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Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Left of Them

On October 25, 1854, from the top of a hill at the Battle of Balaclava, Lord Raglan saw the Russian enemy making off with captured Turkish cannons. This must be stopped, he commanded. But someone (don't ask who) bungled the order, and men and horses on the valley floor charged straight into firing cannons.

Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' was published a few weeks later, on this day in 1854. It has been recited thousands of times since. By Alfalfa, for instance. But here's Tennyson himself reading the poem in an 1890 recording, thumping out the beat and declaiming into the horn of an Edison machine. Here's his manuscript.

But here's something closer to the real thing, a fragment of a soldier's account of the charge.
As they, too, plunged into the inferno of fire, and as batteries and massed riflemen on each flank began to tear gaps in their ranks and trooper after trooper came crashing to the ground, they had a new and horrible difficulty to face. The ground was strewn with casualties of the first line -- not only dead men and dead horses, but horses and men not yet dead, able to crawl, to scream, to writhe. They had perpetually to avoid riding over men they knew, while riderless horses, some unhurt, some horribly injured, tried to force their way into the ranks. Troop-horses in battle, as long as they feel the hand of their rider and his weight on their backs, are, even when wounded, singularly free from fear. When Lord George Paget's charger was hit, he was astonished to find the horse showed no sign of panic. But, once deprived of his rider, the troop-horse becomes crazed with terror. He does not gallop out of the action and seek safety: trained to range himself in line, he seeks the companionship of other horses, and, mad with fear, eyeballs protruding, he attempts to attach himself to some leader or to force himself into the ranks of the nearest squadrons. Lord George, riding in advance of the second line, found himself actually in danger. The poor brutes made dashes at him, trying to gallop with him. At one moment he was riding in the midst of seven riderless horses, who cringed and pushed against him as round-shot and bullets came by, covering him with blood from their wounds, and so nearly unhorsing him that he was forced to use his sword to free himself.

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