A debt brought back from the war

This is a response to a TerribleMinds.com Flash Fiction challenge: a story about rebellion. I thought that it would be fun to base it on a historical event which is considered one of the all-time great cases of failure to rebel. 


In another timeline very close to ours, the 11th Hussars nervously took their morning meal under a hazy, blue-grey Ukrainian sky. The greenest of the troops joked that waiting for orders was the worst of it, but those with more experience pointed out that it was only once the orders arrived that their situation would get truly unpleasant. No one laughed, which suited the veterans, who took their tea in silence.

A group of the seasoned men sat huddled closer to a small cooking fire than the warm morning required, mostly out of familiarity but also so as to be able to speak with lower voices and, perhaps, greater candor.

Corporal St. James, whose first name was Cecil but was universally known as “Knebby” as he was born in Kneworth, slurped his tea messily. Private Reginald Shrew, a godly man who sat more upright than could possibly have been comfortable. With them was their unit leader, Sergeant Samuel Vinegar. Vinegar was the sort of leader the men could really get behind, as getting behind Sergeant Vinegar meant you usually survived the battle. Vinegar resented being regarded as an authority, but not as much as he resented people who looked down on him and his men because they possessed even more authority.

"General Cardigan's been having his sword polished all morning," said Shrew, who wasn't as careful with his phrasing as he might have been, hence Knebby's smirk.

"Must think we'll be on the move this morning, and not back to London." Vinegar was watching something on a nearby hill.

"I'd settle for Paris," said Knebby wistfully. "I've got a girl back there."

"In a cage, like as not," thought Shrew, who was charitable as the next man, but there were limits.

"There's a horse coming. Looks like he's coming from HQ. Look alive gentlemen," said Vinegar.

"Yeah, coz we might look somewhat less so by tonight." added Knebby, not quite under his breath.

The rider was Captain Nolan, aide-de-camp to the Brigadier Airey and his presence could me only one thing: The generals had moved the figures representing the 11th Hussars across their game board representing the battlefield, probably knocking a few over in the process to represent expected casualties. Lieutenant Vinegar wondered how many of his men would be among those “knocked over.”

Nolan rode directly to Cardigan’s camp and the two of them began an animated discussion. Nolan dismounted hurriedly and read what must have been the orders to the general. Vinegar and his men couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was being said with great passion, or at least great volume.

“Why do you suppose they’re yelling at each other?” asked Private Shrew.

“I’m no great shakes when it comes to reading lips,” offered Knebby, “but I figure it might be somethin’ to do with that Russian artillery on the other side of the valley.”

“Ah, that would explain why they’re gesturing and pointing in that direction!” Shrew brightened up a bit as though he’d placed a piece in a puzzle.

“That’s certainly one possible explanation,” said Vinegar, who was considerably better at working puzzles than Reginald Shrew.

Before long, the horns called the entire brigade into formation. Soon, several hundred light horsemen were gathered and awaiting their orders. General Cardigan rode out in front of the assembled ranks and drew his saber something he did only when he needed to deliver an exceptionally rousing speech.

“Men of the Light Brigade, we have received orders from General Raglan. We are to impede and harry attempted Russian withdrawal of cannon and support personnel.”

“It’s ‘cannons’,” whispered Knebby.

“The plural of ‘cannon’ is, in fact, ‘cannon’,” Shrew replied under his breath.

Knebby lifted his eyes in the direction of the glinting Russian field pieces. “I mean the plural of the plural, if you know what I mean. Bloody lot of 'em."

Cardigan continued, caught up in his speech and unaware of the murmuring in the ranks.

“I won’t pretend that it will be a walk in the park. These Russians look up to the task and I expect them to give us their what for. I would wager most units, even the finest in this man's army, would break before the barrage we're likely to encounter. You, however, are going to become legends today. You will be remembered as heroes, willing to face near certain death and risk all for God, for country, and for the Queen!"

Vinegar said nothing but thought that he might prefer to be remembered as a husband and father, and that becoming a legend is something that is most often done posthumously. He sensed a nervousness in the men around him. He could almost feel Knebby about to say something a little too loud that would get him a month's hard duty if he were to survive these suicidal orders.

"On my signal, prepare to charge! Boldly we charge in to the jaws of death! Into the mouth of hell! Our glory shall not fade!"

Lord Cardigan was rather proud of that bit and hoped it would be met with "huzzahs" from his men, or at least indistinct cheers. Instead, he heard nervous mumbling and shuffling (not an easy thing for mounted troops to manage).

"Bugger all this!"

"Who was that? Who? Show yourself! Come forward!" Cardigan had dealt with dissent before and knew he'd best deal with it swiftly, in front of his men. Vinegar shot the guilty-looking Knebby  a look, broke ranks and rode to meet his commander.

"Now then, sergeant. What..." Before Cardigan could say anything else, Vinegar broke in.

"Is it your intention to lead us in a charge in to that artillery barrage?"

"Eh, what? Yes, of course. Orders, you know? Ours is not...*gurgle*" The gurgle was the sound that escaped Cardigan's throat as Vines drew his knife and, in one swift motion, cut Cardigan's throat. The general slumped over and fell from his mount as Vinegar wheeled his horse around and faced the men. There was still an air of nervousness, but it was now tempered with no small measure of relief.

"Men, I have just killed our commanding officer on account of the fact that he was about to lead us into certain death or near enough to it for the sake of following orders even when the orders are pig-headed load of bollocks. Take me in to custody for the murder of a superior. I'd do it a hundred times over to prevent some idiot with too many feathers in his hat leading us to certain death."

There was a a good deal of awkward looking-at-one's-stirrups in the ranks of the 11th Hussars. No one seemed eager to approach Sergeant Vinegar and place him under arrest.

"Oh come on, you have to do it. You're all equally guilty if you don't when word gets back to the brass in the command camp. Every one of you saw it."

"Matter of fact, I'm not rightly sure what I saw." It was, to everyone's surprise, Shrew. "Seems to me that, just maybe, it was the artillery what done him." 

There was a murmur of assent among the 11th Hussars. Sergeant Vinegar saw the mystical power of Really Wanting To Believe take hold of the men. Their memories changed before his eyes and he knew that it was pointless to continue to argue.

"All right then, how about, since you insist on being damned fools, we try to do something that makes sense. Let's make for the coastal gun emplacements. The scouts say they're being re-positioned and we might just catch them unawares."

The men all sensed that this plan would be considerably less suicidal than charging into the teeth of artillery emplacements and, well, any port in a storm. And so, the 11th Hussars of the Light Brigade circled the coast near Balaclava and caught retreating Russian forces with their pants down. There were no casualties beyond the unfortunate loss of General Cardigan to a stray artillery shell. He was, however, posthumously awarded all manner of honors.

A week later, news of the victory in the Crimean campaign reached London. The poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read of the deeds of the crown's forces with great interest. Finding nothing of particular poetic interest, took a nice walk and wrote some unmemorable doggerel about birds instead.