The Fields of Death, стр. 2

‘Damn.’ Napoleon frowned irritably. ‘Damn them. Why do they sit there, and die in that ditch? If they want to live, then they must go forward.’

His frustration grew as the slaughter continued. At length the inevitable happened as the men of the first wave slowly began to give ground, and then the pace increased as the urge to retreat spread through the soldiers like an invisible wave rippling out through their ranks. Within minutes the last of the survivors sheltering in the ditch was hurrying away from the town, leaving the dead and wounded sprawled and heaped before the wall. As the men streamed back the Austrians continued to fire after them until the French were out of musket range, and then only the cannon continued, firing several more rounds of case shot before they too fell silent.

Abruptly, Napoleon dug his spurs in and urged his mount down the gentle slope of the knoll before galloping towards Lannes’s forward command point in the ruins of a small chapel. The emperor’s bodyguards and staff officers hurried after him, anxiously trying to keep up. Marshal Lannes strode forward to confront the first of the fugitives as soon as he was aware that the attack had failed. By the time Napoleon reached him he was berating a large group of sheepish-looking soldiers.

‘Call yourself men?’ Lannes bellowed at the top of his voice. ‘Running like bloody rabbits the first time we come up against some Austrians who have the balls to stand and fight. Sweet Jesus Christ, you shame me! You shame your uniforms, and you shame the Emperor.’ Lannes indicated Napoleon as he approached and reined in. ‘And now the enemy are laughing at you. They mock you for being cowards. Listen!’

Sure enough, the faint sound of jeers and whistles came from the defenders of Ratisbon and some of the men looked down at the ground, not daring to meet the eyes of their commander.

Napoleon dismounted and stared coldly at the men gathered in front of Lannes. He remained silent for a moment before he shook his head wearily.‘Soldiers, I am not angry with you. How could I be?You obeyed your orders and made your attack. You advanced into fire and continued forward until your nerve failed. And then you retreated. You have done no less than any other man in any army in Europe.’ Napoleon paused briefly to let his next words carry their full weight. ‘But you are not in any army in Europe. You are in the French army. You march under standards entrusted to you by your Emperor. The same standards that were carried to victory at Austerlitz. At Jena and Auerstadt. Eylau and Friedland. Together, we have beaten the armies of the King of Prussia and the Tsar. We have humiliated the Austrians - the very same Austrians who now taunt you from the walls of Ratisbon. They think that the men of France have grown weak and fearful, that the fire in their bellies has died. They think that the enemy they once faced, and feared with good cause, is now as meek as a lamb. They shame you. They laugh at you. They ridicule you . . .’ Napoleon looked round and saw the glowering expressions of anger on the faces of some of his men, just as he had hoped. He pressed home his advantage. ‘How can a man endure this? How can a soldier of France not feel his heart burn with rage at the scorn poured on him by those whom he knows to be his inferiors?’ Napoleon thrust his arm out in the direction of Ratisbon. ‘Soldiers! Your enemy awaits you. Show them what it means to be a Frenchman. Neither shot nor shell can shake your courage, or make your resolution waver. Remember those who have fought for your Emperor before you. Remember the eternal glory that they have won. Remember the gratitude and gifts that their Emperor has bestowed on them.’

‘Long live Napoleon!’ Marshal Lannes punched his fist into the air. ‘Long live France!

The cry was instantly taken up by the nearest men and swept through the ranks of those gathered around. Other soldiers, further off, turned to stare, and then joined in so that the taunts of the Austrians were drowned out by the tumultuous acclaim sweeping through the men of Lannes’s division. Lannes continued leading the cheering for a moment before he raised his arms and bellowed for his men to still their tongues. As the cheers died away the marshal drew a deep breath and pointed to the first of the soldiers rallying to their regimental standards.

‘To your colours! Form up and make ready to show those Austrian dogs how real soldiers fight!’

As the men hurried off Napoleon could see the renewed determination in their expressions and nodded with satisfaction.‘Their blood is up. I just hope they can take the wall this time.’ He turned his gaze back towards the enemy’s defences. They were less than half a mile from the nearest enemy guns. ‘We are still within range here. And so are the men.’

‘It would take a lucky shot indeed to hit anyone at this range, sire,’ Lannes replied dismissively. ‘Waste of good powder.’

‘I hope you are right.’

An instant later there was a puff of smoke from an embrasure in the nearest Austrian redoubt and both men traced the faint dark smear of the shot as it curved through the morning air, angling slightly to one side of their position. The ball grounded a hundred yards ahead, kicking up dust and dirt before it landed again another fifty paces further on, and then again before carving a furrow through the calf-length grass and coming to rest a short distance from the front rank of the nearest French battalion.

‘Good conditions for artillery,’ Napoleon mused. ‘Firm ground - the effective range will increase, and the ricochet of the enemy shot is going to cost us dear.’

More Austrian guns opened fire and a shot from one of the heavier pieces grounded just short of one of the French battalions before slicing a deep path through the ranks, felling men like skittles.

Lannes cleared his throat. ‘Sire, it occurs to me that we are also in range of the enemy guns.’

‘True, but as you pointed out the chances of their hitting us are negligible.’

‘Nevertheless, sire, it would be prudent for you to withdraw beyond effective range.’

Napoleon glanced towards the redoubt, noting that the muzzle of one of the guns was foreshortened to a black dot. Abruptly the gun was obscured by a swirl of smoke and a moment later a puff of dirt kicked up just ahead of them.

‘Look out!’ Lannes yelled a warning.

But before Napoleon could react, the ball grounded much closer, and then again right at their feet. Grit and soil sprayed in their faces as Napoleon felt a blow, like a savage kick, slam into his right ankle. The shock of the impact stunned him and he stood rigidly, not daring to look down, as Lannes dusted down his uniform jacket with a chuckle. ‘As I said . . .’

Napoleon felt his ankle give way, and stumbled to the side, thrusting out his arms to break his fall as he went down.

‘Sire!’ Lannes hurried to kneel at his side. ‘You’ve been hit?’

The pain in Napoleon’s leg was agonisingly sharp and he gritted his teeth as he replied. ‘Of course I’ve been hit, you fool.’

‘Where?’ Lannes glanced over him anxiously. ‘I can’t see the wound.’

‘My right leg.’ Napoleon winced. ‘The ankle.’

Lannes shuffled down and saw that Napoleon’s boot had been badly scuffed. He felt tenderly for signs of injury. Napoleon gasped and forced himself to sit up. Over Lannes’s shoulder he could see several staff officers and orderlies running towards them. Beyond, the men of the nearest battalion were falling out of line as they stared towards their Emperor with shocked expressions.

‘The Emperor is wounded!’ a voice cried out.

The cry was repeated and a chorus of despairing groans rippled through the ranks of the division forming to launch the second attack. Napoleon could see that he must act swiftly to restore the men’s morale, before the chance to seize Ratisbon slipped away.