Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Nolan, of the Charge, in Maidstone

If you are ever in want of a read with a mid-Victorian flavour, you could do worse than A Soldier of Three Queens by Robert Henderson, published in 1866. Henderson not only writes well and vividly, he had had an exciting life including both the Carlist wars in Spain and the Crimean, as well as various scrapes with card sharps and a spell in a Spanish prison. During this time he had met and married a spirited vivandiere named Jeanette, who had helped him escape the prison by getting the warders drunk. His memoirs are available free online at google books or archive.org.

Here we only have space for two excerpts, Hendersons impression of Maidstone barracks, then a centre for teaching riding to the British army, and his meeting there of the famous Captain (then Lieutenant) Louis Nolan, of the Charge of the Light Brigade.. Although the time isn't defined in the book, it is sometime between 1841 and 1848.

Maidstone Barracks

Maidstone in the 1840s was the main riding school for the Army´s cavalry regiments, and according to Henderson it was far from up to the task. As been said by many others, the long peace between Waterloo and the Crimean tended to fossilise the Army, so that appearance was much more important than military effectiveness.

Maidstone in the 1840s

"During my service at Maidstone I was led into much reflection upon the fitness of the place for the purposes it was designed for, both as regarded its being a nursery

The first thing that struck me was the extreme poverty of design in the whole arrangement, and its utter inefficiency as a cavalry depot for the whole British army. That, in making this sweeping assertion, I may not appear presumptuous, I will give my reasons for what I say, and leave it to men well skilled in such matters to say whether my assertion is proved. Assuming Maidstone to be a place in which the recruit was to be trained for his after-career in India as a cavalry soldier, let us see what was the course adopted; and the means at hand to fit him for his future career.
In the first place, the barracks were so small that men were crowded (packed would more correctly express the stowing away of the luckless dwellers in Maidstone barracks) so closely that I have seen them sleeping on the tables used for dining, or in the coal-boxes. I once had the temerity to say that this school was not big enough to " swing a cat in;" for which I was severely rebuked by a Maidstone veteran, who had been born in the barracks and had passed his life there, hy the reply, "Sir, it was not built to swing a cat in."


When I first went to Maidstone there were no less than five depots there—viz., the 3rd, 4th, and 13th Light Dragoons, 15th Hussars, and 16th Lancers; besides about forty non-commissioned officers and men of the riding establishment. These latter brought their own horses with them. There were two men from every cavalry regiment in the service, household brigade included. Taking the year round, the men of the cavalry depot I should say, averaged four hundred. To instruct these four hundred recruits in riding there were forty horses. But whether a man rode every day, or never crossed a horse until he joined his regiment, was in a great measure dependent upon himself. Assuredly there was, for a very long time after I joined, no method or arrangement in the matter. A smart lad eager to ride could get two and three hours riding a day, if he pushed himself forward; but this was at the expense of many others, less resolute, who never rode at all, and indeed were even ignorant of the way in which to take to pieces that very complicated article a Light Dragoon saddle, and put it together again.

The paucity of horses also rendered it impossible to instruct one-half the recruits in their stable duties. The consequence of recruits not being properly instructed in riding drill and stable duty may be easily calculated by those who know anything of India. The recruit, on his arrival at his regiment, would have a vastly increased amount of physical exertion to undergo, in a climate which renders such over-exertion highly dangerous, particularly to newcomers, or, as they are called in India, "Griffins." He would have to ride for a long time without stirrups, to acquire a seat —would become over-heated and overfatigued. After drill he would, most likely, take off his heavy regimental clothing, put on a pair of light cotton trousers and a light shirt, and sit down on the cold stones in the verandah to cool himself. In a short time you miss him at riding drill, and byand-by hear he has been invalided. In due course he gets back to Maidstone, stops there a few months, and returns to his regiment, to be again invalided. I have known men to go back and forward thus three times in less than five years.
The greatest source of annoyance to me was the bad ventilation and overcrowding of the barrack-rooms, three or four-and twenty — sometimes more — men being crowded into rooms not large enough for half the number. I was always thankful for the reveille and when it was my turn for guard, as the oak floor of the guard-room was infinitely preferable to the close and noisome troop-room.


As to the duties I had to perform, I had nothing to learn. I kept myself very quiet, and watched what was going on. Taking a lesson from what the commandant said to me when I first joined, I especially avoided saying anything about Spain or Portugal. I soon perceived that to burnish a swordscabbard until one could see to shave in it was thought more of at Maidstone than dexterity in the use of the sword itself—to be regular and steady, quiet and orderly, more likely to forward me than the knowledge of the way to manoeuvre a regiment of cavalry in the field. Above all, it was of vital importance never to express a want of belief in the Maidstone faith as regarded riding—which was, that no man who had not been taught at Maidstone to ride, was fit to be trusted alone on the outside of a horse—and that the alpha and omega of equitation was the little riding-school which then stood in Upper Barrack Yard."


Louis Nolan

  Louis Edward Nolan is best known today as the messenger who started the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1856. As an ADC,  Nolan was responsible for delivering the order that sent the Light Brigade, about 600 troopers not to attack a target on their left, as intended, but an artillery redoubt straight ahead of then, down a valley lined with Russian guns firing canister and shell at short range, and into another battery backed by cossacks. As Tennyson famously put it....

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.


The Light Brigade were annihilated. Who was responsible - Raglan,the British commander, Airey who drafted the order, Nolan who delivered it, or Cardigan who commanded the division, is still debated, though Henderson's recollections below add an intriguing twist. Nolan was killed in the charge and so not available to give his version

Nolan, had already made a name for himself in army circles before Balaclava. He started his military career in the Austrian army, the Royal Friedrich Wilhelm III. K├Ânig von Preussen 10. Husaren-Regiment, serving with them for 6 years before joining the British army. Possibly, a shared experience for foreign armies made a bond between him and Henderson. From 1840 to 1849 Nolan served with the 15th Hussars in both India and their home depot at Maidstone, where he was made riding instructor to the regiment. In fact he published on this subject, The Training of Cavalry Remount Horses: A New System, 1852.

Nolan was also something of a military theorist, touring Europe to see the training of cavalry in various armies before returning to Maidstone and publishing his next book, Cavalry: Its History and Tactics,in 1853.

Here are Henderson's recollections, from Maidstone in the 1840s...

"The only noteworthy incident that occurred to vary the gloomy monotony of my Maidstone life was the advent to the riding establishment of Captain (then lieutenant) Nolan, afterwards so well-known in connection with the Balaklava charge. In a long and varied experience of men and things, I have never seen a gentleman whose thoroughly amiable temper, kindness of disposition, and really fascinating manner so completely won upon everybody he came in contact with as Captain Nolan. He was a thorough soldier, as well as a finished gentleman.

As regarded horsemanship, he was a perfect enthusiast. There are many who soldier to live. Captain Nolan was a man who lived only to soldier. He had been in the Austrian service; and, like most Continental officers, his manner to those in the ranks, while it forbade the slightest approach to presumption, was so kind and winning that he was beloved by every one. He was a maiirt d'armes of a very good school; and, as there was nobody else of any grade in the place who could fence, I enjoyed the great privilege (for such I considered it) of an occasional bout with Captain Nolan.


On these occasions I had opportunities of conversing with this gentleman which could not otherwise have occurred; and 1 well remember how often I have heard him express his conviction that cavalry could accomplish almost anything, where it had fair scope to act.

I remember even, strange as it may appear, that, in putting a case hypothetically of cavalry charging artillery in a plain, Captain Nolan drew with a piece of chalk on the wall of the quarter-master's store, in Maidstone barracks, a rough sketch which, as nearly as possible, represented the relative positions of the Russian artillery and the British light cavalry brigade, at the battle of Balaklava; the only thing he was not quite right in was the result. He assumed in such a case, the certain capture of the guns. His glorious death at Balaklava prevented his being undeceived in this world
."

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