History Thread: Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1953)

Note: I didn’t have time to create a header from scratch, so here is an in-depth review of one of my favorite popular history books.

Cecil Woodham-Smith (1896-1977) was born of an Irish family in Wales. Marrying a London solicitor, Woodham-Smith busied herself raising children and writing potboiler novels, before becoming an historian. After finishing an acclaimed biography of Florence Nightingale (1950), she remained fascinated with the Crimean War, especially the Charge of the Light Brigade. Several years of further research resulted in The Reason Why (1953).1 An instant critical and popular success, the book’s rarely been out of print in the past 60 years. Today it remains the decisive influence on the public’s perception of the Crimean War, not least because it inspired Tony Richardson’s 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The Reason Why recounts the Light Brigade’s fate at Balaclava (October 25th, 1854) with unparalleled style. The Crimean War was a particularly useless conflict, a balance-of-power clash between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France, Ottoman Turkey and Sardinia which resulted in little but the deaths of hundreds of thousands of combatants.2 Not a truly objective history, Woodham-Smith’s book is an eloquent, sweeping condemnation of the Victorian class system that caused English bungling in this war. Using two officers – Lords Cardigan and Lucan – as a prism on British society, she shows the combination of arrogance, bad judgment and miscommunication that led to the sacrifice of the “Noble 600.”

Cecil Woodham-Smith

James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan proves singularly representative of the British aristocracy’s shortcomings. His family earned its peerage by siding with Charles I in the Civil War; once the Stuarts resumed power, the Brudenells prospered. The only son in a family of daughters, James grew spoiled by parental dotage, generating an unshakable egotism mixed with dreams of military glory. By adulthood Cardigan became an almost caricature nobleman: handsome and gallant, but arrogant, snobbish and short-tempered, with a colossal ego and bottomless entitlement. Woodham-Smith characterizes the young Cardigan thus (14-15):

He was tall, with wide shoulders tapering to a narrow waist, his hair was golden, his eyes flashing sapphire blue, his nose aristocratic, his bearing proud…The boy had a dash and gallantry that were irresistible. He did not know what fear was…No tree was too tall for him to climb, no tower too high to scale. He excelled in swordsmanship and promised to be a first-class shot. He had in addition to courage another characteristic which impressed itself on all who met. He was, alas, unusually stupid…The melancholy truth was that his glorious golden head had nothing in it.

To some degree, this is unfair to Cardigan. Biographer Saul David shows that he was, in fact both reasonably intelligent and a good student, with a particular aptitude for foreign languages. Better to say that Cardigan, like most aristocrats, placed little importance in intellectual pursuits. He was a sporting man, devoted to athletics, horses, social pursuits and chasing women. And Woodham-Smith’s general assessment of Cardigan’s character is accurate enough (p. 40-41):

“He was genuinely surprised to encounter opposition. His nature had a curious simplicity, so that, but for his violence, he would have been childlike and naive. He was completely absorbed in one object, himself.  It was not… that he deliberately disregarded other men’s opinions and feelings – they simply did not exist for him. Like a child playing in a corner of a nursery with his toys, he was wholly absorbed in himself, the rest of the world was an irrelevance.” 

Commanding first the 15th, and later the 11th Hussars, Cardigan proved harshly exacting. His stringent standards made the 11th Hussars England’s premiere cavalry regiment, but they also engendered the loathing of his officers. He certainly kept England’s press abuzz with sundry scandals. Minor breaches of etiquette sent him into apoplexy: he scandalized the Army by blackballing John Reynolds, a young captain who dared serve Moselle at a champagne dinner (the famous “black bottle” affair), and flogging a soldier on Easter Sunday. Although beloved by his enlisted men (who nicknamed him “Jim the Bear”) and capable of generosity (he repeatedly visited the bed of a dying officer and put the man’s son through college out of his own pocket), he generally presented as a remorseless disciplinarian who relished his power and flaunted his privilege.

Lord Cardigan

Availing himself of this privilege, Cardigan violated societal mores repeatedly. He shot subordinate Harvey Tuckett in a duel, escaping prosecution due to a clever lawyer’s trick (insisting that, as Tuckett’s personal card included his middle name, the prosecutors couldn’t prove he was the same man Cardigan had shot), and carried on an affair with Fanny Paget, the married sister-in-law of a fellow cavalryman (this confirmed by a detective who concealed himself under their bed as they copulated). He was booed at public gatherings, his outrageous behavior becoming a perennial headache for his superiors. An exasperated Duke of Wellington proclaimed “he had never known the time of the staff… to be taken up in so useless a manner” (100).

Profiled in parallel is George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan.3 Generally considered a better officer than Cardigan, Lucan bested him in sheer bloody-minded nastiness. He gained infamy for cruelly managing his Mayo estates during the Irish potato famine. Consolidating land holdings and evicting tenants en mass, he caused untold suffering among his subjects and intense hatred: “it is doubtful if he considered the Irish as human beings at all” (113). Like Cardigan, he was also a martinet of the worst sort, a brutal taskmaster “perpetually entangled in trifles” (33) in commanding his troops and often contemptuous of superiors. Lucan found increasingly petty and bizarre ways of exerting authority: at one point, he ordered his cavalry drilled in antiquated Napoleonic tactics against Lord Raglan’s express orders.

Not surprisingly, these two men loathed each other. Lucan married Cardigan’s sister and by all accounts mistreated her, igniting a deeply-felt vendetta. Naturally, when the Crimean War broke out Cardigan (heading the Light Brigade)4 found himself serving under division commander Lucan. Commanding general Lord Raglan exacerbated things by separating Cardigan’s brigade from Lucan’s main body, thus undermining Lucan’s authority and emboldening Cardigan. Even in the field, the two men never missed an opportunity to spite or undermine each other, with disastrous results.

Lord Lucan

Woodham-Smith forcefully attacks the British military that spawned them. The purchase system, by which officers could literally buy a higher rank, had its benefits. It forestalled the establishment of a powerful, Prussian-style military class, and forced officers to take personal responsibility for their regiment’s upkeep. In practice however, it populated the Army with dilettantes and adventurers, seeing military service as a stepping stone to easy prestige. Obsessed with elaborate parade-ground outfits (Cardigan reportedly spent £10,000 a year for his regiment’s elaborate “Cherrybum” uniforms) and affecting a “fashionable” lisp (pronouncing their Rs as Ws like Elmer Fudd), they presented an irresistible target for cartoonists and critics of the aristocracy.

Nominally, officers could advance by merit; indeed, some of the era’s best commanders came from modest backgrounds. Colin Campbell, the gallant commander of the Highland Brigade, rose from a young Scottish ensign fighting Napoleon to one of the British Army’s greatest soldiers – though it took a half-century’s service to reach that pinnacle. More common, though, were men without experience or qualification leapfrogged over seasoned career soldiers, with well-born aristocrats granting commissions to children in their cribs. Lord Palmerston spoke for many when he announced “it was very desirable to connect the higher classes of Society with the Army” (30), whether or not they were fit to lead.

The lack of a major war since 1815 ensured an antiquated senior staff. Commanding the Allied armies was Fitzroy Somerset, Baron Raglan. Wellington’s longtime secretary, Raglan’s bravery (he had lost an arm at Waterloo), amiability and organizational skills were unquestioned. His greatest achievement was ensuring smooth relations with his French and Turkish allies. Yet Raglan had never led troops in the field, and proved a spectacularly inept tactician. “Without the military trappings… one would never have guessed him to be a soldier,” Woodham-Smith says (161).5 He proved frustratingly absent-minded, constantly confusing his French allies with the Russian enemy. An exasperated junior officer complained that “everything [is] old at the top. This makes everything sluggish.”

Lord Raglan

In such hands, the Crimean disaster becomes tragically predictable. Horses crowded into transport ships die en route to the Crimea. Raglan botches the initial Allied attack at the Alma (September 20th), failing to coordinate with his French allies. Issuing a single, useless order of “The infantry will advance,” he allows the battle to play out randomly. British troops are forced to take and retake Russian positions repeatedly, winning the day through sheer gallantry and the Russian commander’s own caution. Over-caution prevents a complete victory when Raglan refuses Lucan’s request to launch a follow-up attack. Raglan ill-advisedly shifts his supply base to Balaclava, a tiny village ill-suited for supplying a massive expeditionary force. Finally, administrative muddle ensures inadequate supplies and medical treatment, causing thousands of troops to die of disease and exposure.

In fairness, most officers shared their men’s misfortunes. Both Raglan and his French counterpart Marshall St. Arnaud ultimately succumbed to illness. Lucan was wounded at Balaclava and even his detractors granted him personal bravery. Cardigan however spent evenings on his yacht in Calamita Bay, entertaining civilian friends and distancing himself from his brigade’s hardships.6 Lest this seem unduly extravagant, military buffs may remember American General George McClellan lunching while the Battle of Malvern Hill raged, Boer War commander Charles Warren stopping his division’s advance for a bath, or Charles Townshend dining on plum pudding at the Siege of Kut while his troops starved. This mixture of sang froid and self-indulgence seems unfortunately prevalent in military history.

The 11th Hussars: dressed to kill

Woodham-Smith hits her rhetorical stride with Balaclava, where a Russian army attacked the small Anglo-Turksih force guarding its supply base. She recounts the Russian capture of the Turkish redoubts, the stirring stand of Colin Campbell’s “Thin Red Line,” and the gallant Charge of the Heavy Brigade, where 300 cavalrymen under James Scarlett defeated 2,000 Cossacks in a wild uphill charge. Woodham-Smith captures the excitement and fleeting glory of these skirmishes. Against all odds, the British seemed poised to win a spectacular victory. Yet Cardigan stood by, using a discretionary order from Lucan as an excuse not to attack the routed Russians. Had Cardigan followed up on Scarlett’s success, the third phase of the battle might never have occurred.

Instead, a classic example of mismanagement follows. Raglan dictated an unclear order to quartermaster Richard Airey: “Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of Horse Artillery may accompany. French Cavalry on your left.” Raglan’s order was no use to Lucan, who could not see the redoubts on the Causeway Heights; from his position, he could only see Russian artillery entrenched in the North Valley. He demurred: it seemed obvious to him, if not Raglan, that such an attack would be suicide.

Captain Louis Nolan, Raglan’s impulsive aide, delivered the followed up message to an agitated Lucan, emphatically pointing towards the Valley: “There is your enemy! There are your guns!” Neither man recognized Nolan’s fatal mistake: that Lucan cannot see the Heights from his position. Nolan instead gestured towards a mass of Russians supported by artillery in the valley ahead. Stung by accusations of “looking on” in earlier engagements, Lucan did not ask Nolan to clarify his order, and Cardigan protested halfheartedly. Before anyone realizes it, the Light Brigade initiates its fateful charge (p. 242):

“And now the watchers on the heights saw that the lines of horsemen, like toys down on the plain, were expanding and contracting with strange mechanical precision. Death was coming fast, and the Light Brigade was meeting death in perfect order; as a man or horse dropped, the riders on each side of him opened out; as soon as they had ridden clear the ranks closed again. Orderly, as if on parade ground, the Light Brigade rode on, but its numbers grew every moment smaller and smaller as they moved down the valley… It was at this moment that Bosquet, the French General, observed ‘C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre’.”

Cardigan’s men managed to reach the Russian guns, only for a counterattack by Russian cavalry to overwhelm them. The Russians were so stunned by the sheer madness of the attack that they initially assumed the British were drunk. The courage of the doomed troopers couldn’t be doubted; from Lt. Colonel George Paget, who led survivors back down the “Valley of Death” despite multiple wounds, to the many troopers who. Of the 670 men who charged into the Valley, 271 were killed or wounded. Though lauded by the press and Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem, British cavalry never again played a major role in the Crimean War.

Cardigan managed to fight his way back, boasting over a (very minor) lance wound in his leg while insisting that the Charge was “a mad, hair-brained trick but no fault of mine!” As was Cardigan’s habit, he was solicitous towards his wounded men and offered what comfort he could, but refused to face responsibility. Lucan, who had neglected Cardigan’s request to support his charge with the Heavy Brigade, immediately sparred with his rival over responsibility. Captain Nolan, whose garbled order initiated the shell, died early in the battle, screaming hellishly as an artillery shell smashed his chest. Many witnesses and historians would blame Nolan for the disaster, but it’s clear that the Charge’s roots lie deeper than an overeager subordinate.7

Historians still dissect the Charge in hope of assigning blame, following the footsteps of Cardigan and Lucan’s vicious press feud.8 Woodham-Smith dodges the issue of individual guilt, viewing Balaclava instead as the logical conclusion of an entire, disastrously flawed system. For all their gallantry, the British cavalry could not achieve the impossible, and find themselves decimated by well-placed cannon and overwhelming numbers. With so many egotists and incompetents staffing the Army, the Light Brigade’s fate seems inevitable.

The protagonists profited nothing from the experience. Both Lucan and Cardigan left the Crimea soon afterwards, spending the rest of their lives battling charges of incompetence and worse. Lord Raglan blundered into a grueling siege of Sevastopol, dying of “a broken heart,” it was said, several months after Balaclava. The Allies nominally won the war, as Sevastopol fell and the Russians sued for peace, but the benefits of victory weren’t readily apparent. If the British Army was reformed after Crimea, it came at great cost and only grudgingly. The purchase system was not abolished until the Cardwell reforms of 1868-1874, largely at the impetus of Crimean War veteran Garnet Wolseley. And as the Boer War and the Western Front proved, even that didn’t solve the rot in the British officer corps.

If The Reason Why isn’t definitive, it’s because of its limited portrayal of the Crimea (the book mostly ends at Balaclava), occasional niggling errors (eg., claiming Captain Nolan was half-Italian) and its editorial tone. More recent works (Terry Brighton’s Hell Riders, Saul David’s The Homicidal Earl) eschew Woodham-Smith’s polemical approach for more balanced analysis. Still, Woodham-Smith’s passionate anger and vivid prose make it the most readable account of the Light Brigade’s sorry fate, and a classic account of military incompetence.

Note: for a more in-depth look at the Charge of the Light Brigade, read my profile of Lord Cardigan on Anglotopia.