Roger Butters

Look About and Die:

Extract:

         Karelius’ mare, after a whole day on her feet, stumbled gamely on across the freezing moorland towards Lake Satschen, and escape to the south. Along the narrow causeway of the Monitz Dyke, the pursuit flagged; he and the handful of cuirassiers who were his companions duly gained the bank of the lake, a frozen bog of mud, grass and ice. Sprawled out across it were a rabble of Russian fugitives, whilst ahead a thin dark line of guns crept foot by foot towards the safety of the opposite shore.
         Miraculously the ice had held. The big guns, with their horses and crews, had safely negotiated the first quarter of the kilometre’s distance across the icy marsh. But in their very success lay danger. Seeing the ice hold beneath their weight, the last of the Russian rearguard flung themselves upon the lake in thousands. And not only infantry; several hundred Cossacks, and two squadrons of the St Petersburg Dragoons.
         Karelius shrugged. Since everyone was doing the same, there was no point in chivalrously remaining behind to be captured. He dismounted to lead his mare across. On foot there would have been little danger for a man alone; even on horseback not much. But as for the guns …
         Suddenly, above the shouting, shots and noise of battle, the neighing of horses, creaking wheels and ringing harness, came the sound they had all been dreading: the thin, sharp crackle of ice under strain. And now it gave, with a harsh tearing sound, to expose a gulf ahead of the leading men and artillery. A gulf which widened slowly, then quicker. And little by little the guns with their horses and crews were tilted forward, sliding inexorably towards the freezing mud.
         ‘Leave the horses!’ Karelius heard someone shout. ‘They can’t make it! But the men, yes! Every man who doesn’t panic!’
         Splinters were radiating from the giant pool; a crack appeared some twenty yards ahead of Karelius and his nearest companion. His mare would never get across, but he might.
         ‘Off you go, little girl,’ he said briskly, released the reins and gave her a brisk slap across the haunches. She whinnied and trotted placidly back. Presumably he should have shot her or let her drown, rather than make a present of her to the French, but there were some things Karelius could not do. A gun was one thing, a horse another.
         The ice beneath him gave; he braced himself and slid slowly into the muddy lake up to his neck. Again he knew momentary panic as the freezing water mounted round him, until he felt his feet settle on to solid rock beneath the mud. Around him it was similar. Men were floundering about, splashing and yelling curses, whilst horses were dragged screaming to their deaths by the guns. Not a piece would be saved, but they would be lost to the French as well.
         The enemy artillery had opened up, lobbing roundshot on to the ice, smashing it into a multitude of floes, upon which men perched perilously for a while before toppling off into the lake.
         ‘The swine are shelling the ice!’
         ‘My God, it’s the end! We’re done for!’
         ‘Don’t panic! We’re within our depth! Back to the bank!’
         ‘Every man for himself!’
         Most were turning back to the western shore, to life but certain capture. Those paralysed by panic, or who tried insanely to drag out the guns, were drowned. The artillery sank like stones, dragging their hysterical teams into threshing, bubbling whirlpools, which became calm as their struggles ceased. A handful of men, Karelius amongst them, set out for the far bank.
         Compared with his lone ordeal in the Danube, it wasn’t too bad. It was colder still, but he was within his depth almost everywhere; at its deepest the lake scarcely plumbed seven feet. As in his previous adventure, the weed helped save him; he made his way laboriously from tuft to tuft of the blackened reeds that thrust their way through the mud and ice. Each time he scrambled out he took a short rest before setting off for the next refuge. His only chance of coming to grief was a direct hit from a roundshot, an unlikely mishap, for they sank as soon as they landed. For obvious reasons there was no pursuit.
         Finally he hauled himself out on the Allied side. Or at least it had been; for with sinking heart he recognized a company of infantry two hundred yards away as French. So the reports had been true; they had taken the Pratzen and split the Allied army in two. Not a chance of rejoining the main force, if indeed it still existed. Fortunately it was dusk, and firing was dying out all along the line. The French had won, and everyone knew it. The shells stopped falling. Exhausted fugitives crawled from the lake, frozen and bedraggled, mostly to capture, a few, like him, to possible escape.

<Back