The Monday just gone being the latest anniversary of the charge of the Light Brigade, I chanced upon an extraordinary recording of one of the participants in that infamous engagement, made 36 years afterwards in 1890.
“Trumpeter Landfried” as he introduces himself, is the only survivor of the charge whose voice we can still hear today. After a short speech, we also hear him play his bugle, as he had done in the battle of October 25th, 1854. And not the least remarkable thing about the recording is that, despite his Germanic name, the accent is unmistakably Irish.
This would not have been unusual among those charging that day. Almost one in five were from Ireland. But the little biographical detail available about him says that Martin Landfried (also sometimes listed as "Landfrey", "Landfield", and other variants) was born in Gibraltar and died in Brighton in England, where he had lived much of his life.
He first enlisted for the army in Dublin, however, and at the age of only 14, which suggests he must have spent formative years there and explains his broad vowels and rolled Rs. Old-fashioned but genteel, the accent is strikingly similar to that of another Dubliner recorded a few decades later (to demonstrate clear pronunciation of English, to the English and others), George Bernard Shaw.
What part Landfried’s bugle played in October 1854 remains a matter of dispute. The charge of the Light Brigade was probably an accidental result of confusing orders. Although bugles may have sounded the signals to “walk”, “trot”, or “gallop”, scholars of the event doubt that anyone sounded a “charge”.
But the brigade charged anyway, to the astonishment of the watching French officer who said “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”, and to the even greater amazement of the heavily armed Russians who faced the chargers from three sides.
One of the latter commented: “We were so sorry for them […] they were such fine fellows, and they had such splendid horses. It was the maddest thing that was ever done.”
The most plausible explanation the Russians could think of was that they were all “drunk”.
Of the 600 who charged, half were killed or wounded. More than 300 horses died too. But in time, thanks in large part to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, it was the soldiers' doomed heroics, not the incompetence of their officers, that people remembered: "Theirs not to make reply,/Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die/Into the Valley of Death/Rode the six hundred."
No fewer than four trumpeters were among those killed, including another Irishman William “Billy” Brittain. He survived the Russian artillery, at least temporarily, but may have been finished off by that other great hazard of the Crimean war, Florence Nightingale’s hospital, where hygiene was an undiscovered science.
Trumpeter Landfried was one of the lucky ones. Shot in the arm, he lived to the tell the tale, and to tell it many times, in the years afterwards.
Some survivors of the debacle became Victorian celebrities, Landfried in particular. On the other hand, the 1890 recording (which also includes Nightingale's voice) was officially a charity exercise, rasing money for the Light Brigade Relief Fund.
This implies that others had fallen on hard times. But like many charity events, the recording was double-edged. It also promoted the wonders of the Edison Wax Cylinder, an 1890 equivalent of the latest iPhone, which benefited greatly from the publicity.
In any case, the snippet of Landfried talking and blowing his (own) trumpet suggests a polished performer, well used to the public eye. Indeed, that same year, he was also one of the main attractions at the Lord Mayor’s Show in London, where crowds competed to shake his hand.
His fame became a source of irritation to at least one other trumpeter who had survived the disaster. In an 1892 letter to a Glasgow newspaper, Sgt James O’Donoghue denied “emphatically” a recent report that it was Landfried who sounded the fateful charge.
On the contrary, he insisted: "I sounded the charge, at the command of Lord Cardigan, General of the Brigade, not only on that occasion but on every other in which the Light Brigade were engaged during the Crimean War."
Nor was it just Landfried who had been popularly miscredited, according to O’Donoghue. “I have been caused much annoyance by various newspaper paragraphs,” he added, listing trumpeters “Smith”, “Keats”, and “Perkins” as alternative candidates.
The cacophony of the original battle must have echoed in the competing claims of the decades that followed. But only Landfried got to put his on the record – literally. When he died in 1902, the legend also became enshrined on his gravestone.