The Spanish night was hot when the 9th Galway Cavalry Brigade started across the river. Peter leaned down from his horse and scooped some cool water into his mouth and let the hooves of the other horses splash his face. Pulling himself upright again, he waited his turn in the shallow water to walk up the steep bank on the other side. On that side of the river the ground was dry and supported only dust and some modest shrubs. Dawn’s rosy fingers were just beginning to appear on the hilltop and the brigade made its way slowly and in silence up the hill. This was the morning of Peter’s first battle.
Although Peter’s family were staunch, well-meaning Christian’s, He wasn’t sure if he believed in God, or the afterlife, or heaven or hell. But he did believe it was a good and worthwhile thing to be remembered. And he was horrified by the prospect of a forgetful life such as his mother and father lived. Toiling away on the farm or in the house. Growing older every day and achieving nothing of note in their lives except begetting another forgetful generation of 7 children. They would be erased by history, just as their parents had been, and their grandparents before them.
“Why Peter?” his father had asked him in a despairing sort of way, after reading his enlistment papers. His mother had cried. “We don’t need the money son, if that’s why you’ve joined. We want you to live here with us. And what about your brothers and sisters. Won’t you miss them?”
“It’s ten years of service Peter. Ten years!” His mother pleaded with him through teary eyes. Although she knew nothing could be done about it. The papers were signed. Peter Cunningham.
“I don’t want to stay here forever. I don’t want to be forgotten, Dad.”
When Peter said that to his father, he paused for a moment with a look on his face as if he had just recognised something in his son which he used want himself long ago. John Cunningham loved old stories. The older the better and had wanted to be a writer. He dreamed of making his mark on the literary world, but he had to take over the farm when his father was killed. So, he contented himself with marking the soil with his plough every spring. After seeing this manifestation of his younger self in his son, Peter’s father was behind him even if his mother would never forgive him.
His father paid for his smart cavalryman’s uniform and the good horse on which he rode to the top of the hill on that hot Spanish night just before dawn. Peter looked down to the French camp at the sleeping enemy. The camp was a loosely organised small town of white prism tents which started around 400 yards from him and stretched along the left bank on a strip of flat ground between the river and a steep cliff and terminated around 900 yards away at the bottom of a modest hill..
The artillery was encamped on top of the hill and aimed over the river into the rising sun. A smoky haze was languishing over it from the previous night’s cooking fires. He looked to his left at two thirds of the brigade. The uniform silhouettes of cavalrymen cut a sinister figure against the twilight sky. He looked right to the other third, over the river and to his neighbour, Marc.
“Magnifique eh?” said Marc in a tone which betrayed some fear. Peter didn’t notice.
“absolutely. They haven’t even got any earth works up. The day is ours already.”
“We’ll see. They’ve some artillery on the far side. I don’t know.”
“Yeah, pointing the other way.” Said Peter smiling. “They have no idea Marc.”
“Tell you what. A guinea for the first one to the Flag.” The Flag being the French Tricolour languishing on this windless morning over a particularly large tent. Maybe Napoleon himself, that upstart demagogue was asleep inside at that very moment. Marc looked at him to see if his younger friend was serious. Peter had already taken off his riding glove and his hand was outstretched, waiting for Marc to shake it. Marc to off his riding glove and as their hands came together the bugle sounded.
Peter and Marc put their gloves back on. The bugle barked the order to advance at a trot. The many hooves made a low rumble like the thunder of an approaching. When the brigade reached the bottom of the hill, 300 yards on flat shrubby ground from the French camp and just as the sky was brightening up and all but the brightest stars going out, the bugle cried out again. Canter. They were closing the distance. Peter could see some French men standing still in front of their tents. Awestruck no doubt at the sight of the 9th Galway Cavalry Brigade bearing down upon them. 200 yards. Still the Frenchmen stared. 150 yards They did not move from their scattered positions. The Lieutenant drew his sabre, the glorious call for charge was heard and Peter kicked his horse to gallop and drew his sword, with the rest of the Brigade he cried out a primal scream. Uttered since time immemorial by human beings before attacking one another. Peter would never forget that moment. 100 yards, and the Frenchmen did not flinch. 50 yards. Peter leaned over on his galloping horse to slay this continental coward where he stood. Contact. He swept his arm downward and in one lethal stroke his sword bore down through the skull of a melon and cut it clean in half.
Peter galloped on along with the rest of the brigade. He knew immediately that something was wrong. He looked around but could see no enemy movement at all. He slowed his horse to a canter. Some of the men had stopped and dismounted to slash the tents in case the French were cowering inside. The bugle sounded for halt. And the battlefield was still and looked peaceful though the hazy smog of the camp and the morning sun. The Tricolour stood limp and defenceless in the centre of the camp
Peter saw Marc trotting toward it slowly along with some others. The sun was now illuminating the tops of the hills on either side of the camp. “Given up your guinea, eh Marc?” Peter called as galloped past him. Before Marc could respond there was a tremendous noise. A great boom! It was the loudest sound that Peter had ever heard. It was followed by a thousand swishes and ripping noise in the air around Peters head. Another boom, and then several more all within a second of each other. The air was being torn apart. Peter stopped his horse and turned his head back to Marc and the other officers for some direction on what to do. Marc and his horse were obliterated in a Tsunami of lead and blood, a man behind him was thrown from his horse in several pieces and his blood painted the white enemy tents. “Grapeshot!” bellowed an officer somewhere behind Peter. “Find cover!” shouted the same officer. Where? thought Peter. The camp was on flat ground by a river, and the artillery was looking straight down at them.
Another boom and the ripping sound of grapeshot tearing through the air and then piercing his horse and his own body. The pain was immediate and excruciating. Seven lead grapes had seared through his body. He fell to ground with his horse and the wind was knocked out of him and he breathed in a mouthful of dust when his face hit the dry hard ground. He tried to move but his horse was still alive. Agonisingly trying to get up and to get away, far away from here, but it was in vain and it only managed to shift its weight more onto Peter. He was trapped. He coughed and spat blood from his mouth. The artillery stopped firing and its deafening sound was replaced with something quieter. Peter could here it through the ground. A low sort of sound that travels well through hard ground. The sound of heavy hooves of approaching cavalry.
The French dragoons with their billowing horse-hair helmets and their own sabres drawn approached the scattered Galway Brigade. Peter saw the whole shameful affair from a sideways point of view. The bugle ordered the retreat and his comrades began withdrawing from the camp and back up the hill as fast as they could. A few rode straight past Peter stuck underneath his wheezing, dying horse, but they avoided his pleading eyes and galloped on. ‘Cowards’ thought Peter. The high regard in which he held fighting men – Especially those who fought on horseback – evaporated in a couple of minutes there by the River Guadiana. The rumbling of hooves grew louder.
The first man to pay him any attention, was French. The hooves of his horse stomped near his face. Looking up at the Dragoon on his horse, Peter was angry. Enraged at the anonymity of it all. This dragoon was about to do him the dishonour of killing him on his back or taking him prisoner. There was no honour in it. Nothing memorable about it.
The Dragoon looked down at Peter and saw a non-commissioned officer who had nothing worth looting and moved on to more lucrative and less fresh carrion. Peter bled to death under his horse by midday. He was buried in a small mass grave hastily dug by the French who never bothered to mark it He was listed as missing in the regimental records until the regiment was disbanded and the records lost a few weeks later partly due to the terrible losses it had suffered on that day. His Mother and Father got no letter, no notice of death no acknowledgement of his service. Just a silence of the historical record. A silence which was too painful for them to endure so they filled it with distraction and with their other children. And in the end because remembering their lost son was too much for their grieved hearts, they forgot about him.