The Charge of the Light Brigade, a Brave and Foolish Tale

Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.
Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.

by Wendy Graham

October 25, 1854 — The Charge of the Light Brigade is infamous as an act of bravery in the face all insurmountable odds. On October 25, 1854 members of the British light cavalry led a charge by mistake into the heart of the Russian Imperial army. 110 soldiers died in the charge, 161 were injured and 475 horses killed. The British Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson would go on to immortalize the event in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:

The events of that day reveal more than just bravery, they portray a Victorian army and society on the verge of change. They show an army, still largely controlled by aristocratic officers, long used to influence as their birthright, whose personal vendettas and infighting often led to incompetence on the field.

The Battle of Balaclava, during the Crimean War, of which The Charge of the Light Brigade was one event, was led on the British side by Lord Raglan, commander of the British Forces. Lord Lucan, led the British cavalry, made up of the Heavy Brigade, with its larger armed horses, and the Light Brigade, which was more suited to skirmishes and reconnaissance. Its riders were armed with sabres and lances.

Lord Lucan, an ancestor of the 20th century peer who mysteriously disappeared, was known as the “Exterminator” and for evicting villages during the Irish famine of 1840s. He was brother-in-law to the Earl of Cardigan, who led the Light Brigade. The two hated each other, Lord Cardigan reputedly for Lord Lucan’s treatment of his sister.

The battle began with the Russian army attacking the British position, The British Heavy Cavalry Brigade counterattacked and held off the initial attack. The 93rd Highlanders, war correspondent William Russell’s “thin red line” held off a separate Russian attempt to take the British base of Balaclava. When the Russian cavalry then made a move to capture British guns already taken from the Russians, Lord Raglan and his staff looked to send the Light Brigade to harry their flank. They sent Captain Louis Edward Nolan to carry the order and to give verbal instructions from Lord Raglan to Lord Lucan. Nolan also appears to have held Lord Lucan in contempt and seems to have compounded the hastily and badly written orders by indicating not the guns and cavalry meant by Lord Raglan but the main Russian army 20,000 strong and their guns. Lord Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan to charge, the two figures open hostility prevented any true questioning of the orders.

Lord Cardigan led the charge just after 11am. Lord Raglan and his staff watched in horror from their elevated position. Nolan seems to have tried to head Lord Cardigan off, belatedly realising the mistake but was killed by fire almost immediately.

The Light Brigade charged for a mile and a quarter till they reached the Russian guns who started firing on them as soon as they came in range. They then, if they could, returned the way they had come.

Lord Cardigan himself became separated from his troops and was one of the first to return. He then seems to have left the battlefield completely for his personal yacht moored off the coast where he retired to enjoy a champagne dinner that night..

The battle was a strategic defeat for the British and their French and Turkish allies. It was reported in vivid and dramatic detail by one of the very first war correspondents, Irishman William Howard Russell, who had been sent to the front by British newspaper The Times. Its coverage created a sensation in Britain. It was one of the first times the general public could follow far flung battles almost as they happened .

Lord Raglan blamed Lord Lucan for the loss, Lord Lucan in turn blamed Lord Raglan and Nolan. Lord Lucan made a speech defending his actions in House of Lords on 19th March 1855. Although he was eventually promoted to lieutenant general in 1858 and later general and field marshal, he never again saw active duty.

Lord Cardigan returned home to initial acclaim for his bravery. He made a speech in his hometown of Northampton, claiming he had camped in a tent on the field with his troops and personally rallied his forces after the charge to harry the enemy. The popularity of the cardigan, the knitted garment stems from this date as a popular response, supposedly based on the knitted waistcoat Lord Cardigan wore into battle. However later reports by other returning officers revealed a different turn of events and turned public opinion turned against him.

The debacle of the charge of the Light Brigade had long-term consequences for the British army. A Royal Commission was set up in 1858 after the war to investigate the way the army was run during the Crimean War. A lack of supplies and medical treatment were other issues. The Cardwell Reforms were eventually implemented in 1868-70 by William Gladstone’s government. They would abolish officer-purchased positions once and for all, increase the size of the army and put it on the road to professionalism.

Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was published 6 weeks after the event after the poet read reports of the battle in The Times. Copies of the poem reached the British troops who apparently approved of the poet’s telling of the event.

Published: October 23, 2017

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