Saturday, 9 June 2012

Book review: Hell Riders

I'm not usually one to post book reviews, but as it is historical so relevant to the hobby and I got this one from DaveD at One Man and his Brushes I thought it polite to blog something (and not just to prove I read it!).

Terry Brighton's 'Hell Riders: the Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade' is an account of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and seeks to give the riders' account of of the charge itself as well as provide a new analysis of the blame for it. Now, I've not quite finished the book, though I rattled through the majority in two days and only have the analysis to finish. I also only have a passing knowledge of the Crimean war and the Charge itself, as my wider reading is non-existent.

I found the book excellent, as suggested by the speed at which I rattled through it. Brighton starts by putting both the war and the charge into context and sets the scene quickly and effectively. He covers the career paths of key characters in some detail, which at fist seemed like a distraction before he got onto the facts of the day, but it is clearly part of the setup for Brighton's analysis which follows in the final third. Then Brighton details the events of the day at length and it here that he uses the words of the participants most frequently. These break up his narrative, but are an interesting insight which is often overlooked in military history books. Their inclusion is Brighton's unique feature here, rather than basing his analysis purely on the strategic viewpoint of the observers, such as a journalist and Lord Raglan who commanded on the day. The tale itself is thrilling and is well-told here, in what seems to be a balanced way. There is also some effort to include the Russian viewpoint of the charge, though it is hard to ascertain how expert and balanced these snippets are. For example Brighton only briefly touched on what the Russians were trying to achieve on the day, how or why their command sought to achieve it. It seemed more a nod to the modern historical method than essential to the thrust of Brighton's argument.

The book then turns to the aftermath, summarising both the lives of the survivors as well as those observers and commentators whose fortunes the charge affected - Tennyson's patriotic poem of the charge and its affect on the public mood featuring heavily here. The book then moves on to analysis - who was to blame, whose was the blunder? Which is where I've got to, so no risk of spoilers here!

The book is well served with maps of the Crimea and the battle of Balaklava, as well as photographs and paintings of the area, personalities and dramatic reproductions of the Charge. These add to a well-considered and riveting introduction to a famous military event.

I would recommend the book, but with three comments:
If you have read around the Crimean war, then much of the book will not be new to you, other than the words of the survivors themselves. It is not a book about the Crimean war as a whole, so its coverage of other events is limited.
I can't speak much for the analysis, given my lack of knowledge of the subject I wouldn't know if Brighton's conclusions are with, or contrary to his peers.
Finally, the claim this is the 'truth' is perhaps a little over-egged: a number of key exchanges were not recorded and much of what happened is so wrapped in legend and self-interest the truth must be very elusive. These lost words may be essential to the truth of the day's events, but are out of reach to even the finest historians.


  1. Good review.

    I also loved this book and the emphasis on the individuals, especially the rankers, is what sets it apart from other accounts of the war.

  2. Great review, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as well.

  3. Thanks for this, Phil. I've been thinking of doing a 'Charge' participation game similar to what was featured in a recent WI. This will be a good addition to the reference library...

  4. Thanks guys, I'll try to post brief reviews of other hobby-related books as and when.

    Curt - Warlord have recently released some fine miniatures for the charge. Just sayin'.

    1. Waaay ahead of you, my friend. Ordered and en route... :)


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