Monday, 22 May 2017

Fort Gertrude, the Final!


If asked, the great chroniclers of history no doubt would express their considerable enthusiasm for cavalry charges. In adding to a sweeping historical tableau drama, excitement, pathos, and a splendid set of sound effects, an energetic intervention by horsemen is rarely to be bettered. A lightning storm might perhaps be nearly as good; or a comet; or a wardrobe malfunction on the part of a particularly winsome heroine; or, if one were particularly lucky, some combination of all three accompanied by some unexpected bass drums and string instruments. But generally, it is always useful to have as the close to some great military encounter the thunder of hooves, the flickering of steel, and the mad cries of horsemen, as the arme blanche rides forwards, committed as the climactic act of battle. King Friedrich II's victory over the Franco-Imperial army at Rossbach in 1757, for example, was given the appropriate panache thanks to the efforts of Seydlitz's massed cavalry. The great victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683 was elevated from a dour punch-up the highlights of which had been trenches, dysentery, and the desultory whacking of one another with blunt instruments, by the timely intervention of the splendid German, Austrian and Polish cavalry. And even further back in history, Alexander the Great's triumph at Gaugemela in 331BC would have been much less triumphant, and probably slower and a lot sweatier, without the conclusive intercession of his Companion cavalry.

No less interesting for the historian are those events that immediately precede the cavalry charge; especially the last words of the cavalry commander: the speech that sends his men into the jaws of Death; or, if not his jaws, then some other orifice that might be just as unpleasant in its own way. Seydlitz's speech, for example, was a model of its kind, conveying certainty as to the importance of what his men were about to do; specificity regarding the chances of honour, glory, and wealth; and a careful ambivalence regarding the actual danger likely to be faced. Jan Sobieski's speech at Vienna, too, generally is considered worth studying. Though often adjudged to lack something in terms of style (thanks in part to an off-colour story about a Turk, a grandmother, and a mix-up involving an aubergine) the Pole's words to his men still embodied a fine mix of poetic metaphors, classical allusions, and a bottom joke at the end to lighten the mood. Alexander's comments sadly have not been captured for posterity, since the the wailing of the Persians drowned out the voice of the King. Nevertheless, historians have marked him well for his expressive body movements, the imperious use of the single digit being accompanied by a suitably divine waggling of the torso.

'Dammit, sir: I tell you that I've had nothing
from the mini-bar.'
All of which is to indicate just how disappointed chroniclers of the battle at fort Gertrude might well be to hear the words of the Fenwickian cavalry commander, Colonel Karl Reichardt von Laud, as a messenger urgently attempts to get Laud's hussars out of their beds, into the saddle, and into the fight. Laud's reply to the urging of the Fenwickian courier indicate that the former might not fully understand the gravity of the situation facing the Imperial forces.
'But we haven't had our lunch yet,' he says to the staff officer, fiddling urgently as he tries to do up his britches.
The staff officer looks on in some discomfort. Laud looks down and realises that he isn't actually wearing any britches.
'I distinctly remember asking for a wake up call. And some croissants,' Laud says truculently.
'The enemy are everywhere!' babbles the staff officer. 'The battle is almost lost! Only your squadron of horse remain uncommitted. I am instructed to press upon you the urgent need for an immediate foray by your horsemen against the enemy holding the high ground on the crossroads.'
'And my croissants?' asks Laud.
'I received no direct orders relevant to your croissants,' admits the messenger. 'But I should surmise that, if the enemy are not driven from the crossroads, that your croissants will be taken by the Gelderland musketeers and your stay in these lodgings rendered much less agreeable to you.'
'They are not especially agreeable at the moment,' hurrumphs Laud. 'Indeed, there was not even a little chocolate on my coverlet last night. I may be a hussar, but I'm not a savage.'
Nevertheless, since it is clear that the courier will not leave until Laud obeys the orders, the colonel reluctantly has the assembly sounded and his cavalrymen begin to decamp from their beds.

Time passes however. To the increasing frustration of all of the Fenwickian commanders, the hussars fail the most immediate of their challenges: an extended series of encounters with the door handles to their house. Finally, with the Imperial commanders soiling themselves with frustration, Laud manages to assemble his squadron outside of their lodgings and prepares for the assault. The colonel is well enough educated to know that now is probably the time for some suitable words; the opportunity for immortality, or at least a substantial footnote in future accounts of this combat. He turns to his men and delivers a speech that he hopes will instill the necessary ardour into them. Sadly, his disquisition falls rather flat. Laud mixes up his historical references and delivers an address that has as its general theme a grandmother's hand gestures, a Turkish aubergine, and Alexander the Great's bottom. Alienated by the evident failure of their commander to moderate his elevated speech so that it can be comprehended by ordinary soldiery, Laud's troops murmur mutinously. Deciding not to reinforce failure, Laud finishes his speech abruptly, and signals for an advance at the trot. (Below) In a rather ragged clump, the squadron of hussars begin their advance upon the hill crowned with Gelderland musketeers.

The hussars break into a canter. From their position with the Fenwickian musketeers, Colonel von Klosterfluck, Captain von Wiffel and Sergeant Merkin can see through the musket smoke the bold advance of the Fenwickian cavalry.
'Bravo!' shouts Wiffel, and his men also take up the shout. 'Bravo! Forward! Forward!'
'How I should have liked to have been a cavalryman,' shouts Merkin above the hubbub. 'The glamour, the danger, the long-lie ins.'
'It is overrated,' replies Klosterfluck. 'One gets sore in unmentionable places; and then one's unmentionable places get sores. And one spends one's life being chased by dogs.'
'Dogs?' asks Wiffel.
'Oh yes,' shouts Klosterfluck. 'My dog was always chasing men on horseback. Until I stopped him.'
'How did you stop him - did you tie him up?' responds the sergeant.
'Oh no,' answers the colonel. 'I just took away his horse.'
Merkin's brow furrows as he tries to work this through. Before he reaches a conclusion, the Imperial musketeers shout excitedly 'Here they go!' 

'I can see an "F". a "U", a "C", and then I think ...
it's a bit small ... is that an "R"?'

(Above) The key moment in the battle has arrived. With a loud 'Huzzah!', Laud's hussars spur their horses into the gallop. 'Tally ho!' they cry, 'Tally ho! Charge! Charge!' The Gelderland defenders finally espy through the smoke the rapid advance of the enemy cavalry! Uncertainty strikes them! Having already fired at the Imperial infantry, the troops are unloaded! The cavalry are upon their flank! The Gelderlanders murmur with fear, like short nuns at a penguin shoot. Surely all that is required for a crushing Imperial victory is that Laud's cavalry should make the merest contact with the Gelderland line! The watching Fenwickians groan with disappointment. The cavalry charge has been launched too soon! The long distance is compounded by the hussars' poor eye sight (by reason of which they are known in the Imperial army as 'cataract cavalry'). Laud's charge falls a mere sabre's length short!

Much to Toplitz-Hande's relief, as the Fenwickian cavalry halt in confusion his infantry prove their mettle by reloading and firing, and then reloading and firing again. (Above) The hussars are driven back in disorder.
'Are cavalry charges supposed to go in that direction?' asks Merkin.
Seeing the retreat of their cavalry, the morale of the Imperial infantry sags, and they also fall back. Though Klosterfluck still has another two companies of musketeers, Toplitz-Hande's troops now have an unassailable position. It is clear to all that the battle is now over, and that all that the Imperial troops can do is to begin a retreat. Fort Gertrude is taken, and northern Fenwick is now cut off!


  1. Egad! Who would have thought that the efficiency of Fenwick's Army could have fallen so low? The Spartans of Mittelheim might now be better regarded as a comedia del arte troupe...

  2. Indeed, it is something of a turnaround given their recent stalwart performances. Nevertheless, one should not be too harsh. A defeat that is merely crushing could never put the Imperials at the bottom of the table of Mittelheim military competence. They did, at least, turn up; and they were also (mainly) dressed - attributes that aren't always associated with combatants in the Wars of the Gelderland Succession.

  3. Perhaps their metier is on the field of battle rather than in these skirmishes of the Kleine Krieg...