British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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The Charge of the Light Brigade

This page graciously has been shared with the Victorian Web by from Stephen Luscombe, from his website, The British Empire, and to whom thanks are due. Copyright, of course, remains with him. This document has been taken from its primary location on The Victorian Web

This famous painting by R. Caton Woodville is a dramatic view of the 17th Lancers in the Charge of the Light Brigade. This was an incident that occurred during the battle of Balaklava on 25 October 1854. The British were part of an allied army which also consisted of French and Turkish troops. They were fighting Russia who had her eyes on the Ottoman Empire, which the Czar referred to as the 'sick man of Europe' What finally kick-started the British and determined the focus of the fighting was the sea battle at Sinope, in the Black Sea, on 30 November 1853, between Turkey and Russia. Russia had a easy victory and would have mastery of the Black Sea and no trouble in gaining access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles. This was an intolerable prospect for Britain who fancied themselves as 'Ruling the Waves'. The Russian fleet was based at Sebastopol, a port on the Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea. The 17th Lancers were one of the five cavalry regiments that made up the Light Brigade. The others were 11th and 8th Hussars, and the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons. Lord Cardigan had been put in command of the Light Brigade. He was an arrogant and intellectually challenged person and almost universally hated, especially so by Lord Lucan who commanded the whole of the cavalry and was thus in the unfortunate position of having to work in close cooperation with Cardigan.

The Light Brigade had been held to one side by Lord Raglan, the Commander-in-chief of the army, for the whole of the campaign up to this point. This was very frustrating for them and was a factor contributing to the most famous blunder in military history. The men were itching to be involved in the fighting but could only stand and watch. Lord Lucan was nicknamed Lord Look-on. On this particular day, the Light Brigade had to watch the Heavy Brigade bravely win their part of the battle and were prevented from pursuing the fleeing Russians. When a confused order came from Lord Raglan to 'prevent the enemy carrying away the guns', the angry Lord Lucan sent the Brigade in the wrong direction. When he realised his mistake, Lucan managed to prevent the Heavy Brigade from following as intended but was unable stop the Light Brigade. The 17th were under the command of Major Willett but he died of exposure two nights before the battle while the cavalry was standing to as ordered by Lord Lucan, from 5 pm to 7 am. So for the charge itself, Captain William Morris commanded the 17th.

One of the 'characters' of the regiment was the regimental butcher, John Fahey, who had been under guard the night before for being drunk on duty. He was late on parade, so was obliged to join the charge still in his butcher's apron, wielding an axe with which he claims to have split at least two Russian heads. Another member of the regiment, Private Wightman remembered: "My horse made a tremendous leap into the air, though I know not what at. The smoke was so dense that I could not even see my arm in before me. Then suddenly I was in the battery, and in the darkness there were sounds of fighting and slaughter...In this gloom we cut and thrust and hacked like demons." The 17th was in the first wave with the 13th Light Dragoons. Cardigan was in front, as brave as he was stupid. He came through unscathed and cantered casually back down the valley leaving his men to fight their way out of an overwhelming force of Russian cavalry, infantry and artillery. The 17th started the day with eleven officers and 136 men Their casualties were: 2 officers and 22 men dead, 4 officers and 33 men wounded (and returned to the lines), 1 officer and 13 men taken prisoner, and 99 horses killed. One officer died of his wounds later. The whole Light Brigade consisted of 658 officers and men, of these, 118 died either that day or later of wounds they received. These figures are surprising when one considers how dangerous it was for a tight formation of cavalry to travel one and a quarter miles along a valley being fired at by canons and rifles from three sides.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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