Summer Reading: July

During the month of July, self read seven books.

The seventh is The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, which she began yesterday (Enjoying it hugely. Has Bridget Jones Diary feelz, at least the opening pages do, but darker)

She read two self-help psychology books, two histories (Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe, and The Reason Why, by Cecil Woodham-Smith, about the mistakes that led to the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava), a murder mystery (The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman, which she hugely enjoyed), and her second Elizabeth Kolbert: Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.

Onward!

Stay cool, dear blog readers. Stay cool.

Sentence of the Day: The Reason Why, p. 238

After 238 pages of the most excruciating build-up, the moment for the charge of the light brigade at Balaclava is at hand. Here it comes. The order is given by the Mutt & and Jeff of the British Army, Lord Cardigan and Lord Raglan. And the men are off!

While there’s no suspense about the events, the manner of telling is truly incredible. There were “watchers on the heights,” and what they saw was this: The lines of British horsemen in the plain below were “expanding and contracting with strange mechanical precision.”

This is how author Cecil Woodham-Smith explains it, in a sentence that is more than fitting for the honor of being the Sentence of the Day:

  • “Death was coming fast, and the Light Brigade was meeting death in perfect order; as a man or horse dropped, the riders on each side of him opened out; as soon as they had ridden clear, the ranks closed again.”

A moment of silence, please, for the fallen.

The Russians were so incredulous at what the British cavalry had just done that, instead of pressing their advantage (and finishing off some seventy-odd survivors), they began to hesitate. Which is the only reason there were any survivors at all.

Fondly Hoping that Lord Raglan

pays with his life for his incredible stupidity, but he is so stupid that he always manages to be far from the scene of battle. His troops in the meanwhile receive the most incredible bruising.

p. 197: Lord Raglan decides to make the port of Balaclava his base.

  • It was a place of incredible beauty. The harbour, all but landlocked, had the appearance of an inland lake, a sheet of silver reflecting the surrounding heights. The village, a favourite summer resort for visitors from Sebastopol, was celebrated for its picturesque charm. Gay little villas with roofs of green tiles were set in carefully cultivated gardens. Roses, clematis, honeysuckle, and vines loaded with large, pale, green Muscatel grapes festooned every house and fence, orchards stretched up the slopes, vegetable gardens were neatly set out in rows of tomatoes, pumpkins, and lettuce. Overnight the charm vanished. More than twenty-five thousand men, of whom nine out of ten were suffering from diarrhea, marched into the village. Gardens were trampled into mud, fences smashed, vines dragged down, doors and windows broken, trees destroyed. The lovely little landlocked harbour, only half a mile long and less than a quarter wide, was ridiculously inadequate to serve as the port of supply for an army. Ships crowded in, the water ceased to mirror the surrounding heights, refuse floated everywhere, and soon there was a horrible smell.

The Reason Why, pp. 183 – 184

Under terrific fire — forty guns were trained on the river, and the bullets whipped the surface of the water into a bloody foam — the first British troops began to struggle across the Alma, the men so parched with thirst that even at this moment they stopped to drink. Everything was confusion: the advance on the two-mile front was obscured by dense clouds of smoke, the Russians had fired a village on the British left after stuffing it with straw, and on the slopes before the Great Redoubt piles of brushwood were set alight. Men could not see each other, could not see their officers . . . It seemed impossible that the slender, straggling line could survive — huge columns of Russian infantry raked it with fire, heavy guns in the Great Redoubt poured round shot, grape, and canister into it at a distance of a few hundred yards. Again and again large gaps were torn in the line, the slopes became littered with bodies and sloppy with blood, but the survivors closed up and pressed on, their officers urging, swearing, yelling like demons.

Oh, good job, Cecil Woodham-Smith. The battle is so vividly described that self almost felt sure you were a man.

Stay cool, dear blog readers. Stay cool.

There Is No Other Word for It

STUPEFYING.

Self is on p. 176 of The Reason Why. She sincerely hopes battle will be joined soon, because so far the book’s been about a bunch of squabbling lords.

Anyhoo, four squadrons of British cavalry form “line with beautiful precision” in “the little valley of the Bulganek.” Above them, on the slopes, “a body of Russian cavalry about two thousand strong.”

On the ridge opposite, Lord Raglan and General Airey see what no British commanders “in the valley below could see, that the four squadrons were confronted with a far more formidable force than two thousand cavalry: on the plateau above was waiting an overwhelming body of troops, afterwards learned to consist of sixty-thousand infantry, two batteries of artillery, a brigade of cavalry, and nine troops of Cossacks.”

The 2000-strong squadrons of British cavalry are about TO CHARGE AN ENEMY FORCE OF SIXTY-THOUSAND.

HOLY HELL.

To be fair, Lord Raglan was not completely stupid. He was trying to extricate his cavalry, while providing them with the means for an orderly retreat. Providing rearguard support were “two divisions of infantry, two regiments of cavalry, and two batteries of artillery; and, inexplicably, the Russians allowed these supports to come into place. They were, it seemed, confused by the extraordinary steadiness, the ceremoniously exact formation, of the small force confronting them.”

To be continued.

The Incredible Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava

We are not there yet, dear blog readers.

In fact, up to this point in The Reason Why — self is at p. 142, a little over halfway — self has read pages and pages about the English class sytem and the Irish potato famine, but precious little about battles.

She read the backstory of stupid Lord Brudenelle. And now is reading the backstory of (marginally less stupid) Lord Lucan.

. . . he was leading his staff “a terrible life,” rising every morning at four, never pausing for a moment during the day or allowing anyone else to pause. Kinglake, who accompanied the Army, found it impossible to believe that “this tall, lithe, slender, young-looking officer was fifty-four years of age. He enjoyed perfect health, saw like a hawk, and pursued his duties as commander with a fierce, tearing energy and a dramatic intensity rare among English men. When issuing orders, his face would all at once light up with a glittering, panther-like aspect, resulting from the sudden fire of the eyes, and the sudden disclosure of the teeth, white, even and clenched. Orders poured from him in a stream; no detail was too small to escape his all-seeing eye, no trifle too insignificant to receive his meticulous attention.

The Reason Why, by Cecil Woodham-Smith

Skibbereen During the Potato Famine

  • When the Duke of Wellington visited Skibbereen. . . he discovered “six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, huddled in a corner, their sole covering what seemed to be a ragged horse cloth, and their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached in horror and found by a low moaning that they were alive, they were in fever — four children, a woman and what had once been a man . . . In a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious either from famine or fever . . . Within 500 yards of the Calvary Station at Skibbereen, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying, unable to move, under the same cloak — one had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move, either themselves or the corpse.” — p. 112, The Reason Why

The Reason Why

The Reason Why is because THERE IS NO CURE FOR STUPID.

A third of the way through this book, self already knows that two of the worst commanders in the British Army were in charge of the troops at Balaclava. One was so racist he couldn’t even stand the sight of a black bottle at the dinner table. There must be a few commanders out there who are racist and still manage to be good commanders. Unfortunately, that was not the case with Lord Brudenell.

The worst thing is, everyone from the Duke of Wellington on down staunchly defended this stupid man because he was “one of their own” — meaning, he belonged to the aristocracy. His parents had purchased his office for 25,000 pounds. The officer who SHOULD have been promoted to lead the 11th Regiment was passed over because he did not possess a title. Following which, the officer very sensibly quit the British Army and offered his services to Portugal.

In fact, Lord Brudenell faced trial again and again, because his level of incompetence was simply spectacular. But each time, he got off. Now I understand the guy who said: “I can walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and nothing will happen to me.”

At least, The Former Guy didn’t start a war. Silver linings?

Stay cool, dear blog readers. Stay cool.

Lord Brudenell and The Former Guy

LB is, self assumes, one of the officers who ordered his regiment into the Jaws of Hell at Balaclava, since we are spending chapters and chapters on his backstory.

Lord Brudenell is a dolt, and also a martinet. Not only that, he is also a racist. And his racism is of so virulent a type that not only does he hate Indians (This is unfortunate, since India was the Jewel in the British Crown), he also hates any member of the British Army who has spent time in India. Alas, the regiment he’s been given command of, the 11th, has been in India for seventeen years.

He wants to rid his regiment of “Indians” (meaning, anyone who has served in India) and he calls those “Indians” who choose to continue under his command astonishingly “thick-skinned.” No “Indian” officer ever received an invitation to his own house, and when cards of invitation for dinners and balls were sent to the mess by gentlemen living in the neighbourhood, he made it a rule that they were not to be given to those officers whom, he said, he “had found sticking to the regiment in the East Indies.”

Not only did Lord Brudenell dislike any member of the regiment who had served in India, he grew apopleptic if any waiter had the bad judgment to leave a black bottle on the dinner table, he said because he only wished his regiment to be served champagne.

Which reminds self that, in an unprecedented spate of federal executions in the transition period between the November 2020 election and Joe Biden’s inauguration, a black man was scheduled to be executed on the Martin Luther King Jr holiday, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s son wrote to the White House to beg for a postponement, in honor of his father’s memory, and no one bothered to answer him. In the end, because The Former Guy’s White House was so incompetent, the execution scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day had to be postponed for a few hours (because of the lack of necessary paperwork) and happened in the wee hours of the following day. Phew?

Self only learned about this incident when she read an Associated Press article about Attorney General Merrick Garland putting a temporary moratorium on all federal executions.

Stay cool, dear blog readers. Stay cool.

Bicycles, the Netherlands

Arnhem, the Battle for the Bridges, by Antony Beevor, p. 10

There had been 4 million bicycles in the Netherlands at the beginning of the war, half as many as the total population. The Wehrmacht had commandeered 50,000 at the beginning of July 1942, and now thousands more were headed for Germany, most of them loaded with soldiers’ equipment and booty as they pushed them along the roads. With no rubber for tyres, pedaling them on wooden wheels was heavy work. But their loss hit hard.

 

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