Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Battle of Abu Klea … in poetry

One of my heroes is Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, whose death at the Battle of Abu Klea was the inspiration – in part – for two poems, one by Sir Henry Newbolt and the other by William McGonagall.

“Vitai Lampada”
By Sir Henry Newbolt

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Published in Admirals All (1897)

“The Battle of Abu Klea”
By William McGonagall

Ye sons of Mars, come join with me,
And sing in praise of Sir Herbert Stewart's little army,
That made ten thousand Arabs flee
At the charge of the bayonet at Abu Klea.

General Stewart's force was about fifteen hundred all told,
A brave little band, but, like lions bold,
They fought under their brave and heroic commander,
As gallant and as skilful as the great Alexander.

And the nation has every reason to be proud,
And in praise of his little band we cannot speak too loud,
Because that gallant fifteen hundred soon put to flight
Ten thousand Arabs, which was a most beautiful sight.

The enemy kept up a harmless fire all night,
And threw up works on General Stewart's right;
Therefore he tried to draw the enemy on to attack,
But they hesitated, and through fear drew back.

But General Stewart ordered his men forward in square,
All of them on foot, ready to die and to dare;
And he forced the enemy to engage in the fray,
But in a short time they were glad to run away.

But not before they penetrated through the British square,
Which was a critical Moment to the British, I declare,
Owing to the great number of the Arabs,
Who rushed against their bayonets and received fearful stabs.

Then all was quiet again until after breakfast,
And when the brave little band had finished their repast,
Then the firing began from the heights on the right,
From the breastworks they had constructed during the night.

By eight o'clock the enemy was of considerable strength,
With their banners waving beautifully and of great length,
And creeping steadily up the grassy road direct to the wells,
But the British soon checked their advance by shot and shells.

At ten o'clock brave General Stewart made a counter-attack,
Resolved to turn the enemy on a different track;
And he ordered his men to form a hollow square,
Placing the Guards in the front, and telling them to prepare.

And on the left was the Mounted Infantry,
Which truly was a magnificent sight to see;
Then the Sussex Regiment was on the right,
And the Heavy Cavalry and Naval Brigade all ready to fight.

Then General Stewart took up a good position on a slope,
Where he guessed the enemy could not with him cope,
Where he knew the rebels must advance,
All up hill and upon open ground, which was his only chance,

Then Captain Norton's battery planted shells amongst the densest mass,
Determined with shot and shell the enemy to harass;
Then came the shock of the rebels against the British square,
While the fiendish shouts of the Arabs did rend the air.

But the steadiness of the Guards, Marines, and Infantry prevailed,
And for the loss of their brother officers they sadly bewailed,
Who fell mortally wounded in the bloody fray,
Which they will remember for many a long day.

For ten minutes a desperate struggle raged from left to rear,
While Gunner Smith saved Lieutenant Guthrie's life without dread or fear,
When all the other gunners had been borne back,
He took up a handspike, and the Arabs he did whack.

The noble hero hard blows did strike,
As he swung round his head the handspike;
He seemed like a destroying angel in the midst of the fight,
The way he scattered the Arabs left and right.

Oh! it was an exciting and terrible sight,
To see Colonel Burnaby engaged in the fight:
With sword in hand, fighting with might and main,
Until killed by a spear-thrust in the jugular vein.

A braver soldier ne'er fought on a battle-field,
Death or glory was his motto, rather than yield;
A man of noble stature and manly to behold,
And an honour to his country be it told,

It was not long before every Arab in the square was killed,
And with a dense smoke and dust the air was filled;
General Stewart's horse was shot, and he fell to the ground,
In the midst of shot and shell on every side around.

And when the victory was won they gave three British cheers,
While adown their cheeks flowed many tears
For their fallen comrades that lay weltering in their gore;
Then the square was re-formed and the battle was o'er.

Published in Poetic gems selected from the works of William McGonagall, poet and tragedian with biographical sketch by the author and portrait (1890)

Two somewhat different poetic approaches to the same subject material!


  1. Is it wrong to like 'Vitai Lampada' because it's so gloriously awful? :-)

  2. You might like this...

  3. There's an obelisk monument to that nutter Burnaby here in Brum. 'Tis in the grounds of our cathedral, Saint Philip's. I'll get some photos of the obelisk asap.

  4. Bob,
    Was Newbolt taking Wellington's remark that 'the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton' rather too literally?

    The very qualities that the concept of 'sportsmanship' extols -fair play, evenly matched teams, not taking unfair advantage &c &c -would be somewhat inappropriate in a real war (Wellington deceived his enemy by hidden deployment, employed spies, used guerrillas to intercept and kill French couriers and - thanks to Scovell - could decode enemy messages in cipher &c.), but admirable in a war-game...


  5. Having been a ranker, I think being told to " up and play the game!" would have drawn a less than poetic response. That does explain why I find Kipling more appealing.

    Newbolt at least writes to his audience. I had forgotten how truly awful McGonagall was.

  6. William McGonagall's doggerel is so heroically horrible, that I find it fun to read out loud. Yet it seems to me his narrative verse tells us quite a lot about the actual battle. A better poem would have been less informative.

    The 'Playing the game' gig I think lost a deal of its lustre after the blood-letting of WW1. And if the Iron Duke ever did make that remark about the 'playing fields of Eton,' I seriously doubt that he believed it.

    A poster announcing the terms of the Military Service Act of 1916:

    (1) He can ENLIST AT ONCE and join the Colors without delay;
    (2) He can ATTEST AT ONCE UNDER THE GROUP SYSTEM and be called up in due course with his group.

    If he does neither, a third course awaits him:

    Now, there's poetry!

  7. Oh, speaking of horrible military poetry... Everyone I dare say has read or hard Lord Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade'. It's not too bad.

    But check out his companion verse, 'The Charge of the Heavy Brigade'...

  8. And there is the song about Colonel Burnaby:

    Weep not my boys for those who fell
    They did not flinch nor fear
    They stood their ground like Englishmen
    And died at Abu Klea

  9. Some aspects of sportsmanship might not be sensible on the battlefield but I was always impressed by Nelson's words, after praying for a great victory, "..and may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it: and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet."

  10. Kaptain Kobold,

    Not only is it right to like it in spite of its 'awfulness' ... but in my opinion it should also be compulsory for all wargamers to like it!

    All the best,


  11. Benjamin of Wight,

    Thanks for the link.

    I had never heard the song before ... but now I hope to download a copy to my iPhone.

    All the best,


  12. The Dancing Cake Tin,

    I did not know about the obelisk, and would love to see a photograph of it.

    All the best,


  13. Arthur1815,

    I suspect that you are right about Newbolt's 'inspiration' .for the poem ... and Wellington's comment being somewhat disingenuous.

    The poem is also an wonderfully unintended comment about the British class system during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

    All the best,


  14. Pat G,

    I suspect that the ordinary soldiers would have either sighed resignedly or muttered some expletive under their breath in response to the officer's 'stirring' little speech.

    As to McGonagall's poetry ... well it is so truly awful that it has acquired a following amongst those who relish its awfulness!

    All the best,


  15. Archduke Piccolo,

    McGonagall based a lot of his poems on what he had read in the newspapers, and they therefore obtain quite a lot of information a more artistic poet would have left out.

    I also have doubts about whether or not Wellington actually made the comment that is so often attributed to him. If he I'd say it, I suspect that it was probably just an off the cuff comment to shut someone up!

    I like the terms of the Military Service Act of 1916; very unambiguous!

    All the best,


  16. Archduke Piccolo,

    I agree with you that his THE CHARGE OF THE HEAVY BRIGADE is not one of his better works ... by a long shot!

    All the best,


  17. Doctorphalanx,

    Very interesting. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    All the best,


  18. Nigel Drury,

    I like the Nelsonian quote. It is not one that I have ever read before.

    All the best,