roar of triumph from the advancing Russians and despair chilled him. Major Snodgrass had been correct all along. The 113th did not have the stomach for a fight; when things got tough, they ran or surrendered. Now the Russians would take the centre of the British line and roll up both flanks. His weakness had lost the battle.
Malta, March 1854
They stood on the parade ground of Fort Saint Manoel with the darkness of pre-dawn slowly fading and an unnatural hush over the assembled men. Jack tried to ignore the sweat which already beaded on his eyebrows and hung irritatingly on the tip of his nose. He gripped the Gothic hilt of the 1845 pattern Wilkinson's sword that hung at his waist and blew away a fly that hovered over his face, wishing he were anywhere but within this star-shaped fort on Manoel Island. If Jack swivelled his eyes slightly to the left he could peer through the dark to the entrance to Marsamxett Harbour and the anchorage of Sliema Creek, busy with a score of vessels, their Mediterranean rigs now familiar and their hulls sleek on the placid blue water. If he looked right and ignored the harsh limestone of the walls, he could nearly see the towers and churches of Valetta, capital of this sun-tortured island.
It didn’t matter in which direction he looked, just so long as he didn’t face his front and see the terrible spectacle that was about to occur. All his life he had dreamed of joining the army and performing deeds of valour; he’d grown up with tales of bravery and heroism and had accepted that death and hardship were part of a soldier's life. He had seen something of the reality in the humid forests and broad rivers of Burma, and today he was about to see another military casualty. Rather than a splendid death leading a heroic charge against an enemy position, Private Scattergood of the 113th Foot was to be publicly executed, hanged by the neck until he was dead, for stabbing a sergeant in the back.
Fifteen yards to his right, Major General Sir John Reading sat erect on his brown horse, seemingly unaffected by the spectacle he had ordered. The tail of the horse twitched in a vain attempt to relieve the animal of the tormenting flies.
Jack tried to take his mind elsewhere; anywhere apart from standing here watching the execution of a private soldier. He drifted back to his home in England and relived again the terrible moment when he learned which regiment he was to join. He was Jack Windrush, once of Wychwood Manor in Herefordshire, now a lieutenant in the 113th – the Baby Butchers – the least considered regiment in the entire army. Even after three years, he found it hard to believe his fortunes had sunk so low. He had left his home with the ill-will of his step family following close behind and marched quickly to an inn. It was the work of a second to find a seat, break the simple seal and unfold the parchment.
At sixteen inches by ten inches, the document was much smaller than he’d expected, and when he read the contents, he felt the sick slide of despair. Skipping over the leading paragraph that stated that the Commander in Chief of the Army reposed special trust and confidence in his loyalty, he came to the 'do by these presents constitute and appoint you John Windrush to take rank and post as ensign in the 113th Regiment of Foot.'
He had stared at the fateful number and swore quietly to himself.
113th Foot. Oh, good God in heaven.
The 113th Foot was the regiment nobody wanted to join. There had been other regiments which bore the same number, but they had been excellent, honourable units; this latest incarnation was certainly not. Born in the civil disobedience after Waterloo, its infancy had been marred by disgrace when it quelled a riot by musket butt, boot and the bayonet, with women and children being among the victims. Since then, no commander had wanted the 113th under his command, and only the dregs of the recruits slouched into the ranks.
Sick to the core, yet with no other option, Jack clutched his commission and some of the gold sovereigns his stepmother had reluctantly deposited in his bank and sailed to join the regiment in the East.
Jack thought of his first and so far, only campaign. He’d been present with the Army at the conquest of Rangoon, where more men died through disease than from Burmese bullets, but after that, the real war had started. He remembered the heat and humidity of the jungle, the whine of the mosquitoes and the sun burning off the early morning mist of the river. He remembered the wiry, brave Burmese infantry and their ability to melt into the green foliage of the forest. Most of all he remembered the smiling face of Myat, the Burmese woman and the manner in which his small band of men had transformed from a disparate rabble to veteran soldiers.
Now he stood in the square, waiting for the execution of a private soldier driven half-crazy by heat and boredom. There were no birds in the bright bowl of the sky, nothing but the unrelenting sun and a host of mosquitoes attracted by the sweat of hundreds of scarlet-coated men. Every regiment that waited impatiently for embarkation orders for the East had been ordered to supply a quota of men to witness the execution of a murderer and the further degradation of the 113th Foot.
Somebody coughed behind him, the sound harsh in the hush, but a vicious whisper from a sergeant reprimanded the man into quiet. As the dawn rose, blood red and shockingly swift, the execution party of the 113th marched slowly forward, bearing Private Scattergood between them. There was no drumbeat, no music, nothing to announce the end of a young man's life, save the curious stares of his assembled comrades and the solitary scream of a circling gull. A priest followed, the expression on his face showing his disapproval.
Major General Reading gave a small, nearly imperceptible signal and the Provost Sergeant stepped slowly forward. Scattergood, stripped to shirt and trousers and with his hands pinioned behind his back was close behind him, face sweating, eyes darting from side to side as he sought hope or mercy. There was none.