Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Hogan was replete with happiness. “We’ve got him! At last, Richard we’ve got him!”


Battles rarely start quickly. They grow like grass fires. A piece of musket wadding, red hot, is spat onto grass, it smoulders, is fanned, and a hundred other such tiny sparks flicker on the dry ground. Some fade, others catch into flame and may be stamped out by an irritable skirmisher, but suddenly two will join and the wind catches the fire, blows it, swirls the smoke and then, quite suddenly, the little wadding sparks have become a raging flame that roasts the wounded and eats the dead. There was no battle yet at the Arapiles. There were sparks that could yet turn into an inferno, but the afternoon wore on and the officers watching from the farm at the southern end of the great ridge felt their elation turn to boredom. The French batteries still fired at the village over the heads of their troops who had settled in the grass and wheat, but the cannonade was slower, almost half-hearted, and the British used the lull to manhandle two guns back up the Lesser Arapile.

The afternoon smouldered. Three o’clock passed, then four, and to the men on the ridge, to the Battalions behind the ridge, the sound of battle was like a distant storm that had no effect on them. The French left wing, a quarter of the army, was marching westwards and it heard the guns behind and thought it was merely the bickering of the rearguard.

The British gunners of the Royal Horse Artillery who had dragged and forced two guns to the crest of the Lesser Arapile served their bucking monsters in the muck sweat of the heat. The guns crashed back on their trails, splintered rocks on the other Arapile hill, and after each shot the gunners had to lever the trails back into position, the monster had to be fed, and the smoke stung their eyes and fouled their breath. A gunner pushed a spherical case-shot into the barrel. It was Britain’s secret weapon, invented twenty-eight years before by Lieutenant Shrapnell, and still no other country had succeeded in copying the shell. This was a small case-shot because the gun, a six pounder, was the biggest that could be worked up the steep hill-slope. The hollow iron ball of Shrapnell’s invention had sixty musket balls packed round its central powder charge. The fuse had been cut so that the ball would explode over the Greater Arapile and the rammer thrust it down the gun’s throat, stood back, and the Sergeant who ruled this gun checked his crew, touched fire to fuse, and the gun wheels jarred off the rock, the trail slewed, the smoke slammed forward and the case shot thundered over the plain.

The battle was smouldering. It could ignite at any moment and Fate, who is the soldiers’ Goddess, was taking an interest in the sparks that flickered and threatened about the Arapiles. An artillery officer on the Lesser Arapile saw the case-shot leave the smoke, he saw it as the faintest trace of a grey pencil-like line in the air and then it exploded, just over the far edge of the Greater Arapile, and it was a black-grey air burst shot through with deep red and the ground beneath and ahead of the explosion was spattered by the lead balls and the shattered casing. Most went harmlessly to ground, some ricocheted off the hot stone, but two balls, with Fate’s malevolence, took Auguste Marmont in the side and France’s youngest Marshal was down. He was not killed, but he would not lead his army again this day, an army he had already pointed to destruction.

Wellington was far away. He had ridden to the Third Division and he had pointed them in a new direction, eastwards, and they had begun their march. The French marched west, thinking they were in a race to head off the

British, but the British were coming towards them, and waiting behind them, and they could not know it. And the British, soured by the weeks of march and counter-march, of retreat, wanted to fight.

Between the Third Division and the Arapiles, hidden in a deep fold of ground, there were more British. Horsemen. The Heavy Cavalry, newly come from Britain and eager to try out their mounts and their long thirty-five inch straight blades, blades they said were too heavy for a swift parry, but wonderful for killing infantrymen.

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