October 25th, 1854, saw the famous battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. War and poetry joined forces to immortalize two iconic events in British military history, one disastrous, one triumphant.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was an ill fated attack of a lightly armed cavalry brigade down a valley where the Russian guns waited at the other end. They made it all the way, but had to withdraw in the face of heavy losses. In the famous words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred
The poem contributed to the long-held vision of the charge being the catastrophic result of an arrogant commander’s order who cared little for the lives of his men, but in reality it was due to a misinterpretation of the ambiguous orders that had been given. The original intent had been to stop a different group of Russians from retreating with British guns that they had captured.
Early in the morning of that same day, the Russians had also seen a cavalry charge fail, when the 93rd Highland Regiment stood their ground in a line only two men deep, protecting the unprepared camp behind them from what might have been bloody slaughter. These men were the original “Thin Red Line of Heroes”, a phrase coined by another famous poet of the day, Rudyard Kipling.