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The Charge of the Light Brigade

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It is early morning on October 25, 1854. We see before us the plain of Balaclava in the Crimea, bordered with modest mountainous heights, and intersected by a range of hillocks so as to give, in fact, the appearance of two valleys. The morning mists still hang about the heights and a pale sun makes the sea sparkle in the distance. But smoke, and flashes of a different kind to that made by the sea, catch our eye in the plain and as we look closer we see, in the folds of the ground, masses of soldiers and horses.

Let us go down to that group placed at the near end of the range of hillocks, a group of cavalry which attracts one's attention by the sleek, slender appearance of men and horses; a finer looking body one could not hope to find, and our appreciation is confirmed when we discover that the red-coated cavalry is none other than the famous Light Brigade of England, consisting of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 8th and nth Hussars and the 17th Lancers. The Brigadier General is Lord Cardigan, who can be seen standing apart with some officers. All eyes are focused on the range of hillocks (which go by the rather flattering name of the Causeway Heights), and suddenly the sound of gun-fire is heard. Masses of opposing infantry and cavalry are seen attacking at the far end of the Causeway Heights on which a small number of guns have been placed for defence. We learn that the opposing army - numbering some 25,000 and mostly clad in thick grey outer coats - is that of Russia, and that the guns on the heights are manned by meagre companies of Turks, allies of England. Furthermore, to our left there is in evidence a body of French troops, allies of both England and Turkey.

In a short time it is apparent that the Turks are quickly abandoning their positions, and Russian horsemen are pursuing them from one redoubt to another. Naturally, too, as each gun is captured by the Russians it is turned on the remaining allies' guns and men, and we watch with rising apprehension the advance along the heights towards us. It becomes clear, however, that the objective of the advance is not to the end of the hillocks where we are standing - but that the Russian force is going down to the plain on our right.

Here in the plain are drawn up the famous Heavy Brigade of English cavalry and a regiment of infantry - the 93rd Highlanders. It is on the latter that 400 Russian horsemen are going to concentrate. There is a moment's silence, and then, in one grand line, the Russian cavalry dash at the Highlanders who are waiting calmly, two deep. Two deadly volleys from the Highlanders are enough; the Russians wheel about and fly faster than they came.

Our attention is immediately attracted to the Heavy Brigade who are now about to go into action, as the main body of Russian cavalry turns on them. The Russian first line is at least double the length of the English and three times as deep. With a great shout, over 2,000 Russians meet a charge of three hundred English dragoons led by the leader of the Heavy Brigade - Brigadier General Scarlett. English hearts almost stand still as they see this little force submerged in the dark mass of Russians. The scarlet uniforms of the Englishmen miraculously appear again and again, and we hold our breath as we see them fighting their way out, when - with the suddenness and force of a thunder bolt, the remainder of the Heavy Brigade rush at the flank of the disordered Russian force and in a moment it is all over. The Russians flee back to the range of hillocks routed by the Heavy Brigade in an action lasting only a few minutes.

Cheers burst out around us, officers and men take off their varied headgear and shout as if at some great sporting event. As the enthusiasm abates, however, we are conscious of a growing feeling of impatience in the ranks of the Light Brigade, who have been watching their gallant companions. Lord Cardigan mutters about the good luck of the "Heavies," but it is not envy that causes the men to show impatience. They are asking why it is that they are allowing the Russians to retreat before their very front. Why is it that when the Heavy Brigade has beaten off a force greatly outnumbering it, the Light Brigade is remaining idle? condemned, as it were, to the position of a neutral party - so much so, in fact, that many of its company are dismounted. Its commander is obviously filled with emotion, but instead of ordering his men to prepare for the decisive supporting charge he expresses himself by constantly repeating, "Damn those Heavies, they have the laugh of us to-day." And so the climax seems to pass. The Light Brigade watches the fleeing Russians regain the heights, where the guns captured from the Turks remain. Following one of the most brilliant actions in the history of the British Army, the Heavy Brigade abandon the chase of the Russians for lack of support, and the atmosphere is one of pride markedly tempered with bewildered questionings. Messages fly backwards and forward from commander to commander while a quarter of an hour, half an hour and an hour slip by.

All this time the Russians consolidate their position. They man the captured heights with infantry, and take their cavalry and artillery to the far end of the valley into which we look. The only move made by the English troops is that the Light Brigade are shifted right across their end of the valley and the "Heavies" take up a position in support.

Here, then, is a valley with English cavalry at one end of it, Russian cavalry and twelve guns at the other end of it, while both sides of the valley are manned by Russian infantry and a total of twenty-two guns. The valley itself is deserted, and every one awaits the next move. Few could have guessed what it would be.

Approaching Lord Cardigan at a trot is seen to be Lord Lucan who commands the whole cavalry division. He imparts to him a command from Headquarters - an advance is to be made to the other end of the valley. Lord Cardigan brings down his sword in salute and says quite calmly, "Certainly, sir. But allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in our front, and batteries and riflemen on each flank." No trace of amazement or incredulity or fear is detected in his tone, though he knows he will have to lead this attack which savours of nothing less than mass suicide. He knows, too, that it is contrary to all the rules of military tactics for cavalry to charge the front of a battery. Lord Lucan shrugs his shoulders as if in concurrence, and mutters something about "no choice" and "orders." Thereupon Lord Cardigan turns to those about him, looks at his force of 600 odd men, and says very quietly, "The Brigade will advance."

To understand what led to this historic decision it is necessary to know something of the leading characters. The Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces was Lord Raglan, a man sixty-six years of age with an excellent record as a soldier and administrator. Lord Lucan, who was in charge of all the cavalry, was fifty-four years old, but almost completely deficient in fighting experience. He was, moreover, an inveterate critic of other people, especially his superiors. To receive an order was a signal to him to misdirect all his clever and active mind into the finding of flaws in the message. He was, in fact, a potential source of acute embarrassment for a commander-in-chief to have at hand. To make matters worse, Lord Lucan had for one of his brigade generals a man who resented him as much as he himself resented orders. Cardigan was fifty-seven years of age, and like Lucan, was a peace-time general. His resentment of his Divisional General had recently led him to make a rather petty complaint to Lord Raglan, who, quite rightly, said that complaints of this nature were strongly discouraged and that Lord Cardigan must remember his subordinate position to Lord Lucan. As may be gathered, however, by the morning of the Battle of Balaclava the relationship between these three all-important figures omened ill for England.

When Lord Raglan had witnessed from a hill some 800 feet above the plain the superb charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the retreat of the Russians to the Causeway Heights he immediately sent this instruction to Lord Lucan: "Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights. They will be supported by the infantry which have been ordered to advance on two fronts." Lord Lucan's response to this was to move the Light Brigade across the entry to the valley and to await the appearance of infantry. He was not prepared to trust Lord Raglan's words about infantry support until he actually saw them. Instead, he allowed the Russians nearly an hour in which to consolidate their position.

Lord Raglan became impatient. He had already been mystified by Lord Cardigan's failure to attack the flank of the retreating Russians (due to an obstinately rigid interpretation by Lord Cardigan of an order from Lord Lucan to "defend his position"), and now came this further unaccountable delay on the part of Lord Lucan. As he waited thus, white with a growing anger, a message was received to say that the Russians were making plans to remove the guns that they had captured on the heights.

This decided him. He called to his side his Quartermaster General, General Airey, and dictated a new message for Lord Lucan. "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of horse-artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." The man chosen to carry this message to Lord Lucan was the aide-de-camp of the quartermaster-general, one Captain Nolan.

It has been truly said of Nolan that he was "no common man." A skilled and experienced cavalry man himself he possessed one all-consuming idea - that cavalry could and should be allowed to accomplish anything. He had closely studied in theory and practice the art of cavalry manoeuvres and had grown unreservedly scornful of Lord Lucan's handling of his division. He was as deeply conscious of the value of the minutes that were being frittered away as was the commander-in-chief, and received the message from Lord Raglan with a corresponding enthusiasm and tore down the steep slope and across the plain - a man with a mission if ever there was one - to where Lord Lucan was posted.

He found the general mounted between the two brigades and speedily delivered the written instruction. Lord Lucan read it: he read it again; he thought; he brought all his critical faculties to bear on his commander's words.

"Useless," he declared summarily. What in heaven's name is he to make of the order? He points out to Nolan that he can see neither the enemy or guns and that, in any case, it is a hazardous and ill-conceived enterprise.

This criticism of his chief is too much for Captain Nolan. He had a poor enough opinion of this general without this crowning justification, and he turns on him in a tone ill befitting his position.

"Lord Raglan's orders are, that the cavalry should attack immediately!"

Stung by Nolan's manner, Lord Lucan flashes back:

"Attack, sir! Attack what? What guns, sir?"

Not to be outdone, Nolan flings his arm out dramatically, throws his head back and gives his parting shot.

"There, my lord, is your enemy. There are your guns!"

Eyes blaze for a moment and then, instead of putting the captain under arrest for insubordination - as might well have been excusable - Lord Lucan turns his back on him and trots to where Lord Cardigan is waiting with his Light Brigade.

Now it will have been crystal clear to readers that Lord Raglan's order was designed to prevent the Russians from carrying off the seven captured English guns on the heights to the right. In itself the action would not have been over difficult. Subsequent events made it certain that the Russian infantry were prepared to abandon the guns without much persuasion. Nevertheless, such are the dark and confusing effects of anger that Lord Lucan was prepared to accept Nolan's theatrical gesture and words as a serious topographical direction to the far end of the valley and to the batteries and men of the main Russian army. No wonder that Lord Cardigan ventured to point out the attendant dangers. No wonder that he looked like a saint about to suffer martyrdom. No wonder that his staff momentarily stared back at him as he said, "The brigade will advance."

The stage is set. Six hundred men and their officers prepare to act their part - to run the gauntlet of two prepared lines of fire with a goal before them of twelve Russian guns and the bulk of the Russian army.

"Some one had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the Six Hundred."

In the few moments that the brigade had to pause before advancing they stared straight ahead - eagerly but no doubt apprehensively - to where they could perceive the dark mass of Russian cavalry a mile and a quarter away. They were not to see them again for another five minutes and then it would be in very different circumstances - amid the crash of gunfire and the accompanying smoke and shout of battle.

Lord Cardigan, following the custom of an officer in command of a body of cavalry at the charge, places himself at the head of the brigade, about two horses' length in front of his staff and five horses' length in advance of his front line. Behind him, on his right, are the 13th Light Dragoons and, on his left, are the 17th Lancers led by Captain Morris, who, we note, is accompanied by his bosom friend Captain Nolan. In each of the uniforms of these two officers resides a letter written by the other to be forwarded in the event of death to their families. The dramatic sequel to this pact reads like something from a boys' book of incredible adventures, but neither men have the time and inclination to ruminate just now on the hazards of the charge. All thought is stilled except as to the goal that lies before them.

The front line is supported by two squadrons of the nth Hussars and that in turn is supported by a portion of the 8th Hussars and by the 4th Light Dragoons under Lord George Paget. In the latter's ears are ringing some words that Lord Cardigan has uttered to him only a few moments ago - "I expect your best support, mind, Lord George, your best support," and he is determined to carry out this injunction to the last degree - to death.

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