December 9, 1854 Into the Valley of Death

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. Into one of the Great disasters, of military history.


The Crimean war was in its second year in 1854, pitting an alliance including Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against the Russian armies of Czar Nicholas I.

The Battle of Balaclava opened shortly after 5:00am on October 25, 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.

George_Bingham,_3rd_Earl_of_Lucan

For a time, the Russian advance was held only by the red coated 93rd Highland Regiment, a desperate defense remembered as the “Thin Red Line”.

Finally, the Russians were driven back by the British Heavy Brigade, led by George Bingham (left), 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.

Cardigan

Lucan’s subordinate was James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (right), in command of the Light Brigade.

There could not have been two worse field commanders.

Though possessed of physical courage, both men were prideful, mean spirited and petty. What’s worse, they were brothers-in-law, and each man detested the other, thoroughly.

raglan

Field Marshal Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan (left), was in overall command of the allied armies. Raglan occupied a high spot where he could see the battle unfolding 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 that 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 man killed in 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“.

Crimean-War-Russian-Artillery-Battery
Russian Artillery Battery of the Crimean War

Raglan must have looked on in horror at the scene unfolding 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. Into one of the Great disasters, of military history.

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“.

Charge, Russian Perspective
Charge of the Light Brigade, from the Russian perspective.

It took the Lights a full seven minutes to reach 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 of the Light Brigade actually managed to overrun the Russian guns, but had no means of holding them. Survivors milled about for a time, and then back they came, blown and bleeding horses carrying mangled men back through another gauntlet of fire.

Captain Nolan’s horse carried his dead, broken body all the way down, and all the way back.

Louis Nolan
Death of Captain Nolan or The Charger of Captain Nolan … by Thomas Jones Barker (1855)

When it was over 110 men were dead, 130 wounded and 58 missing or captured. 335 horses were dead or so grievously wounded as to be euthanized, upon their return. 40% losses in an action that had lasted 20 minutes.

Cardigan and Lucan each pointed the finger of blame at the other, for the rest of their lives. Both laid blame for the disaster on Nolan, who wasn’t there to defend himself.

The Battle of Balaclava is mostly forgotten today, but for a stanza in the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem: The Charge of the Light Brigade:

“…Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die…”

first published on December 9, 1854.

“…Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell,
Rode the six hundred…”

Aftermath-of-the-Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade
Aftermath

The Crimean War itself may be remembered as a waste of blood and treasure, for all it accomplished. 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 of compassion, caring for the wounded.

History remembers this “Ministering Angel”, as Florence Nightingale.

December 8, 1941 A Declaration of War

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare. Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

In the early months of the “Great War”, the British Royal Navy imposed a surface blockade on the German high seas fleet.  Even food was treated as a “contraband of war”,  a measure widely regarded as an attempt to starve the German population.   With good reason.  One academic study performed ten years after the war, put the death toll by starvation at 424,000 in Germany alone. The German undersea fleet responded with a  blockade of the British home islands, a devastating measure carried out against an island adversary dependent on massive levels of imports.

1200px-Willy_Stöwer_-_Sinking_of_the_Linda_Blanche_out_of_Liverpool
Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpoole, by Willy Stöwer

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare.  Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

Wary of antagonizing neutral opinion, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg argued against a “shoot without warning”policy but, strict adherence to maritime prize rules risked U-Boats and crews alike.  By early 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British home Isles a war zone where even the vessels of neutral nations were at risk of being sunk.

shq-ship-gun-dropped
“Q-Ship with gun. The hidden gun emerges as the cover and sides, masquerading as a deck structure, are dropped. From “Q” Boat Adventures: The Exploits of the Famous Mystery Ships by a “Q” Boat Commander, by Harold Auten, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd” – Hat Tip HistoricEngland.org.uk

Desperate to find an effective countermeasure to the German “Unterseeboot”, Great Britain introduced heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry in 1915, phony merchantmen designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. Britain called these secret countermeasures “Q-ships”, after their home base in Queenstown, in Ireland.

German sailors called them U-Boot-Fälle. “U-boat traps”.

Lusitania warning
Notices taken out in the New York Times and others, specifically warned the Lusitania was vulnerable to attack

The “unprovoked” sinking of noncombatant vessels, including the famous Lusitania in which 1,198 passengers lost their lives, became a primary justification for war.  The German Empire, for her part, insisted that many of these vessels carried munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

Underwater, the submarines of WWI were slow and blind, on the surface, vulnerable to attack.  In 1916, German policy vacillated between strict adherence to prize rules and unrestricted submarine warfare.  It was a Hobbesian choice. The first put their own people and vessels at extreme risk, the second threatened to bring neutrals like the United States and Brazil,  into the war.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”: a conflict begun in Europe, two years earlier.

In a January 31, 1917 memorandum from German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the Ambassador stated that “sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice”, effective the following day. The German government was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

Anticipating this resumption and expecting the decision to draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann delivered a message to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that, if the United States seemed likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance, promising “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”. Signed, ZIMMERMANN

zimmerman-note

The “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence and revealed to the American government on February 24. The contents of the message outraged American public opinion and helped generate support for the United States’ declaration of war.

In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.

President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2, stating that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany would make the world “Safe for Democracy”. Congress voted to support American entry into the war on April 6, 1917. The “Great War”, the “War to end all Wars”, had become a World War.

At the time, a secondary explosion within the hull of RMS Lusitania caused many to believe the liner had been struck by a second torpedo.  In 1968, American businessman Gregg Bemis purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for $2,400, from the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association.   In 2007 the Irish government granted Bemis a five-year license to conduct limited excavations at the site.

causes-of-ww1

Twelve miles off the Irish coast and 300-feet down, a dive was conducted on the wreck in 2008.   Remote submersible operators discovered some 4 million rounds of Remington .303 ammunition in the hold, proof of the German claim that Lusitania was, in fact, a legitimate target under international rules of war.  The UK Daily Mail quoted Bemis:  “There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters’”.

American historian, author and journalist Wade Hampton Sides accompanied the expedition.  “They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I” he said, “bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.‘”

Lusitania, ammunition

Montana Republican Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a life-long pacifist and the first woman elected to the United States Congress, would be one of only fifty votes against entering WWI.  Congresswoman Rankin was elected to a second and non-consecutive term in 1940. Just in time to be the only vote against entering World War 2, in response to President Franklin Delano’s address to a joint session of Congress, December 8, 1941.

Tally sheet for the congressional declaration of war on Japan, December 8, 1941