Monday, October 25, 2010

The Battle of Balaclava

Today the famous battle of Balaclava took place in 1854. It was part of the Crimean War 1853-1856 between Russia and the Allies (France, England, Turkey). This war is consider4d to be the first modern war. Railways and telegraph were used, Florence Nightingale nursed, and a lot of photographs were taken (for the first time in a war).

The Allies wanted to capture the city of Sevastopol, the most important Russian naval base, located on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea. They decided to attack from the South, leaving a weak spot near the harbour of Balaclava, a small town guarded by the British.

The Russians decided to take advance and attacked the defences around Balaclava. After conquering tactical positions on the surrounding hilltops the Russian cavalry moved to engage the British defensive line. This line, the famous Thin Red Line, held, and then the Heavy Brigade charged and forced the Russians onto the defence.

Instead of waiting for the reinforcements (who were expected to arrive in short while), the British commander Lord Raglan ordered the cavalry to expel the Russians from the hilltops.  Raglan was known to formulate his orders in an incoherent and vague manner. When the order arrived the commander of the cavalry, the Earl of Lucan, decided to wait. 

Raglan, Lucan, Cardigan, Nolan.

Raglan, impatient, then ordered the cavalry to "advance rapidly to the front. Immediate". The hot-tempered aide-de-camp Louis Nolan delivered the order to Lucan. Again Lucan didn’t understand the order, since there was no mention of the hilltops. Then the irritated Nolan told him to attack immediately.

"Attack, sir!"
"Attack what?
"There, my Lord, is your enemy!" said Nolan indignantly, vaguely waving his arm eastwards.

Nolan seemed to wave his arm the direction of the main body of the Russian Army, a large battery at the end of the valley strongly held on three sides by the Russians. Irritated by Nolan’s behaviour Lucan refused further discussion and rode to the commander of the Light Brigade, the Earl of Cardigan, standing in front of his brigade. The two men were barely on speaking terms as Lucan was married to one of Cardigan's sisters and, as Cardigan believed, did not treat her well. Cardigan questioned the sanity of the order.

"Allow me to point out to you that there is a battery in front, battery on each flank, and the ground is covered with Russian riflemen."
"I know it" said Lucan. "But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey."

At 11:13 the Light Brigade, consisting of 673 men, started their advance to the battery at the end of the vally, a mile away. When Nolan realised they went in the wrong direction he rode to Cardigan who was leading the brigade, but he was killed by an artillery shell. Lucan, thinking the Light Brigade would be wiped out, decide not to send the Heavy Brigade after them so the preserve at least half of his cavalry division. At distance of 250 yards from the battery Cardigan ordered to "Gallop", and then to "Charge".

At 11:17, despite withering fire from three sides that devastated their force on the ride, half of the men reached the battery. They became engaged in heavy fighting. Cardigan though, satisfied he had reached the battery, decided to go away, leaving his men behind. He afterwards said all he could think about was his rage against Nolan, who he thought had tried to take over the leadership of the charge from him. After suffering heavy casualties the remaining soldiers were soon forced to retire. About 250 men were killed or wounded, and 400 horses lost, destroying some of the finest light cavalry in the world to no military purposes. At 12:00 most of the survivors were back at the British lines.

"And who I ask is answerable for all this?" asked Sergeant Major George Smith of the 11th Hussars.

The futility of the action and its reckless bravery prompted the Russian commanders to have initially believed that the British soldiers must have been drunk. The French Marshal  Bosquet stated:

Still it is considered a battle honour for all the British regiments that took part. It is usually a pre-condition for a battle honour that the battle is a victory, but these three episodes in the battle are such icons of courage and achievement for the British Army that the military authorities awarded Balaclava as a battle honour to all the regiments involved.

Cardigan was always impeccably dressed and the knitted vest he wore to protect himself from the severe Russian winter was named after him, although the collarless V-neck we know as the cardigan today bears little resemblance to the original. The raglan, an overcoat in which the sleeves go directly to the neck without shoulder seams, was named for Lord Raglan.


  1. The waste of war, devotion to duty, family intrigue, and fashion history in one post! Well done, Rob, and thank you!

  2. How close to the events is the film 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' ?

    1. There is a film? Oh wait, there are even two movies (1968 and 1936 with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland). I'll try to download them and put them on my towatch list. This will be interesting!


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