Charge of the Light Brigade

From Academic Kids

The Charge of the Light Brigade was an ill-advised cavalry charge, led by Lord Cardigan, which occurred during the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War. It is best remembered as the subject of a famous poem entitled "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Lord Tennyson.



'Charge of the Light Brigade', Painting by Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855)
'Charge of the Light Brigade', Painting by Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855)

The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry. Made up of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, it was commanded by Major General the Earl of Cardigan. Together with the Heavy Brigade (the Royal Dragoon Guards and the Scots Greys) it was the main British cavalry force at the battle; overall command of the cavalry was with the Earl of Lucan.

Lucan was delivered an order from the army commander Lord Raglan stating that "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." The order was drafted by Brigadier Airey and was carried by Captain Louis Edward Nolan, who may have carried further oral instructions, but he was killed during the charge so that is conjecture.

In response to the order, Cardigan led 673 (or 661) cavalry men straight into the valley made between the Fediukhine Heights and the Causeway Heights. The Russian forces, under Pavel Liprandi, on the sides of the valley and at the end included over fifty artillery pieces and around 20 battalions of infantry. It appears that the order was interpreted to refer to the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away, when, in actual fact, Raglan had been referring to a set of redoubts on the reverse slope of the hill forming the left (to the cavalry) side of the valley, which, although clearly visible to Raglan, were hidden from the view of the Light Brigade down in the valley. The brigade reached the end of the valley and forced the Russian forces from the redoubt but suffered heavy casualties and were soon forced back. Lucan failed to provide any support for Cardigan; he may have been motivated by personal enmity with his brother-in-law. The troops of the Heavy Brigade entered the mouth of the valley but did not advance further. The French cavalry, the Chasseurs d'Afrique, was more effective; they broke the Russian line on the Fediukhine Heights and later covered the remains of the Light Brigade as they withdrew.

When the Light Brigade regrouped there were only 195 men still with horses. The brigade had lost 118 men killed and 127 wounded; 362 horses were killed - there is a persistant myth that the brigade was completely destroyed, which is not true. The stupidity of the action and its reckless bravery prompted Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. ("It is magnificent, but it is not war.") Initially the Russian commanders believed the British soldiers must have been drunk and it measurably improved the reputation of British cavalry during the rest of the conflict.

Raglan blamed Lucan for the loss and censured him in dispatches. Lucan was recalled to England in March 1855. Lucan's demand for a court martial was declined and he instead defended himself with a speech in the House of Lords on March 19. He blamed Raglan and his deceased aide-de-camp Nolan. Clearly blame was not attached to Lucan; he was knighted in July of that year and, although he never again saw active duty he reached the rank of General in 1865 and was made a Field Marshal in the year before his death.

Books which analyze the events leading up to the event offer insight into British military history and also into the baleful consequences which can result from courage coupled with lack of insight.

Tennyson's poem

Tennyson praises the Brigade, "When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!", while mourning the appalling futility of the charge: "Not tho' the soldier knew, someone had blunder'd… Charging an army, while all the world wonder'd."


First stanza

Half a league half a league
Half a league onward
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward the Light Brigade
Charge for the guns' he said
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

Second stanza

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.

Third stanza

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Fourth stanza

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Fifth stanza

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

Sixth Stanza

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Kipling's response

In 1881, Rudyard Kipling wrote a response poem, The Last of the Light Brigade, which attempted to shame the British public concerning the conditions which the survivors of the Light Brigade were suffering under:


There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.


They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."


O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made - "
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

Other media

The event has twice been made into a film, first a Hollywood account of historical events that blended public school bravado and a mythical image of British Imperialism, spiced with an Oriental baddy, in 1936 by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and David Niven. The second film was in 1968, directed by Tony Richardson. It starred John Gielgud and Trevor Howard. Each film followed a distinctly different historical interpretation of the events; the 1936 film was heroic and inaccurate, while the second was brutally authentic. The animations, based on the style adopted by the satirical Punch Magazine, were the highlight.

The heavy metal band Iron Maiden has a song about the charge, "The Trooper".

Further reading

  • The Reason Why, Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade, Cecil Woodham-Smith, Penguin Books, ISBN 014139031X, first published in 1953 by McGraw-Hill.

External links

See also


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