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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

By Alexander William Kinglake (1809–1891)

From ‘The Invasion of the Crimea’

AT first, as was natural, the enemy’s gunners and riflemen were so far taken by surprise as to be hardly in readiness to seize the opportunity which Lord Cardigan was presenting to them; and indeed for some time the very extravagance of the operation masked its character from the intelligence of the enemy, preventing him from seeing at once that it must result from some stupendous mistake. But the Russians at length perceived that the distance between our Heavy Brigade and Lord Cardigan’s squadrons was every moment increasing, and that, whatever might be the true meaning of the enterprise in which our Light Cavalry had engaged, the red squadrons were not under orders to give it that kind of support which the Englishman calls “thorough-going.” This once understood, the enemy had fair means of inferring that the phenomenon of ten beautiful squadrons moving down the North Valley in well-ordered lines, was not the commencement of anything like a general advance on the part of the Allies, and might prove after all to be hardly the result of design. Accordingly, with more or less readiness, the forces on the Causeway Heights, the forces on the Fedioukine Hills, and the twelve-gun battery which crossed the lower end of the valley, became all prepared to inflict upon our Light Cavalry the consequences of the fault which propelled it. It is true that the main body of the Russian cavalry, drawn up in rear of the confronting battery, had been cowed by the result of its encounter with Scarlett’s dragoons; but when that has been acknowledged as a qualification of what is coming, it may be said that the three sides of the quadrangle in which our cavalry moved were not only lined with Russians, but with Russians standing firm to their duty.

Soon the fated advance of the Light Brigade had proceeded so far as to begin to disclose its strange purpose: the purpose of making straight for the far distant battery which crossed the foot of the valley, by passing for a mile between two Russian forces; and this at such ugly distance from each as to allow of our squadrons going down under a doubly flanking fire of round shot, grape, and rifle-balls, without the opportunity of yet doing any manner of harm to their assailants. Then from the slopes of the Causeway Heights on the one side and the Fedioukine Hills on the other, the Russian artillery brought its power to bear right and left, with an efficiency every moment increasing; and large numbers of riflemen on the slopes of the Causeway Heights, who had been placed where they were in order to cover the retreat of the Russian battalions, found means to take their part in the work of destroying our horsemen. Whilst Lord Cardigan and his squadrons rode thus under heavy cross-fire, the visible object they had straight before them was the white bank of smoke, from time to time pierced by issues of flame, which marks the site of a battery in action: for in truth the very goal that had been chosen for our devoted squadrons—a goal rarely before assigned to cavalry—was the front of a battery; the front of that twelve-gun battery, with the main body of the Russian cavalry in rear of it, which crossed the lower end of the valley: and so faithful, so resolute, was Lord Cardigan in executing this part of what he understood to be his appointed task, that he chose out one of the guns which he judged to be about the centre of the battery, rode straight at its fire, and made this from first to last his sole guiding star….

Pressing always deeper and deeper into this pen of fire, the devoted brigade, with Lord Cardigan still at its head, continued to move down the valley. The fire the brigade was incurring had not yet come to be of that crushing sort which mows down half a troop in one instant, and for some time a steady pace was maintained. As often as a horse was killed or disabled or deprived of the rider, his fall or his plunge or his ungoverned pressure had commonly the effect of enforcing upon the neighboring chargers more or less of lateral movement, and in this way there was occasioned a slight distension of the rank in which the casualty had occurred; but in the next instant, when the troopers had ridden clear of the disturbing cause, they closed up, and rode on in a line as even as before, though reduced by the loss just sustained. The movement occasioned by each casualty was so constantly recurring, and so constantly followed by the same process,—the process of re-closing the ranks,—that to distant observers the alternate distension and contraction of the line seemed to have the precision and sameness which belong to mechanic contrivance. Of these distant observers there was one—and that too a soldier—who so felt to the heart the true import of what he saw, that in a paroxysm of admiration and grief he burst into tears. In well-maintained order, but growing less every instant, our squadrons still moved down the valley.

Their pace for some time was firmly governed. When horsemen, too valorous to be thinking of flight, are brought into straits of this kind, their tendency is to be galloping swiftly forward, each man at the greatest pace he can exact from his own charger, thus destroying of course the formation of the line: but Lord Cardigan’s love of strict uniform order was a propensity having all the force of a passion; and as long as it seemed possible to exert authority by voice or by gesture, the leader of this singular onset was firm in repressing the fault.

Thus when Captain White, of the 17th Lancers (who commanded the squadron of direction), became “anxious,” as he frankly expressed it, “to get out of such a murderous fire, and into the guns,” as being “the best of the two evils,” and, endeavoring with that view to “force the pace,” pressed forward so much as to be almost alongside of the chief’s bridle-arm, Lord Cardigan checked this impatience by laying his sword across the captain’s breast, telling him at the same time not to try to force the pace, and not to be riding before the leader of the brigade. Otherwise than for this, Lord Cardigan, from the first to the last of the onset, did not speak nor make sign. Riding straight and erect, he never once turned in his saddle with the object of getting a glance at the state of the squadrons which followed him; and to this rigid abstinence—giving proof as such abstinence did of an unbending resolve—it was apparently owing that the brigade never fell into doubt concerning its true path of duty, never wavered (as the best squadrons will, if the leader, for even an instant, appears to be uncertain of purpose), and was guiltless of even inclining to any default except that of failing to keep down the pace.

So far as concerned the first line, this task was now becoming more and more difficult. When the 13th Light Dragoons and the 17th Lancers had passed so far down the valley as to be under effective fire from the guns in their front, as well as from the flanks right and left, their lines were so torn, so cruelly reduced in numbers, as to be hardly any longer capable of retaining the corporate life or entity of the regiment, the squadron, the troop; and these aggregates began to resolve themselves into their component elements—that is, into brave, eager horsemen, growing fiercely impatient of a trial which had thus long denied them their vengeance, and longing to close with all speed upon the guns which had shattered their ranks. The troopers here and there could no longer be restrained from darting forward in front of the officers; and the moment this license obtained, the ceremonious advance of the line was soon changed to an ungoverned onset. The racing spirit broke out; some striving to outride their comrades, some determining not to be passed.

In the course of the advance, Lieutenant Maxse, Lord Cardigan’s second aide-de-camp, was wounded; and when the line had come down to within about a hundred yards of the guns, Sir George Wombwell, the extra aide-de-camp, had his horse killed under him. We shall afterwards see that this last casualty did not end the part which Wombwell was destined to take in the battle; but for the moment of course it disabled him, and there was no longer any staff officer in the immediate personal following of the general who led the brigade.

But although he rode singly, and although as we have seen he rigidly abstained from any retrograde glance, Lord Cardigan of course might infer from the tramp of the regiments close following, and from what (without turning in his saddle) he could easily see of their flanks, that the momentum now gathered and gathering was too strong to be moderated by a commander; and rightly perhaps avoiding the effort to govern it by voice or by gesture, he either became impatient himself, and drew the troops on more and more by first increasing his own speed, or else yielded (under necessity) to the impatience of the now shattered squadrons, and closely adjusted his pace to the flow of the torrent behind him. In one way or in the other, a right distance was always maintained between the leader and his first line. As before when advancing at a trot, so now whilst flinging themselves impetuously deep into the jaws of an army, these two regiments of the first line still had in their front the same rigid hussar for their guide, still kept their eyes fastened on the crimson-red overalls and the white near hind-leg of the chestnut which showed them the straight, honest way—the way down to the mouths of the guns….

Lord Cardigan and his first line had come down to within about eighty yards of the mouths of the guns, when the battery delivered a fire from so many of its pieces at once as to constitute almost a salvo. Numbers and numbers of saddles were emptied: and along its whole length the line of the 13th Light Dragoons and 17th Lancers was subjected to the rending perturbance that must needs be created in a body of cavalry by every man who falls slain or wounded; by the sinking and the plunging of every horse that is killed or disabled; and again by the wild, piteous intrusion of the riderless charger, appalled by his sudden freedom coming thus in the midst of a battle, and knowing not whither to rush unless he can rejoin his old troop and wedge himself into its ranks. It is believed by Lord Cardigan that this was the time when, in the 13th Light Dragoons, Captain Oldham, the commander of the regiment, and Captain Goad and Cornet Montgomery, and in the 17th Lancers, Captain Winter and Lieutenant Thompson, were killed; when Captain Robert White and Captain Webb and Lieutenant Sir William Gordon were struck down. The survivors of the first line who remained undisabled were feeble by this time, in numbers scarce more than some fifty or sixty; and the object they rode at was a line of twelve guns close supported by the main body of the Russian cavalry, whilst on their right flank as well as on their left there stood a whole mile’s length of hostile array, comprising horse, foot, and artillery. But by virtue of innate warlike passion—the gift, it would seem, of high Heaven to chosen races of men—the mere half of a hundred, carried straight by a resolute leader, were borne on against the strength of the thousands. The few in their pride claimed dominion. Rushing clear of the havoc just wrought, and with Cardigan still untouched at their head, they drove thundering into the smoke which enfolded both the front of the battery and the masses of horsemen behind it….

Lord Cardigan and his first line, still descending at speed on their goal, had rived their way dimly through the outer folds of the cloud which lay piled up in front of the battery; but then there came the swift moment when, through what remained of the dimness, men at last saw the brass cannons gleaming with their muzzles toward the chests of our horses; and visibly the Russian artillerymen—unappalled by the tramp and the aspect of squadrons driving down through the smoke—were as yet standing fast to their guns.

By the material obstacle which they offer to the onset of horsemen, field-pieces in action, with their attendant limber-carriages and tumbrils behind them, add so sure a cause of frustration to the peril that there is in riding at the mouths of the guns, that upon the whole the expedient of attacking a battery in front has been forbidden to cavalry leaders by a recognized maxim of war. But the huge misconception of orders which had sent the brigade down this valley was yet to be fulfilled to its utmost conclusion; and the condition of things had now come to be such that whatever might be the madness (in general) of charging a battery in front, there by this time was no choice of measures. By far the greater part of the harm which the guns could inflict had already been suffered; and I believe that the idea of stopping short on the verge of the battery did not even present itself for a moment to the mind of the leader.

Lord Cardigan moved down at a pace which he has estimated at seventeen miles an hour, and already he had come to within some two or three horses’-lengths of the mouth of one of the guns,—a gun believed to have been a twelve-pounder; but then the piece was discharged, and its torrent of flame seemed to gush in the direction of his chestnut’s off fore-arm. The horse was so governed by the impetus he had gathered, and by the hand and the heel of his rider, as to be able to shy only a little at the blaze and the roar of the gun; but Lord Cardigan being presently enwrapped in the new column of smoke now all at once piled up around him, some imagined him slain. He had not been struck. In the next moment, and being still some two horses’-lengths in advance of his squadrons, he attained to the long-sought battery, and shot in between two of its guns.

There was a portion of the 17th Lancers on our extreme left which outflanked the line of the guns, but with this exception the whole of Lord Cardigan’s first line descended on the front of the battery: and as their leader had just done before them, so now our horsemen drove in between the guns; and some then at the instant tore on to assail the gray squadrons drawn up in rear of the tumbrils. Others stopped to fight in the battery, and sought to make prize of the guns. After a long and disastrous advance against clouds and invisible foes, they grasped, as it were, at reality. What before had been engines of havoc dimly seen, or only inferred from the jets of their fire and their smoke, were now burnished pieces of cannon with the brightness and the hue of red gold,—cannon still in battery, still hot with the slaughter of their comrades.