Never Captured by Force
The Queen of the Citadels
October 1793: The French border.
Dunkirk was a disaster for the Duke of York’s army. The French, sensing victory before the winter, launch attacks along the length of the border. Menen is captured and the French now hold the whip hand. Nieuport and Ostend are threatened, and Sebastian Krombach finds himself involved in a desperate plan to stop the Black Lions as they spearhead the French advance. Werner Brandt and the men of 2nd Battalion race to Menen to counterattack and rescue Erich von Bomm and the Grenadiers, whilst von Bomm struggles to save himself from his infatuation with a mysterious French vivandière.
Meanwhile, dark and brooding, the citadel of Lille dominates the border. The Queen of the Citadels has never been captured by force. The allies must now keep Menen, which guards Flanders, and seize Lille to open the road to Paris. All of this must be done under the watchful eyes of a spy in the Austrian camp. Juliette of Marboré is fighting her own secret war to free Julian Beauvais, languishing in the Conciergerie prison, and waiting for his appointment with the guillotine, as the Terror rages in Paris.
Menen: 19th October 1793
The two groups of soldiers eyed one another warily across the narrow expanse of the Lys, slate grey and sluggish. Heavy clouds threatened an abundance of rain but for now, empty canteens and a morning’s thirst needed sating, whatever the colour of uniform.
The grenadiers moved forward warily at first but once the French piquets had stepped away from their side of the bank, the unspoken ritual began.
“Eyes peeled please, Sergeant Keithen. I might attempt a little parlez today.” Von Bomm hoped that his voice betrayed very little emotion, but he sensed there was something amiss on the French side of the river, but for now he couldn’t place it.
“Fill mine will you, Pinsk? Try and avoid any yellow-looking water. I’m sure it tasted off, yesterday!” he winked to the tall grenadier, who had become his messenger and kit-man. There was something likeable about Pinsk, country wisdom and caustic wit; a good N.C.O when the time came.
The Grenadier captain flashed his smile and handed Pinsk his water bottle, then settled back on a long-dead tree trunk to survey the scene.
It differed little from the last three days, when this dance had unfolded. The French scouts who held the far bank had allowed the redcoats to take water from the river. Had either wanted to, a messy musket duel could have broken out, with both sides retreating to the tree-lines along the riverbank, but there were no generals to order such futility.
Instead, a form of peace had broken out.
Soldiers blighted by campaigning into the late autumn had little desire to look for battles, surviving was battle enough.
The French were more numerous than yesterday, certainly the vivandières were, and von Bomm fought his natural inclination to run an appreciative eye over the forms hauling water into buckets that were then fixed onto yokes and carried away to wherever the French were camped.
Pinsk loped back into view and handed the canteen to his officer. Nodding his appreciation, von Bomm tugged at the cork, in readiness to quench his thirst.
“Notice anything different today, Pinsk?”
The grenadier peered through thick spectacles and for a moment, von Bomm wondered whether the boy could see the far bank, let alone shed light on the mystery.
“More French than yesterday sir. Same battalion, I’m sure but a stronger guard. You can’t see them from here but I’m sure I saw men with axes in the tree-line.”
Pinsk jabbed a spindly finger in the direction of a cluster of trees on the opposite bank.
Then it struck von Bomm.
“Pinsk, do you have your pipe and tobacco?”
“Not again, sir?”
“A double return when you get back to camp!”
“You said that yesterday, sir…and the day before.”
“It’s for good King George, Pinsk. Where’s your sense of duty?”
Whatever the grumbled reply, it was lost in the flurry of smoke as Pinsk expertly brought the pipe to life and stole a draw or two before handing it over.
“On my word as an officer and a gentleman!”
Pinsk caste a wry look.
“On my word as an officer then,” von Bomm winked.
“Find Sergeant Keithen, tell him I’m going to parlez and that I want the men to be ready to withdraw should matters turn sour.”
“Would you like me to escort you sir? Do you think there will be trouble?”
“No, I think I can manage to parlez without causing a fracas. But thank you for thinking of my welfare.”
Pinsk itched at his scalp. “Was just thinking about my pipe, sir. And my tobacco.”
The grenadier officer smiled then turned on his heels and waved the pipe above his head, to attract the attention of an officer who he had already spotted on the opposite bank.
The conversation with his French counterpart yielded little, the man spoke no German and von Bomm’s French while adequate, seemed in a different dialect to that of a deeply bronzed officer who clearly hailed from somewhere far to the south of Paris.
Instead, von Bomm turned his mind back to the matter at hand. He stood perched on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the Lys, a no man’s land between the two sides. The soil was sodden, the passage down to the river bank had been one of ample opportunity for misfortune, as von Bomm had felt his boots slide in the thick grass.
Even with the river swollen, crossing to meet the Frenchman had been an easier task than the last two days. There were more stones added to the narrow chain which threaded from one side to the other. Then his eyes spotted them, two giant timber piles driven into the ground, French sentries stood around them, trying to obscure them from view, but the coils of rope made their purpose obvious.
Perhaps the blue-coat was aware that the conversation had lulled, and that von Bomm had made a connection with events on the far side of the river. The Frenchman straightened himself and made to hand back the pipe, keeping the ball of tobacco as a gift to be enjoyed at his leisure, when a brief scream pierced the morning, followed by a splash and the thrashing of a body in distress. One of the vivandières had slipped on the perilously damp grass and fallen headfirst into the Lys. The heavy winter coat and the ropes from the buckets had become wrapped around her.
A consequence of the French improving the stone walkway across the river was a deep pooling of water into which the woman had fallen, and it was obvious to von Bomm that she would drown in a matter of moments. Without thinking, he unleashed sword belt, tunic and boots and threw himself into the grey mass of river, in the direction of where the woman had disappeared.
The chill of the water was like a succession of punches to the ribs, and von Bomm pushed forward through the burning pain only with the greatest of effort. He had been a strong swimmer in his childhood years, but the warm summer lakes around Hanover were nothing like the river that dragged and pulled at him, blinding him into numb submission. With one last desperate forward stroke, his hand brushed the material of a coat, then he felt the shape of a torso. Fighting with all his might, he tried to propel himself and the woman to the surface, just a foot or so above him. The distance might just as well have been fathoms. Current, and the shocking cold of the Lys consumed his energy.
From the world above, hands reached down and grabbed at von Bomm and the woman, and then he was free of the water, sucking in air which burned his lungs with a pain as intense as that day in Rumes.
A prostrate body was hauled unceremoniously onto the wet grass beside him; the woman looked more dead than alive. The grenadier officer felt his redcoat being placed around his shoulders and a small flask of brandy thrust into his hands, with the instructions to drink. He spluttered as the liquid tempered the burning sensation with a scorching bite of its own.
All the while, fellow vivandières pinched and plucked at the face of their comrade; brandy was poured onto lips that were a deathly blue; and rich red hair saturated to dark auburn, fell about the shoulders of a body, to which a gossamer transparent chemise held no secrets.
Von Bomm heard the French officer call to the women who attempted to crowd around to make way. As the blue-coat waved the women back, the lifeless body jolted; a huge gasp of breath followed with a retching as her face tilted towards von Bomm’s and a stream of water was ejected in a series of deep coughs. All sense of order was lost as the vivandières swarmed around the figure again, returned to them from the dead.
For the briefest moment, von Bomm caught her gaze. Eyes as auburn as her soaked hair, met his. There was no recognition, no understanding, but there was a vulnerable beauty.
Then she was gone, carried away by the women who were more used to carrying away the dead and dying in the army that they followed. Instead, there were words of rejoicing and the sound of a battle hymn that von Bomm had heard before, on the field of Hondschoote.
He felt himself being hauled from the floor; the French officer offered a hand and then deciding that such formality was uncalled for, squeezed von Bomm in the tightest of bear hugs.
Others came to offer congratulations and von Bomm found himself staring at one man, a giant sapper with a thick beard, greying at the edges. The soldier’s sleeves were soaked up to his shoulders; von Bomm nodded an acknowledgment and his own thanks.
As the sapper stepped away, other shapes in the treeline became visible, confirming the King’s German’s earlier suspicions.
The French officer realised that the redcoat had seen more than he should. Moments later, his arm was on von Bomm’s shoulder, guiding him back towards the steppingstones. On the far bank, sergeant Keithen and his company were stranded onlookers.
“Mon ami, your bravery does your uniform honour.” The French officer offered his hand, formality having returned to proceedings. There was a pause and the man made to turn away and then stopped. “We have watched one another for the last three days, no? Tomorrow, find another job for your men. Bon chance, captain.”
With that, the Frenchman bowed his head and turned away, barking out orders to his men.
Looking again at the tree-line, von Bomm watched him go, then he turned and crossed the stones back to the safety of his side of the riverbank.
“You alright sir?” Sergeant Keithen greeted the sight of his officer, returned from the French side of the bank in a uniform that stuck to his skin, as a great mist of steam rose from von Bomm. “Fine morning for a swim, of course, but we need to get you out of those wet clothes. Can’t have you dying on me, sir. The men wouldn’t like that!”
Von Bomm was too weary to resist as his red coat was pulled from his body and Keithen barked his own orders at men who gawped at their officer being stripped bare. A fresh shirt was found from a soldier’s pack, along with a pair of white linen trousers. Old socks were donated, and Flanders clogs placed on von Bomm’s feet. He looked more peasant than nobleman, but as Keithen rattled off a series of commands, the company began to form up, ready for the order to march, he felt the weariness lift a little from his body.
A tall figure shuffled beside him.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but… can I have my pipe?”
Von Bomm looked up blankly at the figure that towered above him.
“Your pipe?” von Bomm offered the boy his hand and Pinsk hauled his captain to his feet. He checked his pockets and then was faintly aware that he had dropped it in the haste of undressing.
“I’m sorry, Pinsk. I really am, but it’s gone.”
Pinsk nodded slowly and shrugged his shoulders; von Bomm watched the tall redcoat traipse towards the forming column, almost certain that he heard the boy mutter something about ‘bloody officers’.
A sort of normality had returned to the ranks on this side of the river too. Von Bomm called his sergeant to him.
“Back to camp when you are ready, sergeant. We have received a warning from our friend on the far bank. The French have a gun battery hidden in the trees and I think they plan to cross here tonight or tomorrow. And I owe Mr Pinsk a new pipe and some tobacco. You may decide for yourself which of those pieces of news is the most pressing.”
A minute later, the redcoats were gone. Nothing marked their passing, other than a series of muddied footprints which led back into the trees and towards the safety of their own camp.
Dominic Fielder has had careers in retail and the private education sector and is currently working as a secondary school Maths teacher. He has a First-class honours degree in history and a lifetime’s interest in the hobby of wargaming. The King's Germans series is a project that grew out of this passion He currently juggles writing and research around a crowded work and family life.
Whilst self-published he is very grateful for an excellent support team. The Black Lions of Flanders (set in 1793) is the first in the King's Germans' series, which will follow an array of characters through to the final book in Waterloo. He lives just outside of Tavistock on the edge of Dartmoor. where he enjoys walking on the moors and the occasional horse-riding excursion as both writing inspiration and relaxation.