From the Back of the Class | Issue 18

From the Back of the Class | Issue 18

Into the Valley of Death

Having been partly raised in Britain, I might say that we love, and are even proud of, a good defeat. The evacuation from Dunkirk evokes notions of good old British pluck in the face of adversity, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift preceded by the Zulu massacre of 1700 British soldiers got made into a fucking movie starring Michael Caine, and the Crimean War (not the one in 2014 when Russia annexed it, the other one) was no different. 

The short-term causes of the Crimean War (1853–56) were religious, you know, just for a change. France and Russia couldn’t decide which type of Christian should have preference in the Holy Land, then under the (mis)management of the Ottoman Empire. Should it be the French Catholics with their silly hats and dresses or should it be the Russian Orthodox with their, erm, silly hats and dresses? We’re not just gonna answer a question like that over a cup of tea, so Britain, France and the Ottomans went to war with Russia. 

It rapidly went tits up — logistically, militarily and medically — all of which was exacerbated as the Crimean was the first mass media war ever fought. This publicity led to a demand in Britain for professionalisation, most notably championed medically by Florence “The White Angel” Nightingale. But this piece is not about successes; this is about defeat and pride. The Charge of the Light Brigade was one such defeat and general cock-up, which in true British fashion was lauded in a patriotic poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 

The Charge of the LB occurred at the Battle of Balaclava and was led by Lord Cardigan (the Crimean War being mainly fought on or by woollen garments). Due to a mis-communication, the British light cavalry were ordered to make a full frontal assault on the heavily fortified Russian artillery in a valley with more canons on either side. The suicidal nature of this order would have been clear to all men present, and yet such was the slavish dedication to rank and duty among the men, and Lord Cardigan’s own faith in his grandma’s knitted armour, that no objection was made — and so into the valley of death rode the six hundred. 

The discipline and bravery of these men is not in question, but, as the French Marshal remarked, “It is magnificent, but it is not war — it is madness.”

This article first appeared in Issue 18, 2015.
Posted 3:36pm Sunday 2nd August 2015 by Finbarr Noble.