Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Into the valley of death...

I've known for a long time that the Crimean War was a mess, but holy moly, it was worse than I imagined.

A couple of things I learned from THE REASON WHY, by Cecil Woodham-Smith: at last an explanation for the (seemingly bizarre) purchase of commissions in the army, which meant you had rich noblemen without an ounce of actual combat experience in charge. After Cromwell, there was a fear of military coups and dictatorships, so it was thought "that never again should the Army be in the hands of men likely to bring about a military revolution and impose a military dictatorship. With this object, purchase was introduced when a standing Army was formed in 1683. Men were to become officers only if they could pay down a substantial sum for their commission; that is, if they were men of property with a stake in the country, not military adventurers."

Ah. A reason, but it made for a lot of really bad officers. It didn't help that those rich noblemen had an aversion to advancing officers with experience who served in India. I never quite got what they had against India, but they certainly were loathe to promote those experienced men. I kept thinking several of those officers in the Crimea would have been the sort who got shot by their own troops in WWI.

Also, if the Duke of Wellington hadn't done such a good job and Britain hadn't thus been convinced of their military superiority, things might have gone differently. Apparently there was a real attitude that if it worked for the duke in the Pennisula, why change?

I always pictured the Charge of Light Brigade as at a gallop. Nope. For quite awhile they went at a slow trot, just as if they were on a parade ground. Imagine that -- trotting into a valley with guns pointed at you from three sides at that leisurely pace! Blame Lord Cardigan, who led the ill-fated charge and came through without a scratch. After he got to the far end of the valley and through the guns, he simply turned around and rode back again, with the attitude that well, his job was done. His troops had no idea where he was, and apparently he didn't much care what was happening with them. He had dinner and champagne on his yacht and went to bed.

When Lord Cardigan returned to England, he was hailed as a hero for leading the charge, and yes, got a sweater named after him. Later, the truth came out, in part because he sued another man who'd said he (Lord Cardigan) hadn't been present during the charge. He had been, but the rest of the story of incompetence and indifference came out.

And thus, there were many changes made, including no longer selling commissions.

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