Friday, October 17, 2008


Most of us have not the slightest idea whatsoever about what it’s like to be at the sharp end in a war. We rely on our armies, navies and air forces to do it all for us, while we sleep safely in our beds. In this day and age, we can’t even rely on the politicians in this country to give our troops the best equipment available. And in spite of this disgrace, the British Army still has a reputation as a fighting machine second to none in the world. I’m not even sure most of us have the right to a meaningful opinion about the inner workings of the armed forces, unless we have ourselves been actively involved in them.

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.



Anonymous said...

Just beacause you found Collins's speech stirring, well articulated and spine tingling does not mean the same effect was going to be had on soldiers abou to go into harm's way. How might you feel to think it could be you coming home in a sleeping bag, knowing your comrades would have no time to mourn your passing? It is absurd to ascribe your feelings of the theatrics of Col Collins with those men being asked to push north into the unknown. Capt Beattie has merely highlighted the gulf of misunderstanding that occasionally colours the relationships between the Officer and soldiers of the British Army.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous

I do wish people would have the courage, and also perhaps the courtesy, to at least put their name against a comment like yours when they make one.

I'm sorry you don't agree with me. The whole point about an army is that there is a distinct possibility they will have to fight, and that leads to the distinct possibility that they may get killed or wounded. It's difficult to accept that these days, but it's a fact. If you listened to Colonel Collin's speech, you would have heard him say, that if there was anyone there who didn't want to go into battle, they wouldn't go. How many asked to stay at home?

The armed forces are not democracies, thank God. They need forthright, strong leadership, and if you're a member of them, you need to know exactly what situation you are actually in. No Bullshit, no spin. Simply the truth.

I respectfully suggest you talk to people who've actually been in the war-zone environment to understand how the dynamics actually work. They don't read the Guardian in the ranks.

I am not suggesting that Captain Beattie may not have had to stiffen up a few of his men after they heard Collin's speech. That's what he's there for. He should know however, like George Osborne in another current issue, that some things are best left unsaid, at least outside the team.

He got that wrong, and the army won't thank him for it. And they're the ones that matter, not you or I.


Anonymous said...

Dear RogerC,
Thank you for your rambling response, I disagree wholeheartedly. I do not doubt Col Tim's ability to speak passionately, but I do know the effect that it had upon some of his soldiers having worked with 1 R Irish in the days and weeks following his speech. Furthermore in over 25 years of military service Doug Beattie has earned the right to give his side of a much covered story. As for your kind suggestion to about talking to those who have actually been in a warzone, I have, i do on a daily basis and I am one of them. I suggest you gingerly climb down form your pedestal before you fall off.

Maj P J Williams MC

rogerc said...

Dear Major Williams

Thank you for your response. I apologise to you for suggesting that you should have spoken to some of the people involved. Without knowing your personal circumstances, I should not have said that.

I suspect we will not see this in the same way, but here goes. I am a fervent supporter of the British Military, and from where I sit, albeit a fair way away from them, they need all the support they can muster. The ways of life in this country are going to get much more dificult over the next few years, and money and support for most things, including the armed forces is going to become a more thinly spread commodity.

You seem to sit inside the organisation, and I sit outside it. Our viewpoints therefore differ. Unfortunately, today, we live in a world where image is sometimes as important as reality, and maintenance of that image becomes a key factor.

I defer to your position on the inside, but, looking at this from where I sit, Captain Beattie's thoughts and comments are not helpful. They make the system look slightly less cohesive, slightly less together, and thus, slightly less impressive. Whether it is like that in reality is actually immaterial. if that's how the general public see it, then sadly, that's how it is.

We are talking here about image control. We may not like it, but the world works like that now.

In my own line of country, what went on inside the organisation was private, and we tried very hard not to wash our dirty linen in public. That was what Board Meetings and Management meetings were for. Errors in image management can be very costly. Ask Gerald Ratner or John Major.

Capt Beattie's comments look to me, and to other people I've spoken to about it, very much like washing dirty linen, and that was the point of my note. I was truly not trying to offend.

I don't suppose we will agree, but I am not trying to stand on a pedestal, I merely look at it from a different point of view compared to you. And ensuring that we continue to be in a position to have a different point of view, and having the ability to express it, is one of the major reasons we enter some of the fights we do.

Kind regards