By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.”
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, December 1854,
“The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
The Crimean War of October 1853 to March 1856 took place because the Russian Empire was attempting to expand its influence southward, beyond the Danube River at the Romanian/Bulgarian border. The British Fleet, in alliance with the French and the Ottoman Empire, sailed into the Black Sea to prevent this Russian expansionism. Allied forces landed on the Crimean Peninsula (historically part of Ukraine, meaning “borderlands,” but illegally annexed by Russia in 2014), then part of the Russian Empire, in September 1854, intent upon attacking Russia’s main naval base at Sevastopol. The forces fought and won the Battle of Alma, south of Sevastopol, on September 20th. But the Russians counterattacked an allied supply base a month later, on October 25, 1854, at the Battle of Balaclava.
This historic and world-famous encounter, less than three and a half miles inland from the Black Sea, at the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula, just north of the Woronzoff Road (present-day Route H19), was the scene of the very dramatic, heroic, and ill-fated, “Charge of the Light Brigade,” by British cavalry forces.
Lieutenant General George Bingham, the 3rd Earl of Lucan, was in overall command of the cavalry that day, with two brigades on hand: the Heavy Brigade, under Major General James Yorke Scarlett, and the Light Brigade, under Major General James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan were brothers-in-law, who disliked one another intensely. The Light Brigade, a British light-cavalry force, consisted of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, totaling 670 men on horseback. Although one later report stated that a number of sick men were left behind in camp that day, leaving “607 sabres” (British spelling) ready for battle.
The Heavy Brigade was mounted on large, heavy chargers, with its soldiers wearing metal helmets and carrying cavalry swords. The brigade was intended as a shock force, to lead frontal charges and break apart the enemy’s lines. In contrast, the Light Brigade rode smaller, lighter, faster horses without armor, and were armed primarily with lances and sabers. This brigade was intended mainly for reconnaissance and light skirmishing, or for attacking enemy infantry or artillery troops as they tried to retreat.
There were no camouflaged, field uniforms in those days. The British troops wore a variety of uniforms, from bright red with dark blue pants (Heavy Brigade), to dark blue with blue or gray (4th and 13th Light Dragoons), or even red pants (11th Hussars). The Russians were mostly clad in gray, with red collars, and their Don Cossack (semi-nomadic horsemen from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe of Ukraine and southern Russia) allies wore either gray or dark blue. The primary, British cavalry weapons were their swords, or sabers, including the 1822 Wilkinson Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword with 36-inch blade, the 1821 Light Cavalry Sword for enlisted men, and some troopers carried the new, 1853 Cavalry Sword. Lancers carried a nine-foot-long, ash-hafted lance.
There were also some firearms, including the single-shot, 1842 Tower Cavalry Pistol in .753 caliber with nine-inch barrel as standard-issue. But many officers carried their own, non-regulation handguns, such as the 1851 Deane, Adams, and Deane five-shot, double-action, percussion revolver in .456 or .497-caliber (with 6.5-inch, octagonal barrel, or 5.62-inch barrel). And there were even a small number of 1851 Colt Navy revolvers in .36-caliber. Enlisted men with the Hussars and Light Dragoons also carried the single-shot, 1842 “Victoria” Carbine in .65-caliber, with 20.1-inch barrel.
Initially, General Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade of just 300 cavalrymen charged the stationary, Russian cavalry (2,000-strong) from south to north. At the western edge of the battlefield, despite being heavily outnumbered by the enemy, they moved swiftly and relentlessly, delivering a huge, breathtaking shock to the Russian troops. Hitting them in waves, with flanking attacks from the left and right, the British heavy cavalry caused the enemy lines to heave and sway, in a bold attack that lasted less than 10 minutes. In the end, however, the British did not break through completely.
The Russians soon backed away, across the nearby Causeway Heights toward the north, seizing four former, Turkish redoubts and gun positions in the process. With the Russian cavalry reestablishing themselves at the eastern end of the North Valley, their Cossack artillery guns were ready for action.
General FitzRoy H.J. Somerset, the 1st Baron Raglan (Lord Raglan) and the British Army commander on-scene, was observing the battle from an excellent vantage point. He sat high upon the Sapouné Heights, at the western end of the battlefield, and he was determined to recapture the Causeway Heights and the Woronzoff Road. He intended for the Light Brigade to advance at once, recapture the redoubts, and control the Causeway Heights until the infantry arrived to relieve them. However, his actual, written order to Lord Lucan was somewhat vague and ambiguous: “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.”
Captain Louis Nolan, a young, brash, impetuous, impatient officer serving as aide-de-camp, delivered the order to Lucan, with the verbal instruction that the Light Brigade was to “attack immediately.” When Lucan asked to which guns the letter referred, Nolan indicated with a wide sweep of his arm. Nolan did not sweep toward the Causeway Heights redoubts, as Lucan expected, but the toward the 12 Don Cossack artillery pieces massed in a redoubt at the eastern end of the valley, more than a mile away.
He said, “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!” adding the word “attack,” when Lord Raglan had intended merely a show of force. Nolan’s reasons for the misdirection are unknown because he was killed within the first minute the of ensuing battle. And Raglan’s vague wording, “advance rapidly to the front,” seemed to direct him straight across the valley floor, in front of the Light Brigade.
Opposing this British contingent was Russian General Pavel Liprandi (of Spanish-Italian descent), commanding 5,240 Russian and Cossack soldiers in 20 battalions. With more than 50 artillery guns at their disposal, they were arranged in a horseshoe-shaped formation atop the Fedyukhin (or Fedioukine) Heights to the north. The Causeway Heights were to the south, and the eastern end of the North Valley backed up to more hills at the Chernorechye Aqueduct and town.
Lord Lucan thought the order was crazy and suicidal, but he then passed the miscommunicated order on to Lord Cardigan, in command of the Light Brigade. Cardigan pointed out that the valley was ringed by Russian artillery guns, not only toward the front, but to the right and left as well. Lucan acknowledged his objection, but insisted that it was the commander-in-chief’s specific order, so there was no choice but to obey.
Lord Cardigan then ordered his bugler to sound the charge at 11:13 AM on October 25, 1854. He bravely led the way on his horse, Ronald, with 670 sets of thundering hooves behind him. Suddenly, Captain Nolan, who had asked to ride with the 17th Lancers, inexplicably darted out in front, and was killed instantly by an artillery shell.
Cardigan charged furiously forward at a wild pace, never once looking back, as his brigade was pounded by murderous, artillery barrages from three different directions. The Heavy Brigade was supposed to support them in a second wave. They entered the mouth of the valley but failed to advance at all. Lucan later claimed that he saw no point in having a second brigade needlessly cut to pieces. The French light cavalry assisted somewhat on the left flank, clearing part of the Fedyukhin Heights, but otherwise, the Light Brigade was totally on its own in a suicidal, frontal attack.
It took the embattled, British cavalry seven long, agonizing minutes to reach the Cossack artillery battery directly in front of them. As depicted on the timeline chart above, they were outnumbered by eight-to-one odds the entire time. While only a few miles inland, the Russians used naval guns and munitions. Russian cannons fired nonstop, lobbing eight-inch, explosive shells, shotgun-style grapeshot, and possibly bar or chain shot.
After taking heavy casualties (278 men [42 percent] killed, wounded, or missing, and 335 horses [50 percent] killed in action or euthanized), they reached the enemy gunners and scattered some of them. But they were forced to retreat almost immediately. After regrouping, there were only 195 men (29 percent) combat-ready, with live horses. Their spirits remained high, and they were ready to attack again if needed.
Cardigan later described the ferocious battle in a London speech: “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; so that when we came to within a distance of 50 yards from the mouths of the artillery which had been hurling destruction upon us, we were, in fact, surrounded and encircled by a blaze of fire, in addition to the fire of the riflemen upon our flanks.
“As we ascended the hill, the oblique fire of the artillery poured upon our rear, so that we had thus a strong fire upon our front, our flank, and our rear. 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.
“This was achieved with great success, and the result was that this body of 670 men succeeded in passing through the mass of Russian cavalry of…5,240 strong…doing as much execution in their course as they possibly could upon the enemy’s cavalry. Upon our returning up the hill…we had to run the same gauntlet and to incur the same risk from the flank fire…we had encountered before. Numbers of our men were shot down—men and horses were killed, and many of the soldiers who had lost their horses were also shot down while endeavouring to escape.
“But what, my Lord, was the feeling and what was the bearing of those brave men who returned to the position? Of each of these regiments there returned but a small detachment, two-thirds of the men engaged having been destroyed. I think that every man who was engaged in that disastrous affair at Balaclava, and who was fortunate enough to come out of it alive, must feel that it was only by a merciful decree of Almighty Providence that he escaped from the greatest apparent certainty of death which could possibly be conceived.”
Ultimately, the Russians were victorious at Balaclava, but the British Empire won the Crimean War in 1856, after the fall of Sevastopol. The destruction of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol and other naval docks was a humiliation. Also in 1856, the Victoria Cross (VC) medal was established as Britain’s highest decoration for extraordinary heroism in battle, regardless of rank or position. The medal was a bronze cross patée beneath a crimson ribbon, awarded for “most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour (British spelling) or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.” In fact, it was engraved with the words, “For Valour.”
The bronze medallion portion was originally cast from the cascabel (a knob at the breech) of a Russian cannon captured at Sevastopol. It has been engraved by Hancock’s & Company jewelers ever since. But after December 1914, the bronze came from a captured, antique, Chinese cannon used during the First Opium War in 1839 to 1842.
Queen Victoria, age 38 at the time, personally presented the first 62 medals in 1857, to two soldiers of the Heavy Brigade, and five to soldiers of the Light Brigade. One of these was Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn, of the 11th Hussars (a Serbian word for light cavalry), a Canadian whose story follows: “Lieutenant Dunn was actively engaged in the battle, leading his troops in the futile attempts to capture the Russian artillery. When the retreat was finally called, he saw that one of his troopers, Sergeant Robert Bentley, was in trouble. Bentley’s horse was badly wounded.
“Russian lancers had picked Bentley out as a straggler and were attacking him, trying to knock him out of the saddle. Dunn wheeled his horse and returned to Bentley’s aid. He killed two or three of the Russian soldiers, lifted Bentley back up on his horse, and slapped its rear to get it moving back to safety. Dunn then noticed that another soldier from his troop, Private Harvey Levett, had been dismounted and was being attacked by a Russian hussar. Dunn came to Levett’s aid, killing the Russian hussar with his lengthy sabre.”
Lord Cardigan, who had only followed orders, returned home as a national hero and was promoted to Inspector General of the Cavalry. He blamed Lucan for the “mad-brained trick” of the bungled, attack orders at Balaclava, which became a huge source of controversy in England. Lucan blamed Raglan and Nolan, then defended himself in a speech to the House of Lords and was later promoted to field marshal.
The Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Alfred Lord Tennyson, wrote his epic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” on December 2, 1854. This battle-story is now one of the most-famous poems in history. He concluded this heroic story of battle far more eloquently than anyone else could. Here are portions of Tennyson’s poem:
“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.
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered.
“Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke,
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian.
“When can their glory fade?
O, the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!”
* * *
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including Eastern Europe) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.