The Last of the Light Brigade
C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre! (It is magnificent but it is not war!)
Comment of French Mashal Pierre Bosquet on the charge of the light brigade
The nineteenth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here and here. Kipling throughout his career always had a soft spot in his heart for the common British soldier. Soldiers in Kipling’s youth were regarded at worst as common criminals and at best a necessary evil: to be cheered as heroes in time of peril and left to rot in penury in peace time when they were too old to serve. By his poems pointing out the rank ingratitude of this treatment meted out to men who fought for Queen and country, Kipling played a large role in changing civilian attitudes toward the military and improving the lives of the “Tommys”.
One of his most searing poems on this subject was The Last of the Light Brigade.
The British have produced some of the great captains of History, Marlborough and Wellington quickly come to mind. However, a more common theme in British military history is the courage of common soldiers redeeming with their blood the mistakes of their generals. Few conflicts better exemplify this than the Crimean War. Fought between 1853-1856, the war consisted of France, Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia (prior to it growing to encompass all Italy) against Russia. The causes of the war boiled down to the fact that the Ottoman Empire was in a state of rapid decay and France and Russia were squabbling about which power would have predominance as “protecting power” of the Holy Places in the Holy Land, with the traditional antipathy of Catholics and Orthodox lending fuel to the fire. This fairly meaningless squabble eventually led to war between the Ottoman Empire and Russia with Great Britain and France rallying to The Sick Man of Europe as the Turks were called.
The War was largely, although not exclusively, fought in the Crimea with France, Britain and the Turks besieging Sevastopol for a year before it fell after a year’s siege on September 9, 1855. The treaty of the Congress of Paris ended the conflict in 1856 with a drawback by the Russian from Turkish provinces in the Balkans, a guarantee by all the powers of the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, the opening of the Danube River to the trade of all nations and the demilitarization of the Black Sea. As treaties go it was not a bad one, although no treaty could stop continual conflict over the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, a process which continued and ultimately led to World War I, making prophetic the remark of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.
The military history of the War, with a few exceptions, largely consisted of blunder after blunder. With the advent of telegraphs, steam ships, and mass printing of newspapers, the British received story after story critical of the British High Command. There was much to criticize.
Lord Raglan, the British commander-in-chief in the Crimea, had been a hero at the battle of Waterloo. He gave every indication that his military knowledge had ceased around 1815. He would not survive the War, dying of dysentery, that great killer during the Crimean War, in spite of the pioneering nursing efforts of Florence Nightingale and her heroic band of nurses.
The battle of Balaclava at which the charge of the Light Brigade occurred contained in microcosm the types of blunder and military incompetence that occurred time and again during the Crimean War. Fought on October 25, 1854 it was initiated by the Russians in an attempt to disrupt the siege of Sevastopol by disrupting the British supply lines.
The Russian infantry and artillery assault met with initial success, driving the Turks from the redoubts they held. However the Russian advance was stopped cold by the 93rd Highland Regiment and the Russian cavalry attack was beaten off by a brilliant cavalry charge of the British Heavy Brigade. (Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a poem on that charge which may be read here. What does it say about the cross-grained human nature that the poem on the successful cavalry charge that day is forgotten, while the poem on the failed charge is immortal?)
So far so successful.
Disaster for the Light Brigade reared its head due to the fact the commander of the cavalry division and the commander of the Light Brigade were brothers in law and cordially detested each other. Lord Lucan, George Bingham, in command of the Light Division, is a villain in Irish history due to the mass evictions of Irish tenant farmers that he carried out during the Potato Famine. His brother-in-law Lord Cardigan, James Brudenell, in charge of the Light Brigade had only the sole military virtue of enormous physical courage. He was noted for arrogance and gross stupidity long before the charge of the Light Brigade.
After the repulse of the Russians Lord Raglan ordered a cavalry charge to prevent the Russians from taking away naval guns from the redoubts they had captured from the Turks. Here is the order:
“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.”
The order was conveyed to Lord Lucan by Captain Louis Edward Nolan. Lucan claimed later to have found the order to be unclear because from his vantage point he could not see the Russians taking the guns from the redoubt. According to him he asked Nolan what guns were meant, and Nolan gestured to Russian artillery in fortified positions at the end of the valley about a mile away. Nolan was killed in the ensuing charge and I am suspicious that this was an after the fact justification by Lucan, who simply misinterpreted a fairly clear order with disastrous consequences. Lucan order the Light Brigade to charge the fortified Russian guns.
Any sensible officer would have immediately asked for verification of the order from Lord Raglan. The rawest cavalry trooper knew that having cavalry attack emplaced artillery a mile distant was tantamount to suicide. Alas, Cardigan was far from a sensible officer. After he did express some doubt about the attack, he went ahead with it after his despised brother-in-law Lord Lucan repeated the order in front of the troops of the Light Brigade. He led the attack from the front, miraculously penetrated the Russian lines and then retreated back up the valley The 674 men of the Light Brigade sustained losses of 118 killed, 127 wounded and 60 taken prisoner. Cardigan, taking no thought for the wounded, or the rallying of his brigade, retired to his yacht where he enjoyed a champagne supper. By his own testimony his chief emotion through all this was anger at Captain Nolan who was killed while darting in front of him and who he thought was trying to usurp his privilege to lead the charge. It is only too likely that Nolan died while trying to redirect the charge to its proper target. Lucan gave absolutely no support to the Light Brigade which is inexplicable except as a manifestation of his extreme hatred for his brother-in-law.
Cardigan found himself the hero of the hour. He was made Inspector General of Cavalry and would eventually be made a Lieutenant General after being invalided home from the Crimea. The knitted wastecoat that he wore became known as a cardigan. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his famous poem on the charge of the Light Brigade, which may be read here, in about ten minutes in 1854 after reading an account of it in The London Times. Cardigan lost a fair amount of the aura of heroism when the survivors of the Light Brigade returned to Great Britain at the end of the war and the truth of the charge came out. Lord Lucan was sent home in disgrace by Raglan, who was eager to avoid any responsibility for the charge. However, Lucan was not cashiered from the army and would end his career as a Field Marshal. Cardigan and Lucan had much better fortunes than many of the men luckless to serve under their command.
British army pensions in the nineteenth century provided a subsistence level income, but not all men who served qualified for a pension by years of service. Many veterans, due to wounds and/or disease were unable to work. Alcoholism was a major problem as “self-medicating” with drink was a favorite method for old soldiers to cope with the pain of service related injuries. As as result, more than a few of the survivors of the charge, almost half a century after it, were living in dire circumstances, and Kipling wrote his poem to arouse British shame at this fact:
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.
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!
Kiplings’ efforts were successful in relieving the want of the survivors as many benefits were staged for them throughout 1890.