In my last post I wrote about the causes ofthe Crimean War. In this post rather than try and summarise the entire war in one blog post, I thought I would look particularly at the Battle of Balaclava (famous for the Charge of the Light Brigade) … and what went wrong.
You may recall war had been declared by Britain and France on 28 March 1854, after Russia had ignored their ultimatum to withdraw from the Danube region (following Turkey’s declaration of war on Russia in October 1853). Initial hostilities took place in the Danube area, with Russia forced to withdraw from Wallachia and the other principalities by July 1854. The war might have (should have?) ended there but war fever had gripped Britain and France and troops were landed on the Crimean peninsula in September 1854 with the intention of besieging Sevastopol, the home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and prevent Russian access to the Meditteranean (through the Dardanelles).
The British forces under the command of Lord Raglan and the French by Marechal Canrobet landed north of Sevastapol and began a march southward. An early decision to launch an outright attack on the city changed and the allied forces circled around the city, choosing to lay in siege lines to the south and east. This allowed Menshikov to move his forces out of the city to the north.
It is important to understand the geography of the city and its surrounds. Sevastapol lies on the south bank of a tributary of the River Tchernya, which flows in a curve around the city. some 4 miles inland along the waterway guarded at its mouth by 2 forts. The Chersonese plateau overlooks the city and is to the east cut by a number of deep ravines (to the scene of the later Battle of Inkerman). The water approaches were well defended with forts and sunken ships but the southern defence works of the Russians were incomplete.
The allied bombardment of the city began on 17th October 1854 but was soon brought to an end by a well placed Russian shell which hit the French magazine.
On 25th October Menshikov launched an attack across the river with the aim of attacking the British base. Most at risk was the British main line of communication, the Woronzoff road which ran across the top of the plateau. Raglan saw the threat. The only troops between the Russian forces and the port were the Heavy and Light Brigades of Horse, the 93rd Regiment of Highlanders and a small contingent of marines. The Turkish troops fled in advance of the Russians, leaving their half constructed redoubts and guns.
From his vantage point, Raglan, seeing two large contingents of Russian cavalry converging, ordered the Heavy Brigade to meet the Russian cavalry in the “south Valley”. Under the command of General Scarlett the Heavy Brigade charged. A short brutal engagement followed, before the Russians broke and fled.
|The Battle of Balaclava|
In the meantime, a smaller contingent of Russians came up against the 93rd Regiment of Highlanders who formed a “thin red line”. They only fired one volley at extreme range before the Russians turned tail.
Over in the north valley, the Light Brigade under the Command of Lord Cardigan, was waiting. Raglan issued the following order: “Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights. They will be supported by infantry which have been ordered. Advance on two fronts.”
The Russians, fleeing for the Heavy Brigade’s attack, presented on flank to the British troops and all it needed was for the Light Brigade to attack them while they were vulnerable and it would all be over but Lord Lucan, commanding the cavalry, hesitated. His equivocation in earlier engagements had already earned him the soubriquet “Lord LookOn”. Lucan was later to argue that he had interpreted the order as a command to wait.
|Lord Raglan's last order|
A frustrated Raglan, seeing the Russians occupying the positions abandoned by the Turks and beginning to carry away the allied naval guns installed there, issued the following order: “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. R Airey. Immediate”.
The order was carried by the hotheaded ADC, Captain Nolan and as the ADC departed, Raglan shouted after him: “Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately.”
When Lucan questioned the order an excited Nolan told him he was to attack immediately.
"Attack what? What guns, sir?"
"There, my Lord, is your enemy!" Nolan is reported to have said, vaguely waving his arm eastwards in the direction of the far end of the valley. "There are your guns!"
An irritated Lucan was left to assume that Raglan meant the Russian cavalry force, now behind a battery of 8 guns at the far end of the valley. What Lucan could not see were the Russians up on the ridge above the valley, positioned with infantry, cavalry and guns and on the Causeway Heights on the south side of the valley, Russian infantry, cavalry and guns in the redoubts abandoned by the Turks.
Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan, Commander of the Light Brigade to take the guns at the far end of the valley. Captain Nolan joining in the fray, realised that the Light Brigade was charging down the valley and not ascending the heights to take the Turkish guns as was intended by Raglan. He rode in front of Cardigan waving his sword in a vain attempt to stop the charge but was killed. The Light Brigade continued its vain glorious one and a quarter mile charge down the valley with heavy fire raining down from the heights above them. By the time it reached the guns at the far end of the valley, half its number had fallen but after a token resistance, the Russians had fled.
Lord Cardigan survived unscathed and on his return is reported to have said. “I have lost my brigade.” He had. On its return the Light Brigade had a mounted strength of 195 officers and men from an original strength of 673. 247 men were killed and wounded. 475 horses were killed and 42 wounded. The 13th Light Dragoons mustered 10 mounted men.
However the Charge of the Light Brigade achieved at least one objective. Between the actions of the Heavy and Light Brigade on that day, even the Russians were forced to admit that the Russian cavalry had been taken out of the war.
No further action was taken and the Woronzoff Road was lost, cutting off the route between the allied forces - a disaster for the coming winter. The Russians celebrated the Battle of Balaclava as a victory. By seizing the outer line of defences, they boxed the allies in between Balaclava and Sevastapol. A victory by the allies at the Battle of Inkerman a few months later failed to change the situation and a miserable war of attrition was waged for a further twelve months before Sevastapol fell on 9 September 1855.
I will conclude my write up on the Crimean War in a future Historical Hearts article. In the meantime I will leave you with this summary of the Battle of Balaclava from my friends at Horrible Histories...