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.


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.


‘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.

Reiters in French Service

In the mounted Caracole formation, each rank of a troop of horse goes forwards in turn to fire its pistols at the enemy then retires to the rear of the formation to reload, preferably stationary. This was a complicated action that demanded steadiness of both horse and rider under fire. It was not helped by contradictory advice in drill books on how to perform the manouevre.

Germany produced mercenary cavalry (`Cleves horse’ played an important part in the campaigns of the 1540s). During the 1550s, French armies were increasingly accompanied by squadrons of German horse known as Reiters (in France reitres), sometimes also called pistoliers or `black riders,’ from their black cloaks.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century, Thuringian Count Günter of Schwartzburg created the Schwarzern Reitern (Black Horsemen). It was a modern cavalry unit, stressing firepower and agility. Reiter or ritter meant only ‘rider’, but it became the generic name for the mercenary, partly armoured cavalrymen recruited in Germany in the 1550s, and later, during the Wars of Religion, in Spain, Italy and France.

These reiters (swarte rutters to the English) were also hired by Henry VIII. They were armoured cavalrymen, but rode unarmoured horses. Their principal weapon was a boar-spear – a broad-bladed spear, 2½-3 m/8-9 ft in length, with usually a small transverse bar below the blade. They also carried wheel-lock pistols, a German invention which soon replaced the spear, especially in the second half of the century, and became a symbol of the reiters. They played an important part in European warfare until the end of the sixteenth century.

The formation most often used by the reiters was the squadron of 300 or 400 men. Their preferred battle formation was the closed-order block, with 20 to 30 ranks. This deep formation enabled the men in the rear to reload after having discharged their weapons at the enemy and filed off to the flank and rear, allowing the next group to do so. This procedure was repeated until their opponents were sufficiently weakened to create conditions for a charge, when thrusting swords and clubbed pistols came into action.

The armour used by the reiters was not uniform and could vary from just a mail shirt or cape, through corselet (often with mail sleeves), to three-quarter armour. Helmets ranged from simple ‘iron-hats’ to burgonets or morions. They were armed with large pistols of the faustrohre type (faust – hand, rohre – barrel), thus named because they were as well suited for clubbing as for shooting the enemy. It had a barrel length of about 50 cm/20 in, weighed about 3 kg/6.5 lb and fired a 30 g/1 oz lead ball. The pistol could be aimed accurately from approximately 20 paces; unaimed fire could be effective up to 45 m/50 yds. However, it was effective against the most heavily armoured opponents only at a few paces. A reiter was usually armed with two or three pistols: two carried in holsters on his saddle bow, and the third,-precariously, in his right boot. There were, however, mercenary companies where reiters had up to six pistols – four in holsters, and one in each boot. Their armour was often blackened; a common measure to fight rust. However, it was also the source of the name schwarz reiter, as well as of the French diables noirs.

Their ill-treatment of the civil population was dire and, not surprisingly, they were widely feared. Part of the problem was that, as cavalry, they required large quantities of fodder and, because they were not at first incorporated in the elaborate supply system developed for the gendarmerie, they took what they needed. It was in March 1552, during the preparations for the German campaign, that we find one of the earliest levies of reitres for France, in this case by the Rhinegrave. He seems to have absorbed Fontenoy’s Cleves horse into his cornette in 1554 and there were complaints about their looting in 1555. Nevertheless, their captain was retained during the peace of 1556.

Immediately after Saint-Quentin, messages were sent to Reiffenberg to raise 2-3000 pistoliers and by December a surplus of men was reported ready to serve. Those retained normally expected Waitgelt of 5 écus for the three months of their retainer and then 8 écus conduct money. Secretary Fresne estimated the total cost at 500,000 écus. The army assembled at Pierrepont in August 1558 included around 8000 pistoliers out of a figure of roughly 11,000 cavalry, a sign of how fast they were emerging as a leading force in cavalry. Another levy was undertaken by arrangement with two Saxon princes and, separately, with Reifenberg. The latter had to be pacified since, while the Saxon princes had been commissioned for 4300 Reiters, Reiffenberg was only asked for 3000. The captains he had appointed had to be content with pensions. In November 1558, Guise drew up a reglement for the supply of the pistoliers in the King’s service which the King welcomed as a persuasive argument (`doulx moyen’). What was this? Essentially it was an attempt to limit the tendency of reitres to live off the land and oppress the people before the harvest, by designating areas in which they could gather fodder for their horses (excluding wheat) and then, after the harvest, by allocating villages where they could obtain fodder at a price fixed by the lieutenant-general. On campaign or in garrison they were to be given étapes in convenient places for the delivery of supplies at a fixed tariff of hay and oats worth 2s 3d p. d. Naturally, they were given freedom to live off the land in enemy territory.

These attempts at regulation were complemented by the capitulations agreed with colonels of pistoliers in 1557-8. Duke Henry of Brunswick-Luneburg mentions a `letter of retainer,’ which had fixed his annual pension, usually in abeyance on active service and replaced by direct pay. He undertook to raise a regiment of 1000 pistoliers in three cornettes and would be paid a florin p. m. for every man he produced (this could thus yield 12,000 florins p. a. = 18,000 lt.). The captains would receive 400 écus p. a. pension and on campaign a florin per month for every man as wages and the same again allocate to `the most notable gentlemen of his cornette.’ Conduct money would be paid to each captain at the rate of 8 écus per man to bring them to the place of first muster and thereafter musters would be monthly. The arms of the men are specified as: a corselet, mail `manches’, gauntlets, head-piece, good strong horse, `at least’ 2 pistols, a cutlass or mace. Pay would be 15 florins (22.10.0. lt.) p. m. (thus nearly four times the pay of a lansquenet). Terms of service were for a minimum of three months and thereafter as long as the King pleased, against all enemies, except the Empire and their feudal superiors in aggressive war. Right to obey a revocation by the Emperor, Cameral Court or their feudal princes was excluded. All orders for deployment were to be obeyed and one month’s pay was guaranteed for return. Detailed provisions were made against muster fraud, substitution (especially by lansquenets), provision in case of loss of horses or illness. No victuals were to be taken without paying, provision made for ransoms and booty. Exactly the same oath was administered as to the lansquenets.

These terms were more or less repeated for the capitulations with Saxe- Weimar, also dated March 1559, with the amplification of the special payment due to him. His retainer, or pension, was specified as 15,000 lt. p. a. with 1500 florins (2250 lt.) p. m. to distribute to `the most notable.’ In general, the terms are spelled out in more detail and prefaced by a series of états specifying the pay of all the officers and men. The duke was contracted to lead 2100 pistoliers in person in 7 cornettes of 300, led by seven captains, each of whom would receive a pension of 400 écus. The judicial staff of prévots etc. was doubled in the case of this regiment, in view of the likelihood that it would be divided for operational reasons. The only distinction with the capitulations signed with Guillaume Gombach was that his annual pension was fixed at the much lower sum of 1200 écus, an indicator that these retainers reflect the social standing of the colonel. As conditions of service, they were virtually identical to those agreed with the younger Rhinegrave, Jean-Philippe, in August 1568 for 1500 men in 5 cornettes, with the exception that the conduct money was fixed at 12 florins. These terms of service fixed by the crown were in practice undermined by events. Henry of Brunswick-Luneburg, for instance, reported as early as April 1558 (a few weeks after his agreement) that the men under his command `are very angry at the delay of their money from 1 October until now and I’m having trouble calming them.’ They had learned that they were to lose two months’ pay. Order was needed for munitions to be made available if he was to stop them foraging. They refused to obey the November 1557 ordinance on supply without express instructions.

Napoleonic Cavalry I

The major armies of the era each had formidable mounted forces, and during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) there was a rough parity between the horsemen of the Great Powers. Yet, when Napoleon (1769-1821) launched his Grande Armee on its campaigns of conquest in 1805, the cavalry of France emerged as the best in the world. The main reasons for this dominance were the superior organization of the French cavalry arm and the excellence of the officers who led it at every level of command.

The French Army of the ancien regime had been dominated by the aristocracy, and in no branch of service was this more visible than the cavalry. Here the ancient tradition of mounted knights was continued through the service of the sons of the finest families in France. When the revolution erupted – and especially after the ascent of the Jacobins to power in 1793 – the aristocratic officer corps was purged, and the army was deprived of much of its senior leadership. Significantly, though, even the radicals recognized the impracticality of removing all nobles from service with the cavalry, since there was a severe shortage of properly trained horsemen to take their places, at least initially. Nevertheless, the officer corps of the French cavalry from 1792 to 1799 was a distinctly mixed bag of generally mediocre talent.

Napoleon’s ascent to power, which began with the formation of the Consulate in 1799, marked a major change in many areas, including a complete reorganization and overhaul of the French cavalry. Napoleon was determined to make his cavalry a superior force to its opponents, and dedicated time, effort and money to re-equipping and reoutfitting the horse troops. In addition to promoting the best soldiers through the ranks according to his policy of ‘a career open to all talents without distinction of birth’, he also welcomed back emigre aristocrat officers and placed them in prominent positions of command within the cavalry. The result was that the French cavalry benefited tremendously in that it retained the very best aristocratic officers, who had to hold their rank based on ability rather than birth, while simultaneously taking advantage of the levelling of society, which enabled low-born troopers of extraordinary abilities to rise through the ranks. In fact, a number of ordinary troopers attained senior officer rank, with some, such as Joachim Murat (1767-1815) and Michel Ney (1769-1815), even becoming marshals of France. These men served beside scions of the ancient French nobility such as Etienne de Nansouty (1768-1815) and Emmanuel Grouchy (1766-1847), finding common cause in Napoleon and his empire, which embraced them all.

As part of Napoleon’s general army reforms, which were finalized in the training camps at Boulogne, the French cavalry emerged in 1805 as a force to be reckoned with. Within the next two years it would forcefully demonstrate that it was the finest cavalry in Europe, and would play an integral part in nearly every major victory of Napoleon throughout the Napoleonic Wars of 1805-15. French cavalry, and especially French heavy cavalry, was the dominant force on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars. Though there were certain elite Allied regiments who would prove to be of the same calibre, such as the Scots Greys and the Russian Guard Cavalry, taken as a whole the French heavy horse were without peer from 1800 to 1812.

The Russian campaign changed that dynamic considerably, however. One of Napoleon’s greatest losses in the cataclysm of that horrific episode was the destruction of the French cavalry. In the 1813 and 1814 campaigns that followed, the French cavalry was simply unable to dominate its opponents as it had in previous years. In the opening battles of the 1813 campaign in particular, Napoleon’s lack of numbers and the mediocre quality of the cavalry severely limited his operations, and prevented him from turning his victories at Lützen and later at Bautzen into the decisive triumphs that in previous campaigns they most assuredly would have been. In his report on the battle of Lützen, for example, Marshal Ney praised the spirit and courage of his young horsemen but lamented that the attacks by the raw recruits were poorly coordinated and that they had the disturbing habit of falling off their horses during a charge.

The generally poor quality of his cavalry, and the inexperience of the raw recruits pressed into service to replace his lost veterans, had a dire effect on Napoleon’s campaign. Indeed, when Napoleon decided to seek an armistice in the summer of 1813, a move generally regarded as a major mistake, he stated that while he knew the risks, he needed time to train and equip his cavalry properly since there was no point in fighting battles until it could be suitably readied for action.

Cavalry Mounts

In addition to finding good recruits, acquiring proper horses for the cavalry was also a problem that concerned the armies of all countries. The armies of the Napoleonic era preferred cavalry horses that were around 15 hands (1.5m/5ft) high at the shoulder, though light cavalry were mounted on smaller animals. Horses were usually mature enough for duty once they reached five years of age and could then be relied upon for a good 10-15 years of service. Almost all cavalry horses were mares or geldings, since stallions were virtually uncontrollable around mares in season. Despite their size, horses are more fragile than humans, and have to be treated with great care. During the march into Russia in the summer of 1812, General Nansouty remarked: ‘Our horses have no patriotism. The men will fight without bread, but the horses won’t fight without oats.’ Thus it was as important for a cavalryman to know how far he could ride his horse, and how much water and food to give it, as it was for him to know how to fight on its back. Indeed, one of the great problems with raw cavalry recruits, such as those Napoleon was forced to employ after his Russian campaign had destroyed his cavalry, was the high attrition rate of their mounts.

France alone could not provide enough horses for the needs of the largest army in European history, and thus imperial lands in Germany and Italy were relied upon to provide enough mounts for the cavalry, as well as horses for the artillery and supply services. A severe shortage of horses occurred after the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. In addition to the loss of so many horses during the campaign, the German lands relied upon for remounts became battlegrounds and eventually fell into the hands of the Allies. As a consequence the French cavalry was a notably diminished force in size and quality during the 1813 and 1814 campaigns. The restored Bourbon regime imported large numbers of horses from other parts of Europe during Napoleon’s brief first exile, and upon his return to power in 1815 the emperor took full advantage of this to rebuild his cavalry arm. Consequently during the Hundred Days the French cavalry was better mounted than it had been at any time since Russia, and as a result played a critical role in all of the major battles of the campaign.

Napoleonic Cavalry II

In December 1805, brigadier general Jean Rapp led a memorable attack at Austerlitz, when he charged at the head of two squadrons each of the Chasseurs a cheval and the Horse Grenadiers of the Guard and the Guard Mameluks and decimated the Chevalier Guards of the Russian Imperial Guard.

Order and Discipline

Like all soldiers, cavalrymen were sometimes guilty of cowardice, malingering and lax discipline. Such problems included heavy cavalry discarding their cumbersome equipment and weapons on long marches in order to lighten their loads. Cavalrymen could also employ tricks to make an animal sick or hobbled – for example, by placing small rocks beneath their saddles in order to make their horses sore-backed. This provided the men with an excuse to take their animals to the rear, thus avoiding action.

At times cavalry were guilty of excesses against civilians. Sometimes lax discipline was viewed as one of the few comforts available while on arduous service, and the light cavalry seemed to take the greatest advantage of the liberty of action bestowed upon them. Light cavalry were not a welcome sight to civilians, be they countrymen, allies or enemies. The light horsemen lived, fought and marauded beyond the bounds of normal society and had a disdain for their own lives, let alone the lives of others. Looting was commonplace, and light cavalry managed always to find time for it, even when engaged in their assigned martial activities. Such activities, which could also include murder and rape, occurred with the compliance, and sometimes even the participation, of their officers. The Cossacks of Russia acquired the worst reputation of any light cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. These wild nomads were barely controllable within the boundaries of the Russian Empire, never mind when they were set loose upon the peoples of Europe. Even Russian allies such as Austria and Prussia complained vociferously about the conduct of these marauders within their territories, so it is easy to imagine the despicable nature of Cossack activities in the territories of France and its allies.

Organization of cavalry varied greatly from army to army. The Austrians and Prussians, for example, arranged their cavalry in divisions, which were attached to their armies or, after the reforms of 1807-09, to a parent corps. The traditional role of assigning cavalry to the wings of an army/corps to defend its flanks continued in these forces. Although each French corps had a light cavalry division assigned to it, Napoleon also formed separate corps of cavalry and horse artillery. On the day of battle, Napoleon would gather the bulk of his cavalry corps into a formidable Cavalry Reserve, which was held out of battle in the centre of his position. He would allow his infantry and artillery to engage the enemy and develop the attack, and when the enemy had been properly softened up, or an opportunity presented itself, he would unleash his horsemen in a powerful charge against the enemy’s weak spot. Although an artillery officer by training and inclination, Napoleon appreciated the shock power of cavalry in battle. Often it was a charge by the units of this Cavalry Reserve that decided the day; or in some cases saved it, as was the case on the snow-covered fields of Eylau in 1807.

Cavalry Types

Delivering shock action on the battlefield was but one of many functions the cavalry was called on to perform. In addition, horse troops were used for reconnaissance, screening an army’s movements and for pursuit of a defeated opponent. Such widely disparate missions called for different qualities, and consequently the cavalry of the era was classified as either heavy cavalry, reserved for shock action on the battlefield, or light cavalry, charged with most other missions. Cuirassiers, carabiniers and the Grenadier a Cheval of the Imperial Guard were classified as heavy cavalry. Dragoons and lancers (uhlans in the Austrian and Prussian armies) were really a hybrid between heavy and light and thus were often used for shock action on the battlefield as well as traditional light cavalry missions. The British Army separated their dragoon formations into heavy dragoons and light dragoons (bah!) specifically to differentiate the role of a particular regiment, although even then there was some crossover brought about by the exigencies of a campaign.

Light cavalry received their general classification because they and their mounts were smaller than their counterparts in the heavy cavalry. Hussars were the most numerous of the various types of light cavalry found in the armies of the day. Their traditional braided dolmans, resplendent in a variety of bright colours, made them the gaudiest-dressed soldiers of their armies. French, Austrian and Prussian hussars also traditionally wore a moustache and long, braided side locks on either side of the face; with the Russians, facial hair varied, while British light dragoons (bah!) were clean-shaven.

In an age in which weeks and even months of manoeuvre preceded the decisive battle, these light horsemen swarmed the countryside, probing for enemy weak points, seeking out information on strength and location and doing near continuous battle with enemy light cavalry bent on the same mission. Such a role required horsemen with a high degree of motivation and elan, as well as a natural aggressiveness that would allow them to operate independently of the main army, and often deep inside enemy country. They enjoyed a roguish image and a reputation for galloping headlong into impossible situations. This hell-for-leather attitude was best expressed by one of the most famous hussar commanders of the age, General Antoine Lasalle (1775-1809), who quipped: ‘Any Hussar who is not dead by the time he is thirty is a blackguard.’ Lasalle was killed in action at the battle of Wagram when he was 34 years old.

Aggressive pursuit of a retiring enemy force was the key to turning a tactical victory into a strategic triumph that could win a war. Although heavy cavalry was employed in pursuit operations, it was the light cavalry that excelled in this mission, nipping at the heels of a retiring enemy, picking off stragglers and raiding vulnerable supply wagons and baggage trains, never allowing the enemy to completely disengage and recover its footing. Fighting was usually limited in these affairs, and the emphasis was on speed and initiative, hence the light cavalry were in their element.

Napoleonic Cavalry III

Modern-day Knights

The armoured warrior on horseback had dominated the battlefields of Europe for a millennium, but the advent of firearms had generally caused the disappearance of armour. By the end of the eighteenth century, most cavalry had abandoned it altogether. However, in the Napoleonic Wars armour made a comeback, especially in the French cavalry. Marshal Ney came up through the ranks as a cavalryman and was particularly fond of heavy cavalry – in spite of his early service with the hussars – and, along with General François-Etienne Kellermann (1770-1835), lobbied Napoleon to create more armoured cuirassier regiments.

Upon Ney’s recommendation and Napoleon’s own positive experiences with these armoured horsemen, a total of 14 cuirassier regiments were raised. French cuirassiers wore a heavy iron cuirass, which consisted of a breastplate and backplate to encase the horseman’s torso in armour but leave the arms unencumbered and free for action. Armed with a large, straight sabre, heavy cavalry were the modern incarnation of knights – big men on great horses who were used almost exclusively for shock action on the battlefield itself. Besides armour, these horsemen were equipped with a brace of pistols and a carbine, though within a short time most cuirassiers had dispensed with the latter. In 1812 Napoleon ordered French carabiniers to wear the iron cuirass. The carabiniers protested the order, since they believed that it essentially turned them into cuirassiers and thereby diminished their branch of the cavalry. So, to distinguish them from their rivals, decorative copper plating was added to their iron cuirasses, lending carabinier armour a golden appearance.

These ironclad horsemen came to be a dominant force on the battlefields of Europe, and the French cuirassiers and carabiniers became the bane of the Allied armies. Indeed, in the campaigns against Austria, Prussia and Russia during 1805-07 the cuirassiers proved themselves the finest heavy cavalry in Europe. They were an almost irresistible force on the battlefield, and Napoleon increasingly relied upon their dramatic charges to finish off a shaken enemy and win the day. Napoleon lavished rewards upon the cuirassiers. They were authorized to wear the red plume and flaming grenade symbol of elite troops, and as such received extra pay. He kept their scouting and screening duties light, and avoided involving them in skirmishes in order to reserve them for action in major battles.

Although the Austrian, Russian and Prussian armies contained regiments of cuirassiers, they never quite matched the skill and audacity of their French counterparts and were routinely bested on the battlefield. Indeed, many Allied regiments even dispensed with the cuirass, citing issues of weight and problems of manoeuvring in the saddle. By 1809 the Austrians had begun to place a demi-cuirass on their cuirassiers, which covered only the front part of the torso, leaving the flanks and back exposed. While this lightened the cuirassiers’ load and made it easier on their horses on campaign, it also made them more vulnerable in melee combat with French heavy cavalry.

For example, at the battle of Eckmühl in 1809, French cuirassiers dealt a stinging defeat to their Austrian counterparts. During the course of the engagement, the French inflicted nearly five times the number of casualties on their opponents, and much credit for this accomplishment was given to the superior armour of the French horsemen.

Cuirassier Equipment

French horsemen found the extra weight of the full cuirass negligible, and while certainly more encumbered than an unarmoured opponent, they believed the defensive benefits of the armour far outweighed any inconvenience. The cuirass could easily turn aside an enemy blade and could even stop the low-velocity lead balls that were the standard frrearms projectiles of the age. Thus, as these ironclad cavalrymen spurred their horses into a headlong charge, they felt a certain comfort in their perceived invulnerability. Other heavy cavalry, such as dragoons and the famous Grenadier a Cheval of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, lacked body armour. Therefore, it was common practice for dragoons to take their cloaks and roll them into a crossbelt of heavy cloth that they wore diagonally across their torsos. This improvised ‘armour’ actually provided some protection from enemy blades.

Besides body armour, all types of heavy cavalry in every nation’s army wore some kind of helmet. A horseman charged into battle bent forward over his saddle, and thus his head was thrust forward and vulnerable. Some helmets were made of thick leather, such as British dragoon helmets, which were both stylish and functional. Although light, they were capable of deflecting sword blows or lance thrusts and offered a modicum of protection from spent musket balls.

Russian, Austrian and some French dragoons also wore leather helmets, though in widely different styles. French cuirassiers and carabiniers wore iron helmets. Although ornate by modern standards, with their distinctive high brass combs and horsehair plumes, they provided real protection to their wearer from enemy blades and bullets, and were the best helmets worn by any horsemen.

Heavy cavalry attacks were an awe-inspiring sight. Drawn up in great masses of squadrons, these horsemen charged with tremendous fury, forming a mounted fist of steel that could smash through a weak point in the enemy line. They could also be used as an effective counterattack force against an enemy advance. If they could catch infantry in column or line formation and strike their flank or rear, heavy cavalry could wreak havoc, ramming right through such formations and cutting down the foot soldiers or trampling them under the flailing hooves of their powerful steeds.

A heavy cavalry charge would begin with the horsemen advancing at a walk, then increase the tempo to a trot. The idea was to maintain their tight-packed formation as long as possible to maximize striking power when they collided with the enemy. As they closed on their objective, the pace would be stepped up, reaching a thundering gallop in the last 100m (110 yards) until the cavalry crashed headlong into their target, slashing with sabre to right and left as they sliced through the enemy. The sheer mass of these armoured men on their mighty steeds provided a strike force unlike any other on the battlefield.


Equipment of lancer and reiter, also from Wallshavsen Art Militare a Cheval, 1616.

While the French and Spanish stuck with the lance as the weapon of choice of their heavy cavalry, the Germans changed over to pistols. These reiters (or schwartzreiters because of their habit of wearing black armour) became the usual sort of mercenary German horse hired by the various combatants in the wars. They developed the caracole, a system whereby a deep formation of pistoleers could deliver a continuous barrage of pistol fire against a stationary target (usually a pike block) – each rank firing in turn then moving off to the rear to reload. Each man carried up to three pistols, two in holsters and one in the right boot.

The Germans developed a new kind of cavalry armoured in a breastplate and high, heavy leather boots, and armed with three wheel-lock pistols. This new mercenary light cavalry, called Schwarzreiters or ‘black riders’ because of their black armour and accoutrements, attacked enemy formations using the revolving tactics of the caracole.

To execute the caracole, these reiters, as they were soon called, trotted toward their enemy in a line of small, dense columns, each several ranks deep and with intervals of about two horses’ width between files. In a tactic reminiscent of the Parthian shot, the reiters fired their three muzzle-loading pistols, then swung 180 degrees and filed to the rear to reload. Usually the caracole tactic was employed before a general advance as a means of disrupting enemy cavalry and infantry formations. But the time and awkwardness of reloading while mounted meant the caracole was a very difficult manoeuvre to carry out effectively, and, like light cavalry from the classical and medieval period, it was easily disrupted by an enemy heavy cavalry countercharge.

As the wheel lock’s distribution and production passed through Germany from northern Italy to the rest of Europe, the German Reiters (riders, or horsemen) recognized its potential and developed new tactics to exploit it. The wheel lock saw extensive use by all belligerents during the Thirty Years’ War, and demand for and the manufacture of wheel-lock pistols expanded rapidly during the period. The wheel-lock mechanism transformed the pistol into a compact, practical weapon suitable for mounted troops. The new pistol could be carried loaded, ready for instant use, and significantly extended the killing range. The advent of the wheel-lock pistol made possible the caracole, a military maneuver in which close-order waves of sword and pistol-armed cavalrymen rode within close range of infantry, fired their pistols, and then broke away, allowing successive waves to follow. The massed fire of the caracole proved effective against densely packed squares of pikemen and other formations of ground troops. Although short-ranged owing to their relatively short, smoothbore barrels, the wheel-lock pistols did reach significantly farther than the pike, and massed fire compensated for the pistol’s inaccuracy. The wheel lock also gave a similarly deadly advantage when used against cavalry armed conventionally with sword and lance.

German horseman with wheel lock Faustrohre pistols, about 1600.


The pistol emerged triumphant; its advantage was that it could be manipulated with one hand, the other being used to control the horse. It was not unknown for a pistol to fail to go off, which was why every man carried between two and six. Training to use a pistol also took less time than teaching a man to use the heavy lance, and smaller horses could be used by pistol-carrying units, as their armour was much lighter. On the other hand, the knights’ armour, though improved and strengthened, could no longer withstand the increased penetration of the firearms deployed by the infantry and light cavalry. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, heavily armoured cavalrymen stopped using horse-armour, and reduced their own, becoming cuirassiers. The tactics of the reiters were adopted by all cavalry forces. Owing to improved weaponry and training, the depth of battle formation decreased first to ten lines, and towards the end of the century to six or seven. Shallower formations using the same number of men meant wider fronts, which had to be controlled by discipline and training. The cavalry of the period was therefore a modern force, acting as an organized troop.

The armour used by the reiters was not uniform and could vary from just a mail shirt or cape, through corselet (often with mail sleeves), to threequarter armour. Helmets ranged from simple ‘iron-hats’ to burgonets or morions. They were armed with large pistols of the faustrohre type (faust – hand, rohre – barrel), thus named because they were as well suited for clubbing as for shooting the enemy. It had a barrel length of about 50 cm/20 in, weighed about 3 kg/6.5 lb and fired a 30 g/1 oz lead ball. The pistol could be aimed accurately from approximately 20 paces; unaimed fire could be effective up to 45 m/50 yds. However, it was effective against the most heavily armoured opponents only at a few paces.