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War Memorials

 THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE

 

The obelisk on Hatherleigh Moor

This obelisk, sited on Hatherleigh Moor, commemorates Captain, later Colonel, William Morris. It  has to be in one of the  finest positions  in Devon. To the front it offers a breath-taking panorama of Dartmoor.  To the west, a vista of the little town of Hatherleigh, To the east, we see the rich, red farmland of  mid-Devon.

© Richard J. Brine

 

The view across to Dartmoor from the front face of the memorial

The view across to Dartmoor from the front face of the Hatherleigh Memorial

© Richard J. Brine

 

There was a time when people recited poetry to one another as entertainment. In those far-off days, there were favourites which would be listened to and again and few favourites went down as well as Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" which perfectly captures the story behind this memorial:

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.

Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
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.

In these opening verses written a few minutes after Tennyson had read the account in the Times, you hear a description of one of the worst incidents in the whole history of the British Army. It is put to listeners in the kind of language which left everyone absolutely certain that this was going to be an epic tale of disaster - which it was. But it was also a glorious time of heroism and nobility of purpose - no fewer than 11 Victoria crosses were awarded for the action against the Russian army which  took place on 25 October 1854 in the Crimea and which became known as the Battle of Balaclava

 

More than one film of the incident has been made over the years as people try to sort out the many puzzles raised. Who was responsible for this  tragic incident? -  what really happened on the day and what truth is there in the many and varied accounts which later appeared. The most recent film (1968)  included as key figures three peers of the realm - Lord Raglan, Lord Cardigan  and Lord Lucan. Currently, an extract from this film is available on You Tube at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBiUWQ5YLQ4

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,

Cannonin front of them

Volley'd and thunder'd;

Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while

All the world wonder'd:

Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke

Shatter'd and sunder'd

Then they rode back, not,

Not the sic hundred.

At the time of the Crimean War the system of Commission Purchase within the British Army was still firmly in place. As it played a major role in this story, t o read exactly how this worked go to 

http://www.colonialwargaming.co.uk/Miscellany/Army/Commissions.htm

This interesting article begins with an account of how Lord Cardigan followed his career path.  Intelligence, aptitude for warfare, or any kind of merit  played no part in his promotion, and certainly not on the battlefield on this or any other occasion. No wonder then, that men like Captain Nolan, who was to play such an important part in the disaster, were full of contempt for their superior officers and no wonder then that experienced and dedicated soldiers like Captain William Morris were so frustrated to find themselves in such a disastrous event. Perhaps the only good thing that ever came out of this disaster was the abolition of Purchase. 

Lord Cardigan commanded the British cavalry, consisting of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons and the 8th and 11th Hussars.

The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the Scots Greys were commanded by Major General James Scarlett who had once been Commanding officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards.

In command of all these forces was Earl Lucan who just happened to be Lord Cardigan's brother-in-law. There had been hearty mutual dislike between these two men for over 30 years.

Lord Lucan was commander-in-chief of the British army. The basis for the catastrophe which took place on October 25th  lay in a message that passed between Lord Raglan and Lord Lucan. It was delivered by  Captain Nolan, (chosen not for his superior intelligence but for his horsemanship) to the battlefield in the form of a letter, together with an oral instruction from Lucan, which appears to have been misunderstood by everyone involved, including the bearer of the message. The message was as follows:

"Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate."

The guns were those of the Royal Navy which had been captured by the Russians on the far side of a hill which ran along one side of the valley. Lord Raglan was positioned on much higher ground and could see further than Lord Lucan and the cavalry who were down in the valley. When Captain Nolan turned up with  his message, he was asked by Lord Lucan which guns were referred to and was answered by a vague sweep of the arms indicating another group of guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley. Lord Lucan did not realise there were other groups of guns in view higher up. It does seem as though Nolan tried to correct this error by his attempt to turn the charge to the right direction as events got underway. But in attempting  this, he overtook Lord Cardigan, jogging along as per the army regulation speed for a cavalry charge, who got so angry at what he considered to be a junior officer attempting to upstage him as leader that he thought of nothing else throughout the bloody events which followed and was still fuming after he had returned to his private yacht in the harbour and a champagne dinner. It seems he never noticed the carnage going on behind him as he rode into the valley and later blamed Lord Lucan for the whole event. Lord Raglan also blamed Lucan and declared that he should have used his own discretion about obeying the instruction conveyed in the message and they all  blamed Captain Nolan who had been briefed so carelessly and who paid with his life for any errors he may have made that day.

William Morris, who had been born and brought up not far from this obelisk was ordered to lead the 17th Lancers in the first line of the Charge - he led the Light Brigade and did not expect to live through the Charge.  His horse was shot from under  him and he received a severe head wound but in spite of this he managed to grab hold of the reins of a loose horse and haul himself up onto its back so he could ride back to the British  lines. But again, his horse was targeted and he fell and this time he lost consciousness.  On one face of the obelisk, a bronze plaque illustrated what happened next.

The bronze plaque on the memorial

The bronze plaque depicting Morris's removal from the field of battle

© Richard J. Brine

 

Not one, but two men ran forward in an attempt to rescue him from enemy troops who were closing in for the kill. One, Surgeon James Mouat, of the 7th Dragoons, was awarded the Victoria Cross but initially the other was ignored. However the other man, Sergeant Charles Wooden of the 17th Lancers who had been in equal danger, was ignored. Wooden felt the injustice of it and wrote to James Mouat, telling him of his feelings and to his credit, the Surgeon began a campaign at the highest level, to try to ensure that the sergeant received the same recognition as the officer had received and eventually this did happen.  William Morris was safely brought back to British lines, and taken down to the hospital at Scutari where he was nursed by none other than Florence Nightingale. So he survived this pointless and terrible event but never really recovered his health. He died from sunstroke in Poona, India, in 1858 aged 38.

On the gate in the fence which keeps the sheep away from the obelisk is another memorial; this young lieutenant whose home was in Devon was not so fortunate as William Morris.

The memorial to John Henry Thomson on the gate

The memorial to John Henry Thomson on the gate

© Richard J. Brine

673 men had ridden into the valley of Death - 278 never made it back and 335 horses were killed. A further 60 men were taken prisoner by the Russians.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well

Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred,

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.

The sole survivors of the Charge

Officers and men - the sole survivors of the 13th Light Dragoons

Photographed the following day on the field of battle by Roger Fenton - the first war photographer.

 
 
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