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The Destruction of Sir George Cathcart


Cathcart was the commanding officer of one of Raglan’s five infantry divisions. He also held a dormant commission to succeed to the command of the expeditionary force in the event of Raglan’s death. The commission was a secret. Only three people in the Crimea knew of it: Raglan, the Duke of Cambridge, and Cathcart himself. It was a piece of paper, signed by the Queen, which Cathcart carried in his pocket. Apparently, if Raglan were to be killed, Cathcart was expected to declare “I’m in charge!” and produce the commission to prove it. Presumably, the Duke of Cambridge was party to the secret so that he could confirm the authenticity of the Royal signature.

Under this extraordinary arrangement, Cathcart might reasonably have supposed that he was de facto second-in-command, and have expected Raglan to treat him accordingly. Such, however, was not to be. Raglan had his own coterie of confidants in which Cathcart was not included, namely Sir George Brown (commander of the Light Division), Sir John Burgoyne (chief engineering officer), and General Airey (the QMG). The quality of decision making by Raglan during the campaign does not suggest that these advisers were well chosen.

At the battle of the Alma, Cathcart’s 4th Division, along with the 3rd and the cavalry, was held in reserve. They might have been used to pursue the enemy once the Russian lines had broken, but they were not. Lucan, indeed, took the Light Brigade forward with this intent, but Raglan preferred caution and ordered him back. One of Cathcart’s men later wrote home, “The more I think of the battle the more convinced I am that it might have ended the campaign. I thought so at the time and I think so more strongly now.”

When the allied armies reached Sebastopol, Raglan adopted Burgoyne’s plan for a flank march and the seizure of Balaklava. Sebastopol was clearly open for the allies to assail immediately, and Cathcart urged that course. Raglan, however, accepted other advice. They had come to besiege Sebastopol, and besiege it they would. Ironically, Cathcart was given the task of overseeing the disembarkation of the siege train. He is reported to have protested, “But my dear Lord Raglan, what the devil is there to knock down?” By the end of the three weeks that it took to unload the heavy guns — the three weeks that Menschikoff had promised the Tsar to gain for the Russians at the Alma, the three weeks that he had so signally failed to deliver, the three weeks which Raglan had then wantonly handed to the Russians on a plate — by the end of those three weeks there was indeed something to knock down. Under the capable direction of Todleben and Admiral Korniloff, Sebastopol’s defences had been transformed.

There followed a week of artillery warfare during which those who thought that a single bombardment might breach the defences sufficiently to allow an infantry assault were swiftly disillusioned. The Russian artillery was more successful than that of the allies, and what damage was inflicted daily to Sebastopol’s defences was nightly repaired to a condition stronger than before. Raglan’s failure to take the town when it was on offer had not merely wasted time - it had forfeited the best and perhaps only chance of taking it at all.

While his men toiled at digging trenches and gun emplacements, Cathcart bitterly brooded on Raglan’s folly in rejecting his advice. Meanwhile Menschikoff’s army, which had been allowed to retire unharried from the Alma, had regrouped and was threatening a counter-attack. The British supply base at Balaklava was strongly enough defended by the presence there of Marine artillery and the 93rd Highlanders under Sir Colin Campbell, but the 6 or so miles which separated it from the besieging army in the trenches had only a line of swiftly constructed redoubts — unfinished, and but lightly manned and armed — together with Lucan’s cavalry division and two troops of horse artillery to protect it.

In the second half of October, there were several alarms at the sight of Russian patrols, and the British cavalry was frequently turned out to repel attacks which never came. On 21 October came the most serious alarm to date, and a brigade of the 4th division was ordered down to the plain to support Campbell’s men. On their arrival they found that the threat had evaporated, and they were required to march back up to the Chersonese uplands. It was so bitterly cold that Major Willetts of the 17th Lancers died of exposure, and Cathcart was furious at this futile use of his troops.

On October 24, Campbell and Lucan had information from a Turkish spy that Menschikoff’s army would attack the next day, and forthwith reported as much to Raglan. His extraordinary reply was that they should let him know if anything happened. That they did, the following morning, when the Russians attacked in strength. The battle had been raging for an hour by the time that Raglan took up his position on the Sapoune Ridge and belatedly sent for the infantry now so desperately needed. Adc’s were despatched to the 1st and 4th Divisions with orders to descend to the plain to support Campbell and the Turks.

Cathcart told the adc who brought the order, Captain Ewart, that it was impossible for the 4th Division to move. When Ewart persisted, Cathcart replied that most of his men had already spent the night in the trenches, and suggested that he should sit down and have some breakfast. Upon Ewart declining this invitation, Cathcart told him to go and tell Raglan that the 4th Division could not be moved. Eventually he relented, and offered to consult his staff officers to see if anything could be done. After some further delay, the division got under way. Their progress was slow, not only because of their commander’s lack of enthusiasm, but because Airey had added a gloss to Raglan’s order — under no circumstances were they to use the Woronzov road, the quickest and easiest route.

By the time that the 4th Division drew in sight of the scene of combat, two notable actions had already taken place. With the aid of the horse artillery, the 93rd Highlanders had repulsed an attack by four squadrons of Russian cavalry in what became known as the stand of the thin red line. They had been without any cavalry support because Raglan had ordered Lucan to withdraw the cavalry and to keep out of the action until the infantry arrived. No sooner had this order been unenthusiastically followed than Raglan realised that he had left the 93rd dangerously exposed to a flank attack, and promptly ordered eight squadrons of the Heavy Brigade to return to their previous position. By then it was too late, but the 93rd had survived without them. However, the Heavy Brigade’s movement resulted in it trailing its own flank in column of march across the front of the main Russian cavalry force. Raglan’s first order to the cavalry had imperilled the 93rd, and his second, seeking to remedy that, had exposed the Heavy Brigade to potential disaster. General Scarlett and his men proved equal to the occasion however. Taking advantage of the Russians’ failure to launch a swift attack, they turned, dressed their ranks, charged uphill against a numerically superior force, and routed them.

A lesser man than Raglan might have been grateful that his ill-considered second order had not resulted in the disaster that it invited, but Raglan was not satisfied. He now wanted the cavalry to press home its advantage, but the Light Brigade remained obstinately passive. The obvious way to get them moving would have been an order along the lines of, “Previous orders rescinded. Act on your own discretion,” but his long years in Whitehall had taught Raglan that covering up mistakes took precedence over correcting them, and he was not about to admit that his earlier orders were wrong. (In all the furore that followed the battle of Balaklava, he never officially admitted to having issued them.) Instead, he sent a third order: “Cavalry to advance & take advantage of any opportunity to recover heights, they will be supported by infantry which has been ordered advance on two fronts.” Lucan naturally interpreted this to mean that he was not to act until the infantry arrived. As they were not yet in evidence, the cavalry still did not move.

By the time Cathcart arrived with the 4th Division, the Russians were standing on a defensive line which ran through redoubt no. 3, around the eastern end of the north valley, and along the Fedioukine Heights. The Turks had reoccupied redoubt no. 5. The 1st Division were about a mile ahead of him, making for their comrades in front of Balaklava. Cathcart intended to follow them, but at this point fresh orders arrived. First another adc, and then General Airey himself, came to tell him that his objective now was not to support Campbell, but to recapture the redoubts. Airey left, after instructing Ewart to stay with Cathcart to point out the positions of the redoubts. This he did, indicating redoubts 3, 2, and 1 as the objectives. To Cathcart, this was madness. He knew well that if he did take even one redoubt, he would only be required to vacate it again and return to the siege trenches in front of Sebastopol. His men were tired and dispirited, and he saw no call to send any of them to their death unnecessarily. He advanced as far as the vacant redoubt no. 4 and occupied it, but further he refused to go. His artillery opened fire against redoubt no. 3, at too great a range to be effective, and some skirmishers were sent forward, but the major part of the 4th Division stacked their arms and rested.

Lucan had been waiting for the infantry, and now sent an aide to ask Cathcart his intentions. (Contrary to the wording of Raglan's order, the “usages of war and the customs of the service” required that in a combined assault cavalry should support infantry, and this was what Lucan had in mind. In any case, Cathcart was senior to him, and should therefore decide on their tactics.) Cathcart replied that he could not advance, because he had no orders to do so. Both cavalry and infantry remained stationary.

Meanwhile, on Sapoune Ridge, Raglan had been steadily losing his composure. It could not have been far from his mind that had he accepted Cathcart’s advice a month ago, he might by now have taken Sebastopol, dismantled its defences, and be sailing home in triumph. Instead, he found himself observing a battle for which he had been inexcusably unprepared, over which he had no control, and to which his only contribution so far had been a series of ill-considered orders which might easily have cost him the 93rd and the Heavy Brigade. He was desperately anxious to instigate some positive action to drive these demons from his mind, and to that end had fixed upon the recapture of the guns in the redoubts. Accordingly, he despatched Captain Nolan with a fourth order: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left.”

Like Cathcart before him, Lucan received this order with disbelief, and queried its meaning. Just as Captain Ewart had indicated Redoubt no 1 to Cathcart as an objective, Captain Nolan now pointed to the Russian battery at the far end of the heavily defended north valley as Lucan’s target. This would clearly be suicidal, and Lucan demurred. Nolan, however, persisted, and Lucan gave way. Within minutes, the Light Brigade was on its way to doom and immortality.

Nothing more of any consequence occurred in the battle, and that evening the 1st and 4th Divisions were ordered back to the Sebastopol entrenchments, as Cathcart had known they would be.

The following day, October 26, Cathcart was informed by Raglan that the Minister of War, the Duke of Newcastle, had rescinded the dormant commission. (This had nothing to do with the events of the day before. The communication delays between London and the Crimea meant that the decision had been made much earlier, almost certainly on Raglan’s recommendation.) Cathcart surrendered the commission to Raglan the following day, and Raglan immediately wrote to Newcastle of his “immense relief ” that Sir George Brown was no longer in danger of being cruelly mortified by being passed over for command. It is worth noting that Raglan had not yet written his despatch on the battle of Balaklava — that had to wait another day. That the protection of Sir George Brown’s amour propre should weigh more heavily on his mind than the defence of Balaklava is an indication of the deleterious effect that his years as a Whitehall warrior had had upon Raglan’s capacity as a military commander.

Ten days later, in the rain and fog of the early hours of November 5, the Russians made a determined onslaught against the British army before Sebastopol, and the battle of Inkerman was under way. The Light Division and the 2nd Division were soon in the thick of the fighting, and the 4th Division and the Guards Brigade were ordered to their assistance.

On coming up with General Pennefather of the 2nd Division, Cathcart asked where help was needed. “Everywhere,” Pennefather replied. Taking him at his word, Cathcart dispersed his companies in different directions, and soon found himself with only about 400 men of Torrens’ brigade at his disposal. At this point, General Airey came to him with orders from Raglan to move to his left and plug a gap that was developing between the 2nd Division and the Guards. Upon Cathcart’s disputing the order, Airey told him, “Support the Brigade of Guards. Do not descend or leave the plateau. . . Those are Lord Raglan’s orders.” Cathcart suspected that, not for the first time in his estimation, Airey was issuing his own orders in Raglan’s name. When Airey had gone, he moved his men to the right, off the plateau into a valley against Russian troops who soon fell back before them.

Suddenly they found themselves under fire from the rear. Thinking that the Guards had mistaken them for Russians, Cathcart ordered his men to shed their greatcoats and reveal their red tunics, but the fire only intensified. In his eagerness, Cathcart had moved too far to the right, and the Russians were now on the ridge between him and the Guards. He was virtually surrounded, and his men were fast running out of ammunition. “I fear we are in a mess,” he observed. Cathcart and Torrens both led desperate assaults uphill against the Russians, first in one direction, then another. Torrens was wounded in one of these attacks, and then Cathcart himself fell dead, shot through the chest. The remnants of his men eventually cut their way back through the enemy to rejoin the Guards.

On Cathcart’s body was found an unposted letter, pierced by a bullet. It was to his wife, concerning the battle of Balaklava. In it, Cathcart implied that his division had not been sent for until after the charge of the Light Brigade, and that they had been 6 miles away at the time. This less than honest version of events indicates that Cathcart had come to rue his actions on the day of the battle. He had made the mistake of keeping his head when all about him were losing theirs, and had to face the fact that in the kingdom of the lunatics, the sane man is an outcast. If only Lucan had been as resolute as he, all would have been well, but Lucan had quailed and the Light Brigade had been lost.Viscount Hardinge, the Commander-in-Chief of the British army, would later say of Lucan, “It is to be regretted that . . . he did not decide upon his own judgment . . . that the charge ought not to be made.” Cathcart had used his discretion to ignore an unwise order, but he understood double standards enough to know that he would never be given credit for it.

It may have been of some comfort to him could he have known that within less than 8 months Raglan too would be dead, similarly disillusioned and guilt-ridden.


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