March 19th, 1814
East of Poznan, Bohemia (OTL Poland)
They were an even dozen, one officer and eleven men remaining of the hundred that had begun the day – or a little less than twelve; one of the soldiers had lost two fingers parrying a slash that would have taken his head off, and half the rest bore the marks of sabres in one place or another. No serious wounds, for those who couldn’t walk were lying where the Russian cavalry had caught them, midway between the lines; or had been carted off to the rear, hopefully to join the rest of the company, wherever they were. It was beyond belief that Ulf’s eleven could be all that was left of it; he’d been out on the left flank, that was all, and the Russians had gotten between him and his brother officers. Bad luck, but the sort of thing that would happen in battles; they were all veterans and knew the chaos well, and would laugh about it tomorrow, when they’d found each other and the terror and adrenaline began to seem like a dream. Companies of a hundred men were not wiped out in three minutes, not even by Cossacks that appeared out of nowhere when they were advancing to the attack… Ulf abandoned the line of thought as unfruitful. Marek, the lowest-ranking officer of the Bohemian company they’d attached themselves to, was approaching; and there was a stirring in the blue-and-white mass, shouts of command and men moving, loading muskets, fixing bayonets; it did not take an experienced soldier’s eye to see something happening.
“Herr Løytnant,” Marek greeted him; his arm twitched reflexively, but he withheld the salute, as was proper when in sight of the enemy. “We are ordered to attack.” He spoke a guttural, accented German, the common language of the officers of northern Europe; Ulf answered in the same tongue.
“Very well,” he said. He wasn’t, technically, obliged to take Bohemian orders; but having lost his own superior officers and attached himself to these allies, it would look ill, after the battle, if he insisted on that piece of protocol. Besides, it was obviously the right thing to do; if they did not break the Russian line soon, the Medinan army would be on their flank and there would be no holding anything east of the Oder. “Our target?”
“Those banners,” Marek said, pointing ahead and to the right. “We will form column for the charge. How will you deploy to support us?”
The battle of Poznan, showing the immense scale and confusion of the fighting.
Ulf considered it briefly. The Bohemians, courteous to a fault, were treating him as an officer of an allied sovereign, not giving orders but asking him to support their attack as he thought best; but just then he would rather have preferred to be told “go there, shoot that way, keep your men in order” and not have to think about the problem. However, it wasn’t that difficult:
“I will form a flank guard for your rightmost company,” he said. Twelve men were about the right number for that, and would free up a dozen Bohemians to lend weight to their column’s charge; and it was work that Norsemen could do better than scrawny conscript Bohemians, even these elite conscripts of the Imperial Guard, calling for weight and size as much as cohesion.
Marek had clearly been expecting it, and nodded sharply. “The drums will beat to signal the advance,” he said, then turned back towards his countrymen without further words, ending the conversation. Ulf looked again at the banners that were their target, and frowned; they would have to march obliquely, exposing them to fire from the walled farmhouse that protected the center of the Russian line for much longer than was strictly necessary. It would have been better to march straight across, as fast as possible. But there was nothing to be done about it. The Imperial Guard wasn’t going to change its line of attack for one Løytnant of an allied power, and anyway there wasn’t time. Out on the right flank, Ulf had, of course, been the last to get the word, and formations of eight thousand men did not change their line of attack in less than half an hour. It would take five minutes just to get to the center… Ulf shook himself; he was getting distracted by things he could not change.
“All right, you men,” he said instead, addressing the tiny part of 3rd Company, Fourth Bergenhus Line Infantry, that he still commanded. “We’re going to form up, and advance when the drums sound. Head for those banners over there” – he pointed – “take the ridge, shoot any Russians that come near, wait for our friends to bring up their guns and pound the enemy line to scrap. We’re the flank guard.”
That was the plan, anyway, he noted to himself; plans, of course, rarely survived Russian drumfire. He scowled at the ridge while his men got ready, putting out their pipes, fixing bayonets. In truth it wasn’t much of an obstacle, a long, low rise, its top no more than five meters above the endless Polish plain. But the Russians had held it all day, had withstood cannonade and cavalry, had hunched over and dug in their heels and held with the endless bitter stubbornness of serf conscripts for whom nothing in their lives had ever gone right, and the massed fire of the Grand Battery of the Ynglinga Hird was just one more misfortune in a life of disasters… and now time was running out. The Medinans were no slugs; they marched to the sound of the guns, and if they reached the allied flank while the Russian army still held the field, the battle was lost and the campaign with it. All the careful work to get in between the two enemy forces, to engage the Russians on their own terms while the Medinans were distracted by the Leonese cavalry’s raid to the south, all wasted… if the Russians held. And so the Imperial Guard got ready for attack, one more charge across the stricken field to take the ridge, to break the Russians’ hearts and make them run. And on their right flank, a tiny unit of Norsemen, separated from their officers and their standard, running low on powder and shot, half of them wounded… but not defeated yet, Ulf thought defiantly, looking around at his men. They were enlisted, most of them half a step ahead of the thief-takers, the headsman, or the poverty that was worse than either, and couldn’t be relied upon to feel patriotism or duty in the same way that Ulf, the son and grandson of officers, did; nor to understand the bigger operational picture, the desperate importance of taking the ridge before the Medinans arrived. But they were veteran soldiers, of an army that had been in the field for a decade; they understood stubbornness, and courage, and putting your head down and advancing into the lead rain until the enemy ran away. Their own attack had failed, when the Cossacks surprised them, and they had lost the rest of their company in the scrambling retreat from the sabres. But they weren’t defeated yet.
The drums sounded at last, the slow dun-dun-dun of the Bohemians’ advance, and Ulf stepped out before his men, leading from the front as his honour required. There ought to be a sergeant to keep them in formation, but for twelve men it hardly mattered. The difference between a ‘square’ and a ‘clump’ wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone but an inspector general – certainly the Cossacks would not care, as long as the bayonets were sharp. The bullets wouldn’t care either, they never did.
Behind and to the right, the Grand Battery thundered, working its way up to the three rounds a minute that conserved ammunition and broke armies. They were mainly targeting the farmhouse, he saw, cannonballs crashing through the stone wall that had never been intended for a military fortification, turning the rocks into deadly projectiles; the sniping, galling fire from there slackened noticeably. So someone else had noticed the problem, and done something about it; Ulf spared a moment’s gratitude that he was on the side with Yngling artillery, the finest in the world. The Russian guns were firing back, but they were shooting at the densely-packed mass of the Imperial Guardsmen, wasting no powder on a tiny target like Ulf’s flank guard; for a long minute, as they advanced across the plain towards the ridge, Ulf walked as though in a charmed bubble, with the immense sound of the guns all around and the screams of men hurt beyond bearing assaulting his ears, but no shots coming near. Then they came within musket range, and green Russian uniforms were rising from the ridge; they had been lying down, Ulf realised with a jolt of near-panic, to make them less of a target for the artillery, and now they rose as though from dragon’s teeth and leveled their muskets, four lines deep. A shout of command, and the shattering sound of hundreds of muskets going off a hundred yards away – and again, and again; the Russians were firing by ranks – there was a clatter and rattle of the immense lead bullets striking musket barrels and bayonets, and the Guards bent and ducked in waves, like a field of corn in the wind, but kept advancing at their steady pace. The Russian infantry hadn’t fired on his little group any more than their artillery, Ulf realised with relief; a quick glance backwards confirmed that none of his men were hit.
The last, desperate charge of the Imperial Guard.
The drumbeat changed, the steady one-per-two-seconds dun-dun-dun of ‘advance’ becoming a quick rattling drrrapp, drrrapp, and eight thousand Guards cheered as they broke into a run. “Storm!”, Ulf shouted, but his men hardly needed the order; he had to hustle to avoid getting a bayonet in the butt and to stay out in front where he belonged. It was only a hundred yards; ten seconds’ run, if you were an athlete on a hard track; forty, for soldiers carrying thirty pounds of gear across a muddy field. A hundred yards, or a hundred years; time enough for the Russians to fire three volleys, time enough for a thousand men to die. Time enough, also, for a wavering to run across the green-clad ranks on the ridge; and then, before the bayonets could sink into flesh, there was no Russian line in front of them, only the backs of fleeing men. There was a panting, hissing scream of disdain, and Ulf realised that he had joined it himself; a spatter of musketry from the front ranks of the Guard cut down a few fleeing Russians. They’d done it, they’d taken the ridge; all that remained was to bring up the Bohemian guns and batter the rest of the Russian line to scraps, and then turn to destroy the Medinan army and drive them back beyond the Vistula – and as he turned to grin in triumph at his men and get them into line, he saw them falling, like ninepins; two heads disappeared in immense splashes of blood, and the canister, liberally mixed with bone fragments, sliced into the Guards behind them. He snapped his head around and froze in horror; three batteries of horse artillery, nine guns, hidden behind the ridge and in the perfect spot for their fire to rip the Guards’ flank to shreds – and behind them, a formation of infantry, battalion strength at least, in fine order and advancing for the counter-attack that would shatter the disordered Guards formation and restore the Russian line. He drew a breath to give an order, unsure what the order would be or even if anyone was alive to obey it; and before he could speak the second battery fired, and he stared in horror at the stump of his wrist, where his blood poured out in a spurting, jetting stream. There was no pain, not yet, or the pain was too immense to register; even then, as he fell, he had time to think that a hand lost to enemy artillery was an honourable wound, and if he lived he could go home, and draw a pension, and fight no more. If he lived; he clamped his right hand down on his left stump, trying to stem the flow while his vision darkened.
Dimly he heard the shouts of “Stráž ustoupí!”, but could not find the attention to translate the Czech. He would have to save himself, if he could.
Slavibor Mikulas at the battle of Poznan; the exact timing of the painting is unclear, but the clouds of smoke and the ragged Hussars departing to the right suggest that it is after the defeat of the Imperial Guard’s charge, the last throw for victory, and that Mikulas is about to orchestrate the brilliant fighting retreat that capped his reputation.
The fearsome casualty statistics of “Bloody Poznan”, each individual death a dreadful tragedy.