Wilson-Kautz Raid, June 1864

Clockwise from upper left: Brigadier General August V. Kautz, Brigadier General James H. Wilson, Confederate artillery firing across the river.

Union Army commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant did not want a siege, but the battle had proved unsuccessful. He had been through one siege already in this war, at Vicksburg. It had lasted 47 tedious days, and the inactivity had made it difficult to maintain discipline and morale in the ranks. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was stronger than Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton had been, and Petersburg was better defended, with several supply routes still open. A siege here would last much longer than at Vicksburg and would be more stubbornly contested. Nevertheless, on June 20 1864 Grant told Butler and others, “I have determined to try to envelop Petersburg.”

That same day he also set in motion one last attempt to force Lee out in the open. His army now lay across the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad east of the city and was in striking distance of two more of Lee’s remaining sources of supply: the Weldon Railroad, which ran into North Carolina and on to the port of Wilmington, and the Southside Railroad, running west to Lynchburg. If he could cut these lines, even temporarily, Lee might be forced to attack him or to abandon Richmond and Petersburg altogether.

Grant ordered General Wilson to take his own cavalry division and Kautz’s on a wide sweeping ride around the enemy right. Grant wanted Wilson to cross the Weldon line as close to Petersburg as possible, cut it, then ride on to the Southside, once again as close to the city as practicable. Then he was to tear up track as far west as he could get, if possible the entire 45 miles to Burke’s Station, where the Southside intersected with the Richmond & Danville line.

From there, if still unmolested, Wilson and Kautz were to continue the destruction, moving southwest on the Richmond & Danville. If they were successful, only one line – the Virginia Central – would be left intact to serve the Army of Northern Virginia.

Grant expected that Sheridan, who was on his way back east from the Trevilian raid, would keep most of Wade Hampton’s cavalry occupied, though Rooney Lee’s mounted division would have to be dealt with. As further cover for the movement, Grant ordered Birney and Wright to move to their left, across the Jerusalem Plank Road and out to the Weldon line in the vicinity of Globe Tavern. They might do considerable damage to the railroad themselves, and they would also provide a screen behind which Wilson could get well on his way.

Wilson asked for two days to rest and refit his men. Then, before dawn on June 22, he set out with a total of about 5,000 troopers. By midmorning they had reached Reams’s Station on the Weldon line without opposition; they stopped briefly to burn the railroad buildings and uproot the tracks for a few hundred yards on either side. That done, the raiders moved on, and by afternoon they passed through Dinwiddie Court House, with Rooney Lee now snapping ineffectually at their heels.

Before nightfall Wilson and Kautz reached Ford’s Station on the Southside line, where they had the good fortune to find two loaded enemy supply trains. These they burned, along with the station buildings and everything else combustible. Then they headed west, tearing up the track as they went, heating it red-hot over fires fed with railroad ties and then twisting the rails out of shape to render them useless. Not until mid- night did the Federal raiders finally halt, more than 50 miles from their starting point. The exhausted men slept with their reins in their hands, lying in formation in front of their saddled horses.

The following morning, while Kautz’s men rode ahead toward the Richmond & Danville line, Wilson’s men continued their work, moving slowly west while Rooney Lee’s cavalry skirmished in their rear. “We had no time to do a right job,” a trooper complained. Now they simply overturned the rails and ties, which could be done quickly but was hardly a permanent form of destruction. The next day they reached Burke’s Station and met Kautz, who had reduced the depot to a charred ruin and had torn up the Richmond & Danville line for several miles in either direction.

Kautz took the advance again and headed out, reaching the Staunton River 30 miles southwest of Burke’s Station on the after- noon of June 25. Destruction of the bridge here would be a hard blow to the Confederates, but by now the raiders were expected. More than 1,000 home guards, supported by at least one battery, waited in earthworks on the far side of the river. When Kautz advanced to burn the bridge, the defenders opened a stubborn fire and drove the Federals back. At the same time, Rooney Lee was pressing Wilson’s rear guard. Wilson decided it was time to end the raid and return to friendly lines.

For several reasons, this was not going to be easy. Wilson was 100 miles from safety, with tired animals and worn-out men. General Hampton was on his way back to the Petersburg area with his two divisions of Confederate cavalry. And friendly lines were not where Wilson thought they were. Wright and Birney had moved their corps as ordered on June 22, but they had become separated in the woods, and A. P. Hill’s Confederates had shoved their way between them. Hill stopped Wright short and forced the Federals back. Then he struck Birney ferociously and threw him back to the Jerusalem Plank Road, taking 1,700 prisoners. As a result, the Weldon Railroad was still firmly in Confederate hands.

At midday on June 28, Wilson’s weary riders reached Stony Creek Depot, just 10 miles south of Reams’s Station, and presumed safety. But here they ran into Wade Hampton’s and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry divisions. The dismayed Wilson could not break through; his line of retreat was cut off and he was in real trouble.

That night Wilson ordered Kautz to ride west and north, around the enemy divisions to Reams’s Station; Wilson would hold Hampton at Stony Creek. While Wil- son fought off a substantial attack, Kautz reached Reams’s Station the next day – only to discover, instead of the Federal II and VI Corps, part of Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry and two brigades of Hill’s Confederate infantry.

Increasingly desperate, Wilson next took his own command around the opponents facing him to rejoin Kautz west of Reams’s Station. But now the enemy was converging on him from three sides: Fitzhugh and Rooney Lee’s cavalrymen from the north, Hill’s infantry from the east, and Hampton’s riders from the south. There was no choice but to make a headlong run for it.

The Federals burned their wagons, spiked their guns, left their wounded behind and headed southwest. Before they could get away, the Confederates attacked and Kautz, in covering the escape of Wilson, became separated from him.

There was a large swamp on the enemy left flank, and Kautz thought he saw a chance to break through there. “It was our only chance,” wrote one of his troopers. In they plunged, the men riding past Kautz, who was sitting astride his horse, one leg slung over his pommel, with a pocket map of Virginia in one hand and a compass in the other. Looking at the sun for position, he pointed out their course. Incredibly, the troopers got through the swamp unopposed. Seven hours later, bone-weary and falling asleep in their saddles, they rode into friendly lines southeast of Petersburg.

Wilson’s men had it even tougher. For 11 hours they were pursued south, until they were nearly 20 miles farther away from Federal lines. Wilson allowed the men two hours’ rest, then he led them east, toward the James River. Riding all day June 30, with Hampton racing to cut them off, the Federals finally reached Blackwater River – seven miles south of the James – after midnight, on July 1.

There was no enemy on the other side of Blackwater River, but Wilson found the only bridge burned. Hastily the troopers made makeshift repairs and straggled across; that afternoon they reached the James and safety, having covered 125 miles in 60 hours. “For the first time in ten days,” Wilson wrote later, his men “unsaddled, picketed, fed, and went regularly to sleep.” Like most cavalry raids in this War, Wilson’s had been audacious, dramatic – and had yielded mixed results. Undeniably the destruction of more than 60 miles of railroad track was important. Years later Colonel Isaac M. St. John, who was in charge of Confederate ordnance supplies in Richmond, said that nine weeks passed before another train entered either Petersburg on the South-side Railroad or Richmond on the Richmond & Danville. The ensuing shortages forced Lee’s army to consume every bit of its commissary reserves, yet it was not forced out of Petersburg, much less Richmond. Meanwhile, Wilson had lost all of his artillery, wagons and supplies, along with one quarter of his command in casualties.

 

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The Huns

SHORT COMPOSITE BOW: right drawn, centre normal and left spent.

This illustration shows the short composite bow of wood, horn and sinew, held together by animal glue. All the materials were obtainable in the steppe lands of Inner Asia. Curved bows like this were immensely powerful and short enough to be fired from horseback.

The origins of the Huns are shrouded in mystery, not just for us but also for contemporary observers, who frankly admitted that they had no idea where these people had appeared from. It was clear that they had come from the east and there was a persistent but improbable story recounted to explain how they were first encouraged to move west. According to this legend, the Huns and the Ostrogoths lived in neighbouring territory separated by the Strait of Kerch, which is the entrance to the Sea of Azov: the Ostrogoths in the Crimea on the western side and the Huns in the steppes to the east. However, neither group knew of the other’s existence. One day a cow belonging to a Hun was stung by a gadfly and swam across the strait followed in hot pursuit by her master. He found himself in a rich and inviting land and when he returned to his own people he told them about it and they immediately moved to take it for themselves.

The historical reality seems to be that the Huns, a Turkic people from the Central Asian steppes, began to move west around the year 370 and attack the Ostrogothic kingdom in the area of the modern Ukraine. What caused this movement is unclear, but it may have been pressure from other tribes further east. The Ostrogoths were defeated again and again and forced to leave their homes and farms in panic. A vast number of them crossed the Danube into the Balkans, still ruled at this time by the Roman Empire. Here the fugitive Goths, in their desperation, inflicted a massive defeat on the Roman army at Adrianople In 376, when their cavalry ran down the last of the old Roman legions.

Now that their horizons were expanded there was no stopping the Huns. They raided the Balkans in the aftermath of the Roman defeat but also attacked the rich provinces of the east, coming through the Caucasus and Anatolia to pillage the rich lands of Syria. St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, was living as a hermit near Jerusalem at the time and he has left us one of the first contemporary accounts of their cruelty:

Suddenly messengers started arriving In haste and the whole east trembled for swarms of Huns had broken out from (behind the Caucasus). They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic as they flitted here and there on their swift horses. The Roman army was away at the time and detained in Italy owing to civil wars … they were at hand everywhere before they were expected: by their speed they outstripped rumour, and they took pity on neither religion nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood. Those who had just begun to live were compelled to die and, in ignorance of their plight, would smile amid the drawn swords of the enemy. There was a widespread report that they were heading for Jerusalem and that they were converging on that city because of their extreme greed for gold.

Jerome takes up a number of themes which were to echo through the centuries as people of the settled lands recounted with horror the arrival of nomad warriors: their speed and the fact that they caught unsuspecting people by surprise, their readiness to slaughter entire populations and their blatant and overwhelming greed for gold.

Another theme repeatedly taken up by observers of the Huns was their alleged ugliness. Ammianus Marcellinus, the late fourth-century military historian, who is one of our most important sources for the earliest stages of the Hunnic invasions, commented that they were ‘so prodigiously ugly that they might be taken for two-legged animals or the figures crudely carved from stumps that one sees on the parapets of bridges’, while Jordanes adds that they caused men to panic by ‘their terrifying appearance, which inspired fear because of its swarthiness and they had, if I may say so, a sort of shapeless lump rather than a head’. These impressions probably reflect the eastern Asiatic features of the Mongols which made them clearly distinct from their Germanic rivals and neighbours (about whom the Roman sources do not make the same comments).

Their physical appearance was not made more attractive to the Romans by their clothes. These seem to have been chiefly made of bits of fur and later of linen, presumably captured or traded because the Huns themselves certainly did not make their own textiles. Along with their ragged clothes and wearing their garments until they disintegrated was their habit of never washing. The effect of these on the fastidious Roman observers who encountered them may easily be envisaged. However critical, their enemies recognized their extreme hardiness for, as Ammianus Marcellinus observed, ‘They learn from the cradle to the grave to endure hunger and thirst.’ Not for them the heavy, slow-moving supply trains that delayed the movements of Roman armies for they carried all that they needed with them on their swift and sturdy ponies.

That the Huns were ferocious and very successful warriors is evident. It is less clear exactly why they were so. Our knowledge of both their tactics in battle and their equipment is very patchy. The main first-hand account, the work of Priscus, describes the Huns at leisure and pleasure but not at war, and the descriptions of battles from other sources are both later and too vague to be of much use. There is no known contemporary representation of a Hunnic warrior of the period. A few swords from the time, which mayor may not be Hunnic, survive but there are no archaeological traces of the famous bows.

Ammianus Marcellinus, himself an experienced military officer, wrote of them in 392:

When provoked they sometimes fight singly but they enter the battle in tactical formation, while the medley of their voices makes a savage noise. And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly in scattered bands and attack, rushing around in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter; and because of their extraordinary speed of movement, they cannot easily be seen when they break into a rampart or pillage an enemy’s camp. And on this account, you would have no hesitation in calling them the most terrible of all warriors. At first they fight from a distance with arrows with sharp bone heads [instead of metal ones] joined to the shafts with wonderful skill. They then gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives. Then, while their opponents are guarding against wounds from sword thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses [i. e. lassos] over their opponents and so entangle them and pin their limbs so that they lose the ability to ride or walk.

Although Ammianus’ account was derived second-hand from Goths who had fought against the Huns, the picture clearly shows them as nomad warriors in the military tradition which was to be followed by the Turks and Mongols. The emphasis on manoeuvrability, their role as mounted archers and use of lassos all form part of that tradition.

As with all steppe nomads, observers were struck by their attachment to their horses. Jerome says that they ate and slept on their horses and were hardly able to walk on the ground. Ammianus Marcellinus noted that they were ‘almost glued to their horses which are hardy, it is true, but ugly, and sometimes they sit of the woman-fashion (presumably side-saddle) and so perform their ordinary tasks. When deliberations are called for about weighty matters, they all meet together on horseback’. The Gaulish aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 479), who must have seen Hunnic mercenaries on many occasions, notes that their training began very young. ‘Scarcely has the infant learned to stand, without its mother’s help, when a horse takes him on his back. You would think that the limbs of the man and horse were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse. Other people are carried on horseback; these people live there.’ Being well versed in classical mythology, he goes on to compare them with the mythical centaurs, half man and half horse. Commentators on nomad warriors are almost always impressed by this connection with their horses. No matter how early sedentary people learned to ride, or how well trained they were, they never seem to have acquired the mastery of horses that the nomad peoples had. This mastery always gave them the advantage in endurance and in the art of mounted archery which others could never attain.

The late Roman military tactician Vegetius whose book Epitoma rei militaris (Handbook of Military Science) is one of our main sources on the late Roman army, discusses the horses of the Huns and how they differed from the Roman ones. He describes them as having great hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, strong cannon bones, small rumps and wide-spreading hooves. They have no fat on them and are long rather than high. He adds that the very thinness of these horses is pleasing and there is beauty even in their ugliness.

Apart from their physical appearance, like little ponies compared with the larger and more elegant Roman horses, what impresses Vegetius most is their toughness. He notes their patience and perseverance and their ability to tolerate extremes of cold and hunger. Vegetius was concerned at the decline of veterinary skills among the Romans of his day and complains that people were neglecting their horses and treating them as the Huns treated theirs, leaving them out on pasture all year to fend for themselves. This, he says, is not at all good for the larger and more softly bred Roman horses. There is an important point here: Roman horses needed to be fed and so the army had to carry fodder with it; Hunnic horses , by contrast, lived off the land and were used to surviving on what they could find. This gave them an enormous advantage in mobility and the capacity to travel long distances without resting. It was one of the secrets of their military success.

The question of whether the Huns used stirrups remains doubtful. We can be certain that stirrups were unknown in classical antiquity. We can also be certain that they were widely known in east and west from the eighth century onwards. The evidence for the intervening period is very problematic. There are no representations of horsemen using stirrups from the Hunnic period, nor have any metal stirrups been found in graves. If they had used a new and unfamiliar device like this, it seems most unlikely that Priscus and other classical commentators would have neglected to mention (and copy) this. It is therefore extremely unlikely that they had metal stirrups. It is possible that they may have had fabric or wooden stirrups, both of which are attested for in later periods, but again, the fact that these are not mentioned in sources makes it improbable. Mounted archers such as Scythians and Sarmatians, who preceded the Huns, were able to shoot from the saddle without the stabilizing effect of stirrups, and there is no reason why the Huns should not have done likewise. Indeed, the absence of stirrups for both sides would simply have emphasized the superiority of Hunnic horsemanship.

The Huns did not use spurs either but urged their horses on with whips; whip handles have been found in tombs. Gold and silver saddle ornaments discovered in tombs make it certain that some wealthy men rode on wooden saddles with wooden bows at front and rear to support the rider. Common sense suggests, however, that many poorer Huns must have made do with padded cloth or skin saddles or even have ridden bareback. Their most characteristic weapon was the bow. This was the short, but very powerful composite bow, perhaps 5 feet or more in length, made from wood, bone and sinews. The range would have been 200 to 300 yards, the maximum effective range of any medieval bow. In the early days at least, the arrowheads were made of bone, not iron. All the materials could be found on the steppes and the bow was the Hunnic instrument par excellence. Like the Turks and Mongols of later centuries, whom they so much resemble, it was their abilities as mounted archers that made them so formidable in battle. Better equipped Hunnic warriors would also have had swords and it is clear that Attila wore his sword even in the comparative safety of his own compound. Swords and their scabbards, like saddles, could be expensively decorated. Unlike the bows, which were peculiar to the Huns, the swords seem to have followed the standard Roman and Gothic forms, with short hilts and long, straight blades.

Confused by their speed, and perhaps hoping to account for their military success, contemporaries often gave very large numbers for armies of Huns: Priscus is said to have claimed that Attila’s army in 451 had 500,000 men. If this were true, it would certainly explain their successes in battle but, in reality, these numbers must be a vast exaggeration. As we shall see when considering the Mongols, limitations on grazing for the animals must have placed severe restrictions on the numbers of Huns who could work together as a unit. Even in the vast grasslands of Mongolia, it is unlikely that Mongol gatherings ever numbered much more than 100,000: in the more restricted areas of the Balkans and western Europe numbers must have been much smaller. Before they invaded the Empire, the Huns, like other nomads, probably lived in fairly small tenting groups, perhaps 500-1,000 people, who kept their distance from their fellows so as to exploit the grassland more effectively. Only on special occasions or to plan a major expedition would larger numbers come together and even then they could only remain together if they had outside resources. The image of a vast, innumerable swarm of Huns covering the landscape like locusts has to be treated with some scepticism.

The late Roman Empire was a society based on walled towns and the Huns soon developed an impressive capability in siege warfare. This was surely not something they brought with them from the steppes. They almost certainly employed engineers who had learned their trade in the Roman armies but now found themselves unemployed and looking for jobs. The Huns were much more successful than previous barbarian invaders had been at reducing cities. This was especially important in the Middle Danube area around modern Serbia, where cities which had successfully held out for many years were reduced to uninhabited ruins. Sometimes, as at Margus, betrayed by its bishop, this was the result of treachery, but on other occasions the Huns were able to mount a successful assault. Priscus gives a full account of the siege of the city of Naissus (modern Nis in Serbia) in 441. While the narrative certainly has echoes of classical historians, especially Thucydides (for Priscus was an educated man and keen to show it), the description probably reflects the realities of siege warfare at the time:

Since the citizens did not dare to come out to battles, the [Huns], to make the crossing easy for their forces bridged the river from the southern side at a point where it flowed past the city and brought their machines up to the circuit wall. First they brought up wooden platforms mounted on wheels upon which stood men who shot across at the defenders on the ramparts. At the back of the platform stood men who pushed the wheels with their feet and moved the machines where they were needed, so that [the archers] could shoot successfully through the screens. In order that the men on the platform could fight in safety, they were sheltered by screens woven from willow covered with rawhide and leather to protect them against missiles and flaming darts which might be shot at them. When a large number of machines had been brought up to the wall, the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the crowds of missiles and evacuated their positions. Then the so-called ‘rams’ were brought up. A ram is a very large machine: a beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together and it is provided with a sharp metal point. For the safety of those working them, there were screens like those already described. Using short ropes attached to the rear, men swing the beam back from the target of the blow and then release it, so that by its force, part of the wall facing it is smashed away. From the wall the defenders threw down wagon-sized boulders which they had got ready when the machines were first brought up to the circuit. Some of the machines were crushed with the men working them but the defenders could not hold out against the large number of them. Then the attackers brought up scaling ladders so that in some places the walls were breached by the rams and in other places those on the battlements were overcome by the numbers of. the machines. The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also by the scaling ladders set up against the parts which were not crumbling and the city was taken.

The attackers were using siege towers and battering rams but they do not seem to have had any artillery to fire stones at the walls or into the city. Later conquerors, notably the Mongols, were to use such catapults to great effect. In contrast, the Mongols do not seem to have used wheeled siege towers, at least in their Asian campaigns.

In addition to the machines, Attila was evidently prepared to sacrifice large numbers of men, probably prisoners or subject peoples, in frontal assault. The results were very impressive and most of the major cities of the Balkans, including Viminacium, Philippopolis, Arcadiopolis and Constantia on the Black Sea coast fell. Attila’s campaigns mark the effective end of Roman urban life in much of the area.

One feature which marked out the Huns and other nomad warriors from the settled people was the high degree of mobilization among the tribesmen. When Priscus, a civil servant who accompanied the East Roman ambassador to Attila’s court, was waiting for an audience with the great man, he was talking to a Greek- speaking Hun who gave him a lecture on the virtues of the Huns and Hunnic life as opposed to the corrupt and decadent ways of the Romans. He explained:

After a war the Scythians [i. e. the Huns: Priscus uses the ancient Greek term for steppe nomads] live at ease, each enjoying his own possessions and troubling others or being troubled not at all or very little. But among the Romans, since on account of their tyrants [i. e. the emperors] not all men carry weapons, they place responsibility for their safety in others and they are thus easily destroyed in war. Moreover, those who do use arms are endangered still more by the cowardice of their generals, who are unable to sustain a war.

This passage forms part of a speech which is really a sermon on the virtues of the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle and Priscus attempted, rather lamely, to counter his views. But the Hun was making an important point about the enduring difference between the nomad society in which all adult males bore arms and a settled population who relied on a professional army. In absolute terms, the Huns may never have been very numerous but because of the high degree of participation in military activity, they could field a large army. They were, in fact, a nation in arms.

Rokitna

Polish cavalrymen, in Austrian-Hungarian uniforms, fighting under Austrian-Hungarian orders. Although the cavalry charge near Rokitna was militarily unimportant, it held great symbolic meaning. Due to a misunderstanding, the 2nd Squadron of Uhlans launched an attack without infantry support. The cavalrymen were able to cross three lines of trenches but could not take control. As a result, only a very few Uhlans returned to their own lines.

On 13 June 1915, on the Eastern Front, Polish cavalrymen, fighting under Austria’s orders, but fired by Poland’s national aspirations, won a victory over the Russians at Rokitna. Nine days later, Austrian troops retook the most important of the East Galician cities, Lemberg, and were poised to cross into the Russian province of Volhynia. On the Polish front, the German army was making continuous gains: on July 18 more than 15,000 Russians were taken prisoner at Krasnostaw.

At the outbreak of the Great War, two Polish Legions were formed within the Austro-Hungarian army. They eventually increased to three brigades that participated in a series of important campaigns in the years 1914 to 1916. When the soldiers refused to swear loyalty to Germany, the Polish Legions were disbanded.

Units of the 2nd Brigade of Piłsudski’s Polish Legions were deployed in support of the Austro Hungarian 42nd Division at the village of Rokitna near Czerniowice (Chernovtsy), Bukovina. The 42nd Infantry Division tried to take village, but were rebuffed by the Russians entrenched there.

Russian counterattacks threatened the 42nd Division positions. It was decided that the second and third squadron of Uhlans under command of Rotmistrz Dunin-Wąsowicz would attack Rokitna at noon to relieve the pressure on the 42nd Division.

Dunin-Wąsowicz personally lead the charge. After crossing muddy terrain near Rokitnianka River, he placed 3rd squadron in reserve and attacked with the 2nd. In fifteen minutes the Polish Uhlans forced two lines of enemy trenches, creating great chaos and casualties amongst Russians soldiers. Despite the Polish determination, the cavalry charge was in vain due to insufficient infantry support. Out of 64 Polish Uhlans from 2nd squadron – only six survived.

Major battle scene shot for Polish independence film

The Charge of Rokitna, a Polish Legions cavalry charge against Russia in World War I, was re-enacted on Tuesday, 15th  August 2017, during shooting for a new movie to mark Poland’s independence.

The scene, the largest battle scene in the movie, is key to the Legions film which is due for release on 5 October 2018, ahead of Poland’s centenary of independence on 11 November 2018.

 

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German Cavalry I

German heavy cavalry. 10th century

For more than three thousand years, whether in enforcing the law or, more importantly, waging war, the horse was the means by which the warrior gained true mobility, range, and striking power. Either by riding the horse or by having it pull his chariots, supply wagons, or, later, machine guns and artillery, he harnessed the strength, endurance, and above all the intelligence of the horse for his own military purposes; and, despite the horse’s flight-response to danger, he even managed make use of its occasional aggressiveness. This latter trait became particularly useful in the massed attack when the horse’s herd-instincts could effectively mask threats from which even cavalry mounts trained to the sound of gunfire might otherwise flee. Equine aggressiveness among stallions and late-gelded males could also be brought to bear in the melee of individual combats wherein the horse would see another mount, and not its rider, as the enemy.7 Such innovations “brought to warmaking the electric concept of campaigning over long distances and, when campaigning resolved itself into battle, of manoeuvering on the battlefield at speed—at least five times the speed of men on foot.” It also brought fear: the fear of an enemy able to appear at times and in places of his own choosing, often completely unexpectedly. Indeed, given the context of the present work, it seems worth noting that this pervasive fear rooted itself very deeply in the European psyche. As late as the 1940s, the German government’s propaganda consciously attempted to evoke the terror still latent in the folk memory of the menace of the steppe horsemen. The purpose was to encourage resistance to the advancing, and by then largely mechanized, Red Army. Emphasis on the specific ideological threat posed by Communism only overlaid and reinforced the much more ancient dread. The essential element was the fear itself, the perception of Germany’s being overrun by “Asiatic hordes.” Ironically, the fact that the Red Army still employed large units of horse-mounted Cossacks only further reinforced the propaganda.

The centrality, the emotional pre-eminence, of the mounted warrior even down to the twentieth century’s beginnings was not quite as old as the Western way of war itself. From approximately the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD, that way of warfare consisted primarily in the face-to-face fight to the death of the infantry phalanx with cavalry acting (occasionally brilliantly, as under Alexander’s command, or as with the Thebans at Leuctra in 371 BC) as an adjunct to the main battle. Nevertheless, the transmission of the mounted warrior’s role from the Eurasian steppe and Persia via Greece and Rome to Europe proper created a powerful impetus for the future. This force found its first true expression in the post-Roman, Germanic successor-kingdoms of early medieval Europe. In them the Greco-Roman tradition combined itself with the power of the horse to create an essentially new style of mounted warfare, one aiming at the immediate destruction of the enemy rather than hit-and-run harassment and graduated attrition typical of the steppe warrior.

To the extent that Western cavalry now gave primacy to rapidly closing with and destroying the enemy, the widespread use of the stirrup constituted an important contributory technology. As with the idea of the cavalry itself, the stirrup’s use also gradually migrated from East to West. By the tenth century AD it was commonly used by Western European horsemen and, among cavalrymen, helped provide a more stable platform from which to drive home attacks with a couched lance or to strike heavier, downward blows with handheld weapons such as the mace, sword, or axe. It is also suggested that the increased striking power made possible through the combination of effective bits, stirrups, and deeper-seated saddles encouraged the breeding of heavier horses in Western Europe from the Carolingian period forward, ones capable of withstanding the greatly increased collision-impact of lance-wielding heavy cavalry. It should, for example, be remembered that two armored knights’ chargers, each weighing at least one thousand pounds (not including the weight of the rider, his weapons, and armor) and moving at speeds approaching 15–20 mph (25 km/h), would generate a tremendous shock. As such face-to-face combat became the idealized norm in Western mounted warfare, breeds possessing a heavier, though not necessarily “cobby” or “carty,” conformation followed. Indeed, they helped drive the cycle: the heavier the horse, the greater the weight of man and armor it could carry and impact it could withstand. This capability, in turn, necessitated still heavier breeds to absorb ever-greater collisions, and so on.

Insofar as German cavalry is concerned (but not only there), the long-term consequence of this equid-and-technology evolutionary spiral in the early-modern period was the increasingly rigorous and state-supported breeding program of the sort that produced such fine military horses as the Hanoverian and the Trakehner. And, though lance-on-shield combat eventually disappeared, the essential physical dynamics of Western European cavalry combat from AD 870 to 1870 did not. As a result, into the twentieth century Western European cavalry horses, German horses among them, would remain generally taller and of heavier conformation than, for example, their Cossack counterparts. Nevertheless, one never really sees a clear break between a Western way of war involving nothing but infantry and a Western way of war wholly dominated by mounted knights by circa AD 750–800. Rather, there appears to have been a steady, and steadily growing, influence of the concept of mounted warfare permeating Western Europe from the East, undergoing modification and culminating in the full flowering of the chivalric ideal in the High Middle Ages and then continuing through the early-modern period with its introduction of gunpowder weaponry.

In the latter age, however, one of the primary conundrums facing cavalrymen in the Western world was what their role would become given the advent of firearms. The employment of long-range missileweapons by horsemen was, of course, already of ancient lineage. The tactically successful use of such weapons against riders was a crucial military evolution even before the common use of gunpowder. One need only mention Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). The introduction and rapid refinement of firearms merely compounded the range at which common foot soldiers might visit destruction upon their chivalric social betters. To a certain extent, firearms also added to the perceived insidiousness of the foot soldier’s shooting the rider from the saddle before the latter could even strike a blow or, more likely, simply killing his horse. The horse did, after all, present a much larger target than the man riding it, and killing the horse automatically stopped the cavalry charge. For example, the nobly born Gaston de Foix, commander of the French army at Ravenna in 1512, and some twenty of his courtly fellows were unceremoniously “gunned down to a man” when they sportingly attempted to pursue already defeated Spanish arquebusiers. Furthermore, if such factors were not already sufficient to make socially refined horsemen unsure about facing mere mechanics on a gunpowder dominated battlefield, there was the occasional accusation that gunmen used an early equivalent of dum-dum bullets in the form of rounds dipped in poisonous substances such as green vitriol (likely an oily metallic sulfate), a charge specifically made during the siege of the English city of Colchester in 1648.

Cuirassiers giving fire with their pistols (cuirassiers of en:Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim).

In the late fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century the principal firearm was, in one version or another, the arquebus. For the time being this weapon, though dangerous, did not truly threaten to displace cavalry from the battlefield. The arquebus did not, for example, possess a high rate of fire. Estimates range from one shot every thirty to forty seconds under ideal conditions (unlikely in a battle) to one shot every “several minutes.” Perhaps the best estimate is one shot every two minutes, though this, too, may be generous. Under such circumstances, cavalry could very likely close with opposing infantry before the latter’s arquebuses inflicted unacceptable losses of men and horses. Moving at the trot, cavalry on sound horses could cover perhaps 270 yards (approximately 250 meters) per minute, while at the gallop the distance covered would approximately double. Consequently, infantry armed with arquebuses faced unpalatable options. They could fire a volley at the weapon’s maximum effective range of about one hundred yards and hope to reload and fire again before the horsemen were upon them. Conversely, they could wait until the range had decreased to a much more lethal fifty yards or so, fire, and then see whether the horsemen survived in sufficient numbers and with sufficient impetus to ride them down. Precisely for this reason, pikemen remained an integral feature of infantry formations throughout the period. The pike—as much as eighteen feet in length—provided close-in protection for arquebusiers who were otherwise doomed, as were artillerymen, if the cavalry got in amongst them. The pikemen were therefore essential to the infantry’s survival until the invention of the socket bayonet. That device transformed the shoulder-fired weapon into a means by which infantrymen could defend themselves from cavalry attack while reloading, provided they had the nerve. Large numbers of horses moving at the gallop not only present a tremendous visual spectacle. For anyone standing nearby, they also literally shake the earth. A wall of such creatures, hundreds or even thousands strong, ridden by shouting cavalrymen and running full tilt directly into one’s face, would certainly seem to be unstoppable. The adverse psychological effect upon infantrymen, even when they formed the vaunted infantry square, could be enormous.

Of course, the cavalry forces of European armies also attempted to adapt themselves to the use of firearms, most notably in the form of the pistoleers of the mid-sixteenth century. The caracole, through a complicated tactical evolution, resulted precisely from the effort by cavalrymen to make use of firearms themselves to break up opposing infantry formations and thus render possible a battle-winning charge with cold steel. “Cavalry,” writes historian Jeremy Black, thus continued to provide “mobility, and that was crucial for strategic, logistical, and tactical reasons. It enabled forces to overcome the constraints of distance, to create equations of numbers, supplies and rate of movement that were very different to those of infantry, and also to force the pace of battle in a very different fashion to that of infantry.” The arquebus, the wheel-lock horse-pistol, and, eventually, the eighteenth-century flintlock musket did not render that utility nugatory. Indeed, if the carbine musket and cannon could be fully incorporated into the cavalry, as in fact they were, then the cavalry would continue to have, as in fact it did, a viable combat role on the battlefields of Europe.

According to Michael Roberts, the Swedish king and royal innovator Gustavus Adolphus nevertheless forbade the caracole and instead insisted that the cavalry always charge home with swords drawn, relying on the combined weight of man and horse for tactical success. In place of his horsemen’s firearms, or at least supplementing them, he also “was able to arm his units with a light and transportable field piece designed to supply close artillery support for infantry and cavalry alike.” Herein one may see the beginnings not only of the vaunted horse-artillery of the Napoleonic era but also what late-twentieth-century military writers would have termed an organic artillery capability for the cavalry. Unsurprisingly, however, not all historians agree that this incorporation of artillery with the cavalry constituted a solution to the cavalry’s problem of how to break up firearms-carrying infantry formations. David A. Parrott, for one, maintains that Gustavus Adolphus’ effort created no real solution. On the contrary, he writes that the Swedish king’s artillery was not “capable of the same degree of mobility as cavalry.” While the Swedes had developed cannon firing 3-pound shot over an effective range of some three hundred yards, these “were not mobile as a matter of course” owing to a lack of good-quality horses and easily portable stocks of ammunition. Therefore, “the vaunted reforms of Gustavus Adolphus produced nothing capable of approaching this [mobility] requirement.” Parrott therefore concludes that, absent the aforementioned and truly revolutionary innovation that highly mobile horse-artillery would have provided in smashing prepared infantry formations, the cavalry’s tactical importance became increasingly that of turning the flanks of opposing armies so that the latter could be taken from the side or rear while pressure was maintained front and center by one’s own infantry. Of course, the opponent’s own cavalry would be tasked with preventing just such a turning movement, thus setting up the continued face-to-face clash of horsemen employing not only handheld firearms but cold steel, both at pointblank range. It would, therefore, not be “new” tactics deciding the issue in a given cavalry battle but the resolution of the combatants, and at least implicitly the quality of the winners’ mounts. In precisely this respect, the importance of secure, high-quality breeding stock for supplying large numbers of remounts assumed a strategic significance.

In Germany the eighteenth century witnessed the establishment or expansion of a number of State studs whose mission was to develop and maintain breed-stock suitable for military and agricultural employment. Two of the most famous of these would eventually play major roles in the breeding of the modern German military horse. These were the East Prussian State Stud at Trakehnen and the Hanoverian State Stud at Celle. These studs and others contributed greatly to the establishment of a solid breed-stock of horses that, if not quite as finely athletic as the English Thoroughbred of the day, were nonetheless very well suited for employment as cavalry mounts. To that extent, they helped revamp the capabilities of a Prussian and, later, German cavalry that no less an observer than Frederick the Great dismissed upon his accession as being “not even worth the devil coming to fetch it away.” Nevertheless, the development of more stringent breeding standards, combined with more effective training in individual and close-formation galloping and other exercises by Frederick’s cavalry commanders such as Johann Joachim “Papa” von Ziethen and Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, soon honed the Prussian cavalry into a force of European renown. No longer would the Prussian cavalry be good only for parading, a fact demonstrated for all to see in battles such as Seydlitz’ crushing victory over the French at Rossbach in 1757.

German Cavalry II

Major General von Seydlitz pipe Prussian cavalry Battle of Rossbach – Richard Knötel

Firearms of all kinds had indeed made the battlefield more lethal. That was true enough. Cavalrymen, such as the Prussians at Rossbach, recognized “that a well-timed musket volley could destroy an entire regiment.” They also knew, however, that musketry, rifle-fire, or artillery could create opportunities for the cavalry’s decisive engagement, provided that cavalry commanders appreciated “the complexity of the [late eighteenth-century] battlefield.” More than ever before, “precise maneuvers, speed, boldness, and timing” would determine the mounted arm’s success on battlefields where “the margin of error separating cavalry success and failure” grew ever narrower. This lesson applied not only to Prussian or other German cavalry, but to all the military horsemen of Europe.

These issues became acute between 1800 and 1815, for European cavalry “reached its apotheosis” during the reign of Napoleon I. In his campaigns, cavalry performed those functions—often with consummate skill—that still remained to it on battlefields now coming to be dominated by the emperor’s beloved artillery, if not quite yet by truly accurate, long-range volleys from rifled firearms. These roles consisted of screening the French armies’ movements and strength from spies and opposing forces. The cavalry also carried out reconnaissance and prepared the conditions for the concentration of divergent French columns at the point of contact with the enemy. Finally, the French horsemen became the ultimate pursuers of broken enemy formations, though the latter were almost never broken by the cavalry itself. Despite the awful psychological effect of a massed cavalry attack made at the gallop, Napoleonic-era infantry squares, bristling with bayonet-tipped muskets and often supported by guns, could only rarely be smashed by direct mounted assault. Nevertheless, Napoleon may be said to have resurrected the cavalry’s operational role from its relative diminution in the eighteenth century as reflected in the declining ratio of cavalry to infantry, despite the cavalry’s contributions in such famous early eighteenth-century battles as Blenheim (1704) and, later, Rossbach. Napoleon added skirmishing to the cavalry’s remit and, in the 1790s, was one of the first French commanders to employ effective horse-artillery. The latter innovation gave genuine speed and mobility to the “king of battle,” greatly increasing the striking power of mounted formations. Furthermore, by disrupting the enemy infantry’s formations, a properly coordinated artillery barrage, whether from field guns or horse batteries, could still make possible the European cavalry’s ultimate self-expression, namely the pressing home of attacks with the arme blanche. At the very least, it was assumed that dragoons and carabiniers could close sufficiently to employ their own shoulder-fired weapons or pistols. Nevertheless, even Napoleon’s superb cavalry could not overcome the iron logic of gunpowder weaponry, as demonstrated with such terrible magnificence in the futile attack by fully 10,000 French horsemen against the allied squares at Waterloo. Not even such a grand failure, however, served to dislodge the cavalry from the armies of Europe, if for no other reason than that no substitute for it existed in the missions noted above. Only the cavalry could rapidly execute the vital tasks of long-range reconnaissance, screening, flanking, liaison, and pursuit. Nothing less than the advent of reliable wireless communications and internal-combustion propulsion would truly change that calculus; and even then, the cavalry’s departure from the scene “was slow, uneven, and reluctant.”

Thus, throughout the second half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the cavalry—indeed military horsepower generally—could still claim a place on the battlefields of Europe. In the last great cavalry war of Western European history, the Franco-Prussian War, both France and the German States routinely employed light and heavy cavalry at both the tactical and the operational level, though not, as shown below, with equal effectiveness. Later, in World War I, all of the major European armies still marched with huge numbers of cavalry fully integrated into their combat formations, though as the reader will see, nascent motorization (particularly armored cars)—not to mention more effective, long-range artillery and machine guns—vastly restricted what the cavalry might still accomplish, at least on the Western Front. By contrast, on the Eastern Front from Courland and East Prussia to Rumania, horsemen still enjoyed a considerable prestige and found themselves usefully employed both tactically and operationally.

Charge of the 1st Bavarian uhlans, 1914

Nevertheless, not even the events of 1914–1918 completely removed cavalry and horse-powered transport from European armies. We are particularly concerned with the fact that this remained so in Germany. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Reichsheer of the Weimar years and, later, the Heer still conceived of important tactical and operational roles for the horse, both in combat and in logistics. Both organizations would plan accordingly, notwithstanding a great deal of propaganda to the contrary. Consequently, when Hitler’s government willfully plunged Europe into the greatest war in its history, the German Army still possessed hundreds of thousands of horses in its establishment and not just for pulling supply-wagons, field-kitchens, artillery, and ambulances. German cavalry also went to war in 1939, not as a mere horse-mounted anachronism but as a matter of some necessity.

One might well argue that that reliance on horses by the Reichsheer and the Nazi-era Heer was misplaced. Germany’s military leaders, so the argument would run, ought to have done otherwise. Such an objection is fair enough in the abstract. In this matter, however, as in all historical inquiry, the primary question—as formulated by a noted authority in German military history—should not necessarily address what the German army ought to have done regarding the cavalry’s employment. Rather, the question should account for why the German army did what it did. Why still use horse-mounted troops after 1918? Why after 1925, when motorization was becoming a reality? Why after 1935, when the first panzer divisions were being raised? Why, ultimately, even in 1945, when literally thousands of horse-soldiers still found themselves in action?

Of course, cavalrymen were only as good as their horses, and this treatment of the German cavalry therefore also touches upon one of the great and enduring bonds in the human experience: that between the horseman and his mount. Having moved steadily away from regular, close contact with large animals since the middle of the twentieth century—except among a continuously dwindling number of farmers or perhaps from the safe side of a zoo’s enclosures—Western society has become largely ignorant of the profound interaction between horses and humans. Notwithstanding the undoubted commercial successes of recent occasional books, plays, and feature films (the British National Theatre’s 2009 triumph War Horse and the U.S. films Seabiscuit and Secretariat come most immediately to mind), horses since 1945 have become the perceived preserve of a “horsey set” of racing owners and/or breeders, huntsmen, or the simply rich. This perception remains current despite the fact that in the United States alone the equine population stood at well over five million at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the United Kingdom the figure totaled perhaps one million at the same date, though it remains somewhat unclear whether that number resulted from recent natural accretion or severe undercounting in earlier surveys. Given such numbers, particularly in the United States, and based upon the author’s own experience, it seems clear that very substantial numbers of horses certainly do not live a life of luxury in racing stables and hunt clubs, nor do they live quite so far apart from their human companions as one might think. Nevertheless, actual contact between those huge numbers of horses and the larger human population in whose midst they live remains minimal for human society as a whole.

Of all the ties binding humans and horses, surely the most poignant and nearly the oldest is the one existing between the military horse and the mounted warrior. If not quite as ancient as warfare itself, this bond is nearly so. But war remains, and has always been, a hard business. Physical destruction abounds. Men, women, children—and animals—die. Of course, no moral equivalence between the death of a horse and that of a man, woman, or child is intended. The assertion of any such equivalence would be grotesque. Nevertheless, the deaths of horses can be piteous. They know real fear. They feel real pain. They seem to suffer real loss. Their size and their very nearness to their riders make their suffering all too palpable, all too visceral, when they are seriously or mortally injured. That nonquantifiable but vivid characteristic called “heart,” the inner quality possessed by so many horses that drives them on even at the risk of injury or death, can show itself most heroically when they die. Horses worn out by their lives’ exertions can be utterly composed and evidently ready when they go to their graves. The author has seen this firsthand. Those not yet ready to die can fight for life and very often do. The author has seen this as well. Cavalry horses’ training could itself sometimes be brutal, but so was the task to which they were set by their human masters. The numerous instances of those same horses’ noble behavior in combat (other words simply do not fit) nevertheless attest to a quality far beyond simple, enforced obedience. Just as many of their riders did, just as many soldiers have always done, such horses often showed their most profound dignity when their own lives hung in the balance. Is this mere cavalry romanticism, mere horseman’s anthropomorphism? Perhaps it is. Certainly many cavalrymen viewed their mounts merely as equipment to be discarded without further ado when injured or to be replaced without a second thought when killed. Others evidently felt differently. If not, why have war horses, so far as we can reckon, always had individual names from the earliest times down to the vast mounted forces of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? Beginning in the Napoleonic period, most cavalrymen were literate. Consequently, it was “the first period where the personal relationship between the military horse and the soldier was recorded” in substantial numbers of accounts. The relationship could prove, and was shown to be, as intense as any between humans. Those accounts also provide the first substantive indication of a tale quite likely as old as the military horse itself, a tale of a very special bond forged in the crucible of war, a tale of fierce joy in life and unbearable heartache in death.

Balaklava: 25 October 1854 Part I

Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October 1854 in the Crimean War

Battle of Balaclava. Ryzhov‘s cavalry attacks over the Causeway Heights at approximately 09:15. Both branches of the attack happened almost simultaneously.

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, 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.

Balaklava: 25 October 1854 Part II

The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava by William Simpson (1855), illustrating the Light Brigade’s charge into the “Valley of Death” from the Russian perspective.

The Timeline of the Charge taken from Forgotten Heroes: The Charge of the Light Brigade (2007).

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.

Action by the Light Brigade was about to become even more opportune and necessary, for it now became apparent that the Russian cavalry mass was recoiling, being pushed back, swaying uphill. Now was the moment for the coup de grâce and it was delivered by the 4th Dragoon Guards, who had been held in reserve and were now ordered to charge by Lucan. Crashing into the Russian right and charging head on, the regiment went right through the enemy force. ‘The great Russian mass,’ wrote Cecil Woodham-Smith, ‘swayed, rocked, gave a gigantic heave, broke, and, disintegrating it seemed in a moment, fled.’ If ever there was a moment for pursuit to finish the thing off and write finis to the battle of Balaklava, it was now. If only Cardigan had seized this moment and charged then, the victory would have been complete and the Russian cavalry would not have been allowed to escape. But Cardigan was not a man to act without specific orders. Initiative, except in designing bizarre uniforms or ogling pretty women, was foreign to his nature. What Cardigan could not or would not see, others did, and urged him to act. Captain Morris, commanding the 17th Lancers, urgently pressed his brigade commander: ‘My lord,’ he said, ‘it is our positive duty to follow up this advantage.’ Cardigan insisted that they must remain put. Morris further implored him to allow his own regiment to charge the enemy who were in such disorder. Cardigan was adamant. Furious and frustrated, Morris appealed to his fellow officers: ‘Gentlemen, you are witnesses of my request.’ Cardigan’s refusal to act was even more reprehensible than Grouchy’s inactivity at Waterloo for he could at least see what was going on.

The moment passed, and the Russian cavalry, unmolested further and complete with their artillery, were allowed to establish themselves at the eastern end of the North Valley, guns unlimbered and ready for action. They would not have long to wait. Yet if the Charge of the Light Brigade had been enacted during the Russian disorder and flight, no such controlled movement would have been possible by the enemy. In short, the Russians would have been unable to redeploy at the eastern end of the North Valley, and thus there would have been no such objective for Raglan to concern himself with and about whose capture he was now to issue further wholly confusing orders. We may perhaps conclude this particular speculation by observing that had the Light Brigade charged when it should have done, the two actions of the Heavy and Light Brigades would have become one, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson would have had to confine himself to one poem rather than two.

Lord Raglan now set about the business of making confusion worse confounded. His third order was given when, as a result of the Heavy Brigade’s action, the Russians recrossed the Causeway Heights and were to the north of them. Raglan determined to recapture the Redoubts, the Causeway Heights and the Woronzoff Road. To take and hold ground would, of course, demand infantry. The 1st Division was at hand, but the 4th Division, under command of a disgruntled, almost insubordinate Sir George Cathcart, was taking its time to get forward. Not wishing to lose his chance, Raglan conceived the idea of recovering the Heights with cavalry, who would then hand over to the infantry divisions. But Raglan’s third order was once more a masterpiece of ambiguity. Moreover, the version of it retained by him differed from that which reached Lucan. What Raglan had intended was that the cavalry should advance at once, recapture the Redoubts and control the Heights until the infantry came up. But the order which reached Lucan implied that he should wait until the infantry were there to support him before advancing. In other words Lucan’s reading of the order – not to advance until supported by infantry – was the exact opposite of what Raglan intended. It was therefore with mounting impatience that Raglan gazed down at the action which Lucan did take – to mount the Cavalry Division, positioning the Light Brigade at the western end of the North Valley, while the Heavy Brigade was drawn up behind them on Woronzoff Road. Thus deployed, Lucan waited for the infantry.

Raglan, in his certainty that an advance by the cavalry would oblige the enemy to withdraw from the Redoubts, could not understand why Lucan made no move, and when he saw that parties of Russian artillerymen were preparing to take their guns away from the Redoubts, his agitation knew no bounds. It was then that Raglan sent out the fatally misunderstood fourth and last order to Lucan. It read: ‘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.’ This order had been written out by General Airey from Raglan’s instructions. We have seen that lack of precision in the third order resulted in its not being carried out. If it had been clear and executed as intended by Lucan, the fourth order would never have been needed. Yet here with this fourth order we see again that a precise word or two substituted for an imprecise phrase would have removed all ambiguity. What ‘to the front’ means to one man is very different from what it means to another. Had Raglan so phrased the order that it clearly complemented his previous one, the one relating specifically to the Causeway Heights, as he meant it to, how differently Lucan would have read it. Had it said, ‘Cavalry to advance to the Causeway Heights to prevent enemy carrying away the guns from the Redoubts,’ Lucan would have been in no doubt as to what his Commander-in-Chief wanted.

This is the first great If which could have prevented the Noble Six Hundred from riding into the Valley of Death. The second is that if only any aide-de-camp other than Captain Nolan of the 15th Hussars had carried the order to Lucan, there might have been some chance of Lucan’s realizing what Raglan actually intended. As it was, Nolan, who had endured agonies of humiliation and frustration at the Light Brigade’s inexplicable inactivity when so splendid and classic an opportunity following the Heavy Brigade’s charge had presented itself, was given the task. Moreover, Raglan aggravated both the imprecision of his order and the furious impetuosity of Captain Nolan by calling out to him as he rode off, ‘Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack at once.’

To Lord Lucan this new written order, which he regarded as quite unrelated to the previous one, was not merely obscure, it was crazy. The only guns that he could see were those at the eastern end of the North Valley – to his front. For cavalry to attack batteries of guns frontally and alone was to contravene every tactical principle and to invite destruction. As Lucan read and re-read the order with mounting consternation, Nolan, almost beside himself at Lucan’s apparent reluctance to take immediate and decisive action, repeated in tones of arrogant contempt the Commander-in-Chief’s urgent postscript that the Cavalry should attack at once. Small wonder that Lucan should have burst out angrily, ‘Attack, sir? Attack what? What guns, sir? Where and what to do?’ It was then that Nolan threw away the last chance of the operation going according to plan. With a furious gesture but, alas, one fatally lacking in proper direction, he pointed, or appeared to point, at the very guns that Lucan could see, those at the end of the North Valley, accompanying his gesture with words full of insolence and empty of precision: ‘There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns!’

Here we may pause for an instant and insert another If. If only, at that very last moment, Nolan had curbed his frantic impatience and calmly explained to Lucan that the guns in question were those on the Redoubts and that therefore the Light Brigade must advance to the Causeway Heights, all might yet have gone well. But after this ill-tempered exchange, Nolan rode over to Captain Morris, 17th Lancers, and asked if he might ride with the Regiment. Morris agreed. Meanwhile, Lucan had passed on the order to Lord Cardigan. Even Cardigan felt obliged to point out that the valley was commanded by guns not only to the front, but to the right and left as well. Lucan acknowledged his objection, but insisted that it was the Commander-in-Chief’s wish and that there was no choice but to obey.

Thus the position when Cardigan deployed his brigade in readiness to advance was that the Russians occupied the Fedioukine Heights with horse, foot and guns, and the Causeway Heights including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Redoubts with infantry and guns. At the head, that is, the eastern end, of North Valley were twelve Russian guns and behind them their main body of cavalry. About a mile and a half away, at the western end of the valley, was the Light Brigade. By this time the British infantry had come up, the 1st Division occupying ground held by the 93rd Highlanders, while the 4th Division was in the area of the 4th Redoubt. After receiving his orders from Lucan, Cardigan rode over to speak to Colonel Lord George Paget, commanding the 4th Light Dragoons, who was to command the second line of the brigade. Cardigan told Paget that he would expect his best support. Paget had been enjoying a ‘remarkably good’ cigar while Nolan and Lucan had their angry exchange, and when he heard Colonel Shewell of the 8th Hussars reprimanding his men for smoking their pipes – in Shewell’s words, ‘disgracing the Regiment by smoking in the presence of the enemy’ – he could not but wonder whether he was disgracing his regiment with his cigar. ‘Am I to set this bad example?’ he asked himself. A good cigar, however, was no ‘common article in those days’ and he determined to keep it. The 4th Light Dragoons had a reputation to maintain. They were known as ‘Paget’s Irregular Horse’, and the cigar lasted until the charge was over.

It might be supposed that Lucan had already contributed enough to the day’s work, but even now he interfered further. Cardigan had placed three regiments, the 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers and 11th Hussars, in the front line, while the second line had the 8th Hussars and 4th Light Dragoons. Lucan ordered Colonel Douglas, commanding 11th Hussars, Cardigan’s own regiment, to drop back to a position supporting the front line. As the charge proceeded Paget, conscious of Cardigan’s insistence on his best support, had brought the 4th Light Dragoons up to the left of the 11th Hussars, thus forming a new second line, with the 8th Hussars to the right rear. ‘Walk march. Trot:’ Cardigan gave the order. His trumpeter sounded ‘March’. The charge was on. Captain Portal, 4th Light Dragoons, recalled later that they had ridden only a quarter of a mile, galloping now, when the most fearful fire opened on them from both sides, dealing death and destruction in the ranks. They kept going, did their work among the enemy guns, which with support – of which there was none – they could have brought back with them, and then retired in good order, still at the gallop and again through murderous crossfire. Neither Portal nor anyone else seeing what had to be done thought that those still alive after the charge would ever get back.

One of the 8th Hussars, Lieutenant Calthorpe, who was serving on the staff and did not take part in the charge, observed it all, his own regiment and the others thundering along the valley at an awful pace, unchecked by the fearful slaughter, disregarding all but their objective, rendering havoc amongst the enemy’s artillery. This was the time, Calthorpe recorded, when the brigade commander should have rallied his men, gripped the situation and given the necessary orders. But according to Calthorpe, Cardigan’s horse took fright, wheeled round and galloped back down the valley. Calthorpe was mistaken here. Neither Cardigan nor his charger had taken fright. Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole affair was Cardigan’s absolute indifference to the hazards of the charge or the fate of his brigade once it had charged. He evaded some threatening Cossacks by galloping back through the enemy guns, and judging his duty now done, calmly rode back down the valley.

It was left to the combined efforts of Paget and Shewell to take control and salvage what was left of the Light Brigade. As the Brigade charged home, the leading lines of the 13th Light Dragoons and 17th Lancers suffered terrible casualties as the guns in front of them opened fire. Those surviving, about fifty, galloped through the guns, sabres and lances at work, and on to rout some Russian Hussars, until they were checked by numerous Cossacks. Then the 11th Hussars came right through the guns in pursuit of fleeing enemy Lancers. Paget was leading the 4th Light Dragoons at full gallop on to the enemy gunners, and to their right the 8th Hussars under the iron hand of Colonel Shewell went through the battery and pulled up on the far side. Now the survivors faced a double threat, from a huge body of enemy cavalry in front and from six squadrons of Russian Lancers who had descended from the Fedioukine Heights, endangering their withdrawal. In the absence of Cardigan, Paget rallied the 4th Light Dragoons and 11th Hussars, charged towards the enemy Lancers and brushed past them. Shewell did the same with seventy troopers, and the retreat, worse by far than the charge itself, began. Mrs Duberley, wife of the 8th Hussar paymaster, observing pitiful groups of men making their way back down the valley and realizing who they were, exclaimed: ‘Good God! It is the Light Brigade.’

One of Paget’s comments on the bearing of riderless horses during the charge itself is revealing and shows what terror these noble creatures could feel without the reassuring presence of their riders:

They made dashes at me, some advancing with me a considerable distance . . . cringing in on me, and positively squeezing me, as the round shot came bounding by them, tearing up the earth under their noses . . . I remarked their eyes, betokening as keen a sense of the perils around them as we human beings experienced . . . The bearing of the horse I was riding, in contrast to these, was remarkable. He had been struck, but showed no signs of fear . . . And so, on we went through this scene of carnage, wondering each moment which would be our last.

‘Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred’, wrote Tennyson. Someone had blundered all right, but who was it? Was Lord Raglan justified in accusing Lord Lucan, ‘You have lost the Light Brigade’? When things go right in a battle, there is no shortage of those claiming credit for it. When things go awry, the number who step forward as candiates for recognition tends to be smaller. We may recall that during the battle of Balaklava, Raglan issued four orders. None of them was precise. None of them was properly understood. None of them was executed in the way that had been intended. The whole affair may be regarded as a series of unfortunate chances, preceded, however, by one golden chance, one unique opportunity, one classic moment for decision, which if taken, seized and exploited would have ended the battle on a note of triumph for the British cavalry in particular and the British army in general. This moment was, of course, when the Russian cavalry was fleeing from the Heavy Brigade’s charge, and the Light Brigade failed to turn the dismayed enemy flight into absolute rout. Then, with the aid of the advancing infantry divisions, Raglan could have inflicted such a defeat on the Russian forces at Balaklava that they might have lost stomach for a continued campaign there and then. Sebastopol would have fallen and the Crimean War would have been over.

But given that this chance was lost, we must remember the other less welcome chances – the chance position of Raglan from which he and his staff were quite unable to appreciate what Lucan could or could not see; the chance of his totally inadequate orders, which did not define either line of advance or object of attack; the further chance of Raglan’s not making it clear that the cavalry was to move at once, not to wait for the infantry to arrive; and the chance of choosing Nolan of all men to deliver both the written order and the further urging of Lucan to attack at once. If all or any of these blunders had not been committed, the Light Brigade would have prevented the guns from being removed from the Redoubts and the battle could have proceeded with the infantry’s arrival. It was not only Lucan who had lost the Light Brigade, although he must bear heavy responsibility. Between them all – Raglan, Airey, Lucan, Cardigan, Nolan – they saw to it that chance governed all and that chaos umpired the whole sorry business.

It is to the Noble Six Hundred that we must give the accolade. Riding back down the valley at the rear of what was left of the 4th Light Dragoons and the 11th Hussars, Paget noted the last mile strewn with dead and dying, all of them friends, some of them limping or crawling back, horses in agony, struggling to rise, only to flounder again on their mutilated riders. It had been, in Cardigan’s words, ‘a mad-brained trick’, but all the regiments of the Light Brigade had covered themselves with glory. Even in ‘the jaws of death’ discipline had been superb in completing the business of ‘sabring the gunners there’. Some of those who rode back even told Cardigan that they were ready to go again.

Honour the Light Brigade! Magnificent, but not war. This was a French observer’s judgement. The French were reliable and competent Allies in 1854.