The suffering of the Light Brigade veterans did not end on the 25th of October, 1854. While the nation’s schoolchildren learned to ‘honour the charge they made’ by rote, a public appeal for funds to assist the veterans raised a mere twenty-four pounds.
When he returned from serving in the Crimean War tens of thousands of British soldiers who fought with Private John Richardson, 11th Hussars, could not find any work and ended up in a Cheetham workhouse, a poorhouse in which the able residents had to work.
Other veterans of the Charge were also experiencing the same plight. When interviewed by Spy a popular penny newspaper, Richardson stated that Lord Cardigan made a promise to the survivors of the charge concerning the future. ‘He said it was certain that every man who rode in the Charge would be provided for.’
The Duke of Wellington knew soldiers, and famously described his own as ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.’ Maybe they were, but by 1854 the army had changed, and ‘Queen Victoria’s soldiers’ were a different breed of men. Many were literate, most were patriotic, and an astonishing number were openly and sincerely Christian.
After nearly 40 years of the ‘Long Peace’’, they were also largely new to war, and the innocent enthusiasm of their early letters can only be compared to the mood of England in the summer of 1914. ‘Hurrah for the Crimea!’ wrote Cornet Edward Fisher of the 4th Dragoon Guards. ‘We are off tomorrow… Take Sebastopol in a week or so, then into winter quarters!’
There were to be no winter quarters for anyone, and nearly 23,000 of them never came home.
The odds were against them from the start. They’d already spent months in the cholera-ravaged camps in Bulgaria before disembarking in Crimea without adequate shelter, transport or supplies – and with commanders soon to become notorious for incompetence. Yet still, it survived this extraordinary and sometimes almost childlike innocence that makes their exploits read like an incredible Boy’s Own Annual.
Adversity only hardened it into the courage that sent the Light Brigade charging into almost certain death – and made them afterwards tell Lord Cardigan they were ‘ready to go again.’