OPPOSITE An officer of the 11th Hussars c.1850 one of the two regiments commanded by Lord Cardigan before the Crimean War, and part of the Light Brigade in the famous charge at Balaklava.

The Battle of Balaklava in Perspective

Patrick Mercer, a Crimean War specialist, takes a critical look at the men in command at one of British history’s iconic battles.


he Charge of the Light Brigade is a military myth. It happened, of course, but it has become embedded in an essentially false narrative framework. The Battle of Balaklava as a whole – little more, in reality, than three somewhat disjointed skirmishes, at least from the British perspective – has been inflated in popular culture out of all proportion to its real historical significance.

It began with contemporary newspaper reports and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous narrative poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, published before the end of 1854.

It has continued ever since. Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why: the story of the fatal charge of the Light Brigade, published in 1953 in anticipation of the centenary, turned into a bestseller.

More significant still have been two films, a Michael Curtiz film released in 1936, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and a Tony Richardson film released in 1968, with an all-star cast that included Trevor Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Harry Andrews, Jill Bennett, and David Hemmings.

The Richardson film relied heavily for its inspiration on The Reason Why, and it was very much an anti-establishment and anti-war film. In the context of the Vietnam War, the message was inescapable: incompetent elites preside over military disasters.

The Charge of the Light Brigade on 25 October 1854. Ever since, the event has become synonymous with deadly military incompetence.

Whatever one thinks of the message – and Patrick Mercer in our special this time pulls no punches so far as British military stupidity is concerned – the effect of the popular focus on the Charge of the Light Brigade has been to exaggerate the Battle of Balaklava’s importance.

Only about 2,500 British soldiers were actively engaged, and about 600 became casualties. This is a very small engagement in a struggle between great European powers.

Compare it with the Battle of Solferino, for example, where, in 1859, 120,000 French and Italians confronted an equal number of Austrians, and French casualties alone were 12,000.

Much bigger and more significant battles than Balaklava were fought by the British during the Crimean campaign – on the Alma, at Inkerman, and at the Great Redan.

In our special, Patrick Mercer is at pains to analyse Balaklava afresh, to place it in its wider context, and to review the events on the battlefield on the basis of his own intimate knowledge of the ground.

In his first article (below), he discusses the shockingly poor quality of some of the senior officers responsible for the débâcle, and in his second he delivers a blow-by-blow account of exactly what happened, when, where, and why.

Officers and Gentlemen?

I have been addicted to the Crimean Campaign since I was a child. It was the sight of a captured Russian gun in Retford that first did it for me, and since then I have read everything about it I could get hold of. It was soon clear to me, however, that most of the fighting was hard to grasp unless you had walked the ground – and, for a long while, the Cold War made that tricky.

But in 1992 I rectified the situation and have, until recently, been a regular visitor. It always seemed odd to me, though, that despite all the mighty battles – the Alma, Inkerman, the assaults on the Redan – most people’s attention has been held by a series of minor fights, skirmishes even, around Balaklava.

While the British were damaged by these events, they were nothing compared with, say, the two defeats in front of Sevastopol in June and September 1855. Yet Balaklava has come to dominate the whole campaign in the British perspective.

OPPOSITE An officer of the 11th Hussars c.1850 one of the two regiments commanded by Lord Cardigan before the Crimean War, and part of the Light Brigade in the famous charge at Balaklava.
An officer of the 11th Hussars c.1850 one of the two regiments commanded by Lord Cardigan before the Crimean War, and part of the Light Brigade in the famous charge at Balaklava.

Clearly, Tennyson’s wonderful poems (commemorating both Light and Heavy Cavalry Brigades) have much to do with this, as does the whole romance of the occasion – dashing, brilliantly dressed centaurs, brave Britons gallant in defeat, and, of course, a clash of lords and noblemen.

Throw in a tangled love story and pique people’s interest with some politically charged cinema, and you have the perfect military historian’s cocktail.

Now, anyone with a passing knowledge of military matters will have a view on Balaklava, but, I contend, most modern writing on the subject is nonsense.

Many theories about which target the Light Cavalry Brigade was meant to attack do not hold water because the authors have not walked the ground, and, unforgivably, they have used accounts from people who have been there but cannot read a map!

Worse still, the deployment and deadly efficiency of two regiments of Russian riflemen have largely been ignored. These men, I suggest, caused more casualties among the Light Cavalry Brigade than the artillery pieces ranged against them.

Before the most riveting mistake in the history of the British Army can be unpicked, however, its background needs to be examined.

Gentlemen and players

We need not be detained by the reasons Britain went to war with Russia in 1854. It is probably enough to say that many questioned the fact that a country led by Anglicans would conjoin with its habitual and Catholic enemy – France – to fight its habitual and Orthodox ally – Russia – on behalf of Muslim Turkey.

Into that imbroglio were sent some of the most fractious and ill-starred officers whom Britain has ever chosen to put in positions of command. Between them, they created the disaster of Balaklava.

Captain Portal of the 4th Light Dragoons spoke for many:

We are commanded by one of the greatest old women in the British Army, called the Earl of Cardigan. He has as much brains as my boot. He is only equalled in want of intellect by his relation the Earl of Lucan. Two such fools could not be picked out of the British Army to take command. But they are Earls!

What of these men? First, James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. A man who believed implicitly in the privileges of a noble birth, he was as good-looking as he was dim, yet his wealth and position allowed him not only to pull through a series of desperate scrapes, but to prosper. Looked at with a modern eye, his survival is astonishing, but even in Victorian times it must have seemed breathtaking.

At 27, he was late to join the Army, but by the time he was 35 he had risen far enough and was rich enough to buy the lieutenant colonelcy of the brilliant 15th Hussars, not long returned from India.

His quarrelsome command culminated in the acquittal of Captain Wathen, whom Cardigan had had court martialled for alleged disobedience. Shortly after the verdict, Cardigan was relieved, with the general order removing him being read at the head of every regiment. Such swingeing treatment would have caused any other man to sell out. But not James Brudenell.

left His Lordship: a depiction of James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, in a contemporary cartoon. BELOW George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, Cardigan’s brother-in-law, bitter rival, and commander of the Cavalry Division at Balaklava.
His Lordship: a depiction of James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, in a contemporary cartoon.

Lord Cardigan

Thanks to the favour of the Court, Horse Guards, and Wellington, the decision was revisited, and by the autumn of 1837 Cardigan was back at the head of a new regiment, the 11th Hussars.

Floggings and courts martial reached epidemic levels in the regiment, and there was a very public scandal when he ordered Captain John Reynolds to remove a bottle of hock – thinking it was common porter – from the table at a mess night.

The press picked up on the resulting court martial and named the whole sorry incident the ‘Black Bottle Affair’. They were further delighted when Cardigan wounded (with his second shot) a former officer of the 11th in a duel.

The injury to Captain Harvey Tuckett was enough to put Cardigan in court, and he exercised his privilege of being tried by other Lords in the Upper House. But, while the prosecution demonstrated that Cardigan, using a duelling pistol with concealed rifling and hair trigger – utterly taboo in the duellists’ world – had committed a very grave, possibly capital, crime, he was acquitted on a technicality.

Again, there was uproar from the press. Cardigan’s conduct was debated in Parliament, and then, on Easter Day 1841, he compounded matters by having a soldier flogged within minutes of a church parade having been dismissed.

The Cabinet met and it looked likely that Brudenell would be removed from his second regiment. Yet he hung on. Despite everything, he led the 11th for 16 years – even though, by 1851, he had seen not a shot fired, never commanded anything more active than a field day, and had constantly brought his regiment and the Army to the unfavourable attention of the public.

Such a man should never have progressed, yet, in the spring of 1854, he found himself promoted and sent on active service at the head of a brigade under the command of his brother-in-law – Lord Lucan.

Lord Lucan

George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, was three years younger than Cardigan, had been a soldier since he was 16, and was energetic, studious, and intelligent. But that intelligence was marred by the same stubborn arrogance as James Brudenell – to whose sister Lucan was married.

George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, Cardigan’s brother-in-law, bitter rival, and commander of the Cavalry Division at Balaklava.

By the time he was 27, Lucan had purchased the command of the 17th Lancers and was driving them with the same ruthless ambition that Cardigan had meted out first to the 15th and then the 11th Hussars – but, in Lucan’s case, with more common sense.

Given that the two men were related and both seeking advancement in the same field, appointing them to serve together on campaign seemed sensible. The trouble was that they loathed each other.

Cardigan believed that Lucan mistreated his sister, while Lucan was publicly critical of Cardigan’s infidelities, military mishaps, and, in 1837, his divorce from his wife.

Lucan had served on attachment to the Russian Army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828. This gave him a unique quali-fication for appointment as commander of the Cavalry Division in the Crimea. But the quite undisguised friction between the two noblemen meant that making Cardigan one of Lucan’s principal subordinates was bound to lead to trouble.

That trouble needed a catalyst, and it came in the shape of Captain Louis Nolan, an aide- de-camp (ADC) to Lord Raglan. Restlessly intelligent, Nolan can be studied in his own right, but it is enough to say that he was a natural cavalryman who had written a number of treatises on tactics and was generally believed to be the ‘coming man’ in his military generation.

But there was arrogance here as well, and the 36-year-old captain conceived a dislike – a disdain, even – for his seniors’ apparent lack of tactical sense and drive.

Lieutenant Maxse, another ADC, said, ‘He [Nolan] was always very indignant at the little they had done in this campaign and bitter against Lord Lucan.’

It seems that by 25 October 1854 that indignation had turned into a furious resentment – a resentment that was to be at the heart of a fatal disaster.

The Crimea

The war with Russia was in the Baltic, Pacific, and White Seas, but the primary theatre was the Crimea and Black Sea. The main expedition landed on 14 September 1854, with 60,000 or so French, British, and Turkish troops, about 45 miles north of Sevastopol.

On 20 September was fought the bloody Battle of the Alma. Despite a strong defensive position, Prince Menshikov’s troops were driven from their redoubts and trenches, but then were allowed to flee to Sevastopol almost unpursued.

It is vital to understand that the Russians were never going to allow themselves to be bottled up in Sevastopol. As the Allies pushed south, so the Russians moved out of the city and into the Crimea’s interior, giving the invaders the further headache of a powerful force always manoeuvring on their eastern flank.

Below Map of the Crimea, with [inset] the actual theatre of war enlarged.
Map of the Crimea, with [below] the actual theatre of war enlarged.

As the French and British strode south, it was decided to hook east around Sevastopol in what became known as the ‘flank march’, before heading west along the southern coast to begin the siege.

At first, this decision seems odd, but Sevastopol’s northern bank contained little of warlike significance, while the southern had docks, anchorages, magazines, and all the infrastructure of a military port.

Also, the intended logistics base – Balaklava – lay to the south and, put simply, there were not enough troops and matériel to surround the whole city. Technically, there was never a siege, as manpower and stores could always flow into and out of the city unmolested – and this was to be the Allies’ near undoing.

So the British captured and used Balaklava for resupply, while the French employed the anchorages of Kamiesch further west and south of Sevastopol. To the British Army fell the dual task of digging, arming, and manning the ‘Right Attack’, while also protecting the whole of the Allies’ exposed eastern flank from Balaklava along the Tchernaya Valley to Inkerman.

The eastern flank

Every effort of the French and British was bent towards the siege. The season was late, and it was clear to the commanders that Sevastopol should be stormed before the winter began. Every man, every shovel, every gun that could be spared was dedicated to this. But this left the vulnerable eastern flank exposed.

Accordingly, De Lacy Evans’s 2nd Division was told to hold the Inkerman position, while Colin Campbell’s Highland Brigade, Royal Marines, Lucan’s Cavalry Division, and a force of Turks were placed around Balaklava.

The ground here is complex. Running around Sevastopol to the south is a great collar of high ground known as the Sapoune: this made an ideal platform from which to prosecute the siege.

But Balaklava lay five to six miles from this ridge, and the route to it had to pass through a shallow valley that was bisected by some low hills known as the Causeway Heights, along which ran the Woronzoff Road. These heights created, in turn, two other slight valleys, referred to as North and South Valleys, which also had to be protected.

So six redoubts were dug along these hillocks, all of which were armed with guns, with overlapping fields of fire. Some Royal Artillerymen provided the gunners, but the infantry garrisons were entirely Turkish.

ABOVE The British supply-base at Balaklava Harbour, as pictured by Roger Fenton, a pioneer war photo journalist. This was the vital asset targeted by the Russians in their attack on 25/26 October 1854.
ABOVE The British supply-base at Balaklava Harbour, as pictured by Roger Fenton, a pioneer war photo journalist. This was the vital asset targeted by the Russians in their attack on 25/26 October 1854.

In effect, the easternmost redoubts were in enemy territory, as they were constantly threatened by the Russian manoeuvre forces. They were thus a source of great concern to Lord Raglan. He could see these positions laid out below him like a chessboard from his observation post on the Sapoune.

Further troops had to be provided to protect these positions, and they would normally have been infantry, but there was none available. All that could be found was the Cavalry Division – five weak regiments of Light, five equally depleted regiments of Heavy, no more than 1,500 horsemen on a good day.

It was against these vulnerable positions that Lieutenant-General Liprandi’s 12th Infantry Division – which had arrived in the Crimea in early October – was sent.

On 22 October, the first great barrage had been opened by the Allies, and although it had not been as successful as they had hoped, the siege lines were progressing fast, with the Russians’ Flagstaff Bastion looking increasingly vulnerable to French attack.

The Russians had to act fast if the city was to be saved from storm. So a two-phased plan of attack was hatched. Liprandi’s force was to probe towards Balaklava, pierce its outer defences, and exploit any weaknesses.

Few British historians link the events of 25 October with what happened on the next day. Then, Colonel Federoff led 6,000 men and four guns from inside Sevastopol against the Inkerman flank, with a view to capturing ground and digging an advanced redoubt that could both threaten the 2nd Division’s gun positions and act in support of further operations.

So the scene was set for the three separate actions on 25 October that would come to be known as ‘the Battle of Balaklava’, and another, on 26 October, which would be called ‘The Sortie’ or ‘Little Inkerman’.

All images: WIPL