Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Doomed Glory on the Hoof: What's left of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade?

The preserved bronzed trophy hoof of Ronald, the British cavalry horse that led the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War on October 25, 1854. Miraculously, he survived and returned to England. His hoof now sits on a bronze pillow and is the property of the The Royal King's Hussar Museum in Winchester, England.

Today is the anniversary of the ill-fated but gallant charge of the Light Brigade of British cavalry during the Crimean War back in 1854. More than half the British cavalry horses and a third of the men who galloped "into the valley of Death" behind the controversial Earl of Cardigan would never gallop back out. But what about the ones who did?

Quick refresher: In the famed charge of the light brigade, a careless communications blunder sent 600 gallant, galloping British cavalry, armed only with sabers and bayonets, into the face of the entire heavily-armed, cannon-equipped Russian army during the Crimean War. ("Theirs was not to reason why...")

The poetic ode to the battle, Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, is one of the most lyrical and often recited poems in the English language. But is there more to its story?

It happened on October 25, 1854 near the port of Balaclava on the Crimean peninsula, part of what today is the disputed land bridge between Ukraine and Russia. The British and French forces were there to push back the Russians--yes, even then the Russians were determined to control Crimea.

Crimea was a vital point in 19th century world trade and transport routes, just as it was 60 years later, in World War I, when the disastrous campaign known simply as "Gallipoli" was fought by British and ANZAC forces in the same region. The jewel of the British empire was India; to get there from Britain, every inch of ocean and land access needed to be protected.

Historians still argue about what happened on this day, but poets and artists responded with some of their greatest work. Within a few weeks, o
ne of the world's most famous poems was written about it. 

But it wasn't the last poem to be penned about it; the survivors had plenty to add, whether human veterans with their protests or the few surviving horses whose silent trophy hooves are still on display.

• • • • •

On this day so long ago, more than 600 horses galloped into a long valley with Russian artillery and marksmen atop the ridges on both sides, and artillery at the head of the valley, as well. ("Cannon to the left of them, Cannon to the right of them...") Seven minutes later, only 275 horses were standing.

The British had shipped 2000 cavalry horses to the far edge of the European continent. Only 200 cavalry mounts survived to the end of the war. The military made sure some of the survivors of the famous charge made it back to England, where they were honored and celebrated by both the public and the military, as well as by royalty, as something gallant and brave, never as the victims of a suicidal and flawed mission.

Many of us met a Crimean War cavalry horses long ago. The character of Captain in Anna Sewell's Black Beauty is a Crimean charger who returned to England but ended up as a cab horse in London. Captain fascinated and horrified Black Beauty with his terrible war stories until he was in a collision with a drunk and had to be destroyed. After all he had survived in the war, he lost his life on a city street.

Ronald led the charge
The most famous of all survivors was Ronald, the horse who carried the flamboyant 7th Earl of Cardigan at the front of the charge.

In Ronald's case, more than his four 
hooves were preserved after his death:
His head and 
tail are still on display
at Deene Park, 
Lord Cardigan's home.
(photo provided 
by Deene Park)
After the war, Ronald boarded a ship and went to live at Cardigan's country home, Deene Park in Northamptonshire, England. He enjoyed a long life and even outlived his former rider, who died after a fall from another of his horses.

Ronald earned great respect, since he and his rider somehow managed to survive the battle. Russian General Liprand remarked of Ronald after the war, "If he had not had a good horse, he would never have got back."

One of the legends about Ronald is that he was to follow the coffin in the Earl's funeral procession but became very excited. To avoid possible damage to the horse, spectators or the procession, he was sedated. In that state, however, Ronald simply refused to move. The funeral could not proceed. Someone had the brilliant idea to sound the charge on a bugle. Ever the professional, Ronald perked right up and moved on.

Visitors to Deene Park today will see Ronald's stuffed head on the wall; his tail was also preserved, along with all four of his hooves. One hoof is at Deene Park. Another of his hooves resides at Windsor Castle. Ronald's third hoof was given to a friend of Lord Cardigan's, and the fourth hoof was presented to the regiment and may be seen at the Royal Hussars Museum.

Thunderer and his rider died
One of the horses that didn't make it out of the Valley of Death was the 17th Lancers' Thunderer, the mount of Lt. William King, who was killed with his horse. One of Thunderer's hooves, however, made it back to England, was made into a trophy and is currently for sale.

It is difficult to authenticate these old trophies in terms of whether the shoes are original; hooves do shrink and distort over time. Usually the shoes and nails are replaced by the trophy makers with silverwork.

It was the farriers' job to retrieve hooves from fallen horses after a battle; they carried axes for this job, which could also serve as a poll-ax (possibly the origin of "pole ax") to put wounded horses out of their misery. However, on this day, Cardigan ordered the farriers not to destroy wounded horses after the charge, but rather to try to keep all the survivors--the few there were--alive.
Thunderer's hoof is currently for sale for $995 on an online military antiques website. (International Military Antiques sale photo)

Malta, the wounded one

A horse named Malta was shot through his windpipe, but still carried his officer back to the British lines. He survived and was shipped home; a painting of him hangs in the Imperial War Museum.

Dickie Bird's bones were exhumed
Archaeologists found Dickie Bird's bones during a dig in the old Clancy Barracks in Dublin, Ireland. Photo courtesy of William Murphy.

Dickie Bird was a Crimea survivor who went to Ireland with British troops after the war. According to his plaque, the regiment had to get special permission to shoot him, at the age of 24, or he would have been sent to a slaughterhouse for rendering. One of his hooves was preserved for a museum exhibit. His bones were exhumed when located during an archeology dig near the plaque that honored him; examination showed that he hadn't been shot after all. His skeleton is now on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

Sir Briggs returned to Wales
Sir Briggs was an ex-racehorse ridden by Lord Tredegar of Wales, who brought his successful steeplechase horse to Crimea as one of four horses. His other three horses died during the voyage and were cast overboard. Sir Briggs survived the charge with only a saber cut over his eye. He died at his owner's home in Wales in 1874, 20 years after the battle. Legend has it that he was buried standing up.

How Butcher earned his name
One horse had his name changed after he survived the Charge of the Light Brigade. He was the only horse of the 13th Light Dragoons who was still alive. The horse had so many wounds, it looked like he had been carved up. His name was changed to "Butcher". He was kept alive and shipped home, where he was presented to Queen Victoria. She gave him a place in the stables at Hampton Court Palace to live out his life; he lived there in comfort for almost 30 years.

Crimean Bob, the Farrier-Major's horse
A horse named "Crimean Bob" deserves special mention. When he died, aged 34, at Cahir Barracks in County Tipperary, Ireland, he was the oldest troop horse in the entire British military. He served  for 30 years, including galloping "half a league onward" in the Charge of the Light Brigade, under Farrier-Major Avison. By that time, he had already spent more than 20 years in the cavalry.

Bob later became the mount of Farrier-Sergeant John Dyke. Orders from on high decreed that Bob should be retained in a position of honor in the regiment; Dyke cared for him until the horse's death. Bob was honored with a military funeral and full honors; the regiment erected a tombstone in his honor.

Dyke, meanwhile, died penniless at the age of 37; the farrier had tuberculosis and was buried in an unmarked grave. The horse had been celebrated and provided for, but not the soldier.

Dyke's death, along with the uncelebrated deaths of so many other survivors, is the poignant story hidden between and behind the lines of Tennyson's famous lyrical poem.

The treatment of veterans was so negligent that, in 1890, Rudyard Kipling was moved to write a sequel, "The Last of the Light Brigade", to Tennyson's much more famous original verse. Kipling focused on the hardships of veterans like Farrier-Major Dyke. The purpose of his poem was to embarrass the British public to offer some support for the now-struggling men who had survived the horrors of that charge.

While the horses were the subject of paintings and statues and their trophy hooves were plated with silver and bronze, the men suffered and even starved--thanks to insufficient pensions--on the streets of the most powerful and wealthy empire the earth had ever known.

A group of ex-soldier survivors had gone to Tennyson and asked him to write a sequel that would present their hardship to the people. But it was Kipling who responded so eloquently, penning:
O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made"
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!
The Charge of the Light Brigade has been passed down through more than 150 years. The history of the charge still captures our imaginations, and the poem still stirs us.  It is a complicated subject even now; no recounting of gallant riders, heroic horses and trophy hooves can fully unravel what really happened that day, and probably never will.

 --Fran Jurga  

• • • • •

To learn more: Here's the trailer for the 1968 film version of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"; it stars some of that era's greatest actors and the battle scene was filmed on location in Turkey. It also re-creates military stables in England and even how horses were transported below decks on the ships that carried 2000 cavalry horses from Britain to Crimea. Only 200 of those horses survived the war. Many horses died during transport.

The film also includes the chilling command, "Farriers, do your duty." What the farriers had to do next was a part of their job that had nothing to do with horses, and it is very disturbing to watch. In retrospect, the film was probably made to suggest that Vietnam in the 1960s was a contemporary Balaclava, and the US troops in southeast Asia were a 20th century light brigade. You can stream it on Amazon, request it from your library, or search deeper into the web for other sources.

Additional reading and sources:

There is no one source for information about the charge or the Crimean War and no lack of opinions on what happened, or why. Information about the horses is scattered. More than 100 sources were used to collect the individual facts for this article, and many sources disagree on dates, horse names, riders or service attachments. Military records contain handwritten notations and there were many horses with similar or identical names. 

Coming in the future: The impeccable record-keeping of the British military makes it possible to know who some of the farriers were who served in Crimea. What became of them?

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