The Charge

Document Sample
The Charge Powered By Docstoc
					                                      Christopher Shevlin


3.30pm, Saturday, 21st October 1899
Near Elandslaagte train station, north of Ladysmith, Natal, South Africa

The spring sun was hard, and the hills stood crisp and sharp against the sky: starched
linen on taut blue silk. I sat still, reins drawn in close. Behind me, in a shallow natural
ditch, the men were strung out in a long line, dismounted, their horses nibbling at the
thin grass while the troopers exchanged jokes in looks and gestures, gazing off in the
direction of the battle they could not see. Some craned their necks, straining to
penetrate the rise in the earth and the distance between us and our enemy. Here and
there men whispered to their mounts. One had his arm clasped about the creature‟s
neck, his face pressed close to its muzzle as he dropped words in its ear. His head
bobbed and nodded in emphasis while the great Waler, dwarfing the man, looked at
the ground, shook its head a little and sighed.
        Close by, the red roof Elandslaagte train station stood bold against the green
veldt. Beside it was a modest hotel, taken by our enemy the previous day. Both were
now empty.
        We officers, all six of us mounted, were standing a little way up the slope of the
ditch, looking southeast at the hill where the Boers were dug in, something above a
mile away. I could not see them, hidden and entrenched as they were, though I heard
the sharp hammer-raps of their rifle-fire and the deep, ripping thud of their artillery. To
their right, our infantry – a battalion of the Devons – were plainly visible as they inched
closer to the Boer hill, across the bare veldt. Buttons glinted, hard shadows fell inky
black, and here and there a clump of men – dark and stick-like at this range – would
rise, pelt forward, and then sink back into the dust and grass.
        About half a mile further away, between the Devons on the right and the Boer
hill on the left, a wide ridge rose from the veldt. My eyes returned to it, searching it
over. Beside me, Captain Oakes breathed out sharply through his nose and handed me
my field glasses.
        „Can‟t get a damned thing out of these, Taylor. Best you take „em back.‟
        „Thank you, sir.‟

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369      1
                                          Christopher Shevlin

        I took them and raised them to my eyes, searching for the ridge. The scratch
running down the left-hand lens scarred and distorted the hillside, and the yellowish
tinge of the glass brought a smudge of fog to the grass and boulders. Amid that fog I
lighted upon the ridge just as a helmet rose above it. Another joined it, then a whole
cluster, and then a group of our men spilled over and rushed down the incline, making
for the Boer position on the nearer hill. The crackle of gunfire grew louder, angrier,
like hot fat spitting in a pan.
        More and more men followed that first group. Down the side of the hill they
streamed, some with mouths open, cheering or crying out, the sound lost to the
distance. The highlanders were the most clearly visible, their dark kilts each a shout
ringing clear amid the dust and grass. An old officer of the Gordons, with grey
moustaches and a claymore slung across his back, stood and urged his men on. Even as
I watched he dropped, and ripples spread out from the gap he left, slowing the tide of
men running down the hill. Moments later he stood again, his sleeve dark and his arm
still. With his good hand he took his helmet and waved it in the air. Then he dropped
again. Men were falling thickly now but the enemy were nowhere visible. From my
distance, it seemed that they fought ghosts. They called and charged and fired and fell,
but met no flesh.
        „Sir,‟ I said to Oakes, „the Gordons and Manchesters have begun their attack –
and Lieutenant-Colonel Dick-Cunyngham‟s down.‟
        „D-C‟s down,‟ he called over to Gore, and I felt his hand on the field glasses.
        „Let me see that,‟ he said.
        He took the glasses and looked, twitching his moustache as he scanned left and
right, searching for the charge.
        „A little to the left, sir – between the Devons and the Boer hill. A little less than
two miles away.‟
        He said nothing but continued to twitch his moustache.
        „Perhaps a little higher, sir.‟
        He turned the focus wheel, clockwise, anticlockwise.
        „Blasted things,‟ he said, handing the field glasses back to me.
        I took them and looked again, refocusing them, finding again that torrent of
men. They still poured down the hillside, which was now littered with bodies, cork

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc      Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369   2
                                      Christopher Shevlin

helmets, packs and rifles. The running men were slower now, picking their way through
the mass or treading on their comrades‟ bodies. The Boer artillery had found its range.
The rifle-fire had been deadly, thinning and slowing the attack; now the artillery shells
simply punched great holes in the mass of men running down the hillside.
         „The Devons are going it,‟ said Oakes. „Don‟t need glasses to see that.‟
         I lowered my field glasses. The sky was darkening, clouding over, washing away
the hard light and sharp shadows of just a few minutes ago.

         The Devons were at the Boer hill now, working their way up, climbing,
attaining a boulder, building up behind it and then breaking out, moving on to the
next piece of cover, leaving the intervening ground strewn with the moving and the
         We watched silently for some minutes. When I next used the glasses, I saw that
among the Devons there were now Gordons and Manchesters. The two attacks had
mingled and fragmented into small parties, working independently to struggle up the
hill. Boers began to rise from their cover to fight hand-to-hand, move higher up the hill
or surrender. And now it was for the most part too close for bullets. Our men had fixed
         I saw a Boer fire his revolver, miss, throw it down and raise his hands. The man
he had failed to kill, a Manchester, drove his bayonet through the Boer‟s belly,
withdrew it, took a different hold on his rifle, and then drove the bayonet down
through the man‟s collarbone. He moved on while the Boer foamed red at the mouth,
slumped against a stone. I looked back for him a moment later but he was nowhere to
be seen.
         The tide of men pushed on up, mounting the hill steadily, as though impelled
or flung up by an unanswerable force. The Boers were falling back, or rather falling up,
under the pressure of that same force. Now I could see them clearly, big-boned and
heavy-bearded, some in farm clothes, some in Sunday clothes, in slouch hats and opera
hats. Near the top of the hill their line broke and they began to run. For the first time I
saw one of their artillery pieces, the camouflage pushed aside by the fleeing gunners.
Two British ran as hard as they could for the unmanned gun, racing each other. Of the

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369    3
                                      Christopher Shevlin

two, it was the officer, unencumbered by bags and straps, who reached the gun first and
sat upon it triumphantly.
         Oakes nudged me in the ribs.
         „There,‟ he said. „Look at „em go!‟
         I followed the direction he pointed with his thumb and saw that Boer horsemen
were trickling away from the hill, slowing to cross the railway line and then picking up
speed, escaping the lost battle and the louring clouds.
         Oakes watched them with bright eyes, clicking his teeth together, sniffing.
         „Dammit,‟ he said. „Are we to be left here to watch them go? What‟s the good of
         The trickle of Boers on horseback thickened and quickened and then,
momentarily, halted. There was a bugle call from the heights of the hill.
         „They‟ve sounded the cease-fire,‟ I said to Oakes, who was a trifle deaf.
         „I can hear that. When do we get the order to advance? That‟s what I want to
         I took up my field-glasses again and looked to the artillery piece. A private of the
Manchesters now sat upon it, peaceably smoking his pipe. Further up, a white shirt,
fastened to the stock of a Mauser, was being waved energetically by a thin man in a
gabardine coat. A British officer walked towards him, motioning to the men behind not
to shoot – a flattening gesture of the hands, like a self-effacing conductor disclaiming
applause. Then the officer turned, almost pirouetted, moved two steps and dropped to
the ground. The soldiers behind him fell back. When I brought my field-glasses back to
the spot where the man with the improvised flag of surrender had been, he was gone,
and I could see other Boers running for cover. The British, caught in the open, fell
back, some dropped by bullets. They had gone back some way when a bareheaded
sergeant ran forward, followed by some men with fixed bayonets, and the retreat
stopped, the men flowing again towards the Boer positions. A bugle sounded the
         „What the Devil‟s going on?‟ asked Oakes.
         „The Boojers raised a flag of surrender and then fired on the man who stepped
up to take it. We‟re pressing the assault again now.‟
         „Bloody cowards,‟ said Oakes. „Hang „em.‟

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369    4
                                      Christopher Shevlin

        At the sound of thumping hooves, we both turned. A trooper of the Imperial
Light Horse, his face as brown as my boots, rode up on a sweating horse, pulling it up
sharply so that it reared.
        „Who‟s Gore?‟ he shouted at me, not saluting.
        I pointed dumbly at Colonel Gore, who was a few feet away. The messenger
walked his horse over to Gore‟s and touched two fingers to the brim of his slouch hat,
more a neighbourly greeting than a salute, as though he and Gore were two farmers
exchanging a word.
        „From French,‟ said the colonial, handing over a scrap of paper.
        Captain Oakes, beside me, flinched at the omission of Major-General French‟s
rank. The troopers nearest us looked at the ground. While Gore read, Oakes moved his
horse over to the messenger.
        Gore‟s eyes stopped moving. He glanced at the other side of the paper, then
said in a loud voice, so that all the officers could hear, „I‟m to take command of all
cavalry in the vicinity. We‟re to pursue the Boers and press them with the lance. I think
we can manage that, can‟t we?‟
        We all nodded. Lieutenant Gwyn laughed and said, „Rather!‟
        „Do you think you could pass that message on to General French, with my
        „I will do my best, eh,‟ said the colonial, and turned his horse.
        Oakes caught the bridle. „Before you go, I‟ll make sure you get what for, for
your insolence and unsoldierly bearing today. What‟s your name?‟
        The man looked Oakes full in the face.
        „Jim,‟ he said, then knocked Oakes‟s hand from his bridle and spurred his horse
to a gallop. Oakes stared after him, his jaw clenched, and raised his crop as though
intending to pursue the man.
        „Leave that now, Oakes,‟ said Gore. „Let‟s get the men mounted and formed up.
Advance in line at extended files, lancers on the left, dragoons on the right.‟
        I moved over to the men. „Mount up!‟ I called. „Form a line – extended files!‟
        They mounted and we walked our horses forward up the rise from the natural
ditch that had hidden us. Bits clinked and the horses snorted and twitched as we
crossed the rough, stony ground. We could see the retreating Boers quite plainly: a

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369   5
                                      Christopher Shevlin

party of them moved at a trot not 300 yards from us, buttoning up their coats against
the rain that had begun to fall. The distant hills I had admired earlier were grey rags
now, the sky the colour of dirty water.
        Gore unsheathed his sabre, raised it above his head and called out the order,
        The nearest party of Boers looked round as our horses leapt forward, the eager
ground rising up to meet our hooves. The Boers kicked up their horses, some throwing
away bags or rifles to lighten their flight. Other parties, further away, also began to
gallop. It did them no good. We were too near and our Walers were too large and fast
for their little horses.
        „Majuba!‟ I shouted.
        „Majuba!‟ shouted the men around me as we fell upon the Boers. There was no
moment of impact; the horses simply made way for one another, and we were among
the enemy. The rain was heavier now and my first blow fell on a man‟s leather jacket,
slipping so that the coat was cut but not the man. For my second stroke I waited until I
was alongside the fellow. His hands held the reins well forward, his head was down, the
brim of his shapeless hat swept back. I brought my sabre down and back with a smart
snap of the arm. It took off one of the horse‟s ears and struck the man at the bridge of
his nose, hacking into him so that his face collapsed in a spurt of livid red. When I
licked my lips I found pricking fragments of bone, the salt tang of blood and mucous.
        I got another man in the arm, hit a horse a glancing blow in the neck and then
used my sabre hilt to box a third man from his saddle, hitting him full in the eye as I
passed. The rain was everywhere now, streaming down my face, in my mouth, turning
every surface to water and soaking every bit of material. I missed my next stroke, and at
the next my blade slipped and the flat of it slapped wetly against a thick coat of rain-
sodden tweed. Then we were out on the other side of the Boer column and thundering
across the veldt.
        „Halt!‟ I shouted, looking about me at the men. The light was fading quickly, as
though the rain were bearing the sunlight down to the dark, muddy ground.
        I held my sword in the air. „Files about! Regroup!‟
        The men, some of whom had dashed past me, were now gathering about, their
lances held ready for another charge. A man beside me, his helmet lost, turned his face

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369   6
                                      Christopher Shevlin

up to the rain and laughed. Other faces were expressionless, immobile, eyes hidden
beneath the peaks of their helmets.
         I sheathed my sword and grabbed my revolver instead.
         „Gallop!‟ I shouted, urging my horse forward. She sprang again into motion,
steaming in the warm rain. Her smell filled my head, deep and sweet.
         Our momentum in the first charge had carried us far beyond the stream of
retreating Boers, so it was some time before we came upon them again. The wreck of
the men and horses we had first overtaken was now swollen with fresh fugitives from
the hill. Our charge was not so fast this time, and many Boers stood beside dead or
dying horses, hands outstretched to us. Others, wounded, struggled to their knees and
raised their hands.
         I slowed my horse a little, levelled my revolver and shot a man through the
         „No quarter!‟ I shouted. Others were shouting it too.
         „Remember Majuba!‟
         I fired again, putting the bullet into a man‟s ear, through his head, so he was
thrown sideways to the ground.
         Some of the Boers had their hands clasped before them as though they were
         „Don‟t kill us!‟ shouted one.
         „For God‟s sake, not the fuckin‟ spears!‟ called a man among the Boers with an
Irish accent. A lance, borne at a gallop, thudded through his chest and was removed
with a twist of the arm as the horse clattered on.
         We rode on through the wrecked column of Boers. Many were no longer in
flight, but simply lying there, dying, dead, or waiting to be killed. When I had emptied
my revolver I took out my sabre again and, leaning low over my horse‟s mane, plunged
it into the base of a man‟s neck as he ran from us.
         Emerging on the other side of the Boer column, we collected ourselves again
and wheeled about. We took the distance at a run this time, and we were silent. The
rain still drove down and the light was almost gone. There were no new Boer riders in
our path, only those slashed and gored in our previous passes.
         „I surrender!‟ called one man, on his knees.

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369   7
                                      Christopher Shevlin

        „Bugger that,‟ said a trooper, and stuck him with his lance.
        Over to my right, another trooper hefted his lance under his arm, bent low and
urged his horse on.
        „I‟m all right,‟ stammered a British voice.
        „Right you are, sir. Beg pardon,‟ called the lancer.
        A man to my left stuck his lance into a dead horse, leaving a Boer huddled just
feet away unharmed. Another stuck his lance in the turf.
        And then in front of me was a Boer, a man of perhaps forty, with a fair wispy
beard and his hair plastered to his head by the rain. He held up his hands hopelessly
and I spurred my horse. My sabre hit him just above the collar bone. He fell instantly,
and the sword was jerked from my hand as my horse continued forward.
        I reined her in and climbed down from the saddle. By the last dregs of light I
made my way back, leading my horse. Off to the left was a dying mule that I
remembered had been near the man. It breathed with an awful high-pitched wheezing
and flailed its hooves as though trying to stand. Behind me I heard a couple of shots
bark out and three hundred yards away Evans was jabbing at something on the ground.
        I found my sabre, covered in mud and blood and filth, three feet away from the
man, who lay beside a dead pony. He was coughing weakly, his hands patting at his
throat where the blood bubbled up. I knelt beside him and saw that he wore no shirt,
just a coat and a sodden stringy old neckerchief. His coughing became gurgling, a sort
of flailing took him, and then he stopped moving. Even so, when I bent over him I
thought I heard the gurgling still, very faintly, but his hands were motionless at his
throat. Even in the driving rain the wisps of his beard stood out, the beads of water on
them glinting in the dying light.
        I knelt and my lips fumbled for a prayer. „Oh God,‟ I began, but no more came
and I left off.
        I stood, took my sabre and wiped it on a blanket tied behind the dead pony‟s
saddle. The light was gone and all at once the cold pounced, penetrating my clothes in
a second, turning my sweat to ice. A little way ahead a fire was coming to life, amid the
smashed bodies. Although it was near, my steps were slow, as in a dream, and my head
hung down heavy. My feet and legs were heavy too, iron-heavy, and I could feel each of
the muscles as it was called upon to play its part in bearing me forward. Each strained

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369    8
                                      Christopher Shevlin

in turn in the labour of lifting the heavy boot, the heavy foot, and letting it drop again
to earth, like an anchor pitched from a ship. Each time, I half expected my boot to
break the surface and keep falling. Each time it hit instead the solid ground, or what lay
upon the ground, and each time the agony of effort was renewed as I lifted the other
foot and took another step. All the while my head hung down. Raising it was too great
an effort for the two thin columns of muscle I could now distinctly feel running down
either side of my spine. My horse followed passively behind, snuffling a little but
keeping pace, placing its hooves carefully to avoid treading on the bodies scattered all
         By the time I arrived at the fire, two more were crackling into life close by. I
tethered my horse with the others, removed my saddle and threw her blanket across her
back. Then I moved towards the flames.
         Men shifted up to make space for me. I chose the nearer of the two gaps they
made and dropped heavily down on a blanketed log.
         „Good show, sir,‟ said Benson, my soldier-servant, saluting. „What‟s the bag?‟
         I returned the salute and tried to smile, but only my lips moved. Nor would my
voice come when I asked it.
         „„S your horse been fed, sir?‟ he asked.
         I looked up, meeting his eyes and quickly looking away.
         „Not to worry, sir. Leave it to me.‟
         I nodded and slumped back to my seat as Benson walked towards the horses.
Someone handed me a mug of tea that was more milk and rum than tea, and another
gave me a mess tin of mashed bully beef and biscuit.

         A voice banged in the back of the night like an open door in the wind: „What
about these men – are these men the Fifth Lancers?‟
         „Are you men the Fifth?‟ it said again, a little louder, a little nearer.
         The men cheered, opening their throats and roaring or stretching up their
necks to achieve a high, wild whoop. Even some of the Dragoons cheered along.
         „Hurrah the Fifth!‟ someone shouted.

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM    Words: 4369    9
                                      Christopher Shevlin

         One man, meaning to throw his helmet in the air, fumbled it at the last minute
so that it came down too near the flames. „Bugger!‟ he shouted, running forward, and
that curse was added to the cheer.
         Men near me began to stand and salute, but the voice, still closer now, said, „Sit
down, lads. It‟s I that should salute you for that piece of work today. Sit down, and
accept my salute.‟
         There was another cheer and even the man with the scorched helmet waved it
enthusiastically as he obediently sat.
         I kept my blanket drawn about me, kept my head down. And then he sat beside
me on the log where Benson had been.
         „Well son,‟ he said, clapping me on the shoulder, „Did ye take a wound?‟
         „No sir,‟ I said, turning towards him, seeing the shining eyes, the broad face and
the thick moustache. „I only gave.‟
         I turned my face back to my boots, trying to think of something to say. My mind
was mist.
         „I‟ve seen that look,‟ he said. „Give me your eyes – I‟ve seen that look.‟
         He clapped me once more on the shoulder and I turned my head to look at him
         „You‟ve done your duty,‟ he said simply. „By this day‟s work we may have
finished the war, and you‟ve done your duty by your country and your regiment. So
leave off that look.‟
         I nodded. „Sir.‟
         „What‟s your name?‟
         „Second Lieutenant Alfred Taylor, sir.‟
         „I have heard your …‟
         He started and his hand on my shoulder tensed.
         „What in the name of bloody Hell do you want?‟ he shrieked in the opposite
         I couldn‟t hear the reply.
         „Have you not any blasted eyes? Can you not see I‟m presently talking to
someone? Where did ye learn yer blasted manners? Tapping me on the shoulder – this
isn‟t a ladies‟ supper club you‟re at now.‟

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc   Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369   10
                                        Christopher Shevlin

        He paused, and his grip relaxed. „Get away. Get out of my sight.‟
        He let out a long, noisy breath through his nose, inhaled deeply, and then let
out another, longer, quieter breath. His voice, when he resumed talking to me, bore no
trace of his anger moments before.
        „I was told your name, lieutenant. Your whole squadron heard you when you
cried “Majuba”. You showed these Dutchmen what we‟re capable of.‟
        He looked at the ground where his heel, with little rhythmic blows, was
hacking out a shallow hollow.
        „You know, the cavalry is unique,‟ he said. „It‟s not just a military weapon. It‟s a
moral one, and we – you – struck the enemy a moral blow. We cut his heart out today,
and I‟ll bet … I‟ll bet any odds the fight‟s gone out of him now.‟
        „Yes sir. I – I‟ve read your book, sir.‟
        „You‟re a good man, lieutenant.‟
        I carried on staring at my boots as he got up with a grunt and walked off.
        „Good show, lads!‟ he called.
        Someone shouted, „Three cheers for General French!‟ and everyone shouted
out the cheers.
        A few moments later I heard him at the next fire calling out, „Are these the
famous Fifth Dragoons?‟ and being answered again with a roar.

        Despite the scorching heat of the fire before me, my back was still ice cold, even
beneath the blanket. I shivered and stared at the spoonful of bully-beef and biscuit on
my spoon as the men picked up their talk.
        „How many did you get?‟ asked one man of his neighbour.
        „Two for certain.‟
        A song started up to my left: „Now every Sunday night when I go out with my best
tunic dress…‟
        „That all?‟
        „In the charge, like. Not counting after when we was going round stickin‟ „em.
You can‟t count that.‟
        „I’m chasin’ bits o’ calico as soon as it gets dark…‟
        „Did you see Kelly?‟

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc     Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369   11
                                       Christopher Shevlin

        „But I’ve always got my eye upon the benches in the park…‟
        „He got … there was two on „em ridin‟ off on same „orse. He stuck em both
through wi‟ one …‟ and he mimed a lance-thrust.
        „Yes I’ll be doin’ my duty, a-doin’ my duty…‟
        „Yep. That‟s right an‟ then „e „oists „em both right off the „orse, in the air.
Bloody Hell, what a sight.‟
        „And when the moon it goes out of sight, with Flo and Mary Ann…‟
        „Then what did he do? Swing „em round his „ead and knock the others down
like conkers?‟
        They both laughed, and their laughter mixed with the final line of the song,
shouted out by the men on my left, „Oh I’ll be doin’ my duty like a soldier and a man…‟
        I sat looking at the porridgey mass on my spoon, quite unable to raise it to my

85307f5e-bd8e-442e-a82b-2df178a0f470.doc    Last amended: 2/25/2010 7:20 PM   Words: 4369   12