The Soldier’s Prayer was sung on the ships as the army sailed out to the Crimea, and answered by the sailors:
Now the first thing we’ll pray for, we’ll pray for some beer,
And if we only get some it will bring us good cheer,
And if we have one beer may we also have ten;
May we have a fucking brewery, said the sailor, Amen!
At Balaklava, when there was no fighting to be done, the cavalryman’s day had three parts: the morning devoted to drill and grooming the horses, the afternoon to tobacco, and the evening to beer and bawdy songs. The preferred beer of the British soldier in 1854 was porter, a dark-brown bitter brewed from charred malt. Each man would take his own quart (two-pint) pewter pot to the barrel. Porter cost four pence a pot – so two pence a pint.
After stoppages for his rations, a soldier’s pay left him with about eight pence a day. Most men smoked clay pipes and the cost of shag tobacco rose as the supply dwindled. So they could afford two or three pints of porter at most to fuel the evening’s bawdy.
Don’t want a bullet up me arsehole,
Don’t want me bollocks minced with ball;
But if I have to lose ‘em
Then let it be with Susan
Or Meg or Peg or any whore at all.
In fact losing an arm, a leg or half a face was more likely. Three pints was never going to quench the deeper thirst of a man who could be called at a moment’s notice to his final ride. When drinking with death there are no half measures. A favourite song of the Light Brigade, The Cavalry Soldier, ends with two lines that every man bawled out at the top of his voice:
Now some say he went to heaven, some say he went to hell,
Some say he fucked the devil and the devil’s wife as well.
The need for more beer than they could afford meant that some men sold their rations of salt meat and biscuit to purchase extra porter. That was not so bad – porter had a high calorie content and was administered in the hospital tents as a ‘restorative’.
Sutlers who followed the army and set up private canteens, attracted custom by selling beer at three pence a quart instead of four. They could only do so by watering it down, adding treacle to restore its dark-brown colour. Unknown at the time, the brackish water they used was often the source of cholera.
But it was the waiting Russians who would devastate the Light Brigade. Iron Maiden’s The Trooper was written from the perspective of a cavalryman who falls before the guns:
We get so close near enough to fight
When a Russian gets me in his sights;
He pulls the trigger and I feel the blow
A burst of rounds takes my horse below.
Men who lived only a bugle call and a short gallop away from death, hoped to wet their lances and sabres with Russian blood first. The Legend of Fiddlers’ Green was sung by cavalrymen who believed the blood they had shed meant they would be barred from heaven. They invented a place of their own for dead troopers, where the fiddlers play forever, supplies of beer and tobacco are never exhausted, and the whores are free:
Halfway down the trail to Hell, in a shady meadow green
Are the souls of all dead troopers camped, near a good old-time canteen,
And this eternal resting place is known as Fiddlers’ Green.
And so when man and horse go down beneath a sabre keen
Or in a roaring charge of fierce melee you stop a bullet clean,
And the Ruskies come to finish you just empty your canteen,
And put your pistol to your head and go to Fiddlers’ Green.