This Day In Literary History
On October 25th, 1854, the Battle of Balaclava broke out during the Crimean War, which pitted British forces and their allies against the Russian Army.
It was during this battle that an ill-fated charge by regiments of the British cavalry took place, an event that would be immortalized in a classic poem by one of England's greatest poets.
The allies' goal at the Battle of Balaclava was to capture the port and fortress of Sevastopol, which served as the Russians' primary naval base on the Black Sea. It was during this battle that the Light Brigade made its ill-fated charge.
The Light Brigade was comprised of several cavalry regiments, including the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, all under the command of Major General Earl of Cardigan.
Their sister brigade, the Heavy Brigade, was commanded by Major General James Yorke Scarlett. The entire British cavalry was under the command of Lieutenant General Earl of Lucan.
What happened was this; the Lieutenant General Earl of Lucan received an order from Army Commander Lord Raglan, which was drafted by Brigadier General Richard Airey and delivered by another officer, Captain Louis Edward Nolan.
Raglan's objective was to have the cavalry advance quickly to the front, follow the enemy, and prevent the Russians from taking the naval guns from the redoubts they'd captured on the other side of the Causeway Heights.
When Captain Nolan delivered Lucan's order, the Lieutenant General asked what guns the cavalry was supposed to protect. Nolan supposedly indicated, using a gesture of his arm, the wrong location.
He allegedly indicated the Russian redoubt at the end of the valley instead of the Causeway Heights redoubts. So, Lucan had the Earl of Cardigan lead over 600 cavalrymen into the valley between the Causeway Heights and Fedyukhin Heights.
The cavalrymen were supposed to take the Russians from behind in a surprise attack. Instead, they found themselves surprised, surrounded on three sides by 20 Russian infantry battalions and 50 pieces of artillery.
Nevertheless, the Earl of Cardigan bravely led the charge of the Light Brigade into battle. Captain Nolan was seen racing across the front, supposedly to rectify his error and stop the charge, but he was killed by an artillery shell before he could reach the brigade.
The Light Brigade fought bravely, but were no match for the Russians. Two thirds of the cavalrymen who participated in the charge were wiped out; over a hundred of the survivors were wounded and around sixty were taken prisoner. The Earl of Cardigan survived and was forced to retreat to prevent his entire brigade from being destroyed.
Cardigan had been counting on reinforcements from the Heavy Brigade, but they never came. The Earl of Lucan would not order James Yorke Scarlett to send them in, as he believed there was no point in getting a second brigade mowed down by the Russians.
While the battle was tragically lost, the brave cavalrymen who died fighting it would become heroes in the eyes of the British public, whose anger was directed at the commanding officers.
A furious Earl of Cardigan blamed Captain Nolan's error for the costly loss of his men. The Earl of Lucan blamed Lord Raglan's vague orders which included the erroneous oral instructions given by Captain Nolan.
Lord Raglan blamed Lucan for the disaster, saying that "from some misconception of the order to advance, the Lieutenant-General [Lucan] considered that he was bound to attack at all hazards, and he accordingly ordered Major-General the Earl of Cardigan to move forward with the Light Brigade."
Furious at being made the scapegoat, Lucan attempted to rebut Raglan's claims in a scathing letter to the London Gazette. At the time, publicly criticizing one's superior officer wasn't tolerated, so Lucan was relieved of command and recalled to England.
He later defended himself in a speech before the House of Lords. Ultimately, he would escape blame for the tragically botched battle and be promoted twice, ending his military career with the rank of Field Marshal.
Some historians have speculated that Captain Nolan made no error and the Earl of Lucan deliberately set up the Earl of Cardigan to lead his Light Brigade into a massacre. The two men, who were brothers-in-law, had always despised each other.
This theory cannot be proven, nor can Captain Nolan's error be conclusively proven as his death prevented him from telling his side of the story. So it remains one of history's great unsolved mysteries.
The legendary English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson would pay tribute to the bravery of the cavalrymen in his classic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, published just two months after the Battle of Balaclava. He was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom at the time.
With its vivid invocation of the battle scene, The Charge of the Light Brigade is rightfully considered one of Alfred Lord Tennyson's greatest poems. Many years later, Tennyson would record himself reading the poem on a wax cylinder - Thomas Edison's precursor to the phonograph record.
Quote Of The Day
"Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within." - Alfred Lord Tennyson
Today's video features a reading of Alfred Lord Tennyson's classic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. Enjoy!