Oct 29 2012

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Published by at 12:24 am under History

As is my custom, I am reposting this post I first did in 2005. Given the current state of events in both the US and Afghanistan these days-its important to remember this exercise in futility.

Background:

"The war is popular beyond belief"
Queen Victoria to the King of the Belgians
 
The proximate cause of the war was a dispute about over who had precedence at the holy Places in Jerusalem and Nazereth. Tempers frayed, violence resulted, and lives were lost. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect the Christian shrines in the Holy Land and to back up his claims moved troops into Wallachia and Moldavia (present day Rumania) then part of the Ottoman Turkish empire. His fleet then destroyed a Turkish flotilla off Sinope in the Black Sea. In an early instance of propaganda, British newspaper reports of the action said the Russians had fired at Turkish wounded in the water. According to one source, "Russian domination of Constantinople and the Straits was a perennial nightmare of the British and with the two powers already deeply suspicious of each others intentions in Afghanistan and Central Asia, the British felt unable to accept such Russian moves against the Turks. Louis Napoleon III, emperor of France, eager to emulate the military successes of his uncle Napoleon I and wishing to extend his protection to the French monks in Jerusalem allied himself with Britain." (Remember, Turkey controlled the holy land….).
So the war began in March 1854 and by the end of the summer, the Franco-British forces had driven the Russians out of Wallachia and Moldavia. The fighting should have ended there, but it was decided that the great Russian naval base at Sevastopol was a direct threat to the future security of the region and in September 1854 the French and British landed their armies on the Crimean peninsula. This set the stage for the battle of Balaklava, of which the Charge of the Light Brigade was a part.

 

The Charge itself:

1.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. 2."Forward, the Light Brigade!"Was there a man dismay'd?Not tho' the soldier knew Someone had blunder'd: Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

The light brigade consisted of the following units: The 13th Light Dragoons were placed on the right of the front line, the 17th Lancers in the center, the 11th Hussars on the left but slightly behind the regiments to the right of them. The 4th Light Dragoons and the 8th Hussars formed the second line. Here is what the battlefield and the valley they rode up looks like today:

3.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.

4.Flash'd all their sabres bare,Flash'd as they turn'd in air,Sabring the gunners there,Charging an army, while All the world wonder'd:Plunged in the battery-smokeRight 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.

 

If you expand the picture you can see the arrow pointing to the right shows the valley the Brigade rode through. From the history of the 13th Hussars: The first line consisted of the 13th Light Dragoons on the right and the 17th Lancers on the left. Lord Cardigan placed himself alone in front of the line, a little on the left of the center. The 13th and 17th then moved off, and when they had covered rather more than 100 yards the 11th Hussars, who were in the second line, moved off also. In due course, and at about the same interval, came the 4th and the 8th. During the day the 11th had been on the left of the first line, but the narrowing of the valley and the width of front occupied by the Cossack battery at the east end necessitated a contraction in the first line. As it was, the 17th Lancers overlapped the right of the battery, and the 11th Hussars, in support, just brushed the guns with their right flank. The 11th it will thus be seen, did not actually cover the 17th but charged down the valley nearer to the Fedioukine Hills. The 11th the 4th, and the 8th were in echelon. Consequently the 4th came into the battery full front, while the course of the 8th was as against the Russian left. Captain Nolan started to ride with the charge, and it is believed took up a position in the interval between the two squadrons of the 17th At any rate, it would appear that thence he darted out when he rode obliquely across the front of the advancing line. You can see the set up on this map:

 

Not exactly an envelopment………. The brigade lost over 400 men out of a starting figure of 673. Small, in comparison to the 16,000 that died of the cold and disease that came from the botch the British made of logistics in the Crimea during the following winter and summer….. Nevertheless, what went wrong? In a word, leadership…lack of it. A commander failing to take account of the fact that he was on a hill and could see what was going on and his troops could not! Add to that a whole lot of class and professional rivalry, coupled with some petty bickering and outright loathing, and you get a recipe for failure: George Charles Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, in overall command of the cavalry and subsequently promoted to Field Marshal, was an imperious andover-bearing aristocrat who was promoted to high position over more proficient professional officers because of his social connections. He let a personal quarrel with his brother-in-law – Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade- reach such a point that their respective staffs refused to co-operate and an order from Lucan to Cardigan was misconstrued, leading to the charge. Thomas James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan was a "stupid, overbearing, arrogant, vindictive" general whose ancient title and great wealth overcame his inability to command in the eyes of the military leadership. To make matters worse, the 'galloper' who delivered the message, Captain Nolan, despised both of them. This background lead to a fatal miscommunication:

It appeared that the Quartermaster-General, Brigadier Airey, thinking that the Light Cavalry had not gone far enough in front… when the enemy's horse had fled, gave an order in writing to Captain Nolan, 15th Hussars, to take to Lord Lucan, directing his Lordship 'to advance' his cavalry nearer the enemy…….When Lord Lucan received the order from Captain Nolan, and had read it, he asked, we are told, 'Where are we to advance to?' Captain Nolan pointed with his finger to the line of the Russians, and said, 'There are the enemy, and there are the guns', or words to that effect, according to statements made after his death…

There is an interesting picture of Lord Cardigan and Lord Luncan painted in the "Flashman" series of books. From another text though, it is clear neither were were well liked: "At the time, Lord Cardigan was known to be a "blockhead" and Lord Lucan was considered a "pedant""

5. 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.

6.When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered.Honor the charge they made,Honor the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred. Copied from Poems of Alfred Tennyson,J. E. Tilton and Company, Boston, 1870

I shall leave it to others to make any kind of a connection to this history and current events. However it is interesting to hear the rhetoric of the time. Anything here sound familiar?

"I believe that if this barbarous nation(Russia) the enemy of all progress……should once succeed in establishing itself in the heart of Europe,it would be the greatest calamity which could befall the human race"

Lord Lyndhurst in a speech to the House of Lords

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

  1. Richardon 29 Oct 2012 at 7:03 am

    The British had a very profitable system that allowed men to buy a rank, sell it later at a profit and move up the chain of command. Palmer, with Wolsely, tried to reform the Army but was met with limited success.
    Their command structure was rife with incompetence, very political and not known, with some rare exceptions to produce officers with exceptional ability. Their saving grace was the regular soldier , inculcated with a stern discipline they proved themselves to be quite good soldiers, though most of the time they faced an enemy clearly inferior to them, in equipment and training and experience.

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  2. Cupojoeon 29 Oct 2012 at 12:42 pm

    It is proper that the Charge's Wikipedia page links directly to Pickett's Charge.  Grand frontal assaults with the wind in your hair gained too much romanticism for the latter half of the 18th century, apparently ignorant that such tactics get you mowed down by howitzers, and later, gatling guns. 

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  3. Cupojoeon 29 Oct 2012 at 12:44 pm

    19th century.

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  4. otto bcnon 02 Nov 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Thanks for any other fantastic post. Where else could anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect manner of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such info.

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  5. ewok40kon 04 Nov 2012 at 6:38 am

    Cavalry charges were still tried even in 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and  ended with similarly great casualties, though arguably better tactical outcome.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Mars-la-Tour

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