“Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die”

As Lord Cardigan led his men into what Alfred Lord Tennyson famously called the “valley of death,” fire rained down from the heights on either side.

Lord Cardigan took up his position at the front of the Light Brigade. He sat tall in the saddle, his eyes flashing sapphire blue, his bearing proud. This would be his day for, although all who met him found him unusually stupid, no-one doubted his dauntless courage. Among the officers wearing the same brilliant cherry red and royal blue uniforms of the 11th Hussars that day was young Alexander Dunn of Toronto. As the trumpeter sounded the “walk march,” Dunn felt his heart pound and the hair rise on the back of his neck.

Dunn was the younger son of John Henry Dunn, the receiver general of Upper Canada. The elder Dunn was wealthy enough to purchase a commission for his son in the 11th Hussars.

The reasons why British cavalry were drawn up on the plain at Balaclava were nothing more than the desire of Russia to become a sea power and the determination of Britain and France to prevent it. Russia attacked Turkey and Britain and France sent troops.

After some initial successes, the British had gotten themselves into a position of extraordinary difficulty in the Crimea. They were camped high above a plain laying siege to Sevastopol. Below them, their lifeline to the port of Balaclava ran along an exposed ridge called the Causeway.

At daybreak on October 25th, 1854, the Russians attacked and overwhelmed the Turkish forces on the Causeway. The British Heavy Cavalry saved the day in a spectacular attack against much greater forces, a feat forgotten in the disaster that was to follow.

From his vantage point high above the plain, commander of the British forces Lord Raglan was astonished to see another Russian force suddenly appear on the ridge. They brought a team of horses to carry away the British naval guns that had been defending the ridge. Captured guns were the proof of victory and Lord Raglan determined that the Russians must be thwarted. He scribbled his famous order: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front.” His aide-de-camp stormed down the heights and delivered the order to Lord Lucan.

Lord Lucan read the order, which seemed to him obscure and absurd. From where he stood, he could not see the Russians or the guns. “Attack sir? Attack what? What guns, sir?” he responded. The aide flung out his arm and pointed furiously, not at the ridge, but towards the end of the North Valley, where the Russian cavalry had regrouped behind a battery of guns and scores of infantry.

Lucan was in a hideous dilemma. He had an indescribable hatred not only of Lord Raglan, but also for the headstrong commander of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan, to whom he finally gave the order.

As Lord Cardigan led his men into what Alfred Lord Tennyson famously called the “valley of death,” fire rained down from the heights on either side. Cardigan rode on as if he were crossing a parade ground until the men could be restrained no longer. Enraged by the slaughter of their comrades they broke into a furious charge, hacking at the enemy like demons.

As the massed gunfire tore into the ranks, soldiers and horses crashed to the ground and cheers were drowned by cries of death. Dunn called out to his men to “Close ranks!”

By some miracle Lord Cardigan blithely rode passed the guns, turned around and headed back. He rode on, never looking back, leaving his men to their fate.

Finally the call came, “Every man for himself now!” The battery was a piteous confused mass of dead and dying. The remnants of the 11th Hussars made their last desperate charge. Dunn’s heroic conduct inspired all around him. He saved the lives of two men, cutting down their assailants with his saber.

Out of the 670 horsemen who rode into the valley, only 198 returned.

Blame for the annihilation of the Light Brigade has been generously portioned out to the principals, with a special dose for Lord Raglan, who sent the fatally ambiguous order. Neither Lucan nor Cardigan had the wit to countermand it. At the time Cardigan was mobbed by adoring crowds. The woolen jacket he wore in the Crimea was copied and christened a “cardigan.” Later, his indifference to his men became symbolic of all that was wrong with the British command system.

Queen Victoria was so moved by the plight of her men in the Crimea that she donated a new medal in her name to recognize outstanding valour. Dunn got a hero’s welcome when he arrived home with his Victoria Cross, the first ever won by a Canadian. He later died in a hunting accident in Senafe, Ethiopia. James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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