Canto 26: War Roads

The harder match’d, the greater victory

Shakespeare


 

Romantic Interlude

Embraced by such a lovely summers day
Brilliant Brussels sparkl’d in the sun,
Along a gentle, tree-lin’d parkland way
The doting De Lanceys, arms lock’d as one,
Walk’d lost in love,
Empassion’d feeling true,
While lazily above clouds drifted cross the blue.

She whisper’d softly in his ear,
“Darling I am so happy,
The city seems so far from here
Midst this idyllicity…”
With one long velvet kiss so dear
United heart flies free
For one perfect moment of happiness –
Pierced by the gruff voice breathless with distress.

“Sir, you’ve been summon’d by his Grace.”
Her pretty heart’s flurry,
With skin like lace she strok’d his face,
Wash’d away all worry,
“Swift my sweet, I’ll brew some tea & ink thy quills, now hurry.”

Brussels
June 15th 1815
15:00


 

Pawn-Push

As from Night’s throne delicious dawn-nymphs crept,
Across the Sambre cherish’d eagles flew,
Or rather waded – as they did men wept,
They’d dared to dream these dreams becoming true;
Beyond frontiers,
Marching thro’ man-high rye,
While morning slowly clears brash pit-murk from the sky.

Across the bridge Napoleon
Penetrates the Belgic lanes,
On every side a veteran
Strongest of his long campaigns,
Ahead the place of Laekan
& with him what remains
Of this best army, whom with phrenzied heart
Surge forwards, urging murdering to start.

Ney gallops thro the old Empire
As sunlit skies open,
‘My orders sire?’ ‘With fight & fire
& forty thousand men
Seize Quatra Bras, from there we’ll bar conjunction… WELL! GO THEN!’

Charleroi
June 15th 1815
14:30


 

A Very English Affair

The Duke of Richmond look’d down on his ball,
A fete of English suave & gaiety,
Ladies holding darling captains in thrall
Amidst a swirling, twirling company;
Fast thro’ the door
Burst the Prussian Muffling,
To struggle cross the floor huffing & a-puffing.

Wellington took him to one side
& frown’d as the Prussian spoke,
Then an aristocratic glide
Swept them thro’ the dancing folk,
Deepest anxieties did hide
Neath noble, smiling cloak…
“Richmond, do you have a map anywhere?”
“Yes I do…” They stole up the ballroom stair.

“By Gad! That man has humbugg’d me!
What nerve to choose Charleroi –
Thus the army must speedily
Converge on Quatra Bras…
& if not there then Mont Saint-Jean must dowse his martial star.”

Brussels
June 15th 1815
22:00


 

Constant Rebeque

Rebeque receiv’d his orders from the Duke
To concetrate all forces at Nivelles,
But feels this flaw’d, & open to rebuke,
Transfers his lads to Quatra Bras pell-mell;
Out of the wood
Advance first French patrols,
Shots fire – men drop – spills blood – O murd’rous musketballs!

They’d stood alone all thro’ the night,
Well into morning also,
Five times their strength beset to fight,
Pericolosa corso,
But Ney has lost his appetite
For brave deeds & more so,
Since Borodino’s meat futility
Less reckless, ever hesitatingly.

An artery remains in place
Between the Allied hosts,
A final race, the vital chase
As laces pass the post,
Those possible apologies Rebeque transforms to boasts.

Quatra Bras
June 15th 1815
23:00


 

A Tense Affair

Wellington rode along the paved chausee,
Cramm’d with each companies hot-marching crunch,
By wagons jostling with artillery,
Head smarting from the party & its punch;
At Quatra Bras,
With one wide, sweeping glance,
He wills his men to bar the swarming hordes of France.

On he rode to meet old Blucher
Below the Mill of Bussy,
There, survey’d the panorama
About the spire of Ligny,
As horizon fill’d with soldier,
The ancyent enemy
Manouvering guns into position,
“Your Highness, I sense thy disposition

Will receive a damned good licking,
Your forces too exposed…”
Time tick-ticking, horses kicking,
The conversation closed,
He left the scene to solve whatever problems Ney had posed.

Brye
June 16th 1815
13:00


 

First Blows

With the ‘Pas de Charge’ a year of peace dies,
Four hundred cannon sound the roar of Mars,
Grey clouds of smoke darken the summer skies,
Once more to battle, once more to the Wars;
“Vive l’Empereur!”
The fanatical scream
Along the meandering, marshy Ligny stream.

All day beneath the seering sun,
Round the villages & plain,
Reverberating shout & gun
As Death deals slaughter & pain,
All for holy Napoleon
Ten thousand now lie slain –
As black flags flutter, no quarter given,
Backwards, slowly, the Prussians are driven.

The old Mercurial gusto
Observes the hour-glass sands,
“D’Erlon must show the killer blow
Upon the Saint Amands,
While Ney must know the Fate of France lies firmly in his hands.”

Fleurus
June 16th 1815
15:30


 

The Fog of War

Whilst two mighty battles raged & thunder’d
D’Erlon march’d his corps thro’ pleasant verdure
T’ward the long, straight Roman road that sunder’d
The Belgic plain twixt Nivelles & Namur;
Ready to fall
On the flank of the foe,
But some panicky Gaul prevents the killer blow.

From the farm at Gemioncourt,
Lust drenching his Gallic blood,
As tho’ he rode at Agincourt,
The battle misunderstood,
Ney gazed into the fog of war,
Saw men in th’empty wood;
But five thousand Belgians held the crossroads
While his twenty-five stood sharp’ning their swords.

D’Erlon dropt the marshal’s order
Cursing the confusion,
So to answer his emperor
Despatch’d two divisions,
Then wheel’d West to Quatra Bras with the mass of decision.

Marbais
June 16th 1815
17:00


 

A Vital Battle

The Duke mull’d by the inn at Quatra Bras,
The sweet skirl of pipes spun his thoughts around,
A dusty cloud, a flash of red, Huzzah!
The Highlanders have reached the battleground;
To war at once!
For thro’ the sky high corn,
The first assaults of France by pounding hoofbeats borne.

With blue cloaks streaming thro’ the air
They charged for death & glory
To slay these Amazons who dare
Challenge their supremacy,
Smashing against each bristling square
Slashing malice & fury –
Green young recruits put to the sternest test,
Boys become men within the wylde tempest.

Calm upon his chestnut charger
The Duke espies a threat,
By clouds of murd’rous canister
The French columns hard met,
& driven back towards their lines at tip of bayonet.

Quatra Bras
June 16th 1815
17:30


 

Purgatorial Pauses

The march of death made progress sure & swift,
A mass of bodies furl’d across the line,
Pastorals patrolling thro the smoke-drift,
A contest inexplicably divine;
It seem’d a saint
Had sprink’d Ney with salt,
Some maiden at the faint before her lover’s vault.

Night fell, the moon drips from the sky,
On dead & wounded scatter’d
Between the lines, still tall flags fly,
Tho straggly, torn & tatter’d,
For those, that night, who did not die,
Only one thing matter’d:-
Find an unpierc’d cuirassier’s jacket
To fry up bully-beef from the packet.

Men put to bed their appettite,
Touch their pipe tobacco
From tinder light flames in the night,
Smoking for Morocco,
Exchanging tales of dangers at the Heights of Busaco.

Quatra Bras
June 16th 1815
23:00

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