Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

An Incident of the French Camp

T HE old city of Ratisbon, which is called Regensburg in German, is situated on the river Danube, in Bavaria. It had been besieged no less than sixteen times since the tenth century when Napoleon, Emperor of the French, attacked it in 1809. Napoleon was at that time waging a victorious campaign against Austria, and had stopped at Ratisbon on his march to Vienna, the Austrian capital. The Austrians defended the city, and Napoleon ordered a bombardment, which destroyed some two hundred houses and a large part of the suburbs.

The poem tells how as Napoleon stood in his favorite attitude, head thrust forward, legs wide apart, arms locked behind his back, watching the attack, and possibly wondering what would happen if his general, Marshal Lannes, should waver, a rider dashed up to him. The rider, a boy, flung himself from his horse, and reported that the French had taken the city, that he had planted the Emperor's eagle flag on the walls, and had ridden back a mile or more to tell him.

Napoleon's eye flashed, then softened as he looked at the brave boy. "You're wounded!" he said. "Nay, I'm killed, sire," the boy answered, and fell dead beside him.

The incident is generally regarded as true, but the hero is said to have been a man, instead of a boy, as in Browning's version of it.

An Incident of the French Camp

by Robert Browning

You know, we French stormed Ratisbon:

A mile or so away,

On a little mound, Napoleon

Stood on our storming-day;

With neck out-thrust, you fancy how,

Legs wide, arms locked behind,

As if to balance the prone brow,

Oppressive with its mind.

Just as perhaps he mused, "My plans

That soar, to earth may fall,

Let once my army-leader Lannes

Waver at yonder wall,"—

Out 'twixt the battery-smokes there flew

A rider, bound on bound

Full-galloping; nor bridle drew

Until he reached the mound.

Then off there flung in smiling joy,

And held himself erect

By just his horse's mane, a boy:

You hardly could suspect—

(So tight he kept his lips compressed,

Scarce any blood came through)

You looked twice ere you saw his breast

Was all but shot in two.

"Well," cried he, "Emperor, by God's grace

We've got you Ratisbon!

The marshal's in the market-place,

And you'll be there anon

To see your flag-bird flap his vans

Where I, to heart's desire,

Perched him!" The chief's eye flashed; his plans

Soared up again like fire.

The chief's eye flashed; but presently

Softened itself, as sheathes

A film the mother-eagle's eye

When her bruised eaglet breathes;

"You're wounded!" "Nay," the soldier's pride

Touched to the quick, he said:

"I'm killed, sire!" And, his chief beside,

Smiling, the boy fell dead.

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