At Balaklava on 25 October 1854 during the Crimean War, the Light Brigade made the most magnificent and most brutal charge in military history. 666 cavalrymen armed with sabre and lance charged down a mile-long valley, straight at the muzzles of Russian cannons. In the slaughter that followed, many fell to roundshot and shell fired from the front and both sides. Those who survived took a bloody revenge on the enemy.
The best-known cavalry charge in history is commemorated by the best-known poem in the English language: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His verses caught the public imagination with their rhythm that echoed the beat of the hooves:
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Steve Harris was inspired by Tennyson when he wrote the lyrics for The Trooper. Not to be outdone by Tennyson’s rhythmic beat, Iron Maiden’s opening riff sounds like the thunder of galloping hooves:
The bugle sounds and the charge begins
But on this battlefield no one wins;
The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
As I plunge on into certain death.
Certain death for many, because the Russians had cannons ahead of them, and cannons on both flanks. It took seven minutes to ride Hell’s mile. Despite the cracks of shells bursting overhead and the shrieks of troopers pierced by burning metal shards, the most macabre sound was the wet ‘slosh’ of a twelve-pound iron roundshot passing through a man’s chest, leaving little of the torso intact.
Survivors described what one man called ‘that ride of horrors’:
‘The cannons in front were visible as streaks of fire two feet long in the centre of a gush of thick white smoke.’
‘The men in my squadron were nearly all cut down, including a sergeant who had his head blown off.’
As they brought their mounts to the gallop and headed straight for the muzzles of the guns ahead, these cavalrymen also came under fire from enemy guns on both flanks. The barrage of roundshot and shell was constant and deafening. Men and horses fell dead or mutilated at every stride.
‘My horse was hit by a ball in the neck, which covered me with a shower of blood from the wound.’
‘Our pace increased amidst the thickest shower of roundshot and shell, whistling and cracking overhead. Horses and men dropped every yard.’
When the brigade was eighty yards from the gun line, officers and men spurred their horses to the final dash. Lances and sabres were lowered to the ‘engage’.
‘When the last volley went off, the flame, the smoke, the roar, were in our faces. It was like riding into the mouth of a volcano.’
As what remained of the Light Brigade disappeared into the smoke and belching flames of the Russian guns, it seemed that these magnificent cavalrymen had charged into hell itself.
Russian officers called it a ‘wild charge’ and decided the whole brigade must have been made drunk before being sent against the guns. General Liprandi, inspecting men of the Light Brigade taken prisoner, asked them in English: ‘What did they give you to drink?’ William Kirk of the 17th Lancers answered back: ‘You think we were drunk? By God, if we had as much as smelt the barrel, we would have taken half Russia by now.’
After the charge, one survivor returned to the tent he had shared with nine others – and found himself alone now. He sat down and began a sad letter home. At least he could do that. The dead can leave no account, but in The Trooper Steve Harris lends them a voice:
And as I lay there gazing at the sky
My body’s numb and my throat is dry;
And as I lay forgotten and alone
Without a tear I draw my parting groan.