Duchess of Zeon
Indian Army of Baluchistan, XI Corps Headquarters, Bam, Iran.
The crunch of steel-shod hooves on gravel created a steady, powerful cadence to the tramp of the cavalry as it marched down the ancient road from Bam westwards towards Kerman. The Safavid citadel and the much older “Elamite fort” which probably had not been built by the Kings of Elam at all. But it was still called that, by the officers at least. And the officers were a motley lot! The cavalry subalterns that rode past were mostly boys, straight out of college and filled with dreams of competition, or perhaps all-to-uncomfortably aware of the hideous rate of casualties from the Great War.
Roads in Iran were based around very ancient paths—thus the circuitous route to Kerman, south and then west-northwest. The massive citadel of the Safavids, all that solid mud brick that was only somewhat pockmarked by artillery fire from the storming of the town, showed an ancient city, literally built entirely of mud, save for a few Drakian offices and supply posts cleared out in one area near the Citadel. Of course the Citadel, considering Drakian styles, had been occupied by troops. But most of those men were dead on the road and the rest had died in it when the 1st Battalion, Second Sikh Rifles, had stormed the walls under a hail of mortar fire and taken the interior at point of bayonet. They're lost a hundred men doing it, too.
The flag of the Second Sikhs flew over Bam, only slightly lower than the flag of the Viceroy that was raised over the citadel. For had it not been the Indian Empire that had stormed the walls? General Claiborne watched as the units marched on, the cavalry following behind the motorised infantry, two battalions of Matilda tanks, and units of the Army of Oudh which had already past by. The next cavalry regiment along was looking better formed, the 5th Regiment of Rajputana Lancers. But they had reason to be.
Commanding the unit was a stiff-necked man of about thirty, a lieutenant colonel, commissioned from the reserves and a political officer among the countless fiefdoms of Rajputana. He led his men with pride, and most of the officers were drawn from the Indian civil service, the District Agents so vital to the life of the average Indian villager. They could all speak Hindi and Farsi (for it was the tongue of royalty in the Indian Princely States) and the “other ranks” of that unit were almost entirely noblemen. A Rajput ruler would have several wives; and often a dozen more concubines. For his younger sons there was but one path in life acceptable according to the rigid caste system of India, and that was the Army. There were a few Risaldars beside; but they could scarcely be more experienced, as the Subadars and Risaldars of the Indian Army were now valued battalion commanders of front-line units in their own right, which the cavalry was not.
The pennants of the regiment and the regimental guidon fluttered alongside the Viceroyal flag and they were all carried with exceptional pride. The men rode with their eyes rigidly forward, ignoring alike the sounds of the 61st King George's Own Pioneers that were working alongside the road, establishing depots in the abandoned homes, and the distant call to prayer made from the highest watchtower in the city that had not been demolished, to an improvised Mosque, the people after twenty years of terror returning to their prayers with thanksgiving in their heart. Many were not from here; many were jumbled from the countless races of Central Asia to dilute their cultures, but of course the Draka had arrogantly ignored the common bond of Islam until it was to late.
The Fifth Rajputana Lancers had eight hundred lances raised in marching position, very solemn above their heads. They looked very much the part of knights, resplendant in the ominously bright-red uniforms they wore which had been issued them straight out of a storage depot from where they had been left no doubt at the turn of the century. Their rifles and pistols were a mishmash of private hunting and defence arms; when units like the Second Sikhs were storming forts with Mk.I Lee-Enfields nobody cared much about glorified policing units like the Fifth Rajputana. Yet every man was perfectly and meticulously uniformed despite the dust and grim of southeast Iran and their gait on the graveled road absolutely splendid.
Next came the last, and considered the best, battalion of the cavalry brigade. The First Battalion of the 34th Prince Albert Victor's Own Poona Horse at least had khaki, and they had Lee-Metford carbines to boot. They were surely the jauntier bunch, not at all like the grim and rigid rajputs that they followed. It was a testament to the brigadier, beside, that he occasionally did not have his best unit lead; it was bad morale in this dust to have that position monopolized by a single unit. The brigadier and his staff, marked by their red collar tabs, rode past, saluting for the General in a proper show of military order. And behind them in turn, of course, came the support of the brigade: Twelve ancient maxim guns, four 13pdr guns of the RHA, and eight 6pdr anti-tank guns.
It was altogether a sorry sight, though Claiborne commisurated himself with the fact that it was a near certainty that they would not see heavy combat. Their job was rear-area patrol and the units on the front, at least, were guaranteed to be uniformly equipped with something of the quality of a Lee-Metford or better. Another reason Claiborne commisurated himself in that regard was due to the fact that one of the Prime Minister's sons was in the Fifth Rajputana Lancers—hardly a unit suited for the front and not one in which Claiborne himself would like to be a young subaltern. He believed it was the second, John, who'd found himself in the regiment. But Churchill had once been a subaltern in the Indian cavalry himself and that was probably the reason for his son following in his footsteps; at any rate, even though the politics could not be ignored completely by an man who wished to keep his position, it could for the moment be put out of mind.
Thus Claiborne moved on to other things, for at last behind the cavalry in turn came a supply unit led by a Subadar-Major, the men barely able to hide their grumbling at following in the dusty, dung-strewn path of the whole division, though at least they had trucks, big steam trucks half of wood and half of iron of the sort churned out in factories in Bombay. They were a devil to maintain in these conditions, but the railroad had long ago been brought up to the border in Baluchistan and was now advancing toward Bam at the rate of ten miles a day under the labour of fifty thousand Indian conscripts. That, ultimately, would be the force of victory behind the campaign, but his own advance was required to make that effort secure.
General Claiborne turned back toward the Citadel of Bam (properly, Arg-e-Bam, but nobody called it that), going inside with the subaltern who'd accompanied him out, to a corner of the citadel that was still fresh with blood, and more importantly, containing a recently erected collapsible radio tower and the equipment to operate it. A map was displayed from one wall, illuminated by the jury-rigged lighting from the same generator as powered the radio. The pins had been changed since he'd gone out to oversee the departure of the division and review the cavalry. For the better, no less, though it was not a surprise.
Even as he looked at the map, General O'Connor's men were storming north from Zahedan, threatening the Drakian armies in Afghanistan with encirclement and pounding up into the rear of the equally hard-pressed Drakian units in Central Asia. Those units were already fighting a desperate struggle with the Soviet Turkmenistan Front and the Taiping Light Infantry. The later had stormed into the Drakian rear areas with an incredible strength of two army groups, ferociously engaging such Janissary armour as they had encountered with anti-tank guns which had been man-packed over the Himalayas and, it was said, Muslim volunteers with satchel charges strapped to their bodies, all the while living off a single ball of dried rice a day (again, as it was said—Claiborne doubted some of the specifics).
Currently Claiborne was commanding three infantry divisions; two were supported by a battalion of old tanks and a brigade of cavalry each. One division was being held to secure the area around Bam and the vast terrain already conquered; the rest of the forces were roughly divided evenly in two, one assigned to press on toward Kerman, take the city, and try to establish a good line of defence. The second was even now pressing south over the brutal desert scrub to reach Bandar-e-Abbas from the north and join up with the Royal Marines who were making a landing there. With that excellent harbour in British hands the offensive west could be much more easily continued. More units were coming up as fast as they could be positioned, but with O'Connor storming north with four hundred thousand men and another million and three-quarters committed in Afghanistan, the supply lines of the Indian Army—even with twenty years to develop them—were strained to the breaking point.
With the Royal Marines having succeeded in their landings at Bandar-e-Abbas the pace of the infantry going south was somewhat reduced, granted--but the whole of the 19th Indian Division was being committed to the west, where Claiborne was worried about Drakian efforts to develop a solid line and hold; perhaps even counterattack. In the end, and considering the difficulties of supporting the tanks on the march south, the second battalion of Matildas had been sent west as well at his order. The latest reconnaissance from Mosquitos assigned for the use of his corps was good—in fact, he could hear one taking off now from the airstrip the Draka had so kindly built here—and suggested that except the security forces assigned to the copper mines there was not much opposition up the road to Kerman, which was shingled from Bam on out. Still, Claiborne had a nagging worry that the Draka would not abandon the world's second largest copper deposit without a fight; he had, however, no intelligence to warrant taking further measures than sending the whole of the division and its supporting elements on ahead as soon as possible, and that had already been done.
The railway into Kerman from the west was being interdicted by 'trainbusting' Hurricanes armed with twin 40mms, and the Draka had been able to field veritably no air assets whatsoever in the south—so far. Thus even in the case of a Drakian effort to hold Kerman, the ability of air support was considered sufficient to aide the second-rate troops who marched now to take it, a city which might have been a major strategic asset to be fought over were it not so exposed on the border with British India, and now in such a tenuous position as O'Connor's Army threatened the total destruction of the Drakian forces in Central Asia. But despite that, Claiborne himself would have spared perhaps a full corps of Janissaries for Kerman; then again, that was all that had guarded the Baluchi border when O'Connor stormed across, and they had been able to do nothing against his tank corps. The Draka were devils on the offence, but force them on the defensive and they had severe difficulties. The papers might be bloody dead wrong in calling them 'ten minute fighters' when on the defensive, for the troops of the Indian Army were paying a stiff price on their advance into Afghanistan—one in terms of casualties reminiscent of the Western Front in the Great War—to allow O'Connor's armour the chance to flank them. For not even the Draka could be everywhere, after all.
The shingled road to Kerman ran through a long and dry valley flanked by high ridges for some fifty kilometers before the city—its narrowest point at the end. This was where the Draka had appeared, somehow marshalling forces, somehow positioning them with the minimum of warning, tossing up a blocking force for the advance of the Indian Army. Claiborne's fears had been proved correct in that regard, but there were indeed limits on the abilities of the Drakian field forces. Before them were only Janissary vehicles and Janissary infantry, at least. The staunch advance of the heavily armoured Matildas had been clearing them with a vicious precision, leaving far more of those burnt-out deathtraps victims to the Matildas than Matildas victim to the enemy 75s which were so woefully protected. But it was the rough work of the infantry in the hills that allowed them to advance.
Colonel Trevor Irivine was commander of the 4th regiment of the Royal Army of Oudh. The Princely State had a long history, including its brief deposition by the Drakian-owned East India Company in 1856 which had led to the famous Sepoy Rebellion, the catalyst for direct rule in India by the government and the beginning of a long process which had led to the sundering of the United Kingdom and her colony which they now fought. The regiments of Oudh, men who had grown up along the Ganges and were unusued to the vagarities of a desert climate, still fought well. They ranged from Brahmin who were ferocious in war and vegetarians in diet, to Muslim troops who could be barely held back from bayonet attacks and rarely stopped once they were begun. In both cases the taking of prisoners was the exception, not the rule.
The roar of the 25pdrs to the rear, a brigade pounding the Drakian artillery and the expected counterbattery, thundered over the position of the brigade headquarters where three battalions of the 4th regiment were being fought. It was halfway drown out by the sound of the 6pdrs firing only twenty yards away, dragged up into the hills to provide direct-fire support against the Drakian infantry. Ahead the lines of khaki-dressed infantry could be vaguely seen, men arrayed out by the platoon in thin lines, keeping up a steady fire from their Lee-Enfields against the semiautomatic fire of the Janissaries. It was, truth be told, hard to tell the difference. The Army of Oudh prided itself on the rapidity of its aimed fire and had for longer than the Domination of Draka had existed.
Occasionally one could see several lines of men rise up and advance, and often a distant form falling as he crossed the rough ground at the double-quick, bayonet fixed. Some got back up and continued to advance; many did not. The sound of the rifle fire was a constant buzzing, the cracks of guns mingling together until they were indiscernible, though the cloth-tearing sound of the maxims was far more distinctive. The Draka were fighting desperately but the Oudh battalions had still advanced steadily, such that Colonel Irvine was already thinking of moving his brigade headquarters forward. Certainly there would be some danger in it, but even here they were not entirely immune to snipers. Not like it stopped any of them from carrying on their duties, outside and calmly standing in the strict composure that the English in India had always affected, ignoring the choking heat and dust and the fire of the enemy alike.
“Prepare to move headquarters forward,” Irvine ordered at last. “We need to be ready in case a general advance is ordered shortly. And I want the battalion commanders to keep up the pressure even in lieu of it, we've got them pinned to the tail-end of these hills—in fact, that shall be an order, 'maintain pressure on enemy positions while preparing for a general advance.'”
“At once, Sir!”
A slight smile at that from the colonel. They had managed, somehow, to get a radio to every company and every battalion headquarters in the brigade, quite a feat, and one that made coordination so much easier. The Indian Army had been far behind its counterpart in the regular service once, but that had changed in the past twenty years and only this enormous expansion that it now faced had slowed down the progress. Indeed, Irvine's promotion had been shockingly fast, and a Subadar from his old battalion was in fact now a battalion commander himself. But enough of that. As the rudiments of the brigade headquarters were disassembled and prepared for movement forward by the red-collared orderlies and subalterns of the post, a calm, methodical procedure as the gravity of command demanded, Irvine turned for his horse.
“Sahib, your mount is ready.” And so was expected from Narwa Singh, the Colonel's Sikh attendant, and bodyguard—in some ways his ability to read circumstance was almost supernatural, and certainly fortuitous. Fully turbaned and with his khalsa knife and a brace of pistols on his belt, he could not be a more imposing figure. He maintained Irvine's horse and his life; the Colonel had a boy from Calicut to fix his tea and press his uniforms, which was altogether modest. Some officers, particularly Indians of the upper castes, went into combat with five servants.
“Then let us be off, Narwa!” He replied with an exclamation, pulling himself into the saddle with the experience of someone who's typical recreation before the war had been polo. The Sikh mounted up with him on his own horse, surreptitiously producing a revolver the moment he was firmly seated in the saddle. A slight look of amusement touched Irvine's face for a moment, and then he started off with a gesture of his hand, picking his way over the rough, hilly terrain, leading with Narwa Singh at his side and the headquarters staff and mules loaded with equipment following on behind.
Ahead, the scene of the fighting unfolded. The valley widened just ahead here, broad enough that a regular advance could be sustained without the hills impeding any progress down the road as they did here at the valley's narrowest—little more than five kilometers in breadth. The valley ahead was broad, tapering out into a flat plain, and within it lay the city of Kerman, an ancient metropolis expanded into a vast shanty town by the Draka, almost all of it for slaves, existing solely for the sake of exploiting the vast copper reserves which covered every inch, it seemed, under that plain.
17pdr anti-tank guns were rolling along behind diesel trucks on the road below, the brigade swinging to the right to pin the Draka in the hills and leave the line of advance open. Ahead of them in turn were some eighty Matildas, supported by a brigade of Jat light infantry. They were clearly preparing for a general advance to break free into the plain ahead.
“Sir, orders from division headquarters in!” An orderly reported even at the moment he'd saluted, and indeed just minutes after they'd gotten the radio set up again in their forward command position.
“What does it say, leftenant?”
“Sir.” The scribbled sheet was offered to the Colonel even as the contents were repeated. “Make general advance with your brigade to clear infantry and mountain guns out of range of road in support of 6th Jats. Leverett.”
Bloody French noble, Irvine thought for a moment. His own background was the landed gentry: the Major General of the Division's, on the other hand, could be easily traced back to the time when Britain ruled Anjou and Britanny. But he was still a solid commander, even if his name suggested Gallic distemper. “Very well. Signals to the First and Fourth battalions to prepare for a general advance; Second to hold back in reserve and provide supporting fire. Artillery shall engage in a ten-minute barrage before the attack and I want the advance at the double-quick, get those blasted Janissaries at the point of the bayonet as fast as we can. They never can stomach a taste of steel,” he added almost as a note to himself as the subaltern hastily recorded it in a format suitable for radio transmission of orders.
The subaltern read the orders back promptly, puppy-like eagerness competing on his youthful face with the demands of professionalism in a way that could not help but be noticed. “That it, Sir?”
“Indeed; very good, leftenant. Transmit them at once.”
Battalions of guns were coming into action now, until nearly a hundred 25pdrs were hitting the Drakian positions, and a section of big 7.2in guns had opened up from the area of Division Headquarters against the Janissary positions out in the valley besides. The flat, heavy cracks of their shots were rumbling off the walls of the valley again and again until they faded away, already replaced by several new shots and obscured by the cacophony of the lesser guns. A crescent-shaped area ahead of the division was soon obscured in dust and cordite smoke.
The Draka were protected by a reverse slope, however, as the ground rose slightly here before dipping down again in a series of undulating minor slopes until it reached completely the flatness of the plain. It was on the first and highest of these that they were positioned--behind it, their reserves and heavy vehicles. But those vehicles were only Janissary ones, and though they could kill the old Matildas they could likewise be killed by them; even then it was hard for the rather heavy 75s of the best Janissary vehicles to punch through the massive frontal armour of a Matilda at range. There were rumours of higher velocity models that could do it easily, but fortunately the division hadn't encountered any of those.
The artillery barrage abruptly ceased and with that the whistles were blown and the infantry advanced, coming up from their bellies and shouting out in Hindi as they raced forward half-crouched, taking advantage of a few seconds of silence from the Janissary positions to get as close as they could. The artillery was already opening back up, all aimed in a rolling barrage to support the advance of the tanks in the distant centre. The infantry on the flanks was now on their own, but they faced only Janissary infantry and they advanced unhesitatingly. The Janissaries recovered quickly enough despite the fire direted at them, and the Oudh troops began to go down as their machineguns and semiautomatic rifles opened up.
The infantry briefly went to ground, but the maxims, vickers guns, and mortars of the British were in position and were already firing in a suppressing action. Now by the company the infantry advanced, dashing forward, taking losses, but covering the ground and aided by the rough terrain, until the two battalions were letting loose with a fury of fire, the mad minute, at close range, vigorously working their bolts and stroking the magazines with stripper clips as fast they could to keep up that rate. Then some of their companies were advancing now, and others firing, pushing in against the Janissaries who were held firm by a combination of their terror and their Drakian officers.
In this terrain the fire of rifles alone was not sufficient to push the Draka back. At last, somewhere along the line, the move was made as per orders. Units rushed forward, firing their rifles once or twice but mostly just dashing, bayonets ready. Others provided a heavy suppressing covering fire. Many men fell, but most got within range and threw a volley of grenades. They charged in behind it, their squad commanders armed with Sten guns and now firing them with distinctive rapidity into the Drakian ranks. Actions at the bayonet never lasted long and they did not here, either. Anything that moved was stabbed, some Janissaries managing in the confusion to kill their foes, but mostly it was a disordered retreat that started, some Drakian officers managing in places to rally a group that would turn on their pursuers and let loose a devastating volley, other units completely collapsing at the prospect of the wicked bayonets on those long Lee-Enfields, barely a man in the platoon run through before they fled.
Ahead the burning Matildas evidenced to the severity of the action in the centre, with what seemed like a brigade of Janissary armour in defensive positions being attacked by two battalions of Matildas only with artillery support, and the Jats. But even those defensive positions were of no great help for the poor quality of the Janissary armour. They just helped to make it particularly bloody as the Matildas advanced, a large fraction of the force knocked out or otherwise disabled and a hastily laid minefield causing further damage still. The Janissary infantry here were in considerable strength, but their main ability was to hit the Jats hard. Those valiant infantrymen pressed on indomitably with the tanks, clearing out foxholes--from whence the Janissaries tried to hit the tanks with satchel charges--with the grenade and keeping up a heavy fire despite the age of their rifles.
In the end both of the flanks had been cleared in a stiff fight, the infantry brigades there still fighting fit, but they were out of the way of the centre. There the casualties had been much stiffer and the units there were badly depleted. Time was needed to rest and reconstitute them, to bring in the flanking brigades closer for support and reinforcement. But General Leverett knew better; reconnaissance, finally being useful, had shown what was perhaps a brigade of Citizen infantry—no armoured support thank God—which had been behind the defending forces. Those forces themselves had turned out to be even more sizable than expected, but somewhat disordered; likely they'd started out as two divisions of Janissaries, but had been savagely mauled on their rail journey to Kerman by the train-busters, leaving them without much of their heavy equipment and the component units disordered, important officers dead. That showed the vitality of the aircraft support; without it the single reinforced division Leverett had under his command could not now still be in a position to take Kerman.
The situation was quite serious. For all that Leverett's men had taken the first ridge, a series of defiles insecting the undulating ridges beyond provided still yet a second defensive line, perhaps with even more depth. The units in the centre had advanced into this region somewhat, but had halted to reform after the heavy casualties that they had suffered. They would certainly not be able to advance again until nightfall or even after it; eight hours, most likely. That left the cavalry, and in the end Leverett had no choice but to order it forward to the furthest line ridgeline, and set up a defensive position there supported by their artillery and maxims. They would have to hold out until nightfall when the reorganized battalions could come up in support.
Thus had the order been given to the Indian Horse, and they obeyed gladly. The Fifth Rajputana, by virtue of their deployment at the time, were ordered to advance on the right of the valley into the ridges. They had formed up swiftly and the proud Rajputs were elated at the prospect for action on the front, which wide rumour had suggested they would be denied. They would fight dismounted, of course, which would be a hell of a problem with their arms, but their main job would be to support the brigade's guns and beside that some more that were being rushed up from the divisional artillery positions. Even then it was still a chance at the front, and the commanding Colonel, one James Harriman, could not help but feel the same combination of pride and nervousness, as was felt by his other officers--though perhaps the Rajput ranks had even less of the nervousness than their commanders, such was their love of their profession.
As they rode forth the sun was slowly coming down in the sky above from its apex. The day was at its hottest and they rode past the bodies of the fallen in the heat, those shot, mutilated by the bursting of shells, or run through. The water boys who were assigned to the medical corps were running between the wounded in an oft-futile effort to keep men alive until the corpsmen could reach them, and around that scene of human tragedy were the burning remnants of combat vehicles and abandoned, mangled guns. There were craters here and there, which sometimes they had to sidestep, but for the most part the vegetation and terrain of the land was unchanged, the vastness absorbing the intensity of the combat.
The light was a light red that cast the land into stark relief when they rode in the cusp of the defiles, then brilliantly transforming into the full intensity of the day as they rode upon higher ground, the ground that was rough beneath the hooves of the horses, but only rough enough that it made good terrain for cavalry rather than slowing their progress, as rock or loose sand might. The air carried on it a faint whiff of cordite; the smell of horses was all about, horses and well-worn, oiled leather, almost reassuring as they advanced into terrain which had not seen the British army in nearly twenty-five years, if it had ever at all.
The sound of the horses was muffled by the terrain, mostly, though the snorts and whinnies came through occasionally quite clear where the steel-shod hooves did not. The men were largely silent and waiting for their first contact with the enemy, the officers sometimes murmuring to each other as Colonel Harriman led from the front with his staff, seeking out by way of maps held unsteadily against the horns of their saddles where the ridge which they were to dismount upon and defend was, precisely. That was not an easy process, even for men trained in cartography, here in this warrenous terrain that gradually eased its way down into the flat of the plain around Kerman.
John Churchill, second son of his father and born veritably by accident, lost in the shadow of his older brother and his more numerous sisters, in the brilliance of his enigmatic father, was having a great deal of difficulty containing himself. The young man of twenty was advancing into the action which his father had hoped to see but had never gotten the chance, save till the blood of the western front. This was terrain he had advocated seizing in defence twenty years prior, and now long and sadly delayed the honour of the British Empire would be upheld by its conquest. The troop of Rajputs under his command maintained themselves steadily, containing themselves always despite their eagerness to see action as they advanced forward, the colonel out of sight at the head of the column.
Then came the roar of the guns. It opened up suddenly and surprisingly, far off to their left, and it could only mean that the RHA of the brigade was already engaged against Drakian units coming up to try and salvage the situation, even as the Janissaries continued to fall back in pell-mell retreat. The firing of machineguns and artillery came heavy and hot, and the effect was to add some tension even to the eager Rajputs, knowing that they might indeed be opposed in some fashion in their effort to establish themselves upon that last ridgeline, wherever it was and whenever they got to it, each one of the low ridges they navigated surely the one, except that it was not. Leftenant Churchill himself shared in the tension and eagerness of his men, knowing the moment of their action to be soon ahead, and preparing to give the order to dismount for the fight.
Colonel Harriman saw it first. The cavalry was riding out of another defile and before them was the ridge, which a glance down to his map showed to be the one they should position themselves upon. But immediately he also realized that the situation had become abruptly, vastly more serious. The troop was advancing swiftly behind him and they were presenting the perfect target to the troops who were already on the ridge. The Draka had got there first, white men—perhaps women too though he did not think it at the time—emplacing their heavy machineguns and mortars as quickly as they could. It all happened to fast to think; the ridge could be seen by the men behind him, but leading at the front of the column he alone knew already precisely what was happening.
There was a moment of thought, though, in a mind trained for decisions at a speed that would make most others seize up. He could order the battalion to dismount, but that would take time, time in which the Draka could finish hastily some preparations to receive them. Their rifles would surely be useless in supporting an attack; they were already marginal in the defence. Something, then, came forth, a memory straight out of his youthful days when he had been in the cavalry when it still seemed to have a glamorous purpose, something so obvious and yet impossibly remarkable. They only had moments and so somehow in those moments the obvious order managed to come to mind, the order necessary both to complete their mission and to preserve the regiment.
The enemy position was only two hundred and fifty yards away, but it was uphill. Still, they did not have their heavy weapons up and seemed themselves almost surprised at the arrival of the cavalry regiment. All of these details went through the Colonel's mind very quickly, even as the order was given: “Left wheel into line!” He cried, and the bugler was so shocked that he did not disobey, the youthful Rajput boy spitting into the bugle and licking his lips to moisten them from the dust and dryness of the plain, raising the bugle to his lips and playing out the gallant brassy call, the shrill note echoing across the valley to where no-doubt the Draka themselves heard it. It carried over the distant guns and the shouts of the men, and as a perfectly oiled machine the cavalry obeyed, sixteen troops, eight hundred men, swinging to face the Drakian forces in the blink of an eye.
The next order came hot on the heels of the first, even as the first was still being executed, though so fast was the obedience to the order, the perfect evolution of the Rajput horse, that it was also obeyed from the moment it was called. “Sound charge!” Thus cried Colonel Harriman, and he drew his sabre, waving the men on as he spurred his horse forward, the Rajputs carrying the national flag and the regimental guidon eagerly matching their commander's pace as the bugler called out the glamorous note endlessly across that narrow plain. The lances were lowered by the men, and the troops followed their colonel into action.
It was a glorious moment. Eight hundred lance charging a Drakian battalion on the ridgeline, their horses moving forward, bolting out to a full run against the surprised and unprepared Drakian Citizen regulars. They responded like the excellent troops they were, however, falling into prone positions and directing an awesome fusillade against the lancers. The fire began even as the charge was just starting, perhaps even before it, from their semiautomatic rifles it was directed down onto the horses that dashed uphill against them, the light machineguns opening up likewise with a vigorous fire. But none of this slacked the momentum of the regiment one bit, and the charge developed in mere seconds.
The heads of the men were lowered, bowed forward, their helmets pointing toward the enemy, that they might shield themselves from the stinging dust of the field of action. Their lances were couched for battle, and their horses charged splendidly, everyone riding at their best speed, covering the distance in a few heartbeats of fire and death, the flags and guidons fluttering majestically as the fire tore into their gallant ranks. Horses were seen plunging down with hideous cries, worse than those of the men likewise shot, not a single casualty to the citizens so far as scores of the Fifth Rajputana were felled by that hideous rapid-fire.
Some of the horses stumbled going up the ridge, and the charge slowed. For a moment the fire was poured on into the regiment and many more horses and men were felled. The guidon of the regiment went down, but then one Rajput non-commissioned officer, immaculately uniformed in resplendent red and elegantly mustachioed, reached down and swept it up in his hands before it had even touched the ground, as though in a game of polo, raising it up as he spurred his horse onward. Colonel Harriman kept himself going onward, the steel of his sabre glinting in the bright sun, out ahead of the men, somehow not having been killed. The act galvanized the regiment and if for a moment the charge faltered it recovered in a heartbeat, the horses giving their best and most incredible exertions despite the heat, driving themselves upward as the best bred of the cavalry of the subcontinent, following the sacred guidon of the regiment, charging on even as they fell. The bodies pitched off the horses rolled several lengths forward, horses rolling and crushing fallen riders when hit, but none of it stopping the momentum of the regiment, none of it, none of it, onward, onward!
The heartbeats passed and all the efforts of the Draka were unavailing. A moment before only Rajputs and their officers had fallen down dead. But now it was the turn of the Drakian regulars. The lancers took them in swift onset, the impact a stunning shock. Some of them had actually gotten up to flee at the terrifying sight of the uncoming horse; they were speared down outright. The others who remained prone and firing until the end were speared in the back as the horses trampled them, as though, indeed, it were a most bloody of polo matches. The Drakian battalion was carried down the slope by the awesome momentum of the charge, a tumbling of bodies and a cacophony of shots and screams, blood and death everywhere, all of it being ridden over by the glory of those noble cavaliers.
It was a confused mess of fighting, of men trying to gut horses with bayonets or sever the straps of saddles, of the Rajputs resorting to their swords with so many of the lances broken. In the hot fight at close quarters the Rajputs, with their height upon their mounts and the advantage of their long swords and strong arms, had abruptly turned the tables and haughtily struck down the Citizens who had presumed to insult the purity of their noble blood. This was war as it was meant to be, the intensity of the event having entirely caught them up as they killed or trampled everyone who resisted, everyone who was still alive on the backslope of the ridge. Horses died and men were felled and stabbed to death, but not enough, not nearly enough.
Then it was over. The resistance collapsed, the bodies of the battalion littered the slope. There were only some Draka who were still running, in truth, retreating their minds told them, to some sort of ground on which those few remaining could hold against the cavalry. But then came John Churchill, leading his troop out of the mess on the slope and charging forward, hacking down the Citizens who fled in a classic pursuit by cavalry. A few of his men fell as a couple of the Citizens who kept their whits about them turned and fired just as the cavalry came upon them, but even then, those that did were still killed outright. Those who continued to flee were not spared, nor did they suffer any better of a fate. The horses, exhausted, found it yet in their constitutions to charge on against the fleeing citizens, the Rajputs catching up to them and hacking them down until not a single one was left alive.
The stunning event had taken just minutes, and with it an entire battalion of Drakian Citizen infantry had been slaughtered and their machineguns and mortars captured. Harriman, wounded twice in the charge, ordered 'recall' to be sounded, and thus concluded the first charge of the Fifth Rajputana Lancers in war. It was to be also the last charge of the British Lance, a paean to the cuirassiers of Waterloo and a final bit of chivalry, both real and imagined, in a bloody war of mechanized death. Kerman and the copper fields were taken three days later, hundreds of thousands of serfs liberated, and four Victoria Crosses were awarded to the regiment for the deeds accomplished in those confused minutes of the charge. But by the end of the day three hundred and two of its number had perished from both the charge and the Drakian counterattacks that followed: yet they did not die forgotten, and had indeed perished going forth into the sort of combat for which they had been raised, and in the last chance they had to partake of it.