THE DIN OF BATTLE

The battle of Girkhe–The Duc de Mercœur pits twenty thousand
Christians against sixty thousand Turks–The conflict rages from
morn till night–Meldritch’s men do valiant service–John’s horse is
killed under him–He is rescued by Culnitz and saves the latter’s
life in turn–Duplaine dies fighting one to ten–The Earl’s fearful
plight–Seven hundred against three thousand–“For faith and
Meldritch!”–The Earl is cut off–“Culnitz! Vahan! Follow me! To the
Chief, my men!”–Count Ulrich turns the scales–The Turks break and
flee from the field–Victory and night.

Alba Regalis had been in the hands of the Turks for thirty years,
and during that time had become virtually a Moslem city. Turkish
mosques, palaces and market place had been constructed in it and its
fortifications had been strengthened until the place was well-nigh
impregnable. The Turks had come to consider Alba Regalis a permanent
possession and its fall was a great blow to their pride as well as a
serious setback in their military operations. As soon as the Sultan
was informed of the Duc de Mercœur’s advance against the stronghold,
he hastily raised a force of sixty thousand men and sent it to the
relief, under Hassan Pasha, the commander-in-chief of the Turkish
army. Hassan had pushed forward with all possible expedition but,
as we know, Alba Regalis fell whilst he was still a considerable
distance away. This did not check the advance of the Turkish general.
On the contrary it induced him to hurry on in the hope of arriving
before the Christians should have time to repair the breaches in the
walls and other damages to the defences which their assault must, as
he naturally supposed, have made. Thanks, however, to Captain John
Smith’s stratagem, as we should now call him, the artillery had been
comparatively little used in the reduction of the city and a few days
sufficed to put it in its former condition, so far as the outworks were
concerned.

Scouts kept a close watch on the Turkish army and reported to the Duc
that it was strung out to such an extent that the last regiments were
a full day’s march behind the vanguard. This fact suggested to Mercœur
the bold expedient of going out to meet the enemy instead of awaiting
him behind the walls of Alba Regalis. The plan was based on logical
reasoning and had the approval of Meldritch and other leaders. The
Turks would not expect such a move and would continue their advance
in single column of regiments. The Christians would thus have the
advantage of numbers on their side in the early part of the engagement
and the enemy could hardly bring more than two to one against them
before the close of the first day. If advisable the defenders of
the city might retire within the walls at nightfall. The force of
Hassan Pasha was largely composed of raw levies, undisciplined and
inexperienced, who would necessarily be worn in consequence of the
forced marches to which they had been subjected. Furthermore, the Duc
was too keen a soldier to allow thirty thousand men to be shut up in a
beleaguered town for months when their services were so urgently needed
elsewhere. These considerations then prompted him to a decision which
proved to have been an eminently wise one.

Mercœur had no idea of seriously hazarding the loss of Alba Regalis.
When he issued to battle there were left in the town ten thousand men,
a sufficient number to hold it for some months even if the worst befell
their comrades. With his main body, twenty thousand strong, the Duc
marched out to meet the oncoming Turks. The spot he selected for the
encounter was one where the enemy must debouche from a comparatively
narrow way upon the extensive plains of Girkhe. The latter expanse
afforded ideal conditions for the movement of cavalry, upon which arm
the general mainly depended for success. The Christian army arrived
at the battle-ground at the close of day and, after throwing out a
chain of videttes and posting strong guards, passed a restful night in
bivouac.

The Duc’s force had hardly finished its morning meal when the videttes
retired before the van of the advancing Turks and the outposts fell
back in orderly manner upon the main body. The hoarse bray of the
trumpets called the soldiers “to arms” and, as they had lain down
in ranks the night before, the regiments were formed in a very few
minutes. It was no part of the Duc’s plan to contest the advance of
the enemy or to attempt to drive him back. The Turkish regiments as
they arrived were freely permitted to march forward and deploy upon the
plain. The Christian army was massed, and as each corps of the Ottomans
lined up in its crescent formation the Duc sent one of his own against
it. They were about equal in numbers, that is to say, each one thousand
strong. It was the hope of the Christian commander that in this way
he should be able to rout a considerable portion of the Turkish army
before it could bring a very superior force upon the field. The best
of his troops Mercœur held back until the latter part of the day when
the hardest fighting might be expected to occur. Thus John Smith and
many another brave fellow was forced to stand impatiently watching
his comrades in action. Twice during the forenoon, however, Captain
Smith was permitted to take out his troop and make a brief charge for
the purpose of turning the tide where a Christian regiment appeared
to be overmatched. So, for hours this strange battle progressed in
a series of duels. Every thirty or forty minutes brought a fresh
Turkish regiment on the field where it was at once engaged by one of
the Christian corps in an isolated conflict. There was no attempt at
military tactics or combined movements on the part of the various
colonels. Each had his own little battle to fight with a Turkish
zanzack. He was instructed to attend strictly to that and pay no heed
to what might be going on around him. When he had beaten and routed the
body opposed to him, he was to retire and rest his men and horses.

It was a very ingenious arrangement when you think about it. Once
engaged the Turks were obliged to come on as at first. If they should
halt, even for an hour to mass a strong force, the Christian commander
would overwhelm and annihilate the Moslem regiments upon the field.
Despite the fact that several bodies of the Ottomans were utterly
broken and driven from the field, the constant arrival of fresh Turks
gradually increased their numbers until at noon they had fully twenty
thousand men in action, opposed to about thirteen thousand of the Duc
de Mercœur’s force. Up to this time five thousand of the Moslems and
two thousand Christians had been put out of action. The former were
constantly receiving fresh accessions to their numbers, whilst the
regiments of the latter which had been most actively engaged during the
morning could only be lightly employed thereafter.

But the flower of Mercœur’s force had been held in reserve until
this time. It consisted of five regiments of splendid cavalry–five
thousand horsemen eager for the fray. The time had come to launch them
against the enemy in support of the now hardly-pressed troops that had
borne the burden of battle thus far. The commanders and men knew what
was expected of them. They were prepared to meet odds of five to one
and more if necessary. They had fed and watered their chargers, they
had looked to their buckles and bits. Their pistols were loaded and
primed and each had drained the flagon of wine handed to him by his
horse-boy. They made a brave picture as they sat their champing steeds
in glistening armor and with drawn swords awaiting the word to advance.
Since each corps acted as an independent unit, we can only follow the
fortunes of that which bore the brunt of the fierce fighting in the
afternoon of that memorable autumn day.

The regiment of Meldritch consisted of four companies, commanded
respectively by the following captains: Duplaine, a Frenchman; Vahan
and Culnitz, Germans; and the Englishman, John Smith. Each of these
performed prodigies of valor before the fall of night and the dashing
Duplaine met a soldier’s death upon the field.

The Earl lost no time in taking his impatient men into action. Riding
in their front, conspicuous by his great height and the scarlet
plumes that surmounted his helmet, he led them towards a body of the
enemy that had just entered the plain. Meldritch’s corps, in line of
double rank, advanced at a trot, breaking into a hand-gallop as they
approached the foe. Then, as the uplifted sword of the Earl gave the
signal, they swept forward in a mighty charge and with a shout crashed
through the line of Turks, overthrowing horse and rider in their
impetuous course. In an instant the ground was strewn with dead and
dying, with kicking animals and with men striving to get clear of the
struggling mass. The victors rode among them slaying without mercy,
whilst the remnant of the broken regiment fled in every direction.

When his men had reformed and breathed their horses, the Earl sent them
at another regiment with like results, and so again and again. But such
work tells on man and horse, and as Meldritch’s men tired the odds by
which they were confronted increased. They no longer swept through the
ranks of the enemy with ease but had to cut and hew their passage.
Their charges broke the compactness of their own lines and ended in
mêlées from which they emerged in small bodies with loss and fatigue.

In one of these later encounters, the black Barbary–his colonel’s gift
to Captain Smith–suddenly pitched forward in the throes of death,
flinging his rider heavily to the ground. Our hero’s career must have
ended there had not Culnitz spurred to his rescue just as three Turks
rode at him.

“Up! Up behind me in the saddle!” cried Culnitz generously, as he
reached John’s side. But the young Englishman had no idea of hazarding
his comrade’s life by such a proceeding. His sword had flown from
his hand as he fell. He now snatched Culnitz’s battle-axe from the
saddle-bow and prepared to help his rescuer meet the trio of Turks
who were now upon them. One of these, whose handsome horse and fine
accoutrements proclaimed him to be a person of distinction, attacked
the German captain from the side on which John stood. Ignoring the man
on foot, the Turk swung his blade at the neck of the mounted officer.
Culnitz was completely engaged with the other two assailants and the
blow must have severed his head but, as the Turk’s arm swept forward,
it met the battle-axe wielded by our hero, which shattered the bone.
The next instant Smith had dragged the Turk from his horse and was in
the saddle. The gallant young captains now had little difficulty in
disposing of the two Moslems who confronted them and a few others who
attempted to bar their return to their comrades.

The Colonel was overjoyed to see his two young officers reappear and
their men greeted them with wild huzzas, for all had feared that they
were cut off and lost. Meldritch’s regiment was now reduced to a scant
three companies. Duplaine had met a glorious fate fighting single
handed against ten of the enemy. His company–that is what was left of
it–the Earl distributed amongst the other three and once more formed
his men up for a fresh attack. They were fortunate at this juncture in
finding themselves near a small stream at which men and horses assuaged
their consuming thirst.

The hours had dragged slowly by to the anxious Duc who, surrounded
by his staff, stood upon an eminence surveying the field. His breast
swelled with pride at the many sights of valor presented by the
constantly shifting scene. Never had commander witnessed more gallant
service, but men are mortal and Mercœur knew that flesh and blood could
not much longer endure the fearful strain. The Turks had put full
forty thousand men upon the plain since the day begun and their troops
were still arriving in a steady stream. Scarce ten thousand Christians
remained fit to fight, and these were already pitted against some
thirty thousand Moslems. Anxiously the commander’s gaze followed the
slowly setting sun, and as Wellington in after years longed for the
arrival of Blücher, so Mercœur now prayed for the fall of night.

Looking toward the road over which the Turkish troops, like a huge
snake had poured all day, a sight met the Duc’s eyes that caused his
heart to beat with apprehension. To his utter dismay he saw approaching
a stately body of men on white chargers. He quickly recognized them as
the Barukh Regiment, one of the finest in the army of the Sultan and
two thousand strong.

“Now may Our Lady of Mercy support Meldritch,” cried Mercœur with
emotion, “for surely no mortal help can save him in this pass!”

This deep concern on the part of the general was excited by the
fact that Meldritch’s regiment, which we left reforming for another
onslaught, was nearest to the Barukhs, who were evidently extending
their ranks with the design of attacking it. Quickly the white horsemen
advanced and Meldritch, when he was apprised of his danger, found his
corps enveloped in a rough triangle, the base of it formed by the body
of the enemy he had been on the point of charging. At a glance his
soldier’s eye recognized the superiority of the Barukh cavalry and he
wheeled two companies about to face the graver danger, whilst to Vahan,
with the third, was entrusted the task of preventing a rear attack by
the smaller body of the enemy.

They were seven hundred to three thousand. To charge upon their jaded
horses must have been to break themselves and become engulfed in that
mass of splendid horsemen. The Earl, therefore, decided to await the
attack. It was the climax of the fight–the most critical moment of the
day. On the result of the coming conflict depended the issue of the
battle. The Earl turned in his saddle and addressed his men.

“These be worthy of our steel,” he cried, pointing with his outstretched
sword towards the oncoming Barukhs. “Our commander watches us. Let every
man strike for Christ, for honor and for life.” “For Faith and
Meldritch!” responded the men heartily.

The Turks charged with courageous fury. Seven hundred pistols were
discharged full in their faces, emptying hundreds of saddles. They
recoiled but came again almost immediately. Once more they received a
volley at close range and this time fell back in disorder, their ranks
thrown into confusion by the great number of riderless horses that
ran wildly amongst them. The Earl deemed the moment favorable for a
counter-attack.

“Charge!” he cried in ringing tones, and plunged into the Moslem horde,
followed by his men.

Thrusting and hacking for dear life, Meldritch’s troopers slowly fought
their way through the Barukhs. As they emerged in little knots they
began to rally round the standards of their several leaders. The three
captains were thus engaged in collecting the remnants of their men,
when they perceived that the Earl was completely cut off. His plume,
now no ruddier than his armor, marked the spot where alone, like a lion
at bay, he held back a circle of the enemy. The red rays of the evening
sun flashed from his long blade which, like a streak of fire, swept in
wide strokes, now on this side and anon on that.

“To the Chief!” shouted John. “Culnitz! Vahan! Follow me! To the Chief,
my men!”

Smith’s voice rose above the clangor of weapons as he spurred into the
dense mass of Moslems, closely followed by his fellow-captains. With
slashing blows they opened a lane through which some fifty of their men
rode after them. In a few minutes they gained beside the wearied Earl
and surrounded him with a band of devoted followers.

The situation of this handful of heroes, beset by more than a thousand
furious enemies, was precarious in the extreme. To cut their way out
was impossible, and they prepared to sell their lives dearly and die
as becomes gallant soldiers. But Fortune favors the brave. At this
critical juncture, Count Ulrich, having routed the force to which he
had been opposed, was able to bring his regiment to the relief of
Meldritch. They bore down upon the Barukhs who, taken in the rear and
by surprise, broke and fled over the field.

The Turkish trumpets now sounded the “recall” and the shattered
regiments of the Sultan retired to where Hassan’s banner proclaimed the
presence of the dispirited commander. The Duc de Mercœur’s exhausted
men lay down in their cloaks upon the ground which they had soaked with
the blood of ten thousand Turks.