1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 58
At least he was off the damn horse. Which was just as well, since another part of the house wall Jeff was crouched behind came down right then, knocked loose by a shot from one of the Poles’ culverins. He was barely able to scramble aside and keep from getting half-buried in the rubble. The Polish guns fired balls that weighed at least twenty pounds. They were old-fashioned round shot, not explosive shells, but they could do plenty of damage to anything they hit directly.
Or anyone they hit directly. Jeff had seen one of Engler’s artillerymen cut right in half. The sight had been as bizarre as it was ghastly. The soldier’s body from the waist down had stayed in the saddle, his legs still gripping the horse and his feet still in the stirrups. It had still been there the last Jeff saw the horse, which — the beasts weren’t always as dumb as they looked — had turned right around and gone galloping back around a bend in the road.
Meanwhile, spewing blood and intestines, the top half of the soldier had gone pinwheeling into the nearby stream the maps called Zlota Lacza, however the hell that was pronounced. The half-corpse was still there, too. The Polish counterattack had been so ferocious that Jeff hadn’t yet had the time or the spare men to send out burial parties. If a man was wounded, they’d do their best to rescue him. If he was dead, he’d just have to wait.
Jason Linn came running in a crouch and threw himself down alongside Jeff. The two of them along with three infantrymen were taking shelter behind what was left of the house. During battles, the mechanical repairman who kept the flying artillery’s equipment operational served Captain Engler as a gofer. In this case, as a message runner.
The newly formed Hangman Regiment had had six radios in its possession. One of them was not working for reasons yet unclear. Another had been broken when its operator took cover too enthusiastically. A third one had just gone missing. Jeff was pretty sure the operator had sold it on the black market in a drunken stupor. They’d probably never know, however, since the operator in question had gotten himself killed in the first two minutes of the battle.
Of the three remaining radios, only one was still functional. The other two had taken direct hits from musket balls — just the radios; the operators had been completely untouched. Jeff was still outraged at the statistical absurdities involved. Murphy’s Law by itself was one thing. Any sane person learned to take it into account by the he or she was fourteen years old. But in time of war, that mythical son-of-a-bitch went on steroids. It was no longer the fairly reasonable and straightforward principle if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Oh, hell, no. Now the clause got added: it’ll go wrong even if it can’t, too.
Jeff had had no choice but to keep the sole remaining radio in reserve, for use whenever he needed to reach divisional headquarters. For the purposes of communicating with his own units, he’d had to fall back on the old-fashioned method. Send somebody and hope they don’t get killed and use bugles and hope they could be heard over the unholy racket.
Another little chunk of the wall went flying. That had been caused by a grazing hit. Most of the ball’s energy went into turning the rubble that had once been a house thirty yards back into slightly less organized rubble.
The second law of thermodynamics also went into overdrive during wartime, Jeff had learned. Entropy in the fast lane.
“Captain Engler is ready, Colonel!” Even positioned two feet away, Linn had to half-shout. The din wasn’t quite as bad as it had been at Zwenkau, for the simple reason that there weren’t as many guns involved. But the soldiers manning those various weapons were firing them as enthusiastically as you could ask for, on both sides. And now, here and there, the distinctive claps made by hand grenades were being added to the bedlam.
They’d be hearing more of those, Jeff figured, the farther the regiment pushed into the town.
On the plus side, it wasn’t that big a town. On the minus side, every square foot seemed to have a damn Pole in it.
None of them were civilians, either, so far as Jeff could tell. Those had apparently skedaddled before the Third Division got within five miles of the place. At least Jeff wouldn’t have to worry about atrocities committed against innocent bystanders.
Swell. Now he could concentrate on the problem of atrocities committed against him and his. The Poles were no sweethearts, and God help you if you fell into the hands of Cossacks. Whatever romantic notions about them Jeff could vaguely remember having back up-time had vanished the first time he came across the mutilated corpse of one of his soldiers who’d been taken prisoner four days earlier. The Cossacks had obviously spent some time on the project.
About the only virtues possessed by Cossacks other than their strictly martial abilities, so far as Jeff could tell, was the dubious one of being equal opportunity savages. From the evidence he’d seen, they were just as dangerous to Polish civilians as they were to anyone they were fighting.
Jeff had made clear to his men that he wouldn’t tolerate atrocities, no matter who they were committed against. But his definition of “atrocity” was reasonably practical. He wasn’t going to look into the fact that nobody seemed to be taking Cossack prisoners, as long as there was no evidence they’d been tortured.
Of course, they hadn’t taken many prisoners of any kind so far. The only way you’d get a hussar to surrender was if he’d been knocked off his horse, and even then he pretty much had to be knocked senseless. Polish infantrymen weren’t as cussed crazy belligerent, but they were still plenty feisty.
Jeff had been surprised by that, more than he’d been surprised by anything else. He’d known the set-up in Poland, in broad outlines. A small class of great landowners — they called them magnates — lording it over a population that was mostly dirt-poor peasants, many of them outright serfs. But what he was now learning was that broad outlines don’t really tell you very much about a given people’s fighting capabilities.
After all, in broad outline, the antebellum American South had been a land dominated by a small class of great plantation masters who lorded it over the poor whites as well as their black slaves. That hadn’t stopped the poor whites — talk about dumb! — from fighting for the slaveowners, had it?
What Jeff was now learning firsthand was just how savagely a class of people will fight to defend whatever small privileges they might have, even if they’re purely social privileges, so long as those privileges loom large in their minds. That was especially true if the official casus belli was clear and straight-forward. We’ve been invaded!
Southern whites may have been poor, but at least they weren’t black. Likewise, most of the szlachta weren’t really much if any wealthier than the peasants they lived among. But at least they weren’t peasants. They had status.
Poland and Lithuania were peculiar in that way, compared to most European countries. Their aristocracy was huge — probably a full ten percent of the population, where England’s aristocracy wasn’t more than three percent and even the sprawling German one wasn’t more than five percent.
Only a few of those szlachta were really what Jeff would consider “large landowners.” Those were the magnates, like Koniecpolski himself. Plenty of the szlachta didn’t have the proverbial pot to piss in. But that only made them cherish even more their social position. In theory, at least, any member of the szlachta could marry the daughter of the richest magnate in the land and rise to any position in society.
So, the Polish infantry and artillery weren’t the half-baked forces Jeff had expected. He’d known the hussars would make ferocious opponents, but he’d figured the rest of the Polish army would be like the Persian foot soldiers who’d faced Alexander the Great and his Macedonian phalanxes. When the crunch came down, they hadn’t been worth much.
From what he’d been able to determine so far, however, szlachta made up a big chunk of the infantry and artillery they’d face since they closed in on Zielona Gora and the fighting started in earnest. These were some genuinely tough bastards, much more so than the Saxons had been. The soldiers working for John George — and that was exactly the relationship; a purely commercial one — had been professionals who, once a reasonable fight had been put up, were quite willing to surrender. In fact, any number of them were quite willing to go to work for the same people who’d just defeated them.
This was a whole different kettle of fish, now that they were moving into territory that was clearly and definitively Polish. That wasn’t always clear, in border areas. Many of the towns near Brandenburg had been technically Polish in political terms, but the populations were often heavily German and Protestant. That was true of Zielona Gora itself, for that matter. Most of the town’s population were Lutherans and they called it by the German name, Grunberg.
But the city’s population had fled and the surrounding countryside was Polish, not German. As far as the szlachta were concerned, Gustav Adolf had renewed his longstanding aggression against the Polish lands. And if Poland’s aristocracy was notorious for its political fecklessness, nobody in their right mind had ever thought they couldn’t fight — assuming they could unite behind a leader.
There were times in Polish history where such a leader had been absent, and the resultant political disunity had left Poland’s armies weakened or even largely on the sidelines. But unfortunately for Mrs. Higgins’ son Jeffrey, this was not one of them. With his new-found money, Jeff had been able to buy down-time copies of three books on Polish history that had been in Grantville. It turned out — oh, joy — that the Ring of Fire had planted Mrs. Higgins’ son Jeffrey right smack in the period of Polish history that had produced some of its most capable military leaders. Grand Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski was one of them. He’d been mentioned in all three books.
Jeff suddenly realized that Linn had now shouted that question three times.
“Tell Engler to wait until I give the signal.” That would have to be a bugle signal, now, thanks to Murphy. “Then come in from the north — but whatever he does, don’t let himself get trapped in any side streets or alleys.”
Because of its specific peculiar purpose, the Hangman Regiment was the only one in the division that didn’t have regular artillery attached to it. Jeff was bitterly regretting that absence, now. Volley guns were splendid on an open field, but they weren’t much use against the improvised fortifications you ran into in street fighting. Jeff would gladly swap Engler’s entire unit right now for just one culverin and half a dozen mortars.
He’d even more gladly swap them for the support of another regiment or three. Where was the rest of the division? Since the fighting started this morning, Jeff hadn’t seen any USE units except his own.
Linn nodded and raced off, still in a crouch. He’d have a horse nearby, tethered where it couldn’t get hit except by a freak shot. Once he was on the horse, he should be able to reach Engler within fifteen minutes or so. The flying artillery company had been moving around the northern outskirts of Zielona Gora. If Jeff’s map was accurate — always a chancy proposition — there should be a fairly wide avenue that led directly into the city’s central square. Insofar as there was any city terrain that favored volley guns, that would be it.
Jeff didn’t really expect Engler could do much except create a diversion. But he hoped that might be enough to enable him to get his infantry battalions moving again. They’d been completely stalled within ten minutes of the battle’s start.
Street fighting sucked.
Murphy really sucked.
Where the hell was Mike Stearns?