On 25 October 1854 the infamous charge of the light brigade was mauled by Russian gunners at the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. Despite being a strategic failure, the courage of the British cavalry – immortalised by Lord Tennyson’s poem – has lived on in popular culture and legend.
Assisting the ‘sick man of Europe’
The Crimean War was the only European conflict involving Victorian Britain, and is mostly known today for the role of Florence Nightingale in military hospitals, and the ill-fated charge of the light brigade. Eager to protect the ailing Ottoman Empire from Russian aggression, Britain and France went to war with Russia after she invaded their ally.
A military blunder of epic proportions
In September 1854 allied troops landed in the Russian-held Crimean peninsula and defeated the more technologically backward Russian armies at Alma, before marching on the strategically important port of Sevastopol. Determined to avoid Sevastopol’s capture, the Russians regrouped and attacked at the battle of Balaclava on 25 October.
The Russian attacks initially overwhelmed Ottoman defences but were then rebuffed by a “thin red line” of Scottish infantry and a counterattack from the heavy cavalry brigade. At this point in the battle the brigade of British Light Cavalry were ordered to charge Russian gunners who were trying to clear the captured Ottoman positions.
This was a task well suited to light cavalry, who rode smaller faster horses and were suited to chasing lightly armed enemy troops. However, in one of the most infamous military blunders in history, the horsemen were given the wrong orders and began to charge a heavily defended Russian position well protected by large guns.
Instead of questioning these suicidal instructions, the Light Brigade started to gallop towards the enemy position. Louis Nolan, the man who had received the orders, had just realised his mistake when he was killed by a Russian shell, and around him his fellow cavalrymen charged onwards. British commander Lord Cardigan lead from the front of the charge as the horsemen were pummelled from three sides, suffering heavy losses. Incredibly, they reached the Russian lines and began to attack the gunners.
Through the valley of death…again
In the ensuing melee many more were killed as the Russians continued to fire – seemingly without caring that they might hit their own men. Unable to hold the gains they had taken for long, Cardigan lead the remnants of his men back, braving more fire as they attempted to reach safety.
Of the 670 men who had so confidently ridden into “the mouth of hell,” 278 were now casualties. There could be no disguising the scale of the disaster, or the extent of the fruitless waste of life. However, something about the raw courage of these doomed men struck a chord with the British public, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” lives on as a fitting tribute to their sacrifice.