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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Russia: Vol. XX. 1876–79.

Dnieper, the River

The Father of the Regiment

By Walter Thornbury (1828–1876)

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 snowdrifts 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 wagon 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-wagon 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.

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.