Stefanie Markovits, “On the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade”


The Crimean War sheds light on mid-Victorian perceptions of class and national identity. As literary and visual representations of the war reveal, reactions to this conflict were both more nuanced and more ambivalent than our preconceptions about Victorian jingoism might anticipate. The charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava captures the ironies of a high Victorian military spectacle that frequently seemed to confuse the patriotic expectations of its home-front audience. A new form of heroism grew out of the bewildering experience of the Light Brigade’s defeat—and a new sense of national identity that was based in part on this new heroism.

Illustration of the Crimean War

Figure 1: Russo-British skirmish during the Crimean War (anonymous plate)

In 1854, in an effort to defend Turkey from Russian expansion and to preserve British access to eastern trade routes, Britain entered into war in the Crimea. The two-year campaign represented the nation’s first major military engagement since the end of the Napoleonic wars. It thus sheds light on mid-Victorian attitudes towards national identity, offering a counter-narrative to views of the 1850s dominated by responses to the Great Exhibition of 1851, with its contrasting, peaceful spectacle of British technological superiority and imperial reach. (See, for example, the following BRANCH essay: Audrey Jaffe, “On the Great Exhibition.”) In addition, as literary and visual representations of the war reveal, reactions to this conflict were both more nuanced and more ambivalent than might be anticipated by our preconceptions about Victorian jingoism (a term coined in the 1870s in reaction to a later Russo-Turkish conflict and in the context of a very different phase of British imperialism).[1]

Much had changed in Britain during the decades since Waterloo: the French were now friends instead of enemies, while, in a configuration of alliances that seems eerily to predict those of the twentieth century, Russia was the new foe. The glorious leaders of the earlier age were either dead or had become grizzled old men; developments in technology had the potential to alter radically the way in which war was fought; other changes, such as the arrival of the telegraph, would transform both how and how rapidly events in the East were viewed from the home front.

Feelings about the war were deeply implicated in shifting attitudes towards class as well. According to one popular perception, Britain had become a dangerously mercantilized country dominated by an ascendant middle class whose successes, paraded at the Exhibition, merely glazed over the social cracks formed during the “hungry ’forties.” Benjamin Disraeli, the future Prime Minister of England, had recorded in Sybil; or, The Two Nations (1845) the widening gap between rich and poor, “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, . . . who are formed by different breeding, fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws” (1.149). Disraeli looked to aristocratic “young England” to rejuvenate the nation’s Christian feudal past and bring the classes into accord. Initial enthusiasm for the Crimean War also stemmed from hopes that it might reunite the people behind a new generation of chivalric heroes, an alternative to the Great Exhibition’s bold industrialists. Describing the entrance into war, G. A. Lawrence told how “Europe woke up, like a giant refreshed, from the slumber of a forty years’ peace, and took down disused weapons from the wall and donned a rusty armour” (qtd. in Baker 172). Charles Kingsley’s “muscular Christianity,” with its attempt to undergird middleclass manliness with codes of knightly rigor, similarly grew out of this mood.

Yet as the war progressed under the eyes of a nation that had been granted unprecedented access to events on the battlefield and in the camps through the emergent media culture of frontline war correspondents, artists, and photographers, renewed appreciation for an ethos of middle-class practicality began to counter the calls for the rebirth of chivalry. The governmental incompetence unveiled by the press resulted in demands in Parliament for outsourcing the war effort to a more capable business class; public outrage led in 1855 to the fall of the Aberdeen ministry. Views of the military changed too. If the pre-war army was associated with aristocratic dandies, post-war, the stereotypical military man was an “unknown soldier,” the much-eulogized “Private Smith,” a frequent presence in the pages of Punch and elsewhere. Of the named heroes to arise out of the Crimean campaign, the most famous are William Howard Russell of The Times, often considered the first professional war correspondent, and Florence Nightingale, a pioneer of “professions for women.” One was a man who wielded a pen, the other a lady who carried a lamp: not a sword nor even a musket in sight.

Image from Crimean War

Figure 2: Photograph of Cornet Henry John Wilkin, by Roger Fenton (1855). Wilkin survived the Charge of the Light Brigade.

It is in the context of such shifts that we must view responses to the most famous military engagement of the war, the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava. The charge captures the ironies of a high Victorian military spectacle that frequently seemed to confuse the patriotic expectations of its home-front audience. W. C. Sellar’s and R. J. Yeatman’s 1066 And All That, the 1930 mock-history beloved by generations of British school children for its insistence that history is “what you can remember” (xv), caps its chapter on the Crimea with a description of “Flora MacNightshade.” But “The Charge of the Fire Brigade by Lord Tennyson and 599 other gallant men” dominates the military analysis (111-112). The allusion is of course to Tennyson’s famous ballad, by far the best-remembered cultural product of the war. Yet both Tennyson’s poem and many other contemporary responses to the charge suggest that reactions to this event were deeply conflicted, expressing real bewilderment about how to integrate it into preexisting models of patriotic feeling. The confusing experience of the Light Brigade’s defeat contributed to the growth of a new form of heroism, eventually yielding a new sense of national identity.

On the morning of 25 October 1854, the Light Brigade—a prestigious cavalry unit of over six hundred British men, many coming from the upper classes—rode the wrong way down what The Times and later Tennyson christened a “valley of death,” as enemy guns attacked from all sides (Leader, 13 November 1854, 6). Not two hundred made it out alive. This debacle resulted from a series of miscommunications between Lord Raglan, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, and Lord Lucan, the Commander of the Cavalry. Thus, despite having been so much the product of witnessing, both on the spot and, courtesy of eyewitness reports by Russell and others, at home, the charge has always demanded interpretation.[2] From the first, contradictory aspects of spectacle and obscurity merged in the myriad responses to the event. The Times lead article on the 13th of November records how “Two great armies, composed of four nations, saw from the slopes of a vast amphitheatre seven hundred British cavalry proceed at a rapid pace, and in perfect order, to certain destruction” (Leader, 13 November 1854, 6). But if the view was clear, leader writers nevertheless found themselves puzzled: “What is the meaning of a spectacle so strange, so terrific, so disastrous, and yet so grand?” (Leader, 14 November 1854, 6). The French General Bosquet put it succinctly: “C’est très magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre” (qtd. in Leader, 13 November 1854, 6). Indeed reactions recall in their bewilderment John Ruskin’s third category of the Grotesque in Modern Painters, Volume III (1856), a work that seems to reflect the mood of the war during which it was written: “Art arising from the confusion of the imagination by the presence of truths which it cannot wholly grasp” (97).

Because of such confusion, artistic responses to the charge often focus not on the day itself but on the need for revisiting or reenacting its incidents in order to understand them better; they are products of a cognitive dissonance captured by the combination of admiration and perplexity in Tennyson’s evocation, “All the world wondered.”[3] Consider James Sant’s painting, Lord Cardigan Giving an Account of the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Prince Consort and the Royal Children (1855). Commissioned as a self-defense by Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade, the painting’s subject (described by its title) demonstrates the battle’s peculiar interpretive demands.[4] George Whyte-Melville attempted to address the event’s significance in his 1858 Crimean War novel, suggestively called The Interpreter. In that book, “[t]wo cavalry officers, both wounded on the fatal day, recapitulate once more the pros and cons of the immortal charge at Balaklava—a question that has been vexed and argued till the very actors themselves in that most brilliant of disasters scarcely know” what happened (289). When Vere (the novel’s interpreter-hero) later reaches the “classic ground” (315) of Balaklava, he imaginatively reenacts the cavalry’s movements (beginning, as per usual, with quotations from Tennyson’s ballad). While he eulogizes the glorious dead (“Weep, England, for thy chivalry! mourn and wring thy hands for that disastrous day; but smile with pride through thy tears, thrill with exultation in thy sorrow, to think of the sons thou canst boast”), an officer accompanying him dismisses the engagement: “That was a stupid business” (318).

As Whyte-Melville’s novel suggests, the most important advocate of the heroism of the charge was the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, whose “Charge of the Light Brigade” was published in a newspaper mere weeks after its occurrence. Yet given that the line “Some one had blundered” (12), a phrase revised from the text of The Times’s account, was said to have provided the dactylic meter to Tennyson’s verses, we might anticipate some ambivalence in the poem as a whole. In fact, Tennyson’s tightly composed ballad, with its strict rhyme scheme, insistent rhythm, and carefully monitored repetitions, can be seen as an attempt to fix the significance of the charge. In spite of the apparent control, though, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” describes a mad, suicidal urge, what The Times’s leader called “splendid self-sacrifice” (Leader, 13 November 1854, 6).

Madness and glory coalesce in Tennyson’s poem, in which the impulse to self-destruction comes down, in a reductio ad absurdum, to an exchange of conjunctions:

Their’s not to reason why,

Their’s but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred. (14-17)

Not the more common do or die: defeat is essential to this model of the heroic. Matthew Arnold, the future voice of mid-Victorian culture, had recently abandoned poetry for criticism, having come—in the wake of his own reduction to suicidal wallowing in Empedocles on Etna (1852)—to the conclusion that modern poetry could no longer describe the great epic actions of the past (see Arnold 4). But Tennyson appears to insist that such self-sacrifice can be figured as truly epic, even as it was characteristic of the moment. So the experience of glorious defeat during the charge helped initiate new perceptions of the heroic. In The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales for my Children (1856), Charles Kingsley remarked how “heroes”  “was the name which the Hellens [sic] gave to men who were brave and skilful, and dare do more than other men. . . . [A]fter a time it came to mean . . . men who helped their countries. . . . And we call such a man a hero in English to this day, and call it a ‘heroic’ thing to suffer pain and grief” (xvii). Heroism now demanded suffering in addition to—even, on occasion, instead of—action.

This novel, logic-defying heroism seems in part a reaction to the perceived dominance of market forces. Hence the importance of class in responses to the event. Punch’s “Extracts from a Peace Dictionary,” a satirical running commentary on the war-time abuse of language, defined “hero” as “A Fool who dies for his country, when he could stop at home perfectly safe” (3). Like Punch, The Times emphasized how the Light Brigade’s glory was magnified because they were “men who risked on that day all the enjoyments that rank, wealth, good social position, and fortunate circumstances can offer to those who are content to stay at home.” Such economic discourse signaled how the charge resisted a mercantile calculus (one that its very name might have held in other contexts): “Had there been the smallest use in the movement that has cost us so much?” the leader writer asked (Leader, 13 November 1854, 6). The paradoxical language also appears in the spasmodic poet Sydney Dobell’s 1855 sonnet about Balaklava:

They went down that day

A Legion, and came back from victory

Two hundred men and Glory!  On the mart

Is this “to lose?” (2-5)

As Dobell’s poem declares, “Glory” redeems what the market would see as a loss. Tricia Lootens, quoting Ruskin, notes how “the idealized Victorian soldier’s ‘trade’ was . . . ‘not slaying, but being slain’” (267). Ruskin posited that this willingness for “self-sacrifice” (a leitmotiv in discussions of the charge) distinguished the soldier from the merchant, legitimating his honor (“Roots” 36-37). Once again, these comments imply how the charge was understood to have escaped the cash-nexus.

Thus its very costliness made the charge a symbol of a novel and paradoxical form of success-as-failure that is identifiably British, even today. James Morris has called it “the British mystique of splendour in misfortune” (337); he actually uses this phrase in describing the art of Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, whose spectacular career began with her paintings of the Crimean War.[5] Such a concept of glory (a peculiar one for a nation of shopkeepers) is but one of several legacies of the Crimean War that have largely gone unrecognized. But if the Light Brigade’s aristocratic failure offers a model of heroism to emerge from this conflict, it is not the only one: the charge occurred relatively early during the war, as part of the initial round of comparatively traditional battles (Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman), and before the onset of the sluggish trench warfare that would characterize the disastrous Siege of Sebastopol (disastrous because it led to so many deaths from disease in the poorly constructed and underequipped camps). Later phases of the campaign would yield other versions of the heroic, as I hint above, including Nightingale’s “heroinism,” Russell’s intrepid journalism, and the common soldiers’ less glorious suffering. Many of these forms seem to have been lost amidst the militaristic rhetoric of the second half of the nineteenth century’s high imperialism. Yet they resurface in the context of subsequent less successful engagements, like the Boer War, the Great War, and even the Eastern conflicts of today. At such moments, the recognition of distant military blunders and human suffering—brought home by the forces of a recognizably modern media culture—again foster an ambivalent appreciation for what might feel like senseless sacrifice, one that recalls the memory of the Crimean War.

Stefanie Markovits is a Professor of English at Yale University. She is the author of The Crisis of Action in Nineteenth-Century British Literature (The Ohio State University Press, 2006) and The Crimean War in the British Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2009).


Markovits, Stefanie. “On the Crimean War and 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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—-. “Giving Voice to the Crimean War: Tennyson’s ‘Charge’ and Maud’s Battle-song.” Victorian Poetry 47.3 (2009): 481-503. Print.

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[1] This essay reframes and condenses some of my arguments in The Crimean War in the British Imagination, especially those of Chapter 3, “‘The song that nerves a nation’s heart’: The Poetry of the Crimean War.” Parts of that chapter also appeared in Victorian Poetry as “Giving Voice to the Crimean War: Tennyson’s ‘Charge’ and Maud’s Battle-song.”

[2] See also Tate, esp. 169.

[3] “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” lines 31, 52. References to this work will be to the line numbers in Ricks’s edition.

[4] See also Keller, 242-43.

[5] I discuss the paintings of Lady Butler in the Afterword of The Crimean War in the British Imagination.