The Charge of the Light Brigade: Part I
Sunday, October 25, 2009
posted by Barbara Barrett
THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE:
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
Part I of III
At 11:10 a.m., on October 25, 1854, one hundred fifty-five years ago today, the almost seven hundred men of the Light Brigade stood waiting. The Brigade moved forward when the officer’s trumpeter sounded the “Walk.” It was immediately taken up by the regimental trumpeters to the right and left, so that it could be heard by the whole body of cavalry. When the first line was clear of the second, the order came to “Trot.” The bugles sounded again and the regiment increased its pace to about eight miles an hour. The more experienced cavalry men were adept at judging distances and knew at this pace, it would take them at least seven minutes to reach the enemy.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volumes have been written about the events during that seven minutes. An in-depth analysis of the battle is beyond the scope of this article. Using selections from the book, Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade (2004), the story for this anniversary re-telling is told as much as possible in the voices of the men who rode down that valley. This is possible because the author, Terry Brighton, using his unique access to regimental archives, draws on twenty years of research to tell the story of the survivors, in their own words. Only a small portion of their stories can be told here. This fascinating book is available online and is highly recommended.
Briefly, the official cause of the war was a violent squabble between monks in one of the world’s holiest places. What would eventually lead to the slaughter of the Light Brigade at Balaklava began with bloodshed and murder in Bethlelem’s Church of the Nativity, which Christians believe stands over the site of the stable where Jesus was born.
Church of the Nativity 1833
The Church of the Nativity is located in Palestine, which at that time was part of the Turkish empire. Turkish troops patrolled outside the church to ensure the safety of the pilgrims. However, the real danger was inside. The church was in the joint care of Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic monks. The Orthodox held the key to the front door and the Catholics resented it. When the Orthodox removed the silver star fixed by the Roman Catholics to what they believed to be the precise spot on which the manger stood, the Catholics demanded it be replaced. The Orthodox monks refused and fighting followed. Candlesticks and crucifixes were used as weapons. Somehow, in 1852 the Catholic monks obtained the key to the main door and replaced the star but not without the deaths of several Orthodox monks. The struggle became international when the Orthodox monks appealed to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia who saw himself as protector of Orthodox Christians around the world.
Turkey returned the keys but scoffed at the Tsar’s claim to be the protector of Christians within their empire. Nicholas I responded by sending troops to invade Turkish provinces under the claim of defending the Orthodox religion. Diplomacy was used at first to negotiate but the final result was the Russian Black Sea Fleet left its base at Sevastopol and in a surprise attack on the Turkish fleet at Sinope, sank every ship. The action at Sinope gave Britain a phony reasons for rushing to Turkey’s defense: to oppose the evil designs of a Russian tyrant on a weak neighbors. What is more probable was the Russian’s Black Sea Fleet proved itself at Sinope and the British who reigned supreme on the sea took it as a naval challenge. There were other concerns though. Military officials in London considered the possibility that the Tsar wished to expand his empire, taking Turkey as the first step. France also felt the extension of Russian sea power into the Mediterranean would threaten their overseas possessions. The Crimean War began with England, France and Turkey allied against Russia, who had the largest army in the world.
When called up for duty, the British Cavalry Division was under the command of Lord Raglan. He was an experienced officer with the reputation for failing to give timely and coherent commands. The Cavalry Division embarked for the war with Russia in April 1854. It was composed of two brigades. The Heavy Brigade, made up of five heavy cavalry regiments and the Light Brigade with five light cavalry regiments: the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 8th and 11th Hussars and the 17th Lancers.
In practice there was little difference between the heavy and the light brigades. Traditionally, light cavalry (lighter men on swifter horses) was used to patrol ahead of the army while the heavy cavalry (bigger men on more powerful horses) was held back for the final, decisive charge in a battle. In 1854 the difference was little more than a matter of color: red uniform jackets for the Heavy Brigade and blue for the Light Brigade. The press mocked the appearance of these “peacock regiments” and declared their impractical tight-fitting trousers unfit for war.
Officers in 17th Lancers
There was however a more serious accusation leveled against the Light Brigade as it prepared for war: that its officers, rather than its uniforms were unfit for active service.
The Light Brigade itself was more concerned with the capabilities of their officers than they were about the Cossack guns in the upcoming battles. Lord Lucan had been appointed to command the Cavalry Division in February 1854, placing him in overall command of Heavy and Light Brigades. On April 1st, two brigade commanders were appointed: General Scarlett was given the Heavies and Lord Cardigan the Lights.
Soon after Captain Robert Port of the 40th Light Dragoons wrote home: “We are commanded by one of the greatest old women in the British Army, called the Earl of Cardigan. He has as much brains as my boot. He is only equaled in want of intellect by his relation, the Earl of Lucan. Without mincing matters two such fools [sic] could not be picked out of the British Army to take command.”
The rise of Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan to these commands was not the result of their remarkable skills as cavalry officers. In truth it indicated only great wealth. The purchase system by which officer ranks could be bought and sold allowed the landed gentry to leapfrog more experienced men.
How to Buy a Cavalry Regiment
Cornet: lowest officer rank in any regiment. It was the starting point from which everyone moved on. Cost: 840 pounds is the official price but the seller could require more. Although it was illegal to charge more, the extra costs of a worn sword and a useless horse were tacked on.
Lieutenant: as soon as opening becomes available. Cost was officially 1,190 pounds minus the sale of previous rank.
Captain: Cost was officially 3,225 pounds. The men purchasing these ranks were not financially dependent upon the pay as an officer. After the purchase of this and every other rank, they could go on half-pay the day after the purchase. In this case, they would then have no duties to perform and will not even have to reside with the regiment as they waited for a vacancy to open up in the next rank.
Major: Cost was officially 4,575 pounds or more. Although there are men who were more qualified for this rank, they may not have the money to purchase the commission. If the company is posted to India or some other undesirable place, there was the choice of going immediately on half-pay and not participating.
Lieutenant colonel: Cost was officially 6,175 pounds but realistically the cost was more for a distinguished cavalry regiment.
The purchase system was clearly absurd. In this instance it meant that the 17th Lancers was commanded by its wealthiest rather than its most experienced officers. The purchase system existed so that the upper classes would command the military ensuring that it could not become a threat to the aristocracy, as it did in the French Revolution.
George Bingham, the third Earl of Lucan, purchased a cornet in 1818 and went on half-pay the next day. He transferred to the cavalry when an opportunity arose, remaining a lieutenant and captain only until a vacancy opened. He purchased the rank of major in December 1825 and one year later, the rank of lieutenant colonel for 25,000 pounds.
He soon acquired a reputation for bullying the officers and constantly drilling the men. Officers were publicly abused for the slightest irregularity and soldiers flogged for trivial offense. Lavinia Spencer, his aunt, wrote to him: “I hear universal criticism of your conduct as Colonel of the 17th, your reputation of great severity and harshness, lack of self control and unpopularity with your officers.” Whether it was due to Lady Spencer’s intervention or not, Lucan absented himself from his regiment for twelve months.
Lord Lucan owned property in Ireland and went there to run his family estate when his father died. Ireland was a nation of tenant farmers whose plots of land barely produced enough to sustain the families that worked them. If a surplus of the potato crop was produced, the money was needed to pay rent to English landlords.
In Lord Lucan’s case, his tenants could not pay so he consolidated some of them into larger holdings, eliminating the number of men working the land. To get them off his property, he razed their huts. He quickly became the most hated man in Ireland. Then came the potato famine but Lord Lucan still continued without pause.
The Bishop of Meath witnessed a hut pulled down with a family still inside but unable to move out, so weak were they from starvation. Lucan acquired the nickname “The Exterminator.”
Hundreds of Irishmen chose to join the British army in preference to starvation and the workhouse. Ironically, many of them served under Lucan in his regiments.
James Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan bought the rank of cornet in January 1925, working his way up to lieutenant colonel in 1932. According to Brudenell, the cost was 10,000 pounds but the London Times claimed he paid between 35,000 and 40,000 pounds. During the eight years it took him to gain command of a distinguished cavalry regiment, he had seen no action and was only present for duty for a total of three years.
Brudenell habitually shouted at and publicly reprimanded his men for trivial offences, and appeared to delight in taunting those who had neither his wealth nor his social position, which was almost everyone. On one occasion he brought insubordination charges against a Captain. At the Captain’s court martial, the pettiness and trickery behind the accusations became apparent and the Captain was acquitted. When The Times questioned Brudenell’s competence, King William IV agreed and ordered that he be removed from duty. However, two years later he bought another commission for what is rumored to be more than 40,000 pounds. His family entreated the King to reinstate him because he “had learned his lesson.” He continued to regularly insult his officers. Another young Captain challenged Lord Brudenell to a duel. The Captain was injured and both were arrested. Lord Brudenell was acquitted by the House of Lords on a technicality while the Captain was thrown out of the service with no pay and no opportunity to sell his rank. Lord Brudenell became the most hated man in Britain and his presence in any theater brought so many boos and hisses that management asked him to leave. In August 1837, his father died and he became Lord Cardigan.
Lucan and Cardigan had always disliked each other and this only intensified when Cardigan married Lucan’s sister. Many tried to mediate between the two men, including the Duke of Wellington but to no avail. Lucan was given the command of the Cavalry Division and was overjoyed until the command of the Light Brigade was given to “the one Englishman he despised more than the lowliest Irish peasant: his brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan. English society was shocked by the appointments saying the war with the Russians would be a trifle compared to that between their lordships Lucan and Cardigan. Lucan and Cardigan had always avoided each other as much as possible. Now that would be impossible.
The charge at Balaklava might not have occurred if these two men had been competent cavalry officers and able to talk to each other. William Russell, The Times’ war correspondent in the Crimea wrote, “When the government made the monstrous choice of Lord Cardigan as Brigadier of the Light Cavalry Brigade of the Cavalry Division, well knowing the private relations between the two men, they became responsible for disaster.”
Later, in the Crimea, Lucan and Cardigan would betray the full extent of their incompetence. In Turkey they gave a fair indication of what was to come. It was as if they each attempted to prove himself the more inept.
On the march from Kalamita Bay they [the Brigade] had been humiliated at Bulganek, at the Alma and at Khutor Mackenzie. They had been held in check, been recalled whenever they advanced on the enemy, got themselves lost and been laughed at by both the enemy and their own infantry. They wanted desperately to prove themselves.
The opportunity would come, but the lessons learned by their commanders would then come fatefully into play. Lord Lucan had discovered he was not allowed to exercise the initiative proper to a divisional command in the field and must do as Raglan required without question. Lord Cardigan had been told he must obey his divisional commander however ludicrous the order might seem. Their lordships Lucan and Cardigan and the Light Brigade were ready for Balaklava.
Part II: to be posted 10:00 a.m. PDT, 10/25/09
DEUCE ADDS: The actions of Lord Lucan in Ireland were hardly unique to himself. While some of the patrician landlords (and their agents) were sympathetic and helpful in regard to their native Irish tenants, many were not. Sometimes those tenants took matters into their own hands. Such is the subject of Robert E. Howard’s poem, “Black Michael’s Story” (also known as “Retribution”).
The British system of bestowing military commissions for a fee has often been held up to ridicule. However, it apparently did function reasonably well for a long time, as has been pointed out by several military historians over the years. Napoleon’s officers were selected (ideally) soley on the basis of merit. They tore through the armies commanded by their patrician Continental counterparts. When they faced the British army, staffed by officers who paid for the privelege, the British nearly always came out the victors. A conundrum.