The Charge of the Light Brigade

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The Charge of the Light Brigade was an attack by the British light cavalry on the Russian artillery at the battle of Balaclava (25th October 1854), one of the battles of the Crimean War (1853-1856). The ill-fated attack was the subject of a poem entitled 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), at the time Poet Laureate.

In the mid nineteenth century the Russian Empire wished to gain control of strategic territory around the Sea of Marmara at the entrance to the Black Sea, territory which at that time lay within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War began in 1853 when Ottoman Turkey refused to recognise the Russian claim to protect members of the Christian Orthodox Church within the Muslim Ottoman Empire. In May of the following year Great Britain and France, fearful of any increase in Russian power, entered the war on the side of Turkey and sent armies to the Crimea, the peninsula on the northern shore of the Black Sea, where the Russians had a naval base at Sevastopol. It was the principal aim of the British, French, and Turkish forces to dislodge the Russians from this position.

The battle of Balaclava, not far from Sevastopol, involved the armies of all the combatant nations, and the Charge of the Light Brigade, which formed part of the battle, was a frontal attack by the British light cavalry (the Light Brigade), under Lord Cardigan, on a Russian artillery battery. The attack was doomed from the start and resulted in terrible casualties, with 110 dead and 127 wounded out of the 637 cavalrymen who took part, and 375 horses killed. In fact, the charge was the result of a mistake. The British commander, Lord Raglan, intended the Light Brigade to attack a different artillery battery, which was in retreat and would have been a more appropriate target, but the order was miscommunicated to Lord Cardigan.

The battle of Balaclava was a Russian victory, but in later battles, e.g., at Inkerman, the Russians were defeated, and they were eventually forced to abandon their naval base at Sevastopol. In 1856 by the Treaty of Paris Tsar Alexander II renounced the Russian claim to act as protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Tennyson's narrative poem, composed soon after the battle of Balaclava, celebrated the heroism of the cavalrymen and did not conceal the fact that the charge was the result of a tragic mistake. The dactylic metre in which the poem is written seems to represent the sound of the horses' hooves as the cavalry charged. Here is the second of the six stanzas of the poem:

'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.

In 1890 Tennyson recited 'The Charge of the LIght Brigade' onto a wax cylinder, and the recording may still be heard today at, e.g., www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkqUq26z1CE.