Balaklava: 25 October 1854 – What If Part I

Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army through any arduous task. He is a brave good soldier, I am sure, and a polished gentleman, but he is no more fit than I am to cope with any leader of strategic skill.

WILLIAM HOWARD RUSSELL

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 to be 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.

CAPTAIN PORTAL, 4TH LIGHT DRAGOONS

‘You have lost the Light Brigade!’ It was thus that Lord Raglan bitterly reproached Lord Lucan on the evening of 25 October 1854. As a simple statement of fact the words were not unfounded. Before the charge, according to Captain Portal who rode in it, the Light Cavalry Brigade had mustered on parade some 700men; after it they numbered a mere 180. But was it Lucan who lost it? Controversy as to who was to blame has featured in many an analysis of the battle. The truth is, of course, that many people were to blame, Lucan among them. It was a combination of personal ill-feeling, general mismanagement and peculiarly bad orders which led to so great, yet glorious, a blunder. Given the circumstances which prevailed, however – a Commander-in-Chief who had no clear idea of how to conduct a battle, and who, unlike his former chief, Wellington, was in the habit of expressing himself with ambiguity rather than precision; a Commander of the cavalry, Lucan, who was at odds with Raglan’s handling of the campaign and with his subordinate, Cardigan, in charge of the Light Brigade; and given too that the aide-de-camp who delivered the fatally misconstrued order was half insane with impatience and injured pride, so much so that he actually seemed to indicate the wrong objective – then it was perhaps not so remarkable that things went awry, although why General Airey, Raglan’s Chief of Staff, should have pronounced the Light Brigade’s charge as ‘nothing to Chilianwala’ may still puzzle us. It was after all a feat of arms recalled for courage and discipline rather than for foolhardiness and waste.

But if by chance Raglan had shown the same sort of drive and initiative at the first battle of the campaign as Wellington did at Salamanca, then the charge of the Light Brigade, indeed the entire affair at Balaklava, need never have taken place at all. And even if he had behaved as he did during that first encounter and the British army had still found itself at Balaklava in October 1854, it only required the Light Brigade’s commander, Cardigan, to display some spark of military daring, some inkling of the cavalry spirit, even some modicum of tactical know-how for the charge of his brigade, to have been a very different matter with a possibly decisive outcome. We must go back to the start of the campaign to see how things might have developed.

In spite of all the fuss about custody of the Holy Places,5 the Crimean War came about because Czar Nicholas I believed the time had come to expel the Turks from Europe and divide up the property of ‘the sick man’. At the same time Emperor Napoleon III of France was possessed of an ardent desire to cut a figure in the world and add to the military glory attained by his uncle. Moreover, Britain was determined to maintain Turkey’s integrity and put a stop to the extension of Russian power in the East. Thus a relatively trivial dispute was used to justify a struggle for supremacy in the East.

The Czar could hardly have chosen an envoy more likely to provoke Turkey’s ire than Prince Menschikoff, who went to Constantinople in March 1853 and demanded that the Sultan should recognize both the Greek Church’s claim to custody of the Holy Places and – much more significantly – Russia’s right to protect the Sultan’s Greek Orthodox subjects. Menschikoff was both tactless and insolent, but these disagreeable qualities were largely offset by the diplomatic skills of the highly regarded British Ambassador at the Sublime Porte, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, who had been there for ten years, had encouraged reform and who, in spite of his hostility to the Czar, persuaded the Sultan to satisfy the Greek Church with regard to the Holy Places, at the same time lending his support to the Sultan in rejecting Russia’s claim to be protector of Turkey’s Greek Christians. Whereupon in June 1853 Russia invaded the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, and after the failure of the Great Powers to reach some compromise, Turkey declared war in October. An extension of the war swiftly followed. Turkey defeated a Russian army at Oltenitza, the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope, the French and British fleets passed the Dardanelles and entered the Black Sea in January 1854. Two months later France and Britain declared war on Russia.

Thus France, Great Britain and Turkey were Allies. For centuries in the past the British had been fighting the French. With the exception of the Vichy episodes in the Second World War, they were never to do so again. Yet Lord Raglan could not get out of his head that the enemy – even when in this particular war they were fighting side by side with him – were the French, and would frequently refer to them as such during the campaign. This was not the only difficulty encountered by the Allies.

It was all very well to declare war on Russia, but where was it to be waged? The Allies wished to ensure that the Russian armies evacuated the principalities and did not reach Constantinople. But what strategy should they adopt to realize these aims? By the end of May 1854 both the French and British armies had arrived at Gallipoli and Scutari, and the striking difference between their administrative arrangements was at once evident. The French were properly equipped with tents, medical services and a transport corps. The British were hopelessly ill prepared in all these respects, although Raglan had requested proper transport, only to be refused by the War Office. When the two armies made their way to Varna in order to deal with the Russians in the principalities, they found they had gone. It was now August and both malaria and cholera devastated the Allied soldiers. But at least some strategic idea emerged, and it was decided that the Allies would attack and take Sebastopol, thus removing this base of Russian power in the Black Sea and its threat to Turkey. This decision was made, not by commanders on the spot, who opposed it, but by the Allied Governments, hardly an auspicious beginning. None the less, in September the British and French armies – composed respectively of 26,000 men, 66 guns and 30,000 men, 70 guns – landed in the bay of Eupatoria, north of Sebastopol, and began their advance.

We have already observed that Lord Raglan was not distinguished for either his fitness to command or the clarity of his direction. His counterpart, General St Arnaud, was gravely ill – he was shortly to die – and was in no condition to provide bold leadership or offensive spirit. Moreover, Raglan’s subordinate commanders hardly inspired confidence. Lucan and Cardigan, leaving aside their sheer incompetence, were at loggerheads, and were soon to demonstrate their absolute inability to handle the cavalry properly. The two infantry divisional commanders, Sir George Cathcart and the Duke of Cambridge, were not as useless as the cavalrymen – no one could have been – but they had none of the experience or dash of men like Craufurd, Picton, Pakenham and Hill who had served under Wellington. Raglan’s Chief of Staff was General Airey, who should have been aware that apart from giving sound advice, his main purpose was to ensure the clarity of his Commander-in-Chief’s orders, which he singularly failed to do.

Happily for the British army this weakness of leadership at the top was more than counterbalanced by the strength of the regimental system. It was Humphrey Ward who praised Kipling for discovering Tommy Atkins as a hero of realistic romance. No army, said Ward, had so strong a sense of regimental unity and loyalty as our own. Arthur Bryant too was eloquent in emphasizing regimental pride:

the personal individual loyalty which each private felt towards his corps gave to the British soldier a moral strength which enabled him to stand firm and fight forward when men without it, however brave, would have failed. To let down the regiment, to be unworthy of the men of old who had marched under the same colours, to be untrue to the comrades who had shared the same loyalties, hardships and perils were things that the least-tutored, humblest soldier would not do.

Raglan was fortunate therefore in having under his command regiments of the Light Division, the Highlanders and the Brigade of Guards when it came to tackling the enemy. What would these famous regiments have to fight?

Opposing the Allied advance towards Sebastopol was a force of some 40,000 Russian soldiers under the command of Prince Menschikoff, who had positioned his men and about a hundred guns on the high ground overlooking the river Alma, fifteen miles north of Sebastopol. The battle of Alma was fought on 20 September and was characteristic of most Crimean encounters as far as the Allies were concerned. There was no proper reconnaissance, no clear plan, no thought about exploitation of success, no coordination between armies, no control or direction by Raglan, and the outcome was determined by the sheer courage and endurance of the British infantry. This dereliction of duty by those who were supposed to be directing the battle may be gauged by the fact that the Great Redoubt, key to the whole Russian defence, had to be taken twice, first by the Light Division and 2nd Division, and then again – because the reserve divisions were not moved forward quickly enough to consolidate its capture, thus allowing the Russians to reoccupy it – by the Guards and Highlanders. Its initial capture shows us the mettle of the British infantry:

The first line of the British army, the Light Infantry Division and the 2nd Division, rose to its feet with a cheer, and, dressing in a line two miles wide, though only two men deep, marched towards the river. Under terrific fire – forty guns were trained on the river, and rifle bullets whipped the surface of the water into a bloody foam – the first British troops began to struggle across the Alma, the men so parched with thirst that even at this moment they stopped to drink . . . During the terrible crossing of the river formation was lost and it was a horde which surged up the bank and, formed by shouting, cursing officers into some ragged semblance of a line, pressed on up the deadly natural glacis towards the Great Redoubt. It seemed impossible that the slender, straggling line could survive . . . Again and again large gaps were torn in the line, the slopes became littered with bodies and sloppy with blood, but the survivors closed up and pressed on, their officers urging, swearing, yelling like demons.

The men’s blood was up. The Light Division, heroes of a dozen stubborn and bloody battles in the Peninsula, advanced through the smoke, swearing most horribly as their comrades fell . . . suddenly, unbelievably the guns ceased to fire . . . the British troops gave a great shout, and in a last frantic rush a mob of mixed battalions tumbled into the earthwork. The Great Redoubt had been stormed.

But, alas, the Duke of Cambridge’s division with a brigade of Guards and the Highland Brigade, which should have been following up, had not moved from its position north of the river, allowing large numbers of Russians to take advantage of their own artillery bombardment, move forward and reoccupy the Great Redoubt. Thereupon the Guards and Highlanders, under terrible fire from cannon and rifles, advanced with the same steadiness as if taking part in a Hyde Park review. So heavy were the casualties suffered by the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards that one officer suggested to Sir Colin Campbell that they should retire or risk destruction. He received the magnificent reply that it would be better for every man of Her Majesty’s Guards to lie dead on the field than for them to turn their backs on the enemy. Neither course of action was necessary, however, for not only did the Guards and Highlanders retake the Great Redoubt, they successfully repelled a further Russian infantry attack. As they charged forward the enemy fled, leaving the Allies in triumphant possession of the battlefield.

Now we come to the first great If of the Crimean campaign. If at this point the British cavalry, who were poised ready for pursuit, had been launched against the fleeing enemy, they could have inflicted frightful loss. Lucan and Cardigan were aching to do so. It was one of those rare opportunities which when seized lead on to triumphant success, but when neglected deliver only frustration and guilt. Yet Raglan positively forbade the pursuit. There could be but one reason for his doing so – the French refused to go further and Raglan dared not go on alone. Had he been more forceful or decided to act with British troops only, he might have ended the campaign there and then, by capturing Sebastopol. As it was, the defeated Russians, totally unmolested, streamed into the city.

When we consider that the whole purpose of the Crimean campaign, as directed by the Allied Governments, was to take Sebastopol – and here as a result of the very first battle of the campaign, an absolutely heaven-sent chance of doing so presented itself, yet was not taken – we may perhaps sympathize with the outraged sentiments of Captain Nolan, 15th Hussars. A passionate advocate of cavalry’s proper and aggressive use, Nolan burst into William Howard Russell’s tent and gave vent to his sense of outrage – a thousand British cavalry contemplating a beaten, retreating army, complete with guns and colours, with nothing but a few wretched, cowardly Cossacks, ready to gallop away at the mere sound of a trumpet call, to dispute their passage, and nothing done: ‘It is enough to drive one mad! It is too disgraceful, too infamous.’ The generals should be damned. We shall meet Captain Nolan again when another great chance, another great If, and another gross mishandling of cavalry occurred.

Having omitted to take this tide at the flood, Lord Raglan was obliged to put up with the shallows and the miseries of what was left of his life’s voyage. It would not be for long and would lead to his humiliation and death. Instead of seizing Sebastopol the Allied armies made their ponderous way to the east and then the south of the city, giving the Russians time both to reinforce its defences and indeed to pour more troops into the Crimea. This new deployment of the British army emphasized the strategic importance of Balaklava, through whose port all the sinews of war had to come. It was the Russian attempt to capture it that resulted in the battle of Balaklava. On the morning of 25 October the British army was singularly ill deployed to meet and defeat this Russian attack. Apart from the 93rd Highlanders and about 1,000 Turks, the only troops between the port and General Liprandi’s advancing force of 25,000 horse, foot and guns were the two brigades of the Cavalry Division, positioned some two miles north of Balaklava at the foot of the Fedioukine Heights.

The idea that chaos is a good umpire and chance a well-known governor of battles was well illustrated at Balaklava, for nothing could have been more chaotic or chancy. During the action of 25 October, Lord Lucan received four orders from Lord Raglan. Not one of them was either clear or properly understood. Each one was either too late to be executed as intended, violently resented by Lucan, ignored or so misinterpreted that the outcome was calamitous. We may perhaps comfort ourselves with the reflection that there was nothing unusual about this. Even today, with superlative communications when orders are transmitted from one level of command to another, their purpose and emphasis are subject to very different translation into action, for each commander has his own view of a battlefield, broad or narrow. Each has his own intention. No wonder they seldom coincide.

Raglan’s first order to Lucan was: ‘Cavalry to take ground to left of second line of Redoubts occupied by the Turks.’ To execute the order, although he did so, was not merely distasteful to Lucan, for the very last thing cavalry was designed for was to take or hold ground, but, much more important, it was tactically dangerous, since moving to the Redoubts on the Causeway Heights, the cavalry would further isolate Sir Colin Campbell’s small force of 500 Highlanders, the final defence of Balaklava itself. Thus at the very beginning of the action, we find Lucan totally unable to comprehend what his Commander-in-Chief had in mind. Indeed, from his point of view Raglan was guilty of a gross tactical error. We may perhaps discover the reason for this absolute discord when we remember that being in very different positions on the ground, the two men had very different conceptions of what was taking place. This perilous disparity of view was magnified by what happened next.

To those coolly sitting on their horses with Lord Raglan on the Sapouné Heights, the incident must at first have appeared to be an instance of that insolent indifference to danger which characterized many a British military operation in the nineteenth century. Later, it must have seemed more like culpable inactivity, and indeed it was only comprehensible when the contours of the ground beneath these onlookers were properly appreciated. A substantial body of Russian cavalry advancing to attack the Highlanders had seemed to pass within a few hundred yards of the British cavalry, now stationed where Raglan had ordered them, to the left of the second line of Redoubts. Yet although the Russian cavalry passed so close to Lucan’s division, the two formations could not see each other, were not in fact aware of each other’s proximity, simply because of the high ground between them, screening each from the other’s view. Yet to Raglan and his staff looking down upon them, this mutual unawareness was not apparent. When the Russian cavalry then set about attacking the 93rd Highlanders, ‘the slender red line’ proved more than a match for the enemy squadrons. Three times the Russians came at then; three times they were repulsed by the disciplined steadiness and accurate fire-power of the 93rd. At one point Campbell had to quell his men’s eagerness to charge with some fitting oath, but they had done the trick. The enemy withdrew.

Yet these half-dozen or so squadrons were but the vanguard of a much larger body of Russian cavalry which had followed them across the Causeway Heights. Perceiving this further threat, Raglan had issued his second order – indeed, had done so before the Highlanders’ gallant action had been fought – and this order, ‘Eight squadrons of Heavy Dragoons to be detached towards Balaklava to support the Turks who are wavering,’ arrived too late to be executed in the way that Raglan had intended. In command of these Dragoon squadrons was Brigadier-General Scarlett, whose face was as red as his tunic, a brave and competent cavalryman who had won the respect and affection of his men for his unassuming and good-natured ways. He was now about to bring off ‘one of the great feats of cavalry against cavalry in the history of Europe’. As he led his eight squadrons, two each from 5th Dragoon Guards, Scots Greys, Inniskillings and 4th Dragoon Guards, towards Balaklava, with the Causeway Heights on their left, he observed on the slopes of these heights a huge mass of Russian horsemen. There were three or four thousand of them. Yet Scarlett with his mere 500 or so Dragoons was quite undismayed and coolly ordered his squadrons to wheel into line. It was at this point that Lucan arrived on the scene and ordered Scarlett to do what he was about to do anyway – charge the enemy. It was fortunate that the Russian cavalry came to a halt with the intention of throwing out two wings on their flanks in order to engulf and overwhelm Scarlett’s force. Thereupon Scarlett ordered his trumpeter to sound the charge.

Although the Light Brigade’s action at Balaklava is more renowned, it was the Heavy Brigade’s charge which was truly remarkable as a feat of arms. In spite of the appalling disparity of numbers, the British cavalry enjoyed one great advantage. The Russian hordes were stationary, and it is an absolute maxim that cavalry should never be halted when receiving a charge but should be in motion. By remaining stationary, the Russians would sustain far more devastating a shock. For those surveying from the heights, what now transpired was breathtaking. Scarlett and his first line of three squadrons seemed to be positively swallowed up by the mass of grey-coated Russian cavalry, and although this enemy mass heaved and swayed, it did not break. Indeed, their two wings, in motion again now, began to wheel inwards to enclose and crush the three squadrons. But now Scarlett’s second line took a hand in the game. The second squadrons of the Inniskillings and 5th Dragoon Guards flung themselves wildly into the fray on the left, while the Royals, who had not received orders to do so, but rightly acted with timely initiative, charged in on the right. There was further heaving and swaying by the Russians, but no sign yet of breaking.

No such initiative as that of the Royals was displayed by Lord Cardigan, who was about to be presented with the chance of a lifetime. He and his Brigade were a mere few hundred yards from the flank of the Russian cavalry, observing the action, most of them consumed with impatience, yet no thought of joining in the fray even occurred to Cardigan. The best he could do was to declare that ‘These damned Heavies will have the laugh of us this day.’ Any commander possessed of the real cavalry spirit would have been longing for the moment to arrive when his intervention would have been decisive. And this moment was about to come. Despite his dislike and contempt for his superior commander, Lord Lucan, Cardigan took refuge in his contention that he had been ordered to remain in position and to defend it against any enemy advance. It would have been far more in keeping with his custom to have ignored Lucan’s order. Indeed, Lucan himself maintained that his instructions had included a positive direction that the Light Brigade was to attack ‘anything and everything that shall come within reach of you’. There could be no gainsaying that the Russian cavalry, already reeling from the Heavy Brigade’s assault, came within this category.

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