A very modern Charge of the Light Brigade

The Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 is now a forgotten and neglected conflict of the century of peace in the nineteenth century. Yet it was a surprisingly fertile conflict in its unintended consequences; moreover, this war between the two titans of the Russian and British Empires has an uncanny resemblance to the events of our time, as the coronavirus pandemic exposes dramatic if earnest failure among the governing elites, who have been enthused in an ecstasy of errant epidemiology to make a very modern Charge of the Light Brigade.

On 25 October 1854 the Commander of the British forces in the Crimean War, Lord Raglan, ordered an attack on an artillery battery as part of a wider Battle of Balaclava. Orders were misunderstood or ill-conceived or poorly communicated: whichever reason, a light cavalry force, an agile and adaptive shock force, was sent along adverse terrain to attack supremely well-defended guns. They were mown down from three sides. The secondary commander of the British insouciantly refused to defend or protect or abort this mission. The Light Brigade soon retreated, but most of the officers died. They died going hard and going fast – against an enemy they did not understand, and to achieve an objective that, with brief reflection, would be exposed as unattainable.

As William Howard Russell, war correspondent and witness to this battle, wrote:

“Our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy.”

(The Times, 14 November 1854)

Anglophone Empires still today want to blame those damned Russians for the folly of imperial generals. But Russell’s condemnation of the rashness of the command had more reverberations. The Crimean War was indeed one of the first to be extensively documented in newspapers and photographs – as the Vietnam War is known to the American Empire as the first television war, so Crimea was the first mass newspaper war. Perhaps COVID-19 is social media’s first pandemic? In any case, the media of the day took this rash failure and translated it into a worthy cause, celebrated powerfully in Alfred Tennyson’s poem.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

I
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
.

II
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
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
.

III
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred
.

IV
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred
.

V
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred
.

VI
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.

Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

No-one remembers anymore the Noble Six Hundred. They are forgotten and lost in that better known line – Into the Valley of Death. And the folk line of every subordinate in a Flight 93 bureaucracy – ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die, has become unmoored from its pretext – Someone had blundered.

The blunders of the Crimean War would become legendary and would ultimately be the fertile soil of its greater consequence. Tennyson’s plangent urging to honour the wild charge they made would endure in literature but not in policy: poets are, after all is said and done, not the unacknowledged but the ineffectual legislators of the world. The Crimean War became a watchword for mismanagement and elite failure, and initiated a late nineteenth century reconstruction of the state. In Russia, the failures of the war convinced the educated elites of the need to replace patronage and honour with law and competence. It catalysed changes to many social institutions – serfdom, justice, local self-government, education, and military service; profound changes, even if not enough to save the dynasty. In Britain, it accelerated a shift from aristocratic patronage to professional common sense. It was the key event that drove the administrative reforms and establishment of a merit-based professional bureaucracy, as envisioned in the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854. More widely known, but part of the same movement, it brought to fame Florence Nightingale, modern nursing and in some ways modern public health.

We can only hope that the blunders of our elites’ response to coronavirus (most especially that of the public health rulez crowd) will provide the fertile soil for a similar counter-reformation. The political and cultural decay has gone too far. Our political, bureaucratic and commercial elites have become parasitic raiders on institutions they cannot cherish, cannot lead and cannot protect for the generations to come. Their incompetence, patronage, corruption and intellectual poverty have been exposed by this pandemic and the world crisis it has generated. There lies the hope in this locked down world. Their glory has faded, and we, who defy them by not living in lies, will make our way back from the mouth of hell.

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