The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry, which consisted of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, under the command of Major General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Also present that day was the Heavy Brigade, commanded by Major General James Yorke Scarlett, who was a past Commanding Officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards. The Heavy Brigade was made up of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the Scots Greys. The two brigades were the only British cavalry force at the battle.
The Light Brigade, as the name suggests, were the British light cavalry force. It mounted light, fast horses which were unarmoured. The men were armed with lances and sabres. Optimized for maximum mobility and speed, they were intended for reconnaissance and skirmishing. They were also ideal for cutting down infantry and artillery units as they attempted to retreat.
The Heavy Brigade under James Scarlett was the British heavy cavalry force. It mounted large, heavy chargers. The men were equipped with metal helmets and armed with cavalry swords for close combat. They were intended as the primary British shock force, leading frontal charges in order to break enemy lines.
Overall command of the British cavalry resided with Lieutenant General George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law who disliked each other intensely. Lucan received an order from the army commander Lord Raglan stating: "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." Raglan wanted the light cavalry to prevent the Russians from successfully withdrawing the naval guns from the redoubts they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the south side of the valley. This was an optimum task for the Light Brigade, as their superior speed would ensure the Russians would be forced to either quickly abandon the cumbersome guns or be cut down en masse while they attempted to flee with them.
Raglan could see what was happening from his high vantage point on the west side of the valley. However, the lie of the land around Lucan and the cavalry prevented him from seeing the Russians' efforts to remove the guns from the redoubts and retreat.
The order was drafted by Brigadier Richard Airey and carried by Captain Louis Edward Nolan. Nolan carried the further oral instruction that the cavalry was to attack immediately. When Lucan asked what guns were referred to, Nolan is said to have indicated with a wide sweep of his arm—not the causeway redoubts—but the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away. His reasons for the misdirection are unknown because he was killed in the ensuing battle.
In response to the order, Lucan instructed Cardigan to lead his command of about 670 troopers of the Light Brigade straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights. In his poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854), Tennyson famously dubbed this hollow "The Valley of Death".
The opposing Russian forces were commanded by Pavel Liprandi and included approximately 20 battalions of infantry supported by over 50 artillery pieces. These forces were deployed on both sides and at the opposite end of the valley.
Lucan himself was to follow with the Heavy Brigade. Although the Heavy Brigade was better armoured and intended for frontal assaults on infantry positions, neither force was remotely equipped for a frontal assault on a fully dug-in and alerted artillery battery—much less one with an excellent line of sight over a mile in length and supported on two sides by artillery batteries providing enfilading fire from elevated ground. The semi-suicidal nature of this charge was surely evident to the troopers of the Light Brigade, but if there were any objection to the orders, it was not recorded.
The Light Brigade set off down the valley with Cardigan out in front, leading the charge. Almost at once Nolan was seen to rush across the front, passing in front of Cardigan. It may be that he then realised the charge was aimed at the wrong target and was attempting to stop or turn the brigade, but he was killed by an artillery shell, and the cavalry continued on its course. Captain Godfrey Morgan (subsequently 1st Viscount Tredegar), who was close by and saw what happened, later recounted:
The first shell burst in the air about 100 yards in front of us. The next one dropped in front of Nolan's horse and exploded on touching the ground. He uttered a wild yell as his horse turned round, and, with his arms extended, the reins dropped on the animal's neck, he trotted towards us, but in a few yards dropped dead off his horse. I do not imagine that anybody except those in the front line of the 17th Lancers (13th Light Dragoons) saw what had happened.
We went on. When we got about two or three hundred yards the battery of the Russian Horse Artillery opened fire. I do not recollect hearing a word from anybody as we gradually broke from a trot to a canter, though the noise of the striking of men and horses by grape and round shot was deafening, while the dust and gravel struck up by the round shot that fell short was almost blinding, and irritated my horse so that I could scarcely hold him at all. But as we came nearer I could see plainly enough, especially when I was about a hundred yards from the guns. I appeared to be riding straight on to the muzzle of one of the guns, and I distinctly saw the gunner apply his fuse. I shut my eyes then, for I thought that settled the question as far as I was concerned. But the shot just missed me and struck the man on my right full in the chest.
Despite withering fire from three sides that devastated their force on the ride, the Light Brigade was able to engage the Russian forces at the end of the valley and force them back from the redoubt, but it suffered heavy casualties and was soon forced to retire. The surviving Russian artillerymen returned to their guns and opened fire once again, with grape and canister, indiscriminately at the mêlée of friend and foe before them. Captain Godfrey Morgan continues:
When clear again of the guns I saw two or three of my men making their way back, and as the fire from both flanks was still heavy it was a matter of running the gauntlet again. I have not sufficient recollection of minor incidents to describe them, as probably no two men who were in that charge would describe it in the same way. When I was back pretty nearly where we started from I found that I was the senior officer of those not wounded, and, consequently, in command, there being two others, both juniors to me, in the same position — Lieut. Wombwell and Cornet Cleveland (afterwards killed at Inkerman).
Lucan failed to provide any support for Cardigan, and it was speculated that he was motivated by an enmity for his brother-in-law that had lasted some 30 years and had been intensified during the campaign up to that point. The troops of the Heavy Brigade entered the mouth of the valley but did not advance further. Lucan's subsequent explanation was that he saw no point in having a second brigade mown down, and he was best positioned where he was to render assistance to Light Brigade survivors returning from the charge. The French light cavalry, the Chasseurs d'Afrique, was more effective in that it cleared the Fedyukhin Heights of the two half batteries of guns, two infantry battalions, and Cossacks to ensure the Light Brigade would not be hit by fire from that flank, and it later provided cover for the remaining elements of the Light Brigade as they withdrew.
War correspondent William Russell, who witnessed the battle, declared "our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy."
Cardigan survived the battle. Although stories circulated afterwards that he was not actually present, he led the charge from the front and, never looking back, did not see what was happening to the troops behind him. He reached the Russian guns, took part in the fight, and then returned alone up the valley without bothering to rally or even find out what had happened to the survivors. He afterwards said all he could think about was his rage against Captain Nolan, who he thought had tried to take over the leadership of the charge from him. After riding back up the valley, he considered he had done all that he could and then, with considerable sang-froid, left the field and went on board his yacht in Balaclava harbour, where he ate a champagne dinner. He subsequently described the engagement in a speech delivered at the Mansion House in London that was afterwards quoted in length in the House of Commons:
We advanced down a gradual descent of more than three-quarters of a mile, with the batteries vomiting forth upon us shells and shot, round and grape, with one battery on our right flank and another on the left, and all the intermediate ground covered with the Russian riflemen; so that when we came to within a distance of fifty yards from the mouths of the artillery which had been hurling destruction upon us, we were, in fact, surrounded and encircled by a blaze of fire, in addition to the fire of the riflemen upon our flanks.
As we ascended the hill, the oblique fire of the artillery poured upon our rear, so that we had thus a strong fire upon our front, our flank, and our rear. We entered the battery—we went through the battery—the two leading regiments cutting down a great number of the Russian gunners in their onset. In the two regiments which I had the honour to lead, every officer, with one exception, was either killed or wounded, or had his horse shot under him or injured. Those regiments proceeded, followed by the second line, consisting of two more regiments of cavalry, which continued to perform the duty of cutting down the Russian gunners.
Then came the third line, formed of another regiment, which endeavoured to complete the duty assigned to our brigade. I believe that this was achieved with great success, and the result was that this body, composed of only about 670 men, succeeded in passing through the mass of Russian cavalry of—as we have since learned—5,240 strong; and having broken through that mass, they went, according to our technical military expression, "threes about," and retired in the same manner, doing as much execution in their course as they possibly could upon the enemy's cavalry. Upon our returning up the hill which we had descended in the attack, we had to run the same gauntlet and to incur the same risk from the flank fire of the Tirailleur as we had encountered before. Numbers of our men were shot down—men and horses were killed, and many of the soldiers who had lost their horses were also shot down while endeavouring to escape.
A newspaper report on 11 December 2016 revealed another version of what happened: "More than 160 years on" (i.e. after 2014) a letter was found in the British Library, written by Lieutenant Frederick Maxse, who was on Lord Raglan's staff at Balaklava. It said that Lord Raglan had sent an order for the Light Brigade to "follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns"; those guns were some British artillery guns which were at risk. Raglan sent the order via 36-year-old Captain Louis Nolan (old drawing of him). Nolan, instead of passing on the order verbatim complete as given, passed it on to Lord Lucan orally as "There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!", and added the word "attack" when Raglan had intended merely a show of force. Nolan's version of the order and accompanying gesture were misunderstood, causing the disaster described above. Nolan rode with the charge and died in it. Maxse's letter said that Nolan was annoyed at how little the Light Brigade had done previously and that Nolan was angry against Lord Lucan. Nigel Kingscote (another of Raglan's staff officers) agreed that the fault was Nolan's, and said that Nolan, if he had lived, would have been "broke by court martial".
The brigade was not completely destroyed, but did suffer terribly, with 118 men killed, 127 wounded, and about 60 taken prisoner. After regrouping, only 195 men were still with horses. The futility of the action and its reckless bravery prompted the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." ("It is magnificent, but it is not war.") He continued, in a rarely quoted phrase: "C'est de la folie" — "It is madness." The Russian commanders are said to have initially believed that the British soldiers must have been drunk. Somerset Calthorpe, Aide de Camp to Lord Raglan, wrote a letter to a friend three days after the charge. He detailed casualty numbers but did not distinguish between those killed and those taken prisoner:
The reputation of the British cavalry was significantly enhanced as a result of the charge, though the same cannot be said for their commanders.
Slow communications meant that news of the disaster did not reach the British public until three weeks after the action. The British commanders' dispatches from the front were published in an extraordinary edition of the London Gazette of 12 November 1854. Raglan blamed Lucan for the charge, claiming 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." Lucan was furious at being made a scapegoat: Raglan claimed he should have exercised his discretion, but throughout the campaign up to that date Lucan considered Raglan had allowed him no independence at all and required that his orders be followed to the letter. Cardigan, who had merely obeyed orders, blamed Lucan for giving those orders. He returned home a hero and was promoted to Inspector General of the Cavalry.
Lucan attempted to publish a letter refuting point by point Raglan's London Gazette dispatch, but his criticism of his superior was not tolerated, and Lucan was recalled to England in March 1855. The Charge of the Light Brigade became a subject of considerable controversy and public dispute on his return. He strongly rejected Raglan's version of events, calling it "an imputation reflecting seriously on my professional character." In an exchange of public correspondence printed in the pages of The Times, Lucan blamed Raglan and his deceased aide-de-camp Captain Nolan, who had been the actual deliverer of the disputed order. Lucan subsequently defended himself with a speech in the House of Lords on 19 March.
Lucan evidently escaped blame for the charge, as he was made a member of the Order of the Bath in July of that same year. Although he never again saw active duty, he reached the rank of general in 1865 and was made a field marshal in the year before his death.
The charge of the Light Brigade continues to be studied by modern military historians and students as an example of what can go wrong when accurate military intelligence is lacking and orders are unclear. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was a keen military historian and a former cavalryman, insisted on taking time out during the Yalta Conference in 1945 to see the battlefield for himself.
One research project used a mathematical model to examine how the charge might have turned out if conducted differently. The analysis suggested that a charge toward the redoubt on the Causeway Heights, as Raglan had apparently intended, would have led to even higher British casualties. By contrast, the charge might have succeeded if the Heavy Brigade had accompanied the Light Brigade along the valley, as Lucan had initially directed.
According to Norman Dixon, 19th-century accounts of the charge tended to focus on the bravery and glory of the cavalrymen, much more than the military blunders involved, with the perverse effect that it "did much to strengthen those very forms of tradition which put such an incapacitating stranglehold on military endeavor for the next eighty or so years," i.e., until after World War I.
The fate of the surviving members of the Charge was investigated by Edward James Boys, a military historian, who documented their lives from leaving the army to their deaths. His records are described as being the most definitive project of its kind ever undertaken. Edwin Hughes, who died on 14 May 1927, aged 96, was the last survivor of the charge.
In October 1875, survivors of the Charge met at the Alexandra Palace in London to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Charge. The celebrations were fully reported in the Illustrated London News of 30 October 1875, which included the recollections of several of the survivors, including those of Edward Richard Woodham, the Chairman of the Committee that organised the celebration. Tennyson was invited, but could not attend. Lucan, the senior commander surviving, was not present, but attended a separate celebration, held later in the day, with other senior officers at the fashionable Willis's Rooms, St James's Square. Reunion dinners were held for a number of years.
On 2 August 1890, trumpeter Martin Leonard Landfried, from the 17th Lancers, who may (or may not) have sounded the bugle charge at Balaclava, made a recording on an Edison cylinder that can be heard here, with a bugle which had been used at Waterloo in 1815. (Landfried's name is misspelled as "Landfrey" on the Edison cylinder recording).
In 2004, on the 150th anniversary of the Charge, a commemoration of the event was held at Balaklava. As part of the anniversary, a monument dedicated to the 25,000 British participants of the conflict was unveiled by Prince Michael of Kent.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the then Poet Laureate, wrote evocatively about the battle in his poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade". Tennyson's poem, written 2 December 1854 and, published six weeks after the event on 9 December 1854, in The Examiner, praises the Brigade ("When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!") while trenchantly mourning the appalling futility of the charge ("Not tho' the soldier knew, someone had blunder'd... Charging an army, while all the world wonder'd"). Tennyson wrote the poem inside only a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in The Times, according to his grandson Sir Charles Tennyson. It immediately became hugely popular, and even reached the troops in the Crimea, where it was distributed in pamphlet form.
Nearly 36 years later Kipling wrote "The Last of the Light Brigade" (1890), commemorating a visit by the last 20 survivors to Tennyson (then aged 80) to reproach him gently for not writing a sequel about the way in which England was treating its old soldiers. Some sources treat the poem as an account of a real event, but other commentators class the destitute old soldiers as allegorical, with the visit invented by Kipling to draw attention to the poverty in which the real survivors were living, in the same way that he evoked Tommy Atkins in "The Absent-Minded Beggar" (1899).
In 1983, the English heavy metal band Iron Maiden wrote the song The Trooper about the battle.
A survivor, John Penn, who died in Dunbar in 1886, left a personal account of his military career including the infamous Charge written for a friend. This survives and is held by East Lothian Council Archives.
A number of individuals who died during 1916-17 were thought to be the 'last' survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Sergeant James A. Mustard of the 17th Lancers, aged 85, had his funeral with military honours at Twickenham in early February 1916. In the Abergavenny Chronicle news report published on 11 February it was stated:
He was one of thirty-eight men of the 145 of the 17th Lancers that came out of the charge led by Cardigan, and was always of the opinion that no one sounded the charge at all. He was in the battles of Alma and Mackenzie's Farm, and the storming and taking of Sebastopol, and before leaving for Varna marched with his regiment from Hampton Court to Portsmouth.
In The Cambrian News of 30 June 1916 the passing of another 'last' was noted, Thomas Warr, aged 85, at Dorchester:
At the meeting of the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation in London last week Mr. Hayes Fisher, M.P., who presided, said that the last pensioned survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade died on the previous day. His name was Thomas Warr.
Finally, without any mention of him being the 'last', Sergeant John Smith Parkinson, aged 84, of Kings Norton, Birmingham,"a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava", was reported in the Cambria Daily Leader of 13 January 1917 to have died the previous day.