Won by the Sword by G. A. Henty
Chapter VIII: Rocroi
Gassion conducted the movements of the army so adroitly that he had brought it to within almost striking distance of the Spanish divisions before Marshal l'Hopital perceived the fact that it was so placed that a battle was almost inevitable. He besought Enghien to fall back while there was yet time, pointing out the orders that had been given that a battle was not to be hazarded, and the terrible misfortunes that would fall upon France in case of defeat. Enghien, however, was deaf to his advice, and refused to acknowledge his authority.
Turenne, under similar circumstances, would have drawn off and forced the enemy to raise the siege by threatening their line of communications; but Turenne thought nothing of personal glory, and fought only for France. Enghien, on the other hand, throughout his career was animated by personal motives, and cared nothing for the general welfare of France. Turenne was wholly unselfish; Enghien was ready to sacrifice anything or everything for his own glory or interest. At present, surrounded as he was by young nobles as eager to fight as he was himself, and backed by Gassion, one of the most able and enterprising soldiers of the day, he declared that he had come to fight and would do so. Even had l'Hopital known the news that had been received by Enghien, he would have been powerless to check or control him. A courier had indeed the day before brought the young duke a despatch containing the news of the king's death and peremptory orders not to fight. Enghien simply put the letter in his pocket, and the contents were known only to Gassion and a few of his most intimate friends.
De Malo was as anxious to bring on a general engagement as was his fiery opponent. He was kept well informed of what was going on in Paris, and knew that the king's death was imminent. His position on a plain, surrounded on all sides by woods and marshes with but one approach, and that through a narrow defile, was practically impregnable; and by occupying the defile he could have kept the French at bay without the slightest difficulty until Rocroi surrendered. He knew, too, that General Beck with a considerable force was hastening to join him; but he feared that prudent counsels might at the last moment prevail in the French camp, or that the news of the king's death might reach them, and he therefore left the defile open and allowed the French army to gain the plain and form up in order of battle facing him, without offering the slightest opposition or firing a single gun.
It was late in the afternoon by the time the French were in position, and as both commanders were anxious that the battle should be a decisive one neither took any step to bring on the fight, but contented themselves with preparing for the encounter next morning. The night was cold and somewhat thick, and the positions of the two armies were marked by lines of fire. The march had been a long and fatiguing one, and silence soon fell upon the scene. Enghien wrapped himself in his cloak, and, lying down by a watch fire, was speedily asleep, wholly unoppressed by the tremendous responsibilities that he had assumed, or the fact that he had risked the destinies of France for the sake of his personal ambition, and that in any case the slaughter that must ensue in the morning would be terrible. Gassion, however, with a few of the older officers, sat for hours discussing the probabilities of the battle. Hector, remembering the manner in which Turenne exercised the most ceaseless vigilance, and nightly inspected all the outposts, endeavouring to ascertain the plans and positions of the enemy, had, as night closed in, requested Gassion's permission to go the rounds.
"Certainly, if it so pleases you, Captain Campbell. The watchword tonight is 'Conde', but I will in addition give you a pass enjoining all officers to allow you to go where you please, you being on the staff of the prince. I shall go round myself later on, for de Malo may intend a night attack, by which he would certainly gain advantages. His troops are fresh, while ours are weary. He has had every opportunity of studying the ground, while it is all new to us. Still, I hardly think that he will move till morning. Enterprise is not the strong point of the Spaniards, they love to fight in solid bodies, and hitherto their infantry have never been broken by cavalry. At night they would lose the advantage of their steadiness of formation. It is clear, by his willingness to allow us to pass the defile and take up this position, that de Malo is absolutely certain of victory and will wait, for daylight would permit him to make his expected victory a complete one, while at night great numbers of our army would be able to make their escape through the woods."
Hector returned to the spot where his horses were picketed with those of Enghien's staff. He found Paolo lying down under a tree where he had been ordered to take up his post, so that Hector could find him if required.
"Are you asleep, Paolo?"
"No, master; I have been thinking about the battle tomorrow, and where I had best bestow myself."
"As to that, Paolo, I should say that you had better keep with the prince's servants here. You will, of course, have your horse saddled and be ready to ride on the instant. If we are victorious there will be no occasion for you to move, but if you see that we are beaten, my orders are that you are not to think of waiting for me. I must keep with the others. Doubtless the cavalry would cover the retreat, and it would be a serious inconvenience for me to have to come here to look after you, therefore as soon as you see that the day has gone against us mount and ride. You can wait at our halting place of last night until you see the prince's party come along. If I am alive I shall be with them; if not, my advice to you is to ride south and to report yourself to Turenne. He will, I doubt not, either take you into his own service, or give you such strong recommendations that you will have no difficulty in obtaining a post with some officer of distinction should you wish to continue with the army. Now, I am going along our line of outposts, and I intend to reconnoitre the ground between us and the enemy. That is what Turenne would be doing were he in command here."
"I will go with you, master; when it comes to reconnoitering, methinks that I am as good as another. I can run like a hare, and though a bullet would go faster, I am quite sure that none of these heavily armed Spaniards would have a chance of catching me."
"I intended to take you with me, Paolo. We shall need as much care and caution here as we did in getting into the citadel of Turin."
"I think, master, that it would be well for you to leave your armour behind you. It will be of small avail if you fall into the midst of a band of Spanish spearmen, while it would be a sore hindrance in passing through these woods, and the lighter you are accoutred the better."
"That is so, and I will take your advice. I will give it into the charge of the horse guard. I will, of course, take my sword and pistols, and you may as well take yours."
"I like a knife better than a sword, master, but I will take the both. I think it would be as well for you to lay aside your helmet also, for the light from one of these watchfires might glint upon it and catch the eye of a Spaniard."
"You are right, Paolo; have you got the hat?"
"Yes, sir, it is here with your valises."
"That is certainly more comfortable," Hector said as he put it on. "Now, you had better carry the things across to that fire where the prince's staff are sitting. There is no fear of anyone interfering with them there."
As soon as this had been done they started, picking their way carefully through numbers of sleeping men, and stopping once or twice to exchange a word with the groups still gathered round the fires. First they passed along the whole line of outposts, answering the challenges by the words, "Officer of the prince's staff on duty." They found the sentries fairly vigilant, for with so powerful an enemy within striking distance every soldier felt that the occasion was one for unusual watchfulness. At each post Hector questioned the sentinels closely as to whether they had heard any sounds indicating the movement of troops in the interval between the two armies, and in only one case was there an affirmative answer.
"I heard a sound such as might be made by the clash of armour against a tree or by an armed man falling. I have listened attentively since, but have heard nothing more."
"From which direction did the noise seem to come?"
"From across there, sir. It seemed to me to come from that copse in the hollow."
"That is just what I thought might be likely, Paolo," Hector said as he walked on. "That hollow ground between the armies, with its wood and low brushwood, is just the place where an ambush might be posted with advantage. Turenne would have taken possession of it as soon as darkness closed in, for it would not only prevent the possibility of the army being taken by surprise during the night, but it might be invaluable during the fight tomorrow, for a force ambushed there might take an advancing enemy in the rear. We will go farther on till we get to a point where the brushwood extends nearly up to our line. We will enter it there, and make our way along until we see whether de Malo has taken advantage of our failure to utilize the wood."
As soon as they reached the point he indicated they moved forward, crouching low until they reached the bushes; then they crawled along, keeping outside but close to them. In this way they would be invisible to any sentries posted near the edge of the wood, and would also avoid the risk of drawing the enemy's attention by accidentally breaking a dried branch or even snapping a twig. In ten minutes they entered the wood that extended along the greater portion of the hollow.
"Keep on your hands and knees," Hector whispered, "and feel the ground as you go to make sure that there are no broken branches that would crack if you placed your knee upon them. We may come upon the Spaniards at any moment. Keep close to me. Touch me if you hear the slightest sound, and I will do the same to you. The touch will mean stop. Move your sword along the belt till the handle is round at your back; in that way there will be no risk of it striking a tree or catching in a projecting root."
"I will do that, master, and will keep my knife between my teeth. It may be that we shall come upon a Spanish sentinel who may need silencing."
"No, Paolo; only in the last extremity and to save our lives must we resort to arms. Were a sentry found killed in the morning they would know that their position in the wood had been discovered. It is most important that they should believe that their ambush is unsuspected."
Their progress was very slow. When they were nearly opposite the centre of their position Paolo was suddenly touched by his master. They listened intently, and could hear at no great distance ahead low sounds at regular intervals.
"Men snoring," Paolo whispered in his ear.
They moved forward again even more cautiously than before. Presently they stopped, for at the edge of the wood facing the camp they heard a slight movement and a low clash of arms, as if a sentinel on the lookout had changed his position. Feeling sure that the guards would all be placed along the edge of the wood, they moved forward again, stopping every few yards to listen. There was no doubt now that they were close to a large body of sleepers. Occasional snores, broken murmurs, and a sound as one turned from side to side rose from in front of them.
"You go round on one side, I will go round on the other, Paolo. We will meet again when we have passed beyond them. It is important that we should form some estimate as to their numbers."
In half an hour they met again, and crawled along for some distance side by side in silence.
"How many should you say, Paolo?"
"They were lying four deep as far as I could make out, master. I kept very close to the outside line. I could not count them accurately because of the trees, but I should say that there were about two hundred and fifty in a line."
"That was very close to what I reckoned them at. At any rate, it is a regiment about a thousand strong. They are musketeers, for several times I went close enough to feel their arms. In every case it was a musket and not a pike that my hand fell on. Now we will go on till we are opposite our last watchfire, and then crawl up the hill."
They were challenged as they approached the lines.
"A friend," Hector replied. "An officer of the prince's staff."
"Give the countersign," the soldier said.
"That is right, but wait until I call an officer."
"Good! but make no noise; that is important."
The sentinel went to the watchfire, and an officer sitting there at once rose and came forward.
"Advance, officer of the staff!" he said in low tones. "That is right, monsieur," he went on as Hector advanced close enough to be seen by the light of the fire.
"I have a special pass signed by General Gassion," he said.
The officer took it, and looked at it by the light of the fire.
"That is all in order," he said as he returned it; "but the sentry had the strictest orders that no one coming from the side of the enemy was to be allowed to enter our lines, even if he gave the countersign correctly, until he had been examined by an officer."
"He did his duty, sir. One cannot be too careful on the eve of battle. A straggler might stray away and be captured, and be forced under pain of death to give up the countersign, and once in our lines much information might be obtained as to our position. However, I hardly think that any such attempts will be made. The Spaniards saw us march in and take up our position, and must have marked where our cavalry and artillery were posted. Good night!"
The greater part of the night had already gone, for in May the days are already lengthening out. After the troops had fallen out from their ranks wood had to be collected and rations cooked, and it was past ten o'clock before any of them lay down, and an hour later, before Hector left on his expedition. The examination of the outposts had taken more than an hour; it was now three o'clock in the morning, and the orders were that the troops should all be under arms before daybreak. Hector returned to the spot where he had left General Gassion. All was quiet there now, and he lay down until, somewhat before five, a bugle sounded. The signal was repeated all along the line, and almost at the same moment the Spanish trumpets told that the enemy, too, were making preparations for the day's work. General Gassion was one of the first to spring to his feet. Hector at once went up to him.
"I have come to report, general," he said, "that I have reconnoitred along the whole line of wood in the hollow in front, and have found that a regiment of musketeers about a thousand strong have been placed in ambush there."
"Then, by heavens, you have done us good service indeed, Captain Campbell! They might have done us an ill turn had we advanced knowing nothing of their presence there. Nothing shakes troops more than a sudden attack in the rear. Please come across with me and repeat the news that you have given me to the prince himself."
There was bustle all along the line. The troops were falling into their ranks, stamping their feet to set the blood in motion, swinging their arms, and growling at the sharp morning air. At the headquarters bivouac the young nobles were laughing and jesting as they prepared to mount.
"Where is the prince?" Gassion asked.
"There he lies under his cloak, general. He is still fast asleep. It is evident that the thought of the coming battle does not weigh heavily upon him. I acknowledge that I have not closed an eye; I do not think that any of us have done so."
So sound, indeed, was the prince's sleep that Gassion had to shake him almost roughly to rouse him.
As soon, however, as his eyes opened he leapt to his feet. "I have had a wonderful night," he laughed; "never have I slept more soundly on a down bed than on this hard ground, which, however, as I find, makes my bones ache wonderfully. Well, it is a fine day for a battle. What is your news, Gassion?"
"It is important, monseigneur. Captain Campbell has spent the night in reconnoitering on his own account, and has discovered that a thousand Spanish musketeers are lying in ambush in the copse in the hollow."
"Is that so?" the duke said shortly. "Well, Captain Campbell, you have rendered us a vital service indeed, and one that I shall not forget. However, now we are forewarned, we shall know how to deal with them. If I should fall, Gassion, and you should survive, see that Captain Campbell's service is duly represented. Now, to horse, gentlemen!"
The morning sun rose on the 20th of May on a brilliant scene. The two armies were disposed along slightly elevated ridges, between which lay the hollow with its brushwood and copses. Enghien commanded the cavalry on the right wing, with Gassion as second in command. In place of his helmet the prince wore a hat with large white plumes, remembering, perhaps, how Henri of Navarre's white plumes had served as a rallying point. Marshal l'Hopital commanded the cavalry on the French left, Baron d'Espenan commanded the infantry in the centre, and Baron Sirot the reserves. The right of the Spanish army was composed of the German horse led by de Malo, the Walloons on the left were under the Duke of Albuquerque, while in the centre were the veteran Spanish infantry under the command of General Fuentes, who had often led them to victory. He was too old and infirm to mount a horse, but lay in a litter in the midst of his hitherto unconquerable infantry.
All being ready on both sides, the trumpet sounded, and simultaneously the cavalry of both armies moved forward. Enghien moved farther to the right, and then dashing down the slopes led his cavalry along the bottom, fell suddenly upon the musketeers in ambush and cut them to pieces. Then galloping forward he fell upon the Spanish left in front and flank. The impetuous charge was irresistible; the Walloons broke and fled before it, and were speedily scattered over the plain, pursued by the victorious French. But upon the other wing de Malo's charge had proved equally irresistible. L'Hopital's horse was broken and scattered, and, wheeling his cavalry round, de Malo fell upon the flank and rear of d'Espenan's infantry, shattered them at once, captured the whole of the French artillery, and then fell upon the reserves. Baron Sirot, an officer of great courage and ability, held them together and for a time repelled the attack of the German cavalry; but these, inspirited by their previous success, continued their attacks with such fury that the reserves began to waver and fall back. Enghien was still in pursuit of the Walloons when an officer rode up with news of the disaster that had befallen the rest of the army. Enghien grasped the situation instantly, and his military genius pointed out how the battle might yet be retrieved. His trumpets instantly recalled his scattered squadrons, and galloping round the Spanish centre he fell like a thunderbolt upon the rear of de Malo's cavalry, already exulting in what appeared certain victory.
Astounded at this unlooked for attack, they in vain bore up and tried to resist it; but the weight and impetus of the French assault bore all before it, and they clove their way through the confused mass of cavalry without a pause. Then wheeling right and left they charged into the disorganized crowd of German horsemen, who, unable to withstand this terrible onslaught, broke and fled, de Malo himself galloping off the field with his disorganized troopers. Never was a more sudden change in the fate of a great battle. The French cause had appeared absolutely lost; one wing and their centre were routed; their reserves had suffered heavily, and were on the point of giving way. Humanly speaking, the battle seemed hopelessly lost, and yet in ten minutes victory had been converted into defeat, and the right and left wings of the Spanish army had ceased to exist as collected bodies. There remained the Spanish infantry, and Enghien, recklessly courageous as he was, hesitated to attack the solid formation that had hitherto proved invincible.
While still doubting whether, having defeated the rest of the army, it might not be best to allow this formidable body to march away unmolested, news reached him that General Beck, with his reinforcements, would be on the ground in an hour. This decided him, and he ordered the whole of the guns that had been rescued from their late captors to be turned on the Spanish square, and then, collecting his cavalry into a mass, dashed at it. The Spaniards remained motionless till the French line was within twenty yards of them, then men stepped aside, a number of guns poured their contents into the cavalry, while a tremendous volley swept away their front line. So terrible was the effect, so great the confusion caused by the carnage, that had the Walloon cavalry been rallied and returned to the field, the tide of the battle might again have been changed; but they were miles away, and Enghien rallied his men without a moment's delay, while the French artillery again opened fire upon the Spanish square. Again the French cavalry charged and strove to make their way into the gaps made by the artillery, but before they reached the face of the square these were closed up, and the guns and musketry carried havoc among the French squadrons, which again recoiled in confusion. Once more Enghien rallied them, and, when the French artillery had done their work, led them forward again with a bravery as impetuous and unshaken as that with which he had ridden in front of them in their first charge; nevertheless for the third time they fell back, shattered by the storm of iron and lead. Enghien now brought up his artillery to close quarters, Baron de Sirot led up the infantry of the reserve, and the attack was renewed.
The aged Spanish general, though streaming with blood from several wounds, still from his litter encouraged his soldiers, who, stern and unmoved, filled up the gaps that had been made, and undauntedly faced their foes. But the struggle could not be long continued. The square was gradually wasting away, and occupied but half the ground which it had stood upon when the battle began. And Fuentes, seeing that further resistance could only lead to the annihilation of his little band, felt that no more could be done. There were no signs of Beck coming to his assistance. Indeed the troops of that general had been met by the cavalry in their flight; these communicated their own panic to them, and such was the alarm that the division abandoned its baggage and guns and fled from the field, where their arrival might still have turned the tide of battle.
Fuentes at last ordered his officers to signal their surrender. Enghien rode forward, but, the Spanish soldiers believing that, as before, he was but leading his cavalry against them, poured in a terrible volley. He escaped by almost a miracle, but his soldiers, maddened by what they believed to be an act of treachery, hurled themselves upon the enemy. The square was broken, and a terrible slaughter ensued before the exertions of the officers put a stop to it. Then the remaining Spaniards surrendered. The battle of Rocroi was to the land forces of Spain a blow as terrible and fatal as the destruction of the Armada had been to their naval supremacy. It was indeed a death blow to the power that Spain had so long exercised over Europe. It showed the world that her infantry were no longer irresistible, and while it lowered her prestige it infinitely increased that of France, which was now regarded as the first military power in Europe.
The losses in the battle were extremely heavy. The German and Walloon cavalry both suffered very severely, while of the Spanish infantry not one man left the battlefield save as a prisoner, and fully two-thirds of their number lay dead on the ground. Upon the French side the losses were numerically much smaller. The German cavalry, after routing those of l'Hopital, instead of following up the pursuit hurled themselves upon the infantry, who broke almost without resistance. These also escaped with comparatively little loss, de Malo leading the cavalry at once against the French reserves. Among the cavalry commanded by Enghien the loss was very heavy, and included many gentlemen of the best blood of France. There was no pursuit; half the French cavalry were far away from the field, the rest had lost well nigh half their number, and were exhausted by the fury of the fight; indeed, the fugitive cavalry were miles away before the conflict ended. The gallant old general, Fuentes, expired from his wounds soon after the termination of the battle.
Hector was with the body of young nobles who followed close behind Enghien in the three first desperate charges. In the third his horse was shot under him just as the cavalry recoiled from the deadly fire of the square. He partly extracted his foot from the stirrup as he fell, but not sufficiently to free him, and he was pinned to the ground by the weight of the horse. It was well for him that it was so, for had he been free he would assuredly have been shot down as he followed the retreating cavalry. This thought occurred to his mind after the first involuntary effort to extricate his leg, and he lay there stiff and immovable as if dead. It was a trying time. The balls from the French cannon whistled over his head, the musket shots flew thickly round him, and he knew that ere long the attack would be renewed.
Fortunately the fourth advance of the French did not come directly over him, the commanders purposely leading their troops so as to avoid passing over the ground where so many of the young nobles had fallen. Not until the last musket had been discharged and the cessation of the din told that all was over, did he endeavour to rise. Then he sat up and called to two dismounted soldiers, who were passing near, to aid him. They at once came up, and soon lifted the horse so far that he was able to withdraw his leg. His thick jackboot had protected it from injury, although it had been partly the cause of his misfortune, for the sole had caught against the side of the horse and so prevented him from withdrawing it. Nevertheless, his leg was so numbed that it was some time before he could limp away. He retraced his steps towards the spot where he had mounted at starting. He had not gone far when he saw Paolo galloping towards him. The young fellow gave a shout of joy as he recognized him, and a minute later drew rein by his side and leapt off his horse.
"Thank God I see you alive again, master! Are you wounded?"
"No; my horse was killed and fell upon my foot, and has no doubt bruised it a bit, otherwise I am unhurt."
"It has been terrible, master. I climbed up into that tree beneath which we halted yesterday and watched the battle. I shouted with joy when I saw Enghien clear out the ambuscade, and again when he drove the Walloon horse away; then everything seemed to go wrong. I saw the marshal's cavalry on the left driven off the field like chaff before the wind. Then the centre broke up directly they were charged; and as the enemy fell upon the reserve it seemed to me that all was lost. Then I saw Enghien and his horsemen coming along like a whirlwind, bursting their way through the enemy's horse, and in turn driving them off the field. I hoped then that the battle was all over, and that the Spanish infantry would be allowed to march away; but no, my heart fell again when, time after time, our cavalry dashed up against them, and each time fell back again, leaving the slope behind them covered with dead men and horses; and I shouted aloud when I saw the artillery move up and the reserves advancing. As soon as I saw that the square was broken and a terrible melee was going on, I knew that all was over, and could restrain my impatience no longer, so I mounted my horse with, I may say, small hope of finding you alive, seeing that you rode behind Enghien, whose white plumes I could see ever in front of the line."
"It has been a marvellous victory, Paolo, and there can be no doubt that Enghien has covered himself with glory. It was his quick eye that saw what there was to be done, his brain that instantly directed the blow where alone it could be effectual, and his extraordinary bravery that roused the enthusiasm of those around him to a point at which no man thought of his life. But for him it was a lost battle."
"Well, master, I am glad that we have won the battle, but that is as nothing to me in comparison that you have come out of it safely, and I think, master, that we have a right to say that we helped in some degree to bring about the victory by discovering that ambuscade down in the hollow."
"That had not occurred to me, Paolo," Hector laughed. "No doubt it was a fortunate discovery, for had the musketeers lain hidden there until we were beaten back after our first charge, and then poured their fire into us, it would doubtless have thrown us into some confusion, and might even have caused a panic for a while."
"Now, master, if you will mount this horse I will be off and catch another; there are scores of them running about riderless, some of them belonging to the marshal's men, but many more to the Germans, and a few that galloped off riderless each time Enghien fell back."
"Don't take one of those, Paolo; it might be claimed by its master's lackeys; get one of the best German horses that you can find. You might as well get two if you can, for I want a second horse while I am here with the prince."