The Meaning and Origin of ‘Cannon to Right of Them, Cannon to Left of Them’

‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them’: these lines have become famous, although they’re often misquoted (with a ‘the’ being added before ‘right’ and ‘left’). The quotation originated in the 1854 poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), while he was UK Poet Laureate during Queen Victoria’s reign. Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate for a record 42 years, wrote the poem in response to a very specific event, and it was this event that inspired the lines, ‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them’. Let’s take a look at the poem, and the event.

The poem is one of the rare instances of a Poet Laureate producing a good poem while in office. And although ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was, in one respect, an occasional poem – that is, a poem written in response to a specific occasion – it also offered a timeless and powerful expression of the senselessness that accompanies much of war, while also praising the unflinching bravery and sense of duty of the soldiers who gave their lives.

Those lines, ‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them’, place us, the readers of the poem, in the thick of the conflict, with the harsh sounds of the initial ‘c’ of ‘cannon’ and the lines’ unusual rhythm (dactylic metre, of which more shortly) contributing to the effect of these lines.

The poem was inspired by one of the greatest calamities in British military history: on October 25, 1854, during the Crimean War, the British Light Cavalry Brigade, comprising some 670 men, charged against some 25,000 Russian soldiers. The result was an unmitigated disaster. Lord Raglan’s plan was to send the Light Brigade to prevent the Russians from removing some guns that had been seized from Turkish positions.

However, somewhere along the chain of command there was a ‘blunder’ – as the poem has it, ‘someone had blundered’ – and the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a vastly superior army, rather than on the gun-capturing mission. The Light Brigade charged, as commanded, but were quickly forced into a retreat. And all of this happened because of a careless error: an error which cost several hundred men their lives.

Tennyson wrote his famous poem on 2 December 1854, in response to an article he read about the charge in The Times newspaper, and the poem was published in The Examiner a week later, on 9 December 1854.

As many schoolchildren know, the poem condemns the charge (and resultant heavy casualties suffered by the Light Brigade) as a terrible ‘blunder’. But Tennyson also praises the bravery and nobility of the soldiers, the ‘Noble six hundred’, who obeyed their orders to charge and went to their deaths. (The original report had the number at nearer 600 men, although it later emerged that the exact number was nearer 700; but ‘Noble seven hundred’ wouldn’t have scanned, and Tennyson, whilst annoyed with himself for the inaccuracy, reluctantly let the initial number stand as a record of the public feeling that attended news of the disaster.) An estimated 278 soldiers were killed or wounded in the charge.

The words ‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them’ appear twice in the poem: in the third stanza and then again in the fifth stanza:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Note that, although not as widely quoted as ‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them’, there is in fact a third line that continues the anaphoric pattern (‘anaphora’ being the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses). ‘Cannon in front of them’ becomes ‘Cannon behind them’ when ‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them’ is repeated two stanzas later, completing the effect of the luckless soldiers being assaulted by heavy artillery on all sides:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

After the charge, not much remains of the ‘six hundred’ who rode into battle – nearly half of them had sustained heavy injuries or been killed, while the other half felt that the whole charge had been a colossal waste of life.

Tennyson’s use of the word ‘left’ (‘All that was left of them, / Left of six hundred’) picks up on the word’s use earlier in the same stanza (‘Cannon to left of them’), but shifts the word’s meaning from a spatial sense to one denoting the sacrifice the men have made. As the old line attributed to Bertrand Russell has it, war doesn’t determine who is right – only who is left.

The insistent dactylic metre of the poem, which can be heard so well in ‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them’, captures both the plaintive nature of the catastrophe and the dogged and dutiful charge of the men into ‘the valley of death’. A dactyl, in poetry, is a foot comprising three syllables: an initial stressed syllable followed by two that are unstressed, so:

CAN-non to RIGHT of them,
CAN-non to LEFT of them

This metre is also heard in the opening line to Tennyson’s poem: ‘HALF a league, HALF a league …’

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