“HALF a league, half a league, half a league onward, all in the valley of Death rode the six hundred.”
These words were from the famous 1870 poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, immortalised the exploits of the band of 600 soldiers who charged into the “Valley of Death” during the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854.
Now, three medals of one Yorkshire soldier, who trumpeted the ill-fated charge, have been sold at auction for about £11,000 to a private collector.
One of the medals awarded to Private William Pearson, from Doncaster, was for bravery in the Crimea where he rode with the 17th Lancers, nicknamed the “Death or Glory Boys”, and was one of the trumpeters who sounded the charge towards the Russian cannon.
It was one of many brave acts he would perform in his life.
After fighting off four Russian Cossacks, and being badly wounded in the process, he returned to base where he was taken to Scutari hospital, where he was treated by “The Lady With the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale.
He returned home to a hero’s welcome and later became a jailer at York Castle. He died in 1909, aged 84.
It was the extraordinary achievements of this participant in the doomed charge, led by Lord Cardigan, that saw the medals he won sold for such a high price. The Charge of the Light Brigade has long been romanticised as the ultimate act of bravery by a select and noble band of soldiers.
The medals, which were put up for auction by Pte Pearson’s descendants, were sold with the original parchment of Pte Pearson’s discharge, an ambrotype (an early kind of photograph on a sheet of glass) in uniform from the Crimea and two photographs of him after leaving the army posing with his medals.
Nimrod Dix, from Dix Noonan Webb the auctioneers who handled the sale of the medals, said: “Crimean War medals come up quite often but these medals are more special as he (Pte Pearson) has a story behind him with his participation in the charge and his treatment by Florence Nightingale which makes these items more valuable.
“You can expect more for these medals and it makes them much more desirable.”
These medals can reach from anywhere between £5,000 to the more typical £12-15,000 and around seven or eight similar collections from participants in the Charge of the Light Brigade have been sold in recent years.
During the charge, Pte Pearson found himself surrounded by three Cossacks after the Light Brigade had over-run the Russian artillery, cutting themselves off from the British lines. He managed to fight them away but a fourth Cossack appeared.
Here his horse, which he had taught to do tricks, reared up on command from Pte Pearson and forced the cossack to swerve away in fear of being hit by the animal. Pte Pearson then rode clear but was lanced in his side by a Russian soldier as he retreated.
The lance pierced his left lung but luckily Pte Pearson was able to cling to his horse and reach the British lines. His superior officer, Colonel White, saw him and asked “Are you hurt my man?” to which the private replied “No, sir”, not realising he had been wounded. He then fell from the horse.
Pte Pearson was discharged from the Army in 1861 and was even honoured during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee parade through London in 1887 where she stopped her carriage and bowed to the veterans.
The Crimean War took place from 1853 until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1856 and sprang from a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Russia over territory around the Black Sea and Danube, bringing Britain, Austria and France into the war to prevent Russia controlling the Dardanelles.
It was famous, among other things, for the introduction of the Victoria Cross and the improvements in nursing it proved to be a catalyst for, with both Nurse Nightingale and Mary Seacole transforming military care in hospitals during the war.
Newspaper inspired poem
The poem The Charge of the Light Brigade has remained an endearing testament to the sacrifices of the soldiers who charged the Russian cannon in the “Valley of Death” on the October 25, 1854.
Charge of the Light Brigade was one of the most popular poems of its day, even reaching troops in the Crimea. It was reported written by Tennyson minutes after he had read a newspaper report of the tragedy.
The poem helped establish Tennyson’s reputation as a great writer of the Victorian age, even though he had already been appointed poet laureate in 1850. It remains one of the best-known poem in English literature, although Tennyson later wrote another poem about a more successful charge – called The Charge of the Heavy Brigade.