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The Charge of the Light Brigade page 2

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The Heavy Brigade was in theory to support this charge, but it seems probable to all who can see, that the connection between the two brigades is going to become an ever widening one. Lord Lucan may see fit to sacrifice one of his two brigades but even he is going to hesitate about both.

Completely unlike the ordinary person's idea of a charge, the pace set by Lord Cardigan is that of a gentle trot and for a while the scene resembles a review in some far more peaceful part of the world. The Russians on both heights watch the progress of the English for a hundred paces or so. They cannot believe that they intend to ride straight down the valley. On the Causeway Heights two guns are even abandoned because of a suspicion of some devilishly subtle encircling move. And then with a gasp of astonishment they see what Fate is placing in their hands. The English are either madmen or ignorant fools! The Russians laugh, they train their guns and rifles on to the red coats, and prepare for a slaughter such as they have never before participated in.

But some one else perceives at the same moment the disaster that threatens the Light Brigade. Captain Nolan shouts excitedly at Captain Morris and dashes away right across the front of the brigade and its general, waving his sword wildly towards the Causeway Heights and shouting words that no one can distinguish. He at least knows the true destination of the brigade. But Fate is not to be denied. The Russian's first shell has exploded and a fragment tears its way into Nolan's heart. He retains his posture as if transfixed and as the horse wheels about in terror and the sword, arm is still raised high a shriek bursts forth from Nolan such as chills the hearts of even those brave men of the Light Brigade. Little do they realise that that cry is a death sentence to many of them; at this moment it is only thought that they are witnessing a tragedy of extravagant insubordination.

And so the advance proceeds under an ever-growing fire. Casualties are experienced at the rate of about forty a minute. Lord Cardigan picks out the centre of the battery ahead and makes for it with all the intent of a bowler aiming at the middle stump. The pace gathers only the very slightest and when an officer of the Lancers comes up to Cardigan's side beseeching him to hasten under the murderous fire he places his sword across the front of the captain ordering him to keep his position. But the men are not to be restrained so easily. As men and horses are killed again and again the ranks are disorganised and it becomes impossible to retain the formation desired by Cardigan's orderly mind. With half a mile to go all touch is lost with the supporting Heavy Brigade and at a hundred yards a salvo from the batteries produces the death or glory charge of Tennyson's poem –

"Into the jaws of Death
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the Six Hundred.
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered."

Lord Cardigan's three aide-de-camps have been shot down, and quite alone he charges at the gun he has selected from the start. When ten yards away it discharges and at the torrent of flame his horse shies safely between two guns into all the smoke and confusion of the battery, the limber carriages and the tumbrils. His great pace carries him onward until he pulls up twenty yards short of a great mass of Russian cavalry. They seem to stare at Cardigan more in curiosity than with warlike intent and only two Cossacks come forward as if to capture him. They had mistaken their man. He parries their lances with his sword and though receiving a slight wound in the hip turns about to find his front line. Much to his surprise he can see none of his men amid the smoke and concludes sadly that all but a few have been annihilated. To his left and right he can discern movements of troops, but as he has no idea as to what precisely is happening he goes slowly back up the valley - his duty of leading the attack he deems to be over.

Captain Morris's men have slightly outflanked the Russian battery and he and twenty Lancers charge straight into a mass of many hundred Russians. Like Scarlett's charge of three hundred this little body confuses the many times larger one and everywhere are jostling, rearing horses. The supporting English lines are, moreover, by this time through the battery and all along their front the Cossacks are suffering from similar violent "pin-pricks." Finally, the incredible fact becomes apparent that nearly three thousand Russians are retreating in disorder before little over two hundred Englishmen (for that is all that is left by now of the Light Brigade). The retreat of the Russians is marked by a series of astonishing scenes of panic. One of their colonels actually rides forward and surrenders his sword to a young English lieutenant who with a bewildered air hands it to a trooper. Russian gunners seek to draw away the guns with the ferocity of men harassed by overwhelming odds. The retreating cavalrymen charge into their supporting lines and back they all flee in confusion until they reach a position held by their own infantrymen.

The Light Brigade officers turn to their rear hoping to see the Heavy Brigade coming to finish off this remarkable action. But Lord Lucan has seen fit to withdraw the "Heavies" when they seemed threatened with the same fate as was overtaking the brave men in front and now, from the folds of the Causeway Heights, are issuing not the Heavy Brigade but three squadrons of Russian cavalry that have been waiting for their opportunity. The right wing of the English remnants form under Colonel Shewell and determine to force their way through this threat from the rear. Seventy men with the gallant colonel at their head rush straight at the 300 Russians who repeat the mistake of receiving a dashing charge at the halt. The miraculous occurs once more; the Russians fail to withstand the fury of the little band and break in confusion, letting the Englishmen through. The most they can do is to kill or capture a few wounded stragglers while the remainder of the seventy find their way to safety. On the other wing of the English forces Lord George Paget is faced with a similar though more difficult problem. The retreating Russians realised at long last that what they were being routed by was a band of seventy Englishmen. Thereupon they halted and prepared to surround them. In the face of this threat Lord George turned his men for home, but being followed by a fresher, faster and vast body of horsemen he decided that retreat was out of the question. He therefore shouts with the whole power of his voice, "If you don't front, my boys, we are done!" The immediate effect of the halt is to make the hesitant Russians stop and consider their position. But at the same moment Lord George sees his rear cut off by a similar group of 400 horsemen as that which threatened Colonel Shewell. Caught between two fires he instantly decides to attack the threat at his rear - "Men, you must go about, and do the best you can!" And yet again a furious drive by a little group of Englishmen is too much for a large band of Russians at the halt. This time the Englishmen rush clean by the Russians, warding off a flank attack by getting so close to their enemy as to render a real charge from them impossible. Small wonder is it that one officer said afterwards, "We got by them - how I know not. It is a mystery to me.... There is one explanation, and one only - the hand of God was upon us!"

Thus do the Light Brigade return. For a while they are harassed by fire from the Causeway Heights (the French have silenced the batteries on the opposite hills), but more and more exhausted men and horses make their way safely to the other end of the valley where the Heavy Brigade are waiting with anxious faces.

The whole charge has taken twenty minutes - approximately eight minutes advancing and returning and four for actual contact with the Russians. Lord Cardigan was one of the first to return and the first words he utters are directed against poor Nolan whom he said "rode to the rear screaming like a woman." Little did he realise that man had given his life in a vain endeavour to prevent the tragedy of that morning. Nolan lies not far away with Morris's letter in his pocket and it is taken out and in the absence of Morris is forwarded to his young wife. But Morris is not dead. He was taken prisoner by some Cossacks with three deep wounds in his head; escaped in the confusion; lay unconscious for a while when dragged along by a terrified horse; awoke to seize another horse only to have that shot from under him and fall on him; and finally struggled up the hill towards his friends. He can go no farther, however, and finds himself close to the dead body of an English staff-officer. He perceives at once that it is none other than that of his friend Nolan, and, completely exhausted, and overcome by this culminating blow, he sinks down unconscious with a bloody and battered head, a broken arm and broken ribs. (Morris survived this amazing experience, but Fate was to have the last laugh; he succumbed four years later to the relatively gentle foe of the Indian climate!)

And now comes the tragic business of the roll call. The result is as bad as one could imagine. Of the 673 horsemen that went into action only 195 are able to assemble for parade Stragglers and dismounted riders are still arriving in ones and twos but some 250 men have been either killed or wounded and 475 dead horses lie in the valley.

Lord Cardigan looks at his remnants and says sadly but with a sense of injustice in his voice, "Men, it is a mad-brained trick, but it is no fault of mine." The reply conies back at once, "Never mind, my lord, we are ready to go again!" But the general assures them, "No, no men! you have done enough." Such language might strike many as a poor reward to the gallant men, but they knew Cardigan to be a man of few words and remembered the sight of his charging alone into the Russian battery.

Cardigan is determined that the blame shall be brought home to the right quarters - to that man with whom he now feels sure he has a cause for righteous indignation. When Lord Raglan flashes at him in anger, "What do you mean, sir, by attacking a battery in front, contrary to all the usages of warfare and the. customs of the service?" he answers, "My lord I hope you will not blame me, for I received the order to attack from my superior officer in front of the troops," and proceeds to explain matters so convincingly that Lord Raglan's anger is directed in an intensified form against Lord Lucan. On the latter's appearance a few moments later the commander-in-chief greets him curtly with these six stinging words - "You have lost the Light Brigade." In vain does Lucan attempt to justify himself by saying he had carried out the attack in the direction indicated by Nolan. Even if this was so, says Lord Raglan, he was a lieutenant-general and should have exercised his discretion.

The sequel is inevitable: Lord Lucan is forced to resign his command and recalled to England. Few can doubt that by this justice was done, though with Nolan dead Lucan was able to argue his case so effectively that critics have been unable to condemn him unanimously. His defence rests largely on the theatrical gesture with which Nolan had said, "There, my lord, is your enemy! there are your guns!" and considering that neither men could see enemy or guns and that Nolan perfectly understood the message he had delivered, can we reasonably accept Lucan's explanation? We cannot forget that Lucan had no reputation for obeying orders without question, and if he did trust Nolan's spontaneous fling of the arm then we must assume a moment of unusual naivete on the general's part.

But Lucan's recall was a trivial incident compared with the tragedy which we had witnessed. Tragedy? Yes, but a glorious triumph. A triumph such as was gained by the Christians thrown to the lions for the amusement of the Roman crowds, an inspiration in death such as was created by the loss of "The Birkenhead," a memory which should make every British heart beat quicker, whether pacifist or not. For the men who charged that morning were not responsible for a war, they were not concerned with the intrigues of politicians, but brave men who voluntarily undertook to endure the hardships of their adventurous calling, even unto death. The memory of those men who so nearly wrested victory from overwhelming odds remains an immortal testimony to the spirit that has made England great.

"When can their glory fade?...
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble Six Hundred."

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