Beat the Drums Slowly
Beat the Drums Slowly is the second in the series, taking the characters from True Soldier Gentlemen through the Corunna campaign in the winter of 1808-1809. The story starts just a few days before Christmas, with the British Army under Sir John Moore advancing deep into Spain to reinforce the Spanish. Williams - now at last commissioned as ensign - rides with Wickham to report to Lord Paget commanding the cavalry and finds himself riding in the charge at Sahagun where two French regiments were swept from the field. Success is soon followed by disappointment. Napoleon himself has come to Spain, and at the head of a quarter of a million men the emperor has crushed the newly raised Spanish armies. The British are alone, but Moore continues to advance in the hope of distracting the French. Then, realising he may soon be surrounded, he gives the order to retreat.
It is winter and the army's route lies through the mountains. As the weather becomes worse and worse, the dispirited army trudges wearily on, most of the soldiers unable to understand why they cannot stand and fight. The 106th forms part of the Reserve Division, which is soon acting as rearguard to the entire army. Major MacAndrews has the task of holding the battalion together as much of the rest of the army falls apart. All the while he fears for his daughter, who has vanished. Pringle and Hanley struggle on with the Grenadier Company, learning that warfare is more than brief marches to victory in the summer sun. They see their men tested to the limits and beyond, witness ghastly sights, and see the appalling suffering of the women and children 'following the drum.' Their friend Williams has also gone missing, and the old veteran Dobson crumbles after a personal tragedy. Yet somehow the 106th keeps its order, and time and again turns round and repulses the French vanguard, before retreating once again.
As the army withdraws, Williams finds Jane MacAndrews, and the pregnant Jenny Dobson, and then other stragglers of all shapes and sizes. Desperately in love with Miss MacAndrews, the pair seem alternately brought closer and then driven apart. Then the war takes over, and French cavalry under an officer chosen by Napoleon himself close on his little band, forcing him to choose between safety and the good of the army.
The Corunna campaign was a grim episode, which showed the redcoats at their best and their worst. Hence the title, which comes from a song better known in later years as the Streets of Laredo. All of our characters are tested, yet in the worst moments they find a dark humour and draw strength from each other. It is an experience that will change them all.