Massive British Cavalry Charge in Crimea Broken Up By Russian Artillery

Crimean War of 1854 from whence comes two of our most popular knitted outerwear garments:

1) the cardigan, said to be named for Lord Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade, and the balaclava, first knitted and worn by British soldiers during their time in Balaclava in the Crimean War.

Russian model Nickoli in a cardigan

 

Cossack_Bay,_Balaclava_1855-56

Cossack Bay near Balaclava, a supply port for the British and French armies in the Crimean War.

Alarmed by reports of how cold their men were (Crimea first war to be covered by official war correspondents), women in England began to knit a woolen garment which covered the head and neck. As these were shipped in, English troops received from their supply point in Balaclava, hence the name.

spokesmodel Nickoli wearing a balaclava

on 25 October 1854 occurred the infamous….

 

 The Charge Of The Light Brigade

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

(The entire poem is at the end of the post)

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. 

 

(A league is an imprecise unit of measurement which fell out of use in the later part of the 19th Century. At the time Lord Tennyson wrote his famous poem, a mere six weeks after the battle, the measure of a league- on land- was more or less taken as three miles. So ‘half a league’ is one and a half miles.  Two kilometers, works out to about 1.3 miles so the poem is close to accurate on the distance).

Cardigan

an insecure, arrogant, self-righteous, narcissistic jerk

“Here goes the last of the Brudenell’s,” said Lord James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan…

and then Major General Commanding the Light Brigade, a cavalry formation which included his personal regiment, the 11th Hussars, upon receiving the order to charge batteries of Russian artillery. This was part of the Battle of Balaclava which was part of the overall siege of Sevastopol, the key Russian naval base in the Crimea.

Cardigan was an insecure, arrogant, self-righteous, narcissistic jerk. Few liked him. Most who knew him thought him vain, conceited, foolish, lacking in judgement and not very intelligent. But he was brave. He personally led the charge and in spite of later backstabbing and tell-all books written about his dissolute behavior in the Crimean War including living on his private steam yacht, there is no doubt that he did personally lead the Charge of the Light Brigade. And when I say lead, I mean he was distinctly out front of the entire brigade and there was no mistaking him. He wasn’t killed or wounded which is simply due to good luck.

Like most everything in history, there is great disagreement over this entire disaster. As usual, the people who were there agreed on nothing. Nonetheless, it seems clear that Cardigan was given vague orders by the Army commander, who was high on a hill and could see the entire battlefield, which Cardigan could not. Ordered to charge the guns, he charged the only ones he could see even though it was suicidal–of which he was well aware. His Light Brigade had to charge almost two kilometers to even get to the Russian guns. While it seemed an age to the men who participated, the although the entire dramatic event took less than 30 minutes.

Once again, like so many operations in war, the wrong thing was done. As Helmuth von Moltke the elder, the founder of the Prussian General Staff and great military thinker of the mid to late 19th Century once said, “if an order can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood.” And so it was –although no fault of Cardigan’s.

Wrote the military correspondent of the Times of London, “our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy.”

There were about 660 to 680 men total from the cavalry formations which comprised the Light Brigade in the charge. How many were killed? No one agrees exactly but the latest book on the subject quoted below gives the following figures which are about as precise as we will ever get.

“Of the 666 men known to have ridden in the charge (sources vary slightly),271 became casualties: 110 killed (less than 17%), 129 wounded, plus another 32 wounded and taken prisoner. Additionally, 375 horses were killed.”

 Hell Riders: The Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade by Terry Brighton.

The Crimean War, which featured the British, the French and the Ottoman Turks against Imperial Russia, took place in southern Crimea around the Russian naval base of Sevastopol between October 1853 – February 1856. The reasons for the war involve a complex series of historical currents which would take me all morning to write about so suffice it to say one side thought the other was getting too powerful. You can read some of the complex details on wikipedia here if you want:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_War

 

The Charge Of The Light Brigade
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
 

 

Memorializing Events in the Battle of Balaclava, October 25, 1854
Written 1854
 

 

 

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
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d & thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter’d & sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

[This poem, including punctuation, is reproduced from a scan of the poem written out by Tennyson in his own hand later, in 1864. The scan was made available online by the University of Virginia.]

courtesy of www.nationalcenter.org/ChargeoftheLightBrigade.html

 

1200px-Panorama_dentro

Detail of Franz Roubaud’s panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1904)

(courtesy wikipedia)

 

The Crimean War is long forgotten along with the tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors who died, most from disease. 95,000 men from the French Empire perished, 60,000 from disease. Approximately 22,000 men from the British Empire perished, 16,000 from disease. And from the Ottoman Empire, historians estimate between 95,000 and 175,000 perished,breakdown unavailable.  (Figures cited in–The War Chronicles: From Flintlocks to Machine Guns by Joseph Cummins)

Because so many of the dead were killed by disease, the stage was set for Florence Nightingale to come onto the stage of history and begin the practice of skilled and professional nursing of wounded and sick men and women and the beginnings of proper sanitation in hospitals and other public spaces. 

(Florence Nightingale and the profession of trained nurses also emerged from the debacle of the Crimean war due to the horrendous treatment of the wounded and sick British soldiers during this conflict)

 

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/