The Drummer Boy Book
Free first chapter of The Drummer Boy book by C.G. Buswell.
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He flinched as the cat o' nine tails dug deep into his back, blood spurting out as its eighteen inches of tightened rope whipped back with a crack. The nine twisted cords with their wire-bound ends that were designed to inflict extreme pain were once more lashed viciously towards him with a violent sound like sudden crackling lightning. They reached through his scarred back, delving through his skin, penetrating layers of muscle and fat to reach the sensitive nerves where they could cause more pain.
He would not cry out, he had promised himself, he must make them proud; he must beat his drum for the rhythm of the other, much older drummer boys to continue the punishment of the man who was stripped bare before them. The prisoner wore no kilt because he did not want his blood, sweat, faeces and urine that he knew he would void to stain his garment. The prisoner still had to serve in General Wellington's army despite his desertion at the Battle of Arroyo dos Molinos on 28 October 1811. He was new to the Gordon Highlanders, the 92nd Regiment of Foot, and was scared. He knew this punishment was not just an example to the thousands of men standing on parade in the cold rain of a foreign land, but that it was also designed to break him and toughen him up for the battles that were to come in this brutal Peninsular War. He shivered not just from fear, but as an automatic nervous response to the pain and cold, yet the whipping warmed him to the core, with anger, rage and humiliation. He vowed he would take his punishment like a man, 1000 lashes for desertion. His sergeant had told him to expect 100 in each parade. He would be taken back in front of the others, maybe a week later, once his flesh had healed and he could walk again. More indignation and more lashes would open up his welt scarred back. Nine more punishment parades: if he lived. He was reassured that most officers would halt the punishment flogging at each 100, though he had known some prisoners to survive 500 before the senior officer signalled for the lashings to stop. He had lost count but knew that in the past no-one had ever survived 1000 lashes at one time, before a Royal Commission in 1838 had reduced the number of maximum lashes at one time to two-hundred. He would not benefit from the abolition of this barbaric punishment by the army many years later in 1881.
His bladder had involuntary voided as he was tied to the Battalion sergeant's halberts, momentarily warming his legs and staining the earth under him. These three long lances were secured to the ground and tied in a triangle to which he had been secured with rope which dug deep into his wrists. His ankles were bound to the bottom of each lance, forcing him into the indignity of being spread-eagled. As the lashing started his bowels voided and his waste involuntary fell into a steaming pile between his heels. The junior officer beside him turned his nose away in contempt at the act and the smell. He reached into his tunic pocket and withdrew a silk handkerchief. He held this against his delicate nose to show his disgust and in a vain effort to conceal the smell. This added to the prisoner's humiliation in front of people who should have been his friends and comrades. With whom he should have fought and killed French soldiers in the frenzy of battle. Instead he had run in the opposite direction but was soon captured by the Provosts, here to police the Allied armies of the British, Portuguese and Spanish troops. His crime of deserting in the face of the enemy was seen as too severe to run the gauntlet where a prisoner must walk along his fellow ranks and be struck a blow by every member of the regiment with a stick or raw hide.
Instead the drummer boys were told not to spare their lashes on fear of their own punishment. They each took turns to lash out with all the might two fourteen year olds could muster to bring the 15-inch handle with its evil payload upon the bleeding flesh of this grown man before them. His flayed back was looking more like a street map of raised twists and turns that within minutes would resemble more of a slab of meat on a butcher's block where muscle and fat could be seen with no flesh evident but with blood aplenty. White bones could be briefly glimpsed before each new cavity filled with fresh pouring blood that ran down his body, soaking from his toes and into the foreign earth forming a dark red mud bath beneath him. Their instructions of beating the sin from the prisoner's flesh while instilling respect was upper-most in their minds as they swung the cat o' nine tails for all they were worth, their juvenile sweat reaching out to the younger boy whose face was already marked with the flayed blood of the prisoner. All three were wishing secretly that they had joined a cavalry or artillery regiment because their farriers performed this barbaric duty. Then they would not have felt guilty upon hearing the begging screams for mercy from the prisoner and his pitiful cries for his mother that poured forth from his loosened jaw which hung down and over-ran with snot from his nose and intermingled with his saliva. Even the most hardened of criminals within the army, the King's hard bargains as they were nicknamed, would always cry out for their mother or God for mercy. None deserved any and none was given. It would be many years before the rewards and praise system favoured by General Sir John Moore, the "Father of the British Infantry", would be introduced into this brutal British army. Many more would fall victim to this Drumhead Court-Martial system of punishment.
The ranks of soldiers were smartly turned out, rigid to attention with their muskets raised. Each wore their full dress of shoes, red and white hose, green shaded kilts: this new issue known as the Feilidh beag: the little kilt, because it now reached to just above the knee. Their much loved Regimental kilt with the yellow over-stripe was worn with their heavy red jackets with ornamental yellow cuffs and cross belts with ammunition pouches. Unlike the other infantry soldiers who wore the almost French-like shako small peaked caps, these mighty men proudly wore their bonnets with dyed black ostrich feathers between the cockade and the red, white and black felt chequered cloth. The dreich weather, reminiscent of their native Aberdeen, made the feathers floppy in this downpour. Their fellow Scotsmen of the Black Watch and the Cameron Highlanders also wore these and all three regiments shared the same contempt for deserters. Only the officers wore a sporran, individually created to suit each personal preference, their Lieutenant favouring a tasselled badger fur sporran. Each, to a man, watched with scorn aimed towards the prisoner from their regimental hollow square surrounding the long spiked poles. No matter how long he served with the Gordon's, he would always be known as the one that fled in fear. Other regiments could forgive prisoners such as Corporal Pitt of the 95th Rifles who received 120 of his 300 sentenced lashes for trying to smuggle his wife aboard the ship at Ostend that took him to Spain, despite the orders of Colonel Sir Andrew Barnard. Though the Corporal was reduced to the ranks he still retained the respect of his men for taking his punishment well. But this snivelling, crying fool before them, who had soiled himself so quickly, would have to work very hard to gain any respect or trust, especially in battle. Each hardened warrior had been proud of their zero desertion rate against those of their fellow Scots regiments such as the 71st Highland Regiment of Light Infantry with three deserters this year alone. Most infantry or cavalry units had a desertion rate of ten a year. The Gordon's had been steadfast in their battles with General Wellington and had none. This cowardly man before them had dishonoured their proud regiment from the North East of Scotland and each man knew that the prisoner deserved every lash for breaking their trust and eagerly looked on for the next savage blow. They hoped that their Regimental Medical Officer, standing next to his medical chest, his pocket set of probes, forceps and scissors useless against such deep wounds, would not nod delicately to their Commanding Officer to signal that the man could take no more lashing. Those that could, eagerly counted with each painful stroke of the cat o' nine tails, the others fervently watched the efforts of the drummer boys to ensure they did their task to the best of their ability.
The drummer boy was too young to understand any of this or to have any empathy for the foul-smelling man before him. He just knew he had to do his duty, like his father had in the Walcheren Campaign in the Netherlands two years previously. To honour his father's sacrifice, he would beat rhythmically on his drum; no matter the pain, no matter that he had urinated into his kilt as the first lash struck the prisoner and caused the naked man before him to wail out like a trapped animal. 'Rubidub dum' went his drums time after time in response to the drumsticks in his tiny fingers. One stroke of the cat o' nine tails to every ten drum beats, he knew his hands, wrists and arms would ache, but he must continue to beat and beat his drum...
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