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.
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.
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.
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“.
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“.
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.
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…”
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.