Charge of the Light Brigade: Shedding light on a fateful charge

Charge of the Light Brigade: Shedding light on a fateful charge

March 24, 2019 By mediabest

Far from being a failure, Britain and France actually snatched victory from Russian Tsarist forces, which had carried out a surprise attack on Turkish troops and threatened British supply lines during the CrimeanWar. And though the poet lamented that 200 returned but “Not the six hundred”, in fact the Light Brigade fielded 661 troops, of which most survived. Of the 299 who fell, only 103 died.

“The Light Brigade’s gallant but misdirected charge tells not even half the story, yet it has been allowed to dominate accounts for 165 years,” said author Robert Kershaw, whose book about that day October 25, 1854, is out soon.

It is true that the British lost half their cavalry in less than an hour’s fighting, and the successful “thin red line” defence by 200 British infantry soldiers against a Russian cavalry onslaught and an astoundingly victorious charge by the Heavy Brigade are not given the attention they deserve, he argues.

By the time British commander Lord Raglan arrived, the first Turkish redoubt had been taken, after several hours of intense fighting in which a force of 200 Turks faced two Russian regiments of more than 7,000 men – odds of 20-1.

Kershaw said: “The first British defence of Balaclava was by just 200 infantrymen of the 93rd Regiment of foot, led by Sir Colin Campbell which, spotted Russian cavalry.

As four squadrons peeled off and hurtled towards them, Campbell told his men to stand steady, then fire. A private recalled later that “you could see them falling off their saddles like old boots”.

Brigadier General James Scarlett, commanding 900 men of the Heavy Brigade cavalry, used the same strategy against 2,000 Russian Hussars.

“It was glorious!” wrote one officer later. “Down two by two fell the thickskulled over-numerous Cossacks.”

The time had arrived for the Light Brigade to administer the coup de grâce and hit the Russians in the flank. But the conventional account of the doomed charge was flawed by Times war correspondent William Russell who arrived at the end of the day’s action.

Observing from a hill two miles away, his dispatches were inaccurate, yet formed the basis of Tennyson’s poem, written six years later.

“Because he was so far away,” Kershaw says, “Russell was forced to fill in gaps with poetic licence, describing the cavalrymen in all the finery of their dress uniforms as ‘they swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war.'” In fact, after long campaigning they were shabby.

“Bedraggled plumes had long since been discarded and busbies, jackets were patched,” said Kershaw.

The impression given by Russell that the Light Brigade galloped all the way was also misleading.

Lord Cardigan, who led the charge, advanced his men at a 4mph walk then a 8mph trot. The charge at full gallop towards the guns was reserved for the last 50 yards only.

Where Tennyson was correct, though, was that “Someone had blundered.”

It soon became apparent, owing to confused orders, the Light Brigade charged into Russian artillery, instead of flanking it.

When Lord Lucan gave the orders Cardigan knew the likely result and objected.

“I know it,” Lucan cut him short, but “Lord Raglan would have it.”

Kershaw said: “Though Raglan bungled his order, the heroic actions of infantry and the Heavy Brigade earlier prevented Russian success. This must be remembered.”

24 Hours At Balaclava, by Robert Kershaw, published by History press, available April, price £20.

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