Just north of Turkey lies the Black Sea, a roughly peanut-shaped saltwater lake the size about the size of Arizona and New Mexico combined. The Crimean Peninsula juts out into the Black Sea from the north, on which sits the port city of Sevastapol. In 1853, the weakening Ottoman Empire controlled the area known as the Crimea, but Russia, sensing weakness, sent troops into the region in July of that year. Britain and France, hoping to deny the growing Russian Empire the valuable port city, sent warships and troops to aid the Ottomans, signalling the beginning of the Crimean War.
The British military had advanced very little, either technologically or strategically, since the close of the Napoleonic Wars twenty years earlier. Most of their commanders were over 60 and had fallen comfortably into peacetime mindsets. Queen Victoria appointed General FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, First Baron Raglan and former understudy to the Duke of Wellington, as overall commander of the British forces in the Crimea despite the fact that since losing an arm at Waterloo, he served mostly as an administrator and saw no active service. His cavalry commander, Major General George Charles Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, greatly valued the appearance of his beloved horsemen, spending great amounts of his own money to improve their outfits and the gleam of their silver swords. Major General James Thomas Burdenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who also had very little practical experience, commanded the lighter of the two cavalry brigades; he and his immediate commander, the Earl of Lucan, who were also brothers-in-law, hated each other passionately.
The British army landed and took control of the village of Balaklava, on the southern tip of the peninsula on the shores of the Black Sea. They drove the Russian forces back, but Lucan decided not to commit his cavalry to pursue the fleeing Russian forces, allowing the Russians time to reform. The reconstituted Russian forces attacked south towards Balaklava, but the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders, an infantry troop arrange in a 'thin red line' and firing madly at the opposing horsemen, repelled the attack. The so-called 'Heavy Brigade' of British Cavalry, under the command of General Sir James Yorke Scarlett, charged into a second, larger body of Russian cavalry, and sent them into a panicked rout. Simultaneously, Lucan ordered Cardigan and his 'Light Brigade' to stand still and not participate, meaning they watched while the Heavy Brigade committed this glorious charge. To the towering egos typical of mid-19th century cavalry corps, this was a terribly frustrating ordeal. Cardigan and his Light Brigade fumed.
The Heavy Brigade's charge took place in the South Valley, which ran east to west in a valley north of the coastal city of Balaklava. Further to the north, the land rose to the Causeway Heights before descending once again into another west-to-east valley called the North Valley, and finally rising to the Fedioukine Heights beyond that. This alternating valley-and-hill geography set the stage for the Battle of Balaklava and of the most famous of its actions.
Lord Raglan adopted a vantage point atop a hill on the west end of Causeway Heights, allowing him a view of both valleys. From his elevated position, he saw that Russians on the east end of the Causeway Heights had captured several British cannons and prepared to drag them away. He ordered Lucan, below him on the west end of the North Valley, to recapture those valuable guns; unwisely, he trusted the message to Capt. Lewis Edward Nolan, a pompous zealot who had written a much-maligned book on how cavalry was the ultimate weapon in warfare, and who had no respect for either Cardigan or Lucan. Nolan, a skilled horseman, raced down to Lucan's site and presented Raglan's nebulous orders to charge and retake the cannon.
From Lucan's low position, he could not see the captured cannons; the only Russian artillery in his view were at the far eastern end of the North Valley, a distance of over a mile. Russian forces controlling both the Fedioukine and Causeway Heights established control over the North Valley. Lucan asked the messenger Nolan for clarification, and Nolan, true to his nature, pointed at the distant Russian guns and said "There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns." Lucan's pride prevented him from questioning the confusing and misrepresented order, and Cardigan, upon receiving his resulting order, begrudgingly accepted the command owing to his intense hate of his brother-in-law. Cardigan arranged his men into three lines, and prepared to charge through a gauntlet of gunfire toward a barely-visible target on a distant hilltop.
The Light Brigade rode into the North Valley, trotting at first, while Lucan, Scarlett, and the Heavy Brigade followed behind. Cardigan, perhaps sensing his men's enthusiasm or giving way to his own, increased the speed of the Light Brigade, and the Heavy Brigade was soon left lagging behind. Cannon and rifle fire erupted from both sides of the valley, claiming the messenger Nolan as one of its first fatalities, and an enormous cloud of dust obscured the charging British horsemen. Lucan suffered a minor wound to the leg, his horse was hit twice, and one his captains was shot dead by his side; he quickly decided that having the Heavy Brigade continue would be a death sentence, and so he ordered them to abandon the charge and fall back. The Light Brigade was left to its own fate.
With drawn sabers and levelled lances, the Light Brigade thundered toward the most distant guns at full speed. They could hardly see the length of their arm for all of the dust, and every second the Russian guns produced more gravely wounded cavalrymen and riderless horses, and yet the charge persisted. Amazingly, some of the Light Brigade reached the Russian gun battery on the far east side of the Valley, and began hacking and chopping at the gun crews. However, a Russian counter-charge forced the Light Brigade to retreat through the same line of fire as they approached, receiving even more gunfire as they went.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a military disaster, costing one of the best cavalry units in the world about 40% of its number. Almost none of the light horsemen escaped unwounded; one later wrote that he was the only one left out of the ten men who normally slept in his assigned tent. After British forces nonetheless took Sevastopol, Cardigan was regaled as the hero of the day in London, and presented his story personally to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a moment of great heroism. The Cardigan vest, later identified with the modern type of sweater, became a popular piece of clothing because of his actions in the Crimea. Raglan and Lucan blamed each other for the failure; Raglan continued his role in the Crimean before dying of dysentary two years later, while Lucan would be eventually promoted to Field Marshal, although he never again saw action in the field.
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.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Links and Sources:
Campaign 6: Balaclava 1854, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by John Sweetman, Osprey Publishing, 1990. The color image of the cavalryman is by Michael Roffe and is from that book.
How to Lose a Battle, by Bill Fawcett, Harper Collins, 2006.
Period photo of the cavalryman is that of Cornet Henry John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars, a survivor of the Charge, and was taken by Roger Fenton.
The painting "Charge of the Light Brigade" is by Thomas Jones Barker.
"The Valley of Death" © 2015 by James Husband.