The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter XII.

I Get a Company in the Campaign of 1706.

On Whit-Sunday, the famous 23rd of May, 1706, my young lord first came under the fire of the enemy, whom we found posted in order of battle, their lines extending three miles or more, over the high ground behind the little Gheet river, and having on his left the little village of Anderkirk or Autre-eglise, and on his right Ramillies, which has given its name to one of the most brilliant and disastrous days of battle that history ever hath recorded.

Our Duke here once more met his old enemy of Blenheim, the Bavarian Elector and the Marechal Villeroy, over whom the Prince of Savoy had gained the famous victory of Chiari. What Englishman or Frenchman doth not know the issue of that day? Having chosen his own ground, having a force superior to the English, and besides the excellent Spanish and Bavarian troops, the whole Maison-du-Roy with him, the most splendid body of horse in the world — in an hour (and in spite of the prodigious gallantry of the French Royal Household, who charged through the centre of our line and broke it,) this magnificent army of Villeroy was utterly routed by troops that had been marching for twelve hours, and by the intrepid skill of a commander, who did, indeed, seem in the presence of the enemy to be the very Genius of Victory.

I think it was more from conviction than policy, though that policy was surely the most prudent in the world, that the great Duke always spoke of his victories with an extraordinary modesty, and as if it was not so much his own admirable genius and courage which achieved these amazing successes, but as if he was a special and fatal instrument in the hands of Providence, that willed irresistibly the enemy’s overthrow. Before his actions he always had the church service read solemnly, and professed an undoubting belief that our Queen’s arms were blessed and our victory sure. All the letters which he writ after his battles show awe rather than exultation; and he attributes the glory of these achievements, about which I have heard mere petty officers and men bragging with a pardonable vainglory, in nowise to his own bravery or skill, but to the superintending protection of heaven, which he ever seemed to think was our especial ally. And our army got to believe so, and the enemy learnt to think so too; for we never entered into a battle without a perfect confidence that it was to end in a victory; nor did the French, after the issue of Blenheim, and that astonishing triumph of Ramillies, ever meet us without feeling that the game was lost before it was begun to be played, and that our general’s fortune was irresistible. Here, as at Blenheim, the Duke’s charger was shot, and ’twas thought for a moment he was dead. As he mounted another, Binfield, his master of the horse, kneeling to hold his Grace’s stirrup, had his head shot away by a cannon-ball. A French gentleman of the Royal Household, that was a prisoner with us, told the writer that at the time of the charge of the Household, when their horse and ours were mingled, an Irish officer recognized the Prince-Duke, and calling out —“Marlborough, Marlborough!” fired his pistol at him a bout-portant, and that a score more carbines and pistols were discharged at him. Not one touched him: he rode through the French Curiassiers sword-inhand, and entirely unhurt, and calm and smiling, rallied the German Horse, that was reeling before the enemy, brought these and twenty squadrons of Orkney’s back upon them, and drove the French across the river, again leading the charge himself, and defeating the only dangerous move the French made that day.

Major-General Webb commanded on the left of our line, and had his own regiment under the orders of their beloved colonel. Neither he nor they belied their character for gallantry on this occasion; but it was about his dear young lord that Esmond was anxious, never having sight of him save once, in the whole course of the day, when he brought an order from the Commander-inChief to Mr. Webb. When our horse, having charged round the right flank of the enemy by Overkirk, had thrown him into entire confusion, a general advance was made, and our whole line of foot, crossing the little river and the morass, ascended the high ground where the French were posted, cheering as they went, the enemy retreating before them. ’Twas a service of more glory than danger, the French battalions never waiting to exchange push of pike or bayonet with ours; and the gunners flying from their pieces, which our line left behind us as they advanced, and the French fell back.

At first it was a retreat orderly enough; but presently the retreat became a rout, and a frightful slaughter of the French ensued on this panic: so that an army of sixty thousand men was utterly crushed and destroyed in the course of a couple of hours. It was as if a hurricane had seized a compact numerous fleet, flung it all to the winds, shattered, sunk, and annihilated it: afflavit Deus, et dissipati sunt. The French army of Flanders was gone, their artillery, their standards, their treasure, provisions, and ammunition were all left behind them: the poor devils had even fled without their soup-kettles, which are as much the palladia of the French infantry as of the Grand Seignior’s Janissaries, and round which they rally even more than round their lilies.

The pursuit, and a dreadful carnage which ensued (for the dregs of a battle, however brilliant, are ever a base residue of rapine, cruelty, and drunken plunder,) was carried far beyond the field of Ramillies.

Honest Lockwood, Esmond’s servant, no doubt wanted to be among the marauders himself and take his share of the booty; for when, the action over, and the troops got to their ground for the night, the Captain bade Lockwood get a horse, he asked, with a very rueful countenance, whether his honor would have him come too; but his honor only bade him go about his own business, and Jack hopped away quite delighted as soon as he saw his master mounted. Esmond made his way, and not without danger and difficulty, to his Grace’s headquarters, and found for himself very quickly where the aide-de-camps’ quarters were, in an out-building of a farm, where several of these gentlemen were seated, drinking and singing, and at supper. If he had any anxiety about his boy, ’twas relieved at once. One of the gentlemen was singing a song to a tune that Mr. Farquhar and Mr. Gay both had used in their admirable comedies, and very popular in the army of that day; and after the song came a chorus, “Over the hills and far away;” and Esmond heard Frank’s fresh voice, soaring, as it were, over the songs of the rest of the young men — a voice that had always a certain artless, indescribable pathos with it, and indeed which caused Mr. Esmond’s eyes to fill with tears now, out of thankfulness to God the child was safe and still alive to laugh and sing.

When the song was over Esmond entered the room, where he knew several of the gentlemen present, and there sat my young lord, having taken off his cuirass, his waistcoat open, his face flushed, his long yellow hair hanging over his shoulders, drinking with the rest; the youngest, gayest, handsomest there. As soon as he saw Esmond, he clapped down his glass, and running towards his friend, put both his arms round him and embraced him. The other’s voice trembled with joy as he greeted the lad; he had thought but now as he stood in the court-yard under the clear-shining moonlight: “Great God! what a scene of murder is here within a mile of us; what hundreds and thousands have faced danger today; and here are these lads singing over their cups, and the same moon that is shining over yonder horrid field is looking down on Walcote very likely, while my lady sits and thinks about her boy that is at the war.” As Esmond embraced his young pupil now, ’twas with the feeling of quite religious thankfulness and an almost paternal pleasure that he beheld him.

Round his neck was a star with a striped ribbon, that was made of small brilliants and might be worth a hundred crowns. “Look,” says he, “won’t that be a pretty present for mother?”

“Who gave you the Order?” says Harry, saluting the gentleman: “did you win it in battle?”

“I won it,” cried the other, “with my sword and my spear. There was a mousquetaire that had it round his neck — such a big mousquetaire, as big as General Webb. I called out to him to surrender, and that I’d give him quarter: he called me a petit polisson and fired his pistol at me, and then sent it at my head with a curse. I rode at him, sir, drove my sword right under his arm-hole, and broke it in the rascal’s body. I found a purse in his holster with sixty-five Louis in it, and a bundle of love-letters, and a flask of Hungary-water. Vive la guerre! there are the ten pieces you lent me. I should like to have a fight every day;” and he pulled at his little moustache and bade a servant bring a supper to Captain Esmond.

Harry fell to with a very good appetite; he had tasted nothing since twenty hours ago, at early dawn. Master Grandson, who read this, do you look for the history of battles and sieges? Go, find them in the proper books; this is only the story of your grandfather and his family. Far more pleasant to him than the victory, though for that too he may say meminisse juvat, it was to find that the day was over, and his dear young Castlewood was unhurt.

And would you, sirrah, wish to know how it was that a sedate Captain of Foot, a studious and rather solitary bachelor of eight or nine and twenty years of age, who did not care very much for the jollities which his comrades engaged in, and was never known to lose his heart in any garrison-town — should you wish to know why such a man had so prodigious a tenderness, and tended so fondly a boy of eighteen, wait, my good friend, until thou art in love with thy schoolfellow’s sister, and then see how mighty tender thou wilt be towards him. Esmond’s general and his Grace the Prince-Duke were notoriously at variance, and the former’s friendship was in nowise likely to advance any man’s promotion of whose services Webb spoke well; but rather likely to injure him, so the army said, in the favor of the greater man. However, Mr. Esmond had the good fortune to be mentioned very advantageously by Major-General Webb in his report after the action; and the major of his regiment and two of the captains having been killed upon the day of Ramillies, Esmond, who was second of the lieutenants, got his company, and had the honor of serving as Captain Esmond in the next campaign.

My lord went home in the winter, but Esmond was afraid to follow him. His dear mistress wrote him letters more than once, thanking him, as mothers know how to thank, for his care and protection of her boy, extolling Esmond’s own merits with a great deal more praise than they deserved; for he did his duty no better than any other officer; and speaking sometimes, though gently and cautiously, of Beatrix. News came from home of at least half a dozen grand matches that the beautiful maid of honor was about to make. She was engaged to an earl, our gentleman of St. James’s said, and then jilted him for a duke, who, in his turn, had drawn off. Earl or duke it might be who should win this Helen, Esmond knew she would never bestow herself on a poor captain. Her conduct, it was clear, was little satisfactory to her mother, who scarcely mentioned her, or else the kind lady thought it was best to say nothing, and leave time to work out its cure. At any rate, Harry was best away from the fatal object which always wrought him so much mischief; and so he never asked for leave to go home, but remained with his regiment that was garrisoned in Brussels, which city fell into our hands when the victory of Ramillies drove the French out of Flanders.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07