John Boyle O'Reilly

(28 June 1844 - 10 August 1890 / Dowth Castle, County Meath)

Uncle Ned’s Tale: An Old Dragoon's Story - Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly

I OFTEN, musing, wander back to days long since gone by,
And far-off scenes and long-lost forms arise to fancy's eye.
A group familiar now I see, who all but one are fled,—
My mother, sister Jane, myself, and dear old Uncle Ned.
I'll tell you how I see them now. First, mother in her chair
Sits knitting by the parlor fire, with anxious matron air;
My sister Jane, just nine years old, is seated at her feet,
With look demure, as if she, too, were thinking how to meet
The butcher's or the baker's bill,—though not a thought has she
Of aught beside her girlish toys; and next to her I see
Myself, a sturdy lad of twelve,—neglectful of the book
That open lies upon my knee,—my fixed admiring look
At Uncle Ned, upon the left, whose upright, martial mien,
Whose empty sleeve and gray mustache, proclaim what he has been.
My mother I had always loved; my father then was dead;
But 'twas more than love—'twas worship—I felt for Uncle Ned.
Such tales he had of battle-fields,—the victory and the rout,
The ringing cheer, the dying shriek, the loud exulting shout!
And how, forgetting age and wounds, his eye would kindle bright,
When telling of some desperate ride or close and deadly fight!
But oft I noticed, in the midst of some wild martial tale,
To which I lent attentive ear, my mother's cheek grow pale;
She sighed to see my kindled look, and feared I might be led
To follow in the wayward steps of poor old Uncle Ned.
But with all the wondrous tales he told, 'twas strange I never heard
Of his last fight, for of that day he never spoke a word.
And yet 'twas there he lost his arm, and once he e'en confessed
'Twas there he won the glittering cross he wore upon his breast.
It hung the center of a group of Glory's emblems fair,
And royal hands, he told me once, had placed the bauble there.
Each day that passed I hungered more to hear about that fight,
And oftentimes I prayed in vain. At length, one winter's night,—
The very night I speak of now,—with more than usual care
I filled his pipe, then took my stand beside my uncle's chair:
I fixed my eyes upon the Cross,—he saw my youthful plan;
And, smiling, laid the pipe aside and thus the tale began:

'Well, boy, it was in summer time, and just at morning's light
We heard the 'Boot and Saddle!' sound: the foe was then in sight,
Just winding round a distant hill and opening on the plain.
Each trooper looked with careful eye to girth and curb and rein.
We snatched a hasty breakfast,—we were old campaigners then:
That morn, of all our splendid corps, we'd scarce one hundred men;
But they were soldiers, tried and true, who'd rather die than yield:
The rest were scattered far and wide o'er many a hard fought field.
Our trumpet now rang sharply out, and at a swinging pace
We left the bivouac behind; and soon the eye could trace
The columns moving o'er the plain. Oh! ' twas a stirring sight
To see two mighty armies there preparing for the fight:
To watch the heavy masses, as, with practiced, steady wheel,
They opened out in slender lines of brightly flashing steel.
Our place was on the farther flank, behind some rising ground,
That hid the stirring scene from view; but soon a booming sound
Proclaimed the opening of the fight. Then war's loud thunder rolled,
And hurtling shells and whistling balls their deadly message told.
We hoped to have a gallant day; our hearts were all aglow;
We longed for one wild, sweeping charge, to chase the flying foe.
Our troopers marked the hours glide by, but still no orders came:
They clutched their swords, and muttered words 'twere better not to name.
For hours the loud artillery roared,—the sun was at its height,—
Still there we lay behind that hill, shut out from all the fight!
We heard the maddened charging yells, the ringing British cheers,
And all the din of glorious war kept sounding in our ears.
Our hearts with fierce impatience throbbed, we cursed the very hill
That hid the sight: the evening fell, and we were idle still.
The horses, too, were almost wild, and told with angry snort
And blazing eye their fierce desire to join the savage sport.
When lower still the sun had sunk, and with it all our hope,
A horseman, soiled with smoke and sweat, came dashing down the slope.
He bore the wished-for orders. ' At last!' our Colonel cried;
And as he read the brief dispatch his glance was filled with pride.
Then he who bore the orders, in a low, emphatic tone,
The stern, expressive sentence spoke,—'He said it must be done!'
'It shall be done!' our Colonel cried. 'Men, look to strap and girth,
We've work to do this day will prove what every man is worth;
Ay, work, my lads, will make amends for all our long delay,—
The General says on us depends the fortune of the day!'
'No order needed we to mount,—each man was in his place,
And stern and dangerous was the look on every veteran face.
We trotted sharply up the hill, and halted on the brow,
And then that glorious field appeared. Oh! lad, I see it now!
But little time had we to spare for idle gazing then:
Beneath us, in the valley, stood a dark-clad mass of men:
It cut the British line in two. Our Colonel shouted, 'There!
Behold your work! Our orders are to charge and break that square!'
Each trooper drew a heavy breath, then gathered up his reins,
And pressed the helmet o'er his brow; the horses tossed their manes
In protest fierce against the curb, and spurned the springy heath,
Impatient for the trumpet's sound to bid them rush to death.

'Well, boy, that moment seemed an hour: at last we heard the words,—
'Dragoons! I know you'll follow me. Ride steady, men! Draw swords!'
The trumpet sounded: off we dashed, at first with steady pace,
But growing swifter as we went. Oh! 'twas a gallant race!
Three-fourths the ground was left behind: the loud and thrilling 'Charge!'
Rang out; but, fairly frantic now, we needed not to urge
With voice or rein our gallant steeds, or touch their foaming flanks.
They seemed to fly. Now straight in front appeared the kneeling ranks.
Above them waved a standard broad: we saw their rifles raised,—
A moment more, with awful crash, the deadly volley blazed.
The bullets whistled through our ranks, and many a trooper fell;
But we were left. What cared we then! but onward rushing still!
Again the crash roared fiercely out; but on! still madly on!
We heard the shrieks of dying men, but recked not who was gone.
We gored the horses' foaming flanks, and on through smoke and glare
We wildly dashed, with clenched teeth. We had no thought, no care!
Then came a sudden, sweeping rush. Again with savage heel
I struck my horse: with awful bound he rose right o'er their steel!

'Well, boy, I cannot tell you how that dreadful leap was made,
But there I rode, inside the square, and grasped a reeking blade.
I cared not that I was alone, my eyes seemed filled with blood:
I never thought a man could feel in such a murderous mood.
I parried not, nor guarded thrusts; I felt not pain or wound,
But madly spurred the frantic horse, and swept my sword around.
I tried to reach the standard sheet; but there at last was foiled.
The gallant horse was jaded now, and from the steel recoiled.
They saw his fright, and pressed him then: his terror made him rear,
And falling back he crushed their ranks, and broke their guarded square!
My comrades saw the gap 'he made, and soon came dashing in;
They raised me up,—I felt no hurt, but mingled in the din.
I'd seen some fearful work before, but never was engaged
In such a wild and savage fight as now around me raged.
The foe had ceased their firing, and now plied the deadly steel:
Though all our men were wounded then, no pain they seemed to feel.
No groans escaped from those who fell, but horrid oaths instead,
And scowling looks of hate were on the features of the dead.
The fight was round the standard: though outnumbered ten to one,
We held our ground,—ay, more than that,—we still kept pushing on.
Our men now made a desperate rush to take the flag by storm.
I seized the pole, a blow came down and crushed my outstretched arm.
I felt a sudden thrill of pain, but that soon passed away;
And, with a devilish thirst for blood, again I joined the fray.
At last we rallied all our strength, and charged o'er heaps of slain:
Some fought to death; some wavered,—then fled across the plain.

'Well, boy, the rest is all confused: there was a fearful rout;
I saw our troopers chase the foe, and heard their maddened shout.
Then came a blank: my senses reeled, I know not how I fell;
I seemed to grapple with a foe, but that I cannot tell.
My mind was gone: when it came back I saw the moon on high;
Around me all was still as death. I gazed up 'at the sky,
And watched the glimmering stars above,—so quiet did they seem,—
And all that dreadful field appeared like some wild, fearful dream.
But memory soon came back again, and cleared my wandering brain,
And then from every joint and limb shot fiery darts of pain.
My throat was parched, the burning thirst increased with every breath;
I made no effort to arise, but wished and prayed for death.
My bridle arm was broken, and lay throbbing on the sward,
But something still my right hand grasped: I thought it was my sword.
I raised my hand to cast it off,—no reeking blade was there;
Then life and strength returned,—I held the Standard of the Square!
With bounding heart I gained my feet. Oh! then I wished to live,
'Twas strange the strength and love of life that standard seemed to give!
I gazed around: far down the vale I saw a camp-fire's glow.
With wandering step I ran that way,—I recked not friend or foe.
Though stumbling now o'er heaps of dead, now o'er a stiffened horse,
I heeded not, but watched the light, and held my onward course.
Bat soon that flash of strength had failed, and checked my feverish speed;
Again my throat was all ablaze, my wounds began to bleed.
I knew that if I fell again, my chance of life was gone,
So, leaning on the standard-pole, I still kept struggling on.
At length I neared the camp-fire: there were scarlet jackets round,
And swords and brazen helmets lay strewn upon the ground.
Some distance off, in order ranged, stood men,—about a score:
O God! 'twas all that now remained of my old gallant corps!
The muster-roll was being called: to every well-known name
I heard the solemn answer,—' Dead!' At length my own turn came.
I paused to hear,—a comrade answer, ' Dead! I saw him fall!'
I could not move another step, I tried in vain to call.
My life was flowing fast, and all around was gathering haze,
And o'er the heather tops I watched my comrades' cheerful blaze.
I thought such anguish as I felt was more than man could bear.
O God! it was an awful thing to die with help so near!
And death was stealing o'er me: with the strength of wild despair
I raised the standard o'er my head, and waved it through the air.
Then all grew dim: the fire, the men, all vanished from my sight,
My senses reeled; I know no more of that eventful night.
'Twas weeks before my mind came back: I knew not where I lay,
But kindly hands were round me, and old comrades came each day.
They told me how the waving flag that night had caught their eye,
And how they found me bleeding there, and thought that I must die ;
They brought me all the cheering news,—the war was at an end.
No wonder 'twas, with all their care, I soon began to mend.
The General came to see me, too, with all his brilliant train,
But what he said, or how I felt, to tell you now 'twere vain.
Enough, I soon grew strong again: the wished-for route had come,
And all the gallant veteran troops set out with cheers for home.
We soon arrived; and then, my lad, 'twould thrill your heart to hear
How England welcomed home her sons with many a ringing cheer.
But tush! what boots it now to speak of what was said or done?
The victory was dearly bought, our bravest hearts were gone.
Ere long the King reviewed us. Ah! that memory is sweet!
They made me bear the foreign flag, and lay it at his feet.
I parted from my brave old corps: ' twere matter, lad, for tears,
To leave the kind old comrades I had ridden with for years.
I was no longer fit for war, my wanderings had to cease.
There, boy, I' ve told you all my tales. Now let me smoke in peace.'
How vivid grows the picture now! how bright each scene appears!
I trace each loved and long-lost face with eyes bedimmed in tears.
How plain I hear thee, Uncle Ned, and see thy musing look,
Comparing all thy glory to the curling wreaths of smoke!
A truer, braver soldier ne'er for king and country bled.
His wanderings are forever o'er. God rest thee, Uncle Ned!

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Poem Submitted: Monday, May 21, 2012

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