St. Crispin is the patron saint of cobblers. Here’s a pair of his shoes. Nice, huh?

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The world will little note, nor long remember, (thanks mister Lincoln) what shoes he made, but his day will always be covered in glory.

1415: Battle of Agincourt

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Henry V was, and is, renowned as one of the greatest heroic figures in the history of Britain. In Shakespeare’s play, The bishops of Canterbury and Ely discussed the merits of the young king, saying “The strawberry grows underneath the nettle”, a reference to the subtle maturation that occurred during his irresponsible youth. This portrayal of Henry as some callow brat is disputed by some, but apparently not by the French, who disdained his leadership and his resolve. On this day, at the field of Agincourt, the French would learn the price of their hubris.

Hungry, sick and clearly overmatched, Harry the King, with what was left of his army was making for Calais, and then England, but was overtaken. Seeing the great army of France, well fed and healthy, Harry knew the odds were clearly against him. The French could see it too. The following morning, St. Crispin’s day, they set their lines of battle in anticipation of a complete, overwhelming victory.

This is the part most of us know. “We happy few, we band of brothers”. No one knows the actual words he spoke but, at least in my eyes, Shakespeare did the great man justice. Even faced with the steel clad flower of French chivalry, the courage of the lowliest English peasant did not, would not, break. Long odds or no, the English victory was complete and devastating.

“If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.”

There is no telling how many times this story has raised people up from despair and helped them find their courage.

 

1854: The Charge of the Light Brigade

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If’ you have ever said “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die” then, know it or not, you have quoted the Charge of the Light Brigade. Well done.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem is a tribute to six hundred seventy courageous British soldiers (Tennyson reduced their number to six hundred for poetic purposes) at the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean war.

Whether due to miscommunication or lack of situational awareness, the Light Brigade was sent in on the point, ahead of the heavy cavalry and infantry, to drive off Russian artillery crews, who were moving their guns to another position. They weren’t.

When it became clear that the Russian artillery was not only not going anywhere, but they were locked, loaded and totally open for business, the infantry and heavy cavalry were called back. It was too late for the light brigade.

“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.”

There was no victory for the Six Hundred this day. Roughly 270 were killed or wounded for an objective they had no chance to achieve.  The Russian officers who took part in the day’s action commented in their reports about the courage of their enemies. Soldiers are good that way.

Tennyson’s poem Immortalized the Light Brigade, but their valor was met with ambivalence by the British government. This point was not lost on Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a sequel, titled “The Last of the Light Brigade”.

“There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.”

That’s the unhappy end to this tale of glory. No reward for the ultimate risk, no rest from the good fight, just knowing what they and the Six Hundred did that St. Crispin’s day.

 

1942: Bloody Ridge, Guadalcanal

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This handsome devil is PFC Harry L. Nines, United States Marine Corps.

Seven hundred Marines were stretched out pretty thin along the ridge. Most of them hadn’t slept in days but there’s no sleeping now.

The Japanese counterattack started around 1:00 AM. Heavy machine gun fire, courtesy of Sergeant John Basilone, who won the Medal of Honor, and his crews, took down a hundred or so just as they were coming out of the jungle, but then they were everywhere.

This is the part where I want to make some stuff up to tell a good story and make my grandfather a big hero, like he would ever need that.  I do know this: He was on the ridge, in a foxhole, with a rifle and, at least once, he had a visit from a Japanese soldier with a bayonet. More important than that, he survived and came home to be my grandfather.

“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.”

May we all do so well.