By Moina Arcee, Sep 19, 2015, edited August 26 2018
The legendary “Charge of the Light Brigade” was an epic military maneuver performed by British cavalrymen during the Crimean War in 1854. The charge inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson’s legendary poem “Charge of the Light Brigade”, and his famous line: “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred…”
The six hundred were originally one thousand when they landed on the island of Crimea to fight the Russians. By the time of the legendary charge the brigade numbered six hundred seventy-three.
The Light Brigade was a British cavalry unit designed to travel light and fast, with no armor to slow man or horse. Weapons were light as well: lances, sabers, and hand pistols. The Brigade excelled in specialized situations: routing foot soldiers, chasing down fleeing enemy, and performing intelligence, reconnaissance, or scouting duties away from the main force.
In contrast there was the Heavy Brigade, who wore armor, helmets, and used larger cavalry swords. The Heavy Brigade was intended for close combat, including brutal frontal assaults against the enemy.
These two brigades were the only cavalries in the British army that landed in Crimea. The rest were infantry from England, Scotland, Wales, and even Ireland. Joining the English were 28,000 French infantry.
Why were they fighting the Russians? The Crimean War has sometimes been referred to as a religious war that began when Russia tried to protect its co-religionist’s rights in Jerusalem. At that time Jerusalem was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, a toothless rule of benign neglect.
It seems that Catholic and Russian monks were slaughtering each other in Jerusalem over who had control of which sacred sites. Russian Czar Nicholas I demanded the authority to defend the millions of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. When this was refused, Nicholas moved his armies into Romania.
This was a direct threat to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. Russia had the largest army in the world at this time. Constantinople would have been a great prize to acquire for a number of reasons, including giving Russian naval fleets total access to the Mediterranean Sea.
This was a chilling prospect to the British and French, and their ally Turkey. For years they had watched Russia gradually assimilating portions of the declining Ottoman Empire – but taking Constantinople was unacceptable.
So, in a religiously interesting move, Christian England and France prepared to fight Christian Russia to defend a Muslim Empire. Turkey declared war on Russia in October, 1853, but when Russian shells defeated Turkish ships, Czar Nicholas ruled the Black Sea, and even ventured into Bulgaria.
But this advance was an overstep that provoked Austria’s involvement in the quarrel. Nicholas backtracked out of Bulgaria, but too late to avoid war, which was declared by Britain and France in March 1854. To emphasize the declaration they bombarded Odessa, which at that time belonged to Russia.
France and Britain wanted to punish Russia for her boldness by occupying and destroying her main naval base in the Black Sea, located at Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. Both countries dispatched their own fleets to the Black Sea, and soon European soldiers were setting foot on Russian soil.
Britain and France besieged Sevastopol and began bombarding it. After eight days of swallowing cannon balls the Russians attempted to break the siege by attacking Britain’s supply base in Balaclava. Along the way they captured four positions on the Causeway Heights just outside Balaclava.
The Russians surged forward but stout defense by Scottish Highlanders and the British Heavy Brigade stopped the Russian flow like a cork in the bottle. The next concern of British commander-in-chief, Lord Fitzroy Somerset Raglan, was to thwart attempts by the Russians to steal English cannons from the Causeway Heights redoubt. It was a perfect job for the Light Brigade, who could sweep in and either scatter the infantry or cut them to pieces before they could move the heavy artillery. The order was placed.
Raglan’s order was given to Captain Louis Edward Nolan, who hand delivered the message to cavalry Commander Lieutenant General George Bingham, third Earl of Lucan (called Lucan hereinafter). The order was to “advance rapidly to the front … and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.”
Lucan was at a lower position than Raglan and couldn’t see any enemies or cannons. Confused, he asked Nolan where he was supposed to attack. According to the story, Nolan gave a vague wave of his arm that Lucan interpreted to refer to a different Russian artillery position one mile away, at the far end of the valley, below Causeway Heights.
Nolan then added something that wasn’t in the message: the Light Brigade was to attack immediately. Lucan ordered the Commander of the Light Brigade, the Earl of Cardigan, to immediately charge the Russian position at the end of the hollow between Causeway Heights and its opposite hill, Fedyukhin Heights. This was the hollow famously dubbed the “Valley of Death” by the poet Tennyson.
The cavalry was mustered with the sense of urgency that follows a direct command to attack at once. The troops made formation and at once broke into a brisk trot along the mile long course to the Russian guns.
Trained eyes immediately noticed the suicidal nature of this mission. The enemy was dug in with many cannons and infantry at the end of the valley; they even had several thousand Russian cavalry in reserve. The Light Brigade was vastly outnumbered.
Moreover, on each side of the valley were elevated, dug in positions containing Russian artillery and riflemen. The Light Brigade would be exposed to enemy fire from three different directions at the same time. The Russians had 20 battalions of infantry and over fifty cannons on the sides and at the end of the valley.
What’s more, the Russians were fully alerted to British presence and had a clear line of sight. All British and Russian eyes saw the same sight. It was suicide to charge such a position, be it light or heavy brigade. Having seen the scene of their impending death, the regiments of British cavalry tightened their saddles and took a breath. Not one horse turned back, not one soldier wavered from the command. The Light Brigade began their mile long charge down, down into the valley of death.
And it was a downward slope to the Russian position at the end of the valley. Lord Cardigan was out in front, sword held high. Suddenly a horseman veered out of the pack and angled towards Cardigan. It was Captain Nolan, waving his arm to get Cardigan’s attention.
It has oft been speculated that Nolan, realizing the Light Brigade was charging the wrong position, attempted to abort the approaching tragedy. We will never know for certain, for as Captain Louis Nolan neared Cardigan the enemy opened fire. A shell knocked Nolan off his horse and to the ground, where he died instantly.
The second British casualty had “his head clean carried off by a round shot, yet for about 30 yards further the headless body kept in the saddle,” a survivor recalled. Another survivor, miraculously, was Lord Cardigan, who led the charge to its final conclusion. He later told the House of Commons:
“We advanced down a gradual descent of more than three-quarters of a mile, with the batteries vomiting forth upon us shells and shot, round and grape, with one battery on our right flank and another on the left, and all the intermediate ground covered with the Russian riflemen.”
Another witness, London Times war correspondent William Russell, wrote:
“The whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame through which hissed the deadly balls, said “Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, the dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain.”
The first line of the Brigade was annihilated. Horses and men were splattered all over the valley. The second line of cavalry gritted their teeth, then roaring as one spurred their steeds into an even fuller gallop over their broken comrades, and straight into smoke so thick it was “like riding into the mouth of a volcano,” a survivor remembered.
Viewed from behind, Russell wrote that the Brigade appeared “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.”
Against all odds and with miraculous resolve, not one rider turned away from the hell fire of shell, grapeshot, canister, and rifle bullet. The second line of cavalry suffered the fate of the first. Now the third line of cavalry surged forward with a shout.
The Light Brigade finally reached the guns at the end of the valley and, with a leaping of horses, breached the enemy’s position. Swords flashing, the Brigade cut and hewed their way around the artillery, causing confusion and dismay in the Russian ranks. Then they turned to the Russian cavalry and scattered them as well.
Lord Russell remembered:
“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. The blaze of their steel, like an officer standing near me said, ‘was like the turn of a shoal of mackerel.’” (That means it was bright)
Lord Cardigan was amidst the Russian batteries, and later reported:
“We entered the battery—we went through the battery—the two leading regiments cutting down a great number of the Russian gunners in their onset. In the two regiments which I had the honour to lead, every officer, with one exception, was either killed or wounded, or had his horse shot under him or injured.
“Then came the third line, which endeavored to complete the duty assigned to our brigade. …this body succeeded in passing through the mass of Russian cavalry of—as we have since learned—5,240 strong; and having broken through that mass they …retired in the same manner.”
The Light Brigade was forced to retreat under heavy fire. On the way back out of the valley they again encountered bitter fire from three directions before finally escaping. The entire event lasted 35 minutes.
“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…wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale — demigods could not have done what they had failed to do.”
Upon regrouping, only 195 men of the original 673 were still with horses. 118 men were killed, 127 were wounded, and about 60 were taken prisoner. Over half the Brigade’s horses were either killed in battle or destroyed later because of wounds.
Weeks after the battle (November 12, 1854) word reached England. Russell’s account of the action was so riveting it inspired poet Alfred Tennyson to write a poem about the event called “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The ode was an instant classic, with the famous line “Into the valley of death rode the 600,” and its outspoken finger pointing at military leadership.
It is said the Russians believed the Light Brigade to be drunk when they began their charge. War correspondent Russell concluded: “Our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy.” A participant in the charge called it “the most magnificent assault known in military annals and the greatest blunder known to military tactics.” A French general added: “It is magnificent; but it is not war.”
Here is a study in contrasts. The bravery of the Light Brigade and the stupidity and incompetence of military leadership which, unlike the charge, was not a one time occurrence. Poor maps, poor intelligence, not knowing the strength of the enemy, and not even knowing where the enemy was, were only the beginning of sorrows.
Believing the conflict in Crimea would be over quickly, no winter clothing or even medical supplies were available to troops when winter came to Crimea. Leadership had no answer to outbreaks of cholera that ended up killing more soldiers than Russian guns. By the end of the conflict British total deaths were 21,097: 2755 were killed in action; 2,019 died of wounds; 16,323 died of disease.
French losses were even more staggering. Total dead 95,000: 10,000 killed in action; 20,000 died of wounds; 60,000 died of disease.
In England there was public outcry because the soldiers were suffering under such conditions. Dozens of nurses volunteered to go to Crimea to help the soldiers. The supervisor of the nurses was named Florence Nightingale. Under her guidance fatalities from disease sharply decreased.
In 1855 the Russian base at Sevastopol surrendered. In 1856 Russia agreed to keep its naval fleets out of the Black Sea, and the Crimean war was ended. There were 750,000 deaths in the war.
On May 14, 1927, Edwin Hughes died. He was the last survivor of the charge.
On the 150th anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade (2004, a commemoration was held at Balaklava, and a monument was presented to honor the 25,000 British soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.
http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_crimean.html, The Crimean War.
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, 1854”, EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2008).