Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

It was pointless, of course, to deal in what might have been, yet Sharpe cursed because they had not left the battlefield an hour earlier. He imagined what he could do if he had just a single battery of nine-pounder guns. He could open those squares with shot after shot, and if he had just two good British Battalions he could finish them off! Hogan must have thought the same for he looked gloomily at the three French squares. “We’ll have no guns or infantry till this afternoon. At the earliest!”

“They’ll be long gone by then, sir.”


This rearguard would stay just long enough to hold up the cavalry pursuit while the rest of Marmont’s army stole a march on the British. Without guns or infantry the squares could not be broken. Leroux was safe.

Lossow’s men rested their horses. They were north of the enemy now, on a hillside that gave them a wide view of the countryside. The enemy cavalry were on another hill a half mile to the south, the infantry closer, in the small hidden valley, while to Sharpe’s right stretched the wide valley where the two roads met from the river. The furthest road was the one Leroux had led them on, from Alba de Tormes, and where it passed through the small village it was met by the closest road that came from the fords across the river. The enemy dominated both roads, blocking the pursuit. Leroux was safe.

There was movement on the Alba de Tormes road. British Light Dragoons, three hundred sabres, trotted towards the French, saw them, and stopped. The horses bent their necks and cropped at the grass. They formed a single line, facing the French cavalry, and Sharpe imagined their officers squinting through the rising sun at the outnumbering enemy.

Then, from the north west, from the fords, came more cavalry. Four hundred and fifty men walked their horses into the valley behind the British, and the newcomers looked strange. They wore red jackets, like infantry jackets, and on their heads they wore old fashioned black bicorne hats held on by brass-plated straps. It was like seeing a regiment of infantry Colonels. Each man was armed with the long, straight sword like that at Sharpe’s side. They were Heavy Cavalry, the Heavy Dragoons of the King’s German Legion. They stopped behind the British Light Dragoons, slightly to their left, and Hogan looked from them to the enemy and shook his head. “They can’t do a thing.”

He was right. Cavalry cannot break a well-formed infantry square. It was a rule of war, proved time and again, that as long as the infantry were solidly ranked, their muskets tipped with bayonets, horses will not charge home. Sharpe had stood in squares and watched the cavalry charge, seen the sabres raised and the mouths open, and then the muskets had fired, the horses fell, and the surviving cavalry sheered away down the sides of the square, were blasted by the muskets. The squares could not be broken. Sharpe had seen them broken, but never when they were well formed. He had seen a Battalion attacked as they formed square, seen the enemy penetrate the unclosed gap and slaughter the ranks from the inside, but it would never have happened if the gap had been closed. He had seen a square break itself, when the men panicked and ran, but that was the fault of the infantry themselves. The South Essex had broken once, three years before at Valdelacasa, and then it had been because the survivors of another square had run to them, clawed at the tight ranks, and the French cavalry had ridden in with the fugitives. Yet these French squares, below him, would not break. Each was of four ranks, the front rank kneeling, and each was solid, calm, and ringed with bayonets. Leroux was safe.

Leroux was safe because he had taken shelter with the infantry. The enemy cavalry, facing west on the hillside, were vulnerable to a British pursuit. Their safety lay in their greater numbers, yet Wellington’s men had the greater morale. Sharpe heard the far-away sound of a trumpet, he looked right, and he saw the British Light Dragoons begin their charge. Three hundred men against a thousand, an uphill charge, and Captain Lossow whooped at them with glee.

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