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Saturday, 24 May 2008

From Today's Papers - 24 May

Generals and soldiers
by Harwant Singh

There was a time when generals operated at the firing line and in the very thick of the battle and soldiers could see them. Napoleon invariably positioned himself where the fighting was most intense and had a few horses shot under him. It was said that his presence on the battlefield equalled forty thousand troops. Addressing his troops before the battle of Austerlitz, he promised them that he would not expose himself to enemy fire. Such was his standing with the troops.

Even during World War II many generals often positioned themselves with the leading troops. Rommel and Patton, to mention only two, were the shining example. In our own context, Rajinder Singh Sparrow, as GOC of our armoured division, was frequently seen manoeuvring his jeep amongst the leading tanks during the tank battles of Phillora in 1965 on the Sialkot front. On the Punjab front, Harbaksh Singh as army commander, frequently set aside his personal safety and was often seen right at the front.

Presence of such senior officers upfront has electrifying effect on the troops and creates an invisible and enduring bond between them, especially when they are victorious, though not always so. Troops know when they are needlessly thrown into battle and avoidable casualties are inflicted on them.

During the American Civil War, Joe E Johnston (a lesser known general) commanded one part of the Confederation army, while the other was commanded by that famous and most respected general in US history, Robert E Lee.

As commander of the Confederation forces in Georgia, Johnston conducted a long and skillful retreat against Sherman’s superior forces, never winning a battle but giving Sherman a bloody nose, now and then in that long retreat. The President finally sacked Johnston for his continued retreat.

At the Confederate memorial service in Atlanta, he was assigned an open carriage, escorted by the governor’s cavalry. The parade had hardly begun, when a voice from the crowd shouted, “that is Joe Johnston, yes old Joe.” Dozen men , ( by now de-mobilised ) then hundred burst from the crowd and surrounded the carriage, stretching out their hands to their old commander.

Someone unhitched the horses, the men took hold of the traces and pulled the carriage through the length of the parade route, cheering him widely. The evidence of their devotion nearly caused the old man to break down. Witnesses saw tears coursing down his weathered cheeks.

When Johnston died Sam Watkins of First Tennesse Regt offered the most appropriate epitaph, “Such a man was Joe Johnston and such his record. Farewell old fellow! We private loved you because you made us love ourselves.”

Those who served in his army remembered him as, “one who would do whatever was necessary to ensure that they were well fed and well shod and he would never throw them into battle thoughtlessly.”

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