If you saw the headline and reacted that Rudyard Kipling didn’t write “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” you’re correct. That was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, writing about the “noble six hundred” British forces who fought in the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War in 1854.
But if you’re tempted to think of Veterans Day as something that’s behind us for another year, you need to know about Kipling’s poem, “The Last of the Light Brigade,” written in 1890 and discussing what was happening to the veterans whose acts were glorified in the Tennyson poem.
As Kipling wrote:
There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.
They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!
(Granted, 24 pounds was considerably more in 1890 than it is now; a shilling before WWII was equal to a pound by the early 1980s. But still, 30 million people sent 24 pounds.)
They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, “Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites.”
They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant’s order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.
The poem goes on to ask, in the voices of the survivors, for “a sort of ‘to be continued’ and ‘see next page’ of the fight” they had fought 36 years earlier. It is a powerful indictment of how those society calls heroes can, and (shamefully) still do, wind up being treated. Think of it when you see our modern survivors, from World War II to Afghanistan, in any trouble.
O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children’s children are lisping to “honour the charge they made –“
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!
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