Copyright © 2016
A French Supply Depot
The first few steps right into the centre of his home camp had Thomas looking around with a tear in his eyes. He had not realised how much he had missed his friends or the place where those same friendships had been made.
While it had been a welcome change to be able to return home and especially to see his parents, deep inside Thomas found he was feeling more comfortable right here with those who had watched his back and fought hard to keep him safe and alive.
The wagons were already being unloaded and there were a lot of 'ooh's and aah's' as they saw the new muskets and pistols. While they had been absent, Estaban had taken it upon himself to have some more permanent buildings constructed in the hidden valley. There was a large stone house for Thomas and those he wanted to stay with him. Two long barracks of both wood and stone were completed and another two were still under construction.
At the far end of the valley was a very large wooden barn, this was going to be used as their armoury as now they had so many of the older firearms they could store them for when they would be needed for any others who joined them from the lands of Spain or Portugal. Close beside Thomas's new house was another smaller one. It was built for Jervis as his new surgery. It was noticeable that Lieutenant Selwynn did not look pleased when he found out he would be living under canvas as would the new recruits until the two new barracks were finished.
There was little time to wonder at the changes in the camp for Thomas. He had to start to work on a way to harass the French behind their lines and, with now having over five hundred men and boys at his disposal, he would be able to range far and wide and strike in many different places at the same time. Thomas began to give thought to the Viscount's suggestion of promoting more people into positions of trust.
For Thomas it was a foregone conclusion that Lieutenant Selwynn would have to stay with him until he could match the battle experience of his Originals. This, before he was given a command of his own and could be trusted to watch out for his men when under fire.
Thomas sent the word out that there would be a full meeting of everyone in the camp after dinner, before then he called for Corporal Jones and began to tell him what he wanted and how the meeting was to go. The corporal then told Thomas he was about to give out the months pay but would be ready after dinner for what Thomas wanted.
Not wishing to stop the payday for his men, Thomas agreed and then went back to forming his notes for the meeting. Lieutenant Selwynn seemed to have disappeared to one of the tents and was not seen by anyone for some time.
Dinner was part celebration and part catching up with what had been going on while he was in England. Estaban had kept the Originals busy with training and their fitness. They would now spend a few days learning to use the new double barrelled muskets and pistols. Corporal Croxley was soon engrossed in the ten French artillery pieces and began to look at the changes the French used compared to his ship board cannon. The flint lock system was the first thing he noticed, there would be no more trying to keep a slow match lit and the lanyard system was far safer than standing over a gun when it was fired.
The meeting was just about to start when Diego ran up and whispered into Estaban's ear. Just as Estaban was about to tell Thomas what Diego had said, Corporal Jones was seen running towards the large table under the tent fly. The look on Corporal Jones face could only be bad news.
Thomas looked at the more than five hundred waiting recruits and Originals, he would have to delay the meeting until he found out what Jones wanted first as the Corporal was an essential part of the meeting.
Corporal Jones stopped beside Thomas and said, "Sir we may have a problem."
"What is it Jones?"
"I have two bags of coins missing from the pay box."
"How did that happen?"
"I was paying the last of the men and the only other person there was Mister Selwynn. He said it was regulations that an Officer had to be present when the men were paid. I was concentrating on the pay books and was not watching the Officer but, when I went to lock the box there were two bags missing. Each held one hundred Guineas and Mister Selwynn was the only person close enough."
"Do you have any proof apart from that, that he was responsible?'
Before Jones could reply, Estaban said, "Patron, Diego has just told me the new Englishman took his horse and rode off. This is not good Patron, you know how we think of our horses in Andalusia."
"Yes, you're quite right Estaban."
Thomas looked around at the gathered recruits and Originals, spying the Colour Sergeant he stood up and began to give orders and at the same time letting the others know why the meeting had been called.
"Sergeant of the Colours, the Viscount has said I must increase my Officers and Senior NCO's as we now have more men than ever before. Too this end I am authorised to promote you to Second Lieutenant. You will select which of the Colour Guard will be your Sergeant and the other two will hold rank as Corporals. Corporal Jones, you are now promoted to Sergeant and Adjutant. I want you to take note of all promotions and see that the letters needed to have them gazetted are written up. Also make sure the needed extra pay is recorded. Officer of the Colours, your first duty is to take your men with you. Lieutenant Colosio will get you the mounts you need. You will follow Lieutenant Selwynn and place him under arrest and in chains. The blacksmith in the village may have some for you to use. The Lieutenant will be informed he is being arrested for possible theft of military monies, desertion of the camp without orders and the theft of a horse. The Officer will be walked back to camp, he is not to ride. I have a feeling he will make for Vimeiro and a soft bed before going further, I would check the local tavern on your arrival.
"Yes Sir. Sir what if he resists?"
"Use your own judgement, you are now an Officer and I will back your decision."
When the newly promoted Officer of the Colours had gone to find the other three, Thomas turned to Carmelo.
"Can you get my old epaulets for Lieutenant Allen to wear for now? He will need to show Lieutenant Selwynn he is now an Officer."
Carmelo nodded and went back inside the new stone house to retrieve the needed items and quickly returned to hand them to Thomas. When the newly promoted Lieutenant Allen returned to inform Thomas he and the three guards were about to leave, Thomas gave him the epaulets and told him to wear them until he had some of his own. The Colour Guard moved out without another word and Thomas turned back to the meeting.
"These are the other promotions. Sergeant Major Perrin, you are now a Second Lieutenant and will take charge of one of the Companies when they are finally formed. Corporal Croxley, you are now a Sergeant Major and are fully in charge of all artillery. You will also be responsible for the training of the gun crews and maintenance of all the guns. Sergeant Lorenco you are now promoted to Lieutenant and will increase your sharpshooters to sixteen so you will need to find the best shots and train them in the ways of your own men."
Thomas went through those he knew and trusted. Most of the Originals were advanced as well as a few of the new recruits that had proved to Thomas they were capable in their positions. Even Snot was given the rank of Lance Corporal and put in charge of all the boys working the kitchens and would take charge if Sergio and Carlito were away with other duties.
When he was finally happy with the new promotions and the men that held rank, Thomas turned to the waiting men and then told them of his plan. In a way Thomas was happy that Lieutenant Selwynn was not there to hear it. He did not think a strange Officer like Selwynn would give away their plans but he was happier that he did not have to take the chance.
"From tomorrow we will divide up the men into four Companies except for Sergeant Major Croxley's gunners. I will take the first Company, Lieutenant Colosio will take the second Company, Lieutenant Grey will take the third and Lieutenant Perrin the fourth. The Colour Guard will stay and take charge of this camp when we are away. Those of you who are drummers will be divided up between all four Companies. When we move off to attack the French we will be going to different parts of the country both here in Portugal and also in Spain. We will all be far safer staying in smaller Companies than being one large Battalion which would make it far too easy for the French to find us. Right that's all for tonight, everyone needs to rest there is a lot of work to get ready to depart in a few weeks. 1st Battalion of His Majesties Drums and Auxiliaries… Dismissed."
Thomas was awoken to the loud sound of knocking on his door. He had no idea what the time was but it was still dark and he felt as though he had only had a few hours sleep. Groaning as he got up from his new soft bed, Thomas made his unsteady way to the new front door.
When Thomas opened the door, it was too see Lieutenant Allen standing there. Behind him were his three Colour Guards and a somewhat tired looking Lieutenant Selwynn. Thomas did not miss the bruise on the man's cheek or the thin trickle of blood coming from his nose.
Lieutenant Allen saluted and then said, "Sir, we have Mister Selwynn in custody as ordered. What shall we do with him now Sir?"
"Put him in a secure place and have a guard stand over him until morning. After breakfast I want you to take him back to Lisbon and hand him over to the Viscount. We will all have our reports written before you leave and I will have the charges made for you to carry with you. What happens to him after that is up to the Courts Martial. If the Viscount or his Officers need you to stay as a witness then do so. Ask Lieutenant Colosio to have the small cart ready to transport the Lieutenant to Lisbon. He will stay in chains and under guard at all times."
Lieutenant Allen saluted then turned to his three men and their prisoner and led them all away into the dark. Thomas closed the door and returned to his bed but found he could not get back to sleep, even as tired as he felt. Lieutenant Selwynn's actions had unsettled him and he hoped he had done the right thing. If for no other reason than security and the safety of all his friends. Deep down, Thomas was actually relieved to be shot of the man.
Thomas was up and about earlier than anyone else in the camp; he even beat the kitchen boys up as he stood alone outside his new home. There was a strange silence in the camp and even the early morning birds had not yet risen when he heard the first of the boys begin the cooking of breakfast. There was a new urgency in the camp as the time to go out and once again harry the French was close at hand.
Thomas had given a great deal of thought about the makeup of the four Companies he was going to form. There would be a mix of Originals and recruits and each would have a little extra help where he thought it would be needed.
The first rays of dawn filled the valley and the awakening sounds of boys and men began to remove the early morning stillness and quiet. Breakfast was finally over and Thomas gave the orders for the transport of Selwynn back to Lisbon and the fate that awaited him there. With the Colour Guard taking the Lieutenant out of the valley, Thomas turned his attention back to the formation of his four companies.
It took an hour to have the men and boys assigned to their new companies and then it was time for each Officer to take charge and begin the training that was needed to make their small troops a cohesive fighting force.
With the issuing of the new muskets and pistols, there was now a need for the Originals to practice and get used to them. The rest of the day was taken up with weapons practice while the new Officer's worked on a training program that would suit their own style of warfare. For the next five days the valley was a hive of activity and the organising of the four Companies was soon running like a well oiled machine.
For the new recruits it was a complete change of training situations. The recruits were put through the training needed to make them as adaptable as the Originals. This included scaling the nearby cliffs both with ropes and free hand. There was also the need to learn how to disappear into the landscape and learn how to hide in what seemed to be open ground.
The gunners also had a tough training regime with the newly promoted Sergeant Major pushing the men and boys until they were dropping with exhaustion. After seeing what he had to work with, Sergeant Major Croxley came up with an idea and went in search of Thomas to discuss it.
"Mister Marking Sir, I have a few ideas about the guns if you wish to hear them?"
"Go ahead Sergeant Major, I'm willing to listen and learn whenever I have the chance."
"Well Sir, it's like this. Those little brass guns are not going to be much good on the road. The carriages make them hard to handle in a hurry. I would suggest they be set up somewhere permanent like here at the valley for the use of those staying behind. The swivel guns would be best with one of the Companies that needs the extra fire power and can move quickly. For the ten French guns, I would perhaps like to look at getting a few more. I have the men and boys that can fill six more pieces and it would make a good sized hole in any French columns that we may come across."
"Thank you Sergeant Major, I think you may have something there. Can you leave it with me for a few days so I can think on it? I will say that if we can get a few more guns then we will but the French are not going to just hand them over so I will have to think long and hard on it all."
"Yes Sir and thank you for listening, not many Officer's would."
"I'll listen to anyone with good ideas Sergeant Major. I know I'm not that experienced with so many men under me. For that matter, I'm not really experienced in any of this, it's all come a bit soon. All I wanted to be was a drummer boy and do my duty but this all sort of caught up with me before I knew what was going on."
"I understand Mister Marking, but think of it this way. Some people are destined to be not much more than they are, others have a bigger destiny. You are one of those Sir whether you want it or not. It's the way of the world Mister Marking."
"Thank you Sergeant Major Croxley. I just hope I'm not putting all my friends in danger or making the wrong decision that will cost too many lives."
"You do what you been doing Mister Marking. Trust your gut and follow through as you have so far and you should be alright. It's war Mister Marking and as much as we don't want to, we all lose friends when the powder burns and the musket balls fly. All we can do is the best we can and the rest is up to fate."
"Thank you Sergeant Major and I will give good thought to your suggestions and let you know in a day or so."
"Thank you Sir."
It was fully ten days before Lieutenant Allen returned with his three Colour Guards. When he arrived he went straight to Thomas to tender his report.
"After we gave the Viscount's Adjutant the reports and told him what we had seen and heard, the Viscount gave the Lieutenant the option of resigning his commission and being returned to England with a dishonourable discharge or being reduced to the ranks and sent to the front lines. The Lieutenant resigned, he is now on his way back to England. The Adjutant said you did the right thing Sir. Now then what do you want of us?"
"Thank you Lieutenant Allen, at least its one worry we no longer have. Sergeant Major Croxley has suggested you keep the two small cannon here and set them up to defend the entrance into the valley. We will be moving out shortly and I would like you to take over the care of the valley and those staying behind. I have planned to have the Companies return here every month or so for rest and to rearm. I will need you here to watch over everything. The Colours will stay in your care, there is no need for them where we are going."
"Yes Sir, we will look after the valley for you and everything will be ready for your return."
"Thank you Lieutenant. The Companies will be moving out in two days so you have time to set things up and get the camp ready as you see fit. Sergeant Jones will stay here with you along with the scullery boys under Lance Corporal Morgan. The Sergeant will keep all reports that come back from the Companies so we can look them over each month or so."
"Thank you Sir."
The Lieutenant saluted and left Thomas to doing the final organising needed for the upcoming departures. Dawn rose bright and hot on the day of their departure from the valley. The previous night had been a long and tiring one as Thomas and his Officers settled on where they wanted to go to be able to disrupt the French. The main concentration would be on the supply lines but, if the occasion offered itself they would attack any smaller reinforcement columns.
The four young Officers looked over the map one last time, with them were those Senior NCO's that would accompany the various units to their destination. Estaban had advised taking his Company right back into Spain and his homeland of Andalucia and into Jaen where he still had many friends who would help to hide his small force. Estaban also noted it would be the last place the French would be looking for him and his men and they could wreck havoc so far behind the lines where the sense of safety gave the French a false hope of peace.
Estaban wanted his men to travel mainly at night once they were close to the border but, once back in Andalucia he would make sure each and every man was mounted on a good Andalucian Horse and they would perform their raids from horse back with the advantage of the speed the horses would give them. Estaban had spent most of the training period to this end and his men were now very competent riders and could fire their muskets from horse back with great accuracy.
Lieutenant Perrin was given an area in central Portugal with his base at Nixa, he would have with him the six swivel guns as added fire power and he would be responsible for disrupting any supply trains coming across the border from Spain to the east. Perrin was also tasked with the job of devising small raids during the night hours into any French camps he thought he could get away with.
Carmelo was going to head into the area surrounding El Bodon in the Castile Province of Spain. He would be close to the border with Portugal but far enough behind the French lines to cause them problems. He would also have with him the sixteen sharpshooters that Lorenco had trained and now led.
Thomas had settled on the North of Portugal and would make a hidden camp in the area of Chaves. It was closer to the French Border and would probably be one of the main supply lines into the country. If there was a chance of good spoils it would have to be this area. With Thomas went the ten French guns and Croxley's men, he also kept the extra men and boys he had trained just in case they could recover more of the French guns.
The four Companies numbered approximately one hundred and thirty men each and all were now trained to travel fast and for long distances. Every man or boy in the company knew how to fight and none that went out for the first time as a new Battalion was limited in the training of this new type of warfare. If any of the troops were cut off from the main force, they were all trained to be able to watch out for themselves until they could get back to the main Company and their friends.
For the first few days of travel, all Companies would be able to travel openly during the day, but when they came close to where the French had now retaken parts of Portugal they would have to resort to night time travel. Especially for Estaban and Carmelo who were going right into the devils nest in Spain.
Perrin was perhaps the luckiest of them all as he would be closer to home, although he would also be closer to the main French forces that were rumoured to be forming around Almoster, Santarem and Cartaxo in preparation to take Lisbon. These were the forces that the little Battalion of Drummers were meant to disrupt so that they could not force Viscount Wellington from the defences at Torres Verdras.
Thomas's position to the North at Chaves would also eventually put him in danger as he was by far the closest to France itself, and was considered to be right on the main line of advance for all French reinforcements and supplies. If he were ever caught out in the open there would be plenty of French soldiers to take advantage and his demise would be measured in days if not hours.
All four Companies moved out of the Vimeiro valley together and would stay that way until it came time to part for their own sections of the country. There was always the spectre of French spies seeing them but there was little they could do about it until the dark of night. Lieutenant Lorenco was given the task of sending out his sharpshooters to watch the road ahead and to cover their flanks in case the French had ideas about stopping the notorious rebel El Toro.
Perrin and Estaban led their forces as far as Leiria, where they parted company with Thomas and Carmelo, and turned east towards the river Alagon which they would cross south of Villavelha. Perrin would leave Estaban and seek a hiding place closer to Nixa. Estaban would leave Perrin and make the run south as far as Elvas where he hoped to cross the River Guadiana then slip south of Olivenca and into the mountains of Estremadura and finally through Seville and into western Andalucia.
Once in Andalucia and among friends, Estaban would lead his small force deeper into the mountains and passes until he came to the profusion of small canyons and ridges of Jaen. Once there he would find a good hiding place to settle and prepare for his fight against the French invaders.
Thomas and Carmelo pushed on towards Coimbra on the River Mondego. There they would separate. Carmelo would then turn towards Guarda, through the Da Estrella Mountains and on south of Almeida to finally cross the border. Then on to El Bodon where he assured Thomas he had friends to help keep him and the men hidden from the French.
Thomas had it a little easier as he would stay on the west coastal plains and push hard for Gramido. Thomas would then turn east and cross the River Douro and into the heart of Castile. It would then be only a night and a day's forced march to Chaves along the edge of the Traz Os Montes.
Thomas was well aware this would put him almost certainly in the path of any French reinforcements arriving from France. It was also his best chance of finding some of their main supply lines and for this reason alone it was worth the risk if he could disrupt those lines and force the French to be short supplied with the necessary items of war.
By the end of seven days all Companies were finally in their new hidden homes. It was a surprise for Thomas that so many of the local people were happy to lend aid to them but he was forever mindful of French spies or those Portuguese who may work for coin from whomever would pay the most.
Thomas was not too know that the people themselves, who had faith in their El Toro, were watching out for those same people so they could protect their rebel friend who had freed them once already from the heavy yoke of the French.
For Thomas it was a need for information that had him send four of the young Portuguese boys out into the countryside. There would be no records or taking of notes and the boys were very good at remembering things they saw along the way.
To anyone in the countryside the boys looked like any others that had been dispossessed by the French invasion of their homeland and the boys were soon forgotten by those that saw them. Many of those that saw the boys wandering around the open country were French soldiers but they were just another waif looking for a home and soon forgotten.
The boys split up and went their own way, the more country they covered, the better their information would be for their Patron. Thomas spent the time with the men under his command. Firstly they set up their camp so it would be difficult to find or attack. Next thing he wanted to do was to get a feeling for the surrounding area in case they had to escape quickly. To this end he went out dressed as just another waif and spent four days scouring the nearby area for traps and become familiar with his surroundings.
Once back at the camp, Thomas drew up a small map as best he could and then went over it with all the others. He told them all that any man caught out alone and unable to make it back to the camp and their friends needed to make for Vimeiro as best they could or too find an English army camp for safety.
On the fifth day the first of the boys returned with information about a well used road that seemed to always be full of French wagons and soldiers, for Thomas it had to mean it was the main road for supplies. For the rest of the afternoon he sat with the boy and listened to every detail the boy could remember. It was vital he did not let his men fall into some trap from which they would all end up dead.
The next day the second and third boys arrived back and Thomas went through the same system with them. Every detail was written down and drawn on his homemade map for later discussion and the boys were sent off for some well earned rest and good food.
The last boy did not appear for two more days but, when he did it was with information that Thomas could not believe. The boy had made the longest of journeys and had finally stopped at a far off town in Spain called Benavente but it was not the town that the boy talked about.
It was as he wound his way around the south east of the Astorian and Cantabrian Mountains that he made his biggest discovery. On the small open plain at the base of a ridge sat a huge camp that looked to be a staging depot for the French supplies. The boy guessed it was about midway between Braganza and Benavente and was set back close to the ridge.
For more than an hour the boy gave details of what he had seen and his estimates of how long it would take for reinforcements to reach the huge staging depot if it was attacked. After drawing everything he could remember on the crude map, Thomas looked at it with concentration. If it was as good as the boy said then it would be worth more looking into.
To Thomas's eyes it looked as though the French were bringing their supplies down through the pass that went through to Biscay and then into France. If this was so then the reason for a large staging depot was simple. For heavily laden wagons to continue all the way to the front would have been not only onerous but take so much time and many soldiers to guard that it would become a major effort that the French could not afford. Had Napoleon not removed over one hundred thousand men after he thought they had the English out of Portugal after the defeat and mass withdrawal at La Corunna, there may have been a chance that was now missed.
Thomas sat back and looked at the map and thought about what the boy had said. Finally he came to a decision and put it forward to the others.
"We need to go and look at it but I want to cause some problems well away from there. We need to raid a few caravans and small groups of soldiers down towards Moncorvo. If we can cause the French to pull troops away from further north, we may get a chance to do a lot of damage to that depot, but I want to go and see it for myself. Sergeant Croxley, I would like you to come with me. By the description we have, the camp is well defended but we have to find a way to make a successful attack."
Thomas turned to the young teen.
"Juan, I want you to come with us so you can show us everything you saw. We will go as young farm labourers and the Sergeant can be the farm manger or something. We will take the small cart and load it with straw so no one will take notice of us. Both of you get some rest and we will leave early tomorrow morning after we have the cart loaded."
Juan nodded and turned towards the small ring of tents to get some rest while Thomas continued to make plans. Thomas then called for his NCO's and laid out his plans for them while he was away. The main thing for those left in camp was to get more information from further south in the area of Moncorvo. It would be crucial for them to pull away as many troops from further north so they could then turn their attention to the Depot with a reasonable chance of success.
The small cart carrying the three from Chaves had to wend its way past Braganza and down the centre of the large open plain until they reached the river that dissected the plain south of Braganza. Once across the river, the three disguised spies turned more northward towards the distant ridges that ran behind Braganza and led to the depot below the south eastern end.
Once near the depot they would be into Spanish land and no longer in Portugal so they had to be more on their guard now than ever before. Having to swing so far south to bypass Braganza, the three spies took more time than they first thought they would. Thomas's estimate of being away only for a few days was now looking more like the best part of a week, or even more if they ran into trouble.
It was the early morning of the third day before they saw the ridge that Juan pointed out as being the one that protected the large depot. It was time to be very careful and find some cover to work their way up the ridge to see the size of the French supply depot.
At the base of the ridge they found much to their surprise, a small track leading upward and even though they had to dismount from the cart. It did not take long for them to walk beside the small donkey as they went upwards.
Only a matter of one hundred feet and they came to a large flat area that held the ruined remains of a small stone farm house but above them the climb was far more daunting. While they may be able to climb it themselves, there was no way the donkey and cart would make it as it was another two hundred feet both steeper and higher.
Leaving the cart by the ruins, they released the small donkey to feed on the sparse grasses on the plateau and turned to the climb before them. Juan assured Thomas that the depot was just on the other side of the ridge and they would be able to look down on it from the top without being seen by those below.
The climb was tougher than Thomas thought it would be but then it also meant anyone looking for them would be slowed as well. On reaching the top, Thomas saw it was wider than he thought it would be and there was ample space for a number of men to hide from the depot below them.
The depot was far larger than he thought it would be and was situated snugly between the two fingers of the southernmost ridges as though in a small cul-de-sac. It had been constructed with large breastworks that surrounded the whole complex and there were only two ways in or out. At each corner sat a piece of artillery with another two being placed midway along the sides where the two entry gates were, one facing north and the other facing south. The gates were guarded by a small number of troops and it looked as though the guns were manned by the soldiers they could see sitting nearby.
There seemed to been a general air of safety and the depot must have been there for some time as no one seemed to be unduly alarmed or alert. Looking down from above, Thomas could see the breastworks were more of an oblong than a rectangle. At the end closest to the ridge top there was one part that was separated from the rest of the camp by an even thicker breastworks and had most of its supplies under canvas.
Next was what looked to be the general supply area and then it ran into the central roadway that went through the camp from one gate to the next. On each side of the road there were large tents set up and it was supposed that they were for the distribution of the supplies.
To the other side of the row of supply tents and facing more east were row upon row of normal military tents. They had to be the guards tent lines, as there were no signs of any supplies being stacked there and the sight of small fires could only mean one thing.
Outside the breastworks to the west and protected by part of the rear breastworks were most of the horses and mules. There were many wagons lined up near the northern gateway as they waited to be loaded for a supply run to the south and the French lines in Portugal.
Thomas estimated the depot had been set up about half way between Braganza and Benavente and that they felt secure being well inside the Spanish lands. There was a general feeling around the depot of not being under any pressure from impending attacks.
The depot was going to be a hard nut to crack as they had open ground all around and it was all covered by the heavy guns on the breastworks. Thomas was almost ready to give it away. Trying to get into the depot would cost him more lives than he had to spare with his small force, and while it would have been a great win he just could not see a way into the valuable supply dump.
As the three lay side by side, Thomas saw Sergeant Croxley reach into the leather bag he had over one shoulder.
From the bag, Croxley took a small brass instrument and went about setting it up. Thomas was intrigued as he watched the older man. The instrument had a small flat brass with another brass fitting that sat at a 90° angle. From the top of the angle to the base was another curved piece of brass and a long thin flat piece with a pin at its base so it would swivel along the curve.
Thomas watched as Croxley set it on the ground and then crouched above it as he raised and lowered the thin blade like finger of brass. Each time Croxley stopped at a spot on the curve, he would lean closer and read the finely stamped numbers of the curve and at the base of the instrument, Thomas could no longer resist the temptation.
"What's that Sergeant?"
"Gun Sight Sir, we uses them on the ships so thought it might do the same for the land. Cap'n Peter gives me this long ago when I first went asea with him, says I was a natural at the guns and wanted me to have it."
"Yes but what does it do?"
"Tells me the range and angle to fire the guns Mister Marking. Lookee here, I turns it this way and the numbers tells me the angle I need for the guns when we are about same height. Now then, when I turns it this way I can see what they are for when we is above like we is now. From what I see now, that there depot is four hundred yards and a small bit more and I need about 35° on the barrel to reach with ease."
"Uhm, Sergeant Major Croxley, I don't think we can get the horses to pull the guns up this ridge. Perhaps the first part with the track there, but there is no way to get them this high up."
"Don't you go worrying none Mister Marking, you forget we was all Jack Tars not so long ago. Take a look behind us mister Marking, you see that there pile of rocks? Well we set our anchor points there and then put up a set of shear legs and hoist the guns up. Won't be no trouble for us old sea dogs Mister Making. All we will need is a few strong backs, a lot of rope and tackle blocks and the help of the horses below and we can look right down the throats of those Frenchies. If you be happy Mister Marking, we will get the guns up here and them Frenchies will be running afore ye knows it."
Thomas looked a little doubtful at the Sergeants Majors claims, the climb up the ridge had been hard just for the three of them and they were not carrying much more than their food and water, how the man hoped to get the heavy guns up there was just beyond his understanding.
"How are you going to get your 'anchors' up here to start with and what are shear legs? There's also the travelling of the guns, the French will see them the moment we are out in the open and coming this way."
"Shear legs is like two small masts joined together at the top, forms a triangle. We put a block at the top and run the ropes through, the horses and men can pull from below and up comes ye guns! Now then Mister Marking, as to your getting the guns here? We still have all those French uniforms from Talavera the men has talked about do we not?"
"Well yes of course we saved them all."
"Well then Mister Marking, tell me what Frenchy is going to try to stop his guns from going along the roadway? Have you seen them gunners Mister Marking? Once they is headed to some place they stop for no man. We just dress up like you did at Talavera and pull the guns right up here with nary a care in the world. If'n I gets four guns up here, that there depot is as good as done, they can't get their guns this high an angle to fire back and, as long as we got some men to the north and south to stop any messengers getting away, we got them right cooped up, an no mistake."
"I can see what you're getting at but we still have to get in there and that will cost us a lot of lives."
"Not a'tall Mister Marking, them down there is not hardened fighting men, we give them a few shots and they will either run or throw their hands up. From up here I can get to most of the camp. That there separate part I'm thinking is their magazine. We can near blast the rest of the camp to the high heavens and as a last resort we can fire on their magazine, but I would prefer to keep that for us if I could. You got to remember Mister Marking, our guns is French and we need their munitions or they are useless to us, down there is our new supplies for our guns."
"I see your point Sergeant Major, well if you think you can get them up here then I'm with you. Let's get back down as soon as you have finished your measurements and get back to Chaves, we need to send for those uniforms and train the men for this one. I want to hit a few patrols or supply trains further south before we come after the depot. With luck they will think all the fighting is far south of them and feel even safer."
"Very good mister Marking. Sir I was just a wondering, why not stay up here until the morning? We need to see their pickets and what they do at night, might even be advantageous to us later on Sir."
"Good idea Sergeant Major, we have enough food and water to see the day out and as you say, it will give us a better idea of whether they are ready or not."
The three settled down once again to watch and learn. Every piece of information they could gather may save a life, and Thomas did not want to have any of his friends or men lost because he did not do his own job right.
For the rest of that day they all lay and watched closely. The times of the guard changes were taken note of and how many men they kept at the gates. It appeared they had eight at each gate during the day but they were to see as the night closed in that the gate guards were reduced to only three and the guards that patrolled the top of the breastworks during the day disappeared at night and left them unattended.
Juan then told Thomas of the road to the north. About a mile or so to the north, the road ran through a shallow defile before opening out onto the plain below. Thomas began to think of a way to block that defile and use it to stop any reinforcements from Benavente getting to the depot in time. The southern route was another matter. While it was a good full days march from Braganza it would still be a threat if they had to stay too long to take the depot.
Sergeant Croxley had an answer for him. "We just set up the other six guns on the rise below to cover that road. I only need four guns up here, the rest can stay with a few of your muskets and we can hold them at bay for some time if needs be."
"Yes that might do it, so how can we block that defile?"
"Couple o' barrels of powder should do it Mister Marking and then if your boys could take a few of those wagon horses down it will also slow them up some but I can't see them getting through the defile if we fill it with rocks. How far is it to Benavente from here?" Croxley asked Juan.
"About a full days ride Senor Sergeant, we should have one good day to attack without problems from any other French." Juan said.
"What do you think Mister Marking?"
"Yes Sergeant Major, I think it's worth a try and we do need that powder and shot for your guns."
"Yes Sir and there's the chance to take those six down there if we can crack them."
Thomas turned his small spy glass back to the depot. He had been careful to keep one hand shading the glass so there would be no reflection to give away their position from those below. He was beginning to feel it would just be possible to take the depot, and it would certainly get the attention of the French if he did so.
Thomas took note that there seemed to be only one caravan arrive from the north each day and that it was just after midday when the solitary wagon train was loaded and left for the south where the supplies were needed for the army. Each wagon train to the south consisted of twenty wagons so there was a lot of supplies being sent. Most arriving trains were about the same number.
There was one thing that gave Thomas pause. The sentries numbered about one hundred but there was also a troop of thirty Hussars camped inside the breastworks although their horse were kept outside with those used to pull the many wagons. It seemed the men down there did not like to share their home with the animals.
The next morning, after watching the guard change and seeing how safe the camp seemed to feel, Thomas and his two friends left the top of the ridge for the waiting donkey cart and a return to their camp at Chaves. They all had much to think on as they slowly wound their way through the hot plains towards their temporary home camp.
The trip homeward was as uneventful as their first trip out. The French seemed to be comfortable with the fact they were far from the fighting to the south and they took the most minimal of actions to guard their places here in the north.
They had been away from camp for nearly seven days before they got back. The camp was tidy and running well under the few NCO's he had to work with. The training had been kept up and the boys sent out to the south were now back and waiting to report to their Patron. The time for battle was now close and even the new recruits among the boys were wanting to try their skills.
On the second night after their return, Thomas gathered all his NCO's for a final planning session. Sergeant Major Croxley had come up with the idea to once again use the French uniforms they had worn at Talavera as a disguise for when the guns were run to the depot for the attack. Thomas had sent off one of the boys all the way back to Vimeiro to pack the uniforms needed and return with them on horseback.
While the trip back to Vimeiro would take more than a week to complete, Thomas set about planning other attacks in the Moncorvo area that was well south of their real intended target at Benavente in the north.
Thomas split his Company up into its four platoons and gave each a different target around Moncorvo. The idea was strictly for hit and run. Whether it was a foot patrol, cavalry patrol or a stationary guard post, the orders were the same. From ambush the platoons would fire both barrels of their new muskets and then retreat without giving the French a chance to fight on their own ground.
The boys who Thomas had had ranging over the Moncorvo area gave all the details they would need for many and varied attacks over a wide range. Thomas was finally satisfied he would create as much confusion as he could by these tactics.
For far too long the Moncorvo area had been quiet and well out of the firing line, Mister Grey was known to be even further north and almost into French lands on his own missions. The upper north of Portugal was now Thomas's to raid as he wanted in the hope of drawing as many French away from the front lines as he could.
The four platoons left within a half hour of each other and by different routes of march. The areas they had been given were marked on roughly drawn maps that Sergeant Jones had made for them. It was not until ten days later, when all the platoons reassembled back at Chaves that the stories were told and the success of their first venture against the French in the north was known.
The celebrations of their first northern foray was only lessened by the loss of two of their number. One boy from 1st platoon and another from the 3rd platoon. Both boys had sacrificed themselves to save their friends and would be given all the honours the newly formed Regiment could afford them.
That the combined raids had been a success there was little doubt. Infantry patrols that had once been four or six soldiers were now increased to fifteen or twenty. Cavalry patrols of a half dozen Lancers were now full troops of twenty and were seen almost every hour of the daylight as they scoured the land for the rebels. Guard posts had been more heavily manned and Thomas had to try to estimate that his boys had drawn at least a couple of thousand extra troops away from the front with his daring and fast attacks.
The countryside around Moncorvo was alive with French troops, all looking for the elusive El Toro. The French Officers could not for the life of themselves work out how he was doing it. The infamous El Toro could hit four or five places in a matter of hours even if they were twenty miles apart. A distance that was thought to be impossible for an army to march in such a short time.
To keep the mystique around the name of El Toro, Thomas had his boys leave a small red and gold flag with the black bulls head behind after a raid. That silly little flag caused more concern for the French than they ever would have acknowledged had they been asked.
The French also became frustrated in not being able to actually capture any of the Rebel's men. They had got lucky only twice and managed to kill two of the rebels but they turned out to be quite young boys, perhaps only in their mid teens. The real surprise for the French were the weapons the two dead boys had been carrying, they were like nothing they had seen used on a battle field before.
Unfortunately for the French and at the cost of five lives during the night, the weapons disappeared and were never seen again but the fact that the rebel was so well armed did cause many messages to be sent back and forth from Moncorvo to France. The countryside was in an uproar, many times the troops never even saw their attackers. They were simply fired on from cover and then disappeared. It made for some very nervous patrols when they had to leave the towns or well protected guard posts.
With the south of the Traz Os Montes now in a state of uproar and troops flowing into the region en-masse, Thomas decided it was now time to set his sights to the north and the huge supply depot.
After a two day rest to resupply and set the plans for the upcoming fighting, Thomas watched as every man in the Company as well as the extra platoon of gunners set about changing into the stolen French uniforms. Everyone knew that there were few French infantry that would try to stop fast moving troops of Artillery when they were on the move and so Sergeant Croxley would take his gunners in broad daylight through the countryside to the ridge above Benavente.
Thomas would lead his Company on fast night marches and meet the Sergeant at the base of the Ridge in three days. As the sergeant could travel so much faster, it was decided he would leave a day after Thomas's Company and they, with luck, should arrive almost together.
As a last resort, Thomas had all his men in the French uniforms, if they looked as though they were going to be stopped at any time they hoped the uniforms would change the minds of any guards or patrols that saw them.
The next morning Thomas and the Company set out. They would have to march south of Braganza and then turn north and east. They were hoping to do that during the hours of night when they would not be seen as easily. Their first camp would be near the centre of the Traz Os Monte plains and then they would push on for the northern most point of the River Douro just west of Zamora. On the morning of the third day they would push through during daylight on the last leg to the base of the Ridge that they had chosen for the attack on the depot. It would be almost a straight run through the flat plains and directly to the point of the ridge.
As always, the Company travelled light, each man or boy carrying everything he would need in his pack or in his hands, there were no drums this time to carry and so everything they had was geared towards war and survival.
Thomas had driven his boys from early light and they made the rendezvous point just before Sergeant Major Croxley which allowed them to eat their first meal of the day. Thomas watched as the Sergeant Major arrived with all ten guns in tow and the extra wagon for the powder kegs and shear legs. Without waiting for orders, Sergeant Croxley led his men and guns right onto the narrow track that led up to the flat area at the base of the ridge, all he had to do now was get four of his guns up the last cliff to the top.
Thomas set his Company out along the top of the first rise to protect the gunners as they set about arranging their shear legs and preparing the four guns to be lifted. The other six guns were set up and turned in the direction of Braganza and would protect their rear along with two platoons of muskets.
Thomas was going to lead his other two platoons to the defile along with two kegs of powder. They would cause a blockage of the defile and set an ambush for any that tried to break through while the Sergeant Major was using his guns on the depot.
The gunners worked hard in the rising heat of the day. First they sent a young powder monkey up the cliff with a thin rope. Once he dropped that down, they tied on a thicker rope and he pulled it up. With the heavier rope tied off on top of the ridge, four other gunners quickly scaled the cliff with more ropes and then dropped them down for others to speedily climb up.
Once half the gunners were up on top of the ridge, Croxley started sending up blocks and tackle, more heavy ropes and two large and thick lengths of post. They were to be tied together and form the two legs of the lifting apparatus. Thomas could only watch in amazement as the strange work went flawlessly, everything the men did seemed to be easy as though they had done it many times before.
Once the two thick poles were secured at the top and the many ropes were anchored to huge rocks behind them, the two legs now looked to be angled out over the edge of the cliff face with a heavy tackle block tied between the legs where they met at the top. The thick ropes hung down from the blocks and were waiting for the first gun to be tied by the tow ring.
Sergeant Major Croxley did not break the guns down but told Thomas they would actually use the guns wheels to roll it up the steep cliff face. At the top it would be easier for the men to roll it into position along the ridge and facing the depot far below. The Sergeant Major was only going to send up one munitions locker for the four guns, he did not think the depot would need more than that. The rest would stay below with the other guns to protect them from attack.
By nightfall, the Sergeant Major had three of his guns up the cliff, the last gun and the munitions locker would have to wait until morning, Thomas agreed with the Sergeant Major that it would be far too dangerous to attempt to raise the guns in the dark.
The camp that night felt light hearted at accomplishing so much so quickly. It was a cold camp as they did not want any fires to be seen by anyone that just might be looking their way. The next morning the hard work continued until almost midday when the last of the preparations were complete and all four guns were at the top of the ridge along with the munitions locker. It was now time for the sergeant to give his last orders to those staying below.
The Sergeant Major went from gun to gun and checked their sighting, he had them set at six hundred yards and facing along the road to Braganza. The two platoons of riflemen would take station about two hundred yards out and form an ambush line across the road to not only defend the guns, but to stop any riders that might escape the depot to carry a warning or ask for reinforcements.
The Sergeant Major, once he was happy with his six guns, turned to the ropes and much to Thomas's surprise, had little trouble in scaling the heights to his four guns waiting on top. It was time for Thomas to get his two platoons ready for their own part of the plan. There was still a lot that could go wrong and he did not want to take any chances at this stage of the game.
Thomas went along the line and checked that each man had what he would need. Their part of the plan was to blow the defile and form a blockage and then form an ambush for those trying to get through to the depot. For the defile he had one of the gunnery horses loaded with two casks of powder and four spades for digging them into the side of the defile.
Thomas would not lead his men out until after dark when they could bypass the depot without giving anything away. Meanwhile the Sergeant Major was up top sighting in his guns ready for the attack to start at first light in the morning. The signal would be the explosion of the powder kegs at dawn in the defile. From that moment on it would be virtually all up to the ability of the Sergeant Major and his gunners.
Thomas was sure that there would be little trouble from Braganza as they were far enough away that they would not hear the guns or know about the attack unless one of the soldiers from the depot got through with the information. Benavente was another kettle of fish altogether although while they may not hear the guns, they were far closer than any others which is why it was imperative that Thomas closed the defile and set his ambush on time.
Admit it. You've stuck around this long... You're hooked! Let Arthur know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org