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Half a league onwards!

Today is the 150th anniversary of that glorious cock-up known as The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The charge, which was part of the Battle of Balaklava, was one of those iconic moments in British military history due more to the works of Alfred Tennyson than the actual importance of the incident itself, which was really little more than a footnote in the overall conduct of the Crimean War. Yet at the time many newspapers accorded the charge of the Light Brigade far more significance than it was really due (and they also tended to gloss over the rather more successful actions of both the Heavy Brigade under Lord Lucan and the magnificent Chasseurs D’Afrique under General D’Allonville).

The charge was regarded as a great military blunder, and certainly it was not what Lord Raglan actually intended to happen when he issued the orders, nor what Lord Cardigan, the Light Brigade’s commander, wanted to execute (he is alleged to have quipped “Here goes the last of the Brudenells”, his family name, upon receiving the order), but in point of fact, the charge largely disrupted the astonished Russian forces at the end of the valley. As military blunders go, it was a fairly effective one and the overall battle was more or less a draw (though Russian attempts to take Balaklava failed, so it could be argued that it was a net allied victory).

Also in the news is the redeployment of the Black Watch mechanised battlegroup into the American zone of operations in Iraq. The fact this unremarkable operational movement of forces within Iraq has caused apoplexy in media and political circles shows that 150 years on, the pundits back home are just as clueless about military affairs as they ever were.

19 comments to Half a league onwards!

  • GCooper

    Perry de Havilland writes:
    “…150 years on, the pundits back home are just as clueless about military affairs as they ever were.”

    The storm of outrage that has been whipped-up over this deployment would be quite astonishing – had we not grown so used to the ‘it’s all about oil’ lobby in the media using any and every opportunity to keep a story which should, by now, be page two or three material on most days, immovably on the front page.

    Trying to keep at least remotely on-topic, it is hard to imagine almost any past war being tolerated in Britain today.

    I’m sure the peace studies brigade will consider that a great triumph. And that the compulsory lessons in Chinese/Arabic/Vulcan or whatever will seem a small price to pay when the time comes.

  • It is not clear to me why Britain was involved in this war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. I would be interested in any enlightenment, particularly any explanation of why the Ottoman side was in some way morally right and that therefore there was a reason to suppose that British involvement was anything more than the usual killing and being killed for power politics.

  • Guy Herbert

    We’re talking about a war a full 60 years before Wilsonian international moralism. It was imperial power-politics: Britain was worried about Russian force-projection into the Mediterranean, and maintaining Turkish strength against its increasing central Asian influence. Ten years before we’d fought, and messily lost, an Afghan War for similar, though less pressing, grand strategic reasons.

    Another snippet of historical perspective: The charge of the Light Brigade may have had more resonance at the time because of implicit comparison with the celebrated charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo.

  • It is not clear to me why Britain was involved in this war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

    Like you said… power politics 🙂

  • ernest young

    How wonderfully astute hindsight makes the modern day ‘pundit’.

    (pundit: ‘smug egotistic, narrow-minded person who thinks their viewpoint is important).

  • Darth Snarky

    dude, everyone thinks their viewpoint is important.

  • ernest young

    Sure, and everyone is a pundit…I wonder how long it took for that particular penny to drop….

  • dmick

    I vaguely recall a book ? documentary ? putting forward the notion that the charge was due some relatively low ranking officer being thoroughly wedded to the idea that cavalry could still win battles and that had the heavy cavalry followed up the initial charge they would have achieved the objective of capturing the Russian guns.

    No matter its wasnt what was intended by the field commanders.

  • Ironchef

    The History Channel in the US had a show (Battlefield Detectives?) that covered the actual causes of the Charge of the Light Brigade. (NO I don’t get much of my history from that channel 🙂 )

    IIRC, the orders given amounted to:
    “Go get those guns.”
    “What guns?”
    “The ones over there.”
    “There. You have your orders, sir.”

    Not implying that it was a suicide mission. Just that the officer issuing the order did not, or could not, give precise and detailed orders on what to carry out. The Light Brigade proceeded to attack the wrong way.

    Fairly good TV show, anyways. Studied much of the terrain of Balaklava.

  • James

    > The fact this unremarkable operational movement of forces within Iraq has caused apoplexy in media and political circles shows that 150 years on, the pundits back home are just as clueless about military affairs as they ever were.

    Surely you know as well as everyone else that the fuss is absolutely nothing to do with the operation as a military maneuver and everything to do with the political reasons behind it.

  • Ironchief: that would be Captain Nolan… there is some evidence that once he realised how Lord Cardigan had interpreted the orders he had delivered (from Lord Raglan to Lord Lucan and thence to Cardigan), he tried to warn Cardigan that it was not intended for him to charge directly down the valley but he was killed before he could tell anyone so we will never know for sure.

    Seems to me the real fault lay with Lord Raglan’s rather sweeping order to “advance to the front”, though perhaps Nolan might have made himself clearer rather than just gesture down the valley. Opinions vary regarding the true villian of the piece.

  • ellie

    There’s a book about the Charge: “The Reason Why”

  • Findlay Dunachie

    There’s an interesting article in the current History Today putting forward the hypothesis that it was pressure from the RANK AND FILE that caused their senior officers to follow an order they could quite properly have refused to obey. The men were fed up with doing nothing and mocked for it, particularly by Cossacks riding by. They were also dying of cholera, for which their dependants received nothing – as distinct from something if they got killed. The charge was high in casualties – one in five were killed. But one in four of the survivors died of cholera.

    As for why we were supporting the Turks by invading the Crimea, see my review of The Ottoman Turks by Justin McCarthy, now in my Archive!

  • jon

    The British Empire was keeping the Russian Empire from obtaining a hold in a warm-water port. So it was propping up the Ottoman Empire, which, at the time, was a poorly-run artifact of Islamic corruption and Turkish hierarchical rule that nonetheless proved useful for all the major European empires (France, Britain, Germany, and Russia) at various times. Oddly enough, in a later war the British fought the Ottoman forces to allow for Russia to have shipping through Turkish waters. That was a mess called Gallipoli. Other messes created or germinated around that time include the creation of a kingdom called Iraq, the creation of the unworkable nation called Lebanon, as well as the various and sundry (and I use those terms even though I’m glad it became what it is) ways ideas such as Der Judenstadt and real estate such as Palestine led to the modern state of Israel.

    But, if for nothing else, the Charge of the Light Brigade made for a great Iron Maiden song (and video): “The Trooper”.

  • Robert Schwartz

    It Was also St. Crispin’s Day.
    Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3 (William Shakespeare)

    Enter the KING

    WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
    But one ten thousand of those men in England
    That do no work to-day!

    KING. What’s he that wishes so?
    My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
    If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
    To do our country loss; and if to live,
    The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
    God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
    By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
    Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
    It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
    Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
    But if it be a sin to covet honour,
    I am the most offending soul alive.
    No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
    God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
    As one man more methinks would share from me
    For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
    Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
    That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
    Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
    And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
    We would not die in that man’s company
    That fears his fellowship to die with us.
    This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
    He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
    Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
    And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
    He that shall live this day, and see old age,
    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
    And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
    And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
    Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
    But he’ll remember, with advantages,
    What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
    Familiar in his mouth as household words-
    Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
    Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
    Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
    This story shall the good man teach his son;
    And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
    From this day to the ending of the world,
    But we in it shall be remembered-
    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;
    Make him a member of the gentry, even if he is a commoner.
    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

    Before the Battle of Agincourt,
    25 October 1415

    And we are faced once again with a war against France. Will John Kerry be as easily routed as the Dauphin?

  • lucklucky

    I have not much knowledge in Crimean war, i probably just read about it 2 or 3 times and long ago and most faded away. But strangely or not , every time it pops up i remember Doolitle raid over Tokio…

  • farting man

    They fought a battle over baklava? I guess I could see why; it’s heavenly stuff.

  • Julian Taylor

    The Light Brigade fiasco does have one other very memorable subnote to history, in that the inquiry into the disaster found that the government, Raglan, Lucan and Cardigan ‘were not fit to be in charge of remounts, let alone a brigade of light cavalry’. Of course another inquiry had to be hastily convened which duly placed the blame upon Nolan’s incompetence as a messenger, in not passing on the famous Geoff Hoon-style message of “advance and attack, but do so in a defensive manner” onto Lucan from Raglan.

  • Tennison, bah, Sir Harry Flashman’s account is far superior. Flashman at the Charge.