Flashman at the Charge was my first Flashman book, borrowed on one of my first visits to Manchester Central Reference Library General Readers section. It was published in 1974, and I probably read it the same year, or at worst the next.
I was still fairly new to the world of Adult Fiction, thanks to my rather restrictive parenting, and one of my key factors in exploring fiction I might like was people having sex. Very shallow, but then I had had very little opportunity to develop depth. I was vaguely aware that the Flashman books were on the sexy side, but I was unclear as to the level of explicitness George MacDonald Fraser offered.
This proved to be not as explicit as my teenage self would have chosen. On the other hand, I recognised a writer I was going to follow for the rest of his life.
The title of this fourth volume of the Flashman Papers should make its setting clear to anyone with any half-knowledge of British Nineteenth Century history, or poetry, come to that. The Charge can only be the famous/infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which means the Crimean War, which means a bit of a leap in time for Flashy, last seen bartering a lift back to London from the New Orleans docks, from Captain John Charity Spring in 1849: the Crimean War didn’t start until 1854.
But despite the title, only a small part of this book is concerned with the Crimea, and whilst Fraser is generous in his attention to detail as to the background to the War, the societal pressures that drove the British Government to hostilities and the machinations that get our pal Flashy put there, once in the Crimea, Flashman attends only one military engagement before Balaclava itself, where he is captured and the book immediately heads off in a completely different, and unexpected direction.
Once again this makes for a book with an inelegant, yet very entertaining and informative structure, as Flashman plays an unexpected part in a forgotten, indeed almost unknown war, in a corner of the world he might never have visited, if it weren’t for a crateload of stale Russian champagne.
Oh yes, Flashy is on form again!
It’s the second time-jump we’ve experienced in the Papers, and once again Fraser is characteristically vague as to what Flashman has been doing since we saw him last. Some of the gap will be filled in in the seventh Packet, though that by no means covers all of the intervening period. He’s now a father, though obviously not having been present at the birth (and still having his doubts as to whether he was present at the conception). Still, his old Rugby crony Speedicut assures him that from the way the baby was grabbing at the midwife’s tits, he’s clearly a Flashman, and Elspeth has named him Harry Albert Victor, after his heroic father, and the Royal Couple.
Flashman is now in his mid-thirties and has had enough experience to be able to tell when war is coming. To avoid being caught up in active service, he’s used the good offices of his Uncle Bindley (who is here credited as being from the Flashman side of the family whereas in later books Fraser will transfer him to the more upper class Paget side) to get himself installed at the Ordnance, a sinecure of a post a long way away from any fighting. To those who wonder why an old warhorse such as Flashy isn’t hellbent on thrashing the Russkies, our hero talks portentously about the need for men of experience to ensure the troops are properly supported.
However, all this good work goes to waste in a single evening of vicious living. Flashman and Speedicut happen upon a naive young shaver with something of a German accent being fleeced by a pool sharp. Seeing in him a source of amusement, they adopt him, run him around and abandon him in an alley, having painted his arse with bootblack, and the Police approaching.
All good fun until someone loses an eye. The lad turns out to be William of Celle, a young cousin of Prince Albert, in England to make his way in the British army. After this escapade, Albert decides his cousin needs a mentor, an experienced and popular soldier in the public eye, rapidly promoted from Captain to Colonel. Colonel Harry Flashman.
And William is going to war. In the Crimea.
Even so, the newly-promoted Colonel takes his time about getting himself and his new ward to the war. Flashman has already met his new Commander, the one-armed Lord Raglan, in whom he has no more faith than Elphinstone, in Afghanistan, and he’s most reluctantly renewed his acquaintance with Lord Cardigan, still as imperious and offensive as ever, but now in hot pursuit of Elspeth, who isn’t being as discouraging as she might be. By the time orders are received to travel to the Crimea, Flashy is ready to do a lot of things to put Milord Cardigan in the way of Russian fire.
As for young Willie, he is still naïve and adolescent about war, honour and glory, but he has grown up in one sense: he has a great liking for a blonde St John’s Wood whore with black boots ties up to her thighs with satin laces (I say, what, corks!).
Unfortunately, this is William of Celle’s only area of mutiny. Once in the Crimea, at Alma, Willie is too enthusiastic to be restrained and, despite being a ‘galloper’ (deliverer of messages), yanks out his sabre, chases the infantry and promptly gets half his head blown off.
This leaves Flashy in seriously bad odour, for his lack of diligence in not getting his head blown off at the same time, and his disgrace is compounded when he loots a crateload of stale Russian champagne, which gives him a massive case of dysentery, confining him to the sickbay for months. Of course, this hiatus is extended as far as Flashy can possibly can manage it, but even he has to go back on duty at some point. It’s merely the traditional Flashman luck that the day he resumes his duty is the day of the Battle of Balaclava.
Thanks to Tennyson’s famous poem, the only thing associated with Balaclava is the Charge of the Light Brigade (and those horrible knitted helmets kids in the late Fifties were forced to wear). But Fraser didn’t need his customary extensive research to identify two other famous moments from the battle that have been overwhelmed in the public gaze by Cardigan’s infamous Charge.
So Flashy arrives at Raglan’s commanding position along with the other gallopers, including the infamous Lew Nolan, whose communication of Raglan’s orders have been debated for a century and a half. It’s not a good day for Flashman: apart from being near a battlefield again, he is suffering from broiling guts, the after-effects of his champagne-induced dysentery. And he’s constantly being sent where the action is thickest.
Thus he is with Sir Colin Campbell’s Highlanders when they are attacked by Cavalry, and is forced to take his place in the double-line of rifles that, with the cavalry less than fifty yards away and galloping at full speed, fire two volleys that cut the Russians down and send them flying. Flashy is part of the famous Thin Red Line.
From there, carrying Campbell’s report back to Raglan, Flashy is ordered to swing by General James Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade of Cavalry, to update him. Flashman arrives just as a brigade of Russian cavalry appear on the brow of the hill and, against all military logic, history and common sense, the excitable Scarlett orders a charge – uphill! It routs the Russians, and Flashy adds the Charge of the Heavy Brigade to his list of reluctant honours.
Two such dangerous actions leave Flashy longing for the peace and quiet of Raglan’s redout, but just as his vicious nature has wound up sending him to the Crimea in the first place, his hatred of Cardigan, and his eagerness to send the objectionable Lord into the way of danger, is his more proximate undoing.
I’m not going to layout the Balaclava battlefield, which is the source of the entire controversy. But the sight of British guns being hauled off by the Russians enables Flashy to put in a spiteful stage-whisper that prompts Raglan into sending out Nolan with that ambiguous message.
Unfortunately, no sooner has Nolan set off than his habitual caution has him send the next galloper with a message to act defensively. And that rider is Flashman.
Which is why he winds up heading into the Valley of Death, half a league, half a league, half a league onwards, and by now farting explosively to boot. In amongst the cannon and shot, Flashy makes it to the Russian battery, but is unhorsed: Lord George Paget helps him to a riderless mount and by now Flashy has had enough. Damn his reputation, he is hightailing it, hell for leather, despite Lord George’s screams for him to come back.
Unfortunately, which we might all have guessed by now, Flashy has gotten completely disoriented, and is re-charging the Russian battery. Where he is captured as fast as he can surrender.
What follows is a lengthy and mainly peaceful middle section. Being an officer and a gentleman, to outward appearances, Flashman looks forward to decent, if short-lived treatment, until he is exchanged for an equivalent Russian prisoner. However, it appears that the English hold no-one of Flashy’s status, so until a suitable captive is taken, Flashman will be taken a good distance into mainland Russia, to be held as a gentleman prisoner at Starotorsk, on the Estate of the former Cossack General, Count Pencherjevsky (think Brian Blessed, but without the delicacy and self-restraint).
The Count lives with his unmarried sister, Sara, and his married daughter, Valla, whose non-Cossack husband has failed to beget a son on her to date, or any child, come to that. But Pencherjevsky is also billeting another English officer, of much less fame but far greater patriotism, Christianity and intelligence than our hero. To their mutual shock, Flashman finds himself confronting Harry ‘Scud’ East, formerly of Rugby School and Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
It’s not the easiest of relationships, a factor not assisted by East having generally avoided the family as much as possible (he has a raging crush on golden-haired Valla), whereas Flashman is happy to accept hospitality, especially so far away from the War. He and Pencherjevsky, being simple souls, get on extremely well.
So much so that, after a trial run with Aunt Sara in the sauna with the birch twigs, Pencherjevsky takes Flashy aside to put a proposition to him. Since his wimp of a son-in-law is highly unlikely to father an heir to Starotorsk on Valla, would Flashy consider rogering her every night until she gets one up the spout?
With the innocent East completely unaware of this nocturnal arrangement, to which both parties give full measure, the winter months pass in 1855. There is only one fly in the ointment.
This comes one late night when Flashy, wending his way back from Valla’s bedroom, stumbles (literally) over East, out on the landing, eavesdropping on a secret meeting in the hall. It is a portentous meeting, discussing a Russian plan (based on a series of military plans from the period) to take advantage of Britain’s distraction in the Crimea to send a Russian Army overland through Central Asia, to invade India from the North West, through Afghanistan.
An unseen, unnamed person is receiving this report. Fraser does not state that it is Tsar Nicholas, merely observes, editorially, that if it is, it is only days before his death. There is no evidence to suggest the Tsar went anywhere near Staratorsk in his final days, but then again, there is no evidence at all of his whereabouts in the final days of his life. Fraser is a master at discovering and utilising such lacunae.
This discovery leads to friction between Flashman and East, with the latter insisting on their duty requiring them to escape towards the Crimea and bring this news back, and Flashman, under cover of not throwing away their lives wastefully, emphasising the impossibility of escape and trying to ensure his cushy little billet is preserved.
And then the chance comes up. An external, pre-Communist agitator (whom Flashman hints was an ancestor of Lenin) provokes a rising of the peasants, who attack the house with fire. Pencherjevsky entrusts Flashman and East with getting Valla to safety, and East realises that they’ve been given their chance on a plate. The trio make for the Crimea.
It’s a fraught journey, with their sled being chased by, first wolves and then cossacks on horseback. After Flashy speeds things up by heaving the naked Valla out into the snow, it looks like he and East will make it, but the sled crashes with only a couple of miles to go. Flashman is trapped under it and East chooses to pursue his duty and abandons him to recapture.
Thus begins the third and final phase of the story, and in its way one of the most interesting and fascinating parts of the entire Flashman series.
Fraser has already introduced the historical figure of Captain Count Nicholas Pavlovitch Ignatieff, one of Russia’s best agents in the Far East. From the moment of his first, cruel and callous intervention, latterly seen as being solely for the purpose of seeing Flashman, he’s an obvious villain, capable, dangerous, controlling, utterly without human feeling. Ignatieff is in a way the anti-Rudi von Sterberg, for he is ice and contempt.
He also takes charge of Flashman, who has forfeited all honour, and right to be treated as a gentleman by his attempt to flee. Nor will it do any good if East does get the news through: the Russian Army will set off now, and be at the North West Frontier long before British Army can reinforce. And Flashman will travel every step of that way, in filth and degradation, and stand as an emblem of the Empire’s decay and fall.
Thus begins the most fascinating and strange section of the Flashman Papers. I have obviously done considerably less research into this sequence than did George MacDonald Fraser, but unlike any other ‘public’ adventure in the series, it is impossible to easily verify any of the factors in the remainder of the book. Nothing to verify Ignatieff’s presence in the Crimea or Central Asia, nothing to verify that a Russian Army set off towards India.
More than anything else in this series, I suspect the final third of this book has been made up out of whole cloth. The adventure bears that sensation. It is in the form of a journey that probably no European had ever undertaken, into and across an obscure and unknown part of the world that feels like a departure into a land not of Earth. Flashy crosses the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea, visits strange cities, strange countries, all the time approaching Afghanistan from the back. Nothing is real, nothing certain.
Ultimately, it brings him to Fort Raim, on the eastern shore of the Aral Sea. This is the land of Sohrab and Rustum, the far-distant Oxus, a piece of the world utterly strange to us. But, on a prosaic level, it is also the land of Yakub Beg and Izzat Kutebar, brigands, rebels, pirates, guerillas, fighting the long and ultimately fruitless resistance to Russian Imperialism.
Flashy is thrown into a dungeon with this newly-captured pair and, against his natural inclinations, takes turns supporting Yakub Beg on his back, as he swings in chains. He’s rewarded with rescue, with being released when the Fort is stormed by Beg’s men, led by his woman, The Silk One, Ko Dali’s daughter.
Between the formal, florid, bantering language used between Beg and Khan, and The Silk One’s allusive, teasing manner, an overwhelming sense of near fantasy, related to the atmosphere of the Arabian Nights, steals over the story, not least so when Flashman suddenly becomes fierce and brave. For whilst messages of the threat will be sent to India, the chance arises to stop the Russian Army’s advance here, in the valley of the Syr Daria. Because the Russians have British Congreve rockets amongst their assets, and Yakub Beg has an experienced British officer, trained in the Ordnance to set them off.
What matter it that he is a lily-livered coward? Only Ko Dali’s daughter sees this but she has her ways. She teases Flashman into having sex with her, feeds him sherbet, and he’s set to go, and in a raging battle, Flashy does eventually succeed in blowing up the fleet. That it took a generous dose of hashish, the Old Man of the Mountain, to stir his bravery is nothing among friends, heh?
The invasion collapses. Yakub Beg’s fight continues a decade until the inevitable, the long defeat that invokes the spirit into wishing it could end otherwise, that this world Fraser has introduced us to should not slip into oblivion. As I said, unlike the rest of the series, I suspect that none of this happened, that it is as wholly fictional as the Duchy of Strakenz in Royal Flash, but I still love it.
George MacDonald Fraser never admitted if he had a favourite amongst the Flashman books, though he did confirm that his agent thought this to be the best. I have only one other novel in the series that I prefer to this, and it is that final, fantastic section that sweeps me away every time.
History and Memories
This little section will follow each blog. It will focus on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P12. Flashman records that his public profile is still high despite not having taken the field for his country for about eight years. This last military endeavour will be recorded in the Ninth Packet. He also credits himself as being ‘about the only man to charge in the right direction at Chillianwallah (a mistake, mind you)’. This is a rare slip on Fraser’s part: this battle formed part of the Second Sikh war and took place in January 1849, when Flashman was acting as overseer on the Mandeville Plantation, in America. One ingenious explanation was that Flashman pretended to have been on active service in India to conceal his disgraceful retreat from England and had gotten so used to his cover story that, when writing his memoirs, decades later, forgot he’d ever been there, but accepting this is to undermine the principle of the series, that Flashman is telling the unvarnished truth. This is the most egregious slip in the entire series.
P32. Flashman’s most recent military action is confirmed by Lord Raglan as ‘against the Sikhs’.
P38. Flashman mentions various of his brushes with royalty, including the as-yet unrecorded appointment as chief-of-staff to ‘that black she-devil Ranavalona’, which will be recorded in the Sixth Packet.
P124. Flashman compares the arrival of the Light Brigade at the Russian battery with other horrific battles he has experienced, such as the Little Big Horn and Chillianwallah. The former will be related in the second part of the Seventh Packet: Chillianwallah has been referenced above.
P135. Flashman visits the captured from the Light Brigade and references their regimental song, ‘Garryowen’ for the first time. This will become a running theme in his memoirs and he mentions hearing it sung and whistled from ‘Afghanistan to Whitehall, from the African veldt to drunken hunting parties in Rutland’, and also hearing it roared out on chorus by Custer’s 7th at the Little Big Horn. We will have to guess when Flashman was on the African veldt, but when it comes to the Seventh Packet, there is no direct reference to the song after the Battle commences.
P197. The besiegement of Starotorsk has Flashman recalling similar affairs at Cawnpore, Lucknow and Pekin. The first two will be addressed during the Fifth Packet, but the Pekin Embassy Siege, Flashman’s last known historical adventure, will never be recorded in detail.
P204. Flashman recalls an incident with Kit Carson, who he will meet, albeit relatively fleetingly, in the first half of the Seventh Packet. This incident is not expanded upon and seems out of both character and context for Carson’s role in that book.
P262. A first mention for Flashman’s official memoirs, Dawn’s and Departure’s of a Soldier’s Life, here referred to as a single volume though it will grow to a three volume work, the last of which being difficult to find for reasons we’ll learn in due course. I’ve always wondered what it might have read like, by way of comparison, you know.
P318. Flashman converts a old song, recited by Yakub Beg, into rhyming English, ending with the poignant line ‘They find the Golden Road to Samarkand’. Though not identified as such by Fraser, this is clearly a precursor to James Elroy Flecker’s verse drama Hassan… The Golden Journey to Samarkand. It is not suggested that Flashman ever knew, let alone influenced, Flecker.