Cecil Woodham-Smith,
The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade
(McGraw-Hill, 1954; Penguin, 1987)

The Reason Why remains the classic study of the intriguing and sadly ludicrous episode in military history known as the Charge of the Light Brigade. The author, coming from an Army family and relying heavily on the writings of officers, largely neglects the experience of the private soldier and concentrates on the main characters in the drama. The story is dominated by these extraordinary personalities, serving as a reminder that war is an inherently human drama.

On a second level, it is a criticism of the privilege system of the British Army of the mid-19th century. In retrospect, one is hard pressed to believe such a purchase system could have ever won a victory at Waterloo. Intolerant aristocrats with no experience in battle, paltry leadership skills and maddening unconcern for the soldiers under their command bought their commissions. The Charge of the Light Brigade illuminated all of the faults of the system and proved that bravery alone was insufficient for victory. While human blunders led to the debacle that was the Charge, the British military system was intrinsically to blame.

The heart of this book concerns the relationship between society at large and the military. Military leaders feared nothing so much as public scrutiny, for widespread discontent could lead to political interference and, indeed, political control of the army. Whether in dealing with the incorrigible personalities of Lords Lucan and Cardigan or in covering up the series of blunders that resulted in the sacrificial ride of the Light Brigade, the military leadership acted with the overriding principle of preserving the army from governmental control.

The embarrassments of the Crimean campaign proved uncontainable. A great source of difficulty was the incompetence of the army staff; rank and privilege were held to be superior to actual experience. When these difficulties led to humiliation and defeat, the commanders' concern was not with the men they had lost nor the future of the war effort; to the exclusion of these, their main concern was that bad publicity would appear in Britain, that the public would hear of the lack of success, that the House would begin to ask questions of the military leadership, that the press would begin to criticize the army.

This great fear of political interference was realized in the aftermath of the Crimean War. The author portrays this as the one positive effect engendered by the war effort. A new era of military reform was born in Britain, Europe and America. Experience now became a prerequisite for command, and officers were trained in staff colleges. The author's final point is that, above all, the treatment of the private soldier changed as the military system was humanized to some degree. Her assertion that at the end of the Crimean War the private soldier was regarded as a hero seems rather bold, but it is clear that he was no longer seen as a nonhuman tool of his commanders' designs.

by Daniel Jolley
5 November 2005

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