The Charge of the Light Brigade: Historical Background

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The 25th October 1854 marked the day of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War plus one of the most famous and ill-fated events in British military history, the so called ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Great miscommunication between commanders led to an error in military execution, the Light Brigade were mistakenly ordered to charge, although heroically, to their deaths. There is debate over the success or failure of the attack; some reports describe it a successful operation of war, although misguided.

It is argued that if the Light Brigade has been supported then control of the Russian held guns could have been taken. In addition, it was thought that the courage the British demonstrated frightened the Russians who never dared to face them again on an open battlefield.

The Battle of Balaclava is widely seen as a defeat due to the great human loss, however a military historian could see it as a Pyrrhic victory. The British regiments at Balaclava were granted battle honour, victory being a pre-condition, due to the achievement and exhibited courage of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

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The charge is now set in legend, it has been immortalised in writing through the works of the famed ‘military correspondent’ Sir W.H. Russell and the then Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson. In this essay, I shall examine the extent to which Tennyson replicates Russell’s prose account in terms of its ideological, emotional and stylistic qualities.

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Russell tells of the charge in vivid detail in his dispatches whilst Tennyson does so in his thundering verse in the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Russell although very vivid at times, generally writes in the ‘Plain style’ also know as ‘Alfredian style’, perhaps due to his experience and knowledge or war. Tennyson on the other hand who was clearly influenced by Russell’s reports, displays a strong sense of patriotism; he uses imagery and figurative language to create a tone of exhilaration and a theme honoring the qualities of the Light Brigade. Both writers have admiration for the British Army and do glorify the nature of war, however there are underlying messages present in their work. The actions of the commanding officers are questioned and the theme of ‘blunder’ and unnecessary death sits quietly in the shadow of the heroic depiction of the British soldiers.

‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, first published in the December 9,1854 issue of the London Examiner became Tennyson’s most famous poem, written in commemoration of the brigade’s courage allegedly only minutes after reading Russell’s account in The Times. The poem was immediately popular and widely read, even reaching the troops back in Crimea where Tennyson sent thousands of copies to soldiers in Sevastapol for their inspiration1. Although one of his most famous poems it interesting to note that Tennyson did not want the poem to be associated with him as his typical work, many books on Tennyson barely even speak of the poem’s existence nevermind analyse it2. The poem consists of six stanzas and Tennyson uses such stylistic devices as rhyme and repetition to put forward his message.

Much of the authority of the poem is in the movement and of the charge, in the unhurried pace of the repetitions which seems to dull individual feeling3. There is no regular stanza structure however a distinct rhyme scheme remains. There is a triplet in most stanzas (“shell, well, hell”), the order of which is always changing and at times is repeated by the same word (“them, them, them”). Anaphora is displayed in stanza three (“cannon, cannon, cannon”), which helps the poet build his battering verse by amplifying the stress on the first beat; there are similarities to this feature throughout the poem and the beginning of stanza 5 is identical.

There is also an element of false rhyme between “blundered,” “thundered”, “sundered,” “wondered” and “hundred’ which as well as depicting the irregular beat of galloping hooves could on a subtextual level could represent the miscommunication of orders that occurred in the battle. The metre of this poem is uncomplicated, which allows him to speak for his countrymen with compelling simplicity. The prosody takes the form of dactylic dimeter, the stressed syllables coming at the beginning and middle feet of each line (“Forward, the | Light Brigade! | Was there a | man dismayed?”). This style allows Tennyson to dramatically echo the movement of the brigade and the galloping of the horses, thrilling the reader giving a sense of animation.

The striking and most important link between the two texts is the fact that there was “a hideous blunder”. Russell stated this which was then paraphrased by Tennyson as “someone had blundered’, becoming the keynote that inspired the metre of the poem and a line neither writer felt needed any repetition. This is the only line that significantly questions the judgement and competence of the leadership, the slight differences being that Tennyson maintains anonymity of any commanders whilst Russell named certain men who gave or interpreted the orders to charge. Both Russell and Tennyson respect and admire the British forces greatly.

However, rather than almost solely celebrating the heroism and gallantry of the British Army like Tennyson, Russell adds more of an insight and doesn’t refrain from highlighting negatives as well as positives. His reports exposed the sufferings of troops and medical failure whilst at the same time identifying with the British forces and praising British heroism. Notably Russell did not emphasize officer privileges and he identified officers he saw unfit to command. Perhaps unjustly in November 1854 alleging Lord Raglan was ‘utterly incompetent to lead an army’ and making him the main scapegoat for the Charge of the Light Brigade deaths. Tennyson refrained from any accusations as not to undermine the potential admiration of soldiers the poem could and did achieve.

Russell was not a great writer but his reports were vivid, dramatic, interesting and convincing4. Before his account of the Charge, he calls attention to what seems to have been the root of the miscommunication leading to the charge, when he tells of the tense relationship between Lord Lucan and his brother-and-law Lord Cardigan, who both commanded the Light Brigade. In hindsight this is a very inappropriate relationship and situation to have; the incorrect order to charge probably would have been prevented if the original command had been questioned and discussed properly. Russell also described the overambitious and ultimately fatal indiscretion of Captain Nolan who relayed the order from the high command to Lord Lucan. Russell’s somewhat harsh criticism of the officers, noting that Russell belonged to the same social class, was somewhat softened by his attempted obituary of Nolan who was killed by the first Russian shot: ‘A braver soldier than Captain Nolan the army did not possess.

A matchless horseman and a first-rate swordsman’. Twinned with this supposedly necessary, respectful and yet almost false ‘flattery’ Russell forbears from pinning direct blame to protect Nolan or any other officer, whose families undoubtably would be reading the reports in The Times back in England. However his rather twisted final sentence, ‘God forbid I should cast a shade on the brightness of his honour, but I am bound to state what I am told occurred’ almost condemns Nolan and holds him responsible. Nevertheless Nolan can still be held in high esteem and not be demonised as a man careless with human life. He led the charge, unlike the commanders of World War One and Two who ordered men ‘ to go over the top’ whilst themselves remaining in a positions of safety.

Throughout Russell’s dispatches he demonstrates ‘Plain Style’, a style of which later, George Orwell could be considered to be the Arch-Exponent. Russell’s reaches a wide range of audience capacity, and is easy to understand; his point cannot be confused. He tells factually most of the events he observes, sometimes having the tendency to detach himself from the scene and describe it almost as if he was writing a scientific study, (“the bodies of numbers of men were swollen and bloated to an incredible size,”). The quasi-anthropological nature of his reportage can enthrall the reader and the detail he goes into can make the reader feel like they are reading a novel. This characteristic of his writing appears early in his report when he describes the first sight of a Russian (“They’re they were, ‘the Cossacks’, at last! – stout, compact-looking fellows with sheepskin caps, uncouth clothing of indiscriminate cut, high saddles, and fiery little ponies, which carried them with wonderful ease and strength”).

This highly descriptive style and immersion in the subject is very Dickensian and could be a contributing factor to Russell’s success as a journalist. Two things are apparent after reading his early accounts of the Crimea. Firstly, the fact that it was not for certain there would be any war and that Russell still had to captivate readers somehow. Secondly, his obvious admiration for the ‘enemy’ gives readers the first glimpse of the ‘Theatre of War’ and the almost greedy way Russell records visual detail through his telescope a type of Scopophilia. Regardless of his role, Russell was still a gentlemen following an army and any warfare could be seen as an exciting spectator sport.

Russell’s deliberately un-excited and restrained tone gives more room for evolution of his accounts and a gradual raising of tempo. This evolution is obvious as soon as Russell begins to depict a scene of battle, his language becomes markedly more romanticised. Russell’s ‘Plain Style’ is dropped as he moves to the realm of the Sublime. This modulation is effective, and succeeds to build up tension to give the romantic and frequently metaphorical description more impact. Hugh Kenner writes about the plain style in way applicable to Russell’s work: ‘What the masters of the plain style demonstrate is how futile anyone’s hope of subduing humanity to an austere idea. Straightness will prove crooked, gain will be short-term, vision will be fabrication and simplicity am intricate contrivance. Likewise, no probity, no sincerity, can ever subdue the inner contradictions of speaking plainly5.

The theme or idea of the ‘Theatre of War’ is very much present in the account of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. As the first Russian shots are fired the brigade is described with grandeur (“ They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war”). As the battle escalates, the Russians are almost de-humanised as a beast which the British are attempting to slay (‘the whole line of the enemy belched forward, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls’).

The Brigade on the other hand are portrayed as so magnificent and courageous as to almost be saintly: ‘with a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow’s death cry’. A discerning and well-read reader of this report could perhaps see a subtext emerging at this point. Russell seems to reference the tale of Saint George and the Dragon, to further glorify the Brigade. However, there is not necessarily enough evidence to confirm this sub-text, if it was intentional then Russell must have also ignored the contrary endings of events and that Saint George is also a saint in Russia. Nevertheless, Russell’s language entices the audience and truly draws their attention, cementing the Charge of the Light Brigade in history. He is ideologically manipulating the reader in a far from ‘plain’ way.

Thus, preliminary findings might indicate that both authors have similar stances ideologically, emotionally and stylistically even though they have produced different kinds of work, a poem and a newspaper report. Great patriotism is displayed, especially on Tennyson’s part being Poet Laureate who was not writing for a newspaper but for his country. Russell, in spite of his perhaps ill-advised publication of strategic details, (an act some called treacherous) speaks as a patriotic gentlemen with full support of the British army. Tennyson definitely replicates Russell, the only difference being he always shed a positive light on his subjects, never introducing a negative feeling into the poem. Tennyson’s goal was to presumably honour and motivate Britain and their troops, whilst Russell’s was to educate and in turn provoke change. Russell’s impact is evident after what the Duke of Newcastle remarked after the war, ‘ It was you who turned out the government Mr Russell’6.

Martin, Robert Bernard, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p.381.

Meller, Paul ,Jonathon 2010) The Development of Modern Propaganda in Britain, 1854-1902, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: (p. 84.)

Thompson, Alastair W., The Poetry of Tennyson (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p.214

Sims, Norman, ed. Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century (NY/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) p. 190.

Stearn, Roger T., ‘Russell, Sir William Howard (1820–1907)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [, accessed 23 Nov 2012]

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The Charge of the Light Brigade: Historical Background. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from

The Charge of the Light Brigade: Historical Background

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