For many years Terry Brighton has sourced and worked with unique survivor’s accounts of this battle. Terry Brighton is the Curator of The Queen's Royal Lancers Museum - the direct descendents of the 17th Lancers who led the charge. He is a member of the Crimean War Research Society and is an authority on The Crimean War. He has a degree in Politics and Philosophy and lives in Grantham.
Curator of The Queen's Royal Lancers Museum and author of Hell Riders, Terry Brighton, speaks to Penguin about his inspiration, research and up-coming projects.
What inspired you to write Hell Riders?
The question should be: who inspired me? The ordinary cavalrymen who survived the charge of the Light Brigade and came home to tell what it was like to ride into the ‘valley of death’. These men yelled out their experiences from hand-written accounts. This was raw history and their story demanded to be told.
That sounds like it happened suddenly but I’ve spent twenty years getting to know these men. During that time I’ve worked in the museum and archives of The Queen’s Royal Lancers, the descendant regiment of the 17th Lancers, which rode in the front line of the brigade. Visitors to our museum inside Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire often ask for a good book on the charge and I had nothing to give them. So I wrote the book they wanted.
Survivors' accounts form an important part of the book. How did you find them and what was the most shocking thing you discovered?
Most are held in national and regimental archives, but known to only a small group of Crimean War researchers. Historians sometimes go to these accounts to pick out quotes that support their own ideas, and ignore everything else. I took the accounts as a whole and allowed them to tell the soldiers’ story of the charge in full.
What was most shocking? Probably the survivors’ stark honesty about what they saw and felt during the charge, and the brutal revenge they took when they got among the Russian gunners. The shock is in the detail, which is too graphic to quote on a family website.
Did you have a favourite character in the book?
Corporal Thomas Morley, a rough rogue of a man who saved twenty lives. It was after the charge when the scattered survivors were cut off from the British lines. There were no officers, so Morley bellowed and cursed until he got the men together, and led a charge back through the enemy. He should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. All who received the VC did so for rescuing a wounded officer. Morley saved the lives of twenty cavalrymen and got nothing. He remained bitter about it for the rest of his life. I feel for the man.
The Charge of the Light Brigade has been written about before - what makes your book special?
My co-authors – the survivors of the charge whose first-hand accounts make Hell Riders the soldiers’ story. Writing the book was like being in the saddle with the Light Brigade. Readers will learn a lot about the charge and the men involved, but I hope they will also experience something of the thrill and the horror.
At the same time I wanted to go further and ask all the really tricky question that keep coming up about the charge. I put aside all existing theories about what happened and why, and asked what can be concluded from the accounts of the men who were there. Their evidence enabled me to reach the startling new conclusions that set Hell Riders apart.
Do you think they will make a documentary of this book? Will you be involved in that?
One television company has offered to fund a re-creation of the charge in the original valley, using local men and horses, and helicopters flying overhead to film it! But the valley floor is now covered with vineyards on which the local people depend for their livelihood. So we are thinking again. In any case I’m not sure a spectacle of that kind is the best way to go. The impact of the book is in the personal experience of the men viewed from the inside, not from a great height, and I will certainly want to be involved in dramatising that.
Are you working on another book?
It’s half written. The working title is Balaklava: The Novel. Readers might be surprised that, having written a full historical account, I should now write a fictional account. There’s a reason. For Hell Riders all my material had to be verifiable as fact or come straight from the pen of a survivor. But during the Crimean campaign there were several mysterious events that have never been explained. A rumour spread through the army that might explain them, but it’s impossible to verify. The fiction writer can follow clues in the historical record which lead where the historian cannot go, so I’m following these and they point to a possible – and very shocking – conclusion.
Quite apart from that, I’m fascinated by what will happen if I take the survivors I know so well from Hell Riders and (in my imagination and on the page) reconstitute fully fleshed men from the words they left. The result is an action adventure story populated by real men. Oh, and women!
What about another non-fiction book?
I’m researching a Second World War subject. It’s a really exciting idea and I don’t want to talk about it.
What did you most enjoy reading while writing Hell Riders?
I immersed myself in the literature of the period, and the writers who most effectively capture the experience of people on the streets and soldiers on the battlefield are Dickens and Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy was an artillery officer in the Crimea, on the wrong end of the British cannons. Dickens wrote about men and women in London on the wrong end of life! Both writers use the imagination to get closer to the truth than the historian can. Tolstoy was at Sevastopol and what he wrote was inspired. I wish Dickens had been at Balaklava.
Given that the battle took place on Russian territory is it easy to visit the site of the charge?
During the Cold War a Russian missile site was located in the area and Western visitors were prohibited. Now the Crimea is part of Ukraine, an independent state, and visitors are welcome. From Sevastopol – the city the British army went out to destroy in 1854 – it’s possible to visit Balaklava and the site of the charge. Despite the vineyards it’s possible to walk a good part of the valley. One tip: the water and the beer can have a laxative effect on Western visitors; the vodka is fine!
Have you any plans to go over there?
I will be in the Crimea for the 150th anniversary with other representatives of the Light Brigade regiments. On 25 October, the day of the charge, I will be in the ‘valley of death’, and hope to ride down it on horseback, following the course of the Light Brigade as far as the vineyards allow. The present Lord Cardigan will be there and plans to make this ride too.
I’m taking with me the original bugle blown to sound the charge. At 11.17 a.m. on 25 October a mounted trumpeter will sound the charge again – at the precise time and place that it was blown 150 years ago. That will be an eerie experience, and will send a shiver down the spine as the call echoes from the heights.
What single fact about you would most surprise readers?
I was once – a long time ago – an Anglican priest. My first parish was St Martin’s in Hereford, which included the SAS camp, and I stood in for the army chaplain when he was away. I’m not sure whether the men gained anything from me, but I learned a lot from them about the dark side of war. I conducted burial services for some of them. Perhaps one day their story will be told.