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
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.’
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
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.
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,
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.