My wife and I were watching the movie The Way Ahead (1944), shown as Immortal Battalion in a truncated version in the US, last night, the story of the transformation of a grumbling group of British civilians into soldiers, and I was struck by this speech given by the platoon commander after his unit intentionally messed up on maneuvers:
“When this regiment was formed our country was doing pretty badly. Napoleon’s armies were just across the channel getting ready to invade us, we’d had defeat after defeat, and a great many people thought we were finished. We weren’t… But, not because we were lucky.
When the first battalion of this regiment marched it was against Napoleon… Talavera, eighteen hundred and nine, that was the first battle they made their own, and they marched 42 miles in 24 hours of a Spanish Summer, and every man jack of ’em carried a sixty pound pack. Talavera, look at your cap badges, you’ll see the name on it, and the other battles too… Barrosa, Sabugal… At Sabugal, together with four companies of riflemen, they defeated five times the number of Napoleon’s troops… Salamanca, Orthez, Waterloo, Alma, Sebastopol, Tel el-Kebir, Mons, Ypres, Somme… Those are battle honours!
You’re allowed to wear that badge with those names on it to show that you belong the the regiment that won them, and that when the time comes you’ll do as well as they did. Last year that badge was in France, this year, in Libya. It hasn’t been disgraced yet… Now you’re wearing it.
I know what went wrong today, it so happens that Captain Edwards doesn’t. You needn’t worry, I’m not going to tell him, he’s quite depressed enough as it is to think that it was his company that let the whole battalion down. But, I just want to tell you this… If you ever get near any real fighting… I don’t suppose you’ll ever be good enough, but, if you do… You’ll find that you’re looking to other men not to let you down. If you’re lucky, you’ll have soldiers like Captain Edwards and Sergeant Fletcher to look to. If they’re lucky, they’ll be with another company!”
The actor delivering the speech was the late David Niven. It is a brilliant evocation of history to remind members of a unit that they are part of a chain stretching through time and it is up to them not to dishonor by their actions those who came before in that chain. As we make our way through this Vale of Tears it is something to remember since we all belong to such chains: family, church, nation, fraternal organizations, bands of friends, etc. Our actions do not impact only ourselves.
David Niven was not a mere Hollywood soldier. Before the War he had served as an officer in the British Army. Growing bored with the peacetime army he resigned his commission and took up acting. On the outbreak of War he rejoined the British Army, rising in rank during the War to Lieutenant Colonel. After the Normandy invasion he served in combat with a unit which located and reported the position of enemy units. He rarely spoke about his experiences during the War. When asked why he said this:
I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.