Ronald Leads the Light Brigade

In the process of painting some more Crimean War personalities, I’ve been particularly concentrating on a specific character who, though unnamed on the box artwork, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the 7th Earl of Cardigan.

Oil on millboard by Alfred Frank de Prades, 1854. (c) NAM. 1967-02-19-1.

Strelets’ “Into the Valley of Death” set dedicated to the Charge of the Light Brigade was purchased about 5 years ago and the figure in question is wearing the uniform of a hussar. Given the set’s topic, this means that it must belong either to the 8th (King’s Royal Irish) Hussars or 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars.

Plastic Soldier Review feel they can identify him – “The [figure] could well pass for Lord Cardigan, the man who actually led the charge.” There’s certainly a strong resemblance. The Light Cavalry Brigade’s commander was Major General James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan of the 11th Hussars.

Arriving some months after the Battle of Balaclava, photographer Roger Fenton took some images of officers of the 11th Hussars, survivors of the charge, but not of the Earl of Cardigan himself. Below are his images of Cornet Wilkin and Lt. Yates of the 11th. Also below is Fenton’s famous image he titled “The valley of the Shadow of Death” itself, a gulley strewn with spent cannonballs.

So anyway, who’s Ronald?

Detail of a painting by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. Public Domain.

That’s Ronald above, Cardigan’s charger shown as a small detail in Caton Woodville’s painting of The Charge. He was a thoroughbred chestnut gelding coincidentally sharing the same russet-colour as his owner’s ginger whiskers. Ronald was the horse that led the Charge of the Light Brigade, over 670 men (and their horses), into – and out of – the ‘valley of death’.

As with his aristocratic rider, Ronald was indeed incredibly fortunate to survive having ridden at the very head of the brigade right into the teeth of the Russian artillery position, escaped from being surrounded by Cossacks, and then returned all the way back again unscathed. Of the famous charge, a shocking 475 other horses failed to do the same. Furthermore, he should be considered very robust for even surviving the trip over to Crimea by troop ship (many horses did not), and then making the same arduous journey back home again.

Ronald continued to prove particularly durable, managing to enjoy life until 28th June 1872, nearly 18 years after Balaclava and a full four years after the passing of his master. There are, it seems, a number of tributes to Ronald on the web. Including:

Of his many depictions, I’ve based my painting of Ronald on the Alfred Frank de Prades portrait. This shows Ronald to have markings consisting of two white ‘stockings’ and one white ‘sock’, although other portraits I’ve seen occasionally differ. I do know (thanks to the perfect preservation of his head!) that he had a star on his forehead and a snip near his right nostril, all of which I’ve been careful to try and reproduce on my own little tribute in 20mm figure form. Strelets horses certainly aren’t their strongest feature (the leg positioning on this figure isn’t quite right, I feel), but otherwise it’s not too bad a sculpt.

The Earl of Cardigan himself is a pleasing figure, I think, and Strelets have captured something of his features and ornate uniform. I’ve used a darker red than I commonly use to achieve the cherry colour of his busby bag and overalls, a feature unique to the 11th Hussars which gave rise to their nicknames “The Cherry Pickers” and “The Cherry Bums” or, for when ladies were present, “The Cherubims”!

The doughty Ronald was the subject of a surprising number of paintings and prints, it seems, including many images of him and his master during The Charge while some prints of the period depict Ronald alone, suggesting something of his popularity.

On Cardigan and Ronald’s return to the Brudenell home in Deene Park, it became apparent that their adventures had found them considerable fame and both were greeted as heroes by the thronging crowds. Such was the fervour that many tried to pull out poor Ronald’s hair for a keepsake as he passed! A well-deserved long retirement for Ronald ensued until the Earl of Cardigan passed away in 1868, at which point his famous steed was required to follow as part of the cortege. However, it seems that the old war horse very nearly didn’t make the funeral procession thanks to a very comical series of mishaps:-

“However, the old horse, having endured ghastly sea journeys, life on the foreign front, the atrocity of battle, near starvation and probably deep terror, found the whole prospect of a funeral procession far too exhilarating and became boisterous. To avoid the solemn pageantry of the day being ruined by the over-excited horse, they administered laudanum. But, in the heat of the moment the dose must have been inadvertently overdone, for then no one could move the dozing charger. Eventually an inspired individual called for the sounding of the cavalry charge. Stirred to duty, Ronald jumped into wakefulness and set off as required.”

From an article by Cheryl R Lutring.

Such was the affection felt for Ronald by the Brudenell family and the British public that, when he did eventually die, the Brudenells preserved his head and tail which continues to be displayed at his home in Deene Park, Northamptonshire. His hoof was turned into an inkwell (a popular tribute for beloved horses of the time) with a sculpture of him and his master atop.

To me, it has sometimes seemed that some of Tennyson’s famous lines on the men of the Light Brigade could have equally applied to the brave horses like Ronald who suffered so much in the charge, dutifully carrying their riders through hell:

Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.

I’ve handful more ‘personalities’ I’m working on, which I’ll doubtless share in due course.