April 2nd, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 13
Looking Back - John Kinnear
The Linguistic Legacy of the Crimean War
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear photo
93 Highlanders - The Thin Red Line
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.”
              - Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The current state of affairs in Crimea is certainly a disconcerting one but when one does one’s research one finds the history of the area to be a mind boggling, tangled historic web of ownership and contention. Since the 5th century this strategic area has endured a series of invasions by Greeks, Romans, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Kipchaks and Khazars. Those last two were nomadic Turkish tribes by the way. This was followed by Kievan Rus (eastern Slavic tribes), Byzantium, Mongol invasions, the Venetians and by the Genovese. They then fell under the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to 18th century. Crimea was eventually annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783. Skip then to 1921 when the area was named the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. (key word here, autonomous!) In 1954 Khrushchev, who was Ukrainian, cut them loose as the Ukrainian SSR. Since 1991 it has been an autonomous republic within the Ukraine until Putin stuck his nose in. Someone suggested on Cross Canada Checkup on CBC this Sunday that Putin was merely reversing a Khrushchev decision. Whatever the take on all this is it has forced western powers to take a step back in their detente with the Russian bear.

As a young boy I along with the rest of you baby boomers were taught Tennyson’s poem Charge of the Light Brigade and learned for the first time about the Crimean War (1853-1856). It is now a 160-year- old battle that was fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French, British and Ottoman Empires, the Kingdom of Sardinia (kingdom? really?) and the Duchy of Nassau (German state within the Confederation of the Rhine). Confused yet? The war was fought to to curtail Russia's presence and ambitions in the Black Sea and Eastern Europe. Interesting!

Rather than ponder the why’s and wherefores of this current development I thought it might be interesting to look back at this war from a lighter perspective i.e. its linguistic legacy of distinctive headwear, cozy sweaters, a famous poem, a modified sleeve design and the term “thin red line”. Stick with me, this will all work out.

First off is the term “balaclava”. On October 25, 1854 the Battle of Balaclava (also spelled Balaklava) was fought in a bay south of Sevastopol, a name you hear in the news a lot lately. It seems that it was pretty nasty there that time of year so British soldiers took to wearing knitted pull-over head coverings that came to be known as Balaclava helmets. We now call them just balaclava’s and it seems they have more to do with crime than they do with Crimea these days.

Secondly we have the term “cardigan”. One well known hero of the above battle was the 7th Earl of Cardigan, James Brudenell. Apparently British officers wore knitted waistcoats (remember I said it was not nice there) and the Earl who became quite a famous figure after the war was known for wearing one. So it was that the buttoned, sweater vest came to be named after him, a dashing cavalry hero. These days it relates more to bookworms like me and to grandmothers.

Thirdly “The Charge of Light Brigade”. Who was leading the charge? Why Cardigan of course. It can only be described as a suicide mission in a lost battle. He led units of dragoons, lancers and hussars into what was supposed to be an attack on a retreating artillery battery but instead ran into a thoroughly prepared unretreating battery that mauled that brigade. In the end, of those 666 men, 118 were killed, 127 were wounded and 60 were taken prisoner. Tennyson’s poem on this battle is often misquoted. You have probably heard people say: “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die.” As you can see by this article’s introduction this sardonic stoicism about orders from upper management is off the mark quote wise.

Next we have the term “raglan”. Ironically for me, I won a raglan T-shirt at the Bellevue Mine gala last weekend. The word’s origin comes from FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, the main commander of the British in Crimea. Somerset had lost his right arm in the Battle of Waterloo and it is likely because of this he preferred to wear a coat with the sleeve fabric extending to the collar rather that to the shoulder. Baron Raglan was the one who issued the poorly written orders that led to the misguided charge above. Who would have thought I would be leaving that gala event with a T-shirt that had sleeves named after a Crimean veteran who botched his last assignment and who apparently died of dysentery before that war was over.

Lastly we have the term “Thin Red Line.” This term is a shortened version of the writing of a British newspaper correspondent W.H. Russell who was watching a battle prior to the Light Brigade which was a standing defense by the 93rd Highlanders (none tougher!). As the Russians charged this defense which was only two men deep he wrote: "The Russians dash at the Highlanders. The ground flies beneath their horses' feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel."

The Russians retreated from this charge no so much from the withering fire but from the fact that they just could not believe that such a thin line of soldiers would stand against them. Their commander figured there must be a much larger force lurking behind them. Russell’s description eventually became shortened to “thin red line”, a term commonly used by the British Army. These days it is more common to hear the term “thin blue line” which is a colloquialism for police forces, standing between good and evil.
April 2nd ~ Vol. 84 No. 13
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