A little while ago I took part in a writing challenge, a short story of 500 words, beginning with the line, “I’ll tell you what you need, and that’s a (rocket scientist).” Words in brackets optional, and if possible set in a war zone. This is my contribution.
The First Rocket Scientist
“I’ll tell you what you need, and that’s a rocket.”
“What!” Snapped Wellington, “Why on earth would I want a dammed firework.”
Two other officers smiled, the Duke was notoriously short tempered with anyone who wasted his time.
“I’m serious Sir.” The aide continued, “Major Congreve’s rocket artillery. There is no other way we can destroy the fort, and it’s impossible to take it by direct assault.” He paused.
Wellington was silent, he looked up at the French fort. It was brilliantly positioned to command the pass. If he couldn’t take the fort, he couldn’t take his army through the Pyrenees. He decided quickly.
“Get Congreve, have him take his Rocket Artillery onto that ridge, I want that fort destroyed.”
Two hours later a mule train crawled up the ridge, when they reached a small plateau overlooking the fort. Here the engineers began to set up a wooden frame. As they did so two officers took sights on the fort whilst Major Congreve carefully put his rockets together.
The rockets looked like massive fireworks, the head was two foot long, fitted to a wooden stick as tall as a man. One of the officers ran over with the range of the fort, the Major nodded and screwed a fuse into the base of the first rocket. Two men carefully laid it in the frame, the angle was adjusted again and the fuse lit.
Everyone stepped to one side, the rockets were notoriously unsafe, occasionally exploding on the launch frame. There was a cloud of smoke and the rocket shot skywards. The Major watched its flight, stopwatch in hand. It exploded high over the fort.
He turned back and made adjustments to the launch frame, then he picked out another fuse and the rocket was launched. This one went wild, veering off at right angles, Congreve quietly got the next rocket ready.
“I think they’ve spotted us Sir.” Said the young officer who had been watching the fort through a telescope. “Then we must be more accurate than them.” He replied.
Before they could launch another rocket the cannon in the fort fired, there was an explosion a little below them and to the left.
“Good for a first shot.” The major commented, as he lit the fuse on the next rocket.
This one’s flight was perfect, it shot from the frame in a plume of white smoke, made a gentle arc right onto the gun platform of the fort, where it exploded. As the smoke cleared they saw that no one was left standing by the cannon.
Wellington watched smoke rise from the Fort.
“Excellent, the army marches tomorrow, the road is good until we are past those hills”
He pointed with his cane.
“But aren’t we going through the pass?”
“Oh no, far too rough. But now the French will think we are coming that way and defend it, we will take them by surprise.”
Three weeks later the British Army entered France unopposed, the downfall of Napoleon had begun.
As you will realise this is complete fiction, there was no such action when Wellington crossed the Pyrenees into France, and any way Sir William Congreve was never in Spain.
Sir William Congreve
He was back in England with the Rocket research team at the Woolwich Arsenal, it was another officer who took the rockets to war.
Shoulder patch of the Rocket Artillery
The Congreve rockets were as effective, and as unreliable as described. After the end of the war the rockets found two surprising uses in civilian life. Adapted, they were used around the coast to launch life lines to ships in peril. These rockets saved thousands.
They also became a byword for dangerous inventions. During a parliamentary committee in the 1820’s one member told the engineer George Stephenson.
“No one will want to ride in your steam locomotive, they would be safer riding on one of Colonel Congreve’s Rockets.”
As a result Stephenson called his next engine, probably the most famous of all railway locomotives – “Rocket”.