The hide was in the attic of the chateau, the firing holes had been knocked in the roof by the Guards Light Regiment the previous day. They knew that as diligent students of history. They knew the date too - 18 June 1815. They'd arrived last night, sometime around midnight - all of them standing around on the ridge behind their current position, looking lost and deeply confused.
The two men there wore camoflage uniforms - but for an environment entirely different to the one they were in, around them lay the tools of their trade - assault rifles, machine guns, an assortment of sights and scopes and other paraphenalia. Stopping short of the loophole was the distinctive muzzle-brake of the .50 calibre Barrett rifle. Beside the man with the rifle was another with a large spotting scope and range-finder. "Officer at 2 o'clock. Range is eight-hundred and seventy five metres. Wind is 10km/h from the south-west."
"Got him. Grey horse, blue coat, white trousers, black bicorne hat with white feather?"
"That's him. He's twenty metres above us."
"Dialled in. On trigger."
"Fire." Nearly nine-hundred metres away the French Colonel collapses forward, then slides off his horse - one foot remaining firmly stuck in the stirrup as the well trained horse stands firm as the sound of the shot rolls across the valley. The men around the Colonel stir uneasily as his body is untangled and dragged away. Somewhere further back in the ranks another man is crying in pain from the .50 calibre round tumbling after punching through the Colonel's chest and cleaved his thigh open and shattered his femur before smacking into the mud behind him.
"Hit. Shift target - spotter, 11 o'clock, range twelve-hundred and fifty metres."
"White hair, telescope, blue jacket looking over the cart?"
"Confirmed. He's thirty metres above us."
"Unacceptable! I cannot cower here like some deserter! This is treason to hold me here Ney."
"Sir, I am not holding you here because I have ill intentions for you. I am holding you back from showing yourself on the other side of that hill, because we've already lost forty officers this morning. And not to random fire or happenstance! I saw Reille and Soulte fall myself. And now because we Lords and Generals are hiding back here the English are picking off any officer they see."
"Then we must attack now, before all is lost."
"All is not lost Sir, but we cannot act against such an unknown."
"There is no unknown. There are men there Ney. Englishmen, Dutchmen, Belgian, Prussians and a medley of others. Wellington simply hides behind the ridge as he is wont to do. That is not an army that can stand up to us. Signal the attack now. We must act or else France is lost."
Al-Amarah, Iraq, 2006
"Guards, make ready!" The air isthick with dust, smoke and the stench of ruining sewers, rotting flesh and spoiled food. The line of infantry stretches across the square, redcoats with muskets herding the crowd to the far end of the sprawling market. "Advance by ranks!" The first rattle of fire comes from a window at the far end of the square. The civilians still trapped in the massive space begin to scatter as another weapon joins the first in it's fire. "Halt! Front rank kneel! Second rank take place!" The drill is well practiced, the movements impeccable. Even as twelve of their number collapsed, their places were quickly filled. "TAKE AIM! FIRE!" The barrage of lead shot fills the square with smoke and screams as the civilians are caught by the mass of the fire. A RPG dashes across the square from a rooftop and impacts just short of the line of men, throwing shrapnel, dust and gravel into the air.
A gaggle of horsemen trot into the square behind the infantry. They observe the resolutely marching men of the Coldstream Guards as they pour more fire towards the crowd ."Madness. Sheer madness. This cannot be real. It cannot be right!"
"Madness or not De Lancey, we require this towns water. When we have seventy thousand men in the middle of what I can only assume is Arabia, then water is our priority. I will not have my army die of thirst while we debate the metaphysics of our current condition. Now, dispatch the Royal Horse Artillery to that hill in the West - I want them in position and ready to bombard the approach should there be any reinforcements or sign of the French."
The BBC reporter was doing their direct to camera piece in the usual war correspondant attire of flak jacket, helmet and lashings or reflective tape. "We are currently outside Al-Amarah, some one hundred and fifty kilometres North West of Basra where the insurgency has been engaged in open warfare with the British forces once more. Early this morning the Royal Green Jackets who we are embedded with received orders to deploy, as headquarters in Basra had lost contact with the forces stationed here. When we arrived ith we found an enormous force - easily more than fifty-thousand strong who are dressed in the style of the Napoleonic armies. We are aware that this seems utterly ridiculous, but we assure you that what we are reporting right now are the facts as we know them. Attempts to get any comment from local military commanders all the way up the chain to Downing Street have been met by resolute silence. We will provide more information as we become aware of it."
The first barrage from the French guns found their targets, but there was little they could do. There were no massed ranks for them to destroy. It was hard for them to pick out targets at this distance. Occassionally an officer with a telescope would brave the English riflemen and attempt to locate a target, but their ranks were visibly thinning and even when they did spot something it was usually a solitary figure darting about. The barrage slamming into the hillside where any reasonable General would have arrayed his forces for the honourable fight did little to calm the French ranks. Where were the English?
In a tent on the reverse slope of the English held hill Captain Alan Dahl rummages through the detritus of a historic campaign. "These maps are bloody useless - and of course there's no GPS and we can't nick off down to the services to pick up a Michelin guide. It's old-school right now and this is what we've got to work with. Make sure that the mortar teams have good comms with the OPs and that we've got back-ups in place, I don't want to have to worry if our fucking radios evaporate too. Go. NOW YOU TWAT!" The runner disappeared out of the tent, leaving the Captain with a trio of lieutenants. "What a right fucking mess. Waterloo? At least every single one of us had that drilled into our brains at Sandhurst. It sounds like they're just getting warmed up now. The attack was a feint on the chateau, then a wheel from their right flank, correct?"
"That's right sir. We've got the chateau locked down as tight as we can - we've got two squads there and that SAS team that was bunking with us has also taken up residence there. There's second and fourth platoons with fighting positions along the centre and we've shortened the line and have anchored our other flank at St Haye where we've posted another few squads, along with some of the HMGs."
"So this is what it comes down to? Two companies against the entire French army. Have we gotten any word back from Lt Hayes yet?"
"None since he left for Brussells with the entourage."
"I just hope that he's not written off as a maniac by the Ambassador, though the presence of the Prince of Orange's entourage should help with that. And has there been any joy with finding Bluchy and the Prussians?"
"No sir. Nothing - we aren't sure if it's because we're looking in the wrong place or because they aren't there to find." The next barrage of cannon fire sweeps the hill and the sound of drums and regimental bands fills the air. Capt Dahl keys his radio. "All callsigns, stand-to." He turns to the men with him, "OK, this will be the CP and hospital. We'll do what we can, but there is no casevac here. Get to your units - we have to try and stop the advance short of their range. Pick off officers where you can and stop the cavalry. Let's go."
The French guns were firing regularly now, but the men were bunkered down deep in their foxholes. The fields of fire are as clear as a shooting range, a far cry from the usual dusty back alleys. The sounds of roundshot and shrapnel cease above the heads of the men - but the sound of hooves is clear. A galloping regiment of Curaisser's charges towards the line seeking a weak point or to draw resistance. "Cavalry coming in! 12 o'clock!" Comes the urgent shout from further down the line. The men rise and level their weapons along their firing arcs, all the while hidden from direct fire by the foxholes. Lessons had been long and hard learnt about why the kind of tactic the French were using just didn't fly when automatic weapons were prevalent. Single shots ring out along the line as men pick their targets carefully. The 5.56mm rounds punch straight through the armour of the horsemen or bring down the horses themselves. The methodical firing increases in intensity as the Cavalry come closer. Finally a pair of Minimi's join the firing and the probe by the Curaisser's falls short as they wheel away, leaving half their number on the field. In one foxhole at the front Pvt Hopkins, an 18 year old from Newcastle, shouts a familiar line. It helps him, makes him feel grounded. All along the British line the cry is taken up. Several hundred voices all chanting - he closes his eyes and imagines for a moment that he's just back home watching a game. Not here. Not now...
"How many did you count?", the Emperor is insistant - desperate for information.
"We saw no more than twenty men."
"TWENTY MEN!", the Emperor sputters, "Twenty? Twenty men laid waste to a regiment of Curaisser's in under a minute?"
"Yes sir, they were not firing muskets or cannon - but had some form of rapid firing rifle."
"What are they singing now?" The chants could be heard across the valley - puncuated by an occasional shot, or drowned out by a cannon.
"It is, I believe it literally translates to 'Come forth bone if you believe you are suitably firm', I'm not sure what it actu-"
"I can guess what they mean. Such crudity, obviously there is no discipline in their ranks. No good officers to keep them under control." Napoleon pauses, smiles and then moves to the map and starts looking at his disposition, "A lack of discipline means that we can overwhelm them with numbers. Everyone attacks. Now. Press the attack forward and do not stop until we hold that ridge. If they have so few men, then they cannot stop our grand army."
Dahl peers through binoculars towards the French lines. "It's a full advance. Get the mortars to start dropping phos rounds onto the cavalry formations - break those up. Snipers are free to engage at will - but tell them I want them hunting higher-ups and runners, no point blasting sargents and corporals right now. We've got to break down their command and communication." Dahl breaks into a grin. "And it's time to spend some real money - put a Javelin into those powder carts for the cannon in the grand battery. I don't think we've got to worry about any armour right now."
Napoleon fumed, stifling a disbelieving and angry roar and pacing in rage - his grand battery was not firing any more. The men were in shock - a giant smoking hole sat in the middle of the grand battery. The carnage was immediately visible - pieces of flesh, uniforms, gun carriages and horses lay everywhere. He had watched as the rocket had roared into the sky from the far side of the field, then as it tipped over and dove directly onto one of the powder-laden carts supplying the assembled guns. No officers stepped forth to take control - he himself had seen the last four die as soon as they started to shout and point to try and reorganise. He smirked slightly - the army was still advancing - tens of thousands of men marching across the valley towards the English lines. For all their trickery, they didn't have the numbers to match his army.
"HE. All tubes, one round. Fire!" The crews make their final adjustments and drop the rounds down the barrel. The mortars coughs, driving baseplates deeper into the ground. A distant ripple of explosions from the far side of the ridge signals the impacts. "We're twenty metres short," shouts the Mortar platoons sargeant, "Make correction! WP fuse for airbust. All tubes. Two rounds. Fire for effect." The mortars cough again, sending their rounds arcing high over the field. Thirty metres above the massed ranks of the trotting French cavalry their fuses trigger the detonators, blowing the rounds open and igniting the white phosporous within. Hundreds of brilliant, burning balls of metal fall onto the formation, sticking and scorching. Horses and men alike scream and scatter as the next volley of phosphorous showers down onto them. "Good hits. All tubes, shift target. New target is bearing 164 degrees, range twelve hundred metres. Ready one round HE." Sargeant Doyle couldn't believe the devastation - the huge formation of Lancers had broken and scattered the units around them, horses were out of control, trampling anyone in their path. Muskets and pistols fired to kill the panicked horses, then they began sounding as the horrifically burnt men requested mercy. "Fuck me," he mutters quietly, "We might actually be able to win this."
"Sir," the dispatch runner arrived at the tent breathless and bloodied. His uniform is discoloured and torn under the arm where a sniper's bullet has grazed his ribs. "The 1st and 3rd cavalry corps have been broken. Kellerman and Pajol are both dead. The enemy remains u. Our infantry is still closing."
"Thank you," Napoleon sighs and rubs his eyes, "This cannot go on much longer - once the infantry are engaged they won't have the will to fight. Take the Hougoumont now, we cannot have a strongpoint at our flank once the battle is met."
"Infantry coming out of the woods," one of the sentry shouts, "They're going for the orchard!"
"Stand by for claymores." The plan had been drilled into them. The first wave of enemy would be on the receiving end of the outer ring of claymore mines at the edge of the orchard which lay before the chateau. The next line of the precious mines was much closer - literally at the front wall of the chateau. There would be a lot of ground for the French to cover in the meantime.