Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Marmont did not know what was happening. He had been taken away, treated by the surgeons, and his second in command was wounded, and a third man, General Clausel, took over the army. He could see what was happening and he had not lost the will to fight. He was still a young man and he had been a soldier for half his life and he did not intend to lose this battle. His left was gone, surprised and broken, and the centre was threatened, but he was playing his own game. He had been taught to fight by a master, Napoleon himself, and Clausel was content to let the centre fight while he collected his reserves, massed them, and drew them up behind the shelter of the Greater Arapile. He commanded a massive force, thousands of bayonets, and he held them back, waiting for the moment when he would release them like a huge counterpunch that would be aimed at the very centre of Wellington’s army. The battle was not yet lost, either side could win it.

The Portuguese climbed the steep slope of the Greater Arapile and Clausel watched them and timed his counterattack so that they would be the first to suffer. The signal went. The crest of the hill was lined with infantry, the muskets could not miss at a few paces, and the Portuguese, helpless in the face of the last precipitous feet, were tumbled backwards. No bravery could compensate for those last sheer feet. The Portuguese were blasted away by the French muskets, and even their defeat would not have mattered if the Fourth Division had been able to attack past the hill and surround it, for then the French on the Greater Arapile would have fled.

The Fourth Division did not get past the hill. From behind it, coming out to Sharpe’s right, the counter-attack rose from the small patch of dead ground next to the hill’s western end. The French columns came forward. Twelve thousand men, their Eagles aloft, their blades as thick as the wheat they trampled flat, and Sharpe heard, through the guns, the drums of the French beating the pas-de-charge. This was war as France had taught the world war. This was the mass attack, the irresistible force, driven by blurred drumsticks, the collection of men turned into a great human battering ram that would be marched against the enemy to smash through the enemy’s centre and make a hole through which the cavalry would pour and tear at the flanks.

The British line, two deep, could usually stop the column. Sharpe had seen it happen a dozen times and there was a cold mathematical logic to the process. A column was a great filled rectangle of men and only the men on its outer edges could use their muskets. Each man in the British line could fire and, even though the column had more men than the line, the line would always win the firefight. The frightening thing about the column was its size, and that scared unsteady troops, overawed them, but it was vulnerable to good troops. The column took the punishment, as Sharpe had seen other columns take punishment, and again he was amazed by the French soldiers who stayed so steady under horrific bombardment. Cannon balls struck the columns and successive ranks soaked up the balls’ passages, and shrapnel cracked over their heads, yet still the column moved. The drums never stopped.

This was the might of France, the pride of France, the tactic of the world’s first conscript army, and this column, Clausel’s counter-attack, ignored cold mathematical logic. It was not defeated by the line.

It pushed the Fourth Division back. The British had fired their clockwork volleys, the muskets flashing rhythmically through the smoke cloud, and Sharpe had seen the Light Companies go back to their Battalions, form line, and join in the musket fight. The Fourth Division was awed by the column. Perhaps the British had seen too much blood at Badajoz, had thought that any man who lived through that ditch had no right to die on a summer’s field, and they took a step back before reloading, and the step became two, and the columns still came on and the officers shouted, the Sergeants tried to dress the ranks, but the lines went backwards.

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