Charge of the Light Brigade

Arianne Zajac

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a failed military action in the Battle of Balaclava, during the Crimean war in 1854. Of the 670, around 110 were killed and 160 were wounded. Most significantly, it was immortalised by Alfred Lord Tennyson in a poem under the same name. The poem of six stanzas documents the suicidal military action and seeks to memorialise the fallen soldiers. Tennyson was the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate, an honorary title, which assumes the poet will capture the public mood and will write verse for significant national events.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a narrative poem in ballad form, its purpose is to tell the story of the attack. It uses a falling rhythm as well heavy repetition, as to communicate the restlessness and devastating nature of the attack. Every aspect is designed to capture the essence of the crusade. Although it was written just over 150 years ago, the feelings and themes captured in the poem are not alien to society today. In fact, they can be seen across contemporary British politics.

The poem itself is intrinsically linked to British nationalism. The poem glorifies dying for one’s country, suggesting it is the highest moral duty of a citizen to their nation. This is iterated through stanza V, in which Tennyson suggests that despite the error, not a single soldier was disconcerted and proceeded with the Charge.  Sacrificing oneself for one’s country is almost desirable under nationalism. As a central tenet to its ideology, it incurs loyalty, chauvinism, and bravery. This has typically existed throughout British history, as the majority of men would serve in the army across the empire, while these ideas of mortality were indoctrinated to children through the linking of sports clubs and militaristic ideas.

Today the British public has little appetite for sending troops abroad in murky military operations. But it does seem that politicians and public alike are willing to sacrifice themselves for other political causes, as the nation is currently publicly destroying itself over the nationalist misadventure of Brexit.

The nationalisms at play within Brexit are much more complex than the type of nationalism presented in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Significantly, since 2010 there has been an increasing politicisation of, most specifically, English nationalism. Historically, it has been used to legitimise larger polities, such as the Empire, the UK, and even the EU. But this has ultimately been inverted with Brexit, as UKIP successfully tied English grievances to the need to secede from the EU. Interestingly, English nationalism often seeks to merge itself with British nationalism as a whole. This has been achieved through invoking memories of the 1940s, in which Britain’s ‘finest hour’ as well as the founding of the NHS took place, thus allowing Brexiteers to take English grievances and ally them to a ‘Global Britain’ project.

Furthermore, the poem seeks to create national heroes that can be honoured. The time of the Charge saw a notable change in British military history and convention. Previously, military heroes were typically gentlemen from the upper classes, however after the Charge of the Light Brigade, common men were recognised as fighting for their country, and in 1857 were awarded the Victoria Cross for the first time, regardless of their class or rank.

 

“Sacrificing oneself for one’s country is almost desirable under nationalism. As a central tenet to its ideology, it incurs loyalty, chauvinism, and bravery.”

A common theme that has emerged throughout the Brexit debate is the ordinary people vs. the elites. It is possible that we are witnessing an attempt, through nationalist discourse, to create English heroes. There has been a notably increasing democratic deficit in the UK – primarily affecting England, fuelled through the declining role and influence of local councils and regional government. As a result, the need to create national heroes has developed; especially amongst the working class, as a means for them to see themselves represented. This is especially true after the post-nationalist government rhetoric of the Blair years, which was also devoid of class-based distinctions. Politicians, such as Nigel Farage, have been particularly successful in manipulating this gap. He has effectively championed himself as one of the people – despite his background in finance.

The language utilised in the poem evokes religious connotations; references are made to the biblical poem the Valley of the Death. This not only elevates the Charge to an event of great importance but also gives credence to some of Tennyson’s personal beliefs.

A common theme in many of his poems is the challenging of traditional religion by science, something which carries through in limited effect to this poem, but is significant nonetheless. The Victorian era saw incredible scientific progress and shook European Christianity. This was a feeling that Tennyson could not escape, thus he often wrestled with the tension between the two sources in his poem.

This tension between tradition and new ideas and values is not something that is lost on the present day. The emergence of populist right-wing political events, such as Brexit, can be interpreted as a backlash to increasing globalisation and the neoliberal hegemony of the 2000s. Traditional symbols, in the name of ‘anti-migrant cultural nationalism’, have seen a reemergence, such as the St. George’s flag and its corresponding religious day. This has been followed with the rhetoric of asserting parliamentary sovereignty and ‘taking back control’.

Interestingly, the context of the Charge of the Light Brigade also bears reference to today. The Crimean War was considered the first media war. It saw the rise of the first war correspondent, The Times’s William Howard, while Roger Fenton’s photography was one of the first photographic documentaries of a conflict. As a result, it was one of the first times the public felt they were experiencing an international conflict.

Public opinion, in the case of Brexit, played a significant role from the start to whenever it is finished. Although the referendum was intended to quash internal party conflicts in the Conservative party, Prime Minister David Cameron severely underestimated the impact of British public opinion. Significantly, a new arena of political war emerged during the campaigning. While the tabloids took on their traditional role of giving contentious opinions, the role of social media was not yet known but had lasting influence. Within the online sphere, much of the British public was able to air grievances, converse with like-minded people, and rage against those who didn’t hold the same opinions. It was these interactions that truly set the tone of the referendum, which was nasty, vulgar, and hateful in many cases.

As English nationalism is increasingly politicised and its racist rhetoric is continuously legitimised, the gravity of Brexit in British politics will be felt for generations to come. Brexit is the culmination of long-declining British influence and politicians’ inability to wrest the feelings of inferiority and loss of identity from the British public. As Tennyson asks the pertinent question ‘When can their glory fade?’ It seems that it already has.

 

 

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone had blundered.

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.

 

First published Online, November 2020. Volume 16, Issue 1. Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade  (William Simpson, Wikimedia)