When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Close to the fifty-ninth anniversary of the charge made famous by Tennyson’s poem there died at Newburgh Priory, Yorks, England, the last officer among the troopers who galloped to glory or the grave. He was Sir George Wombwell, who was then a Cornet of the Seventeenth Lancers and acting aide-de-camp to the Earl of Cardigan, the leader of the charge. He died in his eighty-second year, and is survived by just eleven troopers:
Alderman Kilvert of Wednesbury, Major (then private) Phillips, Capt. (then private) Percy Smith, J. Whitehead, W. Olley, W. Boxall, H. Wilsden, all of the Fourth (Queen’s own) Light Dragoons; M. Holland and J. Parkinson of the Eleventh Hussars, G. Gibson of the Thirteenth Light Dragoons, and J. Mustard of the Seventeenth Lancers.
This fifty-ninth anniversary, Oct. 25, has also brought to light a forgotten poem by Rudyard Kipling called “The Last of the Light Brigade,” which, written for a certain purpose twenty-four years ago, achieved that purpose, although it did not tend to increase the poet’s popularity with the English people, among whom he had been only a few short weeks. They did not relish the wrath of the young journalist, who had come out of India with a literary reputation made by the paper-covered volumes of Wheeler’s Railway Library, badly printed in Allahabad, although since then they have borne without resentment the castigations of “The Rowers,” “The Bear That Walks Like a Man,” and “The Recessional,” the last of which brought a painful pause to the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1897.
The young Kipling was moved to write “The Last of the Light Brigade” by the following circumstance:
An attempt had been made, but with poor success, to raise a national fund for the thirty-odd survivors then living of the charge at Balaklava so that those who were really in need might be saved from passing the few years they had to live in the workhouse. The amount collected was a little over $100.
The charity which had the matter in charge advised about twenty of the veteran troopers, who had gathered in London in expectation of some expression of respect and gratitude, to call on Tennyson, then in his eightieth year, to see if he would not do something for them.
The Poet Laureate heard their story and wrote a short sequel to “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which had as a result the rev’ving of the fund by a Liberal Party charity. It seems, however, that this charity had other uses for its money—an Irish Nationalist came in for some of it and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals came in for more. The last of the Light Brigade got what was left. It was then that Kipling penned the following:
There were thirty million English that
talked of England’s Might;
There were twenty broken troopers
that lacked a bed for the night;
They had neither food nor money, they
had neither service nor trade,
They were only shiftless soldiers, the
last of the Light Brigade.
They felt that Life was fleeting; they
knew that Art was long,
That though they were dying of fam-
ine they lived in deathless song;
They asked for a little money to keep
the wolf from the door,
And the thirty million English sent
twenty pounds and four!
They laid their heads together, that
were scarred and lined and gray—
Keen were the Russian sabres, but
want was keener than they—
And an old troop Sergeant muttered:
“Let’s go to the man who writes
The things on Balaklava the kiddies at
They went without band or colors, a
regiment ten file strong,
To look for the Master Singer, who
had crowned them all in his
And waiting his servant’s order, by
the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of
the Light Brigade.
They strove to stand to attention, to
straighten the toil-worn back;
They drilled on empty stomachs, the
loose-knit files fell slack.
With stooping of weary shoulders, in
garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the
last of the Light Brigade.
The old troop Sergeant was spokes-
man, and “Beggin’ your par-
don,” he said,
“You wrote o’ the Light Brigade, Sir.
Here’s all that isn’t dead.
And it’s all come true what you
wrote, Sir, regardin’ the Mouth
For we’re all of us nigh the work-
house, an’ we thought we’d call
”No, thank you, we don’t want alms,
Sir, but couldn’t you take an’
A sort o’ ‘to-be-continued’ and ‘see-
next-page’ o’ the fight?
We think that some one has blun-
dered an’ couldn’t you tell ’em
You wrote we was heroes once, Sir—
please write we are starving
The poor little army departed, limp-
ing and lean and forlorn,
And the heart of the Master Singer
grew hot with the scorn of scorn,
And he wrote for them wondrous
verses that swept the land like
Till the fatted souls of the English
were scourged with the thing
They sent a check to the felon that
sprang from an Irish bog,
They healed the spavined cab horse,
they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent, (you may call me a
liar,) when rebel and beast were
A check for enough to live on to the
last of the Light Brigade.
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
honor the charge they made,
But we leave to the streets and the
workhouse the last of the Light
Sir George Wombwell, for several years the only surviving officer of the Light Brigade, was educated at Eton, and at the age of 22 went to the Crimea as a Cornet of the Seventeenth Lancers and took part in the battles of Alma, Inkerman, and Balaklava. His family is of great antiquity, the first ancestor of which there is any record being Robert de Wombwell, who was living at the time of King Stephen in the twelfth century, and derived his name from his place of residence, Wombwell, near Barnsley. Oliver Cromwell was also an ancestor on the distaff side of Sir George Wombwell, and the bones of the great Lord Protector are believed to repose in a stone vault at Newburgh, Yorkshire.
There is no record of this tomb having been opened to verify the tradition, and it is related that King Edward VII., who visited Newburgh several times when Prince of Wales, after inspecting the vault one day, laughingly remarked:
“Look here, Sir George, I shall never be satisfied about this until you open the vault. Why not send for the workmen at once and have it opened now?”
“No,” replied Sir George, “I have been brought up in the belief—I shall die in the belief—and I will not open the tomb for anybody.”
At the close of the Crimean War Sir George returned to England as the fourth Baronet, his father having died during his absence, and settled down to the life of a country gentleman. He spent a good deal of time, however, until about six or seven years ago, in London, and was a familiar figure—always smartly mounted—in Rotten Row and at the principal clubs. At one time he was considered the best-dressed man in London. His estate had the reputation of being the best managed in all England, with tenants always eager to add to this reputation.
For several years Sir George was Master of the York and Ainsty Hounds. It was while following these hounds on Feb. 5, 1869, that he had a remarkable escape from drowning, which, coupled with his Balaklava adventure, gained for him the reputation of possessing a charmed life. The hunting party was crossing the flooded Ure at Bewby Ferry on the private chain ferryboat of the Vyner family, when the boat capsized, and several members of the hunt lost their lives. Sir George was hauled out of the swollen stream in an exhausted condition.
The Balaklava veteran has been succeeded by his brother, Capt. Henry Herbert Wombwell, who is eight years his junior, for the fourth Baronet’s two sons both found soldiers’ graves, one at Meerut and the other in South Africa.
Some years ago Sir George Wombwell published portions of the diary he kept during his Crimean campaign. The famous charge, according to him, was neither a mistake of tactics nor of strategy, and the disaster that met the brigade was due to the fact that the Russians had been reinforced—a circumstance unknown at headquarters, where the order for the attack was issued.
The Russians, it seems, under Gen. Liprandi, in attempting to raise the siege of Sebastopol, invested by the allied English, French, and Turkish troops, advanced along the Vorontsov ridge—two parallel lines of hills with a valley between and closed by a single high hill—on the top of which the Turks had mounted twelve guns. It seems that the real “blunder” was that the English brigade commander was not allowed latitude enough in the execution of general orders, for aside from a brief excursion of five minutes made by the Heavy Brigade on the Russian flank, they saw, while waiting for orders from headquarters, the Russians clear the valley and establish themselves on the hills. As they had no orders, they made no move.
It was then that Lord Raglan sent his fatal order to Lord Lucan, who commanded the British force at the mouth of the Vorontsov:
“Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. The French cavalry is on your left.”
With this message Lucan rode to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade, and repeated Lord Raglan’s order. Lord Cardigan gave one long look down the valley, swept the front and flanks where the Russians were being rapidly reinforced, and without a word of criticism, gave the order to advance.
In twenty minutes it was all over. Of the total force of 673 troopers who followed their leader less than a third responded at evening parade and less than 100 still had their mounts.
Sir George Wombwell, who had been detailed from the Seventeenth Lancers to attend Lord Cardigan as an extra aide-de-camp, rode just behind his chief. A minute later he was dismounted. He wrote:
I so quickly succeeded in catching and mounting a stray horse as to be able to join the Fourth Light Dragoons when they came on, and advance with them down to the guns. There, however, my newly caught horse was killed under me, and this time I found myself surrounded by twenty or thirty Russian Lancers, who took from me my sabre and pistols and made me prisoner.
It so happened that Capt. Morris, who had been wounded by sabre and lance in the head, was brought a prisoner to the place where I was, and in spite of his frightful condition he was still able to give me a word of timely counsel.
“Look out,” he said, “and catch a horse.”
At that moment two or three loose horses came up. I darted forward between the Russian Lancers who had captured me, seized and mounted one of these riderless chargers, and galloped forward to meet the Fourth Light Dragoons, which I then saw retiring. I succeeded in joining the regiment, and with it returned to our lines.
It was the French General Bosquet who said of the charge, “Magnificent, but not war.” And this opinion is shared by most military experts. At the same time the moral effect was tremendous, although not immediately so, since it required poets to make it immortal and an enduring example of English courage and unquestioning obedience to orders.
There have been poems written on the charge at Balaklava in nearly all the European languages, and, curious as it may seem, it was the chance of an American, A. B. Meek, to write the first one, which antedated the Poet Laureate’s famous ballad. The quality of the American’s verse, long since supplanted and forgotten, may be judged from the following closing stanza:
For now Russia’s allied forces,
Swarming hordes of Cossack horses,
Trampling o’er the reeking corpses,
Drive the thinned assailants back
Drive the feeble remnant back,
O’er their late heroic track!
Vain, alas! now rent and sundered,
Vain your struggles, brave Two Hun-
Thrice your number lie asleep
In that valley dark and deep.
Weak and wounded you retire
From that hurricane of fire,—
That tempestuous storm of fire,—
But no soldiers firmer, braver,
Ever trod the field of fame
Than the Knights of Balaklava,—
Honor to each hero’s name!
Yet their country long shall mourn
For her ranks so rashly shorn,—
So gallantly but madly shorn
In that fierce and fatal charge
On the battle’s bloody marge.
“Last Light Brigade Officer Dies; Kipling Poem Discovered.” New York Times, November 2, 1913.