And Rumours of War: More Deadly than the Male, part II

June 23rd, 1767
Green Hammerton, Yorkshire
Early afternoon

The guns had been bickering all through the hot morning, their dull thumps extending right and left as the Norwegian cavalry probed for a flank and the artillery tried to bombard the Bretons out of their lines. The Bretons were having none of it. The reports coming in had made the position increasingly clear; this was no bluff, not a delaying skirmish such as they’d already fought half a dozen of, with the Bretons forcing the Norwegians to deploy and then retreating when the artillery found their range. This was their main effort, the place where they would dig in their heels and stop the Hird marching to York, or die where they stood. Whatever it was Guillaume de Crussol had been delaying for – reinforcements, orders, supplies? – he had either got it or decided he wasn’t going to. Now his outnumbered army was dug in on a front of three miles between the Ouse and the Nidd, blocking the road.

Ingrid smiled grimly. It was probably Guillaume’s best move, short of abandoning the whole north of England and hoping for reinforcements from home. And he’d chosen a good spot for it, with his northern flank covered by the Ouse and his southern resting on the marshes of the Nidd, impassable to any formed body of men. It might be possible to send a detachment on a far route march around, in either direction, to come up on his rear – but he would have scouts watching for that, and a reserve, and could move on interior lines to block such a maneuver. No, it would have to be brute force and frontal attack. This was the moment she had spent twenty years building for, when the despised Ynglinga Hird – laughingstock of the world’s armies; loser of a dozen campaigns – would finally show what the Norse could do when led by an uptime officer. There wasn’t going to be any subtlety about it; a straight slugging match, roughly even forces, no fancy maneuvers. Just the thing to give the troops heart and make them believe in victory.

Just the thing to kill a lot of them, too. She faced the thought without flinching. Twenty years she had built this army, blooding it carefully in skirmishes with the Indian tribes and border raids out of Scotland. It was her life’s work, her paean to the triumph of the Yngling will. But if it could not be risked in battle – and there was always risk; Guillaume might have some deadly surprise ready, and she might find herself fighting a retreat to the sea by nightfall – then it was worthless. She drew back her shoulders, turning to her officers. “We’ll attack. Move 4th and 5th batteries over to our right flank; we’ll make our heaviest assault there, and try to dislodge them from the bridge; if we do that we can roll them up at our leisure, otherwise they might escape and hold York. 3rd corps will begin the attack on my signal; 2nd and 1st will follow in echelon to pin them down and keep them from reinforcing their left. The Eidsiva and Nidaros regiments will remain in reserve to follow up on success. Keep the scouts where they are, the last thing we need is a surprise on our flanks, but push some squadrons forward to observe their line of retreat to York. Courier for Captain Gerhardsen in York: Our position, we are attacking, and if he has any rebel militia or riots in his pocket, now’s the time.”

There was a flurry of activity, officers and messengers going off in every direction to carry out her orders. She stood calm at the center of it all, watching the enemy line, bright white uniforms, slightly browned with summer dust. With the orders given there was little for her to do – only to stand and look calm and determined. It wasn’t even very difficult. She felt fear, yes – not of wounds or death, there was little chance of that for her, even in defeat, but of failure, of disgrace. But she wasn’t very afraid. She knew her army, and they outnumbered the Bretons. And below that an exultation was building. This was the war Ynglings were bred for; muscle and courage and tactical skill, not missiles and tanks. No faceless calculations of industrial output, megawatts, breeding ratios; just her and Guillaume across a flat field, perhaps a kilometer apart, and the Queen’s Move of black-powder war, the attack by columns of heavy infantry. She bared her teeth at the enemy ranks; an army would die this day, and it wouldn’t be hers.

Third Corps was ready, and she drew her sword, gesturing towards the Breton lines. Trumpets blew. Her shouted “Advance” was repeated down the ranks, colonel-captain-lieutenant-sergeant, and the regiments moved off. Bergenshus, Akershus, Vardøhus, Bergslagen, Jæmtland, Kalmar, Nordland; the Third Corps was recruited from the old homeland, and named accordingly. Their banners blew in the sunlight, the simple two-tone heraldry of Norway. The enemy artillery picked up the pace as they moved into range, a full cannonade – three rounds per gun per minute, to conserve barrels and break armies. But they wouldn’t break this one.

Third Corps was advancing rapidly, by black-powder standards, although slower than a man alone could walk; it was difficult enough to keep a regimental front dressed on a flat parade-ground, much less on this bumpy field, under enemy fire. Cannonballs slashed through the ranks, breaking bones, spattering soldiers with the remnants of their comrades. Ingrid winced; you couldn’t even say it was unimportant except to the men involved, the Breton gunners were good and the casualties heavy. But this was why she had drilled the men, endlessly – some of the sergeants had drilled seven days a week for twenty years – in advancing in line. Just keep walking, keep the line, don’t get out of alignment; and now they could do it faster than any other army in the world, without losing the careful ranks that made them an army and not a mob. Guillaume must be terrified to see their pace.

Somewhere in the ranks a man began singing, trying no doubt to keep terror at bay, and Ingrid felt something in her stomach unclench. It was no use ordering song, it had to come from the men themselves, but here it was, and ten thousand voices took it up, drowning out the screams with their unity:

No livnar det i lundar,
no lauvast det i li;
og atter jorden stundar
mot vår og sumarstid.

Ingrid had always thought it a strange song for soldiers, this peaceful hymn of spring; but she had made no objection, the men must be allowed to pick their own songs or they might as well be shouting cadence. But she saw it now, as the words rose high and oddly sweet in counterpoint to the deadly dull thumping of the guns; it was exactly because it was a song of spring and rebirth that it had power for soldiers facing death. The sound faded a little as the attack moved down the field; then Second Corps began to move, and joined the song, redoubling its power.

Dei er vel fagre stunder
når våren kjem her nord
og atter som eit under
nytt liv av daude gror.

The range closed rapidly; the Breton guns switched to canister, while the Norwegian ones fell silent, masked by their own men. The Bretons had time for two rounds of canister – shrill malignant buzzing as of enormous wasps, punctuated by butcher’s-cleaver sounds audible even at several hundred meters. Then the muskets were in range. The Bretons leveled arms, but did not fire, daring their enemies to fire a hasty volley. The Norse continued their advance, still singing. They stopped at twenty meters, bringing up their muskets slowly, in perfect order.

Du vår med ljose dager,
med lengting, liv og song;
du spår at Gud oss lager
ein betre vår ein gong.

The volleys were almost simultaneous. Neither side had been able to goad the other into firing a badly-aimed first shot, and the ranks shivered under the terrible hammer of deliberate fire at point-blank range. The guns were useless now; their highly-trained crews could not be risked so close to a firing line, and they stood silent. It was all down to the muskets. There was no more singing from Third Corps. The men had no breath to spare from the fear that tightened every throat, and their tongues were already dry from the choking powder-smoke. The next volley was blurred, as regiments and battalions completed their reloads at different times; there was no way to coordinate second shots across an entire corps line, and little point in trying. The powder smoke narrowed each company’s world to its enemies directly across from it, and the rest of the army was only a distant thudding; there was no more morale to be gained from huge simultaneous volleys across the whole front, and much in firing faster than the enemy.

The well-worn calculations ran through Ingrid’s head; one shot per fifteen seconds, ten thousand men in the firing line, forty thousand bullets a minute, hit ratio twenty-five percent at twenty meters – the front lines should melt away in the first minute of exchanging shots. It wouldn’t really come to that, of course; the hit percentage was for first volleys, unhampered by smoke, and dropped drastically as the powder smoke hid the enemy lines and gaps opened for bullets to fly through. Even so the carnage would be hideous. That was why the men wore hats with chinflaps that blocked their peripheral vision, to stop them seeing the deaths in their own ranks and keep them concentrating on the enemy. The tunnel vision of adrenaline would help too. But in the end it came down to who had the weakest link; somewhere in the ranks three or four of the least brave men on the battlefield were standing together, the ones whose minds would break under the dreadful pressure, who would turn and run. If there were only one, his sergeant would thrust a bayonet in his stomach and that would be the end of it; but three men, or four, all turning together, would get around him and start a rout. If the men to either side of the knot were extraordinarily brave it might stop immediately; but it took unusual reserves of courage to stand your ground when your comrades fled. More often an entire company would turn and flee, bayoneting their officers; that was why cavalry stood behind the lines, to chivvy them back into place or at least cut them down so their panic would not infect others; that was also why there were gaps between companies, to act as firebreaks.

Ingrid bit her lip as the slamming exchange of volleys continued longer than she had expected; her men, drilled for years, were firing just that slight bit faster and crisper than the Bretons, but that also meant that each man killed was a worse blow for her because of the training wasted. Even so she could feel the balance tilting. There are limits to human endurance, and under musket fire at twenty meters they are quickly reached. The Breton fire was faltering, the company volleys stuttering as sergeants lost control and men fired as soon as they could, ignoring their slower comrades. Independent fire would kill just as many as volleys, but somehow it was nowhere near as terrifying; the pressure on her men would be easing. There would be men dropping without a mark on them, now, some perhaps believing themselves wounded, others fainting from plain fright and exertion, but most simply deciding they wanted no further part of the battle. She nodded to herself. “They’re going to break. Eidsiva and Nidaros advance in column, get them into the gap between Third and Second and assault with the bayonet. Cavalry ready to pursue. Bring up the guns, their center might hold. And mount up, people, we’re going forward.” Apart from wanting to be in at the kill, it might be necessary to give rapid orders, and for that she had to be close to the fighting.

Guillaume could see what was going on as well as she; while they rode forward he was bringing in his reserves, trying to pull the worst-battered regiments out of his line and fill the gaps with fresh ones. The Third Corps commander – Vegard Sigurdsson, Bjarte’s great-grandson who had come with her from Dovre – was doing the same thing, and the regimental commanders would be pulling in their reserve companies; the whole fighting line was a dusty, smoky chaos of shouting men, with the noise of near-continuous volleys hammering the nervous system. Norse and Breton had fought each other into ruin, and Third Corps would be useless for attack for a week to come. But now the Eidsiva and Nidaros regiments slid into the gap between Third and Second, unbloodied by the artillery that had ripped through Third’s ranks. They didn’t stop for a musket duel; even fresh, full-strength regiments could not have added much to the near-panic and chaos of the Breton line. Instead they charged, bayonets fixed and screaming their throats out. An unhampered firing line might have stopped them; but the Breton line had been – not broken – but hammered hard, thrown into confusion, robbed of the order that alone could have saved them from the column’s impact. A regiment in a column of its own might have met their attack with equal impetus, slowing them down and breaking their momentum; and there were indeed reserve regiments forming up behind the Breton lines. But Guillaume had been a minute too slow, and Ingrid had struck first. The Eidsiva struck the Breton line and smashed through; the company front that had opposed them dissolving into a scatter of running men, all thought abandoned except escape from this final unbearable terror. The Eidsiva didn’t stop, they kept right on going, and the cavalry following them swept out into a killing storm-front of horses and sabres. It became a melee, the Breton cavalry coming in and making a savage cauldron of fast-moving squadrons; but meanwhile their infantry line was dissolving, unraveling from the point where the columns had struck as the cavalry rode down perpendicular to the line, slashing as they went, and Third Corps’ bugles blew the advance.

There was nothing Ingrid could do there; it was all down to the regimental and company officers. But meanwhile Guillaume had been busy. A new front was forming, at right angles to the still-unbroken line exchanging volleys with Second Corps; she could hear the sergeants screaming in Brezhoneg, obscene variants on “Rally! Stand firm, you bastards! Rally to the guns!” It was working, too; the Bretons knew what their chances were in a rout, and struggled through the melee to coalesce into a line centered on Guillaume’s reserve. Not everyone could reach safety, of course; a good fifth of their army would be dead or wounded when the melee ended; but as long as they had a firing line they could continue the battle. Ingrid looked about; there would be corps reserves she could use – yes, there, one of the Akershus regiments, pulled out of the Third Corps firing line. “Messenger! See that regiment? My compliments to their commander; he’s to form into column and attack there” – she pointed – “just to the right of the Second Corps front. Break up that line.” The courier sped off, and she shouted to the next. “Fourth battery! Bring them up here, I want canister into that line. Rake them!” Shooting into the melee would kill Norse troops as well; but the actual killing didn’t matter so much, the point was to break the cohesion the Bretons were rebuilding out of chaos, that was how you destroyed armies.

The guns came up and wheeled into battery; they had time for three rounds of canister before the Akershus regiment – it was the 5th, she saw, Halvor Karlsson’s regiment – had formed its column and came trotting by. The men were pale and exhausted, but the Bretons couldn’t be in any better shape, and they had just received artillery fire, at that. But the Bretons had guns too, and now there wasn’t any musketry to stop them being used. Canister seared through the ranks of the 5th Akershus; and the Breton line, shaky as it was, added a solid musket volley. The column that struck them wasn’t the solid hammer that the Eidsiva and Nidaros had been, and instead of punching through they just created another large melee – and the Breton guns poked through and punched more canister into it, scattering bones and meat.

“All right, we won’t break that. Pull back. Swing the Third around to oppose their refused flank and reinforce the bridge. Send the fifth battery up there, as long as we hold the bridge we’ve boxed them in. Let’s give them some time to realise how hard we just fucked them.”

Trumpets sounded, and the regiments began retreating, firing as they went; it didn’t take long to get out of musket range. The Norse guns had been brought up all along the line, ready for an artillery duel if necessary; the men stopped just behind the guns, many lying down in sheer exhaustion; the Bretons were doing the same. On the Norse right the melee was ending, and prisoners were walking back towards Green Hammerton. The Eidsiva had formed a line on the bridge, and the Third Corps firing line had swung in to face the new Breton one; what was left of the Breton army had been pushed into the corner of the Nidd and the Ouse. They could still retreat across the Nidd, if they didn’t mind abandoning their guns and supplies.

The silence – it wasn’t, actually. Men and horses were screaming, crying, and shouting on every side. But after the hammering of the volleys, it seemed almost quiet. Ingrid only had to raise her voice a little to make herself heard. “Send forward a flag of truce. They can surrender on terms: All their heavy guns, ten officers as hostages, and I’ll give the men ransom and parole.” The Bretons had kept her from completely shattering their army; a renewed attack would probably do it, but it would cost her. Her surrender terms would leave both sides better off: She would have York and the Breton guns at no further cost in casualties, and they could still use this army for keeping order in Africa. Of course, Guillaume might judge that he would serve his country better by killing more of her men, or he might try to retreat across the Nidd and disengage, hoping for reinforcements from the south.

She waited for tense minutes while her truce party parleyed. Stretchers were being brought forward, and a steady stream of wounded going to the rear; but she paid no attention to that. At last the white flag began to return, and she sighed in relief. Breton officers were accompanying it, ten, as she had specified. They came into speaking range, and she smiled triumphantly at them; one was wearing the twin epaulets of a Breton general.

“Guillaume de Crussol?”

“I have that honour, madame.” He bowed, presenting her his sword, hilt-first.

“You surprised me, forming that line in such chaos. I expected to drive in your flank and roll you up all the way to the Ouse.”

“Ah, but I was surprised first, when your columns struck. I thought I had stopped your attack.”

“The Ynglinga Hird is not so easily stopped.”

“So I see, madame.” Courteously – and wisely – he did not remind her of the Hird’s many defeats over the centuries. The formalities having been observed, they began organising the surrender. Guns, supplies, parole oaths, ransom terms, billeting in York – all the myriad details that kept armies alive out of the field. Only when Guillaume bowed for the last time and left for his tent did Ingrid realise what she had done. She had shattered the only Breton army still in the field in England. She had restored the glory of Yngling arms; but more to the point, the Norselaw was hers.

The moaning of the wounded did not disturb her in the least as she sought her bed, grinning with the glory and the power of victory.

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