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The Glory Of English Prose
Sir William Napier
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

In the great emprise of war it must often happen that the most awful scenes of manifested human power, and the most godlike deeds of human glory, are lost to the contemporary world, and utterly unknown to succeeding generations, because they were witnessed by no man with the gift of expression who could record for after time, in adequate language, the majestic spectacle.

In the great war against Germany no great writer has yet appeared who was personally in touch as a living witness of the countless deeds of glorious valour and acts of heroic endurance that were everywhere displayed upon that immense far-stretched front.

But in the wars of former times, a whole battle could be witnessed from its beginning to its end by a single commander, and no scenes in human life could be more terrible and soul-stirring than the awful ebb and flow of a great combat in which the victory of armies and the fate of nations hung in the balance.

The battle of Albuera in the Peninsular War might easily at this date have long been forgotten had not the pen of Sir William Napier been as puissant as his sword. The battle had raged for hours, and the British were well-nigh overwhelmed; the Colonel, twenty officers, and over four hundred men out of five hundred and seventy had fallen in the 57th alone; not a third were left standing in the other regiments that had been closely engaged throughout the day. Then Cole was ordered up with his fourth division as a last hope, and this is how Sir William Napier records their advance:—
"Such a gallant line, issuing from the midst of the smoke and rapidly separating itself from the confused and broken multitude, startled the enemy's masses, then augmenting and pressing onwards as to an assured victory; they wavered, hesitated, and vomiting forth a storm of fire hastily endeavoured to enlarge their front, while a fearful discharge of grape from all their artillery whistled through the British ranks ... the English battalions, struck by the iron tempest, reeled and staggered like sinking ships; but suddenly and sternly recovering, they closed on their terrible enemies, and then was seen with what a strength and majesty the British soldier fights.

"In vain did Soult with voice and gesture animate his Frenchmen; in vain did the hardiest veterans, breaking from the crowded columns, sacrifice their lives to gain time for the mass to open out on such a fair field; in vain did the mass itself bear up, and, fiercely striving, fire indiscriminately upon friends and foes, while the horsemen hovering on the flank threatened to charge the advancing line.

"Nothing could stop that astonishing infantry.

"No sudden burst of undisciplined valour, no nervous enthusiasm weakened the stability of their order; their flashing eyes were bent on the dark columns in their front; their measured tread shook the ground; their dreadful volleys swept away the head of every formation; their deafening shouts overpowered the dissonant cries that broke from all parts of the tumultuous crowd as slowly, and with a horrid carnage, it was pushed by the incessant vigour of the attack to the farthest edge of the height. There the French reserve, mixing with the struggling multitude, endeavoured to restore the fight, but only augmented the irremediable disorder, and the mighty mass, giving way like a loosened cliff, went headlong down the steep; the rain flowed after in streams discoloured with blood, and eighteen hundred unwounded men, the remnant of six thousand unconquerable British soldiers, stood triumphant on the fatal hill!

* * * * * *

"The laurel is nobly won when the exhausted victor reels as he places it on his bleeding front.

"All that night the rain poured down, and the river and the hills and the woods resounded with the dismal clamour and groans of dying men."
Sir William Napier seems intimately to have known the transience of the gratitude of nations to those who fight their battles for them. At the end of his noble history of the Peninsular War he lets the curtain fall upon the scene with solemn brevity in a single sentence, thus:—
"The British infantry embarked at Bordeaux, some for America, some for England: the cavalry, marching through France, took shipping at Boulogne. Thus the war terminated, and with it all remembrance of the Veterans' services.

"Yet those Veterans had won nineteen pitched battles, and innumerable combats; had made or sustained ten sieges and taken four great fortresses; had twice expelled the French from Portugal, once from Spain; had penetrated France, and killed, wounded, or captured two hundred thousand enemies—leaving of their own number, forty thousand dead, whose bones, whiten the plains and mountains of the Peninsula."
Science and the base malignity of our latest adversaries have debased modern warfare, as waged by them, from its ancient dignity and honour; and they have conducted it so as to make it difficult to believe that from the Kaiser down to the subaltern on land and the petty officer at sea that nation can produce a single gentleman.

Your loving old
G.P.

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