There is nothing that speaks to the character of a man more than courage, and that shown in military valor seems to magnify this to an even greater degree. That a man would sacrifice his life, or limbs, for his nation, his countrymen, on a moment’s notice is an act so profound that perhaps only a military man can understand how a fellow soldier could do this. To most people, it is inconceivable that a warrior would have the immediate reaction to throw himself in front of a bullet, or a cannon, for his nation and/or its people.
This is not only the ultimate in nobility, it can also be the utmost in tragedy when it is a sacrifice that did not need to be made. Let us consider the greatest example of this – the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War in October, 1854. This event was so significant for the future of British warfare that it was later immortalized in verse by the British poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
It was basically a military action that occurred because of an ambiguous order given by the British commander that was misinterpreted by his subordinates that then resulted in a significant cavalry charge against a heavily defended Russian position. “Facing artillery and musket fire on three sides, British cavalrymen were slaughtered in droves as they galloped headlong down the…Valley of Death.”
The British were fighting what they considered to be a necessary war against the Russians, with French and Turkish forces by their side, in a conflict known as the Crimean War. The reasons for this series of battles are of course lost in the mists of history, but they certainly seemed worthy at the time. In the Charge of the Light Brigade, the primary players on the British side were:
Lord Fitzroy Somerset Raglan
George Bingham, the Earl of Lucan
James Brudenell, the Earl of Cardigan
Captain Louis Nolan
Lord Raglan, (yes, his name has come down in history to describe a certain kind of sleeve he developed to accommodate the loss of his arm at Waterloo), was the overall commander of the British forces.
The Earl of Lucan, (yes, his name is known for his descendant who was the supposed nanny-murderer in Mayfair in the 1970’s who was never found following his escape after the crime), commanded the cavalry.
The Earl of Cardigan, (yes, his name is known for a kind of sweater that is attributable to him), was in charge of the Light Brigade.
Captain Nolan was the officer who brought the order from Raglan to the cavalry.
At the time of the battle, it was thought that the only force available to prevent the removal of the Turkish (sometimes referred to as British) guns by the Russians, which would have presented a clear sign of failure, was the cavalry division, specifically, the Light Brigade. Thus, the order went out from the top: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Immediate.” This message was entrusted to Captain Louis Nolan, later regarded as an “unfortunate choice.” He was described as a “mercurial professional cavalry officer who…entertained a contempt for Lucan and was constantly irked by (what he saw as) the failure to use the cavalry decisively.”
Upon being given the order, Nolan rode headlong to deliver Ragland’s order to Lucan. Lucan asked Nolan which enemy and which guns Raglan was referring to, and Nolan’s response was to have “flung his arm out in the direction of the Russian cavalry force now positioned behind its guns at the end of the valley,” saying with insolence: “There is your enemy. There are your guns, my Lord.”
Lucan later claimed that he had originally intended to send the Light Brigade to “pursue and harry a separate, retreating, Russian battery,” but “due to a breakdown in communications,” the unit headed off on a different direction.
Lucan, who had been stung by criticism of inaction, (he had already been given the nickname “Lord Look-on” for being an inactive division commander), was “disinclined to delay further action.” He thus rode over to where Cardigan was and directed him to “charge the Russian cavalry and guns at the end of the valley.” Lord Cardigan, known for his personal courage, (and who claimed after the battle that Lord Lucan had forbidden him to take offensive action), accepted his orders and led the charge against the guns.
It should also be mentioned that Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan were brothers-in-law, and so thoroughly despised each other that they were barely on speaking terms. It was true as well that neither was respected by the troops. In fact, it was written in a letter home by one of these troops that “Cardigan has as much brains as my boot. He is only equaled in want of intellect by his relation the earl of Lucan.”
But the battle went forward, and as described by Tennyson, the following ensued:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Valley’d & thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Lord Cardigan, who had led the charge, and having ridden through the battery, turned around and found himself alone. He then rode back down the valley, and when he reached the British lines, he announced to the first officer with whom he came in contact: “I have lost my brigade.”
In all, 247 men were killed and 42 were wounded in the Charge of the Light Brigade; 375 horses were also lost. They did not capture the guns.
The Charge of the Light Brigade became known as “the most magnificent assault known in military annals and the greatest blunder known to military tactics.” French Field Marshall Pierre Bosquet said at the time: “It is magnificent but it is not war. It is madness.”
Lords Raglan, Lucan and Cardigan survived the battle. Captain Nolan did not.
From original documents at the time, from the start of the battle the soldiers ordered to participate were aware that the orders involved were “perfect madness.” Many though spoke of the gallantry displayed in the resulting carnage, which one correspondent described as a “scene unparalleled in history.”
One soldier said in a letter home: “When we received the order, not a man could seem to believe it…not a word or a whisper. On – on we went! Oh! If you could have seen the faces of that doomed 800 (sic) men at that moment; every man’s features fixed, his teeth clenched, and as rigid as death, still it was on – on!”
The dramatic fellow continued” “Clash! And oh God! What a scene! I will not attempt to tell you, as I know it is not to your taste, what we did; but we were Englishmen, and that is enough.”
Another witness to the event wrote: “The charge had been gallant, brilliant, but as all add, useless.” He said that the order arrived, “as we must believe, by mistake.“
“On we went – astonished, but unshaken in nerve – over half a mile of rough ground, losing dozens of men and horses at every stride, to attack horse artillery in our front, supported by three times our number of cavalry, heavy batteries on our right and left flanks, back by infantry (and) riflemen.”
Another fighter in the battle wrote about the conflict: “I do not think that one man flinched in the whole Brigade – though every one allows that so hot a fire was hardly ever seen. There is no concealing the thing – the Light Brigade was greatly damaged, and for nothing.”
He went on: “You never saw men behave so well as our men did. As we could not hold our ground, all our dead and badly wounded were left behind, and know not who are dead or are prisoners. All this makes me miserable, even to write; but it is the naked truth.”
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
It is never a question of courage of the men involved in conflict. It is all too often a question of the men leading those who do battle and whether they are capable of that leadership.
Written on Memorial Day, 2016.
Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects.. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.