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The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith

The Reason Why (1953)

by Cecil Woodham-Smith

Other authors: Diane Dillon (Cover artist), Leo Dillon (Cover artist)

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Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why compared with Christopher Hibbert’s The Destruction of Lord Raglan.

For such a short conflict, the Crimean War added a lot to sartorial vocabulary: Lord Cardigan’s sweater, Lord Raglan’s sleeve, and the Balaclava “helmet”. If anybody knows anything else about it, it’s probably The Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the British army’s most disastrous military maneuvers.

Both these books focus on personalities embedded in the larger context of the war. Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why covers the careers of Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan, the main protagonists in the Charge; Christopher Hibbert’s The Destruction of Lord Raglan follows the life of Raglan up to his death in Crimea.

When the Crimean War started, Britain hadn’t fought a European war in 40 years. The British Army was dominated by the shadow of Wellington, who, while certainly one of history’s great generals, had some counterproductive ideas about military administration. Wellington strongly believed in the purchase system for military commissions; Smith argues that this was because he felt that then the upper class of the country would have a personal stake in the Army. During WWI, a German officer commented that the BEF was an “army of lions led by donkeys”; after years of the purchase system, the Crimean army ended up as an army of lions led by something considerably lower on the evolutionary scale than donkeys – perhaps flatworms. Lord Cardigan, who had never actually heard a gun fired in anger, bought his commission and obtained command of a cavalry regiment and eventually the Light Brigade over many more qualified but poorer officers; Lord Lucan, who was overall cavalry commander, had some minor experience, having briefly served with the Russian army in the Balkans in the 1820s, and although Lord Raglan had fought at Waterloo he’d never commanded in the field, having served mostly as an aide-de-camp to Wellington. Cardigan, in particular, was noted for being a raving martinet who was much more concerned with the appearance of his troops than their military skill; he designed an elaborate and spectacular uniform (tight cherry-red pants, a short blue jacket, a weird-looking helmet and a hussar’s pelisse on one shoulder) and, when he rode through London, would station enlisted troopers along his route so they could ostentatiously salute him as he passed.

The whole Crimean expedition was a disaster from the start. For one thing, nobody quite understood why the English and French were fighting on the side of the Ottoman Empire to keep the Czar for acting as a protector of Christians. The British Army wasn’t really and army at all; Prince Albert, who had some experience with German military systems, commented that it was just “an aggregation of battalions”. The Commander-in-Chief of the Horse Guards commanded all troops in Britain – and was therefore responsible for organizing them to go abroad – but had no authority over troops that actually were overseas. The Master-General of Ordnance was in charge of buying equipment, other than clothing, which was handled by a Board of General Officers. The Commissariat was a civilian agency under the Treasury and was nominally in charge of supplies, but had no transport capability. The Medical Department was independent except for finances, which came from the Secretary-at-War, who had jurisdiction over all pay and finances except those of the Artillery and Engineers, which were under the Master General of Ordnance. The overall size of the Army was under the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and transporting the army overseas was naturally the job of the Royal Navy. The East India Company had its own highly professional and experienced army, which was uniformly hated by the Regulars; the only Indian officers that saw service in the Crimean essentially had to sneak in. A few of the commanders, (notably Sir James Scarlett) realized that it might be handy to have the advice of military officers that had actually fought and attached “Company” officers to their staff, but it was made clear that this was highly irregular. Most commanders picked their staff from young relatives.

The army got off more or less alright, except that the Navy had supplied sailing ships rather than steamers to carry horses and many of them died on the long passage to Constantinople. Once there, the British and French wandered around the Balkans long enough to get cholera, then headed off to the Crimea, without doing any advance reconnaissance. They landed on a convenient beach north of Sevastopol but discovered that the ships had not been “combat loaded”; all the tents were deep in the holds and the soldiers had to sleep in the open. They eventually made their way into the interior, deciding that they would be better off south of Sevastopol. Raglan was short on cavalry and kept them close to the column so they wouldn’t be attacked; it was probably just as well because the cavalry officers didn’t really like doing reconnaissance anyway.

Thus Raglan more or less blundered into the Russian at the Alma (although they were well aware he was coming). Once again the inherent courage of British infantry carried the day over a superior Russian force in a well-prepared defensive position (the French did contribute by using Algerian troops to outflank the Russians, who though that a cliff on their left was unassailable and therefore didn’t defend it). Once again, Raglan kept his cavalry close, forbidding them to pursue routed Russians and leading them call Lord Lucan (who was only following Raglan’s orders) “Lord Look-on”. The British finally settled at the port of Balaclava, south of Sevastopol, while the French used two ports that were on more favorable terrain and closer to the city; then both forces began a siege.

Both officers do an excellent job of describing the Battle of Balaclava and the Charge. Balaclava was, of course, at sea level but the road to the Sevastopol and the siege works ascended a 600-foot high plateau. A double valley – two valleys separated by a centerline ridge – pointed at Balaclava, and the road ran along that centerline. The ridge was defended by Turkish troops in a series of redoubts, each equipped with 12-pounder cannon borrowed from the Navy. Some British infantry and both the Heavy and Light Brigades of cavalry camped out at the foot of the ridge. Raglan’s aversion to cavalry reconnaissance came to a head when a massive Russian army appeared without warning, pushed the Turks off the centerline ridge (called The Causeway), occupied the heights on the other side of the valley, and began advancing on Balaclava.

It would not have been an utter disaster if the Russians had taken Balaclava – the British could have still drawn supplies from the French ports. However, it would have been most embarrassing. Raglan therefore ordered the Heavy Brigade to charge; against a Russian force estimated at eight times their size and uphill. They were, amazingly, successful; a huge Russian column broke and the Heavy Brigade reoccupied some of the Causeway.

Raglan was up on the plateau, the day was crystal clear, and the whole battlefield was laid out before him like a map. Individual officers could be identified in telescopes. Raglan notices that the Russians were retreating and dragging off some of the guns from The Causeway and decided to do something about it; the Heavy Brigade was still disorganized from its successful charge, so the Light Brigade was ordered to charge. The idea was that the Light Brigade would also attack the Causeway, ahead of the point now occupied by the reforming Heavy Brigade, and recapture the whole thing. Unfortunately, Raglan’s excellent view of the battlefield was not shared by the troops on the ground, and Raglan didn’t realize it. The Light Brigade was at the foot of the valley, with height on their left, The Causeway on the right, and a large Russian battery at the far end. Neither Cardigan nor Lucan could see the action on top of the Causeway from their position. Therefore Raglan’s order that “…the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns…” was ambiguous. It didn’t help that Raglan called out to his messenger, Captain Nolan, “Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately”, and Nolan was known as a hothead. When Lucan read the order, he couldn’t figure out what Raglan was talking about and asked Nolan “What guns, sir?” Nolan gestured in the general direction of the invisible batteries on the Causeway and said “There, sir, there are your guns!” Unfortunately this was also in the general direction of the highly visible Russian battery at the far end of the Valley of Death and that’s where Cardigan and the Light Brigade were sent. Nolan may have realized what had happened, because he tore after them, got to the front, and was trying to say something to Cardigan when a Russian shell fragment eviscerated him. Cardigan later contemptuously commented that “Nolan screamed like a woman”. The Light Brigade actually made it to the end of the valley and took every Russian gun. Unfortunately they couldn’t hold them, because just beyond the battery was a large Russian infantry and cavalry force. Cardigan didn’t take any part in the fighting at the guns; he later said it was beneath the dignity of an officer to fight private soldiers. Instead, he abandoned the survivors and rode back alone to complain about Nolan to Lord Lucan. The Light Brigade has 195 survivors out of 700 (I know Tennyson says 600, but 700 doesn’t scan). Cardigan went off in a snit to his private yacht; the Light Brigade remnant was left on alert, unable to light fires and with no rations.

Woodham-Smith’s book essentially ends here, but Hibbert continues with the rest of Raglan’s career. After the Battle of Inkerman, fought in opaque fog such that it ended up as a game of military hide-and-seek, the Russian field army made no more attacks and the British and French settled in for a siege in a Russian winter. Hibbert’s professed goal is to rehabilitate Raglan but he ends up damning him with faint praise. Raglan was almost pathologically shy and couldn’t stand controversy; this might have made him a decent clergyman (in fact many commented that he looked like one) but was no use at all to a military commander. Because the Russians still held the far end of the Causeway after Balaclava, the regular road to Sevastapol was lost and the British had to carry supplies to the field works cross country. When winter set in, there was no forage for the horses and they almost all died, requiring everything to be man-packed. Although the Crimea was supposed to have a mild winter, that turned out to mean “mild for Russia”. There were no tents, no stoves, no food, no clothing, and no shoes (many of these things existed but they were buried in the lowermost hold of ships or requisition forms were filled out improperly or they had already been landed but nobody knew where they were). Then cholera (which had never really gone away) reappeared. The British Army in the Crimea lost more than 1000 men a month during the winter, and by the spring they were only a token force. The French finally stormed Sevastapol.

So what did Raglan do through all this? He wrote letters and memos. Hibbert notes that he often worked well after midnight dispatching paper to London complaining about the state of his army and the lack of supply. Unfortunately, that hard work did no good at all. Raglan’s maxim was always “What would the Duke (Wellington) do?” While that can’t be answered for sure, it’s fairly safe to assume that Wellington would have gotten something done, even if it involved firing squads. Raglan eventually solved all his problems by dying of cholera himself.

Each of these is an excellent book, and together they are outstanding. Hibbert has some of the clearest and most understandable maps I’ve ever seen in a military history (although admittedly even he is stumped by fog-bound Inkerman and is reduced to portraying a number of units as “skirmishers and broken troops). Woodham-Smith has Balaclava down pat and both her verbal descriptions and maps are excellent; her accounts of the British military system of the time and the pre-war and post-war careers of Lucan and Cardigan and fascinating in a creepy sort of way. I’d read about the Crimea before and even played a couple of war games about it but never really understood anything until now. High recommended. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 31, 2017 |
This is a very popular account of the early part of the Crimean War, there is no coverage of Baltic operations or the Turkish involvement because of the book's focus on "The Charge". But the prose is clear and the mythology of the war is laid out in a colourful fashion. I've read this book twice. ( )
1 vote DinadansFriend | Jun 8, 2016 |
The definitive history of the Charge of the Light Brigade. ( )
  BruceCoulson | Jan 30, 2014 |
511. The Reason Why, by Cecil Woodham-Smith (read 24 May 1957) When I record the title of a book I use the title page, and if there is no subtitle shown on the title page I do not record it, even if the slipcover has a subtitle. So this book I read did not have the subtitle on the title page. But I remember that I was hugely interested in this event--I memorized Tennyson's poem on my own volition when I was a child--one of the first poems I memorized that was not assigned for memorization by any teacher. Over the years I memorized many poems, even though now I am old I have not recited them and so some are not longer readily recitable any more. There are some tricky lines in Tennyson's poem and I would not guarantee I could recite it accurately any more. But this book being read by me is evidence of my huge interest in the event. ( )
  Schmerguls | May 23, 2013 |
At the time of the Crimean War in 1853, the British army was run by incompetent aristocrats who had purchased their commissions. Not only were the officers with actual battle experience on the Indian subcontinent not promoted according to their ability, they were openly despised by many of the upper echelon. It was thought that keeping the military in the hands of the propertied classes would prevent revolutionary fervor from spreading through the ranks, as it had in other countries. Because the Duke of Wellington had been both a duke and one of the finest soldiers in the history of the world, the system had seemed to work just fine.

The Reason Why relates the stories of the two main players who led the famous Light Brigade’s charge at Balaclava. Lord Cardigan, who commanded the brigade, and Lord Lucan, the division commander. Cardigan was a disciplinarian, undeniably brave but prone to ridiculous squabbles with his men over the most mundane details of uniforms and protocol. Lord Cardigan had no sense of proportion or distance. Every minor grievance was of terrible import, even years after. Even less impressive: on campaign in the Crimea, he anchored his private yacht nearby and spent his evenings away from his men, sleeping in his bed and being attended to by his servants. Lord Lucan, on the other hand, was unpleasant in an entirely different way: a landlord in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine, he showed an extraordinary lack of kindness and sometimes outright cruelty, such as literally pulling apart the houses of starving people who had not paid their rent. It is worth noting this was nasty even by the standards of other nobles; his behavior was specifically challenged in The House of Lords.

The first two-thirds or so of Ms. Woodham-Smith’s masterpiece sketches the lives of this not-so-delightful pair. They couldn’t stand each other either and quarreled constantly while on campaign--their squabbles handled about as poorly as possible by the Commander-in-Chief Lord Raglan.

The Crimean War itself was a strange business. Supposedly at issue was mistreatment of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land but probably more to the point was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Russian desire for a warm water port.

From an operational standpoint, the British expedition was a disaster: not enough food, not enough water, not enough room on the ships, bad reconnaissance (when there was any at all), and rampant disease. The successes the British did enjoy, such as forcing a crossing of the Alma, were due entirely to the courage and fighting ability of the soldiers themselves.

The last third of the book details the campaign leading up to the famous charge. It’s one of the finer battle narratives I’ve ever read.

Someone had blunder'd indeed. When captured British guns were in danger of being pulled off the battlefield, Lord Raglan ordered an attack to a re-take them. His order was so purely worded however as to invite disaster, and disaster accepted. Raglan didn’t specify which guns to attack and Captain Nolan, who delivered the order, indicated the cannon at the far end of what Tennyson aptly called the “Valley of Death.” The nearer guns were obscured by the terrain—something Raglan didn’t know because he was observing the battle from a heights nearly 600 feet above the battlefield.

In his order, Raglan also failed to give his commanders any discretion at all. General Lee is still sometimes criticized for adding “if practicable” to his attack order at Gettysburg nine years later, but Lee often add that prepositional phrase, specifically to avoid the sort of debacle, Lords Lucan and Cardigan found themselves in: galloping into the mouths of cannon with enfilade fire pouring into both flanks.

I used to have a strange prejudice against older works of history, feeling that newer books had more complete evidence and access to more scholarship on the subject, etc. etc. I’ve long ago dropped this silly idea--contemporary histories have their own biases, their own prejudices. It’s depressing to consider if I hadn’t and I would’ve spent my life missing out on books like these. ( )
2 vote numbernine | Apr 4, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Cecil Woodham-Smithprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dillon, DianeCover artistsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dillon, LeoCover artistsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Theirs is not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
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Examines a part of the action of the Battle of Balaclava, one of the earlier and most important battles of the Crimean War.

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