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Fire!

by Separabit 

Posted: 04 December 2005
Word Count: 2067
Summary: Hello,I am a real newbie, just joined today. So here goes. In at the deep end. Although I have classified this under fiction, the Siege of Colchester was very real indeed. It lasted twelve weeks and saw people eating rats and horses to stay alive. Half a dog sold for six shillings. The following story could have happened as the water pipes were taken by the Parliamentarians to make lead bullets. I am concerned about the dialogue grammar, is it Ok? Feedback please. Thanks


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‘You, you, you and you!’
A loud, unfriendly voice shouts from a distance of twenty paces
‘Come and give a hand.’
The unfriendly voice is no less fearsome, even when asking for help. Not so much asking as demanding.
‘Move that up there.’
I look across in the direction he was pointing.
‘That’ was a huge heavy, iron-barrelled canon mounted on wheels each as tall as a man. ‘Up there’ was a man-made mound of good Essex earth piled up behind a stout wooden stockade of good Essex oak.
‘Looks like we’re here for a good long stay,’ grunted a fellow conscript between rasping gulps for air as we strained to the task of moving the great gun.

The year is 1648, the place Colchester. We had marched for five days pursuing the remnants of the Royalist army. Up from Kent we came, under Colonel Fairfax, that great Yorkshire born cavarlryman whose reputation for dogged determination was widely known.

Five days we marched, eating little, sleeping little. The horses that pulled the great ordnances along the dusty roads were sweating and quivering from strained muscles and open wounds from their cruel, cursing goaders.

The Royalists travelled light; they had to. They had abandoned all their heavy weapons at Rochester. They knew that if they reached Colchester they were safe. Charles Lucas lived there, he would let them shelter within the town walls. Even though he was not popular with the mainly parliamentarian townsfolk he had enough influence and power to give shelter to his own kind.

The Royalists reached the gates of Colchester just hours before we did for all our sweating and goading. They were now safely within the town, thankful for putting the fifty foot high, twenty foot thick Roman wall between us and them. But we still had our canons.

Soon after we arrived, on the 12th June, Colonel Fairfax approached the main gate, Headgate, and issued the obligatory military ultimatum of surrender offering leniency for early settlement.

None came.

‘Hold to and make that canon secure,’ unfriendly voice barked. The voice also had a being in the rotund, combative shape of the sergeant gunner. We comply, but not quite with the same urgency as when we were chasing on the road. He understands. With time on our side and not much to do we explore the surrounding countryside, ‘requisitioning’ (a polite name for stealing) anything we wanted, food, clothing, fresh horses, women.


In the first few days there are several optimistic skirmishes, some serious, and soldiers on both sides are killed, but these gradually give way to the acceptance that this was going to be a long siege.

We could not surround the town completely for lack of fighting men so, in the early days, the Royalists were able to make forays under cover of darkness into the country to steal sheep and cattle for their provisions. Fairfax called up re-enforcements, including more canons, and gradually his grip around the town tightens.

With the enemy caged we could afford ourselves the luxury of time to dig in properly and construct forts and observation points all around the town. We were in one of the forward positions within sight of the Balkerne gate, one of the ancient and original Roman gateways built during the time of Claudius some sixteen centuries earlier.
He vennied, viddied, viccied and then left. Colonia Victricensis he called it; ‘City of the Victorious’. Huh, look at it now.


The Royalists are not idle however. Lucas and his fellow officers have ‘recruited’ (a polite name for press-ganged) all the able-bodied men and formed repelling points around the town. We detect movement at St Mary’s church. Through the spyglass we can see a canon being hauled up to the top of the tower. We watch and wait. From behind the defence of the thick castellated wall a gunner takes aim and fires some rounds of canon balls at our fort. Too short, much too short; we see the cloud of dust and earth fly up a few hundred yards in front of us. Even given the height of the tower he cannot reach us from that distance. Fairfax has chosen his position wisely. For a bit of sport we retaliate. Surprisingly we are also short at the first attempt. The rotund sergeant gunner barks an order and we drive the wooden wedges in to point the gun further upwards. ‘Fire!’ The smouldering cord is touched to the powder pan and with tremendous noise the canon leaps backwards. We peer through the smoke to view our efforts and a cheer goes up. A direct hit! Gunner and gun fall to the ground with a shattering thud; metal, mud and bits of man flying everywhere.

That night, round the fire that serves as our cooking and heating source, we sing our rowdy songs, fuelled with looted beer, to the accompaniment of a semi-musical, semi-drunk soldier who has brought a penny whistle with him into battle. We make up a song about our success today. It goes;
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again”.

Maybe children will still be singing it several hundred years from now.

Even our success with Humpty could not stop boredom setting in. After all it was now six weeks since we built our forts and we are still outside. But if we are still outside the enemy is still inside, faring much worse than we are. Conditions are deteriorating and food is getting scarce; dogs and horses, even rats, are becoming more attractive.

One of our scouting parties has reported finding a deep, spring-fed well, evidently the town’s main water supply, about half a mile from the walls. The water is pure and sweet and for us is a triple bonus. We now had a handy water supply and secondly, by cutting the pipes which fed the town, the townsfolk didn’t; the few wells inside the walls were running dry fast. Thirdly, the pipes were made of lead, a handy source for more ammunition. We found out a few days later that the well and the land through which the pipes were laid actually belonged to the Lucas family so we felt doubly satisfied in cutting off the supply.

Our days were spent between looting and keeping a furnace going to melt the lead, making many musket shot and canon balls. Not the most favoured task in the heat of July, but we did it. We now had enough ammunition to mount a full onslaught on the town and we showed no mercy. For days we pounded the walls and buildings and destroyed half the town. We did this with heavy hearts knowing that most of the townsfolk were on our side, but were being controlled by Sir Charles Lucas and his henchmen, Sir George Lisle and Colonel Goring.

Colchester is a wealthy town. Its wealth comes from weaving. With all routes out of town blocked trade stagnated. The clothiers sent a petition over the wall to ask to be allowed to get their cloth out to their customers in London. Fairfax laughed out loud when he read it and, much to our surprise, agreed – with conditions. Was he mad? we asked ourselves. The clothiers would be allowed to bring their cloth out of the town, but only as far as Lexden Heath some two miles distant. The other condition was that the only ‘customers’ were his own soldiers at prices which he set. We could do with some new clothes; ours were getting a bit smelly. What a mocking compromise from such a brilliant mind. The clothiers declined the offer.

The screw was tightening. No water, no work and ten weeks of siege in the middle of a hot summer meant that disease and famine were doing our job for us, half a dog sold for six shillings. The Royalist commanders were also being plagued daily by townsfolk pleading with them to surrender. Callous officers opened the gates briefly and allowed some women and children to leave. The besieging marksmen, under orders to shoot any escapers, killed a few and the rest turned to flee back inside only to find the gates shut firmly behind them. In no man’s land! We were told to hold fire and wait. Why? I thought. The answer came within the hour. The gates opened and the survivors retreated back to comparative safety. They were of more use to us inside than out, rioting and competing with the Royalists for what little food there was left in the town.

It was on August 27th that the Royalist commanders finally agreed amongst themselves that the situation could not continue. With only one day’s food remaining they surrendered. It came as a great relief to the poor townspeople who were, by now, in a wretched state. At the start of the siege Fairfax had offered fair terms, now he was not so lenient. Knowing the genuine partisanship of most of the townsfolk he was only after the Royalist leaders.

Next day, in the morning, Fairfax entered the town and took the Royalist officers prisoners. The ringleaders were to be shot by sundown in the Castle yard.

It was six o’clock on that same, sunny August evening. We had all entered the town by this time and were appalled at the suffering the siege and our bombardment had caused. Men, women and children in rags and thin as rakes. No dogs cats, horses or rats. What had we done to our own supporters? What kind of power did Lucas and his ilk wield over these poor wretches to cause such suffering. I did not feel part of an invading army, more like an army of liberation. What kind of a man could have done this?

‘You, you, you and you,’ I heard an order barked and saw a finger pointing in my direction. ‘get your muskets and come with me, we have a job to do.’
At that time, being an ordinary musketeer, I had no idea about the surrender terms or who was who in the squirearchy of the surrendering Royalists. I could only see the hardships of ordinary folk inside the walls, ordinary folk like me and my fellow soldiers who, but for the grace of God, could have been in their awful state.
We marched from the King’s Head inn to the Castle Yard and arrived early, which meant some hanging about. It was cool in the shade of the massive castle walls as we sat around with a few other soldiers on duty and passed the time cleaning and oiling our muskets as we had been ordered. We were kept out of sight of the main activity which we heard coming from an area just around the corner.

Just before seven o’clock we were ordered into marching line, about fifteen of us, some from other forts, and the sergeant came round with a leather bag containing some musket balls. I chose the shiniest, smoothest shot in the bag. We were formed up and, on the order to march off, strode around the corner to a sight I shall never forget.

Colonel Fairfax and some of our officers were standing in a small group looking tense but at the same time, relaxed; it was a strange atmosphere. The air was still. From around the other corner another group of my fellow soldiers approached with two prisoners dressed in white-ruffed shirts, open at the neck, their hands tied behind their backs. The party halted about ten paces away from us and the soldiers moved away leaving just the two prisoners standing there as if craving comfort from each other. Colonel Ireton, who was officer in charge of one of the other forts, and Cromwell’s son-in-law, told the prisoners to prepare for imminent death. They were brought forward and offered blindfolds. Stubborn to the last Lucas refused his and spoke up in front of the firing squad.
‘I have often faced death in the field of battle. Now you shall see that I am not afraid to die.’
He knelt down and prayed for a few minutes then got up and faced us squarely.
‘Fire!’
The single word rang out loud and clear.
We obeyed.
Lucas fell.
Killed with bullets made from his own water pipes.






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Comments by other Members



EmmaD at 14:31 on 30 December 2005
Separabit, this is a terrifically effective evocation of the siege; I know Colchester well, and this really brought it to life. I didn't know about the lead pipes being used for bullets: it's a wonderful symbol for the ordinary, peaceful lives being caught up in lethal national politics, and might make a good theme to draw the quite complicated facts of the siege together all the way through.

I was interested in who your narrator was? Do they have a character? The voice works very well, both immediate and timeless, with a nice rhythm to it, neither self-consciously olde-worlde nor too modern. But is this a memoir, told from years later, or is it very present-tense and in the moment? There are moments when the narrative is quite personal with the physical detail and in how s/he describes others, like the sergeant of arms, and I wanted to know who was telling me this because I was so interested. You could even do more with the sensory detail to evoke the physical world we're in. Other sections are more detached, which is fine, though slipping in and out of a character's voice works best when you as the writer know exactly how far into your narrator's head you are at any time. There are other moments when I felt your research was showing a bit too nakedly; when you've got a slab of information it's always a good discipline to think: which bits of what I know as researcher would contemporaries have known or been interested in or thought worthy of comment, and how can I convey not only the facts, but how they saw them? Plus when you've decided what form your narration is taking, I think you'll find the places where your tense switches between past and present a little oddly sort themselves out quite naturally.

I loved the cynical 'vennied, viddied, viccied it' and the point about Humpty Dumpty - a great example of where you've buried your research really well in the immediacy of the moment. I think the very effective shiver of recognition the reader gets might work even better if the point was conveyed indirectly: rather than the sentence about 'Maybe children will still sing', perhaps a throwaway reference to 'It suddenly seems a silly rhyme, the kind children have always sung and always will,' or something like that.

A quick thought; did they refer to the enemy as the Royalists? It's not a period I know well, but I suspect they would have called them the King's Army, or the King's Men.

I hope I haven't been too harsh. I love this kind of piece, and I'm very fussy about historical fiction. I think your piece is already atmospheric and effective, the structure is right and the pacing good. It could be really terrific with a few tweaks.

Emma


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