Poems You Should Know: The Charge of the Light Brigade

I’ve been known to mutter the line ‘ours not to make reply, ours not to reason why’, occasionally adding ‘ours but to do and die, into the valley of death rode the six hundred’ when confronted with a particularly baffling instruction from an employer, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson, originally penned this poem in response to far greater events.

In 1854, Britain was at war with Russia in the Crimea. The ‘Light Brigade’ of just over six hundred light cavalry were supposed to prevent the Russians from moving captured Turkish artillery (a task well-suited to the fast, lightly-armoured light cavalry), but due to a miscommunication they instead found themselves making a full-frontal assault on 20 battalions of Russians holding the high ground on both sides of a valley supported by some 50 pieces of artillery. It was basically a suicide mission, and while some of the British forces did succeed in reaching the Russian guns they were forces to retreat almost immediately. The casualty list showed 118 men dead, 127 wounded, and around 60 captured. When the Brigade regrouped only 195 men were still horsed.

Tennyson, then the British Poet Laureate, penned ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in the Victorian tradition about six weeks later, based on newspaper reports of the blunder.

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!

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