Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe watched from the hill, privileged as a spectator, and he saw the French left wing chewed into fragments between the horses and the Third Division. He watched the Heavy Dragoons, superbly led, reform again and again, charge again and again, and they fought till the troopers were too weary to hold the heavy swords.

Eight French Battalions had been broken. An Eagle had been lost, five guns captured, and hundreds of prisoners, their faces blackened by the powder and their heads and arms sliced by the swords, had been taken. The French left had been split, shattered, and massacred. Now the horsemen were spent. Fate was not all on the British side. She had decreed the death of the Heavy Dragoons’ General who would never again be able to show British cavalry how to fight, but their job this day had been done. Their blades were thick with blood, they had ridden to glory, and they would remember the moments for ever when all a man had to do was lean right, cut down, and spur on.

Wellington was launching his attacks, one by one, from the west to the east. The Third Division had marched, then the cavalry, and now more men were launched onto the great plain. They came from both sides of the Teso San Miguel and they drove southwards, aiming at the hinge of the French line, its centre, dominated by the Greater Arapile. Sharpe watched. He saw infantry spread out from the small valley between the ridge and the Teso San Miguel and march past the village. Their colours had been stripped of the leather casings and they flew over the Battalions and Sharpe felt the pang of extraordinary pride that the sight of the colours gave every soldier.

The guns on the Greater Arapile shifted their aim, fired, and the first gaps were blown in the British lines, the Sergeants shouted at men to close up, close up, and they marched on, attacking in line, and Sharpe saw the yellow colour of the South Essex.

It was the first time ever that he had not fought with them and he felt a deep guilt as he watched his men, the skirmishers, run ahead into the wheat. He watched them fearful for them, and he knew that the wound still hurt, that the doctors had said that it could re-open and bleed, and that the next time it might fester and he would die.

Portuguese troops were marching for the Greater Arapile. The Fourth Division, survivors of the main breach at Bada-joz like Sharpe’s own South Essex, were marching to the right of the French hill. The shots kept coming. The French had arrayed guns on the plain beside the hill and the batteries bellowed at the British and Portuguese lines and the gaps appeared, were filled, and small knots of red or blue coated men were left behind on the trampled wheat. The French troops who had been attacking the village fell back in the face of the Fourth Division. It marched on, its colours high, and they threatened the French guns in the plain, the troops who retreated in front of them, and the troops who were coming back from the carnage in the west. Sharpe rested his telescope on Hogan’s shoulder and found his own men, paired in the wheat, and he saw Harper and kept him in the glass. The Sergeant was gesticulating to the Company, keeping them spread out, keeping them moving, and Sharpe felt a terrible guilt that he was not there. They would have to fight without him, and he could not bear the thought that some would die and that he might have saved them. He knew that there was little he could have done that Lieutenant Price and the Sergeants were not already doing, but that was small comfort.

So far, he knew, the battle was falling to the British. The French left had gone, and now the centre was being assailed and Sharpe could npt see how the centre could hold out against the attacks. Surely the Fourth Division would take the ground to the right of the Greater Arapile, the French guns would limber up and go, and it seemed to Sharpe, watching from the thyme-scented hilltop, that the French had somehow lost the will to fight back. The wheat and grass were skeined with smoke, the air thundered with the round-shot, canister and shrapnel, and the thousands and thousands of men marched into the plain and the red jackets, everywhere, beat back the French. It seemed that, this day, Wellington’s men were remorseless, unbeatable, and that only nightfall would save a few Frenchmen. The sun was already sinking towards evening, still bright, but the night was coming.

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