Sharpe’s muskets were firing fast now and his men were going forward, paces at a time, and the enemy were going backwards. The field gun opposite the South Essex had slowed down and Sharpe smiled because he had nothing to do. His men were fighting as he expected them to fight, using their intelligence, pushing the enemy back, and Sharpe looked behind to see where the main Battalion was.
The South Essex were fifty yards behind, coming steadily forward, and on their muskets were bayonets, bright in the sun, and behind them, on the ridge slope, were the bodies broken by the cannon.
“Rifles! Go for the main line! Kill the officers!”
Make widows on this field! Kill the officers, crumble the enemy morale, and Sharpe saw Hagman aim, fire, and the other Riflemen followed. Lieutenant Price was directing the musket fire, keeping the enemy skirmishers pinned back and releasing the Rifles to fire above their heads. Sharpe felt a surge of pride in his men. They were good, so good, and they were showing the spectators just how a Light Company should fight. He laughed aloud.
They were at the foot of the slope now, the enemy Light troops driven back towards their own line, and in a few seconds the South Essex would catch up with their Light Company. They had a hundred yards to go into the attack.
Sharpe pulled his whistle from its holster, waited a few seconds, then blasted out the signal to form company. He heard the Sergeants repeat the signal, watched his men come running towards him for now their skirmishing task was done. Now they would form up on the left of the attacking line and go in like the other Companies. The men sprinted towards him, tugging out bayonets, and he clapped them on the shoulders, said they had done well. Then the Company was formed, marching, and they were climbing the knoll over the blood of their enemies.
The field gun had stopped firing. The smoke was drifting clear.
Sharpe walked in front of his men. The great sword scraped on the scabbard throat as it came clear.
The French line levelled their muskets.
Boots swished through the grass. It was hot. The powder smoke stung men’s nostrils.
“For what we’re about to receive,” a voice said.
“Quiet in the ranks! Close up!”
“Keep your dressing, Mellors! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get in line, you useless bastard!”
Boots in the grass, the French line seeming to take a quarter turn to the right as the muskets go back into the shoulders. The muzzles, even at eighty yards, look huge.
“Get your bayonet up, Smith! You’re not ploughing the bloody field!”
Sharpe listened to the Sergeants.
“Steady, lads, steady!”
The French officers had their swords raised. The cannon smoke had cleared now and Sharpe could see that the field gun had gone. It had been taken back, away from the infantry.
“Take it like men, lads!”
Seventy yards and the French swords swept down and Sharpe knew they had fired too soon. The smoke rippled from the hundreds of muskets, the sound was like the falling of giant stakes, and the air was thick with the thrumming of the balls.
The attacking line was jerked by the balls. Some men fell backwards, some stumbled, most kept stolidly on. Sharpe knew the enemy would be frantically reloading, fumbling with cartridges and ramrods, and he instinctively quickened his pace so that the South Essex might close the gap before the enemy had recharged their weapons. The other officers hurried too, and the attacking line began to lose its cohesion. The Sergeants yelled. “It’s not a sodding steeplechase! Watch your dressing!”
Fifty yards, forty, and Major Leroy, whose voice was twice as loud as Forrest’s, bellowed at the South Essex to halt.
Sharpe could see some enemy muskets being rammed. The Frenchmen were looking nervously at their enemy so close.
Leroy filled his lungs.
“Level your muskets!”
The Light Company alone was not loaded. The other companies levelled their muskets and beneath each muzzle the seventeen inch bayonet pointed towards the French.
“And charge! Come on!”
The crash of that volley, the smoke, and then the redcoats were released from the Sergeants’ discipline and they were free to take the blades up the hill to savage the enemy who had been shattered by the close volley.