How 600 British Horseman Overthrew the Russian Cavalry – The Battle of Balaclava 1854

The Battle of Balaclava is one of the most famous in British history. The plight of the men engaged in Battle was immortalized in the poem by Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

The Battle of Balaclava was a classic illustration of how the aristocratic leaders of the Allies disdain for each other and their complete incompetence, cost many lives. It was a futile battle, where little strategic advantage was gained for either side.

The Battle of Balaclava took place during the Crimean War. The Allies comprised the British, the French and the Turks of the then crumbling Ottoman Empire.

The port of Sevastapol was a crucial strong hold for the Russian army. It was an essential supply line to and from the Black Sea. If the Allies could break this supply line it would be a significant turning point in the war. If they could gain control of Sevastapol the Russians would be severely weakened.

In September 1854 the Allies began to attack Sevastapol, but the siege was at a stalemate for six weeks with little progress being made.

During the night on October 24 1854 the Russians decided to go on the offensive and encircle the Allies. They had intelligence that the British side of the siege was not as strong as that of the French, and therefore the Russians should strategically attack the British side to gain the advantage.

With 25,000 troops being deployed, the Allies stood little chance, but what followed was a series of blunders and incompetence which resulted in huge loss of life.

The British leaders in the Crimean War were some of the most incompetent in history. They didn’t take the movement of the Russian troops seriously – preferring instead to enjoy their dinner and ignore the impending attack.

At sunrise the Russians attacked. The 500 Turkish defenders did not stand a chance against the 25,000 Russians with 78 canons. Within a short time only 100 Turks were still standing. The British did not intervene as it was seen as futile against these huge forces. The 6 Turkish fortifications were soon destroyed by the Russians.

The remaining Turks were joined by the valiant Scottish 93rd Highlander Regiment. Their valiant fight gave the British the time to actually saddle their horses to prepare to engage in battle. The Heavy Cavalry were finally given the order to attack.

The incompetence of the British leaders was not yet over. During the battle the Light Brigade were in a position to attack and assist the Heavy Brigade, but Lord Cardigan refused to give them the order to do so. This gave the Russians the time and opportunity to take the captured Turkish canons back to their own lines. It was only at this late stage that Lord Raglan sent orders that Lord Cardigan must order the charge of the Light Brigade.

More spectacular incompetence and confusion ensued. Captain Lewis Nolan was given the responsibility of conveying the orders – despite the fact that he hated the men of the cavalry. Not exactly the best person for the task of commanding them into a suicidal battle.

Nolan was unclear in his orders and simply told the men to capture the guns – unfortunately from their position they could no longer see the canons. He was directing them to run into a no man’s land with heavy enemy artillery on either side of the valley.

Lord Lucan could only see the guns at the end of the valley. He insisted that Cardigan ordered his Light Brigade into battle ahead of the Heavy Brigade. There is no military logic to that decision, and it is thought that it was motivated by Lord Lucan’s intense dislike of Lord Cardigan.

It is thought that Captain Nolan, leading the charge, may have noticed his mistake that he was leading the men to the wrong guns. He reportedly broke formation and began waving his arms. No one will ever know what his intention was as he was hit by an artillery shell and killed soon after his either bold, or foolish move.

Remarkably some of the cavalry did reach the Russian guns at the other side and ran through the heavy artillery. Their numbers were heavily depleted and it is thought that more than half of the horses had been killed by the time they had reached the other side of the valley. The men who did make it began to engage the Russian forces on the ground with remarkable success.

At this point the Allies were making amazing progress at fighting the stunned Russian forces. However, they realized that the Heavy Brigade was not following to help. Lord Lucan had ordered them not to go ahead as he said “there was no reason the whole cavalry should be destroyed”.

Not surprisingly, the surviving forces of the Light Brigade were not impressed by being left alone without reinforcements, but tried to fight their way back across the no man’s land. Fortunately, the French observed what was happening and attacked the guns to the right of the valley, giving the Light Brigade a chance to make it back to their own lines.

The Battle of Balaclava only lasted for 20 minutes, but it’s casualties were high. It is thought that 673 men of the Light Brigade were ordered to charge into the valley. Many did not survive. There is no agreement on exactly how many casualties there were, but it is estimated that at least 116 men were killed and 131 wounded. 60 were taken captive by the Russians. The horses fared very badly with 475 animals killed.

In a spectacular illustration of the appalling attitude of some of the British military leaders, Lord Cardigan retreated back to the British lines as soon as he could. He then found solace in the luxury and comfort of his yacht and enjoyed a glass of fine champagne. Hundreds of his men were lying dead on the battle field, but he failed to show any remorse for his incompetent orders.

The Battle of Balaclava resulted in no significant territorial gains for either the Russians or the Allies.