In the early part of the Victorian Age, and about six years before the American Civil War, Great Britain and France fought the Crimean War against Russia. In October of 1854, they were besieging the Crimean city of Sebastopol. On the 25th, the Russians reinforcements arrived and attacked the Allies’ main port of supply, Balaclava. Although the battle lasted until sundown, it didn’t affect the outcome of the Crimean War in any way. The Battle of Balaclava is mostly remembered for three separate engagements.
In the South Valley, Russian Prince Ryhozv’s cavalry advanced in two columns. The first column, 3000 strong, came over the Great Causeway and surprised the British. The nearest British unit was General James Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade of cavalry. The 900 troopers of the Heavy Brigade charged the Russian column, and in four minutes routed them thoroughly. The Charge of the Heavy Brigade was an outstanding success.
Ryhozv’s other cavalry column, a thousand strong, came upon the 93rd Regiment of Highlanders. With only the Black Sea and the supply depot behind them, the Highlanders could not retreat. The 93rd, with their red jackets, green kilts and tall bearskin hats, formed up only two deep to extend their line so they could not outflanked. The “Thin Red Line Tipped in Steel” held strong and defeated the Russian charges. The newspapers back in Britain eventually shortened it to “The Thin Red Line” for consumption back home.
Finally in the North Valley, the commander of the British, Lord Raglan, ordered the Light Brigade to secure some guns about to be overrun by the Russians. When the Light Brigade’s commander, Lord Cardigan (he invented the cardigan sweater: it was cold in the Crimea) received the order, he couldn’t see the guns that he needed to secure. But he did see Russian cannon a mile away at the other end of the valley. He mistakenly thought that was what he needed to secure. He was about to question the order but decided not to: no one was going to call him a coward. So
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
First at a walk, then a trot, then a gallop, and finally at a charge, the Light Brigade, with Lord Cardigan in the van, attacked down the valley with Russian cannon firing at them from three sides. The rest of the Allied army watched in horror. Against all odds, they seized and spiked the Russian guns, routed the defenders, and fought off several Russian counterattacks before Cardigan ordered a retreat once it was clear no one was coming in support. 2/3rds of the Light Brigade was killed or wounded, and Lord Cardigan, a martinet of such stature that only Victorian High Society could produce, rode straight from the charge back to his private luxury yacht, so he wasn’t late for his champagne dinner.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was the subject of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem of the same name and became the embodiment of foolhardy courage for no reason.
A French officer who witnessed the charge, Gen Pierre Bosquet, said “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.”
“It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness”.