November 11th, 1894.

My Dear Lord Raglan,

I am but a few leagues from you and your great house at Usk and travelling westward. However, I regret to say that I am storm-stayed in a small village on the border of Gloucestershire and here I must rest, for the coachman refuses to challenge the hurricane that howls about the public house in which we sought refuge late last night. I am entrusting this letter to one who must ride to Usk today in order that you might be apprised of my delay and to tell you of a most extraordinary encounter.

As I wrote to you last month from my office at the Times of London, I have with me a phonograph cylinder of Lord Tennyson reading his famous Charge of the Light Brigade, made four years ago, and another, blank cylinder, on which I propose to record your thoughts concerning that engagement and indeed, the whole of the Battle of Balaclava—that most dreadful encounter with the army of Tsar Nicholas. My editors could not think of a more appropriate way to mark the 40th anniversary of that fight than to interview the grandson of the commander of the British forces in the Crimea.

But to my extraordinary encounter. Last evening, by the glow of the publican’s fire, I was browsing through a yellowing copy of the Illustrated London News from 1855. It was a fortuitous discovery because the issue contained Roger Fenton’s famous photographs of the Crimean War. Although not of the editorial quality of The Times, I spent a most pleasant hour browsing through the pictures in that publication. Embraced by the warmth of the hearth and the whisky I had been served, my chin fell upon my chest and the paper slipped from my hands.

“Do thee want truth of that photograph there, guv’nor?”

Roger Fenton’s photos of the ‘Shadow of the Valley of Death’. His photographs of the Crimean War were the first of any war.

The man’s impertinence startled me awake. The Illustrated News slid to the stone hearth.

My interlocutor picked up the paper and handed it to me. He was ancient, I would hazard seventy, but a life lived out of doors—he could have been younger.

“I be the servant of one what took that picture and all others beside.”

He jabbed a bony finger at the now famous print entitled the Shadow of the Valley of Death. I am certain you know it—a desolate, treeless, God-forsaken place, the road strewn with cannonballs. It was among the first photographs taken of the Crimean War (or of any war for that matter), but it was the only one not of officers at their leisure or of landscapes as foreign to English eyes as the moon is to the earth.

“That bain’t how road was when we did come up on it. Them balls was all off to sides.”

The story rushed back at me. After the photo ran in the Illustrated London News, another emerged of the same barren stretch of road, empty of cannonballs. Roger Fenton had never spoken of the other photograph and wasn’t likely to, being long dead, nor did his assistant, Marcus Sparling who is likewise deceased.

The man touched his forehead. “Me name be William, sir,” he said.

I asked him if he had been at Balaclava with Fenton and Sparling.

“I be there, but ‘twas many months beyond the Light Brigade and the thin red line. There was fighting still, mind, but we saw nor heroics like them that Lord Raglan ordered up that day 40 year ago. We did take a wagon-full of pictures of officers but naught of fighting nor dying. Mr Fenton said Prince Albert did not want nor of that business. But that be the business of war, bain’t it? And trade with the Russes was brisk when we did get there the winter after.

“By Christ ‘twas cold as hell be hot. The men was in a bad way. There be one with naught but stumps. He did lose two to the Russes’ canons and two to the winter’s blow. Thee could tell he wished for death but could do naught to attain it. But by time we left looking for the shadow of the valley of death there,” (he speared again the photograph of the road) “one of his mates did help him find it.”

William went quiet and nodded at a raggedy clutch of similarly ancient men at a table in the shadows. I could see the gleam of the fire on their faces, but they sat silent over their cups, watching us with empty eyes.

To break the woeful mood that had settled, I asked William, how it happened there were two photographs of the same stretch of road.

“When we came up on that place, we could move no further so strewn with rounds ’twas. Twenty-four pounders did litter the road from one side t’other and as far up it as we could see and more falling the while, bouncing off the hill  there,” again he attacked my newspaper, “and rolling down to road.

“By and by, cart emerged from round the turn ahead, pulled by ragged soldier and another behind who did tumble shot into the cart. Mr Sparling did say they was collecting balls round enough to send back to the Russes. T’other was so weak with the war and the wages of hunger we could tell the task was getting the best of him. A bedraggled Sisyphus he were, lifting high them rounds to the lip of that cart only to see ‘em roll back onto the road.

“Mr Fenton and Mr Sparling did talk about taking a photograph of the cannonballs but they could not with the soldiers there. See you, the picture taking could brook no movement, no not a twitch.

“So, Mr Fenton did yell, ‘Hey you there! Tommy! Leave those cannonballs where they lie.’” William said this in such a gentlemanly accent that I had to look hard at him to make certain I wasn’t talking to an Oxford man. But he fell back into his natural speech.

“They gen ‘im a blanky look and did continue on with their work. I did go help Tommy lift them dead weights onto their cart and Mr Fenton did yell at me as well. But I did tell him, ‘There be plenty more to side of road’.

“The soldiers did pass us finally and Mr Fenton did photograph the empty road. Then he did order me to haul them balls that was in the ditch on to the road. And he did take that photograph.” William took another jab at the newspaper, and it nearly came out of my hands.

“When we was done and all packed up, Mr Fenton did scold, quiet like. ‘We are here to record, William, not to help. For if we become involved, we change the story.’” Again I was taken aback by William’s perfect speech. And again he returned immediately to his own dialect.

“I did say to Mr Fenton, ‘Begging your pardon guv’nor, but we do change the story just being here.’ Mr Fenton made a frown and nudged Mr Sparling to hi the horse. But Mr Sparling did turn and wink, because he had been to war before and it be his regiment that was in the Light Brigade what fought them Russes cannons as Mr Tennyson did write in his great poem that thee carry about.”

My hand went instinctively to my travel bag to feel for the reassuring lump of the wax cylinder that held Lord Tennyson’s voice. William spat into the fire and it sizzled. He again pointed at the photograph of the road.

“Yes, I tell thee, whatever truth there be in that picture, it bain’t the whole truth without them poor soldiers as was ordered to harvest food for hungry cannons. Thee see them men?” His bony finger lifted from my Mr Fenton’s photograph to the forlorn clump of men I had noticed earlier.

“There be Tommy Atkins, guv’nor. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” he said in perfect middle school Latin. He spat into the fire again, rose and said, “Say g’day to Lord Raglan from the last of the Light Brigade.”

I do not know how he discovered the purpose of my visit, or what I carried for, I assure you, I have been most discreet. In any event, William and his crew left the inn shortly after our conversation and I have not seen them since.

I can hear the wind dying now, my Lord. I hope to be with you on the morrow.

Your Servant,

John MacKay,
The Times

And now, just the facts …

Both Errol Morris (in Believing is Seeing) and Susan Sontag (in On Photography)  muse on which of Fenton’s famous photographs, above, came first: the empty road or the road full of canonballs. Morris muses to the point of obsession but manages to demonstrate the empty road (with cannonballs in the ditch) came first.

Between 1582 and 1906 the British Lion fought the Russian Bear over who would have supremacy in mid and central Asia. Battles were fought over the whole region: Afghanistan, Persia (Iran and Iraq), Syria, and India. The Crimean theatre was one of the bloodiest. (“Theatre” has always seemed to me to be a strange term for war, but then the Imperial conflict between Britain and Russia was called The Great Game).

In the fall of 1854 the Crimean War had grabbed the public’s attention. Prince Albert and the Duke of Newcastle, the Secretary of State for War pressed Roger Fenton into service. Because the War was going badly, they told Fenton not to take photographs of soldiers’ suffering. As a result practically all his photos are of officers and landscapes.

Fenton arrived at Sevastopol, Crimea in February of 1855 and stayed until June. He photographed landscapes very near the “Valley of Death” made famous by Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The road with the cannonballs was literally in the shadow of the brigade’s Valley of Death. He brought with him a horse-drawn van of equipment, his assistant Marcus Sparling and a servant, William.

By the way, William’s accent in my story is turn of the Century West Country English, as recorded by the Powys brothers’ novels (TF’s Mr Weston’s Good Wine and John C’s Wolf Solent).

Lord Raglan (Lord FitzRoy Somerset) was the commander of the English forces during the Crimean War. British troops suffered greatly in the winter of 1854 (the winter before Fenton arrived) from the cold and hunger. Raglan’s orders led the Light Brigade to their disastrous charge into the teeth of Russian canons at the Battle of Balaclava, waged during the Siege of Sevastopol.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” helped rally the English public back to support for the War. For years it stood for the glory of war and manhood in the service of country … the proof of, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—”It is sweet and proper to die for your country.”

Another engagement during the Battle of Balaclava pitted Colin Campbell’s Sutherland Highlanders (the 93rd Regiment) against the Russian cavalry. Some 300 soldiers formed a line two-men deep to defend the main British force encamped behind them. This “thin red line” turned away a Cossack cavalry of over 400 mounted men. It caught the imagination of the British people and it too marshalled support for the Crimean War. More Victoria Crosses were awarded during that engagement than at any other.

In 1890, Tennyson recorded his famous poem on a wax cylinder. Also recorded in 1890, at Edison House in London, is the charge of the 13th Light Dragoons, played by a survivor of the Light Brigade, Trumpeter Landfrey. He played the charge on a trumpet used in the Battle of Waterloo.

In 1890 Rudyard Kipling wrote a bitterly ironic riposte to Tennyson’s poem called “The Last of the Light Brigade.” That same year he also wrote a tough anti-war poem called “Tommy,” a soldier’s lament that puts the lie to dulce et decorum. In the poem, Kipling adopts the name “Tommy” which, by then, was common slang for all British soldiers. Tommy’s full name is Tommy Atkins which means “Little son of red earth”.

A 2009 reading of “Tommy”, in remembrance of British vets wounded or killed in the modern war in Afghanistan is on You Tube.

You Tube also has a reading of “The Last of the Light Brigade” with slides of some of Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

The Last of the Light Brigade

By Rudyard Kipling, 1890 

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, “Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites.”

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant’s order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighten the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and “Beggin’ your pardon,” he said,
“You wrote o’ the Light Brigade, sir. Here’s all that isn’t dead.
An’ it’s all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin’ the mouth of hell;
For we’re all of us nigh to the workhouse, an’ we thought we’d call an’ tell.

“No, thank you, we don’t want food, sir; but couldn’t you take an’ write
A sort of ‘to be continued’ and ‘see next page’ o’ the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an’ couldn’t you tell ’em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now.”

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with “the scorn of scorn.”
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

They sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;
They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,
A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.*

O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children’s children are lisping to “honour the charge they made – ”
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

*this verse was present in the first collection but was removed from the later editions.


By Rudyard Kipling, 1890

I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

Officers and men of the 13th Light Dragoons, survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade (R Fenton, summer 1855)

Officers and men of the 13th Light Dragoons, survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade (R Fenton, summer 1855)


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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