The great eighteenth century warrior-king, Frederick the Great of Prussia, was fighting the Austrians at Kolin, near Prague, in 1757 during the drawn-out conflict between the major European powers that we call The Seven Years War. The conflict had erupted in North America in what is known as the French and Indian War, which had broken out in 1754 as France and Britain squabbled over their colonial claims to the continent. It spread to Europe in 1756 and came to involve every major European power. Other colonial interests of the main protagonists led to fighting in India and in West Africa, which is why Winston Churchill referred to the Seven Years War as the first ‘world war.’
Frederick, unusually, lost the battle. At one point he goaded his elite but apparently battle-shy force of guards into action with the words, ‘You rascals, do you want to live forever?’
It is clear that Frederick did not mean, in the old, classical sense, ‘Let us die a glorious death and become immortal’: the translation from the German (Ihr Racker, wollt ihr ewig leben?), if my schoolboy German is up to the task, is ‘You rascals, would you live eternally?’ That is to say, his rallying call was the remarkably honest, but still inspiring (in a gladiatorial sort of way): ‘We’ve all got to die someday – what’s wrong with today, you slackers?’
This sentiment seems to have become popular with Marines corps around the world who, admirably, like that sort of attitude.
In 1918, the final year of what we now call the First World War, American troops had just arrived in France. Germany had been able to transfer divisions released from its Eastern front with Russia, following the peace treaty signed with Lenin’s new Communist government, and planned to use these troops to achieve a final victory on the Western Front before the newly-committed American forces could have an impact.
Two major offensives on the Somme in the north virtually wiped out British Fifth Army; an offensive further south took German forces to the banks of the Marne River, only 40 miles (64 kilometres) from Paris. Two US Army divisions, the 2nd and 3rd, were thrown into the offensive. Marine forces within these divisions upheld their regiments’ reputation for tough words and tough deeds. Encouraged by French forces to retreat, Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams said, famously, ‘Retreat? Hell, we only just got here!’ Williams was killed in the ensuing action. Days later, as Marines attacked across open fields into murderous machinegun fire, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly rallied his company with the words, ‘Come on, you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever?’
Daly survived the war and was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in this and other actions. Daly retired from the Marines in 1929, having always refused to accept a commission, saying that he would ‘rather be an outstanding sergeant than just another officer.’
Some of you may have seen the sci-fi film, Starship Troopers, which portrays a future earth in which a disturbingly dictatorial earth government sends troops to fight a race of killer bugs. In the film, infantry commander Jean Raszak (played by Michael Ironside), rallies the poor bloody infantry with: ‘Come on you apes. You wanna live forever?’
The film’s popularity with assault forces around the world may be explained by other no-nonsense quotes from Lieutenant Jean Raszak, such as ‘I have only one rule. Everybody fights. No one quits. You don’t do your job, I’ll shoot you myself.’
Well, it’s not very PC, but it is concise and forceful.