As British military cock-ups go, it has to be the most famous - or, rather, infamous - one there is.
To be sure, there are a number of solid competitors for ‘worst military blunder’ amongst the annals of British history. Isandlwana, the Raid on the Medway and the first day of the Somme are perhaps all worthy contenders.
Yet, as much as the death roster of some other disasters may have eclipsed it, the Charge of the Light Brigade on October 25, 1854, must still come out top for most of us. There’s just something particularly obtuse about galloping at full pelt along a narrow valley crested by Russian guns - into “the jaws of Death”, as Tennyson put it.
But that isn’t exactly what happened.
To begin with, it was not some narrow valley flanked by towering cliffs upon which sat battery after battery of enemy cannons.
Rather, the valley traversed by the Light Brigade was about two miles wide and three long.
It was important because the Voronzov road, linking the British base camp at Balaclava with its forces besieging the Russians at Sevastopol, ran through it. The Crimean War started because Russia had invaded Turkey in support of Christians living there, and France and Britain had come to the aid of Turkey, (neither one fancied an enlarged and emboldened Russian Bear along the edges of Europe).
Hoping to undermine the siege, Russia struck at Balaclava and the supply routes running from it. The scene was set for the ill-fated cavalry attack.
The problem seems to have come down to a number of personality clashes between the principle protagonists on the British side.
Lord Cardigan, commanding the Light Brigade, hated his brother-in-law Lord Lucan.
For his part, Lucan also hated Cardigan.
Meanwhile, the troops hated both Cardigan and Lucan. In ‘Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters’, John Withington quotes one man as saying “We call Lucan the cautious ass and Cardigan the dangerous ass”. He also says:
“Vain, and a notorious womaniser with a foul temper, Cardigan once had an officer arrested for drinking porter at a mess dinner, while earlier in the campaign he had made his exhausted men keep moving tents around until he was satisfied that they were arranged in a sufficiently symmetrical manner.”
This rather contrasted with the man who was meant to be his immediate superior, but to whom he gave no such deference:
“Lucan shared the lice, the mud, the scant food and the icy winds of the camp with his men… Cardigan (meanwhile) slept in Balaclava harbour on his yacht, drinking champagne and consuming dishes served up by his French cook.”
Cardigan had no combat experience, nor did British Commander Lord Raglan. Still, he had been wise enough that morning, as he watched the Russians opposite his cavalry units stealing British guns, to send a messenger for backup.
But one of the infantry commanders at Sevastopol, Sir George Cathcart, was Raglan’s successor in waiting, and hated what he felt was “the commander-in-chief… freezing him out”. Thus, he had “inundated him with constant complaints”. The infantry would move to reinforce their comrades, but only after a delay.
Meanwhile, on the heights, Raglan had to watch the Russians continue to capture the British redoubts and guns, while French allies watched him – the pressure built.
Seeing an isolated group of Russians on the Causeway Heights ahead, he sent a message to Lucan:
“Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights. They will be supported by infantry.”
The ever cautious ‘Look On’ Lucan thought this meant that he should wait for the infantry to advance, and merely got the Heavy Brigade into position to attack.
This notion, though, would soon be dispelled. Charging down the valley on horseback was the headstrong and foolhardy Captain Nolan bringing new orders from Raglan.
Nolan was a cavalry officer through and through, and a firm believer the arm had been under-utilised. It could “break (infantry) squares, take batteries, (and) ride over columns of infantry” if not unduly restrained by ‘stupid, cowardly’ Lucan. Nolan hated Lucan.
And Lucan hated Nolan.
He opened the order. He was to attack guns? Which ones? The same ones referred to in the prior orders or different ones? Lucan, unlike Raglan up above, could not see much from down here.
Apparently, Nolan then pointed towards the end of the North Valley and barked:
“There, my Lord, is your enemy; there are your guns.”
Stupid, cowardly Lucan.
Rude, insolent Nolan. Some thought his attitude bordered on insubordinate and that he should have been arrested.
“Lord Raglan’s orders are that the cavalry are to attack immediately,” he reiterated, protocol demanding infantry support during any cavalry assault be damned, apparently.
Conferring with Cardigan, he arranged for his brother-in-law to lead the Light Brigade while his, Lucan’s, Heavy Brigade would follow, not at a charge but at a “Walk. March. Trot.”
Their route to the 12 Russian guns and cavalry was one-and-a-half miles long. As they approached they would pass 14 guns on the Fedyukhin Heights to their left and 30 on the Causeway Heights to their right.
It is possible that, as the first salvo rang out, Nolan was trying to redirect the attack at one of the flanks, as he plunged forward and began pointing with his sword. But no one could hear him above the noise of the guns and in any case he was soon struck and killed.
Cardigan would next try to break into a charge, but the ever-cautious Lucan kept slowing him down. As Withington so aptly puts it:
“In this, one of the most famous charges of history, no order to charge was ever given.”
Trying to get out of the by now murderous cross-fire, Cardigan and Lucan kept up their advance, heading for the guns straight ahead that they'd been ordered to capture. According to one participant, Sergeant Mitchell:
“The number of men and horses falling increased every moment.”
Then Mitchell’s own horse was hit, trapping him beneath it. By some miracle, he managed to survive as those behind came thundering over him.
Now though, orders aside, the pace would pick up, the momentum of the battle taking on a life of its own:
“As the brigade broke into a gallop, troopers cheered and yelled. Riderless, often wounded, horses careered in and out of the ranks.”
What was left of the Light Brigade got within 80 yards of the 12 guns ahead... then they were blasted by a lethal salvo.
Despite the carnage, the slower Heavy Brigade continued to ride up behind. Lucan was struck in the leg but managed to continue.
Up ahead, the Light Brigade continued their attack:
“When Cardigan was just two or three lengths from the guns, he felt a torrent of flame rush down his right side, and believed for a moment he had lost a leg.”
Plunging into the enemy, and then, when he found himself alone, rushing beyond them, he was recognised but managed to avoid a team dispatched to capture him.
Behind him, his men had now caught up to where he had been and they slammed into the enemy:
“In smoke so thick that a trooper could not see his arm in front of him, they cut, hacked and thrust like madmen. ‘Cossack and Russian reel’d from the sabre-stroke’, but they too fought bravely, and the massive superiority of Russian cavalry numbers soon told.”
In complete chaos and confusion, the battle still raging, men began to run and limp back. Cardigan also galloped back to safety. Now he hated Nolan just as much as his brother-in-law Lucan did. He said the captain had been insubordinate and had ‘screamed like a woman’ when he’d been hit.
He was informed that Nolan was dead, one of 300 who had become casualties that day, along with 475 horses, all of which were dead or soon would be. That left only 195 men still ready for action.
In the years that followed, Cardigan, Lucan and Raglan would all blame each other for the disaster, but in the end, as Withington notes, “none of them emerge with much credit from the story.”
Cover image: The Relief of the Light Brigade
To find out more about the Charge of the Light Brigade or other military disasters, read ‘Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters: From the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore’ by John Withington.