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Raglan Deluded on Sapoune

yet another reason why

By David Kelsey

Ever since Woodham-Smith’s seminal work, much has been made of the personalities of Lucan and Cardigan, and the bitterness between them. Nolan’s motivation too has been extensively analysed. Lord Raglan’s psyche, however, has escaped a similar probing. Reviewing the 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade, George Macdonald Fraser wrote, Lord Raglan was an ass, but not the kind of an ass John Gielgud makes him. Just what kind of an ass was he, then? For ‘ass’ you may substitute ‘hero’, ‘villain’, ‘martyr’, or what you will — the question still stands. Raglan is usually portrayed as a curiously colourless figure, an amiable old buffer out of his depth through no fault of his own. Yet there are signs of a darker side to his character.

What, for example, are we to make of his predilection for slighting those next in line to him in favour of their subordinates? He connived with Lyons against Dundas, he encouraged Cardigan against Lucan until the latter had to protest in writing, and he sought Sir George Brown’s advice rather than Cathcart’s despite the latter’s dormant commission. Could it be that Raglan was one of those office tyrants who play petty power games, believing that this is what is meant by being in command? The events of 25 October lend some credence to this view.

There had already developed a disturbing gap between the realities of the situation and Lord Raglan’s perception of it. His failure to make an early attack upon Sebastopol would have been redeemed if his assumption that bombardment would prepare the way for a successful infantry assault had been correct, but it had already been proved false. Raglan, however, refused to acknowledge it. When the Russian attack came, as some of his officers had for days expected it would, he initially dismissed it as an attempt to distract him from the siege. Only reluctantly and belatedly did he order infantry down to the plain.

He then adopted a new fiction: that he was in position at the start of the battle. The redoubts had never been much more than a particularly strong picket line, good for long enough to allow the main force to prepare to receive the enemy. They had performed their function, but to no avail, because Raglan had made no plan to use the time which they bought, so he erased two hours from his consciousness and pretended that the redoubts had been abandoned as soon as the Russians appeared.

With the Allies’ position in serious danger, he turned his attention to scoring a point against Lucan. The cavalry was covering the left flank of the 93rd Highlanders, and its commander might soon have an opportunity to distinguish himself. Raglan ordered him to withdraw from the area of engagement and take ground to the left of the second line of redoubts. This order (‘the first order’) shows Raglan not merely indulging in petty spite at a critical moment, but totally misrepresenting the physical position of his forces. There was only a single line of six redoubts, running approximately east-west in a shallow curve, the middle two north of the Worontzov Road and the others south of it. An observer looking at them from Lord Raglan’s position might see them as two lines, but only if he had no prior knowledge of their location, totally failed to appreciate the foreshortening effect of a telescopic lens, and seriously underestimated the distances between them.

The first order was so blatantly wrong that it had to be reversed at once, but to order all the cavalry to return would have been to admit a mistake, so only eight of the Heavy Brigade’s ten squadrons were sent back (‘the second order’). The spurious precision served to imply that fine calculation lay behind the haphazard manoeuvres.

These two orders imperilled both the 93rd Highlanders and the Heavies, but in the stand of the thin red line and the charge of the Heavy Brigade the steadfastness of their leaders and the courage of their men averted the disasters to which Lord Raglan had exposed them. There then followed a long lull during which signs of his confusion multiplied.

An ill-informed remark that the Russians seemed to be preparing to remove our guns from the redoubts was now enough to create the ultimate fantasy — that the enemy was in retreat. Lord Raglan issued his 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. There are two further elements of delusion here. In the first place, the infantry had been ordered to support Campbell, not the cavalry. More revealing of Raglan’s state of mind, however, is the grandiloquent assertion that the infantry were to advance on two fronts, when in fact they were simply marching through allied-held territory towards the front line. Here is a clear sign that in his mind’s eye Lord Raglan was painting a fanciful picture which he found easier to contemplate than the harsh realities which faced him in fact.

In an attempt at ex post facto justification he diverted the 4th Division towards the heights, but still without telling them that they were to support the cavalry. Not surprisingly neither Lucan nor Cathcart, down on the plain in the real world, saw his orders in the same light as Lord Raglan, up on Sapoune swathed in clouds of wish-fulfilment fantasies.

A half hour passed during which the Russians made no movement. Clearly the supposition that they were retreating had been mistaken. Nobody drew Lord Raglan’s attention to this. It was by now evident to those with him that Raglan had lost his composure and was acting in an unusually agitated fashion. In this condition he dictated the fatal fourth order to the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Airey probably knew that this order was ill-omened. When he wrote out the third order, he had started it Cavalry to advance . . . For the fourth order, however, under supposedly more urgent circumstances, he took time to insert a few extra significant words: Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance . . . (my italics). He may have invoked Raglan’s name for added weight, but he had the reputation of regarding his own name to be as good authority as Lord Raglan’s, so it seems more likely that he was preparing to distance himself from the order if need be.

If Lord Raglan had contented himself with watching the battle of Balaklava from his grand-stand location, the outcome may have been more propitious. But he had fallen victim to appearances. Because he was the Commander-in-Chief and had a commanding view, he had inferred that he must be able to command events. In fact he did not have, nor was likely to have, direct control over the action. His ill-judged and mistimed attempts to dictate movements made bad situations worse. His commands went out like petulant thunderbolts flung from Olympus towards the recalcitrant mortals below, but those that did not fizzle out en route misfired upon arrival. As his frustration had increased, so had the irrationality of his orders.

The cavalry did advance rapidly to the front, but the enemy were not retreating and did not fade away at the sight of the advance as Raglan had persuaded himself they would. Instead they resisted fiercely from the positions of strength in which they were firmly established. The sight of the shattered Light Brigade returning up the North Valley brought Raglan down from Sapoune and down to earth with a bump. He attempted bluster. What did you mean, sir, by attacking a battery in front, contrary to all the usages of warfare, and the customs of the service? he demanded of Cardigan, but Cardigan had a cast-iron defence to that. You have lost the Light Brigade, he complained to Lucan, but Lucan waved his own order at him. Raglan was deflated. Lord Lucan, you were a Lieutenant-General and should therefore have exercised your discretion, and, not approving of the charge, should not have caused it to be made — a plaintive whimper from a broken man, not Zeus on Mount Olympus after all, but Captain Queeg on the USS Caine.


No references are supplied with this article, which has been written not so much for the benefit of members (most of whom will already be familiar with its sources) as in the hope of attracting the attention of a TV producer in search of ideas for the next history documentary offering a ‘startling new theory’ of how the Light Brigade came to be lost. — DK

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