LEFT The Charge of the Light Brigade and [inset] one of the men who charged: Cornet John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars, photographed by Roger Fenton.

Balaklava: a battle or three skirmishes?

In this second part of his special on Balaklava, Patrick Mercer analyses the events of 25/26 October 1854.


This is Part Two of an MHM Special on Balaklava. Read Part One here: The Battle of Balaklava in Perspective

Phase 1 The ‘Thin Red Line’

At first light on that crucial day, General Liprandi deployed his combined cavalry and infantry division to push in the British outposts near Kamara and then to bite off the outlying redoubts.

Redoubt 1 came under fire first, while dragoons led the 23rd Azoff, 24th Odessa, and 23rd Ukraine Regiments to lap around and capture Redoubts 2, 3, and 4.

Soon after, Redoubt 1, on Canrobert’s Hill, gave up an unequal fight. The others soon followed suit. As the day broke fully, Lord Raglan on the Sapoune could see some of his forts engulfed by the enemy, Turkish infantry on the run, British guns being manhandled away, and the whole of his lines of communication under threat.

ABOVE The ‘Thin Red Line’ immortalised in paint. In fact, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders fired two or three volleys and emptied a few saddles, but then played no further part in the battle. OPPOSITE Plan showing the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, 25 October 1854. The position of the 93rd Foot is also indicated.
The ‘Thin Red Line’ immortalised in paint. In fact, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders fired two or three volleys and emptied a few saddles, but then played no further part in the battle.

Raglan sent orders for Cathcart’s 4th Infantry Division to move down from their encampment and siege-works, and for the Brigade of Guards to hurry along from their camp further down the Sapoune. Meantime, on the Russian side, Lieutenant-General Ryzhov sent several hundred cavalry to probe towards the approaches to Balaklava Harbour.

Today, it is still very obvious where the hillock called Kadioki lies, despite many new buildings around it, and the way in which it blocks the route that leads to the harbour. Just here, the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders were ordered to stand and, in concert with W Battery and C Troop Royal Horse Artillery, open fire on the Russian horsemen.

Much has been made of the ‘Thin Red Line’, but it was simply two or three volleys fired by the 93rd at the advancing hussars, the effect of which was to empty a few saddles. A Russian officer later said, ‘few of us were killed, but almost every man and horse was wounded… Our horses could not stand the fire and we sheered off.’

It will never be known whether it was artillery- or rifle-fire that made the Russians turn back, but as one force trotted away towards the Causeway Heights, Ryzhov poured more horsemen back down into the valley. What was to follow was the most significant but least understood action of that day.

Phase 2 The Charge of the Heavy Brigade

Watching obliquely and rather further down the northern slopes of South Valley was Brigadier-General Scarlett, commander of the five under-strength regiments of the Heavy Cavalry Brigade.

Plan showing the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, 25 October 1854. The position of the 93rd Foot is also indicated.

I have many times walked the ground over which he and his men charged, and I always marvel at it. First, it is a distinct upward slope, and it is hard to get much momentum when spurring a horse uphill. Second, it is cultivated ground today – just as in 1854 – and this makes the going soft.

Third, there are vineyards there now, just as before. The difference is that all those years ago grapes were trained up the southern facing walls of shallow trenches – trenches almost impassable to horses at anything faster than a walk. All of this adds up to an unlikely cavalry action.

Unlikely or not, that is what happened.

Scarlett saw his chance, gave the order for his two leading regiments – 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the 2nd Dragoons (Scots Greys) – to prepare to charge. Once they began to deploy into line, he, his trumpeter, and two staff officers drew their swords and dashed towards the enemy – long before his troopers were ready to follow.

One Russian officer later said, ‘the regiment yearned for actions – particularly with English cavalry, known so well for the ferocity of its attacks and its cold-blooded slashing’. They got their wish. Scarlett and his little group cannoned into them and were soon exchanging blows.

I have handled Scarlett’s brass helmet and there are sabre cuts clearly visible in the brass, both front and rear. Lieutenant Godman of the 5th Dragoon Guards was watching; he saw ‘swords in the air in every direction, pistols going off, everyone hacking away left and right!’

Dangerous seconds passed before the Skins and the Greys arrived at a fast trot, hampered as they were by the ground. In they piled. Then a second wave of furious cavalrymen fell on the Ingermanland and Kiev Hussars – the 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards and the 1st Royal Dragoons.

Sergeant-Major Franks of the 5th Dragoon Guards remembered,

After a yell of defiance, we soon became a struggling mass of half frenzied and desperate men doing their level best to kill each other. There was no time to look about you. Both men and horses on our side were heavier than the enemy and we were able to cut our way through.

BELOW The Charge of the Heavy Brigade and [inset] one of the men who charged: Captain Burton of the 5th Dragoon Guards, photographed by Roger Fenton.
The Charge of the Heavy Brigade and [below] one of the men who charged: Captain Burton of the 5th Dragoon Guards, photographed by Roger Fenton.

Similarly, Lieutenant Yevgenni Arbuzov, who was in the middle of the storm, remembered, ‘I struck one dragoon in the shoulder, and my sabre bit so deep into him that I only drew it out with difficulty.’

The mêlée lasted only a few minutes before the much larger Russian force trembled, swayed, and broke before the crazed attack. Back up the hill the Russians went, chased by maddened dragoons, who only stopped their pursuit when the guns on the opposite side of North Valley opened a stinging fire.

But what a success: fewer than 400 horsemen had driven back five times their number and Balaklava had been saved.

But as the battered Russian horsemen leaked back over the Causeway Heights, Lord Cardigan’s Brigade of Light Cavalry was poised at the west end of North Valley – ideally placed for what should have been the utter rout of Rzyhov’s men.


If the Heavy Brigade’s action is underrated, popular authors and the media have combined to make the nonsense that followed one of the best-known episodes in British history.

The Light Cavalry Brigade should never have been used against the redoubts. Lord Raglan had already sent orders to Sir George Cathcart to bring whatever troops he could from his 4th Division to restore the situation, while similar instructions were sent to the Guards Brigade – but both infantry formations were slow to react.

Unequivocally, this was a job for foot soldiers and gunners, but with the former simply not appearing in any number and the situation in the valley below becoming critical, Raglan had to use whatever was available.

I am not going to expand on the poisonous relationships between the Cavalry Division’s Commander, Lord Lucan, and his colourful brother-in-law. It is enough to say that this toxicity caused animus that had no place among professional officers.

So there followed Cardigan’s first misjudgment – his failure to use his initiative and to charge home against the bruised and dented horsemen milling around in North Valley. He blamed Lucan’s lack of direction for that.

To understand what happened next, a further description of the ground is vital. On the northern side of North Valley lay the Fedioukine Heights, and on the southern the Causeway Heights. This depression is about one and a half miles long, and anything that occurred there could be clearly seen by Lord Raglan in his command post on the Sapoune, which loured over the western end.

What no modern authors have appreciated is that at the eastern end of the valley – which culminates in the foothills of the Yaila Mountains – the ground slopes gradually down towards the Tchernaya River. Any troops or guns at that end of the valley would have been visible from the Sapoune, but hidden from the western end due to the slope of the ground.

About an hour and a half after Cardigan had failed to exploit Scarlett’s success, the Lights were still manoeuvring at the west end of the valley, clearly visible to Raglan. However, British inaction gave the Russians vital breathing space.

Russian redeployment

On the Fedioukine Heights was Jabokritsky with ten guns, the 31st Vladimir, the 32nd Sousdal, and – vitally – the 6th Rifles, all looking south across the valley towards the Causeway Heights.

There, Liprandi had placed four battalions of the 24th Odessa Infantry Regiment, who were busy consolidating and ‘reversing’ the defences of Redoubts 1 and 2, and demolishing Redoubt 3, including dismounting the four 12-pdr guns therein. From here, six guns and the hard-hitting 4th Rifle Battalion were able to fire either into North or South Valleys.

Lastly, visible to the Russians on both the Fedioukine and the Causeway positions were eight light 6-pdr guns of the 3rd Don Cossack Battery, which were unlimbered and facing west along North Valley.

Accounts of the firepower that the Light Cavalry had to face rightly talk about the round shot, shrapnel (more properly referred to as ‘spherical case’), shell, and canister rounds that the artillery could project. But all neglect the potency of the Rifles.

BELOW Plan of the Battle of Balaklava, 25 October 1854. It was really three small engagements separate in time and space: the brief stand of the 93rd Highlanders just north of Kadikoi; the Charge of the Heavy Brigade nearby (in the South Valley); and the Charge of the Light Brigade (in the North Valley).
Plan of the Battle of Balaklava, 25 October 1854. It was really three small engagements separate in time and space: the brief stand of the 93rd Highlanders just north of Kadikoi; the Charge of the Heavy Brigade nearby (in the South Valley); and the Charge of the Light Brigade (in the North Valley).

There were, perhaps, 1,000 riflemen firing from both flanks armed with the improved Liège rifle, which the British referred to as the Brunswick. Outmoded, the British had superseded the Brunswick with the Minié, but the Russians had developed a new bullet and sights and improved the weapon so that it was the equal of the Minié.

It will never be known how many casualties these rifles inflicted, but lethal over greater ranges than the artillery and firing much more frequently (three rounds a minute), I believe that 4th and 6th Rifles were the principal assassins of Cardigan’s men.

So the Light Cavalry Brigade was poised and pointing towards assorted weapons on three sides of North Valley: thus Tennyson’s lines, ‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them’. But this is misleading.

I have stood many times where Lucan and Cardigan sat on their horses and it is impossible to see the Don Cossack Battery. Certainly, the guns and riflemen on the Fedioukine (left) and the guns, redoubts, and rifleman on the Causeway (right) could be seen, but not the Don Cossacks in front. Nor, it seems, could they see the British guns in the redoubts being dismounted by the Russians on the Causeway.

Raglan’s frustration on the Sapoune is understandable. Cathcart and his infantry reinforcements were arriving only slowly: they were not in a position to act. Cardigan’s brigade had already missed an opportunity to charge, and now appeared to be dithering while British guns were being taken away from under Raglan’s nose. Could not the Light Brigade see the urgency of the situation? Well, on the floor of North Valley, the answer was ‘No’.

Phase 3a The Charge of the Light Brigade The fatal order

Now came the most famous order in the history of the British Army:

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.

To underline the importance of his order, he said to the ADC entrusted with its delivery, Captain Louis Nolan, ‘Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately!’

The ugly insubordinate episode that followed when Nolan, Lucan, and Cardigan met and the order was delivered has been dissected more times than I care to repeat. It is enough to say that Nolan failed to interpret a badly written instruction to two understandably confused but unforgivably antagonistic general officers. The result was catastrophic.

ABOVE Captain Louis Nolan, Raglan’s ADC, who delivered the fatal order and was then killed at the beginning of the Charge.
Captain Louis Nolan, Raglan’s ADC, who delivered the fatal order and was then killed at the beginning of the Charge.

Having wrangled endlessly with this chaotic combination of events and walked over the ground more than 30 times, I think I now know what Raglan intended. Supported by the Chasseur d’Afrique, I and C Troops of Horse Gunners, and with the Heavy Brigade available if necessary, I believe that Raglan wanted Lucan to send the Lights into South Valley, where they would have been invisible to the guns on the Fedioukine and which was now clear of any substantial bodies of the enemy. By skilful use of ground and with artillery support, the brigade might have pinched off each captured redoubt, first isolating it, then bombarding it, then closing with it.

Clearly, what I have suggested is a job for infantry and artillery with a cavalry screen, but, despite Raglan’s demands to Cathcart, there were no foot soldiers to hand and the situation had become imperative: Raglan had to act.

But none of this was explained by Nolan. He had had a bird’s-eye view of the whole battlefield, he understood that things were on a knife-edge, yet he could not demonstrate this clearly to Lucan and Cardigan when they tried to decipher a written order, the obscurity of which would have disgraced a recruit.

The cavalry was to advance ‘rapidly to the front’. What front? Which direction? Why was a point of the compass not given, a rudimentary military skill?

‘Follow the enemy.’ Which enemy? And what guns were being carried away?

It was a shocking piece of staff work. The arrogant, argumentative, hypercritical Nolan should have explained. Yet, when the generals asked for clarification, all they got from Nolan was a contemptuous sweep of his arm in the general direction of the east end of the valley and the redoubts with the now famous phrase, ‘There, my lord, are your guns. There is your enemy!’

Cardigan had had more than one officer put under close arrest for insubordination much less serious than this, but instead both generals now tried to execute nonsensical orders with a nonsensical plan.

Accordingly, the brigade was shaken out to advance straight down a valley with guns and riflemen within easy range on either side and aimed at – what? The Don Cossack Battery could not be seen, though they must have known that Ryzhov’s bloodied cavalry were somewhere to their front. Perhaps these were the enemy they were to ‘follow’. Perhaps.

Phase 3b The Charge of the Light Brigade The advance

In the first line were the 17th Lancers on the left and the 13th Light Dragoons on the right. The 11th Hussars rode behind as a forward reserve, with the 4th Light Dragoons and the 8th Hussars forming a second wave 200 yards to their rear.

But no sooner had the line started to move than the guns and rifles on the Fedioukine opened fire. One of the first shells killed Captain Nolan at a crucial point.

LEFT The Charge of the Light Brigade and [inset] one of the men who charged: Cornet John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars, photographed by Roger Fenton.
The Charge of the Light Brigade and [below] one of the men who charged: Cornet John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars, photographed by Roger Fenton.

Much of my thesis rests on this, for Nolan had just begun to ride out from the 17th Lancers, whom he had joined for the operation, and was shouting something and gesticulating towards the Causeway Heights – as if he wanted the brigade to wheel sharply to the right.

It will never be known what Nolan wanted. Neither will it be known what Cardigan’s plan was. But there is a revealing quote from Sergeant Berryman of the 17th Lancers. It relates to the point when, already under fire from their flanks, the leading ranks were engaged by the Don Cossacks’ 6-pdr guns.

‘Gallop!’ was the order as the firing became general. A discharge from the battery to our front – whose guns were double-shotted, first with shot or shell, then with case – swept away Captain Winter and the division on my right.

The gap was noticed by Captain Morris, who ordered, ‘Right Incline!’, but a warning came from my coverer, Corporal John Penn, ‘Keep straight on, Jack.’ He saw what I did not, that we were opposite the intervals of the guns, and thus we escaped.

But the point where the Don Battery came into action is more than 1,000 yards from where the advance began. Whether, even at this stage, officers in the brigade were trying to get it to wheel towards the Causeway and the redoubts is debatable, but I contend that once the Cossack guns opened fire, all that the men wanted to do was to use the extra speed that the now downward slope gave them to close with the guns closest to them.

An 8th Hussar’s private account underlines the point. As the enemy’s fire increased, so fear disappeared:

My heart began to warm, to become hot, to dance again, and I had neither fear nor pity… I longed to be at the guns. I’m sure I set my teeth together as if I could have bitten a piece out of one.

Phase 3c The Charge of the Light Brigade The collision

I have no doubt that Cardigan had little idea of what he had been told to do. A crude ‘plan’ evolved when he and his brigade saw the muzzles of the Cossack Battery only 350 yards to their front. Then all became clear: eliminate the simplest and closest target.

A Russian hussar officer, Ivan Ivanovich, described their onslaught: ‘The men were mad, sir… they dashed in among us, shouting, cheering, and cursing. I never saw anything like it.’

And Kizhukov, a subaltern in 12th Artillery Brigade, tells us what happened once the Don Cossack Battery had been overrun, its guns silenced, and the Russian horsemen close by began to react:

The enemy soon came to the conclusion that they had nothing to fear from hussars or Cossacks and, tired of slashing, they decided to return the way they had come through another cannonade of artillery- and rifle-fire.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to the feat of these mad cavalry, for having lost a quarter of their number and being apparently impervious to new dangers and further losses, they quickly reformed their squadrons to return over the same ground, littered with their dead and dying. With such desperate courage these valiant lunatics set off again.

The whole affair probably lasted no more than 30 minutes, but it had ruined the brigade and achieved little. Of the 51 officers and 610 men who charged down the valley, 9 officers and 93 men had been killed, 11 officers and 116 men wounded, and 2 officers and 56 men had been taken prisoner. All in all, these figures represent serious losses of manpower, but a much higher proportion of the horses had been killed or so badly wounded that they had to be destroyed.

No one can doubt the courage of the men who told Cardigan that they were ready to ‘Go again’ immediately after they had rallied close to their starting point, while the Russian gunner Lieutenant Kozhukov stated: ‘The English chose to do what we had not considered, because no one imagined it possible.’

Their bravery, though, had been utterly squandered.

26 October 1854 Little Inkerman

Then, with a partial victory won near Balaklava, the Russians decided to exploit their success the next day by pushing out a column from Sevastopol towards the 2nd Division at Inkerman.

This division had two main tasks. One was to provide their quota of work parties for the siege, the other was to protect the extreme north-eastern flank of the Allies’ position from the Russian forces of the interior, who operated freely right up to the banks of the Tchernaya.

The division’s ground, though, was broken by steep ravines, the deepest being St Clement’s Ravine, which ran to the north-east and looked across the valley of the Tchernaya. Running parallel but further to the west was the Quarry Ravine, through which ran the main Post Road from Inkerman village.

To prevent this being used to bring up guns, a trench had been dug across it and a breastwork erected known as ‘The Barrier’. West of and dominating this was Shell Hill, and west of that again was a deep, long gully, which ran all the way down into the harbour and was called ‘Careening Ravine’.

This provided an ideal covered approach from Sevastopol right into the heart of 2nd Division’s position. It was guarded by a roving patrol of guardsmen, about 60 strong, who were referred to as ‘the Sharpshooters’.

Meanwhile, the crest opposite Shell Hill, Home Ridge, had the division’s artillery emplacements on it, with some breastworks either side, while its two brigades were encamped some 200 yards to the south, straddling the Post Road. Already a tired and under-strength after suffering badly at the Alma, this division was now being expected to do two very demanding jobs.

LEFT The 11th Hussars reach the Russian guns.
The 11th Hussars reach the Russian guns.

Then, on Sunday 26 October, Colonel Federoff was sent out from Sevastopol with four guns and six battalions to seize Shell Hill and quickly dig a redoubt there. This redoubt would then be in a position to neutralise the British guns on Home Ridge and support any larger attack on this vulnerable flank.

But, as Major Daubeney of the 55th Foot was inspecting the gun positions, he suddenly became aware of the noise of wheels and harness coming down the breeze from the direction of Shell Hill. He saw guns arriving and at first thought they were British, until he recognised the colour of their carriages. With a cry of ‘Green guns, by Jove!’, he rushed away to gather his own battalion.

What he could not have known was that these were leading four battalions of the 34th Bourtirsk and two of the 33rd Borodino, all of whom were carrying entrenching tools. But, before they could start any digging, they got a rude reception from the forward sentries or pickets of the 49th (Hertfordshire) Regiment.

Lieutenant Connelly was to win a Victoria Cross for first breaking his sword on the head of a ‘Muscovite’, and then belabouring others with his telescope. Meanwhile, Major Champion, commanding the pickets, shouted, ‘Slate ’em, my boys, slate ’em!’, buying vital time for the 2nd Division to stand to arms.

Unseen on Shell Hill, however, a column of about 300 Russian marines was stealing up the Careening Ravine, planning to emerge behind the main British positions on Home Ridge. But, in a remarkable action, Captain Goodlake of the Coldstream Guards was to win a VC with his Sharpshooters. His handful of men ambushed the marines deep in the gulley, firing volleys into their ranks, before dashing out from their positions and sending the Russians bundling back towards the harbour.

ABOVE The Battle of Little Inkerman, 26 October 1854. This contemporary map shows the exceptionally rugged terrain, the heavy Russian columns of attack (in green) and the thinly stretched British defence (in red).
The Battle of Little Inkerman, 26 October 1854. This contemporary map shows the exceptionally rugged terrain, the heavy Russian columns of attack (in green) and the thinly stretched British defence (in red).

Simultaneously, Colonel Federoff was killed by a shell on the crest above, and the Russians, leaderless, faltered, just as De Lacy Evans unleashed the 30th (Cambridgeshire) and 95th (The Derbyshire) Regiments on them. With the division’s guns booming in support, these two fine battalions went at their enemies with cold steel, driving them right back to Sevastopol and leaving almost 200 dead behind them.

Who won?

If the histrionics and misinterpretations are set aside and the Russian plan is weighed dispassionately, some interesting conclusions emerge. First, the British guns and Heavy Cavalry brilliantly prevented Ryzhov from severing the communication line between Balaklava and the Sevastopol siege-lines. Nonetheless, the Russian plan was daring and partially succeeded.

The British Light Cavalry could have reversed this success, if Lucan and Cardigan had read the battle, used their initiative, and turned the Heavy Brigade’s achievement into a rout. But they failed and thereby forced Raglan to try to use cavalry and horse-gunners in place of infantry.

The argument about what the Light Cavalry were meant to do and who ordered what will never be properly resolved, but Lieutenant Maxse, who saw the whole thing, had no doubt:

The cavalry lay this disastrous charge on [Nolan’s] shoulders, and say that he left no option to Lord Lucan, to whom his tone was almost taunting on delivering the message.

Be that as it may, Sir George Cathcart cannot avoid some responsibility for this débâcle. If he had reacted quickly to his commander’s orders and arrived with his infantry, calamity might have been avoided.

Finally, though, Little Inkerman must be seen as an integral part of the Russians’ operational plan in late October. While Federoff was killed, his column mauled, and his mission defeated, Sevastopol’s defenders gathered vital intelligence on how the British were likely to react to a threat to their exposed flank.

Using that intelligence, the Russians fell on them at Inkerman on 5 November, mob-handed. What we now call the Battle of Balaklava should perhaps be seen as a curtain-raiser for a much bloodier thrust ten days later – one that very nearly crushed the whole Allied expedition. •

Patrick Mercer is a former soldier, journalist, and MP. He is interested in any action of the British Army or Royal Navy, but has made special studies of the Peninsular War, the Italian Campaign, and in particular the Crimean War.
All images: WIPL