This to my elder brothers, schoolboys gay,
by Victor Marie Hugo
Was told by Uncle Louis on a day;
He bid me play, with tender voice and bland,
Thinking me still too young to understand.
Howe'er, I listened, and his tale was this:—
'A battle? Bah!—and know you what it is?
A deal of smoke. You rise at dawn, and late
You go to bed. Here's one that I'll relate:
The battle is called Eylau. As I wot,
I then was captain, and the Cross had got;
Yes, I was captain,—after all, in war
Man but a shadow is, and does not score;
But ne'er mind me. Eylau, you understand,
Is part of Prussia,—water, wood, and land,
Ice, winter everywhere, and rain, and snow.
'Well, we were camped a ruined wall below,
And round the ancient belfry tombs appear.
Bénigssens' tactics were, first to come near,
Then fly. The Emperor such arts disdains,
And the snow whitened over all the plains.
Spy-glass in hand, Napoleon passed our way;
The guard declared, 'To-morrow is the day.'
Old men and women fled in troops confused
With children. I looked on the graves and mused.
The night-fires lit, and colonel bending o'er,
Cried, 'Hugo!' Here!' 'How many men?' 'Six score.'
'Well, your entire company take round,
And there get killed.' 'Where?' 'In the burial-ground.'
I answered, 'Apter place you could not find.'
I had my flask; we drank; an icy wind
Blew. He said, 'Captain, death is close at hand.
Life's pleasant—'tis a thing you understand;
But none dies better than your jolly blade:
I give my heart, but sell my skin,' he said.
'Let's woman toast!—your post's the worst of all.'
(Our colonel oft a merry jest let fall.)
He adds, 'The foe from ditch and wall keep back;
Stay, there, 'tis rather open to attack.
This graveyard of the battle is the key;
Keep it.' 'We will.' 'Some straw will handy be.'
'We've none.' 'Sleep on the ground. Now tell me this:
Your drummer, is he brave?' 'As Barra is!'
'Good! Let him blindly, madly sound the charge:
Noise must be great when numbers are not large.
D'ye hear, you little scamp, what you are bid?'
'Yes, Captain,' said the grinning child, half hid
In snow and rime. The colonel then went on:
'The battle will be fought with guns alone;
I myself like cold steel, and hate the way
In which the dastard shells are made to slay.
Valiant the sword,—the shell's a traitor. Well,
The emperor sees to that. Naught more to tell,
And so, good-bye. The post you will not leave,
Nor budge a foot, till six to-morrow eve.'
The colonel left. I cried, 'Right turn!' and thence
We soon all entered in that narrow fence;
Grass walled around, a church amid the sod;
In gloom, and o'er the graves, the Blessed God.
'A sombre yard, with many a snowy plate,
Looked somewhat like the sea. We crenolate
The wall. I order all things, and decide
The ambulance shall 'neath the cross abide.
'We'll sup, then rest,' I said. Snow lay about;
Our clothes mere rags. 'Tis very fine, no doubt,
But still unpleasant when the weather's bad.
I made my pillow of a grave, and had
My feet benumbed,—my boots had lost their sole;
And captain soon and soldier, cheek by jowl,
No longer stirred, each sleeping o'er a corse.
So soldiers sleep; they neither know remorse,
Pity, nor fear,—not being in command;
And frozen by the snow, or burnt by sand,
They sleep. Besides, fighting keen joy supplies.
I said, 'Good-night,' and then I shut my eyes.
War has no time for pantomimes inept.
It snowed; the sky was sullen, and we slept.
Some tools we found, and made a mighty flame;
My drummer poked it up, and to me came,
To cast the reckoning as best he can.
Sons a great soldier was the little man!
The crucifix looked like a gibbet vast;
The snow still fell; the fire died out at last.
For how long time it was we slumbered so,
I say, the devil take me if I know!
Soundly we slept. In sleep is death rehears'd
'Tis good in war. I was right cold at first,
Then dreamt, and fancied many a skeleton
And spectre that great epaulets had on.
Slowly, though I upon my pillow lay,
I had a feeling as of coming day;
My lids, though closed, a sense of radiance found.
Sudden, through sleep a deep and sullen sound
Roused me,—'twas like a cannon's distant roar.
I woke, and something white was gathered o'er
My eyes. The snow, with soft and gentle fall,
During the silent night had wrapped us all
In shrouds. I start, and shake the snow away.
A bullet coming, whence I cannot say,
Awoke me quite. I bid it pass at large,
And cried, 'Drummer, get up, and sound the charge!'
'Then six score heads (as isles from ocean) all
Rose from the snow; the sergeant sounds the call.
The dawn then rose, red and with joyance glad,
As 'twere a bloody mouth with smiling clad.
My thoughts ran to my mother, and the wind
Seemed whispering to me, 'Oft in war we find
That with the rise of day death too doth rise.'
I mused; at first around all quiet lies,
Those cannon-shots only as signals were:
Before the ball, at times, some bars we hear,
Some prelude dancing with unmeaning strains.
The night had clogged the blood within our veins,
But coming battle made it hotly course.
The army 'gainst us came in all its force.
We held the key. A handful were my men,
On whom the shells, like woodman's axe, were then
About to rage. I wished myself elsewhere.
My men to skirmish, by the wall with care
I placed, who confidence and solace found
In hoped promotion, bought by grievous wound:
In war you confront death to clutch at fame.
My young lieutenant, from St. Cyr, who came,
Said to me, 'Morn, how sweet a thing I think!
How charming the sun's rays! The snow is pink;
Captain, all laughs, and shines. How fresh the air;
How white the fields; how peaceful, pure, and fair!'
I answered, 'Soon 'twill all to horror change.'
My thought were of the Rhine, the Alpine range,
The Adige, and our dreadful wars of yore.
'The battle burst: six hundred throats and more,
Enormous, belching forth the fire that fills
Their mouths, together clamoured from the hills;
All the whole plain one smoking gulf was seen.
My drummer beat the charge with fury keen.
With cannons mixed the trumpets proudly sound,
And the shells rained upon our burial ground
As if they wished to kill the very grave;
The rooks desert the tower theirs lives to save.
I recollect a shell burst in the earth,
And the corpse, started, rose form out his berth,
As if man's racket woke him in the tomb.
Then the fog hid the sunshine. Ball and bomb
Produced a noise dread, inconceivable.
Berthier, Prince of the Empire, Vice-Constable,
Charged on our right a Hanoverian corps
With thirty squadrons. These you saw no more,
Save the thickest, darkest mist, starred o'er by shell,
So wholly had the strife and battle fell
Within that tragic mist been lost to view.
A cloud fallen on the earth spread round and grew
From smoke which myriad cannons vomited.
Children, 'twas under this the armies bled.
Soft as the down floated the snow that night.
Good faith! we killed each other as we might:
We did our best. The dark and ruins through,
I saw my men like shadows come and go,—
Ghosts, like espaliers, which on walls you range.
The field brought to me musings deep and strange,—
Phantoms above, and the still dead below.
Some blazing cottages at distance glow.
The fog, through which was heard the mountain horn,
E'en thicker than before was towards us borne.
We now saw nothing but our burial ground;
We had the wall at mid-day for our bound.
As by a great black hand, so by the night
We were enclosed, and all things fade from sight.
Our church some seagirt rock appeared to be.
The bullets through the fog too closely see:
They keep us company, crushed the church roof
And shattered the stone cross, and gave us proof
That we were not alone on that dread plain.
We hungered, but no soup at hand,—'tis vain
To look for food in such a place. And worse,
The hail of balls fell with redoubled force.
Bullets are awkward. Down they rain a-pelt;
Only what falls, and is unpleasant felt,
Are grains of flame, not sprinklings of a shower.
We were like men whose eyes are bandaged o'er.
All fell to pieces 'neath the shells,—the trees,
The church, the tower; and I found decrease
The shadows which I saw around the place.
From time to time one fell. 'Death kills apace,'
A sergeant says, like wolf ta'en in a net;
And as his sight the tombs snow-covered met,
'Why place us where already is complete
The tale of guests?'—Man's lot is like to wheat,
Thus to be mowed, and not the scythe to see.
Some shadows yet in the gloom living be;
The scamp, my drummer, still his might employed.
We fired above the wall, now nigh destroyed.
Children, you have a garden: shot and ball
Rained on us, guardians of that fatal wall,
As you drench flowers with your water pot,
'Till six o'clock you must not leave the spot,'
This order all my thoughts were fixed upon.—
The lightnings flash 'mid feathers of the swan;
And 'mid the dark, the bullets' flaming track
Were all my eyes could see. 'Let us attack!'
The sergeant cried. 'Whom?—for I no one see.'
'I hear their voice, they trumpet bray,' said he,
'Let us rush forth! Shot, shell, upon us rain;
Death spits upon us here,' 'Let us remain.'
I add, 'The battle's brunt by us is borne.
We hold the key.' 'My patience well-nigh worn.'
The sergeant said.—Black were the fields, the sky,
But though full night, the evening was not nigh.
'Till six o'clock,' low to myself I said.
'By Jove! few better chances can be had
To advance,' said my lieutenant; when a ball
Carried him off. I felt no hope at all
Of winning. Victory is an arrant jade.
A pallid glare, which through the fog was made,
Vaguely lit up the graveyard; but afar
Was naught distinct, save that we needed air
To concentrate upon our heads the bombs.
The emperor placed us there among the tombs,
Alone, riddled with shot, which we returned;
But what he did with us we ne'er discerned.
We were the target midmost in that fight;
And to hold good, and battle on till night,
Till six o'clock to live the hours through,
Meanwhile to kill, was what we had to do.
Fierce, powder-blackened, shot we as we might,
And took but time our cartridges to bite;
Without a word our soldiers fought and died.
'Sergeant, d'ye see the foe retreat?' I cried.
'No.' 'What, then?' 'Naught.' 'Nor I.' 'A deluge?' 'Yes,
Of fire.' 'See you our men?' 'No, but I guess
From how the volleys sound, we're forty good,'
Cried a brave grumbler, who beside me stood.
(He'd won his stripes.) 'At most you'll thirty find.'
And all was snow and night; the piercing wind
Blew; and while shivering, we the rain-drops track,
A gulf of while spots 'gainst abyss of black.
Howe'er, the battle seemed becoming worse;
A kingdom perished 'neath an empire's force.
Behind the veil you guessed some dread event,
As lions upon mutual slaughter bent.
'Twas like the ancient giants' fabled war;
You heard discharges pealing near and far,
The crash of ruins,—the outskirts of the town
Of Eylau set on fire and burning down.
The drums their dreadful music now surpass,
Six hundred cannon make the unceasing bass.
'We killed each other; nothing yet was known
By France, that hour her greatest stake was thrown.
Was the good God on high against or for?
How dark! I pulled my watch out o'er and o'er.
At times the silent field gave forth a cry,—
Some fallen body writhed in agony;
Fast, one by one shot down, we met our doom;
Death-rattles filled the vast sepulchral gloom.
Kings have their soldiers as you have your toys.
I raised my sword, and shouting, 'Courage, boys!'
I waved it o'er my head. Strife now I wage,
Intoxicated, deaf, with so much rage;
Blow following blow by shot and shell were dealt.
Sudden, my arm—my right arm—hung. I felt
My sword drop to my feet upon the sward:
My arm was broken. I picked up my sword
With the other hand, and, 'Friends,' I gaily cried,
'To get this broken too is not denied.'
Then I began to laugh,—a useful whim;
For soldiers are not pleased to lose a lim,
And when their chief is wounded, rather glad.
How fled the time? One only hand I had,—
That my sword needed, whatsoe'er betide;
The other, drenched in blood, hung by my side.
I could no longer get my watch. When, lo!
My drummer stopped. 'Knave, are you frightened?' 'No;
I'm hungry,' said the child. Just then the plain
Seemed rocked and shaken, and was filled amain
With such a cry as up to heaven rose.
I felt myself grow weak,—the whole man goes
From out a wound. A broken arm, it drains.
To talk with some one when you're faint, sustains.
My sergeant spoke to me. At hazard, 'Yea,'
I cried; I did not want to faint away.
'Sudden the noise left off; the night less black.
'Victory!' they shout. I shouted 'Victory!' back;
And then some lights approaching us, I see.
Bleeding, upon one hand and either knee
I crawled, and cried, 'How do we stand?' and then
I added, 'All rise up, and count, my men.'
'Here!' said the sergeant. 'Here!' my scamp replied.
The colonel, sword in hand, stood by my side.
'Tell me by whom the victory was gained.'
'By you,' he said. The snow with blood was stained.
'Hugo, that's you; for 'tis your voice,' said he.
'Yes.' 'And how many are living?' 'Three.'