“Charge of the Light Brigade”

[Gabby Ongies]

Literary inspiration can come from anywhere – seeing a beautiful sunset, experiencing heartache, or waking from a strange dream. Yet, there are some events that always give life to new literature, with war being one of the most prominent. One of the most famous examples of war-inspired literature is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1854 poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Detailing the British disaster at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, the poem describes not the entirety of the battle, but merely the Light Brigade’s point of view, the men who were at the center of the British blunder. However, while the poem is mainly about British bravery and nobility, the sites of the battle – Balaclava and Sevastopol, Ukraine – are immortalized, and often draw tourists to see the place that inspired the great poem. Although set on the battlefield of days long gone, the poem still resonates with the public over a century later.

The Battle of Balaclava took place on 25 October 1854, and was an indecisive battle because the Russians failed to take Balaclava, which the British, French and Turkish militaries were using as a supply port, and the British lost their best supply road between Balaclava and Sevastopol, the Russian stronghold that the British were trying to besiege (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The Allies decided to besiege Sevastopol instead of attempting a direct assault, and in this siege, the British and French armies split, leaving the British responsible for the defense of the right flank, even though they were undermanned. Such a vulnerable position was quickly taken advantage of by Russian General Liprandi, who hoped to disrupt the supply route between Balaclava and the rest of the British troops. Launching both artillery and infantry attacks on the Ottoman forces, the Russian army forced a retreat to the Allies second defensive line; however, this line of troops held, later being immortalized as the “Thin Red Line.” The British Heavy Brigade also pushed back the Russians, giving the Allied forces an upper-hand in the battle (Battle of Balaclava).

As the Russian cavalry retreated into the North Valley, Lord Ragan, commander of the British forces, saw an opportunity to attack and gain Russian artillery. The order for the Light Brigade to attack was sent with Captain Lewis Nolan, which proved to be a mistake. The orders were unclear to the Earl of Lucan, who was leading the Light Brigade, and he asked Nolan for clarification on his objective; however, in his arrogance and dislike for the Earl, Nolan pointed vaguely to the Russian cavalry and their guns, saying “There is your enemy. There are your guns, My Lord.” Thus, the Earl led the Light Brigade into the valley, a dangerous position to be in during battle (Britishbattles.com) As the Light Brigade rushed into the valley, Nolan appeared to try and stop the brigade from taking off in that direction, perhaps realizing is error, but was killed by an artillery shell and unable to stop the charge. The brigade charged through the valley, coming under heavy artillery fire, but still managing to engage the Russian cavalry. The aftermath of the battle ended with the Light Brigade suffering great losses, with 278 killed, wounded or missing (Charge of the Light Brigade).

Accounts of the Battle of Balaclava, and especially the actions of the Light Brigade reached the United Kingdom, where poet laureate Tennyson read the accounts and turned them into a poem. While only six stanzas long, each stanza tells a different part of the charge, from the initial order of the attack, to the realization that the order was a mistake, the actual battle itself (encompassing two stanzas), the retreat, and lastly the memory of the bravery of the Light Brigade. The poem quickly gained popularity, even amongst the soldiers in the Crimea, and became a mainstay in British literature (The Charge of the Light Brigade (poem)). While the most notable literary work on the Crimean War, other authors have written their own accounts of battles, including Leo Tolstoy and his work Sevastopol Sketches, works of historical fiction recording his personal experiences during the Siege of Sevastopol (Sevastopol Sketches). However, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is at the top of the list, not only of literature tied to the Crimean War, but of war literature overall.

Today, the Battle of Balaclava and the ill-fated charge live on through battlefield tours sponsored by both the Ukrainian and British governments. One such tour is run by the War Research Society in Britain, which travels throughout Europe and the world in an effort to retrace former British military campaigns. The Crimean War battlefield tours take those interested to see the Alma, Sevastopol, Inkerman, Balaclava and Yalta battlefields, as well as through museums and other sites in the area (Battlefieldtours.co.uk). What once was considered a military disaster has now become but a mere curiosity to history lovers wanting to see where “The Charge of the Light Brigade” took place.

While the majority of the public does not remember the Battle of Balaclava itself, the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” keeps the memory of the battle alive, albeit only a small part of the battle itself. The memorialization of battles and wartime heroics in literature is nothing new; however, it is a great way to capture the emotions of the battlefield and portray it to the masses. This ensures that, while the memory of the historical events may be forgotten, the emotions of war live on, and may help others think twice before going to war. There is the risk, though, that literature may glorify the horrors of war, and such glorification can lead to distorted views on warfare and the realities of war. Thus, using literature to remember war must be done carefully, in order to prevent the glorification of an inglorious thing.


The Charge of the Light Brigade

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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 soldier knew
Someone 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 turn’d 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 wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Copied from Poems of Alfred Tennyson (J. E. Tilton and Company, Boston, 1870)


Works Cited:

  • BritishBattles.com, “The Battle of Balaclava – Crimean War.” Last modified 2010. Accessed May 4, 2012. www.britishbattles.com/crimean-war/balaclava.htm.
  • The War Research Society, “CRIMEA: Crimean War Battlefield Tours .” Last modified 2012. Accessed May 4, 2012. http://www.battlefieldtours.co.uk/tours3c.htm.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Battle of Balaklava,” accessed May 04, 2012, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/49744/Battle-of-Balaklava.
  • Wikipedia, “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Last modified April 29, 2012. Accessed May 3, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_of_the_Light_Brigade.
  • Wikipedia, “The Charge of the Light Brigade (poem).” Last modified April 25, 2012. Accessed May 3, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Charge_of_the_Light_Brigade_(poem).
  • Wikipedia, “Battle of Balaclava.” Last modified April 18, 2012. Accessed May 3, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Balaclava.
  • Wikipedia, “Sevastopol Sketches.” Last modified April 4, 2012. Accessed May 3, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sevastapol_Sketches.