Tag Archives: vodka

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


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


  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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The Soviet-Finnish War

Three months after Germany began World War II by invading Poland, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Beginning on November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union’s initial invasion force of 630,000 troops and thousands of tanks rumbled across Finland, crushing the meager defenses and capturing Helsinki within two weeks.

Right? After all, the Soviet Union brought more than a million men, over 6,500 tanks, and more than 3,800 aircraft to bear against a Finnish army of only 250,00 men, 30 tanks, and 130 aircraft. Sure, it was one of the worst winters in the 20th century. But the Soviets were bolstered by the ideological contact high that was the Bolshevik Revolution. Surely it was a walk in a frozen park.

Um, no. Unfortunately for Stalin, but fortunately for fans of the underdog worldwide, the Finns ran circles (or, more accurately skied circles) around the darkly-clad-against-the-snow Soviet troops. The Russian Army was completely unprepared for fighting in the brutal cold and dense forests of Eastern Finland. The Finns, by contrast, were masters of their landscape, spirited in defending their homeland, and really damn hard to spot against the snow.

A colum of Soviet tanks

A colum of Soviet tanks, post-cocktail party

An examination of Finnish and Soviet tactics suggests proper strategies to employ in snowy forests with temperatures as low as negative-40 degrees Fahrenheit:

Finnish Tactics:

  • Wear white.
  • Travel by skis.
  • Fight in the forests you grew up in.
  • Use mobile units and double-envelopment techniques to divide up enemy columns for easier picking.
  • Attack field kitchens, destroying enemy food and fuel supplies.

Soviet Tactics:

  • Wear dark colors.
  • Drive vulnerable tanks and trucks along forest roads with no escape routes.
  • Use troops not experienced in cold or forests.
  • Establish a military tradition of killing soldiers who retreat.
  • Remove all your experienced officers in pre-war political purges.
A platoon of Finnish ski patrol soldiers

A platoon of Finnish ski patrol soldiers

Of course, the Finnish military had ethanol, storm matches, skis and white snow pants at their disposal, so perhaps it was never a fair fight. At the outset of their illegal invasion, the Soviet propaganda machine asserted that they were dropping food, not bombs, on the Finns. The Finnish people, finding the shells filling but not nourishing, called the bombs “Molotov Bread Baskets” after Soviet diplomat and cheerleader Vyacheslav Molotov. To combat Soviet tanks, the Finns adapted a crude incendiary devise from the Spanish Civil War and called them “Molotov Cocktails”, or “a drink to go with the food.” The Finnish alcohol distributor Alko mass produced them for Soviet consumption: an ethanol, tar and gasoline mixture in a glass bottle, with two storm matches stuck to the side. Simply light matches and throw. The burning mixture stuck to vehicles, and the name stuck to the devise (the Soviet-coined name, “Improvised Proletariat Incendiary Device for the Unjust Opposition of Inevitable Glorious Bolshevik Soviet People’s Progress Device,” never really caught on).

The Finns held off the massive Red Army for five months despite being completely outnumbered and outgunned. They did so with some spectacularly one-sided snowy showdowns. In the Battle of Raate Road in January 1940, 3,600 Finnish troops decimated 25,000 Soviet soldiers. The Finns captured 43 tanks (more than Finland’s entire supply of tanks at the start of fighting), 71 heavy guns, 260 trucks, 6,000 rifles, and more horses, rifles, armored cars, ammunition, medical equipment, and volleyball nets than they knew what to do with. The Soviet commander who survived the battle was executed upon returning to Soviet lines. The Finns played a riotous game of sardines, with the stockpile of Soviet booty as home base.

Tactical comparisons of the two sides reveal just how far knowing-what-you’re-doing can take you. Finnish snipers would set up dummies to draw out Soviet snipers. Once the Soviet sniper had been located by shooting at the dummy (“Hey Yuri, watch me shoot this idiot Finn sticking his head out”), they would kill the sniper with a large anti-tank gun (“boom”).

Pystykorva rifle, $120 by Finnish manufacturing; winter coat, $400 by Patagonia

Pystykorva rifle, $120 by Finnish manufacturing; winter coat, $400 by Patagonia

Perhaps the biggest Finnish advantage was a 5′ 3″ wrecking crew named Simo Hayha. Given the nickname “White Death” by the Soviets(!!!), the sniper killed somewhere between 505 and 800 Soviet soldiers in less than 100 days. Shot in the head on March 6, 1940, he picked up his gun and killed his attacker. Surviving his wound, Hayha was promoted straight from corporal to second lieutenant after the war, and from there to Finland National Bad-Ass, First Class.

The fighting was a terrible embarrassment for the Soviets. Their losses have been estimated at nearly 2,260 tanks and 400,000 men killed, wounded or captured. Finnish loses were 26,000 dead and 43,000 wounded. Eventually the Finnish forces’ supplies of ammunition, spunk, and snow forts began to run low, and a peace treaty was signed on March 12, 1940. The terms were harsh (the Soviets were pissed), but the Finns’ successes had made the Red Army appear weak, and may have contributed to Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union the following year.

Drink: Molotov’s Cocktail


  • one glass coke bottle
  • Finnish or Russian vodka
  • celery stalk
  • sugar (optional)


  1. Fill bottle with vodka.  Add sugar if desired for better sticking to tank iron.
  2. Insert celery stalk into bottle and let sit until celery is saturated with vodka.
  3. Eat celery and give bottle to party “tank” to drink.

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