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Our lexicographer considers vivid phrases of military leaders

Military leaders are generally written about for their exploits, but many are also remembered for their words. One order that is attributed to several in command is “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” At the battle of Jägerndorf, in Silesia, on May 23, 1745, Frederick the Great allegedly ordered his troops to prevail “by push of bayonet alone. No firing until you see the whites of their eyes.” The same locution is attributed to Prince Charles of Prussia on the same occasion, and King Frederick gave a similar order at Prague in 1757. It is not known if the American Revolutionary War leader William Prescott was aware of this earlier command, but he gave it himself at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. It was also attributed at that battle to Major General Israel Putnam.

After the War of 1812, Commodore Stephen Decatur, also a naval hero against the Barbary pirates, was named to the newly created Board of Naval Commissioners. In 1816 at a Washington social occasion, he offered an after-dinner toast: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

Sir Winston Churchill was neither a general nor an admiral when he said, in his first speech as prime minister of Great Britain on May 13, 1940, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This vivid phrase had appeared much earlier in poems by John Donne (1611) and Lord Byron (1823). Churchill alluded to it earlier on that day and in three subsequent speeches. A seeming riff comes from then brigadier general George S. Patton Jr., who told officers of the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1940 that “War will be won by blood and guts alone.” From this remark came his nickname, “Old Blood and Guts.”

During the Spanish-American War on May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey gave the following command to the skipper of his flagship, Captain Charles V. Gridley, in the Battle of Manila: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Seven hours later, the Spanish fleet of 10 ships was destroyed. Fewer than a dozen U.S. sailors were even wounded, and no ships were lost.

Several memorable remarks arose from World War I. At the beginning of the war, Georges Clemenceau, premier of France, said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” During the crucial First Battle of the Marne, in September 1914, French general Ferdinand Foch, a proponent of the all-out offensive, said to his commanding general, Joseph Joffre: “My center is giving way. My right is in retreat. Situation excellent. I shall attack!” He stabilized the front and soon was in charge of both the British and French forces in the northern sector.

Four years later, during the Lys offensive in 1918, when the Germans hurled the British back in sustained attacks that at the time threatened to win the war for the Central Powers, Sir Douglas Haig urged the British Expeditionary Force to resist. In a Special Order of the Day, he admitted to his troops, “With our backs to the wall…each one of us must fight on to the end.” Eight months later, an exhausted enemy surrendered.

Several distinctive phrases come from clergymen involved in World War II. During the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Howell M. Forgy was a chaplain on the heavy cruiser New Orleans. When an ammunition crew was tiring, he exclaimed, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, boys!” However, this exclamation has also been attributed to another U.S. Navy chaplain, William Maguire, who at Pearl Harbor stepped into a gun station when its gunner was killed. Whoever originated it, it gave rise to the first major hit song of World War II, Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” It sold more than two million records and about one million copies of sheet music in the first year alone. To prevent the song from being sung and played to death, the Office of War Information asked radio stations not to play it more than once every four hours.

And finally, “There are no atheists in the foxholes” is attributed to Father William Thomas Cummings, a Maryknoll Mission priest in one of his field sermons on the Bataan Peninsula in 1942.

Christine Ammer has written several dozen word books, including Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (3rd ed., November 2011) and American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue (Vol. 23, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Fighting Words: Commanding Attention

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