On This Day

Charge of the Light Brigade, Charge of the Light Brigade simpson, battle of balaclava, cardigan Charge of the Light Brigade
“The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava,” an 1855 painting by William Simpson.

On This Day: Charge of the Light Brigade Ends in Heroic Failure

October 25, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Oct. 25, 1854, British Lt. Gen. Lord Cardigan led a disastrous cavalry charge made famous by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

The Battle of Balaclava

Britain, allied with France and the Ottoman Empire, was at war with Russia on the Crimean peninsula, part of present-day Ukraine. In September 1854, British, French and Ottoman forces landed on Crimea with the intention of seizing the port city of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea naval base. British troops set up their base at Balaclava, about 15 miles southeast, to launch a siege on Sevastopol beginning on Oct. 17.

On Oct. 25, the Russian forces, under the command of Prince Menshikov, launched an offensive on Balaclava. In the early morning, the Russians defeated a small Turkish force and advanced toward British forces in two columns. The first column, heading south to the town of Balaclava, was met by Sir Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders. Though outnumbered, the Highlanders fought valiantly and repulsed the Russian forces, earning the nickname “The Thin Red Line.”

The second Russian column moved west and was met by Maj. Gen. James Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade, which charged uphill and routed the Russian troops. The Russians fled to the Causeway Heights, overlooking the North Valley from the south. Russian troops were also positioned on the Fedioukine Hills north of the valley and at the east end of the valley. At the west end of the North Valley stood the Light Brigade, under the command of Lt. Gen. Lord Cardigan.

Lt. Gen. Lord Raglan, commander of the British Army, watched the battle from the high ground of Sapouné Heights. Seeing that the Russian forces were collecting Turkish guns lost during the battle, he decided to order the Light Brigade to the Causeway Heights. He sent a letter, carried by Capt. Lewis Nolan, to Lord Lucan, commander of the cavalry. It read:

“Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.”

Lucan, who could not see the Russians removing guns from his position in the valley, did not understand Raglan’s letter. Nolan, who held contempt for Lucan, pointed to Russian troops positioned across the valley to the east rather than to the troops on the Causeway Heights. “There, my Lord!” said Nolan. “There is your enemy! There are your guns!”

Lucan gave the orders to Cardigan, who noted that Russian forces were flanked to either side of the valley. “I know it,” said Lucan. “But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.”

Cardigan led the charge of 673 cavalrymen past the Causeway Heights and into the mile-long valley. Nolan soon rode past him, waving his sword; some historians believe that Nolan had realized the mistake and was attempting to stop the charge. However, he was quickly hit by a Russian shell splinter and killed before he could warn the cavalry.

The cavalry continued through the valley, under fire from the north and south, straight into the Russian cannons in the east. Lucan, sensing the futility of the charge, held back the Heavy Brigade. Cardigan led his decimated cavalry to his target in the east, where they engaged in battle.

At the end of the battle, less than 200 men of the Light Brigade returned safely as the valley was scattered with bodies, horses and weapons. In all, 247 men were killed or wounded, while others were taken prisoner. French Gen. Pierre Bosquet, who watched the battle from the Fedioukine Hills, remarked, “It is magnificent, but this is not war.”

Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

The battle was made famous thanks to a poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by British Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Published in the Dec. 9, 1854, edition of The Examiner, the poem portrayed the charge as a “symbol of heroic failure, a high-Victorian icon of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty,” explains the BBC’s Sean Coughlan. It read in part:

“‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

Legacy of the Charge of the Light Brigade

The men who fought in the Battle of Balaclava were awarded a battle honor, usually reserved for victories. “The three episodes in the battle; the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade, are such icons of courage and achievement for the British Army, that it is not surprising the military authorities awarded Balaclava as a battle honour to the regiments involved,” writes BritishBattles.com.

The notion of “heroic failure” began to change in the 20th century when British forces faced heavy casualties in World War I. “Re-interpretations of the Charge of the Light Brigade pointed up the failings of aristocratic, self-centred generals, who appeared to have little concern for casualties,” says Coughlan.

The battle is still celebrated in Britain, though, and there was a large commemoration in 2004 for its 150th anniversary. British historians, journalists and other citizens—including the present-day Lord Cardigan—visited Balaclava for a re-enactment of the charge.

For the anniversary, historian A.D. Harvey argued in BBC History magazine that the charge was a “military success” that helped to instill discipline and valor into the British troops. “In the longer term,” remarked The Independent, “the habit of obeying orders—which had not been universal in earlier periods—indicated a new ethos of professionalism in the Army.”

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