Letter From Crimea: The Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade

This is the fifteenth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


The North Valley outside Balaclava in Crimea, down which rode the six hundred cavalry of the Light Brigade into what Alfred, Lord Tennyson, called “the valley of Death.” (He added: “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.”) Russian guns surrounded the brigade on three sides—left, center and the right of this picture. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Finally my Sevastopol taxi driver got his wish, which was to drive me directly and at high speed toward Balaclava, where tourists go for either a vineyard lunch or a glimpse at the North Valley. Here the 600 of the Light Cavalry Brigade rode to their doom.

We drove along the Worontzov Road, which bisects the battlefield, and the driver stopped so that I could walk up some steps to a forlorn Russian monument on Causeway Heights, where some of the Russian guns were positioned. By then it was clear that I had lost my audience, or at least my driver.

We were two hours short of our four-hour tour, but mercifully I had only paid half of the agreed fare. So we left it there: I was dropped down the road at a fancy vineyard by the name of Zolotaya Balka, and the taxi driver was liberated to return to his cab rank, where presumably no one would hassle him for details about Canrobert’s Hill or the Fedioukine Heights. It was still raining, but I was on my own, free—once I had lunch and the rain let up—to walk off the Charge of the Light Brigade at my leisure.

In the current war between Ukraine and Russia, none of the fighting has taken place near Balaclava, but the story of the Light Brigade could well serve as a cautionary tale for exuberant Western mercenaries who think Russia might well be down to its last cruise missiles.

The Thin Red Line

I had known that Crimea had many vineyards—the most famous is Massandra, above Yalta—but I had not known that vineyards now encircle Balaclava as if they were siege lines.

At Zolotaya Balka I was delighted to come across a tasting menu and a crisp chardonnay while sheltering from the rain in the modern equivalent of a formerly Ukrainian, now presumably Russian, chateau.

I sat facing the South Valley, birthplace of the phrase “the thin red line”, referring to the stand made in October 1854 by the 93rd Regiment (Sutherland Highlanders), in which about 500 British troops held the line in front of Balaclava against 2,500 charging Russian cavalry troops.

The epic phrase—it has come to define any formation of British troops in steely defense—came from a dispatch of the London Times journalist William Howard Russell, who is often credited as having been the first war correspondent in the field.

Looking across the valley, as I did from my vineyard restaurant, Russell described seeing, as the two sides came together, a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel”.

In his account of the battle, Russell wrote of the Scottish counterattack against the Russian cavalry: “As lightning flashes through a cloud, the Greys and Enniskilleners pierced through the dark masses of Russians. The shock was but for a moment….The first line of Russians… had been smashed utterly by our charge…”

In the 20th century, the World War II author James Jones used the title The Thin Red Line to describe the jungle fighting on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal, of which he says: “There’s only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.”

Into the North Valley

After lunch I set off on foot in a drizzle to find the North Valley, where the Light Brigade rode to its destruction. I figured it would be about a two mile walk from the vineyard.

I didn’t relish having to walk on the edge of the busy Worontzov Road, but at least I felt I was headed in the right direction and no longer a hostage in the back of a taxi. Sadly my bicycle was back at the hotel, riding out the rain storms.

Had it been a full summer day in Crimea, I might well have felt like a mad dog or an Englishman out in the midday sun, trying to figure out what went wrong for the Light Brigade. Instead I was dodging raindrops on what felt at times like the shoulder of the Cross Bronx Expressway.

The Reason Why

I think that the best account of the Light Brigade and its destruction is found in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why, published in 1953. Many accounts of the charge and the Crimean War have since been published, and nearly all of them point out that Woodham-Smith was an amateur historian who lacked access to military archives.

Unlike many professional historians, however, Woodham-Smith writes like a dream, and her account of the Light Brigade, which begins with the entangled rivalry between the earls of Lucan and Cardigan, gives her history of the Crimean War cinematic drama that even the movies about the same fiasco—there have been two: one in 1936 and the other in 1968—lacked.

I saw the 1968 film version on a rainy Saturday in my childhood and remember not understanding the geopolitics of the Crimean War or the tactics of the charge, which might explain why I have spent the intervening fifty years collecting books on the subject.

I read The Reason Why in 1978, and for forty years I have dreamed of visiting Crimea. I reread it when I came back from the North Valley, and I didn’t find that it had lost any of its immediacy.

Woodham-Smith’s thesis is that the senior British officers in Crimea, beginning with Lord Raglan, the commander-in-chief, were either too old or incompetent, and that they approached the war as if it were a fox hunt.

On top of that, the immediate commanders of the Light Brigade (they were brothers-in-law but despised each other) refused to communicate, another element that doomed the Light Brigade, which rode headlong into Russian artillery deployed around the North Valley.

The Light Brigade Charges Into a Fog of War

At the time of the engagement, Lord Raglan was commanding his troops from atop Sapouine Heights—a sharp hillside above the west side of the valley—as if an NFL coach calling in plays from the press box.

Down below were the Earl of Lucan and his subordinate brother-in-law, the Earl of Cardigan, who spent many nights of the war (while commanding the Light Cavalry) on his yacht, Dryad, which was moored in Balaclava harbor. (His men called him the Noble Yachtsman, just as they referred to Lucan as Look-on.) Woodham-Smith writes:

The North Valley was about a mile and a quarter long and a little less than a mile wide. On the Fedioukine Hills, which enclosed the valley to the north, were drawn up eight battalions of [Russian] infantry, four squadrons of cavalry and fourteen guns; on the Causeway Heights to the south were the bulk of the eleven battalions, with thirty guns and a field battery which had captured the redoubts earlier in the day; at the end of the valley, facing the Light Brigade, the mass of the Russian cavalry which had been defeated by the Heavy Brigade was drawn up in three lines, with twelve guns unlimbered before them, strengthened by six additional squadrons of Lancers, three on each flank. The Light Brigade was not merely to run a gauntlet of fire: it was advancing into a deadly three-sided trap, from which there was no escape.

The Light Brigade was sent to its fate by a series of poorly worded orders that passed down the chain of command from Lord Raglan to the Earl of Lucan and then on to the Earl of Cardigan.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that the messenger who carried the orders down the steep hillside from Lord Raglan was Captain Louis Nolan, a superb horseman but emotionally wrought and with a fiery temper.

Nolan loathed Lucan and Cardigan, which ended any chance that the three men might pause for a minute to reflect on the operation before dispatching the Light Brigade into the mouth of Russian guns.

Woodham-Smith writes of him:

Nolan thundered against ‘Lord Look-on and the Noble Yachtsman’: William Forrest wrote, ‘We all agree that two greater muffs than Lucan and Cardigan could not be. We call Lucan the cautious ass and Cardigan the dangerous ass.’ Robert Portal considered that his Brigadier, Lord Cardigan, ‘has as much brains as my boot. He is only to be equalled in want of intellect by his relation the Earl of Lucan.”

Lord Raglan’s Marble Indifference

Raglan had thought he was committing his cavalry (which he held in reserve during the earlier battle of the Alma) to the limited objective of clearing guns from the top of Causeway Heights (where I had first stopped in the taxi at the Russian memorial and looked out across the North Valley). But by the time Nolan had galloped down the hill and issued the orders, he was beside himself with rage at what he perceived as military incompetence on the part of Cardigan and Lucan. Woodham-Smith writes:

The crucial moment had arrived. Nolan threw back his head, and, ‘in a most disrespectful and significant manner’, flung out his arm and, with a furious gesture, pointed, not to the Causeway Heights and the redoubts with the captured British guns, but to the end of the North Valley, where the Russian cavalry routed by the Heavy Brigade were now established with their guns in front of them. ‘There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns,’ he said, and with those words and that gesture the doom of the Light Brigade was sealed.

For reasons of exuberance, Nolan chose to ride as well with the Light Brigade, and in an early wave he was among its first casualties, which is another reason why we don’t have better intel on the causes of the catastrophe.

A few of the Light Brigade did make it to the end of the valley, but not many, and soon attacks were coming at them from three sides. Among the 670 British horsemen who advanced, the casualty rate was about 40 percent; note that the Romans used the term “decimated” when its casualties were 10 percent.

Russell puts the figure at “above 400 [who] were killed, wounded, and missing.” He adds: “This gallant brigade…were the flower of the whole army, and many a heart is saddened by their untimely fate.”

The sight of the Light Brigade advancing to its destruction prompted a French general to utter words that have since become immortal: ‘C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre’ (“It’s magnificent, but it’s not war”).

Crimean Scapegoats, Then and Now

Poking along the side of a busy road, I finally found the spot (roughly) from which the Light Brigade, under the command of the Earl of Cardigan, began its fateful charge.

The attack was all over in less than an hour, but the search for blame and scapegoats lasted for years, with press accounts, historians, and even several court cases arbitrating rival claims.

Woodham-Smith asks: “Who indeed was to blame?” Then she gives this answer to her own question:

Many of the causes of the disaster lay far far back, in the old hatred between Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan, in events nearly ten years old in Ireland, in Lord Raglan’s character, that extraordinary blend of suavity, charm, aristocratic prejudice and marble indifference. Above all the disaster was the fruit of the system under which the British Army was commanded. Untrained, untried officers were in charge of divisions and brigades in the field, the staff were ignorant of their duties and quite unable to translate the Commander-in-Chief’s wishes into clear language, the Commander-in-Chief himself, Lord Raglan, unpractised and in­experienced in active command, was fatally ambiguous. To the trained staff officer of today the famous four orders of Balaclava are vague, obscure, the work of an amateur, and an invitation to disaster.

According to some accounts, Cardigan was not even present when his men were slaughtered, but on his yacht—an allegation that was dismissed. He did lead his men into the battle and was slightly wounded.

Now the North Valley is a sweeping vineyard, but one that is not completely flat, which explains why many British senior commanders were unable to look down the valley before the charge and see the Russian guns or troops folded into the rolling landscape.

But something tells me that the West is still fighting its Crimean wars from offshore yachts.

The South Valley

I followed an agricultural road through the vineyards to get a closer look at where the action had unfolded, but quicksand attached itself to my sandals, and I began to sink into what felt like a bog.

There were other small lanes that traversed the South Valley toward Balaclava, where I was next headed, but I knew I could not walk there in the rain and mud.

Instead I tried to find a bus that might connect to the harbor. When no bus stopped at the stand where I was waiting, I had no choice but to trudge back to the vineyard restaurant and there hitch a ride into the harbor—neither of which you should try at home.

The National Disgrace of Balaclava Harbor

Balaclava harbor is a narrow twisting inlet with steep hills on both sides of the water, giving it the feeling of a Norwegian fjord. I had read that it was now a Crimea resort, popular with summer tourists who liked to take meals overlooking the moored boats at the marinas that line the shores, and I thought maybe I would have a beer at one of the many bars. But when I got there, in the late afternoon, the main streets were flooded, and mud from nearby hills had swept down to the water’s edge. Balaclava looked of a flooded Appalachian mining hollow.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained a submarine pen in Balaclava, one that was capable of absorbing a nuclear attack. No doubt getting it back was yet another of Vladimir Putin’s war aims against Ukraine in Crimea.

It was somehow fitting that I saw Balaclava at its worst, as during the Crimean War years it went from being a supply depot for English forces to a national disgrace.

During the winter of 1854-55, during which the British hastily made their camp around Balaclava and its docks, the harbor turned into a cesspool.

Confusion reigned in the supply lines, which denied soldiers in the nearby fields blankets, tents, or adequate food. Then in November 1854, a hurricane-like storm hit Balaclava, sinking or damaging some thirty supply ships, and destroying most of the stores that the army had shipped to Crimea to survive the winter in the siege lines. A majority of casualties in the Crimean War were the result of disease and malnutrition, as opposed to wounds suffered in the fighting.

In Trevor Royle’s Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856, I came across this description of Balaclava, taken from the wartime diaries of Ms. Fanny Duberly, who was the wife of an English officer and accompanied him to the battle front. She writes:

If any body should ever wish to erect a ‘Model Balaclava’ in England, I will tell him the ingredients necessary. Take a village of ruined houses and hovels in the extremest state of imaginable dirt; allow the rain to pour into and outside them, until the whole place is a swamp of filth ankle-deep, catch about, on an average, 1000 sick Turks with the plague, and cram them into the houses indiscriminately; kill about a hundred a day, and bury them so as to be scarcely covered with earth, leaving them to rot at leisure – taking care to keep up the supply. On to one part of the beach drive all the exhausted bat ponies, dying bullocks and worn-out camels, and leave them to die of starvation. They will generally do so in about three days when they will soon begin to rot, and smell accordingly. Collect together from the water of the harbour all the offal of the animals slaughtered for the use of the occupants of above 100 ships, to say nothing of the inhabitants of the town – which, together with an occasional human body, whole or in parts, and the driftwood of the wrecks, pretty well covers the water – and stew them all up together in a narrow harbour, and you will have a tolerable imitation of the real essence of Balaclava.

Why do I think that the European Allies are still trying to make “Model Balaclavas” around Crimea?


Next: The redoubts of Sevastopol. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.