Peregrine shook his stiff legs, stretched his aching back, then climbed down from Grantham, his mount, careful to avoid trampling the bodies which lay strewn across his path. Blood-bespattered French uniforms; mangled limbs; broken and discarded swords; a chasseur whose head had been split open so the brain had burst out of the skull; whichever direction he turned, horror.
When Wellington had given the command to charge, Peregrine had seized the moment. Following all those months of training as a Dragoons Officer, he had relished the prospect of his first battle. For four days his brigade had waited, anxious to take their swipe at the enemy. Earlier in the day, they had watched other battalions ordered to the field of conflict, seen the smoke, heard the canon-fire, tried to ignore the screams. Amongst his fellow officers, he had joked and blustered through the hours desperate not to display any hint of his heightening fear.
It had been late morning when the order had come. Within the hour Peregrine had been in the thick of combat. The charge had come as a surprise to the French infantrymen, the horsemen’s heavy cavalry swords cutting through the ranks of blue coats like scythes through a field of cornflowers. At the time it had seemed exhilarating and courageous, but now, picking his way through the corpses, Peregrine felt only disgust.
He must hurry. Light was fading fast. During the charge he had become separated from his brigade. It would not be sensible to be left wandering the battlefield in darkness. The weakening sun threatening to slip behind the ridge was causing shadows to lengthen across the sickening scene. Even more sickening were the soldiers and camp followers already spreading nefariously across the battlefield like locusts, looting and stripping the dead of their prized possessions and even their uniforms. Peregrine was aware this practice was customary, but to witness it was abhorrent.
For nine hours the battle had raged. Scenes of his own moments of combat flashed in and out of Peregrine’s mind. As he picked his way back towards his camp, he came across a patch of ground where the some of the heaviest combat had obviously been fought. Here he found it impossible not to walk on flesh. Bodies lay three or four atop one another. Whether blue uniforms, red tunics, they were all men and all dead.
Or were they? In the twilight, Peregrine’s eye was caught by a slight movement. Then a moan echoed across the field of the fallen. It was coming from beneath the body of a British fusilier. Distasteful as it seemed, Peregrine kicked away the uppermost body and bent to the disfigured fellow below.
‘Monsieur. Monsieur. S’il vous plait.’
The words were barely more than a whisper, but Peregrine understood the desperate plea for help. He unhooked a water bottle from his saddle and bent to the wounded soldier, cradling his head to assist him to drink. The Frenchman was so covered in blood, it was difficult to guess at his injuries, until he muttered,
‘Ma jambe s’est cassee.’
From his basic command of French, Peregrine understood the Frenchman thought his leg was broken. What was blatantly obvious to the Englishman was that the leg was not broken, it had been completely sliced off half way down the calf.
‘I’ll need to get you up onto my horse.’ He said this more to himself than as a response to the wounded soldier. He gesticulated towards Grantham.
‘Hey you. Come here at once.’ He ordered the nearest looter. ‘Help me with this man. He’s badly injured, but he’s still alive.’
The soldier immediately responded to the authority in Peregrine’s voice and, dropping his booty, loped across to assist the officer.
‘You hold around his waist and I’ll take his shoulders. We’ll try to lay him across my horse. He’s lost a leg.’
‘Don’t know why you’re bothering sir, Frenchie dog. I’d leave him to rot surrounded by the rest of his pack.’
‘I could put you in front of a firing squad for that. He’s an injured prisoner. Just do as you’ve been ordered.’
The two of them managed to heave the French soldier upright before hauling him over Grantham’s saddle. Although constantly drifting in and out of consciousness as the pain and realisation flooded his brain, he seemed to be clinging to life. Once he was secured across the horse Peregrine slowly made his way to the camp, trying to ignore his patient’s ramblings and periodic screams. So intent on delivering the Frenchman to the hospital while still alive, now he was virtually oblivious to the devastation surrounding him.
Four days had passed since he had deposited Matthieu, the French soldier, at the field hospital. In those four days the battalion had been occupied with the post-battle tasks of packing up and making ready to leave. They had cheered when Wellington had announced the victory and that Napoleon had surrendered. They had kept their thoughts to themselves when they had learnt forty-three thousand men lay on the battlefield. Each day Peregrine had found the time to check on the Frenchman’s progress. It had been touch-and- go following the operation to amputate the remainder of his leg below the knee, but the surgeon was hopeful for a positive recovery.
On the eve of his brigade leaving, Peregrine returned to the field hospital for a final check on his injured French comrade. He approached the pitiful row of camp-beds, but could find no sign of Matthieu. He spotted the surgeon with whom he had entrusted the Frenchman.
‘I’m so sorry, Corporal Le Fevre faded fast through the night and died early this morning. Despite our best efforts, infection had set in and I think, once he found out his leg had gone, he just gave up fighting.’
Peregrine felt as though a sabre had sliced through his gut. Saving one injured soldier had somehow seemed to help compensate for the numerous Frenchmen he had slaughtered during the battle.
‘He asked me to give you this.’ The surgeon held out a small package. ‘And requested you write to his wife.’
Only when Peregrine was in the privacy of his tent did he untie the dirty string bow holding the little pack together.
He laid the three items on his grey serge blanket. A campaign fork; a cap badge and a blood-spattered envelope.
He extracted the letter; it began Mon cheri Matthieu. Je suis desole.
Without reading further, Peregrine replaced the letter into its envelope and silently wept into his blanket.