The Crimean War was fought by Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire against Russia in response to the latter’s invasion of the Turkish principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (present-day Romania). Britain wanted to prop up the ailing Ottoman Empire, resist Russian expansionism in the Near East and prevent her accessing the Mediterranean.
In June 1854 British and French armies concentrated at Varna (present-day Bulgaria) on the Black Sea, with a view to supporting the Turks. In August the Russians were defeated by Turkey at Silistria and under pressure from Austria, evacuated the disputed provinces.
The Turkish victory made the British and French presence at Varna largely irrelevant. Nevertheless, the British government, influenced by public opinion, decided that the Russian naval base at Sevastopol should be attacked instead. The French agreed, and on 14 September 1854 the Allies landed on the west coast of the Crimea at Calamita Bay, to the north of Sevastopol.
Six days later, at the Battle of the Alma, the Russians unsuccessfully tried to stop the Allies advancing south towards their goal. The Allies, however, failed to pursue the defeated Russians and their army escaped largely intact. They regrouped and prepared the Sevastopol defences. The Allies besieged the port, the French from the west, the British from the south. The latter’s supply base was at Balaklava harbour.
During October reinforcements strengthened the Russian army until it was larger than that of the Allies. The British flank of the siege operations was particularly weak as Lord Raglan, the British commander, lacked the necessary troops. Hoping to take advantage of this, the Russians planned to break their lines and then capture the Balaklava base.
The British were part of a multinational Allied force that included French, Turkish and Sardinian troops. Maintaining cordial relations with them was crucial and this was one of the factors behind the appointment of the diplomatic General Lord Raglan (1788-1855) as British commander. A veteran of the Peninsular War (1808-14) and Waterloo (1815), Raglan led the British to victory at the Alma (1854), but during the winter he was heavily criticised for the breakdown of supply and the sufferings of the troops.
Upon the outbreak of the war Lieutenant-General Lord Lucan (1800-88) was given the command of the Cavalry Division. The closest he had been to active service was in the Balkans in 1828 as an observer on the Russian staff. His unfamiliarity with new tactics soon became clear, a situation made worse by his bad relations with his brother-in-law Lord Cardigan, who served under him as commander of the Light Brigade. His caution, moreover, earned him the nickname ‘Lord Look-On’. At Balaklava he was a leading player in the chain of events that sent the Light Brigade to its doom.
Major-General Lord Cardigan (1797-1868) was one of the most notorious officers in the British Army, at one point having been tried for attempted murder before the House of Lords. Relatively inexperienced, arrogant and quarrelsome, at Balaklava he misinterpreted an order and led his Light Brigade in the fateful charge.
The Russian General Pavel Liprandi (1796-1864) was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and the Russo-Turkish War (1828-29) who had done much to improve the conditions of soldiers in the Russian Army. At Balaklava he commanded 32 battalions of infantry, 23 squadrons of cavalry and 13 squadrons of Cossack light horse. His total force comprised 20,000 infantry, 3,500 cavalry and 76 guns.
On 25 October 1854 General Pavel Liprandi launched an assault across the River Tchernaya to the north-east of Balaklava with the aim of capturing the British base there. The operation began well. His men cleared a series of Turkish-held redoubts on the Causeway Heights that overlooked the Woronzoff Road between Balaklava and the siege lines at Sevastopol. They also took several naval guns. In response, the British commander Lord Raglan ordered the 1st and 4th Divisions to leave their lines at Sevastopol to aid the heavily outnumbered defenders.
Charge of the Heavy Brigade
A force of around 3,000 Russian cavalry threatened the Woronzoff Road. The British Heavy Brigade, about 800-strong and commanded by Major-General James Scarlett, intercepted them. Seeing the Russian horsemen halted, and thus vulnerable to attack, Scarlett immediately charged uphill with three of his squadrons, being successively reinforced by the remaining seven squadrons of his brigade. Reeling from this series of attacks, the Russian cavalry retired in disorder. But the British did not press home their advantage.
The Thin Red Line
During the cavalry engagement Liprandi had detached 400 horsemen to head for Balaklava itself. To get there they had to attack the remaining Turkish units and six companies of the 93rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot under the command of Major-General Sir Colin Campbell. Drawn up in ranks two deep, a ‘thin red streak’ as the journalist William Howard Russell described them, the Highlanders fired two volleys which turned the Russians back.
They retreated across the front of the Light Brigade, but its commander, Lord Cardigan, did not attack. He believed his orders from Lord Lucan required him to remain in place. The Russian horse took up a position behind a gun battery at the far end of a nearby valley.
Charge of the Light Brigade
Raglan’s staff then saw that the Russians on the Causeway Heights were preparing to remove the naval guns they had captured earlier in the day. Raglan wanted these guns back, but the only force available to retrieve them was Lucan’s Light Brigade. The 1st and 4th Divisions had still not arrived.
After two orders to Lord Lucan had been ignored, the impetuous Captain Nolan conveyed a third. Following a heated exchange, Lucan, who was down in a valley and unable to see what Raglan could from high up on a hill, ordered the Light Brigade to attack, but in the wrong direction.
Lord Cardigan, who was fully aware of the danger, nevertheless led his brigade in charging the Russian artillery at the end of the valley, while exposed to fire on both sides. On reaching the guns, they rode through them to charge the Russian cavalry beyond.
Cardigan bravely galloped in front of his men and was the first among the guns. However, during the subsequent melée he turned back, giving no further orders and leaving his men among the enemy without instruction. After intense fighting, the shattered remnants of the force returned along the ‘Valley of Death’ under continued fire. That any of them made it back was due in part to the French 4th Chasseurs D’Afrique who cleared the Russians from the north side of the valley.
Although the 1st and 4th British Infantry Divisions had now deployed and were ready to begin an assault on the Causeway Heights, no further action was taken. The Russians were left in control of the heights and the road.
The battle ended in strategic stalemate. The port of Balaklava remained in Allied hands, but the Russians had captured a number of the redoubts forming its outer defences and taken several field guns. The Russians also controlled the Woronzoff Road, which made supplying the forces besieging Sevastopol during a terrible winter even harder. Around 260 men of the Light Brigade’s 673 were killed or wounded, and 475 horses were lost. The Heavy Brigade suffered 92 casualties in the battle, including nine dead. Total British losses were around 615. Russian casualties were about the same.
The war continued and on 5 November 1854 the Russians attempted to raise the siege of Sevastopol with an attack against the Allies at Inkerman. This was resisted and the siege dragged on. After an unsuccessful assault on 18 June 1855, the port was finally captured on 8 September.
The Russians were shaken by the loss of Sevastopol. In October the Allies also took their mainland base of Kinburn. When the Austrians threatened to enter the war against them, the Russians agreed to peace terms and the Treaty of Paris was signed in March 1856.
Both Balaklava charges and the Highlanders’ ‘Thin Red Line’ (as the ‘thin red streak’ had become) were lauded in the British press. They became icons symbolising the bravery and resolve of the common soldier – a counter to the perceived mismanagement and incompetence of the high command in the Crimea.
One of the most spectacular of military disasters, the loss of the Light Brigade remains surrounded by controversy. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854), written by the poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson a few weeks after the battle, ensures that it has never been forgotten. The legend of the 'gallant 600' remains deeply rooted in the public consciousness today.
Less known is Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Heavy Brigade’ (1882), which celebrates ‘the gallant 300 of Scarlett’s Brigade’. It was written many years later to raise money for Crimean veterans, many of whom were living in poverty. For similar reasons Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’ (1890), publishing it to raise awareness of the hardships faced by veterans.
Many artists have depicted episodes from the battle including Lady Butler’s ‘Balaclava’ (1876), and Richard Caton Woodville’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1894) and ‘Relief of the Light Brigade’ (1897). The battle is also referenced in Iron Maiden’s song ‘The Trooper’ (1983) and Saxon’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1997).
Several novels feature the battle including George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman at the Charge’ (1973) and Garry Douglas Kilworth’s ‘The Valley of Death’ (1998). Tony Richardson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1968), starring Trevor Howard, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave, is the most famous cinematic representation of the battle.
Several British and Russian memorials mark the field of Balaklava in modern-day Ukraine, one of the most imposing being the Monument of Reconciliation. This commemorates all those who fought.