The Charge of the Light Brigade

“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson is one of the most famous Victorian poets, who wrote a short poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as a variation on the Battle of Balaklava. This is a very tragic episode in British history because the army lost all soldiers and horses, but still, they fought like heroes. Tennyson proposed his version of this episode, which is a very accurate representation of how the Light Brigade heroically behaved in the Battle of Balaklava.

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The commander of the Light Brigade was the 7th Earl of Cardigan who had never fought in the Crimean War, unlike the 3rd Earl of Lucan, his brother-in-law. In England, Lord Cardigan was known as an excellent rider, connoisseur, and the owner of the finest racehorses, but it did not really matter in the Crimean War. According to the order, Lord Cardigan led 673 (or 661) cavalrymen against the Russian forces into the valley formed by the Fedyukhiny Heights and the Causeway Hills (Roberts, 2014). Tennyson (1870) rounded the number of soldiers to 600 people in order to present it more poetically, yet less significantly:

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Cardigan argued that heavy Russian guns were located on the plain, which was protected from both flanks by cannon batteries and arrows on the surrounding hills. Tennyson (1870) used repetitions in the poem: “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them,” thus warning the Light Brigade about the danger. Lucan said: “We have no choice but to obey.” Then Cardigan commanded: “Attack!” Thus, the author perfectly fixed it in his poem with only two sentences:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why (Tennyson, 1870).

Using equity as a messenger, Raglan wrote an order on a piece of paper, which was a written proof of the commander’s guilt ever since. In other words, the captain commanded the cavalry to attack immediately and encouraged them to capture Russian guns. Lucan was absolutely puzzled by this order, as Frederick Engels (1854) mentioned it in an episode “The War in the East.” Inspired by the order, Nolan rushed to the cavalry in spite of the very steep slope of Mount Sapun:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said (Tennyson, 1870).

Hence, Tennyson perfectly knew the details of the strategy of the British Army, fixing them in the poem. At the same time, he ignored the fact of Lucan’s question about the logic of Nolan’s order. Perhaps, he did not concentrate much attention on this fact because it is a little ridiculous and in some sense a very silly situation for the British Army’s leaders. However, Hibbert (2002) also represented the episode in the following accurate manner:

“Attack, sir!”

“Attack what? What guns, sir?”

“There, my Lord, is your enemy!” said Nolan indignantly, vaguely waving his arm eastwards. “There are your guns!”

Nevertheless, Nolan gave the order, and it had to be fulfilled. Lucan went along with Nolan’s strategy in the note to the Light Brigade. He told Cardigan about Nolan’s strategy and particularly about the ill-fated attack down the northern valley (Hibbert, 2002). Tennyson called this fatal place “Valley of Death,” knowing that the British army was doomed to be smashed by the Russian forces. Actually, the map of Sevastopol and its surroundings does not contain a place named “Valley of Death,” and many people who are going from Sevastopol to Yalta do not realize what a significant meaning for every Englishman it has. As for the Light Brigade, the name suggests the pride of the British cavalry. It consisted of light yet hardy horses and perfectly armed soldiers with lances and sabers. Thus, there was no reason to doubt or fear, but a great desire to win:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed? (Tennyson, 1870).

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The Light Brigade attacked in three lines, stretched along the front, which was one-fifth the width of the valley. It had to overcome more than two and a half kilometers. The cavalry soon moved to step into a trot, and the pace gradually accelerated (Hibbert, 2002). Slim ranks of cavalry looked strangely beautiful. Tennyson did not describe in details the cavalierly, but expressed their fighting spirit. It must be said that Tennyson was a little exaggerating when constantly focused on the valiant nature of the Light Brigade. Perhaps, he wanted to express the heroic character of the army in this way so that the defeat would be perceived as less tragically. These are the words about their fighting spirit:

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell (Tennyson, 1870).

Since the first line of attack Earl Cardigan completely lost control of his parts. He tried to slip between Russian guns, but the line was “plunged in the battery-smoke” (Tennyson, 1870). The general skipped ahead for 100 meters and suddenly encountered a large group of Cossacks (Roberts, 2014). Horse Ronald could have brought them into the ranks of the enemy. After some confusion, Cossacks rushed to Cardigan to take him as a prisoner.

Cardigan’s brigade continued to advance in the same direction, and the soldiers obeyed, not without pleasure, the order “Draw the swords!” The British riders instinctively began accelerating pace, going from trot to gallop, thereby breaking the ranks. Tennyson (1870) accurately described this episode, especially the mentioned the hail of projectiles and the crack of sabers:

Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All the world wondered.

In fact, the Light Brigade was the object of attack by Russian shooters, scattered on the slopes of the neighboring heights. The rapid loss only abused the soldiers who wanted to get to Russian guns as quickly as they could and to avenge their comrades. Horses went into a gallop, and it was no longer possible to stop them. Most of the Urals suddenly panicked and ran away. Only a few Cossacks, who retained stability gunners, came to the rescue. Actually, it was a very short but still a fierce battle for British soldiers. Tennyson (1870) described it in the opposite way in his poem, presenting almost complete victory of the British army:

Cossack and Russian

Reeled from the sabre,

Shattered and sundered.

According to the British battle members, only 50 cavalrymen of the first line of Earl Cardigan managed to break through the Russian battery (Hibbert, 2002). Captain Morris who led the left-wing of lancers collided with a large number of Russian hussars ready to take out their swords. Perhaps it was a part of the Kyiv regiment. Without any hesitation, this handful of Englishmen who sat on the tired racing horses rushed to Russian hussars, who originally went ahead, but then stopped, stunned with such impudent pressure. Then, Tennyson (1870) wrote about this handful of soldiers that “rode back, but not the six hundred.” The poet noted about the six hundred only in the first three columns, but then his intonation changed to expressive negative forms such as “not” and “left”.

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Despite the losses, the British army could not accelerate the move. The selected tactic of the cavalry was to change from a fast pace to a slower run while it is harder to control the operation at a rapid pace. The British army increasingly became thin, whereas Russians lost only five dozen riders (Roberts, 2014). However, the thin Light Brigade continued to attack, and it seemed that victory was right around the corner:

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred (Tennyson, 1870).

The escape of Russian cavalry, in which there were at least 1,900 riders, was even more shameful given the fact that at that moment they were faced with miserable British forces. Armed with pikes and swords, the latter managed to make the gunners retreat and even formally seize guns. Seeing that the team confronted significant Russian forces, the British effectively turned around and began an organized retreat. Tennyson (1870) dramatically described the end of the battle and did not hide the whole truth about the defeat “while horse and hero fell.” Furthermore, this was a pure defeat for the Light Brigade because they behaved as brave soldiers in this fight. However, in the end, Nolan called some of them “cowards”, but not heroes as Tennyson characterized them in his poem. He also told Lord Lucan: “You were a lieutenant-general and should, therefore, have exercised your discretion and, not approving the charge, should not have caused it to be made” (Hibbert, 2002).

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In the military history of Europe, the word “Balaclava” is strongly associated with the horse attack of the British Light Brigade. It has become synonymous with the sacrifice in vain and an insanely brave, but obviously doomed to failure enterprise. Tennyson almost perfectly described the battle, giving precise details, geographic locations, and even specific slogans. However, he used enough metaphors to convey not only the real historical episode but also its emotional content, fixing unconditional heroism of the Light Brigade.


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