Friday, February 08, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Aristocratic Twit of the Year

My reading list is so long that by the time I get to some books, I have no idea why I added them in the first place.  Case in point:  The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith.  I was expecting a gently humorous 1950's British travelogue--something like Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana.  Turns out, it's a history of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade of the Crimean War.  Military history.  Really?  What was I thinking?  I can only guess that I added it after reading Flashman at the Charge, by George MacDonald Frazier, the irreverent "Flashman" version of the story. 

But never mind, I wouldn't be writing about The Reason Why if I hadn't enjoyed it, and I did enjoy it, very much indeed.  Usually, when I read non-fiction, I read a novel at the same time, so I have something light to relax into.  There was no need for that this time.  Woodham-Smith is a great story-teller, and he has the gift of writing clean, elegant prose.

James Brudenell, the Earl of Cardigan and George Bingham, Lord Lucan were both raised in the privileged classes in England in the early 19th century.  Brudenell distinguished himself by being uncommonly stupid--Woodham-Smith makes a point of telling us that the man really had no intelligence-- and behaving like an absolute horse's ass at all times, mainly by unfairly persecuting members of his staff who had served in India, because he perceived these men as socially inferior.  He seems to have truly believed that the whole point of being in the army was to have a dashing uniform.

Lord Lucan at least, possessed intelligence, but was generally rigid and merciless, although he did suffer a head injury as a young man and there's evidence that this changed his personality for the worse.  Of the two, he's the more sympathetic character until you read of his behavior in Ireland.  The family's estates were near Castlebar in County Mayo.  Here, Woodham-Smith gives us a succinct but gripping history of the Irish potato famine.  Lord Lucan lived on his estate, unlike the infamous absentee landlords, and he did make an effort to improve the land.  He realized that Ireland's system of endlessly subdividing the land was insupportable, but as his tenants began to starve to death, he did nothing to help them--even closed the poor house so they couldn't get help--and ruthlessly evicted starving people from their homes, in one instance pulling down a house over the heads of the family inside who were dying of cholera and too sick to move.  In order for Ireland to be productive, the people needed to disappear. Whether this were accomplished through death or immigration, it was all the same to Lord Lucan.

Time passed and the Russians started acting obnoxious so the British headed to the Black Sea to kick some ass. The Earl of Cardigan and Lord Lucan were both generals, although Lucan was a more highly-ranked general than Cardigan and thus commanded him, which Cardigan couldn't tolerate because the two men hated each other.  They were both commanded by Lord Raglan who had a habit of delivering vague, easily misinterpreted orders. (He had to be reminded not to say "The French" when he meant the enemy, because in this war, the British and French were allies.)  The whole operation was a carnival of incompetence, not helped by Cardigan's tendency to have tantrums when he didn't get his way nor by his insistence on staying aboard a luxurious yacht, miles from his troops.

Florence Nightengale established her hospital here during the Crimean War.  Cholera seems to have been a more formidable enemy than the Russians.  Indeed, Cecil Woodham-Smith also wrote a biography of Florence Nightengale, which I intend to read.  Not only were the men dying of cholera, they had no reliable source of drinking water, inappropriate supplies, and their horses suffered horribly in the sea voyage to the Balkans.  Apparently it didn't occur to anybody that cramming the hold of sailing ships--steamers were not yet universal--with terrified horses might be a bad idea.  Lord Cardigan faffed about on his yacht, indifferent to the suffering of his men.

The famous Charge of the Light Brigade was the result of a misinterpreted order from Lord Raglan.  There were two clusters of Russian troops and guns that potentially could have been captured, and Lucan charged the light brigade at the wrong one, leading the men into a dead end, where they were mostly slaughtered, although they fought bravely.  Cardigan participated in the charge and came through it unscathed.  He showed remarkable calmness of demeanor, which was interpreted as courage, but I think he was literally too stupid to understand what was happening or else possessed such a colossal ego that he took it for granted that he was invincible. Almost the moment the battle was over, amidst the blood and bodies, he was complaining about the ways in which Lord Lucan had disrespected him that day.


Later in the war, the Earl of Cardigan was personally responsible for the death by starvation of numerous horses, because he issued orders that made it impossible to procur food for them. 

And yes, the cardigan sweater does get its name from him, because of the woolen jacket he wore during the charge.  I don't know if Lord Raglan's name has similar knitting associations.


  1. You hooked me AGAIN. Just jotted it down to get.

  2. There is such a thing as a raglan sleeve, which was in fact named after Lord Raglan; he apparently wore that style because it was easier for him to manage after he lost his arm at the Battle of Waterloo. You can make it with sewing as well as knitting.

    This book sounds fascinating, I'll have to look it up now too!

  3. LOL, Green Girl!

    Thanks Becca. Now I know where the Raglan sleeve got it's name! Another small mystery solved. :)

  4. Interesting, that's a period I know almost nothing about. Thanks for posting this.