Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854)

Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854)

Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854)

Forward the Light BrigadeInto the Valley of Death, Rode the Six HundredBack from the Mouth of HellBibliography

1.
.Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
.
2.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
3.Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
4.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
5.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
6.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was in fact the last of four phases in the Battle of Balaclava that was fought on the 25 October 1854 during the Crimean War between Russia, Turkey, Britain and France, and immortalised in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem above. For many, the Charge alone represents the Battle of Balaclava as it has overshadowed the remainder of the battle in common memory. The Battle of Balaclava occurred due to the Russians attempting to cut the British supply lines that led from their main supply port at Balaclava to the siege lines surrounding Sebastopol. After the Russians had seized the outer perimeter of defences (Redoubts 1 to 4 out of six) on the Woronzov (Causeway) Heights in the early morning, they had attempted to force their way towards Kadikoi and Balaclava with first, a small force of cavalry that was repulsed in the action known as the 'Thin Red Line' and then with the main Russian cavalry force, that was repulsed with the Charge of the Heavy Brigade. An opportunity at this point had been lost as Lucan had had a chance to attack the Russian cavalry's flank as it engaged the Heavy Brigade but had refused to move as Raglan had ordered him to defend his position.

Forward the Light Brigade

Having been badly shaken up by the charge of the Heavy Brigade under Brigadier-General James Scarlett, Lieutenant-General I I Ryzhov and his cavalry reformed at the eastern end of the North Valley protected by Zhaboritski's infantry and artillery on the Fedioukine Hills and other Russian forces on the Woronzov Heights. There was a long delay however in following up the success of Scarlett and the Heavy brigade as the two infantry divisions under the Duke of Cambridge and Sir George Cathcart took a very long time to start moving and reach the field of battle. Lord Raglan had hoped that they could be used to recapture the Woronzov Heights, starting with No. 3 redoubt. The best time to have made such an attack was shortly after the Russian cavalry force had routed over the Heights. Unfortunately, the opportunity had been missed by the time Lord Raglan decided to use the cavalry to dislodge the Russians. At about 10.15 he dispatched an order to Lord Lucan: 'Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights. They will be supported by the infantry which have been ordered to advance on two fronts.' There was only one Heights to recover, that of the Woronzov Heights, and that he was to be supported by infantry meant the 1st and 4th Divisions were on their way to make a co-ordinated assault on the Heights. There should have been little doubt in Lucan's mind as to the meaning of the order, although at that moment only one infantry division would have been visible. He immediately moved the Light Brigade into the North Valley and kept the Heavy Brigade in the South Valley near No. 6 redoubt. At this point, Lucan decided to wait for infantry support before moving against what would be prepared enemy positions.

Unfortunately, Lucan did not have the vantage point Raglan had, who could see the Russians preparing to haul away a number of the guns they had captured at the redoubts. As captured guns were often used to claim victory, Raglan was anxious to stop the Russians from hauling the guns away. After waiting a little longer (partly to see if the remainder of the infantry appeared) he dictated another order to General Airey, the one that would become the centre of much controversy. 'Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate' The order was given to Captain Edward Nolan to deliver to Lucan as time was of the essence and Nolan was an excellent horseman who had served in the Austrian Army and had written a couple of books on cavalry tactics. Unfortunately, Nolan was also highly critical of the cavalry's performance in general thus far, and of Lucan's personal leadership in particular. Lucan read the message with consternation and asked for clarification. Nolan, excited by his contempt for Lucan and wanting to see the cavalry actually do something, replied 'Lord Raglan's orders are, that the cavalry should attack immediately.' Lucan retorted 'Attack sir! Attack what? What guns, sir?' Nolan's response, almost insubordination, was 'There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns.' Lucan was fuming at Nolan's disrespectful attitude, and sadly, pride prevented him from questioning Nolan further. But, Nolan should not have needed to be more exact and the two orders should have been read together, which Raglan later maintained was his intention. However Lucan (perhaps having seen the last order as merely a warning order of upcoming action), reading the fourth order separately from the third, decided to attack in the vague direction Nolan had flung his arm, towards the Don battery at the eastern end of the North Valley and not seek to recover the guns on the Woronzov Heights.

Lucan made his way over to the Earl of Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade and was stationed in front of the 13th Light Dragoons with his horse, Ronald. Again, the interplay of personalities was significant. The antipathy between the two men meant there was virtually no chance of a substantial or rational discussion about the orders. Lucan gave the order to advance down the valley. Cardigan saluted with his drawn sword and said 'Certainly, sir; but allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in the valley to our front, and batteries and rifleman on each flank.' Lucan replied 'I know it, but Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.' The scene was set for one of the most glorious, if not senseless engagements in British military history. Cardigan turned away and (supposedly) muttered 'Here goes the last of the Brudenells.' As the divisional commander left, he ordered the 11th Hussars (Lt Col John Douglas) to move out of the first line with the 13th Light Dragoons (Captain John Oldham) and 17th Lancers (Captain William Morris), to a position behind the 17th Lancers, becoming the second line. What was now the third line had the 8th Hussars (Lt Col Frederick Shewell) and 4th Light Dragoons (Lt Col Lord George Paget) in it. Each regiment would be in extended line, two deep. He also gave Cardigan a final warning: 'Advance very steadily and quietly'. The guns were 1¼ miles away and horses and riders should not arrive too tired after a prolonged gallop.

Into the Valley of Death, Rode the Six Hundred

Lucan saw this as a divisional action, and so rode with his staff between the two brigades. The Heavy Brigade (Scarlett) was formed into three lines as well with the Scots Greys and The Royals in the first line, the Iniskilling Dragoons in the second line and 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards in the third line. The Heavy Brigade would not be able to keep pace with the Light Brigade or manoeuvre as easily, hence Lucan's caution to Cardigan.

As soon as the advance started, the Russians withdrew from around No. 3 redoubt, but this was going to have little impact on the firepower the British cavalry were going to face. Cardigan quickly moved into a trot, probably well aware of the dangers they were about to face. The regiments kept pace. One of the three outsiders (the other two being Sardinian officers, Maggiore Govone and Luogotenente Landriani, despite the fact that Sardinia had yet to enter the war), Captain Nolan, was riding with his friend, Captain Morris of the 17th Lancers, when he suddenly moved ahead of Cardigan, crossing his front from left to right, turning in his saddle while shouting and waving his sword aloft. At this point a shell landed close to Cardigan who remained unhurt. Nolan however, was mortally wounded by a shell splinter through the chest and the horse circled around to the right with Nolan emitting an unearthly shriek before falling to the ground. Much debate has raged about Nolan's intentions at this point. Many see his action as a final desperate bid to correct the course after realising that the Light Brigade were mistakenly headed for the wrong objective (Cardigan having literally taken Nolan's gesture earlier as the direction of advance) or that he had falsely indicated that the objective was the Don Cossack battery at the eastern end of the North Valley, and had realised the enormity of his action and tried to correct it. Certainly he failed to mention anything to Captain Morris while he was with him, and the Light Brigade had travelled only a relatively short distance, so it would be difficult to assess whether he could have realised the intended target was the wrong one. The final truth will never be known.

Meanwhile, the Heavy Brigade had got underway. Inevitably it lost ground as the Light Brigade increased speed, and a dangerous gap started to open up between the brigades. Lucan attempted to keep the Light Brigade in sight but lost sight of them as the smoke and dust grew thicker. Captain Charteris fell dead at his side and his other two ADCs were wounded or unhorsed. Lucan himself was wounded and his horse hit twice. He realised that the Heavy Brigade was coming under increasing fire from both sides as the Russians were beginning to realise the seriousness of the situation. If both brigades had managed to stay together there would have been sense going on, but Lucan, realising that to continue would be to risk both brigades, while withdrawing would allow the Heavy Brigade to cover the Light as it returned down the valley. 'They have sacrificed the Light Brigade: they shall not the Heavy, if I can help it' remarked Lucan to his wounded ADC, Lord William Paulet. It was a wise decision as the brigade's casualties had already started to mount.

By the time Lucan had decided to retire the Heavy Brigade out of range, Cardigan was already running the gauntlet of fire from three sides. Still, at this stage the enemy fire was not concentrated and Cardigan was keeping a tight rein on the Brigade's movement. Captain White of the 17th Lancers tried to force the pace but was held in check by Cardigan. Gaps were beginning to appear in the ranks, and some eighty yards from the objective, the Don Battery let fly with a collective salvo, which devastated the first line. The second and third lines by this time had fallen out of formation and the regiments were in effect echeloned back from the left. Some of the remaining first line stopped to fight the gunners while some of the 17th Lancers with Captain Morris went around the guns and charged the nearest Russian cavalry, many of who broke and fled. Morris was later surrounded and captured, but managed to break free (after seeing Lieutenant Wombwell, Cardigan's ADC, make a break and jump onto a stray horse) and eventually make it back up the valley, whereupon he discovered the body of his friend, Captain Nolan. He fainted, to wake up safe in a British tent. Cardigan emerged unscathed and managed to escape the clutches of a group of Russian Cossacks who Prince Radzvill had offered a reward to if they could capture him alive. He rode back westward duty done, and upon reaching Scarlett complained about Nolan's ill-discipline. The Heavy Brigade commander cut him short by telling him he had just ridden over his body.

Back from the Mouth of Hell

The remnants of the first line (13th Dragoons and 17th Lancers) had rallied; put paid to many of the Russian gunners and looked to start to withdraw back down the valley. The second and third lines continued through the Don Battery. The 11th Hussars under Douglas came upon Russian cavalry and charged them, sending them back towards the Tchernaya. The 4th Dragoons came upon some of the Russian gunners trying to tow away a number of the guns and hacked its way through the remains of the battery. The 8th Hussars arrived at the battery in good order and Shewell stopped to consider the position. At that point they came across a number of survivors from the 17th Lancers under Mayow. Shewell looked down the valley and realised that the Russian infantry (formed up in squares on the Woronzov Heights) had not been touched and that enemy lancers were moving to cut off their line of retreat. Shewell manoeuvred his small force (of about seventy) and charged the Russians who were stationary, waiting for their third line to get into position. The charge broke through the Russian force and scattered them, while Shewell (followed by Captain Jenyns and some of the 13th Dragoons) retreated back down the valley. The fact that they were spared a crossfire from the Fedioukine Hills was due to the courageous efforts of the French 1st Cavalry Brigade commander d'Allonville (commanding the 1st and 4th Regiments of the Chasseurs d'Afrique) who with the 4th Regiment cleared the Fedioukine Hills of the two half batteries of guns, two infantry battalions and Cossacks to ensure the Light Brigade would not be hit by fire from that flank.

Meanwhile the 11th Hussars under Douglas had accepted that no further progress was going to be made and turned back to withdraw down the valley. Some of the Russian cavalry took heart at this and started to pursue. At this point they were joined by Paget and the survivors of the 4th Dragoons. Being the senior officer, Paget took command. Realising that if they did not stand they would eventually be overwhelmed, Paget halted his force and turned to face the Russians. Bewildered, the Russians stopped and both sides regarded each other for a time. The British then realised that a force of Russian lancers was forming across their line of retreat. Paget wheeled and after gathering a number of stragglers, attempted to break through. The Russian commander half-wheeled is cavalry back and prepared to advance against the British flanks, but for whatever reason stopped. This allowed the British to withdraw successfully. Even the Russian gunners contrived to help the withdrawal as they kept firing thus discouraging any pursuit by their own cavalry. The last of the Light Brigade withdrew over the remains of their unfortunate comrades.

The cost had been terrible. Out of 673 men who went into action, 195 returned fit for service with their mounts, 113 had been killed, and the rest returned on foot or as passengers. Of the survivors, 247 were wounded in some way. Some 475 horses had been lost. The Charge of the Light Brigade, the fourth phase of the Battle of Balaclava, had effectively ended by 11.20am. General Bosquet, having observed the charge muttered 'C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.' A Russian commentator reacted in much the same way: 'It is difficult to do justice to the feat of these mad cavalry.'

The recriminations began almost immediately. Raglan angrily rebuked Cardigan after riding down to the plain. 'What do you mean, sir, by attacking a battery in front, contrary to all the usages in warfare, and the customs of the service?' Cardigan replied, 'My lord, I hope you will not blame me, for I received the order to attack from my superior officer in front of the troops.' Nor did Lucan escape the commander-in-chief's censure: 'You have lost the Light Brigade!' and went on to stress that his order was for the cavalry to advance onto the Heights and recover the lost guns - the third and fourth orders should have been read together. Lucan had read them separately. Lucan blamed Nolan for the misdirection. The arguments as to what exactly passed between the individuals concerned and who was exactly responsible for the debacle has raged ever since. Any attempt to apportion blame must take account of the personalities (and the conflicts, jealousies and hatreds involved), the terrain over which the action occurred and where the participants were in relation to each other and the objectives, and what they could see.

'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from the English Server at Carnegie Mellon University. The poem was copied from Poems of Alfred Tennyson, J. E. Tilton and Company, Boston, 1870.

Books


See also the 1936 Hollywood film of the same name, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, Olivia deHavilland, Patric Knowles, Donald Crisp, David Niven and Spring Byington.

Charge of the Light Brigade

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854. During the battle of Balaclava (25 October 1854) Lord Raglan ordered Lord Lucan, his cavalry commander, to advance his forces to stop the Russians removing captured cannon from the Causeway Heights. Confusion among the British commanders led to Lucan mistakenly sending the Light Brigade to attack strong Russian positions at a different location, North valley. About one-third of the 673-strong brigade, commanded by Lord Cardigan, became casualties. Thanks partly to Tennyson's poem, the action has become a symbol of military stupidity and blindly obedient courage.

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Charge of the Light Brigade

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Charge of the Light Brigade, (Oct. 25 [Oct. 13, Old Style], 1854), disastrous British cavalry charge against heavily defended Russian troops at the Battle of Balaklava (1854) during the Crimean War (1853-56). The suicidal attack was made famous by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his 1855 poem of the same name. Military historians and strategists continue to study the attack to underscore the importance of military intelligence and a clear chain of command and communication. (For a more detailed discussion of the charge, see The Battle of Balaklava.)


Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854) - History

The following passage comes from the author's The Destruction of Lord Raglan , (Longmans, 1961), pp. 112-13, used here with the author's kind permission. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr. Hibbert. Alvin Wee of the University Scholar's Programme, created the electronic text using OmniPage Pro OCR software, and created the HTML version. — Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.

The order had been written to send the cavalry to the Causeway Heights where the Russians were taking away the British guns. The cavalry was in the valley and could not see the events to which Lord Raglan referred. The result was the Charge of the Light Brigade on 25 October 1854. This narrative begins after Raglan has sent the order to Lord Lucan.

General Airey's A.D.C., Captain Lewis Edward Nolan, was a remarkable young man. His Irish father was in the British Consular service, his mother was Italian. He was extremely intelligent, goodlooking and excitable. He had written books on cavalry tactics and was considered by his fellow-officers as something of a prig. 'He writes books,' Lord George Paget said with some distaste, 'and was a great man in his own estimation and had already been talking very loud against the cavalry.' His contempt for both Lucan and Cardigan, but particularly Lucan, was violently and frequently expressed. He was, however, a superbly skilful horseman and it was because of this that Lord Raglan had chosen him rather than a more respectful officer to take the order to Lord Lucan six hundred feet below. A.D.C.s with previous orders had taken their horses carefully down, picking their way cautiously. Nolan went diving down the hill by the straightest and quickest route.

He galloped up to Lord Lucan and handed him the order. Lucan read it slowly with that infuriating care which drove more patient men than Nolan to scarcely controllable irritation. He read it, in fact, as he himself later confessed, 'with much consideration — perhaps consternation would be the better word — at once seeing its impracticability for any useful purpose whatever'. He urged 'the uselessness of such an attack and the danger attending it'.

'Lord Raglan's orders are,' Captain Nolan said, already mad with anger, 'that the cavalry should attack immediately.'

'Attack, sir! Attack what? What guns, sir? Where and what to do?'

'There, my Lord!' Nolan flung out his arm in a gesture more of rage than of indication. 'There is your enemy! There are your guns!' And leaving Lord Lucan as muddled as before, he trotted away to ask Captain Morris if he might charge with the 17th Lancers.

Standing in the center of the Causeway height looking down its length toward Sapun Gor ridge. The Light Brigade charged down the north valley and passed through the Russian artillery line. I am grateful to John Sloan for permission to use the photograph. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

The trouble was that Lord Lucan had no idea what he was intended to do. He could not, on the plain, see nearly as far as Lord Raglan could on the hills above him. He could not see any redoubts. And he could not see any guns being carried away. Since the battle had begun he had taken no steps to find out what was happening beyond the mounds and hillocks and ridges which cut off his view of the ground that had fallen into the hands of the enemy. The only guns in sight were at the far end of the North Valley, where a mass of Russian cavalry was also stationed. Those must presumably be the ones Lord Raglan meant. Certainly Nolan's impertinent and flamboyant gesture had seemed to point at them. His mind now made up, Lord Lucan trotted over to Cardigan and passed on the Commander-in-Chief's order. Coldly polite, Lord Cardigan dropped his sword in salute.

Certainly, Sir,' he said in his loud but husky voice. 'But allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in the valley in our front, and batteries and riflemen on each flank.'
I know it," replied Lucan. 'But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.'

Map of the "Valley of Death": the plain at Balaclava just before the Charge of the Light Brigade. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

Cardigan saluted again, turned his horse, murmuring loudly to himself as he did so, 'Well, here goes the last of the Brudenells!', and he rode up to Lord George Paget. On the way he passed some men of the 8th Hussars who were smoking pipes. Their colonel angrily told them to put them out as they were 'disgracing his regiment by smoking in the presence of the enemy'. Paget himself was smoking a 'remarkably good' cigar and was embarrassed by Colonel Shewell's comment and then annoyed with Cardigan, who, after telling him to take command of the second line, added, 'and I expect your best support — mind, your best support ', repeating the last sentence 'more than once'.

'Of course, my Lord. You shall have my best support,' Paget replied, obviously nettled. He decided to keep his cigar.

Cardigan galloped back to the front of the brigade and drew it up in two lines. The 13th Light Dragoons were placed on the right of the front line, the 17th Lancers in the centre, the 11th Hussars on the left but slightly behind the regiments to the right of them. The 4th Light Dragoons and the 8th Hussars formed the second line. At the last moment Lucan, without consulting Cardigan, told Colonel Douglas to withdraw the 11th Hussars, Cardigan's regiment, from the first line and to take up a position in support of it.

Cardigan himself rode forward to sit for a moment quite still and bolt upright in his saddle well in front not only of the first line but also of his staff. The spectators on the hills above excitedly leaned forward to watch what Camille Rousset afterwards referred to with cruel aptness as ' ce terrible et sanglant steeple-chase". They could see quite clearly the two white legs of Cardigan's chestnut charger.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by R. Caton Woodville. This picture graciously has been shared with the Victorian Web by from Stephen Luscombe, from his website, The British Empire , and to whom thanks are due. Copyright, of course, remains with him.

Click on the image for a larger view.

They had, indeed, a magnificent view. They were on the Sapouné Ridge, which at this point overlooks the valley from its eastern end and falls down to the plain in a succession of grass-covered steps. On these steps those with no duties to perform sat in comfort and safety to watch the battle. Below them stretched the long and narrow North Valley on their right the Causeway Heights on their left the Fedioukine Hills. In front of them at the end of the valley, and facing the Light Brigade immediately below them, were the squadrons of Russian cavalry which had retreated over the Causeway Heights from the Heavy Brigade. Twelve guns had been unlimbered in front of them three fresh squadrons of Lancers stood on each of their flanks along the Fedioukine Heights were four additional squadrons of cavalry, eight battalions of infantry and fourteen guns. Opposite them, across the valley on the Causeway Heights, were the eleven battalions that had stormed upon the Turks and were now being gently prodded by Cathcart, and with them were a further thirty-two guns. Only a madman, as Lucan afterwards said, would expect men to charge into that open, mile-long jaw.

The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava . I am grateful to John Sloan for permission to use this image from the Xenophongi web site and which graciously he has agreed to share with the Victorian Web . Copyright, of course, remains with him. Click on the image to enlarge it.

'The Brigade will advance,' Lord Cardigan said in a strangely quiet voice.

Lord Raglan and his staff did not immediately realise that anything had gone wrong. The direction of the advance was perhaps a little inclined to the left but not yet alarmingly so, and soon no doubt when the pace quickened the Light Brigade would swing to the right on to the Causeway Heights. This undoubtedly was what the Russians were expecting, for as the cavalry came slowly but determinedly towards them they withdrew from all but one of the captured redoubts and formed up in squares near the crest of the ridge. Here was Sir George Cathcart's opportunity, and some of his staff anxiously waited for him to take quick advantage of it. His division was still halted in the position it had taken up an hour or so previously, but he refused to move it, even though the redoubts he had been ordered to recapture were now no longer occupied. A staff officer urged him to advance. He said no, his mind was quite made up on the matter, and he would write to Lord Raglan.

For the first fifty yards the Light Brigade advanced at a steady trot. The guns were silent. Lord Cardigan in his splendid blue and cherry-coloured uniform with its pelisse of gold-trimmed fur swinging gently on his stiffly thin shoulders looked, as Lord Raglan afterwards said of him, as brave and proud as a lion. He never glanced over his shoulder, but kept his eyes on the guns in his front.

Suddenly the beautiful precision and symmetry of the advancing line was broken. Inexcusably galloping in front of the commander came that 'impertinent devil' Nolan. He was waving his sword above his head and shouting for all he was worth. He turned round in his saddle and seemed to be trying to warn the infuriated Lord Cardigan and the first line of his men that they were going the wrong way. But no one heard what words he was shouting, for now the Russians had opened fire and his voice was drowned by the boom and crash of their guns. A splinter from one of the first shells fired flew into Nolan's heart. The hand that had been so frantically waving his sword remained rigidly above his head, and his knees, as if even in death they could not forget the habits of a lifetime, still gripped the flanks of his horse. The horse turned round and, as his rider's sword slipped from the still raised hand, he galloped furiously back with his terrifying burden, which suddenly gave forth a cry so inhuman and piercingly grotesque that one who heard it described it as 'the shriek of a corpse'.

The pace began to quicken, and there could be no doubt now that most of these seven hundred horsemen were riding to their death. From three sides the round shot flew into the ranks and the shells burst between them, opening gaps which closed with so calm and unhurried a determination that men and women watched from the safety of the hills with tears streaming down their cheeks, and General Bosquet murmured, unconsciously delivering himself of a protest against such courage which was to be remembered for ever, 'C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.' 'The tears ran down my cheeks,' General Buller's A.D.C. wrote, 'and the din of musketry pouring in their murderous fire on the brave gallant fellows rang in my ears.' 'Pauvre garçon!' said an old French general standing at his side, trying to comfort him, patting him on the shoulder. 'je suis vieux, j'ai vu des batailles, mais ceci est trop.'

Cardigan was still in front. An excited officer of the 17th Lancers rode up alongside him, and Cardigan held out his sword across his breast. 'Steady! Steady! the 17th Lancers,' Cardigan shouted above the roar of the guns.

Behind him could be heard the fragmented shouts of squadron commanders — 'Close to your centre! "Do look to your dressing on the left!' 'Keep back, Johnson, back!' But more frequently than any other order — 'Close in! Close in! Close in to the centre!' For men and horses were falling now in appalling numbers, and with every fifty yards the charging lines became narrower, more ragged, split and uneven, more confused. Wounded men stumbled back through the muddle of bleeding horses and their dead and dying friends. Terrified riderless horses thundered out of the smoke.

Seeing the Light Cavalry massacred in front of him, Lord Lucan turned to Lord William Paulet and said to him, 'They have sacrificed the Light Brigade, they shall not have the Heavy, if I can help it.' And he ordered the halt to be sounded, withdrawing the brigade to a position where he might be able to prevent the light cavalry being pursued on its return. Wounded in his leg, he had shown complete indifference under fire and earned the grudging admission of one of his most violent critics that 'Yes, he is brave, damn him.' It took courage of another sort to withdraw the Heavy Brigade at such a time and give his enemies further opportunity to misunderstand his reason for doing so.

The Light Brigade was almost on the guns now. The officers had lost control of their men, who rushed on furiously, forcing Cardigan to increase his pace. Still so angry with Nolan that the only other thing he could think of was what it would be like to be cut in half by a cannon-ball, he picked out the smoke-filled space between the red flashes of two guns and rode straight for it. He was less than a hundred yards from the guns when all twelve of them simultaneously exploded in his face, rocking the earth and filling the air with thick smoke and flying metal. The Russian gunners had fired their last salvo before crawling under the guns. Cardigan was almost blown off his horse, but steadied himself and charged on into the battery at a speed, so he calculated with careful concern for accuracy, of seventeen miles an hour.

Only fifty men of the front line remained alive to follow him. But in they rushed, slashing at several brave Russian gunners who had not dived after their comrades under the guns but were pulling at the wheels in their efforts to drag them away. About eighty yards behind the guns were ranged the unmoving ranks of Russian cavalry. Cardigan looked at them with distaste. They all appeared to be gnashing their teeth. He took this to be a sign of greed at the sight of the rich fur and gold lace of his uniform. But other men had noticed before these 'numberless cages of teeth' in the pale, wide faces, and it was believed to signify not greed, nor even ferocity, but annoyance and impatience due to a thwarted wish to charge.

As Cardigan looked at them disdainfully, one of their officers, Prince Radzivill, looked back and remembered having met him at a party in London. He ordered some Cossacks to capture him alive. The Cossacks came forward, encircled him, and prodded him with their lances, cutting his leg. Cardigan glared scornfully at their wretched-looking nags, keeping his sword at the slope, as he considered it 'no part of a general's duty to fight the enemy among private soldiers', and then galloped away. He left his private soldiers to continue the fight while he trotted back up the valley to lodge a complaint about the infamous conduct of Captain Nolan.

Behind him the struggle continued unabated. Officers and men hacked at the Russian gunners, who hunched their heads between their shoulders as they tried to drag off their guns while beyond the guns Captain Morris with what remained of the 17th Lancers charged at a mass of Russian cavalry and drove them back in disorder. He pursued them for some way until an enormous number of Cossacks forced his men back again.

Another body of Cossacks rode down on the men still fighting in the battery. Colonel Mayow, the Brigade Major, led the men out and drove the Russians off, as Lord George Paget galloped up and charged into the battery with the second line. The 4th Light Dragoons fell upon the gunners with a frightening savagery and massacred them with the ferocious excitement of Samurai. One British officer, maddened by the smell and sight of blood, clawed frenziedly at them with his bare hands, another swung his word in the air screaming hysterically.

When all the Russian gunners were dead, the Dragoons charged on towards the cavalry beyond. But as they galloped through the still thick smoke, they ran into the 11th Hussars retreating before a vastly superior force of Russian lancers.

'Halt, boys!' Lord George shouted. 'Halt front. If you don't halt front, my boys, we're done.'

And so the two regiments, numbering between them less than forty men, stood at bay to face the advancing enemy. Suddenly a man shouted, 'They are attacking us, my Lord, in our rear.' It was true. Their retreat was cut off.

Lord George turned to Major Low. 'We are in a desperate scrape. What the devil shall we do? Where is Lord Cardigan?

But Lord Cardigan had trotted away, and there was only one thing that could be done.

'You must go about,' he called to the men, 'and do the best you can.'

The men rode hard and straight up the valley at the Russian lancers formed up across their line of retreat as fast as their 'poor tired horses would carry' them. The Russian lancers backed away as if they were preparing to fall on the flank of the retreating horsemen when they galloped past. But they did not do so. Restrained perhaps by that curiously indecisive leadership which was becoming a feature of Russian cavalry tactics, the lancers allowed Lord George's men to graze past them, half-heartedly pushing at them with their lances. Or perhaps it was that they were moved to compassion by the sight of these tattered remains of the most splendid-looking cavalry in the world.

For the men of the Light Brigade presented a pitiable sight. Their gorgeous uniforms were torn and smeared with blood, their horses as damp and bedraggled as water-rats. And they were the fortunate ones. Others went past on foot, alone or in pairs or dragging loved horses limping and bleeding to death behind them.

The ground was 'strewn with the dead and dying'. Horses in every position of agony struggled to get up, then floundered back again on their mutilated riders.

Even now the guns still fired at them. But only from the Causeway Heights. On the Fedioukine Hills the Russian artillery had been driven from their positions by a spectacular charge of the 4th Chasseurs d'Afrique, who had shown what brave horsemen can do when well directed and skilfully led.

The leader of the Light Brigade was already home. He, at least, felt clear of blame for the unskilful manner in which the brigade had been directed. 'It is a mad-brained trick,' he said to a group of survivors. 'But it is no fault of mine.'

He rode up to Lord Raglan to offer the same excuse.

'What did you mean, sir?' Raglan asked him, more angry than his staff had ever seen him before, shaking his head from side to side, the stump of his arm jumping convulsively in its empty sleeve. 'What do you mean by attacking a battery in front, contrary to all the usages of warfare and the customs of the service?'

'My Lord,' Cardigan said, confident of his blamelessness, 'I hope you will not blame me, for I received the order to attack from my superior officer in front of the troops.'

It was, after all, a soldier's complete indemnification. Lord Cardigan rode back to his yacht with a clear conscience. And when his anger had cooled Lord Raglan had to admit that the brigade commander was not to blame. He had 'acted throughout', he wrote in a letter typical of many generous comments on Cardigan's part in the disaster, 'with the greatest steadiness and gallantry, as well as perseverance'.

With Lucan, Lord Raglan was not so forgiving. Soon after his conversation with Cardigan, who had naturally put the entire blame on his brother-in-law, Raglan said to Lucan sadly, 'You have lost the Light Brigade.'

Lucan vehemently denied it. He had, he said, merely carried out an order given to him both in writing and verbally by an A.D.C. from Headquarters. Lord Raglan, according to Lucan, now made a curious reply.

'Lord Lucan,' he said, 'You were a lieutenant-general and should, therefore, have exercised your discretion and, not approving the charge, should not have caused it to be made.'

Under flags of truce the dead and wounded were brought back from the now silent valley, while patrols trotted slowly across the space separating the two armies. Horses streaming with blood and unable to get to their feet bit at the short grass with froth-covered teeth. And every now and then men winced at the sharp, melancholy sound of the farriers' pistols. Nearly five hundred horses were lost.

Of the 673 men who had charged down the valley less than two hundred had returned. The Russians, as well as the allies, were deeply moved by such heroism. General Liprandi could not at first believe that the English cavalry had not all been drunk. 'You are noble fellows,' he told a group of prisoners, 'and I am sincerely sorry for you.'

The allies had need of sympathy. The engagement could not, whatever feats of courage had been displayed, be considered a victory. Balaclava admittedly had not been taken, but the Russian armies now straddled the Causeway Heights. And the road, which ran along the top of them and which might have saved the army from some of the horrors of the coming winter, was lost.


Through the valley of death…again

In the ensuing melee many more were killed as the Russians continued to fire – seemingly without caring that they might hit their own men. Unable to hold the gains they had taken for long, Cardigan lead the remnants of his men back, braving more fire as they attempted to reach safety.

Of the 670 men who had so confidently ridden into “the mouth of hell,” 278 were now casualties. There could be no disguising the scale of the disaster, or the extent of the fruitless waste of life. However, something about the raw courage of these doomed men struck a chord with the British public, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” lives on as a fitting tribute to their sacrifice.


Ireland in History Day by Day

25 October 1854: The Charge of the Light Brigade on this day. It took place in the Crimea on the Black Sea in what was then part of the Russian Empire. At the time Britain, France and Sardinia were at War with the Czar over Russia’s attacks on the Turkish Empire. This most famous (or infamous) cavalry charge was one with quite a few Irish connections.

The British and the French dispatched an Expeditionary Force to the Crimea to take the naval base of Sevastopol. In order to conduct the siege the small port of Balaklava was utilised to unload supplies for the British Army. On the morning of 25 October the Russians attempted to seize it but were repulsed. The battle however continued and by that afternoon the Light Brigade was tasked with attacking the Russian batteries that were being withdrawn.

‘The Light Brigade consisted of five regiments the 4th Light Dragoons, the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars, the 11th Hussars, the 13th Light Dragoons and the 17th Lancers.

The 4th Light Dragoons had one Irish officer serving in the Crimea, Cornet Robert Newcomen Goore-Booth of the Co. Sligo family, but he did not ride in the charge, being on sick leave aboard ship from 12th October to December 1854. Thirty-three Irish other ranks served in the 4th in the Crimea, of whom eighteen rode in the charge. Of these, four were killed, eight were wounded and three taken prisoner, one of whom was also wounded.

The 8th Hussars were an Irish Regiment and two Irish officers and nine-four other ranks served in the Crimea. One Irish officer and twenty-seven Irish other ranks actually charged with the brigade, of whom eight were killed, five wounded and two taken prisoner, one of whom was also wounded. The two Irish officers who served in the 8th in the Crimea were Captain Lord Killeen, later tenth Earl of Fingall, who did not rejoin the Regiment until after Balaklava, and Lieut. Viscount Fitzgibbon, who was almost certainly killed in the charge. John Viscount Fitzgibbon was the son of the third Earl of Clare and a grandson of ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, the controversial Lord Chancellor of Ireland at the time of the Union. He had joined the 8th in 1850‘.

The 11th Hussars, who had been commanded by Brigadier the Earl of Cardigan, had two Irish officers in the charge, Lieut. George Houghton from Kilmanock House, Wexford, who was mortally wounded and died at Scutari on 22nd November and Lieut. Roger Palmer of Castle Lackin, Co. Mayo who survived, later transferred to the 2nd Life Guards and eventually rose to become a general. Troop Sergeant-Major Patrick Teevan from Belturbet and Private Larkin, who was killed, were two of the Irish rank and file in the charge from the 11th.

The 13th Light Dragoons had a total of forty personnel from Ireland serving in the Crimea. However only one Irish officer, Cornet Hugh Montgomery of Ballydrain, Co. Antrim, and four other ranks from Ireland, charged with the brigade. Montgomery was slain, having first shot four Russian hussars. Corporal Joseph Malone of the 13th won the V.C. at Balaklava for assisting in the rescue of the mortally wounded Captain Webb of the 17th Lancers. Malone performed his act of bravery while returning on foot after his horse had been shot.

From the 17th Lancers, two officers and fifteen other ranks of Irish origin participated in the charge. Captain White who had been educated at Trinity College Dublin, was severely wounded and Captain Winter from Agher, Co. Meath, was killed (there is a memorial tablet to him in the church there). Sergeant John Farrell of the 17th had his horse killed beneath him and won his V.C. assisting Sergeant Berryman of his regiment and Corporate Malone of the 13th to carry Captain Webb off the field. Troop Sergeant-Major Denis O’Hara who rallied some of the remnants of the 17th after the charge was afterwards painted by Orlando Norrie. The portrait is now in the museum of the 17/21st Lancers.
Source: Viscount Dillon. Irish Sword Vol xii - No. 48.

The seed of the whole disaster lay in botched instructions given by Lord Raglan, the British Commander to one Captain Louis Edward Nolan, who was of Irish-Italian stock. He was the finest Light Cavalry man in the Army, but somewhat rash and hot headed. On reaching the place where the Cavalry Division was drawn up he handed over a note dictated by Raglan which read:


"Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.

The regiments made it down the valley, meleed amongst the enemy batteries but could not hold them as the Russians poured volleys of fire into them and prepared to counter attack with their Cossacks. They slowly made their way back up the valley, some on horseback but many on foot.

The brigade was not completely destroyed, but did suffer terribly, with 118 men killed, 127 wounded and about 60 taken prisoner out of some 670 men who took part . After regrouping, only 195 men were still with horses. The futility of the action and its reckless bravery prompted the French Marshal Pierre Bousqet to state "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." ("It is magnificent, but it is not war.") He continued, in a rarely quoted phrase: "C'est de la folie" — "It is madness." The Russian commanders are said to have initially believed that the British soldiers must have been drunk!

War correspondent William Howard Russell, who was from Dublin and was reporting for the London Times witnessed the battle, declared our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy.

But we will leave the final say to Lord Cardigan who led the whole bloody affair:


I think that every man who was engaged in that disastrous affair at Balaklava, and who was fortunate enough to come out of it alive, must feel that it was only by a merciful decree of Almighty Providence that he escaped from the greatest apparent certainty of death which could possibly be conceived.


Photo, Print, Drawing Charge of the light cavalry brigade, 25th Oct. 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan / W. Simpson delt. E. Walker lith.

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Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854) - History

W hat specifically ignited the Crimean War in 1854 has long been forgotten in the collective memory. The conflict erupted in 1854 with the Russian Empire on one side and Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Their dispute centered on which side would have dominant influence in the declining Ottoman Empire. The wars's major battleground was in Russia's Crimean Peninsula, which gave the conflict its name. British and French forces landed in the Crimea in the fall of 1854 with the objective of attacking Russia's naval base at the city of Sevastopol and thereby weaken its naval presence in the Black Sea.

An artist's conception of the
Charge of the Light Brigade

Although the war itself is only a dim recollection, what is vividly remembered is one valorously tragic incident of the campaign: the headlong cavalry charge of the British Light Brigade into murderous Russian fire an action immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem.

The Charge of the Light Brigade took place during a battle near the city of Balaclava on October 25, 1854. Through a miscommunication of orders, the Light Brigade of approximately 600 horsemen began a headlong charge into a treeless valley with the objective of capturing some Russian field artillery at its end. Unbeknown to them, the valley was ringed on three sides by some 20 battalions of Russian infantry and artillery.

The result was disastrous. An estimated 278 of the Light Brigade were killed or wounded. Observing the charge, a French Marshall remarked: "It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness." When news of the action reached London, it caused a national scandal that prompted Tennyson to pen his poem. History remembers the charge of the Light Brigade as an example of the extraordinary bravery of the British soldier in the face of enemy fire in spite of poor leadership.

"They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun. . ."

William Howard Russell was a correspondent for the London Illustrated News and was present at the battle. It was his description that prompted Tennyson's poem. We join Russell's account as the Light Brigade begins its charge:

"They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendor of war. We could hardly believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men were not going to charge an army in position? Alas! it was but too true - their desperate valor knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part - discretion.

They advanced in two lines, quickening their pace as they closed towards the enemy. A more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death. At the distance of 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls. Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain.

The first line was broken - it was joined by the second, they never halted or checked their speed an instant. With diminished ranks, thinned by those thirty guns, which the Russians had laid with the most deadly accuracy, with a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow's death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries but ere they were lost from view, the plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses. They were exposed to an oblique fire from the batteries on the hills on both sides, as wed as to a direct fire of musketry.

Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabers flashing as they rode up to the guns and dashed between 'them, cutting down the gunners as they stood. . .We saw them riding through the guns, as I have said to our delight we saw them returning, after breaking through a column of Russian infantry, and scattering them like chaff, when the flank fire of the battery on the hill swept them down, scattered and broken as they were.


Wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale. . . .At the very moment when they were about to retreat, an enormous mass of lancers was hurled upon their flank. Colonel Shewell, of the 8th Hussars, saw the danger, and rode his few men straight at them, cutting his way through with fearful loss. The other regiments turned and engaged in a desperate encounter. With courage too great almost for credence, they were breaking their way through the columns which enveloped them, when there took place an act of atrocity without parallel in the modem warfare of civilized nations.

The Russian gunners, when the storm of cavalry passed, returned to their guns. They saw their own cavalry mingled with the troopers who had just ridden over them, and to the eternal disgrace of the Russian name the miscreants poured a murderous volley of grape and canister on the mass of struggling men and horses, mingling friend and foe in one common ruin. It was as much as our Heavy Cavalry Brigade could do to cover the retreat of the miserable remnants of that band of heroes as they returned to the place they had so lately quitted in all the pride of life.

At twenty-five to twelve not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left in front of these bloody Muscovite guns."

References:
This eyewitness account appears in: Russell, William Howard, The British Expedition to the Crimea (1858) Royle, Trevor, Crimea: the Great Crimean War, 1854-1856 (2000).


The Charge of the Light Brigade

Imagine what followed from the point of view of a rider in the Light Brigade.

As you gallop down the valley the Russians begin firing down at you from the hills above. Then artillery guns, the target of your charge, open up ahead of you, thirty cannons bombarding you with shot and shell. There’s no way to avoid them, no way to strike back until you reach the end of the valley.

Everything is noise and chaos – the thundering of hooves, the roar of guns, the explosion of shells. Captain Nolan, a rider renowned throughout the cavalry, is the first to fall, his chest torn open by shrapnel. He’s far from the last. This is a death trap. Men and horses are dropping all around you. But orders, momentum, and courage keep you going.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Caton Woodville

At last, you reach the cannons. Those gunners you don’t hack down try to flee, though there are few places to run in this steep-sided valley, no way out but ahead.

The end of the valley is in sight, but there is no way out – only the massed forces of the Russian cavalry. You’ve done your best against the guns, but now comes the retreat, galloping back along the same death trap down which you charged moments before, as the Russians continue firing at you from the hills.

At last, you return to the safety of the British lines. The whole engagement has lasted only twenty terrifying, blood-soaked minutes. Of 673 men who galloped down the valley, 113 are dead and 134 wounded. Many of the surviving horses are injured and will have to be destroyed. And the guns…

Those precious guns are still back in the Russian lines.


Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854) - History

This page graciously has been shared with the Victorian Web by from Stephen Luscombe, from his website, The British Empire , and to whom thanks are due. Copyright, of course, remains with him. — Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore

This famous painting by R. Caton Woodville is a dramatic view of the 17th Lancers in the Charge of the Light Brigade. This was an incident that occurred during the battle of Balaklava on 25 October 1854. The British were part of an allied army which also consisted of French and Turkish troops. They were fighting Russia who had her eyes on the Ottoman Empire, which the Czar referred to as the 'sick man of Europe' What finally kick-started the British and determined the focus of the fighting was the sea battle at Sinope, in the Black Sea, on 30 November 1853, between Turkey and Russia. Russia had a easy victory and would have mastery of the Black Sea and no trouble in gaining access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles. This was an intolerable prospect for Britain who fancied themselves as 'Ruling the Waves'. The Russian fleet was based at Sebastopol, a port on the Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea. The 17th Lancers were one of the five cavalry regiments that made up the Light Brigade. The others were 11th and 8th Hussars, and the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons. Lord Cardigan had been put in command of the Light Brigade. He was an arrogant and intellectually challenged person and almost universally hated, especially so by Lord Lucan who commanded the whole of the cavalry and was thus in the unfortunate position of having to work in close cooperation with Cardigan. The Light Brigade had been held to one side by Lord Raglan, the Commander-in-chief of the army, for the whole of the campaign up to this point. This was very frustrating for them and was a factor contributing to the most famous blunder in military history. The men were itching to be involved in the fighting but could only stand and watch. Lord Lucan was nicknamed Lord Look-on. On this particular day, the Light Brigade had to watch the Heavy Brigade bravely win their part of the battle and were prevented from pursuing the fleeing Russians. When a confused order came from Lord Raglan to 'prevent the enemy carrying away the guns', the angry Lord Lucan sent the Brigade in the wrong direction. When he realised his mistake, Lucan managed to prevent the Heavy Brigade from following as intended but was unable stop the Light Brigade. The 17th were under the command of Major Willett but he died of exposure two nights before the battle while the cavalry was standing to as ordered by Lord Lucan, from 5 pm to 7 am. So for the charge itself, Captain William Morris commanded the 17th. One of the 'characters' of the regiment was the regimental butcher, John Fahey, who had been under guard the night before for being drunk on duty. He was late on parade, so was obliged to join the charge still in his butcher's apron, wielding an axe with which he claims to have split at least two Russian heads. Another member of the regiment, Private Wightman remembered: "My horse made a tremendous leap into the air, though I know not what at. The smoke was so dense that I could not even see my arm in before me. Then suddenly I was in the battery, and in the darkness there were sounds of fighting and slaughter. In this gloom we cut and thrust and hacked like demons." The 17th was in the first wave with the 13th Light Dragoons. Cardigan was in front, as brave as he was stupid. He came through unscathed and cantered casually back down the valley leaving his men to fight their way out of an overwhelming force of Russian cavalry, infantry and artillery. The 17th started the day with eleven officers and 136 men Their casualties were: 2 officers and 22 men dead, 4 officers and 33 men wounded (and returned to the lines), 1 officer and 13 men taken prisoner, and 99 horses killed. One officer died of his wounds later. The whole Light Brigade consisted of 658 officers and men, of these, 118 died either that day or later of wounds they received. These figures are surprising when one considers how dangerous it was for a tight formation of cavalry to travel one and a quarter miles along a valley being fired at by canons and rifles from three sides.


The Charge of the Light Brigade: who blundered in the Valley of Death?

The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of the most notorious fiascos in British military history. But who should shoulder the blame for this suicidal assault on Russian guns? Saul David considers the evidence.

This competition is now closed

Published: December 7, 2018 at 10:00 am

“By Jove,” shouted an eagle-eyed member of Lord Raglan’s staff. “They’re going to take away the guns!” It was 10.40am on 25 October 1854. Three hours earlier Lord Raglan, the British commander in the Crimea, had watched helplessly from his vantage point on the Sapouné Ridge as a huge force of Russian infantry overwhelmed three of the Turkish-held redoubts (earthwork forts) on the Causeway Heights, a low east-west range of hillocks that divided the plain below him into a north and south valley. The loss of these redoubts had left the British supply port of Balaklava, situated below the south valley, at the mercy of the Russians. But much to Raglan’s relief, two subsequent attempts by Russian cavalry to take the port had been gloriously repulsed by a ‘Thin Red Line’ of Highlanders and an uphill charge by the Heavy Brigade of British horse.

At 10am, keen to follow up these successes, Raglan had ordered his cavalry “to advance and take any opportunity to recover the [Causeway] Heights”, and to use the support of infantry who were en route. But Lord Lucan, the cavalry commander, chose not to move until the infantry arrived.

As Raglan fumed at Lucan’s inactivity, a staff officer alerted him to activity in the redoubts. Peering through his naval telescope – specially modified so he could use it with his one remaining hand (he had lost his right arm at the battle of Waterloo) – Raglan could see the Russians bringing forward horses and lasso tackle to remove the British 12-pounder naval guns that had been sited in the earthworks. He assumed the Russians were about to withdraw and take the captured guns with them. His mentor the Duke of Wellington had never lost a gun, and Raglan was anxious to retain the same proud record. Turning to his senior staff officer, he dictated the following momentous order: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns.”

Why did the Charge of the Light Brigade happen?

The pencil-written order was handed to Captain Louis Nolan, the finest horseman on the staff. It was an unfortunate choice: no officer had more contempt for the cavalry commanders, Lucan and his deputy Lord Cardigan, than the quick-tempered Nolan. He felt they were far too timid.

Within 15 minutes, Nolan had reached the valley floor and located Lucan on rising ground at the near end of the Causeway Heights. He handed over the order, which Lucan read with alarm. Now he was being asked to recover the guns without infantry support. He complained to Nolan about the “uselessness” and “dangers” of such an operation.

“Lord Raglan’s orders,” retorted Nolan, “are that the cavalry should attack immediately.”

If, as seems likely, Nolan used the word “attack” on his own authority, it was a fatal intervention. The order had made no mention of an attack. So did Lord Raglan perhaps have a different objective in mind?

“Attack, sir!” said Lucan. “Attack what? What guns, sir?”

Waving his hand vaguely eastwards in the direction of the redoubts, Nolan said contemptuously: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”

Lucan claimed later that from his position he could see “neither enemy nor guns”, and that Nolan’s gesture was towards “the further end of the [north] valley”. There, clearly visible, was a Russian battery of eight cannon, the sun glinting off their polished barrels.

At this critical moment, according to one eyewitness, Lucan “appeared to be surprised and irritated at the impetuous and disrespectful attitude and tone of Captain Nolan”. He “looked at him sternly but made no answer, and after some hesitation proceeded to give orders to Lord Cardigan to charge the enemy with the Light Brigade”.

If Lucan had only questioned Nolan further, he must surely have discovered that his objective was to recover the captured naval guns on the Causeway Heights, rather than seize the battery of Russian guns in the north valley. But so irritated was he by the taunting tone in Nolan’s voice that he chose not to continue the conversation.

What was the Charge of the Light Brigade?

Stung into action, Lucan made his final plans: Cardigan’s Light Brigade of Cavalry would lead the attack down the north valley, with the Heavy Brigade in support. The message was taken to Cardigan by Nolan who, when the Light Brigade commander voiced his objections, asked if he and his men were afraid. “By God!” responded a furious Cardigan. “If I come through this alive, I’ll have you court-martialled for speaking to me in that manner.”

Instead of returning to Raglan, Nolan rode over to his old friend Captain William Morris, commanding one of the Light Brigade’s lead regiments, and got his permission to accompany the attack.

Cardigan, meanwhile, had sent one of his aide-de-camps to query Lucan’s order. This caused Lucan to return in person. “Lord Cardigan,” he said, “you will attack the Russians in the valley.”

“Certainly, my lord,” replied Cardigan, “but allow me to point out to you that there is a battery in front, a battery on each flank, and the ground is covered with Russian riflemen.” In other words, the north valley was a death trap from which they were unlikely to escape.

“I cannot help that,” responded Lucan. “It is Lord Raglan’s positive order that the Light Brigade is to attack the enemy.”

Into the Valley of Death

At 11.10am, stationed with his two staff officers at the head of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan turned to his trumpeter: “Sound the advance!”

As one, the men and horses of the Light Brigade of Cavalry – which numbered around 676 – moved forward at the walk. Leading the way were the 17th Lancers and 13th Light Dragoons, deployed side by side in two lines, followed 100 yards further back by the 11th Hussars, and with a similar gap to the 8th Hussars and the 4th Light Dragoons.

The brigade had just accelerated to a trot when Captain Nolan surged ahead of the first line, shouting and waving his sword. He may have realised that Cardigan was not going to wheel to the right to attack the redoubts, and was trying to correct the error or he may simply have been urging the brigade on. We will never know. With just 50 yards separating him from Cardigan, a shell burst between them. Nolan gave a ghastly shriek and dropped his sword. A twitch of his bridle hand caused his horse to turn and gallop back through the advancing squadrons. He then fell to the ground. A fragment of shell had pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

Onward the brigade rode into that terrible crossfire. “Hell had opened upon us from front and either flank,” recalled a private in the 17th, “and it kept upon us during the minutes – they seemed like hours – which passed while we traversed the mile and a quarter at the end of which was the enemy. The broken and fast-thinning ranks raised rugged peals of wild, fierce cheering that only swelled the louder as the shot and shell from the battery tore gaps through us…”

The private continued: “‘Close in! Close in!’ was the constant command of the squadron and troop officers… But the order was scarcely needed, for of their own instance and, as it seemed, mechanically, men and horses alike sought to regain touch.”

A corporal of the 13th was “struck by a shot or shell full in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near”. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, “yet for about 30 yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm”.

With the front rank just 80 yards from the battery, the Russians fired a point-blank salvo of grapeshot that brought down men and horses in heaps. Five officers were among the dead, but Cardigan rode on unscathed. As he approached the bank of white smoke that masked the battery, he shouted: “Steady! Steady! Close in!”

Seconds later the front rank swept into and around the battery, sabring and spearing Russian gunners as they tried to tow the guns to safety. In the smoke and confusion, Cardigan became separated from his men and made his own way back to the British lines. The remnants of the brigade were rallied by the surviving officers and led in a desperate attack against a mass of Russian cavalry beyond the guns.

“It was the maddest thing that was ever done,” noted a Russian officer. “They broke through our lines, took our artillery, and then, instead of capturing our guns and making off with them, they went for us… They dashed in amongst us, shouting, cheering and cursing. I never saw anything like it. They seemed perfectly irresistible, and our fellows were quite demoralised.” Having driven the Russian cavalry back on the Chernaya river, at the top of the north valley, the survivors fought their way back to the British lines.

How many of ‘the 600’ survived the charge of the Light Brigade?

When the battered remnant of the around 676 men of the Light Brigade formed up near the same ground they had charged from 25 minutes earlier, only 195 men were still mounted. Even with the return of stragglers, the losses were crippling: 107 men killed, 187 wounded and 50 missing (most of them captured). The number of dead horses was almost 400.

What happened after the Charge of Light Brigade

Even after the fatal charge, Lord Raglan was keen to use his infantry to retake the captured redoubts. He was dissuaded by General Canrobert, his French counterpart, on the grounds that troops could not be spared from the siege lines for their garrisons. Thus the charge was the last action of the battle of Balaklava which, though far from conclusive, was a Russian victory of sorts – their first of a war that had begun the previous March when the Russian tsar refused British and French ultimatums to withdraw his troops from Ottoman empire territory. Determined to protect the Ottomans by neutralising Russian power in the Black Sea, the Allies had landed on the Crimean peninsula in early September 1854. Within a month they were besieging the great naval base of Sevastopol from the Chersonese Plateau to its south.

Though the Russian attack of 25 October had fallen short of its original objective – to capture the British-held port of Balaklava and sever the supply line to Raglan’s troops on the plateau – it still had severe consequences for Raglan’s army. By taking the Causeway Heights, the Russians denied the British the use of their main supply route from Balaklava to the plateau via the Woronzow Road. In fine weather this was not a problem as a shorter route known as the Col was just as good. But as winter set in, and the road up the Col disintegrated, it became impossible to get enough supplies to the troops in the trenches.

By the end of November, so overwhelmed was the Commissariat (the department in charge of resupply), and so poor the single road up to the plateau, that many of the goods that did reach Balaklava were left to rot on the quays. “The English,” wrote a French officer, “will actually exchange their boots for something to eat… It’s pitiful to see such superb men asking permission to gorge themselves on the dregs in our mess tins.”

With no fuel, inadequate shelter and insufficient food, the British troops fell easy prey to disease, particularly cholera and typhus. “The noblest army England ever sent from these shores,” wrote the editor of The Times, “has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastopol, in the harbour at Balaklava… and how much nearer to home we do not venture to say.”

By the time the war ended – following the fall of Sevastopol – with a qualified Allied victory in March 1856, 21,000 British soldiers had lost their lives, only a quarter from enemy action. Most died of disease and malnutrition during the terrible winter of 1854/55.

Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade poem

The immortal status of all who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade was guaranteed when Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet laureate, wrote his eponymous verse of the famous action in late 1854, three weeks after reading a report of the battle in The Times. The second stanza begins:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Not though the soldiers knew

So who had blundered? Writing three days after the battle, Lord Raglan blamed Lucan. “From some misconception of the order to advance,” he wrote in his official dispatch, “[Lucan] considered that he was bound to attack at all hazards.”

Lucan was duly recalled to London where he tried – and failed – to clear his name. Did he deserve to shoulder the blame? Lord Cardigan, his former brother-in-law, was not in any doubt. “[Lucan] ought,” wrote Cardigan, “to have had the moral courage to disobey the order till further instructions were issued.”

Who was to blame for the Charge of the Light Brigade?

In truth, all three principals – Raglan, Lucan and Nolan – bear some responsibility. Even if it had been interpreted accurately, Raglan’s final order to Lucan was probably unnecessary. After all, the naval guns had been spiked and could not be fired, the infantry had nearly arrived, and even a “demonstration” by cavalry along the Causeway Heights would have incurred casualties. He should, moreover, have taken into account the fact that Lucan’s view of the battlefield was much more limited than his and made the final order more precise (by mentioning the ‘Heights’, for example).

Lucan should have insisted on clarification from Nolan. But he allowed his pride to get the better of him. As for Nolan, so contemptuous was he of Lucan’s ability, so desperate for the cavalry to show its worth, that he failed in the one essential duty of a staff galloper: to provide the officer in receipt of the message with the necessary clarification. If the written order was imprecise, then how much more was Nolan’s insolent gesture: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”

It seems, moreover, that he used the word ‘attack’ when Raglan had intended a mere show of force. If so, Nolan bears the chief responsibility for what followed. Such was the opinion of most cavalrymen, according to Lieutenant Frederick Maxse RN who was serving on Raglan’s staff, and whose papers have only recently come to light. After the charge, Maxse inspected the ground and, “on looking to the left, saw poor Nolan lying dead who 10 minutes before I had seen eager & full of life, galloping down to Lord Lucan, anxious & determined to make him do something with the cavalry (of which he is a member, he was always very indignant at the little they had done in this campaign & bitter against Lord L). All the cavalry lay this disastrous charge on his shoulders & say that he left no option to Lord L to whom they say his tone was almost taunting on delivering the message – if he was to blame he has paid the penalty.”

Nigel Kingscote, another staff officer, agreed. If Nolan had lived, he told Raglan’s son, he “would no doubt have been broke by court martial”.

Why Lucan’s eyes deceived him

The communication breakdown between Lord Raglan and his cavalry commander is perhaps explained by the topography of the Balaklava battlefield, says Saul David

It is hard to comprehend how the Light Brigade could have been misdirected until you stand on the spots where the main actors were situated when they made their fatal decisions. The site on the edge of the Sapouné Ridge, from where Raglan and his staff are said to have observed the battle of Balaklava, is today marked by a viewing platform. When I visited it, I was struck by the panoramic view it afforded of the battlefield.

Directly below the platform is a large plain covered with vineyards and other crops – just as it was in 1854 – and bisected by a tarmac road that snakes from right to left. This is the famous Woronzow Road that, for much of its length, runs along the range of hills known to the British during the Crimean War as the Causeway Heights.

From Raglan’s vantage point, the Heights appear to be little more than a slight rise in the ground and are dwarfed by the hills that fringe the plain to the north and east. Does this explain why Raglan felt justified in issuing those two orders to Lucan and the cavalry: first to advance and take any opportunity to “recover the Heights” and then to “advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns [from the Heights]”?

He was not – as some commentators have suggested – ordering cavalry to attack fixed positions up a steep hillside but instead wanted Lucan to move the cavalry forward on both sides of a relatively gentle slope, and possibly even along it, to hasten the Russian withdrawal and encourage them to abandon the British guns.

Just as revealing was my visit to the approximate location where Lucan had received Raglan’s orders, on a slight knoll of ground between the two valleys. From there Lucan’s view of the captured redoubts would have been obscured by rising ground. So when Nolan gestured vaguely (“There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”), it is easy to understand why Lucan mistook the Russian battery for Raglan’s true target.

Saul David is a military historian and broadcaster. His books include Operation Thunderbolt (Hodder, 2015) and Zulu (Viking, 2004).


Watch the video: The Charge of the Light Brigade. Iron Maiden. CrimeaWar. 25 October 1854. 4K