A major conflict of the 19th century, the Crimean War claimed at least 750,000 lives, more than even the American Civil War, and had a profound impact on such renowned personalities as British nurse Florence Nightingale and Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

 

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The Charge of the Light Brigade

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

I

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.

 

II

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone 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.

 

III

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

Rode the six hundred.

 

IV

Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All the world wondered.

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right through the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reeled from the sabre stroke

 

 

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Shattered and sundered.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.

 

V

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell.

They that had fought so well

Came through the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.

 

VI

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Poetry Foundation

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45319/the-charge-of-the-light-brigade

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade

 

A major conflict of the 19th century, the Crimean War claimed at least 750,000 lives, more than

even the American Civil War, and had a profound impact on such renowned personalities as

British nurse Florence Nightingale and Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It got its start in and around

Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, where Orthodox Christian and Catholic monks had

been engaging in fierce, sometimes deadly brawls for years over who would control various holy

sites. Following one such violent squabble in 1852, Czar Nicholas I of Russia, a self-proclaimed

defender of Orthodox Christianity, demanded the right to exercise protection over the Ottoman

Empire’s millions of Christian subjects. Upon being rejected, he then sent his army, the largest

 

 

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in the world, to occupy two Ottoman principalities in present-day Romania. The czar also

purportedly had his eyes on Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, which if taken would give his

navy unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea. Unnerved by this expansionism, Britain and

France sent their own warships to the area and vowed to defend Ottoman sovereignty.

Fighting officially broke out in October 1853, and the following month the Russians decimated

the Ottoman fleet in a surprise attack. But although Nicholas referred to the declining Ottoman

Empire as the “sick man of Europe,” his land forces made little progress in their push south,

underscored by the failed siege of a fortress in present-day Bulgaria. Meanwhile, in March 1854,

Britain and France declared war and immediately bombarded the then-Russian city of Odessa.

With Austria likewise threatening to jump into the fray, Nicholas withdrew from Romania.

Rather than declare victory, however, Britain and France decided to punitively target the Russian

naval base in Sevastopol, located on the Crimean Peninsula. On September 13, 1854, a joint

allied force of over 60,000 troops sailed into Kalamita Bay, about 33 miles north of their

objective. Due to stormy weather, it took five days for them to fully disembark. Believing the

conflict would be over quickly, they brought neither winter clothing nor medical supplies. They

moreover lacked accurate maps, had little idea how many Russian troops opposed them and

flouted the dietary restrictions of the Muslim Ottoman soldiers within their ranks. To make

matters worse, a cholera outbreak erupted.

 

Nonetheless, the British and French defeated the Russians in their first run-in near the Alma

River, causing a panicked retreat with the help of their long-range Minié rifles. They then

commenced a roundabout march to Sevastopol, where they spent two-and-a-half weeks digging

trenches and lugging artillery into position prior to initiating a bombardment of the city on

October 17. By that time, however, the Russians had significantly strengthened their defenses.

After holding out for eight days, they tried to break the siege with a dawn attack on Britain’s

supply base in the nearby fishing village of Balaclava. That morning, having forced Ottoman

troops to abandon four defensive redoubts, they were able to occupy the Causeway Heights just

outside town. But they failed to progress any further thanks to a regiment of Scottish

highlanders and the Heavy Brigade, each of which repelled a Russian advance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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With Balaclava now safe, Lord Fitzroy Somerset Raglan, the British commander-in-chief in

Crimea, turned his attention back to the Causeway Heights, where he believed the Russians were

attempting to make off with some of his artillery guns. He ordered the cavalry, consisting of

both the Heavy and Light brigades, to advance with infantry support “and take advantage of any

opportunity to recover” the lost ground. Lord Raglan expected the cavalrymen to move

immediately, with the infantry to come later. But George Bingham, the earl of Lucan, who

commanded the cavalry, thought he wanted them to attack together. As a result, Lucan’s men sat

around for 45 minutes waiting for the infantry to arrive. At that point, Raglan issued a new

order, telling the cavalry to “advance rapidly to the front … and try to prevent the enemy

carrying away the guns.” From his vantage point, however, Lucan could not see any guns being

removed. Confused, he asked Raglan’s aide-de-camp where to attack, but instead of pointing to

the Causeway Heights, the aide allegedly waved his arm in the direction of a Russian artillery

battery at the far end of an exposed valley.

 

Lucan next approached his brother-in-law James Brudenell, the earl of Cardigan, who

commanded the Light Brigade. The two men loathed each other so much they were barely on

speaking terms. And neither was apparently respected by the troops. One officer in the Light

Brigade went so far as to call them both “fools.” Cardigan, he wrote in a letter home, “has as

much brains as my boot. He is only equaled in want of intellect by his relation the earl of

Lucan.” Though perturbed by Raglan’s order, Lucan and Cardigan obeyed it without first

checking back in to make sure they understood it correctly. At their bidding, the roughly 670

members of the Light Brigade drew their sabers and lances and began their infamous mile-and-a-

quarter-long charge with Russians shooting at them from three directions (though never from all

three at once). The first man to fall was Raglan’s aide-de-camp. Another soldier then had “his

head clean carried off by a round shot, yet for about 30 yards further the headless body kept in

the saddle,” according to a survivor. Other survivors spoke of being splattered with horse blood,

of watching their companions lose limbs, of seeing brains on the ground and of going through

smoke so thick it was like “riding into the mouth of a volcano.”

 

The Heavy Brigade, which, its name notwithstanding, resembled the Light Brigade except with

regard to uniform color, was supposed to follow in support but only went a short way down the

valley before Lucan directed it to turn back. Somehow, the Light Brigade reached its destination

anyway, crashing into the enemy lines with a vengeance. A few Russians even shot at their own

comrades in a desperate bid to clear an escape route. The Light Brigade’s members didn’t hold

the ground for long, though, before being forced to stagger back from whence they came. En

route, Russian artillery pounded away again from the

 

Causeway Heights—but not from the other two sides, as the Light Brigade had taken out one

battery itself and the French had taken out another—while Russian cavalrymen attempted to

entrap them. In the end, of the roughly 670 Light Brigade soldiers, about 110 were killed and 160

were wounded, a 40 percent casualty rate. They also lost approximately 375 horses.

Despite failing to overrun Balaclava, the Russians claimed victory in the battle, parading their

captured artillery guns through Sevastopol. Yet they would surrender the city and naval base

nearly a year later, after which they agreed to give up a small chunk of territory and to keep their

warships out of the Black Sea in exchange for peace. Meanwhile, the Light Brigade’s exploits

had already become legendary in Britain, thanks largely to Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The

 

 

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Charge of the Light Brigade.” Named poet laureate a few years earlier by Queen Victoria, he

praised the bravery of the men as they rode into the “valley of death.” His poem “The Charge of

the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava,” on the other hand, never quite captured the public’s

imagination.