Sons bury their fathers
Fathers bury their sons
Alfred, Lord Tennyson – who was born on this date in 1809 – knew how to turn a phrase. He’s responsible for bon mots like “It is better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all,” “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” and “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do or die.”
The last of those quotes is from Tennyson’s most popular poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, which is about a misguided frontal assault on Russian infantry and artillery by British light cavalry during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.
When Lord Raglan, who was in overall command of British forces at Balaclava, saw Russian troops withdrawing after capturing some cumbersome heavy cannons, he ordered his cavalry commander, Lord Lucan, to send his light cavalry after them. It was a task for which the fast, mobile British light cavalry was well-suited.
The ordered was delivered to Lucan by a staff officer, Captain Louis Edward Nolan, and then passed on to Lucan’s brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, who commanded the light brigade.
Cardigan immediately set off, but instead of pursuing the retreating Russians as Raglan had intended, he led his 670 men into the teeth of a well-fortified artillery position.
Captain Nolan galloped after Cardigan but was killed by an artillery shell before he could correct Cardigan's misdirected assault. The light brigade was decimated by artillery and infantry fire from three directions, and only about one third of his men made it back to British lines in one piece and with their horses.
Raglan blamed Lucan for the disaster, but Lucan said the fault was Raglan’s – or perhaps Nolan’s. (Nolan might have been able to shed considerable light on the controversy if he had survived.)
Cardigan, who was not blamed for the fiasco, later reflected on the battle:
I think that every man who was engaged in that disastrous affair at Balaklava, and who was fortunate enough to come out of it alive, must feel that it was only by a merciful decree of Almighty Providence that he escaped from the greatest apparent certainty of death which could possibly be conceived.
Tennyson’s poem was published just weeks after the battle. According to his grandson, Tennyson needed only a few minutes to write the poem after reading a newspaper account of the charge.
The poem quickly became hugely popular, and numerous references to it can be found in literature (Black Beauty, To the Lighthouse, and The Handmaid’s Tale), in movies (The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Saving Private Ryan, and The Blind Side), and in television shows (The Little Rascals, The Honeymooners, M*A*S*H, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Simpsons).
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Today’s featured song was released on Pearls Before Swine’s second studio album, Balaklava, which was released in 1968.
Tom Rapp, the group’s leader, wanted to produce an anti-war album and thought that the charge of the Light Brigade was an apt symbol of the cost of war.
The album was dedicated to Private Edward Slovak, the only American soldier who was executed for desertion in World War II.
The album’s cover depicts a detail of Peter Brueghel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death,” a 16th-century painting whose subject matter is the horror of war.
The lyrics from “Translucent Carriages” that I quoted at the top of this post were written by the great Greek historian, Herodotus. You’ll have to listen carefully to hear them: they are whispered as the second verse of the song is sung.
Here’s “Translucent Carriages”:
Click here to buy the song from Amazon: