Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Battle of Abu Klea ... by William McGonagall

For a somewhat less well-written (in truth, appallingly written!) description of the Battle of Abu Klea and the death of Colonel Burnaby, one can always rely on Scotland's (in-)famous poet, William McGonagall, to come up to the mark.
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 skillful 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.


  1. Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue does it?

    Reminds me of some early wargame rules, big on details.

    1. Yes, but be fair. If that was the only source you had for the battle in 200 years time you'd be ecstatic at the level of detail.

    2. Ross Mac,

      If you read quite a bit of his poetry, it acquires a sort of cadence all of its own.

      Early wargames rules were complex and over detailed? Surely not ... :^)

      All the best,


    3. Trebian,

      Frighteningly true! Imagine if - like some ancient inscription or manuscript - this was the only complete description of what happened. What a difference that could make to an understanding of what took place.

      All the best,


  2. Hi Bob,

    They don't write them like that anymore....(wistfully sighing and wiping away a tear...)

    A veritable masterpiece and exactly how I would have like to have written it.

    All the best,


    1. David Crook,

      It is surely a sublime example of good bad poetry (please delete as applicable).

      All the best,


  3. Terry Pratchett was able to mimic the style (Style?! Yeah, well...) in his 'Tiffany Aching' stories. The Pictsies (six-inch tall, blue 'wee free men') included in their clans a Gonagall to remember and record their deeds in ... erm ... verse. Much like Ian Lom MacDonald, the Bard of Keppoch, at the Battle of Inverlochy.

    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      I have yet to read that book ... but I’m looking forward to doing so.

      All the best,


  4. For some reason this reminds me of one of the wargames ballads that I wrote concerning an action fought in a friend's Horse and Musket campaign. It went to the tune of the Battle of New Orleans, and owes a great deal to that number and all...

    The Ballad of Ulrichstein
    In eighteen hundred around about o-nine
    Our Army marched off to Ulrichstein;
    We took a little sauerkraut, we took a little 'wurst,
    And when we found the rebels, the veterans all cursed.

    We fired our guns but the Rebels kept a-comin'
    And there seemed just as many as there was a while ago.
    We fired once more and we began a-runnin'
    Seekin' hidey-holes where our arses wouldn't show.

    We looked down the fields and we saw the Rebels come,
    There must have been a couple of 'em, beatin' on the drum,
    They marched so nigh it made our ears ring;
    Then came their musketry, and, Man, did it sting!

    We fired our guns... etc

    Gen'ral Kyle said we'd take 'em by surprise,
    If we didn't fire our muskets or look 'em in the eye.
    We held our fire 'til we saw their faces well,
    When they opened up with cannon fire an' gave us shot and s--hell!

    We fired our guns... etc

    We ran through the hedgerows; we ran through the marshes;
    We ran through the thickets until the sun was set.
    We ran so fast their Hussars couldn't catch us,
    We ran for a week or so and still we're runnin' yet!

    They fired their cannon 'til the barrels melted down,
    Then they grabbed their horses and fought another round.
    They fed them green grass, loaded gravel that they found,
    Turned their tails towards us, and fired into the brown.

    We fired our guns... etc

    We ran through the hedgerows... etc

    We fired our guns... etc.

    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      I hummed the tune as I was reading your words ... and now I can’t get it out of my head! In the misquoted words if Snoopy ...

      ‘Curse you, Red Archduke!’

      All the best,


    2. Archduke Piccolo,

      A little too much so for my sanity!

      All the best,


  5. I remain something of a McGonagall fan but I confess an interest - the poet being a(nother) famous son of Dundee....

    1. Another famous son of Dundee? That take the cake and no mistake....

    2. Tin Gow,

      I thought that you were Dundee’s only famous son! I stand corrected.

      All the best,


    3. David Crook,

      What a terrible ‘joke’! Have you been looking inside of the Christmas crackers early again?

      All the best,



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