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"History is not the light and the truth, but the search therefore."


On 27 February 1854, Britain issued an ultimatum to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, whose troops had crossed the Danube River into Turkey.

Russia Raids Turkey

Britain feared if Russian forces took the Turkish capital, the Tsar's Black Sea fleet would have access to the Mediterranean Sea and pose a threat to Britain's dominance as a sea power and to its use of the Suez Canal, thereby threatening its priceless Emerald in the Crown, India.

When the Tsar was silent, Britain, joined France and Turkey and declared war on Russia on 28 March 1854, creating thereby what was called the Crimean War, since most of the fighting occurred on the Crimean peninsula, southernmost part of Russia..

Cypress along the Crimea Sea
photo by
G. Wilson

The first the cavalrymen heard that hostilities might to happen was on 11 March 1854, when they were ordered to submit their sabres for sharpening. They were re-issued with strict orders to keep swords in their scabbards until needed for notching the enemy.

Cavalrymen just hanging around

The British began bombarding Sevastopol, the Russian naval base.and home of its Black SeaFleet.

Base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet
photo by
G. Wilson

Sevastapol Train Station
photo by
G. Wilson

The Russians responded by bombarding the British at Balaclava.

Balaclava Countryside
photo by
G. Wilson

Chapel for defenders of Petro during the Crimean War
photo by
G. Wilson

Lord Raglan
Commander-in-Chief of British Crimean Forces

Lord Raglan was appointed commander of Crimean expeditionary force, the army being assembled for foreign service. To the amazement of many who knew of the two, Lord Lucan was given command of the Cavalry Division and Lucan's brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, command of the Light Brigade. Neither had ever led troops, having risen in rank and received promotion by purchase and noble name. The miltitary mandate at the time was: who better than a lord to lead.

Crimea Landscape
photo by
G. Wilson

The feeling among the troops was that they had nothing against the Russians, but heartily disliked their two haughty, mean-spirited leaders. To add insult to injury, these two losers, Lucan and Cardigan, could not stand each other and because of their frequent conflicts, had to be warned by Wellington to shape up or ship out. Raglan had his hands full just keeping them from having at each other. Such was the team sent to tackle the Russians.

In August 1855, Lady Hornby accompanied her husband Sir Edmund to Constantinople. He had been appointed British financial commissioner in Turkey, whose job it was to help organize an English loan to the Ottoman government during the Crimean War. During her thirteen months in Constantinople, she sent home letters to relatives. Later she made them into a book titled, "In and Around Stamboul." She commented on all she saw and heard and this included the progress of the war. She recorded that because of some lamentable leadership, there were a good many, "sad, indignant comments on the terrible mistakes and fatal mismanagement on which all agree."

This leads nicely to the culprits who caused some of it..

Lord Lucan

Lord Cardigan

Cardigan's home, Deene Park

Cardigan's home, Deene Park

Lord Cardigan's "cherry bums" were paraded proudly around Horse Guards before departing for Crimea. The Times saw their colourful costumes differently, arguing that the shortness of their jackets and the tightness of their cherry-coloured pants made them "ill equipped for war." It turned out the costumes were to be the least of their laments.

With three cheers for the Queen and "for a glorious war and happy return," the cavalry set sail for the Black Sea - a five week journey. They were always unnerved by a lengthy sea trip, both for themselves, but moreso for their horses, which usually resulted in some deaths and the incapacitation of others for an extended period. This trip was no exception. During the rough voyage, 100 men died or were hospitalized, several hundred horses were unfit for the field and the men's morale was so low, it was feared they could not fight. Ragland had opted to travel overland with his servants and baggage including a spring bed and two large tents, one for dining and one in which to sleep..

Lucan, instead of sympathizing with the tired, sick and sorry-looking soldiers who finally disembarked, took them to task for their sloppy appearance, catigating them for their beareded faces and unkempt long hair. How dare they dock in such a sight!

Finally at the field of battle, Lord Raglan scanned the redoubts with his field-glasses and noticed increased anxious, enemy activity. The Russians were bringing forth teams of horses to tow away what: British cannons abandoned by their allies, the Turks. Raglan, one of Wellington's warriors had been taught that a good general never lost a gun. His concern in this case was that the artillery would be paraded on the main square in Sebastopol to confirm a Russian propaganda claim that they had inflicted a crushing defeat upon the allied army.

Quick and decisive action was needed to prevent the removal of the trophies. Raglan turned to his Quarter-master General, Sir Richard Airey, who wrote out Raglan's order.

"Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away guns. Troops of horse-artillery may accompany. French artillery is on you left. Immediate." Signed. R. Airey

Raglan gave the order to Airey's own aide, Captain Nolan of the 15th Hussars, who regarded Lucan and Cardigan as the biggest pair of fools who ever plagued the British army. Haughty, self-possessed and intensely jealous of his own expertise, Nolan took the paper. Resplendent in his scarlet and gold uniform, he was one of the finest riders in Europe. If any man cold carry the message to Lucan in time to prevent the removal of the cannons it was Lewis Edward Nolan.

Captain Nolan

The front line of the Light Brigade consisted of the 13th Light Dragoons on the right and the 17th Lancers on the left. Lucan waiting on the lower slopes could not, as Raglan could, see that Russian artillerymen were preparing with horses and lassoes to cart away captured guns from redoubts numered 1-3. Nolan galloped up to Lucan and handed over the order. Lucan read it and a look of alarm crossed his face. The only guns he could see were not those in the redoubts, but those of the main Russian artillery about a mile and a half across the valley.

To Nolan's surprise Lucan declared Raglan's order as useless and dangerous. With pop-eyed indignation Lucan turned on Nolan and shouted, "Attack, Sir! Attack what? What guns, sir?" With a look of contempt, Nolan threw back his head and with a wave of his hand indicated vaguely the further part of the valley. "There, my lord, is your enemy. There are your guns."

Nolan was known to be highly critical of the cavalry's performance and of Lucan's personal leadership and Lucan's concern and confusion about the order only confirmed Nolan's low opinion of the lord. His agitated almost angry response to Lucan's questions bordered on insubordination. If pride had not prevented, Lucan would have questioned Nolan further.

Lucan dispatched the order to Cardigan who was likewise incredulous that the cavalry would be ordered to attack the artillery. When he noted Cardigan's obvious concern, Lucan, who neither liked nor rarely spoke to his brother-in-law, rode over to Cardigan astride his chestnut thoroughbred, Ronald. Lucan affirmed that Cardigan was to lead the 13th Light Dragoons and the 17th Lancers in a frontal attack on the main Russian artillery at the far end of the valley.

Cardigan saluted with his drawn sword in acknowledgement of the order. "Certainly, sir," said Cardigan, "but allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in the valley in our front and batteries and riflemen on each flank." Cardigan added in a more urgent voice, "There must be some mistake. I shall never be able to bring a single man back." "I cannot help that." shot back Lucan, "It is Lord Raglan's positive order that the Light Brigade attacks immediately." Antipathy between the two men prevented any further rational diseview of the order.

Cardigan's family name was Brudenell and he was overheard to say as he moved to carry out the cammand, "Well, here goes the last of the Brudenells." Cardigan was a spit and polish man who prided himself on his smartly turned out regiment in their scarlet uniforms. He was admired for his courage, but not his kindness and he was often in difficulty with officialdom for disciplining too harshly. He had a bad reputation and the newspapers gloried and gloated in his frequent troubles. On one occasion after he had ordered the lash administered on Easter Sunday, demands were made for his resignation or removal. A newspaper disdainfully dismissed of him with this epigram.

Prostrate in prayer the Colonel lies,
While vengeance from his eye-ball flashes.
First to his God for mercy cries,
Then give his man a hundred lashes.

Cardigan [*] wearing a gold-laced fur cloak thrown over his shoulder and carrying his sword at the slope, turned to the trumpeter and gave the fateful order. "Sound the advance." Wheeling his horse round to face the far end of the valley, he led the Brigade forward first at a walk and then a trot. As the regiments moved forward, Cardigan charged them to "Advance very steadily and quietly." Given the shot and shell to which they were exposed from the left and the right, it is little wonder they wanted to gallop to the guns ahead. They had a mile and a quarter to advance into the cauldron of the cannons and neither they nor their mounts were expected to arrive too exhausted to fight effectively.

Suddenly from their left flank, Nolan, appeared galloping diagonally across the front of Cardigan. As he did so he turned in his saddle and waved his sword aloft as though beckoning the squadron to follow. A furious Cardigan fumed at what he thought was Nolan's insulting attempt to lead the cavalry himself. Others saw it as Nolan's endeavour to warn the warriors of their grievous error. No sooner had he begun to shout than a shell fragment pierced his chest killing him instantly. His sword and reins fell from his hand which remained raised as he dropped to the ground. His terrified horse turned and plunged back between the oncoming regiments.

Lord Cardigan
C. H. Wylly

Forward the Light Brigade
Christopher Clark

Theirs not to reason why.

Into the valley of Death.

Diagram of the Charge of the Light Brigade
The red British Light Regiment (left) Advanced Down North Valley to confront
the Blue Russian Battery & Related Regiment

The Valley of Death Today
photo by
B Wilson

The only man who might have prevented the disaster was dead. On the Plateau high above, an appalled and powerless Lord Raglan watched the catastrophe unfold as six hundred and seventy-three riders moved onwards through shot and shell to the certain death that awaited them.

View from Lord Raglan's perspective on the Plateau
as he watched and winced at the wastage.
photo by B. Wilson

The troops grew increasingly anxious "to get out of the murderous fire and into the guns as being the best of two evils." Their momentum built as they ran the gauntlet of shot, shell and grape from all sides. One captain crowded Cardigan who snapped his sword to the side, laid it across his chest and cried out, "Stay, sir! How dare you attempt to ride before your commanding officer!" Obediently he fell back. Cardigan rode on in splendid isolation, sword still at the slope. The scene was pure theatre. an awesome spectacle to the watchers high above.

Crimean Cliffs
photo by
G. Wilson

As they neared the Russian battery, tongues of flame and smoke belched balls that blew whole sections of the front line to pieces. Covered with the blood of their comrades, others rode on through shell bursts and rifle fire behind a leader "steady as a church." When they met the melee, Cardigan rode into the Russian ranks amidst smoke, cannon fire and cossacks who closed about him. He was instantly recognized by Prince Radzivill who offered a reward for him taken alive.


Disdaining the cut and thrust of combat himself, Cardigan contented himself with rallying the ranks to ever greater effort. Individuals and small groups of red coats jabbed, sliced, and hacked as they fought hand to hand, savagely cutting down the cossacks. The frenzied fury of their fearless attack surprised the Russians and filled them with awe and apprehension at what these maniacs might do in the future.

Charge by Richard Caton Woodville

Closeup Charge by Richard Caton Woodville

Blood and Death

Following their fierce, frontal assault, British officers shouted 'Rally! Rally!' and survivers of the onslaught retreated back to their lines passing by Russians who strangely just watched them go. Cardigan turned to view the bloody battlefield, then followed the scattered remnants of the regiments down the valley.

Measured by great battles, this bloody blunder was but an incident, albeit the most famous incident in the whole history of the British military.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tennyson's first draft of the Charge written by his wife, Emily, as he dictated; the alterations in Tennyson's own hand.

The ever-popular poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson was first published in the Examiner in 1854 only weeks after the famous charge (25 October 1854) at Balaclava in the Crimean War near Sebastopol involving British, French and Turk forces on one side and Russians on the other. Its stirring stanzas were said to have been scribbled in a few minutes after Tennyson read an account of that glorious gallop in The Times. While an act of great heroism, the charge, in fact, was an one of folly based on a misunderstood order. As a result 247 officers and men out of 637 were killed or wounded. Tennyson celebrated their valor in The Charge of the Light Brigade which made their dash into the face of death unforgettable.

Tennyson's poem was popular, but so too were the fearless dispatches from the front by the first modern war correspondent of The Times Hindsight is 20 20 and The Times correspondent saw clearly the cause of the catastrophe. The fiasco in the field was blamed on the blokes chosen by the government to run the show. Sharpe criticism was levelled at the leaders and the men who chose them. "Lord Lucan was a hard man to get on with, but the moment the Government made the monstrous choice of his brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, as Brigadier of the Light Brigade, knowing the nature of the men and their relationship, they became responsible for disaster - guilty of treason to the army, neither more nor less." The bumbling Lord Raglan, who lost an arm while with Wellington at Waterloo, and who sometimes mistook his French allies at Crimea for the enemy, ultimately took the oveall blame, for his was the imprecise order that launched the ludicrous charge.

1.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.

2."Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

3.Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

4.Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

5.Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

6.When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred. [**]


Remnants of the Light Brigade
Elizabeth Southerden Thompson (Lady Butler)

"I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism." Lady Butler

Several men posed for this painting. Standing centre is Private Pennington, 11th Hussars; shown mounted bringing in the mortally wounded trumpeter, Billy Britain, is Corporal James Nunnerley, 17th Lancers.

The last surviving veteran of Balaclava died in 1927.

[*] British troops wore knitted masks to protect them from the cold, which were later named 'balaclavas' after the town. 'Cardigans' are named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade.

[**]The Victoria Cross is the highest accolade for bravery in the British armed services. It was first awarded by Queen Victoria in 1856 to soldiers who fought in the Crimea. It is believed the medals were made from artillery guns captured at Sevastopol.


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