The Charge of the Light Brigade

Every time I hear the phrase “The Charge of the Light Brigade” I think of The Little Rascals and Alfalfa reciting the poem by Tennyson.   There is more to it than that though.   The Charge of the Light Brigade is perhaps one of the dumbest, yet most celebrated events in military history.   It ranks right up there with Little Big Horn, or lining up the planes at Hickham Field in the military idiocy department in my book.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death down which the Light Brigade Charged. Note the cannonballs littering the ground.

The Charge was not an isolated event, it occurred as part of the larger Battle of Balaclava on October 25th, 1854. Balaclava was one of the opening battles of the Crimean War, it occurred just over a month after the Battle of the Alma. The battle was fought because the British needed to retain possession of the small port city of Balaclava to resupply their army during the forthcoming Siege of Sebastopol (or Sevastopol depending on who is writing). The Russian army initiated the battle in an attempt to drive the British from the port.

The battlefield consisted of two valleys, creatively named south and north valley respectively. The Battle of Balaclava was almost entirely a cavalry affair, with the British Heavy Brigade engaging the Russians in the South Valley and the British Light Brigade in the North Valley. What is often forgotten about the battle is that there were actually two cavalry charges at Balaclava by both the Heavy and Light Brigades, although the Light Brigade’s charge is best remembered.

The battle began with the Heavy Brigade charging Russian cavalry in the South Valley and driving them out with very few casualties. The Light Brigade, which was stationed in the North Valley, saw the Russian cavalry enter their valley and retreat to the shelter of a Russian battery of eight guns at the eastern end of the valley. The Light Brigade was issued conflicting or at least unclear instructions to attack and stop the Russians from removing the naval guns they had emplaced in the redoubts on the hills between the two valleys.

Instead of attacking up the line of central hills, the Light Brigade charged towards the eastern end of the valley and the battery of eight Russian guns the Russian cavalry had retreated behind. These guns were one and a quarter miles from the Brigade’s start line down a valley lined on both sides by Russian positions and guns. When the Light Brigade reached the end of the valley over half the cavalrymen had become casualties. Part of the brigade attacked and silenced the Russian guns and while another part went past them and scattered the Russian cavalry. Thereupon the Light Brigade turned around retraced their route back down the valley.

By the time the Light Brigade began to return to their start line the French cavalry had attacked and silenced the Russian artillery on the north side of the valley and they only had to endure half as much fire as when they started. The Light Brigade was destroyed as a fighting formation though. At the end of the action the Light Brigade only mustered 195 officers and men from a strength of 673 to begin with and 517 horses had been killed or wounded. Additionally, five troopers of the Light Brigade were awarded the Victoria Cross for the battle. After their return, the British infantry had finally arrived but they were not put into the fight and the British left with the Russians still in command of both valleys and the heights between and to both sides.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of the most idiotic, yet brave actions I have ever heard of. There is no mistaking that the Light Brigade troopers were courageous as they advanced into a veritable wall of enemy cannon fire. The level of casualties they accepted without stopping attests to that. That being said, what they achieved was tactically indecisive as the British called off the attack after the devastating losses sustained by the Light Brigade and the infantry remained uncommitted. The Light Brigade’s action is a perfect example of tactical stupidity at the cost of men’s lives.

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