Friday, May 19, 2023

Quatre Bras - The Fight of the Highlanders

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Macara, commanding the battalion, had his company commanders gathered near the road. To the front he could hear the boom of artillery and the rattle of musketry. "Sounds rather hot out there, gentlemen. Back to your companies now, keep your eyes and ears open, this damned rye is tall enough that a fellow on foot might as well be facing a damned wall!"

Captain Morris McGilvery was in a thoughtful mood, truth be told he was still a bit tipsy from the night before. Though the march to this small crossroads, damned if he could remember the name of the place, had sweated most of the alcohol from his system, he still felt a bit woozy.

McGilvery winced as he heard his name shouted out not two feet behind him, "Told ye it was one tot too many Morris." The slap on his back nearly pitched him into the road.

Captain Archibald Menzies, commander of the 42nd's grenadier company was a big bear of a man. He had been razzing McGilvery all day as to the amount of drink McGilvery had consumed the night before.

"I'll be aw-right Archie, provided ye don't crack my spine. I've almost sweated it all out by now. A whiff of powder smoke and I'll be fine." McGilvery acted as if it was nothing, but truth be told, the coming action worried him. A friend of his in the Gordons had had a premonition of death the night before, which had spurred the drinking on as both men worried over their individual fates.

Rejoining his company, McGilvery had a sense that something was wrong, very wrong.

"Fix bayonets lad, move quickly now." he ordered as he drew his basket-hilted claidheamh-mòr¹, something was up, he could sense it on the wind.

Caporal Pierre Roget couldn't see very far through the tall crops to his front. His horse, Maria, was nervous as well, she couldn't see either!

His brigade was composed of a regiment of Chasseurs à Cheval along with his own regiment of Chevau-Légers-Lanciers.² The troopers had their lances at the ready, the enemy had been glimpsed from time to time where the crops had been trampled down.

The regiment came into the open, crossing a road, which Roget noted was paved, had to be the main road to the north he thought. As they went across the road he could see infantry in red tunics and tall hats to their front, facing the wrong way and in line to boot!

As their speed increased, he noted that these opponents seemed to be wearing skirts. What insanity was this, did the English have female soldiers?³

The battalion was advancing and had just stepped into a relatively open area where the crops had been trampled down.

Captain McGilvery noticed a body of cavalry advancing in their direction, they must be Brunswickers, he thought. At any rate the battalion's skirmishers were deployed in that direction, if they were enemy we would have heard something by now.

As they advanced, the line was jostled by a party of Dutch-Belgian skirmishers withdrawing in rather a hurry. McGilvery could hear shouting and cheers to the front, French cheers.

"Standby lads, we'll gi' 'em a volley first then go in with the ..."

Before he could finish, a frantically gesturing Dutch officer rode up to the line yelling, "Franchee! Franchee!"

What the hell, McGilvery thought, why is this chap pointing at those Brunswickers? After a moment, a chill ran down McGilvery's spine, those were French cavalry!

"Rally square lads, prepare to receive cavalry!"

The battalion was caught in the open, in line, they would be lucky to survive. McGilvery saw the lance pennons flutter as the Frenchmen dipped their lances. Dear God ...

Roget was leaning forward, his body braced in the saddle for impact, he saw an officer waving a sword. He picked that man as his target.

The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he heard the bugle sound the charge. He didn't need to do a thing as Maria sped up, she knew the bugle calls as well as Roget.

He winced as a small group of the enemy managed a volley, a horse went down near by, its rider screaming with anger as he fell. He didn't know it but the man directly behind took a ball to the throat. That one had just missed Roget.

Then it was into the smoke!

Colonel Macara was down, Menzies had seen him fall from his horse. Menzies had the sick feeling that the ragged volley loosed at the advancing French had hit the colonel.

"Graham, McKay, Pierson, Douglas! Get to the colonel, we've got to get him back to the battalion! Lads, on me! On me! Rally square, protect the colonel!"

A number of his grenadiers fell in on Menzies, it was going to be close. A lancer came out of the smoke, his lance just missing Menzies who managed to impale the Frenchman with his claidheamh-mòr. The Frenchman dropped his lance and hissed as he bent forward over his saddle.

Wrenching his sword free, he brought it up to parry yet another lance, this time his luck ran out. The lance cut into the top of his shoulder, ripping away his epaulette. The pain was immediate, though bearable.

Roget turned his mount after he had passed through the ragged Scottish formation. He drew his saber as his lance was still stuck in the man who had fired a wild shot at him.

Galloping back the way he came, he sabered another Scotsman down through the man's hat, which appeared to be made of feathers!

He and three other lancers saw a man being carried from the field, an officer from the look of him. At that moment, Sous-lieutenant Bertrand came galloping up with ten other men.

"Tuez cet officier et ces hommes! Tue-les!⁴"

Roget joined them as they bore down on the small party bearing their wounded colonel.

Menzies and what was left of his company were nearly back to the line when he saw the French charging his men carrying Macara.

"With me Lads! Save the colonel!"

One of the lancers, sawing on his reins, turned and actually threw his lance at Menzies. He moved to the side but nevertheless the edge of the blade ripped across his thigh.

Though his shoulder was in a great deal of pain, Menzies was enraged. He advanced on the lancer who swung his sword at Menzies, knocking his bonnet aside and opening a gash on his head. Menzies managed to grab the lancer's boot and lift him up and out of the saddle.

When the Frenchman landed heavily, he started to get up. Private Jock Campbell's bayonet went into the man's back and he sank back down to the ground.

Menzies screamed out, "NO!" as he saw that they wouldn't get to the colonel in time.

One of the Scotsman turned and fired at the approaching lancers. Roget knew that at this range he couldn't miss. The man beside Roget went down hard as his horse went down screaming.

"Cochon!" Roget screamed as he brought his saber down on the Scotsman who was trying to bring his bayonet to bear. The Scotsman died in a spray of blood as Roget's saber cut into the man's neck near the shoulder.

Another of the Scots aimed at Roget, only to go down with a lance in his back. The enraged lancers made quick work of the men who had been carrying the wounded officer. They died hard and took at least two more lancers with them.

Sous-lieutenant Bertrand was nearly insane with rage. "SOLDAT! Give me your lance!"

The man tossed the lance to his officer, who immediately turned and stabbed down at the wounded officer on the ground.

Though Menzies had been wounded multiple times and was growing weak from blood loss, he still attempted to gain his colonel's side.

"NO!" he screamed as he saw the French officer plunge his lance into Macara, who had his hands up as if to ward off the blow. Two more of the French stabbed Macara, killing him.

As Menzies lost consciousness, he heard the survivors of the battalion moving up, he heard the command to fire, then he passed out.

Captain McGilvery and the remainder of the rallied 42nd drove off or killed the remaining lancers. His sergeant, MacNeill, pulled on McGilvery's tunic sleeve.

"Sir, innit that Cap'n Menzies?"

McGilvery looked, it certainly was Menzies. The man was covered in blood. Going to his side he checked the fallen officer, "He's still alive, let's pull him into the square lads! Lively now, I don't think the Frenchies are done wi' us yet!"

The 42nd had managed to form a proper square once the cavalry had withdrawn. Now they waited for what was to come.

Though a lot of the crop around them was now a ruined mess, enough remained to make visibility uncertain. But every man in that square heard, and some could feel, the sound of hoofbeats. More cavalry!

"Steady lads. We hold here or we die here!" the acting commander of the 42nd bellowed.

"Pipers! Give us cogadh no sith⁵! Prepare to sell ye're lives dearly!"

And the men of the Black Watch waited for what was coming through the rye for them.

Author's Note: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Macara was indeed killed in action at Quatre Bras. Perhaps not exactly as I've described but near enough. For the rest of the campaign the 42nd took no prisoners. They would shout out "Where is Macara?" to Frenchmen trying to surrender. Then would kill them.

¹ Gaelic for "great sword," pronounced claymore.
² Chasseurs à Cheval were a type of light cavalry used much like hussars but with much cheaper uniforms. Chevau-Légers-Lanciers translates to light horse lancers, typically referred to simply as lancers. As the name implies they carried a long lance. Later in the century only the front rank carried the lance, the rank behind were armed with light cavalry sabers as once they closed with the enemy, the lance was a bit unwieldy in close quarters.
³ Roget hadn't served in Spain and was unfamiliar with Highland dress. Many of the French referred to the kilted Scottish regiments as the sans-culottes, literally "without trousers."
⁴ Kill that officer and those men! Kill them!
⁵ An old Scottish war tune, "War or Peace"


  1. Doesn't take much for bloodlust to overrule reason, a rousing post Sarge.

  2. Good story but there are a lot of characters to keep track of...

    1. Many of them will make a brief appearance and then be gone. I like giving everyone a name. It's to remind myself that those that fought and died were actual people, with names, families, friends.

  3. You have a fine ability to write action fiction, Sarge. I for one can certainly feel the narrative in my mind.

    The motto of the O'Gormans of County Claire who were the hereditary field marshals of the O'Brien's and to whom I am (in theory, anyway) descended from), was "Tosach catha agus deire air", the beginning and the end of battle.

    1. From the beginning to the end, as a TV character of my acquaintance might say, "It is the Way."

  4. Crusty Old TV Tech here. Cogadh no Sith, ah, the mere thought of that pipe tune stirs the weary old Scots blood to boil, even at a distance of 200+ years! Never, ever expect the Black Watch to gi' in! Alba an Àigh!

    On another note, it also saddens me greatly the loss of those brave Scotsmen in a field in Wallonia. 100 years later, Scotsmen from Canada would go on the offensive, near a little French place called Vimy Ridge, and carve their names in the record of great deeds of Scotsmen worldwide. What is it about my Scots ancestors that makes them this way?

    1. We share similar ancestries, my father side of the family has a lot of Scots blood through his mother. On my mother's side it's mostly Scots with the odd English here and there.

      Also on my father's side, through his father, it's all French, all the time, via Quebec.

      Scotland has produced many a brave lad who left his blood on some foreign field.

  5. Bloodlust. When it grabs you, you're gone, for a while. Sometimes you remember through that spell, sometimes you don't; whether that is good or bad I've never been sure of, only glad I survived.

    1. No doubt an instinct inherited from long ago when such things meant the survival of the species.

  6. Great post. Your ability to put the reader on the spot is brilliant, as you have shown time and again.

    The only "combat" I've seen is in martial arts, SCA, and War of 1861 reenactments, but I've seen the bloodlust rise up even in those.

    If we can draw an equivalence between bloodlust and mob violence, and I think there is some similarity, I've even seen it at the crowds at the Black Point Ren Faire. One of the Faire Folk played the village madwoman, the Penny Lady, she wore tattered clothes, was dirty, disheveled, and scrabbled along the ground chanting and screaming "Penny! Penny! Pennypennypenny.." you get the idea. And people would gather around her, tossing coins, or bills, to her. Often she would eat a dollar bill or two, toss away quarters and half dollars. One time I was watching and some teens, maybe 15 or 16, by their clothing, and the clothing of their parents, they were upper class Marinites, also, since it was just after opening, it was reasonable to assume that they were locals, anyway, they quickly went from tossing coins to her to throwing those quarters and half dollars AT her, and their parents were handing them more and egging them on. In less than a minute the crowd changed from people enjoying the act to a mob with just about everyone throwing coins AT her, throwing them HARD. I think that in just another couple of minutes it would have become real mob violence rather than just an over reaction to a bit os schtick. This in o, so civilized, refined, tolerant Marin County CA. We wear a very thin coat of "civility" and violence and bloodlust are just below that surface.

    1. You make a good point, Joe. Sometimes it takes very little for the savage to come out.

  7. Controlling troops in a charge is a very difficult thing. It's why, basically, once the enemy gets within a certain distance, no quarter is usually given. And acts of stupidity are very very expensive in men and training.

    Though, sometimes, nothing can be done about it.

    What the Frogs should have done was kill the stretcher bearers and then captured the officer.

    It's like breaking a spell, stupidity and honor on the battlefield. It comes back threefold, sometimes ninefold. Acts of kindness and mercy tend to smooth the struggle, showing man can be humane. Acts of brutality and stupidity tend, as OAFs pointed out above, to be contrary to the stated purpose of said battle.

    Nothing, NOTHING, pisses off soldiers more than inhumanity achieved right before their eyes. Especially if a favorite soldier, one who the unit seems to align with and is supported by, is the recipient of said inhumanity. The My Lai 'massacre' is a perfect example.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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