The wind is blowing hard tonight. It's not fit for man nor beast outside, what with wet snow whirling around, and temperatures cold enough to freeze my cannonballs together. Happily, I shall recline here peaceably by this lovely roaring fire, Armagnac gently swirling in my bucket, with the smell of fine leather (the boots, I believe) baking slowly back to dryness. Memo to self: have Molly heat up a brick for the bed, but forget to let go of it.
Still, duty calls, I suppose. I say, Lieutenant, there's a good fellow, would you head on out and find the Sergeant-Major, and have him detail a crew to check the ammunition caissons tonight, I'd like to know how many balls there are left, and how much room is available for my kitchen supplies. The pastry chef has not been too creative of late, I've noticed. Come to think of it, have him stand duty for the night, maybe that will revive his interest in civilian duties.
Ah, not surprisingly, this dastardly eve has chased many another fine damp officer into the shelter of the mess. Greetings gentlemen, come sit by the fire, light up a fine Cuban, (watch the Armagnac, mind, for I've learned how flammable such beverages can be) and tell us a tale. Bartender, these lads would like to buy me a drink, so make them feel welcome, there's a good fellow.
Eh, what's that? Why, you impudent rascal, so you would have me dance for my dinner, would you? Well, unaccustomed as I am, I suppose I could say a few words in keeping with the occasion. This night does put me in mind of a time gone past, a time I would have cheerfully forgotten. Still, it is the honour of elders to teach to the young the ways of the world, and the duty of the young to keep our throats wet while we do it.
The tale I will recount goes back a bit. It was the winter of '06-07, I believe. Out in the plains of Silesia or Bohemia, or some such civilization-forsaken morass. Maybe even Poland. And it was cold. Some fool forgot to plant trees last century, so there was damned little to burn for our fires. Generously, a few of the boys volunteered to conflagrate their clothing to keep their dear Colonel warm, and to this day, I still remember their bluish arms reaching up in a last friendly wave goodbye out of the snowbanks, as I rode onwards to my destiny. Can't quite remember their names now.. ah well, matters not.
The poor horses were not happy, though. Now the enemy were used to the situation, and rode some form of large dog, if not their women-folk. Into battle, I mean. Such as it was, anyhow. I remember hundreds of these shaggy grey creatures gallumphing across a field at us one afternoon, all riding these damned dogs, couldn't be more than ten hands high. Not a musket among them, only arrows and lances, like a bunch of Tamerlane's Mongols got lost for a few centuries until we stumbled on them and reminded them what they should be doing. It was like watching the Battle of the Pyramids again, only in slow motion. Silly buggers, should have stayed home with their women-folk. Then again, having seen their women-folk, I can understand why they'd prefer to ride up to cannon-mouths on their dogs with nothing but pointy sticks in their hands. I wonder if lemmings have ugly wives. Hmm.
But I digress. I was reminded of the poor horses. They of course had to haul the pieces, when the wheels would barely turn on the axles, as the grease would never thaw. Sad times. Through slags of mud up to their chins, or slipping across ice with blisters cracking their hooves; no forage, only snow to drink. Wow, they worked so hard for us, poor dumb brutes.
And then, of course, we'd have to slaughter one every day or two to feed the officers. I had to chuckle when I saw the look in their eyes the next morning, all busting to do the best they could for us, knowing the weakest was fated for my plate that night. Made them all the keener, to be sure.
But things were not always so rosy, let me assure you. One day, I had a serious accident. The day started out normally enough, I suppose, but with only a modest breakfast such as the circumstances would permit (toast, jam, bacon, few eggs, coffee, roast of lamb, some potatoes and left-over cold turkey). As I was dressing, I knew full well that the day was to be nasty. Dark, swirling snow clouds had rolled in over night, and already the air was filled with little fluffy puffy snowflakes, but it wasn't long before the wind picked up, and the snow became nasty, flying full in our faces, much as it is outside tonight. Of course I had a few of the lads walk out in front holding up a tarp to shield me from the wind, but they were buffetted about rather hardly and we had to leave them behind. In some frustration, we resorted to a few bottles of liquid warmth, which helped the day pass rather merrily indeed. I remember at one point silly Captain L**** falling out of the saddle, and right off a bridge. We thought we had lost him to the river, but luckily he landed on a rock, and we were able to retrieve his pocket effects before moving on.
Sadly though, I made a rather serious tactical error. With something less
than a clear head, I had occasion in the early afternoon to stretch out on
old Betsy (that's my 12 pounder, for those who don't know) for a wee nap. In
retrospect, I am rather miffed that no one thought to alert me to the
danger. In any event, an hour or two later, I come around and I'm completely
frozen to her, stretched out full length, face down, straddling the barrel.
Now, normally my cheerful disposition would simply permit me to laugh this
all off, and resign myself to the two options available to me (no skin, or
wait until spring), but things got moderately worse, as just at this moment
up rides Marshal Murat, leopard skins, beaver hats, pink silks, and pet
toads, for all I know, with his usual entourage of sycophantical dandies. He
sees me stretched out full length, and curiousity gets the better of him.
"What, pray-tell, are you?" he asks.
"What, in God's name, are you doing, Sir?" he pries. This question was tougher.
"Why, Sir, I am keeping the barrel warm, else it won't fire straight", says I. Thank God it was just Murat, and not Drouot, or I would be done for.
"Truly?" says he.
"Upon my word, Sir, every day at this time", I lies.
"Would you care to see, Sir?", pipes up my Sergeant-Major at this inauspicious moment. I gives him a look as would wither the White Witch of the North's left tit, but he just grins back at me, the rogue.
"Honoured", says Murat.
The Sergeant-Major gives me a wink, the bastard, then comes round to the business end of the barrel, rams a pouch of powder, and then, the bastard, a full bottle of vodka. He then hoves out of sight where I can't see him, and the lads then swing the gun (and me) around to point at a rare tree about 30 metres off (which an artillerist couldn't miss if he was cross-eyed), and cries out in a loud parade-ground yell, "Sir, permission to fire, Sir!". Oh, how he was going to pay for this. I could hear the men chuckling gleefully.
Through clenched teeth, thinking of what I was going to do to his whole family, I bit out the command.
When I came round, Murat of course had left. Apparently, the bottle of vodka had exploded beautifully, absolutely shredding and cooking the poor tree to the delight of all assembled, like Greek fire of old. I, of course, was released from the barrel's icy-cold hold what with the spontaneous influx of searing heat through the iron. I was led to understand that Murat had been so impressed, that in recompense for my burns he was intending to speak to the Emperor about my extraordinary devotion to duty, the likes of which he had never witnessed before. Heaven help me! I never supposed for an instant that my artillery-Emperor would be fooled by our charade, let alone be impressed; but a week later I did receive a case of the Emperor's finest and some burn balm, and an Imperial note, thanking me for the rare and wonderful laugh. Not exactly the Legion of Honour, but the image of our beloved Emperor doubling over in laughter did us all some good, on the cold nights that followed.
A toast, then: To safely distant fires, flammable drinks, and getting away with your skin intact. Happy new year, all.
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