Do and Die

The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham-Smith (1953)

History is a branch of literature, not of science. That’s why it’s so important that historians be good writers. Cecil Woodham-Smith (1896-1977) was a very good writer and this is one of the best works of military history ever written. I don’t know whether she – that “Cecil” is misleading – was influenced by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) but Strachey’s sublime “Cardinal Manning” is an obvious comparison. Like Strachey’s, her prose has grace, lightness and concision:

Military glory! It was a dream that century after century had seized on men’s imaginations and set their blood on fire. Trumpets, plumes, chargers, the pomp of war, the excitement of combat, the exultation of victory – the mixture was intoxicating indeed. To command great armies, to perform deeds of valour, to ride victorious through flower-strewn streets, to be heroic, magnificent, famous – such were the visions that danced before men’s eyes as they turned eagerly to war.

It was not a dream for the common man. War was an aristocratic trade, and military glory reserved for nobles and princes. Glittering squadrons of cavalry, long lines of infantry, wheeling obediently on the parade-ground, ministered to the lust both for power and for display. Courage was esteemed the essential military quality and held to be a virtue exclusive to aristocrats. Were they not educated to courage, trained, as no common man was trained, by years of practice in dangerous sports? They glorified courage, called it valour and worshipped it, believed battles were won by valour, saw war in terms of valour as the supreme adventure.

It was a dream that died hard. Century followed century and glittering armies faded before the sombre realities of history. Great armies in their pride and splendour were defeated by starvation, pestilence and filth, valour was sacrificed to stupidity, gallantry to corruption. (ch. 1, opening paragraphs)

But Woodham-Smith is a more masculine writer than Strachey: more serious, more sober and much more at home with military affairs. It would be wrong to call The Reason Why a pleasure to read, because although it is often is, it treats of horrors both on the battlefield and in civilian life. The Irish Famine played its part in forging the character of Lord Lucan, one of the chief figures in “The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade”, as the subtitle of a modern re-issue of the book puts it. Woodham-Smith later wrote a book called The Great Hunger (1962) about the Famine, but I’m reluctant to read it: what she describes here is horrible enough.

I have, however, read her biography Florence Nightingale (1950), the book that began her career amid an explosion of plaudits. I was disappointed, just as I was by Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921). Both writers set such high standards in their best work that the rest of it can suffer by comparison. And history is difficult to write well. Against that, however, are the gifts it offers its practitioners: the wholly improbable situations that no writer of fiction could expect his readers to swallow. The Charge of the Light Brigade was like that. Who would invent a concatenation of incompetence, misinterpretation and personal enmity that sends a brigade of cavalry charging down an occupied valley against a battery of artillery?

No-one would invent that. But it is precisely what happened during the Crimean War. If any small link in the chain of causality had broken, the charge would not have been launched. Nor would it have been launched if Lord Lucan had been less stubborn, Lord Cardigan less stupid, Lord Raglan less incompetent and Captain Nolan less impetuous. Nolan was the rider who delivered Raglan’s scribbled order to Lucan, descending hundreds of feet from a perspective where Raglan’s meaning was clear to a spot where it wasn’t clear at all. That was part of why the charge took place. Another part was Nolan’s contempt for Lucan and Nolan’s misinterpretation of the order:

The crucial moment had arrived. Nolan threw back his head, and, “in a most disrespectful and significant manner”, flung out his arm and, with a furious gesture, pointed, not to the Causeway Heights and the redoubts with the captured British guns, but to the end of the North Valley, where the Russian cavalry routed by the Heavy Brigade were now established with their guns in front of them. “There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns,” he said, and with those words and that gesture the doom of the Light Brigade was sealed. (ch. 12, pp. 233-4)

So was Nolan’s own doom. Within in a few minutes he himself would be dead, killed by one of the early volleys fired by the Russian guns. He seems to have realized his error and tried to stop the charge, committing “an unprecedented breach of military etiquette” as he overtook Lord Cardigan at the head and shouted with raised sword “as if he would address the Brigade”. Woodham-Smith asks:

Had he suddenly realized that his interpretation of the order had been wrong, and that in his impetuosity he had directed the Light Brigade to certain death? No one will ever know, because at that moment a Russian shell burst on the right of Lord Cardigan, and a fragment tore its way into Nolan’s breast, exposing his heart. The sword fell from his hand, but his right hand was still erect, and his body remained rigid in the saddle. His horse wheeled and began to gallop back through the advancing Brigade, and then from the body there burst a strange and appalling shriek, a shriek so unearthly so to freeze the blood of all who heard him. The terrified horse carried the body, still shrieking, through the 4th Light Dragoons, and then at last Nolan fell from the saddle, dead. (ch. 12, pg. 240)

Nolan was Irish and his death-shriek was like something from Celtic mythology, as though he had been possessed by a spirit of the doom that was about to engulf the splendid ranks of the Light Brigade. And the charge was a mythic occasion: a pointless slaughter enabled not only by the incompetence, stupidity and arrogance of the British officers, but also by the courage, discipline and skill of the men they led:

And now the watchers on the Heights saw that the lines of horsemen, like toys down on the plain, were expanding and contracting with strange mechanical precision. Death was coming fast, and the Light Brigade was meeting death in perfect order; as a man or horse dropped, the riders on each side of him opened out; as soon as they had ridden clear the ranks closed again. Orderly, as if on the parade-ground, the Light Brigade rode on, but its numbers grew every moment smaller and smaller as they moved down the valley. Those on the heights who could understand what that regular mechanical movement meant in terms of discipline and courage were intolerably moved, and one soldier burst into years. It was at this moment that Bosquet, the French General, observed “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (ch. 12, pg. 242)

But the charge occupies little space in this book, just as it did in the War and the history of the Victorian Age. Woodham-Smith magisterially sets the stage for 232 pages, describing the horrors of the war, the incompetence of the officers, and the courage of the troops that enabled some improbable victories against overwhelming odds. Then she devotes a single chapter to the charge. It was both horrible and glorious, representing both the worst and the best of the British army in Victorian times. And the army represented both the worst and the best of Victorian Britain. Like Eric Ambler, Woodham-Smith can re-create a complex world and its participants on paper. And like Ambler, she is sympathetic to all her characters, from the best to the worst. Strachey mocks and subverts in Eminent Victorians, partly because that was in his nature as a homosexual outsider and partly because he blamed the horrors of the First World War on the legacy of the Victorians.

By 1953, when The Reason Why was published, that legacy was much further in the past, many reforms had taken place, and a second, and much less senseless, world war had been fought by Britain and her allies. Woodham-Smith could be more objective than Strachey. Moreover, men like Lord Cardigan hardly need a satirical or subversive pen: his absurdities speak for themselves. But if you want a humorous take on the Charge of the Light Brigade, I recommend George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge (1973), in which the bully, coward and liar Flashman is caught up, wholly against his will, in the two astonishing cavalry actions that took place that day: the Charges of both the Light Brigade and the Heavy Brigade.

Neither of them could plausibly be invented by a writer of fiction, but the Charge of the Heavy Brigade was a success, not a tragic farce. That is why it is much less well-remembered. But the Charge of the Light Brigade has never been so well-remembered, or well-explained, as it was by Cecil Woodham-Smith. If you want to know the Reason Why – or the Reasons – then you’ll find them here. You’ll also find an excellent introduction to Victorian England and one of the best military histories ever written.

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