“I know you can fight. But can you stand, lads? Can you stand?” ~ a bit of Sharpe wisdom
When it comes to films, or TV, I’d generally far rather watch war than romance. I read most of the Bernard Cornwall Sharpe books and have seen all the films. It’s not that I’m into war, but I do think that conflict can show someone’s true colours far more graphically than romance. People put under intolerable pressure are somehow more interesting and war does that. “Sharpe” is set during the Peninsula war against Napoleon and follows the adventures of Richard Sharpe as he rises improbably through the ranks to reach first Lieutenant, then Captain and finally Major. Born illegitimate and of low standing, Sharpe is cunning, resourceful and brave. Not to mention astonishingly lucky, given some of the scrapes he lives through.
There’s an episode in the earlier films where he is obliged to train a bunch of raw recruits in record time to face battle. Guns at this time were still muzzle loaded muskets, with rifles being the province of the sharp shooters, highly trained and highly prized “Chosen men”, and one of the requirements to be a good soldier was the ability to fire three rounds a minute while under fire yourself. It’s far from easy. The process requires great discipline and training to perform a sequence of fiddly tasks mechanically, until it becomes completely automatic and second nature. Usually it would take weeks and weeks of intense drilling to transform recruits who’d never fired a gun before into efficient soldiers, but Sharpe has only days to do it. Needless to say, all his soldiers come up to scratch.
It’s his pre-battle speech that has always inspired me. As he and his little regiment wait, listening to the drums of the approaching French army and the heart stopping chant of “Vive L’Empereur!” he tries to give them that edge of courage with a rousing speech. He tells them they’re good soldiers already because they can all reliably fire 3 rounds a minute, and that they’re all good lads. Then he talks about the approaching battle, and how they must wait till they can see the enemy and even smell the garlic on their breath. “I know you can fight,” he says, “but can you stand?” Can they stand, and hold their position, and not break and run away, in terror, as the enemy fires at them and they see their friends falling, gutted or heads blown off? Can they stand, waiting for orders and maintain their ranks, even when they have pissed themselves in fear and carry on with their firing three rounds a minute? That, and not the three rounds a minute is what truly makes a good soldier.
I’ve never been in a battle situation and never will but I know how hard it is to stand when it feels like the unseen enemy is firing at me, and I do not know what is coming next. The feeling of needing to bolt, to run away is huge and yet, it’s probably the worst thing you could do. Like retreating soldiers in a rout, we are at our most vulnerable when we flee in blind panic. You make decisions that are based on fear and nothing more concrete than the desperate need to get away.
A year ago, I felt the beginnings of a dreadful change, before it happened, and the fall out from that is still with me in terms of a very real grief that never quite heals. I’m feeling another change coming, like very distant drums, beating miles away, approaching steadily. I can’t see yet whether those are drums to announce an enemy or whether they are drums to dance to.
I know I can fight. But can I stand?