Gaspard de Gitaine, new lieutenant general of the army of Der Herzogtum von Groß-Holsten, looked out over the wet slate rooftops of Hoseausmaulwurfsfellburg glumly. The town, in the dawn light, was grey and damp. Heavy mists covered the surrounding fields like a carpet.
“Don’t need to see more damn cabbages anyway” grumbled de Gitaine to himself, deeply out of sorts. He had ridden into town with his small staff late in the previous evening to take up his command, only to be greeted with the charming prospect the soldiery of Groß-Holsten disporting themselves under the genial leadership of General Sapt, the current garrison commander, and a tired meal at the inn that consisted of dumplings with hearts of stone, and a roast haunch of some indeterminate beast that alarmingly managed to be simultaneously stringy and strangely soft.
He had not slept well.
De Gitaine would have been happy to blame the noise created by the licentious soldiery and their victims partners, but he was self aware enough to realise that his wakefulness was caused by a combination of indigestion and nervousness about his new post.
A long and reasonably successful (or at least mostly blameless) career in the Armee Du Roi had finally developed a solid enough reputation that he would get offers of commission from (usually the smaller) European powers. Most he ignored; the offer of command from Groß-Holsten had arrived just as he had returned from his last posting in New France, though, and a rapid survey of friends and acquaintances at court and the ministry indicated that a new posting might not be forthcoming anytime soon. Apparently , funds were tight due to a new stress on shipbuilding (de Gitaine wondered why they bothered, the boats always seemed to come to bad ends) and, it was whispered, Louis had carried out a dramatic increase in the number of royal mistresses, which required a reallocation of the state budget.
All this meant that a minor noble with a long military career spent overseas, out of the sight of “the great and the good” could not expect a worthwhile posting anytime soon. While he was not destitute, he would like to have some income so that his wife and children could settle back down in France after years overseas, without any financial pressure. So the decision was made easy for him. Off to Germany, where, apparently they had managed to start a war about pieds de proc marinés (a dish he had no personal objection to, he had eaten such often enough in his younger days when funds were tight, but a war over them seemed… Excessive).
He had been greeted well by the Herzog, and the small court did exhibit some charm. It did alarm him somewhat (a feeling that he did his best to conceal) that quite so many of the officers in the Groß-Holsten army were relatives of the Herzog. More alarmingly, it appeared that the local nobility had been marrying itself for ummm quite some time. There was a noticeable lack of chins, and surfeits of overbites and cousins in the officer corps. That would certainly have to be watched, although the officers he had met to this point appeared to have functioning, if uninspired, intellects.
He would have stayed longer had word not reached the court of the possibility of the Russians advancing on the duchy. He knew Akraxin, the russian commander, to certainly be capable of rapid movement, and decided to get his force in hand before the campaign started in earnest. Thus the grim morning in Hoseausmaulwurfsfellburg, and the prospect of an early meeting with General Sapt, whose globular mass had briefly boomed at him the night before.
Preparing for the day did not take all that long, and he was about to ask for coffee when an invitation to breakfast with Sapt for himself and his staff was forthcoming, so he decided to meet his new subordinate as soon as possible.
The walk to Sapt’s quarters was a touch alarming; rather more military equipment was strewn about the streets than he was comfortable with, and rather more solders also. The couple of billets he passed seemed to be overcrowded with men from a mixture of units, and he would have thought he would have seen more details marching around by this time of day. Clearly the camp arrangements for the army were lacking, and he would have to address it as soon as possible.
Some people’s quarters where certainly well equipped, however, mused de Gitaine as he was ushered in to eat with Sapt and his staff. A room crowded with men, full of tobacco smoke. A sideboard groaning under the weight of coffee pots, schnapps and brandy bottles, and a lone bowl of fruit that looked completely out of place, and indeed, unused. Seeing more use were three huge tureens, dwarfing the fruit bowl. One appeared to contain a mass of sausage, one either bacon or ham, and one a huge pile of fried eggs (on inspection improved to be a moderate pile of eggs, sitting on yet another pile of pork products, sausages of a different ilk, it seemed ). The smell of the tobacco smoke was just barely enough to overcome the smells of burn coffee and grease.
Sapt’s staff seemed to have been chosen to match him both in loudness and girth and de Gitaine marveled that sufficient stout horseflesh could be produced to move this lot around. Always assuming they moved at all, of course.
Sapt was quite amenable the talking about work while he ate (quite possibly because the man never stopped eating, de Gitaine noticed that the tureens on the sideboard were constantly replenished. Not the fruit bowl though). As the conversation proceeded all his worse fears from the walk though town were confirmed. No-one had organized a camp, units had just “found a place” as they arrived. No one was entirely sure where all the commanding officers were, except for Colonel Von Achselhaare, commander of the 2nd grenadiers. And everyone knew where he was, from the glances and furtive nods, because he was as crazy as a loon, and best avoided as he was also the Herzog’s brother-in-law.
As the discussion continued, de Gitaine’s chin weighed heavier and heavier onto his cupped hands. This was, indeed, a big job.
Just as he was rousing himself from his torpor to begin issuing the orders that might bring some sort of form from the chaos, his eye fell on a rather nervous looking sergeant by the door, who had not been there previously. De Gitaine decide to discover why another professional soldier might have entered the room and approached the man, who braced immediately to a quivering attention, still eyeing the room full of gold lace over de Gitaines’s shoulder.
“Sir, looking for the officer of the day, sir!” exclaimed the sergeant.
In his rather basic german, de Gitaine replied that he was the commanding general, and that he thought he could fill that role. What was the problem?
“Sir, lad outside I think you should see, Sir!”
De Gitaine waved permission for the object of interest to be admitted. He was rather surprised when a dragoon trooper shambled into the room, and and looked around interestedly.
The presence of the enlisted men in the room had now been noticed by the assembled be-gilted gentry, and a pool of silence was spreading out from the door rather like the ripple caused by a stone thrown into a still pond (or, as de Gitaine was starting to think, into a huge pool of algae). The duo were being studied like they were a different species (de Gitaine was unsure had enough inbreeding actually happened in the nobility of Groß-Holsten for this to be the case).
A raised eyebrow to the sergeant was enough enquiry, and it was volunteered that trooper Schmidt ‘ere ‘ad seen something worthy of attention. Everyone looked at trooper Schmidt, who the sergeant now realised was in a room full of officers, leaning on the wall, looking around interestedly, while picking his nose.
The fusillade of orders, abuse, and speculation about parentage that the sergeant immediately spouted did not serve the purpose of bring the recalcitrant trooper to quivering terror and attention, but only in making him fall over in surprise, and then rise from floor with blood in his eye muttering something like “wot you said ‘bout my mum”. Seeing trouble in the not-too-distant future, de Gitaine interposed with a question; what was it that the trooper had seen that would be of interest.
Distracted from his need for immediate vengeance for the parental slight, the trooper volunteered wot he ‘ad seen some blokes down the road a bit.
The silence spread a bit further into the room.
“Really,” de Gitaine answered “Some.. blokes. Had he been on piquet?”
The trooper looked at his finger for a moment, clearly wondering if he was being asked to continue his nasal excavations. Then some dim memory took hold, and he said
“Nah, he was just coming back from ‘ome.”
“Have you been on leave?” asked de Gitaine, wondering mildly where this was going, and noting the sergeant had just turned an interesting shade of puce.
“Nah,” said Schmidt “I goes ‘ome ev’ry nigh’, s’more comfy den ‘ere, ‘nd no-one seems to mind”.
The sergeant changed colors again, and the pool of silence widened.
“And how long have you been enlisted?” asked de Gitaine. It was rather like watching a very valuable vase fall off a very high shelf. Everything seemed to be happening very slowly, but he was unable to stop the progression of events.
“Wot dayie is i’?”
“Never mind” said de Gitaine “these ‘blokes’, what were they?”
“The ovver lot. Da enemas.” De Gitaine thought of correcting him, and then gave up “‘’bout as many as der ‘re ‘ere”.
The pool of silence had engulfed the room. The sergeant gave a gasping breath (his first for some time). It was so silent that the sound of pork fat congealing (and arteries hardening) could be clearly heard.
“As many as are ‘ere…er…..here?” de Gitaine hazarded “As many as are in this room?”
A slight sigh of relief was heard, he could not place where from.
“Nah, yer lordship, as many as we gots in our army, innit?”
The room had gone from quiet, to tense.
“And how far were these blokes?” de Gitaine gestured for his aides de camp.
“ah, by ol’ Humperdincks farm.” Looking at de Gitaine’s raised eyebrow with incredulity, clearly not believing anyone could not know where that was, he volunteered “‘bout 10 miles down yon road”
The silence was absolute. The tension thick as lard. De Gitaine thanked the enlisted men, rewarded them suitably, and had them ushered from the room. He then rounded on his subordinates with a volley of instructions akin to the sergeants previous tirade. There was probably no salvaging the situation, but there was a certain satisfaction in watching these people scatted like spooked chickens.
It was going to be a bad day.
Prince Philip Philipovich Akraxin looked at the field of the oncoming battle with some confidence. Having been rebuffed at Erzgebirgskreis, he had marched his forces hard toward once more hoping to catch his enemy before they were prepared. His haste was not entirely for military reasons; the Empress wanted a victory, and patience did not feature at all in any rational list of her qualities. Vindictiveness, ill temper, and ruthlessness did feature on the list though, so it behooved the Prince to provide a victory lest an appointment counting snowflakes followed this one. And soon.
Looking at the field of battle, though, things looked hopeful; he did not have the same terrible feeling he had when he beheld the formed ranks of the Erzgebirgskreisers before Dorftöpel-am-Dümm. The Groß-Holsten infantry was spread somewhat, not grouped together, their formation broken up by a town. Only their cavalry was massed, and less in quantity, and, he assumed, in quality, than his. His artillery should dispose of the village garrison. The horse should be able to beat the two isolated battalions to the left of the village. He would spread the hussars and cossacks on his right to mask the rest of the hostile force, and let his horse do the work.
Waving his riding crop, he snapped the orders to his staff….
De Gitaine was in trouble, and he knew it. His infantry was formed up, but more or less where they had camped. only his horse was properly grouped, and that was only because they had bivouacked close to one another. Already a huge mass of horse was approaching his weak right, held only by two battalions of foot and the rest of his infantry was too spread to react. The conscripts in the village were being pounded by the Russian guns. In front of him was a mass of light horse, beyond them some Russian foot, clearly waiting for their horse to win the battle.
With a grunt, he took the only chance he saw, ordering his cavalry to drive though or drive off the hussars to their front, and to swing around to the flank of the Russian infantry.
Another scribbled note sent the two grenadier battalions forward; with any luck the Russian infantry would be caught between horse and foot.
De Gitaine looked nervously to his right, where a cloud of dust and a distant sound of combat presaged the defeat of his right flank. Now it was a race.
Prince Akraxin was pleased. The first of the Groß-Holsten infantry had been beaten by his cavalry, and stragglers from the second indicated that it would be following soon. Despite multiple charges, and steady fire from the infantry both in the open and in the village, his horse had not suffered appreciably. He just needed the guns to drive those people from the town, and all would be well.
He needed it quickly though. Already the Groß-Holsten horse had driven forward, and some hussars could be seen streaming to the rear. As he galloped his staff to the right of the field he could see that the hussar screen had been broken though, and the enemy cavalry, in some slight disorder, were headed on toward the redcoated block of infantry in the center. Added, to this two enemy foot battalions were pressing forward.
The colonel of the rightmost battalion was turning them to face the threat, but the fire from the enemy infantry was beginning to tell. They were partially protected by a small marsh, but things could certainly go ill very fast there.
Akraxin spurred his horse onward.
All was not lost yet, thought de Gitaine. If he could coordinate his horse and foot against the Russian foot, now in some confusion, he might be able to hold the field.
He looked in nervousness at the grenadier battalions, wreathed in smoke. One of them as clearly struggling though some soft ground, but they bother seemed to be doing well enough. He turned his attention to the cavalry, which was a little blown, and a little ragged, but certainly where he needed it to be. Timing would be everything here.
He was just turning to an Aide to issue the orders, when a rattle of drumming and screech of fifes came to his ears. He looked back at his foot, seeing some idiot capering around on a horse in front of the 1st Grenadiers
“Mein Gott, Von Achselhaare” he heard a murmur from his staff.
Then, to his horror, he saw the grenadiers lumber forward into the unshaken line before them, floundering forward though the soft ground. a brief scuffle, and the grenadiers fell back through the marsh again, becoming a mob, ignoring the shouts of their officers and NCOs to reform.
De Gitaine set his jaw. He issued brisk orders for the cavalry to charge, though now they
were disadvantaged. They might break one battalion, but the other foot would surely see them off, unsupported as they were. He looked at the sun. Night would not save them.
Accepting the inevitable, he started issuing orders for reforming the army a days march back, and wondered would he still have a job tomorrow.
“Shortest commission ever” he muttered to himself….
Prince Akraxin smiled to himself. The Empress, he thought, would be pleased. His infantry had reformed, driving off a suicidal foot charge, and seeing off the Groß-Holsten horse with significant casualties, and trifling losses to the russians. The enemy was falling back, and his his horse were still in reasonable order, ready for the pursuit. He smiled in the sun, again, composing his victory dispatch in his head. A great day for Russian arms, and no snowflakes in his future.