It’s been compared to the Gettysburg address and the gallant speeches of Henry V as penned by Shakespeare. The speech, which was made in...
It’s been compared to the Gettysburg address and the gallant speeches of Henry V as penned by Shakespeare.
The speech, which was made in Kuwait hours before British soldiers entered into battle, made headlines around the world. It’s even said to hang in the wall of the Oval Office.
Colonel Tim Collins achieved worldwide fame with his improvised speech to his troops on the eve of the Iraq War.
Tim Collins would go on to be highly critical of the mismanagement of the Iraq War by politicians:
It was a speech which made profound references to the biblical significance of Iraq while also evoking the poetry of John Yeats.
“It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there.”
Collins emphasised the humanity of the Iraqi people, their grace and hospitality, while lamenting the necessity of war and the terror faced by the perceived existence of Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons.
“If you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.”
The speech also reflects on the burden and gravity of killing and the importance of dignity in death.
“I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.”
Actor Kenneth Branagh performed the speech in the 2008 BBC television series 10 Days to War:
Despite its endurance the speech (reprinted in full below) remains surrounded in mystery and controversy.
There exists no audio or video recording of the speech. The record of it only exists because Sarah Oliver, a lone journalist, transcribed it in shorthand as it was being given.
Collins told the BBC in 2004:
"Our soldiers require their leaders to explain to them why they are going into conflict, and that's simply what I was doing. It's an interesting reflection on modern times: because the speech was written down by a journalist in shorthand, only one version exists. There's no recording or film of it, so it can't be corrupted or changed, and that's what has given it longevity."
Although the speech gained praise from George W Bush and Prince Charles, which was reported as having moved him to tears, it gained criticism years after it was delivered.
Captain Doug Beattie who was in the audience of the speech at the time and was close to Collins, argued in his 2008 book that the speech had a demoralising effect on his colleagues.
Rather than energising and inspiring those who heard it as had been reported, he believed it had a negative effect:
“Maybe this was all a little too much reality. I could see heads starting to go down, and it wasn't just a reaction to the sand swirling about in the stiff breeze… Cheers, boss. Thanks a bloody lot…”
Regardless of how the speech has been interpreted it remains popular 13 years later with an audience never intended to hear it.
Schoolchildren analyse it in English classrooms and it contributed to Colonel Tim Collins being awarded an OBE a year after the speech was given.
In the wake of the Chilcot Report the speech remains an eloquent reminder of the complexities and duties of modern day soldiers and the responsibilities nations have to ‘tread lightly’ when going to war.