Charging into history

The Charge of the Light Brigade is often seen as a symbol of heroic failure, but a new book uses letters from soldiers to look again at this moment in British history. Chris Bond reports.

Writer and lecturer Antony Dawson, author of a new book - Letters from the Light Brigade: The British Cavalry in the Crimean War.

Into the Valley of Death

Rode the six hundred

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Cannon to the right of them

Cannon to the left of them.

Tennyson’s immortal lines, taken from his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, are still etched into the memory of many people today, 160 years after they were first written.

As well as being associated with a Victorian sense of duty and bravery, the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava, has also become a symbol of heroic failure. It took place at a moment in time when chivalric cavalry charges and bright, ostentatious uniforms were about to hit the brick wall of modern warfare. It was, as one historian put it, “the most lethal costume party in history”.

The Charge of the Light Brigade has long been a contentious subject among historians, with the supposed failings of the aristocratic generals coming in for the brunt of the criticism.

But the story’s enduring appeal is a legacy of the huge impact it initially had on the nation. For in many ways Crimea was the first media war with reporters sending back news of events in a way that hadn’t happened before.

As well as newspaper reports, a huge volume of letters were sent home by ordinary soldiers at the front which provide a unique insight into the battles and what life was like on the front line. They give us a different perspective from the diaries and memoirs of the upper classes who fought in the war.

Anthony Dawson, a Yorkshire-born archaeologist and historian, has spent more than a thousand hours of painstaking research collecting these letters and poring over the Victorian newspapers that originally published them. They form the basis of his new book – Letters from the Light Brigade: The British Cavalry in the Crimean War – which describe in detail what it was like to fight in the battles of Alma and Inkerman, the siege of Sebastopol, as well as the charge of the Light Brigade.

Many of the letters were written by Yorkshiremen to their families and friends and were published in local papers like the Leeds Mercury. They include graphic accounts of the fighting, of the terrible loss of men and horses shot and they describe, too, the miserable conditions with men dying as much from disease as from their wounds.

Private Samuel Walker, of the 8th Hussars, wrote to his brother John, in Leeds, on November 18, 1854. “Out of 360 men, we have 100 remaining; and I am sorry to say that our brother Light Cavalry shared the same fate. We have been fighting night and day ever since we have landed in the Crimea.” He refers to an encounter with 45,000 Cossacks who he describes as being “drunk as lords”. “Dear brother, you will be surprised when I tell you that I had three horses shot from under me, and yet escaped with so slight a wound myself.”

Walker doesn’t pull any punches about the human cost of battle: “The enemy being ten or more to one of us in the field, is the reason we lose so many gallant men. You would think it a curious sight to go over a battlefield the next day after a fight and witness the scene of 5,000 or 6,000 dead and dying.”

He goes on to write: “I think I had said enough about the horrors of war, to make you think how comfortable you are to have your comfortable bed to lie in every night, whilst your brother has not stretched his weary limbs in a bed this last eight months; nor does there appear any likelihood of doing so at present.” He describes the landscape as a “wild, barren country” but ends on a more optimistic note. “There’s a good time coming, give my kindest love to sister Mary and brother Ben.”

Private Robert Chambers, of the 11th Hussars, wrote home to his mother in Leeds on October 30, 1854, just five days after the Battle of Balaclava.

He is more critical of the decision to attack the enemy, calling it a “perfect madness” with “great slaughter” on both sides. “We started off in regiments at a gallop, and as soon as we neared the plain their terrific fire of artillery and musketry from the hills on each side opened on us, and a troop of guns ranged in front of us as we advanced. The plain was about two miles in length and two hundred yards wide, so you can form some idea how we were knocked over.”

Sergeant James Shaw, of the 13th Light Dragoons, wasn’t so fortunate. Writing from his hospital bed he says they faced “fearfully damp and cold” conditions, with “no grub” and “no tents”. He was injured during fighting which he describes to his brother back in West Yorkshire. “A ball struck my sword scabbard, doubled it up, passed through my horse, broke my spur, and wounded my right ankle, hit the man next to me, and wounded him worse than me. My horse never stirred again.”

He paints a grim picture. “Were you here, amongst 1,000 sick and wounded, you could indeed see the horrors of war. The sufferings of some are dreadful. I have not time – or rather I am not able – to sit up and tell you more, but with me I hope the worst is past, and that I shall soon be right again.”

These are just a snapshot of some of the many letters collated in the book by Dawson, who grew up in Wakefield and studied the Crimean War in detail while at Leeds University. “Historians tend to use the officers’ version of events and these letters show the thoughts of the ordinary soldier. If you read them you see they are very articulate, they aren’t the ‘scum of the Earth’ as the Duke of Wellington called them. They aren’t the working class of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell novels, many of these soldiers could read and write, reflecting the high literacy levels of the 1850s.”

He says the Charge of the Light Brigade is usually seen in isolation rather as part of a wider battle, and war. Of the 650 men who charged into battle following orders from Lord Cardigan, more than 400 came back. “The men don’t cast blame, if you read their letters most of them believe it was an honest mistake.”

While many soldiers were killed in action, more than 16,000 of them died as a result of diseases like dysentery during the course of the war. Dawson points out, too, that thousands of horses were killed. “It was the horses that suffered the highest casualties. Some people might not think horses were very important, but a cavalryman was nothing without his horse.”

It’s just one reason why he believes it’s time for a reappraisal, not only of this battle but the war itself. “It shows the heroism of the ordinary soldier and his horse because this was a human drama and an equine drama.”

It was also a war where British soldiers fought side by side with the French. “We live in a time of heightened European scepticism, but what we see with the Charge of the Light Brigade is our old enemy France galloping to the rescue of the British cavalry.”

n Letters from the Light Brigade: The British Cavalry in the Crimean War, published by Pen & Sword books, is out now priced £20.