The sun had bleached the plain pale. The killing ground was beginning to fill, as a stage might fill, but still it waited for the spark that would fan into a battle. It came in the west as the Third Division hit the head of the French column and to the men, up on the ridge by the farmhouse, it came as the distant muffled sound of muskets that were like a far-off thornbush fire. Smoke came from the west, and sound, and the dust that added to the smoke, and then the telescopes could make out a little of what was happening. The French column was being crumpled, thrown back, and the battle, that had started in the west was coming east, back to the Arapiles.
The French battalions recoiled. They were outnumbered, outgunned and outgeneralled. They had thought they were the vanguard of a march, and found they were the front line of a battle, and their defeat was about to become disaster.
Sharpe watched it. He hated the cavalry as all infantrymen hated cavalry and he was used to seeing the British cavalry ill-led and ineffective, but Fate was capricious to the French on that hot Spanish afternoon. The British Heavy Dragoons, some from the King’s own bodyguard, came on the French from the north. They wanted to fight. They came up from their dead ground in two ranks, trotting to keep their order, and the black horsetail plumes on their shining crested helmets rippled as they moved. Sharpe, watching through the glass, saw a shiver of light, a glitter, and the swords were up and the horsemen were booted knee to booted knee.
He did not hear the trumpet that put them into the canter, but he saw the line go faster, and still they kept their discipline, and he knew what they must be feeling. All men fear the moment of going into battle, but these men were on their big horses and the smell of the powder was in their nostrils and the trumpet was setting their blood on fire and the swords in their hands were hungry. The French were not ready. Infantry can form square and the textbooks say that no cavalry in the world can break a well-formed square, but the French had not known the danger and they were not in square. They were falling back from a massive infantry attack and they were firing and loading, cursing their General, when the earth shook.
A thousand horses, the best horses in the world, and a thousand swords came from the dust and the trumpets spurred the horsemen into the final charge, the moment when the horse is released to run like the devil and the line will stagger and bend, but it does not matter because the enemy is so close. And the horsemen, who had been given a target that every cavalryman dreamt of, opened their mouths in a triumphant scream and the great, heavy, edged blades came into the French with all the weight of man and horse. The fear had turned to anger, to craziness, and the British killed and killed, split the Battalions, rode down the French and the huge blades fell and the horses bit and reared, and the French, who could do no other, broke and ran.
The horses ran with them. The swords came from behind. The Heavy Dragoons drove paths of blood and dust through the fugitives and there was no difficulty in killing. The French had their backs to the horses so the swords could take them in the neck or over the skull and the horsemen revelled in it, snarled at their enemies, and the swords had so many targets. The musket sound had gone. It was replaced by the thunder of hooves, by screams, and by the cleaving sound of a butcher’s block.
Some French ran for help to the British infantry. The red ranks opened up, helped them in, because all infantry feared that moment when they were not in square and when the cavalry hit them at the full charge. The British soldiers shouted at the French, told them to run to the British lines, and the red-coated men watched in awe what the Heavy Dragoons were doing and knew that Fate could have decreed it otherwise and so they helped their enemy to escape the common enemy of all infantry. The spark had turned into a running flame.