1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 55
Krakow, official capital of Poland
Actual capital of Lesser Poland
“I feel utterly useless,” Ulrik grumbled. He squinted against the rising sun, as he studied the walls of Krakow half a mile distant. “It is ridiculous to say I am in command of this army.”
Morris Roth, who was officially in command of the Bohemian forces participating in the assault, was more philosophical about the matter. Or perhaps he simply had the advantage of an additional three decades of life. He was in his mid-fifties; the young Danish prince, only twenty-six years of age.
“It doesn’t matter, Prince,” he said, trying not to sound like he was soothing a grumpy child. “Both you and I are just here for the historical record.”
But Ulrik was in no mood to be soothed. “No, not both of us. You are the one who assembled the Grand Army of the Sunrise, armed it, provided it with its officers. Me? I am just, as the up-timers would say, along for the ride. I haven’t done anything but nod sagely and agree to whatever Colonel Higgins proposes.”
“So? Jeff’s advice has been quite good, as near as I can determine.”
“It’s excellent advice, actually. Which just makes me wallow in uselessness.”
From their vantage point on horseback atop a slight rise, Morris and Ulrik had a good view of von Mercy’s cavalry force milling outside the gate that was northwest of the one which had collapsed. They were engaged in a caracole, riding in half-circles close to the barbican and discharging their pistols at the defenders. Who, for their part, were firing back with muskets that seemed to be no more accurate than the cavalrymen’s pistols.
So far, Morris had seen only one cavalryman fall off his horse; whether because he was hit by a musket ball or just lost his seating couldn’t be told at this distance. It was just as likely to be either one. Unlike Jeff, who’d read about it in a book, Morris had learned of the prevalence of mishaps in war from his own personal experience. One in seven American soldiers who died in Vietnam were killed in accidents, usually involving vehicles. And what Morris had learned since he arrived in the seventeenth century was that riding horses was just about as dangerous as driving cars. True, you weren’t going as fast–but you had no protection and a lot farther to fall.
If the pistol shots were having any effect on the soldiers defending the barbican, Morris couldn’t see it. Of course, at half a mile he wasn’t likely to.
“Doesn’t this seem like a waste of effort, Morris?” asked Ulrik, still watching the Bohemians at their caracole. “And a rather dangerous one at that. I wouldn’t have thought a general as experienced as von Mercy would choose this tactic. On a battlefield, it might be worth doing. But against men sheltered behind fortifications?”
Morris didn’t answer. He’d been wondering the same thing himself.
Which was the reason that von Mercy was a real general and they were essentially just playing a role. The general who had been born in Lorraine, served in both the Austrian and Bavarian armies and now commanded Bohemian cavalry knew perfectly well that a caracole was a silly tactic to use if what you were trying to do was seize fortifications yourself. But it wasn’t really all that dangerous, because at his orders the cavalrymen were staying at least fifty yards away from the walls. Given the quality of firearms in the possession of Krakow’s defenders, that meant they could only be hit by a very lucky shot.
The reason he’d ordered the caracole, however, was that having two thousand cavalrymen seeming to threaten a barbican was a splendid way of distracting the relatively small number of defenders while someone else did the actual seizing.
Coming around another corner, Eric Krenz immediately saw the barbican, which was now less than fifty yards away. The silent curses he’d bestowed on the crooked street they’d been charging down–using the term “charging” very loosely; because of the narrow confines it had been more like a brisk walk–turned instantly into celebration. That same crooked and curving nature of the street which had slowed them down also meant that they hadn’t been spotted yet.
From the din of gunfire he knew they’d had the additional benefit of von Mercy conducting the diversion Eric had asked for. Thankfully, von Mercy was one of those rather few down-time commanders who’d taken to radio quickly and easily.
He saw no reason to dilly-dally. “Charge!” he shouted, racing forward while waving his quirt in a manner that would have intimidated a few draft horses and not one bull in creation.
“Sergeant Kozłowski!” shouted the sentry who’d been stationed to watch the city side of the barbican. He’d been given the assignment because he was the youngest and least experienced soldier in the unit.
There seemed to be thousands of enemy soldiers rushing toward him. All of them wearing that monotonous gray uniform that rumor said they would, if they were from the United States of Europe. They might even be from the now-famous–notorious, in Polish circles–Third Division.
Kozlowski hadn’t survived two decades of war by being an improvident fool. The use of a white flag to signal surrender had been common practice in Europe since the Middle Ages. He’d quietly made sure he had two stashed away on a shelf in the barbican once the rumors of an enemy advance had become more solid than the mist of which such rumors were usually made.
By the time he got a white flag draped outside one of the narrow gun slits–archers’ slits, originally–the USE sappers had already blown the gate off its hinges and he could hear them storming into the barbican itself.
“Quickly, Jerzy, quickly!” the sergeant said to the young sentry. Pointing to the closed door that led down to the base of the structure, he added: “Open it! But keep to the side!”
Jerzy was frightened half out of his wits, but only half. He still had enough self-control to swing the door inward while keeping out of sight of anyone who might be charging up the stairs.
The second white flag, like the one Sergeant Kozlowski had already spilled out of the gun slit, was really just a linen bed sheet–and grimy enough that it was only “white” by courtesy. There being no place to hang it in the narrow confines of the barbican’s staircase, he just draped it over the stairs themselves.
Then, followed Jerzy into a corner of the guard chamber where they’d be spotted as soon as anyone entered–it would most likely be fatal to try hiding anywhere–but weren’t within sight of soldiers charging up the stairs. Those were likely to shoot first and figure out whether they’d needed to afterward. And not caring a lot either way.
“Raise your hands,” he told Jerzy, doing the same himself. Spotting one of the other sergeants sticking his head into the chamber, shouted: “We’re surrendering! Just do it!”
The sergeant disappeared. That was Nicolai, who came from somewhere east of Warsaw. A good fellow, not given to stupid nonsense. There was no way they could fend off what was coming at them. He’d see to it the rest of the unit guarding the barbican would behave sensibly. Like Kozlowski himself, Nicolai had volunteered to join the garrison because it was sleepy duty, and quite a bit safer than farming. No one had attacked Krakow in a long time.
The first man who came into the chamber was younger than Kozlowski would have expected, given the insignia on his gray uniform. If the sergeant remembered what he’d heard correctly–and assuming the rumors themselves were true–the gold oak leaves on the man’s shoulders indicated he was a major. And the insignia on his cap confirmed that he was an officer in the USE army. It was a simplified version of the crossed bars on a red field.
The officer glanced at him and Jerzy, just long enough to be satisfied they posed no danger. Then, looked at the open doorway that led up to the top level of the barbican.
“Am I going to have to kill anybody?” he asked in German with a pronounced Saxon dialect. His tone of voice was quite pleasant, which made the words that much more menacing. So might a butcher inquire if his customer wanted the ham whole or sliced.
Kozlowski knew German well enough to respond in the same language. Cluster of dialects, it might be better to say. He’d learned his version from Silesians. “No, sir! Everyone is surrendering.”
He turned his head slightly and shouted in the same language: “Captain Gomółka! Your presence is required!” The captain knew enough German to understand the summons.
The seconds went by, with Kozlowski getting more worried with each one. Surrendering in the middle of a battle was always a tense undertaking. He’d had to do it twice before in his military career. On one of those occasions he’d come very close to being summarily executed by his captors. Next to him, he could sense young Jerzy trembling, followed by the unmistakable smell of urine.
“Haw! Look at that!” jeered one of the USE troops.