February 23, 2018

"Theirs but to do and die"

On this day in 1854, one of the most famous battles of military history was fought at Balaclava, in the Crimea. Upon reading reports of the disaster in the Times five weeks later, Tennyson wrote "The Charge of the Light Brigade," composing the poem while raking leaves, he later said, and writing it out in a few minutes. The line "someone had blundered" came from the newspaper account:
    Half a league, half a league,
    Half a league onward,
    All in the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.
    "Forward the Light Brigade!
    Charge for the guns!" he said.
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    Forward, the Light Brigade!"
    Was there a man dismay'd?
    Not tho' the soldier knew
    Some one had blunder'd.
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die.
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred. . . .
In his memoir, Hallam Tennyson describes his father as a "soldier at heart," one proud to to have received a note from a returning veteran saying, "I escaped with my life and my Tennyson." The poem was so popular among those serving in the Crimea that a thousand copies were handed out at the front, and at Tennyson's funeral in Westminster Abbey survivors of the Balaclava battle lined the aisles. As poet laureate, Tennyson wrote a number of nationalistic poems, but he was anxious not to be perceived as a jingoist or war-lover. His epilogue to "The Charge of the Heavy Brigade," a poem written decades later, contains the lines, "And who loves War for War's own sake, / Is fool or crazed or worse."

But the story behind Tennyson's later, "Heavy Brigade" poem is an interesting and more complicated one. Many of the surviving Balaclava soldiers, long returned to England and long forgotten, were so destitute that a charity drive was undertaken on their behalf. When little money was raised, the charity organizers suggested that the veterans visit Tennyson, who might rally support. When they did so, he wrote his "Heavy Brigade" poem and appealed for more donations. Money came in, and then the politicians gave a lot of it to other causes -- prevention of cruelty to animals, for one. This so angered Rudyard Kipling that he penned "The Last of the Light Brigade" documenting the scandal. At this moment, Kipling's veterans visit the "Master-singer," Tennyson:
    The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
    "You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
    An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
    For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.
Tennyson recorded an excerpt from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" near the end of his life; it can be found in various compilations and at several web sites. And, of course, an entirely different approach to the Light Brigade, England, and pretty much everything else awaits any reader of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman at the Charge.

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