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Extreme personal courage in the line of fire

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Parnell View Drop Down
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    Posted: 12 Oct 2009 at 01:49
One thing I have always been amazed by in military history is the semi mythological ability for individual men (And sometimes women) to face down overwhelming odds with furious courage halfway between suicidalness and madness. I sometimes wonder how much of this is down to genuine ignorance on the part of the courageous people in question.

For example, in the 1798 rebellion the Irish rebels of Co. Wexford charged regularly right into the mouths of cannon loaded with grapeshot. In perhaps the most famous charge of them all, in the town of New Ross, one man rushed ahead of his comrades, took off his wig and shirt and stuffed it down the mouth of the cannon. Holding his hand over the cannon mouth he roared at the men behind him 'she's stoppit boys, she's stoppit!' In a second he was blown to smithereens, along with many of the men following up behind him. There's quite a bit of evidence to say this happened, but of course we should also be wary about the necessary romanticism which surely became attached to the incident years later. I wonder just how much his courage derived from his ignorance of artillery - if, for example, he knew that stuffing a cannon with a wig wouldn't make the blindest bit of difference, would he have done it in the first place? Its only with the benefit of hindsight and our assumption that he knew it wouldn't work that we consider it an insane and glorious display of courage. However, if he genuinely thought that it would work, does that take away somewhat and simply show it as the misguided ignorance of a rather simple man?

This is of course only one example, and I know there are plenty of examples of insane courage with no chance of success. It mightn't be a bad idea to name a few on this thread and look a little closer at them. Here's a famous painting of the glorious cannon charge of New Ross:




http://xkcd.com/15/



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Birddog View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 Oct 2009 at 21:23
I don't know if this is an example of what you mean Parnell but here it goes.
 
The 1981 Australia film 'Gallipoli' has one of the most horrific examples of the suffering of the soldiers during the bayonet attacks of the 1st World War. The climax of the film show a dramatsed account of the 'Battle of the Nek' in Anzac Cove during the Gallipoli operations. In the film (as in reality) four waves of 150 Australian Light Horesmen (dismounted) attacked the Turkish trenches across a narrow piece of open ground call 'The Nek'. The attack was made over a 80 meter front, the Turk trenches only 27 meters away. An area of ground about the size of three tennis courts. 
 
Because of a stuff up in watch sincinisation, the first attack went in 7 minutes after the artillary barage ended. (The officers in the trenches thought the end of the barrage was just a pause to get the turks to come out into the open before a final barage). The first wave of 150, led by the Regimental Commander were all hit within 30 seconds. A handful made the turk trench and marker flags were seen, but those men were quickly shot or bayoneted. The second wave went in a minute and a half later and were all hit before the made it halfway across no mans land.
 
The Colonel commanding the 3rd and 4th waves tried to call off the attack, but was ordered to carry on. The 3rd wave followed the first two. Some of the men in the third wave used the bodies of their commrads as cover, but most of the men were hit and the attack was over in 30 seconds. Finally the attack was called off, but not before the 80 men of the fourth wave, not hearing the order went over the top to meet the same fate as the three waves before them.
 
In the Nek cemetery you can find the grave of Trooper Harold Rush of the 3rd wave who's last words are carved into his grave "Goodbye Cobber, God bless you".
 
While the movie has many inacuracies it has always stuck in my mind what the men in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th waves went through. These were not professional soldiers. A year before almost all of them had been cattlemen and farmers. They knew what had happened to the men in the 1st wave and knew that going over the top ment getting killed or wounded by the turkish rifles and machine-guns only 27 meters infront of their own position. Alot the the men in the 3rd and 4th waves wrote letters saying goodbye to their loved ones before going over the the top, pining the letters to the sandbags with their bayonets knowing they would not get close enough to the Enemy to use them. 
 
Attacks like that happened alot in the First World War, but 'The Nek' seemed to me more futile and sadder than many others. Watch the movie Gallipoli. It's very bloody depressing.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Sparten Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2009 at 05:21
Heres a question, was the cannon even loaded? Stuffing a wig in to if its not leaded means that its disabled at least until they can fish the thing out.
 
I would say dicipline and training are at the root of most courageous actions.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2009 at 16:12
Since the cannon was fired and blew the poor man apart I'd say it was loaded when the wig was stuffed down the barrel.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Dolphin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2009 at 20:37
brutal.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2009 at 20:48
Very brutal. It's was a bit like sticking your finger down the barrel of a gun so the bad guy can't shoot you.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Parnell Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2009 at 21:29
Originally posted by Dolphin Dolphin wrote:

brutal.
 
I question your motives Dolphin, yes I question your motives. Where I not such a gentleman I would accuse you of sarcasm.
http://xkcd.com/15/



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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Dolphin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20 Oct 2009 at 00:55
Were you not in University, I would allow such grammatical complacency to pass uncommented. :)
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 Oct 2009 at 18:51
There are hundreds of examples, but what about the standard bearers in pre 20th century warfare? If you held a Regimental Colour or French Eagle etc you might as well have painted a great big bull's eye on your chest! In some battles half a dozen or more men would carry the colours replacing the fallen, but no mater how many men fell someone else would pick up the colours.  
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Dolphin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Oct 2009 at 05:45
Those who charged at opposing trenches during WW1, to almost certain death and a possible night or two or torture in no man's land, can be viewed as extremely brave, extremely naive, or already insane. I suppose you could say that about any of these people that jump in at the front to certain death. I know I'd be slouching behind the big guy near the back, and I'd creating a dead-body shield while I play dead as soon as possible. It just isn't worth the 'he sure was brave' (said in Barney the Dinosaur accent) comment.

What needs to be assessed I suppose is the level of Nationalism and Patriotism involved in such actions, and how that's died away over time. The influence of authority figures is important for the big Wars, but for something like the sporadic and under-organised rebellions in Ireland, and even the French Revolution, actions were dictated more through a personal decision, rather than a forced one. There is a distinction, I believe, implicit in the discussion, and the extent to which 'personal' can be counted as personal. If you are ordered to do something and you do it, is it less brave then doing the same thing of your own accord?

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Oct 2009 at 07:26
Is the Chinese student standing in front of the tank an example, or is that to far forward in history? (Past 1900)
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Oct 2009 at 07:51
Actually, I don't know Dolphin. I admit that my 'Nek' example was a bad one. I put it on before I realised this page was pre - 1900, and I regreted it. But when Parnell opened this thread he clearly used in his opening paragraph the words "Military History" and the courage shown by men and women under fire. The example he gave was from the 1798 rebellion, but I didn't read anything telling me to limit the discussion to acts of bravery done by non-military men and women. He also asked the question of how much bravery under fire comes from naivitiy, ignorance etc. I'm sorry if the Nek story dosen't come under the critera but, but I believed that climbing out of a trench 27 meters infront of a man with a rifle counts as something different from the usual bloody charges of the first world war. As for Nationalism and Patriotism, I'm sure the soldiers going over the top were every Patriotic. As I said, they were all volunteers.
Anyway, alot of couragous actions in battle happen under the heat of battle. I'm sure that the Wig Stuffing Irish hero would never have considered stuffing is wig down a cannon barrel the night before the action took place. I'm sure many a soldier who picked up his colour or eagle in the middle of the battle thought suddenly, 'Oh my god, I've done it now!' and quietly start having kittens. Courage under fire is a very personal thing.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Parnell Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Oct 2009 at 21:10
Originally posted by Dolphin Dolphin wrote:

Those who charged at opposing trenches during WW1, to almost certain death and a possible night or two or torture in no man's land, can be viewed as extremely brave, extremely naive, or already insane. I suppose you could say that about any of these people that jump in at the front to certain death. I know I'd be slouching behind the big guy near the back, and I'd creating a dead-body shield while I play dead as soon as possible. It just isn't worth the 'he sure was brave' (said in Barney the Dinosaur accent) comment.

What needs to be assessed I suppose is the level of Nationalism and Patriotism involved in such actions, and how that's died away over time. The influence of authority figures is important for the big Wars, but for something like the sporadic and under-organised rebellions in Ireland, and even the French Revolution, actions were dictated more through a personal decision, rather than a forced one. There is a distinction, I believe, implicit in the discussion, and the extent to which 'personal' can be counted as personal. If you are ordered to do something and you do it, is it less brave then doing the same thing of your own accord?



I think thats a little unfair considering the vast majority of the people who charged were ordinary Joes (Largely conscripted) who faced the alternative of getting shot for cowardice by court martial. Whereas there are simply hundreds of heart rendering stories of personal courage along the trenchs of WWI, the 'sporadic' Irish rebellions nearly always ended up in instant defeat (1848, 1867) The United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 quickly descended into sectarian warfare, and outside Wexford had been crushed by local militiamen as soon as the local rebels had managed to assemble. The revolutionary period (1916-1923) was perhaps one of the most tragic low intensity conflicts of the modern age, that involved individual acts of courage which genuinely changed the meaning of the word 'Irish', 'Nationalist', and 'British'. I think every conflict, whether relying on voluntary armies (Such as the Irish rebellions) or conscripted ones (Like WWI) show mankind thrown into unnatural surroundings, where the camaraderie of soldiership and the mutual defence of your friends become much more important than the overall cause, be that to push the Germans back or to overthrow the British Empire in Ireland. I think this is what inspires individual acts of courage and is the exact opposite of insanity - its almost like being too sane.
http://xkcd.com/15/



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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25 Oct 2009 at 07:46
I've been think of this subject Parnell, and I think we can catagorise two types of courage. The courage of ignorance or naivity, and opened eyed courage.
 
The hero in your first post for example. When he and his mates charge the cannons, that can be considered open eyed courage. They knew that cannons killed. They may not have known what damage a cannon firing grape or canister shot could do, but they did know charging into the guns was dangerous. When the hero, infront of his charging mates shoved his shirt and wig into the muzzle of the loaded cannon this is when the question gets a bit tricky. This could have been done in complete ignorance of the fact that corking the cannon with hair and fabric would not make a blind bit of differnce. Again in the heat of the action and the moment he may have believed that anything may have helped block the shot about to be fired as him and his mates. Either way just by charging the cannon he was showing his personal courage, but getting out ahead of his mates and stuffing the cannon was when the courage became extrem.
 
Open eyed courage I believe is when the person has a fair awareness of what danger he/she is exposing themselves to. In the 'Nek' story I told the men in the first wave (all volunteers who enlisted in 1914 to fight for King and Country, Australia never had conscription during WW1) may have been in ignorance of what was ahead of them. But waves 2, 3, 4 did! No-mans land was only 27 meters wide. (outside of the Gallipoli campagin trenches were seldom that close together). There was a thick carpet of 150 bodies infront of the trench. It wasn't a case of 'I've a good chance of being hit.' It was 'I'm going to get shot at a very short range'. I is not an example or personal courage but and example of why men do show extrem courage in open eyed situations. How can you hide at the back when all your mates are going over the top into the guns? There are dozens of cases of a single soldier who attacks an enemy positon that is indangering his mates. The Irish man in the first post was stopping the gun for his mates. I've kind of lost the thread of what I'm talking about here so I'm gonna stop and come back latter.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote lirelou Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 Oct 2009 at 02:55
In support of Birddog's post, I'd point out that the many militaries recognize the difference between momentary courage and courage sustained over a period of time. Recommendations for the U.S. Medal of Honor must include detailed analysis of the situation and conditions under which the act or acts were performed. These include the unit's percentage of manning, its recent experience, the casualties suffered in the immediately preceding period, and a judgment of its state of morale. All this to lead to a determination of the conditions under the act or acts were performed. While I can find no specific regulation stating that the Victoria Cross requires 'sustained' performance, my Aussie mates tell me that such is the case, and word 'sustained' appears in many citations. An excerpt of Kieth Payne's follows:

"His sustained and heroic personal efforts in this action were outstanding and undoubtedly saved the lives of a large number of his indigenous soldiers and several of his fellow advisors. Warrant Officer Payne's repeated acts of exceptional personal bravery and unselfish conduct in this operation were an inspiration to all Vietnamese, United States and Australian soldiers who served with him. His conspicuous gallantry was in the highest traditions of the Australian Army. Keith Payne was invested with his Victoria Cross by Queen Elizabeth II on the Royal Yacht Britannia in Brisbane on the 13th April 1970."

I should point out that any "Vietnamese" with WOII  Payne at the time numbered no more than one or two. His troops were Montagnard irregulars from various Malayo-Polynesian and Mon-Khmer groups.
 


Edited by lirelou - 27 Oct 2009 at 02:59
Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá gì
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Birddog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 Oct 2009 at 19:11
The level of expected courage has changed over the years. The level of courage expected of a soldier fighting at Waterloo was different to the level of courage expected of the infantryman during the second world war. During Waterloo and other battles of the period an infantryman was expected to stand in ranks and be subjected to heavy, if more of less random fire without moving. A soldier in the second world war was not expected to display this kind of courage, allthough much courage was still shown. Soldiers in modern wars are not expected to indure suffering that their great-grandfathers suffered fighting the Nazi's and Japanese. In this modern world battle casualties that once would have been considered hardly worth noticing are the cause of debate and much anguish.
And respect for the courage shown by soldiers has also deminished in the west. During the second world war when civilians in Britian became the targets of German bombers suddenly bravery was no longer just a soldiers thing. Soldier's, embarsed because often their families faced bombings in the cities whlie they were more of less safe training in the country downplayed their own courage. During the Vietnam area soldiers became the target of anti-war protesters. This is no so ture today but soldiers have been pulled down from the high ground they once possesed in the civilian mind.
Standing up in the face of danger is kind of worth the "They sure where brave" comment, in the Barney voice or not. Courage is not just possesed by soldiers, but soldiers are called upon to display theirs more often.
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