Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Pack life

"Somewhere in this rural French landscape, seemingly devoid of any living souls but ourselves, was a force of British and allied soldiers, marching into fair France after the rumoured defeat of the Emperor at some obscure place in Belgium..'
'I lifted the peak of my shako to ease the pressure on my forehead and a little drop of sweat escaped to slip down passed my eye, the sun was still an orange ball above the long clumps of trees on the horizon that were themselves shrouded in a hazy morning mist.
A jangling sound came from my right, at an opening in the trees and we paused and watched as mounted gunners appeared on two horses pulling a cannon and limber out of the shadows, which passed by the line of strung out soldiers who marched east with muskets slung or shouldered as each man pleased. Somewhere amidst the forests and farmland was the enemy..'

Frequieres 1815, sorry, 2016. 

Seventeen hours hours earlier at London Road station, Brighton.. all packed, approved foods correctly weighed and packed in brown paper and string, drink in suitable bottles, fifty cartridges rolled, blanket in pack with jacket rolled up on top, lighter material shirt and waistcoat selected, it was hot here and apparently hotter there. 

Getting there was two trains to a meeting point where Caporal James, soldat Rene and soldat Darren would gather and drive to the channel tunnel and under the sea, then an hour and a half, hopefully, to Frequieres. Which more or less happened.
The site did have some tents, which had been allowed, I suspect, to attract a wider range and one group had several camp followers not on the field/march so probably refused to come if the had to spend so much time in an empty field, it wasn't entirely empty, there was a rope to keep the herd of cows on their side, and a hastily knocked up latrine including a box with a hole in the top behind a blanket and a hole underneath. Which again was more than I expected.
A few mugs of wine were had as we met our comrades for the weekend, the Caporal called a curfew and then it was to sleep on a bed of straw with a hessian sheet pulled over it, the four of us all top and tail like sardines. The three guys next to us simply lay on the straw bundle, and occasionally snored.

Up for black coffee, bread and cheese and off, down a long lane and out into the fields, it was a marvelous sight to see the French countryside in the morning light, and think of the day a head. We marched in two sections in a strung out line until we came to a wood overlooking an open expanse where the British might come from, we hoved into the woods, spread about ten feet apart to watch the open ground, I half expected to see figures emerge from the mist. I couldn't see most of our own troops, even a blue and white uniform can disappear in the woods. I was glad they had no riflemen, you never really appreciate their camouflage potential at a normal event because its open and short distances, rifles here really would be like commandos. 

After a while no one appeared and we set off along the next woodline, mostly avoiding open spaces, I put a bit of cut straw in my mouth as I had heard it kept your mouth shut and moist, troops marching into Russia had been ordered to do it to help with the dry dust that was kicked up. I think it worked to a degree, if you don't mind looking like a yokel.

Then into a wood of small but close-to trees. I volunteered to go forward with Caporal Karl, trying to move quietly, the enemy could be close. walk, stop, look, pause, Ssshh! walk, look... Karl stared out, someone was moving down to the left! it was our own artillery set up on treeline. No contact. I was to tell the Captaine.
unfortunately he was in another wood with deuxieme section, across an open, ploughed, sunlit field. I couldn't just stroll across with the enemy close by.. a run.. message given I tried to understand, with the help of a map and a droite, a gauche and le rue.. where he wanted us to go.. just had to run back across.. pwerffff.. this was the only point I felt a bit sick, everyone was sweating gently under all there kit, but this was a real burst of energy and needed water and a brief collapse to get over once message was delivered. My hands were also quite scratched by getting through tangled vines.
Basically we didn't find anyone before lunch was called, a strange horseless wagon appeared bearing water and bread and boiled eggs for the other unit.. and they weren't even wrapped in brown paper! 

The British were missing.  We headed back the way we came, up a road to the open ground, and then contact! Three Hussars were seen out in the fields crossing from right to left. They didn't see us but a few minutes later and they might have. We expected them to be, like out own cavalry scout, the eyes and ears of the advance, but no infantry appeared behind them.  We marched along a vague path and unto a road where Rene and I had to watch out for the expected Brits, soon we resorted to eye spy instead.

Around another wood three of us were sent up to look across open ground with a stretch of dead ground before the opposite trees, James went forward to a clump of tall yellow grass around a post, he gestured he could see something. I joined him. There were three men, could I see? No, frankly, I don't wear my glasses at events often because you have no cause to see far, this weekend was proving different. Apparently these men in the dead ground were very tall and getting closer.. ? aaah, they are on horses. RUN.

Even as we hurried back with the warning our cannon up on a ridge fired, Highland infantry were coming the other way. The battle of the hay stacks had begun!  We worked in pairs, two to a haystack, then formed up to drive them off.. in a rock, paper, scissors kind of way skirmishers have to fall back from an advancing line.. they retreated but now the cavalry were coming.. I urged us into the trees as cavalry beats troops in open but sadly not everyone knew that so we stood in a formed block.. the hussar who came forward played the part excellently and said he would accept our surrender.. not everyone had read the rules of engagement and we threatened to shoot him instead.
The weather had made the muskets warm and after some firing they were notably hot, I put Henriette back up on my shoulder at one point and promptly burnt my ear!
Then we fell back to the trees, I had to help prop the soldier besides me up as we struggled for the treeline. Soon we were fighting the Highlanders in the trees, never really fought as a skirmisher in a wood before, it was great. 
Then they captured Karl. I suggested we form up and drive them off, en avant, en avant! but they did not flee.. instead the Scotsmen from Belgium traded whisky for brandy with the Frenchmen from England. Fratenisation had broken out and soon spread to the rest of the field. It turned out that the reason we had not bumped into the British sooner was they had been travelling as a small group and gone off the beaten track more.. because a third of them had become casualties from the heat and exertion even before mid morning, one chap collapsing after an hour.

The day was done, except the march back to camp, no one had any water left. Then there was a wrong turn, how much had we gone astray? fortunately not too far or plenty of us would have just demanded crashing out there and then for a bit. When we got as far as the water point the four of us 45emers just filled our mugs, ditched packs and lay on the grass in the shade. oh luxury and comfort, I couldn't stop smiling, even laughing quietly at the simple joy of it. 

     Original campaign picture by Albrecht Adam, but pretty much like some of the guys in our field.

We all pitched in meat and vegetables from our rations to help make a cassoulet (haricot beans left to soak yesterday) and we ate with a bunch of others and had a modest drop of brandy. Another difference between campaign and usual events is soldiers probably didn't stay up late drinking and singing because they were probably knackered and hadn't been able to carry four bottles of Speckled hen across the land only to drink them all at once, and repeat next day. 

Sunday, day of rest.. not, but it seemed all parties knew the extended marching of the day before was not going to be repeated and the event ended earlier to let people get off home. We followed the same path with the sun slightly higher in the sky and came to a wood. Someone went a head a little and said the British were in there just about to leave 'camp'. Premiere section (us) was sent off through the woods in a wide circle to come round near the road through it, Deuxieme section were to wait and attack. Soon musket fire banged off and we quickened our step, timing it perfectly to take up position in the shadows of the woods and watch the Scots withdrawing from the fight. We were loaded and ready as they came by, oblivious to their peril. Fire!

It was a magnificent moment, already withdrawing this ambush just sent them into full headlong retreat, joined by the Hussars. 
We regrouped and followed the way they had fled,  and about half an hour later exchanged skirmish fire across a valley and they disappeared beyond the low rise. Problem was if we chased further and further that way we would be late getting back at the end. So we went off back towards the end point, and waited a while, us in a second line behind hey bales.
We fell back and scrabbled up a short, steep path that moments later our cavalry scout climbed up with ease much to our surprise (and relief), this Chasseur a cheval had a marvelous horse who had been in plenty of action, he could even fire his carbine from horseback without it being too bothered. 
The last clash came when the British (spotted by said Chasseur) emerged and came up the path and were met by our fire, eventually catching them between two groups but then we were called off and marching away.

I had a small mutiny here when it was pointed out by the Captain (translated by Soldat Rene) that I should have waited three paces before joining in a 'route marche'. It is not something we have done in the 45eme, not a thing at usual events, and my French is poor but I found myself saying some very rude words in English probably loud enough for him to hear and get the gist of. It wasn't really about this though but him being non-receptive and even blanking me at one point at the table. It just came out! 

One more march and we were suddenly at a place with some of those building things, a last few instructions and clearing of muskets and we all joined together, all participants in a few drinks of Breton cidre and cheese and peaches and pate and bread. I didn't eat that much as I'd been nibbling a carrot and picking blackberries. I had met some lovely folk that weekend and now chatted with the British hussars, their chief being from Denmark, and an excellent fellow I commended on his charge. 

After saying our goodbyes we set off into the village.. and soon became lost.. with hardly anyone about. James flagged down a motorist and he gave him a lift down the road on recce, but came back without success, so went a second time. Darren and I waited at the other end of Frequieres by a closed garage we recognised and got regularly honked and waved at, time was running short for the tunnel crossing.. eventually the man returned and dropped us two off at camp, we could have been there hours without him!  Some hours later we were back in the UK and all on our final legs. 

It had been an experience, so different from the usual battles in a flat field where you march on, fight back and forth for half an hour and then one side loses and its a three minute march in formation back to camp. Most people also lost various detritus of war, a pom pom, half a set of chin scales, a bag of flints and wormer, brush and pricker, several buttons.. something falls off in the woods and you don't notice.. it's gone. 
I ended the day in the bath, counting insect bites but glad I hadn't picked up any ticks!  It had been an adventure and one our little band of 'brothers' were all keen to repeat another time.  

Marche on!  

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