And I won’t waste your time with background, but continue with Flashman’s account of the Battle of Ferozeshah, during the First Anglo-Sikh War, and what happens when he is suddenly pitchforked from his nightmare to the bigger nightmare of the battlefield….
~~ An eminent medico has since explained that exhaustion and strain induced a trance-like state when I sank down on my charpoy, and that while my nightmares turned to reality, I didn’t come to properly until I was wounded in the hand – which is the most immediately painful place in the whole body, and I should know, since I’ve been hit in most others. In between, Mad Charley had wakened me, helped me to mount (bad ankle and all), and we’d ridden at speed through the carnage of the recent battle to Gough’s position beyond Ferozeshah village – and all I’d taken in were the disjointed pictures I’ve just described. The sawbones had an impressive medical name for it, but I doubt there’s one for the sensation I felt as I gripped my wounded hand to crush the pain away, and took in the scene about me.
Directly before me were two troops of Native horse artillery, firing as fast as they could load, the little brown gunners springing aside to avoid the recoil, the crash of the salvoes staggering my horse by its very violence. To my left was a ragged square of British infantry – and beyond them others, sepoy and British, kneeling and standing, with the reserve ranks behind. To my right, it was the same, more squares, inclined back at a slight angle, with their colours in the centre, like the pictures of Waterloo. Red squares with the dust boiling round them, and shot screaming overhead or ploughing through with a clap like thunder; men were falling, sometimes singly, sometimes hurtled aside as a shot tore into the ranks; I saw a great swathe, six files wide, cut by grape at the corner of the 9th’s square, and the air filled with red spray. Before me a horse gun suddenly stood on end, its muzzle split like a stalk of celery, and then it crashed down in a hellish tangle of fallen men and stricken horses. It was though a gale of iron rain was sweeping the ranks, coming God knew whence, for the dust and smoke enveloped us – and Mad Charley was hauling at my bridle, urging me through it.
There’s never a time when pain and fear don’t matter, but sometimes shock is so bewildering that you don’t think of them. One such time is when you wake up to find that good artillery has got your range and is pounding you to pieces; there’s nothing to be done, no time even to hope you won’t be hit, and you can’t hurl yourself to the ground and lie there squealing – not when you find you’re alongside Paddy Gough himself, and he’s pulling off his bandana and telling you to wrap it round your fin and pay attention.
“Put your finger on the knot, man! There, now – look ahead and take close note of what ye see!”
He yanked the bandage tight, and pointed, and through tears of anguish and terror I looked beyond the clouds of settling dust.
A bare half-mile away the plain was alive with horsemen. The artillery teams who’d been shelling us, light camel swivels and heavier field pieces, were wheeling away through the advancing ranks of a great tide of cavalry cantering towards us knee to knee. It must have been five hundred yards from wing to wing, with lancer regiments on the flanks, and in the centre the heavy squadrons in tunics of white and red, tulwars at the shoulder, the low sun gleaming on polished helms from which stiff plumes stood up like scarlet combs – and only when I remembered those same plumes at Maian Mir did I realise the full horror of what I was seeing. These where Sikh line cavalry, and dazed and barely half-awake as I was, I knew that could mean only one thing, even if it was impossible: we were facing the army of Tej Singh, the cream of the Khalsa thirty thousand strong, who should have been miles away in futile watch on Ferozepore. Now they were here – beyond the approaching storm of horsemen I could see the massed ranks of infantry, regiment on regiment, with the great elephant guns before them. And we were a bare ten thousand, dropping with exhaustion after three battles which had decimated us, and out of food, water and shot.
To be continued….