The figure in the dark blue Marine dress uniform entered the room in the Sanitarium. He had not knocked. The door was slightly ajar, the shutters closed. Where the sunlight filtered through the ill fitting gaps around the frame, dust swirled and eddied. In an armchair in the far corner, next to the iron framed bed sat and old man. His cheeks sunken, dark circles below his eyes and breath rasping in and out of his lungs. He looked up as the figure approached, his polished boots clicking loudly on the painted stone floor as the Marine went to the shutters and opened one side allowing light to stream into the room. The old man looked again at the figure now bathed in sunlight and slowly shook his head and coughed quietly.
The Marine took a chair from behind the door and scraping it across the floor sat down opposite the man.
“Good morning, grandfather”
The old man looked him up and down, shook his head again. “Hello boy. You did it then? The Marines?”
“Yes. I know. I know…. But this is my country now. The war in the Old Country has been raging for years and now it is time to bring it to an end. The old order is destroying itself. And I can help stop that.”
“You should have gone with your father. The Grand Duke called. He gave you everything you have. You OWE him!”. The old man started coughing. The growing anger in his voice becoming too much for him.
Passing his grandfather a glass of water, the Marine sat back down and sighed.
The old man regained his composure and pointed to the large cupboard on the far side of the room. “On the bottom shelf. Bring me the box.”
Placing the wooden box in the old man’s lap the Marine sat down again and waited.
He knew it was no good to argue with his grandfather and knowing that the man would likely be dead by the time he returned he did not want to part in anger. The anger was inevitable. His grandfather had come to the States with the first Grand Duke over fifty years ago when many factions from the Old Countries had come to the aid of both the North and South. His grandfather rarely talked of that time but despite staying on after the campaign ended in victory for the North, the old man still maintained a fierce loyalty to the old Duke. Both sons had been sent back across the Great Ocean to serve the Duke and obtain a proper military training. His own father had served with distinction with the famed Savage Swans and had only returned to the States five years ago, before the Great Wars had started. His father had answered the Duke’s call a year ago and returned to take command of the Savage Swans themselves as the last of the von Donovans’ had finally fallen in battle. He had wanted his only son to follow him. To serve the Duke. To serve the Legion. Like the Lamm family had done for over 180 years.
But Peter Lamm had only known the States. The New World. And could see no reason to follow his father to shed blood in a world he knew nothing about and cared little to see it’s violent enmities enacted with such wholesale slaughter. His father had left cursing him. His grandfather, by now a shadow of the great soldier he was, had accepted the long slow death he knew awaited him, and had left the boy to his own path. Peter knew he disapproved strongly but was now too focused on his own death so had moved away and they had spoken little in the last two years.
But now the New World had decided the age old feuds of the Old needed their help to resolve and the Expeditionary Force would set sail tomorrow and Peter Lamm would join them. And he prayed he would not meet his father on the field of battle.
His grandfather finally coughed to bring him out of his thoughts and sat there with the box now open and a small pile of papers, newspaper cuttings and old faded photographs. Peter knew what was coming but just took a deep breath and smiled. They both knew he would not change his mind but Peter sensed his grandfather may finally speak more of his times at war and the great battles he saw and Peter wanted to hear this. To prepare himself for the horrors he knew would come.
His grandfather fixed him with a steely glare that belied his nearness to death. “Let me tell you of the cruel wars in the Colonies”…
The war between North and South had been raging for three years and was no closer to resolution. The bloodshed had been terrible on both sides so in an attempt to force a conclusion both sides sent out calls to the Old World for aid. And many answered that call. Medetia, Darien, yyyy. Many. And the Grand Duke of Altefritzenburg, after a personal visit by Charles Huffington, now a ADC in the Federal army, called for Von Donovan’s Legion, the fabled Savage Swans, and set sail with the Altefritzenburg Colonial Expeditionary Force. At the time I had command of a company in the Swans First Regiment. We had been fighting the Französisch armies to the west and the fighting had been hard but the Swans, at full strength from the last intake of recruits was a fine fighting force and it was an honour to lead even a Company of them.
I’ll not bore you with the details of the voyage. Over the last hundred years the Legion had crossed many times, especially before the Colonies finally shook off their Britannic rulers. As we docked in New York it became clear that many states had answered the call and we soon saw that even the Sultan of Kha’ra’mel, on a grand tour of the West, had decided to join us with his personal retinue and guards. Given our long association from the many campaigns in Byzarbia we were to be brigaded with the Sultan’s troops. This always caused some angst amongst our troops as despite being long and reliable allies to the Duke, the Sultan still used Französisch advisors in his army. But we were all professionals and put this aside for the sake of the campaign ahead.
After several days rest we headed south as part of George Meade’s 2nd Division of the Federal Army of Virginia Department of the Platte Valley under Major General John Reynolds. We were a very strange army. In just our own 2nd Division we had the lancers and archers of the Sultan, with the Regiment Chambeau and their fabled Blood Red Guns. Oh. And opportunistic as ever, the Pirates of the Purple Sash attached themselves to the Sultan’s troops in the hope of gold!. We had our own elite Uhlans of the Legion and the great breech loading guns of the 1st Altefritzenburg Battery, the Swans themselves and the veteran Altefritzenburg Jaegers. And joining us on route was the last of the northern natives. And accompanying us all on the march was the Altefritzenburg Field Band which did wonders for our morale and brought back memories of home. We heard many rumours of the forces joining the South but some seemed so fantastical as to bring laughter from my veterans. I knew they would deal with whatever faced them. Did I say what a fine body of men they were. The finest. The Legion would never see their like again…
The old man paused in his tale as tears welled in his eyes. He shook his head vigorously and blinked a few times while he shuffled the papers in his lap. His composure regained, he resumed his story…
We had bivouacked for the night to the east of the great steel mill that we had been tasked to secure. The main turnpike ran across the front of our lines and camp and to our right, the road was swallowed by great woods.
It was still dark when the pickets rushed back with reports of a large force approaching us from the South. I remember little of the overall battle to our east but I know we were deployed on the far right of the line. The turnpike to our front, our guns entrenched, jaegers to the front, then the Swans and the Regiment Chameau. Our cavalry was held back in our rear until we knew what we faced. Our natives the rabble of the Purple Sash immediately disappeared in the woods to our right no doubt to spring the traps on an unwary enemy for which they were famed.
And then they came. It was an amazing sight. Airships, balloons, strange weapons and men in armour! What a force we faced. And women. Nuns for God’s sake. Armed and disciplined. The papers made much of these things in the days following the battle.
Peter’s grandfather shuffled though the papers on his lap and handed me several clippings and some old photographs
But it didn’t bother us. We’d seen the wonders of Byzarbia and beyond and these were just new enemies who would feel the sharp of our steel. But even then, war was changing. And as change came in one door, honour left by another…
I’ll not bore you with a blow by blow account. Such things are for the military historians and the Kreigspiel players in the Academies. The enemy came on as our guns exchanged shot and shell with theirs. And ours had the better of that exchange. I watched our Jaegers advance and harass the advancing troops to great effect. And as the enemy line approached the woods we waited for our hidden troops to spring their trap.
Then things went wrong. Badly wrong… You’ve heard tell of the ‘Rebel Yell’. It was a terrible thing to hear as an enemy approached but of greater worry when we heard it within the woods to our flank. Our natives and the pirates did not find their work to their taste on that day. From talking to the survivors the next day it seemed the pirates had reacted well and held their ground in the woods against a whole regiment of the enemy. Our natives, to their never ending shame, stood, turned to face the enemy and on taking their first volley, they ran. All of them. Cowards…
Then our orders came. Assailed from two sides the Count sent the Jaegers further forward to cover our manoeuvres and both the Swans and the Regt. Chameau wheeled and advanced into the woods to face the unknown threat. Better drilled (the Franzoisitch would never admit this!) my Swans advanced in first as the Chameau sorted themselves out. And then the volleys came and my men began to fall.
As I glanced over my shoulder I saw our cavalry begin to arrived and the Jaegers, having done great service, saw wagons rush their front, covers thrown back to reveal Gatling guns. The slaughter was terrible and soon not a man was standing. Our gunners brought their pieces to bear and shattered some wagons but soon our advancing cavalry blocked them. The remaining wagon then moved to our rear and more of my men fell to the deadly guns. But to their credit none turned to face this threat. They delivered volley after volley to their front, closed ranks and fought on.
That was when I took a round to the chest. I should have died then. It would have been better. But I lay there and watched my men die. They stood and fired and fell. But they never ran. Never turned. And soon their volleys stopped.
The tears returned and it took some time for the old man to regain his composure. I leant over and gripped his hand and felt the weakness of returned grip.
That was the end of the Swans really. The unit lost so many veterans that day it was never the same again. Still a fine fighting force to be relied on. But not the same…
To my right I saw the Regiment Chameau finally move in to the woods and heard volley after volley from them. But soon they too fell back, despite the screams of their blue coated officers and the Sultan cursing their every backward step!
What else is there to say? As my lifeblood seeped from me I saw other things. The balloons crept over our lines and dropped noxious bombs whose clouds of gas brought a quick and terrible death to those caught within its misty embrace. It was this that silenced all our guns.
And I saw the Sultans’ cavalry descend upon the enemy infantry and they too stood and died, knowing their Sultan watched them.
I knew the flank was lost. No one came to our aid. And as I lay there the enemy advanced over the bodies of my comrades and prepared to descend on the flank of the army. The last I saw was my brothers, the Legion Uhlans, advance and charge the infantry to their front, in disregard of the gathering forces on their flanks. Then the darkness took me…
Peter had know a little of this tale but not in such detail. And not with such emotion. His grandfather was silent for some time and eventually looked up, the glimmer of a smile on his thin lips.
But I lived. Just. And we won. On the rest of the field the enemy was slaughtered despite their infernal machines. Many times they tried to cross the open ground and each time the guns and muskets struck them down. I like to think that our fight on the right helped win the day. If we had fallen sooner, then the enemy would have been on the flank of the main army and they would have had to turn to face and maybe not been able to stop all the many many brave charges they faced. Who knows…
Peter look at the old man again. Squeezed the hand he found he was still holding and stood up.
“It’s a fine tale, grandfather, and I thank you for sharing it. And I salute you and your comrades for what they achieved that day. But my mind is still made up. War is no longer like that. The infernal machines of which you speak are now commonplace and the honour you sought on the field of battle is now much harder to find. But it is still there. My fellow Marines could give your Swans, now or then, a run for their money and…”
The old man laughed out loud, choked and as the coughing subsided smiled while shaking his head, “Now, maybe, but not then. No, not then”
Peter found himself smiling as well, “…and maybe you are right. Not then…”
The old man looked up, “It’s time you left. They’ll be bringing my medicines soon and my mood always turns sour afterwards and I would not inflict that upon you.” He started putting the papers and photographs back in the box. He closed it and held it out to his grandson. “ Take these. Read them. And if you meet your father over there, give the box to him. He will appreciate it more”
Peter ignored the insult, for it was probably true. But he shook his head and stepped back. “Keep them, I’ll get them on my return and we’ll look at them together.” He drew himself to attention and saluted the old man, turned and walked out of the room, quickly, to hide the tears that welled in his eyes.
The old man returned the box to his lap. He would need the nurse to return it to its home. As he sat there waiting for his medicine the tears returned. He knew he would not live long enough to see Peter’s return. And in his heart he knew that his grandson and his son would not survive the ever increasing carnage in the Old World.
When the nurse entered the room an hour later the old man was dead, his hands still gripping the wooden box and his face still wet with tears…