The Battle in the Wood
It was raining. It had been raining all morning, the steady, slow, irritating kind of rain that eventually soaks a man to the skin. A drop ran down to the tip of the general’s impressively long nose, and he flicked it off distractedly and sniffed. His horse shifted beneath him, as discontented as his rider, and the harness clinked softly.
“So we think, Carruthers, we think the Turks are in that wood.” General Craufurd nodded slightly in the direction of the large clump of trees in front of where his army was drawn up, in perfectly ordered misery, waiting for his orders.
Carruthers, his moon-faced chief of staff, knew that he irritated the general, and this made him nervous. Which irritated the general more.
“It’s – ah – that division we were told marched North from Rumelia five days ago sir.”
“It doesn’t look like a bloody division to me, Carruthers,” Craufurd growled. “Scouts can only find a couple of squadrons of Sipahis.”
“The rest are in there sir. I’m almost certain of it.”
“And it’s bloody raining. Ground’s hellish soft.”
“Indeed sir. And wet powder –“
“Yes, yes, misfires. I know. These new-fangled percussion caps are supposed to fix that, damn them.” The general twisted around in the saddle to scan the whole line.
“Infantry in two battle groups, Carruthers, left and right.”
“6 lbers on that hill over there, on our right.”
“Three squadrons of cavalry on the left, two on the right. Howitzers behind the right infantry wing.”
“They might not be in range, Sir.”
“I know that, blast it,” Craufurd growled. “We’ll move them up behind the troops, if we have to.”
“Sir. And the Light foot?”
The general scanned the field again. Nowhere for the light infantry to hide on his side of the ground, and he was damned if he was going to send them into that wood to get butchered by Turkish cavalry while no one could see what was going on.
“We’ll give them screening duty this time. The 6 lber battery.”
“Poor sods deserve a break, what? They got pretty cut up in the last scrap.”
A runner came panting up to where the general and his chief of staff sat on their horses.
“Beg pardon sir – “
Craufurd glanced down at a boy of not more than fourteen, voice still unbroken, in a mud-spattered artillery uniform.
“Yes lad. Captain Williams has sent you to tell me he’s in position?”
“Yessir. ‘E also said sir that ‘e can see quite a few bloomin’ Turks in th’ wood sir. An’ a lot are wivvin range sir.”
Craufurd’s spirits lifted a little at the sight of the impossibly young and eager face in front of him. Something resembling a twinkle crept into his eyes.
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Well, Mr Wells, please proceed back to Captain Williams with all haste and tell him to open fire at once on those ‘blooming’ Turks.”
Wells drew himself up and touched his forelock.
“Right away sir.”
And off he dashed, across the rain-sodden field, oblivious to the wet.
The general called out to a burly red-faced officer supervising the unlimbering of the howitzers.
“Soon as you can, McVinney, send a couple of rounds to the back of those woods. About middle-ish.”
“Roight y’are, surr. Oi don’ quite think we’ll be after reachin’ the back though.” The red-faced Ulsterman scratched his chin reflectively.
“Bit of a stretch?” Craufurd asked.
“Aye surr. Still – we’ll give it a crack. Burton! Number two gun – load percussion, extreme elevation, bearing is that orangey tree about east-sou’-east.”
From the hill to Craufurd’s right a 6lber cracked into action, followed, after a pause, by three more. Distant cries of rage and pain indicated that at least one ball had found its target.
Then the howitzer fired, a deeper, slightly longer sound, and the ground shook so that the general’s horse twitched a little.
The shell arched high in the air, then plunged into the middle of the wood. And did nothing.
“Try a salvo when you’re ready, McVinney. Hopefully at least one of the wretched things will actually go off.”
McVinney ducked his head, then shot a poisonous look at the hapless gun captain. “Is it too much to be askin’, MISTER Burton, that ye set th’ poxy fuses correctly?”
“Sorry sir. I think it’s the rain.”
“Ye think? Y’are not paid to think, you – “
His description of Burton’s ancestry was cut off by a distant low whumph! from the wood, followed by a sound not unlike tearing silk. Twenty yards in front of the infantry on Craufurd’s right, the soil kicked up then erupted. The ground shook again. The front line of infantry flinched involuntarily, and one man cried out as a flying splinter slashed across his thigh.
“Blast! He’s got mortars. Carruthers, order the right wing – “
The howitzers barked back, four reports in quick succession, and the shells exploded in the woods, starting a small fire.
“Order the right wing forward at the double. Advance to within eighty yards of the wood, then hold. Hopefully we’ll draw his infantry out into a scrap.”
Carruthers wheeled his horse and galloped off. Within a few moments, the drummers started and the right wing surged across the field.
“Beg pardon sir.”
“You again Wells.”
The boy blushed, pleased to be recognised and remembered.
“Yessir. Cap’n Williams says the ‘owitzers aren’t hitting nuffing sir. Shot’s falling too short sir.”
“That man has the eyes of a hawk, Wells.”
“Nossir. ‘E’s got his bruvver’s telescope wot used ter be in the navy sir, but is pensioned orf on account of – “
“Jolly good Wells. Cut along.”
“Yessir.” And the cockney imp scampered off, leaving Craufurd chuckling and shaking his head.
“Mr McVinney, I’m afraid we’re going to have move you, with all haste. Up behind our advanced line of infantry, but not too close to them. Don’t want your people hit by those damned –“
Another flurry of mortar rounds crashed into one of the line companies. Yells and cries for help filled the air after the impact. Carruthers came galloping up.
“Casualties in the 22nd foot sir. Three dead, seven wounded.”
“Right. Move them closer to the wood Carruthers. And tell Major Gordon to take his squadrons out wide on the enemy’s left flank, and have a look. If he’s got a clear run at those damned mortars, he is to charge them, and do what further mischief he can without getting trapped in there. Understood?”
“Yes sir. And the left?”
The general looked left, at the rows of soldiers waiting patiently. The rain had stopped, and a thin weak parody of sunlight was filtering through the clouds.
“Well we can’t have them standing there in their wet clothes, can we Carruthers. They’ll catch cold, poor things.”
The general sighed. “Humour, Carruthers. A joke.”
“Oh. Yes sir. Droll, sir.”
“I’ll move the left. You’ve enough to be going on with.”
The general cantered over to the line, and passed his orders on to the company commanders. The drums rattled and the whole left wing began to march forward to the edges of the wood. As he made his way back to his position, Craufurd could hear in the distance a cornet sounding the charge. Clearly, Major Gordon had spotted an opening and was riding hell for leather to exploit it.
“Just come back with some troopers left alive, damn you,” Craufurd muttered under his breath.
The ground heaved again, this time with the near-simultaneous discharge of the eight howitzers. The shells shrieked through the air to crash into the rear of the wood, where, unseen by most, including the general, the bulk of the Turkish soldiers allegedly lurked. And were being, hopefully, decimated by the barrage.
In the distance, the general heard the sharp distinctive crackle of musketry. Then his heart lurched as a scattering of light horse came galloping wildly out of the woods, followed in a slightly more orderly fashion by Gordon’s own heavy dragoons. He filled his lungs to yell, but then saw Carruthers riding across the field to intercept the major, who reigned in and got his men into line.
The eleven light horse continued their mad, panic-stricken rush for safety, and Craufurd knew better than to even try to rally them. In the unlikely event that the men would listen to his voice in their current condition, it was almost certain that their terror-struck mounts would not.
He cast a quick glance at the dragoons. About half of them left. Something had gone terribly wrong in that wood.
Carruthers came panting up.
“Major Gordon reports, sir. He charged the mortar crew under flanking fire from Turkish infantry. He says they’re drawn up just behind the wood, in battle order, but not in line.”
“The Turks still use swordsmen, Carruthers. He’ll have his muskets protecting them until they’re needed.”
“Oh. Right sir. Well, they dealt to both units of mortars sir, and were planning on doing the same to some eighteen pounders Johnny Turk’s got back there, when they were charged in the wood by two companies of Sipahis, and the enemy had the numbers. Major Gordon ordered the retreat , but by then the Light Horse were – well, he said sir - “
“Gone for all the money. Yes. Heard it before.”
“Actually he said they were something else for all the money which I do not care to repeat sir.”
“Right. Have you passed the information on to McVinney?”
“Yes sir, he’s redirecting his fire now sir.”
As if in confirmation the howitzers rolled out an impressive salvo, and Craufurd saw the orange flashes of the shell bursts above the trees. Then he heard the unmistakeable sound of a volley of Brown Bess muskets.
“They appear to be advancing on our right, Carruthers, which is excellent. Order the cavalry major on the left, whose name I always forget – “
“Of course. Order Jones to send his men in to clear out the Turk’s cannons and mop up any retreating infantry he can find. Then order Simpson and his boys on the left to pivot on their rightmost unit and swing into the woods in line like a closing door. Then we’ll have him in a crossfire.”
“At once sir.”
A lone dragoon galloped up to the general.
“Casualty report sir. The 22nd foot’s down to 50 percent. The Turks are massing their attack on them.”
Craufurd’s gut tightened. If the Turks broke through the line there, they could do great harm to the howitzers and flank the left wing.
“General’s guard, forward. Follow me.”
He rode towards the melee, first at a canter, then as he saw the tiny remnant of the 22nd foot break and run, at a gallop.
“THE 22ND! STAND YOUR GROUND! STAND YOUR GROUND, DAMN YOU!”
It was Craufurd’s secret weapon, and very few had ever heard him use it. He had the lungs of a Billingsgate fishwife, and his voice carried across the din of battle like the last trumpet itself.
The fleeing soldiers stopped in their tracks.
‘REFORM! REFORM! TWO LINES! FACE THE ENEMY!”
Then Craufurd noticed just how few of them there were. Less than forty remained. He raised his head to shout again, but stopped. There was a huge gap in the line where the 22nd had been, and an even huger pile of bodies in the gap, and into the gap, with deadly, almost clinical precision , Captain William’s eight 6 lbers were pouring shot after shot.
Even so, a few Turkish swordsmen made a wild and fatal demonstration out into the field, towards the howitzers.
Rallying the 22nd had lit a fire in Craufurd which was now roaring out of control. He wrenched his sword from its scabbard, waved it above his head like a dervish, and yelled for all the world to hear:
The eighteen horsemen thundered across the turf, clods flying from the horses’ hooves, and crashed into the small force of swordsmen. Craufurd slashed down once with his sword, making contact with something or someone, he knew not what, then turned, instinctively parried and stabbed. A Turk groaned and fell under his horse, and he looked around wildly for another target, but there were none.
Behind him, the 22nd foot were running back into the line, cheering. The whole right wing was cheering, and pushing into the wood. Craufurd was just about to yell an order to halt when something tugged at his trouser leg. He whirled in the saddle, sword still in hand, but saw only the hugely delighted face of young Wells, his cap gone, straw-coloured hair all awry, uniform covered in soot and mud.
“Captain Williams says, sir that the bast – that the Turks are running sir, and requests permission to cease firing as they’re out of range.”
“Tell Captain Williams he has my permission, Wells, and also tell him well done.”
The general rode forward into the wood. It was a frightful mess of broken trees and dead bodies, and had it not been for the morning’s rain, the battle would have turned it into a raging inferno. Wood smoke and death mingled with the smells of freshly-turned earth and leaf-mulch.
Carruthers found him on the other side of the wood, staring grimly at the carnage.
Craufurd looked at his moon-faced chief of staff. The man was beyond tired. His eyes were shattered by what he’d seen, and he’d clearly been in some of the fighting himself, for his uniform was slashed across his chest and blood seeped from a surface wound on his jaw.
“Casualty report sir. 231 dead, sir, and 202 wounded. Two line companies were badly hit, and one Cavalry squad’s more or less gone.”
Craufurd closed his eyes and shuddered. He took a deep breath.
“Too high, Carruthers, too high.”
“Sir the enemy is estimated to have had at least a hundred more men than us, and better artillery, in theory.”
Craufurd smiled wryly.
“Thanks. You’re wounded?”
“A scratch from a Sipahi lance sir. And he messed up my field uniform but no real damage done.”
“At least thirteen hundred sir.”
The general sighed, shook his head again, pulled himself together, and rode back across the field. They had done what they were told to do, and none could reproach them for it. The newly-liberated city of Sarajevo had been saved from a Turkish assault. There would be medals and promotions, and later reminiscences in more comfortable surroundings. But for now, an eerie quiet had settled over the recently-jubilant troops. Many had lost friends, and all felt the heavy pall that hung over this innocent-seeming corner of the land. They had killed, and very few could rejoice in that. The bodies on the ground, friend and foe, shared the innocence of the dead. It was the living who felt corrupted.
“Carruthers, order a double ration of spirits to everyone.”