During the Crimean War, the British army and its French and Turkish allies, moved to capture the Russian port of Sevastopo. In the ensuing battle at Balaklava, a misunderstood order, plus enmity between senior British officers, led to a heroic but catastrophic charge by Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade.
In October 1854, allied forces were besieging the port and fortress of Sevastopol. British forces were based at Balaklava on the right flank of the siege, but lacked sufficient numbers to defend in depth. The Russian General Liprandi decided to attack this weak point in an attempt to disrupt the supply lines between the British base and the siege lines. Liprani's forces consisted of 24 battalions of infantry, 23 squadrons of cavalry, 13 squadrons of Cossacks and 66 heavy guns. Supporting Liprani was a further Russian force on the nearby Fedioukine Hills.
The battle began on the 25th with a Russian artillery barrage directed at the six Ottoman redoubts that formed the first line of Balaklava’s defences on Causeway Heights This was followed up by infantry and cavalry assaults forcing the Turks to retreat and the victorious Russians cavalry charged forward towards the second and final defence line manned by the 93rd Highland Regiment (Sutherland Highlanders) plus some Royal Marines and a few Turkish infantrymen.
As the Turkish defenders fled the redoubts, a force of 3,000 Russian cavalry moved onto Causeway Heights intending to advance towards Balaklava through North Valley. At the same time, the British Heavy Brigade, led by Major General Scarlett and comprising some 900 cavalrymen, was moving towards the Russians from South Valley. Neither side were aware of each other until the Russians crested Causeway Heights and began their descent into South Valley.
Disregarding the difference in numbers, Scarlett immediately formed his troops into two lines and charged the Russian cavalry who halted and received the charge stationery. The wings of the Russian cavalry closed behind the British and a fierce and bloody fight ensued. A brave charge by the 4th Dragoons crashed into the Russian flank and in the words of one soldier, "Then, almost it seemed in one moment and simultaneously, the whole Russian mass gave way and fled, at speed and in disorder beyond the hill, vanishing behind the slope".
Meanwhile, another force of 4 squadrons of Russian cavalry moved towards Balaklava and all that stood in its path was the 93rd Highlanders, led by Sir Colin Campbell.
Seeing the approaching cavalry, Campbell spoke to his men, “There is no retreat from here men, you must die where you stand”. His aide John Scott is said to have replied, “Aye Sir Colin, if needs be, we’ll do that”.
Campbell had a poor opinion of Russian cavalry and instead of ordering his men into the conventional four lines, or even forming a square, placed the 93rd into a line two deep. As the Russians approached, the 93rd fired three volleys at 600, 350 and 150 yards respectively, bringing down a number of the attackers. The unyielding stance of the Scots convinced the Russian cavalry leader that a greater force lay in wait behind the Scots and he abandoned plans to reach Balaklava and retreated.
The war correspondent William Russell, witnessed the event and wrote that, “ I could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British regiment’s base of operations, but a thin red streak, tipped with a line of steel” now popularly condensed into “the thin red line”.
Following its mauling by the Heavy Brigade, the Russian cavalry recrossed Causeway Heights into North Valley. Stationed at the valley's western end was the British Light Brigade in an ideal position to attack the Russians in the flank and complete the destruction started by Scarlett's men. Despite appeals by his officers, the Light Brigade commander Lords Cardigan refused to engage the enemy, explaining that he had been expressly ordered by the British cavalry commander Lord Lucan to attack the enemy only when directly ordered. This order sprang from earlier events in the campaign when Cardigan had employed his cavalry in actions without Lucan's consent and had sown the seeds of enmity between the two. Cardigan in turn felt that Lucan was too timid to command cavalry and had nicknamed the commander, Lord Look-on. In the words of Captain Morris commanding the 17th Lancers, seeing the retreating Russians, "What an opportunity we have missed".
From his position on high ground to the west, Raglan could see the retreating Russian cavalry moving along North Valley to take up position behind their artillery at the far end. He also noted that other Russian troops were preparing to remove the artillery in the redoubt captured from the Turks on Causeway Heights.
The only force available to Raglan to prevent the Russians taking the guns was the Light Brigade. He instructed his aide General Airey, to write the following order to the cavalry commander, Lord Lucan, "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate".
The order was handed to Captain Lewis Nolan, an experienced and committed cavalryman who held Lucan in contempt for his apparent lack of aggression in his use of cavalry. Nolan galloped down the slope and delivered the order to Lucan who, being unable to see the Russian attempts to remove the guns asked Nolan, "which enemy and which guns?"
Nolan is reported to have flung his arm out in the direction of the Russian cavalry now positioned behind its guns at the end of the North Valley and to have said in an insolent manner, "There is your enemy, there are your guns My Lord".
The enmity between the two prevented Lucan from further questioning the order, he rode over to Cardigan ordering him to charge the Russian cavalry and guns at the end of the North Valley. Cardigan realised the suicidal nature of the order, but after a brief remonstration he ordered his brigade to mount and led it into the valley. Lucan, adding a final spiteful touch, ordered Cardigan's 11th Hussars to take position in the second line.
As the Light Brigade moved down the valley Raglan was horrified to see that, instead of turning towards Causeway Heights they continued towards the massed guns and cavalry at the far end. Raglan could also see from his position that the north side of valley was bristling with men and heavy guns and on the south side on Causeway Heights the Russians were now turning the captured guns towards the oncoming riders.