“The Famous Light Brigade”


"It was a famous story, proclaim it far and wide, And let your children's children re-echo it with pride, When old Cardigan, the fearless, his name immortal made, When he charged through that Russian valley with his famous Light Brigade."


It would be an exaggeration to say that the final century of the existence of the Russian and Ottoman Empires was devoted to a contest between the two of them for control of the Dardanelles. But the exaggeration would be mild. The Russians made many attempts in the nineteenth century to gain control of the straights. The Crimean War came about because one of their attempts was so blatant that the British and French felt it simply had to be stopped.

The war was a disaster for both sides; both suffered heavy losses -- due to both bad logistics and bad generalship -- while reaping only minimal gains. Even in that utterly incompetent war, few results were as bad as the fate of the Light Brigade.

The charge of the Light Brigade is, of course, one of the most famous disasters in military history. It took some work to bring about the disaster, though. The first stage of the combined British/French invasion, which resulted in the Battle of Alma, went well enough if you ignore the severe casualties caused by disease (for background, see the notes to "The Heights of Alma (I)" [Laws J10]). After Alma, the allies could perhaps have tried a direct run for Sebastopol. With the defences weak and the Russian army defeated and scattered, it might have worked (see Royle, pp. 261-262, Warner, pp. 46-57. For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this entry).

The allies didn't try it. British commander Lord Raglan discussed it with the French, but they refused (Palmer, p. 103). So the allied army moved slowly to be prepared for a possible siege -- and thus made the siege inevitable. The allies moved to the south of the city, set up new supply bases, and generally dawdled.

The dawdling gave the Russians time to properly fortify Sebastopol (as well as to get their troops reorganized). And, with the city more defensible, it also gave the Russians troops with which to attempt offensive moves of their own (Royle, pp. 263-264). On October 25, five weeks after the Battle of Alma, with the British, French, and Turkish allies slowly tightening the encirclement of Sebastopol, the Russians counterattacked at Balaclava. With a force reported to total 25,000 men, they struck at the weak British east flank (Royle, p. 265).

This was potentially a war-winner for the Russians (Royle, p. 267); if they could take Balaclava Harbor, which was the sole British supply port (Woodham-Smith, p. 197), the British would be entirely cut off from supplies and the French potentially flanked. And the British had suffered so many losses (primarily to disease rather than battle) that they didn't have enough reserves to garrison Balaclava and maintain their other operations (Woodham-Smith, p. 207). But, of course, the Russians muffed it.

The first Russian charge was a partial success, routing part of the Turkish force (Palmer, p. 125, says that the Turks lost half their numbers; the allies still blamed them for fleeing). The attack failed only in that it had not reached Balaclava.

Still, the Russians were atop the only real road from Balaclava to the British camp -- meaning that they controlled the British supply line unless they were driven back (Woodham-Smith, p. 213). This finally convinced Raglan that he had to do something. He ordered up two divisions of infantry -- and sent Lord Lucan an order which moved the cavalry out of the way (Woodham-Smith, pp. 214-215).

But the British were lucky. They had only a handful of infantry guarding the path to Balaclava itself, but that handful consisted of Highlanders under the command of Colin Campbell -- the one really top-flight officer of the war. (For more on Sir Colin, see the notes to "The Kilties in the Crimea.") Plus they were armed with rifle muskets, rather than the old smoothbores, giving them enough firepower to stop, or at least frighten off, the Russian cavalry (Royle, pp. 266-267; Woodham-Smith, p. 216).

Meanwhile, Lord Raglan, thinking that Campbell would be overwhelmed (as, by rights, he should have been) ordered the Heavy Brigade to counterattack. Because he was far away, the Russian attack had faltered by the time the message reached the cavalry (Woodham-Smith, p. 218). Fortunately, the Heavy Brigade had a commander who, if he had little experience, had a brain and a willingness to listen to his more knowledgeable staff officers. General Scarlett, against immense odds and on terrain which favored the Russians, waited until the enemy had halted, and sent out an amazing counter-charge (Woodham-Smith, pp. 219-223).

The charge of the Heavy Brigade disorganized the Russians but was not in sufficient force to push them back completely (the heavies were outnumbered by at least two to one; Woodham-Smith seems to think the ratio was eight to one). The Russians halted their charge and pulled back to a more secure position (Royle, p. 270) -- but they still threatened the British supply line. Any additional force the British could scrape up might tilt the balance. And there was the Light Brigade -- the other half of the cavalry division -- unengaged.

It was at this point that the deficiencies of the British command arrangements really came out. There were officers in the British army with combat experience, but most of them -- e.g. the officers of the Indian army -- were kept out of the Crimea due to snobbishness; Farwell, p. 69. The handful of other experienced officers were all very old -- e.g. commander-in-chief Lord Raglan had fought at Waterloo (where he had lost his right arm; (Woodham-Smith, p. 156), and he was 65 years old at the start of the Crimean campaign (Woodham-Smith, p. 131).

The cavalry division was commanded by Lord Lucan, who had purchased his commission. The commander of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan, was also an officer by purchase; James, p. 337, says that prior to the Crimea his "only previous experience of hostile fire had been when he had fought a duel fourteen years before."

Cardigan, in fact, had once been dismissed from regimental command for incompetence (Woodham-Smith, pp. 43-44, with the pages before that abundantly documenting why he had to go). Indeed, Cardigan in this period had shown obvious signs of psychosis; Woodham-Smith, p. 7, says he had suffered a fall early in his life which left him subject to almost uncontrollable fits of rage. But he managed, by assiduous nagging, to secure a new appointment (Woodham-Smith, p. 47). This caused such outrage that Parliament investigated -- but Parliament finally gave in when the military in effect drew a line in the sand and said, "Don't Interfere" (Woodham-Smith, p. 49).

Nor was Cardigan in position to learn on the job (even assuming he was capable of it); in the period after the Crimean landing, the horses were too broken down for him to do any scouting (Woodham-Smith, pp. 170-171). To top it all off, by the time of Balaclava, he was sleeping in his yacht in Balaclava harbor rather than among his men (Woodham-Smith, p. 201). Basically, he showed up in mid-morning, gave nonsense orders, ran down his men and horses, and left for the night to enjoy himself.

Lord Lucan was a little more concerned for his soldiers (among other things, he insisted on sharing their camp), and he at least had some field experience, unlike Cardigan, but it was slight and many decades old (Woodham-Smith, p. 132); he couldn't even learn the new manual of command (Woodham-Smith, p. 146). The entire army knew that Cardigan was an impetuous fool, and Lucan they called "Lord Look-On" for his caution (Woodham-Smith, pp. 177-178).

It might not have mattered quite so much had Lucan and Cardigan not been sworn enemies; Lucan had married (Woodham-Smith, pp. 15, 28) and abandoned (Woodham-Smith, pp. 127-128) Cardigan's sister. They should not have been in the same army, let alone in the same division. Lord Raglan tried to keep them separate (Woodham-Smith, pp. 132, 144, 148, etc.), but that just made things worse; Cardigan treated Raglan's concession as a right, and complained whenever Lucan came near him. And Lucan felt, correctly, that he had repeatedly been bypassed. Determined not to give Lord Raglan further grounds for undercutting him, Lucan responded by turning into the sort of cardboard officer who obeys every command with literal precision, regardless of whether it made sense (Woodham-Smith, p. 205).

When the Heavy Brigade counterattacked to regain the lost positions in the heights by Balaclava, the Light Brigade probably should have joined their charge (Palmer, p. 127; Royle, p. 270), but brigade commander Cardigan had been too often accused of impetuosity and decided to sit tight until orders arrived (Woodham-Smith, p. 224).

If the Russians were allowed time to rebuild their position, the whole fruit of the Heavy Brigade's work might be lost. And the infantry that was supposed to show up to take part in the battle was late (Royle, p. 272; Woodham-Smith, p. 226). When Lord Raglan -- who really should have tried to move closer to the scene of the action -- saw the Russians regrouping and preparing to haul off captured guns, he determined that something must be done. He sent an order to the Light Brigade to attack. But the order was imperfectly clear (Raglan seemed almost unable to give explicit orders; Hibbert, p. 50) -- and it appears that the copy received by Lucan differed from what Raglan had dictated (Woodham-Smith, p. 226). Lucan decided that the order meant he should wait until the infantry arrived.

An exasperated Raglan then sent an order for the Light Brigade to attack an overrun battery. Unfortunately, he seems to have had a problem expressing his orders precisely (Woodham-Smith, p. 177) -- and this one was singularly bad. Woodham-Smith has a photo of the message slip (facing p. 101); it is nearly illegible and gives no precise directions as to what he wants done; as written, it seems to say little more than "Charge!" So everything depended on the officer who carried the message.

And the messenger chosen was a bad one; Captain Edward Nolan seems to have been chosen not for his military sense but because he was an excellent horseman (Royle, p. 273). And a good horseman was needed, because Raglan was positioned so far from the front and there was much broken ground to be covered.

When Nolan reached Lord Lucan, Cardigan's division commander, he delivered the order to charge the battery. Unfortunately, from Lucan's position, the battery Raglan had been looking at was invisible (Woodham-Smith, p. 230). And the written order was unclear. When Lucan angrily asked for clarification, Nolan cavalierly pointed at a visible enemy battery and said that the enemy was there (Palmer, p. 129; Royle, p. 273; Woodham-Smith, p. 231). Lucan saw no choice but to order Cardigan to charge. Apparently Lucan and Cardigan both thought the order as given was nonsense -- but they obeyed it (Royle, p. 274).

Maybe, if they had been more willing to talk to each other, the disaster might not have happened. But they weren't willing to talk. Lucan relayed Raglan's order as he understood it, and the charge was made. It was, in a way, the perfect role for Cardigan (Woodham-Smith, p. 235); it required no brains, and his spit-and-polish drill at least meant that the men made the charge as if on the parade ground. But they were still attacking in the wrong place.

It was not, properly speaking, a charge (Warner, p. 66); a charge is a full gallop very close to the enemy. It was in fact something worse: a ride over a mile and a half, under fire the whole way. And cavalry is particularly liable to artillery and rifle fire.

Little surprise, then, that the assault was crushed. Nolan -- who improperly joined the attack (Palmer, p. 127; Royle, p. 274) -- was killed at the first rush (Warner, p. 66, repeats a suggestion that he had realized his error in the moments before his death, but even if true, that was far too late). At least 107 men were killed with him (Royle, p. 274; Palmer, p. 132, and Warner, pp. 66-67, say that 113 were killed and 134 wounded). Casualties among horses were even higher; Warner, p. 67, gives the number destroyed as "nearly all"; Royle, p. 274, says that 397 were destroyed; Palmer, p. 133, gives the number as 475; Woodham-Smith, p. 249, gives the round number of 500. (My guess is that the latter two figures are derived by taking 195, the number of men still mounted at the end of the charge, from the number of men in the brigade.) The loss of the horses was very difficult loss to make up; many horses had died on their way to the Crimea, and the British still hadn't learned how to ship them (Woodham-Smith, p. 139).

Between loss of horses and loss of men, only 195 cavalrymen were fit for battle at the end of the day, out of 673 soldiers who made the charge (Palmer, p. 132; Woodham-Smith, p. 249, says that only 195 cavalrymen came back, but this appears to be a misreading of the reports).

Lord Cardigan, amazingly, survived, and even broke through the line of guns. He almost ran into a force of enemy cavalry (and Woodham-Smith, pp. 244-245, notes that they made no attempt to kill him -- apparently their commander recognized him and tried to have him captured. A silly notion; an army operating with Lord Cardigan as a general was surely a worse army than one where he was safely out of the way.) And since none of Cardigan's juniors knew where he was (he eventually made it back to where the Heavy Brigade was resting), it meant that the obviously-necessary retreat was delayed. (Of course, being who he waas, he might not have let them retreat just because they were being slaughtered to no effect.)

A French officer said it best: It was "magnificent, but not war." ("C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre" -- Haswell, p. 98)

It was, however, the end of the battle of Balaclava -- really little more than a skirmish: The Russians were stopped less by actual fighting than by the showy charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the Light Brigade rode into oblivion and immortality, which Tennyson would commemorate three weeks later (Royle, p. 276). Perhaps Lord Raglan had might have done more had his cavalry survived. With it ruined, there was no chance (Palmer, p. 133).

The battle did leave the Russians in position to dominate the road to Balaclava, but the British managed to get supplies around the bottleneck. As a result, the whole thing is generally regarded as a draw, though the British came away with heavy casualties and the loss of ground. The only real significance of the battle was that it set the stage for the Battle of Inkerman which followed.

Lucan and Cardigan were both sent home before the end of the war, mildly disgraced -- but even though Lucan was given most of the blame (Royle, pp. 275, 277), neither was forced out of the army, and both would eventually be promoted to higher posts (Royle, p. 278). I would have to say that Lucan was scapegoated -- yes, he was incompetent, and should not have held the command he did. But the real blame lay elsewhere -- with Cardigan, for refusing to admit his incompetence. With Raglan, for not dealing with the Lucan/Cardigan situation. With Raglan again, for sending an incomprehensible order by an irresponsible messenger. And with Captain Nolan, for giving a false interpretation to that incomprehensible order. Of them all, it is probably Raglan who bears the greatest blame.

Tennyson was telling nothing less than the truth when he said of the battle that "someone had blundered." In fact, several someones. But, somehow, in a portion of the population, the steadiness under fire came to be seen as more important than the useless waste, and Balaclava commemorated accordingly (Royle, p. 265. Warner, p. 67, seems to be an example of this form of folly, arguing that an army has to be disciplined enough to be that stupid). James, p. 388, reports a popular ballad, which appears to be this, praising the battle, and notes that it seemed to inspire a World War I parody (p. 443).


Farwell: Byron Farwell, _Queen Victoria's Little Wars_ (1972; I used the 1985 Norton edition)

Haswell: Jock Haswell, _The British Army: A Concise History_ (Thames and Hudson, 1975)

Hibbert: Christopher Hibbert, _The Destruction of Lord Raglan_, (1961; I used the 1999 Wordsworth edition)

James: Lawrence James, _Warrior Race: A History of the British at War_ (Abacus, 2001)

Palmer: Alan Palmer, _The Crimean War_ (Dorset, 1987)

Royle: Trevor Royle, _Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854-1856_ (Abacus, 1999)

Warner: Philip Warner, _The Crimean War: A Reappraisal_ (1972; I used the 2001 Wordsworth edition)

Woodham-Smith: Cecil Woodham-Smith, _The Reason Why_ (McGraw-Hill, 1954) - RBW

Historical references

  • Oct 25, 1854 - Battle of Balaclava


  1. Doerflinger, pp. 276-277, "The Famous Light Brigade" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. SHenry H829, p. 91, "Balaclava" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #9419
  4. BI, Doe276


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1939 (Sam Henry collection)
Keywords: battle disaster
Found in: US(MA) Ireland