1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 53
Krakow, official capital of Poland
Actual capital of Lesser Poland
While Jeff waited for the Hangman Regiment to come up, he got on the radio and gave the forward battery firm–you might almost say blistering–instructions to quit entertaining themselves blowing up an already demolished barbican and start firing further into the city.
Eric Krenz arrived right after he finished the transmission. He’d gotten there that quickly only by riding a horse, which Eric detested even more than Jeff did. But Krenz was a veteran and understood the unpleasant realities of life for someone who got to put the prestigious monicker “Major” in front of his name. Seeing the somewhat pickled expression on his friend’s face, Jeff didn’t doubt at all that at this very moment Eric was cursing himself–again–for having been stupid enough to accept an officer’s commission.
But he didn’t say anything once he pulled up beside Jeff. A bit of a wonder, that–Krenz was usually quick to lament his woes, volubly and out loud. To Jeff, at least. He didn’t piss and moan in front of his troops.
Instead, the major’s first words upon gazing at the now-collapsed barbican were: “What the hell happened?” He looked around, feigning puzzlement. “Did Admiral Simpson somehow bring his ironclads across fields and meadows in order to bring down the walls with his ten-inch rifles?”
“Very funny. What happened, Eric, is that apparently this stupid barbican was on the verge of collapsing anyway. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before the mortars brought it down.”
“Yes, it is. Sadly, it’s also true.”
Jeff had never known anyone who could simultaneously crab and complain and think quickly at the same time. Krenz had immediately come to the right conclusion. “No help for it, then. We’ll have to do a mass frontal assault right into the teeth of enemy fire.”
“Well, there’s the good news. According to Junker”–he pointed at the airplane which was passing over Krakow again–“the soldiers guarding the gate have already fled. If we move fast enough, we could get over the wall without suffering too many casualties.”
There were bound to be some casualties, even if they encountered no enemy fire at all. Some of the men racing to clamber over a collapsed wall would stumble or trip or just lose their footing. The same would happen to men racing over a corduroy road laid atop a jury-rigged “bridge” made of rubble and fascines.
That was one of the dark secrets of war, rarely mentioned in the history books. Jeff could still remember how surprised he’d been when he discovered, as a teenager who read a lot of military history, that a sizeable percentage of “deaths in combat” were due to accidents. That was not really surprising, when you thought about it. Men in a battle would take risks they’d never do in peacetime–and it didn’t help any that most of the men taking the risks were still too young to have a good gauge of risk in the first place.
Krenz rose in his stirrups, trying to get a better view of the moat. Then, looked to the side and over his shoulder. Back there, hidden in the trees, would be the combat engineers and their fascines.
“You want to order them up now, then?” he asked. “If there’s no enemy to fire on them, they can get a head start.”
Jeff hesitated. He’d been considering the same thing himself. The sticky problem was thatâ€¦
“I’ll lead the charge,” Eric said. His lips twisted into something between a whimsical smile and a snarl, an expression that Jeff didn’t think anyone but Krenz could manage to pull off.
That had been the sticky problem, however. If the combat engineers saw one of the regiment’s top officers leading the way, they’d be a lot more willing to press the matter forcefully, with a minimum of dithering.
Jeff glanced at his friend’s hip. “You’re going to do it with that to wave around? And what did you do with your sword, anyway?”
“Oh, I sold it long ago. Got a good price for it, too–enough to buy this fancy quirt and still have plenty left over for beer.”
He reached down and drew the quirt from his belt, where it had been attached by a simple loop on the handle. Then, raised it and gazed upon it admiringly.
It was a fine quirt, true enough. It had a longer handle than most, and the forked lashes at the tips were comparatively short. The main purpose of it was clearly to brandish about, not to drive livestock.
“So light,” he said. “Best of all, if–more like when–I fall off the horse I can’t stab myself like I’d surely do if I was using a stupid sword.”
Jeff had considered that option himself. Unfortunately, as the commanding officer of the regimentâ€¦ There were limits to protocol that even the DM couldn’t cross.
“All right,” he said. “Have at it.”
Giving credit where credit was due, Krenz did a fine job of leading the combat engineers up to the moat. Calling it a “charge” was mangling the term. Men rolling big bundles of sticks and brushwood tied up into crude cylinders–which was all fascines were, never mind the fancy Latin–could hardly be said to “charge.” Still, they were crossing a level plain with not much in the way of obstacles. The plain was so devoid of vegetation, in fact, that Jeff wondered if the garrison had kept it so in order to provide a good field of fire. That didn’t seem to match the general decrepitude of the fortifications, though.
They had about three hundred yards to cross, which a man walking could have done in three minutes. It took the engineers at least ten minutes to do the same. Happily, Eddie’s intelligence proved to be accurate. No one fired on them.
Once they reached the moat, they began filling it with the fascines wherever the rubble hadn’t already done the job. By the time they were finished, the engineers bringing up the pre-made corduroy road had arrived. They’d brought the road on a wagon, of course. The thing was much too heavy for men to carry and while it could theoretically have been rolled there wasn’t much chance of doing it without mishaps.
That took no time at all to lay across the support provided by rubble and fascines. The end result was undoubtedly the most wretched road within fifty miles–probably anywhere in Poland–but it would do the job.
And by then the Hangman Regiment was more than halfway across the field. With Jeff leading the way riding his horse and looking suitably martial. He even waved his sword a few times.
For a wonder, Murphy was slacking off. The leading companies got all the way over the rubble and into the city itself before they came under any kind of enemy fire–and that was pretty skimpy. A few snipers, nothing more than that. To make things even better, the snipers didn’t seemed to be armed with anything other than muzzle-loading muskets, judging from their inaccuracy and rate of fire.
Or they could just be lousy shots. Either way, they were soon driven off by the regiment’s counterfire. Jeff’s men were armed with breechloading rifles that were far more accurate than whatever Krakow’s defenders had.
Jeff didn’t pay much attention to the sniper duel, though. A quick study of the collapsed barbican showed that it was just as badly ruined as it had looked from the outside. It would take at least two hours to clear a path wide enough for cavalry to come through, and he didn’t want to lose that much time. In any event, there wasn’t enough room for more than a company of one hundred men to work on clearing away the rubble. Any more would just start getting in the way.