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Rodney's Ramblings: Insights From Past Battle Fields - Part II

Rodney Gascoyne visits the battlefield of Balaklava, one of the sites of fighting in the Crimean War in 1854, and reassesses the charge of the Light Brogade.

During my travels, I have had a chance to visit a few battlefields and to see and try to understand how the fighting went, and local physical features that must have influenced events.

It is fairly easy now to get cruises into the Black Sea and to visit Sevastopol, in the Crimea. Not far from the port is the battlefield of Balaklava, one of the sites of fighting in the Crimean War in 1854, when France and Britain went to the aid of Turkey, against the Russians, to keep them bottled up in the Black Sea rather than being free to roam the Mediterranean at will. Russian ambitions were thwarted, as they were kept in check, but the War is mainly remembered for The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Half a league, half a league, - Half a league onward, - All in the valley of Death - Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade! - "Charge for the guns!" he
said: - Into the valley of Death - Rode the six hundred.

Lord Raglan, the British commander, was getting on in years, and he and the army had not fought anyone since Waterloo in 1815. His actual orders to Lord Lucan, the Commander of the Cavalry (Light & Heavy), were 'Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front - follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns...’. He was a procrastinator and prone to indecisive directions, but his orders in this case were carried to Lucan by Captain Nolan, ex-Indian Army cavalry.

Lucan and his Brother-in-Law, Lord Cardigan, Commander of the Light Brigade, were the real central characters, hated each other and feuded endlessly. Cardigan had had previous run-ins with Nolan before the war, and he and Lucan had no respect for career officers like Nolan. All these facts were written about at length in the book “The Reason Why” by Cecil Woodham-Smith.

Raglan had his camp on a high promontory overlooking the battlefield, some miles distant, with a good view of the undulating countryside below. Nolan offered to take the orders as he was part of Raglan’s staff and probably wanted to join in the chase. The orders were written by Raglan and Nolan knew the reasons behind them. On reaching Lucan, with the Heavy Brigade, Nolan handed them over, but from down in the valley where the troops were, the lie of the land was not as distinct as from on high. In a shallow pair of valleys running parallel, there had been action earlier that day, when the Russians attacked the Turkish position on a low causeway ridge between the valleys, in redoubts defending the approaches to Balaklava and the British base. The Turkish forces were defeated and abandoned their British guns, retreating in haste.

Seeing this, Raglan wanted the cavalry to ride to the redoubts and prevent the guns’ removal, by using the smaller valley to the right to outflank the gun positions. Cardigan was not there when Nolan met Lucan; he was with his Light Brigade. Lucan was short with Nolan and could only initially see the Russian guns in the larger valley to the left, some way distant, lined up for future action. To the Russian right in that valley, on higher ground, again on their right, was further Russian artillery aligned along that valley. None of those Russian guns had yet been involved in action earlier that day, maybe being a reserve force.

Nolan delivered the orders while still on horseback and Lucan immediately questioned them, likely out of his dislike for Raglan. Nolan, possibly while his horse circled about under the noise of local actions, gestured over his shoulder to Lucan, saying, ‘those are your guns, sir’. Lucan believed he meant the line of guns in the larger valley and was unaware of abandoned British guns on the redoubt rise to his right. Lucan immediately relayed the orders then to Cardigan, pointing probably to those same guns, as they met close to the Light Brigade position. He then dispatched the Light Brigade, and Cardigan did not question it at all.

Tennyson’s poem, partly quoted above, told the story of what followed and has since become famous.

I visited both Raglan’s camp and the redoubts on a tour from our cruise ship, and the lay of the land did not match the impression from the book, nor the Tony Richardson famous film made in 1969. Both had exaggerated the seemed height of the causeway ridge, to make it clearer that Lucan could have only seen the one valley ahead of him, the other being obscured. In my estimation the ridge was only about 20-30 feet in height and the redoubts were clearly visible between the valleys. True, the Russians may have by then started to remove the guns from the ridge, by taking them down the side of the smaller valley.

Both the film and the book place most of the blame on the three lords and their bickering relationships before and during the war, each being resentful and envious of their seniors.

From my visit, I would more blame it on Nolan for relaying the orders and directions in a hurried manner. When he saw the Light Brigade move off in the wrong direction, he did try to intervene and correct the target, by riding after and up towards Cardigan, at the head of his troops, perhaps even by then at a trot or gallop. He was ordered to stay back by the irritated Cardigan. Nolan did try shouting but was then hit himself by a Russian shell and was one of the first riders and horses to be blown to pieces.

Clearly the long lasting, terrible relationships and distrust between the four players was a main factor, further complicated by the haste and noise of battle, but in my view, Nolan had the opportunity and should have taken time to fully explain the situation to Lucan and so avoid the disaster. I doubt the land over which the battle was fought had changed before my visit, and it was still largely an unkempt area of waste land that was not much used for agriculture. The redoubts were a tourist site and I saw no sheep or other animals grazing the area. That Charge must have unnerved both the armies and the allies won the War the next year, but no one knows if that action influenced or determined the ultimate victory.

Footnote: sale of commissions, which allowed the three Lords to be so prominent in that Army, was investigated by Parliament later, leading to its abolition.

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