The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of the most notorious fiascos in British military history. But who should shoulder the blame for this suicidal assault on Russian guns? Saul David considers the evidence…
This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
The Light Brigade engages Russian gunners and cavalry during their infamous charge on 25 October 1854. When they returned to British lines, just 195 of around 676 horsemen were still mounted. (Bridgeman)
“By Jove,” shouted an eagle-eyed member of Lord Raglan’s staff. “They’re going to take away the guns!” It was 10.40am on 25 October 1854. Three hours earlier Lord Raglan, the British commander in the Crimea, had watched helplessly from his vantage point on the Sapouné Ridge as a huge force of Russian infantry overwhelmed three of the Turkish-held redoubts (earthwork forts) on the Causeway Heights, a low east-west range of hillocks that divided the plain below him into a north and south valley. The loss of these redoubts had left the British supply port of Balaklava, situated below the south valley, at the mercy of the Russians. But much to Raglan’s relief, two subsequent attempts by Russian cavalry to take the port had been gloriously repulsed by a ‘Thin Red Line’ of Highlanders and an uphill charge by the Heavy Brigade of British horse.
At 10am, keen to follow up these successes, Raglan had ordered his cavalry “to advance and take any opportunity to recover the [Causeway] Heights”, and to use the support of infantry who were en route. But Lord Lucan, the cavalry commander, chose not to move until the infantry arrived.
A bugle used by trumpeter-major Henry Joy of the 17th Lancers at the battle of Balaklava in 1854. (Bridgeman)
As Raglan fumed at Lucan’s inactivity, a staff officer alerted him to activity in the redoubts. Peering through his naval telescope – specially modified so he could use it with his one remaining hand (he had lost his right arm at Waterloo) – Raglan could see the Russians bringing forward horses and lasso tackle to remove the British 12-pounder naval guns that had been sited in the earthworks. He assumed the Russians were about to withdraw and take the captured guns with them. His mentor the Duke of Wellington had never lost a gun, and Raglan was anxious to retain the same proud record. Turning to his senior staff officer, he dictated the following momentous order: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns.”
The pencil-written order was handed to Captain Louis Nolan, the finest horseman on the staff. It was an unfortunate choice: no officer had more contempt for the cavalry commanders, Lucan and his deputy Lord Cardigan, than the quick-tempered Nolan. He felt they were far too timid.
Captain Louis Nolan: The horseman’s scornful manner contributed to the misunderstanding between Raglan and Lucan. (Getty images)
Within 15 minutes, Nolan had reached the valley floor and located Lucan on rising ground at the near end of the Causeway Heights. He handed over the order, which Lucan read with alarm. Now he was being asked to recover the guns without infantry support. He complained to Nolan about the “uselessness” and “dangers” of such an operation.
“Lord Raglan’s orders,” retorted Nolan, “are that the cavalry should attack immediately.”
If, as seems likely, Nolan used the word “attack” on his own authority, it was a fatal intervention. The order had made no mention of an attack. So did Lord Raglan perhaps have a different objective in mind?
“Attack, sir!” said Lucan. “Attack what? What guns, sir?”
Waving his hand vaguely eastwards in the direction of the redoubts, Nolan said contemptuously: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”
Lucan claimed later that from his position he could see “neither enemy nor guns”, and that Nolan’s gesture was towards “the further end of the [north] valley”. There, clearly visible, was a Russian battery of eight cannon, the sun glinting off their polished barrels.
At this critical moment, according to one eyewitness, Lucan “appeared to be surprised and irritated at the impetuous and disrespectful attitude and tone of Captain Nolan”. He “looked at him sternly but made no answer, and after some hesitation proceeded to give orders to Lord Cardigan to charge the enemy with the Light Brigade”.
Lord Lucan: The cavalry commander gave the Light Brigade its fateful mission after misinterpreting Lord Raglan’s order. (Getty images)
If Lucan had only questioned Nolan further, he must surely have discovered that his objective was to recover the captured naval guns on the Causeway Heights, rather than seize the battery of Russian guns in the north valley. But so irritated was he by the taunting tone in Nolan’s voice that he chose not to continue the conversation.
Stung into action, Lucan made his final plans: Cardigan’s Light Brigade of Cavalry would lead the attack down the north valley, with the Heavy Brigade in support. The message was taken to Cardigan by Nolan who, when the Light Brigade commander voiced his objections, asked if he and his men were afraid. “By God!” responded a furious Cardigan. “If I come through this alive, I’ll have you court-martialled for speaking to me in that manner.”
Instead of returning to Raglan, Nolan rode over to his old friend Captain William Morris, commanding one of the Light Brigade’s lead regiments, and got his permission to accompany the attack.
Cardigan, meanwhile, had sent one of his aide-de-camps to query Lucan’s order. This caused Lucan to return in person. “Lord Cardigan,” he said, “you will attack the Russians in the valley.”
“Certainly, my lord,” replied Cardigan, “but allow me to point out to you that there is a battery in front, a battery on each flank, and the ground is covered with Russian riflemen.” In other words, the north valley was a death trap from which they were unlikely to escape.
“I cannot help that,” responded Lucan. “It is Lord Raglan’s positive order that the Light Brigade is to attack the enemy.”
An illustration of the Charge of the Light Brigade. The story of the tragic events was immortalised by the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Bridgeman)
At 11.10am, stationed with his two staff officers at the head of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan turned to his trumpeter: “Sound the advance!”
As one, the men and horses of the Light Brigade of Cavalry – which numbered around 676 – moved forward at the walk. Leading the way were the 17th Lancers and 13th Light Dragoons, deployed side by side in two lines, followed 100 yards further back by the 11th Hussars, and with a similar gap to the 8th Hussars and the 4th Light Dragoons.
The brigade had just accelerated to a trot when Captain Nolan surged ahead of the first line, shouting and waving his sword. He may have realised that Cardigan was not going to wheel to the right to attack the redoubts, and was trying to correct the error; or he may simply have been urging the brigade on. We will never know. With just 50 yards separating him from Cardigan, a shell burst between them. Nolan gave a ghastly shriek and dropped his sword. A twitch of his bridle hand caused his horse to turn and gallop back through the advancing squadrons. He then fell to the ground. A fragment of shell had pierced his heart, killing him instantly.
Lord Cardigan was so taken aback by the order to attack that he sent an aide-de-camp to Lucan to query his order. (Bridgeman)
Onward the brigade rode into that terrible crossfire. “Hell had opened upon us from front and either flank,” recalled a private in the 17th, “and it kept upon us during the minutes – they seemed like hours – which passed while we traversed the mile and a quarter at the end of which was the enemy. The broken and fast-thinning ranks raised rugged peals of wild, fierce cheering that only swelled the louder as the shot and shell from the battery tore gaps through us…”
The private continued: “‘Close in! Close in!’ was the constant command of the squadron and troop officers… But the order was scarcely needed, for of their own instance and, as it seemed, mechanically, men and horses alike sought to regain touch.”
A corporal of the 13th was “struck by a shot or shell full in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near”. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, “yet for about 30 yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm”.
With the front rank just 80 yards from the battery, the Russians fired a point-blank salvo of grapeshot that brought down men and horses in heaps. Five officers were among the dead, but Cardigan rode on unscathed. As he approached the bank of white smoke that masked the battery, he shouted: “Steady! Steady! Close in!”
Seconds later the front rank swept into and around the battery, sabring and spearing Russian gunners as they tried to tow the guns to safety. In the smoke and confusion, Cardigan became separated from his men and made his own way back to the British lines. The remnants of the brigade were rallied by the surviving officers and led in a desperate attack against a mass of Russian cavalry beyond the guns.
“It was the maddest thing that was ever done,” noted a Russian officer. “They broke through our lines, took our artillery, and then, instead of capturing our guns and making off with them, they went for us… They dashed in amongst us, shouting, cheering and cursing. I never saw anything like it. They seemed perfectly irresistible, and our fellows were quite demoralised.” Having driven the Russian cavalry back on the Chernaya river, at the top of the north valley, the survivors fought their way back to the British lines.
When the battered remnant of the Light Brigade formed up near the same ground they had charged from 25 minutes earlier, only 195 men were still mounted. Even with the return of stragglers, the losses were crippling: 107 men killed, 187 wounded and 50 missing (most of them captured). The number of dead horses was almost 400.
Lord Raglan: The British commander in the Crimea’s decision to send the Light Brigade into action was probably unnecessary. (Getty images)
A victory of sorts
Even after the fatal charge, Lord Raglan was keen to use his infantry to retake the captured redoubts. He was dissuaded by General Canrobert, his French counterpart, on the grounds that troops could not be spared from the siege lines for their garrisons. Thus the charge was the last action of the battle of Balaklava which, though far from conclusive, was a Russian victory of sorts – their first of a war that had begun the previous March when the Russian tsar refused British and French ultimatums to withdraw his troops from Ottoman territory. Determined to protect the Ottomans by neutralising Russian power in the Black Sea, the Allies had landed on the Crimean peninsula in early September 1854. Within a month they were besieging the great naval base of Sevastopol from the Chersonese Plateau to its south.
Though the Russian attack of 25 October had fallen short of its original objective – to capture the British-held port of Balaklava and sever the supply line to Raglan’s troops on the plateau – it still had severe consequences for Raglan’s army. By taking the Causeway Heights, the Russians denied the British the use of their main supply route from Balaklava to the plateau via the Woronzow Road. In fine weather this was not a problem as a shorter route known as the Col was just as good. But as winter set in, and the road up the Col disintegrated, it became impossible to get enough supplies to the troops in the trenches.
By the end of November, so overwhelmed was the Commissariat (the department in charge of resupply), and so poor the single road up to the plateau, that many of the goods that did reach Balaklava were left to rot on the quays. “The English,” wrote a French officer, “will actually exchange their boots for something to eat… It’s pitiful to see such superb men asking permission to gorge themselves on the dregs in our mess tins.”
With no fuel, inadequate shelter and insufficient food, the British troops fell easy prey to disease, particularly cholera and typhus. “The noblest army England ever sent from these shores,” wrote the editor of The Times, “has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastopol, in the harbour at Balaklava… and how much nearer to home we do not venture to say.”
By the time the war ended – following the fall of Sevastopol – with a qualified Allied victory in March 1856, 21,000 British soldiers had lost their lives, only a quarter from enemy action. Most died of disease and malnutrition during the terrible winter of 1854/55.
The immortal status of all who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade was guaranteed when Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet laureate, wrote his eponymous verse of the famous action in late 1854, three weeks after reading a report of the battle in The Times. The second stanza begins:
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldiers knew
Some one had blundered”
The 13th Regiment of the Light Dragoons after the battle of Balaklava. Those who lost their lives in the Valley of Death were victims of an order that should never have been given, argues Saul David. (Bridgeman)
So who had blundered? Writing three days after the battle, Lord Raglan blamed Lucan. “From some misconception of the order to advance,” he wrote in his official dispatch, “[Lucan] considered that he was bound to attack at all hazards.”
Lucan was duly recalled to London where he tried – and failed – to clear his name. Did he deserve to shoulder the blame? Lord Cardigan, his former brother-in-law, was not in any doubt. “[Lucan] ought,” wrote Cardigan, “to have had the moral courage to disobey the order till further instructions were issued.”
In truth, all three principals – Raglan, Lucan and Nolan – bear some responsibility. Even if it had been interpreted accurately, Raglan’s final order to Lucan was probably unnecessary. After all, the naval guns had been spiked and could not be fired, the infantry had nearly arrived, and even a “demonstration” by cavalry along the Causeway Heights would have incurred casualties. He should, moreover, have taken into account the fact that Lucan’s view of the battlefield was much more limited than his and made the final order more precise (by mentioning the ‘Heights’, for example).
Lucan should have insisted on clarification from Nolan. But he allowed his pride to get the better of him. As for Nolan, so contemptuous was he of Lucan’s ability, so desperate for the cavalry to show its worth, that he failed in the one essential duty of a staff galloper: to provide the officer in receipt of the message with the necessary clarification. If the written order was imprecise, then how much more was Nolan’s insolent gesture: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”
It seems, moreover, that he used the word ‘attack’ when Raglan had intended a mere show of force. If so, Nolan bears the chief responsibility for what followed. Such was the opinion of most cavalrymen, according to Lieutenant Frederick Maxse RN who was serving on Raglan’s staff, and whose papers have only recently come to light. After the charge, Maxse inspected the ground and, “on looking to the left, saw poor Nolan lying dead who 10 minutes before I had seen eager & full of life, galloping down to Lord Lucan, anxious & determined to make him do something with the cavalry (of which he is a member, he was always very indignant at the little they had done in this campaign & bitter against Lord L). All the cavalry lay this disastrous charge on his shoulders & say that he left no option to Lord L to whom they say his tone was almost taunting on delivering the message – if he was to blame he has paid the penalty.”
Nigel Kingscote, another staff officer, agreed. If Nolan had lived, he told Raglan’s son, he “would no doubt have been broke by court martial”.
Why Lucan’s eyes deceived him
The communication breakdown between Lord Raglan and his cavalry commander is perhaps explained by the topography of the Balaklava battlefield, says Saul David
(Map Illustration by Paul Hewitt)
It is hard to comprehend how the Light Brigade could have been misdirected until you stand on the spots where the main actors were situated when they made their fatal decisions. The site on the edge of the Sapouné Ridge, from where Raglan and his staff are said to have observed the battle of Balaklava, is today marked by a viewing platform. When I visited it, I was struck by the panoramic view it afforded of the battlefield.
Directly below the platform is a large plain covered with vineyards and other crops – just as it was in 1854 – and bisected by a tarmac road that snakes from right to left. This is the famous Woronzow Road that, for much of its length, runs along the range of hills known to the British during the Crimean War as the Causeway Heights.
From Raglan’s vantage point, the Heights appear to be little more than a slight rise in the ground and are dwarfed by the hills that fringe the plain to the north and east. Does this explain why Raglan felt justified in issuing those two orders to Lucan and the cavalry: first to advance and take any opportunity to “recover the Heights”; and then to “advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns [from the Heights]”?
He was not – as some commentators have suggested – ordering cavalry to attack fixed positions up a steep hillside; but instead wanted Lucan to move the cavalry forward on both sides of a relatively gentle slope, and possibly even along it, to hasten the Russian withdrawal and encourage them to abandon the British guns.
Just as revealing was my visit to the approximate location where Lucan had received Raglan’s orders, on a slight knoll of ground between the two valleys. From there Lucan’s view of the captured redoubts would have been obscured by rising ground. So when Nolan gestured vaguely (“There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”), it is easy to understand why Lucan mistook the Russian battery for Raglan’s true target.
Saul David is a military historian and broadcaster. His books include Operation Thunderbolt (Hodder, 2015) and Zulu (Viking, 2004)
To listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests, including Saul David, discuss the Charge of the Light Brigade on Radio 4’s In Our Time, visit bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008md8x