The Fields of Death, стр. 1

The Fields of Death


Copyright © 2010 Simon Scarrow

For James and Bob, for their unstinting dedication to the team.

Chapter 1


The Danube, April 1809

The defences of the Bohemian town of Ratisbon looked formidable indeed, Napoleon silently conceded as he swept his telescope along the aged walls and ditches confronting him. The retreating Austrian army had hastily thrown up more earthworks to bolster the existing defences and cannon muzzles were discernible in the embrasures of each redoubt, with more cannon mounted on the thick, squat towers of the old town. Here and there, the white-uniformed figures of the enemy regarded the French host approaching the town. Beyond the walls the pitched roofs and church spires were vague in the last vestiges of the early morning mist that had risen up from the Danube. On the far side of the river Napoleon could just pick out the faint trails of smoke rising up from the Austrian camp on the far bank.

He frowned as he lowered the telescope and snapped it shut. Archduke Charles and his men had escaped the trap Napoleon had set for them. Ratisbon had been in French hands until a few days before, and the enemy had been caught with their backs to the river. But the commander of the garrison had surrendered after a brief resistance, leaving the bridge across the Danube intact. So the Austrians had crossed to the north bank and left a strong force behind to defy their pursuers. Archduke Charles had surprised him, Napoleon reflected. He had fully expected the Austrians to fall back towards Vienna to protect their supply lines and defend their capital. Instead, the enemy general had crossed the river into Bohemia, leaving the road to Vienna open. Only it was not as simple as that, Napoleon realised well enough. If he led his army towards Vienna, he would be inviting the Austrians to fall on his supply lines in turn. That might be an unavoidable risk.

Napoleon turned round to face his staff officers. ‘Gentlemen, Ratisbon must be taken if we are to cross the Danube and force the enemy to face us on the battlefield.’

General Berthier, Napoleon’s chief of staff, briefly raised his eyebrows as he glanced past his Emperor towards the defences of the town, barely a mile away. He swallowed as his gaze switched back to Napoleon.

‘Very well, sire. Shall I give the order for the army to prepare for a siege?’

Napoleon shook his head.‘There is no time for a siege. The moment we settle down to dig trenches and construct batteries the Austrians have the initiative. Moreover, you can be sure that our other enemies . . .’ Napoleon paused and smiled bitterly, ‘and even some of those who call us friends will take great comfort from the delay. It would not take much prompting for them to side with Austria.’

The more astute of the officers readily understood his point. Several of the small states of the German Confederation were sympathetic to Austria’s cause. But by far the biggest danger came from Russia. Even though Napoleon and Tsar Alexander were bound by treaty there had been a marked cooling of their relationship over the past months, and it was possible that the Russian army might intervene on either side of the present war between France and Austria.

Napoleon had been surprised by the temerity of the Austrians when they had opened hostilities in April, without a formal declaration of war. Before then there had been many reports from spies that the Austrian army had been reorganised and expanded, and equipped with new cannon and modern muskets. The signs that Emperor Francis intended to begin another war were unmistakable, and Napoleon had given orders for the concentration of a powerful army ready to meet the threat. Once the campaign had begun, the usual plodding progress of the enemy columns had allowed the French to outmarch them and force the Austrians to fight on Napoleon’s terms. The performance of his army had been most gratifying, Napoleon considered. Most of the soldiers who had engaged the enemy so far had been fresh recruits, yet they had fought superbly. But for the failure to prevent the Austrians from escaping across the Danube, the war would already be as good as won.

Napoleon turned towards one of his officers. ‘Marshal Lannes.’

The officer stiffened. ‘Sire?’

‘Your men will take the town, whatever the cost. Understand?’

‘Yes, sire.’ Lannes nodded, and casually adjusted his plumed bicorne over his brown curls. ‘The lads will soon chase the Austrians out.’

‘They’d better,’ Napoleon replied curtly. Then he stepped closer to Lannes and fixed his gaze on the marshal. ‘I am depending on you. Do not let me down.’

Lannes smiled softly. ‘Have I ever, sire?’

‘No. No, you haven’t.’ Napoleon returned the smile. ‘Good fortune be with you, my dear Jean.’

Lannes saluted, then turned to stride swiftly towards the orderly who was holding his horse. Swinging himself up into the saddle, Lannes touched his spurs in and trotted his mount forward, riding down from the small knoll towards the columns of his leading infantry division as they formed up out of range of the Austrian guns. A brief lull settled over the French positions and then a trumpet signalled the advance and with a rattle of drums the infantry columns tramped towards the enemy fortifications. Ahead of them a screen of skirmishers advanced in loose order, muskets lowered as they looked for individual targets along the line of the Austrian defences.

Napoleon felt his heart harden at the sight of the blue-coated columns closing on the enemy-held town. At any moment the Austrians would open fire and cones of case shot would tear bloody holes in the brave ranks of his men. But Ratisbon had to be taken.

‘For what we are about to receive,’ Berthier muttered as he strained his eyes to observe the leading elements of the division closing on the enemy defences.

The Austrians held their fire until the French skirmishers had almost reached the wide ditch in front of the town’s walls. Then hundreds of tiny puffs of smoke pricked out along the walls as bright tongues of flame stabbed from the guns mounted on the towers and redoubts. Napoleon raised his telescope and saw that scores of the skirmishers had been cut down, and behind them the leading ranks of Lannes’s columns reeled as they were subjected to a storm of lead musket balls and the iron shot of the guns. The officers raised their swords high, some placing their hats over the points to make them more visible, and urged their men on. The soldiers surged over the lip of the ditch and were lost to view for a moment before they reappeared, scrambling up the far slope and running on towards the wall. Above them, the battlements of the town were lined with the white uniforms of the Austrians, barely visible through the drifting banks of smoke that hung in the air like a tattered shroud. All the while, the attackers were being whittled down as they tried to reach the wall.

Then, quite abruptly, the forward impetus died as the soldiers went to ground, huddling behind whatever cover they could find as they desperately exchanged shots with the enemy. Still more men entered the ditch, crowding those on the far slope who refused to advance any further. The dense mass of humanity presented an irresistible target to the enemy, who swept the ditch with case shot while grenades were lobbed down from the walls. They detonated with bright flashes, shooting shards of jagged iron in every direction, mutilating the men of Marshal Lannes’s first wave.