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Old November 26th, 2016, 12:59 PM   #1
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Pre-Battle Speeches

You get one in most war movies, usually before a climatic battle. The general/king etc rides up and down in front of his troops delivering a speech, usually from horseback. But did this occur in real life? I would imagine most soldiers would have no interest in rousing speeches made by someone who would usually be at the rear of any attack.
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Old November 26th, 2016, 03:21 PM   #2

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Speeches like that are VERY common in historic accounts, too. Sometimes they are clearly invented by the author if we can be pretty sure that he was in no position to hear, others could be embellished or paraphrased. But they are common enough that some sort of pre-game pep talk was very likely standard procedure.

Kings and generals were usually very concerned with their troops' morale, for the simple reason that if it was bad, the battle would be a very short disaster. A speech to the troops, or simply riding up and down the line greeting and encouraging the men, showed that the general cared, and allowed his troops to be sure of what he looked like (if they didn't already know), which could be important at some point.

If the troops didn't care about some guy who was going to be at the rear, chances are they were not very likely to fight well, if at all. They had to believe in him and support him, or they'd simply desert. And in many cases they knew that their leader had "been there and done that" for a long time before reaching a rank that required directing traffic from the rear. Kings and generals were battle-hardened aristocrats, often trained for warfare from childhood. They got respect because they had earned it.

Were there generals who were not held in high regard by their troops? Sure! And their battle record is often dismal and short. But they'd probably try that pre-battle speech, in any case!

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Old November 26th, 2016, 03:38 PM   #3

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In recent times we have the speech made by Col. Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment prior to going into action in Iraq in Gulf War II:

"We go to liberate, not to conquer.
We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own.
Show respect for them.
There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly.
Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send.
As for the others, I expect you to rock their world.
Wipe them out if that is what they choose.
But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.
Iraq is steeped in history.
It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.
Tread lightly there.
You will see things that no man could pay to see
- and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.
You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing.
Don't treat them as refugees for they are in their own country.
Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.
If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day.
Allow them dignity in death.
Bury them properly and mark their graves.
It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive.
But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign.
We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back.
There will be no time for sorrow.
The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction.
There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam.
He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done.
As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.
It is a big step to take another human life.
It is not to be done lightly.
I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts.
I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.
If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family.
The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.
If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer.
You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest - for your deeds will follow you down through history.
We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.
It is not a question of if, it's a question of when.
We know he has already devolved the decision to lower commanders, and that means he has already taken the decision himself.
If we survive the first strike we will survive the attack.
As for ourselves, let's bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there.
Our business now is North."
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Old November 26th, 2016, 04:41 PM   #4

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Tacitus includes speeches made by Boudicca and Suetonius Paulinus prior to the Battle of Watling Street in his account of the Iceni Revolt. It is likely that much of what he has the two commanders say was created by himself (ancient historians were more concerned with telling a good story than rigid historical accuracy), but the speeches themselves probably happened, if not word-for-word from Tacitus' account.


"But now it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman's resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves."

Suetonius Paulinus:

"Ignore the racket made by these savages. There you see more women than warriors. Unwarlike, unarmed, they will give way the moment they have recognized that sword and that courage of their conquerors, which have so often routed them. Even among many legions, it is a few who really decide the battle, and it will enhance their glory that a small force should earn the renown of an entire army. Only close up the ranks, and having discharged your javelins, then with shields and swords continue the work of bloodshed and destruction, without a thought of plunder. When once the victory has been won, everything will be in your power.'
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Old November 26th, 2016, 04:56 PM   #5

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Napoleon to his army on the eve of Austerlitz:

The Russian Army is presenting itself before you in order to avenge the Austrian Army of Ulm. These are the same battalions you defeated at Hollabrunn, and which since then you have pursued steadily to this point. The positions we occupy are strong, and as they advance to turn my right, they will expose their flank to me. Soldiers, I shall direct your battalions myself, I will hold myself far from the firing if, with your accustomed bravery, you carry disorder and confusion into the ranks of the enemy. But if victory should for a moment be uncertain, you shall see your Emperor expose himself to the first blows; for victory shall know no hesitation during this day, when the honor of the French infantry is at stake, which means so much to the honor of the whole nation. Lest, under pretext of bearing away the wounded, the ranks shall be thinned, let every man be well imbued with this thought: that we must defeat these hirelings of England, who are animated by so great a hatred of our nation. This victory will end the campaign and we shall be able to resume our winter quarters, where we shall be joined by the new armies that are forming in France, and then the peace I shall make will be worthy of my people, of you and of me.
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Old November 26th, 2016, 05:23 PM   #6
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There are practical limits to how far a voice can carry without electornic amplification. I'm skeptical a commander could reach more than a thousand men. A commander might give a rousing speech to his officers who might relay it to the men with less effect. As Matthew says, it was important to arrouse the men before battle. Another factor was just to give the men something to think about in those final nervous moments.

I agree with the above posters that most historical speeches were written by the historians, not the generals. Probably a more accurate dipiction of a pre-attack speech was in an early movie version of "The Red Badge of Courage" with Audie Murphy. A American Civil War general decided to charge the enemy with one of his regiments. Right before sending them in, he rode down the regimental line and asked each company in turn,
"What's for dinner tonight, men?"
"Pork and beans, General."
"Sounds delicious. Can I join you?"
"We'd be honored, General."
In two minutes he received ten invitations to dinner. He had no intention of keeping any of them. He was just giving the men something else to think about instead of the charge they were about to make.
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Old November 26th, 2016, 05:57 PM   #7

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It may be a letter rather than a speech, but it's worth mentioning since it would have been read aloud to the men by their platoon sergeants, or the platoon or company commanders.
Effectively, it served the same purpose.

Click the image to open in full size.
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Old November 26th, 2016, 06:37 PM   #8

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Originally Posted by Chlodio View Post
There are practical limits to how far a voice can carry without electornic amplification. I'm skeptical a commander could reach more than a thousand men.
That's why Napoleon carried a printing press with him. Then of course there's Ike's famous D-Day speech, delivered the same way.
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Old November 26th, 2016, 06:53 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by paranoid marvin View Post
You get one in most war movies, usually before a climatic battle. The general/king etc rides up and down in front of his troops delivering a speech, usually from horseback. But did this occur in real life? I would imagine most soldiers would have no interest in rousing speeches made by someone who would usually be at the rear of any attack.
It's a very interesting conundrum. I had the good fortune to intern with a team working on a major upcoming publication on the subject of Roman oratory, and it will include a section on this very subject. If you wait for a couple of days I will PM you the bibliography we were using. There are only about 3 journal articles and one book chapter, plus another 3 or 4 responding articles, which actually deal with the subject of pre-modern generals' speeches before battle.

The conclusion is that the actual speeches recorded in the history books are largely fabricated, but they may in some instances be based on the broad themes of real speeches, albeit not necessarily pre-battle speeches, and there are some references to actual pre-battle speeches being given which clearly aren't simply narrative devices, so we must assume that there were genuine pre-battle speeches given on several occasions, possibly quite regularly, just of a much simpler nature than the ones which survive to us in Thucydides and Livy and so on. It's unclear when these speeches were given: one theory states that it would have been possible to give a speech to all of the senior officers, perhaps in the early morning or the night before a battle when they were meeting to discuss strategy, and that these officers would then have conveyed the general message of the speech to their own battalions.

The main problem of course with the on-battlefield speech is the logistical challenge. Most modern sources seem to agree that it's not possible to give a speech to a huge army of, say, 10,000 men,* because they simply couldn't hear it beyond the first few rows. Although experiments have shown that a group of say 2-4,000 can be spoken to relatively effectively if there is no wind and the speaker is elevated and the people are arranged in a favourable manner, e.g. on a downward slope, so that all have a direct line of sight to the speaker, as in a Greek theatre or a modern movie theatre (don't quote me on those numbers though).

Still, it seems most likely that rousing speeches were probably:

1. Delivered only to relatively small groups: either by generals with small armies, or separately by senior officers to their own detachments, possibly under instruction from a previous speech from the general himself.

2. Very short and to the point, not long and literary.

3. In the event that they needed to convey any information beyond 'kill those degenerate cowards before they kill you and your families!', they may have occasionally arranged planned setpiece speeches, but these would have required some degree of preparation and arrangment of troops, and probably were mainly restricted to gatherings within the camp rather than actually on the battlefield: e.g. the kind of speeches regularly given by Xenophon in the Anabasis, probably given to a couple of hundred officers.

*huge by today's standards. It's difficult to say how big ancient armies actually got since the sources exaggerate so much. Supposedly there were a million Persians at Gaugamela, but I find it's a good rule of thumb in ancient sources to divide all measurements and figures of this kind by 10. I doubt there was any pre-modern army much above 150,000: 250,000 tops, and that was on very very exceptional occasions when the fate of a whole empire was at stake. Usually even the largest forces wouldn't get much above 30-40,000, especially not in the medieval period when there were no Persian or Roman empires to draw from (Saladin at Hattin supposedly led an army of 30,000, and Mongol armies could also approach that number. Tamerlane's army at Ankara was claimed to have been larger even than the Persian one at Gaugamela, and it may indeed have reached upwards of 150,000).

Last edited by Copperknickers; November 26th, 2016 at 07:09 PM.
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Old November 26th, 2016, 07:18 PM   #10

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Human nature being what it is, pre-battle speeches are probably as old as organized warfare.

You take any group of men and place them in a situation where they could be killed in the next few moments, and the great majority of them are going to be scared. We're biologically programmed for it and fear is a natural response to danger. Only the mentally ill have no fear of physical harm or death.

Pre-battle speeches can help assuage those fears by boosting the men's confidence, either by the commander lauding their own combat abilities or denigrating the enemy's (or more likely, both) and convincing them that they're about to give the enemy a solid thrashing. "Nothing to worry about lads, we're going to crush them."

Confidence, like fear, is also contagious. The general or commanding officer emanating confidence is going to have the same effect on the men, and a good pre-battle speech would be a part of that.
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