If Mars is still worshiped in any temples, today must be an auspicious day for his followers: October 25th in the year 1944 saw the crucial Battle of the Surigao Strait and the Battles off Samar and Engaño, parts of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle ever fought by tonnage afloat, tonnage sunk and area of operations.
As the Southern Force (of IJN Admiral Shoji Nishimur) approached Surigao Strait, it ran into a deadly trap set by the 7th Fleet Support Force. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf had six battleships (West Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania, all but the Mississippi having been sunk or damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor and repaired), eight cruisers (heavy cruisers USS Louisville (Flagship), Portland, Minneapolis and HMAS Shropshire, light cruisers USS Denver, Columbia, Phoenix, Boise), 28 destroyers and 39 motor torpedo boats (Patrol/Torpedo (PT) boats). To pass through the narrows and reach the invasion shipping, Nishimura would have to run the gauntlet of torpedoes from the PT boats followed by the large force of destroyers, and then advance under the concentrated fire of the six battleships and their eight flanking cruisers disposed across the far mouth of the Strait.
By the time the great clash of force was complete, the Imperial Japanese Fleet would have lost over ten thousand men, all four engaged aircraft carriers, three of nine battleships, eight of twenty cruisers and a dozen destroyers as against 1500 US sailors, one aircraft carrier and a handful of escorts. The smashed Japanese fleet would never again mount a major action at sea.
By accident of fate, radio operators failed to delete the trailing “padding” from message sent by a beleaguered Chester Nimitz begging support from Bull Halsey’s Task Force 34. The padding – designed to prevent enemy cryptographers from deciphering the text – were words chosen seemingly at random: WHERE RPT WHERE IS TF 34 RR THE WORLD WONDERS. The message sent Halsey into a paroxysm of frustrated rage, but – coincidentally? – echoed Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem immortalizing the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d & 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.
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter’d & sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
In a botched action that did much to enhance the reputation of British fighting men – while, not for the last time, seriously calling into question the wisdom of those that led them – less than seven hundred light cavalry assaulted against a strongly defended Russian position at Balaclava in the Crimean War.
Of those that rode down into “Valley of Death,” opposed to their front by a force of over 5000 Russian cavalry, and with entrenched artillery and riflemen harassing them on three sides, 118 were killed, another 127 wounded, 38 captured and over 300 horses killed outright or so badly maimed as to require destruction afterward. When they regrouped after the mad action – French Marshall Pierre Bosquet famously opined, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre” – less than two hundred of the original force could be horsed for battle.
The charge of the Light Brigade took place on the 25th of October, 1854.
On the 25th of October, 1415 – Saint Cripin’s Day – a diseased, battle worn and footsore force of less than ten thousand Englishmen (exact numbers on both sides remain disputed) commanded by King Henry V faced a superior and growing force composed of a large force of eager French nobles commanding local conscripts numbering between twenty and thirty thousand men at arms. This force stood across a weary King Harry’s path to Calais, and from thence home, to England.
The French lords were spoiling for a fight, while Harry was forced to, knowing that more forces would join the French over time, even as his army wasted away. By the time the last bit of butchery was done on a muddy field of battle, many thousands of French soldiers lay heaped in mounds “above a man’s” height in front of the main English positions, while some 500 Englishmen would not survive to tell the tale of the Battle of Saint Cripin’s Day. Many French knights bled out in the muck even as their auxilliaries and conscripts fled the field. Among the flower of Burgundian nobility that fell never to rise again were the Constable of France, three dukes, five counts and 90 barons.
Tennyson was a fine poet, but he, and every man that follows after him who dares to lay an English line beside another one, owe an unpayable debt to the greatest wordwright that ever fisted a quill, William Shakespeare:
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.
After more fighting, King Henry achieved his objectives in the campaign, being recognized as regent and heir to the French throne, and marrying the king’s daughter, Catherine de Valois, but of all this, nothing more powerful remains than the Bard’s evocation of the unbreakable brotherhood between those who have faced death together, side by side.