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"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is one of Alfred Lord Tennyson's most famous poems. The setting is the Crimean War, where a brigade of 600 British soldiers were sent into a valley to attack a strong Russian force.

Handwriting on paper

War is calculated killing and destruction. Human dignity and civilisation are sacrificed, and soldiers become expendable pawns in a game of life and death. The pecking order of a military system means that the soldiers have to follow the orders of their officers. No matter what the private may think, his only option is to obey the orders of his superiors who make the strategic decisions. But military history holds many examples of situations where officers for various reasons have made the wrong decisions and sent their soldiers to a certain death.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Like so many writers and poets Tennyson took little interest in his school work and studies. He went to Cambridge, but he idled through his studies and never took a degree. He sought company with friends who inspired him and encouraged him to follow his poetic vocation. However, his early writing was not given much esteem by his contemporary critics. But Tennyson was determined to succeed and worked indefatigably to perfect his art. During the 1840s he gradually won the acclaim of the reading public, and in 1850 he was appointed Poet Laureate by Queen Victoria; a prestigious honour bestowed on a living poet. (Tennyson succeeded William Wordsworth as Poet Laureate). Tennyson was very productive during his later life; he was a versatile writer with a wide horizon, his writing includes poems, drama, essays and religious and philosophical reflections. His popularity and his contribution to Victorian literature have given him an indisputable position in English literary tradition.

The Story

The Crimean War (1854-56) was a result of French-British intervention to prevent Russia from invading Turkey and gaining access to the Black Sea areas. It was a slow and gruesome war, fought on horseback with sabres and with primitive guns and cannons that mutilated and maimed more than they killed. British land troops were badly organised and had not been in any major battle since the Napoleonic Wars. On top of that, some of the British officers were headstrong, old warmongers whose main interest was to protect their own reputation and authority.
The Crimean town Balaklava was held by British, French and Turkish forces, but the Russians mobilised a large unit and charged to recapture the town. The Russians were defeated, but both sides suffered great losses. During this battle there was an incident where a small British cavalry unit, a light brigade, was sent into a valley to attack a Russian position. It was quite obvious that they did not stand a chance against the strong Russian unit, but the attack was launched anyway due to stubbornness and rivalry between high-ranking British officers. The brigade was nearly wiped out; less than a third of the 600 men of the Light Brigade survived.
The Crimean War was the first war that was given day-to-day coverage in the newspapers due to the newly invented telegraph. This information may have inspired Tennyson to write the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade".

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Charge of the Light Brigade
The Charge of the Light Brigade

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:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunde’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.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly the 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, but not
Not the six hundred.

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 fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Hell,
All that was left of them
Left of the six hundred.

When can their glory fade
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Tasks and Activities

  1. Where in the poem does it shine through that some officer made a mistake and the soldiers only had to follow orders?
  2. Point out some metaphors that are used in the poem.
  3. What does it mean that the Russians “reel’d from the sabre-stroke”?
  4. Where is the turning point in the poem?
  5. What elements of the charge does the poet describe, and what elements does he leave out?
  6. What is the poet’s conclusion?
  7. Do you think the Light Brigade made a noble effort?
  8. The Crimean War was when Florence Nightingale appeared as “The Lady with the Lamp” caring for the wounded soldiers. Go on the net and find out about Florence Nightingale.
  9. Check the net for information about the Crimean War and the Battle of Balaklava.
  10. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" has been made into a film version (1968, director Tony Richardson), check YouTube for footage and clips from the film.


Literary period: The Victorian Era

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