The Charge of the Light Brigade
The Crimean War, brief as was the interval it occupied in the annals of time, was one replete with exciting events. And of these much the most brilliant was that which took place on the 25th of October, 1854, the famous "Charge of the Light Brigade," which Tennyson has immortalized in song, and which stands among the most dramatic incidents in the history of war. It was truthfully said by one of the French generals who witnessed it, "It is magnificent, but it is not war." We give it for its magnificence alone.
First let us depict the scene of that memorable event. The British and French armies lay in front of Balaklava, their base of supplies, facing towards Sebastopol. They occupied a mountain slope, which was strongly intrenched. A valley lay before them, and some two miles distant rose another mountain range, rocky and picturesque. In the valley between were four rounded hillocks, each crowned by an earthwork defended by a few hundred Turks. These outlying redoubts formed the central points of the famous battle of October 25.
In the early morning of that day the Russians appeared in force, debouching from the mountain passes in front of the allied army. Six compact masses of infantry were seen, with a line of artillery in front, and on each flank a powerful cavalry force, while a cloud of mounted skirmishers filled the space between. Fronting the line of the allies were the Zouaves, crouching behind low earthworks, on the right the 93rd Highlanders, and in front the British cavalry, composed of the Heavy Brigade, under General Scarlett, and, more in advance, the Light Brigade, under Lord Cardigan. Such were, in broad outline, the formation of the ground and the position of the actors in the drama of battle about to be played.
The scene opened with an attack on the advanced redoubts. No. 1 was quickly taken, the Turks flying in haste before the fire of the Russian guns. No. 2 was evacuated in similar panic haste, the Cossack skirmishers riding among the fleeing Turks and cutting them mercilessly down. The guns of No. 2 were at once turned upon No. 3, whose garrison of Turks fired a few shots in return, and then, as in the previous cases, broke into open flight. After them dashed the Cossack light horsemen, flanking them to right and left, and many of the turbaned fugitives paid for their panic with their lives. The Russians had won in the first move of the game. They had taken three of the redoubts before a movement could be made for their support.
Next a squadron of the Russian cavalry charged vigorously upon the Highlanders. But a deadly rifle fire met them as they came, volley after volley tearing gaps through their compact ranks, and in a moment more they had wheeled, opened their files, and were in full flight. "Bravo, Highlanders!" came up an exulting shout from the thousands of spectators behind.
It was evident that Balaklava was the goal of the Russian movement, and the heavy cavalry were ordered into position to protect the approaches. As they moved towards the post indicated, a large body of the enemy's cavalry appeared over the ridge in front. These were corps d'elite, evidently, their jackets of light blue, embroidered with silver lace, giving them a holiday appearance. Behind them, as they galloped at an easy pace to the brow of the bill, appeared the keen glitter of lance-tips, and in the rear of the lancers came several squadrons of gray-coated dragoons as supports. As the serried ranks of horsemen advanced, their pace declined from a gallop to an easy trot, and from that almost to a halt. Their first line was double the length of the British, and three times as deep. Behind it came a second line, equally strong. They greatly outnumbered their foe.
It was evident that the shock of a cavalry battle was at hand. The hearts of the spectators throbbed with excitement as they saw the Heavy Brigade suddenly break into a full gallop and rush headlong upon the enemy, making straight for the centre of the Russian line. On they went, Grays and Enniskilleners, in serried array, while their cheers and shouts rent the air as they struck the Russian line with an impetus which carried them through the close-drawn ranks. For a moment there was a glittering flash of sword-blades and a sharp clash of steel, and then, in thinned numbers, the charging dragoons appeared in the rear of the line, heading with unchecked speed towards the second Russian rank.
The gallant horsemen seemed buried amid the multitude of the enemy. "God help them! they are lost!" came from more than one trembling lip and was echoed in many a fearful heart. The onset was terrific: the second line was broken like the first, and in its rear the red-coated riders appeared. But the first line of Russians, which had been rolled back upon its flanks by the impetuous rush, was closing up again, and the much smaller force in their midst was in serious peril of being swallowed up and crushed by sheer force of numbers.
The crisis was a terrible one. But at the moment when the danger seemed greatest, two regiments of dragoons, the 4th and 5th, who had closely followed their fellows in the charge, broke furiously upon the enemy, dashing through and rending to fragments the already broken line. In a moment all was over. Less than five minutes had passed since the first shock, and already the Russian horse was in full flight, beaten by half its force. Wild cheers burst from the whole army as the victors drew back with almost intact ranks, their loss having been very small.
Thus ended the famous "Charge of the Heavy Brigade." Its glory was to be eclipsed by that memorable "Charge of the Light Brigade" which became the theme of Tennyson's stirring ode, and the recital of which still causes many a heart to throb. We are indebted for our story of it to the thrilling account of W. H. Russell, the Times correspondent, and a spectator of the event.
As the Russian cavalry retired, their infantry fell back, leaving men in three of the captured redoubts, but abandoning the other points gained. They also had `guns on the heights overlooking their position. About the hour of eleven, while the two armies thus faced each other, resting for an interval from the rush of conflict, there came to Lord Cardigan that fatal order which caused him to hurl his men into "the jaws of death." How it came to be given, how the misapprehension occurred, who was at fault in the error, has never been made clear. Captain Nolan, who brought the order, was one of the first to fall, and his story of the event died with him. All we know is that he handed Lord Lucan a written command to advance, and when asked, "Where are we to advance to?" he pointed to the Russian line, and said, "There are the enemy, and there are the guns," or words of similar meaning.
It is a maxim in war that "cavalry shall never act without a support," that "infantry should be close at hand when cavalry carry guns," and that a line of cavalry should have some squadrons in column on its flanks, to guard it against a flank attack. None of these rules was carried out here, and Lord Lucan reluctantly gave the order to advance upon the guns, which Lord Cardigan as reluctantly accepted, for to any eye it was evident that it was an order to advance upon death. "Some one had blundered," and wisdom would have dictated the demand for a confirmation of the order. Valor suggested that it should be obeyed in all its blank enormity. Dismissing wisdom and yielding to valor, Lord Cardigan gave the word to advance, the brigade, scarcely a regiment in total strength, broke into a sudden gallop, and within a minute the devoted line was flying over the plain towards the enemy.
The movement struck Lord Raglan, from whom the order was supposed to have emanated, with consternation. It struck the Russians with surprise. Surely that handful of men was not going to attack an army in position? Yet so it seemed as the Light Brigade dashed onward, the uplifted sabres glittering in the morning sun, the horses galloping at full speed towards the Russian guns, over a plain a mile and a half in width.
Not far had they gone when a hot fire of cannon, musketry, and rifles belched from the Russian line. A flood of smoke and flame hid the opposing ranks, and shot and shell tore through the charging troops. Gaps were rent in their ranks, men and horses went down in rapid succession, and riderless horses were seen rushing wildly across the plain. The first line was broken. It was joined by the second. On went the brigade in a single line with unchecked speed. Though torn by the deadly fire of thirty guns, the brave riders rode steadily on into the smoke of the batteries, with cheers which too often changed in a breath to the cry of death.
Through the clouds of smoke the horsemen could be seen dashing up to and between the guns, cutting down the gunners as they stood. Then, wheeling, they broke through a line of Russian infantry which sought to stay their advance, and scattered it to right and left. In a moment more, to the relief of those who had watched their career in an agony of emotion, they were seen riding back from the captured redoubt.
Scattered and broken they came, some mounted, some on foot, all hastening towards the British lines. As they wheeled to retreat, a regiment of lancers was hurled upon their flank. Colonel Shewell, of the 8th Hussars, saw the danger, and rushed at the foe, cutting a passage through with great loss. The others had similarly to break their way through the columns that sought to envelop them. As they emerged from the cavalry fight, the gunners opened upon them again, cutting new lines of carnage through their decimated ranks. The Heavy Brigade had ridden to their relief, but could only cover the retreat of the slender remnant of the gallant band. In twenty-five minutes from the start not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left on the scene of this daring but mad exploit.
Captain Nolan fell among the first; Lord Lucan was slightly wounded; Lord Cardigan had his clothes pierced by a lance; Lord Fitzgibbon received a fatal wound. Of the total brigade, some six hundred strong, the killed, wounded, and missing numbered four hundred and twenty-six.
While this event was taking place, a body of French cavalry made a brilliant charge on a battery at the left, which was firing upon the devoted brigade, and cut down the gunners. But they could not get the guns off without support, and fell back with a loss of one-fourth their number. Thus ended that eventful day, in which the British cavalry had covered itself with glory, though it had only glory to show in return for its heavy loss.
Such is the story as it stands in prose. Here is Tennyson's poetic version, which is full of the dash and daring of the wild ride.
The Charge of the Light Brigade