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Lucan, Cardigan and Raglan’s Order

By Major Colin Robins


From the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 75 (1997), 86-92

by kind permission of the author


It appears to be universally accepted by military historians that the disaster of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava was due to Lucan and/or Cardigan mistaking the target that Raglan intended the cavalry to attack. There is a clear inference that had they attacked the Russians in and around the Turkish redoubts — which is what Raglan intended — then the disaster would have been avoided. The point has been made powerfully by Raglan’s three distinguished apologists, Kinglake 1, Hibbert 2 and recently Sweetman. 3 After visiting the scene of the charge, photographing it from every angle (including from Raglan’s view-point on the Sapouné Heights), and studying a contoured map and large-scale relief model, the writer has become convinced that an attack on the redoubts would have led to at least as great a disaster as the actual charge, and that Raglan’s order was just as foolish in its intended form as in the way it was executed.

The number of published works devoted largely, or wholly, to the charge fills several book-cases, but it is difficult to think of one which uses any of the contoured maps which are available 4 and many use sketch maps in which high ground is but crudely suggested. Most claim to be to scale, but few are: non-existent roads appear in several. Even the graphic ‘three-dimensional drawings’ in the latest popular, coloured, card-backed works 5 simplify, and thus inevitably distort, the true nature of the ground. A visit to the actual scene, supplemented by study of the contoured map (and model), gives a new perspective on the events.

The background facts are well-known. As an outer ring of defence for Balaclava, six forts or ‘redoubts’ were sited along the Causeway Heights, which were a little less than three miles north of the harbour. By 25 October only the four easternmost forts had been partly completed (numbered ‘1’ to ‘4’ from the east) and had been occupied by Turkish troops. As it was too difficult to bring up the Turks’ own artillery they were lent, on Raglan’s orders, ten iron land service guns of position6 by the British artillery and these were served by Turkish artillerymen, but to each redoubt went one or two British gunners from W Battery in case the borrowers were unfamiliar with their ally’s ordnance.7

A massive assault in separate columns began at day-break on the twenty-fifth. The Russian sources quoted by Seaton 8 (Jocelyn 9 gives similar numbers) state the force as:

From the Baidar valley in the east, towards Kamara and Redoubt ‘1’:
3 battalions of infantry (bns), 1 squadron of cavalry (sqn), and 10 guns,under Gribbe.
From Tchergoun, in the north-west, towards Kadikoi and Redoubts ‘2’ and ‘3’:
8 bns, and 20 guns, in two columns under Semiakin and Levutsky.
From Traktir Bridge, towards Redoubt ‘3’:
4 bns, 1 sqn and 6 guns, under Skiudieri, and 20 sqns and 20 guns, under Ryzhov. (A reserve of 1 bn and 8 guns was left near the bridge, and 6 sqns under Eropkin also hung back in the North valley.)
From the Tchernaya mouth, to take and hold the Fedoukine Heights:
8bns, 4 sqns and 14 guns, under Zhabokritsky.

Giving a total engaged of over 15,000 infantry,10 4000 cavalry and 78 guns. (This surely makes the bald statement of J S Curtiss — whose controversial book 11 always prefers the Russian, or failing that the French, view to the British account of events — that this was but a ‘reconnaissance in force’ by the Russians and not a serious attempt to seize Balaclava, very hard to accept.)

As Russian cavalry and infantry poured into the North valley, our own cavalry fell back, and first I Troop RHA and then W Battery made good practice from beside Redoubt ‘3’, before also giving way, as ammunition was expended, 12 to the greatly superior numbers of the enemy. Inevitably the First Redoubt, on Canrobert's Hill, fell despite determined resistance from its Turkish garrison. 13 The guns in it were probably not spiked, but as Redoubts ‘2’, ‘3’, and ‘4’ fell in succession, with Turkish resistance evaporating as the enemy hordes approached, the British gunners spiked those guns before withdrawing. 14

The repulse of the Russian cavalry by the 93rd Highlanders (at a much greater distance than is shown in most illustrations of the incident) supported by W Battery, and the successful charge of the Heavy Brigade followed. Meanwhile the Russians had decided that Redoubt ‘4’ could not be held, and had broken the gun carriages and tumbled the three British guns down the hill out of the fort. 15 They held the first three redoubts in considerable strength, including artillery, and they had some thirty guns in or near them. On the Fedoukine Heights, opposite, were 6000 troops and 14 guns. At the head of the valley there were at least another 6000 infantry, and 18 guns, and a little way up the valley towards the British position there were either 12, or more probably 8, guns. 16 At the eastern end of the valley the mass of Russian cavalry waited — at least twenty squadrons, apart from the six lancer squadrons in reserve.

The Russian artillery was efficient, and up-to-date in its equipment and training. And there was a lot of it. They had 6 and l2pdr guns, 9 and l8 pdr howitzers, (all muzzle-loading and unrifled), firing round shot and explosive shells accurate up to 1000 metres, and case shot effective only up to about 200 metres and better below 100. 17

And so to the charge. Starting from opposite Redoubt ‘4’, the brigade charged steadily downhill 18 for about a mile and a quarter, and were then among the Russian guns who had ventured up the valley, cutting their way through them and then the cavalry behind as is familiar from many eye-witness accounts. As Russians fell back, and many did, they were uncomfortably aware of the proximity of the aqueduct and the Tchernaya river, the latter crossed by a single bridge and with one ford, but each an obvious bottle-neck if withdrawal was necessary, and confusion if not panic reigned in many. Two Russian eye-witnesses, Kubitovich, a lancer, and Kozhukhov, an artillery officer, respectively commented: 19

The Don Battery and 12 Horse Battery and all the cavalry were soon milling about at the river, all trying to get over the bridge, while the English chased them . . .

There in a small area at the exit of the gorge, were four Russian horse regiments stampeding around . . .

and the confusion included Russians firing on their own side, both when mixed with British troops and when alone. 20

Of course, the whole way down the valley the brigade was fired upon by the Russian artillery, and those infantry equipped with rifles — although only a few men in the normal infantry battalion had these, a specialist rifle battalion was deployed on the Fedoukine Heights. Musket fire would have been of relatively little consequence except when ranges became very small. Similarly, the artillery fire with most effect would have been the case shot at short range, though roundshot and shells would kill and maim men and animals, particularly when they were massed together in formation.

 
View across North Valley

An attack by the cavalry alone, down the valley and to the redoubts, would surely have been at least as, if not more, hazardous. The distance to Redoubt ‘3’ was not much less than the distance to the guns in the open valley. Redoubts ‘2’ and ‘1’ were even further away and less accessible. The brigade would have had to veer across the valley. The guns in the valley and those on the Fedoukine Heights and at the head of the valley would all have fired as range permitted. The Russian cavalry in the valley would have been able to attack our cavalry in the flank or rear, instead of facing it head on. There would have been no Russian panic as their troops concentrated near the limited exit routes. But most significant of all, the ride would have been not gently downhill but, in its latter stages, quite steeply uphill, and there were earthworks protecting the Russians and their guns, whereas in the valley they were unprotected in the open. The whole point of the redoubts was that they had been selected as a natural defensive position, and the British force which was ordered against them was some 660 cavalry, whereas the Russians had used eleven battalions (say 7000 men) and 30 guns to take the same forts from an irregular force. And most of those Russians were still in or near the redoubts at the end of the day.21

Kinglake wrote emphatically, and modern writers 22 have echoed him, that if the redoubts had been threatened, they would have been quickly evacuated, as Redoubt ‘4’ was, even before it was attacked. The sense of Raglan’s plan depends on this, but it is a dangerous military philosophy for an attacker to follow, and overlooks that the appreciation by the Russians that Redoubt ‘4’ could not easily be defended was sound — one of the few sound military judgments made by either side that day! The other redoubts were very different and with the troops the Russians had available could have been defended for months, as indeed they were. (Redoubt ‘1’, Canrobert's Hill, was held by them until April 1855.) Intriguingly, Kinglake offers, 23 as evidence that he was right on this, the testimony of Russian engineer Todleben that the four Odessa battalions, which were drawn up on the Causeway ridge, fell back and formed square as the cavalry rode down the valley. But Todleben’s French text which Kinglake quotes as saying that they moved from in front of Redoubt ‘3’, actually says from near to Redoubt ‘4’ and does not mention Redoubt ‘3’ at all: that is Kinglake’s imaginative interpretation of it. No one disputes that the fourth fort was not retained but taken and then abandoned. The very troops mentioned by Todleben and Kinglake were those who, with a light battery, had advanced and captured Redoubt ‘4’ and then withdrawn. 24 That withdrawal was planned, and not a response to the movement of allied troops. And when they did, it was sensible that the infantry should form square behind the armed and fortified redoubts, for their own protection as well as to allow those in the forts unrestricted fire. The light battery remained where it could fire on the Light Brigade charge, and did: this was the main gun fire from the Causeway. (The Russian guns in the redoubts could not conveniently fire at the Light Brigade in the valley, but would have had good practice firing at such cavalry approaching them.) There is not a shred of evidence to the writer’s knowledge that Redoubts ‘3’, ‘2’ and ‘1’ were abandoned at any time that day, or would have been if the cavalry had approached them.

The writer is not, of course, advocating that the charge which took place was a sensible act of war, but the attack which Raglan thought he was ordering was surely of the same order of military lunacy. Even Redoubt ‘3’ was a daunting task and Redoubts ‘2’ and ‘1’ were much stronger. The only reasonable way to re-take the redoubts was by infantry, supported by cavalry and artillery, moving down the line of the Causeway Heights, attacking each fort in its turn, and this is indeed what Raglan had originally intended and ordered. 25 It was how Cathcart and his division (eventually) made such progress as was made. 26 It is thought that seeing the Russian horse teams begin to drag away the British guns made Raglan’s staff act impulsively and without judgment — they ‘lost their heads’. They pressed their commander to order a foolish course, which would have led to the destruction of the Light Brigade even if carried out entirely as Raglan intended. It is suggested that he was lucky that in the event he could blame someone else for the failure, and that his own last order was not followed and thus tested and exposed. As it was the comparative casualties were: 27

  killed wounded guns lost
Russian 238 312  
British 163 181 7

(This is presumably the justification for claiming Balaclava as a victory and awarding it as a battle honour.)

Would as many Russians have fallen, and would many British have been spared, if the redoubts had been attacked, as Raglan’s order is commonly assumed to have intended, by the Light Brigade alone? The writer, for one, doubts if the result of a very foolish order would have been much different, however it was executed.


  1. A. W. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, (several editions, 9 vols in the most popular ‘Cabinet edition’, London, 1877-88).
  2. Christopher Hibbert, The Destruction of Lord Raglan (London, 1961).
  3. John Sweetman, Raglan (London, 1993),
  4. Since this article was prepared a notable exception has been published: Mark Adkin's The Charge: The real reason why the Light Brigade was lost (London, 1996). The contoured map which has been widely available, but neglected, for over a hundred years is in Major Delafield’s Report to the United States Congress (1860). It is based on that produced in 1856 by the French engineer corps, and therefore shows camps and roads present then, but not in Oct. 1854, so careful disregard of those is necessary. Another contoured map, of about the same date but by the Sardinians, confirms the important features of the ground. The present writer is indebted to Mark Adkin, the author named above, for drawing the latter map to his attention.
  5. For example, John Sweetman, Balaclava 1854 (London, 1990), p.54
  6. There have been conflicting descriptions of these, and even the number is variously quoted as from nine to eleven. A full analysis of the point in the writer’s article ‘The Redoubt guns’, The War Correspondent (journal of the Crimean War Research Society) 11, No 4 (1994) 28, leads to the conclusion that there were three in each of Redoubts ‘1’ and ‘4’ and two each in ‘2’ and ‘3’ making a total of ten. The best authority has surely to be the RA staff officer who had the task of reconciling the numbers of all the guns landed for use in the war, with those remaining at the end: Reilly. See his Account of the Artillery Operations before Sebastopol (London, 1859), p 242.
  7. These gunners were not of course ‘in charge of the redoubts,’ the absurd claim of a modern author. [They are often described as NCOs though this is very doubtful: the three afterwards decorated by the French or Sardinians were certainly not — see J. R. J. Jocelyn, The History of the Royal Artillery, Crimean Period (London, 1911), p.200.]
  8. Alfred Seaton, The Crimean War, a Russian Chronicle (London, 1977), p. 142.
  9. Jocelyn, History of the Royal Artillery, Crimean Period, p. 196.
  10. A Russian battalion was of four companies, each of 250 men at full strength, and a brigade was of two regiments, each of three or four battalions. Thus a full-strength brigade would have had 6000 to 8000 men. In fact, understrength, they probably took the field about 5000 strong.
  11. J. S. Curtiss, Russia’s Crimean War (1979), p.321.
  12. I Troop had gone to battle without its ammunition wagons as these were being used to carry up ammunition from Balaclava for the trenches. It was not an oversight on their part, as one modern author has suggested!
  13. This is yet another matter of dispute, and most letters home spoke of the Turks’ cowardice, but 170 of them were killed in Redoubt ‘1’ and the official despatch of Sir Colin Campbell, quoted in various works including H. Tyrell’s History of the War with Russia (6 vols, London, 1855-8), ii, 312, makes no criticism of the behaviour of those in Redoubt ‘1’. It is however probably fair to accept that the Turks in the other redoubts did not show the same fortitude, though unfair to criticise them for this, as they had seen our cavalry and artillery fall back leaving them in a very exposed position. The loss of Redoubt ‘1’ after attack from huge numbers would have led them (reasonably) to assume that the other redoubts could not be denied to the enemy for long.
  14. Sir Colin Campbell’s despatch, again in Tyrell, History of the War with Russia, ii, 312.
  15. Recorded by Liprandi, quoted in Tyrrel, History of the War with Russia, ii, 314. These three guns were later recovered by the British, and brought to account by Reilly!
  16. Yet another point of contention. Most authors say there were 12 but the Marquess of Anglesey in his History of the British Cavalry (7 vols so far, London, 1973-96), ii, 92, prefers F. A. Whinyates who, in his own work, From Sebastopol to Corunna (London, 1884), p. 176, based on the views of the expert eye-witnesses in C Troop RHA, especially Lt Fox-Strangways, nephew of the artillery commander killed a few days later at Inkerman, agrees with the Russian accounts which say there were only 8, i.e. No.3 Don Battery.
  17. Case shot was in a thin metal container which disintegrated at the muzzle, dispersing its load of small ‘bullets’ (immediately) over a wide area: a most unpleasant short-range weapon. It is to be distinguished from: ‘shrapnel’, which in a more substantial shell case carried its similar load of ‘bullets’ much further until a pre-set fuse exploded the shell; and from ‘grape-shot’, which was much larger balls held on a ‘skeleton’ frame and again carried further. Most authorities do not mention the Russian artillery as using grapeshot, but Whinyates’ principal eye-witness (Fox-Strangways) refers to its use several times and even finds the remains of it at the scene of the the charge when this could be visited in May 1855, Whinyates, From Sebastopol to Corunna, pp.178,232.
  18. The ground falls steadily and fairly uniformly from the start of the charge to the bridge over the Tchernaya, and drops some 200 feet in the first mile. Although most eye-witness accounts do not mention the charge as being downhill, several including Cardigan and Scarlett do refer to the return as being uphill.
  19. Quoted in Seaton, The Crimean War, a Russian Chronicle, p. 150.
  20. A uhlan (hussar) officer, quoted in Seaton, The Crimean War, a Russian Chronicle, p150.
  21. Liprandi’s despatch, quoted by Tyrell, History of the War with Russia, ii, 315.
  22. For example, the Marquess of Anglesey, History of British Cavalry, ii, 90.
  23. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, V, 514.
  24. Liprandi’s despatch, Tyrell, History of the War with Russia, ii, 314.
  25. And note the words of RHA officer Fox-Strangways, who watched most of the events of the day and is quoted in Whinyates, From Sevastopol to Corunna, p. 162: ‘There was no other safe way of attempting to re-take the position than by advancing along the crests and slopes of the ridge, and winning it back bit by bit.’
  26. It is strange that Cathcart has not been more criticised for the desperately late start and slow progress of his division, despite the repeated orders from Raglan. Was he the real culprit that day, in causing the circumstances in which the foolish order came to be issued?
  27. As quoted by Adye, in A Review of the Crimean War (London, 1860), p.109.

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