Light Brigade letter may be new but it is not news

A report in the Times this week tells of a newly-discovered letter which, the Times suggests, throws new light on where blame should fall for the misconceived charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava on 25 October 1854. The letter may be new, but I could not see that it told us anything new, at least as summarised in the Times. By the time I had established that the article was a garbled summary rather than an accurate report I had done the research, so you might as well share it.

It only warrants an article now because, as is my cursed habit, the apparent error sent me off on a tour of Google and my bookshelves (see my article Writing to please myself: discoveries of things I was not in search of  for the reason why I am content to write with an audience of one, with any others a bonus).

The “story”, briefly, is that a new letter has turned up written by Lieutenant Frederick Maxse in which Maxse blames Captain Louis Nolan for the frontal charge against Russian batteries. At the heart of this is the well-known story of the communication of Lord Raglan’s instructions to Lord Lucan, which Lucan in turn (probably) showed to Lord Cardigan. As we will see, it might be “well-known”, but the details were the subject of dispute from the beginning as the blame-shifting began and Tennyson wrote his famous poem.

The Times puts it like this:

Lord Raglan’s written instruction to Lord Lucan, who was commanding the brigade, instructed him to “follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns”.

But according to Saul David, who teaches military history at the University of Buckingham, Maxse’s letter says that Captain Nolan, who fancied himself as a strategist, overegged the orders. Addressing Lord Lucan, Captain Nolan gestured towards the Russian forces and said: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!” He was killed after insisting he lead the charge.

Writing about Nolan, Lieutenant Maxse says: “All the cavalry lay this disastrous charge on his shoulders & say that he left no option to Lord L to whom they say his tone was almost taunting on delivering the message — if he was to blame he has paid the penalty.”

The way it is put in the Times implies that the quotation attributed to Nolan – “There, my lord, is your enemy..” – is new. This is, I realised eventually, just sloppy journalism, or bad sub-editing if the Times still has sub-editors which I have long doubted.

The first history book I remember reading was Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why, found in a holiday house in a damp Devon when I was about ten. I have got Saul David’s biography of Cardigan, The Homicidal Earl, but much of my mental picture of the events comes from Tony Richardson’s 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade, which is what most of us think of when we picture the scene, and from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge. Nolan’s words “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!” occur in all of them (though Harry Flashman recalled it the other way round – “There, my lord, there, you see, are the guns! There’s your enemy”).

The bit which sticks in my mind from the film was this picture (a still from the film, I imagine) showing David Hemmings as Nolan, “waving his hand vaguely westwards” as Saul David puts it, as he told Lucan “There are your guns..”

hemmings_nolan

I do not, of course, rely on either a film or a novel, however well sourced, to counter an apparent mistake in the Times (both film and novel are excellent and I return to them below). I mention them as the reason why I knew without checking that the words were not newly-discovered as the Times implied.

Rummaging around other summaries of Saul David’s recent article (I cannot get at the source), I find that none of the others give the impression that this phrase is a new discovery. The Times journalist, with a deadline and word-count on his back, seems either to have misunderstood what David said or just expressed himself badly.

What about the next sentence in the Times article – “[Nolan] was killed after insisting he lead the charge”. That’s nonsense too – although Nolan was heard to mutter to himself something like “I will lead them myself” as he set off down the steep slope, no captain, however presumptuous, would seek to take that position from Lord Cardigan. Having delivered the message and done his pointing thing, Nolan joined the 17th Lancers in the centre of the front line of the Light Brigade.  As the error became apparent to Nolan, he pulled ahead to try and tell Cardigan that he was was leading the Lights up the wrong valley; he pulled across Cardigan’s front and urged him to wheel right, before being hit by a shell. Saul David says that the angry Cardigan seems to have thought that Nolan was trying to lead the brigade; that is rather different from the Times’ assertion that Nolan “was killed after insisting he lead the charge”.

After publishing the passage above, I came across this page by David Kelsey called Evidence and Belief: Captain Nolan’s Final Moments which shows the extent to which accounts – contemporary, near-contemporary and later – differ over this incident.

That leaves Maxse’s sentence to the effect that everyone in the cavalry blamed Nolan for this “disastrous charge”. Even that is qualified in the Maxse letter with “if he was to blame…”. Everyone blamed everyone else in the aftermath of this battle, and the dead junior Nolan took his share of the disparagement.

All in all, it is hard to see that the discovery of this letter adds very much to our knowledge of the minute-by-minute events of that third battle of the day (Sir Colin Campbell’s Thin Red Line and General Scarlett’s charge of the Heavy Brigade had already taken place). If you want a detailed examination of every angle, including the extent of the communication between Lucan and Cardigan, you might like The Maxse Letter – Do we need to rewrite the history of the charge? which concerns a different letter from Maxse, written to his mother as he recovered from his wounds.

I have done my bit in referring you to some learned history books. My searching took me back to the enjoyable fiction of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge, with its opening sentence

The moment after Lew Nolan wheeled his horse away and disappeared over the edge of the escarpment with Raglan’s message tucked in his gauntlet, I knew I was for it.

Read it, for its blend of page-turning fiction and properly-researched history. By mischance, Flashman took part in all three of the battles of that day, and while I am sure that historians will quibble with some of his tale, you will not find a better narrative account of the events.

Then there is the film, which gives me my internal picture of the scene, from John Gielgud’s Raglan up on Causeway Heights, to Harry Andrews’ Lucan, Trevor Howard’s Cardigan and David Hemmings’ Nolan.

The whole scene can be found on the web in two parts with some help from Youtube’s indexes. I recommend it as a piece of cinema, even if you are not at all interested in the debate about the detail.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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