This poem is one I wrote after reading a book about the Crimean War and in particular about the Charge of the Light Brigade. I was told by this book of a little detail about a dog that accompanied the horses as they made their charge and it seemed to me to say something touching and very interesting about the futility of the whole business.

The Dog of the Light Brigade

We have to remember: when Raglan and others
decided that hour had come, and did as they felt,
and ordered their mess-mates and countrymen –
yes, the noble six hundred, most of whom never

had even so much as imagined what shooting
and shelling were like, away from the Shires,
much less endured it – when they had advanced them
up to the mouth of the innocent valley known later

thanks to the Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson,
thanks be to him, as the Valley of Death, the din
of their bugling and clanking and neighing and stamping
and shouting stretched back to the stables a distance

behind them, and woke there the pampered fox terrier
kept by the men as a mascot, who thinking that this
was the point of his madcap existence, revealed at last,
sprang from his bed among tit-bits of horse-dung,

squeezed through a crack in the ill-hammered planks
of a door, then again through the arms of a boy,
and sped off to join them. This was the dog
who was never surprised in the barracks. Most nights,

indulged with a table-side seat in the mess, he gazed
on the faces of men whose acceptable practice was drink-
ing until one collapsed, whose moustachioed mouths
repeated the same snorting farmyard of noises over and over,

viz: Frenchmen and Russians and women and Prussians
and Turks and women, until they were cancelled,
one by the other, or smudged in the baccy-fug,
wine-fumes and high-collared heat of the moment,

but nothing, no nothing had ever prepared him
for this, for the firecracker racket that rattled
the air they rode into, the po-faced hilarious crash
of men who could empty an armful of bottles

straight off and not bat an eyelid, the curious
antics of horses in kneeling, or slithering sideways,
or stopping stock-still, which is why he kept pace
with them all the way through to the cannon-line

bouncing the heathery turf and yap-yapping
his head off, a maddening brown-and-white blur
at the corner of everyone’s eye, and then turning round
when the rest of them also turned round, and skittering

back, bounding higher this time to get clear of the men
he could no longer play with, until losing patience,
and anyway puffed with the effort of running
(although the whole business had lasted fifteen

or so minutes at best), and then strutting off
to the stables to sample the tit-bits of dung
he had saved, before a quick session of mousing,
and after that, falling asleep.

from Public Property (Faber & Faber, 2003), copyright Andrew Motion 2003, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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