History, Literature, War

“Theirs But To Do and Die”

Some things never change.

On 25th October 1854, during the Battle of Balaclava, 670 British soldiers under the command of Lord Cardigan, launched an ill-fated attack upon a well-defended Russian artillery battery and sustained 40 percent casualties in the form of approximately 120 killed, and at least 160 wounded. Fifty were taken prisoner. Also killed were 375 horses. The carnage must have been unimaginable. For most of us, anyway.

The circumstances surrounding the “blunder” which caused the troops to engage, not in a series of quick forays to deter the Russians from making off with Ottoman guns, but in a full-on frontal assault on a well dug-in position, are still unclear, and revolve around personal antipathies among the commanders (Lord Cardigan, Lord Lucan and Lord Raglan), vague and unverified orders, and misunderstandings (and perhaps some ill-feeling) among the aides-de-camps communicating them. The ADC who took the initial order from Lord Raglan (whatever that order was) was killed in the first few minutes of fighting, and was therefore unavailable to help sort out the mess afterwards. Not that there was much sorting outdone, no-one being eager to accept responsibility for the SNAFU.

In 2016, however, a researcher at the British Museum discovered a letter written by Frederick Maxse, a Lieutenant on Lord Raglan’s staff. Maxse’s letter said that Lord Raglan’s initial order had simply been to “follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns.” A Captain Nolan, who carried the order to Lord Lucan and the cavalry, changed it, making it much more arbitrary, saying to Lucan, “There, my lord is your enemy! There are your guns!” and ordering the troops to “Attack!” His version of the order was further changed in the field as Lord Lucan approached Lord Cardigan (with whom he was barely on speaking terms) and ordered him to attack. Infantry and cavalry joined together, and the stage was set for disaster as the Light Brigade began its slightly more than one-mile charge, under Russian fire from three sides. Nolan was killed in the first minute or two of the Charge.

Lieutenant Maxse said in his letter that Nolan was unimpressed with the performance of the Light Brigade, and that he was angry with Lord Lucan, who he felt had not used the cavalry to best advantage during the entire Crimean War. Corroboration of Maxse’s story came from another of Raglan’s staff officers, along with the belief that, had Nolan survived the battle, he would have been court-martialed and suffered the severest penalties.

The valor of the soldiers, and the ferocity with which they fought, quickly caught the public’s imagination, a fascination that continues to this day. The Charge was memorialized on film in 19121936 (starring Errol Flynn and Melanie Wilkes Olivia de Havilland), and most accurately, but rather affectedly, in Tony Richardson’s 1968 effort. Television programs and series, and books about the deadly encounter, number in the dozens.

The most famous retelling of the battle, though, is much briefer and more poignant than any of these. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, published just six weeks after the battle itself [Note: date corrected from original Ricochet post], evokes the chaos and confusion of the battlefield, and hymns the bravery of the soldiers who, knowing full well that “someone had blunder’d” marched bravely into their valley of Death, sabres flashing, fighting heroically in their already lost cause.

In 1890, Thomas Edison, who’d been testing and practicing with a new technology for a couple of decades, sent several of his employees round to Tennyson’s home to record the then 81-year-old poet laureate’s reading of his own poem onto a series of wax cylinders. The recording survives.

Here it is. A voice from the century before last, reading one of the great poems of the Victorian era, eleven years before the death of the Queen ended it. Just extraordinary.

As is this recording, also made in 1890, of Trumpeter Landfried, a bugler of the Light Brigade, who, using a bugle from the Battle of Waterloo, sounds the “Charge” just as he did at Balaclava in 1854.

We live at a time in which the entire world of our parents, grandparents, and even our great-grandparents, is spread out before us and available to us–to horrify, to entertain, and to teach. You’d think, with that in our wheelhouse, by now we’d get everything right, every time. But just as the lessons of the Charge of the Light Brigade, which have been studied for over a century-and-a-half, sometimes seem not to have been learned at all, we all-too-often seem to repeat the mistakes of the past, even when we are faced with incontrovertible evidence of their existence and of their inevitable and disastrous consequences.

Some things never change.

The above post first appeared on Ricochet on June 29, 2018,  I decided that today–the 167th anniversary of the poem’s publication on December 9, 1854–is as good a time as any to give it a re-airing.

God bless all those who serve.


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