“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser (321p)
1854-1855: Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Conquest of Central Asia
Flashman at the Charge is the fourth in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series of a false-memoir detailing the life and times of the heroic but cowardly Harry Flashman. Written in 1973, Flashman at the Charge takes Flashman to the front of the Crimean War and details his involvement in not only the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade but also his exploits on the wild steppe frontier of Central Asia.
Britain and her continental allies were hurtling toward war with Russia, with disputes over sovereign authority of the Holy Land at the heart of it (for more, go here). Flashman, meanwhile, is kicking about on half-pay while scheming to prepare his way out of the inevitable conflict by taking up a position with the Ordnance Board. All seems to be going well until Flashman’s reputation as a gallant and valiant officer comes to the attention of Prince Albert, where Flashman is tasked by the prince consort to be the guardian and mentor of one of Victoria’s cousins, Prince William of Celle. Despite his every attempt to avoid it Flashman and Prince William are soon packed off to the war front so the young prince can experience what war is all about. Prince William is soon killed at the Alma and Flashman himself falls desperately ill with cholera, recovering only in time to rejoin his aide-de-camp duties on the 25th of October; the day of Balaclava and the day of the most infamous cavalry charge in history.
Flashy’s day starts off in the usual fashion as disaster quickly befalls him. While carrying messages across the battlefields he finds himself trapped with Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders as the Russian cavalry attacked, and then with Scarlett’s heavy brigade as they chased the Russian cavalry uphill in a daring charge. All the while Flashman just wants to go and have a lie down with his stomach still ailing him terribly. He almost manages to get away from further duty after Raglan sends an order to Cardigan in the care of Louis Nolan until needing to add further instruction to his order, so he sends Flashman after Nolan to catch him. Unknowingly, Flashman was about to see himself thrown into the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. He survives, somehow, but is taken prisoner by the Russians. Flashman is at first bundled off to a makeshift prisoner of war camp away from the battlefield, but as an officer he is then transferred to be a hostage (more like a guest) at the home of a trusted landowner in the Ukrainian countryside.
At the home of Count Pencherjevsky Flashman is reunited with Harry “Scud” East (from Tom Brown’s Schooldays), also taken prisoner, and spends many weeks in the company of the Cossack Count Pencherjevsky and his family, including his daughter Valentina, who Flashman is unable to resist spending a few late night’s with in the bedroom. One such late night sees Flashman and the curious Scud East, curious of the constant arrivals of other guests to the Pencherjevsky house, chance upon a meeting of several Russian military and government officials planning an invasion of British-held India. When the opportunity arises Flashman and East escape, taking Valentina with them, and head off for the Crimea and the safety of the British army. They almost make it but Flashman is re-captured by Count Pavel Ignatiev and quickly locked up again, before taken across southern Russia and deep into Central Asia, blackmailed into acting as a double agent in Ignatiev’s scheme to end British rule in India.
While imprisoned at a fort on the Aral Sea coast Flashman meets Yakub Beg and Izzet Kutebar, two Tajik warlords and befriends them. They are soon rescued by Beg’s men and whisked off to the wild steppe (modern Uzbekistan) by Beg’s lover, a Chinese castout woman. There, Beg and his followers hatch a plan to halt the Russian advance over their own lands by performing a near-suicidal attack on the arriving magazine ships, thus destroying any hope of an immediate attack on the Central Asian khanates and eventually British India. Flashman, drugged with hashish, leads the attack and they are successful, allowing him to steal away from Ignatiev and flee into British India. The story is continued in Flashman and the Great Game.
I have always said this is my favourite Flashman novel and, having just re-read it for the third time, my opinion on that front has definitely not changed. I loved it again just as I did the first time. It is, as the endorsement on the front cover suggests, vintage Flashman. That means it is wildly entertaining, superbly written, historically accurate, engaging and engrossing, amusing and with perfect characterisation. Flashman himself is on the top of his game as Fraser presents the anti-hero in his usual swagger – cowardly, perpetually horny, deceptive, lecherous and resourceful. The way he paints the picture of Flashman trying to get his way out of doing anything remotely dangerous while maintaining his public face of a gallant hero, with Flashman’s own running commentary, makes for tremendously amusing reading and a number of laughs. The history is very strong as well and Fraser provides a first class account of the ineptitude of the Crimean War and the events that led to a cavalry charge headlong into artillery, this is bound to make for interesting reading for any history buff as it actually reads, as it always does, that Flashman was actually there and you can essentially take his word as gospel (why not? These books are so meticulously researched you wouldn’t be wrong to quote him).
As seems to be the case with the Flashman novels, Flashman at the Charge doubles as a social commentary of the nineteenth century as well. Flashman’s travels across southern Russia should give a unique insight into the life of a common Russian peasant and their pitiful existence of subversion and submission. In addition, there is a nice social commentary on the state of the officer corps within the British army at the time (which was soon to change following the disastrous Crimean War) and the spirit of the steppe people, which is a welcome change to the present bad press people from that part of the world receive in the modern age.
A first class and immensely enjoyable read. This is the very best of a brilliant series by an exceptionally talented author and one not to be missed.