The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. Lord Raglan, overall commander of the British forces, had intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue and harry a retreating Russian artillery battery, a task well suited to light cavalry. Due to miscommunication in the chain of command, the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a different artillery battery, one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire.
Although the Light Brigade reached the battery under withering direct fire and scattered some of the gunners, the badly mauled brigade was forced to retreat immediately. Thus, the assault ended with very high British casualties and no decisive gains.
The events are best remembered as the subject of the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Published just six weeks after the event, its lines emphasize the valour of the cavalry in bravely carrying out their orders, regardless of the obvious outcome. Blame for the miscommunication has remained controversial, as the original order from Raglan itself was vague.
The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry, which consisted of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, under the command of Major General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Also present that day was the Heavy Brigade, commanded by Major General James Yorke Scarlett, who was a past Commanding Officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards. The Heavy Brigade was made up of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the Scots Greys. The two brigades were the only British cavalry force at the battle.
The Light Brigade, as the name suggests, were the British light cavalry force. It mounted light, fast horses which were unarmored. The men were armed with lances and sabres. Optimized for maximum mobility and speed, they were intended for reconnaissance and skirmishing. They were also ideal for cutting down infantry and artillery units as they attempted to retreat.
The Heavy Brigade under James Scarlett was the British heavy cavalry force. It mounted large, heavy chargers. The men were equipped with metal helmets and armed with cavalry swords for close combat. They were intended as the primary British shock force, leading frontal charges in order to break enemy lines. Overall command of the British cavalry resided with Lieutenant General George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law who disliked each other intensely.
Lucan received an order from the army commander Lord Raglan stating that “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.” What Raglan wanted was for the light cavalry to prevent the Russians from successfully withdrawing the naval guns from the redoubts that they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the south side of the valley. This was 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.
Raglan could see what was happening from his high vantage point on the west side of the valley. However, the lie of the land around Lucan and the cavalry prevented them from seeing the Russians’ efforts to remove the guns from the redoubts and retreat.
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. His reasons for the misdirection are unknown because he was killed in the ensuing battle.
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. This was the hollow famously dubbed the “Valley of Death” by the poet Tennyson.
The opposing Russian forces were commanded by Pavel Liprandi and included approximately 20 battalions of infantry supported by over fifty 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 supporting 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 if there were any objection to the orders, it was not recorded.
The Timeline of the Charge taken from Forgotten Heroes: The Charge of the Light Brigade (2007).
Contemporary map showing line of the charge—”Charge des Anglais”
The charge was from left to right, with the Russian batteries at the extreme right
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 realised 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, 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, with grape and canister, indiscriminately at the mêlée of friend and foe before them.
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.Chasseurs d’Afrique, was more effective in that it cleared the Fedyukhin Heights 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, and later provided cover for the remaining elements of the Light Brigade as they withdrew.
The troops of the Heavy Brigade entered the mouth of the valley, but did not advance further. Lucan’s subsequent explanation was that he saw no point in having a second brigade mown down and that he was best positioned where he was to render assistance to Light Brigade survivors returning from the charge. The French light cavalry, the
War correspondent William Russell, who witnessed the battle, declared “our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy”.
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, with considerable sang-froid, left the field and went on board his yacht in Balaclava harbour, where he ate a champagne dinner. He subsequently described the engagement in a speech delivered at the Mansion House in London that was afterwards quoted in length in the House of Commons:
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 fifty 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. Those regiments proceeded, followed by the second line, consisting of two more regiments of cavalry, which continued to perform the duty of cutting down the Russian gunners.
Then came the third line, formed of another regiment, which endeavoured to complete the duty assigned to our brigade. I believe that this was achieved with great success, and the result was that this body, composed of only about 670 men, succeeded in passing through the mass of Russian cavalry of—as we have since learned—5,240 strong; and having broken through that mass, they went, according to our technical military expression, “threes about,” and retired in the same manner, doing as much execution in their course as they possibly could upon the enemy’s cavalry. Upon our returning up the hill which we had descended in the attack, we had to run the same gauntlet and to incur the same risk from the flank fire of the Tirailleur as 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 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 Balaklava, 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.
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.”) He continued, in a rarely quoted phrase: “C’est de la folie” — “it is madness.” The Russian commanders are said to have initially believed that the British soldiers must have been drunk. Somerset Calthorpe, ADC to Lord Raglan, wrote a letter to a friend three days after the charge. He detailed casualty numbers, but he did not make distinction between those killed and those taken prisoner:
|“Killed and missing.
||Rank and file
— besides 335 horses killed in action, or obliged afterwards to be destroyed from wounds. It has since been ascertained that the Russians made a good many prisoners; the exact number is not yet known.”
The reputation of the British cavalry was significantly enhanced as a result of the charge, though the same cannot be said for their commanders.
Slow communications meant that news of the disaster did not reach the British public until three weeks after the action. The British commanders’ dispatches from the front were published in an extraordinary edition of the London Gazette of 12 November 1854. Raglan blamed Lucan for the charge, claiming that “from some misconception of the order to advance, the Lieutenant-General (Lucan) considered that he was bound to attack at all hazards, and he accordingly ordered Major-General the Earl of Cardigan to move forward with the Light Brigade.” Lucan 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.
Lucan attempted to publish a letter refuting point by point Raglan’s London Gazette dispatch, but his criticism of his superior was not tolerated and Lucan was recalled to England in March 1855. The Charge of the Light Brigade became a subject of considerable controversy and public dispute on his return. He strongly rejected Raglan’s version of events, calling it “an imputation reflecting seriously on my professional character”. In an exchange of public correspondence printed in the pages of The Times, Lucan blamed Raglan and his deceased aide-de-camp Captain Nolan, who had been the actual deliverer of the disputed order. Lucan subsequently defended himself with a speech in the House of Lords on 19 March.
Lucan evidently escaped blame for the charge, as he was made a member of the Order of the Bath in July of that same year. Although he never again saw active duty, he reached the rank of general in 1865 and was made a field marshal in the year before his death.
The charge of the Light Brigade continues to be studied by modern military historians and students as an example of what can go wrong when accurate military intelligence is lacking and orders are unclear. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was a keen military historian and a former cavalryman, insisted on taking time out during the Yalta Conference in 1945 to see the battlefield for himself.
According to Norman Dixon, 19th-century 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 “did much to strengthen those very forms of tradition which put such an incapacitating stranglehold on military endeavor for the next eighty or so years,” i.e., until World War I.
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 14 May 1927, aged 96, was the last survivor of the charge.
Souvenir picture of the 1904 survivors’ reunion
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, including those of Edward Richard Woodham, the Chairman of the Committee that organised the celebration. 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 held for a number of years.
On 2 August 1890, trumpeter Landfrey, from the 17th Lancers, who sounded the bugle charge at Balaclava, made a recording on an Edison cylinder that can be heard here, with a bugle which had been used at Waterloo in 1815.
In 2004, on the 150th anniversary of the Charge, a commemoration of the event was held at Balaklava. As part of the anniversary, a monument dedicated to the 25,000 British participants of the conflict was unveiled by Prince Michael of Kent.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the then Poet Laureate, wrote evocatively about the battle in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade“. Tennyson’s poem, published six weeks after the event on 9 December 1854 in The Examiner, praises the Brigade (“When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!”) while trenchantly mourning the appalling futility of the charge (“Not tho’ the soldier knew, someone had blunder’d… Charging an army, while all the world wonder’d”). Tennyson wrote the poem inside only a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in The Times, according to his grandson Sir Charles Tennyson. It immediately became hugely popular, even reaching the troops in the Crimea, where it was distributed in pamphlet form.
Forty years later Kipling wrote “The Last of the Light Brigade“, commemorating a visit by the last twenty survivors to Tennyson (then in his eightieth year) to reproach him gently for not writing a sequel about the way in which England was treating its old soldiers. Some sources treat the poem as an account of a real event, but other commentators class the destitute old soldiers as allegorical, with the visit invented by Kipling to draw attention to the poverty in which the real survivors were living, in the same way that he evoked Tommy Atkins in “The Absent Minded Beggar“.
Years after the battle, James Bosworth, a station-master at Northam, was run over and killed by a railway engine. At the time of his death he was 70 years old and in his younger days was one of those who had fought at the Battle of Balaclava and survived. The English Illustrated Magazine states that he “surviv[ed] ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ at Balaclava”. His epitaph as listed below referenced both his presence at the battle and Lord Tennyson’s poem.