The Courageous 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.

The poem was written by Lord Tennyson, in honor of the Light Brigade. The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War may be one of the most heroic and famed near-suicidal cavalry charges in history. After all, it was a charge down a valley right to the mouths of Russian cannon- no small feat.

The Crimean War

First, before we get into the subject of the charge of the Light Brigade itself, let’s talk about the Crimean War. Years before, Napoleon had stirred things up hard on the European continent. Smashing away old empires and emperors, he had created a huge empire- only to be defeated by an alliance of European states. The rulers of Europe were determined not to let that happen again as they restored the old state system of Europe. The status quo would remain.

Nicholas I

Not for long, however. The Ottoman Empire of Turkey was growing increasingly weak, while a neighbor became stronger and stronger: Imperial Russia. An expansionist new power, it was looking for new lands and new opportunities. It also wanted a warm water port that would not freeze. The Ottoman Empire, by then dubbed the “Sick Man of Europe”, seemed to Tsar Nicholas I as a good place to look. The Ottoman Empire owned some European coastal territories- perhaps Russia could carve out some of that?

Nicholas duly decided that it was a good idea. All that was needed, now, was an excuse. Soon enough, Russia demanded that the Ottomans recognize the right of Russia to protect Orthodox Christians in the Empire, which was hardly a demand the Ottoman Sultan was willing to give in to. Russia met the refusal with the occupation of some of the Danubian principalities in Europe owned by the Ottomans.

The occupation did not go without notice by the other European powers. The other states, so determined to preserve the status quo, began to fear of a rise in Russian power. They weren’t going to let Russia increase their power so easily. They may not have held a great love for the Muslim Ottomans- but the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The British and the French quickly declared war on Russia to save the Ottoman Empire and preserve the status quo.

Map of the Ottoman Empire and the borders with Russia

This led to the break of the war. Now, it’s interesting to note that the war might have ended much sooner than it did. Russia would soon evacuate the Danubian provinces they had occupied, and that would have been an acceptable ending to the war, at least in the eyes of government leaders. Not for the public though. War fever is not easily cured, and the British and French public weren’t going to let the war end. Instead, the allies chose to continue the war. The Russian tsar had a Black Sea fleet in the docks of the Crimea, a peninsula extending from Russia; if it was allowed to pass into the Mediterranean, the Western European powers would lose influence to Russia and have to fight for the sea. Why not, then, keep Russia landlocked? Attacking the Crimea was a fine idea.

Before the Charge

The allied troops landed on the Crimea in September 1854, aiming to capture the Russian fortress at the city of Sevastopol. The

The Crimea

British occupied the port of Balaclava, putting them into the role of protecting the right flank of the allied position, under the command of Lord Raglan. Raglan didn’t have enough troops for this, however. The Russians decided to attack. Prince Menshikov marched out of the city of Sevastopol, aiming to attack the Woronzoff Road- the only firm road that led between Balaclavla and the siege works being set up as Sevastopol. A vulnerable position, and important for the allies; the allies, realizing this, sent Turkish troops in to build six redoubts to protect the road. The Russians simply bombarded the Turkish troops, driving them out with heavy casualties.

With the road cleared to  Balaclava, the Russians gathered 3000 cavalry up to move on to occupy the port that the British were currently holding. Lord Raglan, commander of the British at Balaclava, refused to let this happen easily, ordering the Heavy Brigade in to defeat the main Russian force. A small detachment of Russians, meanwhile, were racing directly for Balaclava, who were stopped by a thin strip of British troops, now called

Thin Red Line

the Thin Red Line. These are topics that all deserve posts to themselves, but let’s keep with the main topic of this post: The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The defeat of the Russian force meant that they had to retreat. However, they were also dragging the Turkish guns that they had captured when attacking the Turkish redoubts with them- hardly an advantage that Lord Raglan was willing to give. Seeing this, Ragan sent a message to the commander of the Light Brigade:

Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French Cavalry is on your left. Immediate.

Nolan

The guns that Lord Raglan were referring to were the captured Turkish guns. However, when Captain Louis Edward Nolan brought the message to George Bingham, the 3rd Earl of Lucan and General George James Brudnell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. (The two were brother in laws and intensely disliked each other). Lucan asked what Raglan was referring to exactly when talking about the enemy. Nolan indicated, with a sweep of his arm, not the Turkish guns, but instead a Russian cavalry force behind a gun redoubt down the valley. “There is your enemy.” he said. “There are your guns, my lord.”

Bingham

What’s interesting to note about this is that it was certainly evident to the troops standing there that it was going to be a semi-suicidal move. A clearly visible cavalry charge down to a gun position that was supported on two sides by artillery batteries. The Light Brigade took the orders without objection, however. It’s almost too hard to imagine for us- to ride on a semi-suicidal charge to the throats of guns to try to take over that position? Imagine for a second if you were a British troop who was asked to do that. It’s bravery that’s hard to imagine for us normal city-dwellers who spend our lives safely away from gunpoint.

The Charge

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and 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.

Despite whatever thoughts or fears could have been in the minds of the troops, the Light Brigade set off. Among the first casualties of the charge were Captain Nolan who was seen quickly rushing to the front of the charge, as if trying to halt it, but was killed quickly by a shell. Had he realized that he had misinterpreted the orders? Perhaps, but we will never know. In any case, the Light Brigade determinedly continued along with its charge, despite the continuing shelling. General Bingham would say, in a speech after the charge:

We advanced down a gradual descent of more than three-quarters of a mile, with the batteries vomiting forth upon us shells and shot, round and grape, with one battery on our right flank and another on the left, and all the intermediate ground covered with the Russian riflemen; so that when we came to within a distance of fifty yards from the mouths of the artillery which had been hurling destruction upon us, we were, in fact, surrounded and encircled by a blaze of fire, in addition to the fire of the riflemen upon our flanks.

The Light Brigade managed to reach the guns, with General Bingham continuing:

As we ascended the hill, the oblique fire of the artillery poured upon our rear, so that we had thus a strong fire upon our front, our flank, and our rear. We entered the battery—we went through the battery—the two leading regiments cutting down a great number of the Russian gunners in their onset. In the two regiments which I had the honour to lead, every officer, with one exception, was either killed or wounded, or had his horse shot under him or injured. Those regiments proceeded, followed by the second line, consisting of two more regiments of cavalry, which continued to perform the duty of cutting down the Russian gunners.

Once again, you’ve got to consider the sheer bravery of these men. Surrounded with strong fire on the front, flank and rear. How long does it take before you’re just scared out of your wits? It’s hard to imagine. Lord Tennyson, in his poem, wrote:

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned 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 and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Despite reaching the guns, however, the Light Brigade didn’t last long. Suffering heavy casualties, the Light Brigade would be forced to retreat under continuing gunfire. General Bingham remarked “Of each of these regiments there returned but a small detachment, two-thirds of the men engaged having been destroyed.” Cardigan, riding back to the safety of the British lines, said “I have lost my brigade.” 247 men were killed along with 475 horses.

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 and 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.

A French general with the allied army managed to sum up the charge of the Light Brigade in a couple of words:

It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness.

The Russian generals thought they were drunk.

It was not a good day for the British army, but the Light Brigade were turned into legends.

After the Charge

Despite the fact that the charge was a failure and Lucan would bear most of the blame, the charge of the Light Brigade would forever immortalize themselves as heroes of the British army. Cardigan would return to Britain as a hero, and the Light Brigade would be cheered upon by an astonished British population at the bravery of their charge.

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!

Survivors of the Charge

Not that it was all rosy for the Light Brigade. Many of the soldiers would descend into poverty, neglected by the state. In the much lesser known poem ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children’s children are lisping to honor the charge they made
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

Whatever became of the Light Brigade, however, they have been immortalized into history because of one of the bravest cavalry charges in history. Cannon to the right of them, cannot to the left of them, cannon behind them- can we imagine ourselves in such acts of bravery?

Thanks for reading.

Ken

 

 

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