“Whether they’re fact or fiction, last words such as these are the stuff of legend in the annals of military history.”
ALFRED GRAF VON SCHLIEFFEN WAS 79 YEARS OLD when he died in 1913. The Prussian-born career soldier, who first made a name for himself as a cavalry officer during the 1866 Austrian War, eventually rose to become one of Germany’s top military strategists.
In 1906, von Schlieffen famously devised a war plan that would enable Germany to deliver a decisive knock out blow against long-time rival France. The scheme involved driving the entire right wing of the Kaiser’s army around the French defences to the north, through Belgium and along the Channel coast to capture Paris from the rear. A variation of the strategy would be executed by the German high command in the opening days of the First World War. Von Schlieffen passed away a year-and-a-half before the outbreak of hostilities, but anticipated that his homeland would soon be at war. In fact according to popular folklore, he used his last moments on this Earth to urge the Fatherland’s generals to bear in mind the key to his entire battle plan. “Remember,” he gasped on his deathbed, “keep the right wing strong.”
Whether it’s fact or fiction, last words such as these are the stuff of legend in the annals of military history. Here are some others.
To this day, Horatio Nelson’s dying remarks are a matter of some controversy. In fact, there are more than three different accounts of what the famed British admiral uttered on the surgeon’s table after being fatally shot during the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. According to some, Nelson murmured “Thank God I have done my duty.” Others say the one-armed admiral whispered the words: “God and my country,” before expiring. An alternate version of the story holds that Nelson used his last breath to call out to HMS Victory’s flag captain, Sir Thomas Hardy. “Kiss me, Hardy,” he reportedly pleaded, to which his subordinate obliged, pecking the dying commander on the forehead. Some have argued that the words were actually “Kismet, Hardy!” which in many eastern tongues means “fate” – suggesting Nelson stoically met his end offering a slightly more poetic variant of the expression “shit happens.” On the other hand, three different eyewitnesses to the admiral’s final moments concur that his actual last words were somewhat more pedestrian: “Drink, drink. Fan, fan. Rub, rub.” The Victory’s chaplain and purser, as well as a servant all confirm the remarks.
There has been no debate about the final words of James Wolfe, commander of the British assault on the fortress of Quebec on Sept. 13, 1759. After repelling a French sally outside of the besieged city’s gates, the 32-year-old general was struck by three musket balls, one of which tore into his chest. As an adjutant knelt beside the prostrate commander to report that the enemy was withdrawing, Wolfe reportedly issued instructions to try to cut off the French retreat before finally saying: “Now, God be praised, I die contented.”
The French commander, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, was also mortally wounded in the 15-minute battle. “So much the better,” he supposedly said of his imminent demise the following day. “I am happy that I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec.” Before ordering his officers to withdraw from beside his bed, Montcalm offered one final parting shot. “I have much business that must be attended to of greater moment than your ruined garrison and this wretched country.” He slipped into unconsciousness and soon died. In keeping with his last request, Montcalm was buried in a shell crater near the city.
Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s final utterances were also well documented, although somewhat cryptic. After being shot in the left arm by his own troops after the Battle of Chancellorsville (Confederate sentries mistook him in the moonlight for a Yankee scout), the legendary 39-year-old Virginian underwent an emergency amputation. Jackson contracted pneumonia while recovering and died eight days later. In his final moments, the semi-conscious general began mumbling battle orders before finally offering this: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
Another famous Virginian general, George Washington, also died far from the battlefield. After serving as America’s first president, the retired hero of the War of Independence took ill on Dec. 12, 1799. A trio of surgeons treated Washington for respiratory failure, which came on suddenly after the 67-year-old had spent an entire day outside in the freezing rain inspecting the grounds of his Mount Vernon plantation. The doctors prescribed a battery of heavy bleeding (a standard medical practice of the time), but it only served to weaken the ailing patient. Washington died at about 10 p.m. on Dec. 14. After enquiring about his funeral arrangements, he reportedly whispered “’Tis well,” and then faded away.
The “George Washington” of Latin America, Simon Bolivar, also died of respiratory failure. After helping liberate Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Peru from Spanish rule, the general-turned-statesman finally succumbed to Tuberculosis in 1830 at the age of 47. A broken man, Bolivar had been chased from power after attempting to proclaim himself president-for-life over Gran Columbia, the nation he’d forged in battle. His disease finally caught up with him while he was in Cartagena awaiting passage to Europe and exile. Some accounts hold that Bolivar’s delirious last words were the puzzling: “Damn it! How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” Others maintain that he said: “Fetch the luggage. They do not want us here,” before giving up the ghost.
Unlike Washington or Bolivar, the savior of Canada, Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, died with his boots on — leading a charge up Queenston Heights on Oct. 13, 1812. With American soldiers having crossed the rapids of the Niagara to capture the strategic high ground overlooking the river, the 43-year-old British major general rallied what redcoats and militia men he could muster and led a last-ditch assault to drive the enemy from their tenuous foothold in Canada. While struggling up the steep slope on foot, sabre in hand, Brock was fatally struck in the chest by an American sharpshooter. According to popular legend, the dying general called out: “Push on, brave York volunteers!” or simply “Surgite!” — Latin for “press on”. Yet, eyewitnesses to the scene reported that the general uttered not single a word and simply crumpled to the ground after being hit. Despite the loss of their beloved commander, the British (with help from local militia and native allies) won the day, driving the Americans off Canadian soil. Today, surgite is the motto of Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario as well as the name of the school’s official magazine.
George Armstrong Custer’s last words have also been mythologized. While being swarmed by hostile Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors at Little Big Horn, Montana on June 25, 1876, the colourful 7th Cavalry commander reportedly shouted platitudes and encouragements to his doomed men. “Hurrah, boys! Let’s get these last few reds then head on back to camp.” It’s almost certainly a fabrication dreamed up sometime later; Custer and his entire force were wiped so none present could possibly have reported anything that was said.
The last words of another controversial American military leader, Benedict Arnold, are also the stuff of national folklore. After departing his homeland a traitor, the Connecticut-born hero of Saratoga, settled in New Brunswick, Canada before relocating to London in 1791. That’s where he finally expired on June 14, 1801 at the age of 60. “Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever having put on another,” the reviled turncoat reportedly said.
Also dying in exile, Napoleon Bonaparte was supposedly thinking of the three things he loved most in life when he breathed his last just six years after his defeat at Waterloo. “France. Armée. Joséphine,” the deposed emperor called out from his deathbed on St. Helena.
Union general John Sedgwick was rebuking his men for cowering in the face of enemy sniper fire at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 8, 1864 when his time came. “What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?” The 50-year-old commander demanded of his troops who were scurrying for cover. “I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Moments later, the major general was shot dead by a sharpshooter’s bullet.
It wasn’t a great leader of men, but an anonymous Union infantryman marching to certain death on June 3, 1864 who scrawled perhaps the most poignant last words in military history. The unnamed soldier’s bloody diary, later recovered from a Virginia battlefield, carried one brief but eerily prophetic entry for the day. It read simply: “Cold Harbor. I was killed.”