The Crimean War in general was an exercise in futility, but the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ was the most futile offensive of all. Heroic and inspiring as it was, it was borne simply of miscommunication between army leaders, and it need never have happened.
France and Britain got into the Crimean war in March 1854 for relatively solid reasons. The lands of their ally Turkey were under threat from the Russians, and the country badly needed help to protect them. However, as ‘Famous Land Battles’ by Richard Humble explains, the reasons for remaining in the Crimean Peninsula were far less solid. By 23rd June, thanks to a combination of stout resistance by the Turks and outbreaks of cholera within their ranks, the Russians withdrew from Turkish territory without the Franco-British Army, based at Scutori in Turkey, firing a shot. However, the people ‘at home’ weren’t content to see the men withdrawn; the politicians were embarrassed, the people were fired up for a fight, and The Times newspaper called for the men to ‘do something’ before they came home. Retreat was not on the cards.
Instead, the Army was told to invade Crimea (now in modern-day Romania, then part of the Russian empire) in an attempt to capture the strongest Russian naval base (Sevastopol). The decision to do so was made in a Cabinet meeting on 28th June, far away from the fighting. The Commander in Chief of the British Army, Lord Raglan, was not happy at being forced to attack an unknown territory with what he considered inadequate supplies, but he went along with it in the end, as did Marshal St Amaud, the French Commander, who was being urged on by the Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew and heir.
Initially, the Franco-British Army (which was bigger and had more guns than Prince Menschikov’s Russian force, though the Russians had the high ground) actually met with some success. The first attack was made on the 20th September, and the Russians, being very anxious to save their guns, turned tail and left the way to Sevastopol clear after a short burst of resistance. If the retreating army had been pursued the war might have ended then and there, but the Franco-British spent two days tending to their casualties. This gave the Russians the chance to regroup, prepare and block the harbour by sinking ships. The Franco-British therefore settled for skirting round Sevastopol and setting up in Balaclava, 6 miles away.
Yet more time was wasted in exhaustively planning a siege on Sevastopol, which only kicked off on 17th October, giving the Russians further time to mount defences and call for reinforcements; these duly arrived on 24th October. The two forces were now roughly the same size, the Franco-British advantage lost, and still Russia held the high ground. The best way to get from Balaclava to Sevastopol was via a ridge, named ‘Causeway Heights’ by the British, which led up to a plateau bordering the coastal city and naval base to the north west. On either side of the ridge lay the North and South valleys. The Franco-British had dug six redoubts, or small armed forts, to hold the ridge and the North Valley, and on 25th October General Liprandi, the commander of the Russian reinforcements, attacked these redoubts. After the Russians had stormed the first redoubt, the protectors of the next three fled, and the Russian Cavalry and Infantry began to move down the ridge towards Balaclava. It now fell to the British Heavy and Light Brigades in the South Valley and the 93rd Highland Regiment, commanded by Sir Colin Campbell, to mount a defence, and when shells drove the Cavalry back at first, the Highlanders were left as the only force within range.
Lord Raglan set up his headquarters at Sapoune Heights, at the far end of the ridge from the Cavalry, where he could see the whole field and plan his tactics. He judged that the riders would need backup from the 1st and 4th Infantry divisions to restrain the Russians. Until they came, he ordered the Cavalry to stay put. Many hotly argued that they should support their countrymen, but the Earl of Lucan, Commander of the Cavalry division, would not budge until given permission. A force of Russians was sent to deal with the Highlanders, but they bravely held their ground and fired volleys into the charging horses. The Russians panicked, wheeled and retreated, but not before Raglan had ordered eight squadrons of dragoons from Heavy Brigade to move forward in an attempt to help; in the event, they were too late. However, they had the bad luck to run into the rest of the Russian Cavalry, just advancing down Causeway Heights.
Had they hesitated it would all have been over for them, as the Russians outnumbered them eight to one. However, amazingly it was the Russians who hesitated, giving the Dragoons time to line up and charge… uphill! The Russians, wrong-footed, again retreated and pulled back down into the North Valley. Had the Light Brigade charged now to pursue the Russians, they might have carried the day, but though the men begged the Earl of Cardigan, Commander of the Light Cavalry Brigade, to let them make a move, he too refused to budge until bidden to by the Earl of Lucan.
Lord Raglan, on his hill, dithered. To charge or not to charge? He really wanted that Infantry support, but it had not yet arrived. Eventually, he gave the Earl of Lucan the rather vague order to advance and take any opportunity to recover the heights, adding that he should expect Infantry support. Lucan felt that, since he couldn’t see the Cavalry having a chance without the Infantry as backup, he should continue to wait until they arrived. He got his forces ready, but made no move. In the end, the Russians were spurred on to make the first move. General Liprandi ordered that the guns be wheeled out of the captured redoubts and made safe behind the Russian line. Raglan, high above, saw what was happening and finally gave his order: he sent a message via a Captain Nolan, saying, ‘Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front- follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.’ However, he forgot that his vantage point was different to that of the Commanders down in the Valley.
The Commanders could not see the guns, and they could not see the small forces moving them. They could only see main Russian Army directly ahead, shielded by guns, plus more Russian troops and guns above the left, at Fedioukine Heights. From their perspective, ‘to the front’ meant straight ahead, and the hidden guns that Raglan actually wished them to head for were to their right (or ‘right flank front’). The Earl of Lucan saw at once that it would be suicide to head straight for the enemy in the manner he thought he was being told to, and did question the order. However, the already excited Captain Nolan, incensed by what he saw as dithering in the face of an urgent command, did not understand why Lucan asked, on his reiterating that the Cavalry should attack immediately, “Attack what? What guns, sir?” He replied abruptly, without stopping to investigate the root of the confusion, “There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns”, pointing towards the Russians at the end of North Valley.
Grimly, Lucan turned and gave the order to Cardigan to lead the attack. Cardigan saw too that his troops would come under fire on three sides, but Lucan said firmly, “I know it, but Lord Raglan will have it.” One can only imagine the pallor of the Earl of Cardigan’s face as he drew up the lines and gave the Light Brigade a quiet order to proceed. The men, who could see the peril of this advance as clearly as their commander, nonetheless proceeded in an orderly and calm manner. Lord Raglan could only watch in horror from his hill as his Cavalry turned in a direction that he had never intended them to go in, gathered speed, and galloped bravely into the very jaws of the enemy, where they disappeared from sight as guns fired on them from all sides. Cardigan miraculously survived, but just 195 out of 700 men who mounted the charge made it out alive, and 500 horses died. The casualties would have been worse, had not the French Chasseurs d’Afrique charged the Russians on Fedioukine Heights as the Light Brigade floundered below. After all the bravery and sacrifice, the battle ended in a stalemate after the Infantry arrived, with neither side gaining ground.
In the end the whole war was a bit of a damp squib. The Russians did give up Sevastopol in the end, thereby relinquishing control of the Black Sea, and many political alliances were developed that would play their part in later wars. However, it was a war fought for war’s sake, as really, with Turkey’s lands already safe, it need never have taken place. The Light Brigade need never have charged, either, if the leaders had been better communicators. These leaders, like the Light Brigade themselves, were ‘only following orders’; however, the difference between a General and the common solider is that the General should have the ability to think and question, and to take into account factors that might influence how blindly the order should be followed. The Commander in Chief, the Generals and the British parliament and public were all to blame for the calamity that befell the unfortunate Light Brigade. Only the Light Brigade themselves paid the price.