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Feature essay

The charge of the light brigade and the Crimean War

One hundred and fifty years ago, on 28 March 1854, Great Britain declared war on Russia. Its participation in what became known as the Crimean War, fought against the only European opponent that Britain faced in the hundred years between Waterloo and the outbreak of the First World War, proved a traumatic experience. Indeed, revelation of the war's mismanagement was sufficient to bring down the government and set in train a hurried process of reform. But for the public of today, one event above all has come to represent the incompetence and folly of the Crimean War: the charge of the light brigade.

Why should this be? Although a setback, the charge involved only 673 horsemen, in continental terms little more than the strength of a cavalry regiment. And there had been military disasters before: Chilianwala, a battle fought in India five years earlier during the Anglo-Sikh wars, had seen an even worse cavalry débâcle. But Chilianwala had not had its William Howard Russell to report what happened for the benefit of The Times newspaper's mass readership. Without the extraordinary vividness of Russell's journalistic prose,
  Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892) by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865 [The Dirty Monk] Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892) by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865 [The Dirty Monk]
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, would not have been inspired to write his poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, its perfectly pitched rhythms destined to be recited by generations of schoolchildren to come. And without Tennyson's poem, would Richard Caton Woodville, the pre-eminent Victorian painter of battle scenes, have been moved to produce not one but two iconic images of the charge: the first depicting the 17th lancers raked by gunfire and the second showing the 11th hussars, having reached the enemy cannon, cutting down the Russian gunners?

In the twentieth century, the charge's hold on the popular imagination was consolidated by the extraordinary success of The Reason Why (1953) by Mrs Cecil Woodham-Smith. Taking as its cue the unanswered question posed by Tennyson's heroic verses (‘Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die’), the book demonstrated that the disaster arose because of the personalities of the characters involved. Woodham-Smith's work formed the basis in turn of a flawed masterpiece of a film, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) by Tony Richardson. Richardson's anti-establishment credentials ensured that his film was as much a critique of the political state of modern Britain as of the military leadership in the Crimea; it was no coincidence that the portrayal as a buffoon of Sir George Brown (a composite of the Crimean generals Sir George Brown and Sir George Cathcart) evoked in the audience thoughts of his bibulous namesake, the then foreign secretary.

The making of a blunder

So how did the charge of the light brigade come about? Principally because the men involved were inexperienced. This might have been excused on the basis that Britain had not fought a European war for forty years; but there were those in its army who had seen plenty of fighting in India more recently. Instead, command of the ‘Army of the East’ was given to the 66-year-old Lord Raglan (FitzRoy Somerset), a protégé of the late duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, and a man who had not seen action since losing an arm at Waterloo. A staff officer ever since, he had never previously commanded as much as a battalion. Raglan's divisional commanders were mostly of a similar age and had either little recent experience of command or none. The situation was perhaps most dire in the cavalry division. Its commander, the 54-year-old Lord Lucan (George Bingham), had been retired from the army for seventeen years before being recalled to duty. Pettifogging and unimaginative, he had achieved rapid promotion by using his wealth to purchase his commissions, but had never commanded his regiment in action.
  James Thomas Brudenell (1797–1868) by George Zobel, pubd 1856 (after Henry Wyndham Phillips) James Thomas Brudenell (1797–1868) by George Zobel, pubd 1856 (after Henry Wyndham Phillips)
He was, moreover, on the worst of terms with his subordinate and brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan (James Brudenell), who commanded the light brigade. Like Lucan, Cardigan had used his immense wealth to purchase his commissions, but he possessed even fewer military attributes. Aged fifty-seven, he had never seen active service. His career had been dogged by scandal and he was notorious for persecuting the officers of his regiment, the 11th hussars.

It was on 25 October 1854 that this combustible mixture of personalities came together at the battle of Balaklava. The British, with their French and Turkish allies, had landed in the Crimea the month before and were besieging the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. To try to break the siege, the Russian field army attacked the nearby port of Balaklava, through which the British drew their supplies. After initial success against the Turks, two Russian cavalry thrusts had been repulsed: the first by the 93rd highlanders (immortalized by the watching Russell as ‘the thin red line’); and the second by the charge of the heavy brigade, led by the doughty General James Scarlett. Raglan, watching the battle from the commanding Sapoune Heights, wished to exploit his advantage; but because his infantry had not yet arrived from Sevastopol, he ordered Lucan to advance the cavalry and recapture the Causeway Heights, lost by the Turks earlier. Raglan's order, drafted by his quartermaster-general, Richard Airey, lacked the necessary clarity. Lucan prevaricated. Forty minutes later, Raglan saw that the Russians were carrying away a number of British cannon captured by them from the Turks. Lucan was sent a fresh order:
Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy & try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate. R Airey.
Fatefully, the order was conveyed to Lucan in the valley below by Airey's aide-de-camp, Captain Louis Nolan. The last major actor in the drama, Nolan was a 36-year-old published author on cavalry tactics. He was a theorist, but one who lacked practical experience: before landing in the Crimea he too had never seen action. We know from the testimony of his friend, the journalist Russell, that Nolan had previously seethed at the caution of Lucan, or ‘Lord Look-On’, as one wag had dubbed him. However, it is only with the recent re-emergence of Nolan's campaign journal, last used by the historian Alexander Kinglake 140 years ago, that the basis for his anger becomes apparent, most notably in its revelation of the repeated orders that had been sent to Lucan to advance at the battle of the Alma (20 September 1854) and with which he had failed to comply. Nolan was therefore in an uncompromising mood when he handed Raglan's order to Lucan. Unfortunately, from where he stood Lucan could see nothing of what was apparent to Raglan high above on the Sapoune Heights. After a tense exchange he asked Nolan where were the enemy and guns against which he was expected to act. Nolan lost patience and angrily flung out his arm: ‘There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns.’ But to Lucan, Nolan's gesture pointed not towards the Causeway Heights but to a battery of twelve Russian guns over a mile distant at the end of the valley. Lucan rode over to Cardigan and ordered him to attack with the light brigade; Lucan himself would follow with the heavy brigade. Cardigan had noted the guns and the massed Russian cavalry behind them, but he pointed out that there were also enemy artillery and riflemen on either side of the valley as well. Lucan replied: ‘I cannot help it, you must attack, Lord Raglan desires the light brigade immediately to attack the enemy.’

Apportioning the blame

And so the light brigade charged in the wrong direction into the valley of death. Within twenty minutes the tragedy had been enacted and over 260 men had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Even more crucially for the brigade's effectiveness, 475 horses were lost. Who was to blame? Was it Lord Raglan, whose order had been ambiguous? Was it Lord Lucan, who misunderstood the order? Or was it Lord Cardigan, who executed the order? No, increasingly opinion has come to blame Captain Nolan, who so insubordinately delivered the order. Was he trying to re-direct the light brigade towards the Causeway Heights when he suddenly rode out in front of Lord Cardigan at the beginning of the advance? Or was his self-regard such that he simply wanted to lead the charge? No one will ever know. Nolan was killed by the first Russian shot fired.

Nevertheless, in the charge's immediate aftermath, it was Lucan who found himself in the most exposed position. His determination to justify his conduct at the expense of his working relationship with Lord Raglan subsequently led to his recall from the Crimea. Lord Cardigan, whom no one had really blamed, was initially fêted for his bravery. But his monstrous ego got the better of him. The artist
  William Simpson (1823–1899) by unknown photographer, 1891 William Simpson (1823–1899) by unknown photographer, 1891
William Simpson, who sent highly regarded paintings back from the Crimea, recalled how Cardigan would only endorse his rendering of the charge of the light brigade at the third attempt: ‘The real truth was that in the last sketch I had taken greater care than in the first two to make his lordship conspicuous in front of the brigade.’ It was even whispered by some that Cardigan had withdrawn from the fighting too early, so determined had he been to return and complain of the conduct of Captain Nolan in riding in front of him. When the Colonel the Hon. Somerset J. Gough Calthorpe, later seventh Baron Calthorpe (1831–1912), implied as much in his Letters from Headquarters, Cardigan eventually sued for libel; and although it was proved that he had reached the Russian guns, the revelation of Cardigan's indifference to the fate of his men thereafter severely damaged his reputation.

Wider repercussions: a government falls

As for Lord Raglan, he was soon caught up in a still greater calamity than the charge of the light brigade. The British army was shockingly ill-prepared for the Crimean winter of 1854–5. Already ravaged by overwork, exposure, and disease, the sufferings of the troops were compounded by a catastrophic failure of supply as the road between Balaklava and Sevastopol turned into an impassable sea of mud. For the first time the public in Britain heard of these disasters almost as soon as they occurred. The army had been accompanied by the first war correspondents, of whom W. H. Russell was the most celebrated. Improved postal communication, and the later introduction to the Crimea of the new electric telegraph, gave their reports both immediacy and a greater impact. There was an outcry at home; Raglan and his staff were savaged in The Times for their incompetence. The government took fright. Austen Henry Layard, the radical politician and excavator of Nineveh, who had spent the autumn with the army in the Crimea, had already delivered a wide-ranging speech in parliament attacking the inadequacy of the ministry's measures; now his radical counterpart, John Arthur Roebuck, had tabled a motion calling for a parliamentary inquiry. When, at the end of January 1855, the motion was passed overwhelmingly, the government of Lord Aberdeen (George Hamilton Gordon) resigned.

The change did not benefit Lord Raglan. The new secretary for war, Lord Panmure (Fox Maule) was as critical of Raglan's conduct as had been (in the latter stages) his predecessor, the duke of Newcastle (Henry Pelham-Clinton). The war dragged on, and after the failure of the first attack on the Redan (18 June 1855), Raglan died. Historians have been kinder to Raglan than were his contemporaries, but even Alexander Kinglake's magisterial nine-volume tome The Invasion of the Crimea, based on Raglan's papers and excessively deferential to him, cannot dispel the impression that Raglan was an old man overwhelmed by his responsibilities. Even so the government did not find it easy to replace him. General Sir James Simpson was an unwilling stop-gap who, once Sevastopol had finally fallen (8 September 1855), took the opportunity to resign. The dearth of military talent was such that in the end General Sir William Codrington had to be appointed the new commander-in-chief; this is in spite of the damage to his reputation caused by his mismanagement of the second attack on the Redan. His only rival, General Sir Colin Campbell, a man with a splendid fighting record who was favoured by Queen Victoria, had been deemed by Raglan in the past to be too excitable. The pool of talent had not improved by the time the British army's commander-in-chief, Lord Hardinge, retired the following year. He was succeeded by Prince George, duke of Cambridge, who had been invalided home from the Crimea in 1854 with shattered nerves, and whose only recommendation for preferment was his royal connection.

Innovations: nursing, bravery awards, and photography

The Crimean war had none the less produced its positive aspects. The reports of Thomas Chenery for The Times of the appalling conditions that prevailed at the military hospitals in Scutari prompted Florence Nightingale to lead a party of nurses to care for the sick. Miss Nightingale's reputation casts a long shadow, and it is easy to overlook the contribution made to nursing during the Crimean War by the likes of Lady Alicia Blackwood and Betsy Davis. But Florence Nightingale was determined to prove the value of female nursing in wartime—for which discipline was needed—and this accounts for her otherwise apparently harsh treatment of Mary Stanley. Interestingly, the ultimate establishment of a role for female nurses with the army coincided with the disappearance of the soldier's wife accompanying her husband to war ‘on the strength’. Although, as an ‘officer's lady’, Fanny Duberly did not fall into this category socially, her Journal Kept during the Russian War nevertheless valuably records the experiences of a wife on campaign; the opportunity to emulate her did not persist for much longer.

A woman whose career has been reassessed and acknowledged only in recent years is
  Mary Jane Seacole (1805–1881) by Count Victor Gleichen, 1871 Mary Jane Seacole (1805–1881) by Count Victor Gleichen, 1871
Mary Seacole. Born in Jamaica, she went to the Crimea as a sutler selling goods to the troops, but her benevolence was such that she became better known as a nurse. In 2004 she received the accolade of being voted history's pre-eminent black Briton. Mrs Seacole famously knew everyone in the Crimea, including Alexis Soyer, the erstwhile French chef of the Reform Club, who had arrived to improve the soldiers' cuisine. The design of Soyer's stove, which he introduced to cook the troops' rations more efficiently, was so outstanding that it continued in use with the British army for over a century.

Another welcome innovation resulting from the Crimean War was the Victoria Cross, the first ‘democratic’ award for gallantry open to all servicemen irrespective of rank. Queen Victoria took a close personal interest in the design, and among its first recipients were Major Henry Clifford of the rifle brigade and Captain Mark Walker of the Buffs, both of whom received their awards for bravery at the battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854). Clifford's letters home, published in 1956, are among the best to come down to us from the Crimea; while Walker's Crimean journal, now in the National Army Museum, movingly shows the effect on his handwriting of the amputation of his right arm following the shattering of his elbow by a Russian shell.

Just as with war reporting, the Crimean War was the proving ground of war photography. Roger Fenton, in a remarkable series of portraits and group shots, showed for the first time the real faces of men at war. James Robertson, meanwhile, in his photographs of Sevastopol following its capture, created an invaluable record of the fields of battle. With photography in its infancy, both men had to overcome considerable technical difficulties to leave us their photographic legacy.

Clearly the Crimean war was about much more than just the charge of the light brigade. But the British have often cherished the memory of their military disasters as much as their victories, and when the defeat is redeemed by prodigies of valour, its enduring reputation is usually unassailable.

Alastair W. Massie


G. Zobel, mezzotint, pubd 1856 (after H. W. Phillips), NPG; James Thomas Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan [see illus.] · J. M. Cameron, photograph, 1865, NPG; Alfred Tennyson, first Baron Tennyson [see illus.] · V. Gleichen, terracotta bust, 1871, Institute of Jamaica, Kingston; Mary Jane Seacole [see illus.] · photograph, 1891; Christies, 29 April 1999, lot 87; William Simpson [see illus.]