Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the day we remember and honor those who died in active service to our country. Lives that were given to safeguard freedoms and protect those who stayed behind.
Without detracting from or denigrating the sacredness of this special day, I still wanted to use a slang term appropriate for today’s observation. I also found quotes from perhaps England’s most celebrated military general, the Duke of Wellington. Please indulge me as I use the words from the early 19th Century to illustrate the timelessness of the effects of war.
Courage, boldness, (1785). Perhaps influenced by figurative use of the verb in pluck up (one’s courage, etc.), attested from c. 1300.
“Up, Guards, and at them again.”
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, at the Battle of Waterloo, as quoted in a letter from Captain Robert Batty, 1st Foot Guards (22 June 1815).
“It has been a damned serious business… Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.… By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.”
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington; quote documented by Thomas Creevey, from a series of interviews he had with the Duke of Wellington at his headquarters after the Battle of Waterloo. From Chapter X of his book Creevey Papers.
“The history of a battle,” says the greatest of living generals, “is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance…. It is impossible to say when each important occurrence took place, or in what order.”
From Wellington Papers, Aug. 8, and 17, 1815, as documented in The History of England from the Accession of James II (1848) by Thomas Babington Macaulay, Volume I Chapter 5.
Sir Walter Scott documented these observations of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815), in Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk (1815):
On another occasion, when many of the best and bravest men had fallen, and the event of the action seemed doubtful, even to those who remained, he said, with the coolness of a spectator, who was beholding some well contested sport, “Never mind, we’ll win this battle yet.” To another regent, then closely engaged, he used a common sporting expression; ” Hard pounding this, gentlemen; let’s see who will pound longest.”
All who heard him issue orders took confidence from his quick and decisive intellect, all who saw him caught metal from his undaunted composure. His staff, who had shared so many glories and dangers by his side, fell man by man around him, yet seemed in their own agony only to regard his safety.
Sir William Delancy, struck by a spent ball, fell from his horse—”Leave me to die,” he said to those who came to assist him. Also, the lamented Sir Alexander Gordon, whose early experience and high talents had already rendered him the object of so much hope and expectation, received his mortal wound while expostulating with the General on the personal danger to which he was exposing himself.
Lieutenant-Colonel Canning, and many of our lost heroes, died with the Duke’s name on their expiring lips. Amid the havoc which had been made among his immediate attendants, his Grace sent off a young gentleman, acting as aid-de-camp, to a general of brigade in another part of the field, with a message of importance. In returning he was shot through the lungs, but, as if supported by the resolution to do his duty, he rode up to the Duke of Wellington, delivered the answer to his message, and then dropped from his horse, to all appearance a dying man. In a word, if the most devoted attachment on the part of all who approached him, can add to the honours of a hero, never did a general receive so many and such affecting proofs of it; and their devotion was repaid by bis sense of its value and sorrow for their loss.
“Believe me,” he afterwards said, “that nothing, excepting a battle lost, can be half so melancholy as a battle won. The bravery of my troops has hitherto saved me from that great evil; but, I win even such a battle as this of Waterloo at the expense of the lives of so many gallant friends, it could only be termed a heavy misfortune were it not for its results to the public benefit.”
Over all our happy country – over all our Nation spread,
Is a band of noble heroes – is our Army of the Dead.
~ Will Carleton
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and the Online Etymological Dictionary.
- I found a string of quotes from Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, on Wikiquote, then researched for actual sources to follow.
- I found Captain Robert Batty in the list of Wellington’s officers in Wellington’s Army 1809-1814. All of his letters (and those of many others) can be found in Letters from the Battle of Waterloo: Unpublished Correspondence by Allied Officers from the Siborne Papers.
- You can read through all the Creevey Papers, if you’re so inclined, or simply Chapter X.
- Find The History of England from the Accession of James II (1848) by Thomas Babington Macaulay at gutenberg.org.
- Read the full text of Sir Walter Scott’s Paul’s Letters to His Kinfolk at archive.org.