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View Full Version : The Revenge of the Templar - Afghanistan 1879



sportourer1
January 30th, 2011, 02:45 PM
With infinite slowness the sun rose between the distant peaks of the jagged snow-capped mountains. The air was crystal clear, free of the customary dust that hung in the air through the short daylight hours. Cornet William Dexter sat astride a small cairn and watched in awe the arrival of a new day. It was dawn on the 13th December 1879 and the war in Afghanistan had begun to turn very bloody.
Dexter was just twenty-six years of age and two days ago had been convinced he would not see another dawn. The regiment had been in Afghanistan for nearly a year now and Dexter had barely fired a shot in anger. That had all changed forty-eight hours earlier when less two hundred cavalrymen had been ordered to charge nearly ten thousand tribesmen. The steeply rising terrain, cut into agricultural terraces had slowed the horses to a stumbling trot. After two fruitless charges the cavalrymen had fallen back to their lines leaving eighteen men dead on the dusty ground. Fuelled by the adrenaline coursing through their veins, the cavalrymen, alongside Bengali riders, had fearlessly ridden into the hail of rifle fire laid down by the concealed tribesmen. Even while retreating badly mauled, the wild ride had been exhilarating, that is until one of the last shots fired, split Cornet Henry Clegg’s head apart, spraying Dexter with gore and chips of bone. With an anguished cry, Dexter had managed to grab the dead man’s horse and together they made the sanctuary of the fortified encampment at Sherpur.
Through tear filled eyes, Dexter watched the long shadows shorten over the harsh landscape. He shivered despite being swathed in a thick woollen blanket, the temperature was several degrees below zero and despite the clear, azure blue sky snow was expected any day. He looked up to the heavens and felt his heart break in two. Henry had been his best friend at Eton and they had stayed inseparable whilst at university, until by sheer coincidence their paths had crossed once more when they were commissioned into the same regiment. Dexter had loved soldiering up to this point but now he just felt a dreadful homesickness and a sense of being very alone. He stood stiffly, stretched and began to walk back to his billet, desperately tired he knew today would be a long day and first the Regiment had to bury its dead.


*
The regiment was turned out in splendid order by eight o’clock in the morning, accompanied by officers and men of the Bengal Cavalry. Eighteen canvas wrapped corpses had been placed into shallow graves scraped into the frigid earth. The padre had pronounced his conviction that these men had gone on to a better place. Dexter sniffed in the cold air; he held all religions in contempt, a man of science and learning he was convinced that the universe was wondrous enough without the hand of a malicious God interfering. He looked around at the frenetic activity taking place at the cavalry’s lines and noted two figures running towards the burial party.
The bugler had just raised his instrument to his chapped lips when the booming voice of Staff Corporal Williams cut across the dusty ground.
‘Sir, begging your pardon Captain Butson but the Colonel needs the squadron to turn out right away,’ he bellowed somewhat breathlessly.
‘God Lord, right now man?’ the red faced officer spat back. ‘What is it that cannot wait until these poor souls are interred?’
‘There’s ‘undreds of Afghans been driven off the Tahkt-i-Shar and we can get ‘em in the open if we hurry, Sir’ the NCO replied confidently.
‘That may well be Corporal but we will finish here and damn the Colonel’s eyes,’ Butson replied evenly, his eyes boring into the diminutive Corporal. ‘Continue with the ceremony,’ he barked in the direction of the bugler.
As the last post swirled on the breeze, it was all Dexter could do to maintain his composure. Fighting back the tears he let his mind drift back in time, imagining how his grandfather had buried so many good friends through wars around the world. As a young boy he had hung on every word as the old man had regaled him with exploits and tales of derring do, never once thinking the stories unsuitable for a boy so young.
As the last notes died away and the parade came to rigid attention, grief gave way to anger, hot and deep-seated, burning in his chest as he saluted and then turned and ran with the others towards the squadrons horses, already prepared for combat.
Within minutes Dexter was aboard his faithful charger Agamemnon and forming up with the squadron, ready to ride out across the plain where they hoped to catch a large force of tribesmen out on the exposed wilderness. Dexter checked his Martini Henry carbine one more time and then moved to the head of his troop. Somewhere off to his left a trumpet sounded and together with a full squadron of Bengal cavalry they set out, weaving their way through the defences of the cantonment, passing gangs of men labouring to shore up the inadequate defences before the anticipated attack by the hordes of tribesmen gathering in the surrounding mountains.
After little over an hour in the saddle, the men and their steeds were coated in the fine dust that only the coming winter snows would suppress. Riding alongside Dexter was Cornet Peter Smith, who at eighteen was the youngest officer in the squadron.
‘This is it I reckon, this is the big attack and we aren’t ready for them are we?’ he asked, a nervous tremor in his voice.
‘No, believe me, this most certainly isn’t it,’ Dexter re-assured him with false confidence. ‘This mob will just be one of the forward parties trying to get over the mountains to join up with Mahomad Jan. Just be grateful the Highlanders have flushed them out for us.’
‘We’ll avenge our friends today eh Dexter?’ the young man shouted, his face flushed with youthful exuberance. ‘Bloody savages, I’m going to kill them all,’ he cried, grinning given him a somewhat demented appearance.
‘Yes that we certainly will,’ Dexter replied, just a hint of sadness in his voice, knowing full well that all today would bring was another burial ceremony tomorrow.
Dexter was snapped from his reverie by the trumpeter sounding the charge. As a single unit the cavalry picked up the pace into a fast trot and through the dust kicked up by the lead units he could see swarms of running men, fleeing before the racing horses. The tribesmen had lost all discipline at the sight of the cavalrymen and rather than forming defensive formations they were inviting slaughter by scattering. The trumpet sounded once more and the charge began.
Dexter clipped his horse into a steady gallop, trying to stay close to the inexperienced young officer but the thrill of the charge had gripped him and he was spurring his horse on ever faster and pulling away. Bullets began to crack through the air as small groups of tribesmen realising that flight was futile began to form into little huddles and lay down deadly accurate fire. Two troopers immediately in front of Dexter pitched backwards from their mounts, blood flowing through rips in their khaki tunics. The resistance though was short lived and ineffective as the first troopers reached their enemy and a general melee ensued.
Dexter saw two more troopers knocked from their horses before the lances of their comrades massacred the small group of resisting Afghans. Time and again the long lances sliced into the torsos of the helpless tribesmen. Only the occasional shot was fired by the fleeing men but one of those rounds hit Cornet Smith and unseated him. Before Dexter could rein Agamemnon in, a horde of wild eyed Afghans had surrounded the fallen man. Captain Butson raced to the fallen man’s aid, his sword held out straight ahead and a wild cry of encouragement sounding clear above the battle’s clamour.
Trying desperately to stand, Cornet Smith parried a thrust from an Afghan wielding a rusty bayonet just before his attacker was impaled clean through by a trooper’s lance. Two Afghans opened fire at point blank range and Captain Butson flew backwards from his horse, bright arterial blood spraying across the ground. Seconds later the Afghans died screaming as lances pierced their bodies. Yet another tribesman, wild eyed and spitting curses swung a long curved sword down toward Smith’s neck only to be felled by a single shot from Captain Butson’s trumpeter.
Dexter charged into the fray, his sword slicing off the top of a small rotund tribesman’s head, as his horse trampled two more to the ground. Turning as tightly as he dared, Dexter lunged at an incredibly tall man just as his rifle discharged into the back of an unfortunate trooper. Dexter’s sword stabbed into the man’s neck but was wrenched from his hand and in desperation he fumbled for his revolver. Young Smith was on his feet now, revolver in hand and in rapid succession pumped a heavy bullet into the two Afghans nearest to him. Dexter fired a bullet into the head of the one remaining tribesman before dismounting and rushing towards the fallen Captain.
A small huddle of troopers was attending the officer but Dexter realised that the man was dead. Above the din of the battle he heard the recall sounding. He looked toward the north where astonishingly the Afghans were re-grouping and advancing behind deadly accurate fire. Captain Scott-Chisholm rode up and halted unsteadily, blood staining his tunic and running from a crudely bandaged thigh wound.
‘They’re getting organised, get the wounded together and the dead too if there’s time,’ he ordered.
‘Sir Captain Butson is dead,’ Dexter said, un-necessarily.
‘So I see, damn it all to hell, come on round everyone up!’ the Captain ordered.
Franticly the wounded were slung over comrades horses, their screams of agony sounding clear across the plain. Dexter looked across the flat, treeless landscape towards a horde of tribesmen charging toward them. Everyone re-doubled their efforts, disciplined carbine fire slowing the advance of the Afghans just enough to enable all but two of the dead to be recovered before they retreated toward the sanctuary of the cantonment. With many riders holding onto wounded comrades the cavalry rode at a steady trot only worried by the occasional stray bullet.
A shrill scream cut the air causing Dexter to rein his mount to a halt. Looking back he saw that one of their comrades they had believed dead was very much alive and being mercilessly hacked by Afghans wielding long curved swords. He drew his carbine from its saddle holster and began firing steady rhythmic shots toward the men. His third shot slammed into the back of the nearest Afghan but the second man had by now nearly decapitated the unfortunate soldier before Dexter’s final shot dropped him to the blood-soaked ground. Tears streaked his dusty face as Dexter urged his mount onwards to rejoin the rest of the retreating men.
Within the hour they were back inside the allusive sanctuary of the cantonment. As he rode, Dexter took stock of the fortifications and the frantic efforts by engineers and soldiers to strengthen and improve them. The series of walls and forts abutted the Bimaru Heights and commanded the road leading away to the north from Kabul. The southern side was protected by a wall over sixteen feet high and a mile and half in length but Dexter looked in dismay as they passed through a large gap in the east wall which at most reached seven feet in height.
Small forts and bastions were dotted around the perimeter walls to give the defenders a chance to bring down flanking fire on any would be attackers. As the weary cavalry reached their lines, Dexter could see several of the defenders artillery pieces being re-positioned. Somewhere he knew there were two of the American Gatling guns and he resolved to go and find them this very day. Everywhere he looked men worked at a frantic pace to infill gaps in the defensive line with wire or trenches, even piling sandbags to make small fortified positions. If they truly faced sixty thousand men then they were in for a terrible time.
Over the next few days Dexter and his men were drafted into work parties along with everyone else. The first flurries of snow added to their misery as they laboured in the biting cold air. As the days passed, the number of Afghans massing just outside of artillery range began to increase. The cavalry patrolled outside the perimeter on several occasions, drawing inaccurate fire from the Afghans. Only on one cold starry night did the tribesmen attempt to approach the perimeter but the stark white of a full moon exposed them and they were mercilessly cut down by accurate rifle fire from the 72nd Highlanders.
Dexter and Smith took a walk over to a small bastion on the eastern wall the next morning, just as the snow began to fall. Shrouded in a thick locally made blanket, Dexter began to feel the chill seep into his very soul and worse still his aching feet. Smith was as excited as a schoolboy when they were shown over the fearsome looking Gatling gun by its operators. It appeared to be invincible, firing a stream of bullets at the enemy just as fast as it operator could whirl a crank lever around and the rest of the men could keep it supplied with ammunition. Dexter was less enthusiastic about the machine, a new shiver passing through his body as he imagined charging such a creation with his troop. In his mind eye he could see bodies being chewed to pieces and wondered how a war would be fought when both sides had these Gatling guns.

Bilston Blue
January 30th, 2011, 08:29 PM
Hi there Sportourer

I found this interesting, and at times highly enjoyable. For me the best part is the battle scene; whilst reading it I needed to slow down, such was I getting pulled along by the quick pace of the action, and I don't like reading too fast for fear of missing something important. I haven't read much fiction incorporating such battle scenes and so I can't compare, but I found it highly likeable.

On the other hand the beginning didn't work for me. I feel there is a danger of your opening paragraph putting people off. It is very wordy with many unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and the reader is likely to think the rest of the piece will follow suit. You take several hundred words to describe Dexter sitting on a rock reminiscing about the attack, and being upset. I think if I had written this I might have started at the burial ceremony, incorporating some detail of the attack and Dexter's state of mind whilst doing so, though getting the reader to the point where S/C Williams interrupts the ceremony as soon as possible, and the anticipation of the battle can begin.

There is one thing I found difficult to believe, and that is the moment we see Dexter shedding tears on the battlefield. Later, yes; every soldier, every man has his breaking point, but would this seemingly hardened fighter start crying when in the midst of battle?

On a final note, just a quirky thing, it might be more suitable to say the ceremony began at 0800 hours, instead of eight o'clock in the morning, in order to reflect the military nature of the piece.

The story has me interested, and there are many places it could go. There are grammatical issues which need tightening, and those can be worked on as the story develops.

Thanks for the read. Good luck continuing with this, if that is your intention.

Scott

sportourer1
January 30th, 2011, 09:51 PM
Thank you for your comments.

I am about a third of the way through with this and only at an early draft stage so I am just testing the waters a little.

Criticism is good for the soul so they say.