To this day the Charge of the Light Brigade remains one the most catastrophic yet evocative cock-ups in British military history (second only to the clever and well-thought out decision to send a certain notification to the Imperial German ambassador on August 4th 1914). The date is October 25th 1854 and the Crimean War is raging between Tsar Nicholas I's Russian Empire and a polyglot coalition of British, French, Italian and Turkish forces for control and influence over the lands around the Black Sea and the Holy Land, which were fast becoming a free-for-all in the wake of the Ottoman Empire's ongoing terminal decline. The Russians failed to appreciate the Western European powers sticking their noses into what they perceived at quintessentially Eastern European business and it was the Tsar's meddling that led Britain and France to declare war, setting the stage for the carnage to come.
As the only major conflict between the European powers to take place in the hundred-year gap between the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the start of World War I, the Crimean War provided a brief glimpse into the direction that ideas of warfare were heading. It was the first major conflict to see a good use of railways and the telegraph whilst advances in weapons technology were all too evident, leading the conflict to be subsequently classed as the earliest of the "modern wars". From a British perspective it is also well known for the advances in combat medicine made through the work of nurses such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole as they treated wounded soldiers, as well as Isambard Kingdom Brunel's prefabricated field hospitals, designed to be shipped out from Britain in bits and assembled in the war zone like a flat-pack shelving unit.
For all the good that came out of the Crimean War, however, the spectre of the Charge still dominates most historical thinking on the subject and no amount of Florence Nightingale can hide that fact. When the Charge of the Light Brigade took place the war had been raging for over a year and the campaign had moved into the Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula which Russia had bagged from the Ottoman Turks in the previous century. The Charge was just one move by the British during the wider, ultimately indecisive confrontation with the Russians known as the Battle of Balaclava. The coalition forces were seeking to capture the vital port city of Sevastopol and the Russians were fighting to the death to keep them away.
There were two major British cavalry units present at Balaclava on the day of the battle. The Heavy Brigade, commanded by Major General James Yorke Scarlett, consisted of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the Scots Greys. The Light Brigade was commanded by Major General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan and consisted of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars. Lieutenant General George Charles Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan was in overall command of the cavalry forces. Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan were brothers-in-law and shared a bitter mutual dislike for one-another.
A Very British Balls-Up
The ill-fated moment came shortly after 11am on October 25th 1854. An order from General FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, overall commander of the British army at Balaclava, was delivered to Lord Lucan. Lord Raglan's order was for the cavalry to charge and stop the Russians withdrawing the naval artillery from their recently captured redoubts on the south side of the Causeway Heights. However, in the process of its drafting and delivery Raglan's order had become somewhat vague and when it reached Lucan he was only able to interpret it as "Prevent the Russians from carrying away the guns." with very little suggestion as to which guns Raglan was actually referring to. Captain Louis Edward Nolan, the man who delivered the order to Lucan, appeared to indicate with a vague hand gesture that the cavalry had to charge the Russian guns to the NORTH of the Causeway Heights. With Lucan unable to see the captured redoubts for himself due to his position and the lay of the land he arrived at the conclusion that the gun battery at the Don Cossack Redoubt, which lay at the end of the northern valley between the Fedyukhin Heights to the north and the Causeway Heights to the south, was the intended target.
|Map of the Light Brigade's mistaken charge through the north valley. The intended British goal was the redoubts on the north side of the south valley.|
Still unsure as to why he should receive such a seemingly risky order, Lucan made the fateful decision to send his brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan and the Light Brigade to lead the charge through the valley towards the Don Cossack battery, with the intention of following up behind with Major General Scarlett and the Heavy Brigade. Lord Raglan could only watch in horror from his vantage point at the far side of the battlefield as Cardigan led his force of over 600 cavalry in completely the wrong direction, straight into what the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson would later dub "The Valley of Death", bristling with 20 battalions of Russian infantry and over 50 artillery pieces. As Cardigan led the charge into the valley Captain Nolan was seen to ride across his path trying to get his attention. Before Nolan could say anything, the Russian guns on the Fedyukhin Heights opened fire, killing him stone dead. The Light Brigade continued on, taking heavy casualties from the artillery on both sides of the valley as well as from the Don Cossack Redoubt.
Lucan, Scarlett and the Heavy Brigade remained at the entrance to the valley, unwilling to risk their lives by coming to the aid of their comrades. That job was left to the French light cavalry, le Chasseurs d'Afrique, who fought with distinction to clear the Russians from the Fedyukhin heights and provide some cover for the retreating remnants of the Light Brigade, including Cardigan.
As the result of one simple yet monumental communications breakdown, 118 men were killed, 127 wounded and 60 taken prisoner. Although the charge did no harm at all to the British cavalry's heroic reputation it remains to this day a significant example of how a simple mistake in war can have fatal and far-reaching consequences, not to mention raise questions as to the continued usefulness of horse-mounted troops in the face of such powerful advanced artillery, which had come a long way from the cannons of old which had struggled to hit a barn door from three feet away. The fact it was even able to happen has also raised questions as to who amongst that aristocratic chain-of-command was truly responsible for sending the men of the Light Brigade to an unnecessary death...
So What Went Wrong?
Responsibility for the Charge of the Light Brigade rests solely upon the order to attack and how that order would go on to be interpreted. As the overall commander of the British army at the Battle of Balaclava, Lord Raglan would have had to take responsibility for not being clearer with his orders. The fact that only he himself could see the Causeway Heights redoubts from his good vantage point while Lucan could not means that Raglan was always going to be asking for trouble by simply telling his subordinate to go for the guns, especially when the only guns that Lucan was aware of were those of the Don Cossack battery. Regardless of who could see what, Raglan must accept a degree of blame for simply not being clear about where he wanted the cavalry to go.
Much attention has been focused on Captain Nolan over the years due to his behaviour on the battlefield that day and the nature of his death. It was Nolan's sweep of the hand that appeared to indicate to Lucan that the cavalry were to attack into the heavily defended northern valley. If he knew the true nature of the target then he should have looked where he was pointing. Given that it was his job to relay the order directly to Lucan from Raglan, verbally as well as by letter, the Captain was almost certainly aware of what was supposed to have happened as opposed to what actually transpired on the battlefield and his final moments alive seem to hint at that as well. The fact that Nolan attempted to get in front of Cardigan and the Light Brigade before he was killed suggests that he was indeed aware that they were charging the wrong target and his final moments were an attempt to stop or ward off the cavalry. Cardigan had only bad words to say about Nolan after the battle and believed that Nolan was attempting to take over the leadership of the charge from him before he was killed. This means that Nolan probably did not get the chance to speak to Cardigan and thus the cavalry continued oblivious.
|(l-r) Lord Raglan, Lord Lucan, Lord Cardigan and Captain Nolan|
To me the most interesting thing about the whole thing is the tense relationship and increasing rivalry between the in-laws, Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan (which Lord Raglan was largely unaware of). The two men had pretty much hated each-others guts for 30 years and I personally would not dismiss the idea that Lucan was beyond ordering Cardigan to attack the wrong target on purpose either to get him killed or get him to take the blame and thus destroy his reputation. The fact that Lucan held back with the Heavy Brigade only goes to show his unwillingness to ensure his brother-in-law's safety although his official excuse was the desire not to put more men at unnecessary risk. While it seems unlikely that two professional army officers would put mens' lives at stake over such petty personal squabbles I still feel that it ought to be taken into account.
In all I feel that what happened to the Light Brigade was certainly the result of a mistaken interpretation for which most of the people involved have to share the blame. Lord Raglan, as the man with the overall power of life and death over the men in his army, should have made his attack orders clearer with respect to what target to attack. On the other hand you must also rap both Lucan and Cardigan on the knuckles for not raising any further questions as to why on earth their commander would want to send the cavalry on a near-certain suicide mission. Nolan must also shoulder some blame for his rather laid-back confirmation of the target but his valiant attempt to halt the charge makes him, in my view, the hero of the piece. Regardless of who is really to blame for all this, the fact remains that the Charge of the Light Brigade and the subsequent slaughter that followed it happened simply due to basic human error. It was not the first time that such a thing had happened on the field of battle and it would certainly not be the last.