Monday, October 25, 2010

Happy Saint Crispin's Day

Growing up in England we were, of course, taught about the famous naval and military battles in our country's history. I guess the syllabus tended to focus on the ones that England won, not the ones we lost. But the English are also prone to celebrate gallant failures, plucky retreats and god almighty cock-ups too. And there's nothing the English like better than a hero who died in a failed endeavor. Scott and Franklin spring to mind.

We also love a battle that has been eulogized by one of our famous playwrights or poets. Or even better if there was a memorable quote from one of our famous generals or admirals made in the heat of battle.

I hadn't realized before that three of the most famous battles in English history all happened this week, two of them indeed on this very day, October 25.

On this day in 1415, Henry V of England defeated a numerically superior French force at the Battle of Agincourt. I forgot to mention; the English also like battles where the underdog wins and we never forget a battle where we beat the French.

The fame of Agincourt was no doubt aided by Shakespeare's treatment of it in his play Henry V. What Englishman can fail to be moved by Shakespeare's words in which the young King Henry rallies his troops before the battle?

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

October 25 is indeed Saint Crispin's Day. And another famous battle - actually an event more in the category of god almighty cock-up - fought on this day was the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854. Orders were confused and unclear and, as a result, some 600 or so cavalrymen charged into a death trap. As Wikipedia so dryly notes, "The reputation of the British cavalry was significantly enhanced as a result of the charge, though the same cannot be said for their commanders."

The Charge of the Light Brigade was made famous by the poem of the same name written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson who perfectly captured the bravery of the men involved while at the same time heaping scorn on the blunder that led to the charge.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
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 other famous battle this week may be more familiar to sailors. The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21 October 1805. This battle has all the essential ingredients...

  • The enemy outnumbered us. (We love the underdog.)

  • The English beat the French and the Spanish. (O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!)

  • The victorious English leader (Nelson) was mortally wounded in the battle. (Dead heroes are the best heroes.)

  • The score line (ships sunk) was 22-0. (If only the English soccer team were half as good.)

  • There was a famous quotation.

The famous quote was, of course, made in the battle, not afterwards by a poet or playwright. And it's surely the most famous English quotation that was originally issued in nautical signal flags.

Yup, this week was quite a week for battles. Happy Saint Crispin's Day.

Here endeth the history lesson.

I think I'll go to bed now.


Anonymous said...

ahem ...
it's AZincourt, with a Z

Eric, from France :-)

Anonymous said...

it's me again ...

Well … they (the kings at least)were all cousins, brother in law …and they all spoke French !
Imagine, without the intervention of Joan of Arc, we would have been a single nation, and the whole world would be butchering French language!

&#!£~§*éùà°^$# Joan of Arc !!!


Tillerman said...

Eric, Agincourt is always Agincourt with a G in England. I know you French spell it with a Z but we won the battle so we will spell it our way.

I've noticed that you French spell and pronounce quite a lot of your other place names wrong.

Anonymous said...

you should listen us spelling english names :-D :-D

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia says : Azincourt (historically, Agincourt in English), Germanic masculine name Aizo, Aizino and early Northern French curt 'farm with a courtyard' (Late Latin cortem).

It’s historical, you are forgiven !


Sam Chapin said...

What about our Tillerman at the battle of the Laser Masters. Sick and out numbered and yet sailed in half the races and wasn't last...The English love it, and so do we.

O Docker said...

I'm not so sure it's the underdog thing and the famous quote and the poetic memorialization.

I think it's the paintings. Have you ever noticed that the English always remember to drag a famous painter along to record the action when there's even the faintest hope of victory?

How would you have illustrated this post otherwise?

Without the paintings, I think I'd rather read about drop leaf tables.

Tillerman said...

Good point O. Picture credits should go to...

Sir John Gilbert (Agincourt)
Richard Caton Woodville (Light Brigade)
J. M. W. Turner (Trafalgar)

I was going to include the famous painting of the Martyrdom of Saints Crispin and Crispinian by Aert van den Bossche but I thought the post was a bit too long already without getting into all that stuff about cobblers and twins.

Baydog said...

I love a good berry cobbler

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