First published on 28 April 1890 in the St. James’s Gazette, and on 24th May 1890 in The Week’s News, the supplement to The Pioneer in Allahabad on which Kipling worked from 1887 to 1889. See the new Rudyard Kipling bibliography (February 2010) by David Alan Richards (p. 386).The poem has also been known as “Our Veterans”.
"The Last of the Light Brigade" is collected in:
Twenty veteran soldiers, survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War in 1854, and now destitute, go to see Alfred Lord Tennyson for help. Tennyson, noted for the majestic musical language of his verse, had been Poet Laureate since 1850, and had written the much celebrated poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” when he first heard of the battle, in which British troops had shown great bravery in a suicidal advance on the Russian guns.
Now—in Kipling's account—he is moved by their plight and writes some more lines which touch the hearts of the public. More funds are raised, and although some of the money goes to other causes, the men are given enough to live on. The poem is full of the young Kipling's passionate anger at the capacity of the British to neglect the soldiers who serve them and their Empire.
The Crimean War (1854-56)
It may seem odd to modern readers that British troops should have been fighting on the southern border of Russia. This was, though, a time of imperial rivalry between the European powers which then dominated world politics and deployed their armies and navies to protect what they saw as their 'vital interests'.
The war, in which Britain and France were confronting the Russians in the Crimea and elsewhere, had originated in a violent squabble between Catholic and Orthodox monks in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, believed by Christians to be the site of the stable in which Jesus was born. Palestine—the Holy Land—was at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, which also included much of the Balkans, bordering on the Russian Empire. .
The Orthodox monks, looking to their co-religionists in Russia, claimed that the Turks were not ensuring their safety. The Tsar of Russia demanded that he should be recognised as the protector of Christians within the Ottoman Empire. The Russians occupied two Turkish provinces, taking them within striking distance of Constantinople.
Control of the Turkish capital would give the Russians access to the Mediterranean and so threaten the French colonies in North Africa, British lines of communication to India, and other territories on the Mediterranean seaboard. Fighting began in October 1853 in Silistria on the Danube, and in November the Russians sank a Turkish fleet. The British and French came to the aid of the Turks, and war was declared on 28 March 1854.
Both sides moved forces towards the Crimean peninsula, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, where there was a key Russian naval base at Sevastopol. After some fighting, and the fall of Sevastopol in 1855, a peace-treaty was signed in Paris in 1856.
The Charge of the Light Brigade.
The Charge of the Light Brigade against the Russian artillery, led by Lord Cardigan, took place during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854. Owing to a disastrous misunderstanding, a clash of personalities, and the general incompetence of the British commanders, who had not fought a serious war for some forty years, the Brigade of Light Cavalry attacked the wrong position, advancing head on towards the Russian guns.
Out of some six hundred men, 156 were killed and 122 wounded. 336 horses were killed or had to be destroyed. The French Marshal Bosquette commented: C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre ('It is magnificent, but it is not war'). This did not impress the British public, who knew little of war except what they read in the newspapers.
The British people responded to the disaster by rejoicing in the bravery of their soldiers rather than dwelling on the incompetence of their generals. The reputation of the cavalry was enhanced. Tennyson wrote his poem soon after the news of the battle reached England, and seems to have played into the national mood.
Furthermore, the war did nothing to damage the imperial self-confidence of the British or their suspicions of the Russians. Some twenty years later the music-hall composer G W Hunt added the word 'jingo' to the language in a popular song:
We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do,Kipling's poem
British enthusiasm for imperial glory did not, however, translate into generosity towards the soldiers and sailors on which it was based. Private soldiers in particular were not highly regarded socially in Victorian England, and such pensions as there were were small. As a result, by the time the twenty-three year old Kipling returned to England from India in 1889, many of the survivors of Balaclava were destitute. It was against this background that he wrote his passionate lines in the St James' Gazette. He had already expressed his indignation at the lack of respect of the British public towards their soldiers—'makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep'—in his poem "Tommy", also published in the St. James's Gazette, and in the Scots Observer, on 1 March 1890.
Kipling had much respect for Tennyson, and had read his work closely. The references to the old Poet Laureate as 'the Master-singer' and to 'wonderful verses', are not ironic. We have not been able to establish whether a group of veterans actually went to see Tennyson, or whether he actually wrote any further verses. What is clear is that after Kipling's poem was published there was considerable public concern over what could be done for the Light Brigade survivors. The Marquis of Hartington, a leading Liberal politician, wrote to The Times on May 20th 1890, appealing to the public for contributions to the Light Brigade Relief Fund. Various supporting events took place, including a variety performance at the Empire Theatre on October 24th, at which thirty survivors appeared on the stage, a trumpet call was sounded by Landfried, who had sounded the charge at Balaclava, and Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was declaimed.
We have not, though, been able to verify Kipling's lines—omitted when the poem was later collected—which suggest that of the funds raised some had gone to convicted Irish rebels, and some to the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, before payment was made to the soldiers. (This was reported by the New York Times on November 2 1913, but it may be that they simply took Kipling's words at their face value). However, it is clear from the press reports in the 1890s and early 1900s that over the following twenty years there was a continuing need for help for the now aged survivors of the battle, to keep them out of the workhouse.
Kipling's concern at the need for public support for soldiers was to surface again on the outbreak of the Second South African War in 1899, in his poem "The Absent-Minded Beggar", which was spectacularly successful in raising funds for soldiers and their families. (See our notes on the poem).
Some further reading
©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved