Wednesday, 23 October 2013

LEIPZIG! the Big one. (Part Two)

The march began along a lane, thousands of men and women in a very long line, three or four abreast. Already people were watching and filming away, here and there an outbreak of singing. Across a road and onto a slope up to the field.. cresting the ridge the full scope of the battle area became apparent, it was over a mile to the far end, the opposed units were mere smudges on the horizon. Battalions filed into place and then.. lunch.  There was a good atmosphere but it was slightly tinged with a sense that orders would be filtering down.. with a bit of muddling through.  

Then the order to march! Soldiers struggled to their feet, only to be marched another 100 yards. This is also a great part of what things were like, also I had not worn a backpack before and could feel it pulling, especially where my musket rested, and the ploughed ground underfoot took extra effort to get along whilst remaining in file.

Away to the left a cavalry battle was swirling away, too distant to distinguish who was who. Cannons thundered on the horizon, you would have hoped they were not aimed at you. A soldier feels safe out of musket shot, almost in another world, but with artillery fire you can imagine the anguished sense of impotence at men dying around you and being unable to do a thing about it.
Light troops engaged ahead of us came running back, we crossed over the bridge to the other side of the field.

Suddenly shit got real. Prussians units were converging on us and two light field guns were brought up closer. We began firing and advanced.

This was perhaps my favourite moment. The band behind us struck up 'Le victoire et nous'.. one of my favourite tunes, a real fist waving piece, we were going forwards right into the enemy, you had to shout to make yourself heard. Volley fire began, I felt the shots singe my thumb, my mouth was dry with gunpowder, and then cavalry swept though between the Prussian battalions, hooves pounding as they galloped past mere feet away.  A real sensory overload! somewhere at the back of my mind the thought 'How the %$^£ did I ever end up here?' ran through my mind.

                                                            Taste the Awesome!

We then got charged by Prussian fusiliers, amid which a young Prussian officer told us we should be falling back. He got short shift, in a well meaning way. Soon though this proved the case. We went back over the bridge to reform a good way back. The village was on fire.

The only problem I had with firing was when I had started to load and then not had time to fire, I was unsure in the confusion a few moments later whether I'd got the charge in (and no one had told me you don't push the paper in for tap loading, I think its easy to forget what might be obvious when you are an experienced old hand). A comrade sorted it out though.

Back to the front!  Down to the river. The plan was for us to cross and the bridge would be blown up with us on the wrong side, but this never materialised, I can imagine several reasons why, logistics, getting people far enough from the blast in a battle, technical difficulties..   so we stood at the fore of the battle (at least on this wing) and traded shots.  Then the Bavarians ran, changed sides and disappeared over the bridge. On came a tidal wave of Austrians and it was all over for me.

The battle still ranged on for a while, the remaining French were pushed back up the field, and Napoleon made his escape...

Another thing you learn about the attitudes of the day is the animosities that come through.  The Old Guard get get paid ten times what the common soldier does yet often don't do the fighting, the Staff poncing about in the rear, at one point our cavalry rode past us, galloping to the rear and I thought 'It's alright for you, you're out of here!'   All in a nice way of course, but they arise out of sympathy for the men you represent.

Everyone got up, units reformed before the crowds.

                               Then came two minutes silence, and a single tolling bell.

All the battalions formed a column of march and left the field, along the line of the crowd who applauded all the way. Some units sang. We regularly shouted 'Vive l'Emporer' and ' Vive L'Leipzig!'

What a day it had been. The biggest reenachtment event ever, or so I am told. I doubt anything so bold will be seen until 2015. It gave me a whole perspective on the European scene and I loved meeting people from all over the world who all came together for this day in a big field in Saxony.  also that despite grand strategic notions and plans.. the common soldier knows absolutely nothing about why he is being sent forward or moved back again.. nothing but the twenty yards around him. His world is reduced to just a few comrades either side of him.

I will never forget that Sunday in October, 2013. 

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