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Chapter 19

THE BATTLE OF LANGENSALZA


Two days after, the army, drawn from all parts of the kingdom, was assembled round the king.

Among others the regiment of the Queen's Hussars commanded by Colonel Hallelt, had remained thirty-six hours on horseback, and had been marching for thirty-six hours.

The king was lodged at the Crown Inn. This inn was on the line of march, and as each regiment of cavalry or infantry arrived, the king, warned by the music, went to the balcony and passed it in review. They filed one after another past the inn, flowers on their helmets, and cries of enthusiasm on their lips. Gottingen, the town of study, shuddered every instant, roused by the cheering warriors.

All the old soldiers on leave, whom there had not been time to recall, came of their own accord to rejoin their flag. All of them felt joyously, bringing with them from their villages and all along their routes a large number of recruits. Lads of fifteen gave their ages as sixteen in order to be enlisted.

On the third day they started. During this time the Prussians, on their side, had manouvred. General Manteuffel from Hamburg, General von Rabenhorst from Minden, and General Beyer from Wetzlar were approaching Gottingen and enclosing the Hanoverian army in a triangle.

The simplest rules of strategy prescribed the union of the Hanoverian army, sixteen thousand strong, with the Bavarian, eighty thousand strong. The king, in consequence, had sent out couriers to Charles of Bavaria, brother of the old King Louis, who ought to have been in the valley of the Werra, to warn him, in entering Prussia and crossing Mulhausen, that he should proceed towards Eisenach. He added that he was followed closely by three or four Prussian regiments, who, united, would make twenty or twenty-five thousand men.

They arrived at Eisenach, by way of Verkirchen. Eisenach, defended by only two Prussian battalions, was about to be carried at the point of the bayonet, when a courier arrived from the Duke of Gotha, on whose territory they were, bringing a dispatch from the duke.

The dispatch announced that an armistice was arranged. The duke, in consequence, summoned the Hanoverians to retire. Unfortunately, as it came from a prince, the message was received without suspicion. The vanguard halted and took up its quarters where it was.

Next day, Eisenach was occupied by a regiment of the Prussian army. A great deal of time and many men had been lost in taking Eisenach, a useless manouvre: and they resolved to leave Eisenach on the right and to proceed to Gotha. In order to put this project into execution, the army concentrated on Langensalza.

In the morning the king left, having on his left Major Schweppe, who held the sovereign's horse by invisible reins. The Prince Royal was on his right, having with him Count Platen, the first minister, and in the various uniforms of their regiments or of their calling, Count Wedel, Major von Kohlrausch, Herr von Klenck, Captain von Einem, various cuirassiers of the Guard, and Herr Meding. The cortege left Langensalza very early, and went to Thannesbruck.

Benedict rode near the prince, fulfilling the functions of a staff officer.

The army had left its cantonments in order to proceed to Gotha: but at ten in the morning, the vanguard, as it arrived on the banks of the Unstrut, was attacked by two Prussian regiments, commanded by the Generals Flies and Seckendorff. They were able to mount nearly a thousand men, both troops of the guard and landwehr.

Among these regiments of the guard was that of Queen Augusta, one of the elite. The rapidity of the Prussian fire showed at once that they must be armed, at least the greater part of them, with quick-firing rifles.

The king put his horse to the gallop in order to arrive as soon as possible on the spot where the battle had begun. The little village of Merscleben was on a hill to the left: behind the village, on higher ground than the Prussian artillery posts, they placed four batteries which at once opened fire.

The king desired to be informed of the disposition of the field. In front of him, running to the right and left was the Unstrut and its marshes; then a great thicket, or rather, a wood called Badenwaeldschen; and behind the Unstrut, upon the steep slope of the mountain, the Prussian masses advancing, preceded by formidable artillery which fired as it came.

"Is there a higher point whence I can direct the battle?" asked the king.

"There is a hill half a kilometre from the Unstrut, but it is under the fire of the enemy."

"That is the place for me," said the king. "Come, gentlemen."

"Pardon, sire," said the prince, "but half a gun-shot away from the hill where Your Majesty wishes to establish your camp, there is a sort of wood of alders and aspens stretching to the river. We must search that wood."

"Order fifty skirmishers to go down to the river."

"That will be unnecessary, sire," said Benedict, "there is no need for more than one man for that."

And he went off at a gallop, crossed the wood in every direction and reappeared.

"There is no one there, sire," said he, saluting.

The king put his horse to the gallop and posted himself on the top of the little hill. His horse was the only white one, and served as a target for bullets and balls. The king wore his uniform as general of the forces, blue, turned up with red; the prince his uniform of the hussars of the guard.

Battle was joined. The Prussians had driven back the Hanoverian outposts, who had recrossed the river, and a hot cannonade was exchanged between the Hanoverian artillery before Merscleben, and Prussians on the other side of the Unstrut.

"Sire," said Benedict, "don't you fear that the Prussians will send men to hold the wood which I searched just now, and will fire on the king as at a target from its outskirts, only three hundred metres away?"

"What would you suggest?" asked the prince.

"I propose, monseigneur, to take fifty men and go to guard the wood. Our fire will protect you as the enemy approach."

The prince exchanged a few words with the king, who nodded approvingly.

"Go," said Prince Ernest; "but for heaven's sake don't get killed."

Benedict showed the palm of his hand.

"Can a man be killed, who has a double line of life on his hand?"

And he galloped to the infantry of the line.

"Fifty good marksmen for me," said he in German.

A hundred presented themselves.

"Come," said Benedict, "we shall not be too many."

He left his horse with a hussar of the prince's regiment, and threw himself into the underwood at the head of his men, who scattered. They had scarcely disappeared among the trees, when a terrible fusillade burst forth. Two hundred men had just passed the Unstrut; but, as they were ignorant of the number of men following Benedict, they retreated fighting, supposing him to have superior forces, and leaving a dozen dead in the wood. Benedict guarded the bank of the Unstrut, and by a well-sustained fire, kept off all approach.

The king had been recognized, the bullets whistled around him and even between his horse's legs.

"Sire," said Major Schweppe, "perhaps it would be well to seek a place a little further from the field of battle."

"Why so?" asked the king.

"The bullets may reach Your Majesty!"

"What does it matter! Am I not in the hands of the Lord?"

The prince came up to his father.

"Sire," said he, "the Prussians are advancing by great masses towards Unstrut, despite our fire."

"What are the infantry doing?"

"They are marching to take the offensive."

"And—they march well?"

"As on parade, sire."

"The Hanoverian troops were once excellent troops; in Spain they held the elite of the French troops in check. To-day, when they fight before their king they will prove worthy of themselves, I trust."

And, in fact, all the Hanoverian infantry, formed in column, advanced with the calm of veterans under the fire of the Prussian batteries. After having been a moment astounded at the hail of bullets which the muskets rained upon them, they continued their march, crossed the marshes of Unstrut, took the thicket of Badenwaeldschen by bayonet and struggled hand to hand with the enemy.

For a moment smoke and the unevenness of the ground hid the general aspect of the battle. But at that moment a horseman was seen to emerge from the smoke and to move towards the hill where the king was stationed, riding in hot haste and mounted on the horse of a Prussian officer. It was Benedict, who had killed the rider in order to take his horse, and who was coming to say that the Prussians had commenced the attack.

"Einem! Einem!" cried the king, "haste, order the cavalry to charge."

The captain hastened. He was a giant of over six feet, the most vigorous and handsomest man in the army. He put his horse to the gallop, crying, "Hurrah!" A minute afterwards, a sound like a hurricane was heard. It was the cuirassiers of the guard charging.

It would be impossible to describe the enthusiasm of the men as they passed the base of the hill, where stood the heroic king who wished to be at the most dangerous post. Cries of "Long live the king! long live George V! long live Hanover!" made the air tremble as in a tempest. The horses tore up the earth like an earthquake.

Benedict could not restrain himself. He put his spurs to his horse and disappeared in the ranks of the cuirassiers. Seeing the storm which was bursting upon them, the Prussians formed into squares. The first which encountered the Hanoverian cavalry disappeared under their horses' feet; then, whilst the infantry fired in their faces, the cuirassiers took the Prussian army on the flank, which, after a desperate struggle, tried to retreat in order, but, ferociously pursued, found themselves routed.

The prince followed these movements with an excellent pair of field glasses and described everything to the king, his father. But soon his glasses followed only a group of fifty men, at the head of whom was Captain Einem, whom he recognized by his great stature, and of whom Benedict, recognizable by his blue uniform among the white cuirassiers, was one. The squadron passed on by Nagelstadt and proceeded towards the last Prussian battery which still held out. The battery fired on the squadron from a distance of thirty yards. Everything vanished in the smoke. Twelve or fifteen men alone remained; Captain Einem was lying under his horse.

"Oh! poor Einem!" cried the prince.

"What has happened to him?" asked the king.

"I think he is dead," said the young man; "but no, he is not dead. There is Benedict helping to drag him from under his horse. He is only wounded. He is not even wounded! Oh, father, father! There are only seven left out of fifty; only one artilleryman is left; he is aiming at Einem, he is firing.... Oh, father! you are losing a brave officer, and King William a brave soldier; the artilleryman has killed Einem with a shot from his carbine, and Benedict has cut him down at his gun with his sabre."

The Prussian army was in full flight, the victory was with the Hanoverians!...

The Prussians retired to Gotha. The rapidity of the march to the field of battle had so fatigued the Hanoverian cavalry that they could not pursue the fugitives. In this respect the advantages of the battle were lost.

The results were: eight hundred prisoners, two thousand dead or wounded, two cannon taken.

The king rode round the field of battle to complete his task by showing himself to the unhappy wounded.

Benedict had become an artist once more, and was dreaming of his picture. He was seated on the first piece of cannon which had been taken, and was sketching a general view of the battlefield. He saw that the prince was searching among the killed and wounded officers of the cuirassiers.

"Pardon, monseigneur," said he, "you are looking for the brave Captain Einem, are you not?"

"Yes," said the prince.

"There, monseigneur, there, on your left, in the midst of that heap of dead."

"Oh," said the prince, "I saw him doing miracles."

"Can you believe that after I had drawn him from under his horse, he stabbed six with his sabre? Then he was hit for the first time and fell. They thought he was dead, and threw themselves upon him. He raised himself on one knee and killed two, who cried to him to surrender. Then he stood upright and it was at that moment that the last surviving artilleryman sent a ball into his forehead, which killed him. As I was not able to save him, being too much occupied myself, I avenged him!"

Then, presenting his sketch to the prince as calmly as if in the studio:

"Do you think that is right?" he asked.

Alexandre Dumas pere