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.