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With Napoleon in Russia

[(a) first verse trad.; words Maddy Prior; music trad. arr. Prior, Holland, Donockley]

This is a song cycle from Maddy Prior’s album Ravenchild. The first song in this cycle is based on the traditional short-drag shanty Boney (Roud 485). Maddy Prior commented in her sleeve notes:

This piece is based on a contemporary account by an officer from the South German State of Württemberg, Lt. H. Vossler, serving with Napoleon in 1812/13 on that long and disastrous march against the hugeness that is Russia. It was also inspired by a traditional song, The Grand Conversation with Napoleon, which forms the basis of Scorched Earth.


Boney was a warrior
A warrior, a terrier
    Jean François!

He planned a distant enterprise
A great and distant enterprise

He is off to fight the Russian bear
He plans to drive him from his lair

They left with banners all ablaze
The heads of Europe stood amazed

He thinks he’ll beat the Russkies
And the Bonny Bunch of Roses.

Boney was a warrior
A warrior, a terrier

Scorched Earth

He took four hundred thousand men, likewise some kings to swell his throng.
He was so well provided, enough to sweep the world along,
Through the villages of Prussia, where food was plentyful, and billets sweet
They marched with merry hearts my boys all through the wealthy fields of wheat.

But when they crossed the Nieman, the Russians they ran in retreat
And they burnt all before them, scorched earth left them naught to eat.
No forage nor provisions, their horses dropped dead in the line.
Diseased forced marches no comfort there in those hard times.

Still the enemy refused to fight, through blazing heat or freezing rain.
They chased them to the gates of hell, through fields of mud, over rough terrain.
But when they came to Moscow, they were overpowered by ice and snow
And Moscow was a-blazing and they lost all heart in grief and woe.


What is this brilliant company
Dressed in silks and satins gay
They are draped in bales of linen
That they found along the way.
They ride in gilded carriages
And they eat off china plates
Finest shawls across their shoulders
Weird and wonderful freight.

There are generals and officers
And every rank of men
They are straggled, and have struggled
On the road back home again.
They are all weighed down with silver,
They have booty rich and fine
They’re a motley mix of rabble
How they shimmer, how they shine.

Mostly they have got no rifles
Nor no guns of any sort
But laden with their spoils
By their greed they are caught.
For the Cossacks they have chased them
They have harried them to death
And the frost has bit their fingers
Taking ears and nose and breath.

One hundred thousand are returning
All the men that now remain
They are broken and defeated
By the weary Russian plain.

Ambition drove Napoleon to Moscow
He thought that he would rule the world
But even snow couldn’t smother
The noise of such a mighty fall
The sound of great misfortune
Will ring and echo down the years
And bring him immortality
As sure as any great victory.