At the height of its power during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world, ruling over 39 million subjects and controlling a territory spanning three continents: over two million square miles.
By the mid-19th century, the once-great Empire was the “sick man of Europe”, destined to be broken apart by its adversaries, in the wake of World War 1.
For a hundred years or more, the Russian Empire had seen itself as protector of Orthodox Church co-religionists, in the biblical land of Israel and historical Palestine. The Greek clergy in the Christian Holy Land already enjoyed warm relations with their Ottoman overlords, and controlled most of the Christian holy sites.
This state of affairs was challenged in the mid-19th century by the French Empire of Emperor Napoleon III, who was trying to extend Latin (Catholic) influence over the region.
Things came to a head in 1852 with, among other disputes, an argument over a key. No kidding. The key to the main door, of the Church of the Nativity.
Great Britain attempted to mediate the growing Franco-Russian dispute, but neither Nicholas I nor Napoleon III, would back down. War broke out in the Crimea in October 1853, between an allied coalition of forces including the Ottoman Empire, France, Great Britain and Sardinia, against the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas I.
The loss of life in the Crimean War (October 1853 to February 1856) was prodigious, resulting in the death of some 750,000 military service personnel on all sides, and unknown numbers of civilians. Russian diplomat Pyotr Petrovich Troubetzkoy would write: “Few wars in history reveal greater confusion of purpose or richer unintended consequences than the Crimean War.”
The Battle of Balaclava opened shortly after 5:00am on this day in 1854, when a squadron of Russian Cossack Cavalry advanced under cover of darkness. The Cossacks were followed by a host of Uhlans, their Polish light cavalry allies, against several dug-in positions occupied by Ottoman Turks. The Turks fought stubbornly, sustaining 25% casualties before finally being forced to withdraw.
The Thin Red Line
For a time, the Russian advance was held only by the red coated 93rd Highland Regiment, a desperate defense recorded in history as the Thin Red Line. Finally, the Russians were driven back by the British Heavy Brigade, led by George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, a man otherwise known to history for the brutality inflicted on tenants in Mayo, during the Irish potato famine.
The light cavalry of the age consisted of lightly armed and armored troops mounted on small, fast horses, usually wielding cutlass or spear. They’re a raiding force, good at reconnaissance, screening, and skirmishing. The “Heavies” on the other hand, are mounted on huge, powerful chargers, both rider and horse heavily armored. They are the shock force of the army.
Lucan’s subordinate was James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, in command of the Light Brigade. There could not have been two worse field commanders. Though possessed of physical courage bordering on recklessness, both were prideful, mean spirited and petty men. What’s more, they were brothers-in-law, and cordially detested one another.
Left to right: Lucan, Cardigan and Raglan
Field Marshal Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, was in overall command of the allied armies. Raglan occupied a high spot where he could see the battle unfold before him, but didn’t seem to realize that his subordinates below couldn’t see what he could see.
Spotting a small Russian detachment trying to get away with captured cannon, Raglan issued an order to Lucan, in overall command of his Cavalry. “Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.” As Staff Officer Louis Nolan left to deliver the message, Raglan shouted “Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately“.
The Light Brigade was well suited to such a task, but the men below had no idea what Raglan meant by such a poorly worded order. The only guns they could see were dug in Russian artillery a mile away, at the other end of the valley. When Nolan brought the order, Lucan demanded to know what guns. With a contemptuous sweep of his arm, Nolan pointed down the valley. “There, sir, are your guns“.
The order which then came down from Lucan to Cardigan called for a suicide mission, even for heavy cavalry. The “Lights” were being ordered to ride a mile down an open valley, with enemy cannon and riflemen lining both sides, into the muzzles of dug in, well sighted, heavy artillery.
Nose to nose and glaring, neither man blinked in the contest of wills. In the end, Cardigan did as ordered. 674 horsemen of the Light Brigade mounted up, drew their swords, and rode into the valley of death.
Louis Nolan should have gone back to Raglan, but rode out instead, in front of the Light Brigade. He was almost certainly trying to redirect the charge and could have saved the day, but it wasn’t meant to be. Louis Nolan, the only man in position to change history that day, was the first casualty of the raid.
Private James Wightman of the 17th Lancers, describes Nolan’s last moments: “I saw the shell explode of which a fragment struck him. From his raised sword-hand dropped the sword. The arm remained upraised and rigid, but all the other limbs so curled in on the contorted trunk as by a spasm, that we wondered how for the moment the huddled form kept the saddle. The weird shriek and the awful face haunt me now to this day, the first horror of that ride of horrors“.
Raglan must have looked on in horror as the scene unfolded, below. Instead of turning right and climbing the Causeway slopes, nearly 700 horsemen first walked, then trotted and finally charged, straight down the valley, into the Russian guns. Captain Thomas Hutton of the 4th Light Dragoons said “A child might have seen the trap that was laid for us. Every private dragoon did“.
It took the Light Brigade a full seven minutes to get to the Russian guns. Cannon fire tore great gaps out of their lines the whole time, first from the sides and then from the front. Shattered remnants actually managed to overrun the Russian guns, but had no means of holding them. They milled about for a time, and then back they came, blown and bleeding horses carrying mangled men back through another gauntlet of fire.
When it was over, 110 were dead, 130 wounded, and 58 missing or captured. 40% losses in an action which had lasted 20 minutes. Captain Nolan’s horse carried his dead body all the way down, and all the way back.
Cardigan and Lucan pointed the finger of blame at each other, for the rest of their lives. Both laid blame for the disaster on Nolan, who wasn’t there to defend himself.
Today, the Battle of Balaclava is mostly forgotten, but for a stanza in the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew,
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
The Crimean War itself may be remembered as a hideous waste of blood and treasure, for all it accomplished. Today if remembered at all, the conflict recalls the first modern war correspondent, photographer Roger Fenton. And of course the needless carnage, which could have been so much worse but for the efforts of one woman, who all-but invented the modern profession of nursing. The soldiers knew her as “The Lady with the Lamp”, for her late night rounds, taking care of the wounded.
History remembers this “Ministering Angel”, as Florence Nightingale.