The Welles Report: Part VI

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Note: The following is the version of the report that was made available to the general publick in late 609. An unexpurgated version was made available to certain officers of HM’s Government at the same time. The latter remains a protected document under the Secrets Act of 571.

It is here at about one-thirty in the afternoon that we come to what is undoubtedly the decisive moment of the battle. There has been much written about this moment. What must have passed through Wulfram’s mind as he ordered his regiments of horse forward, only to be faced with the terrifying and impossible sight of Prince Khorobirit’s massed Church Hussars as approached in close order from what should have been an impenetrable forest? Any such commentary on the matter is of course, speculation, for the obvious reason that no man on the field that day was privy to Wulfram’s private thoughts. Indeed, the accounts of the few members of the Duke’s personal staff who had survived the battle could offer little insight as well.

Of course, the authors of such speculations rarely attempt to play the part of the alienist in what might be considered good faith. No, their purpose is usually to use such a question to broach a second, more pertinent query, one which has been a topic of almost as much discourse as Wulfram’s failure to detect Khorobirit’s Hussars in the first place: when faced with the collapse of his battle plan, why did the Duke persist in committing his horse to a frontal attack against a far superior force of cavalry? It cannot be said that events overtook him, for he was in contact enough with the commanders of the various regiments of the Cavalry Brigade to reorder their formation. It could not be said that he had no time to retreat (as some have argued he should have done), for it would have taken nearly four minutes for Khorobirit to close with the Tierran cavalry, even with both sides closing at the trot. So the question is asked, why did Wulfram not only continue the advance, but also order the Cavalry Brigade to charge into an engagement which it had no chance of surviving?

The simple answer is that he had no choice.
A general retreat could have been ordered, and it would have had a chance of extricating the Cavalry Brigade from its immediate crisis. Less burdened by arms and armour than the Church Hussars, Wulfram could have probably been able to extract the vast majority of his horse intact, if he had simply allowed his men to withdraw at best possible speed. However, the result of such an order would have been disastrous; not only to the reputation of the Duke, the regiments involved, and Tierran arms as a whole, but to the disposition of the King’s Army as well. Not only would the right flank of the army have then been uncovered by the flight of the Cavalry Brigade, but the Tierran cavalry would have likely found itself in poor order after such a precipitous withdrawal, unable to regroup quickly. Prince Khorobirt’s heavy cavalry would have been free to charge into the exposed flank of Tourbridge’s Brigade, and subsequently roll up the whole of the Tierran line.

Wulfram could not simply wheel his men about either, for the disposition of the Cavalry Brigade was not, as we might see on a parade ground, a formation of tight-packed men standing in place. In preparation for the attack, the brigade’s component regiments had formed themselves into squadrons, and spaced themselves out so that no one squadron could mingle with or otherwise confuse another. The result was that the brigade’s squadrons were arrayed in two vast lines of attack, one about six hundred paces behind the other. In the confusion which must characterise any body of mounted men forced to advance over uneven ground, these formations spread out even further, to the point where the Cavalry Brigade was advancing over what was said to be a frontage of nearly fifteen hundred paces, which allowed no room for manoeuvre. Hemmed in by the Antari infantry on left, and forest on the right, Wulfram had little space to work with. He could not (as some have suggested) have attempted to feint and destroy the famously impetuous Church Hussars in detail, nor could he have traded ground which he did not have for time.

In short, Wulfram’s own choice of terrain led to the untenability of his position, and the calamitous events which would follow.

The ensuing and inevitable clash lasted half an hour, but in reality, its course had been decided with the first few moments. The Antari Church Hussars, riding boot-to-boot, smashed through the first Tierran line with their lance charge, before riding on to fall upon the second with their sabres. Any semblance of order within the Cavalry Brigade disintegrated almost immediately as each formation was breached at multiple points, cutting off officers from their commands. Wulfram himself was mortally wounded by a thrust from an Antari lance in the first exchange of blows. Without the ability to pass command onto any of the other regimental commanders, the brigade effectively disintegrated into its component squadrons, individual troops, and even smaller groups of isolated men. Accounts from the few survivors report a situation of near complete chaos. Men attempted to fight free of the melee without orders or direction. Many succeeded, many did not.

In the space of half an hour, the Cavalry Brigade had suffered catastrophic losses. The Wolf’s Head Cuirassiers were the hardest hit, having lost nearly two hundred men killed, and another three hundred and fifty wounded or missing – a number equivalent to nearly four-fifths of its entire strength at Blogia. The two regiments of Line Cavalry and the White Rose Lancers suffered less only by comparison. The second squadron of the Lancers, which had mustered one hundred and ninety-six men that morning would regroup at Noringia a week later with less than two dozen still fit for duty.

However, the time which Wulfram had his cavalry had bought with their lives would allow the infantry on the right flank to respond to the unexpected approach of the Antari heavy horse. Wulfram’s decision to appoint Tomas d’al Eldridge, Baron Tourbridge, as the commander of his right-most brigade of infantry had not been a well-regarded one. He had neither the meticulous eye for detail of Castermaine, or the dogged aggressiveness and exalted birth of the Duke of Havenport. Now, however, at this moment of utmost crisis, he showed his worth. Where a lesser officer might have panicked, or forced his men to maintain their now-untenable position, Tourbridge ordered the right-most battalions of his brigade to withdraw until the tip of his line was within pistol-shot of the forest. This done, he used the time which remained to him to prepare for the inevitable charge of Antari cavalry by forming battalion squares: formations which allowed his infantry to present a hedge of bayonets in every direction.

Thus arrayed, Tourbridge and his men awaited the approach of the Church Hussars.

Of the desperate stand made by Baron Tourbridge and his brigade that afternoon, there is very little that could be said. Faced by determined infantry attack on one side, and the charge of five thousand Church Hussars on the other, the battered infantry held their ground for nearly four hours. The squares kept the horses of the Church Hussars at bay, but they could repel neither the rushes of the Antari infantry, or the pistol volleys which the Antari cavalry used to vent their frustration upon battalions which stubbornly refused to break. Even as Tourbridge himself was killed by a stray shot some time before three o’clock, individual battalion officers continued to hold their positions, despite losing more men with every fresh attack. Ultimately, Tourbridge’s Brigade, a collection of regiments with no great histories of martial prowess or pretensions to warlike tradition weathered six infantry attacks and eleven Hussar charges before they were finally overwhelmed, one by one.

[Editor’s Note: If the preceding section regarding the conduct of Tourbridge’s Brigade seems particularly unspecific or overwrought, it ought to be recalled that this topic is one of personal significance to the author – The 5th Earl of Welles was colonel of the 5th of Foot, and indeed was killed in the previously described action. The recounting of the events surrounding that unhappy occasion no doubt presented a difficult task for the author, especially given the delicate nature inherent to her sex. Thus, it is an oversight which ought, in the opinion of this editor, be excused in the name of sensibility and tact.]

As Tourbridge and his brigade faced off against Khorobirit’s would-be killing stroke, Castermaine and Havenport were engaged in their much-celebrated “fighting retreat”. Having gained ground slowly throughout the morning, they were forced to then give it up, bit by bit throughout the fighting of the afternoon. This fighting was of a much different character than that of the morning’s battle. A Captain of the 3rd Foot described it as “playing the part of the lancer in the first round of a bullfight… [We] would wait in closed ranks, luring [the foe] close, before stinging them with volleys. If they fell back, [we] held… If they did not, we retreated, sometimes fifty paces… [sometimes] a hundred. Then we reloaded, and bade them [to] be stung again.”

This coordinated reaction was only made possible by the swift action of His Grace, the Duke of Havenport. Unlike Wulfram or Tourbridge, neither Havenport or Castermaine fought at the head of their troops. Instead, they established their staffs several hundred paces behind the line. Although this had been Castermaine’s practise for some time, Havenport had done so for the first time at Blogia, and even then only with the greatest reluctance. “Better I die with my men,” he had written once, “than for the Saints to think me a coward.”

However, in this case, Havenport’s concession to “cowardice” would save Wulfram’s army.

From his position on the ridge, Havenport had been able to see clearly the fate of of the Cavalry Brigade. As Tourbridge began to order his battalions into squares, Havenport was already taking command of the remainder of the army. Insulated from the chaos of battle, Havenport was able to communicate his assumption of command to the other parts of the army swiftly and effectively – which he certainly could not have done had he been at the head of his Highlanders. As a result, Havenport had already re-established a chain of command by the time Wulfram expired from his wounds at two-thirty.

It is perhaps to the credit of the Duke of Cunaris and the Earl of Castermaine that they did not obstruct this process. As the holder of the more senior title, Cunaris could have also attempted to assume command. Likewise, having possessed his appointment as General-of-Brigade for longer, Castermaine could have similarly done so by virtue of greater seniority. Thankfully, this did not happen. Havenport was able to take command unopposed. His swift actions in organising a response to the sudden change in the tides of battle bought the King’s Army a precious few hours.

It would not be enough.

By five o’clock, there was no more ground left to give. The rearmost battalions of Castermaine’s Brigade were now less than fifty paces before the guns of the Centre Battery, whose guns could not fire for fear of hitting Tierran infantry. It has been said that Castermaine’s unwillingness to withdraw the guns until the last possible moment was a near-fatal oversight on his part. It is far more likely that this had been a deliberate decision. The customarily meticulous General-of-Brigade probably sought to inflict as many casualties upon the enemy as possible with his heavy guns before being forced to withdraw them. Unfortunately, this meant that Castermaine’s brigade was placed in the unenviable position of being unable to retreat further in the face of a fresh determined Antari attack, lest it leave the guns and their crews exposed.

It was at this point that the battlefield played host to another act of defiant bravery, this being the much storied “Last Stand of the Grenadiers”. Without orders, Lieutenant colonel H___r, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, led his men in a sudden attack against the whole of the Antari foot. Advancing in a column two companies wide, the Grenadiers managed to push far forward of Castermaine’s line before being forced to form square. Surrounded and outnumbered, this lone veteran battalion withstood attacks from all sides for half an hour, long enough for Castermaine to evacuate his guns. The price the Grenadiers paid for this act of defiance was immense: out of the six hundred fifteen men and twenty-eight officers who had opened the battle, only a small party of fourteen men and two officers managed to escape with the precious Battalion colour, every one of them wounded.

Their commander was not among them.

 


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