Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith

One of the most popular histories of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why focuses on two the main protagonists in the debacle; George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan and James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan.

Woodham-Smith describes how the ‘purchase system’ allowed both of these stubborn and inexperienced aristocrats to rise to positions of command by buying their way through the ranks. Pushed out of one regiment for his bullying and autocratic behaviour, Cardigan was put in charge of the 11th Hussars where he used his own money to turn the regiment into a stylish and flamboyant outfit. He achieved some degree of success in this, despite dissent from some of his officers, a situation that led to the ‘black bottle’ affair.

Cardigan’s main beef was with the ‘Indian’ officers, men who had gained proper military experience while the regiment had been stationed in India. They resented his pushiness and his use of the 11th to show off to London society. He thought their conduct unbecoming. Nothing they did was right, not even what they drank in the mess:

In India it had been the custom for officers to drink porter – it was healthier and cheaper. To this the lieutenant-colonel furiously objected. Porter was the drink of factory hands and labourers, and he wished to make the 11th famous for its splendid hospitality, for he loved the pomp and ceremony of ‘great’ dinners. He forbade bottled porter to appear on the mess table.

General Sleigh is invited to dine with Cardigan’s regiment and he entertains him extravagantly with a formal do in the mess. All is going swimmingly until one of the guests asks for an alternative to champagne. An ‘Indian’ officer called over for a waiter:

General Sleigh’s aide asked if he might have Moselle instead of champagne, and John Reynolds gave the order to a mess waiter, who, anxious to supply the wine at once, did not stop to decant it, but placed it on the table in its bottle. At this moment Lord Cardigan looked down the table, and there, among the silver, the glass, the piles of hot-house fruit, he saw a black bottle – it must be porter!

Cardigan was transported with rage. This upstart officer, an ‘Indian’ to boot:

...was drinking porter under his very nose, desecrating the splendour of his dinner table. When it was explained that the black bottle contained Moselle, he refuse to be appeased; gentlemen, he said, decanted their wine.

One of the lieutenant-colonel’s muckers is sent around the next day to remonstrate:

“The colonel had desired me to tell you,” said Captain Jones, “That you were wrong in having a black bottle placed on the table at a great dinner like last night. The mess should be conducted like a gentleman’s table and not like a pot-house.”

Well, standards have to be maintained...

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