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Four Days on the Danube: Chapter Five
Last updated: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 01:13 EDT
Tom never remembered much afterward about the assault that drove off the Bavarians besieging the artillery barracks. The light thrown by a three-quarter moon only seems bright when everything is calm and peaceful. In the chaos of a battle, there were shadows everywhere and all colors were leached out. You could detect motion clearly, and that was about it.
That might have been a blessing. Tom still had vivid memories of his first real battle, when he and Heinrich Schmidt had driven off an assault on Suhl by Wallenstein’s mercenaries almost four years earlier. The horror hadn’t stemmed from the fighting itself. There hadn’t been much of that, since they’d been firing at an enemy in the open from behind good fieldworks. The end result had been a lot closer to a massacre than what you could really call a battle. Afterward, the field had been carpeted with bodies. And blood; and intestines; and brains; and some things whose identity Tom had never been sure about and didn’t want to be.
There wasn’t so much of that tonight. Not because it wasn’t there but because you couldn’t see it very well. Fighting in the darkness, by the light of a moon and the flashes of gunfire and grenades, all a man had time for was motion. Once an enemy went down, you ignored him. The blood spreading out from his body blended into the cobblestones. Everything was a shade of gray and blood was no different.
There were drawbacks to that, of course. Twice he slipped and fell, when his foot skidded on something wet — and, in one case, horridly squishy. But who could say? In that sort of melee, the falls might even have saved his life, when bullets passed through space he no longer occupied.
His one clear memory was that of an enemy soldier rising from the street, as he neared the last corner before the barracks. The man had probably slipped and fallen himself. He must have fired his gun and hadn’t had time to reload — or he simply panicked. He came up screeching, thrusting his arquebus forward as if it were a spear and catching Tom in the stomach. If the weapon had been a spear, the blade would have sunk into him at least six inches. As it was, the gun barrel just knocked some of the wind out of him and left a nasty bruise.
Not all of his wind, though; not even most of it. Tom’s torso was massive, and most of the mass was hard muscle. He didn’t feel any pain and didn’t even realized he’d been bruised until afterward. He just grunted — a very pronounced sort of “oof!” — and struck back in reflex.
That instinctive reaction was not the best response, all things considered, since he held his pistol in his hand and the blow was mostly delivered by his knuckles. Against a lobsterstail helmet, too, not a mere skull.
That did hurt. But as strong as Tom was, the blow knocked his opponent back down onto the street. He was dazed, and his weapon slid out of his hands.
Before Tom could decide what to do, a pikehead came from behind him, thrusting forward just past his elbow. He was almost deafened by the screech of the soldier wielding it, who was now standing right next to him as he skewered the man lying on the cobblestones.
Night battles aren’t much suited for taking prisoners. Tom would probably have decided to kill the man himself, in another second or two.
He took a moment to look around, the first time he’d had a chance to do so since he ordered the charge. And was relieved to see that the much-vaunted virtues of surprise had real substance. Everywhere he looked, the enemy was running away.
At least, he assumed they were the enemy. Some of them were wearing the same USE uniform that his own men were wearing. Traitors from the 1st Battalion, he figured. The rest, the ones in more nondescript clothing, would be the Bavarian mercenaries.
He fought down the temptation to order a pursuit. If there were any chance of winning a real victory here, he would have given the order. But even before he launched the charge, he’d come to realize that Ingolstadt was lost.
Tom wasn’t the only commander who’d used the factor of surprise tonight. Duke Maximilian of Bavaria had done so also, and done so to much greater effect. Tom had taken a barracks; the duke had taken a city. There was simply no way Tom would be able to drive the Bavarians back out of Ingolstadt with the forces that remained to him. All he could do now was try to lead an organized retreat out of the city and salvage as much of the regiment as he could.
Captain Geipel came up to him, pointing over his shoulder with a thumb. “One of my sergeants says he’s established contact with the artillerymen in the barracks. But they’re distrustful since they don’t know him and — just as you guessed — a number of the regiment’s units have turned traitor.”
“I’ll talk to them.” Tom started toward the corner Geipel had been pointing out, with the captain walking alongside him. “You and Fischer get your companies back into order. We’re heading out as soon as we can get the artillerymen moving.”
“Where to, sir?” Geipel’s question sounded a bit apprehensive.
“Don’t worry, Captain. I don’t propose to attack the Bavarians with what little we’ve got. We’re leaving the city altogether.”
Geipel nodded, his expression obviously relieved. He’d never served under Major Simpson before, so he’d had no idea whether the American officer was reckless or not.
Once he got to the corner, Tom gingerly stuck his head out far enough to see the barracks. “This is Major Simpson!” he shouted.
After a moment, a voice shouted back: “What’s your mother’s maiden name?”
Tom frowned. That wasn’t a question a down-timer would normally think of; not, at least, as a security question. Seventeenth century German women did not adopt their husband’s last name when they got married. In the here and now, that custom was mostly restricted to England.
But Tom himself was the only up-timer in the Danube Regiment. There were three Americans in the TacRail unit that had been stationed in Ingolstadt, but they’d left the city a couple of months earlier in order to work on a rail line leading north from Regensburg. So who
The answer came to him almost at once. In the months he’d been in Ingolstadt, Bobby Lloyd McDougal had made friends with one of the artillery units. He’d probably been gossiping.
The sergeant in command of that unit was David Steinbach. “My mother’s maiden name was Forbes, Sergeant Steinbach! Now quit playing games or I’ll use you to demonstrate American football! You’ll be the playing field!”
He heard a distant laugh. “All right, Major, come on!”
From there, things went quickly. The artillerymen were every bit as eager to get out of Ingolstadt as all the other soldiers in what was left of the regiment. The only hang-up was that the heavy artillery units wanted to salvage their twelve-pounders.
That idea was impractical to the point of lunacy. Artillerymen were not entirely sane on the subject of their guns. The twelve-pounders had been taken off their carriages in preparation for placing them as defensive guns on the walls. It would take at least an hour of hard labor just to get them remounted. And then how would they haul the carriages? Guns that size needed to be drawn by large teams of horses. There weren’t enough horses in the stables adjoining the barracks for the purpose. In fact, there were barely enough to salvage the six-pounders, which would be a lot more useful in the field anyway.
That would have been true even in summertime. In midwinter, hauling big guns across the countryside would be extraordinarily taxing on men and animals alike. As it was, they were lucky there’d been no large snowfalls for the past few weeks. A moderate snowfall had struck Thuringia and Franconia a few days ago, but it hadn’t come this far south. The roads would be icy but still manageable for lighter field guns.
Tom managed to quell them soon enough. In the meantime, artillerymen less subject to madness went about the business of getting the six-pounders ready to go. Within twenty minutes, they were done.
It took another fifteen minutes to load the wagons available with as much ammunition as possible. Begrudgingly, Tom set aside three of the wagons to carry enough food for a couple of days. Three, if he imposed tight rationing. He hated to cut back on ammunition since they might be in for a lot of desperate fighting soon. But it would be foolish to assume he could get any supplies from the countryside until they got a fair distance from Ingolstadt. Once he was well into the Oberpfalz, he was confident he could obtain supplies from local towns and villages. The province was loyal to the USE and hostile to Duke Maximilian. It also had a large and active Committee of Correspondence.
He also decided not to take the artillery’s main radio. The device was powerful enough to transmit in voice anywhere in central Europe, at least during the evening window. But it was inoperative at the moment, due to a minor problem of some sort, so he couldn’t use it tonight. The radiomen assured him they could get it fixed within a day or two, but the radio was too heavy to carry except in a wagon, because of the batteries, and on the fragile side. It would slow them down and might break again anyway.
They didn’t really need it. He’d bring a small Morse-code-only radio that could be carried in a backpack. With one of those radios, he could transmit a brief signal to Bamberg that would tell Ed Piazza and Heinrich Schmidt everything essential. They’d have the bulk of the State of Thuringia-Franconia’s National Guard on the march within twenty-four hours.
He also took the company’s walkie-talkie. He’d been in such a rush that he’d forgotten to tell Rita to take the unit he kept in their home. He could only hope she’d thought of it herself.
For a moment, his fears for his wife surfaced, chittering for his attention. Savagely, he drove them under. He had no time for that now. The Bavarians could launch a counter-attack at almost any time. He was pretty sure the only reason the enemy commander hadn’t already gotten one underway was because many of his soldiers were running wild, as often happened when a city was being sacked. Especially in a night attack, where maintaining control was harder than usual.
The inhabitants of the city were going to pay a savage price for the 1st Battalion’s defection tonight. But there was nothing Tom could do about that, so he pushed the matter out of his mind also. For now, at least. In the future, hopefully, there’d be a reckoning — and it would be a harsh one, if he had any say in the matter. He had no use for the duke of Bavaria and even less use for traitors who took his silver.
The commander of the artillery battery came over to him. That was Captain Martin Kessler, from the Thuringian town of Langenwolschendorf. He was accompanied by the two infantry captains, Geipel and Fischer, and Bruno von Eichelberg. Tom had been pleased to see that the young captain from Brunswick had remained faithful to his oath. Von Eichelberg’s company of mercenaries was undersized, barely a hundred men, but they were veterans. Between them, his artillerymen, and the two companies from the 2nd Battalion, he now had well over five hundred men under his command.
“We’re ready to go, Major,” said Kessler. “We’ve spiked all the guns we’re not taking and the big radio is destroyed. Are you sure about leaving the food and gunpowder, though?”
Normal practice, in addition to spiking the guns — better still, if they’d been next to the river, pitching them in afterward — would have been to destroy all the food and gunpowder they were leaving behind. But the only quick way to do that was to blow up the powder or set the whole barracks on fire, and the artillery barracks were right inside Ingolstadt. Nothing but city streets separated them from residences and places of business. Tom didn’t think the food and gunpowder was important enough to kill citizens of his own nation in order to deny it to the enemy.
If he hadn’t been so pressed to get out of the city quickly, he would have had the gunpowder casks opened and the contents spread all over the foodstuffs. Then, for good measure, soaked everything in water, wine and any other liquids available. That wouldn’t completely destroy either, but it would go a long way in that direction and certainly create a time-consuming mess for the Bavarians to deal with. But they were just too short of time.
“No, we’ll leave them as is.” He fought down the urge to look around for himself. Unless junior officers gave you reason not to trust them, you had to take their word for things like this or you’d undermine morale.
Instead, he just nodded. “Let’s go, then. Bruno, what’s the situation at the gate?”
Shortly after the fighting started, a few squads of artillerymen had seized the nearby gate that led out of the city walls to the east. That had been easy enough, since the gate was held by a platoon of still-loyal soldiers. As soon as Tom had driven off the enemy besieging the barracks, he’d ordered von Eichelberg to send most of his mercenaries to bolster the gate’s defenders.
“Everything’s quiet, sir,” replied von Eichelberg. “According to the last report, at least.”
That report would have been carried by a mounted adjutant. There were a handful of them attached to the artillery units. The USE army still didn’t have enough radios to provide them to many units smaller than battalions, unless they had special duties like the artillery. Most down-time officers weren’t really comfortable with the gadgets, anyway. So almost every unit larger than a company had at least one mounted adjutant ready to serve as a courier.
Tom motioned for the radio operator to come over to him. “Let’s go then,” he said.
It would take a few minutes to get hundreds of men with their wagons, guns, and other gear moving. Tom had enough time to send a message to Bamberg.
The radioman unlimbered his equipment. Once he was ready to start transmitting, Tom gave him the message:
He wondered if there would be ever be a follow-on message. There was no way to know yet. Within a day or two, Tom and all of his men might share the same fate as the colonel who had once commanded them.
Well, no. Whatever else, they wouldn’t be murdered in their sleep.
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