|Terry Brighton writes on military history. His work is published in the UK and the US, and in translation around the world.|
Death or Glory - motto of the 17th Lancers,
the regiment that rode in the front line of the Light Brigade.
the regiment that rode in the front line of the Light Brigade.
Publishers BlurbInto the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell rode the six hundred ...
This vivid and extraordinarily detailed account of the charge and the bloody melee that followed, by an author with unique access to regimental archives, is told largely in the words of the survivors themselves. Terry Brighton brings twenty years' research to life, sets aside our most cherished historical theories about what happened and who was to blame, and asks what can be concluded from the written accounts of the cavalrymen who rode hell's mile.
This book takes the reader closer than ever before to the experience of charging down the valley of death, and reveals the horrific truth about the charge of the Light Brigade exactly as the survivors told it.
Video: The Charge of the Light BrigadeThis six-minute documentary features graphic scenes of the charge, quotes from survivors, and the 1890 recording of Alfred Tennyson reading his famous poem.
Written and narrated by Terry Brighton, produced by Terry Brighton and Captain Mick Holtby, it has been viewed over 90,000 times on YouTube.
Hell Riders - author interview
Terry was interviewed by Penguin Books in London
Penguin: What inspired you to write Hell Riders?
Terry: The question should be: who inspired me? The ordinary cavalrymen who survived the charge of the Light Brigade and came home to tell what it was like to ride into the 'valley of death'. These men yelled out their experiences from hand-written accounts. This was raw history and their story demanded to be told.
That sounds like it happened suddenly but I've spent twenty years getting to know these men. During that time I've worked in the museum and archives of The Queen's Royal Lancers, the descendant regiment of the 17th Lancers, which rode in the front line of the brigade. Visitors to our museum inside Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire often ask for a good book on the charge and I had nothing to give them. So I wrote the book they wanted.
Penguin: Survivors' accounts form an important part of the book. How did you find them and what was the most shocking thing you discovered?
Terry: Most are held in national and regimental archives, but known to only a small group of Crimean War researchers. Historians sometimes go to these accounts to pick out quotes that support their own ideas, and ignore everything else. I took the accounts as a whole and allowed them to tell the soldiers' story of the charge in full. What was most shocking? Probably the survivors' stark honesty about what they saw and felt during the charge, and the brutal revenge they took when they got among the Russian gunners. The shock is in the detail, which is too graphic to quote here.
Penguin: Did you have a favourite character in the book?
Terry: Corporal Thomas Morley, a rough rogue of a man who saved twenty lives. It was after the charge when the scattered survivors were cut off from the British lines. There were no officers, so Morley bellowed and cursed until he got the men together, and led a charge back through the enemy. He should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. All who received the VC did so for rescuing a wounded officer. Morley saved the lives of twenty cavalrymen and got nothing. He remained bitter about it for the rest of his life. I feel for the man.
Penguin: The Charge of the Light Brigade has been written about before - what makes your book special?
Terry: My co-authors - the survivors of the charge whose first-hand accounts make Hell Riders the soldiers' story. Writing the book was like being in the saddle with the Light Brigade. Readers will learn a lot about the charge and the men involved, but I hope they will also experience something of the thrill and the horror.
At the same time I wanted to go further and ask all the really tricky question that keep coming up about the charge. I put aside all existing theories about what happened and why, and asked what can be concluded from the accounts of the men who were there. Their evidence enabled me to reach the startling new conclusions that set Hell Riders apart.
Penguin: What did you most enjoy reading while writing Hell Riders?
Terry: I immersed myself in the literature of the period, and the writers who most effectively capture the experience of people on the streets and soldiers on the battlefield are Dickens and Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy was an artillery officer in the Crimea, on the wrong end of the British cannons. Dickens wrote about men and women in London on the wrong end of life! Both writers use the imagination to get closer to the truth than the historian can. Tolstoy was at Sevastopol and what he wrote was inspired. I wish Dickens had been at Balaklava.
Penguin: Given that the battle took place on Russian territory is it easy to visit the site of the charge?
Terry: During the Cold War a Russian missile site was located in the area and Western visitors were prohibited. Now the Crimea is part of Ukraine, an independent state, and visitors are welcome. From Sevastopol - the city the British army went out to destroy in 1854 - it's possible to visit Balaklava and the site of the charge. Despite the vineyards it's possible to walk a good part of the valley. One tip: the water and the beer can have a laxative effect on Western visitors; the vodka is fine!
Penguin: You've been there?
Terry: I was in the Crimea for the 150th anniversary with other representatives of the Light Brigade regiments. On 25 October, the day of the charge, we were in the 'valley of death', and rode down it on horseback, following the course of the Light Brigade as far as the vineyards allowed. The present Lord Cardigan was there and led the way!
We took with us the original bugle blown to sound the charge. At 11.17 a.m. on 25 October a mounted trumpeter sounded the charge again - at the precise time and place that it was blown 150 years ago. That was an eerie experience, and sent a shiver down the spine as the call echoed from the heights.
Penguin: Readers might be surprised that, having written a full historical account, you now plan to write a fictional account. Why do that?
Terry: For Hell Riders all my material had to be verifiable as fact or come straight from the pen of a survivor. But during the Crimean campaign there were several mysterious events that have never been explained. A rumour spread through the army that might explain them, but it's impossible to verify. The fiction writer can follow clues in the historical record which lead where the historian cannot go, so I'm following these and they point to a possible - and very shocking - conclusion.
Quite apart from that, I'm fascinated by what will happen if I take the survivors I know so well from Hell Riders and (in my imagination and on the page) reconstitute fully fleshed men from the words they left. The result is an action adventure story populated by real men. Oh, and women!
Penguin: When will that be completed?
Terry: Sometime in 2012!
Penguin: Good luck with that.
Terry: I don't need luck - I've got a great story!
ReviewsA masterly, moving and entertaining book.
Allan Mallinson in The Times
Thorough,accurate, concise, clear. Brighton writes with pace and precision. Spectator
An example to all popular historians of how to combine a gripping yarn with deep insight into the social and cultural forces driving the action. Publishers Weekly (US)
It's magnificent - read it!
Richard Madeley on The Richard and Judy Show
Richard Madeley on The Richard and Judy Show
Terry on the Richard and Judy Show,
with the original bugle blown to sound the Charge.
Hell Riders - Introduction
text optimised for online reading
The truth about war is not found in the politics or in the strategy, or even in the official despatches of the generals, but in the experiences and observations of the fighting men. This truth is often missing from the history books, where the need to summarize the countless, individual actions that comprise a great battle, takes readers ever further from the brute facts as recorded by the original combatants.
The charge of the Light Brigade has suffered greatly from this process. Throughout the English-speaking world and beyond, there remains a fascination with the hell ride at Balaklava that far exceeds its military significance. Yet the popular impression of what happened during the charge and in the mêlée behind the Russian guns, would hardly be recognised by the men who charged.
My aim in writing Hell Riders has been to rediscover the full story of the charge as the survivors told it. My co-authors have been the twenty or so men of the Light Brigade who wrote down their experiences. With their help I have recreated what really happened and what it was like to ride in history's most famous cavalry charge.
***On 27 February 1854, Britain issued an ultimatum to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, whose troops had crossed the Danube into Turkey. The view from London was that if Russian forces took the Turkish capital, Constantinople, then the Tsar's Black Sea Fleet would gain access to the Mediterranean and from there his warships could dominate the seas. Britain demanded that he withdraw his troops and told him that 'refusal or silence will be equivalent to a declaration of war'. He took no action and had nothing to say.
On 28 March, Britain declared war on Russia. At the time this was known as the Great War With Russia; we know it as the Crimean War because most of the action took place on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, at the southernmost point of the Russian empire. Britain joined forces with France and Turkey to send a fleet of sixty-seven warships and several hundred troop transports carrying a combined army of 64,000 men. In September this Allied force invaded the Crimea and began bombarding the Russian naval base of Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet. If the city could be taken and its fleet destroyed, the Tsar's expansionist plans would be foiled.
But on 25 October, with Sevastopol still holding out, the Russian army struck back, attacking the British base at Balaklava. Just after 11.00 a.m., acting in defence of Balaklava, the Light Brigade of the British Cavalry Division charged a battery of Russian artillery guns ranged across the far end of a mile-long valley. As they brought their mounts to the gallop and headed straight for the muzzles of the guns ahead, the five regiments that comprised the brigade 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. The carnage was horrific, yet still the survivors spurred their mounts on. To those watching from high ground to the rear as what remained of the Light Brigade disappeared into the smoke of the Russian guns, it seemed that these magnificent cavalrymen had charged into hell itself.
The charge down the valley was not what Lord Raglan, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in the Crimea, had intended. His written order had been carried by an aide de camp to Lord Lucan, who commanded the Cavalry Division; Lucan in turn gave the order verbally to Lord Cardigan, commanding the Light Brigade. Somewhere on its journey from Raglan to Cardigan the meaning of the order had been misunderstood. It was not clear who was to blame; the bloody outcome was obvious to all.
That there was also something 'special' about the charge was evident from the day news of it first broke in England. William Russell, war correspondent of The Times, described both the splendour of the disciplined advance under fire and the terrible loss of life. For the first time the nation shared (albeit from the breakfast table and the drawing room) in the experience and suffering of its soldiers on the battlefield. A sketch in Punch magazine showed an excited father wielding a poker while he read out an account of the charge to his enthralled family. It seemed as if every city and town in the land had lost a man and gained a hero.
There was something mythical about a brigade of cavalrymen sent rushing to their deaths by human error, carried at an ever faster pace, not knowing the reason why but held by their courage on that fatal course. Here, condensed into a frantic, seven-minute dash, was the heroic life lived to the full, in stark counterpoint to the daily slog of life in the trenches above Sevastopol and the humdrum existence of those at home, tilling the soil, working the lathe, or scribing in the ledger book. When the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, put a rhythm and a beat to it, even the many who could not read, heard in his ballad something of the tragic magnificence of the charge.
Later, when the army returned from the Crimea, it was said that a medal and a stirring tale of the charge were worth a free quart of best ale in any hostelry in England. Some of the survivors realised that a more detailed (and sober) description was required and began writing down their experiences.
***The last surviving veteran of Balaklava died in 1927. Long before then the charge of the Light Brigade had been moved by public acclaim from the historical record to the realm of legend. This popular interpretation of the charge owed more to Tennyson - schoolchildren learned his poem by rote - than to the facts recorded in survivors' accounts, which if they had been published at all, had often been privately printed. Tennyson had based his poem on Russell's first report in The Times, which contained crucial inaccuracies. Russell soon put the record straight, but by then the poem had caught the public imagination and there was no changing that. In any case the legend was preferred to the facts.
This is the form in which the charge of the Light Brigade comes down to us - an interpretation that for the most part ignores the personal testimony contained in survivors' accounts. In Hell Riders I have put aside the legend and returned to the original evidence. Tennyson immortalised a remarkable tale; the truth is yet more incredible.
Hell Riders is the story of the charge as the survivors told it. Of course their accounts contain discrepancies and are unlikely to be correct in every detail - it really was hell out there and no one was taking notes! But these men were there and their story is as close as we can come to the truth about the charge of the Light Brigade.
New fiction: Dead Men RidingIntroducing Major Jack Blake of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Department. Blake features in Dead Men Riding, a novel of the Crimean War by Terry Brighton. More ...