1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 84:
A glittering sword out of the east
The next morning, Thorsten Engler was trying hard not to laugh at his friend Eric Krenz. Eric was in a foul enough mood as it was. Fortunately, since Eric was riding behind him and to his right, Krenz couldn’t see the grin on Thorsten’s face.
“Where did they get these fucking nags, anyway?” he heard Krenz complain.
After making sure he’d suppressed the grin, Thorsten turned his head and looked back. As he’d expected, Eric wasn’t even looking at the horses drawing the battery wagon at all. Instead, his gaze was fixed, like a paralyzed rabbit’s on a snake, at the limber pole swaying back and forth very close to his right leg. The “tongue,” as it was often called, would inevitably wind up slamming against that leg from time to time, when the limber’s wheels struck an obstruction or rut of some sort. Of which there were bound to be some, especially this time of year, even in a road as well designed and graded as the road that followed the Elbe north of Magdeburg.
The blow could easily cause bruises, and possibly even break a bone. That was the reason that the right legs of the volley gunners riding the three near horses of each gun crew had an iron guard encased in leather. So did the riders on the ammunition wagon and the battery wagon. The devices worked perfectly well, even if it was a bit startling to have the tongue suddenly slam against you.
The problem was twofold. The first aspect was that Eric simply wasn’t accustomed to it. By now, Thorsten had plenty of experience riding the near horses on a gun team, even if—as was true today—he would normally ride his own horse on campaign. That being one of the chief perquisites of his august status as the sergeant in command of a battery, not assigned to any specific team.
Eric, however, being none too fond of horses to begin with, had used every opportunity during their training to avoid riding the blasted beasts. He’d been able to get away with it because he wasn’t assigned to one of the crews in Engler’s B Battery either. Instead, he’d accompany the battery wagon with its load of tools and equipment to repair whatever needed to be repaired on campaign.
The second part of the problem was even simpler. Krenz was a mediocre horseman, at best. He invariably referred to horses as “surly brutes”—even though, in point of fact, Captain Witty and Lieutenant Reschly had selected the most placid animals they could find. Eric’s stubborn insistence on indulging his dislike for horses meant that his rudimentary skills in a saddle had not improved much throughout the course of their training. By no means all of the volley gunners came from backgrounds, like Thorsten’s own farming, that gave them experience with horses. But, by now, all of them—except Krenz—were at least passable riders. Thorsten’s own horsemanship was quite good, as good as that of most cavalrymen.
Engler had warned Krenz several times that eventually Eric would have to get on a horse. But Krenz had cheerfully insisted that what he called “proper military doctrine”—and there was a laugh, since Eric missed as many of the formal classes as he could, too—meant that he’d always either be on foot or, at worst, riding on the limber.
“Artillery officers want their men on foot, Thorsten,” he’d said stoutly, a few weeks back. “I read that in the manual.”
“Not our manual, you didn’t,” replied Engler, a bit irritated. “That’s the general manual you’re talking about, which is mostly addressed at heavy artillery. Eric, we’re the lightest artillery there is. What they call ‘flying artillery’ or—brace yourself—‘horse artillery.’ We’re supposed to be able to keep up with cavalry, on anything except an actual charge or a fast reconnaissance.”
Krenz just looked stubborn. He could do that superbly well, when he was of a mind. “I read it,” he persisted.
“No, what you read was that in the regular artillery, they only use one or two riders on the near horses. Yes, fine, you could get around that, if you were assigned to something like a six-pounder or twelve-pounder battery. As bad a horseman as you are, no sergeant in his right mind wants you guiding a horse team. The manual’s insistence that the gunners who aren’t riding must stay on foot except under special circumstances like fast maneuvers is because they don’t want lazy gunners riding on the limbers, like so many of them will do if the officers or sergeants aren’t watching. That’s because they’re likely to get injured if the limber hits a hole or a rock and jostles them hard enough.”
He might as well have been talking to a brick wall, from the expression on Krenz’s face.
Thorsten sighed. “Still don’t get it, do you? When we actually go out on a campaign—especially the one we’re training for, where we have to keep up with the ironclads—you will be riding a horse. Everybody will. There’s no way we could keep up otherwise.”
Alas, when he wanted to be, Eric’s capacity for self-justification was an endless cornucopia.
“Oh, that’s nonsense, Thorsten. I heard one of the up-timer sergeants in the infantry—not more than two weeks ago—saying that a properly-conditioned man on foot can travel longer and faster than a horse over long distances. He said they even had some tribe of savages in their old country—‘Apashoes,’ or something like that—who could make a hundred miles a day on foot.”
Thorsten silently cursed Paul David Willcocks. Though now in his mid-forties, with no excuse for the childish habit, the up-time sergeant who served the volunteer regiments as a special trainer had the incorrigible practice of regaling his soldiers with tales from his former universe, many of which Engler thought were probably what the up-timers called “tall tales.” But whether true or not, Willcocks never seemed to give any thought at all to whether the stories were appropriate for a training sergeant to be blathering to his men.
“Apaches,” he corrected. “Yes, I know, I’ve heard the story. Here’s what else is true. Since you now seem besotted—and when did this magical transformation take place?—with proper military doctrine. Apaches were light infantry—as light as it gets—detached into small units. A dozen men, perhaps. They didn’t have to worry about keeping hundreds of men moving on a single road, and they weren’t carrying any equipment worth talking about. You, on the other hand, unless you used horses, would have to carry several hundred pounds of gear, powder and shot. You couldn’t even pick up your share and take one step, much less outrun a horse. You couldn’t outrun a tortoise. Even in the infantry, the average soldier in the regiments has to be able to tote fifty pounds on campaign.”
Since Krenz was obviously still willing to argue, Thorsten had broken it off. “Never mind,” he’d said, waving his hand. “Be as stupid as you want. But if you fall off your team horse a few weeks from now and get turned into sausage by the wheels of the limber and the wagon, don’t claim I did warn you.”
Now that the joyous day of I-told-you-so had finally come, Thorsten wasn’t actually worried that Eric would fall off his mount. Given the white-knuckled way he was grasping the pommel, Krenz would probably manage to stay in the saddle even if he and his horse were both swept up by a tornado. In any event, Thorsten had made sure the least skilled horseman in his battery was riding the third of the near horses, the one closest to the limber. The “wheelers,” as they were called—the other two on each side would be the “swing” and the “lead” horse—were the biggest and steadiest horses on each team. Even if Eric did fall off he’d manage to land on the limber instead of under it.
Of course, Engler knew he probably wouldn’t be able to bask in the sunshine of just retribution for more than a few weeks. They were setting off on the expedition with six horses assigned to each gun or wagon, when four would be plenty and, in a pinch, the volley guns were so light they could be hauled by two. That was because it was inevitable that some of the horses would fall by the wayside as time went on. Lamed, ill, killed or wounded in action. So, sooner or later, Eric probably would be able to start walking or riding on the limber.
Captain Witty had told Thorsten that they could expect, at best, to lose one horse in ten over the course of the expedition—and that was assuming they didn’t fight any major actions. That was the average for a good cavalry unit. In reality, Witty thought their losses would be closer to one horse in four. Most of the men in the volley gun batteries were only passable horsemen, and the price for their inexperience and clumsiness would mostly be paid by the horses themselves.
As it happened, Captain Carl Witty was thinking about the matter himself, that very moment. And his thoughts were every bit as acerbic as that of his master sergeant.
“Let’s hope they get better as time goes by,” he grumbled to his second-in-command.
Lieutenant Markus Reschly—“Mark,” now, since he’d adopted the up-time abbreviation of his name—was a more cheerful man by nature than his commander. Smiling, he said, “Oh, they’re bound to. Training exercises are one thing; a real campaign, quite a different matter. They’ll learn.”
“Yes, I know. But how many horses will they grind up while they do? Horses are not cheap.”
From the blank look on the young lieutenant’s face, it was clear as day that he’d never once thought about that aspect of the problem. That was a bit odd, actually. Had Reschly been one of the usual volunteers, Witty wouldn’t have expected him to understand that whatever else war was, it was also an economic enterprise. But Reschly was one of the traditional sort of mercenaries, of whom there were plenty in the USE’s new army, especially in the officer corps. Witty himself was another, from Switzerland.
Reschly came from the Moselle valley, a region that produced both horses and mercenaries. Plenty of the former and, if not as many as Switzerland, a fair number of the latter. Mercenaries usually understood the economics of war quite well, especially mercenary officers who had to bear a lot of the cost out of their own pockets. And Markus came from a traditional mercenary family, too.
On the other hand, Reschly was still very young. And although he was officially a “mercenary” it had become quite obvious that he’d used the family tradition, along with a decent amount of training in the skill of arms, to wrangle himself a position in the USE’s army for primarily ideological reasons. If most of the volunteers came from the German lands heavily influenced by the pestiferous Committees of Correspondence, the new USE army was drawing enthusiasts from all over Europe.
Which was a damned nuisance, as far as Witty was concerned. Not even in the most ill-disciplined mercenary company he’d ever served in had he encountered such a disputatious lot of soldiery. True, the men maintained a tight discipline over themselves when it came to the usual problems of drunkenness and thievery. Much better than mercenaries would. But they were quite prepared to argue about almost anything else. Gloomily, Witty foresaw the day when these idiot “democrats,” as they liked to style themselves, would insist on the right to vote whether or not to have a battle—or even a charge.
He consoled himself with the thought that the pay was as good as that of most armies in Europe, and there was that one great benefit on the side. Among the many peculiar ramifications of the up-timers’ notion of “democracy” was that they considered it outrageous to expect soldiers—even officers—to pay for their own military equipment. That was to be provided by the state, it seemed.
An idiot notion, of course. If Witty were the emperor, he’d damn well see to it that his soldiers bore as much of the financial burden of war as possible. Let them make up for it by looting.
Which the up-timers also considered outrageous—to the point where they’d even persuaded General Torstensson to ban looting altogether, under pain of draconian punishments. There seemed to be no end to the silliness they could generate out of their heads. Perhaps the absurdly lavish care they devoted to their teeth made their brains rot instead.
Ah, well. Witty had calculated everything carefully, before he agreed to take a commission, and decided it was still worth doing. The pay was decent, after all, and he figured that whatever he’d lose by not getting a captain’s share of the loot, he’d make up for by also not having to pay a captain’s share of the expenses.
Still, old habits died hard. Every time he saw one of the inexperienced gunners misusing a horse, he couldn’t stop calculating what that was likely to cost a few weeks down the road, even if he wasn’t the one who’d be paying for it.
On the positive side, the road was good. Very good. However fantastically impractical the up-timers might be in their politics, there was no question they designed good roads. The best roads Europe had seen since Roman times were now those in the Germanies. Well, some of the Germanies, at least. Pomeranian roads were still said to be as bad as ever.
But Pomerania was the armpit of the continent anyway. Witty had been there once. Hopefully, he’d never go again. He was thirty-three years old now. A few more years and he’d be able to return to Switzerland with enough money to set himself up nicely.
Who knows? He might even have enough to pay a dentist before he retired. Not likely, of course.