Friday, January 12, 2007

Into The Valley of Death - To Reason Why

Yesterday, I was thinking about the famous Tennyson poem, "Charge of the Light Brigade", so I googled "Into the valley of death rode the 600." To my astonishment, one of the first sites revealed was a book review from the Time Archive dated 1954.

The book review is called Story of a Blunder while the book in question is "The Reason Why" by Cecil Woodham-Smith. The title, of course, comes from the poem:

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.

Historically, we know that some 700 horsemen made the charge but that only 195 came back. Everyone knew that the tactic was a blunder and the question remained why did it happen? The answer turns out to be that the three main decision makers were all rank amateurs who had "purchased" their officer commissions. They were able to do this because of their position as elite, landed gentry.

Even in Tennyson's day, everyone knew that the order to charge had been a hideous mistake. But publicly, "the reason why" was long a mystery. Mrs. Cecil Woodham-Smith's book is the best untraveling of the old story yet.

Colonelcies by Purchase. To Author Woodham-Smith. who became interested in the subject when she was writing Florence Nightingale (TIME. Feb. 26, 1951), the Charge of the Light Brigade was not an isolated mistake. It was the spectacular culmination of a deplorable British conviction: that any rich aristocrat who wanted to become an officer should be able to buy a colonelcy in a crack regiment. The three aristocrats who may be called the villains of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and whose life stories Author Woodham-Smith traces in fascinating detail:

Lord Raglan, commander in chief in the Crimea at the age of 65, had never led troops into battle in his life... George Bingham, third Earl of Lucan. C. 0. of the cavalry division of which the Light Brigade was a part, who received and passed on Lord Raglan's order, had paid £25,000 to become colonel of the crack Lancers. He had spent half his life pouring money into his Lancers, whose superbly tailored uniforms won them the name "Bingham's Dandies"- and the other half squeezing the necessary money out of his Irish peasants. CJ James Brudenell. seventh Earl of Cardigan, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, had paid more than £40.000 for command of the 9 Light Dragoons. Brave, handsome, bad-tempered and brainless.


Brave, stupid Lord Cardigan is remembered nowadays only by the button-up woolen sweater he wore in the Crimea.

Lord Raglan is enshrined in the "raglan" - a bulky overcoat with shoulders cut in a sporty, informal slope. As for Lord Lucan, only Irish tradition remembers him: it refers to him as "The Exterminator." Yet all three men would have one thing in common if they were alive today-a sense of horror at the reforms which they unwittingly helped to bring into the British Army. "At the beginning of the campaign, the private soldier was regarded as a dangerous brute," but by the end, thanks largely to the terrible charge, "he was a hero. Army welfare and army education, army recreation, sports and physical training, the health services, all came into being as a result of the Crimea." Moreover, the practice of purchasing commissions was abolished. And that is why, for more reasons than were known to Tennyson, readers of this admirable history may say with him:

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

The story is both fascinating and revealing. Then as now, there were unqualified people from privileged backgrounds in positions of leadership. Then as now, we can honor the warriors but not the blundering leaders.

But it is not 1854 and this country is not an aristocracy. George Bush and the neocons have produced an unending sequence of blunders. While our troops may not be permitted to "reason why" it is the obligation of our congress and senate to "reason why."

Cross posted at Daily Kos.

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