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Charge of the Light Brigade: 1854

During the battle of Balaklava the British army commander, Lord Raglan, sends an order to the light brigade (cavalry on nimble horses, lightly armed with sabres or lances). The Russians have captured Turkish artillery positions on heights to either side of a valley. Lord Cardigan, in command of the brigade, is ordered to attack one of these heights.

In the heat of battle the instruction becomes garbled. Lord Cardigan understands that he is to lead his men down the valley to attack a position at the far end. With more valour than discretion, he does so. Exposed to fire from either side, 247 of his 637 men are killed or wounded before he leads the remnant back with nothing achieved.

As an incompetent disaster, and a very minor event in the annals of war, the charge of the light brigade would be soon forgotten but for one circumstance. Russell's report of it appears almost immediately in England in the Times. His words evoke from the poet laureate, Lord Tennyson, a stirring poem which is printed in the Examiner a mere six weeks after the event itself.

Tennyson's simple and insistent rhythms etch the event indelibly in the British consciousness: 'Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volley'd and thunder'd ... Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die, Into the valley of Death, Rode the six hundred.'

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