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October 25, 2006

At the gallop, Charge!

The Charge of the Light Brigade, from Simpson's

`Forward the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldiers knew
Someone had blundered:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the Six Hundred

October 25, 1854. The Battle of Balaklava, and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Was there a man dismayed? I rather daresay yes! And not the Russian artillerymen who were on all three sides shooting down into the bowl. Well, until the end there, when the now-really peeved troopers were amongst the guns. Then the Gunners were probably a touch dismayed.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Shako badge of the 13th.

Some period photography is available here.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

The Charge of the Light Brigade,
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Honor the charge they made - but you can still marvel at the officers who thought it a good idea.

Of course, the officers of the Light Brigade might have been influenced by the performance of the Heavy Brigade and of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders the day before - when the 93rd Regiment under the command of Sir Colin Campbell earned the sobriquet "The Thin Red Line" when they stopped the charge of the Russian cavalry.

While the overall Russian force numbered 25,000, only their cavalry pushed down the road to Balaklava. First to receive the Russian attack was Scarlett's Heavy Cavalry Brigade. The rest swept by to charge the 93rd drawn up in line, rather than in a more traditional square, the accepted formation for infantry receiving a charge of cavalry.

"There is no retreat from here, men," Campbell said as he rode along the line, "you must die where you stand." They regiment presented and fired two volleys, breaking the oncoming cavalry into two groups that split and spun into a full retreat. Seeing the backs of the enemy, some Redcoats started a bayonet charge, but Campbell called them off with, "93rd, 93rd, damn all that eagerness!"

A newspaper correspondent, Mr. W. H. Russell, was standing on the hill overlooking the valley. It was clear from that vantage point that nothing stood between the Russian cavalry and the British base on the water but the "thin red streak tipped with a line of steel" of the 93rd. That phrase morphed into "The Thin Red Line" a phrase that encapuslates the Highland Regiments, and indeed, Brit infantry in general.

When asked why he had been so unorthodox as to receive a cavalry charge in line vice a square. Sir Colin Campbell responded; "I knew the 93rd, and I did not think it worth the trouble of forming a square."