|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Schlacht_von_Azincourt.jpg (Public Domain)|
I know I have been promising a post on my nominee to replace Columbus as the honoree for the October holiday. I have a draft and it's coming. To those of you who may say, "Jeno, you're stalling," I can only offer this defense: I'm stalling. In all seriousness, as today is the 498th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, a/k/a St. Crispin's Day AND I have a blog post from a previous blog on this subject, I thought I would share this bit of history.
I first heard about this battle from my Scoutmaster one summer camp. Later I learned of the play, Henry V, by Shakespeare. I think at some point in college I even bought a copy of it. Promptly after the purchase, I placed it on a shelf, where it proceeded to gather dust. I doubt I touched it again until it was time to pack up and move. I suppose I have it still. I'm guessing it is packed in some box with old copies of Rolling Stone magazines and undeveloped canisters of film.
Briefly, here is the story. In 1415, King Henry V laid claim to the throne of France. The French refused and hostilities ensued. Although being out-numbered severely, Henry’s forces carried the day at a decisive battle near Agincourt, France. Terrain figured heavily in the English’ favor. In addition, they were able to make effective (deadly one might say, pun intended) of the long bow. The French, for all their shiny armor were no match for simple wood and humble iron arrow points. In the end, the day was carried, 25 October 1415 to be exact, by King Henry. An epic victory to be sure.
Back to the play, Kenneth Branagh put his mark on it with the 1989 movie adaptation. One of the more memorable scenes is when Henry rouses his men with a speech on the eve of battle. They are outnumbered and it would be farce to deny the fact. In a rather shroud bit of oratory, he highlights this fact. It’s an honor (if not an advantage) to be 5 to 1 underdogs. In the famous speech, he makes reference to “…we few, we happy few…” Here is the speech:
This day is called the Feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day and live t' old age
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours
And say, "Tomorrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words —
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester —
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today 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 abed
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.
There is another part of the play, whereby Henry makes a reference to those who wish not to fight. Instead of threatening punishment, he dismisses them. Their punishment would not come quick from a noose, but from having to endure a lifetime of knowing they had the chance to fight, and instead chose to flee.
"Whoever does not have the stomach for this fight, let him depart. Give him money to speed his departure since we wish not to die in that mans company. Whoever lives past today and comes home safely will raise himself every year this day, show his neighbor his scars and tell embellished stories of their great feats of battle. These stories he will teach his son and from this day until the end of the world we shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for whoever has shed his blood with me shall be my brother. And those men afraid to go will think themselves lesser men as they hear of how we fought and died together."-William Shakespeare, Henry V
I am not sure which version of the speech is correct. Remember, I cannot find my copy of the play. (and a year later, I still have not found it, sigh.) I have to say that I like the second one better. I like the sense of win or lose, it is our choice to stand and fight. In doing so, a cause is championed noble to us. As the citation above indicates, this was referenced in the (IMO excellent) book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, a Story of Modern War. It is spoken by Major General William Garrison after the fight. Few Americans were aware of it at the time. There are a bunch of applications that can be drawn between this event and Henry V, but that is for another blog entry. I do find it a somber coincidence that the 20 year anniversary of that day in Mogadishu, "The Day of the Rangers," was earlier this month.
For the purposes of this blog entry, there has been a tradition of referring to this play, this speech, and this line, “band of brothers.," throughout history, especially military history. I would argue there is good reason to do so. Often military leaders will speak of bringing home their troops as their primary goal, second only to mission accomplishment. Reluctant heroes downplay their actions, claiming they were doing what others would have surely done. Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta was awarded our nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, and did so with notable humility. He explains his actions with a succinctness that makes the flowery prose of Shakespeare real with this phrase: "That's your brother in arms," he told ABC. "That's who you're there with, that's who is fighting for you and with you."
And there is the happy ending for Henry. He ends up marrying the French princess, Catherine. I love a happy ending.
|The Marriage of Henry and Catherine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Marriage_of_henry_and_Catherine.jpg, Pubic Domain|
There is nobility in Henry’s speech and it is well to draw inspiration from it. I would encourage you to check out Branagh’s speech as it is particularly riveting. Better yet, go see the play and experience it live. There is something both wonderful and sometimes a bit unsettling seeing living people act out with cheers and cries the best and worst of life. Now, speaking of the less-pleasant aspects of life, there is a less-known fact about the great Battle of St. Crispin’s Day. At some point in the battle, the English captured a sizable number of French prisoners of war, (POW). For a variety of reasons, the English (under Henry’s orders no doubt) execute the POWs. By today’s standards, it flies straight and smack into the law of war. It would be considered a war crime. Actually, it would be a war crime. The good king would find himself not in the arms of the French princess (whom he marries-pause for the tearful and touching moment) but to a tribunal and harsh, perhaps fatal punishment. I found a great piece on this issue from Dr. David L. Perry, Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He explains this and a number of other related issues quite well and far better than I could, I assure you. If you have even a passing interest in these issues, please check out the article:
For those of you who are truly interested in these issues (and have an extra 1:49 of available time) there is a presentation of an oral argument about a fictionalized appeal of a lower court’s finding that Henry was justified in his killing of the French prisoners of war. Of note, Supreme Court Justices Alito and Ginsberg sat on the panel. Full disclosure, I have not watched all of it but of what I have seen, it is an interesting and entertaining presentation.
At the end of the day, be it St. Crispin’s or any other, history offers all of us lessons. Some of these are large and profound, others small and routine. With literature, especially when told by a master bard as Shakespeare, they can be more easily remembered. It is good to be inspired, to be moved. I would suspect that everyone reading this blog has been inspired to cause beyond themselves. And yet, in recalling the deeds of the past, it is also well and good to recall all of them, even if they may distract from soaring words.
Happy St Crispin's Day everyone. And please, keep the faith, the Columbus Day replacement nominee is coming. Thanks for reading.
Be well my friends,