John Boyle O'Reilly

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

Uncle Ned’s Tales: How The Flag Was Saved - Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly

‘TWAS a dismal winter's evening, fast without came down the snow,
But within, the cheerful fire cast a ruddy, genial glow
O'er our pleasant little parlor, that was then my mother's pride.
There she sat beside the glowing grate, my sister by her side;
And beyond, within the shadow, in a cosy little nook
Uncle Ned and I were sitting, and in whispering tones we spoke.
I was asking for a story he had promised me to tell,—
Of his comrade, old Dick Hilton, how he fought and how he fell;
And with eager voice I pressed him, till a mighty final cloud
Blew he slowly, then upon his breast his grisly head he bowed,
And, musing, stroked his gray mustache ere he began to speak,
Then brushed a tear that stole along his bronzed and furrowed cheek.
'Ah, no! I will not speak to-night of that sad tale,' he cried,
'Some other time I'll tell you, boy, about that splendid ride.
Your words have set me thinking of the many careless years
That comrade rode beside me, and have caused these bitter tears;
For I loved him, boy,—for twenty years we galloped rein to rein,—
In peace and war, through all that time, stanch comrades had we been.
As boys we rode together when our soldiering first began.
And in all those years I knew him for a true and trusty man.
One who never swerved from danger,—for he knew not how to fear,—
If grim Death arrayed his legions, Dick would charge him with a cheer.
He was happiest in a struggle or a wild and dangerous ride:
Every inch a trooper was he, and he cared for naught beside.
He was known for many a gallant deed: to-night I'll tell you one,
And no braver feat of arms was by a soldier ever done.
'Twas when we were young and fearless, for 'twas in our first campaign,
When we galloped through the orange groves and fields of sunny Spain.
Our wary old commander was retiring from the foe,
Who came pressing close upon us, with a proud, exulting show.
We could hear their taunting laughter, and within our very sight
Did they ride defiant round us,—ay, and dared us to the fight.
But brave old Picton heeded not, but held his backward track,
And smiling said the day would come to pay the Frenchmen back.
And come it did: one morning, long before the break of day,
We were standing to our arms, all ready for the coming fray.
Soon the sun poured down his glory on the hostile lines arrayed,
And his beams went flashing brightly back from many a burnished blade,
Soon to change its spotless luster for a reeking crimson stain,
In some heart, then throbbing proudly, that will never throb again.
When that sun has reached his zenith, life and pride will then have fled,
And his beams will mock in splendor o'er the ghastly heaps of dead.
Oh, 'tis sad to think how many—but I wander, lad, I fear;
And, though the moral's good, I guess the tale you'd rather hear.
Well, I said that we were ready, and the foe was ready, too;
Soon the fight was raging fiercely,—thick and fast the bullets flew,
With a bitter hiss of malice, as if hungry for the life
To be torn from manly bosoms in the maddening heat of strife.
Distant batteries were thundering, pouring grape and shell like rain,
And the cruel missiles hurtled with their load of death and pain,
Which they carried, like fell demons, to the heart of some brigade,
Where the sudden, awful stillness told the havoc they had made.
Thus the struggle raged till noon, and neither side could vantage show;
Then the tide of battle turned, and swept in favor of the foe!
Fiercer still the cannon thundered,—wilder screamed the grape and shell,—
Onward pressed the French battalions,—back the British masses fell!
Then, as on its prey devoted, fierce the hungered vulture swoops,
Swung the foeman's charging squadrons down upon our broken troops.
Victory hovered o'er their standard,—on they swept with maddened shout,
Spreading death and havoc round them, till retreat was changed to rout!
'Twas a saddening sight to witness; and, when Picton saw them fly,
Grief and shame were mixed and burning in the old commander's eye.
We were riding in his escort, close behind him, on a height
Which the fatal field commanded; thence we viewed the growing flight.
'But, my lad, I now must tell you something more about that hill,
And I'll try to make you see the spot as I can see it still.
Bight before us, o'er the battle-field, the fall was sheer and steep;
On our left the ground fell sloping, in a pleasant, grassy sweep,
Where the aides went dashing swiftly, bearing orders to and fro,
For by that sloping side alone they reached the plain below.
On our right—now pay attention, boy—a yawning fissure lay,
As if an earthquake's shock had split the mountain's side away.
And in the dismal gulf, far down, we heard the angry roar
Of a foaming mountain torrent, that, mayhap, the cleft had wore,
As it rushed for countless ages through its black and secret lair;
But no matter how 'twas formed, my lad, the yawning gulf was there.
And from the farther side a stone projected o'er the gorge,—
'Twas strange to see the massive rock just balanced on the verge;
It seemed as if an eagle's weight the ponderous mass of stone
Would topple from its giddy height, and send it crashing down.
It stretched far o'er the dark abyss; but, though 'twere footing good,
'Twas twenty feet or more from off the side on which we stood.
Beyond the cleft a gentle slope went down and joined the plain,—
Now, lad, back to where we halted, and again resume the rein.
I said our troops were routed. Far and near they broke and fled,
The grape-shot tearing through them, leaving lanes of mangled dead.
All order lost, they left the fight,—they threw their arms away,
And joined in one wild panic rout,—ah! 'twas a bitter day!

'But did I say that all was lost? Nay, one brave corps stood fast,
Determined they would never fly, but fight it to the last.
They barred the Frenchman from his prey, and his whole fury braved,—
One brief hour could they hold their ground, the army might be saved.
Fresh troops were hurrying to our aid,—we saw their glittering head,—
Ah, God! how those brave hearts were raked by the death-shower of lead!
But stand they did: they never flinched nor took one backward stride,
They sent their bayonets home, and then with stubborn courage died.
But few were left of that brave band when the dread hour had passed,
Still, faint and few, they held their flag above them to the last.
But now a cloud of horsemen, like a shadowy avalanche,
Sweeps down: as Picton sees them, e'en his cheek is seen to blanch.
They were not awed, that little band, but rallied once again,
And sent us back a farewell cheer. Then burst from reckless men
The anguished cry, ' God help them!' as we saw the feeble flash
Of their last defiant volley, when upon them with a crash
Burst the gleaming lines of riders,—one by one they disappear,
And the chargers' hoofs are trampling on the last of that brave square!
On swept the squadrons! Then we looked where last the band was seen:
A scarlet heap was all that marked the place where they had been!
Still forward spurred the horsemen, eager to complete the rout;
But our lines had been reformed now, and five thousand guns belched out
A reception to the squadrons,—rank on rank was piled that day
Every bullet hissed out ' Vengeance!' as it whistled on its way.

'And now it was, with maddened hearts, we saw a galling sight:
A French hussar was riding close beneath us on the right,—
He held a British standard! With insulting shout he stood,
And waved the flag,—its heavy folds drooped down with shame and blood,—
The blood of hearts unconquered: 'twas the flag of the stanch corps
That had fought to death beneath it,—it was heavy with their gore.
The foreign dog! I see him as he holds the standard down,
And makes his charger trample on its colors and its crown!
But his life soon paid the forfeit: with a cry of rage and pain,
Hilton dashes from the escort, like a tiger from his chain.
Nought he sees but that insulter; and he strikes his frightened horse
With his clenched hand, and spurs him, with a bitter-spoken curse,
Straight as bullet from a rifle—but, great Lord! he has not seen,
In his angry thirst for vengeance, the black gulf that lies between!
All our warning shouts unheeded, starkly on he headlong rides,
And lifts his horse, with bloody spurs deep buried in his sides.

God's mercy! does he see the gulf? Ha! now his purpose dawns
Upon our minds, as nearer still the rocky fissure yawns:
Where from the farther side the stone leans o'er the stream beneath,
He means to take the awful leap! Cold horror checks our breath,
And still and mute we watch him now: he nears the fearful place;
We hear him shout to cheer the horse, and keep the headlong pace.
Then comes a rush,—short strides,—a blow!—the horse bounds wildly on,
Springs high in air o'er the abyss, and lands upon the stone!
It trembles, topples 'neath their weight! it sinks! ha! bravely done!
Another spring,—they gain the side,—the ponderous rock is gone
With crashing roar, a thousand feet, down to the flood below,
And Hilton, heedless of its noise, is riding at the foe!
'The Frenchman stared in wonder: he was brave, and would not run,
'Twould merit but a coward's brand to turn and fly from one.
But still he shuddered at the glance from 'neath that knitted brow:
He knew 'twould be a death fight, but there was no shrinking now.
He pressed his horse to meet the shock: straight at him Hilton made,
And as they closed the Frenchman's cut fell harmless on his blade;
But scarce a moment's time had passed ere, spurring from the field,
A troop of cuirassiers closed round and called on him to yield.
One glance of scorn he threw them,—all his answer in a frown,—
And riding at their leader with one sweep he cut him down;
Then aimed at him who held the flag a cut of crushing might,
And split him to the very chin!—a horrid, ghastly sight!
He seized the standard from his hand; but now the Frenchmen close,
And that stout soldier, all alone, fights with a hundred foes!
They cut and cursed,—a dozen swords were whistling round his head;
He could not guard on every side,—from fifty wounds he bled.
His saber crashed through helm and blade, as though it were a mace;
He cut their steel cuirasses and he slashed them o'er the face.
One tall dragoon closed on him, but he wheeled his horse around,
And cloven through the helmet went the trooper to the ground.
But his saber blade was broken by the fury of the blow,
And he hurled the useless, bloody hilt against the nearest foe;
Then furled the colors round the pole, and, like a leveled lance,
He charged with that red standard through the bravest troops of France!
His horse, as lion-hearted, scarcely needed to be urged,
And steed and rider bit the dust before him as he charged.
Straight on he rode, and down they went, till he had cleared the ranks,
Then once again he loosed the rein and struck his horse's flanks.
A cheer broke from the French dragoons,—a loud, admiring shout!—
As off he rode, and o'er him shook the tattered colors out.
Still might they ride him down: they scorned to fire or to pursue,—
Brave hearts! they cheered him to our lines,—their army cheering, too!
And we—what did we do? you ask. Well, boy, we did not cheer,
Nor not one sound of welcome reached our hero comrade's ear;
But, as he rode along the ranks, each soldier's head was bare,—
Our hearts were far too full for cheers,—we welcomed him with prayer.
Ah, boy, we loved that dear old flag!—ay, loved it so, we cried
Like children, as we saw it wave in all its tattered pride!
No, boy, no cheers to greet him, though he played a noble part,—
We only prayed 'God bless him!' but that prayer came from the heart.
He knew we loved him for it,—he could see it in our tears,—
And such silent earnest love as that is better, boy, than cheers.
Next day we fought the Frenchman, and we drove him back, of course,
Though we lost some goodly soldiers, and old Picton lost a horse.
But there I've said enough: your mother's warning finger shook,—
Mind, never be a soldier, boy!—now let me have a smoke.'


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Poem Submitted: Monday, May 21, 2012



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