The Charge of the Light Brigade was a failed military action involving the British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. Lord Raglan had intended to send the Light Brigade to prevent the Russians from removing captured guns from overrun Turkish positions, a task for which the light cavalry were well-suited. However, there was miscommunication in the chain of command and the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a different artillery battery, one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire. The Light Brigade reached the battery under withering direct fire and scattered some of the gunners, but they were forced to retreat immediately, and the assault ended with very high British casualties and no decisive gains.
The events were the subject of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's narrative poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854), published just six weeks after the event. Its lines emphasise the valour of the cavalry in bravely carrying out their orders, regardless of the nearly inevitable outcome. Responsibility for the miscommunication has remained controversial, as the order was vague and Louis Edward Nolan delivered the written orders with some verbal interpretation, then died in the first minute of the assault.
The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry, which consisted of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, under the command of Major General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Also present that day was the Heavy Brigade, commanded by Major General James Yorke Scarlett, who was a past Commanding Officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards. The Heavy Brigade was made up of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the Scots Greys. The two brigades were the only British cavalry force at the battle.
The Light Brigade were the British light cavalry force. It mounted light, fast horses which were unarmoured. The men were armed with lances and sabres. Optimized for maximum mobility and speed, they were intended for reconnaissance and skirmishing. They were also ideal for cutting down infantry and artillery units as they attempted to retreat.
Charge of the light brigade -Our fighting services - Evelyn Wood pg451.jpg
The Heavy Brigade under James Scarlett was the British heavy cavalry force. It mounted large, heavy chargers. The men were equipped with metal helmets and armed with cavalry swords for close combat. They were intended as the primary British shock force, leading frontal charges in order to break enemy lines.
Overall command of the British cavalry resided with Lieutenant General George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law who disliked each other intensely. Lucan received an order from the army commander Lord Raglan stating: "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." Raglan wanted the light cavalry to prevent the Russians from successfully withdrawing the naval guns from the redoubts they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the south side of the valley. This was an optimal task for the Light Brigade, as their superior speed would ensure the Russians would be forced to either quickly abandon the cumbersome guns or be cut down en masse while they attempted to flee with them.
Raglan could see what was happening from his high vantage point on the west side of the valley. However, the lie of the land around Lucan and the cavalry prevented him from seeing the Russians' efforts to remove the guns from the redoubts and retreat.
The written order which led to the Charge
The order was drafted by Brigadier Richard Airey and carried by Captain Louis Edward Nolan. Nolan carried the further oral instruction that the cavalry was to attack immediately. When Lucan asked what guns were referred to, Nolan is said to have indicated with a wide sweep of his arm—not the causeway redoubts—but the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away. His reasons for the misdirection are unknown because he was killed in the ensuing battle.
In response to the order, Lucan instructed Cardigan to lead his command of about 670 troopers of the Light Brigade straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights. In his poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854), Tennyson dubbed this hollow "The Valley of Death".
The opposing Russian forces were commanded by Pavel Liprandi and included approximately 20 battalions of infantry supported by over 50 artillery pieces. These forces were deployed on both sides and at the opposite end of the valley.
Lucan himself was to follow with the Heavy Brigade. Although the Heavy Brigade was better armoured and intended for frontal assaults on infantry positions, neither force was remotely equipped for a frontal assault on a fully dug-in and alerted artillery, much less one with an excellent line of sight over a mile in length and supported on two sides by artillery batteries providing enfilading fire from elevated ground. The semi-suicidal nature of this charge was surely evident to the troopers of the Light Brigade, but if there were any objection to the orders, it was not recorded.
The charge was from left to right, with the Russian batteries at the extreme right
The Light Brigade set off down the valley with Cardigan in front, leading the charge on his horse Ronald. Almost at once, Nolan rushed across the front, passing in front of Cardigan. It may be that he realised that the charge was aimed at the wrong target and was attempting to stop or turn the brigade, but he was killed by an artillery shell and the cavalry continued on its course. Captain Godfrey Morgan was close by and saw what happened:
The first shell burst in the air about 100 yards in front of us. The next one dropped in front of Nolan's horse and exploded on touching the ground. He uttered a wild yell as his horse turned round, and, with his arms extended, the reins dropped on the animal's neck, he trotted towards us, but in a few yards dropped dead off his horse. I do not imagine that anybody except those in the front line of the 17th Lancers saw what had happened.
We went on. When we got about two or three hundred yards the battery of the Russian Horse Artillery opened fire. I do not recollect hearing a word from anybody as we gradually broke from a trot to a canter, though the noise of the striking of men and horses by grape and round shot was deafening, while the dust and gravel struck up by the round shot that fell short was almost blinding, and irritated my horse so that I could scarcely hold him at all. But as we came nearer I could see plainly enough, especially when I was about a hundred yards from the guns. I appeared to be riding straight on to the muzzle of one of the guns, and I distinctly saw the gunner apply his fuse. I shut my eyes then, for I thought that settled the question as far as I was concerned. But the shot just missed me and struck the man on my right full in the chest.
In another minute I was on the gun and the leading Russian's grey horse, shot, I suppose, with a pistol by somebody on my right, fell across my horse, dragging it over with him and pinning me in between the gun and himself. A Russian gunner on foot at once covered me with his carbine. He was just within reach of my sword, and I struck him across his neck. The blow did not do much harm, but it disconcerted his aim. At the same time a mounted gunner struck my horse on the forehead with his sabre. Spurring "Sir Briggs," he half jumped, half blundered, over the fallen horses, and then for a short time bolted with me. I only remember finding myself alone among the Russians trying to get out as best I could. This, by some chance, I did, in spite of the attempts of the Russians to cut me down.
The Light Brigade faced withering fire from three sides which devastated their force on the ride, yet they were able to engage the Russian forces at the end of the valley and force them back from the redoubt. Nonetheless, they suffered heavy casualties and were soon forced to retire. The surviving Russian artillerymen returned to their guns and opened fire with grapeshot and canister shot, indiscriminately at the mêlée of friend and foe before them. Captain Morgan continues:
When clear again of the guns I saw two or three of my men making their way back, and as the fire from both flanks was still heavy it was a matter of running the gauntlet again. I have not sufficient recollection of minor incidents to describe them, as probably no two men who were in that charge would describe it in the same way. When I was back pretty nearly where we started from I found that I was the senior officer of those not wounded, and, consequently, in command, there being two others, both juniors to me, in the same position — Lieut. Wombwell and Cornet Cleveland.
Lucan and his troops of the Heavy Brigade failed to provide any support for the Light Brigade—they entered the mouth of the valley but did not advance further. Lucan's explanation was that he saw no point in having a second brigade mown down, and he was best positioned to render assistance to Light Brigade survivors returning from the charge. The French light cavalry, the Chasseurs d'Afrique, was more effective by clearing the Fedyukhin Heights of the two half-batteries of guns, two infantry battalions, and Cossacks to ensure that the Light Brigade would not be hit by fire from that flank, and it provided cover for the remaining elements of the Light Brigade as they withdrew.
War correspondent William Howard Russell witnessed the battle and declared: "Our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy."
Cardigan survived the battle, although stories circulated that he was not actually present. He led the charge from the front, never looking back, and did not see what was happening to the troops behind him. He reached the Russian guns, took part in the fight, and then returned alone up the valley without bothering to rally or even find out what had happened to the survivors. He afterwards said that all he could think about was his rage against Captain Nolan, who he thought had tried to take over the leadership of the charge. After riding back up the valley, he considered that he had done all that he could. He left the field and boarded his yacht in Balaklava harbour, where he ate a champagne dinner. He described the engagement in a speech delivered at Mansion House, London which was quoted in the House of Commons:
We advanced down a gradual descent of more than three-quarters of a mile [1.2 km], with the batteries vomiting forth upon us shells and shot, round and grape, with one battery on our right flank and another on the left, and all the intermediate ground covered with the Russian riflemen; so that when we came to within a distance of fifty yards from the mouths of the artillery which had been hurling destruction upon us, we were, in fact, surrounded and encircled by a blaze of fire, in addition to the fire of the riflemen upon our flanks.
As we ascended the hill, the oblique fire of the artillery poured upon our rear, so that we had thus a strong fire upon our front, our flank, and our rear. We entered the battery—we went through the battery—the two leading regiments cutting down a great number of the Russian gunners in their onset. In the two regiments which I had the honour to lead, every officer, with one exception, was either killed or wounded, or had his horse shot under him or injured. Those regiments proceeded, followed by the second line, consisting of two more regiments of cavalry, which continued to perform the duty of cutting down the Russian gunners.
Then came the third line, formed of another regiment, which endeavoured to complete the duty assigned to our brigade. I believe that this was achieved with great success, and the result was that this body, composed of only about 670 men, succeeded in passing through the mass of Russian cavalry of—as we have since learned—5,240 strong; and having broken through that mass, they went, according to our technical military expression, "threes about," and retired in the same manner, doing as much execution in their course as they possibly could upon the enemy's cavalry. Upon our returning up the hill which we had descended in the attack, we had to run the same gauntlet and to incur the same risk from the flank fire of the Tirailleur as we had encountered before. Numbers of our men were shot down—men and horses were killed, and many of the soldiers who had lost their horses were also shot down while endeavouring to escape.
With the exception of a short spell in Egypt in 1801, the regiment did not see active service again until it was sent to Portugal in April 1811, where it joined the Peninsular War campaign. In August, one of its squadrons was forced to take cover in an orchard at San Martín de Trevejo in Spain, an incident that may have been the derivation of its nickname, the Cherry Pickers. It fought at Badajoz in April 1812 and the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812 before returning to Britain. During the campaign of 1815, it was part of Vandeleur's 4th Cavalry Brigade, fighting at Quatre Bras and Waterloo.
The 11th Hussars on the 1884 Nile Expedition
In 1819, the regiment moved to India, where it remained until 1836. Shortly before returning to Britain, the Earl of Cardigan became lieutenant-colonel; he embarked on a series of changes, which were intended to increase regimental prestige but resulted in a number of highly publicised disputes, including the so-called 'Black Bottle' affair.
In 1840, it was named 11th (Prince Albert's Own) Hussars after Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, who became colonel of the regiment. Prince Albert's interests included military tactics and equipment and he helped design a new uniform for the regiment named after him. Purely by coincidence, this included "cherry" or crimson coloured trousers, unique among British regiments and worn ever since in most orders, except battledress and fatigues.
The regiment served in the Crimean War, as part of the Light Brigade commanded by Cardigan, now a Major General and fought at the Battle of Alma in September 1854. It was also involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade in October 1854; due to miscommunication, Cardigan led the brigade against unbroken and more numerous Russian forces and while able to withdraw to its starting position, it suffered heavy losses as a result.
The 11th lost three officers and 55 men in the debacle, while Lieutenant Dunn was awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing two members of his troop. Edward Woodham of the 11th Hussars later acted as Chairman of the organising committee for the 21st Anniversary dinner held at Alexandra Palace for survivors of the Charge. The regiment was renamed the 11th (or Prince Albert's Own) Hussars in 1861. A detachment took part in the 1884 Nile Expedition and during the Second Boer War, it participated in the February 1900 Relief of Ladysmith.