Half A League! Half A League! Half A League Onward!

Painting of the Charge of the Light Brigade

A slight detour from the ordinary topic on this blog. October 25th is one of my favorite days in the year because it is one of those days in history in which everything seems to happen... At least some of my favorite historical events. The Battle of Agincourt, between the English and French 1415,  is one which cannot be forgotten. William Shakespeare so immortalized the battle in his epic play, Henry V, that we unwittingly refer to it in regular conversation, often quoting the St. Crispin’s Day speech and the phrase, “band of brothers.”

A photograph taken by Roger Fenton of the survivors of the 13th Light Dragoons. 

At the top of my list is the infamous Charge of the British Light Calvary during the Battle of Balaclava, October 25, 1854, where the English had banded together with the French and Turks against the Russians. Though it is little known today, and would hardly be at all if it wasn’t for Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the charge and the events surrounding it are just fascinating, especially when you understand the true effect the war had on the British military system, future wars, and the way we think about military leadership. 

During the charge, Private Frederick Melrose, 17th Lancers, declared in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Henry V, “What man here would ask another man from England?” right before he was shot and killed by Russian fire. And like Private Melrose, not a man in the charge would have wished for “one more.” 

Centre: Sergeant James Mustard of the 17th Lancers and last survivor of the charge. He died February 1916.

Though separated by hundreds of years, both events were fought on same day and are remembered today in magnificent poetry. 

The Charge of the Light Brigade
By 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 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.

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.

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
   Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
   Not the six hundred.

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.

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!