THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE
HALF A LEAGUE, HALF A LEAGUE ONWARD...
OCTOBER 25TH…163RD Anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
To those brought up only on Tennyson’s
“Half a league, half a league onward,
Into the valley of death rode the six hundred” and a certain film recreation starring Errol Flynn it was Wilfred Owen’s “desperate” glory all the way.
In fact it was the biggest cock up in the gigantic cock up that was the Crimean War 1854-56.
In an attempt to frustrate Russian incursion into western Europe (so what’s new?), on a dubious pretext, (so what’s new?) the British, French and their Turkish allies decided to invade Russia with no end plan in sight (so what’s new?)
At least accepting that broad front invasion of Russia was not feasible, (the ghost of Napoleon still looming large), the allies decided to invade on a much narrower front…Russia’s Isle of Wight, the Crimea, their aim being the capture of the port of Sebastopol.
The British Expeditionary force was led by the aged Lord Raglan who had been at Wellington’s side during the Peninsular war half a century earlier. Sadly he was reputed to having had to be continually reminded that the French were no longer “the enemy,” but our allies against the RUSSIANS!” Ooops!
In a sense this set the tone of the whole campaign should one stray into the reports of William Russell for “The Times” newspaper (then widely considered as the fourth Gospel-well before Rupert Murdoch’s ownership, of course!) .
Thanks to the telegraph, a non-censored Russell was able to keep the breakfast tables of the influential British wealthy well informed of what was REALLY happening…wrongly packed essential
stores, disease (more men dying of cholera and VD than Russian fire), lack of any form of medical back up, troops’ appalling living conditions, lack of supplies etc.
On the other hand he was full of praise for the courage and stoicism of the ordinary soldier.
He could also have added to the tale of woe, the dissention between senior commanding officers, with for example, Lord Lucan, commander of the light (cavalry) Brigade being widely hated and hating everyone else.
This conveniently brings us to the Charge itself. In a generally agreed crass misinterpretation of orders on this day 163 years ago the cream of the British cavalry found itself under the command of Lord Lucan (often described as being “too stupid to feel fear) at the mouth of the Tchernia valley. There were quite literally “Cannon to the left of them, cannon to the r French generalof them, cannon in front of them, yet in denial of the military axiom that cavalry did not charge fixed positions without infantry and artillery support…they charged. As the watching French General Arnaud remarked …“C’est manifique mais c’est ne pas guerre!” (I.e. one glorious cock up!”
There are many accounts of both the battle and the war as a whole, but few more entertaining (and not much less accurate) than that found in the memoirs of Brigadier-General Harry Flashman. (see “Flashman at the Charge” from the Flashman Papers).
Sadly but the fictional creation of George MacDonald Fraser (OK, I know there is a pub in Blackpool named after Flashy and where I have had a pint or four and where I hope you will too.). Bearing that in mind, he is the caddish bully of “Tom Brown’s School Days,” who according to his recently discovered private memoirs cowardly lied, cheated, stole, womanised and profited, his way through Victoria’s Empire, rising to General rank and the status of both Establishment and popular hero.
A self-confessed coward, by evil chance he found himself forced to take part in the charge.
Picture the Light Brigade lined up in all their finary, determined to do or die and in their midst a quaking Flashy who unfortunately was recovering from both a bout of Cholera and the after-effects of some liberated cheap Russian Champaign. At this crucial and dramatic moment, his digestive tract could take no more and he gave an almighty fart!
However much a rogue he was portrayed as being, Flashman never fails to give an honest account of his experiences, however lewd, dishonest or downright dangerous.
He of course survived the charge and had I been involved, I too would have followed the Flashman Manual of Cavalry tactics…always be in the middle, roar as much as possible and enjoy a juicy sabre-slash at fleeing backs. He also warns about not lingering on battlefields after close of play on the grounds that there were always the wounded ready to take their spite out on someone. Very sound!
Like William Russell, however, no way does MacDonald Fraser set out to denigrate the ordinary soldier, only the incompetent, promotion-bought, soclly superior officers set above him.
Truly, it was not only the bloody fields of First World War Flanders and Picardy that witnessed “Lions led by Donkeys!”
However, the Crimea did produce one genuine British hero on the nursing front and in my view it was not Florence Nightingale, but…
Mary Seacole. You have Google, so if you know nothing of this lady, please give her the respect she so truly deserved and at least look her up.