Steampunk War: Crimean

Captain Jon James MacWoad at Balaclava

The ponderous war-engine steamed slowly across the Balaclavan plain. Captain Jonathan James MacWoad sat chilled in the early Crimean dawn. I’ll miss the cool soon enough when I climb into one of those iron coffins, he thought bitterly. An end of my own design. J.J. breathed deep the sea-tinged, coal-smoke choked dawn. The sun broke free of the horizon, painting the east in fire. How fitting.

How had he come to this? Well, I lied to get into the 42nd Highlanders. Requirements were sixteen, or fifteen for a drummer, but I was big for my fourteen years and the recruiting sergeant hadn’t looked twice when I signed the roster as a rifleman. So it went in the highland regiments. No too much gold, no too much silver, but there ye find no end of young lads to fill out a regiment if you don’t look twice.

Jon had no complaints. He’d risen faster than a mortar shell, distinguishing himself especially in sapping and other work with explosives. The horror of the early days in Crimea, with everyone sick and dying from dysentery or God knows what, made endless orders and nights crawling around in the dark, blowing this and that to smithereens preferable to waiting to die in the beach-head.

His old Captain, God rest him, had been fond of saying, “J.J. likes things best when they end with a boom!” and so he did. He’d been given the title of Commander of Engineers, a lieutenancy, an odd rabble of the malcontented, young, and over enthusiastic, and all the Lyddite the quartermaster could lay his hands.

A desperately high mortality rate among the regimental pipers set him on this, his latest course. The pipers all agreed it was better to be shot than wear tourney armor and try to play the pipes. Instead MacWoad had built, of armor plate, steel spring, and gears, power assisted plate armor that had preserved the lives of many a Highland Division piper.

Jon had applied the principles he’d developed for the piper armor to assault armor for infantry. He’d also tackled the problem of how to wind-up the monstrous suits. His contraptions relied primarily on stored kinetic energy, a spring system, and, in the field, the iron and steam behemoth they now rode served to wind each suit of heavily plated Highland UHI, as well as transport them along Woronzoff road.

Success led him to his current command and another promotion. The same men with more equipment. Ultra-Heavy Infantry was an idea whose time had come, it seemed, and his was the command of this current folly of his own invention. The piper suits worked well enough, hopefully this lot will work just as well in combat.

His executive officer, a wee lordling nearly as young as Jon himself, trooped up and directed his attention to the rear. Jon saw a column of light cavalry rapidly overtaking their plodding, hissing, smoking conveyance. His engineers, marching behind MacWoad’s specials, stepped aside as the column drew up. Jon felt a little discomfited standing in his protective inner suit. It looked for all the world like he was receiving the cavalry commander in padded winter underwear. No help for it now, but I’ll put the lads to making the inner suit look a bit more presentable. I’ll likely be conferring with other commanders in the future, if, that is, I survive this. “Hello sir,” MacWoad bellowed over the howl and chugg of his engine and the clank of the cavalry’s tack. “Captain MacWoad at your service.”

The sparkling cavalry commander, jacket more braid than wool, threw back a jaunty return salute and a withering stare. “I’m Major General Brudenell of her Majesties Light Brigade.” said the Earl of Cardigan, “Who commands here?”

MacWoad, aware of his cut in the lumpy woolens winced, “My Lord, I have that honor, We’re the Ultra-Heavy Infantry company of the 42nd. From the Highland Division,” he added helpfully. It’s said this Earl of Cardigan is jealous of the privilege of rank, opposing the elevation of competent, if common, men like me, thought Jon.

“Never heard of such.” hollered the General, “God’s breath man, are you in your undergarments? No time for any foolishness. Lorcan commands us to assault yon artillery up the valley at all cost and immediately.” Red-faced, the Earl added bitterly, “He orders, we die, let it be on his head.”

“I should think the cost will be high, my lord. Our force should make a dent in them, at least draw off some of the fire. . .”

“Infantry?” Cardigan scoffed, “The day I need the help of the infantry is the day I give up the light horse. I fail to see the use of a mere company of irregulars anyhow.”

“Well my lord, we’re the 42nd Engineers. . .”

“Engineers? . . .”

“Special troops, like the UHI, but. . .” the captain grimaced, “Hard to explain my lord, but we plan to attack the left, clear the heights to the North. . .” There are infantry and cannon on the heights. Let us clear your North flank, he thought but was over-ruled.

“The heights? Not for us. We are to attack the line up the valley. The French have the left. Ask the French Commander what he wants of you. We have our orders from damned Lorcan” The column of horse jittered and danced and then sprang to it as they began to get in battle order.

“But the cannon, we’re about at their maximum range now. . .” as if to prove his point the cannon emplaced on the rise to their North-East erupted and their cannon balls fell just short with gouts of dirt and debris.

Jon turned and hollered a ringing command, “Load up lads! We walk from here!” The great steam engine lurched to a halt. When MacWoad turning back, the Earl had already gone, bellowing orders, as cavalry continued to form up for the charge. Jon saluted sharply to the General’s retreating back, “Good luck and God speed you.” You fool.

The fellow will do what he will. I’m going to shock the hell out of that artillery. His suit rested, sitting, but pitched forward as if eager to be at it. A gaping man hole awaited his entry.

“They’re all wound, sir,” said an ordinance corporal, “. . .and loaded, and fueled.” The other UHI were already climbing off the steam engine.

MacWoad nodded. He wiggled his way down into the leg parts of the armored suit and carefully fit his feet into the foot actuators. Jon leaned into the chest plate, fitting his arms in their holes, making certain that nothing of him was between the seal and the tight wound back that the corporal heaved up and lowered over him with a clank. It was the matter of a moment, and then the kinetic energy storing back plate meshed with the gears and levers of the front, mechanical parts, of the battle suit.

Captain MacWoad settled into the device. He moved, tentatively at first, but with ever more confidence he stood and then stepped off the Engine. The other members of his troop of UHI were already moving around to form up.

They appeared awkward metal golems, red painted and tartan draped in the black and green colors of the 42nd highland regiment. Their left arm was largely subsumed by a multi-round scatter cannon. Their right hand could grasp a fire-arm or take hold of the claymore that could pivot forward from their forearm. “Check your rig!” shouted Captain MacWoad over the tick and clank of his twelve fellow UHI and three attached pipers. Cannon chambers rotated, hands drew and stowed hand-gun and claymore and, with a skirl, the pipers fired up “The Trooper And The Maid.”

“You know our business,” He shouted swinging into an easy large striding walk. “Give’em hell lads!” He watched as the line of cannon flashed and smoked. Oh Lord, please, they can’t have the range right. The rounds thundered before him, kicking up clods of earth, dust, and filling the air with small gravel that occasionally pinged off his thick metal carapace.

To his immediate left his piper strode with him. The piper’s suit sported over-lapping shields, left and right, that covered arms, hands, and bagpipes. His instrument was his weapon, the howling mournful call that raised the spirits of the men of the highland regiments and weakened the knees of their enemies. The six UHI to his left and his right each paced with their own armored and shielded piper. I mean the UHI to be shock troops, meant to engender terror as we inexorably marched toward our victim’s battle lines, and the pipes bring with the banshee wail of the highlands.

His own engineers followed closer than was truly safe behind the behemoths. They would send mortar fire and more at the entrenched artillery. I don’t think they’ll fire at any but us, and their misses are providing my boys with excellent cover.

Smoke shrouded the field and shot churned the ground lending a covering haze to the battlefield. They were larger than normal men, perhaps that had something to do with the Czar’s cannoneer’s poor aim.

“For King and Country” rang out above the battle noise. I hope the Earl can’t hear that. Brits were never very found of that one. No use rubbing Scottish royal hegemony under the Emperor in the face of the old aristocracy, he thought. They slid right now after the last fusillade had bathed him in dirt and stone and smoke. Close enough to feel the heat of it, he thought.

The Captain turned first left to see his left wings progress. They had worked their way higher on the slope, but were coming on line despite it now that the UHI was nearing their first goal. His piper paused his march, but never let the melody of war or the howling drones ebb. Far to the right and to the rear Captain MacWoad thought he might see the pennoned lances of the light cavalry flowing toward their own attack. The fool, he thought. If he’d just let us do our business.

He awkwardly tromped about to face his right so he could see the team on that flank was well advanced. I better get moving. This is it. MacWoad started the auxiliary power winder. Ether heated steam began to attenuate the kinetic power drain of walking across shell pocked fields. As the heat drove steam to work the ratcheting winder, the waste filled the steel pipes of the UHI’s own steam-pipe drones to add their moan to that of the pipers. He thrust his left arm toward the enemy line and sent a hail of sharpnel at the nervous artillerymen.

In answer, it seemed, cannon roared all over the valley. “Give ’em hell!” Jon shouted to the war gods. Not even the piper at his elbow could hear him. A concussion of bursting earth stunned him, a well aimed shot exploding at his feet. His ears rang, he feared his fight might be done as he stumbled through the murk of smoke and falling dirt, but the suit marched on undetered despite his ringing ears and how his body ached form the jolt.

Striding free of the cannon shot detritus, Jon could see before him the white, frightened, faces of the Czarists. MacWoad laughed madly and levered his sword into ready position. His steam drones bellowed, as he laughed, aimed, and fired at will, storming the line. Cannon roared and he heard shells hiss ineffectually past him. The cannoneers broke and ran.

Captain MacWoad now faced covering infantry. Much less flighty than their queen of battle comrades, a company bravely fired a double row of musketry into him. His suit pinged alarmingly, but he did not slow. He leveled his scatter-cannon left arm at the assembly and fired, and fired, and fired again to devastating effect.

The infantry retreated, falling back in good order, though they were much diminished with two men needing to drag away each one of the many wounded. Jon stomped forward, not allowing them leisure to reload.

His piper was at his elbow, still playing, God bless him, now “Campbell’s to the Fore,” Jon thought. Suddenly the retreating infantry withered on their left. Another UHI suited soldier strode out of the smoke and wreck, and the infantry melted, throwing down their weapons and fleeing for their lives.

The roar of cannon further to the East set him off again down a slope where infantry and another dug in artillery battery waited. We’ve gained their left flank. Well, Jon exalted, Nothing for it now, but to roll them up. He began his slow trudge toward the next objective, waving his claymore to signal the attack.

Captain MacWoad shut down his aux-winder and the metal drones on his back ceased their moaning. There really isn’t much commanding to do, he thought, We’ve trained, but I can’t really command anyone now that we’ve set off. I wonder what might be done about that? Captain MacWoad continued his walk, guiding on the continuing roar of cannon above him on another rise. His piper was still with him, “Highland Laddie” ringing from the trees. MacWoad sidled right, gratified to see at least one other UHI striding beside him. I can’t tell one from the other either, bad planning that.

Whether because of “Highland Laddie,” or reports from the escapees, cannoneer or infantry, rifle fire began to ping off his suit and kick up the dirt all around. Damn, I’m missing them to the left, thought Captain MacWoad, noting the direction of fire from his right flank. He saw a hurried and uneven line of riflemen organizing.

Firing up his aux-winder for the shock effect of his steam drones, he lumbered to a charge. I hope the piper can guide on my drones. I’d hate for him to march off into the Fedioukine heights and run out of wind. The line billowed a salvo of gun-smoke and the rattling increased to a hail storm of metal to no more effect than the earlier fire. Jon fired a couple of times at the line with his scatter cannon and was well rewarded with a total dissolution of order as the forming lines transformed into fleeing individuals.

Behind the infantry screen, cannon roared. That’s blasting the cavalry brigade, unless I miss my guess, he thought, hopefully I’m not the only one left to stop the slaughter. Jon continued up along the ridge toward the cannon, the valley, and what might come. soon enough he knew the screen that he’d scattered was not the main resistance. A great roar of musketry belched smoke, though he took only a very few of them.

The immediate reason for the long range discharge was heartening. At least four of his UHI were closing in on the formations with great effect. The Russians wavered, and then fell back. They are giving up easily, the Captain thought, noticing frantic reorganization on the part of the Russian officers, They aren’t pointing at my boys, strange.

Above the comforting sound of the pipes and the workings of his own iron suit, there was a thundering from his rear. The French cavalry streamed past MacWoad. Oh, I see now, my UHI were strange monsters, to be avoided, undoubtedly, and likely not that hard to skirt if you are infantry, but cavalry, well that is a known danger for fleeing troops on foot.

Jon left the infantry to be scattered by the cavalry. The Captain looked to the cannon and the valley beyond. If only Lord Cardigan had had the patience or good sense or both to let us do or business before he made his charge, the Captain thought, such a waste.

But then there was no time for thought. The cannon, forewarned, were drawn out of their revetments and aimed at their strange attackers. The roar was deafening. Shells screamed by him out of the smoke and one struck immediately before him, bringing a great gout of dirt and stone and perhaps the shattered shell itself against him, nearly knocking him backward down grade. He was stunned and shocked, but somehow still standing.

Without thought, or a clear target, he raised his scatter-cannon left arm and fired and fired into the swirling smoke screen. His shells, though small, were packed with an explosive charge of Lyddite. Every flash, seen blearily through the smoke, was accompanied by the screams of wounded men. Again he fired, but this shot’s flash seemed followed by a great intake of breath, and then a flash like a score of suns and a concussive blast that sent him stumbling.

MacWoad marvelled that he was still standing. Soon enough he found he’d stumbled into a tree. He was a moment disentangling himself from the remains. The ringing in his ears made Jon fear that he might be deaf from the blast, but he’d only barely enough time to begin that worry, and his faithful piper fired up with, “Cock O’ the North.”

The blast had scoured the ridge of the cannon set to face them, and not far past, a great fire, and column of smoke marked the burning magazine, which erupted from time to time sending ammunition-box-matchsticks and shrapnel whirring through the air. A UHI suited soldier was fallen over a timbered cannon emplacement. Closer to his right was another laid out on his back. MacWoad could see the red paint scoured off the breastplate and the tartan draping the hips torn to shreds. There was more damage he saw, perhaps the suit had sustained a direct hit dead center and he feared for his man. Then, to his vast relief, the fallen UHI moved.

Unsteadily Jon moved off and around toward the valley. He looked up to see a piper and two UHI standing and facing along his line of march. Beyond he saw what enthralled them. The light cavalry had breached the line of artillery at the end of the valley to the East and was even now running down fleeing elements of the defense. Less promising, the Captain noted, was a sizable force of cossacks behind the guns.

Horses ran loose in the valley, but as many or more were dead on the ground. The cannon had done their deadly work. Jon gasped. Not only the batteries to the north where he stood, but there were naval guns emplaced on the southern slope, and before them a bloody mess.

“Mon Capitan, Mon Capitan,” an urgent cry came from behind him. Awkwardly Jon turned to see a young French cavalry officer, about his age, calming his jittery horse. “Sir, compliments of the commander of the Chasseurs d’Afrique, Armand d’Allonville. Your help was invaluable in clearing the Russians from these heights, but he begs your attention to the guns on the Causeway Heights to the South. If you can not take them, he would understand, but the English light must retreat, he says, and he fears what those naval guns will do to what remains of those brave men.”

Where he stood, Jon could see that it was true. Cardigan’s brigade was through the line of cannon, but cossacks in great numbers were moving to repulse him and they must retire, likely through the same hail of cannon as before less the two half batteries that Chasseurs d’Afrique were finishing off on the Fedioukine Heights.

“Tell the general I’ll do all I can,” said MacWoad, returning the junior officer’s salute and watching as the man wheel and rode off at a gallop. The cannon were well emplaced overlooking the bloody path the light brigade had traversed. He looked after the retreating French officer and saw his missing left wing striding toward them. Good, they look in better trim than we on the right. We’ll have a go at those guns to the South and see what comes of it.

Captain MacWoad looked around him to see what remained of his right wing UHI. They were closer to me, he thought, but I saw two were down. Out out of the smoke walked three figures, a piper and two UHI.

All three pipers gathered and their chanter’s voices settled and meshed, blowing “the Yellow Haired Laddie” as they looked off into the bloody valley of death. Bloody hell, what have we lost? Jon turned back toward where he’d seen a UHI laid out, it seemed, by the direct hit of a cannon ball. His dismounted engineers had rolled the metal hulk onto it’s front. The back-hatch and winding mechanism lifted away and the lads were pulling the man inside out of his machine. To MacWoad’s delighted surprise, instead of the careful dignity afforded a corpse, the engineers were boisterous, slapping the man on the back.

His little force was gathering and he roared for their attention over the hubbub, “Listen up!” It took more than a moment for the buzz to fall off so he impatiently continued, “Shut it ya girls, you can gossip on your own time.” That sort of insult let them know they’d better listen, MacWoad continued, “We need to take the cannon to the South before those poor bastards have to run back through the gauntlet. What’s left of the right stays here to guard these cannon and hold the Chasseurs d’Afrique flank.”

“That frog cavalry, sir?” piped up one of his better engineer sergeants.

It gave him the chance to get a good breath for another bellow. “Aye. Left UHI are going to take out those guns on the Causeway Heights. If we can get support all the better, but we need to do this now.”

“You’ll need your ether tanks topped off sir. We brought on extra,” yelled another senior sergeant.

“Five minutes for fuel and whatever else you can do and then we’re off!” shouted MacWoad. Instantly the riot exploded into action. I’ve never been more proud, he thought.

Not much more than the five minutes saw Captain MacWoad, and his six, striding toward the naval gun battery still emplaced on the opposite rise. There is no more need for orders, thought Jon, We just need to face down those cannon with their explosive shells. We will do this or we won’t.

Far too soon they were among the wounded and dead, picking their way through the carnage of the mauled cavalry. Someone should answer for this, thought MacWoad, This is not war. Then the battery above them belched smoke and the air was soon filled with flying dirt and shrapnel.

As the ground began to rise beneath their ponderous steps the guns did not stop firing, but the rounds flew high. MacWoad was elated for a moment until, between the explosions of the shells, he could hear the screams of dying men and horses. Jon fired up his ether auxiliary winder and let the steam drones drown it all out.

His men with him, Jon charged. The final blast caught him on his left arm-cannon, shredding the thing, and tossing him like a rag doll. Jon James MacWoad felt the great shock of it, the blast of heat, and then no more.

* * *

He awoke among the sick and the dying. “Bloody hell,” he cursed feebly and then thought, and it is. I’m in hell. The stench of blood and worse assaulted his nose. His left arm felt like it was on fire. He looked down and saw it swathed in splints and bandages. “Thank you Lord Jesus,” MacWoad croaked and started to rise.

Out of nowhere an angel of mercy appeared. “Lay down Major, you’ve been badly hurt.”

“Not Major,” he mumbled, “Captain.”

She smiled brightly, “Well, sir, we shall see about that, but for now you should rest. You’ve had a bad shock.”

“I can’t rest here,” He was gathering his wits, This is a place people die. My best chance is somewhere else. Anywhere else.

And then his men were there. They helped him up and patted him gently. “It’s all right Cap, we’ve got you,” they said.

The angel in white looked vexed, “Major MacWoad needs bed rest and. . .”

“Oh don’t you worry mum, we’ll put him to bed, right we will.”

“. . .nourishing food. . .”

The men know how much I detest hospital, Jon rejoiced.

“We’ll feed him good and proper, mum”

“And he needs his dressings changed every other day,” she objected.

His senior sergeant paused. “Can we bring him by for that?” he temporized.

She frowned, but softened at Jon’s pleading look. “Very well, bring Major MacWoad tomorrow and ask for Florence. Mind, if you don’t, I’ll hunt you down.”

For the first time in the whole of the Crimean war, the 42nd Engineers beat a hasty retreat.


© Copyright 2015 L. Stephen O’Neill (UN: sonofniall at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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