Crimea and Ukraine: a Tragedy Like the Charge of the Light Brigade
Crimea, surrounded by the Black Sea, hangs like a diamond from the southern end of Ukraine. It has historic ties to Russia but was an independent republic until annexed in 2014 as part of the Russian Federation after a dubious referendum. Russia’s maritime fleet has been stationed in Crimea for decades. Almost 30 percent of Crimeans receive public pensions and another 10 percent are public employees, so the region will probably be financed by the Russian government, already impoverished with its grandiose military expansion and an escalation of U.S. sanctions.
In the 1854 Crimean War, Russia fought against Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) and Sardinia for control of the Dardanelles (formally Hellespont), a 38 mile narrow strait between Europe and Asia–near modern Istanbul, Turkey. Russian control would threaten Britain’s sea routes since their ships had to pass through that strait to reach the grain ports of Ukraine. The major battlefield in this war was in the Crimean Peninsula where a famous battle took place near the city of Balaclava, Ukraine.
The Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Battle of Balaclava on Oct. 25, 1854 when the British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan received ambiguous orders to pursue a retreating Russian artillery battery. That order was appropriate for light cavalry. However, due to a miscommunication in the chain of command the orders were skewed and the cavalry was ordered to make a frontal assault upon another better defended target. They were to capture Russian guns at the end of a treeless valley but the British did not know that the valley was ringed on three sides by 20 battalions of infantry and artillery. They were ordered to attack dug-in artillery even though the brigade was designed for reconnaissance and pursuit of retreating infantry and the men were armed only with lances and sabers.
The Light Brigade of 637 horsemen, led by Cardigan, steadily increasing their speed, rode up the treeless valley under heavy fire. Spectators could not believe what they saw. The brigade rode, as if taking part in a review, to attack the dug-in Russian batteries. The Russians had a line of sight for a mile and shot at the British from elevated positions on both sides. It was suicide. The British managed to capture the guns at the end of the valley but more than 250 of their men were killed or wounded, more than a hundred the first 60 seconds. The Russians thought the British soldiers were drunk to ride into direct fire with lances and sabers. A French marshal viewing the charge opined “It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness.”
As the shattered brigade returned down the valley, the Russians recouped and began firing upon an assortment of British and Russian forces. Both antagonists were blasted by Russian cannon fire.
With the valley strewn with dead and dying men of both sides, Lord Cardigan calmly returned to the yacht on which he lived, took a bath, dined, drank a bottle of champagne, and went to bed. His brigade had performed an inspiring feat of stupid gallantry. Or maybe gallant stupidity. But it was due, like much else in that war, to the blunders of commanders. Lord Raglan’s orders had been badly expressed and were misunderstood by his subordinates.
Seldom does anything good result from wars but this war is best known for the work of Florence Nightingale who trained and led 38 nurses to aid the wounded during the war. Four times as many soldiers on both sides died of disease than combat wounds and Nightingale and her nurses were considered ministering angels to dying men. It was the beginning of the nursing profession.
Lord Alfred Tennyson memorialized the brave but doomed men in his famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” that all students were required to memorize. He began, “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.” In six pungent verses Tennyson told the story of the gallant men. He concluded, “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.”
That fruitless, futile, foolish battle in Ukraine is similar to the tragedy taking place in that area as I write. Russia is again involved but this time with tanks and missiles. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine helped Putin consolidate power at home. While the Russian majority supports Putin, the homeland is suffering under staggering inflation, an anemic ruble, shortage of necessary goods, peasant unrest, and a small but influential intelligentsia almost in rebellion. The recent murder of Putin’s main opposition has caused further turmoil. Another war will keep their minds off reality.
Furthermore, Russia has always sought to expand its influence south over the Black Sea and onward to Istanbul, Turkey and the Dardanelles. That would provide Russia an open door to the whole Mediterranean permitting Russia to influence all of North Africa, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Israel. Iran is already in the Russian orbit and Russia is responsible for providing the Iranians their nuclear program.
In recent days, the U.S. got involved in Ukraine by sending instructors and 750 military vehicles including tanks and artillery. Britain sent various supplies and troops to train Ukrainian soldiers in military tactics. Meanwhile Russia announced it would send long-range, nuclear-capable strategic bombers and other state of the art missiles to Crimea. Does this remind anyone of the beginning of Vietnam?
The tragic Crimean war ended in March of 1856 with questionable results and Russia was delayed in her expansionist plans for a time. Today the Russian Bear is still dangerous, devious, and determined. Ask the Ukrainians.
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