Category Archives: Napoleonic War Poetry


Victor Hugo: “The Grande Armée”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

While the Revolution went on and its effect were being felt from one end of France to the other; while the guillotine ran red with blood, and brother condemned brother to suffer beneath its awful knife; while it was a question of extreme doubt what precise form the government would assume, the soldiers of France, fighting her battles on the frontiers, held firm for the honour of their country. Barefooted, without arms and without food, they fought against combined Europe. Victory after victory they won; until, driven beyond the Rhine, the invaders were glad to sue for peace. These were the men who were to make possible the name of Napoleon, and well did they merit better than they then received. The glory, the honour, the future of France were in their keeping, and never once did they betray the trust.

 

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THE GRAND ARMEE

Soldiers of our Year Two! O wars! O epic songs!

Drawing at once their swords against all Crowned Wrongs,

In Prussian, Austrian bounds,

And against all the Tyres and Sodoms of the earth,

And him the man-hunter, the Tzar o’ the icy North,

Follow’d by all his hounds.

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And against Europe all, with all its captains proud,

With all its foot-soldiers whose might the plains did crowd,

With all its horsemen fleet,

All risen against France, with many a hydra head—

They sang as on they march’d, their spirits without dread,

And without shoes their feet.

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At early dawn, at eve, South, North, and everywhere,

With their old muskets on their shoulders, rattling there,

Passing both rock and flood,

Without sleep or rest, foodless, and ragged too,

Joyous and proud they went, and their shrill trumpets blew.

As only demons could.

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Sublimest Liberty fill’d evermore their thought;

Fleets taken sword in hand, and frontiers set at nought—

So sovereignly they go;

O France! On every day some prodigy they dare—

Encounters, combats, shocks—on Adige’ side Joubert,

And on the Rhine Marceau.

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The vanguard they o’ercame, the centre thy o’erthrew;

In the snow, and in the rain, water their middles to,

On went they, ever on:

And one sued them for peace, and one flung wide his gate;

And thrones were scattered like dead leaves, here of late,

Now at the wind’s breath gone.

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O soldiers! You were grand, in the midst of battle-shocks,

With your lightning-flashing eyes and wild dishevel’d locks

In the wild whirlwind black;

Impetuous, ardent, radiant, tossing back your heads,

Like lions snuffing up the North-wind when he treads

Upon his tempest track!

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Drunken and madly rapt in their great epic deeds,

They savour’d all the mirth of most heroic needs—

Steel clashing here and there,

The winged Marseillaise flying amid the balls,

The grenades and the drums, the bomb-shells and cymbals,

And thy clear laugh, Kleber!

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The Revolution cried—Die, O my volunteers!

Die to deliver all the people from their fears!

Their answering hands they raised.

Go, my old soldiers! Go, my beardless generals!

And Victory proudly march’d to the sound of bare foot falls

Over the world amazed.

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Disheartening and fear to them were all unknown;

They had without a doubt over the high clouds gone,

If their audacity

In its Olympic race one moment had look’d back,

And seen the Republic point over their glorious track

Her finger to the sky.

 

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Thomas Campbell: “The Battle of Hohenlinden”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

Napoleon returned to Paris in the middle of the night of July 2, 1800.  The next day, as soon as his arrival became known, the whole city turned out to welcome him.  As Hazlitt well puts it: “It was a day, like which few occur in history; yet in this instance how many such were crowded into the life of a single man.”

The period of the armistice having expired and Austria having refused to accept its terms, the French armies were again set in motion.  Macdonald crossed the Alps  in the dead of winter, and achieved brilliant victories for the French cause.

Moreau, on the Rhine, commenced that memorable winter campaign, which ended so gloriously at the terrible battle of Hohenlinden.  At midnight, on 3 December, 1800, in the midst of a raging snowstorm, the French and Austrian armies met.  The terrific and awful combat which followed has been immortalized by Campbell in the poem so familiar to every schoolboy.

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Lord Byron: “The Battle of Talavera”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte:A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

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While Napoleon was winning victory after victory against Austria and the coalition in the north, everything was going wrong in the Peninsula.  Joseph Bonaparte was in no sense a soldier.  The art of war was a mystery to him, and of its wants and necessities he knew nothing.

So little confidence had the marshals, sent by Napoleon to fight his battles in Spain and Portugal, in the military operations of Joseph that they paid no attention to his orders; on the contrary, they seemed to think that it was proper to act each for himself, totally disregarding the good of the service, and the commands of the king.  Personal comfort and aggrandizement were sought after.

Spite and jealousy prevailed among these veteran generals like among a band of schoolboys.  There was no concert of action; no willing aid lent each other.  The whole campaign went wrong from beginning to end.  The French soldiers fought with their accustomed bravery; but, with quarrelsome leaders, against British valour and guerilla warfare, their efforts were unavailing.

The battle of Talavera, fought on 28th July, 1809, resulted in a defeat of the French army, and a most significant victory for the Duke of Wellington, then Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Alternate victory and defeat attended until the 21st June, 1813, when Napoleon’s enterprise in Spain met its Waterloo at the battle of Vittoria.

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Battle of Talavera

Awake, ye sons of Spain! Awake! Advance!

Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess cries;

But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,

Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:

Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,

And speaks in thunder through your engine’s roar!

In every peal she calls, “Awake! Arise!”

Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,

When her war-song was heard on Andalusia’s shore?

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Hark! Heard you not those hoofs of dreadful note?

Sounds not the clang of conflict on the heath?

Nor saved your brethren ere they sank beneath

Tyrants and tyrants’ slaves?—the fires of death,

The bale-fires flash on high : from rock to rock

Each volley tells that thousand cease to breathe;

Death rides upon the sulphury Siroc,

Red Battle stamps his foot, and nations feel the shock.

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Lo! Where the Giant on the mountain stands,

His blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,

With death-shot glowering in his fiery hands,

And eye that scorcheth all it glares upon!

Restless it rolls, now fixed, and now anon

Flashing afar—and at his iron feet

Destruction cowers, to mark what deeds are done;

For on this morn three potent nations meet,

To shed before his shrine the blood he deems most sweet.

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By Heaven! It is a splendid sight to see

(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)

Their rival scarfs of mixed embroidery,

Their various arms that glitter in the air!

What gallant war-hounds rose them from their lair,

And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!

All join the chase, but few the triumph share:

The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,

And Havoc scarce for joy can number their array.

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Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;

Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;

Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies:

The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!

The foe, the victim, and the fond ally

That fights for all, but every fights in vain,

Are met—as if at home they could not die—

To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,

And fertilise the field that each pretends to gain.

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There shall they rot—Ambition’s honored fools!

Yes, honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!

Vain Sophistry! In these behold the tools,

The broken tools, that tyrants cast away

By myriads, when they dare to pave their way

With human heart—to what?—a dream alone.

Can despots compass aught that hails their sway?

Or call with truth one span of earth their own,

Save that wherein at last they crumble bone by bone?

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Ferdinand Freiligrath: “Napoleon In Bivouac”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

 battle of aboukir bay July 1798

Battle of Aboukir Bay,  25 July 1798, by Louis Lejeune

Although the result of the battle of the Nile was a fatal blow to the hopes of Napoleon of ever being able to carry out, to a successful issue, his cherished schemes concerning the establishment of a mighty empire in the East, yet he did not relinquish the idea of doing a great work there.

The gallant Desaix was sent in pursuit of Mourad Bey, and soon he had possession of all Upper Egypt, over which Napoleon made him Governor.  The French scientists minutely examined and made record of every object of interest to be found in the country of the old Pharaohs.

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Battle of Mount Thabor, 16 April 1799, by Louis Lejeune

Napoleon, in person, inspected the proposed route of a canal in Suez, to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, and it was at the identical spot where tradition tells us the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea that he and his party were nearly drowned by the rising tide.  “Had I perished there like Pharaoh,” he said, “it would have furnished all the preachers in Christendom with a magnificent text against me.”

Then followed the battle of Mount Tabor, the siege of Acre, and the glorious victory at Aboukir.  Master of Egypt, his work done, so far as it lay in his power to accomplish it, in sight of Pompey’s Pillar and  Cleopatra’s Needle, surrounded by shades of those heroes who made ancient history famous, Napoleon, sitting before his tent with a map of the world on his knees, falls asleep; to dream, perchance, of future glory and the wondrous fate still to be his.

 

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Napoleon in Bivouac

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A watch-fire on a sandy waste
Two trenches – arms in stack
A pyramid of bayonets
Napoleon’s bivouac!

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Yonder the stately grenadiers
Of Kleber’s vanguard see.
The general to inspect them
Close by the blaze sits he.

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Upon his weary knee the chart,
There, by the flowing heap,
Softly the mighty Bonaparte
Sinks, like a child to sleep.

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And stretched on cloak and cannon,
His soldiers, too, sleep well,
And, leaning on his musket nods
The very sentinel.

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Sleep on, ye weary warriors, sleep
Sleep out your last hard fight
Mute, shadowy sentinels shall keep
Watch round your trench tonight.

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Let Murad’s horsemen dash along!
Let man and steed come on!
To guard your line stalks many a strong
And stalwart Champion.

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A Mede stands guard, who with you rode
When you from Thebes marched back,
Who after King Cambyses strode,
Hard in his chariot’s track.

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A stately Macedonian
Stands sentry by your line,
Who saw on Ammon’s plain the crown
Of Alexander shine.

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And, lo, Another spectre!
Old Nile has known him well;
An Admiral of Caesar’s fleet,
Who under Caesar fell.

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The graves of earth’s old lords, who sleep
Beneath the desert sands,
Send forth their dead, his guard to keep,
Who now the world commands.

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They stir, they wake,their places take
Around the midnight flame;
The sand and mould I see them shake
From many a mail-clad frame.

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I see the ancient armour gleam
With wild and lurid light:
Old, bloody purple mantles stream
Out on the winds of night.

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They float and flap around a brow
By boiling passion stirred;
The hero, as in anger, now
Deep breathing, grasps his sword.

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He dreams; a hundred realms, in dreams,
Erect him each a throne;
High on a car, with golden beam,
He sits as Ammon’s son.

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With thousand throats, to welcome him
The glowing Orient cries,
While at his feet the fire grows dim,
Gives one faint flash – and dies.

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William Lisle Bowles: “The Battle of the Nile”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

In the midst of success and prosperity, and at the very dawn of the brightest day that had appeared to the Egyptians in centuries, Napoleon lost all.  Through the negligence of Admiral Brueys, in not obeying his instructions, the whole French fleet was destroyed in the bay of Aboukir, exactly ten days after the brilliant victory won at the Battle of the Pyramids.  Well might Nelson and the English nation shout for joy.  Well might Napoleon exclaim with undescribable emotion:  “Brueys, what have you done!”

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The Battle of the Nile

Shout! for the Lord hath triumphed gloriously!
Upon the shores of that renowned land,
Where erst his mighty arm and outstretched hand
He lifted high,
And dashed, in pieces dashed the enemy;
Upon that ancient coast,
Where Pharoah’s chariot and his host
He cast into the deep,
Whilst o’er their silent pomp he bid the swollen sea to sweep;
Upon that eastern shore,
That saw his awful arm revealed of yore,
Again hath he arisen, and opposed
His foe’s defying vaunt:  o’er them the deep hath closed!

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Shades of mighty chiefs of yore,
Who triumphed on the self-same shore:
Ammon, who first o’er ocean’s empire wide
Didst bid the bold bark stem the roaring tide;
Sesac, who from the east to farthest west
Didst rear thy pillars over realms subdued;
And thou, whose bones do rest
In the huge pyramid’s dim solitude,
Beneath the uncouth stone,
Thy name and deeds unknown;
And Philip’s glorious son,
With conquest flushed, for fields and cities won;
And thou, imperial Caesar, whose sole sway
The long-disputed world at length confessed,
When on these shores thy bleeding rival lay!

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Oh, could ye, starting from your long, cold rest,
Burst Death’s oblivious trance,
And once again with plumed pride advance,
How would ye own your fame surpassed,
And on the sand your trophies cast,
When, the storm of conflict o’er,
And ceased the burning battle’s roar,
Beneath the morning’s orient light,
Ye saw, with sails all swelling white,
Britain’s proud fleet, to many a joyful cry,
Ride o’er the rolling surge in awful sovereignty!

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Calm breathed the airs along the evening bay,
Where, all in warlike pride,
The Gallic squadron stretched its long array;
And o’er the tranquil tide
With beauteous bend the streamers waved on high.
But ah! how changed the scene ere night descends!
Hark to the shout that heaven’s high concave rends!
Hark to that dying cry!

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Whilst louder yet the cannon’s roar
Resounds along the Nile’s affrighted shore,
Where from his oozy bed,
The cowering crocodile hath raised his head!
What bursting flame
Lightens the long track of the gleaming brine?
From yon proud ship it came,
That towered the leader of the hostile line!
Now loud explosion rends the midnight air!
Heard ye the last deep groaning of despair?
Heaven’s fiery cope unwonted thunders fill,
Then with one dreadful pause, earth, air, and seas are still!

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But now the mingled fight
Begins its awful strife again!
Through the dun shades of night
Along the darkly heaving main
Is seen the frequent flash;
And many a towering mast with dreadful crash
Rings falling.  Is the scene of slaughter o’er?
Is the death-cry heard no more?
Lo!  where the east a glimmering freckle streaks,
Slow o’er the shadowy wave the gray dawn breaks.

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Behold, O sun, the flood
Strewed with the dead, and dark with blood!
Behold, all scattered on the rocking tide,
The wrecks of haughty Gallia’s pride!
But Britain’s floating bulwarks, with serene
And silent pomp, amid the deathful scene
Move glorious, and more beautiful display
Their ensigns streaming to thy orient ray.

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Awful Genius of the land!
Who (thy reign of glory closed)
By marble wrecks, half hid the sand,
Hast mournfully reposed;
Who long amid the wasteful desert wide,
Hast loved with deathlike stillness to abide;
Or wrapped in tenfold gloom,
From noise of human things for ages hid,
Hast sat upon the shapeless tomb
In the forlorn and dripping pyramid;
Awake!  Arise!

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Though thou behold the day no more
That saw thy pride and pomp of yore;
Though, like the sounds that in the morning ray
Trembled and died away
From Memnon’s statue; though, like these, the voice
That bade thy vernal plains rejoice,
The voice of Science, is no longer heard;
And all thy gorgeous state hath disappeared:
Yet hear, with triumph, and with hope again,
The shouts of joy that swell from thy forsaken main!
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