The correspondence between Lord RAGLAN and Lord LUCAN, for the first time made public in the debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday night, affords a signal instance of the wisdom of that rule which requires us to hear both sides before we come to a conclusion. When the passions are excited, as recently, by any great calamity or flagrant miscarriage, nothing is more natural than to pounce on the first person who can be found near the spot, and lay upon his head the whole of the indignation with which we are surcharged. This is but an imperfect administration of justice, and we therefore sincerely rejoice that, instead of hazarding a premature opinion on the ex parte statement of Lord LUCAN, we have waited for Lord RAGLAN’s answer, and are now in a condition to do fair and impartial justice between the parties.
On the morning of the 25th October Lord Lucan, Lieutenant-General commanding the Cavalry of the British army, received from Lord Raglan the following order:—
“The cavalry to advance, and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the heights. They will be supported by infantry, which has been ordered to advance on two fronts.”
Now, as far as we have been able to gather from the correspondence between the two Generals, this order was treated by Lord Lucan as what diplomatists call “non avenu,” — that is, it was completely set aside and neglected. Instead of being supported by infantry, Lord Lucan says the cavalry was formed to support an “intended movement of the infantry,” and so little endeavour had Lord Lucan made “to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the heights,” that he “knew not where or what he was to attack, as neither enemy nor guns were in sight.” We, of course, do not presume to offer an opinion as to the expediency of the order in a military point of view; but it seems difficult to acquit Lord Lucan of great slackness in the discharge of his duty, in not having made at least some attempt towards executing it. In the course of the day Lord Lucan received a second order from Lord Raglan which effectually roused him from his inactivity, and led to the catastrophe which destroyed, while it immortalized, the Light Brigade of our cavalry. This order has often been printed, but, for facility of reference and comparison with the former order now for the first time laid open to public discussion, we subjoin a copy:—
“Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns. Troop of horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry on your left. Immediate.
B. [sic] Airey.”
Upon the construction of this document depends the question at issue between the Generals. If it fairly authorised and enjoined the desperate charge which took place, Lord Lucan is exonerated from the lamentable consequences; if it did not, the blame of this terrible disaster must rest between Lord Raglan and his Quartermaster-General. A few preliminary observations suggest themselves. Lord Lucan has argued his case as if this latter order were the only one he had received. In so doing we readily acquit him of all intentional disingenuousness, for, to say truth, he seems to have treated the former order completely as a nullity, and not to have allowed it to dwell for an instant upon his mind. It is only fair, however, to construe the two orders together, and, if there be anything doubtful in the one, to explain it by reference to the other. A second observation is, that Lord Lucan has no right to shelter himself under the defence of exact and mechanical obedience to an order, a considerable portion of which he never obeyed at all. He did, indeed, advance rapidly, and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns, but he took with him no horse artillery, and made no effort to enter into communication with, or secure the co-operation of the French cavalry, who he was informed were on his left. His defence is blind military obedience, and in that blind military obedience, so far as regards two matters out of three, he completely failed.
It remains to consider what was the fair construction that an officer placed in Lord Lucan’s position ought to have put upon the order. In other words, was Lord Raglan justified in stating in his despatch on the 28th of October that, "from some misconception of the instruction to advance, the Lieutenant-General considered he was bound to attack at all hazards" ? Orders given on sudden emergencies to officers considered to be capable of entering into the spirit in which they are conceived are not to be scanned by the same rules as a legal document, or passed through the crucible of verbal criticism. Enough that they convey in rough and ready language the outline of the duty to be performed, without affecting precision or descending to detail. We think the fair construction of these two orders was, that Lord Lucan was to hang upon the retreating enemy, ready to recover the heights or the guns, as opportunity might offer, using for the purpose all the cavalry at his disposal, the horse artillery, the French cavalry, and any infantry that might be available. There is nothing in the wording of the orders to show that Lord Raglan contemplated his charging with the whole of the Light Cavalry Brigade, supported only by two regiments of the heavy cavalry, without field artillery and without the French, not upon a retreating enemy, but upon one drawn up in deadly array to receive them, with batteries forming three sides of a square, ready to open upon their advance, and guarded by heavy masses of troops. We think therefore that the victory of Lord Raglan over Lord Lucan is complete, and that Lord Lucan both misconceived the order, and failed to execute it in the sense in which he himself must have understood it. We can attach no weight whatever to the words with which Captain Nolan is said to have accompanied the delivery of the order. The paper spoke for itself, and no verbal interpretation of its bearer could add anything to it or take anything from it.
The mistake into which Lord Lucan fell is probably to be accounted for, though it cannot be justified, by an ambiguity in the words “the guns.” The guns that Lord Raglan was thinking of were undoubtedly the English guns in the redoubt just taken from the Turks, which, being very heavy, and probably without limbers, could only be moved slowly and with difficulty, while Lord Lucan seems to have understood the order to have applied to the Russian field guns, which were of course perfectly mobile, and defended by the whole strength of LIPRANDI’s army. Not to insist on the manifest absurdity of ordering a brigade of cavalry to storm three sets of batteries, defended by a considerable army, Lord Lucan ought to have remembered that the disaster of the day was the loss of the guns in the redoubt, and that the reference to the heights in the first order clearly pointed to the English, and not the Russian guns. Had the latter been meant, the expression certainly would have been “his” or “their” guns; not only, therefore, did Lord Lucan misconceive the order, but he appears to have been without any reasonable ground for such misconception, and it is not fitting that officers so little gifted with the powers of understanding or executing orders should be intrusted with the lives of men or the honour of nations.