Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The cavalry were charging.


A cavalry charge begins slowly. The horses walk. The troopers have time to see the advertisement engraved on their sabres, “Warranted Never to Fail“, and feel the fear that the same guarantee does not apply to men.

Dust showed behind the walking horses. It drifted across the lush valley. The shadow of the Light Dragoons was long behind them, the sabres were upright, curved, slashing light from the rising sun. The valley was quiet, the enemy still.

A second trumpet. The horses went into the trot and still the men were knee to knee. The triangular banners, guidons, were high above the line of blue and silver uniforms. The faint drumming of hooves came to the hilltop where Sharpe watched. The French cavalry did not move.

Lossow wanted to take his men into the valley to join the charge, but Major Hogan shook his head. “We must watch Leroux. He might make a run for it.” He knew it was unlikely. Leroux was in the safest place; in a square’s centre.

Harsh voices came thin from the valley; orders. Sharpe looked right and saw four hundred and fifty heavy, clumsy swords drawn into the light. The German Heavy Dragoons were in six squadrons, three ahead, three behind, and each squadron was in two ranks. The ranks were forty yards apart so that, should they charge, the second line would have plenty of space to swerve or jump over the dead of the first. The Germans were behind and to the left of the British Light Dragoons who trotted towards the enemy cavalry on the hill.

A trumpet sounded, much closer, and Lossow’s horses moved impatiently. The German squadrons were advancing at the walk and Sharpe frowned. He looked to his left. “They can’t see them!”

“What?” Hogan looked at Sharpe.

“The infantry!” Sharpe pointed. “They can’t bloody see them!” It was true. The French squares were shadowed in the small valley, hidden by a spur of hillside, and the German Heavy Cavalry were unaware qf their presence. The Germans were riding towards ambush. Their line of charge against the French cavalry would take them past the small valley, inside musket range, and the first they would know of the presence of French infantry would be the flaming muskets.

Hogan swore. They were too far from the KGL squadrons to give them warning, they could only watch as the cavalrymen walked towards disaster.

The British Light Dragoons were ahead, trotting towards the hill, and their advance was well beyond the infantry’s range. Sharpe drew his sword. “We can’t just sit here!”

Hogan knew they could not warn the Heavy Cavalry, but to do nothing was worse than making a hopeless attempt. He shrugged. “Go.”

Lossow’s trumpeter blew the full charge, no time now for a decorous walk that would gradually speed up into the full gallop, and Lossow’s men threw themselves into a reckless downhill gallop. If their Heavy comrades just saw them, if they just wondered why they came so fast and waved so frantically, then they might avert disaster. But the six squadrons of the Heavy German Cavalry went on stolidly, the trumpet sounded and they went into the trot, and Sharpe knew they were too late.

Another trumpet sounded, far ahead, and the British Light Dragoons went into the canter. They would stay at the canter until the final few yards when they would be released into the full gallop. A cavalry charge works best when all the horses arrive at once; a solid, moving wall of men, horses and steel. The British reached the bottom of the hill, began to climb it, and still the French did not move.

The German Heavy Cavalry still trotted, still ignorant of the ambush that waited fifty yards ahead. Some of the faces beneath their strange black bicornes looked curiously at Lossow’s men. Sharpe was lurching in his saddle, praying that he would not fall, and the sword was in his right hand and he wished that there were no squares, that he could face Leroux in open battle, but Leroux was safe.

The British trumpet released the Light Dragoons. It threw them forward, shouting, in the final gallop that put the weight of a charging horse behind the sabre. They were outnumbered, they charged uphill, yet they urged their horses on. The French, at last, moved.

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