Warning: Mature Adults only
PART III: ALEXANDRIA
Abercromby had cracked the enemy's overstretched defenses, and only Friant's battered little covering force stood between him and his first objective, Alexandria. Now was the time to push Friant aside and unleash the cavalry, with the infantry marching hard on their heels, to be hammering at the gates of the city before they had time to set up a defense. Then, with the only good port in Egypt in his hands, Sir Ralph could sit back and let the French wither on the vine, cut off from all supplies.
But there was just one problem. Most of Abercromby's cavalry had no horses. They were still being unloaded. For want of horses, the cannon had to be hauled across the dunes by seamen harnessed to the traces. And the infantry had only two days' rations left in their packs.
The next day, wind and heavy surf suspended the disembarkation of horses and supplies, and in any case, there was still no transport for them. There was no help for it; Abercromby would have to stand fast and wait. This meant that once again, the enemy would be given a chance to reinforce his position. Sir Ralph could look forward to a slogging match in front of Alexandria, with heavy casualties he could ill afford.
So for the moment, all he could do was probe the French defenses. On the morning after the landing, he sent General Moore forward with a handful of the 11th Dragoons for whom mounts had been landed, with the Corsican Rangers and the 92nd Highlanders in support. Two or three miles up the isthmus, at a point where it narrowed to less than a mile between the sea and the lake, they came to an abandoned redoubt at a deserted village called Mandara. Moore left the 92nd to guard it and pushed on until he met a strong French cavalry patrol, which, dismounted and firing from cover, forced him to withdraw back to Mandara, from where he sent a report to Sir Ralph.
Abercromby determined to occupy Mandara as the starting point for his advance on Alexandria. And so at about noon, the rest of Moore's battalions and the marines formed up in columns to join him. As they marched along the narrow neck of land, Harper and Finnigan shot each other a glance. They were both feeling an odd sense of nostalgia for their time here three years ago, when they marched as prisoners of the French.
Later that day, as they stood to in the camp, they could hear the sound of firing further up. Moore and the Corsicans were skirmishing with the Frog cavalry vedettes again. When they returned, one of the dragoons spoke to an officer of the 28th, and Harper and Finnigan overheard him.
"Bloody Corsicans! Not satisfied with driving the Frogs off. They had to go chasing them! Right into a trap. The Frogs cut them off, killed some, took some prisoners. We lost about ten."
That night, they kept double pickets, and everyone slept on their arms, ready for instant action. It was cold and damp, with heavy dew. It would be a week before any tents would be ashore, so they slept wrapped in the cloaks or blankets. Abercromby slept under the stars like his soldiers, another quality that bound them to him. However, the general's servants made him a bivouac of palm branches, and the army followed his example. There was nothing noble about being cold and wet, Harper thought, as he sheltered under his with Finnigan.
The army settled down to its field routine. Regular guards and pickets were mounted; the field officers of the day did their rounds and made their reports. An hour before daylight each morning, the whole army stood to under arms. And every morning, when Abercromby saw the cold faces of his soldiers in the gray light of dawn, he ordered an extra half-ration of rum to be distributed.
Orders came down; the marine battalion was to be broken up and temporarily distributed among those battalions that were understrength. Harper and Finnigan shouldered their packs and walked over to the bivouac of the 28th, to which they and some other marines had been assigned. Their reception was not universally warm.
"Why don't you go back to your bloody warm, dry ships, you bloody marines?" grumbled one private.
"I thought you lads could use the help," said Finnigan.
"We don't need naught from the likes of you. I've heard your lot laughing at us, calling us the weak brother of the navy. Some of your officers have even talked about disbandin' - can you believe it, disbandin' the army, 'cept for the Guards, and just making the marines bigger. Not while I'm alive they won't!"
"First of all, mate-" began Finnigan.
"I ain't your mate."
"All right, first of all, Private, me and my mates here haven't ever said anything against the army. You'd best take it up with those who have. As far as being a weak brother, well, when the shooting starts, we'll see what we'll see."
The private grumbled, but didn't pursue it any further. Meanwhile, life went on. Parties of seamen buried the dead, and the landing of horses, fresh water, and provisions continued as the weather permitted. Ships' carpenters constructed wharves and made ramps and plank roadways for rolling the heavy guns off the boats and across the sand. Other boats brought the wounded back to the hospital ships lying out in the bay.
It was rough work for the boats' crews, pulling the long miles out to the ships and back under the hot sun. And Admiral Keith had an extra anxiety; somewhere out there was an enemy fleet of at least six ships of the line, and his ships had been stripped of much of their crew to ferry supplies. He might suddenly have to go into battle with as much as forty percent of his men on the land. Much the same situation that Admiral Brueys had found himself in right here, almost three years ago.
What saved the supply situation was the twenty-year old Lake Abuquir, so new it was not marked in even the most up-to-date maps. It would have been impossible to transport provisions and ammunition for thirteen thousand men across miles of burning sand with only the two or three hundred animals at their disposal, and supply by sea would always be at the mercy of the weather. The lake was navigable by boat, and extended to within three or four miles of Alexandria. Captain Cochrane built up a fleet of gunboats to protect his supply depot along its shore, and from there, they were moved to the front as needed. Thus, the army's critical supply line was secured. But even so, it was still a strain on the boats' crews, so awnings were spread over them whenever possible, and their timbers were kept wet to keep them from splitting. Teams of naval carpenters kept them in repair. Looking at the sailors straining at their oars, Harper reflected that there were definitely some things worse than marching.
Two days after the landing, the last of the troops and most of the horses were ashore, and the remaining brigades joined the rest of the army. Enough provisions had been assembled for the army to advance. That evening, three days' rations were issued to the troops; the advance would begin in the morning. Abercromby knew that the defense in Alexandria had been reinforced; his scouts had seen columns marching into the city. The ground was loose sand, dotted with palm groves and uneven sand hills. It would be hard going for the infantry, and almost impossible to manhandle the guns through. He wished he had reserved at least some decent horses for the artillery, instead of giving them all to the cavalry.
In the early morning of 12th March, the main army formed up in two large columns, with one of Moore's brigades forming the advance guard of each, also marching in column. Thrown out in front was a loose line of skirmishers. As they moved forward, the skirmishers encountered heavier and heavier resistance, and were accordingly reinforced from the main body. The enemy pickets were firing from the thick brush to the front, and Harper could see the small white puffs of their gunpowder smoke as he marched towards them. No one in his column had been hit yet, so far as he could tell. Now the sun was high, and the skirmishers, men of the 92nd Highlanders and the 90th Pertshire Volunteers, worked their way through the broken country of palm groves, scattered ruins, and sandhills. The enemy's mounted vedettes fell back towards a stronger screen of cavalry to their rear. The fire became more serious. To Harper's left, a man of the 28th went down, his comrades parting to step around him.
At about 1:30 pm, Sir Ralph ascended a ruined tower and scanned the scene in front with his telescope. He could see French infantry advancing in column. If an attack was coming, the ground about a quarter of a mile ahead seemed better designed for defense, and he ordered the army to deploy into two lines and occupy it.
They deployed with drill book perfection, dressing the line by the colors of the 23rd on the right. Though they were forced to break their line and file around obstacles, they immediately re-formed, and when they reached their new position, scarcely any correction was needed. Again, it was plain that their months of practice were paying off.
On seeing the British advance, the French halted and retired, positioning on a ridge a mile and a half away, with their forward pickets close to those of the British. It was too late in the day to attack before dark, so Abercromby ordered an attack first thing in the morning. The army settled down for the night, the soldiers lying on their arms, ready for a surprise attack. Moore used a third of his forces to throw out a strong line of sentries who were relieved every hour to keep them sharp. Harper and Finnigan each took their turn, staring off into the darkness, wondering if they would hear the sound of an advancing column or the hoof beats of a squad of charging dragoons.
But they didn't. And at daybreak, they dumped their knapsacks, swallowed a quick tot of rum, and found their place in the column. At six thirty in the morning, they moved off to give battle. Abercromby had no choice but to attack before the French could reinforce their position. Already, they had the advantages of the high ground, stronger cavalry, and more artillery. Sir Ralph's guns, still being dragged by seamen, lagged behind.
Abercromby called over Generals Hutchinson and Moore to explain his plan.
"Gentlemen, I propose to maneuver to the left, covering our lakeside supply dumps and attacking the French on their weaker flank. Our northern flank rests on the sea and is strengthened by those ancient ruins. But our right is hanging in the air beyond the head of lake Abuquir. The Alexandria canal no longer protects it. But if we can break out on the left beyond the head of the lake, we'll win the space to hit this weak French flank."
"I am forming up the army into two large columns. I will command on the right; the left is yours, General Hutchinson. We'll keep the cavalry between us; they're nearly useless in any case. To protect our open right flank against the superior French cavalry, the Reserve commanded by you, General Moore, will march slightly behind and to the right of the main body in an open column. From there, I want you to be able to quickly form a line in any direction to meet a flanking attack. Place the Corsican Rangers to your front and flank as skirmishers."
They were a perfect target for the French gunners, who gave them a hearty good morning of iron and blood. Harper could see them pushing their cannon pushed forward from their main position; they knew the enemy had no cavalry to threaten them, and their own horses could swiftly get them out of trouble. Nor had they any worries about counter fire, the British guns were still being dragged through the hot sand to the rear, falling farther and farther behind. A quick "boom-boom-boom-boom-boom!" rippled across the French front, and a long cloud of smoke masked the guns.
The cannonade was tremendous. Harper and Finnigan were marching in the front rank of Moore's column (why always the front rank)? Harper didn't allow himself to look as he advanced in the column. He heard screams and the tearing, snapping sound of round shot hitting human beings, then ripping on through them to strike still more. A shot might go the entire length of the column, killing twenty or more. He kept his eyes focused on the Roman ruins that were his goal. He tried to convince himself that if he didn't believe they could hit him, then they couldn't. Even when blood splattered his face as the man next to him was hit, he didn't look. He wished he could have stopped his ears to the screams, though. How strange it was, he reflected, that an enemy position you were marching towards never seemed to get any closer when they were shooting at you. And the frustrating thing was not being able to make a shot in reply. But he and his mates marched forward in perfect, disciplined silence, keeping their correct intervals between ranks and files.
General Lanusse squinted into the rising sun and once again, cursed General Menou's slowness. A commander of even moderate initiative (such as Kleber) would have had his entire army on these heights by now, instead of a paltry five thousand men. But Menou was still gathering his brigades together, and had not even left Cairo yet. Lanusse needed to hold these heights to protect Menou's expected line of approach, along the banks of the Alexandria canal. But if he had to fall back, he had two excellent positions to fall back on. Behind him, the flat plain gave an excellent field of fire from the formidable Nicopolis Heights. The French cannon could rake the plains below. And beyond that was the last entrenchment, before the walls of Alexandria, a strong system of batteries whose guns were already ranged in on the heights the British would be occupying.
But Lanusse was not one to sit dumbly by and wait for the enemy to come to him. He was one of the new generation of the Revolution's generals, and had served under Bonaparte in Italy. There he had learned that boldness and daring won battles. This time, the French wouldn't wait for the assault. He would attack, and give the English a beating before Menou even arrived. What if they had three times his numbers? They were incompetent fools, as their performance on the continent had shown. He saw that their left-hand column was getting ahead, becoming isolated. Therefore, he would hold their right in place with one demi-brigade by the Roman ruins, and then attack their left with the rest of his forces, with the cavalry wheeling around to hit their flank. To form the plan was to give the order.
And so, into the valley between the ridge and the Roman ruins, the 22nd Chaussers trotted forward, four hundred strong, across his front towards Hutchinson's column.
It had been a bad morning for the 90th Perthshire Volunteers. They had not received their orders for the advance, and, coming off their night's picket duty at daybreak, had marched back to camp only to find that they were to lead Abercromby's right-hand column. So they made a hurried run to regain their place at its head.
As the columns advanced, they slowed their pace in an effort to allow the field guns with their teams of miserable horses and sweating sailors to catch up. But the 90th pushed on too far ahead. And as they emerged from a grove of palm trees, they suddenly found themselves face to face with a strong force of French chaussers. The surprise was mutual. The French commander saw a scattered line of light troops before him, and nothing more. An easy target. He ordered the charge, and the horsemen bore down on the lead company. Some of the 90th stood firm and used their bayonets, but inevitably, they were scattered. But coming up behind the 90th was the head of the column, which immediately formed a firing line to the left. As the chaussers charged, the Perthshire men opened up with a volley which rolled down the line from right to left like a rattling peal of thunder. Many of the horsemen were thrown down, the rest milled in confusion. Their commander was wounded. They recoiled and swept off to the right, where Cradock's brigade was coming up and deploying in square under the heavy French cannonade. The French thundered down upon them, right into the teeth of another devastating volley. They gave back, milling around, firing pistols and slashing out with their sabers at those ranks, but found them unbreakable.
Harper watched all this in frustration. Everything in him wanted to march to the fighting, but they kept their station on the right, ready to form line against a flank attack. He grumbled to Finnigan.
"We haven't fired a shot."
"Patience, boyo. Our time will come, if not today, then tomorrow."
Friant's 62nd demi-brigade, six hundred men with two field guns in support, approached and deployed. They were partially shielded by the crest of a slight ridge some two hundred yards in front of the British left-hand column. As they advanced, Colonel Erskine of the 92nd Highlanders waited until his men could see the feet of the French infantry crossing the rise. Then his command rang out:
The first volley slowed the advance, but the Gordons were only three hundred, weakened by their casualties from the landing. Then the full force of Friant's column struck them. A fierce firefight developed, and in the dense smoke, the combatants could only fire where they guessed their opponents to be. Two British guns were hauled up to support the 92nd, but they soon ran out of ammunition and had to retire. And now the enemy pushed their own guns further forward, opening up at close range with grape shot. The effect was nothing short of murder. Colonel Erskine was hit and carried off to die. The Gordons stood their ground as the grape tore great bloody holes through their line. Again and again they closed the gaps, but there were fewer and fewer left to close them. Harper ground his teeth in fury. These men should have help. But his column held its position on the Roman ruins, still guarding against that expected flank attack. Then the front rank of Abercromby's column came up on their right, but in the confusion, they opened up too soon, killing some of their own men and some of the Gordons. At last, the three companies of the Foreign Brigade came up on the left, and the French gave way.
The Highlanders, standing their ground and shooting under that brutal cannonade, had picked off the French gunners, and the survivors had to abandon them. But more than half of the Gordons now lay still on the field. But in spite of being severely mauled, the 90th and 92nd had blunted the French attack, and now the whole British front was counterattacking. The right-hand column was completely deployed, with the Guards in second line, and Moore's Reserve now moved in column to protect their open flank. The decimated 92nd was ordered to lie down, and to let the 50th Foot and their old rivals, the 79th Highlanders march through them, cheering them as they went. On the right, the 90th rejoined the attack. Led by Colonel Hill, they volleyed, advanced, volleyed again, and advanced, and then were at bayonets with the French holding the first height. They drove them out, halted, redressed their lines, and advanced again towards the next strongpoint.
They were now fighting through a tangle of hillocks, level patches, and palm groves, and ground could only be gained yard by yard. Every hundred yards seemed to contain another French position, from which they poured down a constant fire of grape and musketry. Clouds of dust and smoke hung surging over the battlefield. In the distance, the spires of Alexandria seemed to taunt the British. Sir Ralph had his horse killed out from under him, but a soldier from the 90th dragged him to safety. And the French cavalry continued to hover and threaten, searching for an exposed flank or a gap in the line, and seeing nothing but a wall of threatening bayonets against which they broke again and again. They were able though, to cover the withdrawal of the guns, which unlimbered and opened fire every time the British infantry stopped to wait for their own artillery. Then they limbered up and galloped off when the advance was resumed, to take up a new position and resume the cannonade. But still, the British columns were unshaken and kept good order. On the right, Craddock's brigade volleyed, advanced, volleyed, advanced, forcing the enemy out of position after position. Without artillery support of their own, they pushed forward into the mouths of the guns to dislodge the French with disciplined musket fire.
Gradually, the French were falling into confusion. They were still fighting staunchly, but they were outnumbered, and their cavalry could not find an opening for a charge. When they reached the ridge they had attacked from, they could not stand. And now Hutchinson, breaking free beyond the edge of the lake, outflanked their right. They abandoned their ridge and retreated across the sandy plain towards their rearward position on the heights of Nicopolis. Abercromby groaned in frustration. If only he had cavalry and well-horsed artillery, a hard pursuit just now would have captured all of the French field artillery and taken a fine bag of prisoners. On the left, Dillon's Regiment made a charge and captured two guns. But on the right, when Moore's Reserve reached the rising ground near the Roman ruins, Harper could see the enemy retreating virtually intact to their next position.
And Abercromby was dismayed by what he saw. He had anticipated a straight run to Alexandria, now that he had broken out of the rough country and the enemy were in disorderly retreat. But now before him he saw two miles of open plain, dominated by the heights of Nicopolis, which already bristled with French guns and troops. Moore's reserve had reached the ridge ahead of the rest of the army, not having had to deploy and fight.
Moore saw that if he followed the enemy into the plain without cavalry, not only could he not overtake them, he would merely bring his own troops within range of the guns concentrated on that ridge. He and Craddock's brigade halted while the rest of the army came into line, until they could confer with Sir Ralph and discover his intentions. But Hutchinson's column did not stop. It swept on into the plain, and Craddock and Moore were obliged to follow him again and protect his flank. And so into the mouth of the guns they marched.
Abercromby rode out onto the plain and had the signal given to halt. He found Moore.
"General, we will rush the enemy position on both flanks. You and your reserve will command the right thrust. General Hutchinson, on the left, will circle across the dry lakebed and hit the French right."
Abercromby sent Hutchinson some reinforcing battalions. And this of course, took up more time.
Moore advanced the Reserve to the start line, and waited for Hutchinson to maneuver his force into position, so that the two attacks could be launched simultaneously. Harper grinned; finally, they could do something more than simply march and wait.
Hutchinson's first objective was a small hill of white, sparkling sand. He jokingly named it "the Green Hill." It was about a mile and a half from his left front, close to the enemy's flank on the heights. His brigades reformed in columns, concentrating towards their left, and advanced unopposed through a marshy area to occupy it. The French artillery savagely beat the crest of the hill, and Hutchinson's column sheltered on its reverse slope while he reconnoitered.
But the French brought forward two howitzers along the bank of the dry canal, and their high-angled fire punished Hutchinson's troops severely. Hutchinson ordered the 44th Foot to advance and silence them. They were a weakened regiment, barely three hundred strong, but they charged, dispersed the gun crews, then took the howitzers and spiked them. Harper and Finnigan, watching from a distance, cheered with all the other men. But now the 44th was in a dangerously exposed position, and they were caught in a converging fire from no less than thirty cannon on the heights. Round shot ploughed the ground around them, reaping them like wheat, and the survivors hurried back, losing nearly half their strength.
Hutchinson had been studying the ground across which he was to attack, straight across the Green Hill towards the right face of the enemy positions on the heights of Nicopolis. He rode to Abercromby and reported what he had seen.
"General Abercromby, their lines are strongly defended, studded with artillery. I think the casualties the 44th suffered when they took the howitzers indicates how high the price will be if we assault across that valley. We will take devastating losses. And even after we capture the heights, we will still come under heavy bombardment from the last line of defenses before the walls of Alexandria."
Abercromby nodded. "I'll ride forward and have a look for myself."
While all this was happening, Moore's column, exposed out in the middle of the plain, had been receiving a steady punishment from the French field guns, supplemented by some heavy twenty-four pounders that they had brought forward from their main line. Again, the enemy fired with impunity, knowing it was under no danger of cavalry attack, and that the British still hadn't brought up their own guns. Meanwhile the French cavalry still rode up and down, just out of musket range, looking for that one opening that would be all they needed. The Reserve found some cover in the broken ground, but even here, the French brought two field pieces forward to a commanding knoll to harass them. More and more dreadfully mangled men were littering the ground. Harper just stood as the round and grape shot whistled by with a banshee's scream. Periodically he would hear officers call "Open to the left!" or "Open to the right!" as the files parted to let it bounce and roll through harmlessly. He also heard the screams of the poor bastards who didn't move fast enough. Moore paced the sand, even more impatient than his men to either pull back to safety or advance. The sun gradually sank red through the dust in the west.
On the level plain, Craddock's and Coote's brigades were completely exposed. Whole files were swept away, but the gaps were quickly filled. It was now late in the day, and the French had been given time to reinforce, steady and reorganize themselves. On the right flank, Moore could see that they had observed his column forming for an attack and were sending guns and men across their position to oppose him. He concluded that the attack should no longer be risked. Abercromby, studying the heights from his forward position, reached the same conclusion. Even if they had captured the heights, without cannon of their own, it was doubtful they could have held them under the bombardment they would have received.
At about four o'clock in the afternoon, he gave the order to retire to the Roman ruins ridge from which the French had been driven that morning. His column and Moore's breathed a collective sigh of relief. But it was frustrating, nonetheless. They had punched their way forward with such sacrifice and so much courage; now they must pull back over the ground they had so painfully won. The men who had fallen in this plain had been wasted.
They withdrew in stages across the plain in good order. Finnigan philosophically summed up the day's doings.
"That's the way it happens sometimes, Patrick. One day, the battle's raging a stone's throw away, and you've got no part in it. The next day, you're in the thick of it and wishing you were somewhere else. Count your blessings, boyo."
The quartermasters had been setting up the camp in their rear, on the site of the old French positions. The tired troops set up a defensive line across the isthmus from the Roman ruins on the coast to the Alexandria canal. They got to work digging for water at the base of the palm trees behind the ridge and burying the dead. The Surgeon-General was able to set up a field hospital, welcome news to the army's nearly three thousand five hundred sick and wounded. Surgeons worked throughout the night on makeshift tables; men lying in rows before them, many waiting to have their limbs amputated.
In the evening chill, Harper and Finnigan sat around the smoky campfires with the other men of the 28th, swapping stories of the fighting.
"Did you see McTavish, the paymaster of the 92nd? As they were bringing the wounded officers by, he was checking to see if any of them owed him money. Wanted to collect before it was too late!"
"How about Holborn? Fool tried to stop a rolling cannon ball with his foot. Stood there looking at the stump of his leg like he couldn't figure out what it was."
"I've got the corker. Macksey was munching on a piece of bread in line when a round shot took of his head pretty as you please. When his head landed twenty feet away, the bread was still sticking out of his mouth!"
Harper and Finnigan did not participate in this grisly banter. Harper's mouth wrinkled at the comments, but Finnigan shrugged.
"Aw, don't let it bother you, boyo. They're just blowing off steam the only way they know how. Talking about other people's hurts makes them forget that they might be the ones to get it tomorrow."
Outside the circles of the fires, it was a clear, starlit night, damp with dew and bitterly cold. The only fuel for the fires was green palm wood, which had to be carried up from a distance. It burned badly and gave off an acrid smoke that irritated the eyes. There were still no tents; even the officers had only the blankets they carried. And on the bare slopes of the sandhills, there were no palm fronds to make bivouacs. Harper, Finnigan, and four others of the 28th (they couldn't see who in the dark) dug a pit in the sand for shelter, shivering six to a pit, wrapped in their blankets but dressed in full equipment in case they needed to turn out instantly. Others tried to keep warm by piling sand on their blankets. An hour before dawn, the drums beat reveille, and they rose stiffly to find their alarm positions for the morning stand-to.
With daylight, the unremitting fatigues resumed. Half an hour after daylight, they held regimental parades, when the men were told their day's duties. Scores of wounded still remained on the plain to the front, abandoned since the previous day. Abercromby sent a flag of truce to the French to arrange for their recovery and the burial of the dead lying between the outposts. Parties from both sides helped each other to bring in the wounded and heap the slaughtered onto bullock carts for transport to their mass graves. During the process, the British traded with the French, exchanging such things as tobacco for wine. The heat intensified daily as the Egyptian summer neared, and the flies buzzed in increasing hordes. Harper's job that day was digging for water. He and his mates uncovered an aqueduct, still flowing with fresh water. It dated back to Cleopatra's time. He was sorry that Lieutenant Bromley was not there.
Others worked on strengthening the defenses, carrying earth in double-handed baskets to build the new breastworks and redoubts. Finnigan was put to work bringing forward supplies from the depot a mile behind their rear. There were simply not enough horses and camels, and ammunition and provisions had to be carried to soldiers and seamen. Finnigan ended up rolling a large cask of brandy through the sand. Needless to say, he tapped it when no one was looking and filled his canteen.
But night did not bring their duties to an end. Half an hour before sunset, the regiments paraded again to form the relief pickets; and as the sun went down behind Alexandria, a beat of drums sounded to the right, passing from regiment to regiment the signal for the pickets to march off. Out in the darkness of the plain, sentries were stationed in pairs, while the pickets behind them sat in instant readiness, not allowed to lie down or even unroll their blankets. Over the next few days, an unofficial truce existed between British and French pickets; they would not shoot at each other.
Harper and Finnigan sat together the second night, staring off into the darkness, sharing the brandy. Harper was glad for its warmth. They heard a noise in the darkness and leaped to their feet.
"Who goes there?"
"Duty field officer Captain Bretherton. The password is 'camel's arse.'"
"Advance and be recognized, Captain."
Bretherton came out of the darkness wrapped in his greatcoat, beating his arms against his sides.
"Brrrr! How can it get so cold at night when it's so damned hot in the day?"
He looked at their canteen, held innocently in Finnigan's hand.
"What've you got there?"
"A canteen, Sir."
"What's in it, damn your eyes?"
"Filching from company stores? I suppose you know that's a flogging offense?"
"Then you'd better give me a taste."
Grinning, Finnigan handed the canteen over. Bretherton took a long swig, and then sighed in satisfaction.
"You're mistaken, Corporal. That's only water. Carry on."
He left them in the darkness.