The prospect of combat is enough to leave even the bravest soldiers paralyzed with fear. That’s why armies have long mobilized their troops with battle cries and other military slogans. Some of these “war woops” were merely animalistic screams or yells designed to send a chill up the spines of the enemy, but others had political or religious significance that transcended the battlefield. Below, learn the stories behind eight of military history’s most intimidating rallying cries.
On February 23, 1836, Mexican General Santa Anna besieged Colonel William B. Travis and some 200 Texas independence fighters at a former Franciscan mission known as the Alamo. The Texans were outnumbered and outgunned, but they held out for 13 grueling days until March 6, when the Mexicans stormed the fort and killed nearly all its defenders. The defeat was catastrophic—Travis, James Bowie and famed frontiersman Davy Crockett all died—but the Texans’ courage under fire helped galvanize their compatriots. General Sam Houston and others used the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” to whet their troops’ appetite for vengeance, and in April 1836, the Texans routed a superior Mexican army and captured Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. “Remember the Alamo” lived on even after the United States annexed Texas in 1845, and was later revived by U.S. troops during the Mexican-American War.
“It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard—even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food and without hope.” That was legendary writer and Union army veteran Ambrose Bierce’s description of the “rebel yell,” the notorious battle cry of Confederate forces during the Civil War. This banshee scream was the Confederacy’s calling card for most of the war, but its sound has long been the subject of debate. Later recordings of elderly Southern veterans seem to indicate that it was a shrill yelp that resembled the call of a coyote, though it may have varied from unit to unit. Whatever it sounded like, the yell was considered an indispensable tool on the battlefield. Lieutenant Colonel A.J.L. Fremantle, a British observer at Gettysburg, noted that, “Confederate officers declare that the rebel yell has a particular merit, and always produces a salutary and useful effect upon their adversaries. A corps is sometimes spoken of as a ‘good yelling regiment.’”
When they marched toward their enemies in their organized phalanx formations, Ancient Greek troops typically belted out battle hymns, or “paeans,” designed to invoke the god Apollo and help calm their nerves. Once within striking distance, however, they would cease their singing and break into a full-throated battle cry of “Alala!” or “Eleleu!” while banging their weapons against their shields to spook enemy horses. When voiced by thousands of spear-wielding hoplites, these cries were said to resemble the sound of flocks of screeching birds, and they were so well known that the ancient writer Pindar even addressed them in a 5th century B.C. poem. “Hear me, Alala,” he wrote, “daughter of Ares, prelude of the spears, you to whom men fall as offerings for their homeland in death’s holy sacrifice.”
In the summer of 1942, German forces closed in on the Soviet city of Stalingrad, an industrial hub nestled along the banks of the Volga River. The Nazis hoped to steamroll their way through the city in a matter of weeks, but they soon found themselves locked in a cataclysmic fight with the Soviet Red Army, which yielded ground reluctantly and only at great cost to the invaders. This was due in part to the brutal policies of Joseph Stalin, who instituted a “Not One Step Back” policy and executed thousands of his own men, but it was also thanks to the grit of the Soviet soldiers, who announced their intention to fight to the last with the rallying cry, “There is no land for us beyond the Volga.” The stalwart defenders endured months of frantic block-to-block combat until late-1942, when a Soviet counterattack encircled the Nazis and boxed them inside the city. The Germans surrendered only a few months later, sealing what many historians consider the most important Allied victory of World War II. The famous “no land beyond the Volga” battle cry was later inscribed on a monument to the defenders of Stalingrad.
The ancient Roman legions usually marched in silence to maintain order in their ranks, but once they encountered the enemy, their lines would erupt with intimidating war cries that some described as resembling the sound of a stampeding elephant. The late-Roman army was particularly fond of the “Barritus,” a guttural cry that had been borrowed from Germanic warriors, many of whom had joined their ranks. The ancient chronicler Tacitus described the Barritus as a “harsh, intermittent roar” that built in volume, and noted that the troops would “hold their shield in front of their mouths, so that the sound is amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation.” The result was a low, ominous murmur that slowly gathered into a terrifying bellow.
In 1095, Pope Urban II launched the Crusades after he gave a speech urging European Christians to undertake a spiritual quest to seize the Holy Lands from Muslim control. Upon hearing his address, many in the crowd are said to have hollered “Deus hoc vult!” (“God wills it!”) to show their support. The Pope answered by saying, “Let this then be your war cry in combat, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! It is the will of God!” Shouts of “Deus hoc vult!” went on to echo over dozens of battlefields during the First Crusade, which culminated in a blood-soaked siege at Jerusalem. The pontiff-sanctioned slogan would remain the Christian warriors’ rallying cry until the late-13th century, when the last of the Crusades finally came to an end.
“Banzai” is best known as a Japanese war cry, but it was originally a generic cheer uttered by both soldiers and civilians alike. The word literally means “ten thousand years,” and it has long been used in Japan to indicate joy or a wish for long life. Japanese World War II troops typically yelled it in celebration, but they were also known to scream, “Tenno Heika Banzai,” roughly translated as “long live the Emperor,” while storming into battle. As the war dragged on, this battle cry became most famously associated with so-called “Banzai charges”—last-ditch human wave attacks that saw Japanese troops run headlong into American lines. Japanese kamikaze pilots were also known to howl “Tenno Heika Banzai!” as they plowed their aircraft into Navy ships.
The American Revolution gave rise to dozens of rallying cries—“No Taxation Without Representation;” “Join or Die;” “Don’t Tread on Me”—but few had as significant an impact as “Liberty or Death.” The phrase first appeared in a March 1775 address by Patrick Henry, which concluded with the immortal line, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Henry’s speech convinced the Second Virginia Convention to raise militias, and his words immediately became a battle cry among colonial minutemen, who considered them a symbol of their determination to shake off the yoke of British rule. Many Virginia militia recruits marched under banners emblazoned with “Liberty or Death,” and some even sewed the words onto their shirts. Henry’s call to arms later made a comeback in the 1860s, when several Confederate units placed it on their flags to symbolize the belief that the Civil War was a “second American Revolution.”