poetry

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Crimea has very much been in the news lately, and many have made comparisons between Russia’s reasons for intervening in that region in 2014 and its reasons for doing so in 1853, which triggered the Crimean War (1853-1856). So it seems apropos to look back on the most famous episode that war: the charge of the Light Brigade of British Cavalry under Major General James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan and the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. (I also can’t help but wonder if Lord Cardigan was wearing a button-up sweater during the attack!).

Where it ties into artillery is that the cavalry was ordered to attack Russian gun positions, though there is some confusion about what the order actually was or where the attack was intended to take place. The British attacked up a valley and found themselves faced with Russian batteries to their front and flanks–hence the repeated refrain of “Cannon to right of them / Cannon to left of them / Cannon in front of them / Volley’d and thunder’d.” The Russians subjected the cavalry to withering direct fire; the British suffered around 670 casualties. Six weeks later, Tennyson’s poem was published.

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 soldiers knew
Some one had blunder’d:
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.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and 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.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade, 25th Oct. 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan, by William Simpson. Simpson depicts the battle from the Russian point of view.

Charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade, 25th Oct. 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan, by William Simpson. Simpson depicts the battle from the Russian point of view.