The Battle of Assaye

(from the United Services College
‘Chronicle’, July 2, 1886)

Save where our huge sea-castles from afar
  Beat down, in scorn, some weak Egyptian wall,
We are too slothful to give heed to war.

As a gorged Lion will not stir at all, 
  Although the hunter mock him openly
So we are moveless when the trumpets call.

A soldier's letter, written long ago
  (The ink lies yellow on the tattered page), 
Telling of war, with rugged overflow
Of epithet, and bursts of uncouth rage;
  And as I find the letter—so I write
My record of brave deeds in a dead age.

'The man was a man you could follow to death, 
And dying, thank with your latest breath
For the honour granted—and he had led 
From the sea to the scorching plains inland,
Where the soil would flay the skin from your hand
If you let it rest for a moment there;
And the sun at noonday strikes you dead, 
And the breeze is a blast of furnace air; 
Where the Jungle stands in an inland sea,
When the hills send down their floods to the plain, 
And the waters drown the coiled tree-snake,
And the reed-thatched hamlets by jhil and lake 
Are swamped and demolished utterly.

How can I tell of the months of fight?—
The whole thing slid like an evil dream, 
With the same tired halt at camping-time, 
When the hot day sank into hotter night, 
A broken sleep and a dream of home; 
Then grain for each lowing bullock-team;
And then the sun in the parched blue dome—
The dusty march like an endless rhyme,
And the weary, broken sleep again.

But one thing stays in my mind, and will stay 
Stamped in fire till the day I die:—
How the wild Mahratta ranks gave way 
From a poor four thousand of Englishmen,  
By the little village they call Assaye—
For we were one where they numbered ten; 
How we fought through hot September day 
In the face of their cannon, and how we slew; 
How the horsemen galloped down on us,
And we broke their ranks and fought anew,
In the midst of a fire so murderous 
That it seems a wonder that I am alive;
And, last of all, how we chased the crew, 
Drove them like bullocks our peasants drive, 
Footsore and bleeding. It happened thus:

Three armies were met together to crush 
The whole of our little force-and we 
(Thanks to the tale of a lying scout)
Had come on their camp so suddenly,
Where the Kaitua River curves about
In the steep clay reaches of Bokerdun, 
That we knew we must either fight or die,
Since no succour could come by land or sea,
And we knew that retreat was worse than defeat;
And we thought this over, there in the bush,
As we faced their masses of cavalry,
and counted each point-blank, grinning gun, 
While the turbid river rolled between ;
And far away from the plains' burnt green 
The still ghats watched us against the sky.

We found a ford, and the word was given,
And over we went as glad as might be—
Seeing, for months past, we had striven 
With a foe who fled like a dusky cloud,
And we thirsted to meet them in open field, 
With no quarter asked or grace allowed,
And fight till one of us two should yield,
So, a splash through the stream with arms held high,
A rattle of stones when the horses passed, 
And we found ourselves on the farther side, 
And we only feared lest the foe should fly— 
Cheating us out of our fight at the last.
f or we saw their ranks fall back and divide,
And we watched their faces horrified
That our handful should dare to strive with them.
And then the view was hid from us wholly—
Like a fleecy fringe on a garment's hem,
The whole of the front of their line outbroke 
In a dense, white bank of blinding smoke, 
That rose against the blue sky slowly,
While the red death flickered in spirts of fire 
As each cannon opened its lips and spoke
A deep-mouthed warning to bid us retire.
On the left the Kaitua hemmed us in, 
On the right a rushing watercourse; 
In front their masses of infantry,
Their surging waves of Mahratta horse, 
Came down on us like a winter sea;
And we fought as they fight who fight for life—
Each one as though the army's fate
Hung on the strength of his own right wrist 
When he warded away the cold curved knife, 
And the wiry devil that wielded it
Recoiled from the bayonet—just too late—
And the steel came out with a wrench and a twist 
So we fought and slew in the midst of the din
Till their line was broken-till man and horse 
Fled over the rushing watercourse,
And the greatest fight of the world was our own!
And now my face is scarred to the bone,
And I'm lame maybe from a musket-ball— 
Yet I thank God always (and ever shall)
That I fought in a fight the world will applaud; 
For the new generations by and bye
Shall be proud of that long September day, 
When ten men fled from the face of one, 
And the river ran red on its seaward way,
As it flowed through the village of Bokerdun— 
Red with the blood that was spilt at Assaye!'

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