The Charge of the Light Brigade


Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)

“Charge of the Light Brigade” by Richard Caton Woodville, Courtesy of Claremont College


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


‘Forward the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.


Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air

Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d.
Plunged into the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Tennyson reading “Charge of the Light Brigade”


The poem recounts an assault by a brigade of British cavalry under the command of Lord James Thomas Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, which cost the lives of 113 men and injured 143 others. The charge took place at the Battle of Balaclava, during Britain’s war with Russia in the Crimea in the mid 19th century. The charge was regarded as one of the most heroic yet futile assaults in British military history, and was instantly the subject of speculation back home.

“Crimean War” Courtesy of Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia

The Crimean war, which lasted from 1853-1856, was an example of a war caused entirely by the imperialstic agenda of the major powers involved. With the Turkish (Ottaman) empire in serious decline, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia anticipated its inevitable collapse, and thus took measures to ensure that when it did, Russia would not be deprived of certain valuable territories in the Balkan area. Russia had long been in conflict with the Turkish empire, so this atmosphere was nothing new to the region (Warner, 6). However, Britain and France, both with interests of their own in the territory, were not prepared to allow Russia to muscle in on the region unopposed. Britain supported the Turkish empire (their presevation was taken as essential in protecting trade and lines of communication with their Asian and Indian colonies), and thus came to Turkey’s aid when the confict began. Although the war would conclude with a compramising treaty in 1856, the three years of fighting exposed the British army as ill-equiped and disorganized, and likewise exposed the Russian army as backward and inferior (Warner, 211-213).


Tennyson, like many other Brits at the time, was inspired by the tale of altruistic sacrifice on the part of the Light Brigade. Their action was seen as a defining example of honor and bravery in the face of hopelessness. Their charge, a result of misinformation and miscommunication on the part of British intelligence, both illuminated the British military’s shortcomings and inspired all those around them. This is precisely what Tennyson attempts to capture in Charge of the Light Brigade. The poem was written both as a commemoration to the soldiers and as a testament to the horrors of war. Tennyson was known to have two contrasting styles in his writing. He wrote pieces like Light Brigade in a short period of time, as a reflection of immediate reaction and emotion. On the other hand, epics like his Idylls of the King were written over long periods of time with meticulous attention paid to detail and composition. These two contrasting styles made themselves evident in his poetry. Light Brigade is said to have been written immediately upon hearing the news of the attack.

As mentioned before, the poem conveys a dualistic nature. On one hand it recognizes the sacrifice and bravery of the soldiers, while at the same time reflecting the horror of war and the mismanagement of battle. The second stanza highlights this distinction. The soldiers did not know that the order came from a faulty assessment of the situation. But the reasoning behind the decision was of little importance; “Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die.” So while the attack itself is a “blunder,” and an embarrassment to the British military, the charge was a testament to the character of the soldiers themselves. Tennyson contrasts their heroic sense of honor and duty with the use of descriptive language accentuating the horror of war. Note his repeated allusions to the “Valley of Death,” or the “Jaws of Death,” highlighted in the piece. He sprinkles in these metaphors throughout the poem, in an attempt to give the reader a deeper feel for the terror these men were facing.

Tennyson uses a rhyme scheme that seems a little eratic. There is not a set scheme throughout the entire poem; rather, he adjusts each stanza with its own unique format. Nevertheless, his use of rhyme and alliteration (note the fifth and sixth lines of stanza V) gives the poem a tentative yet noticeable rhythm. But it is his descriptive language which makes the poem what it is. Notice his description of the sabres in stanza IV. The language he uses to describe the battle in the fourth stanza reinforce the idea that the soldiers’ bravery overshadows the terror of battle. “Charge of the Light Brigade” is an excellent example of a literary style that would fade away in the 20th century. Tennyson’s reverence for the British soldiers is indicitive of a Victorian age which emphasised nationalism and love of country. This theme would fade away at the turn of the century, and vanish completely after the First World War. Nevertheless, Tennyson’s poem is not a piece of propaganda, merely intending to spur nationalist sentiments and glorify his country. Rather, it is a testament to the real bravery of the British soldiers, who fought with bold futility a battle they could not win, because the valued honor and duty far above any other sentiments.

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