I suppose there aren’t many of us who haven’t read Tennyson’s famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade while in school. Remember the last two last lines of the first stanza?
“Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
And “valley of death” it was. Of the 670 British light cavalrymen who charged into that valley on October 25, 1854 to capture the cannons at its far end, 278 men and 375 horses fell in the first five minutes, and the number who died later of their wounds is still unknown. Armed with nothing but their sabers and their lances, they were pounded by Russian cannon lined up on either side of them, and found themselves immersed in smoke so thick they could hardly see at times.
And guess what? They were in the wrong place!
How could such a grievous error have been made? Who ordered a small, lightly armed brigade into what was described by one of its survivors this way? “Like riding into the mouth of a volcano!”
The answer, despite the heroic words of Tennyson’s epic poem, sounds like something from The Three Stooges. It reminds me of an episode about house construction in which Larry was pounding the point of a nail instead of its head and Moe grabbed him by the ear, dragged him across the room, and said, “Here, stupid! That nail goes in this wall!”
What created the fiasco at Balaclava? Lord Fitzroy Somerset Raglan, Commander in Chief, wanted to take charge of some guns abandoned on a hill by the other side. He simply wanted his cavalry, the Heavy and Light Brigades, to advance on the abandoned guns and hold them until the infantry could climb the hill.
However, Lord Bingham, the earl of Lucan, who commanded the cavalry, was confused about where the guns were located, and asked Lord Raglan’s aide-de-camp to point them out. The aide, instead of pointing at the intended guns, which sat atop a hill, waved his arm in the direction of a battery of Russian guns at the far end of a valley.
Lord Lucan then approached his brother-in-law, Lord Brudenell, the Earl of Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade. Lord Cardigan hated Lord Lucan, who he believed was mistreating his wife, one of Cardigan’s sisters. The two men rarely spoke to one another, and one of the officers in the Light Brigade once wrote home, calling them both fools and saying that Cardigan had “about as much brains as my boot. He is only equaled in lack of intellect by his relation, the earl of Lucan.”
Lucan passed on the order to Cardigan, who expressed severe doubts about charging a battery of cannons, and only moved after receiving a direct order from Lucan. He then led his brigade into the valley and charged. Lucan, however, who was in charge of the Heavy Brigade, only went a short distance into the valley before ordering his men back.
Remarkably, despite their heavy losses, the Light Brigade actually made it all the way to the battery of guns at the end of the valley, and captured them – for a few minutes.
Then, opposed by overwhelming forces, they staggered back out of the valley, and Cardigan, who had miraculously survived, went back to his luxury yacht The Dryad in Balaclava harbor, where he usually spent his nights.
We’ve all heard the term “a comedy of errors,” but it is no comedy when brave men die as a result of those kinds of errors, is it?
And wait till next week!