Letters from the Light Brigade: The British Cavalry in the Crimean War

Anthony Dawson
Pen & Sword Publishing


It is a little misleading to name Anthony Dawson as the author of this very clearly titled new book from Pen & Sword. It might be more accurate to call him the editor and co-author. The greater part of this publication is made up of letters from a surprising number of the British cavalrymen who sailed east to fight the Bear. The increasing literacy of Victorian Britain means that, as with the American Civil War on the other side of the world, there are a remarkable number of primary sources regarding the Crimean War. The rewards offered by local newspapers for reports to print for their readers must have helped the literary juices flow! The Nottinghamshire papers were particularly keen on this method of gonzo reporting, since several regiments were housed there prior to the war.

The book is not simply an epistolary account. Each chapter covers a different phase of the war, and is opened with a brief account of its progress by Anthony Dawson, lavishly supported by quotes from letters. The missives providing the meat of each section come from a wide cross-section of the British cavalry regiments, and describe all aspects of the war – life at sea, first impressions of the Ottomans, French and Russians, the disease-ridden experience of the Allied camps, and (for many of them) the first taste of mortal combat against the foe. It is something of a cliché to say that the greatest enemies in any war are disease and boredom. However, reading this book makes you realise just how great an impact they had on soldiers, particularly in the days before easily accessible and portable entertainment, and especially among the cavalry corps, whose losses in horseflesh were staggering even in a campaign notorious for its poor approach to medicine and health.

For fans of tactical snippeting, Victorian military history, The Charge of the Light Brigade, or discovering how men like McClellan formed the inaccurate conclusions that led to the bloodshed of the American Civil War, this is an excellent book to read. The opinions and insights of private and commissioned soldiers are a vein often untapped by wargamers, but one worth exploring – particularly in slightly “niche” periods like the Crimea where there is not the same body of scholarship to draw on as with, say, World War Two or the Napoleonic era. On a skirmish and a big-battle level, the book provides lots of fodder for scenarios – somewhat cavalry heavy of course, but it gives a real appreciation of the varied roles that horsemen were supposed to fulfil in this transitional period of 18th century tactics and 19th century weapons.

This hardback book is 242 pages long, and includes some interesting period photographs, drawings and engravings. It retails for £25 and is made to the same high quality as every Pen & Sword product. It is a very interesting read, and well worth it for those who want to gain and deeper and more human understanding of the Crimean War – or at least Britain’s part in fighting it.

Matt Moran