Not a sound disturbed the riflemen's position; the only noise was the sound of an army advancing. The burbling, jangling, clanking, whinnying of a large body of men and horses marching and as the minutes ticked by so the volume increased. A cough disturbed the silence. Bullwood did not even bother to look around. "The next man to even breath loudly will have me to answer to!" He whispered urgently although in such a way that every man present could hear and understand the meaning. "Sorry Sarge" came the sheepish reply. Bullwood did not bother to answer - his full attention was on the advancing enemy, now some two hundred yards away and with a thick skirmish line ahead. "Take aim lads, go for the officers first and wait for my signal". Bullwood shouldered his Baker Rifle and aimed at the central figure brandishing a sword with animated vigour. He tucked the weapon in as tight as he was able and stilled his breathing until his world shrunk to the size of the French officer's chest. It was almost time, and almost the perfect range.
The object of Sergeant Bullwood's careful and meticulous aim was Captain Leo D'Estrees, a career soldier from Gascony and despite his superiority in rank to his as yet unseen adversary could tell a similar story, they being of an identical age. D'Estrees had fought his way across Europe for his Emperor and had proven his valour on countless battlefields from the high sierra of Spain to the snow covered steppes of Russia. He was of humble origins but the army and the Emperor had given him a prestige and status he would never have enjoyed otherwise. His heart was filled with devotion to the little Corsican that had given his life purpose and meaning as here was the epitome of his definition of glory; being the first man of the first formation to first face the enemy in the name of his Emperor and of France. His company was advancing in a loose line with the lumbering heavy columns of infantry to the rear and just cleared a small copse of trees, the first of three en route to the village of Artois. The second one they were approaching was far larger and so caution would be needed. D'Estrees urged his command onwards and so he raised his sword on high and shouted in almost giddy adulation at the top of his voice "Vive L'Empereur!" With a ragged cheer his men took up the shout and soon the whole formation was bellowing at the top of their lungs - the French were coming, so beware!
A bullet from the first volley had caught D'Estrees on the left forearm and had spun him right around and down on the ground. That had probably saved his life as he lay face down across his badly bleeding arm - the blood spreading across his chest and face as he lay. All the while bullets buzzed like wasps over his head. He rolled over to see his faithful servant, Lazard, trying in vain to find some kind of bandage for his master's obviously serious wound. The Captain was momentarily stunned by the impact of his glancing blow but not so his men as they speedily took what cover they could, seemingly oblivious to the plight of their wounded and dead comrades. Shaking his head to clear it D'Estrees quickly realised his would was a superficial one that looked a whole lot worse than it was and so Lazard was swiftly able to bandage his arm. Ordering his servant to the rear D'Estrees readied himself. Gripping his sword tightly he leapt to his feet, just after another discharge from his unseen enemy. "En avances mes ami! Vive L'Empeurer!" He shouted and the remaining men of the light company took up his cry and charged towards the source of the fire. As he stood up, dreadful to behold; his uniform torn and bloodied and death in his eyes he continued to exhort his men to greater efforts. First one, then two bullets found their mark. He sank to his knees, his sword still head high and still cheering his men in a voice that grew weaker and weaker until his sword fell from his grasp and D'Estrees fell face forward into the earth and blessed oblivion.
Meanwhile, De La Salle had taken the situation in with a glance and so ordered his lead infantry to deploy into line to clear the wood in support of his gallant but hard pressed light company. The rest of his force would move up at best speed and he also ordered one of two cavalry regiments to bypass the wood and to position themselves to cut off the escape route for the defenders. It would be like prising open an oyster. Eager to comply, the cuirassier regiment under the command of the mercurial Colonel Lavelle, cantered off into the distance, careful to give the wood a wide berth.
Hyde-Bowned had heard the furious fusillade from the woods and although he could yet see what was approaching had determined that the gallant rifleman would be supported in their fight. Keeping the fight at a distance would waste valuable time for the enemy. He acted quickly. Firstly, he sent a messenger to the Duke informing him that contact had been made but as yet in unknown strength. Through his field telescope he was able to discern enemy horseman positioning themselves to cut off any retreat from the wood so, he correctly deduced, the enemy must be making a concerted effort to first clear the wood before assaulting the village. He pondered this for a moment, the crack of rifle fire carrying over from the wood. A young officer on horseback was at his side, no more than a boy but very smartly attired. " You sir", he pointed at the serious looking young man and beckoned him over. "Take this message to Colonel Wittman of the Light Dragoons with my compliments. Tell him to make sure his tigers are ready and to move forward to cover the wood to their front - there are enemy horse making a nuisance of themselves. Tell him not to engage them unless the enemy act first." There was little else he could do as he had no idea what was facing him as most of the enemy was hidden from view. With a crisp salute, the young officer spun his horse around and galloped away on his urgent errand. With the orders posted, Hyde-Bowned and the remainder of his small staff turned their attention back to the embattled riflemen.
The fight for the wood continued and thus far the rifles were holding their own despite being outnumbered by their opponents. Every time the French skirmishers approached so a withering fire was directed at them forcing them back into cover. With their gallant commander wounded and heading for the rear their efforts lacked direction but what clear leadership could not solve sheer courage and bravery might yet prevail. Remorselessly they closed on the rifles position, disputing every fold in the ground, every piece of cover, no matter how small. Meanwhile though, De La Salle's assaulting infantry units had just about moved into position with the intention of forcing the issue once and for all.
Sergeant Bullwood was getting concerned although he would not show it. He and the company commander, Captain Partridge, had seen the enemy cavalry moving across their rear and both knew that if they had to fall back nothing short of a miracle would save them from the horsemen. They had to stay where they were and although thus far they were fairly secure the impending infantry assault was a different matter altogether. It looked a bleak proposition which ever way you looked at it and so Bullwood bitterly recalled the words of his captain about Johnny Crapaud not being anybodies fool.
The French Cuirassiers had cantered off the road, past the small copse and out on to the open land to the east of the village; thereby giving the enemy occupied wood a very wide berth. Colonel Lavelle, the regimental commander, signalled a halt and was satisfied that his position was far enough way to be out of range (it wasn't but his mistake could be forgiven as he had never faced Baker rifles before) of the wood to be quite safe. He was proud of his regiment and proud of the role they had been chosen to play and like D'Estrees was devoted to the Emperor and his service. He was a thoroughly professional soldier and had never been in a losing battle and to crown his career with an act of brilliance under the eyes of his beloved Emperor would surely see him posted to the Guard. His visions of glory were interrupted as his adjutant drew his attention to the scene some quarter of a mile ahead. Enemy cavalry!
Horseman - emerging from what looked like the far end of the village and directly to his regiment's front across some gently undulating farmland. This was exactly what his orders had covered - the threat implicit and so the colonel acted in an instant. Ignoring the reasoned comment of his second in command that by merely holding their position they would deter the enemy from advancing and that they enemy was too close to the village of Artois Colonel Lavelle gave the order to advance. The sabres sang as one as they were drawn and rested across shoulders; their wickedly sharp blades glinting in the morning sunlight. The colonel took his place in the van of the regiment. The shout went up and so the solid phalanx of armoured horsemen moved off, gradually at first but all the while speeding up and eating up the distance to their adversaries.
Wittman of the light dragoons cursed as the spectacle unfolded with awful inevitability - his unit would barely have time to form up, let alone attempt to counter charge. He was also aware of the grave disadvantage his men would face against such armoured giants. He urged and cajoled his men into formation and hastily ordered the charge. It was not a moment too soon as the great mass of armoured horseman crashed into them. Swords rose and fell, screams and curses cried out, horses snorted and neighed and the whole area became a mass of swirling cavalrymen; all order and formation seemingly abandoned. Wittman's men lived up to their reputation and fought like tigers, and fought for their lives.
The French commander had been too eager to cross swords with the enemy and the approach was longer than he anticipated and so instead of a sold wall of cavalrymen impacting the enemy as one the collision was dissipated somewhat. It was not a disorganised charge by any means but it had overrun its ideal distance and so had diluted the effect. It had also proved to be the salvation of the horsemen of the light dragoons. Although Wittman's regiment had barely began to move off when contacted they were ordered and formed, and above all, fresh, and so with a ruthless efficiency they made this small advantage count. Slowly, but with certainty, the French were losing, victims of their own eagerness to force a conclusion. This wholly unexpected turn of events had just occurred to the French commander just as he had seen off a young enemy trooper with a vicious sideways sweep of his huge sword. He caught sight of the remainder of his command being inexorably forced back by the fresher enemy and so made his fateful decision. He was no fool and knew that he needed to act quickly in order to salvage the situation and so he ordered his trumpeter to sound the recall.
The strident bugle rang out and the furious melee seemed to peter out as, in ones, twos and then larger groups the battered cuirassiers fell back to reform and reorganise; their dead and wounded bearing testimony to the fury of their recent battle.
As the enemy was equally disorganised Lavelle reasoned that he would gain a breathing space by temporarily falling back and could yet salvage the situation. It was not to be and fortune decreed otherwise as the light dragoons, abandoning any pretence at tactics and order simply spurred on their battle- frenzied mounts and caught the cuirassiers in the act of reforming. It was more than man and horseflesh could bear and after a minimal and largely ineffective resistance the French simply broke. In vain did Lavelle try to make a stand and to rally his battered troopers. Sensing that the end was near he turned his horse to escape but Dame Fortune had decreed otherwise and so the two young troopers of the light dragoons took him from either flank and without ceremony, ran him through.
To be continued....