The Story Behind “The Trooper” by Iron Maiden and the Real-Life Battle that Inspired It

One of the most distinctive elements of Iron Maiden’s music is that mid-tempo to fast-paced gallop one hears in numerous songs throughout their 17-album catalog. That sound became reinforced in American listeners’ minds with the release of the band’s fourth album Piece of Mind and its second single “The Trooper.” This was the second album with frontman Bruce Dickinson and first with drummer Nicko McBrain, who became the final member of the classic Maiden lineup. The high energy track remains one of the band’s most beloved and performed songs on tour, and a little over a decade ago even inspired the name of Maiden’s Trooper beer.

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While the slightly slower “Flight of Icarus” managed to garner Maiden major radio play for the first time in the U.S. in 1983, it set the stage for “The Trooper” to do decently on mainstream American radio and further cement the group’s growing reputation. “The Trooper” was an unusual song to promote because unlike other Maiden songs, the chorus was a wordless melody from Dickinson, and the track had a very recognizable guitar melody/harmony part that was repeated often throughout the song. That meant that less than half of the four-minute song had no vocals, something also unexpected for a radio offering. But Maiden was never a band to play by the rules.

Inspired by the Crimean War

Written by Maiden bassist and founder Steve Harris, the song was inspired by the Crimean War, a conflict fought from October 1853 to February 1856 between the Russian Empire and the alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, the United Kingdom, and Sardinia-Piedmont. The latter were ultimately victorious. Told from the British point of view, the song was also inspired by the Charge of the Light Brigade, a doomed military maneuver attempted by the British light cavalry during the Battle of Balaclava—110 soldiers were killed and 160 more wounded, not to mention the loss of nearly 400 horses. Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson penned “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about the event.

Heavy metal bands have often regaled fans with stories of war and combat, but while some of that comes off as fantasy, there can be a tendency by some to misinterpret some intents as glorifying war. Dickinson has acknowledged Maiden reflects how “war represents the best and the worst of humanity. It represents human beings driven to extremes, doing extraordinary things that they would never, ever be able to do in any other circumstances. And it also represents huge waste and stupidity.” The tale of “The Trooper” has a tragic slant, as foreshadowed even with the opening lyrics:

You’ll take my life, but I’ll take yours too
You’ll fire your musket, but I’ll run you through
So when you’re waiting for the next attack
You’d better stand, there’s no turning back

The bugle sounds, the charge begins
But on this battlefield, no one wins
The smell of acrid smoke and horses’ breath
As I plunge on into certain death

“It’s the idea of someone being ordered to go and fight,” Harris told Rolling Stone in 2019. “In those days, you didn’t question it. They weren’t allowed to question it. You got on the horse and went straight into battle no matter how ridiculous it was, charging cannons firing at you. There have been a lot of crazy things people have been ordered to do in wars, and quite a few of our songs are about that.”

Lions Led by Lambs

As Dickinson stated in an interview with the Orange County Register back in 2008: “I think you can sum up Maiden’s attitude to war … that in 99 percent of cases it’s lions led by lambs … or lions led by donkeys, in the case of the first World War … and indeed that Crimean debacle, which is the subject of ‘The Trooper.’”

The singer went to say the British liked former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who stood up to Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. “He had his failings,” Dickinson noted. “But basically we like him because he stood up to one of the most evil regimes the world has ever seen. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. How one man could make a difference in the world, when so many politicians would have done a deal … and he didn’t. And I think we all admire him for that, and that’s why we’re not speaking German.”

Although not “hit single” material given the time period it was released in—metal was the scrappy mainstream underdog back then—“The Trooper” fared pretty well on the global stage. It climbed to No. 28 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio chart, and on singles charts in other countries it hit No. 5 in Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland, and No. 12 in Ireland and the UK (selling 200,000 copies there). The Piece of Mind album reached No. 14 in America and eventually went Platinum here.

The band’s official video for the song intercut performance footage of the band with scenes from the Oscar-winning 1936 film The Charge of the Light Brigade starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. That echoed the use of black and white film interspersed throughout their 1982 video for “Run to the Hills.”

Piece of Mind and the songs “Flight of Icarus and “The Trooper” helped cement Iron Maiden as one of the hottest metal bands on the planet in 1983. They also set the stage for the arrival in 1984 of the fifth studio album Powerslave, which became another international seller and begat the nearly yearlong World Slavery Tour that included performing at the first annual Rock in Rio festival before approximately 350,000 people.  For that exhausting world trek, the men in Maiden had to be troopers of a different sort. And they made it through.

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Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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