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Evidence and Belief: Captain Nolan’s Final Moments

By David Kelsey

Based upon the author’s note in
Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research
Vol. 81 No. 325 (Spring 2003) p.70


One of the enduring myths of the Crimean War is that as the Light Brigade started to advance down the North Valley during the battle of Balaklava, Captain Nolan tried to divert its course. His purpose and motivation have been dwelt upon at such length in print and on film that it is sometimes forgotten that in fact very little is known about what exactly Nolan did on that occasion.

It is beguilingly easy to fall into circular reasoning, and to infer Nolan’s intent from what he did while inferring what he did from his intent. Woodham-Smith wrote that Lord Cardigan believed that Nolan was ‘trying . . . to lead the charge himself.’ 1 Is that a statement of Nolan’s actions, or of Nolan’s purpose? It may be either; it may be both. Language itself can be an obstacle to clear thought.

Putting aside all considerations as to Nolan’s mind, let us consider what we know about his deeds during those few moments between the start of the advance and his death. Kinglake 2 is a popular source of information for many writers, but his account was not published until more than thirteen years after the event, so let us look first at two early accounts. Neither inspires any great confidence in its reliability.

Lord Cardigan said: ‘we had not advanced 20 yards before Captain Nolan, who was galloping about in front at about the distance of 100 yards from the Light Brigade, and in no way leading the charge, was killed by a shell.’ 3 Cardigan’s insistence that Nolan was not leading the charge sounds like a defence of his own self-esteem. If Nolan was 100 yards in front of the brigade, he must surely have been ahead of its commander. Cardigan’s statement here contradicts Woodham-Smith’s account of his views, but it embodies the same ambiguity inherent in the word ‘leading.’

Somerset Calthorpe wrote: ‘Poor Nolan galloped some way in front of the brigade, waving his sword and encouraging his men by voice and gesture. Before they had gone any distance the enemy’s guns opened on them at long range. Nolan was the first man killed.’ 4 The reference to ‘his’ men shows Calthorpe to be less than exact. He leaves us in doubt as to whether he saw these events himself or is relaying hearsay.

Kinglake devoted pages to his hypothesis that Nolan was trying to turn the direction of the cavalry’s attack away from the guns in the valley towards the guns on the heights. Panning nuggets of fact from Kinglake’s silt of speculation is not easy, because he favoured a vocabulary rich in the sort of ambiguity we have already encountered. He did say, however, ‘Right before him he [Cardigan] saw Captain Nolan . . . riding across his front from left to right; . . . Nolan, turning round in his saddle, was shouting and waving his sword. . . . he rode crossing the front of the brigade, and bearing away to the right front of our advancing squadrons.’

Kinglake’s diagram

To illustrate this statement, Kinglake appended a footnote: ‘This diagram, by an officer who was one of the nearest of all the observers, points out the way in which Nolan’s direction deviated from that of Lord Cardigan:-’ 5

This is very specific evidence, but there is no scale, and nothing by which to set it in place or time. Its source is anonymous. This is worrying, because Kinglake sometimes misrepresented his evidence, 6 and it is hard to imagine why the officer who provided it would not have wanted his name revealed.

These accounts do not tell us Nolan’s starting position. Extrapolating Kinglake’s diagram backwards suggests that Nolan came from the left wing of the 17th Lancers. As an officer riding with the Regiment but not belonging to it, that is where he should have been. Modern accounts tend to place him alongside Captain Morris in the centre of the Regiment. Kinglake did not specify whence he started; he wrote, ‘he [Nolan] had just been speaking to Morris . . . but the moment the brigade began to advance . . . he began to move diagonally across the front,’ 7 leaving it uncertain whether ‘just’ implies that Nolan was still with Morris, or had had time to take station on the left wing.

We do not know whether Nolan rode a straight course, a dog-leg course, or a winding course. Cardigan said he was ‘galloping about,’ suggesting random movement. Calthorpe said he was ‘encouraging his men,’ which would imply leading them straight ahead. Kinglake said he ‘rode bearing away to the right front,’ suggesting a course either on a straight diagonal, or curving increasingly towards the right.

In all the thirteen years and more since the event, nobody else had suggested that Nolan had ridden diagonally across the front of the brigade. That was Kinglake’s innovation, one immediately disputed by an officer who had been present. 8 To support it Kinglake offered only two pieces of evidence: the anonymous diagram, and an appeal to Cardigan as a witness. Kinglake wrote in a footnote: ‘Lord Cardigan, however, in writing addressed to myself, has distinctly confirmed the statements which show that Nolan was riding diagonally across the front of the brigade.’ 9 This sentence warrants careful study.

  1. The ‘writing addressed to myself’ is presumably the Statement laid before Mr. Kinglake by Lord Cardigan which Kinglake reproduced as an appendix. 10 In fewer than 500 words it covers the whole of the charge from the receipt of the order to the exchange of words with Lord Raglan afterwards. In it Cardigan wrote: ‘After advancing about eighty yards, a shell fell within reach of my horse’s feet, and Captain Nolan, who was riding across the front retreated with his arm up through the intervals of the brigade.’ The statement later implies that at that time Cardigan was unaware that Nolan had been mortally wounded. This account is inconsistent with Cardigan’s earlier version quoted above, and is equally unsatisfactory as a definitive description of Nolan’s movements. Neither version describes his course as diagonal.
  2. ‘Confirmed’ is ambiguous, meaning either the specific ‘seen and endorsed,’ or the general ‘made statements similar to.’ The insertion of ‘distinctly’ implies the former, but if the reference is to the account in the appendix, then the latter is the proper interpretation.
  3. The definite article in ‘the statements’ implies that they have already been specified, or soon will be specified. In fact neither is true. These statements (we are not told whether they were verbal or written) would have constituted the primary evidence in support of Kinglake’s description of Nolan’s movements, and yet this indirect reference is the only mention he made of them.
  4. The sentence does not claim that the statements said that Nolan rode diagonally, only that they showed he did so, leaving open the possibility that this was but Kinglake’s inference from them. When arguing in favour of a fixed belief, Kinglake sometimes took an extravagant view of what constituted supporting evidence. In his second volume, for example, he had claimed that Lyons’ orders to the fleet proved the absolute accuracy of Lord Raglan’s statement that a buoy was to be placed to separate the allied fleets. 11 In fact the orders made no mention of any buoys. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the statements said nothing about Nolan’s movements.
  5. The third word of the sentence (‘however’) would be appropriate only if the text to which it refers had thrown doubt on the statements, but that is not so. The footnote is appended to Kinglake’s extended flight of imagination as to what Nolan was intending to convey by the direction of his travel, ending with ‘This, this is the way to get at the enemy!’ From that point we are taken to the footnote: ‘Lord Cardigan, however, in writing addressed to myself . . . ’ The word ‘however’ does not make sense in this context. One possibility is that an earlier draft of the body text had described the statements, with information which weakened their impact, demanding the footnote to shore them up again. Kinglake subsequently may have thought better of being too frank, revised the text to exclude the statements, but failed to amend the footnote to suit.

Whatever its derivation, the effect of the sentence is unmistakable. All that was necessary was a simple reference to the appendix, but by convoluted phraseology Kinglake contrived to entice unwary readers into supposing not only that they had been presented with additional evidence, but that Cardigan had seen and endorsed it. Cardigan could not dispute the implication, having died a few months before its publication.

The dramatic power of Kinglake’s theory has enabled it to persist without adequate evidence. Woodham-Smith did not accept it. She concluded that Nolan ‘did believe the attack was to be down the North Valley’ 12 against the Russian guns and had instructed Lord Lucan accordingly, yet such is the lure of Kinglake’s story that still she wondered whether, as the Light Brigade began to advance, Nolan may have ‘suddenly realised that his interpretation of the order had been wrong.’ 13

A desire to believe the story is understandable, but when its romantic appeal prevents proper analysis of Kinglake’s deceptive presentation of the facts, then the integrity of historical research is in danger. In 1971 it seemed as if new evidence had emerged tending to confirm Kinglake’s claim to have Cardigan’s support for his theory. In his biography of Nolan, Moyse-Bartlett wrote:

Nor could it be held that an officer of Nolan’s quality would attempt, while the brigade was advancing at a trot, to pass its commander at the gallop except in the execution of some desperate purpose. In time even Cardigan came to accept this. ‘I have no reason,’ he wrote to Kinglake, ‘for supposing that Nolan had the least idea of the mistake which was about to be perpetrated, until he saw the brigade begin to advance without having first changed front. After that . . . he did not lose a moment in his efforts to rescue the brigade from the error into which he then saw it falling.’ 14

These are astonishing words, quite unlike other letters from Cardigan to Kinglake in style and substance. The reason is not far to seek — they are not Cardigan’s words, they are Kinglake’s, from the continuation of the footnote quoted above, extracted from that provenance, enclosed in inverted commas, and wrongly attributed to Cardigan as direct speech by a careless author. The ellipsis in the false quotation conceals Kinglake’s tell-tale words ‘if my interpretation be right’.

All who use Kinglake as a source should heed Moyse-Bartlett’s error. To make safe use of Kinglake one must read him with scepticism, demand clear and reliable sources for his claims, remember that often his intent is to persuade rather than to inform, be alert to what he avoids saying, and regard his every equivocation as a dissimulation. To approach Kinglake with reverence is to step onto a greasy slope which leads from being his innocent victim to being his guilty accomplice in the perversion of history.


1. C. Woodham-Smith, The Reason Why (London, 1958), p.240.
2. A.W. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, (8 vols, London, 1863-1887), iv, 211-6.
3. The Times (London, 20 Mar. 1855), p.5, reporting Lord Cardigan’s speech in the House of Lords debate of 19 Mar. 1855.
4. Lt-Col. S.J.G.Calthorpe, Letters From Headquarters (1856).
5. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, iv, 211-2.
6. D. Kelsey, ‘More on the Buoy’, The War Correspondent 18/1(Apr. 2000), pp. 29-31, on Kinglake’s misrepresentation of Lyons’ orders to the fleet, and his attribution of Lt. Garnault’s journal to Admiral Hamelin.
7. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, iv, 213.
8. The Times (London, 28 July 1868), p.3, letter from Fitz Maxse, who had been with Cardigan as his aide: ‘I have no recollection of his’ (Nolan’s) ‘divergence in the manner described by Mr. Kinglake either by deed or gesture until after he was struck.’
9. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, iv, 212.
10. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, iv, 362.
11. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, ii, 174. See note 6 above.
12. Woodham-Smith, The Reason Why, p. 234.
13. Woodham-Smith, The Reason Why, p. 240.
14. Hubert Moyse-Bartlett, Louis Edward Nolan and his influence on the British Cavalry (London, 1971), pp. 243-4.

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