The British military at the time had barely advanced, either technologically or strategically, since the close of the Napoleonic Wars only twenty years earlier. Most of the commanders were over 60, and had fallen comfortably into peacetime mindsets. General FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, First Baron Raglan, has studied under the Duke of Wellington and had lost an arm at Waterloo; since then, however, he served mostly as an administrator, saw no active service, but was still appointed as overall commander of the British forces in the Crimea. His cavalry commander was Major General George Charles Bingham,3rd Earl of Lucan, who greatly valued the appearance of his beloved cavalry, spending great amounts of his own money to improve their outfits and the gleam of their silver swords. The cavalry was split into two brigades, and the lighter of the two was commanded by Major General James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who also had very little practical experience; he was also the brother-in-law of his immediate commander, Lord Lucan, and the two men hated each other passionately.
The British army landed and took control of the village of Balaklava, southeast of Sevastapol on the shores of the Black Sea. They drove the Russian forces back, but Lucan decided not to commit his cavalry to pursue the fleeing Russian forces, allowing the Russians time to reform. The reconstituted Russian forces attacked south towards Balaklava, but were repelled by the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders, an infantry troop arrange in a 'thin red line' and firing madly at the opposing horsemen. One of the brigades of British Cavalry under the command of General Sir James Yorke Scarlett - the so-called 'Heavy Brigade' - charged into a second, larger body of Russian cavalry, and sent them into a panicked rout. While it was happening, Cardigan and his 'Light Brigade' were commanded to stand still and not participate, meaning they watched while the Heavy Brigade committed this glorious charge. To the egos involved in mid-19th century cavalry corps, this was a terribly frustrating ordeal. Cardigan, of course, blamed his units' inactivity on his hated brother-in-law, Lucan.
Now, if one were to start in the village of Balaklava, back to the Sea, and walk due north, that one would walk downhill into what they called the South Valley, which ran east to west, and in which the Heavy Brigade's charge took place. Climbing over a ridge called the Causeway Heights, our hypothetical walker would then descend into and across the North Valley, also running west to east, before climbing up on the Fedioukine Heights ridge beyond that. This alternating valley-and-hill geography was the site of the Battle of Balaklava and of the most famous of its actions.
Lord Raglan was atop a hill on the west end at the time, and could see that Russians on the east end of the Causeway Heights had captured several British cannon and were preparing to drag them away. He ordered Lucan, below him on the west end of the North Valley, to go recapture those valuable guns; unfortunately, the man with whom he trusted the message was Capt. Lewis Edward Nolan, a pompous zealot who had written a much-maligned book on how cavalry was the ultimate weapon in warfare, and who had no respect for either Cardigan or Lucan. Nolan, a skilled horseman, raced down to Lucan's site and presented him with Raglan's nebulous orders to charge and retake the cannon.
From Lucan's position, he could not see the captured cannon, all he could see was the positioned Russian artillery at the far eastern end of the North Valley - a distance of over a mile. Russian forces were in position on both the northern Fedioukine Heights, and the southern Causeway Heights; a charge through the center of them would be risky at best. Lucan asked the messenger Nolan for clarification, and Nolan - for whatever reason which we will never know - pointed at the distant Russian guns and said "There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns." And so Raglan wrote a confusing order, and Nolan misrepresented it even further; Lucan's pride prevented him from questioning the order, and Cardigan's hate for his brother-in-law caused him to begrudgingly accept the order without hesitation. Cardigan arranged his men into three lines, and prepared to charge through a gauntlet of gunfire toward a barely-visible target on a distant hilltop.
When the Light Brigade rode - for it was not a full-out charge at first - into the North Valley, Lucan followed them with Scarlett and the Heavy Brigade. Cardigan, perhaps sensing his men's enthusiasm or giving way to his own, then increased the speed of the Light Brigade, and the Heavy Brigade was soon left lagging behind. Cannon and rifle fire erupted from both sides of the valley - claiming the messenger Nolan as one of its first fatalities - and an enormous cloud of dust obscured the charged British horsemen. Lucan suffered a minor wound to the leg, his horse was hit twice, and one his captains was shot dead by his side; he decided that having the Heavy Brigade continue would be a death sentence, and so he ordered them to abandon the charge and fall back. The Light Brigade was now on its own.
With drawn sabers and levelled lances, the Light Brigade thundered toward the most distant guns at full speed. They could hardly see the length of their arm for all of the dust, and every second produced more gravely wounded cavalrymen and riderless horses. Amazingly, some of the Light Brigade reached the Russian gun battery on the far east side of the Valley, and began hacking and chopping at the gun crews. However, it was too much for them when the Russians counter-charged with their own remaining cavalry, and the Light Brigade was then forced to retreat, through the same line of fire as they approached, receiving even more gunfire as they went.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a military disaster, costing one of the best cavalry units in the world about 40% of its numbers. Almost none of the light horsemen escaped unwounded; one remarked that that night, he was the only one left out of the ten men who normally slept in that tent. The British forces eventually captured Sevastapol and the Charge itself was received as a moment of great heroism in the public. Cardigan survived the battle, was regailed as the hero of the day in London, and presented his story personally to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; later, a type of vest he wore on campaign would become named after him, and today it is more associated with a kind of sweater. Raglan and Lucan blamed each other for the failure; Raglan continued his role in the Crimean before dying of dysentary two years later, while Lucan would be eventually promoted to Field Marshal, although he never again saw action in the field.
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.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Links and Sources:
Campaign 6: Balaclava 1854, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by John Sweetman, Osprey Publishing, 1990. The color image of the cavalryman is by Michael Roffe and is from that book.
How to Lose a Battle, by Bill Fawcett, Harper Collins, 2006.
Period photo of the cavalryman is that of Cornet Henry John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars, a survivor of the Charge, and was taken by Roger Fenton.
The painting "Charge of the Light Brigade" is by Thomas Jones Barker.