Eochair Feasa Foghlaim
Joined: Aug 2011
From: Gaillimh (Ireland)
Pre-Battle Speeches: Truth or Fiction?
"The making of a speech by a general to a whole army before a Battle is often read of in our best Histories, as well as romances, but ought in my belief to be found only in the latter..." Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery "A treatise of the Art of War (London, 1677)
Military speeches are now almost a staple of our popular culture: every movie or television series that involves battles, both historical or set in a fantasy world, contains scenes where the commander on call is seen addressing his men with high sounding words before a confrontation with the enemy.
Famous examples of this include Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995) and Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004).
In most movies, the speech before the battle is one of the most emotional moments in the whole film and most of the times the speech itself seems to be a "magical force" even capable to turn an outnumbered and ill-equipped force into a well-oiled and deadly war machine, able to defeat a superior enemy(like in Braveheart)
Do all these examples reflect an historical truth or are they simply an artistic creation (of our literature first and then by Hollywood)?
Were pre-speeches this important in the history of Classical, Medieval and Modern warfare?
The first example that I will provide is the speech that the Athenian strategos Hippocrates gave to his men before the battle of Panion (420 BC) against the Beotians. This speech, that was recorded by Thucydides in his "History of the Peloponnesian War” starts with the phrase:”Men of Athens, there is not much time for exhortation, but to the brave a few words are as good as many” and then continues with several patriotic lines.
I would like to address two points in regard to this pre-battle speech. First, the term “strategos” (army commander), as used in the 5th century BC in Greece can be “problematic” for our analysis of pre-battle speeches made by generals, since at that time strategoi were as much military figures as they were politicians and statesmen, so they are probably not the best example, or rather, an historical exception.
Secondly, and most importantly, Hippocrates did not even have the time to finish his speech, he was still proceeding in front of his army when the Beotian made their attack on the Athenian lines
(his “...there is not much time of exhortation...” had proved prophetic); Hipppocrates himself was killed during the early stages of the battle, which resulted in a victory for the Beotians, while the Athenians lost more than a thousand men.
If we move to analyze Alexander the Great pre-battle speech at Issus (333BC), we will have to deal with two conflicting sources, an account is given by Arrian in his “Anabasis Alexandri”, another by Quitus Curtius Rufus in his “Historiae Alexandri Magni”. According to the Greek-born historian, Alexander had a private meeting with his generals, where he addressed them with encouraging words and where he stressed the differences between them, Greek free men and their enemies, the Persians and the Greek mercenaries.
On the other hand, Q.C. Rufus' chronicle tells us of an Alexander mounted on Bucephalus who addressed his whole army lined up before the battle.
Personally I'm more oriented towards Arrian's account and for this reason I would like to directly quote a passage of Mogens Herman Hansen's “But when an army was lined up in a phalanx the general must have exhorted the units successively. It is implausible that, walking along the ranks, he made one coherent speech so that the left wing heard the proimion, the centre the core of the speech, and the right wing the epilogos. It is equally implausible that the general stopped five or six times and delivered his entire speech wherever he stopped”.
Giving a speech to let's say twenty thousand men before the invention of the megaphone must have been a quite complicated thing!
Rufus' description of Alexander's speech at Issus also contrast with what he did at Gaugamela (331BC) where he convened his senior officers in a war council and “...said that they did not require to be encouraged by him to enter the contest; for they had been long before encouraged by their own valour, and by the gallant deeds which they had already so often achieved. He thought it expedient that each of them individually should stir up his own men separately...”. Note also how this account considerably differs with Alexander's speech before Gaugamela as depicted in the movie Alexander by Oliver Stone.
An important thing to consider in Greek and Hellenistic history is that military speeches are neglected by most rethors in their works: Aristotle in his Rhetoric includes tips on how to write a funeral eulogy, a legal or a deliberative speech but there is no mention of pre-battle speeches. military speeches are also absent from Libanius' Declamationes (a collection of rethoric speeches of various nature).
A very long, detailed and elaborate speech is given by Hannibal before the Battle of Ticinus (218BC) and recorded by both Polybius and Livy, two giants of Graeco Roman historiography. What differs from the other battles that we have encountered thus far is that at Ticinus, the Carthaginian and Roman armies were separated by a riverv(the Ticino), so Hannibal had all the time to prepare such a speech; moreover, Punic scouts were constantly monitoring the Roman moves on the other bank of the river, therefore we can assume that Hannibal was quite relaxed, as the threat of an enemy attack was low, compared to the other battle accounts provided.
The final decades of the Roman Republic gave us alot of military history material and sources, including a good number of accounts or pre-battle speeches.
In my opinion, the most striking example is delivered by Catiline at the battle of Pistoiav(62 BC), the final act of the so-called "Second Catiline Conspiracy". The speech, as recorded by Sallust, is long, eloquent and very potent, so much that we can tell that for Catiline and his army it was a "do or die" situation. A very interesting feature of this speech, besides the usual encouraging and inspiring words, is its very pragmatic beginning, that I would like to quote:“I am well aware, soldiers, that words cannot inspire courage; and that a spiritless army cannot be rendered active, or a timid army valiant, by the speech of its commander".
Pistoia shares similarities with Delium, the first battle mentioned in this work: the commanders addressing the troops (Hippocrates and Catilina) were more famous for their oratory and political skills than for their military experience and they both perished in combat, found dead in the front ranks of their respective armies.
To complete the trio of the greatest generals of the Classical period we have here Caesar, who seemed to have pronounced a speech similar to the ones cited in the introduction during the final phase of his second campaign in Britannia (54 BC) before a battle against the allies of the Briton chief Cassivelaunus: the then Roman Triumvir, gladius in his hand, incited his legionaries with a very passionate speech about the courage and the martial abilities of his own men, the glory of Rome and the perils they had overcome together.
The army responded with a loud shout and prepared for the fight; the inspired legionaries prevailed over the barbarians after an bloody battle and were able to return to Gallia safely.
This speech of Iulius Caesar definitely proved instrumental in the victory of the Romans, since the army was then suffering from low morale after several Briton attacks and ambushes; there is only one problem with this speech: it appeared for the first time on Henry of Huntington's "Historia Anglorum", a chronicle of the history of Britain written more than a thousand years after the time of Caesar, so its authenticity is very dubious to say the least.
The Roman general himself gave us an account of his speech before the Battle of Pharsalus (48BCE) against the Optimates; if we compare this with the fictitious speech he did in Britannia, we can point out that the former is notably drier and shorter that the latter and it also lacks the emotionality(or the "epicness") of the speech made right before the battle against the Britons: Caesar spoke about peace and the care for his soldier instead of honour, glory and dying for Rome.
The general also gave us the speeches of his two main adversaries at Pharsalus, Gnaeius Pompeius Magnus and Titus Labienus; in Caesar's own account, both commanders sound over-confident and arrogant(especially Labienus, who denigrates the army of the Populares) and we can see a clear-cut contrast with Caesar's more humble speech. If Caesar's authenticity of his own battle exhortation cannot be disputed, we must be careful with his account of Pompey and Labienus' speeches, after all, all we know of them comes from the pen of their very enemy (Caesar himself) and we must remember that Labienus had previously fought side-by-side with Caesar in Gaul. In this case, the victor could have exacted "revenge" on his former comrade, now enemy and "traitor" by putting arrogant words in his mouth.
Still another pre-battle speech of the Roman Era, this time given by a "barbarian", happened at Mons Graupius (83 AD), a battle which saw Roman legions commanded by Gnaeus Julius Agricola clash with the Caledonians under Calgacus.
The chieftain addressed his troops before the engagement with the invading Romans with a very long speech(it consists of 37 lines as recorded by Tacitus) that compares the freedom of their Caledonian lands with the rapacious, greedy and violent Roman world. The highlight of this speech is definitely the famous phrase:"They make a desert and call it peace" ("ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant" ).
Most historian consider this speech to be entirely fabricated by Tacitus and the existence of Calgaus himself is dubious.
The Battle of Mons Graupius also saw a speech given by Agricola, which is less known but comparable in both lenght (32 lines) and content to its "barbarian" counterpart. This time the Romans are portrayed as brave and loyal men, while the Britons are a "mere crowd of spiritless cowards", compared to animals running away from the huntsman. Even this military oration is regarded as artificial by the contemporary scholarly world.
Interestingly, Agricola states that the speech of Agricola was followed with great enthusiasm by his army, which numbered around 20 thousand men but again it is quite implausible to be heard by such a moltitude of soldiers. This can only reinforce the consideration that Agricola's speech is made up by Tacitus.
In these last two examples, Pharsalus and Mons Graupius, we have pre-battle speeches coming from both sides and here a simple question arises: "who could have been there to directly witness both?".
Moreover, in such cases, the speeches show parallelisms in terms of content or they appear like one commander was actually responding to the other, and these elements reinforce the idea that these were manufatured rather than genuine speeches.
With a jump forward in history of almost one thousand years, we have the Battle of Hastings (1066), one of the most important, if not the most important Medieval battle in the European Continent. This battle is not only famous for its political implications, but also for the passionate speech that William gave to his men before engaging the army of Harold. This battle exhortation is noted for its lenght (more than 700 words) and for William's initial historial digression, where he mentions Rollo, the founder of William's dynasty, Richard I, who defeated the French at Rouen in 962, and other Norman military exploits. William also mentions the Battle of Mortmer (1054), where he himself led his men against the invading forces of the King of France. This digression is used by the Duke to highlight the martial prowess of the Norman people, undefeated since the times of their Danish ancestors. Then William exhorts his men to unleash their rage against the English, labelled "... people accustomed to be conquered, a people ignorant of war...". The speech concludes with the famous line "...be ye the avengers of noble blood".
Henry of Huntington, who was born only 22 years after the battle, may have heard accounts of the battle of Hastings from the last surviving soldiers of William's army; moreover, it's quite possible that he also drew inspiration from older works like Guy Bishop of Amien's "Carmen de Hastingae Proelio", William of Jumièges's "Gesta Normannorum Ducum" and William of Poitiers's "Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum", which where all written in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings. A point must be raise on the historical validity of this sources: despite their historical content and methodology, they are considered biased (pro-Norman sources, especially the last two works, which were written at the request of the Duke himself and can therefore be considered as pure propaganda). Moreover, several historians say that all these works (including Henry of Huntington's chronicle) are "contaminated" by Classical rethoric, an almost constant element in Medieval writings. Last but not least, the batte exhortation before Hastings is not mentioned by William of Malmesbury, a contemporary of Henry of Huntington who wrote an account of the battle. Therefore, I am likely to discard the validity of this pre-battle speech; even the lenght and the content of the exhortation itself belong more to a public display than a "pure" military speech.
The speech that William Wallace gave to his men before the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297), as depicted in the movie Braveheart, must be taken with a pinch of salt to say the least, since there are very scarce contemporary details of the battle and the figure of William Wallace himself became mythicized over the course of the centuries; the depiction of the battle itself in the movie is inaccurate: there is no bridge at all and elements of Stirling and Bannockburn (1314) are mixed together.
Stirling itself was more of a large scale ambush than the battle depicted in the movie and loud shouts would have very probably alerted the marching English of the Scottish presence, thus totally frustrating the surprise effect.
Even the famous speech that the English king Henry V pronounced before the battle of Agincourt (1415) is fictional, as no contemporary accounts mentions it: it is none other than the work of the pen of William Shakespeare, who wrote the Henry V almost two centuries after the battle of the Hundred Years' War. Even though the "St. Crispin's Day Speech" is entirely the creation of a playwright, it is one of the best examples of war speeches.
It begins with a pessimistic Ralf de Neville questioning the chances of the English Army against the more numerous French army, sporting the best cavalry of the time(note that the historical Earl of Westmoreland was not present at the Battle of Agincourt); spurred by his cousin's negativity, the King addresses his men, nobles and common soldiers alike about his notion of honour and comradeship, resulting in the famous "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me;Shall be my brother".
A very good case, this time autochtonous, happens to be the battle of Knockdoe (1504) fought between the Anglo-Irish army of the Earl of Kildare and the Irish army of Ulick Burke.
Before the Battle, the Earl addressed his men with a speech that shares similarities with what Alexander said before Issus (as recorded by Arrian): he commented on the aspect of Burke's men, "without wisdom or good order", "as drunken as swine" and how they were far from home, fighting for honour and for their pride. The truthfulness of this speech is questioned by a good number of experts and it is considered altered by later interventions or even completely made-up.
Even the details of the battle itself resemble more the work of a poet than the pen of an historian: Knockdoe is presented as a series of single duels similar to the fights of the legendary Fianna and there are no details regarding battle manoeuvres and tactics employed.
Interestingly, Knockdoe is the only 16th century Irish battle where a pre-battle speech was recorded; at clashes like Knockavoe (1522), Farsetmore (1567) or Yellow Ford (1598) we only know of the loud shouts coming from the gallowglass soldiers, eager for the upcoming onlsaught.
On the day of Easter of the year 1512, the French commander Gaston de Foix made a remarkable pre-battle speech before clashing with the forces of the Holy League at Ravenna. The speech, as reported by the Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini, is long (it consists of more than 700 words) and with an aggressive style: he spurs his soldiers to attack valiantly and to defeat the enemy in order to avenge previous "insults" and then take possession of the riches of Ravenna first and then Rome and Naples. This speech is also interesting because de Foix also mentions the Italian and German allies with their respective virtues, compared to the cowardly Spaniards. More specifically, he also mentions the opposing commanders and leaders, namely Pedro Navarro, Fabrizio and Marcantonion Colonna and Iulius II, labelled "the False Pope".
The lenght of de Foix's pre-battle speech can be explained with relative ease; as the Papal-Spanish army was placed inside a fortified camp and with no intention to give battle, the French commander had all the time do address his men in such eloquent way from a relatively secure position. Ravenna differs from the archetypical pitched battle and so does, to certain extens, the de Foix's speech.
Klushino (1610), the battle which saw the outnumbered Polish-Lithuanian forces prevailing over a Russo-Swedish Army thanks to the devastating charges of the famous hussars, is also worth to study for the pre-battle speech delivered by the commander of the Polish army, Stanislav Zolkievski.
It consists of a single line in the Latin language:"Necessitas in loco, spes in virtute, salus in victoria", that can be translated as"in the necessity of the place(the battlefield), hope was placed on courage and and safety in the victory" As the attack came before dawn and Zolkievski wanted to catch the enemy positions by suprise, we can perfectly understand the reason behind such a short speech, as there was no time to waste.
The Polish commander, displayed his knowledge of Classical literature in addition to military acumen: the Latin expression was coined by Tacitus to describe the situation of the German and Roman armies before a battle during Germanicus Julius Caesar's campaign(14-16 AD)
At the battle of Lutzen (1632), one of the key and most dramatic episodes of the Thirty Years' War, Gustavus Adolphus made a pre-battle speech before the final advance of the Swedish army against Wallenstein's forces. Here the king only addressed his Swedish forces, notably the cavarly, with short but encouraging sentences, for winning the day was their only chance to see their homecountry again. Then Gustavus Adolphus ended his speech with the battlecry "Jesu! Jesu!", a sign that the religious element in the conflict was still alive. We can comprehend the king's decision to only speak with his native forces by taking a look at all the nationalities serving under the Swedish banners as mercenaries: the army of the Lion of the North included troops from Germany (the largest foreign contingent),Britain (including Scottish soldiers and Irish mercenaries "posing" as Scottish), France and Holland. Addressing such a multinational force in its entirety would have surely created linguistic issues, something clearly avoidable before a battle; moreover the Swedish front at Breitenfield ranged from two to two kilometers and a half(in two lines), even with a voice worthy of the most powerful of the tenors, it would have been impossible to reach a single brigade , let alone the entire army.
Twelve years after Lutzen, at the Battle of Tippermuir (1644) James Graham, another outstanding general of the XVII century, addressed his men before a confrontation with the better equipped and more numerous Covenanters(there was at least a 3:1 ratio in favour of the Scottish). In this concise speech the Marquiss of Montrose did not waste his time in idealisms or in resounding words, he chose to focus on pure practical considerations:"...as there happens to be a great abundance of stones upon this moor, every man should provide himself, in the first place, with as stout a one as he can manage, rush up to the first Covenanter he meets, beat out his brains, take his sword..."
At the same time, the Covenanters, Montrose's enemy, simply shouted "Jesus and no quarters", their battlecry.
Another battle fought in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-51) which includes a pre-battle speech is Benburb (1646), between the Irish Confederates and the Scottish Covenanters. Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill, the commander of the Irish force (numbering around five thousand troops), addressed his men with a battle exhortation that contains several interesting elements. First, the commander emphasize the suffering caused to them by the enemies they are about to face on the battlefield, "...Know that those who stand before you ready to fight are those that banished you, your Wives and Children from your lands and Houses, and made you seek Bread and Livelihood in strange places...". Then Ó Néill stresses the importance of Christianity and the differences with the enemy's religion and finally concludes the speech with some practical advice mixed with religious fervour, "...Your word is Sancta Maria; and so, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, advance, and give not fire till you are within pike-length".
Another extremely interesting aspect of the exhortation given before Benburb is that Ó Néill's speech is that we have three different sources describing it, by three different authors with three different writing styles. The first account of the speech is given by an unknown British XVIIth century soldier who served in the Regiment of Sir John Clotworthy; he reported the exhortation as a direct speech and it is the most detailed of the three, with resounding and emphatic words. The second account is given by Irishman and more precisely Colonel Henry Mc Tuoll O'Neill, who recorded the memory of General Owen O'Neill, who directly served under Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill in the 1640s.
In the account of the battle of Benburb as described by General O'Neill, the pre-battle speech is only briefly and indirectly mentioned.
The third and last account of the exhortation given to the troops is by the Irish Franciscan friar Tarlach Ó Mealláin, who was present at the battle. Just like the first one, this account directly quotes
Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill's words, but this time in Gaeilge and with a very forthright style with no-frills.
Despite the difference in style and structure of the versions provided, all three share a same common content, namely the religious leitmotif and the strong will of redemption of the Irish soldiers after years of Protestant oppression. Therefore I consider all these accounts to be faithful to history, especially the last two. The first description of the speech, the one provided by the anonymous British officer presents some taints of Classical rhetoric in it, something that is usually “artificially” added by chroniclers who did not directly witness the event (the British could have only been present at the battle on the enemy side).
I would like to conclude my personal analysis of pre-battle speeches with a completely different example, regarding both the battle and the speech itself. I'm going to mention Trafalgar (1805), a naval battle, where the general's exhortation before the clash was given by using signal flags instead of words. The iconic phrase "England expects that every man will do his duty" was not uttered, but rather lifted to the mizzen raft of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory and showed to the British fleet.
Flag signals do not allow for very complex sentences without running into confusion (in fact Nelson's original phrase had to be changed for practical reasons) but this exhortation strikes me for his patriotism and power in such a simple syntax and displays striking similarities with several spoken pre-battle exhortations.
My final opinion is that in the case of pre-battle speeches, reality (and therefore history) is definitely different from literature and cinema, in a modern context. Most of the longer exhortation seem to be the product of untrustworthy later reports tainted by Graeco-Roman rethoric (a point clearly stated by Mogens Herman Hansen in his work) and this later influenced later accounts of pre-battle speeches, unp until the early-modern era, where battle account started to became more faithful and precise.
To make it more clear, I'm not saying that pre-battle speeches never happened, but rather than they tended to take the form of a few powerful and catchy lines or even words, easy to remember (like at Klushino or Lutzen), or more complex discourses, but given to the officers only (like what Alexander did before Gaugamela). Longer speeches are the product of less-threatening battle situations, where the two armies were not ready to clash yet (like at Trebia and Ravenna). Similarly, complex and articulated military exhortations, full of rhetoric elements, were given before the start of military campaigns, where the risk of an encounter with the enemy was basically non existent. Famous and vivid example of this include Trajan's "adlocutio" during his Dacian campaign (101-106 AD), which is depicted in the Trajan's Column in Rome, Maximinus Thrax's speech before his march into Italy (238 AD) and Napoleon's speeches in the Italian Campaign of 1796-1797.
For the end of this essay, I'd like to return to where I started, Greek history and more specifically Thucydides.The Athenian historian, in his magnum opus "The History of the Peloponnesian War" makes a very frank and clear statement regarding all the speeches he put in his work (including therefore battle exhortations) and the difficulty with their relative sources, something that even contemporary historian face on an everyday basis. "With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said...My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other ..."
Thucydides here states what many other chroniclers of history did, namely the interpretation or even the construction of a battle exhortation based on the context of the battle and the personality of the commanders involved, even if the speech never happened in real life or was different from the one that went down into history; but even though we can doubt the veridicity of those speeches (most of the times tainted by literature or rhetorics), we got to thank historians like Thucydides for their massive efforts in creating coherent and vivid accounts of battles.
Notes and Bibliography
 Thucydides "History of the Peloponnesian War";4.95
 Arrian "Anabasis of Alexander"; Book II,7
 Mogens Herman Hansen "The Battle Exhortation in Ancient Historiography.Fact of Fiction?"; page 169
 Arrian "Anabasis of Alexander"; Book III,9
 Polybius "Histories"; Book III,63
 Livy "Ab Urbe Condita; Book 21,43-44
 Sallust "De Catiline Coniuratione"; chapter 58. See also Suzanne McIntyre & William E. Burns Speeches in World History; page 45
 Henry of Hungtingdon "Historia Anglorum; Book 1.13
 Caesar ” Commentarii de Bello Civili”; Book III,89
 Caesar “Commentarii de Bello Civili”; Book III, 86-87
 Agricola “De Vita Et Moribus Iulii Agricola”; 29-32
 Ibidem; 33-34
 Henry of Huntington “Historia Anglorum”; pp 210-211(1853 edition by H.G. Bohn)
 In 2009, Braveheart finished 2nd on The Time's list of "Most Historically Inaccurate Movies"
 William Shakespeare "Henry V"; Act IV,Scene iii 18-67
 G A Hayes-McCoy "Irish Battles. A Military History of Ireland"; page 62
 Francesco Guicciardini "La Historia di Italia"; volume 3, pages 380-382
 Miroslav Nagielski "Hetmani Rzeczypospolitej Obojga Narodów(1995)
 Tacitus "Annales"; Book III,20
 Theodore Ayrault Dodge "Gustavus Adolphus; a History of the Art of War From its Revival After the Middle Ages to the End of the Spanish Succession War, with a Detailed Account of the Campaigns of the Great Swede, and of the Most Famous Campaigns of Turenne, Condé, Eugene and Malrborough. With 237 Charts, Maps, Plans of Battles and Tactical Manoeuvres, Cuts of Uniforms, Arms and Weapons,(1895); page 371
 Richard Brzezinsky & Richard Hook "The Army of Gustavus Adolphus 1 Infantry"(1991); page 39:"the Irish too had a long tradition as mercenaries, but they were distrusted by Gustavus because of their religion, and served mostly with Catholic powers; even so, several thousand Irish fought in nominally "Scottish" regiments".
 Alan Frize "Battle of Tippermuir,1644"; Battle of Tippermuir 1644 - ScotWars
 British Officer of the Regiment of Sir John Clotworthy "The History of the War of Ireland from 1641 to 1653", (Dublin,1873); pages.47-48
 Colonel Henry Mc Tuoll O'Neill "An impartial relation of the most memorable transactions of General Owen O'Neill and his party, from the year 1641 to the year 1650"; page 205
 Tarlach Ó Mealláin "Cín Lae Uí Mhealláin”, as edited by Tadhg Ó Donnchadha “Analecta Hibernica” (Dublin,1931); page 41
 The Historical Marine Society ; England or Nelson
 Herodian "Τῆς μετὰ Μάρκον βασιλείας ἰστορίαι "("History of the Empire after Marcus Aurelius); book VII, 8.4-8
 Thucydides; "The Peloponnesian War", 1.22