Copyright © 2016
Limehouse, London England, 1808.
Thomas Marking sat with a hungry look on his young face as he watched his careworn mother prepare their evening meal.
It was another weak soup of a few potatoes, two withered carrots and a well used pork bone. The bread on the table was now two days old and there was barely enough for three thin crusts.
Thomas looked over at his father as he sat in an old wooden backed chair. Every time the older man moved, the chair would creak as though from old age.
Nothing in the small tenement was new. Thomas's father did not have the coin to pay for anything better. His small military pension was barely enough to cover their meals and rent, let alone buy fancy furniture or new clothes for his only son.
The little home consisted of only one room. Thomas slept on the floor near the small wood and coal stove. Water was carried from the communal pump outside and toiletry was carried out in the small wooden shed that was used by all in the three story block of tenements. The single bucket was emptied by the night men although sometimes they did not appear for two or three days.
Thomas's parents slept in the far corner behind a thin worn blanket and at times Thomas could hear his father groan from the ongoing pain of his injuries that were received during his service in the King's army.
Thomas had very little and his hopes and dreams had long ago been put aside and forgotten. The destitution of Limehouse and its environs gave little hope for any boy's future let alone one who was thin and underfed.
Thomas knew that the time had come for him to make the move that would change his life forever. Thomas looked at his father as the older man winced in pain again.
"I... Uhm... want to be a drummer boy."
Thomas watched the reaction of his father as he stumbled out the words. His hopes to help out the family were not looking good as he saw the frown come over his father's face.
Thomas's father reached for the wooden crutch so he could stand on his one leg as he thought over what his only son had just said.
Cromwell Marking had lost his leg in the Maratha war under the renowned Colonel Arthur Wellesley in 1803 when he was a soldier in the 33rd Yorkshire Regiment. The loss of his leg had caused his early discharge with a small pension of five pounds a year. Now he was faced with thinking about his only son, a boy of only eleven years, wanting to join the army of His Majesty King George the 3rd, as a drummer boy.
Cromwell knew the life expectancy of a drummer boy was often measured in months rather than years and the thought of his only boy being out in front and facing the guns of His Majesties enemies around the world did not give him any cause for joy.
Cromwell looked at the dingy room they called home. They had been living from hand to mouth ever since his return from service five years ago. The times had been hard for all of them but more so for the young boy. He had no chance of an education and very little prospects for a good job in trade or any other of the jobs available to the poor.
In Cromwell's mind were the flashes of the battles he had fought in. The noise, smoke and the heavy smell of gun powder and blood that always hung over a battle field. It was not what he had wanted for his only son and the pay for a drummer boy was, at best miniscule, a mere one shilling a month. That is if he managed to stay alive long enough to collect it.
Cromwell knew he really had little choice. His pension was barely keeping the small family together and as the boy grew, there would be more temptations that the boy would not be able to resist. At least, as a former soldier of the 33rd Yorkshire Regiment he would be able to get the boy into the service before another who had no affiliation to the Regiment would be accepted.
Cromwell looked at the skinny boy sitting before him. The boy just might have a chance at something better where as if he kept him home there was very little chance of anything.
A tear slipped from his eye as he turned to look at Thomas. He also saw his wife standing at the stove with her hands clenched in fear as she waited for his answer.
Cromwell already had seen the rumblings of another war coming. It seemed that every other month the Empire was embroiled in a far off war. The thought of his little boy being involved served only to bring back the memories he had tried hard to suppress. Unfortunately he could see no other way for the boy to get out of the slums and destitution they now lived in.
Cromwell looked down at his only son. The boy was barely eleven years old and was nothing more than skin and bones, the rags he wore were the only ones he had. Tears welled up once again as he tried to remember what he really wanted for his son before he was hit by the grape shot and all his dreams disappeared in the sudden pain and blood which caused his present situation.
"Ask your mother to get some hot water on for a bath. Tomorrow I'll take you to the Headquarters of the Regiment. At least this way I know you will be joining in a better situation than normal. I still have friends serving and they will watch over you as best they can."
Cromwell turned back to his chair and sat down. The sound of light sobbing coming from his wife were ignored, the boy now had to make his own way. There was little else Cromwell could do for his boy.
The next morning was no better than Cromwell's heart as he led the way to the barracks of the 33rd Yorkshire Regiment. It was raining in a light drizzle and there was a nip in the air that boded winter not far off.
As Cromwell limped towards the large wooden gates of the barracks, he laid his hand on Thomas's shoulder. This could very well be the last time he would see his son in this life, but now at least he would have a small chance to make something of himself. He had precious little if he stayed in the slums of Limehouse.
The two guards at the gate watched as the man limped towards them with a small thin boy under his hand. The corporal looked closer then shouldered his musket as he told the other guard to stand down.
"Private Marking, I see they couldn't kill you. Who've you got there, more cannon fodder?"
"Creasy? I see you made Corporal."
"Aye, mostly thanks to what you did that day. Now who is this?"
"This is my son, he wants to enlist as a volunteer drummer boy."
"Volunteer, huh? Have you told him about what it means?"
"No Corporal, that's the army's job. All I ask is for someone to watch over him. He's my only son."
The Corporal turned to the other guard who looked to be no older than seventeen and new to the army.
"Perkins, go and tell the Sergeant we have a volunteer at the gate and he's the son of one of ours."
Perkins lifted his musket and double timed away while the Corporal looked over Thomas with interest.
"So boy, you want to be a drummer boy. Can you beat a drum?"
"First lesson boy, I'm a Corporal. Only Officers are Sir's. Now why do you want to be a drummer boy?"
"It's all I can do to help my family... Corporal."
"Well boy, you have to volunteer for seven years. You will get a shilling a month while training and for your first year. If you're still alive at the end of the first year then you will get two shillings and sixpence a month. You can ask the paymaster to send some of your wages to your dad if you want to."
"Good, now here comes the Sergeant. Remember no Sir, just Sergeant, ok?"
Thomas raised his head as he heard heavy footsteps coming from inside the barracks. Looking up he saw a huge man striding towards where he and his father stood with the Corporal.
Beside the smaller frame of Perkins, the Sergeant looked huge and forbidding. His shoulders were broad and his face carried a long scar down the left side. The thick mutton chop whiskers made him look wise but also hard. The Sergeant's uniform was perfectly fitted and his black boots with the white spats shone in the morning light.
The bright red coat and white trousers with the knee length white spats were also immaculate and his brass buttons and fittings were shining bright enough to be seen at night.
The Sergeant carried a thick cane under his left arm and his shako was polished with the badge also bright and shiny. He made a formidable figure as he came to a halt before Thomas and his father.
"So I see you are still alive Private Marking." He said in a deep voice that sounded like a bass drum to Thomas's ears. "I thought you would be dead before they got you home. Now who have we here then?"
"This is my only son Thomas. He wants to volunteer as a drummer boy."
"Volunteer? Well then we had better get his mark before he changes his mind. It's not often we see volunteers these days. Right then Private Marking, bring your son and come along with me. There is a reward for volunteers these days. Half will go to you as his father and the other half will go towards his kit and drum."
The Sergeant turned around and led Thomas and his father into the barracks where they were sat at a rough and well worn desk to sign the papers. Thomas was lucky that his father had taught him how to sign his name and read from the book of regulations. He could also do his sums right up to fifty. It was the only education he had gotten.
When it was his turn, Thomas carefully took the quill and slowly signed his name as perfectly as he could. He wanted his father to be proud of him.
After the signing, the Sergeant called for the Private that had met them at the gate. While they were waiting, the Sergeant opened a drawer in the desk and took out two gold coins. One he gave to his father and the other he put inside the book that Thomas had just signed.
"There we are Private Marking, the signing reward is two golden guineas. One for you as the father of a volunteer to make up for the loss of a son to the Regiment and the other will go to his costs of outfitting. Thank you for your son and your previous service. You were a damn good soldier Private Marking and your name will not be forgotten by many of us for your sacrifice that day. I can only hope your son will do as well."
Thomas was given a minute with his father while the Sergeant talked to Perkins. Once the final goodbyes were said, Thomas watched as his father straightened up as much as his single leg would allow, and without looking back left Thomas in the hands of his old Regiment. Thomas did not know if it would be the last time he ever saw his father.
The Sergeant stood up and looked down at Thomas.
"Right lad, stand up over there and let me get a look at ye."
Thomas quickly jumped to his feet and stood where he was told while the Sergeant stepped closer. Using the thick cane, the Sergeant lifted his head up and looked closer.
"Right lad, you're in the army now. Let's see you straighten up, heels together, shoulders back, hands by your sides and keep your head up."
Thomas waited as the Sergeant walked around him. Occasionally he would touch Thomas in an effort to make adjustments to his stance. Once the Sergeant seemed satisfied, he turned towards the door. The sound that came from the Sergeant almost made Thomas jump a foot in the air. He had never heard a voice so strong. People must have heard the large man all over London.
"PERKINS! GET YOUR MISBEGOTTEN ASS IN HERE NOW, YOU LAZY SON OF A BILLINGSGATE FISHMONGER'S WIFE."
Thomas heard the fast running footsteps of the Private he had seen at the gate. Seconds later a panting Perkins appeared at the doorway. The Sergeant lowered his voice but the tenor of command never left it as he began to give orders.
"Perkins, take this boy to the Quartermaster and get him kitted. Tell the Quartermaster to make sure he has the silver braid of a volunteer. I don't want him mistaken for one of those pressed scum. Next, get him to the butchers at the infirmary just to make sure he aint got two left feet. Once that's done get over to the barber. That haystack has got to go. Make sure you show him how to tie his cue. When that's all done, take him to the drummers barracks and get him set up. He's a volunteer so make sure he has a single cot and not one of the bunks those other scum use. Perkins as of this minute you are the Cadre for the drummer boys. Move your kit to their barracks and take the single room. If they fail, you will get the lash so make sure you get it right. I don't want no trouble from them or it's your ass on the wheel. Next take him to the Drum Major for his drum kit. Now move it private. This is the 33rd we don't got all day."
"Yes Sergeant. Come on boy, we got lot's to do."
Thomas looked once more at the forbidding figure of the Sergeant before he quickly followed the young Private out the doorway. He was in the army now and his life was going to change from this moment on.
At the Quartermasters store, Thomas could not believe the amount of kit he was given although a small round repair on the red jacket gave him pause. The list of kit seemed endless as the Quartermaster, a large thick man, continued to repeat the name of each piece as he took it from the many shelves that lined the large storeroom.
Each item was written in a book piece by piece for which Thomas had to sign for, even the silver buttons. All 36 of them were itemised as was the silver braid on his shako along with the regimental badge. The last item was a round snare drum with all its white piping and two pairs of drum sticks.
Thomas could not believe that he also had to carry his own sewing kit and all the cleaning supplies for his white webbing and a tin of dubbing for his boots and spats. Everything needed a good airing but he was not given the time to think more as a heavy canvas bag was tossed onto the table for him to pack his kit in.
Next came the doctors at the infirmary. It was here that he was again told he was too thin and needed to eat and fatten up to gain strength. He was already tired from carrying so much kit and it had only been minutes since leaving the Quartermasters store.
The medical exam was perfunctory at best and took less than two minutes. Next was the barber where his dark hair was quickly, and a little roughly, trimmed short around the sides and top but at the back was left long enough for a small cue to be formed and tied off with a black ribbon.
Once his hair was cut and trimmed, Perkins led Thomas to the small barracks hut where the other drummer boys slept. At the moment they were all away with practice by the Drum Major and so Thomas had plenty of time to pack his kit and see to his small single cot.
Perkins stood beside him and helped instruct Thomas on all he needed to know about bed making army style, preparing his kit and how to polish all the silver buttons. The one thing Thomas did not like but had little choice in was the wearing of the thick leather choker.
It was worn around his neck and was so stiff it would keep his head up at all times. Perkins showed him how to tie the cravat so it would not rub on his neck but it did not protect his chin from the course leather. Within hours he was to have the first signs of an open wound under his chin. In time it would become a scar which was a sign of all soldiers of the King.
His new drum was heavier than he thought it would be and the webbing to hold it needed a lot of work to bring it up to the standard that would be needed.
It took Thomas, under the sharp eye of the young Perkins, to finish everything and get dressed in his uniform for the first time. Thomas found the boots hard to wear after spending most of his life without even a pair of old shoes to wear. The thin cotton hose were not enough to make the rough new boots comfortable and he felt as though his feet had just gained ten pounds.
Once all was done to Perkins satisfaction, Thomas was taken outside to be taught how to march, what the commands were and how to turn about while marching. It was a long two hours as he learned to march back and forth.
At last the call to lunch was heralded by the trumpeter. Perkins told Thomas to get his mess kit, a metal plate, spoon and metal cup and follow him to the Private's mess hall. Once in the hall, Thomas was taken to the long table that had all the food. Behind the table stood other soldiers with large wooden spoons in their hands to ladle out what was in the metal trays.
While the food would not have looked appetising to some, for Thomas it was almost a veritable feast. Thick horse meat stew, mounds of fresh cooked bread and even large hot potatoes. Thomas's cup was filled with a hot beverage that he had never seen before.
Careful not to spill any of the feast, Thomas followed Perkins to a table that held eleven other boys. The youngest was about the same age as Thomas and the oldest was a rough and angry looking boy of about fourteen. All of the other boys glared at Thomas as they noticed the silver braid on his sleeve that marked him as a volunteer. Their sleeves were bare except for the normal braid. His extra single band of silver had already marked him as different.
Thomas could now feel the weight of his new uniform. The two hours of marching back and forth had left him, not only breathless but hot and uncomfortable. The heavy choker had already rubbed his chin raw but it would not stop him from finishing the marvellous feast he now placed on the table, as far away from the other boys as the table would allow him.
The only thing that brought a look of wonder to the eyes of the other boys, was the fact that Perkins took the seat at the head of the table. It was the first time since the other boys had arrived at the barracks, that one of the soldiers had sat at their table. It caused an immediate silence from the others.
Thomas ate ravenously as his small thin body called for sustenance after his first session of drill. Perkins had told him that after lunch he would join the others to learn the drum.
Perkins had told Thomas that from now on he would be up at dawn, make his bed up and then be at work all day either at drill or drumming. When the night came he was to prepare his kit for inspections and to make his bed down. Any time left after that before lights out, would be spent with his drum sticks on practice at the wooden table in the barracks.
On that first night, Thomas could feel the anger directed at him from most of the other boys. The worst was the older boy whom he found out very quickly, was called Sutton. First names were not used by anyone. Added to the fact he was the new boy was the fact he was marked as a volunteer. The other boys were called Drummer so and so whereas Thomas was called Volunteer Marking. The distinction of his position was looked upon by the real soldiers as being above the other boys that had been press ganged into the service, mostly by the courts. It was either that, jail or hanging for the other boys.
Thomas, while small and thin was no push over by any boy. While he preferred to go along in his own way, when it finally came to a show down with the ever angry Sutton, Thomas did not back down. While Sutton was older and larger and he did beat Thomas behind the barracks one night, Thomas did get in a good lick and gave the larger boy a bloody nose before being knocked to the ground for the last time.
The uproar at the back of the barracks by the other boys had brought out Perkins. He wasted no time in cuffing Sutton around the ears and putting the boy on the ground with a wild roundhouse. Unfortunately for them all, the Regimental Sergeant Major was passing the barracks at the same time. In the darkness no one saw him until it was too late.
"Private Perkins. What in the blue blazes is going on here? You know the regulations on fighting in barracks."
"Sergeant Major, I was breaking up a dispute between drummer boys."
"Get those scum on their feet Private. Sergeant of the guard, front and centre at the drummer barracks." The Sergeant major bellowed loudly. Thomas was sure the man's voice would be heard in the deepest pit of hell as it echoed through the barracks houses.
A minute later and the sergeant of the guard along with four soldiers arrived armed with their muskets and slightly puffing.
"Sergeant, hold those two scum until I see what's going on here."
Thomas and Sutton were quickly grabbed by two of the soldiers and held tightly. The Sergeant Major walked over to them and looked at the two fighters. One glance at the extra silver stripe on Thomas arm and the Sergeant Major stepped back with a glare in his eye.
"Perkins, who's this whelp?"
"Volunteer Marking, Sergeant Major."
"Marking! You related to Private Cromwell Marking boy?"
"Yes Sergeant Major. He's my father, Sergeant Major."
"Then I hope you are half the man he was, boy. Now what goes on here Perkins?"
"Drummer Sutton has had it in for Volunteer Marking since he arrived Sergeant Major. This is the result."
"Drummer Sutton, get your ass over here scum."
Sutton stepped forward and stood as straight as he could. Thomas could see in the other boy's eyes that he knew he was in deep shit.
The Sergeant Major did not waste any time as he tore into the other boy with such venom Thomas though the boy would die on the spot.
"What gives you the right to bully the son of a hero, you little toe rag scum? In all the days you have left on God's earth you will never measure up to this boy you little deviate bastard. You are in the 33rd not on some back street selling your ass to sailors. Sergeant of the guard get this low life scum out of my sight. At officer's parade in the morning you will present this press gang scum for twenty strokes. Make sure he's not late. Now get this thing out of my sight."
The sergeant of the guard quickly grabbed Sutton roughly by the scruff of the neck and pulled him away while the Sergeant Major turned to the other boys who had been watching the fight.
Thomas by now was having trouble seeing clearly from his left eye as it swelled and closed. His jaw was also sore from the heavy punch that had felled him.
"Perkins, get Marking to the butchers and get him fixed up. You other gawkers can go and get dressed in full kit including your packs and drums. You have five minutes to be back here or you join Sutton tomorrow morning. MOVE."
Thomas was soon in the infirmary. Even in there he could hear the stentorian voice of the Sergeant Major as he roared at the ten boys on the parade ground which was lit by the many torches and lights from the soldiers barracks nearby. It did not take long for the off duty soldiers to gather around the parade ground with their pipes to smoke and make ribald comments on the boy's abilities at marching in formation. The Sergeant Major had no intention of going lightly on them.
As Thomas was led back to the barracks by Perkins, he heard the Sergeant Major call for ten muskets. The Brown Bess musket weighed about 15 pounds. A grown man would soon tire marching around the square with one so the boys were in for a hard time and added to that the boys still had to carry and march with their drums at their sides.
Inside the barracks, Perkins helped Thomas to his cot. As he sat down he asked Perkins.
"Mister Perkins, why do they say my dad was a hero?"
"Did he never tell you lad?"
"No mister Perkins, he would never talk about his service."
"Well I was not there lad, if you want to know I can ask Corporal Creasy to tell you. He was there with your Da. In fact only him and your Da lived to walk away from it. Do you want me to ask him?"
"Yes please Mister Perkins, if it were not too much trouble."
"You stay here lad, I'll go look for the Corporal."
It was not long after when Thomas heard the heavy tread of someone coming into the barracks. As Corporal Creasy stepped into the barracks room, Thomas jumped to his feet and stood at attention as was required when any adult entered their small domain.
"Sit down lad. You're not on parade now. So Private Perkins tells me you want to know about your dad?"
After two weeks in His Majesties Army, Thomas now knew all the right ranks and replies to questions.
"Yes Corporal. That is if it aint too much trouble Corporal."
"No trouble lad. You sit down there and let me tell you about your dad. You should be right proud of him lad. He was one soldier in a thousand was your dad."
Creasy paused for a moment as he looked back the last five years to the battle he had fought side by side with Cromwell Marking and how to relate it to his young son.
"Now first tell me what your first name is lad?"
"Right young Tom, well we was in a far off place called Assaye out in the India country. We was part of the army under the East India Company. Now our Colonel, Arthur Wellesley was told to take the place at all costs. Course the Colonel is now Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley. Some say he may make Duke yet but enough of that. We's best get back to your dad."
Creasy paused again to get his thoughts straight.
"It was the 23rd of September and we was moving into position at the base of the rise and getting ourselves ready for the charge at the heathen. For some reason, no one had taken any notice of a small group of heathen above us. Now your dad, he was one of those men who could think for himself. Not what most Officers liked in a Private but that was the way about him."
Another pause as Creasy smiled at some hidden thought.
"Now above us the heathen suddenly opened fire with small hand cannon filled with grape. Now if you never seen what grape will do to a man then you are real lucky. The grape started to tear us apart and we aint even at the battle yet. Your dad saw what was going on and being as how our Officer was one of the first to be hit as well as both Sergeants, we had no one to give us orders. Now your dad did not wait for orders. Calling six of the closest men to him, which included your's truly, he up and charged straight up that hill as though he was made from steel. Well, when we got among them we gave them good old British steel and shot. Once the last heathen fell, your dad looks over the edge of the hill and see's more of the heathen coming to retake the hill. Well I can tell you youngun, your dad was not going to have that after all we did to take it."
Creasy looked at the boy in front of him.
"I truly hope you are even half the man your dad was lad. Well now where was I? Well he sees more heathen coming but by now there are only four of us left standing. The other two being cut down by heathen swords in the first attack. Well your dad called us to stand firm and form a rank. Once we was formed up he started to give orders for volley fire. Below us the others was trying to make sense of all about them. Just then some other Officer turns up and sees your dad and us standing up there alone and firing as fast as we can load our muskets. Well now we was too busy trying to stop the reinforcements to watch what was going on below us."
Another pause while Creasy filled his clay pipe and lit the tobacco.
"Now where was I? Right. So here we was, all four of us looking down at the hordes of wild Heathen charging fearlessly up at us. As fast as we shot them new ones would appear. It was not long before they was among us and we was back to fighting hand to hand with anything we could use. Right vicious it was and we killed many of them. It was not long before just me and your dad was the last ones standing. While we was both injured, we stood back to back, your dad would not back away. Finally the new officer below got the men sorted and they came to our aid just as I was knocked off me feet and stabbed by a sword in the leg. As the heathen ran away from our men's muskets and bayonets, one of them damn heathen lifts up a hand cannon and fires. Caught your dad right in the leg. Near blew it off at the knee. Last I saw was your dad flying over the edge of the hill before I passed out. I woke up in the infirmary two days later and never saw your dad again until he brought you to the gate two week ago. Thought he was dead we all did. Your dad saved mayhap a hundred men that day by his fast actions. It's only us old soldiers really know what he did. The Officers thought he was dead and so never called for medals or promotion for him. Had it not been for your dad I would still be a private. Instead they gave me the rank and medal that rightly belonged to him. Now you see my lad why we hold him so high like any hero. You should be right proud of your dad and try to live up to his memory."
Thomas thought the Corporal was finished and he sighed as he took in all that he had been told. He now looked at his dad in a completely new light. As he thought about the story he had been told, he heard the Corporal start again.
"You need to know, we was just a side issue in the overall battle. Maybe a small but important part but not the real issue. The army was only about 9500 men and about 17 cannon. They were facing over 50,000 heathen. Some of them were trained by European Officers and they had a hundred cannon staring us in the eyes. At the end of the battle we had lost more than four hundred men dead and over 1600 wounded but the heathen fared even worse. Some say we killed over 6000 of them heathen and took all one hundred cannon. It weren't the last battle but it took the wind from their sails. Now what I'm going to say now is for your ears only. You keep your trap shut and we be OK."
Thomas nodded that he could be trusted.
"Good lad, now it's come to my ears that we will be moving out soon for places far away. You spend every minute you got to learn your drum so you don't play the wrong beat for orders. The last thing I'm going to do for you is something no officer should know about."
Thomas watched as the Corporal took a rolled cloth pouch from his jacket, when the Corporal unrolled the pouch Thomas saw that it contained two small pistols, a small dagger in a black leather sheath as well as a small powder flask and small lead balls for the pistols.
"Now this here you tell no one about. When we go into battle you carry them with you at all times. I'm going to show you how to load the pistols and how to use the dirk. Now these small pistols we calls 'Peter Pistols'. The real name is "Pocket Pistols". The ball is small so you got to get close. Shoot a man in his baby factory and he won't be coming for you again. You tuck them into your waist band under your jacket. Now then, the dirk is a Scotsman's dagger. You put that into the top of your spats. Keep it sharp and clean. When you finish your duty each day, I want to meet you out back of the barracks for practice with the pistols. This here flask is your powder. Keep it dry and look after the flints. Well my lad, that's all I can do for now. Learn your lessons well and watch your back."
The Corporal stood up leaving the cloth pouch for Thomas to put away. As a last gesture, the Corporal gave Thomas a gentle rub on the head as he looked down at him.
"You be careful lad. We all owe your dad a lot and don't want to have to tell him you weren't coming home to him."
The Corporal turned and walked out of the barracks just as the ten boys crawled inside to go to bed, none of them looked as though they would ever make it to parade in the morning although they all knew they would have to be there.
The next morning was dismal and overcast. The rain would not be far away. After the Officers inspection the Sergeant Major called all ranks to attention to witness punishment. The Officers stepped to the side of the parade square as a cannon was rolled into the centre.
At the Sergeant Major's command, the small figure of Sutton was marched out and to the cannon. Beside him stood Corporal Creasy who had a long thin cane in his hand.
"Tie the prisoner to the gun Corporal." Ordered the Sergeant Major.
Corporal Creasy pushed Sutton over the barrel of the cannon and tied his hands to the wheel, next he tore the white cotton shirt from his back and stood back to await orders.
"Drummer Sutton, you are sentenced to twenty strokes being the recommended punishment for fighting in the barracks. The fact you chose to bully the son of a hero of the Regiment only makes this matter worse. At the completion of your punishment, you will approach Volunteer Marking and ask his forgiveness. You will then be available to him for extra duty for a period not exceeding one month. Is this clear Drummer Sutton?"
The assembled troops could barely hear the boy as he said.
"Yes Sergeant Major."
"Failure to carry out the recommended sentence will result in further punishment in a military facility for incorrigibles. Do you understand Drummer Sutton?"
"Yes Sergeant Major."
"You have been warned. Drummers, sound the beat for punishment. Corporal Creasy, you will strike hard and true. Twenty strokes to be counted out. Begin punishment."
Thomas carried the drum beat with the others as the cane began to strike. It took only two before Sutton was screaming with each new strike. By the end of the twenty the boy was hoarse and his young body was shaking with the pain and he was barely conscious as the Corporal untied his hands and helped him to stand, although he was very shaky on his feet. The pain had to be extreme as Thomas saw the fresh blood dripping down the boy's back.
Slowly and with the rags of his white shirt hanging around his waist, Sutton made his way to stand in front of Thomas. Thomas could see how much strength it took for the boy to stand at attention before him even though Sutton still had anger in his eyes as he looked at the smaller boy before him. Sutton's voice was unsteady and not much more than a whisper as he spoke.
"Volunteer Marking, I am sorry for my actions. It will not happen again."
Thomas could see that he would have to keep an eye on the boy in the future. The fire in Sutton's eyes said far more than his words. For the first time in his life, Thomas knew he had made a deadly enemy and nothing would stop Sutton from getting his revenge.
For the next three weeks, Thomas was kept busy, even after the normal hours of training. Once dinner was finished, Sutton would present himself in front of Thomas for orders. Perkins also kept a close eye on the offender at all times. Thomas found that he could not order Sutton around. While the other boy could have been made to clean and prepare Thomas kit, he refused the help and let Sutton have his free time, much to the ire of Perkins but there was little he could do if Thomas did not want to use the older boy. Perkins thought that the ignominy of having to present himself every night to the younger boy also served a purpose.
When his kit was ready, Thomas would meet Corporal Creasy at the back of the barracks where he was instructed in loading and dry firing his pocket pistols until he could load and fire both pistols in under 30 seconds.
At first Thomas found it difficult to hold the two pistols back to back by the barrel so they could both be loaded at the same time. His smaller hands made it harder until he was used to handling them. The dirk was another matter, Corporal Creasy showed him how to sharpen and care for the small dagger and then instructed him on how to use it to best effect on a bigger opponent, at this stage the Corporal himself. The lessons with the dagger did not go without a few bruises.
Thomas had now been a drummer boy for six weeks. He had worked hard both during lessons and after hours with the private lessons of Corporal Creasy. His days were now set in a routine that was becoming more familiar and easier as the time passed. His problem with Sutton had not been forgotten and so he kept his wits about him.
Finally, at the beginning of his seventh week of service, the order came for the Regiment to make ready to move. Lieutenant General Wellesley had been ordered to take the 33rd and a number of other Regiments under the 8th Brigade to Portugal to attack and stop the French on the Iberian Peninsula.
Thomas could not say his travel on the Naval ship was a joy. From the moment of embarkation until he set foot on Portuguese soil, Thomas was wracked by sea sickness. Fortunately for Thomas so were most of the drummer boys and so there was little disruption in the ranks.
It was early August when he finally put boots to soil and Lt General Wellesley began his march towards Vimeiro where he planned to meet Marshal Junot on the 21st of August in what was to become only one of many battles of a long and bloody campaign.
Thomas was given the honour as drummer boy at the head of the 1st Company of the 1st Battalion of the 33rd Regiment. They were not the only Regiment in the force but the others did not concern Thomas. He was too busy with his duties to watch others.
Thomas marched ahead of the Captain of the 1st Company who was flanked by the standard bearers of the Regimental colours. Ahead of Thomas rode the Senior Officers along with all their banners and flags flying high in the hot sun drenched air of Portugal.
Thomas kept his beat for the march in time with all the others he could hear following along behind. It gave his small heart a lift to hear the rat ta tat of the drums as they set the pace. The excitement in the air was almost palpable as the large force marched forward.
On the 17th of August, Thomas found himself and the others of the 33rd bivouacked down on the plains near a place called Rolica. Out in front of them and in the distance, Thomas could see a massive army settled in. The enemy was waiting for them.
The drummer boys were settling into the their small two man canvas tents. As he eased his drum off, Thomas heard the now very familiar voice of Corporal Creasy.
"Come with me lad."
Thomas followed the older man a short way from the other tents.
"Now lad, I want you to listen carefully. First thing in the morning you make sure your pistols is ready, you gonna be way out in front when we's start this here battle. Listen carefully for the order for drummers to go to the rear. Don't hesitate. Get your ass behind the riflemen and keep your eyes open and your head down."
Thomas nodded that he understood.
"Now when the shooting starts keep your ears open for orders and get them drum beats right. You make a mistake and a lot of good men will not come home. Now youngun, get your ass back to your tent and get some rest. Tomorrow is gonna be a bloody day. Them Frenchies are a nasty bunch of rogues."
The next morning dawned clear but all Thomas could see was the massed ranks of enemy soldiers out on the plains. He did not think there were that many soldiers in the whole world. The first pangs of fear began to work in his belly. It was only the calming voice of the nearby Corporal Creasy that kept him in his place.
Behind and above where he stood where all the Senior Officers and off to one side the colours and banners of the English army guarded by the special Colour Guard.
The first sign of action was started by the heavy cannon of the French to be quickly answered by the English, Spanish and Portuguese guns. Thomas could only watch in fear and awe as the bombardment continued back and forth. Great fountains of earth and rock were thrown into the air as well as quite a few body parts of those further to the front.
After some time, the order was given for the massed ranks of riflemen to advance towards the waiting enemy. The drummer boys keeping the cadence for the march from the front of the massed ranks. They were within one hundred paces of the enemy muskets when Thomas felt something whizz past his head. Suddenly the cry went up.
"Sharpshooters, drummers to the rear, present muskets."
Thomas took notice and retreated behind the massed ranks of red coats as more and more shots could be heard behind him. Once behind the front lines he turned back and continued with his cadence as he had been instructed to do. The lines continued to move forward and right into the mayhem that was modern war.
Whenever Thomas took time to look around, all he saw was the dead and wounded as they fell screaming from terrible looking wounds. As he watched he heard the sound of more cannon firing towards them. A sudden shout made him duck his head even though, if it was his time it would not have saved him.
Thomas knew the meaning of that word. It was one that was feared throughout the army. Canister shot was similar to grape in that it cut down men over a wide range. The wounds could be grievous.
Somewhere not far away, Thomas heard high pitched screams as another canister shook above their heads. It was not the sound of a man's voice but more that of a child. Thomas feared for his drummer friends.
The noise of the battle was soon joined by loud orders being barked out at the infantry riflemen. Volley fire drowned out the other sounds and the heavy smoke now filled the air around him.
Suddenly, out of the mist of smoke, Thomas heard a familiar voice. It was the Sergeant Major, his stentorian voice drowned out the other sounds of battle.
"DRUMMERS TO THE COMMAND POINT"
Thomas looked around before turning and running up the rise towards where all the Senior Officers stood watching and running the battle. Once he got there he saw that there were only two other drummers there. A commanding voice made him look up as he stepped up beside the other two boys. One of which was showing a little blood from a nick on his cheek.
The voice belonged to none other than the Lt General Wellesley. He sat his horse above the boys and his eyes looked them over like a hawk watching its prey. Lt General Wellesley turned to a Junior Officer nearby.
"Captain Lewis, is this all there is left of our drummers?"
"Yes My Lord. Four were lost to sharpshooters and the others to canister."
"Damn. Well it will have to do. Lads, you will keep your place here. We have lost our trumpeter so you will have to beat the orders as they are passed to you. Stand your ground lads and don't move from this spot until I tell you."
The three boys stiffened up as the last words were said. Their duty now was to relay orders by drum beat. Below them the battle was now in full rage. The smoke and crash of cannon was only a small part of the carnage taking place out on the plain.
Armies were coming together with bayonet and, in some cases, pistol, club or short axe. Thomas could see it was a blood bath down below.
As orders were called to them, the boy's would beat out the required cadence. At one time the ranks of red coats were being sorely pressed by fresh French troops. At an order from above they sent out the order to form squares. Even in the heat of battle, Thomas could only marvel at the precision of the troops manoeuvres as they formed in squares and began to cut down the attackers with concentrated volley fire.
The next call was for the Hussars to charge the French guns on the far side of the plain. While they were engaged the call for the Heavy Dragoons was sent out to attack the left flank and ease the pressure on the troops.
Everything seemed chaotic to Thomas young eyes. His only impression of his first battle was the thunder of cannon, a thick haze of gun smoke, the screams of the wounded and dying and over all that the yells and curses of men fighting at close quarters.
Thomas took the chance to look up behind him where the Senior Officers were talking and watching. It was right at that moment he saw something that would change his life forever.
What Thomas saw made him react without thought. Dropping his drum from his hip, Thomas grabbed for one of his pistols as he took off running back up the hill. He ignored the loud cry behind him as one of the Generals tried to catch someone's attention.
"DAMN COWARD, someone get that boy. I will not have cowards running from any battle."
Fortunately for Thomas, no one heard the old portly officer's words in the heat and thunder of the battle. Thomas did not stop as he ran past the Officers towards where the colours should have been.
Thomas had looked up just as a canister had exploded almost directly above the Colour Guard. The only one to partially survive was the Colour Sergeant but he was on his knees and trying to hold up the banner. The other thing Thomas had seen was the small party of French soldiers running up the hill out of sight of the Officers. They were intent on capturing the English colours. A defeat that could not be tolerated.
Thomas made it to the side of the Colour Sergeant and knelt down. The Sergeant was a mess of blood which was flowing from several wounds. The flag staff had been broken but the Sergeant had rammed it tightly into the ground to keep it upright.
As Thomas knelt, he felt a weak hand grasp his ankle and the wavering voice of the Sergeant whispered to him.
"The colours boy. Defend the colours with your life."
The Sergeant gave a loud rattling breath and collapsed onto the ground, his hand slipping from Thomas ankle. A sound made Thomas lift his head and turn around to face the off side slope. He was just in time to see the top of a black shako tipped with blue and white feathers coming over the edge.
Taking care to do as he had been told by Corporal Creasy, Thomas lifted his left arm up to his face, bending his elbow he then rested the pistol on his forearm and took careful aim just as the head of a French soldier showed above the crest.
For the small pocket pistol it was a long shot but Thomas took his time as best he could. The crack of the pistol almost took Thomas by surprise but the small red hole in the throat of the soldier was even more so. The soldier fell backwards and disappeared. Unfortunately for Thomas it was soon replaced by another attacker.
Thomas dropped his pistol and reached for the second one. The soldier was now almost on top of him and Thomas did the only thing that would save him as the large bore of the musket drew closer to him. Thomas went into a roll and came up close and under the long barrel of the musket.
With a strength he did not know he possessed, Thomas rammed the small pistol up between the soldiers legs and pulled the trigger. The resulting scream gave him a little satisfaction but he had no time to contemplate his victory. More men were coming over the top.
Thomas realised he was not going to walk away from this as he saw the men and their long muskets and sharp bayonets pointed at him. Thomas was suddenly taken over with fear as he saw his doom in the hard uncaring eyes of the French soldiers.
In what seemed like days but was in fact only a split second, his short life sped past his eyes and he wondered what his father would say at his foolhardiness.
As a feeling of utter and total defeat tried to take him over, something snapped inside Thomas. He had given his word to defend the colours. It was his duty to hold them against all enemies and all odds. At that moment something changed deep inside Thomas. Even the uncaring and callous French soldiers saw something change and it made them pause. It was enough for the small wild and feral animal that had once been called Thomas.
With a primordial scream, Thomas stood up in front of the colours. He reversed his small pistol to use as a club and reached down for his dirk. Without further thought and to the dismay of the Frenchmen, Thomas charged.
Clubbing, stabbing and screaming at the top of his lungs, Thomas was in amongst the French soldiers before they even realised what he had done. At a time like this, Thomas small stature proved to be something of an advantage.
Ducking, rolling and jumping, Thomas tore into the soldiers with an abandon that almost frightened them. His small dirk slashed into groins or thighs and the pistol clubbed anything within reach whether it was a hand or wrist, a foot or knee. He attacked it with a savagery way beyond human.
Thomas ignored the sudden pain in his shoulder as the dirk was ripped from his hand being buried deeply into one of the soldier's stomachs.
Thomas rolled away from one of the soldiers as he tried to skewer the fast moving boy. Without another thought, and moving on pure instinct, Thomas wrenched a bayonet from one of the dropped muskets and used that to slash and stab at anyone that came close to where he stood before the still standing colours.
Unknown to Thomas, one of the Officers had seen what was going on. With a loud call to Lt General Wellesley, he pointed to the little drummer boy fighting like someone possessed by the devil. The Lt General took one quick glance and started yelling orders.
"Get men up to the colours. Save that boy and the colours or by God I will have someone's head."
Thomas did not know how long he had been fighting but there was something possessing him and he had to defend the colours or die trying. If he was to die this day he was not going to make it easy for anyone.
After what seemed an eternity, Thomas stood taller and looked into the eyes of the last two soldiers. His wild eyed stare had even rattled these hard bitten soldiers. Both soldiers took two steps back. They had had enough of this wild animal before them.
Both Frenchmen quickly reloaded their muskets before the boy could take advantage of the short pause and come for them. The fear they felt made their hands shake just a little but it was enough to slow their reloading. As they both lifted their muskets to their shoulders, a loudly yelling troop of red coats came at them with bayonets lowered. The fear in the men's eyes told their own story. Without firing a shot they turned and ran as the ten red coats drew nearer.
Thomas could not make one soldier from the other and as the new troops approached him he went after them. These were his colours to fight for and belonged to one else. He was prepared to take on Bonaparte himself to defend them.
No amount of cajoling could make Thomas stand down. His reason had shut down in the heat and fear of his personal battle. The French bayonet was coursing back and forth as his wild eyes watched the soldiers in front of him.
A corporal stepped forward and tried to reason with the wild eyed boy but to no avail. The boy was in the blood lust of battle. The troops stepped back a few paces and sent word to the General that they could not get near the boy without injuring him and he would not surrender the colours to them.
Lt General Wellesley looked at the tableau around the colours as the private related what was going on.
"Do you know who the boy is Private?"
"No Sir, but he's one of the drummer boys from the 33rd, Sir"
"Captain Lewis, get a rider to one of the NCO's of the 33rd, tell him we have one of his boys up here and need his help to settle the boy before he does any damage."
The Captain called for one of his riders and sent him off towards where the 33rd was fighting. The battle had now progressed into its final stages. It had been a bloody and terrible fight but the superior tactics of the English coalition were now taking their toll. The battle was swinging quickly into the English favour.
As the battle below wound to its inevitable end, the Lt General turned back to the captain.
"Tell me captain, why didn't those men just rush the boy? I mean, after all he is only a lad."
"I think Sir, it was a matter of respect and superstition. You know how the rank and file can be on those issues."
"Yes, Quite. Well where's this blasted NCO? I want that boy settled and my colours back as soon as we can."
"I believe, Sir, that the means is approaching now."
The Lt General looked down the hill and saw the larger than life figure of the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 33rd striding up the hill towards them.
When the Sergeant Major was standing at attention in front of him, Wellesley looked at the rugged man who still held a bloodied sword in one hand.
"Sergeant Major, we have a job for you."
"Yes Sir, I am at your disposal."
"It seems one of your men is making a bit of a fuss. Doesn't want to hand our colours back. Go up and see what you can do for us."
"One of my men? Yes Sir. I will put a stop to that nonsense right quick Sir. Any idea who it is Sir?"
"We don't know Sergeant Major, but I would suggest you don't get within reach of his pig sticker, so they tell me."
Much to the Sergeant Major's surprise, he was sure he could detect a hint of laughter in the Officer's words.
"I will take care of it immediately, Sir."
The Sergeant Major saluted the Officers and turned towards the top of the rise, before he could take a step he had to shake his head to make sure his eyes were not deceiving him. At the top of the rise stood the small skinny figure of Volunteer Marking. His uniform was torn and ragged and blood covered him from head to foot.
In one hand the boy was holding a bloody pocket pistol and in the other a blood covered French bayonet. He stood firmly in front of the colours daring anyone to take them from him. Even at this distance, the Sergeant Major could see the wildness in the boys eyes.
As the Sergeant Major moved off up the rise, he sheathed his sword and tried to work out how he was going to do this. He didn't want to hurt the boy and he did not want to make a fuss while there were other troops standing around. They had all kept a respectful distance from the young boy. It was obvious they had no intention of hurting him.
As they watched the Sergeant Major march up the rise to where the colours were being held, Wellesley turned once again to Captain Lewis.
"Do you know what we have here Captain?"
"An opportunity Captain. An opportunity and a saving grace for recruitment. This war is going to go on for a long time yet and we need men willing to fight and not the usual press gang soldiers. That boy has given us a chance if we are wise enough to take it."
"How would that be Sir?'
"Take a look behind us Captain. Who do you think that man sitting on the stool is?"
"Well Sir, I know he is the correspondent for the Times, but why?"
"What do you think he is doing Captain?"
"Reporting on the...oh yes, I see what you mean. What would you like me to do, Sir?"
"I am going back to headquarters. By the time I get there I want you to have Colonel Mathers from the quartermaster, Surgeon General Wright and General Ackland from the 8th Brigade waiting for me."
Captain Lewis turned his horse and rode away at a gallop while Wellesley turned at a more leisurely pace and walked his horse slowly down to where his headquarters were set up. He was followed by the other Officers as they left the battle field. There was now only the cleaning up to do and most of the French had retreated in disorder.
The Sergeant Major strode up to the group surrounding the smaller figure of Marking. He thought there were two ways of handling this but which one would be right. He decided on using the ingrained sense of obedience that all soldiers were instilled with.
To his eyes, the Sergeant Major could see the boy was still wound up like a spring. The wrong word could either send him into a catatonic state where he may never come back from or, cause him to attack the nearest person with full intent to kill him.
The Sergeant Major strode up to within three paces of Thomas. The boy was still very obviously in fighting mode. The six dead and bloody bodies of the French soldiers told him that much. Straightening himself up to his fullest, the Sergeant Major let out with his usual parade ground bellow.
"VOLUNTEER MARKING, ATTENTION. SHOULDER ARMS AND REPORT."
Somehow the loud bellow of a very familiar voice got through to Thomas. The order was clear and meaningful. Tucking the small bloody pistol in his waistband, he lifted the hand holding the bayonet and rested the sharp pointed weapon on his shoulder as though it was a musket as he snapped to attention.
"Sergeant Major." The voice was strained and very boyish and a little hoarse as he reported to his senior NCO. "The enemy attempted to take the colours. It was my duty to defend the colours even at the cost of my life. The enemy has been repelled and I stand guard on the colours, Sergeant Major."
The Sergeant Major lowered his parade ground voice and gave the order to Thomas in a more gentle voice.
"Volunteer Marking, you will uplift the colours and escort them to headquarters and present them to Lt General Wellesley. These men will accompany you as an honour guard. Do you understand your orders Volunteer Marking?"
"Yes Sergeant Major."
"Then do your duty lad."
Nobody said a word as they saw the tears running down the small drummer boys face as he struggled to pull the well buried staff from the soft ground. When he had the staff clear and in his hands and with tears of relief still flowing down his young face, Thomas pushed the bloody bayonet in beside his pistol and took the staff in both small hands.
Before Thomas could move away, one of the older soldiers came up to him and gently smiled down at the tear stained face.
"I believe these belong to you lad."
The older soldier held out his other dirt and blood splattered pistol along with his dirk which was also now covered in drying blood. Taking them from the soldier, Thomas tucked them away and prepared to return the colours.
Holding it at the port, he began his long walk to the headquarters tents. The ten red coats formed an honour guard on each side of him as he marched with his head up and the tears still falling.
Editors Note: Please note that due to possible copyright problems with certain characters in this story there have been a few name changes as the publisher of another author has advised not to continue with two of his characters. To this end Arthur has changed the surnames of the characters "Mister Sharpe", "Carmelo Sharpe" and "Sergeant O'Malley". They will now be known as "Grey" and "O'Rourke", respectively.
Warning: This story may become habit forming! Blame nobody but Arthur