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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 261


Review:                  Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Reason Why, (E.P. Dutton, 1960).

While the subject of The Reason Why might seem obvious after a moment's thought, only the second half of Cecil Woodham-Smith's excellent book is devoted to an investigation of the disastrous "Charge of the Light Brigade" at Balaclava during the Crimean War.  In the first half, she gives a detailed biography of the two English aristocrats involved in the destruction of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan.  Woodham-Smith skillfully combines the two sections into a scathing indictment of the purchase system in the British Army in the nineteenth century.

Woodham-Smith's thesis is that the purchase system, whereby aristocrats could buy their way into higher ranks over the heads of more experienced officers, was "the reason why."  She argues that, contrary to contemporary belief, the nobility were brought up in an atmosphere which cultivated many attitudes which were directly antithetical to success as an officer.  She selects two of these aristocratic traits as most directly contributing to the disaster at Balaclava.  First, the two aristocrats are repeatedly portrayed as never doubting their own judgement: "[Lord Cardigan's] conviction that he was now, and always, in the right never wavered" (p. 44); and of Lord Lucan, "No man was ever more certain of being in the right." (p. 119).  Second, the aristocracy "glorified courage, called it valour and worshipped it, believed battles were won by valour, saw war in terms of valour as the supreme adventure." (p. 1)

Almost incidentally to her main purpose, Woodham-Smith also does a remarkable job of capturing the feel of early nineteenth century England.  She vividly, and cuttingly, portrays the increasingly defensive mood of the aristocracy.  In fact, the angle of her attack on the purchase system tends toward an attack on aristocratic privilege in general.  As she traces the lives of her two main characters, she is able to make the historical events happening around them far more real than in the usual, impersonal style of historical writing.  She manages to bring in the Reform Bill of 1832, the role of "radicals" in the House of Commons, duelling, and journalistic sensationalism, among others.  The most effective side trip by far is her grim account of Ireland and the Potato Famine of 1846, and Lord Lucan's efforts to "solve" the problems on his Irish estate.

Her treatment of the Crimean War leading up to the battle of Balaclava is equally well done.  She naturally concentrates on the feuding between Lord Lucan, who was appointed commander of the Cavalry Division, and Lord Cardigan, his nominal subordinate.  She also makes apparent the incompetence found throughout the higher ranks of the British Army, most of whom were quite elderly.  One example from many was the decision to transport the cavalry horses in sailing ships, which took sixty to seventy days to reach the Dardanelles, instead of waiting to collect sufficient steamers, which took only ten to twelve days.

In her treatment of battles, Woodham-Smith shows a good appreciation of the limited information available to participants, which was especially important at Balaclava where the different vantage points of the commanding general and the Light Brigade had disastrous consequences.  She does show some of the standard "battle piece" failings that John Keegan has pointed out--often treating "brigades" as uniform objects, for example.  But in general, she anticipates many of Keegan's "innovations" in describing battles.  She offers explanations of soldiers' motivations--discipline, anger at previous humiliations, rivalry with other units--as well as attempting to explain the details of what actually happened during the clash of cavalrymen.  Her account of the cavalry engagement just prior to the charge of the Light Brigade is far superior to that given by Keegan as an example of "bad" military history.

The Reason Why succeeds as an explanation of the immediate reasons as well as the structural reasons which enabled a disaster such as the charge of the Light Brigade to occur.  As such, it could appeal to only a limited range of military historians.  But The Reason Why is also a vivid portrayal of the aristocrats who ruled England and led its army in the first half of the nineteenth century.  These two elements combine to make it enjoyable and insightful reading for both historians and a general audience.

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