When people seek poems about soldiers valiantly facing death, they often turn to “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s little wonder. The poet was so moved when he received news of the battle that inspired his work, he wrote the poem in a single day. The British journal, “The Examiner,” published it a few weeks later in December, 1854.
The charge that led Lord Tennyson to put pen to paper occurred during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. A small band of 670 soldiers received orders to attack a Russian cavalry of 5,240 heavily armed men.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” probably would have been doomed even if the numbers had been more equal. The Light Brigade got its name because its soldiers carried only light weaponry like a saber or a pistol. They also had little protection. Light units were mainly used for communication, reconnaissance and skirmishes. And every soldier knew it.
As Lord Tennyson wrote in “The Charge of the Light Brigade”
“’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.”
Later, when all was said and done, it became clear that the order to charge had been a mistake. The man who carried the orders, Captain Louis Nolan, misunderstood a commander who was trying to order the Light Brigade to stay away from the battle. Nolan died during the charge. Had he lived, there were officers who said he would have faced court martial. Then again, it’s always easy to blame the dead.
The Light Brigade suffered heavy losses with 118 killed, 127 wounded and at least 60 soldiers taken prisoner. Many of the horses were also killed. In the end, only 195 teams of men and horses remained.
The British public thought the soldiers in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” showed true courage in riding to their deaths, even though they knew the order to attack was a mistake. Families who had lost loved ones in the charge were highly honored, and Hollywood has paid tribute to these soldiers in at least two films.
I have to admit to having a bit of a problem, though, both with the poem and with the event that inspired it. On the one hand, the soldiers were brave to follow orders into what they clearly knew was a massacre. On the other hand, it seems unwise to choose certain destruction over questioning poor judgment. Not challenging the command to charge was not even sound judgment from a military point of view. The armed services were badly outgunned as it was. And they could not afford to lose so many men and horses. In addition, in the 1940s, we all learned far too well the harm that can come from following orders without questioning them.
In the end, though, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is an epic poem that commemorates a point in history that we might otherwise forget. It is also a fine memorial to the soldiers that died in the charge, and one that their ancestors can appreciate.