THE HELMET

1. EL CORTIJO DE LOS CABRAS

The six soldiers led by a major of pioneers stood on the brow of a ridge looking down one side on to a cortijo, farm, below. The building looked deserted with no animals or people to be seen. On the other side of the ridge in the distance, they could see the French troops under General Sebastiani moving up the valley towards the summit of the pass that barred their route to Málaga.

It was a sea of colours moving steadily uphill towards the waiting Spanish forces guarding the pass at the head of the valley. The red of the hussars and light infantry, the green of the chevaliers and the blue worn by the voltiguers of infantry plus a sprinkling of white and brown. The February sunshine shone off brass and steel helmets and weaponry. Far away beyond the French army, the waiting Spanish troops could be seen behind their barricades, banners flying in the stiff breeze. The white uniforms of the Fijo de Málaga, Málaga militiamen, were prominent amongst the brown of the volunteers.

The major lowered his telescope and turned once more to look down at the farmhouse half a league below, about one and a half English miles away. There was no danger down there, he thought, and he and his men could do with some rest and shelter for the night. As the first shots in the battle started on the ridge of La Boca del Asno, his small group of men began their steep descent to the cortijo.

Here I am, the major thought, an officer in the French army of Napoleon acting as an infantry officer. No, he corrected himself, a major in a Dutch regiment of pioneers allied to the troops of Napoleon, made to behave as a foot soldier. General Sebastiani had no need of sappers on this encounter, especially Dutch ones, as he had sufficient French engineers so the major had been sent out on to his right flank to guard against any attack from there. So his men had exchanged their shovels for muskets and set out from Antequera that morning, marching on the right flank of the main body of troops along the route to El Torcal. He looked at his four men, one sergeant and three troopers, in their worn and mud-stained once smart blue uniforms. They had been walking it seemed for ever since leaving Paris eighteen or so months ago, and fighting two major battles on the way. In fact, they had walked from Holland all the way here to southern Spain. All their boots were in a bad state, trooper Bakker’s were held together with wire. But there were no spare boots in Napoleon’s army and very little of anything, it had to live off the land it travelled through. The British navy saw to that with their control of the sea and blockade of all of Napoleon’s ports. Trooper Bakker would just have to put up with his disintegrating boots until he could claim another pair off a dead soldier, French, Spanish, English, that he came across. The only piece of uniform amongst the five men that was still in good shape was the major’s plumed brass helmet that he took good care of and polished at every opportunity.

It was on this thought that the major realised that he and his men were now only a few metres from the farmhouse. He signalled for them to stop and fix their bayonets. The place looked deserted just as it had through his telescope from the ridge above, with no sign of people or animals. Not even a few chickens pecking around the yard. Either a French foraging party had been here, or the inhabitants had taken their stock away somewhere for safety.

The group advanced the last few metres and then rushed into the building. In the main salon they found three women standing facing them, an old one, a middle-aged one and the third not much more than twenty. The major had been in Spain now for almost two years and had a slight grasp of the language. Haltingly, in his bad Spanish, he told the women they had nothing to fear from his men, soldiers of the Royal Dutch Army. He was, he told them, Major Kort De Jong, and he guaranteed their safety.

Two days later, a messenger from General Sebastiani arrived with news that his troops had pushed the Spanish troops off the ridge at La Boca del Asno, and then on the following day had stormed and taken Málaga. The defence of the town had been organised and led by a Capuchin friar, Fernando Berrocal, who had gathered his forces behind earth ramparts. His men, mainly local militia and volunteers along with a few regular troops, had been overwhelmed by a charge of lancers followed by the general’s infantry brigades. His orders to De Jong were to stay at his post and watch for any Spanish reinforcements. It was known that a brigade under General Ballesteros was at large in the area.

It was on their third night at the cortijo that trouble erupted. De Jong had organised the night watch so that he and his sergeant, Bram Van Dijk, took two hour watches turn and turn about, with the three troopers also doing two hour stretches so that they did two hours on and four off. At about four in the morning, De Jong was woken by a loud cry. Looking round, he saw that only one trooper not two was asleep beside him, Gerben Visser, the youngest of his men and the steadiest. He woke the man and together they went to investigate. In the bedroom used by the three women they found the sergeant and the other two troopers. The sergeant was about to rape the youngest of the women, with the other two soldiers guarding the two older ones.

“Stop,” the major shouted.

The sergeant stood up and picked up his musket, pointing it at his officer. “No, Major,” he said. He was obviously drunk on the brandy they had found earlier that day hidden in a barn, and inflamed with lust. “We three are in charge now. We are going to do what we will with these three, even the old one for she is still not too old.”

He levelled his gun but as he fired Gerben Visser, the young soldier, fired first, killing the sergeant and deflecting his bullet which hit the major high in the thigh. The other two stood undecided and then, at the major’s command from where he lay on the floor, they put down their weapons. The three women gathered around De Jong to attend to his wound.

In the morning, the major made Visser a temporary sergeant, and sent Smit, one of the other men, to Málaga to report the incident. General Sebastiani confirmed Visser as sergeant and sent two other men to augment the outpost.

The three women, Elena, the youngest who De Jong had saved from rape, and her mother, Carmen, and grandmother, María, tended to his wounds. Elena in particular sat by him most of the time. All would have been well except for the exhaustion and low state of health of the major. He had been marching and fighting for eighteen months since leaving Holland, for most of the time on poor rations, and with the shock of the bullet and loss of blood fell into a fever and lost consciousness.

Elena sat beside him as he went from a hot to a cold sweat, hallucinating and talking to himself. When his body went cold and clammy, she lay beside him to warm him, and when he had a raging temperature she bathed his limbs to cool him down. He was in this state for over two weeks. During that time Elena’s two brothers, who had been some way away looking after the animals, came back to the cortijo. The countryside had quietened down after the fall of Málaga and an uneasy truce existed between the family and the troops using their home as a base. Sergeant Gerben Visser saw to it that the soldiers were kept under control.

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2. FEVER

At twenty-four, Kort De Jong had been an experienced engineer, working mainly on the canals and sea defences in Holland. Then, with the war in Europe raging, his father had bought him a commission in the Pioneer Corps of the Royal Dutch Army. He was proud of his blue uniform and especially of his tall plumed brass helmet.

In 1808 Napoleon annexed Spain, kidnapping its king and putting one of his own family to rule in his place. Then, on the 2nd of May, Madrid rose up in rebellion and Spain went to war with France.

Napoleon asked the King of Holland, his brother Louis Bonaparte, to send troops and on the 2nd of September a large army left Bergen op Zoom to march to Spain, Major Kort De Jong and his men amongst them. 22,000 men started the march, the remainder of the 30,000 asked for by Napoleon were due to meet up with them in Paris. The brigade was made up of hussars, infantry and artillery, as well as the small pioneer corps, together with cannons and the long baggage train which brought up the rear. The whole army was in high spirits with trumpet and drum bands playing, and banners flying in the stiff breeze. They had to walk to Spain, as the British navy had control of the sea and was blockading all of the ports of her enemies, Holland amongst them.

By the 19th of September they were in Paris, but the major had little time to see the city as the march south continued, reaching Madrid by the end of October.

De Jong was soon to see action. From Madrid his men were sent west towards Portugal. On the way the troops had to cross a wide river, the Sil, and he was in charge of constructing a bridge.

The place he had chosen for the crossing was a wide stretch of water but which had a slow current because of that. The bank on the French side was higher than that defended by the English and Portuguese troops, so their cannon could sweep the far bank and keep it clear. He commandeered barges from a nearby town and assembled the decking and ropes needed, then at dawn put his plan into action.

He floated the barges out into the river, forming a chain from one bank to the other and quickly anchored them in position, then spanned them with the prepared decking. It worked beautifully except that as his men reached the far bank, a group of red-coated mounted Life Guards and blue-coated Light Dragoons charged them. The French forces forced them back and the landing was made, but not before one of his two sergeants and three of his men were killed.

For the first time since he had lost consciousness, the major came awake sweat pouring off his head, muttering about pontoons and cannon fire. Elena, who couldn’t understand the Dutch language, tried to calm him and wiped his body with cold water. At last he slumped back down again into his coma. Then De Jong came fully awake in a cold sweat and Elena covered him with blankets, pressing her body next to his. When he regained consciousness he told Elena of what he had been dreaming of, of the crossing of the river Sil and the loss of his men. Then, comforted by her presence, he once more drifted into an uneasy sleep.

In February 1809, the major and his remaining men were involved in the siege of Zamora. His pioneers, reduced to one sergeant and ten sappers but augmented by Prussian engineers, were given the task of digging one of the siege trenches. He used the classic technique and once more assembled all the stores he would need before commencing. A large wooden shield was constructed to guard the front of the trench as it approached the city. The trench was dug at 450 to the city walls so that no cannon could fire down its length. Every so often the direction was changed so that it zigzagged towards Zamora. It went forward in a series of metre stages. First the shield was advanced, and then the space between it and the side wall of the trench nearest the city was blocked with a circular basket made from saplings one metre in diameter. As soon as it was in place, three sappers quickly began to dig the trench and fill the basket with the earth. Then behind this barrier more men continued digging the trench, throwing the earth behind or on top of these baskets, or gabions as they were called. In this way, the trench advanced slowly but inexorably towards the walls of the city. The main danger point was whilst the gabion was being filled initially after being put in position, and it would take a very accurate gun layer or a lucky one to do that in the few minutes before it was full. This of course is what happened. De Jong was in the trench at the time when a cannon ball hit the half-filled basked then carried on past it, cutting one of his men in half. The ball sent splinters of wood flying in all directions from the timber of the gabion, killing several more men. He kept his head and ordered another basket to be put into place and detailed more men to fill it, but the incident left his small group of sappers even more depleted.

Once more he came awake screaming as he relieved the horror of that experience, and once more Elena soothed and calmed his fever ridden body. Then he told her of the siege and the loss of more of his men, leaving him now only in charge of the small group who had come to the cortijo.

Elena nursed him for the two weeks he lay in his fever ridden trance. When he was hot she bathed his body with cool water. He was a tall lean almost ungainly man, and she came to know every inch of him. When his fever made him cold, she lay beside him under a pile of covers, her warm body nestled up to his separated only by a thin shift. Once she felt him stir against her leg, but didn’t flinch away but nestled in closer, glad of this sign of life. For quite a while she had not been sure if he would live or die, and was pleased at his automatic response to her body.

After the siege of Zamora his men, now reduced to a sergeant, Bram Van Dijk, and three sappers, Victor Bakker, Mozes Smit and Gerben Visser, were sent to join the forces of General Soult on his march to capture Andalucía. When Soult and his main force marched towards Cádiz where the Spanish government was now sitting, defended by the remnants of the Spanish forces and British troops, he and his men went with Sebastiani to capture Málaga.

Then after two weeks his fever finally passed, and De Jong came fully awake in the arms of Elena. Her overjoyed face was the first thing he saw when he recovered consciousness.

During his time unconscious, his leg wound had nearly healed but he would walk with a limp from now on. The Spanish family were pleased to see the recovery of the man who had saved Elena from rape, and the soldiers coexisted with them for the next three weeks that they were to stay there. Then General Sebastiani recalled them to Málaga.

During this time the twenty-seven year old major and the twenty-two year old Elena became close. Every day they walked out together away from the cortijo and the others. It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened.

They were walking beside the stream that flowed down the valley past the cortijo. He was a tall lean man with light coloured brownish grey hair and walked leaning heavily on a stout stick. At his side Elena was shorter, well proportioned with long black hair, common to most Spanish women. He was in shirt sleeves as the day was hot, and she wore a skirt and a scoop-necked blouse fastened with drawstrings that she had loosened to try to keep cool. His leg partly gave way and he stumbled, dropping the stick, and she bent down to pick it up for him. As she crouched beside him, the loosened top gaped open and he looked down at her naked breasts. Glancing up at him she saw him looking at her, but made no move to cover herself. Her head was level with his hips and she saw his reaction to her, smiling at him she moved closer and nuzzled her cheek up to him. Then she reached up and held his hands, and gently and slowly so as not to hurt his wound pulled him down beside her on the ground. When they returned to the cortijo sometime later, her mother Carmen, who was skinning two rabbits caught that morning by her brothers, was too busy to notice their flushed appearance. However her abuela, grandmother, who was peeling potatoes, glanced at them shrewdly. So it’s happened at last, she thought, nodding her head, well I hope it turns out well for them , but with a war raging and they on opposite sides, she was none too sure.

Day after day they lay by the stream that watered the land of the farm in the shelter of a clump of tees, making love.

It was in May that they were recalled to Málaga. Sebastiani’s orders had also included the information that De Jong was to be sent back to Holland, as he was considered no longer fit for action because of his wound.

At their parting, they said that they would remain true to each other.

“When this war is over, I’ll return, Elena. Will you wait for me?”

“Yes, Kort,” she assured him. “As long as it takes, it can’t last forever.”

“I’ll leave you something to remind you of me,” he said. But what could he leave? he wondered. Then he had it. “I’ll leave my helmet. It’s my pride and joy, the most valuable and personal thing I have. But I won’t need it anymore, as I’m being discharged from the army.”

The last sight he had of her as he climbed the ridge above the cortijo, from where he had descended over three months earlier, was of her stood in the farmyard, clutching the helmet. The sun reflected brightly from it.

Would he ever see her or it again? he asked himself.

 

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3. AFTERMATH

It was early in August in 1810 that Major Kort De Jong started on his journey back to Holland from Málaga, nearly two years after leaving with the Dutch forces from Bergen op Zoom. The journey back took many months, the route through Spain being especially slow as the small group he was with had to stop many times to avoid the Spanish guerrilla forces who were active in all the sierras on the way. He travelled all the way in various carts and coaches pulled by mules or horses, as he couldn’t walk very far as yet due to his wound. It had taken six months for the army to march from Holland to Madrid, whereas his journey back from Málaga lasted for over nine and he reached home near Antwerp in the May of 1811. During the journey he had spent many days in Madrid, Lyons and Paris, and gradually over this time his leg healed and strengthened, so that by Antwerp he could walk quite well if with a slight limp. On the journey his mind returned time and time again to the Cortijo de Las Cabras nestling in the valley by the stream in Torcal, under the peak of Pelada, and to memories of Elena.

After being discharged from the army, he worked once again as an engineer. He was given oversight of the construction of a new stretch of canal close by his home. A new spur was to be built off the side of an existing canal, and run for about twenty kilometres. His first task was to construct a large wooden cofferdam on the side of the existing waterway, to hold back the water when the new cut was built. The water level of the canal was about ten metres above the surrounding low lying land, and so his men started digging dykes on either side of the proposed waterway and throwing the earth up to form the raised sides of its route. Then clay was imported and laid along the bottom, soaked and then trampled flat by hundreds of labourers, forming a dense hard and waterproof base, a process called ‘puddling’. When the bottom was finished to Kort’s satisfaction, it was the turn of his carpenters to erect shuttering along both sides, and then the space between this and the earth banks was filled in layers with wet clay. Each layer was puddled by foot to make a waterproof side to the canal.

It was a labour intensive and slow process and the new waterway which he constructed in sections slowly extended along its proposed route. The task was made even slower by the fact that labour was scarce, many able bodied men being away in the army.

During the three years he spend supervising this task, he barely contained his impatience to start his journey back to Spain and Elena. News of the war came to him during this time. First Napoleon invaded Russia in June 1812 and marched on Moscow. British ships went to the Baltic to support the Russians and try to keep Finland and Denmark, who were supporters of Napoleon, blockaded in their ports. Later the French army was halted in the harsh Russian winter outside of the capital and a slow retreat began. Soult was then reported to be withdrawing his troops from Andalucía in southern Spain. Wellington was advancing in northern Spain, and soon Napoleon was driven out of the country altogether and the British troops were in France. Surely the war must end soon, Kort thought. But it wasn’t until March 30th 1814 that Wellington entered Paris, and the end finally came on April 4th.

It was now almost four years since he had left the cortijo. But now he could start to organise his return at last, and hope that Elena had survived the occupation and had waited for him as she had promised.

In late May, whilst the world leaders gathered in Vienna to work out the terms of the peace and Napoleon was exiled in Elba, De Jong was busy handing over his duties to his second-in-command and making preparations for his journey.

“I’ll be away for a few months, Harald,” he told the man. “And then I’ll be back with a new wife, and take over again.” ‘Pray God I will,’ he added to himself, ‘if I have a safe journey and she has waited.’

Having taken so long to travel on land to and from Málaga, he decided it would be far quicker to go by sea. The Dutch fleet had been boxed up in port for so many years that not much traffic was moving yet, but he managed to get a passage to London and was there within days. It was strange to walk around the British capital, for so long the centre of opposition to his country. He visited the Tower, walked the streets, stood and looked at the headquarters of the navy in Whitehall where so many famous sailors hostile to Holland had walked, Nelson, Collingwood, and many others. He saw the offices of Pitt and the War Office, where Wellington and his brother had ruled supreme, and went to St. Paul’s cathedral. The streets were crowded with people once his enemies, who would have shot him on sight but now brushed past him without a glance. The air was full of talk, not of peace, that was old news now, but of the new industries springing up all over the country, giving employment to the returning soldiers. Cotton, wool, iron and steel. New mills and factories, mostly in the Midlands and the north, were being built. And there was talk of a new transport system that many were claiming would replace the canals. A roadway of steel laid on the ground to carry steam engines. He listened to this closely as his work was the building and repair of canals. But as he listened, he realised that even if these new inventions were to replace the canal system, there would be plenty of work for engineers, laying these steel roadways, building bridges and digging tunnels. But he didn’t think that these things would ever happen in Holland, with its abundance of waterways.

He didn’t stay long in London, impatient now to be on his way, and managed to get a birth on a sloop that was bound for Sanlúcar de Barrameda to buy sherry. The cabin was small and bare, but to an ex-soldier used to sleeping in barns, bivouacs and out in the open, it was more than adequate, and he had been told that speed was a priority for such boats.

Yet again his patience was tested as whilst crossing the Bay of Biscay, noted for its high winds and storms, the boat was becalmed for four days. The captain and De Jong matched each other in their barely concealed impatience. For the captain, time was money and the delay loss of profit, whilst for Kort it just further delayed his reunion with Elena.

In Sanlúcar he transferred to a ship going to Málaga, and arrived there at last on the twentieth of June. Here he bought a mule and set off on the morning of the twenty-second on the final leg of his journey on the Camino de Málaga y Antequera. It was a fine hot morning and in a couple of hours he reached the pass over the Sierra Pelada at La Boca del Asno, where the battle had taken place. There were still many signs of it even after over four years. The ruins of the stone building that had been the Spanish headquarters stood barren on the hillside, surrounded by piles of earth that were all that was left of the gun emplacements. Pieces of cannon and other armour were still littering the ground. He passed all this flotsam of the past battle with hardly a glance, and went downhill then turned the mule off the road and up the side of the ridge above the cortijo.

On the crest of the ridge he stopped and took out his telescope, the same one he’d used all those years ago, and looked down on the farmhouse below. It was the same as it had been then but also vastly different. Then it had been deserted and now it was full of movement. The fields around were now in full use, and a herd of goats could be seen in the distance. The farmyard had pigs in a sty and chickens pecking around everywhere. There were also people, several of them. That old woman sitting on a stool by the wall must surely be Elena’s abuela, María, but she was too far away to make out her features. There was a man working to one side of the yard, one of her brothers perhaps? And then there were two young women, was one of them Elena? He couldn’t be sure and there were three small children. Had she married whilst he had been away? Of course she would have. He decided he couldn’t go down and intrude, perhaps break up her marriage or make her regret not waiting. He stated to turn the mule away to return to Málaga, heavy of heart. But the beast wouldn’t turn, wanting to go on, perhaps having smelled fodder and water. So he gave in to it and started down the hill. He would not stay, just wish her well and claim he had returned as he had promised, for his helmet, his once pride and joy.

Surprisingly no one saw him coming and he entered the farmyard unnoticed. Yes, the old woman by the wall was María, dozing in the sun, but there was no sign of Carmen, Elena’s mother. The man was, he thought, José her eldest brother, but it could have been Paco, too much time had passed for him to be sure, and one of the younger women he didn’t know perhaps a wife of José or Paco.

The second woman was Elena, looking to his eyes even lovelier than the last time he’d seen her. She was holding the hand of a boy of about four. His feelings were in turmoil, he still loved her but he had come too late, she was married and had a child.

 Then she looked up and saw him standing by his mule. The shock on her face was palpable and she turned as white as a sheet. He shouldn’t have come, he thought miserably, it was all too much for her, and tears stung his eyes as they met hers.

“Kort,” she said in a low husky voice. “Kort.... you came back. I thought, I thought you must be dead or had forgotten....” Then her face lit up, radiant, and her colour returned, and she picked up the child and ran to him, calling, “Kort, Kort,” over and over again. They met and embraced, crushing the boy between them.

“Look, little Kort,” she said to her protesting child. “He’s come. To collect his helmet which you’ve kept shiny for him, haven’t you, little one.” With tears running down her face and the cries of “Madre mía,” from María in the background, she whispered in De Jong’s ear, “Meet your son, my love, we’ve both waited for you.”