Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854)

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Forward the Light Brigade
Into the Valley of Death, Rode the Six Hundred
Back from the Mouth of Hell
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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

Balaclava 1854, Osprey Publishing, London, 1990, Campaign No. 6, John Sweetman cover cover cover

Battles of the Crimean War, W. Baring-Pemberton, Macmillan, 1968, 256 pages. One of the best military histories of the Crimean War, with good accounts of all the major battles, well supported by quotes from the combatants. [see more] cover cover cover

Adkin, Mark. The Charge, Pimlico, London, 2000, 304pp. A modern account of the charge, taking into account recent discoveries and explorations of the battlefield. cover cover cover

Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Reason Why, Penguin, 1991, 288pp. A classic study of the charge of the light brigade, concentrating on the key officers responsible for the charge, the system that put them in place, and the resulting reforms in the training of British army officers. cover cover cover

The Charge of the Light Brigade, Woodfall Film Presentations Ltd, London, filmed in Turkey and Twickenham Studios, 1968. Directed by Tony Richardson and starring David Hemmings, Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews, John Gielgud, and Vanessa Redgrave. cover cover cover
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.

Books on the Crimean War | Subject Index: Crimean War

How to cite this article: Antill, P. (21 August 2001), Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_lightbrigade.html

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