Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The balls hammered past him. “Load!” He watched them, daring them to move. The Riflemen were now in a small group at the open end of the line and he looked at them. “Kill their officers. Fire in your own time.” He looked back at the men. “We stay here. Aim at the corner of the column.” He suddenly grinned at them. “Nice to be back.” He turned round, his back to the Company, and now all he could do was stand, to be still, to deny this tiny patch of grassland to the French. He stood with his legs apart, the sword resting on the ground, and the great column was shouting and drumming its way towards them.

The small volleys of the South Essex battered the column’s nearest corner, threw men down so that the ranks behind edged right to avoid the bodies, and still the Company volleys came from the South Essex and the Frenchmen, who had been raked with shrapnel and canister, lanced with roundshot, angled their march so they would go past the single Battalion. The breakwater was holding. The French fired at them as they marched, but it was hard to load a musket and keep walking, harder still to aim in the rhythm of the march, and the column did not win by firepower. It was designed to win by sheer weight, by fear, by glory. The drums hypnotised the valley and drove the Frenchmen on and they passed just fifty yards in front of Sharpe. He watched the packed ranks, saw their mouths open rhythmically when the drums paused and the great shout went up, Vive 1’Empereur!“ Another volley pitted the corner, more men fell, and then an officer tried to drag a group of men out of the column to fire at the Light Company and Daniel Hagman put a bullet through the Frenchman’s throat. Sharpe watched the enemy infantry strip the dead officer as they marched past, successive ranks bending down to go through the officer’s pockets and pouches, and still the drums bore them on and the shout filled the valley, and Sharpe wondered where the Sixth Division were and what was happening on the rest of the field.

He watched the enemy soldiers, so close, and except that they liked moustaches, they looked little different to his own men. Sometimes a Frenchman would catch Sharpe’s eye and there was a curious moment of recognition as though the enemy face was that of an old half-remembered comrade. He saw the mouths open again. “Vive 1’Empereur!” One man caught Sharpe’s eye as he chanted the words, shrugged and Sharpe could not help grinning back. It was ridiculous.

“Fire!” Lieutenant Price’s voice shouted. The Company pulled their triggers and the column jerked spasmodically away from the balls. Sharpe was glad to see the man who had shrugged at him was still alive. He turned round. “Stop firing!”

There was no point in firing now. They might kill a few men on the column’s flanks, but their job had been to push the ponderous column a few yards to its right, and they had done it. They could save their loaded muskets for the column’s retreat, if it did retreat, and Sharpe nodded to Price. “The Company can retire, Lieutenant, as far as the hill.”

The rear of the column was marching past now and Sharpe saw the wounded limping behind, trying to catch up with their comrades, and some of them fell to add to the droppings of the great attack. He looked south, into the smoke, and he could see no cavalry yet, no guns, but they could come. He turned and walked towards his Company and the men grinned at him, called out to him, and he was ashamed because he had feared that one might aim for him. He nodded to them. “How are you?”

They pounded his back, shouted at him, and they all seemed to have inane grins on their faces as though they had won a great victory. He pushed through them, noticing how foul was their breath after his month away from troops, but it was good to be back. Lieutenant Price saluted. “Welcome back, sir.”

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