1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 37

Chapter 18

The single thing that Mike Stearns would always remember most clearly about his first battle was the noise, the sheer volume of sound. And the second thing he would always remember clearly was the smell; the way the huge clouds of gunsmoke would roll over everything like an acrid fog.

Not the sights of the battle, so much, although he remembered those too. In fact, his whole memory of the battle was actually pretty good. At no point did he feel that his mind had gotten overwhelmed. That was because he expected the sights he saw. Mike had a good imagination and he’d been able to prepare himself for those shocks. Insofar, at least, as anyone can be prepared for such things in the abstract.

But what he hadn’t considered — just hadn’t thought about, ahead of time — was the incredible effect that firing tens of thousands of gunpowder weapons within a relatively small space would have on the other human senses. Especially the cannon fire. It didn’t help, of course, that everyone was still using black powder.

He soon gained an appreciation of the way that same black powder almost immediately shaped control of the battle; what he thought of as its command structure. Within less than five minutes he was fervently wishing a strong wind would spring up — which was not likely, on such a clear and sunny day. He couldn’t see anything, most of the time. The huge clouds of gunsmoke impeded vision, except when odd and unpredictable eddies would suddenly — and usually all too briefly — clear them away.

Until that moment, Mike had always assumed that Gustav Adolf’s recklessness in charging forward into the fog at the battle of L√ɬľtzen — that’s what had gotten the king of Sweden killed in that other universe, in 1632 — was because of the man’s personal impetuousness. A childish inability to control his emotions, essentially.

No doubt some of that was involved. But Mike could also now understand how much the driving power of pure frustration must have compelled Gustav Adolf. A commanding general was supposed to be in charge of this mayhem, damnation — and he couldn’t see anything. On at least four occasions, Mike had to restrain himself from riding into the smoke clouds, just so he could find out what the hell was actually happening. On two of those occasions, he might not have managed if Leebrick, Long and Ulbrecht Duerr hadn’t been right there to urge him to stay put. Quite forcefully. Indeed, you might almost say impolitely and in a manner that bordered on disrespect and insubordination.

****

Leebrick and Long would apologize after the battle. Duerr, true to his nature, would not. His only comment would be, “It’s always nice to see that a new commander isn’t a coward, even if he sometimes acts like the fucking village idiot.” Thereby clearing away again, if such was needed, any uncertainty as to the man’s failure to get promoted.

****

Thorsten Engler had expected the noise and the smoke, so he simply ignored them. In fact, he barely noticed them at all. He was far too pre-occupied with the need to get his flying artillery company up to the front in time to blunt the coming cavalry charge.

They’d done that before at Ahrensb√ɬ∂k, very successfully, and most of his men were veterans of that battle. So it all went fairly smoothly, in the way that men experienced with a task and confident they could carry it out manage such things.

They had no trouble seeing, either. Hardly surprising, since they were the ones who produced most of the initial gunsmoke — and were happily racing to the rear by the time the resultant clouds obscured the battlefield. It was up to the infantry then, and those oafs were so naturally dull-witted it hardly mattered if they could see anything or not.

They’d learned one lesson from Ahrensb√ɬ∂k, though — the infantry had to move up quickly. At Ahrensb√ɬ∂k, the volley gun crews had survived because their fire alone had been enough to stop to French cavalry charge. But you couldn’t assume that would always be true, and volley gunners were almost helpless against cavalry that got in among them. All they had were partisans and some muskets. Against experienced cavalrymen armed with sabers and lances and wheel-lock pistols, they’d have no chance at all.

That too went smoothly. Not as smoothly, but smoothly enough. Most of the infantrymen had been at Ahrensbök also.

The flying artillery companies fired three volleys. They might have managed four, but their commanding officer didn’t want to take the risk. Colonel Straley had seen how close a thing it had been at Ahrensb√ɬ∂k.

The crews could get off those three volleys in less than a minute, and they had four companies on the field instead of the three they’d had at Ahrensb√ɬ∂k. That sent over ten thousand balls into the ranks of the oncoming Saxon cavalry. Those weren’t musket balls, either. The volley guns fired canister rounds weighing three ounces, twice the weight of the balls fired by the infantry. Any hit on an enemy cavalryman except a glancing one would usually kill or maim.

The Saxons hadn’t started their final charge yet, either, when the volley guns started firing. You simply couldn’t start galloping a horse carrying a heavily armed and armored man until you were close to the enemy. A hundred yards or so. Even then, most heavy cavalry wouldn’t move at a full gallop. There was just too much risk of tiring out the horses too soon, and having your units fall out of formation.

The one exception were Polish hussars. They would gallop into a battle, although the great wings they sometime wore — as they were today — slowed their horses down. Hussars prided themselves on their horsemanship, and with good reason. The same be-damned-to-the-world szlachta insouciance and arrogance that made Polish political disputes so similar to children fighting in a playground also made them brave to the point of sheer recklessness. Nobody who’d ever faced Polish hussars in a battle forgot the experience.

Thorsten never had, himself, but he knew their reputation. So, far more cold-bloodedly than the farm boy he’d once been had slaughtered pigs, he had his volley gun company concentrate their fire on the Poles rather than the Saxons. The hussars were impossible to miss, even at a distance of several hundred yards. The reason they were called “winged” hussars was their bizarre habit of carrying huge feather-covered wooden wings attached to their saddles into battle. The feathers used were usually eagle feathers, or sometimes ostrich feathers.

Why? No one Thorsten had asked really knew — and those of them who’d met Polish hussars in peacetime said that even the hussars themselves had no clear answer. Some claimed they wore the wings to foil the lassos of Tatars seeking to capture slaves. Others claimed the distinctive sound made by the wings frightened the enemy. Still others claimed the sound deafened their own horses so they wouldn’t be frightened by the wooden noise-makers used by Tatars and some Ottoman units.

Thorsten’s own tentative opinion was that the reason was entirely psychological. From what he knew of Polish hussars they were the sort of flamboyant people — up-time terms like “narcissist” and “arrested development” would seem to apply here also — who just couldn’t resist making a spectacle of themselves.

“I want those silly feathered bastards dead!” he shrieked, in the high-pitched tone of voice he’d learned to use on a battlefield.