Martin Danahay “‘Valiant Lunatics’: Heroism and Insanity in British and Russian Reactions to the Charge of the Light Brigade”

Abstract

The charge of the Light Brigade has always elicited ambivalent responses from eyewitnesses. Even though he was writing at a remove of time and distance from the action, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem echoes the conflicted reactions of both British and Russian witnesses who characterized the charge both as heroic and an act of insanity. Tennyson’s polyvocal term “wild” in particular holds in suspense both admiration and the suggestion that it was an insane act, which resonates with accounts by Russians on the receiving end of the charge. Russian cavalry officers were convinced that their British counterparts were brave but deranged “valiant lunatics” after witnessing the charge. Both the British and Russians had difficulty in coming to terms with this incident, as they did with the Crimean War as a whole, because it was neither wholly a victory nor defeat for either side. As a result, even monuments to the Crimean War such as that in Waterloo Place or those in Sevastopol attest to loss as much as victory, and like the charge of the Light Brigade itself represent heroic failure.

Although Alfred, Lord Tennyson claimed that “all the world wondered” in his poem on the bravery of the charge of the Light Brigade, the event has always produced an ambivalent response, eliciting reactions poised between admiration for the heroism of the cavalry and grief at the senseless waste of life. Thomas Rommel has characterized this response as “the discrepancy between chivalric heroism and military incompetence,” which he finds to be a hallmark of poetry on the charge (110). The British blend of mourning and pride in reaction to the Light Brigade’s charge is well documented in Stefanie Markovits’s The Crimean War in the British Imagination and her BRANCH entry on the charge. However, both British and Russian eyewitnesses also referred to the charge as an act of insanity; as Markovits says, “madness and glory coalesce in Tennyson’s poem” (Markovits para. 9). Both the British and Russians who witnessed the charge suggested that, whilst brave, it could be viewed as lunacy and thus incomprehensible in rational terms. This insistence on the madness of the Light Brigade subverts a wider discussion of whether the charge was suicidal and who should have been held accountable for the military debacle. It places the Light Brigade in a zone outside the comprehension of those who observed, wrote about, and read about the charge.

“The Charge of the Light Brigade” called the event a “wild charge.” The word represents qualified praise because it betrays a certain uneasiness with the conduct of the cavalry, in keeping with the subtlety of Tennyson’s poem overall. Tennyson’s adjective “wild” is a complex term with many layers of meaning. “Wild” can mean ardent and, in the context of war, suggests an eagerness for battle, with perhaps even overtones of savagery. Although he was writing at a remove of time and distance, Tennyson’s use of “wild” captures what Julian Spilsbury calls the “blood lust” of the Light Brigade; Trooper Woodham, for instance, recalled that he cut Russian gunners down “like nine pins” in his exuberance at reaching the artillery (169). However, “wild” can also mean reckless or uncontrolled. “Wild” contains both admiration and criticism at the proximity of the charge to lunacy, a combination of emotions that is also suggested in Stefan Kozhukov’s description of the Light Brigade as “valiant lunatics.” In their mixed emotions British and Russian commentators on the charge show the difficulty of coming to terms with a heroic blunder and both use lunacy as a way to bracket off the charge as admirable but ultimately incomprehensible. Trudi Tate argues that the charge raises pressing questions of knowledge and interpretation (162), but the recourse to the vocabulary of madness in both British and Russian accounts suggests that a rational person will never be able to understand the state of mind of the British cavalry.[1]

William Howard Russell’s dispatch on the charge read: “their desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part – discretion” (Rommel 109). The decorousness of Russell’s vocabulary in using “discretion” contrasts with the possible pejorative readings of Tennyson’s use of “wild.” Tennyson does not suggest that the Light Brigade was “indiscreet,” but rather that the charge was crazy. Some members of the Light Brigade agreed with him; Anthony Dawson quotes one soldier as writing that “we were ordered, though perfect madness, to advance” so that even members of the Light Brigade saw the charge as lunacy (139; italics in original). The Earl of Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade, himself called it a “mad-brained trick” when he addressed the remnants of the Light Brigade about the order to charge (Spilsbury 184). Even those who participated in the charge saw it as madness.

The most famous foreign commentary is the oft repeated remark of General Bosquet “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie” (Melvin 198). Bosquet watched the Light Brigade follow the ambiguously worded order from Lord Raglan that led them, instead of preventing Russian forces from carrying away captured guns, to charge directly at Russian artillery with withering fire from both sides of the valley. Bosquet’s remark that the charge was magnificent (magnifique) but crazy (folie) is echoed by Russian eyewitness accounts of the charge, which also mix admiration with the suggestion that it was an insane act. Kozhukov, a junior artillery officer at the time of the charge, expressed ambivalent admiration for the Light Brigade whist criticizing the conduct of Russian cavalry:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to the feat of these mad cavalry. Having lost at least a quarter of their number during the attack, and being apparently impervious to new dangers and losses, they quickly re-formed their squadrons to return over the same ground littered with their dead and dying. With desperate courage these valiant lunatics set off again, and not one of the living, even the wounded, surrendered. It took a long time for the hussars and Cossacks to collect themselves. They were convinced that the entire enemy cavalry were pursuing them, and angrily did not want to believe that they had been crushed by a relatively insignificant handful of daredevils. (Seaton 151; see also Kozhukov “Crimean Memoirs”)

The account disparages the hapless Russian cavalry who were so intimidated by the charge of the Light Brigade that they failed to act. However, Kozhukov’s words “mad cavalry” echo Bosquet’s mixture of admiration and incomprehension at the foolhardiness as well as the bravery of the charge. As Albert Seaton says, the Russians from this point on regraded British cavalry “as unpredictable – even mad” (156). The charge accomplished nothing militarily, but psychologically convinced the Russian cavalry that their British counterparts were brave but deranged.

The difficulty in coming to terms with the charge of the Light Brigade is compounded by the status of the battle itself. The Battle of map iconBalaklava was officially hailed by Russia as a victory (Figes 253), partly due perhaps to the “mendacious dispatch” sent to the sovereign by Prince Menshikov that omitted all setbacks (Seaton 155).[2] The eyewitness accounts of the battle from the point of view of the Russian soldiers involved were much more somber. For the Russians, as contemporary accounts highlight, there was little to celebrate in the Battle of Balaklava because it failed to achieve their objectives and the Russian cavalry did not cover itself in glory in combat, to put it mildly. Lieutenant Koribut-Kubitovich of the Russian cavalry in Recollections of the Balaklava Affair of 13 October, 1854 (1859) gives the most dispassionate account of the Light Brigade’s ill-fated charge and focuses on the tactics employed by both sides. While he describes Russian troops celebrating a victory after the battle, he also reports a mood of melancholy among the surviving Russian cavalry:

The battle, with its many frightening brushes with death, left a heavy feeling in the heart. Many of us were no longer present. Some were maimed, the bodies of the dead lay everywhere—all this together worked to depress all of us and we fell asleep in the most somber mood. (“Recollections”)

While he focuses on the death and injuries suffered, Koribut-Kubitovich’s account is also unsparing in its criticism of decisions made by Russian officers during the battle. Tennyson wrote that “someone had blundered” (line 12), and Koribut-Kubitovich has his own prose equivalent to that line several times in his account. Before the charge of the Light Brigade, his unit was given a mistaken order that would have sent them headlong into retreating Russian hussars, who were fleeing their own failed encounter with the Heavy Brigade. Following such an order would have led to disaster for the Russian cavalry. Koribut-Kubitovich writes that:

This order astonished us. We well understood that in carrying it out we could run into the retreating hussars, who might push and scatter us before we even met the enemy. But an order had been given, and we were not directed to discuss orders, which was in any case not always possible. (“Recollections”)

Fortunately for Koribut-Kubitovich this did not turn into a Russian version of “theirs but to do and die” (line 15) because Lieutenant General Liprandi saw the mistake in time and ordered them back. However, the Russian army was as error-prone as their British counterparts and later in the battle, as his unit was preparing to counterattack the Light Brigade, Koribut-Kubitovich’s unit came under what we would now term friendly fire when an infantry unit mistook them for the enemy. There were mutterings among his fellow cavalry that perhaps they were being betrayed before the infantry realized their mistake and stopped firing at them. The Light Brigade at least was only shot at by opposing forces, not their own, and did not have to worry about disgruntled fellow soldiers potentially opening fire on them. For the Russian cavalry the Battle of Balaklava was marked by failure and incompetence, as Koribut-Kubitovich makes clear.

Koribut-Kubitovich praises the Light Brigade several times for their bravery, professionalism and discipline, especially in retreat when under withering fire; they “moved at a trot in good order, as if on an exercise” (“Recollections”). However, he also notes that his unit too suffered from the effects of this fire:

It must be recognized, however, that we suffered from that at least as much as the enemy, so that a large part of our horses were wounded and killed by our own bullets. (“Recollections”)

Such a sentiment shows why there are no poems extolling the feats of the Russian cavalry in the Battle of Balaclava; they sustained casualties as much from mistakes and friendly fire from their own troops as they did from the Light Brigade’s charge. Eyewitness accounts of the charge of the Light Brigade recount how the Russian cavalry either retreated or failed to charge at crucial times, allowing the surviving British to retreat (Woodham-Smith 246-8). The British Heavy Brigade also put to flight the Ingermanland Hussars, despite being outnumbered two to one, a feat commemorated in Tennyson’s later, less well known and less successful “Charge of the Heavy Brigade” (1885). The performance of the Russian cavalry left not a record of heroic failure, but rather simply a dispiriting catalogue of incompetence.

Tennyson’s poem was based on dispatches from the Crimean War, which, thanks to the telegraph, brought news of battles faster than ever before to the reading public. The reports of war correspondents, especially those of Russell, also brought news of the deplorable condition of British soldiers and their inadequate care. The Crimean War on the Russian side produced not memorable journalism but a fictionalized account of life in Sevastopol and the battle experiences of soldiers in Leo Tolstoy’s The Sebastopol Sketches (1855-6). Tolstoy arrived in Sevastopol when the city was under siege in 7 November 1854, well after the Battle of Balaklava. In his Sketches, he did not address the cavalry at all, but rather documented life in the city and gave a fictionalized account of Russian infantry fighting and dying in battle against the French besiegers. Tolstoy “saw himself as a military Gogol” and wanted to expose the corruption and inefficiency of the Russian military whilst praising the bravery of the common soldier (McDuff 29).

For both the British and Russians, the Crimean War was a painful experience because it was a conflict that achieved little for either side. Tennyson’s poem and Russian accounts such as that by Kozhukov are both “narratives of loss” rather than victory (Godfrey 4). As Stephanie Barczewski has argued, there is “a strain in British culture that embraces the nobility of suffering, defeat and heroism in the face of disaster over triumphalism and the glory of victory” (4). Tennyson’s poem is part of this celebration of failure in that it acknowledges that the charge was a military blunder and that the six hundred were decimated, yet rescues from it “glory” and a sense of wonder. In addition, the British monument to the Crimean War is topped by the figure of Honor, which is sometimes mistaken for Victory, and focuses on the common soldier in its representation of members of the Guards rather than a heroic figure on horseback. The monument itself is an ambivalent tribute to the fallen in that “the sculpture honours sacrifice rather than victory” (Berridge). The rather muted memorial parallels the feelings of Queen Victoria, who said that “I own that the peace rather sticks in my throat” at the conclusion of the war, and is underscored by the absence of victory parades and official welcoming ceremonies for the returning troops (Figes 467). Like the charge, the supposed “victory” of the Crimean War in the taking of Sevastopol produced an ambivalent response.

The Crimean War is memorialized in Sevastopol itself by the city’s main square, which is named after Admiral Pavel Nakhimov, who commanded the Russian navy during the siege. With the resurgence of nationalism and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula there has been a concerted effort to represent the sieges of the city as victories for Russia. Candan Badem says that in this revision of the history of the Crimean War, “the main argument of new Russian nationalism is that Russia was not defeated in this war.”[3] Not all citizens of Sevastopol agree with this view, with one stating that, “in reality, Sevastopol is a city of losers…people here don’t like to hear this, but that is the reality of our history” (Higginsmarch). How to read the Crimean War is a matter of contention in Sevastopol itself, paralleling the ambiguities of the charge of the Light Brigade. While some see the resistance to the siege of Sevastopol as heroic, the city fell to the combined assault of the British and French, so it could also be seen as a defeat. Like Tennyson’s poem, views of the Crimean War are poised between interpretations of it as triumph or as loss; it does not lend itself to an unequivocal reading.

The New York Times article by Andrew Higginsmarch on the monuments inspired by the new Russian nationalist views of history mentions Catherine the Great and the siege of Sevastopol in World War II; the Crimean War is not mentioned because it is overshadowed by other conflicts, as in Britain. In particular, the more consequential Napoleonic Wars loom larger. On the Russian side, while Tolstoy had experience of battle in the Crimean peninsula, he set War and Peace (1869) in the Napoleonic Era, showing how that period ranked higher in importance in his imagination, despite his participation in the former conflict.

L. A. Berridge, commenting on what she terms the “greyness” of the Crimean War, says that while there may be monuments commemorating battles such as Balaklava, “they are written on signs rather than in the national memory, and history itself has moved on” (“Off the Chart”). If monuments are “sites of memory,”[4] then the Crimean monument in Waterloo Place attests to the occlusion of the conflict in the collective memory. The monument is in Waterloo Place rather than Crimean Place, symbolizing its subordination to the more illustrious victories in the Napoleonic Wars.[5] The celebration of any military victory inevitably takes place in the shadow of death; even the Battle of map iconWaterloo was open to conflicting interpretations with both “celebrations of the victory and lamentations over the loss of lives” greeting the victory (Burwick para. 1). Some ambivalence in commemorating a battle is inevitable, but given the “grey” status of the Crimean War it is even more difficult to reconcile the loss of life with the outcome.

While reactions to the Crimean War itself are mixed, they are brought to a head in evaluating the charge of the Light Brigade, which is why it can be seen as a synecdoche for the war as a whole. The Crimean War could not be characterized as a victory or defeat and was thus perpetually in a liminal state, provoking conflicting interpretations and resisting categorization. Similarly, because of its extremity, the charge of the Light Brigade does not fit any accepted frames of reference, which is why it was characterized as “madness” by both the British and Russians who witnessed the spectacle. The one word that neither side used is “suicide.” Insanity is a non-explanation that avoids labeling the charge as a suicide mission and makes it something that exceeds rational comprehension. Tennyson in his rather chilling line “theirs but to do and die”(line 15) comes closest to naming the charge as suicidal, but the line is extolling duty and obedience rather than questioning whether the cavalry should have obeyed the mistaken order at all. Rather than acknowledge the sheer waste of life of a charge that accomplished nothing, the emphasis on madness makes it incomprehensible in rational terms. The label of lunacy suggests that not only was it “theirs not to reason why” (line 14) for the Light Brigade, but also for those who witnessed or read about the charge and were trying to come to terms with the conflicting emotions that it aroused. Reason cannot be applied here and the question why therefore cannot be answered. So “wild” was the action that the rational mind cannot encompass its contradictions and for both British and Russian observers the only possible reaction was to admire the courage but classify the Light Brigade as “valiant lunatics,” both heroic and mad at the same time.

published June 2018

Martin Danahay is a Professor at Brock University, where he teaches Victorian Literature and Culture. His research interests include steampunk and the neo-Victorian and the representation of war, in particular the role of the media in the Crimean and Gulf Wars

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Danahey, Martin. “‘Valiant Lunatics’: Heroism and Insanity in British and Russian Reactions to the Charge of the Light Brigade.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

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ENDNOTES

[1] As Daniel Hack shows, the British and Russians were not the only ones to have difficulty decoding the meaning of the charge of the Light Brigade; a lively debate was carried on in the pages in Frederick Douglas’s Paper and other publications. Hack mentions the word “wild” saying that it “contradicts the burden of the poem”, but in fact the word is echoed by many other commentators who thought it apposite (219).

[2] Kozhukov says that Menshikov’s report “was the occasion for general rejoicing in those alarm-filled times” but then goes on to correct his account (“Crimean Memoirs”).

[3] Dr. Candan Badem, personal correspondence, Tuesday January 9th. Dr. Badem is the author of The Ottoman Crimean War.

[4] See Pierre Nora’s “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire” on his theoretical approach, and Antoine Prost on monuments as “sites of memory.”

[5] Arnold documents how the woefully underprepared British Army was “overshadowed by that of France, which was larger, better equipped and better trained” (29).