The bright orange flames leapt high above the smoking ramparts and lit the sky over the city and castle of Badajoz, casting a glow over the weary faces of the attackers. Two distant explosions and a chorus of screams tore through the Spanish night, and mingled with the crackle of musket fire almost drowning out the words of an unseen British soldier, as he yelled a dying curse against the French. One man had heard it, however, and mouthing a passing blessing for the soldier’s soul, echoed its sentiments in his own mind.
Sitting on an empty powder barrel, apparently oblivious to the symphony of agony around him, his back resting against the dry earth wall of a narrow trench, James Keane rubbed thoughtfully at the stubble on his chin and pulled out his gold pocket watch, snapping open the lid and scanning the clock face in the firelight. It was four minutes after three o’clock in the morning. Five hours had passed since their latest attack had begun and Keane still had no idea as to its success.
Somewhere close by, to his rear, a solitary horse whinnied in its death throes, and from far below his position in the siege lines, where the darkness shrouded the killing ground of the ditches, the groans and cries of scores of wounded and dying reached up to make the living shudder. Along the trench the black forms of red-coated soldiers moved in purposeful silence, but Keane remained where he was. He sat listening, conscious only of the task in hand and of his own men sitting, standing and lying close by. All of them staring, listening waiting. It seemed to Keane momentarily that they had been transported from the daylight world into some other place, some forgotten corner of hell. A place where chaos ruled and where the great ragged, gaping jaws of the breach they had blown in the city’s blackened, burning ramparts swallowed up column after column of attacking redcoats. This was bloody Badajoz, the meat-grinder of Wellington’s army, its every stone tainted with British blood and the unmistakable stench of death.
Since Keane and his men had been waiting here, over the past five hours, successive messengers from the storming party had relayed news, good and bad. But none of it had yet given him the information he needed. General Picton’s 3rd Division of Viscount Wellington’s Peninsular army had been assaulting the ramparts of the castle, and during the same time, on the other, west, side of the town, the 4th and Light divisions had been beaten back time and again while Leith’s 5th Division was escalading the bastion of San Vincente. It was with the 4th though that Keane had chosen to advance, against the huge Trinidad redoubt on the eastern side of the city. And it was in the shadow of this mighty bastion that he and his men now found themselves waiting for their moment.
Just half an hour ago, another courier had come down the line and told them that Picton’s men had gained a foothold inside the town. But from the sound of the fighting and the stream of wounded who had somehow made it to the lines, Keane was not so sure. It was very clear to him that the battle was still going on, unabated. The French had made a good job of the defences here. They had used everything at their disposal to ensure that the city would not fall. They had constructed lethal obstacles, flooded the ditches and placed explosive mines along the ramparts. And there had been nothing for Wellington to do but storm the place head-on.
Keane turned to one of the men beside him, seeing his features now in the growing light of dawn. ‘I wish I knew what the devil was going on, Archer. It’s as much of a mess as I’ve
ever seen this army get itself into. And, dammit, we’re the ones who are meant to know, aren’t we?’
It was true – James Keane and his men were the eyes and ears of Wellington’s army. Oservers, trained to go deep behind enemy lines and discover everything they could, from the dispositions of the French troops, their corps, divisions, brigades and regiments, to what their generals had ordered for dinner. But for once they were as much in the dark as anyone else.
Archer spoke. ‘Damned if I know, sir. Perhaps we should just go ahead. Follow the storming party. If they’ve got into the town, we need to be with them before we lose our chance,
and our quarry.’
‘Yes, that’s my worry. Finding the man before they do. We can’t allow him to be killed.’ Over the past few years Keane and his men had been given some strange tasks, but this, he thought, must be one of the most bizarre. They had been ordered to get into Badajoz, in the wake of the attack which they had been told must surely, eventually, succeed, but before the place was completely secure and armed with the most rudimentary of clues as to his location, to extricate alive at all costs a French colonel who must then be returned to
Wellington’s headquarters. The orders had come directly from Wellington himself. The colonel, Keane had been told, had in his possession important intelligence. That was all he needed to know, for now. He sat still again for a moment, listening with a trained ear to the noises now and any subtle differences. There was a curious lull in the volume of the explosions. A change which, while imperceptible to the untrained ear, to Keane was quite clear in what it said. It signalled an opportunity. He turned to his right. ‘Sarn’t Ross. It’s time. Now, man.’
He turned the other way and looked for the rest of his men. ‘Come on, follow me.’ Then, leaping up and sword in hand, he ran towards where the attacking force had entered the breach and, followed by his men close up, he led them forward.
The adrenalin was pumping now, and Keane was caught up in the thrill of the moment. This was their time. This was what they did. But it was more than just that. Yes, they had been tasked with rescuing a French colonel. But here was a chance. A chance for Keane to be back at the front line of a battle. And it felt good. For the past three years he had largely been denied real soldiering, and he missed it. That was a hard thing to countenance, he knew, when one looked about the charnel house of Badajoz. But it was most certainly the truth.
• Iain Gale is an author, journalist, military historian and former art critic of Scotland on Sunday. His novel Conspiracy is out now on Quercus books, £16.99.