The Battle of Balaclava took place on this date in 1854 as part of the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855), in turn part of the Crimean War. Inasmuch as I consider all wars to be senseless and tragic, Crimea stands out as possibly the most senseless and tragic of the 19th century, and within that awful context the Charge of the Light Brigade is by far the most senseless and tragic event within the battle and the war. The Crimean War should never have happened in the first place. It happened because of international policy and diplomacy mistakes coupled with proud military figures who felt that they had been idle too long after the Napoleonic Wars. These were still the days when men fought in colorful uniforms using such terms as “glory” and “honor,” but they were also the days of massive canonry that could inflict bloody massacres with ease. When you combine that fact with bone-headed leadership you have the potential for disaster.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was immortalized by Tennyson soon after the news reached England, and his poem is still popular and resonates with lines such as:
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
I don’t have time or space to go on at length about Crimea or Balaclava. I’ll be brief. After being successful at Alma, the British sought to capture the Russian port of Sevastopol. However insufficient resources prevented them from attacking immediately and, instead, they established base in Balaclava. Lack of troops left them open to strategic attack by the Russians who took advantage on 25th October. There were several notable engagements that day but the Charge of the Light Brigade is the one that is remembered most.
The British cavalry available was made up of the Heavy Brigade and the Light Brigade. The Light Brigade, as the name suggests, were a light cavalry force that mounted light, fast horses which were unarmored. The men were armed only with lances and sabers and had no helmets or armor. The brigade was optimized for maximum mobility and speed, and were intended for reconnaissance and skirmishing only. They were also ideal for cutting down infantry and artillery units as they attempted to retreat.
Lord Raglan, the overall commander, could view the whole battle from heights above Balaclava. He could see that the Russians were successfully withdrawing with the naval guns from the redoubts they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the south side of the valley. This would have been an optimum task for the Light Brigade, as their superior speed would ensure the Russians would be forced to either quickly abandon the cumbersome guns or be cut down en masse while they attempted to flee with them
Overall command of the British cavalry brigades rested with General George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan and the Light Brigade was under General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law who disliked each other intensely. Lucan received a written order from Lord Raglan stating: “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.” However, the lay of the land around Lucan and the cavalry prevented him from seeing the Russians’ efforts to remove the guns from the redoubts and retreat, therefore the order was not clear. The order was drafted by Brigadier Richard Airey and carried by Captain Louis Edward Nolan. Nolan carried the further oral instruction that the cavalry was to attack immediately. When Lucan asked what guns were referred to, Nolan is said to have indicated with a wide sweep of his arm—not the causeway redoubts—but the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away.
In response to the order, Lucan instructed Cardigan to lead his command of about 670 troopers of the Light Brigade straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights. In “The Charge of the Light Brigade” Tennyson famously called this hollow “The Valley of Death.” The opposing Russian forces were commanded by Pavel Liprandi and included approximately 20 battalions of infantry supported by over 50 artillery pieces. These forces were deployed on both sides and at the opposite end of the valley.
Lucan himself was to follow with the Heavy Brigade. Although the Heavy Brigade was better armored and intended for frontal assaults on infantry positions, neither force was remotely equipped for a frontal assault on a fully dug-in and alerted artillery battery—much less one with an excellent line of sight over a mile in length and supported on two sides by artillery batteries providing enfilading fire from elevated ground. The semi-suicidal nature of this charge was surely evident to the troopers of the Light Brigade, but there is no record of any objection or resistance to the misunderstood command – such was army discipline.
The Light Brigade set off down the valley with Cardigan out in front, leading the charge. Almost at once Nolan was seen to rush across the front, passing in front of Cardigan. It may be that he then realized the charge was aimed at the wrong target and was attempting to stop or turn the brigade, but he was killed by an artillery shell, and the cavalry continued on its course.
Despite withering fire from three sides that devastated their force on the ride through the valley, the Light Brigade was able to engage the Russian forces at the end of the valley and force them back from the redoubt, but it suffered heavy casualties and was soon forced to retire. The surviving Russian artillerymen returned to their guns and opened fire once again as the Light Brigade withdrew, with grape and canister. Lucan failed to provide any support for Cardigan, and it was speculated that he was motivated by an enmity for his brother-in-law that had lasted some 30 years and had been intensified during the campaign up to that point.
Cardigan survived the battle. Although stories circulated afterwards that he was not actually present, he led the charge from the front and, never looking back, did not see what was happening to the troops behind him. He reached the Russian guns, took part in the fight, and then returned alone up the valley without bothering to rally or even find out what had happened to the survivors. He afterwards said all he could think about was his rage against Captain Nolan, who he thought had tried to take over the leadership of the charge from him. After riding back up the valley, he considered he had done all that he could and then left the field and went on board his yacht in Balaclava harbor, where he ate a champagne dinner.
The brigade was not completely destroyed, but did suffer terribly, with 118 men killed, 127 wounded, and about 60 taken prisoner. After regrouping, only 195 men were still with horses. The futility of the action and its reckless bravery prompted the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (“It is magnificent, but it is not war.”)
The reputation of the British cavalry was significantly enhanced as a result of the charge, though the same cannot be said for their commanders. Lucan was ultimately blamed for ordering the charge and was furious at being made a scapegoat. Raglan claimed he should have exercised his discretion, but throughout the campaign up to that date Lucan considered Raglan had allowed him no independence at all and required that his orders be followed to the letter. Cardigan, who had merely obeyed orders, blamed Lucan for giving those orders. He returned home a hero and was promoted to Inspector General of the Cavalry. After much public debate, Lucan’s name was cleared, but he never again saw active duty.
Contemporary accounts of the charge tended to focus on the bravery and glory of the cavalrymen, much more than the military blunders involved, with the perverse effect that it encouraged reckless bravery in the army over sanity that lasted all the way to the First World War.
The fate of the surviving members of the Charge was investigated by Edward James Boys, a military historian, who documented their lives from leaving the army to their deaths. His records are described as being the most definitive project of its kind ever undertaken. Edwin Hughes, who died on 14 May 1927, aged 96, was the last survivor of the charge. In October 1875, survivors of the Charge met at the Alexandra Palace in London to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Charge. The celebrations were fully reported in the Illustrated London News of 30 October 1875, which included the recollections of several of the survivors. Tennyson was invited, but could not attend. Lucan, the senior commander surviving, was not present, but attended a separate celebration, held later in the day, with other senior officers at the fashionable Willis’s Rooms, St James’s Square. Reunion dinners were subsequently held for a number of years.
Among those stationed at Balaclava was Lord General Paget, famous for having charged with the Light Brigade while smoking a cheroot. He sent detailed letters from Crimea which are an invaluable resource. Not least we witness the provisions available to a general. Just before the battle of Balaclava we read:
Oct. 5. — We are in great excitement to-day, having sent down to Balaclava to get stores from a ship, the arrival of which we heard of, and the envoy has returned with a goose, some sheep and potatoes as my share. Cardigan has given in, and gone on board ship, which leaves me topsawyer. Lord Raglan comes up to-day, and occupies a farmhouse.
I have just been dipping into one of my bullock-trunks to find something, and the contents of it will amuse you. On the top there were six or seven onions, wrapped up in a not over well-washed flannel shirt; next to which, in a very dirty old newspaper, are some mole candles, approaching; closely to the articles known as dips, loosely interspersed with these being broken bits of ration biscuit. Diving deeper, my hand arrived on half a loaf of bread, the crumbs of which will be somewhat annoying when I next put on the worsted sock in which it was packed. These with occasional lumps of sugar, pots of preserved meat, halfbroken cigars, a little more dirty linen, a ration of salt pork, and my other pair of boots (not cleaned) fill up a good portion of one trunk, and so unnerve me that I have not the courage to venture on the other, to find what of course I failed to find in the first.
While the generals dined well, I doubt that the rank and file sat down to champagne and roast leg of lamb. What I suspect is that after the battle many of them ate horse meat, which would have been a welcome relief from turnips and camp biscuits. The English have an aversion to horse flesh – not shared by many Europeans – but in the aftermath of the battle there would have been a great deal of dead horses that the cavalrymen had the choice of letting rot or eating.
Here in Mantua horse meat is a delicacy that is more expensive than beef. It is readily available in supermarkets and there is a butcher selling only prime cuts of horse meat. I eat it once or twice a month and generally use the same recipe ideas that I use for beef. If you can’t get horse meat my recipes won’t help you. The meat can be a tad stronger than beef, but on the whole it tastes much the same if stewed. Commonly I braise it in good beef stock with onions, leeks, cloves and allspice and serve it with potatoes and carrots.