RIFLEMAN MATTHEW DODD was already aware that he was cut off, although at the moment he was too occupied in saving his life to consider the consequences. He had been making his way back through the olive groves to his picket when he had heard strange voices ahead and had glimpsed strange uniforms. Bent double, and sweating under his pack, he had scurried through the undergrowth in the valley trying to make his way round the enemies who had interposed across his line of retreat. Half an hour of violent exertion had, he thought, brought him clear, when at that very moment a shout told him that he was observed by some other detachment. A musket rang out not far away from him and a bullet smacked into a tree-trunk a dozen yards away. He turned and ran again, uphill this time, in a direction which he knew took him away from his friends but which alone, as far as his skirmisher's instinct told him, was still not barred by the French advance guard. There were more shouts behind him and a crashing among the undergrowth which told him that he was closely pursued by a dozen men. He dashed along up the steep slope, his pack leaping on his back, and his ammunition pouches pounding on his ribs. Soon he emerged from the olive grove on to an open, heather-covered hillside. There was nothing for it but to continue his flight without the protection of the friendly trees—either that, at least, or to turn back and surrender, and Dodd was not of the type which surrenders too easily….
C.S. Forester wrote three classics of irregular warfare prior to embarking on his Hornblower
roman fleuve. Brown on Resolution (1929) is a masterpiece the "man alone" thriller genre and
of the psychological novel. The African Queen (1935) shows the transformations of
consciousness wrought by war, where situations and individuals become their own
Forester's crowning achievement in the "man-alone" genre is Death to the French (1932). The
tale takes place during the Peninsular War. A rifleman, cut off from his unit during a
rearguard action, is cut off for half a year in a scorched-earth no-man's-land prepared by
Wellington to destroy the French Army and their allies.
Dodd falls in with a troupe of irregular local guerillas, who are able to land arbitrary blows
against the enemy episodically.
The strength of the novel is not that Dodd turns the tide of war or any other such potboiler
nonsense. As with Brown on Resolution and The African Queen, it is small engagements that
tell on the characters we come to root for.
This is a favorite of mine:
....IN the wet morning the usual three military problems of offence and defence and supply presented themselves. They shared the last of their bread with the stunted man—there was no knowing how he had been maintaining himself before they met him; badly enough presumably—and tried to discuss the next move. Bernardino, in fact, was so disgruntled by recent events that he presumed to press plans upon Dodd. He wanted to go back to the village, taking the stunted man with them as a fresh recruit, and resume the harassing of the battalion there. To Bernardino it was obviously the thing to do. On the hill there was food and there were friends and an enemy to attack. Here in the wood there seemed nothing. When Dodd said "See Santarem" and persisted in saying it he grew exasperated. He knew nothing of strategy; he could not grasp the possibly supreme importance of the bridging materials at Santarem.
The stunted man contributed little to the discussion. If he had ever had any initiative—and there was no means of telling—it had all evaporated with the death of his father.
He wanted to kill Frenchmen, but he seemed willing enough to do it under the direction of others. He said nothing when Dodd said "See Santarem" in a tone of finality and rose and hitched his rifle on his shoulder and set off towards the far corner of the wood, although Bernardino stamped his feet with annoyance. Bernardino followed Dodd, sulkily, in the end, and the stunted man came too, without a word. There was small satisfaction to be gained from the distant view of the land front of Santarem. The little town was walled on this side, with gates, which would make it supremely difficult to achieve an unobserved entrance. Bernardino fidgeted with irritation while Dodd looked this way, and that way, and tried to ask the stunted man questions.
In the end coincidence brought about a dramatic change in Dodd's plans, and delighted Bernardino's heart. Across the half or three-quarters of a mile of flat land which lay between them and the town they suddenly saw signs of some important move outside the gate on the upstream end of the town. They saw a little column of troops march out. After them came a waggon—at that distance they could make out no details, but Dodd was sure it was a waggon and not a gun. There came another waggon, and another, and another, and another. Waggon followed waggon until Dodd was sure that he was not observing a minor military move—the transfer of a convoy, or something of that order. It became pressingly important to his mind to discover what this was. "Go to road. See," said Dodd. He turned and hurried back into the wood, with Bernardino delightedly following him, for that must be the direction they must follow to return to the village. They hurried through the wood at the best speed possible to them when they had to be on guard at every step lest some French patrol should be prowling near at hand. Even in the heart of the forest they could hear the sound of the waggon train on the pave—a low rumble rising a note or two in the scale whenever a waggon crossed over a culvert or a bridge. At last they reached a point in the wood whence they could look down on the high road, and Dodd threw himself on his face and edged forward to peer round a trunk of a tree. The others crouched near, and ever the rain poured down on them. The head of the column, with the vanguard of troops, had already passed, but what followed was far more interesting. Dodd had been right when he had suspected the French of bridge construction. The first vehicles were odd-shaped things, each composed of two artillery caissons linked together. On these were piled pontoons, huge, clumsy boats nested into each other, four or five together. Their number was great—section after section lumbered by. Dodd took note of the animals drawing them along—wretched, underfed horses with their ribs starting through their coats; it was a wonder that they could drag themselves along, to say nothing of the loads behind them.
The French soldiers driving them displayed little care as to their condition, flogging the poor brutes along as they slipped and stumbled over the cobbles. Dodd readily decided that a few weeks more of this underfed life would leave the French army with no transport animals at all. To the pontoon-laden caissons succeeded, at length, service waggons and country carts heaped with all the miscellaneous accessories of military bridges; there were four carts laden with rope and quite thirty laden with timber.
But before the last caisson had gone by Dodd had resolved to do what he could to interfere with the march of the bridging train. No one knew better than he, who had served in so many convoy guards, how helpless is a long train of waggons strung out along the road. And he knew, too, that to kill one of the enemy's horses was quite as helpful as killing one of the enemy's men. He looked round at his two followers.
"Caballos," he said, "Caballos," and pushed his rifle forward.
They took aim beside him, and the three shots rang out almost together. One horse in a team of six fell in its traces; another, plunging and kicking on three legs, made evident the fact that the fourth was broken. Instantly Dodd leaped to his feet and dashed back among the trees, with the others at his heels, to where he could reload undisturbed.
"Horses," said Dodd again, as he rammed the bullet home.
The others nodded. They could understand this method of warfare. Dodd pelted through the wood parallel with the road for a short space before changing direction to the edge again. There was confusion in the convoy. The waggon at whose team they had fired was stationary and helpless, and everything behind it was pulling up. Drivers were seeking their weapons, men were shouting, horses were plunging—there was all the confusion of a sudden surprise attack. The escort parties at the head and rear of the column were each of them half a mile away or more; the three were safe for some time from any counter-attack, for the drivers had, as was only to be expected, an exaggerated idea of the force attacking them, and were hampered by the necessity of looking after their teams. A young officer came galloping up the road to the place of the jam. For the moment Dodd pointed his rifle at him, but he refrained from pulling the trigger when he guessed what order the officer was going to give. He glowered round at his companions to enforce on them the same self-restraint. At the officer's order the waggon behind the one which was stationary pulled out of the line and began to go up past the point of stoppage; the rest of the long line made preparations to follow. Just when the overtaking waggon was diagonally across the road Dodd fired again, and next second the jam was complete; two helpless waggons completely blocked the narrow paved road.
Drivers raved and horses kicked while Dodd reloaded with all the speed five years of practice could give. A third volley brought down more horses still and perfected the work.
After that for several hectic minutes each of the three loaded and fired at will, bringing down a horse here and a horse there, until Dodd made his companions cease fire. He had to shake them by the shoulders to compel their attention, so excited had they grown. Some of the drivers had found their muskets and were blazing back at random into the wood; bullets were rapping sharply on trees here and there, but that was not the reason for Dodd's cessation of fire. There was a body of troops hurrying back from the head of the column; another hurrying up from the tail. They were still some distance off when Dodd ran away, intent on living to fight another day. As they ran breathlessly through the wood, Dodd found himself regretting that he had not thirty men with him instead of two; there would be a fine game open to them then in the attack on this long, vulnerable column. Three was too small a force altogether. When the escort reached the point in the road whence the firing had come they halted for a moment at a loss, for there was no firing now. In the end they plunged into the wood, but only for a short distance. They could find no trace of the enemy, and as they plunged about in the undergrowth the officers were uneasily conscious that meanwhile they were leaving the line of waggons unguarded—an uneasiness which was greatly accentuated immediately afterwards by the sound of firing from high up towards the head of the column. It was a lively day for the convoy escort as well as for the drivers. The escort spent their time running up and down a couple of miles of road in hopeless dashes after an enemy which fled at their earliest approach and yet was always ready to reappear elsewhere and resume their harassing attacks. If the three hundred men of the escort had been strung along the road trying to guard every point they would have been just as useless—one man to every ten yards.
Meanwhile the drivers were engaged in cutting out injured horses, in replacing them with animals from the few teams which could spare them, and getting the waggons along somehow.
In the end, the situation was relieved by the arrival of reinforcements. A battalion—the fourth of the Forty Sixth—was called out of its billets in a village some distance up the road, and another came up from Santarem, which the convoy had just left. Then they were able to post guards in sufficient strength along the dangerous length of road, and even to spare men to manhandle teamless waggons out of the way. Yet all this took time; by the end of the day the waggon train had progressed exactly three miles.
Dodd, crouching with his two companions at the far end of the wood, whither they had been driven by the new arrivals, could feel pleased with his day's work, despite the fact that they were all three of them so exhausted that they could hardly stand. He had regained his old ascendancy too.
Bernardino was enormously amused by what they had done; despite his fatigue he still broke into little chuckles at the recollection of the exasperated waggon drivers and the jams and confusion of the train and the harassed running about of the escort. It had taken a thousand men in the end to guard those waggons against three enemies.
It is to be feared that Dodd enjoyed undue credit on this account—both Bernardino and the stunted man believed (and the difficulties of language prevented a clearing up of the situation) that this attack on the convoy had been planned from the first, and that the dangerous visit to inspect Santarem, which they had condemned so bitterly earlier, was a necessary part of the scheme. It sent up Dodd's stock with a bound. Several times Bernardino told Dodd, who did not understand what he said, and the stunted man, who did not appear specially interested, all about what they had done that day. Even Bernardino's excitement died away in time, and allowed him to meditate upon the matter which was now occupying all Dodd's attention—the matter of their hunger and the absence of means to satisfy it. Bernardino's ebullition of spirits changed to peevishness, when suddenly the stunted man rose and walked away through the darkness under the trees. Bernardino was actually too tired and hungry to ask where he was going. Dodd pulled in his belt and tried to reconcile himself to an evening without supper and the prospect of a morrow without breakfast. He had actually sunk into a fitful doze when they heard the stunted man, seeking them, call to them in a guarded tone. They replied, and he appeared, a shadowy shape, through the trees. He pressed something wet and faintly warm into Dodd's hands, and presumably made a similar present to Bernardino.
"What is this?" asked Bernardino.
"Horse," said the stunted man, who was a man of few words.
For once one of Dodd's subordinates had been cleverer than he—Dodd had forgotten all about the dozen dead horses along the edge of the main road, but the stunted man had remembered them, and had found his way to one. Not merely that, but he had used his wits well when he had reached his objective. Even in the dark and in the imminent danger of being surprised by a stray enemy he had remembered that it would be far too dangerous to light a fire for cooking with so many of the enemy near, and he had realized that a lump of muscle hacked from a starving horse might well defy their teeth were it uncooked. So he had ripped open the horse's belly and had plunged into its still warm entrails in search of its liver, from which he had cut the generous portions which they were now considering.
Dodd had eaten horse before—no soldier could serve five campaigns in the Peninsula, where small armies are beaten and large armies starve, without doing so—but always before it had at least made a pretence at being cooked. But he had never been as hungry before as he was now, and it was too dark to see what he was eating and, anyway, he had led the life of a savage for two months. He took a tentative nibble at his lump, and followed it with another, and yet another.
Before very long he had made a good meal in the darkness and so had the others. And the fact that they had all been living lives of hard physical exertion in the fresh air for so long blessed them with digestions which could even master uncooked cart horse.
After that they all slept well and deeply until Dodd woke and roused his companions—he had the knack of being able to wake at any hour he decided upon before going to sleep.