War movies are full of quotes like Apocalypse Now's, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." But this is a Hollywood invention. Real wars are chaotic, frenetic, and bewildering. In real life, getting shot at makes it difficult to rattle off a series of cool one-liners.
But not always! It turns out that real wars - and those who wage them - have actually produced many memorable short quotes. Some of these lines didn't just inspire the soldiers who heard them, but also inspired civilians for generations afterwards. Although, as is often the case with direct quotes from history, it's not always possible to know for certain who really said them. Either way, these savage quotes by real soldiers wouldn't be out of place in a screenplay.
This one is the Civil War equivalent of "I didn't come here to make friends." By the time Union General William Tecumseh Sherman said it, the American Civil War had dragged on for more than four terrible years. Sherman believed the only way to defeat the Confederacy was to destroy the morale of both the Confederate soldiers as well as the civilian population.
Sherman's forces captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, and Sherman next set his sights on the city of Savannah. He ordered his men to take whatever supplies they could carry from local farms and towns - and burn the rest. He was fully aware that some observers might object to such a brutal strategy, but it didn't stop him. Two days after the capture of Atlanta, Sherman wrote to the Army Chief of Staff General Henry Halleck, "If the people raise a howl about my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking." Sherman later reproduced the quote in his autobiography.
The total war strategy worked. Sherman's troops pillaged their way across Georgia and arrived in Savannah on December 21 to find it undefended, as the Confederates had already fled. Then he marched North and rampaged through South Carolina. By April 1865, the conflict was over.
- Age: Dec. at 71 (1820-1891)
- Birthplace: Lancaster, Ohio
'Hitler Must Be Cut Down Like A Rabid Dog' - Rudolf Christoph Baron von Gersdorff
By February 1943, it was becoming clear to many high-ranking German officials that Germany was going to lose WWII. Hitler had taken control of the German military in 1941, and the former WWI messenger and failed art student proved to be inept at running an entire war. He had just attempted Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion in history to that point, and it had ended in disaster at the Battle of Stalingrad.
While some Nazi officials remained true believers until the end, others hoped to take control of their country and negotiate with the Allies for peace. Under the leadership of General Henning von Tresckow, these anti-Fuhrer officers formed a conspiracy to take down the dictator. At the same time, Hitler's bodyguards, perhaps aware of the danger, began limiting access to the Fuhrer.
As determined as the conspirators were, taking down Hitler was inherently dangerous and risky. In March 1943, Colonel Rudolf Christoph Baron von Gersdorff met with von Tresckow to persuade him to give it a try. "It must be done. This is our only chance... Hitler must be cut down like a rabid dog," von Gersdorff said. Von Tresckow agreed.
The plan was for von Gersdorff to don an incendiary vest, approach Hitler at a weaponry exhibition on March 9, and detonate it. But on the day of the attempt, the Fuhrer abruptly left the event before von Gersdorff had a chance. Von Gersdorff was never discovered, and he survived WWII. Von Tresckow and his conspirators would try their plot at least three more times, culminating in the failed July 20 bombing plot. Hitler seldom appeared in public for the rest of his life.
- Age: Dec. at 74 (1905-1980)
- Birthplace: Lubin, Poland
WWII caused a shift in naval strategy that had been long in coming. Since Admiral Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the world's most powerful militaries followed a strategy of "navalism" - building enormous battleships that could control the seas. And conflicts would be resolved by massive fleet-to-fleet fights to the death. The Japanese name for these battles was Kantai Kensen, or "decisive battle." This was the prevailing mindset for the rest of the 19th century, and it lasted into the early 20th century. WWI included one naval engagement like this, the Battle of Jutland. Like most battles from that war, it ended in a stalemate.
But naval technology was changing. Since the Wright Brothers invented the airplane in 1903, various navies had experimented with vessels that could allow aircraft to take off and land, AKA aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers offered an opportunity for navies to launch long-range attacks against enemy fleets using aircraft that were small enough to slip past a battleship's heavy guns.
Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto recognized the aircraft carrier's potential, and he spent years trying to convince the Japanese navy to shift to a carrier-based strategy. The Japanese navy ordered two more huge battleships in the late 1930s, assuming an aircraft torpedo couldn't punch through their thick hulls. Yamamoto replied, "There is no such thing as an unsinkable ship. The fiercest serpent may be overcome by a swarm of ants." The analogy was persuasive, and Yamamoto was allowed to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor using carriers. Aircraft carrier-based naval combat quickly became the norm.
- Age: Dec. at 59 (1884-1943)
- Birthplace: Nagaoka, Japan
'Don't Fire Until You See The Whites Of Their Eyes' - Unknown American Officer At The Battle Of Bunker Hill
This quote has inspired American patriotism for centuries, but it may be totally fictional. When the American colonies revolted against the British Empire to start the American Revolution, it was a lopsided fight, to say the least. The American military, such as it was, consisted mostly of independent, volunteer militias with little training. The British Empire, on the other hand, boasted the world's most advanced and effective military.
On June 16, 1775, almost two months after the Battles of Lexington and Concord that started the revolution, the British attempted to occupy the city of Boston. The colonial militia under the command of Colonel William Prescott fortified nearby Breed's Hill to oppose them. The British arrived a day later and advanced on the colonial position. The American commander ordered their soldiers, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." It was most likely an attempt to preserve their ammo, or possibly wait until the British were within close range to inflict maximum damage. The Americans waited until the British were a few yards away and unleashed a volley, taking down hundreds of British and sending them into retreat. Although the British later rallied and won, the Battle of Bunker Hill convinced American colonists that they could compete with the British military, if not outright defeat them yet. (Although the battle actually happened on Breed's Hill, it was named for nearby Bunker Hill.)
However, historians don't know who actually said it - if anyone did. The first publication of the quote came in 1808, in Mason Weems's Life of George Washington, which attributed it to Colonel Israel Putnam. This book also included the apocryphal "chopping down the cherry tree" story. Modern historians have doubted whether Putnam said it, since Prescott was actually in command that day. Historians have also located versions of this quote uttered by Prussian military officers in the 18th century, making it likely that the quote was just borrowed, albeit effective.Stone-cold soldiering?