From 1853-1856, Britain and France were at war with Russia. Russia had sought to pressure Turkey in supporting its goals but sent troops to take control. This threatened British commercial and strategic assets in the Middle East (and to a smaller extent France). France used the tension to bolster an alliance with Britain and to bolster its military power. The allies landed in the Crimea in September 1854 to destroy both Sevastopol and the Russian fleet. The Allies, after taking two weeks to set things up, started bombarding Sevastopol on 17 October. The Russians were well prepared but tried to break the siege attacking the British supply base in the fishing village of Balaclava.
The Russians were repelled but occupied the Causeway Heights outside of the town. Lord Raglan, the British Commander-In-Chief, wanted to send in both Heavy and Light Calvary supported by infantry to get to the Russians and get back any British artillery they may have taken. Raglan wanted them to move immediately (meaning send in the calvary with the infantry to follow later). However the calvary commander George Bingham, the earl of Lucan, thought the order meant both calvary and infantry together. This caused a delay as they had to wait for infantry to arrive. Raglan issued a new order to advance rapidly to stop the Russians from taking any guns away. Bingham did not see this happening. He asked Raglan’s aide where to attack, and he pointed in the general direction of the Russian artillery at the far end of the valley. Lord Lucan conferred with his brother-in-law, James Brudenell, the earl of Cardigan who commanded the light brigade. Neither liked each other and apparently they were not respected by those under them. Both decided to follow Lucan’s order without checking first to confirm it. 670 members of the light brigade drew their sabers and lances and began the infamous mile and a quarter charge into the valley.
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.
The Russians began shooting at them from three different angles (not at the same time though). Onward they rode though they took severe casualties. Descriptions of survivors reported horrors of horses covered in blood, arms and heads being carried off by gunfire or artillery, and human brains on the ground. The area was so thick with smoke from Russian gunfire that some said it resembled a volcano. Amazingly the Light Brigade reached its destination crashing the enemy lines and holding it for a brief time. They were forced back, and Russian artillery fired from Causeway Heights. The Heavy Brigade had been turned around before it went further into the valley. When it was all over, 110 were dead and 160 injured and 375 horses were lost. 60 were taken captive. Reaction from many was to admire the bravery and honor of the calvary who were in the charge, but not so much their commanders that had ordered the attack. It took three weeks for it to be reported in Britain and recriminations would fly.
Raglan blamed Lucan and Lucan was angry at being made a scapegoat. Raglan would argue that Lucan should have used his discretion while Lucan argued he was obeying orders. Cardigan blamed Lucan for giving the orders. Cardigan returned home a hero and was promoted. Lucan continued to defend himself in public and parliament and escaped blame as well. However, he never saw active duty again though promoted to general and later field marshal. In short recalled, promoted, and sent to the rear where he could do the least harm. The charge is still studied today of what happens when military intelligence is lacking, and orders unclear. The Russians would claim victory despite never taking Balaclava and paraded the captured weapons in Sevastopol. However, the Allies in 1855 were able to cut Russian logistics and force them out of Sevastopol when it fell between 8-9 Sept 1855.
Other battles in the Baltic in 1854 and 1855 had not gone well for the Russians either. The British appeared to be ready to destroy both Cronstradt and St. Petersburg in 1856 using naval forces. The Russians accepted defeat and sought peace in early 1856. Russia had lost 500,000 troops in the war (not from battle but apparently from diseases and malnutrition amongst other things) and its economy was ruined. They also lacked the industrial infrastructure to build modern weapons. The Peace of Paris on 30 March 1856 formally ended the Crimean War. Britain got what it wanted: the independence of Ottoman Turkey. The Black Sea was made a neutral zone (no warships allowed to enter), and the Danube opened to all commercial shipping. Bessarabia became part of Moldavia along with Walachia to become autonomous states (later Romania). Russia in 1870 would repudiate the Black Sea neutrality to rebuild its naval fleet.
The Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote an evocative poem called The Charge of the Light Brigade which was published on 9 December 1854. He praises the brigade while mourning the futility of the charge.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
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 dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and 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 Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell Rode the six hundred.
Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air, Sabring the gunners there,Charging an army, while All the world wondered. Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke;Cossack and Russian Reeled from the sabre stroke Shattered and sundered. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them, Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell. They that had fought so well. Came through 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 wondered. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!
- Charge of the Light Brigade (Britannica)
- Treaty of Paris (Britannica)
- This Day in History (History.com)
- History Stories: Charge of the Light Brigade (History.com)