Friday 20 April 2012

'Who Blundered? - The Mystery of the Light Brigade' by A L Berridge

All historical novelists need to be detectives sometimes. We can’t say ‘There are several possible theories about what happened next’ – we have to plump for one of them or come up with a version of our own. But I came up against a big one in ‘Into the Valley of Death’, and I’d very much like your opinion on whether I handled it correctly. It was the simple little matter of working out who was responsible for the most famous military blunder ever – the Charge of the Light Brigade.

I thought I knew. I’d read Cecil Woodham Smith’s ‘The Reason Why’, I’d seen the 1968 film ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and I knew both were based on the account by Alexander Kinglake, the official chronicler who accompanied the expedition to the Crimea. Here's a brief summary of Kinglake's version:

During the Battle of Balaklava, the Russians attacked and held three of the Turkish redoubts which were positioned along the slopes of the Causeway Heights. Commander-in-chief Lord Raglan watched impotently from the Sapoune Heights until a staff officer told him the Russians were attempting to take away the captured cannon. At this shameful prospect Raglan finally acted, dictating a message to General Airey:

 ‘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. R. Airey - Immediate’.

 The message was given to Airey’s ADC, Captain Nolan, along with the verbal order to ‘Tell Lord Lucan that the cavalry are to attack immediately!’ Nolan carried both to Lord Lucan, commander of the cavalry division, who was then positioned at the head of the North Valley and unable to see beyond the Causeway Heights to the redoubts. The infuriated Lucan pointed out that he could see neither enemy nor guns, at which Nolan ‘pointed with his sword towards the End of the Valley and cried out “There, my Lord, is your enemy, and there are your guns!’

He didn’t point towards the redoubts on the Causeway Heights. He pointed to the end of the North Valley where an entire Don Cossack battery was drawn up. To the left were the Fedoukhine Hills where another Russian battery was placed. To the right were the Causeway Heights where Russian cannon had already been firing all morning. Nolan pointed the way, and Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan to lead the Light Brigade into what we know now as the ‘Valley of Death’.

Light Brigade Charge at Balaklava - after Colin Robins

 A mistake then. A tragic mistake, and all down to Captain Nolan.

The conventional account claims he did try to stop it. The Brigade had advanced less than 200 metres when he charged ‘from left to right’ towards Cardigan, as if suddenly realizing the error. Two eyewitnesses, Nunnerley and Morley of the 17th Lancers, later claimed to have heard him shout the order ‘Threes right!’ that would have turned them towards the correct route of the Causeway Heights. What else he might have said is unknown, because at that moment the battery on the Fedoukhine opened fire. Nolan reeled back with his chest torn open, uttering a scream so unearthly no-one who heard it ever forgot it, and his horse careered wildly back down the ranks carrying a corpse with its arm still upraised in that final, frantic gesture.

David Hemmings as Nolan in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Great stuff. Highly convenient too, since it left no-one alive to blame. The mistake was made by a dead commoner, rather than any of their Lordships Cardigan, Lucan or Raglan, and even poor Nolan did at least try to redeem himself at the end. 

 Shed a tear for the gallant captain – and move on.

 Or not. It seems to me that focussing attention on Nolan only serves to distract us from the worse mistake – Lord Raglan’s unbelievably stupid order. ‘Advance to the front’ – what front? ‘Follow the enemy’ – which enemy, especially when none of them are moving? ‘Prevent them from carrying away the guns’ – whose guns and where? ‘French cavalry are on your left’ – full marks for observation, none for the slightest indication as to what Lucan is to do about it.

If we can’t blame Lucan for being baffled by this, what makes us think Nolan understood it any better? When he pointed to the North Valley, mightn’t he have believed that was truly what Raglan meant? One witness refutes this, insisting Raglan gave Nolan additional ‘careful instructions’ – but the witness is Somerset Calthorpe, who was not only Raglan’s junior officer, but also his nephew. If we were in a court of law, how much weight would we give to his evidence today?

That’s the rub with history. We naturally place high value on primary sources and eyewitness accounts – but would we accord them the same hallowed status today? Witnesses lie to protect themselves, to protect other people, for financial or political gain – we’d never need a jury trial if they didn’t. If we apply the same standards to 1854 then we can be sure of only one thing. Lord Raglan gave a stupid and confusing order – and everything else is speculation.

The cover-up began almost at once. Lucan realized the significance of Raglan’s order before the Charge even began, and gave it to civilian interpreter John Elijah Blunt for safe-keeping. Airey realized it too, and after the disaster asked ‘more than once’ for the original order to be returned, but Lucan was wise enough to let Blunt hand over only copies. By doing so, however, he sealed his own fate. Lucan was blamed (with justification) for not having clarified the order, and recalled to England in disgrace. Twice he demanded a court martial and the right to say what had happened in open court – and twice he was refused. That alone should make us think.

Lord Raglan - was he to blame?
Lord Raglan had to be protected. The key to his defence was ‘Nolan’s turn’, the fact he appeared to know perfectly well the direction they ought to have taken, and that was the theory duly advanced by Kinglake in his ‘Invasion of the Crimea’. Kinglake’s work, however, is notoriously biased, and his increasingly embarrassing attempts to whitewash Raglan make the whole account suspect. 

Nunnerley’s statement is doubtful too, since it makes clear that both Nolan’s movement and the cry that he admitted only SOUNDED LIKE like 'Threes right!’ were made after the captain had been hit. Only Morley insists they came before, but Morley’s account (30 years after the event) is so cheerfully slapdash as to be highly unreliable. It is also directly contradicted by Cardigan’s ADC Maxse, who wrote in a letter that ‘Nolan was killed close to me and Kinglake’s account was… absurd as to Nolan wanting to charge any other guns than those that he did.’

So did Nolan try to turn the Brigade? Having walked the ground myself, I’m fairly sure he didn’t – for the simple reason that he must have known where they were going from the start. It’s been argued he might have thought Cardigan still intended to wheel right for the Causeway Heights, but John Wightman of the Lancers recalls his specific order as ‘The Brigade will advance – First Squadron of 17th Lancers direct!’ If a commander intends a brigade to turn right he’s extremely unlikely to order them to take direction from the squadron on the left of the front line. As soon as that order was given it would have been obvious where they were going – as all the eyewitnesses in fact insist it was. Captain Thomas Hutton of the 4th Light Dragoons even wrote ‘A child could have seen the trap that was laid for us; every private dragoon did.’  It is inconceivable that Nolan, the most experienced cavalryman in the field, should have been the one man who didn’t. If it was the wrong way he’d have said so at once, and not waited 200 metres before trying to make the turn.

'Charge of the Light Brigade' by William Simpson

I don’t believe Nolan turned. He might have charged forward to force the pace (as Lord Cardigan himself believed) and any subsequent wild movement could be attributed to the panic of his horse when its master was dead in the saddle. He certainly screamed after he was hit, and since he was still upright it’s perfectly possible his cry might be taken for an order. I think he died following the order he genuinely believed he had been given, and the blunder was made by Lord Raglan when he failed to make his meaning clear.

But that’s not, in the end, what I wrote. Mine is just one of many theories, and to present it convincingly I’d need to show why Calthorpe and Morley might have lied or been mistaken – which would have taken me well off the track of my story. ‘Into the Valley of Death’ is fiction, the story is what matters, and it would be self-indulgent to introduce a massive digression just in order to show off a pet theory of my own. In the end I have dutifully followed the eyewitnesses and shown at least an approximation of Nolan’s turn.

Was I wrong?

 The historian in me says yes, because I perpetuated a lie. The novelist in me says no, because I put the story first. But something else that's both storyteller and historian says I was right because I had bigger fish to fry.

 To focus on what Nolan thought would have been to repeat the cover-up of 1854, by diverting attention from the real blunder of Raglan’s order. Lord George Paget, who led the 4th Light Dragoons and 8th Hussars, pointed out at the time that even if they’d taken the intended route of the Causeway Heights, the Charge would still have ended in disaster. Mark Adkin makes the same point in his excellent book ‘The Charge’, and so does Major Colin Robins in a brilliant article here. Nolan made no difference. It was the order that was wrong, the order that was stupid, and the real question is why Raglan ever gave it.

Now that really IS a mystery. He gave the order because he thought the enemy were taking his guns - but we know now this wasn't true. Kinglake communicated with the Russian generals after the war, and they denied any attempt at removing the guns. Indeed, it would have been madness while the British cavalry sat right across the only road back to the Russian camps. The only reason Raglan thought it was happening is because a certain staff officer told him so – and who that staff officer was, nobody knows. We have so much detail about that discussion on the Sapoune, yet not one of the witnesses names the man who set the entire thing in motion.

That’s my mystery. That’s the one I’m weaving throughout ‘Into the Valley of Death’. This one I could pursue without contradicting a single eyewitness, but the more I looked, the more I realized this one little incident was the tip of a very large iceberg. One that’s never been investigated – until now.

Or at least I think so. But then I’m a historical novelist, and I do love a good mystery...

'Into the Valley of Death' comes out May 10th.

A.L. Berridge's website is here.


Sania said...

pretty cool post, thanks

H.M. Castor said...

Wow, what a fascinating post. Utterly gripping. And I think the points you make about having, as a novelist, to plump for one version, and about sacrificing your theory for the sake of the focus of the story are brilliant. It's what I'm grappling with every day & yet I hadn't explained it that way to myself.

alberridge said...

Neither had I, really. I just had a vague sensation of grappling with guilt, and it was forcing myself to blog about it that helped clarify it in my mind. The HG Blog as therapy!

Thanks so much for commenting - and for making me feel less drippy about it!

H.M. Castor said...

It's especially relevant for me now, Louise, because I'm sitting here today writing a talk that I'll be giving at an evening which I'm sharing with a writer of historical non-fiction... and the first thing I find myself doing is feeling I need to justify my work in some way - i.e. to argue that it's valid as a work of history... um, but then, why is it in novel form? So I need somehow to indicate its validity as a novel too! It's something that I assume doesn't come up for writers of non-fiction history books *or* for writers of non-historical novels...

But apart from all that, I found your account of the events leading up to the charge of the Light Brigade absolutely fascinating. Can't wait to read the book!

alberridge said...

Ooh, I don't envy you that! But you're right - we're curious, hybrid creatures with a foot in each world, and running the risk of being acceptable to neither. I have an article out in this month's 'War Correspondent' (journal of the Crimean War Research Society) and it's full of apologies for being a writer of fiction...

I guess the touchstone for me is that nothing I write should ever warp the truth. I'll move a date if I have to (and explain it in the Historical Note), but I won't say Lord Cardigasn was a git if he wasn't(he was), and I won't blame someone for something they didn't do. I hope the way I've written this it'll still be clear that Nolan unfairly took the blame for a blunder that started before the order was ever put in his hand.

At least, I hope...!!

sue laybourn said...

What H.M.Castor said, an absolutely fascinating post.
I need to see the film with D.Hemmings. I also need to buy your book! It's been ages since I read Woodham-Smith's book. I should probably read that again too!

Thanks, Louise. Beautifully written and argued, as always.

Catherine Johnson said...

Great post. The book sounds fabulous!

Mark Burgess said...

Fascinating Louise, and what a dilemma - so easy to be sidetracked, I find, so admire your determination. Can't wait to read your book!

And historical novelists, please stop apologising!

Linda B-A said...

Well said, Mark! Like Harriet, there's clearly a lot of the 'pure' (as in pure or applied) historian in you, Louise. With the advent of the e-book, perhaps it would be an idea to start a precedent for the copiously annotated historical novel, footnotes that you could turn on or off according to taste... In any case, a truly fascinating post, thank you.

alberridge said...

Sue - thank you so much. I actually worried a bit about the 'David Hemmings' factor - the 'female' urge to defend the most good-looking (and horse-loving) bloke in the whole lot of them - but I've read Nolan's diary now, and it makes a difference when you know a man 'from the inside'. Having said that, I'd still definitely recommend you [i]watch the film!!![/i]

Catherine - thank you. It's a fearful thing posting one's historical 'dirty underwear' for the real professionals to read, and your comment means a lot. Thank you.

adele said...

Gosh you are so clued up! Brilliant you know a lot about Florence Nightingale by any chance? I have a reason for asking...I will email you now!

alberridge said...

Mark - thank you! 'Sidetracked' is absolutely right, and it cen be frighteningly tempting. What deters me, I think, is the fear of what Celia Rees' brilliant post below would call a 'hurler' - of showing off the research instead of following a narrative drive.

And Linda - what a brilliant idea of optional footnotes! Publishers seem to loathe them in print, but extra pages don't matter in an e-book. Personally I love them - especially when they're witty as well as informative like George Macdonald Fraser's in the Flashman series.

Adele, that's so kind of you, but I only have to talk for 5 minutes to a member of the CWRS to realize just how 'clued-down' I really am. But I'm intrigued by the reference to Miss Nightingale - please, please tell me more as I'm 'doing her' right now!

Rebecca A. Burrell said...

At the risk of embarrassing you, Louise, and with complete sincerity, I have to set that I've never met someone with such fierce determination to do right by someone they've never met. May we all be so lucky as to have such an advocate for our deeds after we're gone.

Really, it's a brilliant analysis, and you've threaded a very fine needle with what you chose to do, I think, and I can imagine the hair-pulling that went into it while you were at your desk writing. Then again, it's a lovely thing that the life of a modern author gives us the chance to read the full genesis of your idea here

alberridge said...

That's so sweet and kind of you, Becky, but I know I need to watch it with the advocacy. Once it tips over into sentimentality I've had it.

And you're so right about the advantages of the modern author - the existence of blogs means I get a second chance to say 'what I REALLY meant'. The snag, unfortunately, is that the book needs to stand on its own without me sneaking in extra arguments in cyberspace...

Thanks for dropping by, Becky. Really good to see you here again.

Raburrell said...

No, I didn't find it sentimental - simply conscientious. And I would be very surprised if what you wrote didn't stand alone- this is simply a chance to further the discussion. I had a similar reaction to a question you'd posted about a non-evil Richelieu in your precious novel :)

alberridge said...

Thanks again, Becky - but that has to be one of the best typos I've seen in a long while!!!(is it me, incidentally, or is the 'Preview' on these comments doing very strange things?)

Rebecca A. Burrell said...

lol, oops - that's what I get for replying with my phone ;)

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting and informative! There's a bit in War and Peace where Tolstoy describes something very like The C of th L B, and I wonder if he was thinking about it - he was in the Crimean War. My Dad who was in th Royal Army Medical Corps was always very angry about an occasion when he reckoned Churchill had pointlessly thrown men's lives away, and I can't remember when now. Since he saw the results of such actions, I can see why it made Dad angry.

Leslie Wilson said...

I wanted to say - but my keyboard refused on me suddenly - also a problem of using my phone - that I normally find descriptions of battles hard to follow, but you set this out with so much clarity, Louisa.

alberridge said...

Thanks so much for that, Leslie. Interesting about Tolstoy too - he didn't arrive in Sevastopol until November 1854, but people would certainly have still been talking about the Charge. Can you remember roughly where he talks about such an incident? I was going to say 'I'll have to reread "War and Peace"' but my heart just failed me...

And thank you for sharing your Dad's memories. There's a real danger that subjects like these can be reduced to an intellectual puzzle, but you just put the emphasis right back smack where it should be. People died. Hundreds of them, and needlessly. It still makes me angry, but what it would be like for someone like your dad who actually saw such things is dreadful to imagine.

Penny Dolan said...

Found this a really great and informative post and explained so clearly, both the historical events and people as you understand them and the writer's choices.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh dear, I can't remember when in W&P. Have only just read it, too.....
Just reading Terry Pratchett. Love Commander Vimes who thought war was a crime, like murder....

ediFanoB said...

Dear Louise,
you know I love your books. But I must say you surprise again and again with your posts here at the History Girls.

Don't worry I will not praise your post by stringing together all these precious adjectives I know. It would look like I would try to butter you up.

I will do it in another way.
You should take into consideration to collect all your post - each is a short story of its own - and publish them as a kind of short story collection. I know it would not easy to find a publisher. But there are possibilites to convert these posts into and eBook and publish it by yourself.
It would be a shame if all these information would not find a greater audience.

alberridge said...

Thanks so much, Penny. I'm oversimplying hugely, of course, which makes it all rather easier!

Impressive reading agility, Leslie - from Tolstoy to Pratchett in a blink! I very much like the sound of Commander Vimes...

Edi - thank you, but (as always) you are far too generous. The joy about posting here at the History Girls is that all the members (and many of the readers) know and share exactly the same kind of dilemmas, so I can post honestly without fear of seeming to set myself up as an authority. I post to get the feedback more than anything, and the comments here are always helpful. To 'publish' a post would be a very different thing, and not nearly so enjoyable.

Perhaps one day all the HGs might publish one collectively - various thoughts on writing historical fiction. Now THAT would be well worth doing!

ediFanoB said...

Dear Louise,

I understand yor point of view.
But you deliver so many information in your posts - and the other History Girls also do that - that every visit here is for me like reading a book.

I look forward to your next post which will be after the publishing date of Into the Valley of Death.