My Dear Lord Raglan,
I am but a few leagues from you and your great house at Usk and travelling westward. However, I regret to say that I am storm-stayed in a small village on the border of Gloucestershire and here I must rest, for the coachman refuses to challenge the hurricane that howls about the public house in which we sought refuge late last night. I am entrusting this letter to one who must ride to Usk today in order that you might be apprised of my delay and to tell you of a most extraordinary encounter.
As I wrote to you last month from my office at the Times of London, I have with me a phonograph cylinder of Lord Tennyson reading his famous Charge of the Light Brigade, made just this year, and another, blank cylinder, on which I propose to record your thoughts concerning that engagement and indeed, the whole of the Battle of Balaclava—that most dreadful encounter with the army of Tsar Nicholas. My editors could not think of a more appropriate way to mark the 40th anniversary of that fight than to interview the grandson of the commander of the British forces in the Crimea.
But to my extraordinary encounter. Last evening, by the glow of the publican’s fire, I was browsing through a yellowing copy of the Illustrated London News from 1855. It was a fortuitous discovery because the issue contained Roger Fenton’s famous photographs of the Crimean War. Although not of the editorial quality of The Times, I spent a most pleasant hour browsing through the pictures in that publication. Embraced by the warmth of the hearth and the whisky I had been served, my chin fell upon my chest and the paper slipped from my hands.
“Do thee want truth of that photograph there, guv’nor?”
The man’s impertinence startled me awake. The Illustrated News slid to the stone hearth.
My interlocutor picked up the paper and handed it to me. He was ancient, I would hazard seventy, but a life lived out of doors—he could have been younger.
“I be the servant of one what took that picture and all others beside.”
He jabbed a bony finger at the now famous print entitled the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I am certain you know it—a desolate, treeless, God-forsaken place, the road strewn with cannonballs. It was among the first photographs taken of the Crimean War (or of any war for that matter), but it was the only one not of officers at their leisure or of landscapes as foreign to English eyes as the moon is to the earth.
“That bain’t how road was when we did come up on it. Them balls was all off to sides.”
The story rushed back at me. After the photo ran in the Illustrated London News, another emerged of the same barren stretch of road, empty of cannonballs. Roger Fenton had never spoken of the other photograph and wasn’t likely to, being long dead, nor did his assistant, Marcus Sparling who is likewise deceased.
The man touched his forehead. “Me name be William, sir,” he said.
I asked him if he had been Balaclava with Fenton and Sparling.
“I be there, but ‘twas many months beyond the Light Brigade and the thin red line. There was fighting still, mind, but we saw nor heroics like them that Lord Raglan ordered up that day 40 year ago. We did take a wagon-full of pictures of officers but naught of fighting nor dying. Mr Fenton said Prince Albert did not want nor of that business. But that be the business of war, bain’t it? And trade with the Russes was brisk when we did get there the winter after.
“By Christ ‘twas cold as hell be hot. The men was in a bad way. There be one with naught but stumps. He did lose two to the Russes’ canons and two to the winter’s blow. Thee could tell he wished for death but could do naught to attain it. But by time we left looking for the valley of the shadow of death there,” (he speared again the photograph of the road) “one of his mates did help him find it.”
William went quiet and nodded at a raggedy clutch of similarly ancient men at a table in the shadows. I could see the gleam of the fire on their faces, but they sat silent over their cups, watching us with empty eyes.
To break the woeful mood that had settled, I asked William, how it happened there were two photographs of the same stretch of road.
“When we came up on that place, we could move no further so strewn with rounds ’twas. Twenty-four pounders did litter the road from one side t’other and as far up it as we could see and more falling the while, bouncing off the hill there,” again he attacked my newspaper, “and rolling down to road.
“By and by, cart emerged from round the turn ahead, pulled by ragged soldier and another behind who did tumble shot into the cart. Mr Sparling did say they was collecting balls round enough to send back to the Russes. T’other was so weak with the war and the wages of hunger that we could tell the task was getting the best of him. A bedraggled Sisyphus he were, lifting high them rounds to the lip of that cart only to see ‘em roll back onto the road.
“Mr Fenton and Mr Sparling did talk about taking a photograph of the cannonballs but they could not with the soldiers there. See you, the picture taking could brook no movement, no not a twitch.
“So, Mr Fenton did yell, ‘Hey you there! Tommy! Leave those cannonballs where they lie.’” William said this in such a gentlemanly accent that I had to look hard at him to make certain I wasn’t talking to an Oxford man. But he fell back into his natural speech.
“They gen ‘im a blanky look and did continue on with their work. I did go help Tommy lift them dead weights onto their cart and Mr Fenton did yell at me as well. But I did tell him, ‘There be plenty more to side of road’.
“The soldiers did pass us finally and Mr Fenton did photograph the empty road. Then he did order me to haul them balls that was in the ditch on to the road. And he did take that photograph.” William took another jab at the newspaper, and it nearly came out of my hands.
“When we was done and all packed up, Mr Fenton did scold, quiet like. ‘We are here to record, William, not to help. For if we become involved, we change the story.’” Again I was taken aback by William’s perfect speech. And again he returned immediately to his own dialect.
“I did say to Mr Fenton, ‘Begging your pardon guv’nor, but we do change the story just being here.’ Mr Fenton made a frown and nudged Mr Sparling to hi the horse. But Mr Sparling did turn and wink, because he had been to war before and it be his regiment that was in the Light Brigade what fought them Russes cannons as Mr Tennyson did write in his great poem that thee carry about.”
My hand went instinctively to my travel bag to feel for the reassuring lump of the wax cylinder that held Lord Tennyson’s voice. William spat into the fire and it sizzled. He again pointed at the photograph of the road.
“Yes, I tell thee, whatever truth there be in that picture, it bain’t the whole truth without them poor soldiers as was ordered to harvest food for hungry cannons. Thee see them men?” His bony finger lifted from my Mr Fenton’s photograph to the forlorn clump of men I had noticed earlier.
“There be Tommy Atkins, guv’nor. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” he said in perfect middle school Latin. He spat into the fire again, rose and said, “Say g’day to Lord Raglan from the last of the Light Brigade.”
I do not know how he discovered the purpose of my visit, or what I carried for, I assure you, I have been most discreet. In any event, William and his crew left the inn shortly after our conversation and I have not seen them since.
I can hear the wind dying now, my Lord. I hope to be with you on the morrow.
John MacKay,The Times