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The Charge of the Light Brigade was a disastrous charge of British cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclavamarker on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. It is best remembered as the subject of a famous poem entitled The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose lines have made the charge a symbol of warfare at both its most courageous and its most tragic.

Events

The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry, consisting of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, under the command of Major General the Earl of Cardigan. Together with the Heavy Brigade comprising the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the Scots Greys, commanded by Major General James Yorke Scarlett, himself a past Commanding Officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards, the two units were the main British cavalry force at the battle. Overall command of the cavalry resided with Lieutenant General the 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. Horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." Raglan in fact wished the cavalry to prevent the Russians taking away the naval guns from the redoubts that they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the left side of the valley (from the point of view of the cavalry). Raglan could see what was happening from his high vantage-point on the west of the valley, but Lucan and the cavalry were unaware of what was going on owing to the lie of the land where they were drawn up.The order was drafted by Brigadier Airey and was carried by Captain Louis Edward Nolan, who 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, by 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 is unclear, as he was killed in the ensuing battle.

In response to the order, Lucan instructed Cardigan to lead 673 (some sources state 661; another 607) cavalry men straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights, 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.

The Timeline of the Charge taken from Forgotten Heroes: The Charge of the Light Brigade (2007).
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 had 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 a 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 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. 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 cavalry, the Chasseurs d'Afrique, were more effective in that they broke the Russian line on the Fedyukhin Heights and later provided cover for the remaining elements of the Light Brigade as they withdrew. 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 astonishing 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 Housemarker in London, which was quoted in length in the House of Commonsmarker afterwards:

Aftermath

The brigade was not completely destroyed, but did suffer terribly, with 118 men killed, 127 wounded. 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. Wounded.
9 Officers 12
14 Serjeants 9
4 Trumpeters 3
129 Rank and file 98


156 Total 122
278 casualties;
— 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.

A 2005 view of the "Valley of Death" in which the Charge of the Light Brigade was fought.
Now occupied by vineyards, it was open ground in 1854.


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 in March 1855, Lucan was recalled to England. 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 Lordsmarker 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. Sir Winston Churchill, who was a keen military historian and a former cavalryman, insisted on taking time out during the Yalta Conferencemarker in 1945 to see the battlefield for himself.

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.

In October 1875 the survivors of the Charge met at 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 [702436] which included the recollections of several of the survivors including those of Edward Richard Woodham the Chairman of the Committee that organised the celebration.

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 has been unveiled by the HRH Prince Michael of Kent.

Poems

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 on 9 December 1854 in The Examiner, praises the Brigade, "When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!", while 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 the visit of the last twenty survivors to Tennyson (then in his eightieth year) gently to reproach him for not writing a sequel about the way in which England was treating its old soldiers.

Media representations

Two war movies were made, both titled The Charge of the Light Brigade. The 1936 version stars Errol Flynn and is historically completely inaccurate, turning the motive into a grudge match against an Indian ruler allied with the Russians. The 1968 version featured David Hemmings and Trevor Howard. Much more correct, it was produced during a time of public frustration over the futility of the Vietnam War.

The novel Flashman at the Charge has Harry Flashman participating (much against his will) in the Charge. The Iron Maiden single "The Trooper" is partially based on Tennyson's poem.

See also



References

  1. Although unnamed, the correspondent was William Howard Russell
  2. Woodham Smith, p. 239.
  3. Russell's report in The Times recorded that that just short of 200 men were sick or for other reasons left behind in camp on the day, leaving "607 sabres" to take part in the charge.
  4. Woodham Smith, p. 258.
  5. Woodham Smith, p. 262.


Further reading

  • The Reason Why, Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade, Cecil Woodham-Smith, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-139031-X, first published in 1953 by McGraw-Hill.


  • Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Terry Brighton, Henry Holt and Co, ISBN 0-8050-7722-7, published November 2, 2004.




  • Illustrated London News 30 October 1875 [702437], reporting the celebration at Alexandra Palace of the survivors of the Charge and some of their recollections including those of Edward Richard Woodham the Chairman of the Committee that organised the celebration


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