On rare, notable occasions, the literary giants of the ages will capture and express timeless and compelling insight into the human condition. Words that, because of their power, become part of the accepted lexicon which describes a resonant theme or defines the ethos of a distinct group. For those of us who have served in a uniform, and for those especially who have “seen the elephant”, the body of work that resonates with us is somewhat shorter. Nevertheless, it exists, and should be something we all take time to experience, for simply reading is not enough. Rudyard Kipling’s works, written largely in the vernacular of the late 19th-century British Redcoat, are as pertinent today as they were in the Victorian age in which they were penned. Tennyson’s image of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimea, the War Poets of the Great War, the Russian-language writers of the Great Patriotic War, all should be included.
Another of those works is Shakespeare’s iconic St. Crispin’s Day speech, given by a young King Henry V, in response to an expressed desire of his cousin Westmoreland for more men to face the armor-laden French noblemen that awaited them on the field of battle at Agincourt.
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’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 rememb’red.
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 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 accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Today is the 25th of October, St. Crispin’s Day (in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic calendar). It was, at Agincourt in 1415, the day of battle for Henry’s army, and a victorious one. The words that Shakespeare puts in King Henry’s mouth should not fail to move those of us who chose the Profession of Arms.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”. With a new generation of Veterans coming home from our nation’s wars, may we keep them “freshly rememb’red”. And may “the good man still teach his son” of the bravery and sacrifice of this generation. They deserve no less.