Tuesday, October 25

St. Crispin’s Day

Two legendary battles, both immortalized in English literature, took place on this day, the Feast of St. Crispin.  

The first, in 1415, was the great Battle of Agincourt.  England’s King Henry V and his long bow archers defeated the overwhelming force of French Army in the fields of northern Normandy.  Vastly outnumbered, weary from a long and difficult campaign, hopelessly trapped against the coast, with no possible retreat, Harry deployed the heretofore untested technology of the long bow to stunning effect.

The feat inspired Shakespeare’s famous monologue in his epic drama, Henry V:

If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss; 
And if to live, the fewer the men, the greater share of honor.
God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one man more.
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by 
From this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; 
Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us
On St. Crispin’s Day.

The second battle, in 1854, was the Charge of the Light Brigade at the climax of Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. The battle which has been long regarded as one of the most famous military blunders in history, pitted an allied Anglo-French army and a Russian force commanded by General Liprandi.

The Light Brigade consisted of five regiments totaling 661 men.  The men were ordered to attack a well-entrenched Russian force—it was a certain slaughter but due to confused communications and conflict within the officer corps, the men advanced into a withering line of fire.  The charge lasted less than twenty minutes.  When the brigade was mustered afterwards, there were only 195 mounted men left.

Though the maneuver seemed to be a complete disaster, the men actually achieved their objective.  General Liprandi was deeply impressed by the unflinching composure of the British horsemen. And, the moral effect on the Russians of the discipline, courage, and resolve of the Light Brigade was immense. For the rest of the war, the Russian cavalry refused direct, pitched combat with the British, even when vastly superior in numbers.

Long afterwards, the fact that a single, under-strength brigade of light cavalry had captured a battery of guns and driven off a far larger body of Russian horses was the admiration of Europe.

This battle also inspired a work of great literature, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

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