How They Brought the Good News… and death to a horse.

I reached one of The Children’s Encyclopedia’s Poetry sections and it began with what was an “extremely spirited poem” by Robert Browning and originally published in 1845. Three riders set off on their horses to gallop through the night to take war news to what is later referred to as “Aix”.

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast…

The pace of the riders is conveyed through the pace of the whole poem itself but what struck me was (and forgive the spoiler) the part where one of the horses falls dead, exhausted after being ridden so hard for so long. Quite sad I thought, and why go through that to deliver some good news?

Perhaps the news needed to get there quick in order to save lives.

I was a little curious about the location for the poem as I read of the places the riders travelled through, and while perhaps fictitious, I decided I would look up these places, as I didn’t recognise any of their names (my geographic knowledge isn’t brilliant).

lady_of_leindaalWith Google Maps as my aid I keyed in the first place that was mentioned; Lokeren. It sounded somewhat Scottish to me but Google Maps placed me in Belgium. Putting Aix in as my final destination didn’t look right and when I then put in Duffeld as the second point that sent my route over to England. That couldn’t work. I skipped Duffeld and moved on to Mecheln (Mechelen) and things started to look better, and I noticed near here was in fact a place called Duffel. Plotting an accurate route wasn’t really possible because, as in the case of Duffel, some places mentioned were just what they could see in the distance as they rode, or from where they could hear the half-chime from the church-steeple at Mecheln, but I got a good idea. This would be the Church of Our Lady of Leliendaal I believe, but who she was I don’t know.

To decipher a place called Looz I learned from Wikipedia this is the French name for Borgloon.

Nearing the end of my route and observing the spacing of the points of reference I could see we were nearing Aachen.

Aachen, as it turns out, is “traditionally known in English and French as Aix-la-Chapelle.” Hence the Aix in the poem. Google Maps didn’t know this. The Wikipedia page of the poem asserts the authors claim that “There is no historical incident whatever commemorated in the poem. . . . a merely general impression of the characteristic warfare and besieging which abound in the annals of Flanders”. Even so, it seems Browning did a good job of plotting a feasible route, although perhaps stretching the realms of possibility with a journey that was over 200 km and lasted perhaps a day (it is said that mounted soldiers would ride their horses 80-100 km in a day [link]). But why go through that effort of plotting a convenient route and not use an actual battle, I wonder.

Indeed, Wikipedia mentioned that undaunted by Browning’s claim, an editor of a book of Browning’s Shorter Poems suggested a historical event could have been the Pacification of Ghent, and my conclusion of Aachen as “Aix” has been reached before.

As I first read the poem I had assumed is was based around the time of World War I, or the Great War, as the Encyclopedia refers to it, as it is itself dated to after then, but before World War II. (The First World War, I believe, wasn’t called that until the Second occurred, just like Queen Elizabeth I was just Queen Elizabeth until the second one came along). I therefore assumed the poem’s battle news was from one of that war’s battles.

I rolled with this assumption to ask Google just how many horses likely died during this war.

Eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died in the First World War. They were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front and many died, not only from the horrors of shellfire but also in terrible weather and appalling conditions.

So sad. Compare that then to the number of people that died: Sixteen million people.

World War One was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human race, in which over 16 million people died. The total number of both civilian and military casualties is estimated at around 37 million people. The war killed almost 7 million civilians and 10 million military personnel.

All for what? I don’t know; ideology, to defend boarders, to secure wealth, to maintain an existing livelihood. Either way, the general consensus seems to be that the war was necessary. The same for WWII where my overly simplistic conclusion is that “if we had lost, Hitler would have ruled the world.” How true that is I don’t know.

Coincidentally, in reading at the moment about some of our recent battles, 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, versus 360,000 in Afghanistan following what I call the retaliation:

over 26,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence have been documented … Over 91,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are recorded to have been killed in the conflict, and the number who have died through indirect causes related to the war may include an additional 360,000 people. These numbers do not include those who have died in Pakistan. – War Related Casualties in Afghanistan

The full poem:

The second to last poem in this poetry section is about The Battle of Blenheim, and was written by Robert Southey fittingly ends with the following:

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”

The answer coming from grandfather Kaspar who is blinded by custom to the badness of such things as war; the grandchildren on the other hand instinctively feel its wickedness and uselessness, and get nearer to the truth, as Mee(?) claims.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s