2004 October 25

"When can their glory fade?"

One hundred and fifty years ago today, October 25, 1854, into the valley of Death rode the six hundred. At the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean war, the 13th Hussars of the British Army under Lord Cardigan made perhaps the last famous cavalry charge in history, along a suicidal mile length of valley defended by not one but three Russian artillery batteries. The intended order was for them to attack a different target, but the general was on high ground, and did not realize that down in the valley, Cardigan could not see the one he meant. Cardigan queried the order, but when it was confirmed, he mounted and bravely rode. This was the Charge of the Light Brigade.

NPR had a bit on it when I was in the car heading up to New Hampshire (went hiking in Franconia Notch, and it was a gorgeous day), which was interesting both from a military-history and a literary perspective. It turns out that while the Light Brigade itself was more than decimated -- 1-2 hundred out of 600 killed, plus almost all the horses -- they actually succeeded at capturing the guns they went after, and their suicidal bravery so impressed the Russians that apparently you couldn't get Russian troops to stand against British cavalry for six months after. Literarily, NPR had an actor read Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade", and then played a hundred-year old recording of the actual brigade trumpeter playing the actual trumpet he'd sounded that morning at Balaclava. It was so ridiculously glorious I nearly cried. I'm not entirely sure I understand it, but this sort of voice from the past always chokes me up. "Flanders Fields" often does the same thing.


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

They haven't faded quite yet.

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