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7 Aug

Chapter XIX

Britannia

It was decided that Spike Island, a fortified islet within the lower harbour of some hundred acres and, according to our political masters, of great strategic significance, would serve Lakeman and Granger as a most efficacious pitch for a war game. Fort Westmoreland, a star fort built in the previous century, provided a square, while the beaches of the small, green skerry might be assaulted and defended. The location was also far enough away from the town for the discharge of blank cartridges to cause no inconvenience to the local civilian population, while also ensuring that the battle might be conducted with as much martial authenticity as possible. The fort was both garrison and convict depot. I had heard of the place before. To the eternal shame of my nation, John Mitchel, the founding editor of the United Irishman, had been incarcerated there four years since, prior to his transportation to the prison hulks of Bermuda (for on British justice the sun never sets).[15]

A coin was tossed, and it was agreed that Lakeman’s force would defend while the redcoats would conduct an amphibious landing. The field of honour was to be a wild stretch of beach on the south east edge of the island that served as a small cemetery for the transports who did not survive the holding cells. Before the main event, both units would drill upon the Westmorland square, and receive an inspection by the prison’s Governor, Mr. Grace, and the garrison commander, Colonel Camden.

The miserable edifice sat atop a moderate hill in the centre of the island, surrounded by a dry moat. It was long, low and grey, with squat bastions connected by ramparts, and a battery commanding the harbour. Although less than a century old, it recalled to my mind the castles of King William, constructed by the Normans to oppress native Englishmen. The penal fortress was under some sort of expansion or renovation, and vaporous tarpaulins flapped and howled around flimsy looking wooden scaffolds clinging to the pitiless grey walls.

Camden thought the field day a capital idea, and he had persuaded Grace to suspend building work for twenty-four hours, much to the relief, I imagined, of the convict labourers who slaved in the island’s quarry or built with its slate. In consequence we saw no prisoners during our visit, although you could sense their presence. Their collective despair hung in the air like the stench of a week old battlefield. I gathered that when Lakemen’s people realised that the island was also a prison a sense of panic had gripped them to a man, much as it had my own heart, for I was no more a stranger to the inside of a cell than were many of the Shoreditch Rangers. It must have been a hard sale to make, but Lakeman and his junior officers somehow managed to drive the bargain. The trick, I learned, was to cajole and persuade the men’s unofficial spokesman and spiritual leader, who would in turn convince his companions. Samuel Barker had been one of the first to be recruited by Lakeman, who signed him up after a savage drinking bout in a low public house on the Whitechapel Road. The Brick Horse thereby became the unofficial headquarters of the recruitment drive, which Barker in part oversaw while Lakeman arranged temporary accommodation for his soldiers and staff at the infantry barracks in St John’s Wood. Barker had later turned down Lakeman’s offer to act as corporal, preferring, he said, the simple life of the rank and file, but he had informally retained his original role, that of liaison between the private soldiers and their officers.

‘They will learn soon enough that this company is no more a democracy than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,’ Lakemen had told me, ‘but for now an entente cordiale is best suited to my purpose.’

Barker wove his rhetorical magic, and so it was that on a raw Tuesday morning the rival forces met. It had been decided by both commanders that fifty men apiece would be enough for a practical test of comparative skill, and Seton had kept to the spirit of the wager by assembling a force comprising only those lately boarded (so there were no professionals from the Black Watch or the Highlanders on his team), and all freshly recruited. Seton’s company was thus a hybrid born of the 2nd, 6th, 43rd, and 60th Regiments of Foot, the famous green jackets of the latter sprouting like a grassy knoll among the traditional red coats of the Warwickshires, Monmouthshires, and the Queen’s Own; the War Office then still being of the opinion that bright red marked with a large white belted cross was the best design choice for a field uniform.

This clash of colours immediately set Seton at a semiologic disadvantage when compared with the neat black leather tunics and forage caps of Lakeman’s rangers, who marched from the small dock with pride and precision. They had all bet heavily upon themselves and had no intention of losing. Further to the spirit of the wager, Seton had delegated the role of drill commander to Granger whereas Lakeman took that honour himself. Granger’s formation took the lead, with the lieutenant’s sabre presented while the soldiers were at right shoulder arms. Lakemen’s men followed suit, while those of us observing ambled along at the tail. The infantrymen were tight, but Lakemen’s rangers were tighter.

The fort rose before us all the way. We soon crossed the drawbridge and walked past several bored looking sentries, passing through a number of gratings, each of which had to be first unlocked and then relocked in our wake, and at last into a large open central court. The men came to attention in three dressed ranks, both companies standing side by side.

As was the custom, the parade began with an inspection. Mr. Grace, attended by Colonel Camden and Captain Salmond, passed a review of the men, who were likely as freezing as I, even in my fine coat, for there was a hard frost on the ground and the threat of snow in the low, bruised clouds. Both companies looked very well in line, and although of approximately equal inexperience, all seemed to know enough of the standard infantry rifle drill to take open orders for inspection.

This first part of the programme passed successfully for all parties concerned, until upon the conclusion of the inspection Mr. Grace, with a civilian’s disregard for the order book, launched into an impromptu speech addressed to the men in praise of their gallant appearance. No sooner had he finished than the low, viscous Cockney voice of Private Barker was heard, begging permission to speak. Lakeman warily responded that permission was granted, and Barker boldly addressed himself to the Governor.

‘As your honour is so pleased with our trim,’ said he, as brazen as alabaster, ‘and as the air is so sharp this morning, perhaps you might give the order for a mug of grog all round, man-o’-war fashion so to speak.’

The Governor, whose kindly, paternal oration had indicated a certain gentleness of spirit which was surprising, given his occupation, appeared rather bewildered by this unorthodox request. ‘You had better ask your captain,’ he finally said.

‘If it pleases your worship,’ said Barker obsequiously, ‘I’ll not ask the skipper when the admiral is on the bridge.’

The Governor looked helplessly at Camden, who turned his gaze to Lakeman who responded with an almost imperceptible shrug. Salmond, meanwhile, was doing his damnedest to suppress his mirth, and his hard visage was going through the most extraordinary contortions.

There was no obvious way out without the Governor losing face. Barker, meanwhile, remained silently at attention, beaming like an imbecile. On his dark countenance, leathery and prematurely lined, and in which angry eyes appeared as twin markers upon a Hachure map of the Himalayas, the effect was decidedly sinister. The Governor and Commandant conferred for a moment, and then the word was given and a harassed looking commissariat officer was dispatched to make the arrangements. The soldiers were ordered to stand easy, and Lakeman approached Barker for a quiet word. From my position at the eastern edge of the square I could not tell the nature of the exchange, but Barker was no longer smiling when Lakeman walked away.

The commissariat officer returned in about ten minutes, along with two soldiers struggling with a handcart that looked not dissimilar to a fire engine, carrying a huge tapped barrel. Two great earthenware jugs were filled, and one given to the first man in each squad while glasses were charged and passed to all the spectators. When all were supplied with a brimming tumbler of rum, the Governor drank to the success of both companies, and Lakeman and Granger raised their glasses to him and returned thanks. The men cheered, and then Lakemen’s company broke out with ‘We won’t go home till morning.’ The rum was wonderfully warming, and about half an hour passed in this most agreeable manner, before the men once more fell into the ranks and the rifle drill began.

Lakemen went first, while Granger and his men remained at attention. The open order right dress was once more given, and on the word ‘Dress’ the front rank came to attention, paused, and then took one pace forward, the soldiers turning their heads and eyes to the right and taking up the correct dressing. The rear rank followed suit, and then the centre. The men were as one, their movements instinctive, oiled and fluid, their muscles already trained to remember the actions and their order. I marvelled at such a display of autonomic prowess, given the state I knew I was in after whetting my whistle until the rum had run dry, as had Lakeman’s boys. The regular army soldiers had been much more restrained as far as I could tell, even the Celts among them, and each had taken only a small sip from the jug for show before passing it on. I am pretty certain that Lakeman’s company got hold of the second jug and finished that off as well. Some were silently calling out the time, the speechless movement of their lips the only sign that the drill was in any way a conscious process. Lakeman confidently marched his men around the square in quick and slow time, paying compliments to the Governor and Commandant, saluting to the right flank on the march. The display concluded with arms drill at the halt, ending with a flourish at port arm. It was a superb last turn. To my admittedly untutored eye the parade had been flawless.

I had contrived to get close to Seton and Wright during the toast, and was thus now in a position to hear Wright’s expression of amazement, breathed sotto voce to his superior. ‘By the living Jingo,’ said he, ‘those laggers were powerful good.’

Seton did not immediately reply, but his eyes betrayed his anxiety. ‘There were always going to be a few able amateurs among them,’ he finally conceded. The rangers, meanwhile, fell out proudly, alert and obedient; their collective discipline an unspoken but nevertheless loud statement, appealing, I felt, to the regular army infantrymen and their officers to read ’em and weep as they say in the low gaming houses.

Granger did his best, but he was as an unknown tragedian treading the boards in the wake of Mr. Kean or Mrs. Keeley. Lakeman was simply an impossible act to follow. His men initially appeared competent on the open order, but when they began to move things fell apart, and the more each tried to compensate, the more extreme the collective errors became.  On the close order march, the distance between the ranks was unequal, and dressing was not maintained. Many of the soldiers’ eyes were not front but down, and even when the feet were thus examined there was still some audible scraping of boots along the ground. A good third seemed incapable of remaining stationary when marking time, they swayed on the halt, and their muskets were rarely fully vertical but instead waved like reeds in a gale.

On the right wheel, files in the rear swung out and away from the wheeling point, and judging by the wild glances around the quod few indeed looked the Governor in the eye when paying compliments, like guilty costers unable to meet the gaze of a peeler. The final indignity came in the arms drill, where on the command to fix swords several bayonets clattered to the ground, causing Seton to visibly wince. Granger’s composure was admirable, but his humiliation radiated across the square in waves that, like the rays of the sun, could not been seen but were nonetheless felt.

It was a relief to all when the interminable display of square bashing came to an end, although we all applauded like good sports, albeit in a somewhat desultory fashion that bore little relation to the enthusiastic ovation that Lakeman and his men had received. Granger was joined by the subaltern Metford of the 6th and Sergeant Moore of the 2nd, and the trio hastily organised their company and quit the square in order to begin the next stage of the tournament: the mock battle.

BritanniaLakeman did not yet possess a full staff, and this detail probably went a fair way to explaining why he felt my company worth cultivating, given that the professional foot wabblers and donkey wallopers would not give him the time of day. His plan was to recruit officers at the Cape, where he felt he would find a better class of freelancer among those experienced yet somehow superfluous men that one only seems to encounter in the colonies. His present staff therefore amounted only to Sergeant Major Herridge, an ex-policeman; the volatile Sergeant Waine, who had once been a non-commissioned officer in the 44th but who had been broken and discharged for improper conduct of an unspecified nature; the more steady Sergeant Beaufort, also known as ‘Handsome George’ (for his disconcertingly good looks and his dandy’s attention to their maintenance); and the mysterious Lieutenant Graves, who for reasons that remained obscure chose to take his meals privately below decks, rather than dining with the other officers as did his captain. Religious enthusiasm was rumoured, but as Seton’s staff viewed Graves as another mercenary there was no terrible breach of protocol in this absence, and Lakeman did not appear to care.

For the field day, Lakeman had selected Herridge and Beaufort as his seconds, leaving Graves and Waine to maintain order on the ship, where the balance of his force remained confined, much to the increasing irritation of the soldiers. These placements struck me as a very well-considered use of resources. Herridge’s apparent disdain for his fellow man, manifest mostly in an ill-disguised contempt easily provoked to wrath, made him a leader to be feared, while Beaufort’s charm and charisma had the men as obedient as hounds to a huntsman. With the triumvirate completed by the Byronic Lakeman, who, including myself, I had to admit, would not blindly follow?

It came to me at that moment that there was something quite mythic about these men, and that perhaps this was where the true source of the tension lay with Seton and his subordinates. I suddenly felt, too, an affinity with the ordinary soldiers of Lakeman’s rangers who, by the look of them, were by nature even more rebellious and obstreperous than was I. Yet we had all so easily fallen under the influence of this golden-headed, aristocratic maverick. I laughed aloud at this revelation, and inwardly felt both strangely elated and thoroughly ashamed.

Herridge fell the men in, and, having been released through the labyrinth of cage doors, they proceeded in a spirited manner towards the position assigned them in the forthcoming engagement, the potter’s field wherein so many forgotten prisoners slumbered known as Cemetery Beach. Once again, the observers followed. It had begun to snow quite heavily while we were inside the fort, but the walls surrounding the quod had kept the worse of it off us; outside it was already settling and the cold was corrosive. I felt for Granger’s unfortunate charges, which were tasked with approaching from the sea, and were likely already upon the frozen waters in open boats. The defenders were at least warmed by their brisk march across the island, if not the inward glow of victory in the first round, for there was no doubt the judgement would go in their favour. Now all they had to do was stand fast and hold the bone garden.

It was a miserable place, lost among the dunes at the base of a rocky cliff some thirty yards high with a narrow diagonal path the only passage landward. The painting of snow, to my eyes, made the scene even more gothic than it already was, like a canvas by Friedrich depicting medieval ruins in midwinter.

My group, which consisted of Seton, Wright, Salmond, Camden, Giradot and Lucas, remained concealed atop the cliff, which offered a clear, if bracing point of vantage from which to observe both the beach and the burial ground. Mr. Grace had cried off, citing pressing administrative affairs, which I took to mean that he had realised that he was expected to lie upon the snow covered scrub as were the rest of our party. With my arse in the grass, I was once more grateful for the gift of the waterproof greatcoat. The icy damp, which would have been soaking through the army officers’ tunics and coating their bellies like frozen sweat, must have been most unpleasant. They all bore it well, and their collective stoicism was doubly impressive given that I was reasonably certain that Wright was the only one that had actually seen active service, and therefore experienced any such level of physical discomfort.

To Salmond, who had navigated wooden ships through the North East Passage, this was as a balmy spring afternoon. The old pirate was having a fine time, and while the three senior officers looked through field glasses at the events unfolding below, and the rest of us squinted down as best we could, he wielded a brass telescope as long as a javelin and as thick as a baby’s arm.

‘You could have someone’s eye out with that,’ I said, and he laughed.

While watching Lakeman deploy I began to grasp the Spanish concept of guerrilla tactics, and that there was another type of war that had nothing to do with cavalry charges and vast formations upon a field, but was more akin to a deadly game of hide and seek; a war of reconnaissance, patrols, ambushes, and surprise raids fought out across broken ground. Based upon his experiences in Algeria, it was Lakeman’s expectation that the Basuto war was likely to be fought on such terms, with small, irregular forces striking at vulnerable targets and then melting away almost immediately. These were terms, he felt, that the British military plainly failed to appreciate.

Neither side knew the exact location of the other. Granger had a map reference, assuming he could keep his bearings, and the choice of how best to approach his target. Further assuming that he had the sense to land further up the beach (which he did), Lakeman could only presume the direction of attack and reinforce accordingly. His position was in a natural impression, so he posted concealed lookouts forward, left and right supported by runners. I imagined he did not anticipate a frontal assault, for he relied on the rock at his back and the exposed stretch of beach before him to preclude attack, and fortified on either side using hastily dug redoubts which he packed with riflemen, scattering snipers further down the beach that hid among the freezing rocks and dunes like Alpine bandits. The remainder of his force, I guessed, were firemen, held back by the cliff face to reinforce any weaknesses in his defences. Satisfied, he gave the order to stand to with stealth, and his men dropped to the ground. We could still see most of them, but at ground level they would have been quite invisible, even in the snow.

Granger was clever. He had sent half his force one way around the island and the rest the other, co-ordinating an impressively timed twin landing out of Lakeman’s likely line of sight. His forces approached on each flank, feeling their way through the Marram grass and taking all due precautions, probing the ground left and right, with an advance and a rear guard, the men first bent low with their firelocks at their sides, then upon their bellies like snakes. A smaller sacrificial force, meanwhile, also crawling, slithered across the beach to approach from the direction of the sea in a calculated feint.

The first contact occurred on the right flank, when one of Granger’s scouts met one of Lakeman’s forward observers. The ranger swung his rifle at the elbow and knocked the unfortunate redcoat senseless in one fluid movement.

‘That’s first blood, by God,’ said Salmond in a delighted undertone.

Seton was less impressed. ‘This is supposed to be an enactment,’ he said indignantly. The same scene was then repeated on the left flank. The rangers were clearly planning to remove the opposition by silent degrees, as if incapacitating guards during a bank robbery or a prison break. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ said Seton.

The rangers closest to the advancing redcoats and greenjackets were now creeping through the dunes and quietly disarming the soldiers by approaching from behind and then swiftly holding evil looking bush knives to their throats. The soldiers were then led back to Lakeman’s lines as prisoners, where they were directed to lie face down upon the snow covered graves, with their hands clasped behind their heads. In addition to the two knockouts, this noiseless skirmish did for another eight of them. Now obviously cogent of the directions and time of attack, the rangers withdrew to their fortified positions and waited, completely ignoring the forward platoon, who seemed unsure what to do when not fired upon. Moore was at their head, and he had the good sense to disperse his half dozen charges amongst the rocks and dunes. Granger and Metford were less patient, and elected to storm the defences of both flanks together. The order to fire was given and these brave but misguided invaders received a peppering volley from both of Lakeman’s redoubts.

As the pungent smoke rose to our nostrils, Salmond bellowed down to Granger’s wasted forces, many of whom, Ensign Metford included, were writhing on the ground checking their bodies as if really shot. ‘You men there,’ he intoned, ‘are all dead.’

The remainder of the force, including Moore’s contingent, sprang up and bolted for the boats down the beach, sliding about the snow like particularly inexpert skiers. Lakeman’s men were clearly most anxious to prove their capacity for combat beyond the opportunity presented by the failed assault, so with loud and exulting cries they jumped up from their positions and started off in pursuit of the scuttling foe.

Private Barker was particularly conspicuous in the melee that followed, fetching the butt of his rifle upon the heads and shoulders of his foes until, like Achilles in pursuit of Hector, he faced the defeated Granger, sword drawn and pistol in hand. The battle was done, and all eyes (the living and the dead) were now on these two men. Like Broughton and Slack in the Prize Ring they circled one another for what seemed like an age, their eyes locked in a burning hatred apparent even at our distance. Granger, his blood up, finally swung his sword with the finesse of a man cutting wood, only to have it expertly blocked by Barker’s rifle, which continued its arc upward until its heavy stock connected with the young officer’s chin. Granger went down, stunned, and Barker kicked the weapons from his hands. He then raised his rifle and sighted down the long barrel of the Minié into Granger’s face, his lips moving in words obviously meant only for his vanquished enemy.

Just as Lakeman called, ‘Enough!’ he fired.

*

Granger complained all the way back to the boats. Lakeman’s team, he argued, should be disqualified on the grounds of unnecessary and excessive force. The whole affair, he asserted, had gone off in a most unsportsmanlike fashion, which entirely proved his point regarding the inferiority of Lakeman’s men. His, he said, was the moral victory. He had pulled himself together and scrambled up the cliff path to demand adjudication, although I do not imagine that his hopes were very high. The young lieutenant was looking much the worse for wear, and was obviously flustered, if not dazed, for an angry bruise was flowering the line of his jaw, which was swelling in a most alarming manner. When our referee and judge, the formidable Master and Commander, had directed him to shake hands with his victorious opponent, he had first tried to do so with Salmond himself, who registered his contempt with a long growl.

‘I rather think, sir,’ Lakeman had replied, ‘that your decisive defeat has vindicated my position.’

It goes without saying that Lakeman had carried the day and won the bet. He had also joined the judges’ party, and left the fair and fragrant Sergeant Beaufort to release the dishevelled and traumatised prisoners and organise the triumphant rangers, who needed to be marched along the beach to the pier and then conveyed back to the ship sharpish, before they realised that there was to be no celebratory shore leave granted. To these victors there would be no spoils, although Lakeman had promised a share of the profits from the wager. That these funds would not be immediately transferred to the ale houses and brothels of Cork was, I am sure, a source of profound disappointment to all parties concerned.

The ferocious Herridge had charge of Private Barker, who Granger wanted on company punishment. ‘I’m not sure we do that,’ said Lakeman, who had offered various excuses for the behaviour of his men. The temperature of their blood, he said, had been raised by the heat of battle. Barker had lowered his rifle at the last second, and discharged the weapon between the splayed, frog-like legs of his prostrate foe, destroying both pride and breeches, but nothing else. This symbolic unmanning was so humiliating that it would have been more humane by far to have blown out Granger’s brains upon the sand, which at that range would have been as easily achieved with a blank charge as a loaded one. Disgrace at the crease or a white feather would have been mere bags of shells by comparison.

Not for the first time that day Seton had visibly winced. ‘The mercenary is right,’ he said, as Barker blasted away at Granger’s bollocks below. ‘Our men are not ready for war. If we send them up country it will be murder.’

His face was as set as a plaster death mask, and deep in thought he spoke no more after receiving Granger’s report and conceding the wager. He and Wright then trudged disconsolately back to the fort in silence, accompanied by Colonel Camden. Giradot and Lucas did their best to consol Granger, whose excruciating embarrassment was manifest in a rambling monologue interrupted only by swigs from a silver flask.

Lakeman and Salmond walked together enthusiastically discussing the battle. As ever, I hung back and observed. It was still snowing heavily, in great irregular flakes that had quickly coated the entire island, bleaching sand and shore. In the lee of the cliffs, snow danced and flurried about the forlorn churchyard where Granger’s honour, like the luckless convicts, was now crudely interred, drifting against the meagre and twisted crosses. Dickens would have no doubt found the scene sublime, poetic and beautiful, but all I saw was the colour of bone.

Click here to read Chapter XX

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Stephen Carver
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