“It was the maddest thing that was ever done” – the Charge from a Russian point of view.

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There are many eyewitness accounts of the Charge of the Light Brigade from the British point of view – at least 70 or 80 – but very few from the Russian side. But my colleague Roy Mills has just come across this rather remarkable recollection from a Russian Hussar (“Ivan Ivanovitch”) who experienced both Heavy Brigade and Light Brigade Charges, which was published in The Newcastle Courant in January 1892.*

 

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“We were so sorry for them … they were such fine fellows, and they had such splendid horses. It was the maddest thing that was ever done. I can’t understand it. They broke through our lines, took our artillery, and then, instead of capturing our guns and making off with them, they went for us.

I had been in the charge of the Heavy Brigade in the morning, and was slightly wounded. We had all unsaddled, and were very tired. Suddenly we were told ‘The English are coming.’

‘Confound them!’ we said. My colonel was very angry, and ordered his men to give no quarter. I was lying at some distance with my wound bandaged when I saw them coming. They came on magnificently.

We thought they were drunk from the way they held their lances. Instead of holding them under their armpits, they waved them in the air, and of course they were easier to guard against like that. The men were men were mad, sir. They never seemed to think of the tremendous odds against them, or of the frightful carnage that had taken place in their ranks in the course of that long, desperate ride. They dashed in among us, shouting, cheering, and cursing. I never saw anything like it. They seemed perfectly irresistible, and our fellows were quite demoralised.

The fatal mistake we made in the morning was to receive the charge of your Heavy Brigade standing, instead of meeting it with a counter shock. We had so many more men than you that had we continued our charge downhill instead of calling a halt just at the critical moment, we should have carried everything before us. The charge of your Heavy Brigade was magnificent, but they had to thank our bad management for the victory.

We liked your fellows. When our men took prisoners they used to given them vodka: awful stuff it was! More like spirits of wine than anything else. Your fellows used to offer us their rum in exchange, but we did not care for it, it was too soft and mild. The Russian soldier must have his vodka.

The Russian belief that the British must have been drunk was widely reported at the time – the Charge seemed so gratuitously suicidal that surely no cavalryman would ever have embarked on it unfortified. But it is interesting to see it linked to the sight of lances being waved apparently ineffectually in the air rather than dropped to the terrifying “Engage infantry” position (which meant Lancers were always used in the front line of an attack).

Perhaps Ivan Ivanovitch only saw the Lancers some time after they had arrived at the guns, or had passed through and were milling about? In a melee, the lance was redundant – it was far too long, heavy and unmanageable to be used as a weapon.

(That said, paintings and engravings of the first ranks of the Chargers generally show the 17th Lancers holding their lances in every position other than lowered for attack. See for example, one of the best-known images of the Charge, by Richard Caton-Woodville (1896), above.)

Ivan Ivanovitch also describes how British prisoners of war first encountered the devilish drink “vodka”. But this probably deserves a blog in its own right.

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* Ivan Ivanovitch’s account can also be found in Colonel Anstruther Thomson, 80 Years’ Reminiscences (1904), pp.176-177).

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