Tag Archives: 19th Century

Charge of the Light Brigade


I smell the makings of a kick-ass poem

I'm going to immortalize the shit out of this

You don’t need to be a Victorian poet to appreciate that a 19th century battle involving feuding commander-in-laws, tragic battlefield misunderstandings, the “Valley of Death,” at least three types of knitwear, and heroic French cavalry is going to be a total disaster. These were the ingredients of the Battle of Balaklava.

The Crimean War began in 1853, with the British, French and Ottomans fighting the Russians for control of the fading Ottoman Empire. Modern historians consider it the first modern war, due to the involvement of telegraphs, repeating rifles, and high-explosive artillery. How hilarious, then, that perhaps its most famous military action involved horses, sabers, and verbal misunderstandings.

Attack the Russian nuns? Where are the nuns?!?!

Attack the Russian nuns? Where are the nuns?!?!

On October 25, 1854, English and French troops were attempting to capture the Black Sea Russian port of Sevastapol. Their 4,500 soldiers faced 25,000 Russians across a U-shaped valley. While these odds may seem extreme, the Russians never approach a battle without waaaay too many soldiers. And, recall, that it was the first modern war. So everybody was excited and unsure of what, exactly, would be required of them in this bold new day.

Attack soon! Wheel about! Go that way! Why aren't you following orders?

Take the whosiewhatsits to the placeahmahut! Post haste!

Let’s cut to the charge. The British commander, Lord Raglan, kept giving his cavalry, commanded by Lord Lucan, confusing orders. The fourth, and worst of the bunch, was carried to Lucan by a snotty Captain named Nolan.

“Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.”

Besides sounding like a Mad-Libs battle command, it seemed to Lucan to have nothing to do with the battle whatsoever. The only guns he could see were the Russian artillery at the other end of the valley, more than a mile away (and what the hell are ‘horse artillery’?). Lucan asked for clarification. Nolan vaguely swept his hand across the valley and said contemptuously, “There my lord, there are your guns.”

The secret for these babies is honey and horse manure.

I couldn't have won this award without the help of...Cardigan's sister! Ba-zing!

Second place.

Second place.

Lucan took this order to Earl Cardigan, his direct subordinate and commander of the Light Cavalry. Lucan also happened to be Cardigan’s brother-in-law and, if that were not sufficiently galling, had just won the regiment’s coveted “Most Luxurious Muttonchops Award.” A reluctant Cardigan led his 600-odd men on a one-mile charge across the entire battlefield, being fired upon from three sides by Russians who probably felt like they were hunting buffalo in “Oregon Trail.” Tragically, the charge may have succeeded if Lucan had followed with the heavy cavalry (or at least the featherweight or welterweight cavalry). Instead, Cardigan’s Light Cavalry roughed up the Russians until the Russians realized they vastly outnumbered the British, at which point they sent the Light Cavalry back across the same one-mile gauntlet of artillery and rifles.*

Somehow, this guy survived, hat intact.

Somehow this guy survived, hat intact.

The Light Cavalry were probably saved from total annihilation by a flanking movement from the French Chausser’s d’Afrique, who sufficiently engaged one side of the Russian guns to cover the British charge and retreat. The whole action took 20 minutes. Of the approximately 660 British who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade, 110 were killed, 161 wounded or captured, and 375 horses killed. Nolan was among the dead. Cardigan survived and argued bitterly with Lucan about who was at fault for the suicidal order.

Cardigan got the last muttonchop-quivering laugh when he had the button-front sweater named for him. Indeed, knitwear was thrown about after the battle like purple hearts. The town of Balaklava got its name attached to ski masks, Raglan ended up with a namesake sweater, and trendy trousers were named after British officer Duke Skinnyjeans. Lord Tennyson honored them all with his famous poem Charge of the Light Brigade, and his lesser-known essay, Totally Sweet Cavalry Charges, Poetry, and You.

Thanks, Battle of Balaklava!

Thanks, Battle of Balaklava!

*This strategy for chasing a superior enemy force was later made famous by Han Solo’s charge in the Battle of the White Subhallway in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Drink: The Valley of Death

[ingredients]:

  • chilled Russian vodka
  • currant liqueur
  • French champagne
  • one copy of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade

[preparation]:

  1. In a narrow champagne flute, pour one ounce of chilled Russian vodka.
  2. Mishearing something, recklessly pour one ounce of currant liqueur into the flute.
  3. Top off the glass with French champagne, stirring gently to mix until the concoction becomes poetic.
  4. Read Tennyson’s poem aloud, taking a sip every time you come across the word ‘death.’

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Battle of Austerlitz

It’s easy to find an excuse to drink a Brandy Alexander. It is, after all, delicious. But what do you say? You say it is approaching Napoleon’s birthday? Or his death day? Or you just watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and you’ve got Napoleon on the mind? Well, let us offer a twist on the Brandy Alexander, and turn it into a commemoration of one of his greatest tactical victories: the Battle of Austerliz.

He's small, but I still couldn't swallow him whole while wearing this neck ruff

So in the early 1800s, when mention of France still induced thoughts of military competency, Napoleon was busy shoving the French Revolution down everybody else’s neck ruff-enclosed throats. Austria and Russia’s sprawling, feudal, multi-ethnic empires were not compatible with Frenchified idees of liberteegalite et fraternite. Styling themselves the defenders of the Ancien Regieme, Emperors Frances II (Austria) and Alexander I (Russia) joined up with Portugal (headed by…somebody) and joined Britain’s war already in progress with France.

Battle. Of. Austerlitz. By October 1805, Napoleon had already captured more than 60,00 Austrian troops in that year’s campaign, putting him over the legal catch limit and triggering a large fine from the Infantrymen & Artillerymen Gaming Commission. The remaining Austrian forces, led by Emperor Francis II, regrouped and joined Alexander I’s advancing Russian army. Together they met Napoleon on December 2nd, 1805 at a small village called Austerlitz (whose tourism bureau thanked their Roman Catholic saints that something notable was happening in their little shit hamlet).

Napoleon goaded his numerically-superior opponents into attacking his flank, tacticizing (‘tacticizing’ is what you do when you theorize about tactics) that the Allied troops would weaken their center in their zeal to outflank Napoleon. In a fit of haughty confidence befitting a second-rate Hollywood movie, young Tsar Alexander attempted this flanking maneuver against the advice of his one-eyed, hard drinking field commander, Kutuzov. Napoleon meanwhile kept a bulk of his forces back, hidden by topography and mist. Sure enough, the Austro-Russian center was weakened. Napoleon famously exclaimed, “One sharp blow and the war’s over,” and sent his infantry on a totally sweet march uphill out of the mist.

Somethin' don't smell right, Tsar.

Somethin' don't smell right, Tsar.

Here’s the takeway: always trust the advice of one-eyed, hard drinking field commanders.

“One sharp blow” turned into hours more of tough fighting, but eventually the Austrian-Russian center broke and the Allied troops were routed. The French suffered 8,500 casualties to the Allied 30,000 (triggering another Gaming Commission fine and the one-year suspension of Napoleon’s Austrian troop hunting license).

Napoleon’s Austerlitz is considered a tactical masterpiece (although some French today are backing away from commemorating it, as if maybe by distancing themselves from tactical brilliance they’ll rediscover it or something). Regardless, you can celebrate a brilliant display of military tactics with the following modified Brandy Alexander. Swap the brandy for the more French-appropriate cognac, add some cinnamon to reference the British hanging out in the background of the conflict (the British controlled Asia’s largest cinnamon-producing estate at the time of the battle), and house some Austrian apple strudel.

Drink: Tsar “Brandy” Alexander

[Ingredients:]

  • cognac
  • creme de cacao
  • half and half
  • cinnamon
  • nutmeg
  • apple strudel

[Preparation:]

  1. Mix one part cognac, one part brown creme de cacao, and one part half and half in a chilled cocktail shaker.
  2. Mix and pour into a martini glass.
  3. Sprinkle the top with cinnamon and nutmeg.
  4. Serve drink with a warm slice of apple strudel.

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The Battle of Chapultepec

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli;
We will fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
-The Marines’ Hymn

If you’re trying to be taken seriously as a military branch, you don’t want your keynote hymn to start, “There once was a man from Nantucket…” You need some gravitas, son! And nothing provides 3x the gravitas points like decisive military victories on the grounds of another nation’s symbolic military fortifications. It’s the military equivalent of a touchdown dance on the enemy’s logo. The US Marine Corps won such a victory at the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847.

The Mexican-American War was fought between 1846 and 1848. President James Polk, riding high on Manifest Destiny, sought a war as a means for a southwestern land grab. So he consulted the Big Playbook of Starting Wars, and went with excuse #1A: the old border dispute.

In 1845, Texas, having claimed independence from Mexico, agreed to annex itself to the United States. (The existing states said that they agreed to accept Texas’s annexation, which led to some big hats being tipped back and some squinty-eyed evaluatin’ across the room.) The United States offered to buy parts of Mexico, the Mexican government stopped its turmoil long enough to be offended, and shootin’ started.

Okay boys, let's make ourselves an anthem!

Okay boys, let's make ourselves an anthem!

The Battle of Mexico City occurred in September 1847, and marked the last major battle of the war. The Battle of Chapultepec refers to the American capturing of the symbolically and strategically important Chapultepec Castle. The Castle, or ‘CC’ for short, housed Mexico’s national military academy, sat upon a sacred spot for prior tenants (the Aztecs), and was a strategic point in General Santa Anna’s defense of the Mexican Capital.

In the face of vastly superior forces, the Mexican defense was spirited. Some of its defenders were cadets as young as 13, who were evidently moody and prone to overly dramatic displays of angst. The last Mexican cadet remaining in the castle achieved national immortality by wrapping himself in the Mexican flag and leaping off the high castle walls, saving the flag from disgrace by an invader’s touch. (Historians gloss over the thrash metal song lyrics the cadet had written on the flag before jumping).

Unfortunately for Santa Anna but fortunately for future Marine Corps hymn writers , the US attacked with overwhelming numbers and a highly-coordinated assault. The US forces featured an all-star lineup of future Confederate generals (maybe there was something rebellious in the air). Stonewall Jackson, Joseph Johnston, Pierre Beauregard, Robert E. Lee, George Pickett, and Ulysses S. Grant (the one notable Yankee) all took part in the battle.

A spirited battle for a location symbolic to both sides (or at least to the US retroactively) should be commemorated with a shot. Something you can lift like a flag over the ramparts.

The Union?  Well...let me get back to you on that.

The Union? Well...let me get back to you on that.

Drink: The Halls of Montezuma

[Ingredients:]

  • bourbon
  • Kahlua

[Preparation:]

  1. Pour half shot of bourbon into shot glass to represent the American Southern military tradition.
  2. Fill the rest of the shot glass with Kahlua to represent the weaker but spirited Mexican defense.
  3. Toast “Manifest Destiny” and the opportunistic nature of American foreign policy, and take shot.

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