THIS IS PROBABLY THE BEST-KNOWN and most widely reproduced image of the Charge of the Light Brigade:
But just so you know, it’s actually not the Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s the wrong cavalry (heavy brigade not light), and the wrong enemy (France not Russia), and even the wrong war (Napoleonic not Crimean). Above all, this Charge had the opposite outcome (it ended in victory).
The original painting is Elizabeth Butler’s Charge of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo in 1815, known as “Scotland For Ever” – an event that took place nearly four decades before the catastrophic Light Brigade Charge at Balaclava (25th October 1854).
Here are some more examples of Not-the-Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade.
It is not this handsome print for sale on GumTree:
Nor this, from a Times Education Supplement teaching resource:
(Incidentally, the soldiers shown in the photographs aren’t Light Brigade either. For one thing, their long rifles and bayonets clearly show they’re infantrymen – try using them from the back of a galloping horse.)
And this Today in History “fact” doesn’t show the Charge of the Light Brigade either:
(Notice the site’s motto: “Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.” Hence it’s probably far too late to put the record straight now.)
As an evocation of the shock and awe inspired by a cavalry charge, Elizabeth Butler’s painting could hardly be bettered. It’s not difficult to see why people assume this is the Charge of the Light Brigade (as commemorated in Tennyson’s poem of the same name). The wild charge onward, onward into the jaws of Death; the sabres that flash as they turn in air; the world that wonders. And then there’s the glory of it all. It’s a natural mistake to make.
So, sadly, this is not the Charge of the Light Brigade, of which the French leader General Bosquet famously said: ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre; c’est de la folie’ [It’s magnificent, but it’s not war; it’s madness].
Madness. Or, as he might have said (as others have), a “cock up”, or a “spectacular own goal”, or the “self-destruction brought about by a delusionary conviction of invincibility”.
And this, more than a century and a half later, is what makes it the metaphor-of-choice whenever commentators are addressing Brexit:
And just in case readers don’t get the visual allusion straight away, the cartoonist adds a helpful cod quotation from “Tennyson”: “Boldly they rode Into the jaws of Brexit.”
Today, Brexit looks increasingly less like Dunkirk and more like the charge of the light brigade; a combination of miscommunication and tactical errors turned into disaster… We are not too late. Sometimes the best strategy is to turn back.
In short, a universally-famous action that was once emblematic of heroism – of honour, concerted action, and of doing one’s duty regardless of the “blunders” of leaders – is now overwhelmingly a cliché. An ironic symbol of a seemingly unstoppable mad dash towards self-destruction. Even lemmings get better press.
As the debate over Brexit has become even more rancorous, and unresolvable, references to the Charge have proliferated. I wrote about some early instances that appeared shortly after the 2016 referendum. Since then I’ve continued to gather specimens here. Please send me any more you come across.
The real “Balaclava”
In 1876, some years before Scotland for Ever, Elizabeth Thompson had indeed painted an image of the Light Brigade. But not of the Charge itself. She chose instead to depict in uncomfortable detail its grim aftermath:
Her remarkable painting Balaclava has been out of the country for a while, on exhibition in the USA. But now it’s back home in the Manchester Art Gallery and due to be re-hung a few months into the new year – coincidentally, just in time for “Brexit Day”: 29th March 2019.
Notes, comments and afterthoughts
29 June 2019
I’ve since come across some more images claiming to be of the Light Brigade, but in fact of the Heavy Brigade, and in some surprising places too, for example in Photo Libraries such as Alamy and GettyImages. Wrong listings must make a picture researchers’ life rather trying.
A version of this image was supplied by Alamy to illustrate an article in The Atlantic on Why the British Take Glory in Defeat (27 June 2019). For the range of Alamy’s stock photographs of the Charge of the Light Brigade, see here.
Here’s another wrongly-listed Alamy image:
And here’s one from Getty:
If you come across other examples, do let me know.