16th Lancers, Aliwal, Australian Light Horse, Australians, Balaclava, Beersheba, Cavalry, Charges, Great War, Light Brigade, Palestine, Rohirrim, Scots Greys, The Lighthorsemen, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Turks, Warhorse, Waterloo
As always, dear readers, welcome.
In an addition to an entry in Letters, the main portion of which has rather a murky history (see 217-218), but which the editor dates as “presumably written circa 1966”, Tolkien says that several features of The Lord of the Rings “still move me very powerfully”. These features include being “most stirred by the sound of the horses of the Rohirrim at cockcrow”.
As this is one of our favorite parts of the book,
we would absolutely agree, but, as is so often the case, both with JRRT and with ourselves, we wondered why.
The easiest answer is that it’s a highly-dramatic moment: the main gate of Minas Tirith is giving way under the blows of Grond, the orcs are about to pour in, and it looks like Aragorn and his companions won’t appear in time to save the situation.
We have been following the Rohirrim, of course, from their muster to their march
to their meeting with Ghan-buri-Ghan,
so the build is two-fold: the attack, which is completely focused on breaking in, and the approach of the Rohirrim. Thus, when it looks darkest, the charge is like sunlight breaking through heavy cloud.
This is a beginning, we thought, to why, but could there have been another reason for JRRT?
When Tolkien, growing up, thought of cavalry charges, he probably saw, in his mind’s eye, the glorious mounted attacks of Britain’s past, like the Scots Greys at Waterloo
or the 16th Lancers at Aliwal
or the Light Brigade at Balaclava.
In all of these, soldiers in bright-colored coats waved swords and lancers and dashed fearlessly against the enemy. Even his toy soldiers would have had that same devil-may-care look
as did the real cavalry of his childhood,
but, when 1914 and the Great War came, soldiers put away those bright colors and put on khaki.
But did that wild courage have to be put away, as well? In 1914, there were a few moments when even mud-colored mounted men had a moment of glory.
This wasn’t to last—at least on the Western Front and a major reason was this—
(Here’s a LINK to a clip from the film Warhorse, which shows the effect in rather a symbolic way, thank goodness! We love horses and mourn their terrible losses through all of world history—they never asked to be part of human violence and, so often, their fate was to die because of it. We also think that it’s just as well that the commander of this imaginary attack didn’t survive it—it’s absolutely inept, both in conception and its carrying-out and he would deserve to have been court-martialed.)
So, instead, those men dismounted and became infantry, fighting from hole in the ground to hole in the ground.
This was the world which JRRT
knew: heavy guns, gas, and the rattle of machine guns, no place for wide double ranks of sabre-wavers.
There was at least one bright moment, but not on the Western Front. Instead, it was in far-off Palestine, where, on 31 October, 1917, Australians and their horses swept over a line of Turkish trenches at Beersheba in a charge very reminiscent of the 19th -century world.
Ironically, these were not cavalry at all, but Australian Light Horse—mounted infantry—who, lacking swords or sabres or lances, attacked using their long bayonets, instead.
(You can see this charge reenacted wonderfully in the 1987 Australian movie, The Lighthorsemen, one of our very favorite films of the Great War.
Here’s a LINK to the charge scene, before you see the whole film—but we recommend that you see that charge in context.)
On the whole, however, modern war had become one big, bloody ditch,
and victory came in mud-color and mass industrial slaughter. Perhaps it was a relief to imagine another world, where brave men in armor, mounted on flying horses, still had a place?
As always, thanks for reading!