How some command decisions of the First Anglo-Sikh War were taken…. In Flashman’s words XII

And, we saw one fearless and intrepid British cavalryman has shortened the odds, but the troubles have by no means ended…. But, let Flashman tell you about what happened in the Battle of Ferozeshah…

~~~ So while the cavalry rumpus petered out, with the Khalsa horsemen drawing off, half of them dismounted, limping back to reform, I surveyed that mass of infantry with a sinking heart, calling them off by name – Allard’s, Court’s, Avitabile’s, Delust’s, Alvarine’s, and the rest of the divisions. The standards were easy to read, and so were those grim bearded faces, sharp in my glass – I could even make out the silver buckles on the black cross-belts, the aigrets in the turbans, and the button on the tunics, white, and red and blue and green, just I’d seen them on Maian Mir. How the devil came they here – had Taj’s colonels lost patience and made him march to the sounds of the guns? That must be it, and now that White had played our last card, we would only wait for them to advance and swallow us. The victory of Ferozeshah had become a death-trap – and I remember Gardner’s words: “They reckon they can whip John Company.” And now John Company could barely stand up in his shot-torn squares, his pouches and magazines empty, his guns silent, his cavalry lame, and only bayonets left.

Across the plain spurts of flame flickered along the Khalsa batteries like an electric storm, followed by the thunder of the discharge, the howl of shot overhead, and a hideous crashing and screaming as it burst open our squares. They were making sure, the bastards, pounding us to death at leisure before sending in their foot regiments to cut up the remains; again the dust boiled up as the grape and roundshot tore through the entrenchments; we could stand or we could run. John Company chose to stand, God knows why. In my case, he stood as close behind Gough as might be, too scared even to pray – and a bad choice of position it was, too. For as the bombardment reached its height, and the squares vanished in the rolling red clouds, and our army died by inches, with men going like skittles and the blood running under our hooves, and some heroic ass bawling: “Die hard, Queen’s Own!”, and Flashy wondering if he dared cut out under the eye of his Chief, and knowing I hadn’t the game for it, and even my wound forgotten as the deadly hail swept through us – suddenly Gough wheeled his horse, looking right and left at the wreck of his army, and the old fellow was absolutely weeping! Then he flung away his hat, and I heard him growl:

“Oi nivver wuz bate, an’ Oi nivver will be bate! West, Flashman – follow me!”

And he wheeled his charger and went racing into the plain.

You fall on your bloody sword if you want to, Paddy, thinks I, and would have stood my ground or dived for cover, more like – but Charley was away like a shot, my beast followed like the idiot cavalry screw he was, I clutched at my bridle with my shattered hand, near fainted at the pain, and found myself careering in their wake. For a moment I thought the old fellow had gone crazy, and was for charging the Khalsa on his own, but he veered away right, making for the flank square – and as he galloped clear of it and suddenly reined on his haunches, and rose on his stirrups with his arms wide, I saw what he was at.

All India knew that white coat of Gough’s, the famous “fighting coat” that the crazy old son-of-a-bitch had been flaunting at his foes for fifty years, from South Africa and the Peninsula to the Northwest Frontier. Now he was using it to draw the fire from his army to himself (and the two unlucky gallopers whom the selfish old swine had dragged along). It was the maddest-brained trick you ever saw – and, damnation, it worked! I can see him still, holding the tails out and showing his teeth, his white hair streaming in the wind, and the earth exploding him, for the Sikh gunners took the bait and hammered us with everything they had. And of course, we weren’t hit – try turning your batteries on three men at a thousand yards, and see where it gets you.

But you don’t reckon mathematical probabilities with a hurricane of shot whistling about your ears. I forced my beast alongside him, and yelled:

“Sir Hugh, you must withdraw! The army cannot spare you, sir!” Which was inspiration, if you like, but wasted on that Irish idiot. He yelled back something I couldn’t hear….. and then the miracle happened. And if you don’t believe it, look in the books.

To be continued…..

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