6/29/12

Lord Cardigan & the Charge of the Light Brigade: Battle of Balaclava, 1854

James Thomas Brudenell (b.1797-1868), 7th earl of Cardigan, known popularly as Lord Cardigan, commander of the 600 or so British cavalrymen who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade, at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854, is perhaps singularly one of the most controversial figures of his day and in modern military history circles as well. Amongst the many histories, homages, and works of art devoted to the Crimean War and the Charge of Light Brigade, one of the most famous and endearing must be Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem of the same year, The Charge of the Light Brigade.


Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade

Modern interpretations put Lord Cardigan at the center of one of the most misunderstood but oft-cited events in military history. What is known of the Charge of the Light Brigade is that the British commander Lord Raglan (b.1788-1855), who had an lost arm serving with Wellington at Waterloo, ordered Lord Lucan, the cavalry commander at Balaclava to order Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade to advance and prevent the Russians from removing the British cannon which had been captured following the Turks retreat from the front redoubts.

British General Lord Raglan

Academic works like David Saul’s The Homicidal Earl, the Life of Lord Cardigan, and more popular history interpretations like the 1968 film, The Charge Light Brigade, have presented the relationship between Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan (who were brother in-laws) as a classic example of the inept and corrupt rule of aristocracy leading to military and diplomatic disaster. Furthermore both works have painted Cardigan as an arrogant, spiteful, and petty example of the worst qualities of the privileged upper class of Victorian England.

What is known of the Charge of the Light Brigade is that it was most certainly suicidal for the men of Cardigan’s 11th Hussars (and the other attachment cavalry units) who charged down a 2000 yard valley where enemy artillery was waiting, with guns aimed on them from head on and on both flanks, creating a triangular field of fire, which became a killing field in which man and beast were maimed or killed. Of the around 600 men who were healthy enough to fight in the Light Brigade that fateful day, October 25, 1854, 100-120 were killed in the charge or from wounds later.

Lord Cardigan in his Hussar's uniform

Amazingly there were many in the Light Brigade, perhaps as many 75-100+ men who had not even been touched and charged and made it back unscathed. Despite the fierce resistance on the way to the Russian Guns, the majority of the 11th Hussars reached the guns with artillery exploding all around them and musket fire picking them off.

A fight ensued between the British and Russian infantry and cavalry who were defending the guns. The Hussars who made it to the Russian lines managed to get the best of the infantry once they charged the guns. Lord Cardigan was among the first Hussars to reach the guns before retreating quickly and in good order, partly because he had no clue as to what his orders on the field were. This was conduct was held against Cardigan for the rest of his life.

 Cardigan leading the charge of the Light Brigade

After the charge Lord Cardigan exclaimed “men it was a mad-brained trick, but no fault of mine” to some of his men who had straggled back to British lines, some if not most without their mounts, badly wounded and in a daze. Several accounts not that a unnamed Hussar asked Cardigan if they could charge again to his comrades cheers, perhaps only in jest which Cardigan kindly turned down. In the fatal moments leading directly up to the charge, the young and dashing Captain Louis Nolan, known as one of the best horseman in Europe, relayed the message to Lord Lucan that Raglan ordered the Light Brigade under Cardigan’s command to attack the Russians guns and prevent the English guns from being taken from the field.

Captain Nolan's obituary portrait

What Russians he should have attacked or where no one will ever know for sure. Nolan dramatically exclaimed that the advance should grab the cannons being taken away, pleading with Lucan “There my lord, There is your enemy! There are your guns!” Right as the Light Brigade charged Nolan was hit by an artillery shell and killed instantly, apparently trying to re-rout Cardigan and his brigade as they charged into the “valley of death” (though this is not known for sure), and into the annals of military history. Lord Raglan died of dysentery less than a year later so neither mans motives and/or true role in the Charge will ever be revealed. It is often taken for granted that the Battle of Balaclava was a tactical and strategic victory for the British cavalry, as both the Heavy and Light Brigades charged their enemy inflicting casualties and sending them into a panicked retreat.

During the Charge of the Light Brigade the Russian cavalry retreated almost immediately upon seeing the brigade charge down the valley, contradicting the traditional history that it was a complete blunder, a massacre and failure. Some of these frightened Russian soldiers even fired on their own troops in order to escape and flee the field after the Light Brigade’s thundering charge down the valley reached the guns.

Cardigan among the Russian guns at Balaclava, 1854

While the rest of the Crimea conflict saw little use for cavalry charges with the Siege of Sebastopol, they critical battle and campaign of the war, Lord Cardigan and his gallant ‘redshanked’ Hussars still managed to etch a lasting epitaph in the histories of cavalry and horse warfare in the 19th century. Lord Cardigan died in 1868 after falling from his horse.

Suggested Further Reading

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