Wednesday, August 07, 2013

27: Who's In Charge of the Light Brigade?

In 1854, in what was basically part of a big game of "Risk", Russia invaded Turkey.
Britain and France insisted that this would not do and came to the aid of poor, defenceless, strategically important Turkey by sending a joint army out to the Crimean peninsula, a blob of land on Russia's Black Sea coast. On the southern tip of the Crimea was Sebastopol, Russia's main military port for its invasion on Turkey.
Running the show on the British side was Lord Raglan, a veteran of Waterloo with a missing arm to prove it. Raglan was getting on a bit and kept absent-mindedly referring to the enemy as "the French", often in front of the French generals.
In command of the cavalry was Lord Lucan, and beneath him, in charge of the elite and flamboyant Light Brigade, was Lord Cardigan. Cardigan somehow got it into his head that his command of the Light Brigade was independent of Lucan and behaved as if Lucan had no authority over him. The two men already despised each other and this didn't help.
After a gruelling campaign of bloody military clashes and much dysentery and cholera (relieved to some extent by Florence Nightingale) we get to the following situation.
Imagine a long, wide, shallow valley, shaped like a Y lying on its side - the base at the Western end and the tips in the East. At the Western end was the Light Brigade, parked waiting for orders. At the other end, in the Northern valley was half the Russian army, biding their time. In the Southern valley, the British Navy had placed some artillery, but the Russians had just captured this and were now starting to cart it off.
Lord Raglan and his staff were overlooking the valley from the high ground to the south and could see the whole thing. Three times Raglan sent down a skilled horseman, Captain Lewis Nolan, with a written order for the cavalry to advance and intercept the Russians who were taking the guns, but none of these orders were clear to Lucan and Cardigan, who, from their position in the valley, could see nothing of this.
Finally in exasperation Raglan sent a fourth order, to 'advance into the valley and prevent the Russians from taking away the guns'. This was no more clear than the previous orders to Lucan and Cardigan, who lost their rag with Raglan and demanded clarification from Nolan, who was also exasperated by now and pointed wildly over his shoulder, shouting "There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!"
Sadly he wasn't paying close attention to where he was pointing, and Lucan and Cardigan dutifully led the Light Brigade straight up the wrong valley, in the full knowledge that the bulk of the Russian army was up there. About a third of it came back.
Nolan had joined the brigade for the advance, and as soon as he realised what was happening tried to rectify the mistake by galloping ahead to tell Cardigan, but got shot down before Cardigan could realise that he wasn't just showing off.
The whole sorry episode led to some questions over whether the Purchase System was a good idea.
In those days, if you wanted a military command, and could afford it, you could simply buy it, as Cardigan had done. The reasoning behind this was that only landed gentry could afford such a thing, so you would have commanding officers with a special vested interest in defending their country.
Consequently any great twit, as long as he was a rich great twit, could be in charge. Shocking, don't you think?

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