25 October 1854, the Charge of the Light Brigade was ordered during the Battle of Balaclava near Sevastopol.
“HEIGHTS BEFORE SEBASTOPOL, OCTOBER 25 -- If the exhibition of the most brilliant valor, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected luster on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy.” (William Howard Russell, dispatch in the London Times, published in November 14, 1854)
|Richard Caton Woodville: "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1898)|
It was as if the whole chain of command was competing to win Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” award. Admittedly, the prize should have been given to Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, GCB PC, without much ado anyway. Lord Raglan, then 65, had last seen action at Waterloo 40 years before and was one of the most inept commanders in military history. At the height of the Battle of Balaclava now, after issuing a series of hare-brained commands, he saw an artillery position of his Turkish allies taken by the Russians on the Fedioukine Heights and ordered “…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." General Lord Airey, slightly challenged by anything beyond a steeple chase, copied down Raglan’s command and sent his galloper, Captain Nolan, with the verbal addition “post haste” to Lord Lucan, commander of the British cavalry in the valley below, who had already been given the nom de guerre “Lord Look-On” for being held in reserve during the Battle of Alma a few weeks before. Sensibly enough, Lucan asked to which guns, pray, Raglan was referring, since he couldn’t see the redoubts up the hills. Unfortunately, there was a Russian battery at the end of the valley, well emplaced, and unfortunately, Captain Nolan, a bit of an authority in all cavalry matters, thought Lucan was a dullard, and, unfortunately, Lord Lucan hated his brother-in-law and subordinate, the Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade, and then Nolan waved his sword about and pointed at the Russian position in the valley, crying “There! There is your enemy, my lord!” and Lord Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan to advance the Light Brigade.
Cardigan, not the sharpest tool in the shed either, at least had the decency to mention that a headlong charge over a mile with no cover into the teeth of a Russian battery, loaded with canister and grape, would be quite suicidal, but no one wanted to lose face, everybody hated each other and the attack was sounded. Nolan put himself before Cardigan at the head of the charge and was promptly ripped up by a Russian shell and then the captured guns on the Fedioukine heights opened up on the 673 men of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 8th and 11th Hussars and 17th Lancers as well. About a hundred of them along with 300 horses were dead when the charge had reached the enemy lines and the French commander Pierre Bosquet mentioned “C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. C'est de la folie ("It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness") and ordered his own light cavalry, the Chasseurs d'Afrique, to retake the Fedioukine heights and silence the guns there. And while the Light Brigade fought with the gunners in the emplacement, Russian heavy cavalry counter-charged, Lord Lucan looked on and later claimed he was covering the retreat with his reserves. Cardigan withdrew his battered men back to the going-in position, having achieved virtually nothing but a suicidally gallant charge and one of the most quoted military actions in history.
The Russians allegedly smelled the breath of captured British cavalrymen to see if they were actually drunk and Raglan received the cognomen “man who murdered the light brigade”. In fact, the casualties were not uncommonly high for a cavalry charge, even though the loss of more than the half of its horses put the brigade out of action until sufficient remounts arrived. The rather less glorious death of ten thousands of allied soldiers from dysentery and other hygienic catastrophes during the Crimean War is usually forgotten when Tennyson’s poem about the “death ride” of the “gallant six hundred”, that made the action immortal, is quoted, anyway. But so where most of the participants of the Charge. Many of them died in poverty and Rudyard Kipling summarised a visit of 20 veterans of the Charge to Tennyson in 1894 in his poem "The Last of the Light Brigade":
“O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made - "
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!“
|Matthias Robinson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” painted ten years after the Charge in 1864, depicting a group of children re-enacting the battle.|
Rudyard Kipling’s poem can be found here:
And more about the Charge of the Light Brigade on: