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The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854

"Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred."
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
What specifically ignited the Crimean War in 1854 has long been forgotten in the collective memory. The conflict erupted in 1854 with the Russian Empire on one side and Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Their dispute centered on which side would have dominant influence in the declining Ottoman Empire. The wars's major battleground was in Russia's Crimean Peninsula, which gave the conflict its name. British and French forces landed in the Crimea in the fall of 1854 with the objective of attacking Russia's naval base at the city of Sevastopol and thereby weaken its naval presence in the Black Sea.

Although the war itself is only a dim recollection, what is vividly remembered is one valorously tragic incident of the campaign: the headlong cavalry charge of the British Light Brigade into murderous Russian fire; an action immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem.

The Charge of the Light Brigade took place during a battle near the city of Balaclava on October 25, 1854. Through a miscommunication of orders, the Light Brigade of approximately 600 horsemen began a headlong charge into a treeless valley with the objective of capturing some Russian field artillery at its end. Unbeknown to them, the valley was ringed on three sides by some 20 battalions of Russian infantry and artillery.

The result was disastrous. An estimated 278 of the Light Brigade were killed or wounded. Observing the charge, a French Marshall remarked: "It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness." When news of the action reached London, it caused a national scandal that prompted Tennyson to pen his poem. History remembers the charge of the Light Brigade as an example of the extraordinary bravery of the British soldier in the face of enemy fire in spite of poor leadership.

"They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun. . ."

William Howard Russell was a correspondent for the London Illustrated News and was present at the battle. It was his description that prompted Tennyson's poem. We join Russell's account as the Light Brigade begins its charge:

"They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendor of war. We could hardly believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men were not going to charge an army in position? Alas! it was but too true - their desperate valor knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part - discretion.

They advanced in two lines, quickening their pace as they closed towards the enemy. A more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death. At the distance of 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls. Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain.

The first line was broken - it was joined by the second, they never halted or checked their speed an instant. With diminished ranks, thinned by those thirty guns, which the Russians had laid with the most deadly accuracy, with a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow's death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries; but ere they were lost from view, the plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses. They were exposed to an oblique fire from the batteries on the hills on both sides, as wed as to a direct fire of musketry.

Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabers flashing as they rode up to the guns and dashed between 'them, cutting down the gunners as they stood. . .We saw them riding through the guns, as I have said; to our delight we saw them returning, after breaking through a column of Russian infantry, and scattering them like chaff, when the flank fire of the battery on the hill swept them down, scattered and broken as they were.

Wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale. . . .At the very moment when they were about to retreat, an enormous mass of lancers was hurled upon their flank. Colonel Shewell, of the 8th Hussars, saw the danger, and rode his few men straight at them, cutting his way through with fearful loss. The other regiments turned and engaged in a desperate encounter. With courage too great almost for credence, they were breaking their way through the columns which enveloped them, when there took place an act of atrocity without parallel in the modem warfare of civilized nations.

The Russian gunners, when the storm of cavalry passed, returned to their guns. They saw their own cavalry mingled with the troopers who had just ridden over them, and to the eternal disgrace of the Russian name the miscreants poured a murderous volley of grape and canister on the mass of struggling men and horses, mingling friend and foe in one common ruin. It was as much as our Heavy Cavalry Brigade could do to cover the retreat of the miserable remnants of that band of heroes as they returned to the place they had so lately quitted in all the pride of life.

At twenty-five to twelve not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left in front of these bloody Muscovite guns."

    This eyewitness account appears in: Russell, William Howard, The British Expedition to the Crimea (1858); Royle, Trevor, Crimea: the Great Crimean War, 1854-1856 (2000).

How To Cite This Article:
"The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854", EyeWitness to History, (2008).

The end of the Crimean war was negotiated at the Congress of Paris in 1856.
During the war Florence Nightingale headed a staff of 38 women nurses that provided nursing care to wounded British soldiers.