The Crimean war represented a mid-point of sorts, a crux of change between the battle of Waterloo and World War I. Old tactics collided with improved weaponry in a bloody conflict that ultimately saw over 20,000 British soldiers losing their lives. As the first ‘media war’, news travelled quickly, hastened by the advent of telegraph technology, presenting the prospect for first-hand accounts of the front line to swiftly find themselves in newspaper headlines and discussed over the homely dinner table. It is amidst these changing times that the actual cost of war presented itself up for scrutiny – cost of life, literal monetary cost; all aspects caught up within the chaotic, encompassing nature of mass warfare. As a matter lying not just at the heart of the immediacy of battle itself, but the lingering after-effects and the memories of dead soldiers in the minds of those back home, the cost of warfare proved to a potent premise for poets of the era.
It was, indeed, a Times article by reporter Howard Russell that first prompted Tennyson to write The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem that in many ways has almost eclipsed the Crimean war itself. And it is in the way the poem specifically engages with numerical values that it deals most obviously with the costs of war. The insistent opening repetition of ‘half a league, half a league’ highlights a desperately fought push for a parcel of land, human life traded to win the very soil beneath their feet as the brigade charge forward. This is added to the further use of numerical quantity in the repetition of the ‘rode the six hundred’ refrain itself – by closing each stanza with this line, Tennyson places the reader’s focus specifically on the number of soldiers fighting. The effect of this is that the concept of individual men is dissolved, replaced by block movements of massed forces – war becomes something seen at a distance, Tennyson’s poem in effect mirroring the broad newspaper overtones the combat would have been dealt with in the Times article.
This kind of war at a remove terminology is also employed by Thackeray in his poem The Due of the Dead where he contrasts the language of combat with the comparative triviality of life back home: ‘I sip my tea, and criticise / The war, from flying rumours caught; / Trace on the map, to curious eyes, / How here they marched, and there they fought’. Just as Tennyson emphasises the link between the men and the physical measurement of land they are fighting across, Thackeray’s narrator points from on high to troop locations, albeit this time through the filter of a map. Here, any essence of the war as visceral and bloody are removed, reported loss of life reduced to ‘flying rumours’. Thackeray’s view of war is shocking in the distance it creates between the events and their digestion by the general public, but it is also fully aware of the poet’s own position, as one of those encompassed by the ‘I’. In a self-deprecating sense, Thackeray draws all the more attention to the way – through the process of observation and criticism – the actual cost of human life is diluted into a line of text or dialogue.
The skill of Thackeray’s poem is that it then goes on to contrast this distanced view of war with an intensely visual picture of it in all its brutal actuality: ‘Meanwhile o’er Alma’s bloody plain / The scathe of battle has rolled by- / The wounded writhe and groan – the slain / Lie naked staring to the sky.’ Beginning with the use of ‘Meanwhile o’er’, Thackeray places this scene as specifically different in tone from the previous depiction of war, while simultaneously delineating it as happening in the ‘now’. War is presented to the reader up-close, as something in the immediate, making the following depictions of ruined life all the more haunting. By punctuating the lines with dashes, Thackeray elongates the passage of time and by association, prolongs the suffering and opens up the scene of war as something happening on a large scale where a great sweeping ‘scathe’ of battle cuts down soldiers like corn in a field. The alliteration in ‘wounded writhe’ also serves to highlight the severity of the injuries, sheer pain forcing the men into inhuman movements – in this instance the reader is made to feel the cost of suffering a wound by the unnatural nature of the alliteration. Those soldiers that have lost their life are depicted as ‘naked’, stripped of everything that characterised them when alive – the cost has been absolute, not only have they lost their lives but their individuality and dignity too.
Perhaps the most explicit way in which Thackeray engages with the cost of war though is when he specifically employs monetary language to create a kind of bond between the soldiers and those back home who they are giving their lives for: ‘Owe we a debt to these brave men, / Unpaid by aught that’s said or sung.’ As before, Thackeray decries the efforts of poems like his own to offer any kind of real recompense to the soldiers, placing the debt at the feet of the reader. The poem draws on specific ideals of honour and obligation, in both a patriotic and fiscal sense – the hefty cost that the soldiers fighting in Crimea have shouldered is expected to be repaid in kind by England as a whole: ‘And of her fullness give them part’. By giving of this fullness, England seeks to plug the gap left by ‘Parents made childless, babes bereft / Desolate widows, sisters dear.’ The Due of the Dead depicts a depleted England where the cost of war has been exacted where it will cut most – in the homes of families across the country. Here, the cost is not only crude numerical loss of life, but also the cost on the emotions of the living; by focusing on the ‘bereft’ and ‘desolate’ Thackeray turns death into a far more lingering agony that strikes not only in Crimea, but within England itself.
There is an air of transaction to the poem – the irony of course being that it is the bereft families that must receive this payment as it cannot be given to those soldiers who are dead. Thackeray stresses the provision of aid to the families as essential, criticising those that would say ‘it is enough’ merely to carve a name and plant a laurel at a tomb. Again, ‘enough’ brings in to play the language of quantity, and raises the question of exactly how much would be ‘enough’ to balance out the cost of a man’s life, a theme further explored in Tennyson’s poem as he too seeks to offer some kind of balance of repayment to the soldiers; ordering the reader to ‘Honour the charge they made!’ Here, Tennyson speaks directly to the reader, commanding them through the emphasis afforded by the exclamation mark – in this respect he seeks to link the focus of the rest of the poem – which has been on the soldiers and the battle – with a focus on what those back home can now do.
One of the most moving elements of The Charge of the Light Brigade is the way it presents war’s power to deplete life in sheer numerical terms – with the continued repetition of ‘rode the six hundred’, it comes as a genuine shock when the refrain shifts to ‘Then they rode back, but not / Not the six hundred’. The full might of the six hundred in all their glory has now been cut down and reduced – a truth so shocking that even Tennyson falters in his relaying of this detail to the reader. The ‘but not / Not…’, separated by the line break depicts the poet’s words as faltering, an almost choking back of tears as the true cost of the charge sinks in. Here, although the sense of individual soldiers is amalgamated into the bulk of ‘the six hundred’, the reader is made to feel the weight of the numerical loss, the bleakness of the ‘not’ and later the ‘All that was left of them’ stating explicitly that the war has ended life en-masse with crushing finality, that the remainder of the brigade is now profoundly ‘not’ the fighting force it began the charge with.
One of the more haunting elements of the cost of war is the way death is presented as almost inevitable, a near ‘accepted’ part of the soldiers’ duties. As Tennyson comments: ‘their’s not to reason why / their’s but to do and die’ – Here, Tennyson removes logic and rationality from the role of the soldier, reducing them into thoughtless fighting automatons. With 21,097 killed on the British side during the course of the Crimean War, the question presents itself: was the war actually ‘worth it’? With over 16,000 of those losses from disease and cholera, the predominant cost of the war did not even stem from direct military action. Within this context, Tennyson’s words are afforded additional gravity – there is a sense that if the soldiers do not die by bullet or blade, they will fall prey to disease. In the line ‘O the wild charge they made!’ there is the sense that the battle was fought with reason replaced by sheer abandon, that the men were throwing their lives away without care.
Thackeray’s The Due of the Dead continues the idea of death as an all pervading concept, something not limited by the confines of one man ending another’s life. Using imagery within the poem to encompass even the landscape surrounding the men – Thackeray explicitly engages with the threat of disease in the lines: ‘He tracks his prey through steppe and dell; / Hangs fruit to tempt the throats that parch, / And poisons every stream and well’. Death becomes personified, a kind of debt-collector more able to precisely exact the cost of war. Soldiers are dehumanised into vulnerable ‘prey’, again highlighting the futility of their attempts to cling on to life. The theatre of battle becomes a stalking ground for death and even essential bodily requirements such as drinking become dangerous. Life is slowly stifled out from all angles and ‘steppe and dell’ transform into Tennyson’s vision of ‘the valley of Death’ – here the cost is not only to the men, but to the very earth they are fighting on too.
Furthermore, the biblical overtones in language like ‘hangs fruit to tempt’ and ‘valley of Death’ seem to place these costs of war within a grander scale. While it could be argued that Tennyson’s ‘mouth of hell’ to a degree euphemises the actual instance of death, it dresses the warfare in distinctly classical ideals and places it within a larger scheme of mankind’s history as a whole, with death as something man has been fighting against since creation. There is a sense that the cost of the Crimean War is only one cost within a series of costs man has had to pay since the instance of original sin brought on by Adam and Eve after being tempted in the Garden of Eden. As God says to Adam in The Bible, punishing him after he has eaten the fruit: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you… / It will produce thorns and thistles for you… / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken; / for dust you are / and to dust you will return.’ Linked with Tennyson’s imagery of war as a journey into the ‘valley of Death’, there are overtones that war is the enacting of God’s punishment of Adam, that the soil of the battlefield itself is cursed, and that the bodies of the soldiers will fall into it and decompose to dust. In this respect then, war is portrayed as the ultimate cost to be paid by man, again and again across history, as sufferance for Adam’s temptation.
Also of note is the way both poets engage with notions of courage and twin it with the terminology of coinage. Thackeray describes the provision of war veterans with honours: ‘The living, England’s hand may crown / With recognition frank and free’. Here, the image is on the most literal level, of soldiers receiving honours for their deeds; a levelling of the ‘due’ that the poem’s title focuses on. But through the use of ‘crown’, Thackeray alludes to the British ‘crown’ coin, minted between 1707 and 1965. In a similar example, Tennyson ends The Charge of the Light Brigade with ‘Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!’ – this time the coin in question is the British ‘noble’, the first English gold coin produced in quantity. While on a base level, the poets’ use of ‘crown’ and ‘noble’ is in a response to the soldiers’ courage and honour, the fact both terms can also apply to coinage helps to place the scenes within a financial context where the soldiers are ‘paid’ for the cost and hardship they have suffered in Crimea.
Ultimately, despite their grave subject matter, it is also important to examine the poems as forms of popular entertainment, and by association, warfare as something to be monetised. Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1854 in intellectual journal The Examiner, later went on to be adapted into a music hall song – and within this context the poem can be seen not just as a memorial of the brave soldiers who gave their lives in Crimea, but as an item utilised within paid-for entertainment. Here, the meaning of the cost of warfare becomes more than just the cost of loss of life, but a monetary cost to revel in an intensely dramatic account of the events. Indeed, many parts of The Charge of the Light Brigade play directly into this action narrative as Tennyson relates ‘Flashed all their sabres bare, / Flashed as they turned in air’, almost glamorising the violence of the charge through spectacular sequences that portray a largely clean kind of violence divorced from the more brutal scenes depicted in Thackeray’s poem. Tennyson, it seems, even has an audience in mind for the poem: ‘Charge an army, while / All the world wondered:’ – here, there is a sense of warfare as something intensely theatrical, a massed audience of ‘all the world’ held in suspense as the poem unfolds. In this respect then, perhaps both Tennyson and Thackeray add another cost to all those described within their poems – that the soldiers they aim to honour must now suffer a kind of double-death, once in real life, and then again within the poems themselves.
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