1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 36
Lieutenant Krenz was looking slightly less unhappy. “Well, at least he knows enough to anchor our flank on the river. Now if we could just get off these damned horses.”
Jeff shared Eric’s opinion on both issues. Especially getting off the horses. Having to ride one was the biggest disadvantage he’d found so far to being an officer, and he was still pretty disgruntled over the issue. He was supposed to be an infantry officer. He’d made quite sure of that after he returned from Amsterdam. I want an infantry assignment, he’d specified — and he had been assured he’d receive one.
Technically, they hadn’t lied. He had been assigned to the infantry. What Jeff hadn’t considered—never even crossed his mind, the notion was so absurd — was that in this day and age it was expected that all officers had to be mounted.
Laundry officer? Officer in charge of day care for the camp follower kiddies? Didn’t matter. Up you go, buddy.
There was no logic to it. None whatsoever. He had to stay with his troops, didn’t he? For Pete’s sake, he was the battalion’s commander. Of course he had to stay with his troops. They were infantry, no? I-N-F-A-N-T-R-Y. That meant they walked into battle. Not rode. Walked. Except for their officers. They had to ride, whether they wanted to or not.
This was one of the disadvantages of being in the seventeenth century that was a lot harder to shrug off than the quality of the toilet paper or (more often) total absence thereof. And that was nothing to shrug off lightly.
“He must be listening to his staff officers,” Krenz went on.
Jeff’s horse did one of those incomprehensible little jiggly things that horses so often did. Itchy hoofs? Bad hair day? Gelding equivalent of that time of the month? Who knew? By definition, they were dumb animals. What person in his right mind would plant himself on top of one of these huge beasts and place himself at the mercy of a brain which, relative to body mass, probably wasn’t much of a step up from a chipmunk?
Would you ride a chipmunk?
The horse did it again. “I can’t wait for the battle to start,” Jeff groused.
“Me neither,” agreed Krenz fervently. “Finally be able to get off these damn things.”
A few seconds went by. They grinned simultaneously.
“You realize how insane that is?” asked Eric.
Jeff nodded. “War is hell.”
None of those thoughts went through Thorsten Engler’s mind. He’d been a good horseman as a farmer. Now that he’d been in the army for almost a year and half, all of which time he’d spent in the flying artillery, his horsemanship rivaled that of most cavalrymen.
That aside, he shared some of Jeff and Eric’s relief at seeing the division angling toward the Pleisse. Obviously, their commander Stearns had either had the good sense to anchor his flank against the only significant natural feature in the area or the good sense to listen to one of his staff officers.
Some of the relief, not all. Unlike Higgins and Krenz, Thorsten and the other flying artillery unit commanders had been made privy to Torstensson’s plan. They pretty much had to be, given that they’d play the critical role of fending off or at least blunting the cavalry charge that was sure to be the Saxons’ initial response. So Engler knew that, anchored on the Pleisse or not, the enemy cavalry was almost certainly going to contest the field — and once that happened, the fact that some infantry battalion was happily nestled against the river wasn’t going to do Thorsten and his men much good at all.
In the month of July in the year 1635, cavalry was still the principal offensive arm in a battle. That would change, and pretty rapidly, as the impact of the new rifled muskets spread — and it would certainly change once the new French breechloaders became common. At that point, cavalry charges in a battle would simply become too dangerous to the cavalrymen. The role of cavalry would shift to what it had been during the American civil war, reconnaissance and raiding enemy supply lines. From then on until the introduction of tanks, it would be the infantry and artillery that would be the offensive arms.
In the world the up-timers had come from, that transition had taken three-quarters of a century. In this one, Thorsten didn’t think it would even take a decade. Tanks were coming, and probably soon. Thorsten knew that there were at least four newly-formed companies trying to develop the war machines. That was in the USE alone. He was pretty sure the French and Austrians — certainly the Netherlanders — were already developing their own.
But from what he’d been told by a friend who was knowledgeable about technical matters, there was still the great obstacle of the engines. The hybrid technology produced by the Ring of Fire was, like many hybrids, often a peculiar thing. By now, everyone with any scientific or technical knowledge understood the basic principles of the internal combustion engine. The problem that remained was an engineering one. For a variety of reasons, the broad technical capabilities that a large internal engine industry required didn’t exist yet. Not to mention that there was a shortage of petroleum.
So, willy-nilly, people had turned to steam technology. In this universe, the first tanks that lumbered into a battlefield would most likely be driven by steam engines.
Steam technology posed its own challenges, but ones that could be met more easily. And that in turn introduced another wrinkle into technological development, which was that the steam technology being introduced into the seventeenth century in this universe was not the primitive steam technology that had first come into existence in the up-timers’ world. These new steam engines, even when they were modeled on nineteenth century designs, were still based on the technology that had been developed — often by hobbyists, since steam had been relegated to a secondary status — by the end of the twentieth century. Especially since, as chance would have it, several of Grantville’s residents had been accomplished and experienced steam enthusiasts.
So who could say? Once that steam technology was established as the dominant engine technology, it might retain that status for a long time. There had been a lot of accidental and secondary factors that had produced the dominance of internal combustion engines in that other universe. They might never really come into play in this one.
That sort of uneven and combined development had become quite common. Thorsten’s friend had told him that a similar situation existed with computer technology. Many down-timers now understood the basic principles of cybernetics. The friend himself, born in the year 1602, was one of them. But recreating the electronic industry the up-timers had relied on for the purpose was simply impossible in the here and now, and would be for some time to come.
Here, his friend had spent half an hour enlightening Thorsten — and Caroline Platzer, who understood no more than he did — on the subtleties of something called “semiconductors.” Apparently, the problem of producing those would be enough in itself to stymie the development of up-time-style cybernetics for a long time to come.
But there was an alternative, one which the up-timers themselves had never developed very far because by the time they began creating computers their electronic capabilities had been quite advanced. The alternative was called “fluidics,” and was based on using the flow of liquids instead of electrons — typically water, but it could be air and apparently the ideal fluid would be mercury or something similar.
That technology was well within existing seventeenth-century techniques. Already, in fact, there was a little boom developing in Venetian glass manufacturing to provide some of the components needed for fluidics-based computers.
What Thorsten’s friend had found most fascinating was that there was no telling where these developments would lead in the long run. Any industry, once established and widely spread, creates an automatic inertia in favor of continuing it. That same inertia handicaps its potential rivals. In the world the up-timers came from, that dynamic had entrenched internal combustion engines and electronic computers. But in this one, that might not be true. There were advantages to steam and fluidics, after all, which had never really been exploited in the universe across the Ring of Fire — but might be in this one.
Across the field, Thorsten could see Saxon cavalry coming forward. It looked as if Torstensson’s ploy was going to work.
It occurred to him that this was not the best time to ruminate on possible alternative technologies. For the here and now, cavalry was still the principal offensive arm in a battle, as the Saxons were about to try to demonstrate again — and it was Thorsten’s job to stop them.
“Here we go,” said Lukasz Opalinski. He and his Polish hussars had been ordered to join the Saxon cavalry in their charge against the over-extended right wing of the enemy’s army. That would be the Third Division, commanded by the USE’s former prime minister.
“The Saxons claim he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said Lubomir Adamczyk. He sounded more doubtful than hopeful. “Stearns, I mean.”
But there was no time to talk any further. The charge was starting. Slightly more than four thousand Saxon horsemen would be hammering that enemy right wing within not much more than a minute. Along with two hundred Polish hussars.
Lukasz wasn’t all that hopeful himself. It might well be true that the enemy general didn’t know what to do. But he didn’t really need to know. Stearns just needed to listen to his staff officers, because they would know.
Apparently, he was doing so. To Opalinski, the speed and precision with which the infantry units of the Third Division were moving to anchor themselves on the Pleisse didn’t look like the result of confused and amateur orders. Not in the least.
So be it. What remained was simple. As dangerous as it might be, there was nothing in the world quite as exhilarating — to a Polish hussar, anyway –as a cavalry charge.
They were into a canter now. Next to him, Adamczyk started whooping.