‘to charge like the Light Brigade’: origin and various meanings

Coined by various persons, independently from each other, on several occasions and for different purposes, the phrase to charge like the Light Brigade has had a variety of meanings, depending on the—often punning—acceptation in which charge has been used.

This phrase alludes to the Charge of the Light Brigade, the name given to a British cavalry charge in 1854 during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War 1: a misunderstanding between the commander of the Light Brigade and his superiors led to the British cavalry being almost destroyed. The English poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) immortalised this event in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854).

1 The Crimean War (1853-56) was an armed conflict, in the area of the Crimean peninsula, between Russia and an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia and Turkey.

This illustration and quotation from Tennyson’s poem appeared in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Saturday 20th November 1897:

Relief of the Light Brigade, by R. Caton Woodville - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) - 20 November 1897

“Balaclava—October 25th, 1854.”
Relief of the Light Brigade.

“Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

From the Grand Historical Painting, painted expressly for this Journal by R. Caton Woodville 2.

2 Richard Caton Woodville (1856-1927) was an English artist and illustrator.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase to charge like the Light Brigade that I have found is from Our Weston Letter, by a person signing themself ‘H. T. J.’, published in The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, West Virginia, USA) of Monday 27th September 1875—here, charge means to impose a pecuniary charge:

The drive from Clarksburg to Weston is a pleasant one, so the people tell me, when the road is in good condition, which it is now. The distance is only twenty-four miles, and on the road one finds toll-gates beyond endurance, and which “charge like the Light Brigade at Balaklava.” If I remember correctly I dealt out 54 cents toll in the twenty-four miles, and if other people are taxed accordingly the road ought to be a pretty paying institution. There seems to be but little work done on it, and I should think that nearly all the receipts were clear profit.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase to charge like the Light Brigade that I have found denotes recklessnesscharge meaning to rush forward in attack; it is from Boar-Hunting Song, “composed by a member of club, and set to the tune “Once for all””, transcribed in the account of the annual meeting of the Cawnpore Tent Club 3, held about sixty miles from Cawnpore (modern-day Kanpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, northern India)—account published in The Field, the Farm, the Garden, the Country Gentleman’s Newspaper (London, England) of Saturday 17th June 1876:

[…] The boar has felt the deadly spear.
See how he flashes his fiery eye!
Ready to charge, to cut, and die;
A boar who will charge like the Light Brigade.
The pluckiest brute that ever was made.

3 The prime purpose of the Cawnpore Tent Club was the hunting of wild boar.

The phrase then occurs in the following from The Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas, USA) of Sunday 29th October 1876—here, again, charge means to rush forward in attack:

The New York Commercial Advertiser, in speaking of the military occupation of the South pending the presidential election, says: “The soldier knows that he is going South as the upholder of law and order. This is in accordance both with his training and his conscience.” The soldier knows nothing of the sort. He only knows that he must obey orders, whether charging, like the Light Brigade, into the jaws of death, or arresting unoffending citizens, whose innocence or guilt he is not allowed to determine.

In the following from The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana, USA) of Wednesday 25th April 1877, charge means, of a judge, to deliver an official instruction to the jury:

The following amusing anecdote is related of our distinguished jurist, Hon. Richard T. Merrick 4, during the course of an argument made by him in the Circuit Court of Prince George’s county last week, before Justices Brent, Ford and Magruder. Mr. Merrick had applied for a new trial on the ground that the court had failed to charge the jury. Judge Brent—“Mr. Merrick, according to our practice the court only instructs on request of counsel and does not charge the jury.” Mr Merrick—“I am not familiar with your Maryland practice, twenty years having passed since I left the State. But the courts before which I practice have the habit of charging, and some of the judges charge with great earnestness and vigor; indeed, I may say they charge like the Light Brigade; and canons of law to right of them, and canons of law to left of them, and canons of law in front of them, can’t stop them.”—Wash. Herald.

4 Richard Thomas Merrick (1828-1885) was a U.S. lawyer and Democratic politician.

The verb charge means to impose a pecuniary charge in the following paragraph published in the Daily State Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey, USA) of Thursday 31st July 1879:

One of Trenton’s newspaper men, who patronized an electriclitish hotel at Coney Island, and was taxed at the rate of $8 per day, says that the hotel men at that lovely isle can charge like the Light Brigade. And so do their relations, etc., in the same business.