Friday, December 22, 2006

"Charge of The Light Brigade"

(Guest blogged by Giant Sotong)

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:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's 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.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson


A slip of the keyboard gave away my fondness for narrative poems, which included Robert Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Tennyson's Charge of The Light Brigade.

Charge was a bit more memorable because it commemorates an event that took place in one of the many battles fought during the Crimean War. From the moment I learned to read, I found fact more fascinating than fiction. This was evident in the number of encyclopaedias at home, one of which mentioned the infamous charge ("...the 600-odd riders charged towards the wrong guns!").

I first Tennyson's "account" of the charge during secondary school; the poem was part of a comprehension exercise. I vaguely remember flipping through all my English books looking for poetry and excerpts from books, more out of boredom than anything else; it was the only subject I excelled in without having to study. But I digress.

So, what was the Charge?

In the 19th century, an alliance of British, French and Turkish soldiers faced off the Russians in the Crimean War. The battle which saw Tennyson's Charge was to prevent the port of Balaclava, the British supply base, from falling into Russian hands. At one point during the battle, Russian soldiers managed to overrun a position manned by some Turks and made off with a small cache of British cannons. The Light Brigade, a detachment of lightly armed cavalry, was sent to retrieve the hardware.

However, the army commander who gave the order forgot to take the terrain into account. While he could follow the thieving Russians from his vantage point high above the battlefield, that path was not visible to the Light Brigade. They ended up charging into a narrow valley bristling with a live battery of guns manned by the Russian Don Cossacks. The army commander could only watch as the cavalry rode towards their doom.

Fortunately for the Light Brigade, all wasn't lost. The Don Cossacks, caught off-guard by the cavalry's reckless manoeuvre, didn't score as many kills as they should have. Unable to retrieve the stolen guns, the Light Brigade had to make do with the Don Cossacks.

While the Charge completely freaked out the Russians, it was less well-received at home. The usual finger-pointing and drama took place over who was to blame. It's all depressing when you realise all this hasn't changed much after two centuries. Nobody chose to fault the soldiers, who were eulogised by press and poet alike.

Warfare has since evolved, but the factors that made the Charge possible still haunts today's armies. When it eventually ends, who will pay homage to the US' Noble Three Thousand (and Counting)?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What became of the surviving men of the this heroic brigade? It is always worth to accompany a retelling of Lord Tennyson's Charge with Rudyard Kipling's rejoinder, in which he reminds us of the ultimate fate of The Last of the Light Brigade:

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!


and how they went to see "the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song", who could only be the poet-laureate Lord Tennyson.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.

"No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

Such is the fate of those who suffer from military gaffes, where is honour in dying for a foolish cause? ... like the Americans' misadventure in Iraq, which you very appropriately mention, Giant Sotong. Speaking of the US' Noble Three Thousand, the Dec. 11 2006 issue of Time carries an article with the following statistics: during World War II 464 Medals of Honor were awarded while in the Iraq war, a war that has lasted the same length of time, only two has been awarded so far. 8,716 service crosses were given during W.W. II and only 26 so far in Iraq.

Yes, wars are fought differently now, and it is harder to display valour when you are shooting silly-string at tripwires, but it is always the same for the men on the ground:

Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die...

9:20 PM, December 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, many thanks to Sharon for putting this up. I thought it wouldn't make the cut 8-)

There is no poem eloquent enough to describe the tragedy of our times, let alone theirs. Another thing nobody mentioned was how the English treated their Turkish allies in that war.

Do we ever learn?

12:12 AM, December 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why wouldn't it make the cut? :-)

Here's the Iron Maiden video of The Trooper, based on the story.


The horse he sweats with fear we break to run
The mighty roar of the russian guns
And as we race towards the human wall
The screams of pain as my comrades fall

We hurdle bodies that lay on the ground
And the russians fire another round
We get so near yet so far away
We wont live to fight another day


Anyway, you certainly led me down a trail.

From what I understand, the British got sucked into the war when a little tiff between the Ottoman Turks and the Russians went awry. Plus the Turkish navy seems to get whupped every other day while British needs its trade access to India through the Ottoman empire intact. It shouldn't even have been a war if not for the pride of the men. and the religious undercurrents in all this.

But I'm still not sure what you mean by how the Brits treated their allies -- Certainly I don't imagine it to be well.

5:01 AM, December 24, 2006  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

As I was telling Sharon, please thank Giant Sotong on our behalf... :) Well, I will say it now in person:

Thanks, Giant Sotong!

Another nice war poem posting on this blog is by Machinist who discussed Thomas Hardy's "Channel Firing", which has been very popular if I might add, :)

12:53 PM, December 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm no literature grad or poet. Poetry is one of a few subjects that intimidate me. But I appreciate being given the opportunity to contribute. Thanks again.

And no, Machinist, they weren't treated well at all. War is such a horrid subject for poetry. Why don't more people wax lyrical over daisies, milkmaids and pandas?

1:32 PM, December 26, 2006  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

Oh, that doesn't matter...

Most peoplle on this blog aren't lit grads, if that is your concern. So, poetry isn't that intimidating after all, eh?

Well, on the subject of war, shouldn't poetry engage with the horrors of our humanity as well, rather than gloss over them? That's poetry - beauty and ugliness, joys and tears, love and hatred - everything that is part of us, our world and our very being within it.

2:37 PM, December 26, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i add my thanks again giant sotong ... and it was lovely to see you saturday even if i was blur at first about who you were and then proceeded to have exactly the same coversation with you as at that mph do! who is blurrest, thee or me? don't answer!

i like the way you show how this poem means something personal to you and how you relate it to present day circumstances. that's what poetry is all about. it clicks with us or it doesn't.

i remember reading it at college when i was studying tennyson as part of a module on victorian poetry - i love the rollicking rhythm of it, the perfect rhymes - you don't just see the battle in your head - read it aloud and you're almost participating! very stirring stuff.

6:31 PM, December 26, 2006  

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