A seagull cries mournfully in the air; a salt-tanged breeze drifts gently across the open grassland. Around the village of Grosse Varnische, hundreds of small bodies, wrapped pathetically in over-large uniforms lie huddled around smoking campfires. Furst Augustus Saxe-Peste, Knight Commander of the Rotenburg Order of the Golden Fleas, General-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Landgravate of Hesse-Rotenburg-Schillingsfurst shifts uncomfortably in his saddle and ponders sadly on the assembled troops in front of him.
The past few days have been very, very trying. After extricating the remains of his forces from the carnage at Chestwig, the Furst has had to resort to extraordinary measures to bring his army back up to strength. Having already lost so many men to the bratwurst machine that is Rotenburg war craft, the Landgravate has long ago emptied the farms and even prisons of its able-bodied men to provide the manpower for its regiments. Only the youngest potential recruits are left. Now, seven of his nine regiments have been filled with the sweepings from the worst nurseries and naughty-steps of Rotenburg. Most seem capable of nothing more than sucking their thumbs; the remainder would probably join them if only they could find their thumbs in their ludicrously voluminous coats. Moreover, his army is mutinous. Whilst his two regular regiments spend their time preparing themselves for the next battle, the new troops have distinguished themselves by their stubborn refusal either to drill properly or to eat their greens. The conscripts are also very tired, having refused to go to bed early; and with the lack of any bedrooms to send them to, the Furst has few means of imposing discipline on them, it being a accepted, even in Rotenburg, that to tie infants to a cannon wheel and flog them to death is probably in most circumstances morally wrong and at the very least bad parenting.
To compound matters, the general military situation is an urgent one. After their minor reverse at Zorninhaf, the Imperial Army of Grand Fenwick has recovered quickly and forced march towards Alexandopolis, hoping, no doubt, to occupy the Landgravate's capital before the Furst can raise a new army. The Furst has made the decision to retreat towards the coast, a decision informed by two assumptions: first, it might draw the Imperials away from the Rotenburg capital. Second, since the Furst's infantry now has an average age of about eleven, the prospect of a trip to the beach, with a paddle and some ice cream, seems like a useful way to prop up the troops' morale.
Even worse, his headquarters is now host to the Landgrave himself. Mercifully, Landgrave Choldwig has put on a uniform, having learnt from his last chafe-ridden trip to the seaside that loin clothes, olive oil, and vigorous exercise don't mix well with sand. In part Choldwig has arrived to boost the morale of his weary and frightened troops; in part, it is also a chance for him to see if the Imperial troops, the 'Spartans of Mittelheim' are as toned and oiled as their ancient name-sakes. For the most part, Choldwig confines his contribution to the Furst's orders group to complaints about the confining nature of his undergarments and a number of excited 'Arroos!'
And so, like a Mittelheim Pied Piper, Saxe-Peste has led his army of children towards Grosse Varnische, a small village a mile or so from the Baltic coast. The only positive development has been the presence in the village of a passing Zentan circus which, with the promise of gold and an opportunity later to spank his conscripts, he is able to press into service as mercenaries. Whilst the bearded ladies seem a little rusty in the handling of their weapons, the midgets do look like a tough lot.
(Above) The Imperial Fenwickian army arrives on the battlefield. Sitting manfully astride his horse, Keith, Marshal Cavandish assesses the situation. Having caught up on his sleep during the battle of Zorninhaf, the Marshal is curiously perky. Around him, his headquarters staff laugh and joke: tales of the slaughter of the Rotenburg forces at Chestwig leave the Imperials in no doubt that this is likely hardly to be a battle at all. Cavandish calls for his telescope: 'Let's take a look at this army of children', quips the Marshal, raising his spy glass, 'by looking through the round window'. There is movement in the Rotenburg ranks: it looks like Furst Augustus intends to attack! Cavandish arrays his troops in a strong defensive position centred on the key ground: a small hill that covers his line of retreat. With his front split by a small watercourse, known locally as the Appisch, he deploys his four batteries of skilled artillery adjacent to it, supported by all but one of his infantry battalions. (Above, top) On his left, he deploys a single unit of infantry conscripts on the hill behind the marsh; his three cavalry regiments he places in line covering the rest of his left wing.
(Above) Furst Augustus cannot guess for certain what the likely outcome of this battle will be, but, like King Richard III, he has a good hunch. Recognising that the odds are against him, Augustus stakes his chances of victory on a high risk gambit. He masses his entire force on his right wing. To the front, he places his cavalry, his intention being to overwhelm the Imperial horse with a brisk cavalry charge, and then swing left to take the enemy guns and infantry from the flank. But it's all or nothing - the left of his infantry line, including the Zentan mercenaries (in blue, red flag), are in range of the Imperial artillery: four batteries with Artillery Academy training are likely to do great execution, especially if they hit conscripts.
Seeing the Rotenburg troops deploy, the Imperial morale is raised further: surely the Rotenburg cavalry attack is doomed? Cavandish has a supply of stirrups that his cavalry can throw against the enemy, and there is some bad terrain out there that is certainly not on any map. Captain Nitzwitz, the Marshal's aide-de-campe, laughs loudly:
'A single roar from my pet lion will see those rascals off', he comments
Cavandish looks round slowly, 'Your lion, Nitzwitz?'
'Yes my lord', he replies jingling a lead that he holds in his hand, and pointing to his pet.
Cavandish's brow creases: 'Captain, I'm not sure that that's a lion. I think it's a ..ur .. someone help me here...'
Baumgartner, his orderly, chips in: 'I think it's a stoat, Nitzwitz. If it's a lion, it's a very small one.'
'Christ in a sedan chair', growls Nitzwitz. 'I've been fleeced'. Mumbling something, he picks up a chicken and runs back towards the baggage train.
Cavandish looks at his orderly: 'What did he say?'
Baumgartner shrugs: 'I think my Lord, that he also wants his money back on his elephant.'
(Below) With a loud shout of 'huzzah!' from his regular troops, and a cry of 'where?' from his conscript hussars, Augustus orders forward his entire cavalry force in a hell-for-leather charge on the Imperial Fenwick left. His troops head forward, following their officers more from a sense of curiosity than from any real belief that success will follow.
(Above) But fate has better things in store for the Rotenburg horse. Through his telescope, Cavandish can see the unfolding drama on his left: with rising consternation, the Marshal realises that things are not going to plan. The sudden appearance of an unmapped marsh slows down the yelling Rotenburg cavalry not at all, and they 'find their way' across without disorder. Worse for the Imperials, their firm belief that they would have a hefty set of stirrups to throw into the impending melee turns out to be a mistaken one - instead, some crafty espionage has delivered said stirrups into the hands of their adversaries! Could the Rotenburg cavalry succeed? Could the Furst win his rapid victory?
(Above) Augustus' need for a rapid victory to his front is reinforced by the unfolding events elsewhere. With thunderous roars, the Academy-trained Imperial artillery opens fire upon the static Rotenburg infantry. Pausing only to snicker at Cavandish's compliment that they are 'bouncing their balls most effectively', the Imperial artillery fires another volley and the Rotenburg left takes a thrashing. First in line are the Zentans: their commander sees the Imperial guns trained on his troops and gulps - the first thing that goes through his mind is how accurate the enemy fire seems; the second thing that goes through his mind is a 12lb cannon ball. Behind him, the bearded ladies get rather more trimmed off the top than they expect and the mercenary battalion collapses quickly. Then a second unit, this time of conscripts, are crushed by the weight of Imperial cannon-fire. Behind them, there is consternation and tears as the raw Rotenburg infantry realises what's in store for them if the Furst's plan goes awry.
The clash of cavalry! Furst Augustus cheers as his troops fight magnificently! In truth, the combat is already stacked in the Rotenburg favour: two units of the Fenwickian horsemen are raw, much like their backsides, and they are outnumbered and out-stirrupped. Worse, having looked at the map, the Fenwickian cavalry have realised the name of the watercourse to their right. Any way they slice it, 'Appisch Stream' or the 'Stream of Appisch' sounds very, very rude, and the bulk of the cavalry 'Fnar' their way into disorder. (Above) One Fenwickian regiment routs on contact. As the process of charge and counter-charge continues, one further Imperial and two Rotenburg regiments are rendered hors de combat, though none of them are quite clear what thet means. (Below) Despite heroic resistance, the last exhausted Fenwickian cavalry unit succumbs to an attack from both front and flank.
Could this be the breakthrough that Augustus needs? (Above, top) The Imperial flank consists now of a single regiment of conscripts perched on the hill. But all is not at is is seems. (Below) In the interim, Cavandish has redeployed his artillery to cover his flank. Though Augustus begins to order his infantry up to support his cavalry (below, top right) they have a long way to march.
This is a critical moment. Furst Augustus pauses to the accept the advice offered by Landgrave Choldwig. Contemplating the situation for a moment he then makes his decision: the Imperial flank, with its stream and guns, is too strong. Politely rejecting the Landgrave's plan on the basis that logistic difficulties had left him without the olive oil necessary to lubricate his musketeers, the Furst the now stakes everything on a reorientation of his line of attack. (Below, top) Using oblique manoeuvres, his infantry swings around and, buoyed by their ignorance of war and the prospect of jelly for tea, the Rotenburg line toddles forward towards the Imperial line.
(Above, bottom) Cavandish smiles grimly and accepts the challenge. With regular troops, lethal volleys, and a predominantly conscript enemy, he fancies his chances in a clash of infantry lines. He orders his troops to swing out into a battle line to meet the advancing Rotenburg troops. The whole axis of the battle has turned ninety degrees! Cavandish's manoeuvres, though, are subject to some sudden confusion, and there is an almost religious aspect to the deployment of the Imperial troops, as they proceed, like the Good Lord Himself, to move in mysterious ways. Furst Augustus surveys the Imperial line as it moves rather randomly into battle order. His assessment is interrupted by the sight of a small fellow sprinting across the front of their lines: a corpulent chap dressed in an overlarge black robe trailing a scythe that wobbles dangerously. The fellow appears to be saying 'Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!'. The Furst turns to his orderly. Captain Sebastian Wankrat.
'Wankrat, is that fellow being chased by a small lion?'
'No, my Lord: I think that's a weasel or something.'
(Below) And so the battle lines meet at last in a clash of flame and steel! To the right is arrayed the Rotenburg front line, four regiments strong. Augustus has his single elite regiment (top, two flags), and regular regiment (middle), with the remainder of his infantry being only conscripts. Four Imperial regiments oppose them. The Furst recognises that this is the decisive moment, and despite much wailing and holding of breath from his conscripts, he refuses to let them halt for some hot milk and a nap.
Crikey! Muskets roar; orders and screams ring out; smoke rolls heavily across the battle-lines. (Below) As the latter clears, it is evident that the Imperials have come off worse, with one of their units routing under the heavy Rotenburg fire. Cavandish sighs heavily. 'Nitzwitz,' he says, turning to his newly returned aide,'we're going to need a bigger stoat.'
And so it continues. It becomes evident that, with both sides armed with lethal volleys, the fact that the Rotenburgers are mainly conscripts makes little difference in a fire-fight. Indeed, lacking any experience of combat, the Rotenburg conscripts bring an unusual enthusiasm to the duel of musketry. As they fire-and-load, fire-and-load, most appear now to be having a splendid time: actual war seems much more fun than playing at it: there's no soppy girls, and when you shoot someone, they have to stay dead. Moreover, having now four regiments in their front line against only three Imperials, the weight of Rotenburg fire continues to tell. As the fighting continues, the battle slips quickly and surprisingly from the Imperial grasp.
Cavandish is desperate: enemy fire has destroyed both the trumpets and drums at his headquarters leaving him unable to exert control over the fighting.
'Nitzwitz,we are at a decisive moment: is there no instrument left through which I can communicate my orders to the troops?'
'I think, my Lord, that there is a horn somewhere. I'll ask.'
And so, before Cavanadish can stop him, disaster strikes the Imperial Fenwickian army as Nitzwitz shouts out loudly through the din of battle to the assembled Fenwickian troops, asking them whether any of them have the horn. Holding his head in his hands, Cavandish watches the disintegration of his troops, his musketeers 'Fnar'-ing and 'Snurk'-ing their way into helpless heaps. He cannot even bring himself to stop Nitzwitz when the captain announces that, although no one apparently has the horn, he vaguely remembers that there might be a clarinet lying around, possibly purple in colour, and that he would be willing to blow it if the Marshal thought that that would help. Slowly, Cavandish dismounts from Keith and walks to his tent.
'I'm off to bed now, 'he says wearily,' wake me up in September.'
(Above, right) And so, as the casualties mount, it is the Imperials who come off worst: two more of their units rout, leaving Fenwick with a front line of only a single regiment, though they do manage to destroy the Furst's only elite regiment. (Below left) With the morale of both sides low, Nitzwitz orders the Imperial troops forward into a desperate bayonet charge: 'For the King!' cry his troops; 'Grenadiers forward!' cries Furst Augustus.
(Below) But the Imperial assault proves to be so limp that it might not look out of place nestled in Prince Rupprecht of Bachscuttel's underwear.The Imperial bayonet charge is driven back, and the Fenwickians are now heavily disordered and left vulnerable to Rotenburg musketry, some of which enfilades them.
(Below) And so, with a last Rotenburg volley, most of the remaining Imperial troops rout. The Imperial army can take no more, its morale cracks and the remainder flee. To compound matters, Cavandish later takes ill, the result apparently of an infected stoat bite. Captain Nitzwitz too is wounded, the consequence of being badly pecked by an elephant.
It is, by any standards, a famous victory for Rotenburg. Furst Augustus has triumphed against long odds. True, it has been a costly victory: he has lost two cavalry regiments, and three Rotenburg infantry regiments, including both of his remaining regular battalions. But the Imperials have had all three of their cavalry units destroyed, along with seven out of their nine infantry regiments. Hurrah for Furst Augustus! God save Hesse-Rotenburg!