Victor Hugo

Translated by Timothy Adès

Waterloo! Waterloo! disastrous field!
Like a wave swelling in an urn brim-filled,
Your ring of hillsides, valleys, woods and heath
Saw grim battalions snarled in pallid death.
On this side France, against her Europe stood:
God failed the heroes in the clash of blood!
Fate played the coward, victory turned tail.
O Waterloo, alas! I weep, I fail!
Those last great soldiers of the last great war
Were giants, each the whole world's conqueror:
Crossed Alps and Rhine, made twenty tyrants fall.
Their soul sang in the brazen bugle-call!
Night fell; the fight was burning fierce, and black.
He grasped the victory, was on the attack,
Held Wellington pinned down against a wood.
Eyeglass in hand, observing all, he stood:
Now the dark midpoint of the battle's fires,
A throbbing clutch of frightful, living briars;
Now the horizon, sombre as the sea.
He gave a sudden, joyous cry: `Grouchy!'
'Twas Blücher! Hope changed sides, the combat swayed,
Like wildfire surged the howling fusillade.
The guns of England broke the squares of France.
Amid the cries of slaughtered combatants,
The plain where our torn banners shook and spread
Was but a fiery chasm, furnace-red.
Regiments tumbled down like lengths of wall.
Like stalks of corn the great drum-majors fall,
Their plumes, full-length, enormous on the ground;
And every view revealed a hideous wound.
Grim carnage! fatal moment! There he stands,
Anxious, the battle pliant in his hands.
Behind a mamelon was massed the Guard,
The last great hope, supreme and final word!
`Send in the Guard!' he cries, and grenadiers
In their white gaiters, lancers, cuirassiers,
Dragoons that Rome would count among her sons,
Men who unleashed the thunder of the guns,
The men of Friedland and of Rivoli,
Black busbies, gleaming helms, in panoply,
Knowing this solemn feast must be their last,
Salute their god, erect amid the blast.
`Long live the emperor!' A single cry;
Then at slow march, bands playing, steadily,
The Guard came smiling on, the Imperial,
Where English salvoes raked the crucible.
Alas! Napoleon with gaze intense
Watched the advance: he saw his regiments
Under the sulphurous venom of the guns:
He saw those troops of stone and steel at once
Melted, all melted in the pit of death,
As melts the wax beneath the brazier's breath.
Steadfast and stoic, sloped arms and unbowed head,
They went. None flinched. Then sleep, heroic dead! ...
All the remainder stood and stared, held hard,
Motionless watched the death-throes of the Guard.
All of a sudden now they see her rise:
Defeat! Grim-faced, with loud despairing cries,
Putting the proudest regiments in dread,
Turning the banners to a tattered shred,
At certain times, a wraith, a smoke-wreathed ghost,
She rears erect and huge amid the host.
Wringing her hands, to soldiers terrified,
Defeat appeared: `Run for your lives!' she cried.
Run for your lives! shame, dread! each soldier bawled:
Across the fields, distraught, wild-eyed, appalled,
Between the dusty wagons and the kegs
As if a wind came blowing on their legs,
In ditches rolled, in cornfields crouched to hide,
Their shakos, coats, guns, eagles cast aside
Under the Prussian swords, each veteran
(O sorrow!) howled with terror, wept and ran.
At once, like burning straw by tempests blown,
All the Grand Army's battle-roar was gone.
Here we may stand, and dream: for from this site
They fled, who put the universe to flight.
Forty years on, this shunned and dismal field,
This Waterloo, this cranny of the world,
Where God piled nullity on nullity,
Still trembles to have seen the giants flee!
Napoleon saw them pouring like a flood:
Men, steeds, drums, flags. Facing his fate he stood,
Confused, as if repining; then he said,
Raising his hands to heaven: `My soldiers dead,
I and my empire broken in the dust.
Is this thy chastening, O God most just?'
Amid the cries, the guns, the tumult, lo!
He heard the voice that gave him answer: No!

At Waterloo on 18th June 1815, the army of France under Napoleon Bonaparte was decisively defeated by an allied force led by the Duke of Wellington. Soon after this bloody battle, the captive Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of St Helena.

Main Location:

Battle of Waterloo, 1420 Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium

The great and terrible Battle of Waterloo, subject of many poems.