1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 38
From their shouts of surprise and anger, Lukasz Opalinski knew the Saxon cavalrymen hadn’t expected to be fired on by volley guns right at the beginning of the battle. They must have poor intelligence. He’d been expected the phenomenon, himself, and had warned his hussars to be ready for it. His friend Jozef Wojtowicz had given him a full and detailed report on the battle of Ahrensbok before he left for Saxony.
Still, he was a bit shaken by the effectiveness of those volleys. Wojtowicz had warned him, but Lukasz had not taken him seriously enough. Perhaps the problem was that Jozef had shown him images of the USE army’s volley guns. Woodcuts, mostly, although one of them had been what Jozef called a “photograph.” Looking at the images, Lukasz had immediately categorized the weapons as organ guns, which were sometimes used in sieges. Clumsy things, although you didn’t want to be caught in from of one when it was firing.
But these volley guns were quite different. First of all, the barrels were rifled, not smoothbore. Lukasz had known that, but dismissed it as unimportant. You couldn’t really aim such a weapon on a battlefield anyway, beyond pointing it in the general direction of the enemy, so what difference did it make if it was rifled?
What he hadn’t considered was the added range the rifling would give the rounds — especially since they were these new conical so-called “Minie balls” rather than the round balls he was accustomed to. Lukasz had even seen one, since some of the Saxon infantrymen — far too few, unfortunately — had been equipped with the new rifles that John George had purchased. But he hadn’t seen them fired, so he hadn’t paid much attention to the stories of their range.
Today, he was learning the hard way that the accounts had not been exaggerations. The USE flying artillery fired their first volley when the Saxon cavalry and Polish hussars were about two hundred and fifty yards away. At that range, a musket volley would have been completely ineffective. Few of the rounds would have hit anything, and many of the ones that did would have lost too much velocity to do much damage.
But these rounds were quite effective. Three of his hussars were struck off their saddles and two more were reeling from wounds. Four other hussars were spilled when their horses were struck. Worse than the casualties was the effect of the damage on the charge itself. Inevitably, the downed and disoriented horses impeded the rest. Instead of picking up speed as it should have at that range, the charge was actually slowing down. By the time they were within two hundred yards of the foe, a cavalry horse should be moving at the pace of a fast canter — say, fifteen miles per hour, for heavily-laden warhorses. At that speed, they could cross the intervening distance in less than half a minute. Which in turn meant that they’d have to face only one volley before getting in among the enemy with their lances and sabers.
Hereâ€¦ They were probably only moving ten miles per hour, and the enemy’s rate of fire was astonishing. A second volley came before they’d travelled more than fifty yards. The third volley came when they were still almost one hundred and fifty yards away — and the combined effect of the deadly fire was to keep horses falling and stumbling and impeding the charge.
They still weren’t moving any faster than twelve miles per hour. At that distance, they should have been approaching a full gallop — which, for horses like these, was around thirty miles per hour. They’d cross the last hundred yards in six or seven seconds — a speed that often panicked enemy infantry or artillery; and, even if they didn’t panic, allowed them no time to fire more than one volley, at most.
Instead, they’d been hit by three powerful volleys. At least forty — no, probably fifty — of his hussars were now out of action, dead or wounded or spilled by falling horses. And they were still so far away and moving so slowly thatâ€¦
Sure enough. Lukasz could see the volley guns being hitched up while infantry units moved up to cover their retreat. The infantrymen fired a volley as soon as the artillerymen were clear.
That volley was just as brutal as the preceding ones. The musket balls were lighter than those fired by the flying artillery, but they were also more accurate. As Josef had warned him, most of the USE army’s infantry units had been armed with rifled muskets. Quite obviously, these were.
Out of the corners of his eyes, Opalinski could see that the Saxon cavalry was peeling away. They were reeling from the carnage.
His own men had been hammered just as badly. At a quick glance, he didn’t think he had more than half of his unit still in action.
But that still left him a hundred men, and these were Polish hussars, not be-damned Saxon shirkers — and the enemy was finally within reach. He could see the nearest USE infantry officer not more than thirty yards away. A big fellow who’d made the mistake of leading his men a bit too far in the fore.
Lukasz lowered his lance and set his aim on the bastard.
“Well, fuck me,” Jeff muttered. He’d been so intent on getting his battalion in position to cover the artillery that he hadn’t noticed how far ahead of them he’d gotten. The nearest squad of his infantry was a good ten yards behind.
And, at a rough estimate, the Polish hussar bearing down on him was ten feet tall and riding a horse the size of an elephant — and, to make things perfect, was carrying the same lance that St. George must have used to kill the dragon. Had to be. How many other lances in the world were fifty feet long and had a razor-sharp blade the size of a sword?
Those no-longer-silly-looking wings were making one hell of a scary sound, too.
“Watch out, Jeff!” yelled Eric Krenz. The lieutenant frantically hollered at the nearest squads, waving his sword at the oncoming hussar. “Shoot that Polish fuck!”
But there was too much noise, too much smoke, too much confusion. The infantrymen and their sergeants had shut out everything else in order to do what they’d been trained to do: level their muskets at the enemy in front of them; fire; reload as fast as possible. They weren’t even thinking of aiming at specific targets.
Only one of them heard Eric’s shouts. That was a nineteen-year-old corporal in charge of a squad who, being a veteran, gave Krenz no more than a dismissive glance. Stupid officers. Getting in the way, like they usually did in a battle.
Eric gave up the attempt and charged forward himself. He might get there just in time to cut the hussar’s leg with his sword. No chance of cutting anything higher up. The hussar was at least twenty feet tall, on top of that horse. Still, even a leg wound might distract him enough to save the captain’s life.
Jeff dropped the sword he’d been using to encourage his men. Against a charging hussar’s lance, that was about as useful as a butter knife. He clawed at the wheel-lock pistol he kept in a holster, bitterly regretting the fact that he’d run out of ammunition for his automatic pistol.
He managed to get it out and cock it just in time to fire a shot at the hussar. Not in time to save his life, though. The lance blade — it was actually fifteen feet long, amazingly enough — was within five yards and was about to split him open.
Opalinski never even thought of ducking. You simply didn’t, in the final moments of a charge. If you were struck by a bullet, so be it. The honor of a hussar was concentrated entirely on killing the enemy.
Hussar or not, honorable or not, none of it mattered if a bullet hit your helmet. Lukasz’s head was slapped back. The round glanced off his helmet and didn’t even scratch his skin. Still, the impact was enough to daze him for a moment.
The lance swung wide of the target. Jeff ducked the blade — but got bowled off his feet by the horse’s shoulder.
Eric Krenz squawked and frantically swung his sword. It hit the lance’s blade and deflected it just enough to hit him instead of missing him entirely.
The hussar passed by. He was shouting something. Another volley of gunfire drowned out the sound of everything else. Eric stared at Jeff, who was just starting to roll up onto his knees. Then, stared down at the lance lying on the ground some ten feet away. The blade was covered in blood.
Then, stared at his side. The uniform was soaked with blood and there seemed to be more coming. Nothing seemed to be spurting, though, so maybe he’d gotten lucky and no artery had been cut.
“Lucky,” of course, only by certain values of luck. Jeff was getting to his feet now, shaking his head as if he was a little confused. He’d lost his helmet in the fall.
“This really sucks,” said Eric. He collapsed to the ground.