ontinuing our assumption that there may be some historical truth to "Luck," the obvious starting point for any investigation is the Crimean War. It is generally accepted that after the Napoleonic Wars, the British army went into a decline. According to Lord Garnet Wolseley, war "as an art was not studied, and hence, when the Crimean War broke out, so ignorant were our generals and our colonels, it is a marvel to me that any of us survived. Our officers had no training. They never read a book upon military matters, and at the mess, when allusion was made to tactics, or military problems, the offender was summarily told to 'shut up.' Hence, at the Crimea, our officers were totally ignorant . . . " (Stead, 278).
So it comes as no surprise that the Crimean War has long provided historians with a wealth of examples of incompetent generalship. Even contemporaries were aware of the deficiencies of the senior officer corps. The long list of derisive descriptions and nicknames for generals shows the low esteem in which they were held. One general was called an "old imbecile bully," another a "nincompoop" and "a shocking old dolt," yet another a "terrible fool" (Edgerton, 87). Subaltern officers in the Crimea seemed to vie to outdo each other in original descriptions of how stupid their commanding officers were. One was called "the biggest fool in the army," and another had the distinction of being "the biggest fool ever" (Hibbert 1961, 126, 198). For our purposes, the names of these generals — now known only to specialists — are neither here nor there. Not one of them has ever passed for a military genius. If Twain had anyone in mind when writing "Luck," it was not one of them.
The British commander Lord Raglan was loved by some and respected by most, but no one considered him a very great general, including Raglan himself. The French commander, Canrobert, was by some accounts more popular among the British troops than any British general; indeed, he was said by one British officer to be the only one who had "not made a fool of himself" (Hibbert 1961, 217).
But it was Lord Wolseley, writing more than 50 years later, who offered the most comprehensive indictment of the incompetence of commanders and staff officers in the Crimea. "Good heavens! What generals then had charge of England's only army, and of her honour and fighting reputation! They were served to a large extent by incompetent staff officers as useless as themselves; many of them merely flaneurs 'about town,' who knew as little of war and its science as they did of the Differential Calculus! Almost all our officers at that time were uneducated as soldiers, and many of those placed upon the staff of the Army at the beginning of the war were absolutely unfit for positions they had secured through family or political interest. There were, of course, a few brilliant exceptions, but they made the incompetence of the many all the more remarkable." He added, "Before the Crimean War began there were few incentives for officers to study their profession scientifically. The great bulk of the staff at home, and most of those selected for staff work with the army sent to Turkey, were chosen for family reasons. However, that was soon changed, for they were found to be mostly incompetent for all practical work in the field. Clever educated professional soldiers took their places as vacancies occurred. I knew the officers well who were, as late as the fall of Sebastopol, the quarter-master-generals of two of our five divisions, and they were not men whom I would have entrusted with a subaltern's picket in the field. Had they been private soldiers I don't think any colonel would have made them corporals" (Wolseley 1903, 95f, n. 100).
Wolseley made exactly the same comment about his superior officers that the reverend made about Scoresby, particularly the remark that he "was actually gazetted to a captaincy in a marching regiment . . . I could just barely have stood it if they had made him a cornet . . . " (Merry Tales, 71). Wolseley later reiterated his view that many officers were unfit for their posts, and should not have been promoted. "We had several stupid men amongst those who served in the Crimea, who could not, I think, have passed the examinations now required for entrance into that corps [of engineers]." As we have seen, Scoresby only passed his examinations due to incredible luck. But Wolseley's censures were not restricted to the engineers. The generals, too, were out-of-date. "No new light, no useful gleam of imagination or originality ever illuminated whatever may have been their reasoning powers" (Wolseley 1903, 136-137).
"If the Russians at Sebastopol had not been very badly led not one of our men could have escaped," Wolseley recalled during an interview. "Our officers were very ignorant of their profession; the Russians were worse. I always think that, so far from complaining of the reverses we had suffered, it was a miracle any of us returned to tell the tale" (Stead, 282). Wolseley's charges have been echoed by modern historians, who point out that "formal standards of professional education were low" (Baumgart, 76). An officer's promotion was not based on merit but rather "depended on the number of his seniors who died, were promoted outside the regiment, exchanged into other regiments, resigned or retired" (Glover, 26). The result was that many commanding officers were aged, and so it is perhaps more understandable that younger officers became impatient and regarded their superiors as overly hesitant and out-of-touch.
In sum, it is hardly surprising that Twain chose the Crimean War as the setting for his example of military blundering. He knew he was on safe terrain. No one was likely to object that this war had been characterized by anything but monumental stupidity. When his audience read the words "Crimean War," they practically expected a tale of incompetence.
wain, who had visited the Crimea in 1867, blanks out the name of the battle in which Scoresby won his honors, but if we assume for the moment that the story is based, however loosely, on fact, there are only two that can be considered: Inkerman and Balaclava.
In the late 1990s, when I was teaching "Luck" at a Lyceum in Moldova, not far from the Crimea, my patriotic students (patriotic for Russia) were always quick to point out that nothing like what Twain describes happened in reality. True enough, there was no headlong flight of a Russian army at the sight of a British regiment. But there were many instances in this war of smaller British units attacking and defeating much larger Russian formations — though apparently none of Russians running away from such attacks without first putting up a fight.
For example, assistant-surgeon Wolseley (brother of Garnet) found his field hospital surrounded during the fighting for the Sandbag Battery at Inkerman. The doctor gave the order to all men within earshot: "Fix bayonets, charge, and keep up the hill." "The soldiery answered him with a burst of hurras, sprang forward to the charge and in the next instant were tearing their way through the thicket of Russians. They suffered, it is believed, heavy loss in proportion to their scanty number; but they achieved their purpose, and came out at length on the southern or English side of the force which had undertaken to block their path" (Kinglake, III, 196-197).
Leo Tolstoy, who saw action in the Crimea, called the poor Russian performance at Inkerman a "treasonable, an outrageous action. 10th and 11th divisions attacked the enemy's flank, turned it and spiked 37 pieces. Then the enemy brought up 6,000 carbines, only 6,000 against our 30 [thousand] strong force. And we retreated, losing some 6,000 brave men" (Tolstoy, 16). Though the 26-year-old Tolstoy was not present at the battles of Inkerman or Balaclava, he did serve as an artillery officer during the later siege of Sebastopol.
A modern historian has summed up the action at Inkerman as follows: "And so on this part of the front also, thousands of the dispirited enemy were retreating before the determined charges of a few hundred men." While in this battle the French held back, the British army was "saved from a similar inactivity by one of those sudden, unauthorised displays of initiative and heroism for which the battle of Inkerman will always be famous" (Hibbert 1961, 172, 193). Though the Crimean War provided few if any examples of brilliant generalship, it did offer many instances of inspired heroism.
Lord Wolseley also addressed this when he acknowledged "the helpless, feckless ignorance of war displayed by many of our generals and their inept staff upon that occasion." He went on to note, "The fighting characteristics of our soldiers and regimental officers were so conspicuous throughout the Battle of Inkerman that we have been content to forget the culpable professional ignorance of those who had been selected to command them." (Wolseley 1903, 142-143).
he closest parallels to the events in "Luck" occurred, however, not at Inkerman but at Balaclava, the scene of the two most famous cavalry charges of the war.
The first of these was led by General Scarlett, commander of the Heavy Brigade. When advancing up the Causeway Heights, "he had no idea of the [Russian] forces opposing him. Even when they appeared over the crest of the hill he did not know their full numbers, which were, in fact, three thousand. He himself had six squadrons (a total of eight hundred) . . . Scarlett's success was due to his swiftness of decision. Seeing that the Russians were virtually at a halt he decided that a quick assault would be productive of considerable results. To accomplish this he wheeled into line the left column, which consisted of only three hundred sabres (swordsmen on horseback) and led the charge himself . . . But the main effect was caused by the vigour, speed and determination of the charging squadrons, not only as they arrived but in the way they fought when once among the Russians. The latter, perhaps thinking that another similar charge must be on the way at any moment, gave ground, broke up, and finally rode fast away from the scene. It was an incredible situation, eight hundred men putting three thousand to rout" (Warner, 64-65). The similarities to Scoresby's attack are too obvious to require commentary.
But today it is another cavalry charge at Balaclava that is better remembered. "The famous 'charge of the Light Brigade' is still celebrated for the astonishing bravery of the British cavalry, and justly so. But it was also one of the more spectacular blunders in the history of war" (Edgerton, 94). Shortly after the charge of the Heavy Brigade, Lord Raglan, having a commanding view of the battlefield, saw that the Russians were preparing to remove some captured British cannon. To Captain Nolan he gave the order for the Light Brigade, under the command of Lord Cardigan, to prevent this. The order was imprecise as to the location of the enemy, this being obvious to Raglan on his high perch. Captain Nolan rode off down the hill to relay the order to Lord Lucan, Cardigan's immediate superior.
It was well known that Lucan and Cardigan, who happened to be related as brothers-in-law, detested each other. On top of that, both men were held in equally low esteem by their fellow officers. Cardigan was regarded as "invincibly stupid," and Nolan's personal opinion was that Lucan and Cardigan were "the two greatest fools in the entire history of the British army." Another cavalry officer observed, "As to Lord Cardigan, he has as much brains as my boot, and is only equaled in want of intellect by his relation Lord 'Look-on.' " George Lucan had acquired the derisive nickname "Look-on" because earlier, during the battle of the Alma, he had done nothing to help the French when they had come under attack, but had merely "looked on." This cavalry officer continued, "Without mincing words, two bigger fools could not be picked out of the British Army to take command" (Edgerton, 94, 96; see discussion of Kinglake).
But even if he had been a military genius, Lucan could not have understood the order he received. From his ground-level vantage point he could not see the Russian troops — atop a hill a bit to his right — that Raglan had meant. Instead, the only enemy forces visible to him were at the far end of a valley, a bit to the west or left of where Raglan intended him to go. Attacking them would be tantamount to suicide. The Russians "were perfectly arranged to deal with any British formations that would be so monumentally stupid as to move straight down the middle of the valley where they would be assailed from the front and both flanks all at the same time" (Gibbs, 211). When Lucan quite reasonably asked Nolan for clarification, the captain contemptuously waved his hand in the general direction of the enemy and said, "There, my lord, is your enemy!" So the obedient Lucan (historian Edgerton calls him "stupidly obedient,") relayed the order to Lord Cardigan, who was also appalled at the prospect. Not at all foolishly, he asked for confirmation. Lucan replied that it was a positive order from Lord Raglan and that he must attack immediately, even though "this decision to charge represented arrant stupidity" (Edgerton, 98).
So Cardigan, motivated by what Kinglake (V, 364) termed "chivalrous obedience," led his approximately six hundred men into what Tennyson would call the "Valley of Death." Among the first to be killed was Captain Nolan, who at the last minute evidently tried to redirect the charge in the proper direction — in vain. While suffering terrible losses, the Light Brigade succeeded in reaching the Russian position at the end of the valley and taking over some of their cannon, but before long they were driven back down the length of the valley by the vastly superior Russian forces. Canrobert launched a supporting attack which kept the retreat from being quite as frightful as it might have been. In the end, fewer than two hundred made it back to the British lines, Lord Cardigan surprisingly being one of them.
At first glance, this famous charge seems less related to the events in "Luck" than the charge of the Heavy Brigade. Yet there are similarities. In Cardigan's case, a misunderstood order (he went to the left of where he should have gone), carried out bravely but idiotically, leads to glory. In Scoresby's case, an order misunderstood by an idiot — so stupid he doesn't know his right from his left — leads to glory. It is as though Twain took the unquestioning obedience to a senseless order, which characterized the Charge of the Light Brigade, and combined it with the result of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade: the surprising defeat of a numerically superior enemy. And of course he also transposed cavalry to infantry.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was certainly an example of bravado, and in part through Tennyson's poem it was mythologized into an example of British bravery. "The public regarded the charge as a deed of spectacular heroism, not often pausing to reflect, like a correspondent in the Spectator: 'The order was a blunder; . . . the Balaklava charge should warn them [the government] how dangerous it is to select officers for staff appointments on any other ground than that of personal fitness'" (Vulliamy, 150). There was "an eagerness [on the part of British public opinion] to find heroes in a wasteful war. The public treated what happened as a victory for courage rather than a defeat through stupidity and blunder. The surviving members of the Light Brigade and Lord Cardigan, never known as a likable man, became heroic figures when word reached Britain about the brigade's willingness to obey orders at all costs" (Goldberg, 38).
The Tennyson connection is instructive, because according to his own account, his poem "was written after reading the first report of the Times correspondent . . . my poem is dactylic, and founded on the phrase, 'Some one had blundered.' " (Poems, II, 369). Though Tennyson made it quite clear that the charge was the result of someone's foolish mistake, nonetheless the impression that remained with the reading public was one of poetic glorification ("When can their glory fade?").
Tennyson also wrote another Crimean War poem, albeit less well known, about the charge of the Heavy Brigade. It evokes the charge of the "gallant three hundred" who charged uphill to attack "thousands of Russians." "Thousands of horsemen had gather'd there on the height" and Scarlett's men "Drove thro' the midst of the foe" who surrounded them. All the onlookers thought they must be lost in "the heart of the Russian hordes," when suddenly the enemy broke, as the Heavy Brigade . . .
Drove it in wild disarray,
For our men gallopt up with a cheer and a shout,
And the foeman surged, and waver'd, and reel'd
Up the hill, up the hill, up the hill, out of the field,
And over the brow and away.
In the Epilogue to this poem, the pacifist "Irene" reproaches the Poet by saying, "You praise when you should blame / The barbarism of wars," leading to a long self-justification by the Poet:
. . . who loves war for war's own sake
Is fool, or crazed, or worse;
But let the patriot-soldier take
His meed of fame in verse . . . .
Irene greets this with a simple but emphatic "No!" leading to another twenty lines of the Poet's self-justification, ending with . . .
The song that nerves a nation's heart
Is in itself a deed.
Tennyson was not naive in his praise of war and glory, the way some Civil War romantics were whom Twain subjected to withering criticism. Tennyson acknowledged the generals' blunders, and was not only aware of the critics of his war poetry but even included one in his verse — though her objections are clearly marginalized as feminine, if not feminist. In the end, Tennyson seems to come down squarely on the side of poetic glorification as a patriotic, masculine deed. A reading of this poem that justified Irene's point of view would be a reading against the grain.
The literary exaltation of war, like the misunderstanding of chivalry, is something that Twain consistently sought to undermine. In "Luck," he took aim at the public's tendency toward hero worshipping. In "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed" (the most substantial of the stories in Merry Tales) he recounted his own inglorious contributions to the Confederate war effort. "Much of Twain's article is antiheroic in tone, and it consistently ridicules notions of valorous military activity." And again: "Twain dramatizes his doubts about military values and their effect from a skeptical and antiauthoritarian position" (Messent, 144, 149).
Thus for Twain, it would not have made much difference whether the obedience on display during the battle of Balaclava had been stupid or chivalrous.
Mark Twain on the Crimean War
- The Crimean War
- Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley
- Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington
- Ulysses S. Grant
Last modified 16 August 2005