This poem was first published in War Songs and Sonnets (1916), including the explanatory note that appears below.
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(Lieutenant Smirnoff was in command of a battery of Russian Artillery in an engagement near Lake Mazur. At the end of the battle his battery was flanked on the right by reinforced German infantry, and on the left by machine guns. Behind him was the lake, cutting off retreat. Determined not to surrender, Lieutenant Smirnoff galloped at full speed with his battery into the lake, where every man and beast was drowned.)

'Mid the battle's loud din, at the close of the day,
Young Smirnoff stood up like a lion at bay,
The wrath of his heart burst in fury around,
The bloody dead lay in heaps on the ground.

From the dawn's early hour till the soft evening came
He thundered destruction with shot and with flame,
While deep in the trenches the Prussians did lie
And trembled with terror, but dared not reply.

From the dawn's rosy light till the late afternoon
Thus loudly he spake with the slaughtering gun;
Like a gathering tempest the battle-smoke showed,
And hung overhead in a threatening cloud.

Like a far-spreading ocean, the billowy plain
Stretched endless before him with forests of grain;
Behind, silver Mazur, as bright as a dream,
Lay rippling with life in the sunset agleam.

When glorious sun the horizon had neared,
From the dazzling West a great army appeared,
As thick as the leaves that in summer are borne,
Or the quivering ears of the rustling corn.

Young Smirnoff with courage looked forward and back;
With slaughter he met them and sprang to attack,
He smote them amain with the giant's bold might, -
But still they closed on him from left and from right.

"Surrender! Surrender! To fight is in vain,
Surrender!" they cried, "or be taken and slain.
Deliver your forces and bid them to stand,
Or death is the gift you'll receive at our hand."

"Surrender, yourselves!" then bold Smirnoff returned,
And fiercer the fire of his bravery burned:
"Go! tell your commander that Russia's proud sons
Will never surrender with men and with guns."

The heart in his bosom leapt high as he spake,
Before was the battle, behind was the lake;
The torrent swept on like the incoming tide,
And half the brave gunners lay dead at his side.

The rifles loud rattled, the hot bullets streamed,
The shells from the batteries whistled and screamed,
The sun from his heaven sank downwards in blood,
And crimsoned the surface of Mazur's broad flood.

"Ho! limber your guns," then brave Smirnoff did shout
"Though pressed on each flank we will find a way out.
We never will yield with the sword in our hand,
Nor cringe to the foe when we're bidden to stand.

"In the perilous battle bright glory we've won,
Great havoc we made yet we lost not a gun;
Now in Mazur's broad lake we'll go thundering down,
And garnish our deeds with a deathless renown."

So they limbered the cannon, all burning at hot,
And galloped with speed from the treacherous spot:
The fire that was struck with their clattering heels
Showed vivid and red through the smoke of the wheels.

Like a whirlwind they travelled, by thicket and brake,
Nor stopped till they came to the edge of the lake;
Then down from the border high, rugged, and steep,
They plunged to the bottom and sank in the deep.

A moment the waters wide scattered and fled,
Then clapped their hands at the venturesome deed:
They saw not the gentle moon arise,
Nor heard through the deep the loud battle-noise.

Thus perished brave Smirnoff and all his men;
More valiant heroes the world has not seen;
Now long shall their glorious fame be told,
And their deeds be written in letters of gold.


Historical note

Alfred's conclusion that "long shall their glorious fame be told" and his claim that Smirnoff's story would be "written in letters of gold" both turned out to be completely inaccurate - something Alfred would become only too aware of.

Smirnoff's brave - or foolhardy - deed may have made an impression at the time, but it has been almost completely forgotten by history.

Like most of Alfred's war poems, Brave Smirnoff's Deed tells us much about patriotic and jingoistic attitudes at the start of the war, which contrast sharply with the appetite for it at the end, especially following the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Tales of heroic deeds such as Smirnoff's were commonplace in 1914/15 as, not surprisingly, the release of stories such as this through the press - which was probably Alfred's source - were designed to boost morale, often with scant regard for reality.

Nearly a century on, it has not even been possible to confirm which offensive the 'young Smirnoff' of the poem took part in, or who he was. It may refer to the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, in East Prussia (now north-eastern Poland), which took place in September 1914. Having cost the Russians 125,000 casulaties, it is far from being a glorious episode, and in fact has been referred to in histories as "a debacle".

Another possibility is the poem refers to the Battle of Bolimov (Bolimów) which took place on January 31, 1915, and which saw a further 40,000 Russian casualties. Russian forces in this battle were led by a General Smirnov.

It was a preliminary to the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes, which led to another 56,000 Russian casualties, and is now chiefly remembered for one thing: it saw the Germans' first use of poison gas on the battlefield.

Alfred would come to regret what he called his "little war scribbles". He told his friend and fellow poet William Dowsing: "At the beginning of hostilities the public wished to read war verse; in time, however, they became sick of it, and the bards perceived this and stopped. My publisher urged me to print a few of my poems, on purpose to keep me in view... They are really but little good and I know it... They are of no value - merely a local collection. I am rather sorry I 'messed about' with them."

Although the significance of "brave Smirnoff's deed" has been lost against the backdrop of the daily carnage that would follow, the poem does at least have a message - albeit an unintended one. What was intended as a monument to heroism now reads as an example of the futility of war, as if we need it.

By Graham Carter


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