Following the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Ukraine

by John Symonds

Underground drydock of the Soviet submarine base
Underground drydock of the Soviet submarine base

“Into the valley of death rode the six hundred” is etched into the minds of many a British schoolboy or girl.

The poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of the more famous expressions of glory arising from disaster that are a British national characteristic.  But just where is this valley of death and why did the disaster happen?

This all became clear on our Black Sea cruise in September 2010.  As we approach the leisure-driven third age, Carol and I have developed a real liking for cruises, especially those offering predictable warm relief from our variable home climate.  But on this occasion, we thought we would try a small cruise ship with a more unusual itinerary.  It turned out to be our best cruise vacation so far.

Not only were we blessed with excellent weather, entertainment and dining throughout, but the highlight of many fascinating locations was Yalta on the Crimea in the Ukraine.  Spilt for choice with the European shore excursions, we picked a full day out with a two hour coach ride to Sevastopol, which our guide Maya instructed us to pronounce “Se-bas –TOR –pull”!

The first hour of driving followed the picturesque coastline, passing the dacha of the Gorbachevs at the time of the attempted coup.  The road turned inland and reached an undulating landscape with a ridge crossing the road two or three miles in front of us that the coach would climb to reach Sevastopol.  At the time of “the charge”, the British commander Lord Raglan was positioned on top of that ridge and ordered the Light Brigade to recapture guns our Turkish allies had abandoned on a small hill to our left.

However, our coach turned off the main road towards the port of Balaclava to visit an underground Soviet submarine base.  This was a truly fascinating relic of the cold war, the value of which is just being realised for tourism; the picture shows the entrance to an underground dry dock.

Back on the coach, we soon reached the outskirts of Sebastopol, which the British and French surrounded in the Crimean War.  We stopped at a circular building containing a panorama of the siege from the Russian perspective.  Despite our extensive global travels, neither of us had seen anything like it.  You really felt you were on top of one of eight forts protecting the city and beating off the allied attackers.

Looking towards the port of Sebastopol, the entrance blocked by the sunken Russian fleet, part of the presentation was realistic modelling such as the baskets containing sand and earth and a cart in the centre towards the right.  Behind, with the transition difficult to pick out from a distance, was a 360 degree painting that included the horse pulling the cart.

From this hilltop location, we were then taken into the town itself, which was closed to all outsiders during Soviet times.  Everywhere memorials stand; we, who have never been occupied have no idea of the suffering during the ebb and flow of opposing armies.  One memorial had a guard of honour mounted by teenagers, handpicked by their schools; the boys with guns and the girls without, all wearing fashion shoes.  This is the way to maintain history in the minds of the young.

The harbour is really picturesque but again, modern politics is never far away.  Although now a Ukraine naval port, the Russians have a deal for a long lease for their ships to be based there, negotiated with one hand on the valve of the pipeline carrying gas their hosts depend upon.

We were given a good four-course lunch at a harbour side restaurant, across an inlet from where remnants of the Soviet period can be seen with a statue of Lenin on top of the hill making a point.

One feature of the weekend in Ukraine – Odessa on Saturday and Crimea on Sunday – were various bridal parties having photos taken in all sorts of iconic locations.  This group we saw in Sebastopol were having countryside photos taken a couple of hours later on the side of the Yalta road.

Maya pointed out a location just outside Sebastopol where once there had been a British Crimean War cemetery.  However, during the Second World War the local population had either been killed or deported.  When the area was later repopulated, the new inhabitants had no idea of the local history until they started ploughing the fields and finding bones.  Such stories stay fixed in the mind, even on a trip as rich in experience as this one.

So we headed back to Yalta … but why did those six hundred make their mistake?  As we descended the ridge, it became clear.  On the opposite side of the road to the Turkish hill, there was a rise in the ground not evident to Lord Raglan.  Due to a miscommunication between Lord Lucan and Captain Nolan – partly because of personal animosity – the Light Brigade headed to the wrong side of the rise and straight into Russian guns in a box valley.

The really moving aspect was the perfect recitation of Tennyson’s poem by Maya, who described herself as an entrepreneur and yet regretted the passing of the Soviet regime.  This was truly a visit to make you think.

We had a really full day, but still did not include the palaces around Yalta, especially where Roosevelt and Churchill met Stalin to map out a post-war future.  It just means we’ll have to do another Europe cruise!