Thursday, October 25

War is Hell - The Screw-up of the Sweaters

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By Art Cashin

On this day in 1854, there occurred one of those unique feats of stupidity, bravery and confusion that the world so cherishes.  It happened during the Crimean War and thanks to Lord Tennyson it is remembered as "The Charge of the Light Brigade." But when we studied the event (and the poem) back in the sixth grade, we tended to call it the screw-up of the sweaters.

As you recall from your sixth grade, the Russians were trying to disrupt the siege of  Sebastopol by attacking the Brits at Balaclava.  The Brits managed to fight off the attack.  Then the Brit commander, Lord Raglan (inventor of sweater that has sleeves going up to the collar), saw the Russians and their allies trying to evacuate some cannon on the nearby right flank. He sent a message to his aide, Lord Lucan, to dispatch a small force to capture those guns. When the messenger arrived, the combination of fog and battlefield smoke was so heavy that Lucan could not see the nearby guns in question.  In fact, the only guns he could see were the main Russian battery at the far end of the valley.

Maybe due to the fog and smoke, Lucan failed to note that whatever group he might send toward that Russian battery would have to march, walk or ride through a 1 1/2 mile valley with enemy artillery and sharpshooters on either side.  It was the kind of hopeless situation that in a less politically correct environment might have inspired Lucan to say - "I'd only send my mother-in-law in there."

As you recall from sixth grade, during this period of the British Empire, mother-in-laws were restricted from joining the 5th Dragoons, the 4th Hussars or even the Light Cavalry.  So Lucan turned to the next best thing - his brother-in-law, who was, of course, Lord Cardigan (inventor of sweater that buttons up front). Lord Cardigan (having no in-laws present to order about) turned to his men, the men of the Light Brigade.

Some 607 strong, armed only with sabers, they looked down the long valley, bordered and fronted by artillery and snipers and realized something man has always known - "management" is the ultimate one word oxymoron. They then tried doing that silly thing that decent, competent plain folk often do - make a dumb management plan actually work. They began riding toward the objective.

The Russians and their allies on either side of the valley began to aim their cannon.  Then the Light Brigade upped its pace forcing the cannons to be re-aimed before they could be fired.  Then an even faster pace and again a re-aiming.  Now a full gallop and close to the guns.  The Russians grow panicky and begin firing wildly.  This confuses the main Russian battery into whose face the Brigade is charging.  They begin to flee and the Brigade captures the guns (after suffering only 20% casualties).

That brings us to flaw #2 in the management plan.  These brave resourceful guys have captured a lot of cannon 1 1/2 miles behind enemy lines...they only have sabers and they have no horses to pull the cannon back even if they wanted to try such a suicidal thing. But the Russians began to panic further and sent a large force of cavalry and lancers to attack the Light Brigade.

The Brigade fought back and actually began to make deeper inroads.  Now the Russians really panicked  and began firing grapeshot, cannonballs and everything else...indiscriminately killing their own men along with the Brigadiers.  So the Brigade headed back toward headquarters for more savvy management advice...of course the only route was, as you recall, that 1 1/2 mile valley of withering crossfire.  Along the way, they scooped up their wounded from the ride in.  When they got back, they asked for new orders.

The whole thing took just 25 minutes.  Of the 607 men only 198 made it back having had 475 horses shot out from under the Brigade in the charge.

To mark the day, try developing some strategic plans.  And, remember it all might have worked if only Lord Turtleneck was there.

Comments on this piece are welcome.

About the Author

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

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