"A tough and convincing story. . . . [Delderfield] marches his tattered troopers through hardship and hellfire, across a wild and ravaged landscape, sparing us any fairytales about the joys of battle en route." —The New York Times Book Review
Too Few for Drumsby R.F. Delderfield
This tale of the Peninsular campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars offers unforgettable adventure. In the lead is young ensign Keith Graham, trying desperately to elude capture and certain death. At his side is Gwyneth, beautiful, smart, experienceda woman of the world. See more details below
This tale of the Peninsular campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars offers unforgettable adventure. In the lead is young ensign Keith Graham, trying desperately to elude capture and certain death. At his side is Gwyneth, beautiful, smart, experienceda woman of the world.
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Too Few for Drums
By R.F. Delderfield
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1964 R. F. Delderfield
All rights reserved.
The dragoon must have been the best marksman in the French army or his shot one of the luckiest of the war.
At that range, all of two hundred meters, Graham would not have expected a carbine ball to do more than dent the tough leather of Captain Sowden's shako. He had seen the dragoon appear on the rocky platform above the town but had paid little attention to him. The main body of the French was known to be several leagues to the north, and the dragoons, as skirmishers, had been following them all the way from Busaco, observing the withdrawal but making no attempt to bring the British rearguard into action. As far as Ensign Graham was aware, this was the first shot of the retreat. It was a fatal one for Captain Sowden, penetrating his forehead as he stooped to examine the explosive charges under the bridge and laying him stone dead on the cobbles of the approach.
Graham heard the report and the harsh rattle of Captain Sowden's accouterments on the stones. He turned and looked over his shoulders, to see the captain lying face downward, his brains oozing from a hole in the back of his head where the dragoon's ball had emerged. For a few seconds he was too surprised to do more than stare at the dead man and then across the roofs of the town to the rocky platform on which the dragoon was standing, his carbine resting on the crupper of his saddle, the wind from the pass catching the tail of his big horse and trailing it like a pennant. Then the instinct of self-preservation asserted itself and Graham threw himself across the open space to the shelter of the last house in the town and at once began to take stock of his position as the only British officer this side of the river.
The moment of panic passed, for he could not be fired upon so long as he remained under the lee of the wall. Moreover, as he took a swift look around the angle of the jutting stones, he saw the dragoon thrust his carbine into the saddle bucket, mount and ride slowly into the narrow cleft between the overhanging rocks. In place of purely physical panic, however, came a nagging sense of responsibility, followed almost at once by a feeling of acute isolation now that Sowden was dead and the river ran between the squad and the rearguard. He glanced across the narrow bridge and could see the two squadrons of Brunswickers moving off at a trot along the road leading to Condeixa, and in advance of them a long thin line of red representing the last company of the Fifty-first Foot, to which he and the squad had been attached during the retreat. The bridge, he knew, was mined and engineers were posted on the far side awaiting Sowden's orders to light the fuse and cut off immediate pursuit. Remembering this, he sat thinking a moment, pondering Captain Sowden's last words addressed to him a moment before the dragoon's ball had stretched him dead upon the ground.
Sowden had said, "Tell Sergeant Fox to break down the jail gate. Some Portuguese are inside and we have orders to leave no one behind, you understand? But look sharp about it, boy, we have less than five minutes!"
Graham fancied that Sowden had resented giving these instructions, as though he considered it presumptuous on the part of General Crauford, commanding the rearguard, to risk British lives in order to prevent the French from making prisoners of Portuguese jailbirds, but it was clear he had no intention of disobeying the General's order. The jail must be emptied, and the jail was situated in the square three hundred meters north of the bridge.
Graham found himself sweating despite the chill wind that swept down from the Sierra behind the town. He had almost no military experience and the dragoon's shot was the first he had ever heard fired in anger. He had not been in Portugal more than a few weeks, and his duties up to that moment had been limited to escorting an ammunition train up the dirt road from the coast. He had never been called upon to make a single decision. Every order had been passed down to him from experienced officers like Sowden. The company's attachment to the rearguard dated from the previous evening, when the ammunition train had been halted and turned back and Wellington's triumphant army, fresh from the victory at Busaco, had come pouring down from the mountains, where its ebullience had turned to gloom the moment word filtered down to the ranks that they were withdrawing to the coast.
Graham, fresh from the Hythe training battalion, had not had leisure to consider the strategy of the campaign, and now he was completely preoccupied with his own situation. At any moment the bridge would be blown and anyone this side of the river would be at the mercy of the oncoming dragoons. Perhaps the brown-faced cavalry would take prisoners, more likely stragglers would be sabered on the spot.
The thought made him spring up and run down the littered street toward the square, bawling for Sergeant Fox at the top of his voice and noting the movement of red tunics through gaps between piled-up furniture, dragged into the street and abandoned earlier in the day, when the rearguard had marched down to the bridge driving panic-stricken civilians before them.
He called, "Sergeant Fox! Sergeant Fox!" in a voice shrill with urgency, and suddenly Fox was there with a bunch of the most grotesque men and women Graham had ever seen, men wearing sacklike smocks and women whose nakedness showed through their filthy rags, a prancing, gibbering group of about two score, the sergeant and Private Lockhart urging them down the streets with curses and occasional jabs of the bayonet. As they swept past Graham, Fox checked his stride, half saluted, and said crisply, "They weren't jailbirds, sir, they're looneys! We only took those who could climb over. The lock on the gate was too heavy for musketry!"
Graham looked past Fox and saw other bedraggled creatures swarming down a ladder set against the huge wooden gate of the town jail. Under the ladder were two more men of the Fifty-first: Privates Watson, the grimy little ex-sweep, and Strawbridge, the huge countryman with the bovine eyes and straw-colored hair. Strawbridge was standing erect as though on sentry-go, but Watson was obviously enjoying the novel sensation of emptying a jail, for he wriggled, grimaced and shouted ribald advice to the capering fugitives, sometimes threatening them, but without conviction.
Across the square from the jail Graham saw two or three other redcoats — Lickspittle and Croyde, the two licensed felons, and Morgan, the Welsh Methodist. Close by, emerging from a house, was young Curle, the company drummer-boy, his black gaiters seeming to reach almost to his waist, and his tunic, several sizes too large for him, reaching halfway down his calves. Lickspittle and Croyde had obviously been looting, and this fact registered in Graham's brain as Sergeant Fox said, "We'd best hurry, sir, they'll be blowing the bridge!" so that suddenly Graham felt hopelessly inadequate, for this was the warning he had meant to give the NCO.
"Captain Sowden is dead," he told Fox, remembering to speak arrogantly. "Collect the men and move off at once, Sergeant!" And he made a very great effort to calm himself and walk rather than run across the square to where Lickspittle and Croyde were shoveling odds and ends into a haversack under the melancholy eye of Private Morgan.
"To the bridge, at the double!" he shouted. But the men did not immediately respond, so that he struck Croyde on the shoulders and added, "The engineers are lighting the fuse now."
That got home to them and they exchanged a swift look of consternation before Lickspittle, the smaller of the pair, swung the haversack, grabbed his musket and set off at a run, followed by the cumbersome Croyde and then, but with less haste, by Morgan, the company Bible-quoter. The drummer-boy remained, looking up at Graham like a lean, trustful mongrel. There was no fear in his eyes but a look of anticipation as though Graham, who wore gold epaulettes and was therefore half a god, could transport him across the river by a lift of the hand. Graham looked down at the little starveling and felt a swift rush of compassion which he at once stifled under a snarl.
"The bridge, you little fool! Quickly!"
The boy opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it, picked up his drum in one hand and cartridge belt in the other and broke into a shambling run as Graham walked back across the square to the foot of the ladder.
The two men here, Watson and Strawbridge, were awaiting him, and Graham saw that the last of the lunatics had now disappeared up the street. From behind the gate came a hideous cacophony of screams and cries, and Watson, interpreting the officer's look, said in his harsh London accent, "They're all cripples, sir! None of 'em can't get up an' over! We'd better leave 'em, 'adn't we, sir?"
Graham nodded and waved his hand toward the bridge, and at that moment the blast of the explosion struck each of them in the face and the far end of the street dissolved into a vast gray cloud, debris sailing in a wide arc and pitching almost at their feet.
The roar of the exploding mine was still ringing in Graham's ears when Strawbridge, the countryman, said involuntarily, "Christ! 'Er's gone, zur!" Terror showed in the Cockney's narrow face, his tongue shooting out and curling around his lips.
Then, as the dust began to settle, Sergeant Fox appeared at a run, butting his way through the cloud of dust and followed at staggered intervals by Lockhart, the ex-gamekeeper, then Croyde waving his hands in despair, and finally, in a little bunch, Lickspittle, Morgan and the boy Curle. They assembled under the jail wall and even in the extremity of his alarm Graham realized that the lunatics inside the building had ceased to scream.
"Most of the looneys got across, sir," Fox said breathlessly, "but I reckon the engineers mistook us for the French!"
Graham made another tremendous effort, feeling his lip quiver and his heart thump and pound like the irregular beat of a steam-driven pump. His mouth was parched and he felt sick and unreasonably cold.
"How many are left on this side? How many of us?"
The sergeant looked around and made a rapid count. "Nine, sir, including yourself."
A little of the sergeant's calmness communicated itself to Graham. Fox was a big-boned, gangling man in his early thirties, tough, spare and weatherbeaten, with the faded tunic and worn equipment of a soldier with several campaigns behind him. As he addressed the officer his eye was cocked at the mountains immediately behind the town, but Graham realized that he would never mention the nearness of the enemy or, indeed, offer any advice that was not specifically demanded. Yet he knew now that he needed advice most desperately and he jerked his head, indicating that he wished to consult the sergeant out of earshot of the men now herding together in a muttering group under the gate. Fox understood at once and they moved into the center of the square.
"Have you been along this road before, Sergeant?" Graham asked.
"Yes, sir, several times, but I don't know of another bridge. There might be a ford higher up, sir, I did hear on the way up that cavalry of the German Legion swam their horses over."
A ghost of a smile puckered Graham's lips. It was the last flicker of a carefree boyhood spent in the woods and fields of the Kent-Surrey border, where his tradesman father ruled a vast country estate called Addington Court and played at being a farmer.
"Can you swim, Sergeant?"
"No, sir," said the sergeant seriously, "and neither can any of that riffraff except the big Swede, Strawbridge!"
It relieved Graham to hear the sergeant refer to the six privates and the drummer-boy as "riffraff" and use the contemptuous army term "Swede" to describe Strawbridge, the goose-farmer. Somehow it took his mind off the appalling reality of their situation, a body of eight men and one boy isolated on the enemy's side of a deep, swift-flowing river, with a hundred thousand Frenchmen pouring down from the mountains to stamp over their bodies in a rush for Lisbon and the sea.
"Very well, we shall march southeast and follow the bank!" Graham said shortly. "Tell the men and check their ammunition." Then, with a tiny spurt of relief, he remembered Captain Sowden's map and added, "Wait here, I'm going to search the captain's valise," and he hurried off down the street, disappearing into the cloud of gray dust that still shrouded the bridge.
Fox went over to the men and barked them into some kind of formation. Critically he let his gaze run along the short rank, and what he saw neither pleased nor encouraged him. He was a professional who had been in uniform since he was fifteen, and the group cowering under the jail wall were amateurs, most of them first-campaign men without the least idea how to survive in this kind of situation or measure up to the seasoned veterans of Napoleon at this moment descending the pass in their tens of thousands. Lickspittle and his crony Croyde were a pair of condemned felons whose presence here had cheated some seacoast hangman of his fee, for they had been taken in a fight with revenue men and given the choice of enlisting or decorating a gibbet. They were a hard-bitten, truculent pair, and he had already seen each of them flogged for looting and brawling. They hated military service as they hated all authority and were kept in check only by the fear of the provost's firing squad. But now, Fox reflected, there was no provost and they would undoubtedly desert at the first opportunity, so he said, addressing them directly, "The French advance guard is led by dragoons and lancers. They are fast-moving scouts and never take prisoners. If either one of you is thinking of surrendering, forget about it. They'll collect your firelocks, strip you naked and then hack you to pieces!"
He moved on a pace, addressing the remainder of the squad. "The ensign knows of a ford higher upstream and we're going to march for it now. If we keep together we shall be across the river in twenty-four hours and your one chance of living through this is to keep closed up. Any stragglers will be picked off by the dragoons. One of them just killed Captain Sowden at three hundred yards' range!"
He could see that Privates Watson, Lockhart, Strawbridge and Morgan were impressed, but Watson, the man with soot ingrained in his sallow skin, was grinning, as though anticipating some kind of lark. The boy Curle, however, looked as if he might burst into tears at any moment and Fox thought, not for the first time, of the Government's absurdity in enlisting children utterly unable to withstand the rigors of a campaign outside the walls of a garrison town. He stood for a moment in front of the boy, regarding him gravely, almost paternally. "You, boy, what's your name? Speak up, sonny! What do they call you?"
The boy threw up his chin, mastering his tears.
"Curle, Sergeant! My mother was cantinière in the Fifty-first!"
Fox raised his eyebrows and looked at the child with interest. If his mother was a cantinière, then it meant that the boy had been born in the Army and was therefore a veteran, despite his extreme youth.
"You were at Busaco?"
"Yes, Sergeant, I was wounded there." Suddenly the boy seemed to find all the confidence he needed and, dropping his drum, he raised his wide sleeve, displaying a red, half-healed gash about three inches in length.
Lickspittle laughed outright, but the sergeant glared at him.
"It's a damned sight more than you'll ever have to show!" he snapped and pretended to examine the graze carefully.
"It was a Frog bayonet!" said the boy eagerly. "It ripped me sleeve, see!" He pointed to some rough stitching an inch or two above the sleeve buttons.
"Did you kill him?" said Fox gravely.
The boy smiled shamefacedly and shook his head. "He was dead when he did it. Sergeant Murphy shot him through the head, and when he rolled over, his bayonet come at me like a ... like a spear! It bled, though, it bled awful!"
"Good boy!" Fox said gratefully and suddenly felt cheered. He made them all empty their cartridge boxes and piled the cartridges on an abandoned table nearby.
The count showed a total of 104, which, together with his own ammunition, added up to about fifteen rounds apiece. Carefully he counted out seven piles and told each man to help himself. Curle carried no arms and Fox told him to abandon the drum.
At that moment Graham reappeared. He had not found Sowden's body, much less his valise, for both were buried deep under a vast pile of debris blown there by the exploding mine.
Fox said, "They've got about fifteen rounds apiece. You won't have a musket yourself, sir?"
"No," said Graham, "nothing but this," and he touched his ornamental sword hilt.
Excerpted from Too Few for Drums by R.F. Delderfield. Copyright © 1964 R. F. Delderfield. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
R. F. Delderfield, a respected author, playwright, screenwriter, and newspaperman, was born in Greenwich, England in 1912 and became a full-time author after a stint as a small-town reporter and an RAF hitch in World War II. According to The New York Times Book Review, Delderfield wrote "with vigor, unceasing narrative drive, and a high degree of craftsmanship," and he described himself as "a compulsive teller of tales, a real chronic case." Delderfield died in 1972.
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A group of British soldiers from varying backgrounds are caught behind enemy lines during the Napoleonic Wars. During their struggles to rejoin the British army they encounter a camp follower who is a seasoned campaigner. One does not have to be a fan of military fiction to enjoy this novel that is more about character than derring-do.