In one of warfare’s great ironies the Crimean War of 1854-1856 is remembered chiefly for one act of pointless heroism which was of marginal relevance to the military outcomes. Thanks to the verses penned by Victorian England’s favorite poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava has come to represent the very essence of British valor and derring-do.
British forces under the overall command of Lord Raglan had taken up positions on the heights above the small harbor of Balaclava in southern Russia. On October 25 the Russians launched a surprise assault but were repulsed first by the British infantry and then by the cavalry squadrons of the Heavy Brigade, in spite of the Russians’ markedly superior numbers.
At this point the now legendary incompetence of the generals took over, resulting in one of the great botched orders in military history. Observing the Russian retreat from a somewhat removed position, Raglan sent his adjutant with written orders to the cavalry commander, Lord Lucan, ‘to advance rapidly to the front’ and ‘to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns’. The guns in question were Turkish outposts on the heights flanking the valley on the east, which the Russians had just captured; from his lower vantage point, however, Lucan was unable to see these and assumed the order must refer to enemy artillery further down the valley.
Although he understood the futility of such an assault, Lucan reluctantly ordered his brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, to lead his Light Brigade forward. In the ensuing charge into ‘the valley of Death’ they were sitting targets in the cross-fire from the surrounding hills and from the Russian guns ahead.
When: October 25 1854
Where: Balaclava, Crimean Peninsula, Russia
Death toll: 113 cavalrymen of the 673-strong Light Brigade were killed, and 134 wounded. Most of the horses died or had to be destroyed.
You should know: When Raglan’s adjutant saw the disastrous course on which the Light Brigade was set, he tried to divert the charge by galloping across the front of the advancing horses and gesturing frantically with his sword; to no avail because he was shot down before anyone could take heed of his warning.