How many wars can you name? Two? Four? Eight? A dozen? How many battles could you name? Twelve? Twenty-four? Fifty?
The history of mankind is full of conflict. Conflict marked by dozens of wars and hundreds of battles. So many battles and wars, in fact, that many of these great plays of armour, and the acts that made them up, have passed into history and out of memory, and common knowledge. Most people only know of the Big Three: World War One. World War Two. Vietnam.
However, a select few of these hundreds of battles have survived in the public consciousness to this day; remembered not because they were famous and not because they were big. Not even, perhaps, because they were even won…or lost; but rather because someone said something that has remained with us ever since. This article looks at some of the most famous battle-quotes in history, and the battles and wars that made them famous.
Let us begin with one of the most famous…
“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
Who said It? Admiral David Farragut.
When was it Said? August, 1864.
Where was it Said? Battle of Mobile Bay, Mobile, Alabama, C.S.A.
Conflict? American Civil War (1861-1865).
This is one of the most famous quotes in history, often paraphrased and used as a show of defiance, pluck and determination. But what happened?
It is August, 1864. The South is on the losing end of the American Civil War. The Union Navy and Army are charged with taking the Confederate port of Mobile Bay, near Mobile, Alabama. In an attempt to starve the South into submission, the Union forces are ordered to attack, occupy and render defenceless, all of the South’s seaports and harbours, to prevent shipments of supplies and reinforcements. Mobile Bay is the last of these ports still held by the Confederacy. It is heavily defended by soldiers, gunners, sea-mines and powerful shore-batteries of cannons facing the mouth of the harbour.
By this later stage in the war, the South was running low on almost everything. Manpower. Food. Metal. Weapons. Clothing. Medicine. Ships. Gunpowder. And luck.
The Northern forces outnumbered the South to such an extent that victory was almost certain even before the battle started. The North had eighteen warships, compared to the four that the South had. And the North had nearly five times more men than the South.
Enter Union Admiral David Farragut. It was his job to force the harbour. With his heavily-armed and heavily-armoured ships, including the newfangled, steam-powered, plate-armoured ‘Monitor’ ships, he had to break through the Southern shore-defences, neutralise the shore-batteries (or get out of their range) and render the Southern ships a negligable force.
On the day of the battle (5th August, 1864), Farragut sent his ships in. Ironclad monitors on the outside to provide protection and to deal with the shore batteries, and the wooden ships inside, to deal with the Confederate naval ships once they’d made it beyond the harbour’s mouth.
Once they’d passed the shore-batteries and were out of their range, one ship, the USS Tecumseh (as in William Tecumseh Sherman, of ‘March to the Sea’ fame) struck a sea-mine. The mine exploded and the ship sank in less than five minutes. At the time, these maritime explosives were called ‘torpedoes’. The power of the explosion and the speed with which the Tecumseh sank caused other Union captains to panic and want to retreat! When Farragut yelled to his junior officers and captains what the holdup was, they replied “Torpedoes!”. On the very cusp of a war-changing victory, Farragut wasn’t about to let a few mines get in his way.
Exactly what Farragut said isn’t recorded. He issued a variety of orders to the captains under his command, all with the same gist: To ignore the torpedoes, speed up and capture the Confederate navy by surprise. Over time, the quotes were all melded together to the now familiar cry: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”.
“Fire When Ready, Gridley!”
Who Said It? Admiral George Dewey.
When was it Said? 1st of May, 1898.
Where was it Said? Battle of Manila Bay, Manila Bay, The Philippines.
Conflict? Spanish-American War (April-August, 1898).
The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a short conflict that had been simmering for months, as America watched Spain and Cuba duke it out, as Cuba fought for independence from its Spanish masters. During this conflict, the American battleship, the USS Maine exploded and was sunk in Havana Harbour, Cuba. Although the likelihood that the Spanish were responsible for this was slim, it was one of the factors that pushed Spain and America to war.
The Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish posessions in the Philippine islands, was one of the first major American victories in this short-lived war. It was also the first major action between the two countries after war was formally declared.
The point of the battle was to destroy the Spanish Pacific Fleet then at anchor in Manila Bay. When Dewey showed up with his captains and his ships, the situation was so perfect it was almost unbelievable.
The Spanish commanding officer, Admiral Montojo, had been given woefully outdated warships to patrol the Philippines and with which to defend the Bay. He also believed that the Bay had certain natural defences that meant that sailors unfamiliar with the area would not be able to attack it until morning, when there would be enough light to see the hazards lurking in the water. Comforted by this fact, Montojo took his time preparing for the coming of the American fleet.
The American fleet showed up on the 1st of May, 1898, just a few weeks after war had been declared. Unbeknown to Montojo, Admiral Dewey had been supplied with charts that told him how to navigate around the waters off of Manila Bay. And the U.S. Navy had more modern, more powerful warships. Instead of waiting for daybreak, Dewey decided to attack while it was still dark!
By the time Dewey reached the bay, it was about 5:15 in the morning. The Spanish shore-batteries that defended the Bay opened up with ranging-shots (shots fired to test the effective range of the gun, hence the name), and Spanish ships did the same. Dewey suddenly realised that the Spanish firepower was so outdated that they posed almost no threat at all! He ordered his ships to sail into formation and prepare for battle. The job was simple:
The ships would line up, bow-to-stern and sail in a zig-zag pattern, back and forth, turning at the end of each pass, a bit like that boring ‘Snake’ game you have on your old mobile-phone where you eat the seeds to make the snake grow longer. All the while, the American ships would be firing ceaselessly at the Spanish defences. With their faster, more powerful and better-equipped battleships, the Americans could shoot further and faster than the Spanish and were able to hit them well out of the range of the Spanish shore-batteries and cannons.
Once the ships had started in formation and began moving slowly towards the Spanish lines, Dewey told his second-in-command, Capt. Charles Vernon Gridley: “You may fire when ready, Gridley”.
And Gridley did. And the rest is history.
As the American ships drew closer and closer and their long-range guns became even more and more accurate with every passing tack, the Spanish defences were obliterated. The Spanish defences were being blown to pieces and even if they managed to engage the Americans, they knew that they were hopelessly outnumbered.
Gridley appeared to have taken Dewey’s order to ‘fire when ready’ exceedingly to heart. By 7:45am (a little over two hours after the battle started), Gridley had exhausted almost all of their ammunition. Dewey ordered a general retreat (he told his men that this was so that they could eat breakfast!).
The battle ended shortly after midday, when the Spanish ran up a white flag and lowered their colours, admitting total defeat. American losses? Seven wounded and two seriously injured. Number of deaths? One. From a heart-attack!
“Forward the Light Brigade!”
Who Said It? Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
When was it Said? 9th December, 1854.
Where was it Said? Tennyson’s famous poem about the Crimean War.
Conflict? Battle of Balaclava, the Crimea. Crimean War (1853-1856).
The most that the average person knows about the Crimean War is what they learned about in English class, studying poetry as a child, specifically, the poem written in 1854 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson titled ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It is one of the most famous and iconic poems in the world. But what was the Charge of the Light Brigade? And what happened to it?
The Crimean War was fought between the Russian Empire on one side, and the French Empire, British Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia (part of modern Italy, today), on the other. It took place in the Crimean Peninsula, which sticks out off the coast of the Ukraine and is surrounded on three sides by the Black Sea (which is northeast of the Mediteranean Sea).
The Crimean War started when the Russian Empire began threatening the Ottoman Empire over control of the Holy Lands (the Crimea and Turkey being extremely close to the lands of Palestine, Persia and Arabia, the birthplaces of Islam, Christianity and Judaism). When Russia forced itself into Ottoman affairs, the French and British Empires came to the Ottoman defense to drive the Russians out of Ottoman territory. And so began the war.
The famous Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Battle of Balaclava (25th October, 1854). So what happened?
The British, French and Ottomans were trying to take the city of Sevastopol, an important Russian fortress and naval port. To do this, they laid siege to the city. In an attempt to end or shorten the siege, the Russians attacked the siege-lines the north of the city of Balaclava. During the battle, the Ottomans were overrun and were forced to abandon their frontmost line of defence. They retreated to their second line, which was held by both British and Ottoman soldiers. The combined strength of both forces held the Russians at bay, but left the guns which the Ottomans had previously been manning in the hands of the Russians (the cannons being too heavy for the Ottomans to wheel away during their retreat).
A daring cavalry charge by the British sent the Russians into retreat. As they fell back, they decided to help themselves to the cannons that the Ottomans had abandoned earlier. Commander of the British forces, Lord Raglan, saw the Russians’ plans and sent a message to the commanding officer of the Light Brigade to stop the Russians from stealing the guns! Unfortunately for the other guy, Lord Lucan, Raglan’s orders were so ambiguous that they were impossible to understand! Don’t believe me? Here are the texts of the original orders:
1. “Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights. They will be supported by infantry which have been ordered. Advance on two fronts“.
If you read this carefully, you’ll see what the problem is. You’re standing on an enormous battlefield in a huge valley with heights, ridges and hills all around you. There is no indication in the above order as to which direction the Light Brigade was expected to move, how far they were supposed to move and what amount of infantry was supposed to be providing them with backup! There’s no mention of compass directions or which of the ‘heights’ the cavalry is meant to try and capture. Remember that there are hills all around you. Lucan stayed where he was, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for clarification. A few minutes later, the second order from Lord Raglan showed up:
2. “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns – Troop Horse Artillery may accompany – French cavalry is on your left.”
Again, this order did nothing but confuse Lucan and his officers. The Russian soldiers who were stealing the guns were on the southern heights (called the ‘Causeway Heights’), far removed from Lord Lucan’s line of sight. He simply couldn’t see them from his position in the valley. The only guns he could see were the Russian cannons that were lined up at the far end of the valley, just a few miles to the east, creating a corridor of death on three sides. He assumed that Lord Raglan meant those guns! Charging them with cavalry would be suicide, but Raglan had ordered him to attack the enemy (the Russians) with the guns!…So he did!
“‘…Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…”
The problem was that Lord Raglan, who was issuing these orders, was high on the hilltop. He could see the entire battlefield and he could see the cannons that the Russians had captured to the south, and were trying to make off with. Lord Lucan and his subordinate, Capt. Nolan, stuck in the valley between the heights where Raglan was stationed, and the northern and southern heights on either side, could not. To try and uncomplicate matters, Capt. Nolan went to Lord Raglan himself to ask what the orders were. He was told to attack the enemy with the guns! But then, in warfare, every enemy has guns…woops!
Confused as ever, Nolan headed back into the valley and relayed his lordship’s orders to the officer in charge, Lord Lucan. The following heated exchange took place:
Nolan: “Attack, sir!”
Lucan: “Attack WHAT? What guns, sir!?”
Nolan: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”
Nolan gestured wildly to the east to indicate the guns. What he should have done was pointed to the south where the Russians had captured the British cannons. What he had actually pointed at was the valley which the Russians had surrounded with cannons! Time was running out and Raglan obviously wanted the light cavalry to move quickly, so Lucan decided to act.
He passed the order to his second-in-command, Lord Cardigan. Cardigan and Nolan charged off into the valley, followed by 670 cavalry.
“…Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…”
The cavalry charge was a complete disaster. Outgunned on three sides, Cardigan and Nolan and all their horsemen were fighting a losing battle. Of roughly 670 men who went in, only about half managed to come out in one piece. Nolan was killed in the advancing charge, his body blown apart by cannonfire.
Cardigan survived the charge and lived to the respectable age of 70. He is remembered today from the fuzzy, knitted garment that bears his name…the cardigan! Another fuzzy, knitted garment came out of the Crimean War as well…the Balaclava, named for the fuzzy, full-face masks that the soldiers wore to keep them warm during the freezing Crimean winters. Every bankrobber in the world should thank the British for this ingenious invention.
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—-“
Who Said It? Major General John Sedgwick.
When was it Said? 9th of May, 1864.
Where was it Said? Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, C.S.A.
Conflict? American Civil War (1861-1865).
The Battle of Spotsylvania (yes, such a place actually exists) Courthouse was a battle during the American Civil War. Union general, Ulysses S. Grant was trying to fight Confederate general Robert E. Lee in such a way that would give Grant the advantage (Lee having thusfar proved to be too hard a nut to crack).
During the battle, Confederate sharpshooters kept the Union troops hiding behind walls and down in their trenches. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick couldn’t believe what a bunch of sissies his men were! He told them off for being cowards and hiding from a few stray bullets! He insisted that they stand up and fight and shoot back at the enemy like real men! To prove his point, Sedgwick stood up so that the top of his body was exposed to enemy fire. To try and inspire his men, he told them that “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!”; ‘they’ being the Confederate soldiers.
Unfortunately for Sedgwick, he wasn’t an elephant. A couple of seconds after he started speaking, he was shot in the face by a sniper’s rife and fell to the ground…stone dead. Depending on the sources you read, Sedgwick didn’t even finish saying the word ‘distance’ before he was killed outright.
“Shoot straight, you bastards!”
Who Said It? Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant.
When was it Said? 27th of February, 1902.
Where was it Said? Pretoria, South African Republic (Transvaal Republic).
Conflict? Second Boer War (1899-1902).
Harry Harbord ‘Breaker’ Morant and his comrades, Peter Handcock and George Witton were three Australian soldiers who were arrested and court-martialed during the Second Boer War. After their commanding officer, Captain Hunt, was killed, the three soldiers killed a number of Boer P.O.Ws and a priest who was witness to these killings, in reprisal for their comrade’s death.
It was for these actions that the three men were court-martialed. For their crimes against the Boer prisoners, all three soldiers were sentenced to death by firing squad. Witton’s sentence was later changed to Imprisonment for Life (and later still, he received a pardon); Morant and Handcock, however, were both condemned to death.
On the morning of their execution, the men were led to the chairs on which they would be seated while they were executed. They sat down and were offered blindfolds. Both men refused. The executing soldiers raised their rifles, ready to fire. It was at this time that Morant said his famous last words:
“Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”
The execution of Morant and Handcock remained controversial for decades. Witton, the one soldier who escaped execution, wrote a book in 1907 about the experience. He titled it “Scapegoats of the Empire”.
The effect of the execution on both Witton and Major James Francis Thomas (the lawyer sent to provide their defence) was significant. Thomas’s life collapsed after the failure of the court-martial and he died a broken man in November of 1942. Witton had died a few months earlier in August.
“Kiss me, Hardy”.
Who Said It? Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
When was it Said? 21st of October, 1805.
Where was it Said? Battle of Trafalgar, H.M.S. Victory.
Conflict? The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar is one of the most famous maritime battles in history. But the price of victory was steep. The admiral was struck by a sniper’s bullet while he stood on the quarterdeck of his flagship, the H.M.S. Victory. The bullet hit the admiral in the right shoulder, passing down through his body to lodge at the base of his spine. He was carried below to the ship’s surgeon, Dr. William Beatty.
Beatty, already busy amputating shattered arms and legs and extracting musket-balls and splinters from other injured sailors, took some time to come to Nelson’s aid. When he did, he determined that the admiral’s wound was inoperable. The musketball had lodged in such an inaccessible part of the admiral’s body that it would be impossible to remove it without almost certainly killing or permanently paralysing Nelson. Early 19th century surgery didn’t leave Dr. Beatty many options.
Knowing that he would in all likelihood, die before the end of the battle, Nelson allowed himself to be made comfortable in the corner of the surgeon’s quarters. His officers made constant reports to their ailing commander, feeding him news of the progress of the battle. Nelson was dying from blood-loss and internal bleeding. He watched Beatty working on other men, men that the doctor actually had a chance of saving. As Nelson lay on the floor, he instructed his officers: “Fan fan, rub rub, drink drink” as they fanned him and fed him lemonade and watered-down wine to keep him cool and hydrated. As Nelson became weaker and weaker, he told one of his officers, Sir Thomas Hardy, “Kiss me, Hardy”.
And Hardy did! Twice, in fact.
It’s widely believed that ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ were Nelson’s last words. In fact, his final words, as recorded by the ship’s chaplain, were “God and my country”. Nelson died at 4:30pm on the afternoon of the 21st of October, 1805.