“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” — Thomas Gray (1716-71)
from his “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard”
This passage of Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is an interesting glance at the futility of war and its waste of lives.
Lord George Gordon Byron
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Canto the First
Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance
Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess, cries,
But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,
Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:
Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,
And speaks in thunder through yon engine’s roar!
In every peal she calls—‘Awake! arise!’
Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,
When her war-song was heard on Andalusia’s shore?
Hark! heard you not those hoofs of dreadful note?
Sounds not the clang of conflict on the heath?
Saw ye not whom the reeking sabre smote;
Nor saved your brethren ere they sank beneath
Tyrants and tyrants’ slaves?–the fires of death,
The bale-fires flash on high: –from rock to rock
Each volley tells that thousands cease to breathe:
Death rides upon the sulphury Siroc,
Red Battle stamps his foot, and nations feel the shock.
Lo! where the Giant on the mountain stands,
His blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,
With death-shot glowing in his fiery hands,
And eye that scorcheth all it glares upon;
Restless it rolls, now fixed, and now anon
Flashing afar,–and at his iron feet
Destruction cowers, to mark what deeds are done;
For on this morn three potent nations meet,
To shed before his shrine the blood he deems most sweet.
By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mixed embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share:
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can cumber their array.
Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies.
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim, and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met–as if at home they could not die –
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilise the field that each pretends to gain.
There shall they rot–Ambition’s honoured fools!
Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools, that tyrants cast away
By myriads, when they dare to pave their way
With human hearts–to what?–a dream alone.
Can despots compass aught that hails their sway?
Or call with truth one span of earth their own,
Save that wherein at last they crumble bone by bone?
O Albuera, glorious field of grief!
As o’er thy plain the Pilgrim pricked his steed,
Who could foresee thee, in a space so brief,
A scene where mingling foes should boast and bleed.
Peace to the perished! may the warrior’s meed
And tears of triumph their reward prolong!
Till others fall where other chieftains lead,
Thy name shall circle round the gaping throng,
And shine in worthless lays, the theme of transient song.
Enough of Battle’s minions! let them play
Their game of lives, and barter breath for fame:
Fame that will scarce reanimate their clay,
Though thousands fall to deck some single name.
In sooth, ’twere sad to thwart their noble aim
Who strike, blest hirelings! for their country’s good,
And die, that living might have proved her shame;
Perished, perchance, in some domestic feud,
Or in a narrower sphere wild Rapine’s path pursued.
The Peninsular War, also know as Spanish War of Independence (Guerra de la independencia española in Spanish), was a war between the French and the allied Spain, Portugal, and United Kingdom. In 1807, the French and Spanish invaded Portugal. Then, in 1808, France turned on its ally, Spain. The war ended in 1814 with the defeat of Napoleon in the War of the Sixth Coalition. Two of the battles in the Peninsular War — the Battle of Talavera and the Battle of Albuera — are mentioned in this passage of Byron’s poem.
The Battle of Talavera was fought July 27–28 1809. At Talavera, a place about 120 kilometers southwest of Madrid, Spain, an Anglo-Spanish army combined with a Spanish army against French-occupied Madrid. “The French suffered most in this hard-fought set-piece battle, losing 7,390 killed or wounded. Equivalent Spanish casualties were about 1,200 and British 5,500. This was approximately 25% of the British force, compared to only 18% of the French, although it is clear that the brunt of the allied effort fell on the British. Many of the wounded on both sides were burnt to death when the dry grass of the battlefield caught fire.” (Quote from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Battle of Talavera.)
The next place referenced, La Albuera, is also in Spain. On May 16th, 1811, one of the bloodiest battles of the Peninsular War took place there. “So many were injured in the battle that two days later British casualties were still waiting to be collected from the field. The chapel at Albuera was filled with wounded Frenchmen, and the dead still lay scattered across the ground. In proportion to the numbers involved, the Battle of Albuera was the bloodiest of the whole Peninsular War.” (Quote from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Battle of Albuera.)