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Volley and Thunder

Death or Glory

By Matthew FrommPublished 24 days ago 12 min read
9
Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.

“This is all wrong. Those hills don’t sit right with me. They seem alive,” Private Henry Rayment said, his eyes firmly down the shallow and shadowed valley before them.

Private William Eaton readied a retort but thought better of it. Below him, his horse frothed. The two cavalry brigades arranged themselves at the valley mouth. Beyond the rolling hills, Private Eaton knew a further brigade of French cavalry assembled themselves. He also knew half a league down that gentle valley, they would find the Russian forces. The collar of his uniform chafed as sweat rolled down his neck despite the coolness of the October day. His mount stamped its hooves impatiently as they waited. They had been idling far too long. The Seventeenth Lancers' motto was Death or Glory, yet they sat here as on the fields around them, their compatriots won the glory. Private Rayment was right; the hills were alive, and having their calvary sit here exposed struck him as folly. Fortunately, the Russian menace had yet to show any teeth. If anything, the notion that their flank's security was in French hands made Private Eaton’s hands shake. No matter how often they were reminded of their alliance in this endeavor, it did not sit right with Private Eaton.

“So formal…” Private Rayment said under his breath, looking down the line as the new arrivals rode up.

“Quiet now. Are you trying to get us latrine duty?” Private Eaton retorted. It would not be the first time one of his outbursts cost the Section.

Private Rayment pursed his lips, preparing a response. The gesture made the skin of his face squeeze against his helmet straps. Despite their tour together, it was easy to forget how young he really was, how young they all were. Something down the line drew his attention before he could say anything further.

He rolled his eyes–only an HQ section would ride with chests puffed so. Captain Nolan rode at their head with all the upstart self-righteousness of a provincial above his station. Because he invented some saddle, the Captain road as though the rank and file below him should carpet the ground beneath his feet. It did not stop them from sneering at his backwoods Canadian upbringing behind his back. Eaton’s horse stamped again. They could hear the battle around them. The other brigades attacked while they idled on this god-cursed hillock.

From the other direction rode Lord Cardigan. His wispy beard blew in the wind as he rode to meet Captain Nolan. For his faults, Lord Cardigan was a true Englishman. As fortune permitted, they reared to a halt before Private Eaton.

“Sir,” Captain Nolan said with a tip of his steel helm, curt yet not short enough to be insulting. Lord Cardigan sat resolute, fist resting upon his hip, ever the model of decorum. Private Eaton liked him; all the men of the Seventeenth Lancers did. On such foreign shores, having someone who reminded you of home at the front made the hard days more tolerable. “Orders, straight from the top.”

“Right. Let’s hear them,” Lord Cardigan said, eager like the rest of them to get moving. In war, nothing was worse than stillness.

“Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate,” Nolan said, reading from a bit of parchment. “The Earl of Lucan affirmed that the attack is to begin at once,”

One of Lord Cardigan’s aide-de-camp shifted uncomfortably, looking out through the valley–Eaton did not know the boy, but boy he was. If the Private had to guess, he would have put the aide’s age at fifteen years.

“Something the matter, boy?” Nolan said sharply, noting the discomfort.

Lord Cardigan gave the boy a nod, “Out with it, lad,”

“Apologies, sir, but it strikes me as odd. There are many redoubts ahead,” the aide paused, staring down the valley. The hills indeed had come alive with movement on the ridges to the left, along with the Cossack formations visible at the far end of the valley. Lord Cardigan said nothing but cast his own contemplative gaze over the valley.

Captain Nolan drew himself up in his saddle and addressed Lord Cardigan directly. “There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns,” he said, sweeping his arm across the valley before them .

“Right. We bow to the wisdom of the Earl of Lucan and trust his heavy brigade for support. He may be a bastard, but he is my brother-by-law, after all. Sound the ready and signal the advance,” Lord Cardigan commanded. Orders were orders, and Lord Cardigan gave them as if he were ordering tea.

Private Eaton shivered. In an odd way, it was not the impending charge that made his blood run cold; the Cossack hordes were no Royal Marines in the matter of marksmanship. No, it was again the thought of the French to their left. He glanced at the heights and the movement at the redoubts. Private Rayment was right; this was all wrong. It would be a slaughter if the French did not take their objective quickly.

The whistles rang out, followed by the bugles. Private Rayment gulped. As one, the Light Brigade drew their sabers, the sound of unsheathed steel hanging heavy in the air. Lord Cardigan took his position at the head of the brigade.

Private Eaton’s heartbeat quickened with the cadence of horse hooves. The world hummed, six hundred and seven sets of repeated thumps upon the field drowning out all other sounds. They started at a trot and, within moments, transformed into a bright gallop. The thrill of battle filled him. They would do their duty today like any good Englishman would. For a moment, Private Eaton pictured himself in the line of the 2nd Dragoons smashing through Napoleon's lines upon the fields of Waterloo. He tightened the grip on his saber. Had he another moment to spare, he would have thought of the irony as they charged down the throat of the former member of the Sixth Coalition while the French cavalry barrelled into hell on their flank.

Alas, at that very moment, reality destroyed the image of the 2nd Dragoons’ glorious charge from Private Eaton’s mind as two events collided before him.

First, he noticed an ever-so-slight movement on the hills, not to his left, where the battle was surely already joined, but to his right. Most Curious. His brain seemed to slow as he noted the glint of cannons now not only to the right and to the front of their charge but now also unveiled on their left. Private Eaton lowered himself in his saddle as the charge reached its speed.

The second came from the corner of his eye. From where he had taken up his place in line on the right flank, Captain Nolan broke rank and charged directly toward the onrushing path of Lord Cardigan. Even from his position in line, Private Eaton could see the fear in his eyes as he rode with all haste.

Then, the world ended.

Before him, the ground shattered as a shower of soil drenched the charging line of Calvary. One after another, the volleys landed all around them. The dust settled, and Captain Nolan’s horse cantered to a trot. His head bobbed loosely in the saddle, and whatever possessed him to rush ahead died with Captain Nolan as he fell limply from the saddle.

Private Eaton closed his eyes. The simple act betrayed his bravado. The 2nd Dragoons may be interred in glory, but they charged against Napoleon in the full armor and power of heavy horse, not in light kit against what Eaton now realized were enfilading artillery positions.

Wave after wave of round shot crashed around them, yet their steadfast mounts continued the charge. It was the beasts, not their burdens, that carried the bravery of the entire Empire.

It could have been a breath or a day later when Private Eaton opened his eyes to the wretched world before him. The volleys continued their unrelenting drumbeat, matched only by the unyielding determination of their charge. Despite his place of prominence, Lord Cardigan rode ahead straight into hell unbowed.

As for the rest of the brigade, Private Eaton could only guess their horrid fate. Shell burst after shell burst threatened to throw him from his saddle, yet he held on with all the strength of a sailor tossed overboard in a squall. Ever deeper into the maelstrom, they rode. Their enemy was no longer the wild-eyed Cossacks of the far eastern fields.

No, now they charged down death itself, its canine jaws opened and ready to swallow them whole.

Another wall of dirt, upturned by the unceasing barrage, collapsed to the ground. Private Eaton wiped the detritus from his eyes–it was unnaturally slimy, and he hoped beyond hope that it was only a byproduct of the sweat streaming from him. Private Rayment appeared from the dust cloud beside him despite the Cossacks' best efforts. He held himself low on his mount, and Private Eaton let himself have a brief moment of hardened resolve at the sight of his friend. The two had sailed halfway around the world together, had spent countless nights on watch together, and Eaton was honored to have served at his side. For him, he would not fail in his duties this day.

The earth shook again, and Private Henry Rayment was gone. No, that can't be right. He was just there. Right there. Private Eaton looked around frantically. It was true. Where Private Rayment had been, there was now simply nothing. Nothing but a crater that they galloped past at full tilt. Private Eaton realized his arms and legs were slick and wet against his mount. He fought the urge to vomit right then and there.

And then, as quick as it started, they were through.

Private Eaton’s horse reared as the Cossacks’ earthworks seemed to appear from the smoke. A crack of rifle fire filled the air as Eaton fell from the saddle. Eaton rolled as his riderless mount withdrew, drawing his saber in a low crouch behind the lip of the hastily erected redoubt. Shouts filled the air between the cracks of the guns, in the tongues of both foe and friend. The ground shook as the battery before Eaton unleashed another barrage, the telltale crackle of canister shot shredding the on-charging brigade. Eaton rose and threw himself over the top.

He stood in the trench below Private Eaton, his eyes wide and full of fear. The cossack swung his rifle up and aimed it squarely at Eaton’s chest. The Private almost had to laugh. Covered in blood and dirt as he was, Eaton thought he must certainly look like a walking corpse. He let out a cry and lept. The cossack screamed and pulled the trigger.

Eaton felt no blow as he fell upon the Russian. A misfire.

He hacked viciously–indeed, he had become that walking corpse, all humanity blown from his veins. The cossack fell as the private ran him through, blood running wet down his saber.

Others filled the trench and the earthworks as friend and foe collided in a wave of flesh and metal. Eaton would never comprehend how anyone could have survived, yet he found himself shoulder to shoulder with the other survivors of the charge.

To his left, Cossacks scrambled to limber one of the horse guns. Eaton drew his pistol and aimed true to the nearest exposed back. He fired, and the man crumpled. The others continued their toil as the survivors of the seventeenth took up firing positions. So few remain. The cries of war gave way to the dying groans of friend and foe alike.

Private Eaton ducked below the lip of the trench and scrambled to reload his pistols, the motion turning him back toward the dreaded valley to a sight entirely unpredicted. On the heights above their right flank flew the French standard. Its red, white, and blue stripes fluttered lazily as the battle fog drifted past.

A bugle sounded. Lord Cardigan and those few still ahorse wheeled and fell upon the retreating batteries. Sabers flashed, and bodies fell as the Cossacks sounded their retreats. Private Eaton rose and fired into the back of a retreating Cossack. He could only guess how their commander lived, yet he sat his horse as if it were a place amongst King Arthur’s own table, his face alight with fury.

“Where’s Lucan?! Where’s Lucan?! That traitorous bastard!” Lord Cardigan bellowed to the bloody sky as if only God himself could answer. Private Eaton had never seen such fury in the man, coupled with such dismay.

Beyond, the Cossacks were reforming, and the window was closing. Where is the heavy horse? Private Eaton could see the field developing before him. If they pushed now in force, they could catch them in rout. He wanted to scream. The Russians deserved nothing less. They needed to pay for the blood they spilled today, the blood that now ran down his arms. He peered back down the valley of death. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting…

No further support broke through the fog. Lord Cardigan let out an anguished roar. They rode into the very jaws of death, spat down the throat of the devil himself, and bloodied their blades on Russian blood, only to be abandoned by their countrymen.

Not even the French were so cowardly.

“Lucan, you devil! You coward!” Cardigan bellowed toward his brother-by-law. The same rage now filled Private Eaton.

A rifle lay abandoned. Eaton grabbed it. The enemy was near. Victory was at hand! They must go on. He took aim down the valley to where the Cossacks reformed.

The bugle sounded again.

No.

Again and again, it sounded the slow, mournful sound that no true Englishman could ever tolerate.

The sound of retreat.

Orders were orders, and Private Eaton would follow them on to the end.

Bowed and broken, all that was left of the Light Brigade limped back across that shameful valley. Above, the French flag flew proudly, though their allies' faces were pale as they watched the march of the walking corpses.

As the sun began to set, Private Eaton prayed that no one would ever remember this most shameful of days. He spat upon the ground. There would be hell to pay for this folly. For into this valley rode over six hundred who sanctified the land with their blood and, despite it, won no glory.

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A/N

Word count for the challenge: 2,435

I chose Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade as my prompt inspiration. You can read the piece below:

I'm a bit of (read huge) history nerd. When writing historical fiction, I think it's important to remember that the subjects of the story were once living and breathing, and often, what we're retelling represents the worst or final day of their very real lives. Because of that, we owe it to their memories to do the minimum of basic and proper research, particularly when the characters are real people and not fictional people dropped into a historical situation. When creative license is taken, the author must, at a minimum, be ready to answer for the changes. This story is no exception.

All named characters are real historical characters. To simplify the narrative, I had Captain Nolan issue his sweeping, derisive order to Lord Cardigan directly when reports said he gave that order to Lucan. All of Nolan's statements are direct quotes attested to in post-action investigations. Both Privates Eaton and Rayment were indeed members of the Seventeenth Lancers during the Crimean campaign. Unfortunately, their fates were not indicated in the records I reviewed from the Imperial War Museum.

This was written for Randy Baker's PROMPTED: #4, details below. For those unfamiliar, Randy runs what I would consider the best monthly community challenges on Vocal. The prompts push your skills, and the generous rewards fit the bill.

I would also be remiss not to mention the greatest galloping bass line of all time.

If you've enjoyed this, please leave a like and an insight below. If you really enjoyed this, tips to fuel my coffee addiction are always appreciated. All formatting is designed for desktops. All my works can be found below:

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About the Creator

Matthew Fromm

Full-time nerd, history enthusiast, and proprietor of random knowledge. The best way to find your perfect story is to write it yourself.

Here there be dragons, and knights, and castles, and quests for entities not wishing to be found.

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (7)

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  • Heather Zieffle 2 days ago

    Such a wonderful read! You captured the horrors of battle perfectly!

  • Mackenzie Davis4 days ago

    Damn, Matthew, this got my blood pumping! Fantastic writing, as Cathy attested to. I can't believe how horrible war is, and stories like this shine light on the reality, but still leave me feeling like it's all too terrible to exist. I can't remember when I read Tennyson's poem but I definitely recognized it! Great adaptation. I could see a short film be made about this one. Very cinematic, all of it. Congrats on your prize!! Very pleased to see your name. :D

  • Paul Stewart17 days ago

    Lol...as usual you have me gripped while reading this and then also drop some Maiden. This was a great take on the challenge. I was never a fan of that poem and the whole set up of that battle was ridiculous. You gave this real life and made me feel sympathy for them going into such a hellish ambush. Well done!

  • Cathy holmes24 days ago

    Wow. This is fantastic writing, Matthew. You definitely did the story justice. Well done. 👏

  • As usual excellnt work, a great take on the challenge

  • Lamar Wiggins24 days ago

    Impressive work, Matt. Tennyson would be proud of the embellished representation of his work. 👏👏👏 Also, nice choice with Iron Maiden for an encore. They are GREAT storytellers in their own right. Rime of the Ancient Mariner alone would make a great film.

  • Hannah Moore24 days ago

    I could hear bits of that poem as I read, so I was not surprised to find it at the end.

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