Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The Father of the Regiment

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THE FATHER OF THE REGIMENT.

(AN OLD GRENADIER’S STORY OF AN EPISODE IN THE
RETREAT OF NAPOLEON’S “GRANDE ARMÉE” FROM MOSCOW.)

 

Thick snow-wreaths weighed upon the firs,
Snow shrouded all the plain,
Snow brooded in the dusky clouds,
Snow matted the chill rain,
Snow filled the valleys to the brim,
Snow whitened all the air;
The snow-drifts on the Dnieper road
Blinded us with their glare.
 
The white snow on our eagles weighed,
It capped each crimson plume;
Knee-deep it now began to rise,
Striking us all with gloom.
It clotted on our waggon wheels,
And on our knapsacks weighed,
It clung to every soldier’s breast,
And every bayonet blade.

It quenched the shells and dulled the shot,
That round us faster fell,
As all our bayonets glancing moved
Down the long Russian dell
That to the Dnieper river bore.
Ney battled in our rear;
Griloff was nearly on us then,
The Cossacks gathered near.
 
The Russian lancers charged our guards,
Our grenadiers, and horse;
The Russian serfs, with axe and knife,
Were gathering in force,

As floods of us with carts and guns
Bore down upon the ridge
That led, by snowy swathes and slopes,
Unto the Dnieper bridge.

The sun, a dull broad spot of blood,
Smouldered through icy clouds;
The snow, in blinding heavy flakes,
Was weaving soldiers’ shrouds.
Here lay a powder-waggon split,
Its wheels all black and torn,
And there a gun half buried in
The ruts its weight had worn.

Drums splashed with blood and broken swords
Were scattered everywhere;
Our shattered muskets, shakos pierced,
Lay partly buried there.
Guns foundered, chests of cartridge burst,
Lay by the dead defaced;
By hasty graves of hillocked snow,
You could our path have traced.

Father of the Regiment (Morten).png

Still one battalion firm was left
(Made up of Davoust’s men)
“The Vieille Roche" we called the band,
In admiration then.
The “Father of the Regiment,”
De Maubourg, led us on,
With the old Roman’s iron will,
Though hope had almost gone.

Two sons he had, who guarded him
From every Cossack spear;
One was a grenadier, whose heart
Had never known a fear;
The other boy a lusty drum
Beat by his father’s side;
I often saw the father smile
To see the stripling’s pride.

There came a rush of ponderous guns,
Grinding the red churned snow,
Making their way o’er dying men
Unto the bridge below.
Ney gathered close his prickly squares
To keep the Russians back,
For fast those yelling Cossacks came
Upon our bleeding track.

Maubourg was there erect and firm;
I saw him through the fire;
He stooped to kiss a dying friend,
Then seemed to rise the higher.

Great gaps the Russian cannon tore
Through our retreating ranks,
As slowly, grimly, Ney drew back
Unto the river banks.

Shot in the knee I saw Maubourg,
Borne by his sons—slow—slow;
They staggered o’er the muddy ruts,
And through the clogging snow.
“Fly, leave me, children! Dear to France
Young lives are,” then he said.
They both refused—a round shot came,
And struck the eldest—dead.

The boy knelt weeping by his side,
Trying in vain to lift
The old man’s body, which but sank
The deeper in the drift.
“Leave me, my child!” he cried again.
“Think of your mother—go.
We meet in Heaven. I will stay,
Death is no more my foe.”

The boy fell weeping on his breast,
And there had gladly died,
But I released his clutching hands,
And tore him from his side.
One kiss—no more—and then he went,
Beating his drum for us;
I did not dare to turn and see
The old man perish thus.

Again there came a rush of spears,
But we drove on the guns.
We—bronze and iron with the heat
Of the Egyptian suns.
The eagles led—our bayonets pressed
Over the Dnieper bridge;
Ney was the last to turn and pass
Down the long gory ridge.

The boy became a marshal, sirs;
I saw him yesterday
Talking to Soult, who loves right well
To chat of siege and fray.
He often finds our barracks out
And comes to see us all,
We who escaped from Moscow’s fire,
From Russian sword and ball.

Walter Thornbury.