No Llanelli men were in the Charge of the Light Brigade, but one of the witnesses to the disastrous fate of the ‘gallant six hundred’ had strong local connections. James Charles Murray Cowell, born in 1824, was the second son of Colonel John Stepney Cowell, who changed his name after he inherited the Stepney estates in Llanelli in 1857 and died twenty years later as Sir John Cowell Stepney. ‘Murr’ Cowell, as he was known, became a colonel in the Coldstream Guards, and was killed at the Battle of Inkerman in November 1854.
Shortly before his death, on 26 October 1854, Murray Cowell wrote to his father to describe the Charge of the Light Brigade. The letter, which has only recently come to light, provides a previously unknown first-hand account of the one of the most notorious blunders in British military history, when the brigade rode into the ‘valley of death’ against a battery of Russian guns instead of trying to recover a different set of captured guns on the ridge above. Murray’s own regiment was part of the reserve, and from that position, he witnessed ‘the terrible slaughter of our Light Cavalry’, commanded by Lords Lucan and Cardigan (or ‘Lords Look-non and Cancan’, which seem to be the nicknames that he wrote down before thinking better of it and crossing them out, making them hard to read). It was his first battle: ‘I never witnessed a battle before but can conceive nothing to exceed the awful carnage…the 17th and 13th were literally cut to pieces & destroyed by grape shell and the sword – the 1st Dragoon Guards, 4th Light Dragoons and Scots Greys lost nearly half their men – in fact of 800 horsemen led on only 180 returned unscathed’. Murray heard of the famous response from Britain’s allies in the battle, and put his own gloss on it: ‘the French from the heights were spectators and cheered – some of their superior officers are said to have exclaimed c’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre (it’s glorious, but it isn’t war) – and I believe they were right – we are a sporting but not a military nation’. In a postscript Murray asked if his father had heard of a Captain Nolan, who became the scapegoat for the disaster after vaguely gesturing towards the wrong set of guns when transmitting orders to Lucan and Cardigan. ‘He was an accomplished dashing officer and amongst the first to fall,’ Murray wrote; ‘I saw his corpse and was present at his funeral’.
This eye witness to the Charge of the Light Brigade eventually gained ample recognition in the town that his family called home for two-and-a-half centuries. Colonel Murray Cowell is commemorated by a plaque in Llanelli parish church, similar to the much larger memorial to Murray and some of his colleagues in St Paul’s Cathedral. Murray’s younger brother eventually inherited the estate and became Sir Arthur Cowell Stepney, which in due course allowed him to name two Llanelli streets after his dead sibling – James Street and Charles Street – together with Inkerman Street, named after the battle in which Murray Cowell died.