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From the Wikipedia page for "Battle of Melle":

Now Moltke broke off with the entire force and headed for Ghent running a gauntlet of fire from the various French posts along the roads and ways and abandoning the rest of the column, losing about one half of this force, including nearly 400 of the Royal Scots

What does the phrase "running a gauntlet of fire" mean in this context? I know "gauntlet" means a glove armor, but this phrase still doesn't make sense to me. Searching Google seem to yield results mostly related to gaming.

  • Push your use of Wikipedia a little further, read the article on "Running the gauntlet". The figurative use of the expression "running the gauntlet of fire" should then become obvious to you. – High Performance Mark Jul 10 '14 at 0:49
  • @HighPerformanceMark thanks, I realize now that it's more like ((Running a gauntlet) of fire) than (Running (a gauntlet of fire)) that I initially thought. – user69715 Jul 10 '14 at 20:06
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You are using an unrelated meaning of gantelet from Old French gantelet (“gauntlet worn by a knight in armor, a token of one's personality or person, and symbolizing a challenge”), diminutive of gant (“glove”).

Here it means "a simultaneous attack from two or more sides", originally gantlope, from Swedish gatlopp (“passageway”), from Old Swedish gata (“lane”) + lopp (“course”), from löpa (“to run”).

(All etymologies from Wiktionary.)

Originally, it was a (sadistic) game or punishment, where participants would form two parallel lines and then strike at a victim who was forced to run between them.

In this context, fire means “the bullets or other projectiles fired from a weapon”, as in “courage under fire”, not literal flames, of course.

  • Looks to me like someone checked Wikipedia for the OP. – High Performance Mark Jul 10 '14 at 0:50
  • @HighPerformanceMark -- Wiktionary, but yeah, I'll do anything for karma, uh, reputation points. – Malvolio Jul 10 '14 at 0:54
  • I hadn't considered that 'fire' meant weapons fire. That seems an unusually harsh punishment, even by military standards :D – toryan Jul 10 '14 at 0:56
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    In the OP's quote, it wasn't a punishment, it was an actual battle; "gauntlet" was used metaphorically. In a real gauntlet, attacks were limited to punches and kicks, with the occasional handful of thrown sand or hot ashes for variety's sake. Sometimes it was a hazing or initiation ritual, as here. – Malvolio Jul 10 '14 at 1:01
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You need the other definition of gauntlet:

(in phrase run the gauntlet)

1 Go through an intimidating or dangerous crowd or experience in order to reach a goal: she had to run the gauntlet of male autograph seekers

2 historical

Undergo the military punishment of receiving blows while running between two rows of men with sticks.

From http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/gauntlet#gauntlet-2

So running the gauntlet means to pass through somewhere dangerous, and gauntlet of fire presumably means even more dangerous, because fire is dangerous.

Interestingly, the etymology of the two definitions is completely different, yet arrived at the same word with the same spelling.

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A gauntlet is not only glove designed for combat, but it is also a word which expresses the idea of being in danger on both your left and your right as you attempt to move forward as quickly as you can.

The danger can come not only from gunfire on your right and left, but it can also come from other weapons such as sticks, stones, fists, whips, or ropes, with the weapon-wielders standing in two parallel lines facing each other with very little space between the lines, usually mere feet.

Running the gauntlet has been used as a punishment for criminals, errant soldiers, prisoners of war, and even as an initiation into a fraternity or as a rite of passage for boys who want to become men in their tribe. Unless the weapons being used were wet noodles, I'd probably demur participating in such a rite of passage and choose to remain a boy for life!

ADDENDUM

"Word History: The spelling gauntlet is acceptable for both gauntlet meaning "glove" or "challenge" and gauntlet meaning "a form of punishment in which lines of men beat a person forced to run between them"; but this has not always been the case. The story of the gauntlet used in to throw down the gauntlet is linguistically unexciting: it comes from the Old French word gantelet, a diminutive of gant, "glove." From the time of its appearance in Middle English (in a work composed in 1449), the word has been spelled with an au as well as an a, still a possible spelling. But the gauntlet used in to run the gauntlet is an alteration of the earlier English form gantlope, which came from the Swedish word gatlopp, a compound of gata, "lane," and lopp, "course." The earliest recorded form of the English word, found in 1646, is gantelope, showing that alteration of the Swedish word had already occurred. The English word was then influenced by the spelling of the word gauntlet, "glove," and in 1676 we find the first recorded instance of the spelling gauntlet for this word, although gantelope is found as late as 1836. From then on spellings with au and a are both found, but the au seems to have won out" (The Free Dictionary).

  • I think there is an implication in your answer that gauntlet is a word with two meanings. No, it is a pair of separate words that happened to evolve to identical spellings. See my response. – Malvolio Jul 10 '14 at 21:55
  • @malvolio: Good point. I've appended a word history to my answer, thanks to The Free Dictionary. Don – rhetorician Jul 10 '14 at 22:14

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