War Day - The Charge of the Light Brigade

Balaclavas on as Susan Omand takes you back to 1854 and The Charge of the Light Brigade...

War is not a new thing. It’s been going on for millennia and will continue until there is no longer a planet to fight for or people to fight with (so a week next Tuesday then at the rate we’re going). Likewise the glorification of war, both in fact and fiction, is not new. From clan bards, bigging up the achievements of their chiefs, through conquests and invasions, the propaganda of the world wars and the spin doctors of today, the events of war have always been written to make the best of what, in many cases, was a very shoddy job. The main reason for this, in the last few centuries, is that wars are expensive and you need to keep popular opinion onside in order to be assured funding from your moneyed sponsors, so even utter failures have to be made to seem noble and honour filled and worthwhile to invest in. People were aware too that “writings” were kept for posterity and stored as the history of the past for the generations of the future so you didn’t want to be remembered by descendants and historians as “the guy that made a mess of things.”

A good example of this is the now infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. Lord Raglan, commander of the British forces, had intended to send the Light Cavalry to prevent the Russians from removing captured guns from overrun Turkish positions near the causeway at Sebastopol, a task well-suited to their skills. However, the original order itself was vague, stating only that "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." Which guns he meant, though, were not clear and the officer who delivered the orders, Louis Edward Nolan, made an assumption and, apparently, passed on the order orally instead of handing on the written order, changing the wording slightly, whether accidentally or deliberately we shall never know, to add in an “attack” on “the enemy”. We all know, if you’ve been on those kind of management courses, that “to assume makes an ass out of u and me” and this had devastating consequences. The misunderstanding meant the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a different artillery battery, one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire. They reached the battery under intense direct fire and did their best to attack the gunners, but they were forced to retreat immediately.

Casualties were horrifyingly high, with 156 men of the 670 sent into the charge reported killed or missing (likely taken prisoner by the Russians) and another 122 injured. Of the cavalry horses 335 were killed or too badly injured to be saved. Nolan, the message deliverer, was killed within the first minute of the charge.

In an attempt to assuage the needlessness of the charge, much was made in the media of the day of the bravery of the ordinary men involved, glorifying their loss. The following report, reproduced in full, was published on November 14, 1854 written from the front of the Crimean War by William Howard Russell, War Correspondent for The Times.

HEIGHTS BEFORE SEBASTOPOL, OCTOBER 25 -- If the exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected luster on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy.

I shall proceed to describe, to the best of my power, what occurred under my own eyes, and to state the facts which I have heard from men whose veracity is unimpeachible, reserving to myself the right of private judgement in making public and in surpressing the details of what occurred on this memorable day …

[After losing ground to a British force half its size, the Russians retreated to the heights above Sebastopol, a port town on the Black sea] .

At 11:00 our Light Cavalry Brigade rushed to the front... The Russians opened on them with guns from the redoubts on the right, with volleys of musketry and rifles.

They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendor of war. We could hardly believe the evidence of our senses. Surely that handful of men were not going to charge an army in position? Alas! It was but too true -- their desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part -- discretion. They advanced in two lines, quickening the pace as they closed towards the enemy. A more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of sudden death. At the distance of 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame through which hissed the deadly balls. Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, the dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain. The first line was broken -- it was joined by the second, they never halted or checked their speed an instant. With diminished ranks, thinned by those thirty guns, which the Russians had laid with the most deadly accuracy, with a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow's death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries; but ere they were lost from view, the plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses. They were exposed to an oblique fire from the batteries on the hills on both sides, as well as to a direct fire of musketry.

Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabers flashing as they rode up to the guns and dashed between them, cutting down the gunners as they stood. The blaze of their steel, like an officer standing near me said, "was like the turn of a shoal of mackerel." We saw them riding through the guns, as I have said; to our delight, we saw them returning, after breaking through a column of Russian infantry and scattering them like chaff, when the flank fire of the battery on the hill swept them down, scattered and broken as they were. Wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale -- demigods could not have done what they had failed to do. At the very moment when they were about to retreat, a regiment of lancers was hurled upon their flank. Colonel Shewell, of the 8th Hussars, saw the danger and rode his men straight at them, cutting his way through with fearful loss. The other regiments turned and engaged in a desperate encounter. With courage too great almost for credence, they were breaking their way through the columns which enveloped them, where there took place an act of atrocity without parallel in modern warfare of civilized nations. The Russian gunners, when the storm of cavalry passed, returned to their guns. They saw their own cavalry mingled with the troopers who had just ridden over them, and to the eternal disgrace of the Russian name, the miscreants poured a murderous volley of grape and canister on the mass of struggling men and horses, mingling friend and foe in one common ruin. It was as much as our Heavy Cavalry Brigade could do to cover the retreat of the miserable remnants of that band of heroes as they returned to the place they had so lately quitted in all the pride of life.

At 11:35 not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left in front of those bloody Muscovite guns …

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was Poet Laureate at the time and, as Laureate, it was part of his remit to compose work based on the important events of the day. In his poem, written in the December of 1854 and based on his recollections of the article above, Tennyson too glorifies the bravery of the ordinary soldiers, exclaiming for the country to “Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!” BUT he also notes the fact there had been a mistake made (“someone had blunder’d”) and that the men were blindly following flawed orders (“Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die”). The poem is reproduced in full below for you to read and, if you read it aloud, you will hear the charge itself, the rhythm of the hoof beats in the metre of the verses, the onomatopoeia (words that sound like what they are) of cannon, flash, shatter and thunder adding to the smoke and the noise and confusion of the words themselves. It is interesting to note that Tennyson didn’t actually sign this poem, fearing that his lack of patriotism in pointing out the “blunder” may be seen as “unbecoming of the Laureate” although he did actually record it onto wax disc, one of the first ever voice recordings and amazing to think it has survived.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

That was not the end of the matter though for the Charge of the Light Brigade. In 1891, 36 years after Tennyson’s poem was published and it, and the war, was famous enough to be taught in schools, Rudyard Kipling published his own offering on it. Far from glorifying the Charge and exalting the heroes, The Last of the Light Brigade was deliberately damning. Describing a visit to an 80 year old Tennyson (real or fictional is unknown) of twenty of the surviving members of The Light Brigade, Kipling wanted his work to expose the physical and mental hardship, homelessness and abject poverty faced by the veterans of the Crimean War in an attempt to shame both the government and the British public into giving them financial assistance after a public appeal for funds raised the princely sum of £24. How little we have changed.

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant's order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighten the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.

"No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with "the scorn of scorn."
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

They sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;
They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,
A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.

O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made - "
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

Images - Wikipedia

Painting - The Charge of the Light Brigade by Caton Woodville
Carbon print of Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1869, photo taken by Julia Margaret Cameron
Officers and men of the 13th Light Dragoons, survivors of the charge, photographed by Roger Fenton 1855
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