If discretion is the better part of valour, then it was sorely lacking during the battle of Balaclava and the charge of the light brigade
One action dominates accounts of the 1854 battle of Balaclava: the shambolic charge of the light brigade. Born of bungled orders, this peerless act of valour saw 670 cavalrymen ride into the ‘valley of death’ and inspired Alfred Tennyson’s enduring and oft-referenced poem. Yet Balaclava itself is a much bigger story.
This battle came early in the Crimean War, in which Britain and her allies fought to check Russian aggression against the decaying Ottoman Empire – the original sick man of Europe. Hostilities began in October 1853, when Russia occupied the Ottoman vassal states of Moldavia and Wallachia. An Anglo-French expeditionary force was assembled soon after, but it didn’t reach the region until mid 1854, by which time the Turks had regained the upper hand and the Russians had withdrawn to within their own borders. Unwilling to return without accomplishing anything, and buoyed by popular support back home, they settled on capturing Sevastopol, the Crimean home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
The Allies finally arrived in the environs of Sevastopol at the end September 1854. The decision was made to raise a siege rather than launch an immediate assault, with the French establishing a camp at Kamiesch and the British at Balaclava. This placed the British directly between Sevastopol and the Russian field army, at large in the hills to the east.
The Russians realised the weakness to this position was not the siege lines at Sevastopol or the base at Balaclava, but the area between, where the British had established two defensive lines – first on the hills near Kadikoi, occupied by the 93rd Highlanders, and ahead of that a ridge known as the Causeway Heights, guarded by a series of redoubts manned by Ottomans and equipped with British naval cannon. It was here, an hour before dawn on 25 October, that the Russians struck.
Spies had warned the British of the imminent attack, but there had been so many false alarms their words had fallen on deaf ears. Now a force 25,000-strong emerged from the wilderness and fell upon the redoubts. The 600 Turks within, unsupported and pinned down by a bombardment until the Russian infantry closed in, stood little chance. Though outnumbered 15 to one, they put up a brave resistance that lasted for around two hours, but were inevitably forced to abandon the British cannon and flee.
Now some 2,500 horsemen peeled off the main body, 400 of whom swept towards Kadikoi. The 93rd responded by moving out of cover to meet them. The tactics of the time dictated that infantry should form into a square when facing cavalry, but the 93rd came forward in a line just two men deep. The Turks with them, many of them men who had fled the redoubts, are said to have fired one volley at extreme range before then fleeing once more, leaving the redcoats alone on the ridgeline.
Even in this drawn out formation the 93rd were at risk of being outflanked. They fired one volley, then another; the second caused the Russians to veer to the left. After the 93rd wheeled to meet them and let loose one more, the cavalry abandoned their charge and galloped away. It was later speculated that the fact the British opposition was so slender, and in such a weak formation, that the Russians believed there was a much stronger force lying out of sight beyond the hill.
Among the spectators of this event was journalist William Howard Russell, covering the war for The Times. He wrote of seeing nothing between the Russians and Balaclava but the 93rd, “a thin red streak tipped with a line of steel”. It from this report that the British Army derived its nickname ‘the thin red line’.
British commander-in-chief Lord Raglan was roused to see the Turks abandoning the 93rd, and he ordered his cavalry back to Balaclava with haste. Brigadier-General James Scarlett’s heavy brigade arrived just in time to intercept the remaining Russian hussars and lancers – 600 men against 2,100.
They ‘charged’ across a vineyard at barely a trot, struggling across the broken ground with such difficulty that barely half stayed with the first wave. For the first few minutes ‘Scarlett’s 300’ fought alone, lost in a bloody press so tight that men could barely swing their swords. They would have been annihilated had it not been for the remainder of their brigade, which slammed into the Russian flanks, not to mention the 4th Dragoon Guards of the light brigade, who had ignored their orders to hold position and somehow managed to engage the Russian rear.
Confused at being attacked from all sides, the Russians withdrew to reform; growing British artillery fire persuaded them not to continue the assault. It was a stunning reverse. Scarlett had 10 men killed and barely 100 wounded, the larger Russian force around 50 killed and 200 wounded.
Meanwhile the Russians were beginning to remove the British guns from the redoubts. This would be a major propaganda victory, and Raglan had no intention letting it happen. He dictated a written order to Lord Lucan, who held overall command of both cavalry brigades, which still survives to this day. In it he commanded Lucan to “prevent the enemy carrying away the guns”.
The trouble was that Raglan didn’t specify which guns. From Lucan’s position, the lay of land blocked the redoubts from view – he could only see the primed and waiting Russian batteries at the end of one valley. As Lucan vacillated, the staff officer who brought him the order, Captain Nolan, lost patience and waved dismissively. “There, my Lord, is your enemy. There are your guns!”
Precisely what Nolan pointed at has been speculated on ever since, but the result was that Lord Cardigan’s light brigade began to advance, with Lucan and the heavy brigade following. It seems Nolan may have realised what was about to happen; he rushed forward, sword aloft and waving frantically. We’ll never know if he meant to halt the charge or spur it on, because at that moment an exploding shell killed him.
Lucan halted the heavy brigade when he realised the strength of the Russian position, but Cardigan and the light brigade thundered on. “We all knew the thing was desperate before we started, and it was even worse than we thought,” wrote an anonymous officer of the 17th Lancers in a letter afterwards. “However there was no hesitation, down our fellows went at a gallop – through a fire in front and on both flanks, which emptied our saddles and knocked over our horses by scores.”
Shot, shell and grape poured into the light brigade from three sides, opening huge gaps in its ranks, but even this did not stymie the charge. Miraculously, some made it to the battery.
“All of the Russian were sabred, and for an instant we were masters of the guns,” wrote Private William Henry Pennington of the 11th Hussars from his hospital bed, “But having no support we could not keep them.” Once the ragged remnants of the light brigade had cut their way through, they found themselves and faced by the Russian cavalry. “But for the desperation with which our fellow cut their way, there would not have been a single man return from that fatal charge.”
It was the ‘noble debris’ of the light brigade that managed to fight their way back, leaving a plain strewn with bodies behind them, and effectively marked the end of the battle. Of the 673 who had charged, 113 were killed and 274 wounded. “Our light brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy,” wrote Russell in The Times. French marshal Pierre Bosquet’s assessment was flattering and damning in equal measure: “It is magnificent, but it is not war.” The recriminations to follow would carry on for years.
The 17th Lancers
The 17th Lancers was one of five regiments to ride with the light brigade, and like the others this charge cost them most of their strength; the next morning they could only muster 38 men. Fittingly their motto was death or glory, but this had nothing to do with Balaclava. It stemmed from their skull-and-crossbones cap badge, which dated back to the regiment’s formation. Less threatening was the nickname ‘Bingham’s Dandies’, a nod to the vast amount Lord Lucan (real name George Bingham, and at one time their commanding officer) spent on their uniforms and horses.
The regiment was raised by Colonel John Hale in 1759 as Hale’s Light Horse – the motto and cap badge were in honour of James Wolfe, the man who orchestrated and died triumphant in the battle of Quebec, in which Hale commanded the 47th Regiment. It was renumbered several times in quick succession, becoming the 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons in 1769, and first served overseas during the American Revolutionary War.
It was renamed once more to the 17th Lancers in 1822, and after the Crimean War took part in the Indian Mutiny and the Zulu and Boer Wars. Although the regiment survived until 1922 before being amalgamated into the 17th/21st Lancers it played a relatively minor role in World War I, spending most of the conflict stationed in India, though did make appearances at Cambrai and Amiens.
The regimental museum is the Queen’s Royal Lancers and Nottinghamshire Yeomanry Museum at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire (www.qrlnymuseum.co.uk), which holds a collection of arms, uniforms and paintings related to the 17th Lancers and its associated regiments, including one particularly prized possession – the bugle used to sound the charge of the light brigade.
First published in Your Family History magazine