A few days ago, we read about a new book by a Regimental Sergeant Major, one Captain Doug Beattie of the 1st Batallion, the Royal Irish Regiment who was alongside the Regiment’s Colonel, Tim Collins when Colonel Collins gave one of the most remarkable speeches I have ever heard.
Captain Beattie apparently claimed that the speech, given to the regiment before they set off into battle in Iraq in 2003, demoralised rather than uplifted the men Colonel Collins was addressing. He saw “heads starting to go down”, and “more and more frowns on men’s faces”. It was, according to Captain Beattie, down to himself to kick the men “back to life”. Now the reality is that it’s almost unfair to comment on the “He said, I said” thing here. The only guys there were the guys there, and perhaps it would have been more appropriate for everyone to leave it all uncommented on. But then, Captain Beattie has a book to sell, so perhaps there are other demons at work.
Five years on, yesterday night, I re-read Tim Collins’ speech. I first read it in his book a couple of years ago, and at the time, it electrified me. I thought it stood alongside any “eve-of-battle” piece of oratory in history I’d heard in what he said, and the way in which he said it. Eloquent, rousing, thought provoking, honest, full of dignity and compassion, but with an underlying steeliness that read, from afar, as the words spoken by someone you’d follow to the ends of the earth. And I suppose that was what the speech was trying to do.
Here it is on Youtube. This is a re-creation of the event by Kenneth Brannagh, and bloody good it is too.
What a thrilling few minutes. He actually thought long and hard the previous night about it all, but it comes across as completely spontaneous. You can compare it to other great speeches here. Ben Macintyre quotes a few in the newspaper -
Shakespeare's “ … and gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here …”,
and Churchill’s “…we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
You may think they match it, but as a 21st Century take on it all, in my humble opinion, nothing else gets near.
It addresses the real issues in a war. Treat the enemy with the respect they deserve, go in hard, but fair, and in Tim Collins’ words “tread lightly there”. On a more sober side, he brings up things which today none of us like to hear – “There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world..”
"Rock their world". What amazing language that is.
You can’t even imagine getting close to the powser of that if you spent ages honing the script for a film, with all the time in the world to get it right. But, out of the blue, a fictional connection came into my mind. Jack Nicholson in one of my favourite films “A Few Good Men”, was skewered by a similar conundrum - We want the troops in our armies to keep us safe, but we don’t want to know what they have to do, and how they have to do it. When we find out the realities, we don’t like it. That’s the paradox.
Sometimes it makes for a memorable film. In Tim Collins case, it made for a remarkable speech from a remarkable man.
I just wish Captain Beattie had remained silent.