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They were the reason why: Hugh Small challenges the accepted view of why the Light Brigade charged the Russian guns at Balaclava on October 25th, 1854.

'THEIRS NOT TO REASON WHY' was Tennyson's verdict on more than 600 ordinary cavalrymen who obeyed the order to charge over a mile through murderous cannon fire. He hailed their blind obedience as a virtue, and the world has accepted his opinion that they were unthinking victims of a blunder by senior officers. However, fresh study of all the evidence suggests an alternative interpretation.

It was the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Raglan who, under the mistaken impression thai the Russians were retreating, issued the order for the cavalry to attack in the face of overwhelming artillery fire. The Earl of Lucan, commanding the Cavalry Division, passed the order on to the Earl of Cardigan who commanded the Light Brigade. Both cavalry commanders knew (in Lucan's words) of 'the uselessness of the attack' but they obeyed the order nevertheless. The explanation of modern historians such as Cecil Woodham Smith is that Lucan and Cardigan were too hostile to each other to discuss what Raglan really meant by his order and implemented it because duty required obedience. But neither commander ever defended his much-criticised decision by claiming to fear official reprimand had he disobeyed. The heliograph would revolutionise battlefield signalling two decades later, but at the time of the Crimean War orders from distant commanders were often based on out-of-date or erroneous information: senior officers were expected to exercise wide discretion before obeying such orders. The infantry commander General Cathcart, who was ordered to bring his 4,000 men to attack with the light Brigade, refused point blank; no reprimand followed and he was allowed to go into action two weeks later, ruling out a court martial. So why did Lucan and Cardigan implement an order which, by their own admission, they both knew to be madness?

In recent times, little attention has been paid to how the wishes of the men influenced the decisions of their leaders, and perhaps the answer lies here.

Lucan and Cardigan knew thai their troopers were not happy; among the grievances were cholera and Cossacks. In September 1854 alone, the cholera epidemic had killed 4 per cent of the entire brigade. Men were falling off their horses on parade as the cholera struck and dying in agony within hours. One office, wrote: 'the men and officers are getting daily more disgusted with their fate. They do nothing but bury their comrades. They say loudly that they have not been brought out to light, but to waste away and die in dais country of cholera and fever.'

Pensions were paid if men were killed or wounded in action, but not if they died of sickness. It would have seemed preferable to be killed by the Russians rather than by cholera, but the chances of the cavalry going into action were diminishing now that the war had turned into a long siege. The men's fears were well-founded: of those who look part in the Charge, only one in six would be killed, but one in four of the survivors would die of disease before the war ended.

Unlike their comrades of the Heavy, Brigade (who were also ordered to charge but sensibly hung back), the light Brigade had not seen serious action and had been repeatedly insulted by the Cossacks and their oven infantry who accused them of being scared of the Russian irregular cavalry.

'Lately there has been some stupid chaff about the cavalry being afraid of the Cossacks' wrote one Light Brigade officer. A month earlier they had been ordered to retreat before a force of Cossacks because they were outnumbered three to one. The Cossacks, who in truth were no match for the British cavalry even at these odds, had jeered at the Light Brigade for refusing to fight. This insult was reported in the London newspapers which were eagerly read in the Crimea; it would not have been pleasant lot the troopers to see that their shame was known world-wide. On the day of the Charge, there had already been incidents of near-mutiny because the Light Brigade was held hack while in front of its nose the Cossacks killed Turks who were trying to surrender, and then rode into the Light Brigade camp and mutilated picketed horses. While Lucan hesitated, the men could see those same Cossacks sheltering behind the battery of gains that Lord Raglan, commander of the British forces in the Crimea, had ordered them to attack. It was a powerful incentive.

First-hand accounts written by troopers--often long afterwards--are divided on whether they were eager to charge, but are unreliable because they were written fur readers with preconceived ideas. Behavioural evidence is more objective, and it is remarkable how many men disobediently joined the ranks as soon as Lucan approved the order. One was even flogged for it afterwards. Most striking was the case of the man placed under arrest for smoking in the ranks after the order. He was stripped of his weapons and ordered to Fall out but refused, rode in the Charge unarmed, and was killed.

If the men had been merely obeying orders, they would have ridden at the regulation pace allowing them to be redirected if resistance was too heavy. But they rode too fast, and Lord Cardigan found himself in danger of being run down as he tried to regulate their speed. If any bugle calls were made to increase the pace, they only sanctioned what was already happening. A man in the 13th Light Dragoons shouted to his neighbour 'Come on; don't let those bastards [the 17th Lancers] get ahead of us'.

About 500 of the Light Brigade reached the Russian guns and galloped straight through them. The Cossacks, who were supposed to be guarding the guns, tried desperately to escape the double line of horsemen thundering out of the smoke with their sabres and lances extended. Seeing their way blocked, the terrified Cossacks turned their carbines on their own comrades and tried to shoot their way to the rear through the Russian regular cavalry. The whole body of Russian cavalry, more than 2,000 strong, then fled in panic for nearly a mile with the Light Brigade at its heels. The Light Brigade had not obeyed Lord Raglan's order to hold on to some guns, but instead the order that it wanted to hear: attack the Russian cavalry. Never again would anyone say that the Light Brigade was afraid of Cossacks.

Cardigan admitted that his decision had been influenced by the attitude of his men. 'I hope you will not blame me.' he replied when Raglan reprimanded him for obeying the ruder 'for I received the order to attack from my superior officer [Lucan] in front of the troops'. As for Lucan, his excuse for implementing the order was that to refuse would have 'exposed me and the cavalry to aspersions'. The Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in London. Lord Hardinge, thought this showed that Lucan, too,. had succumbed to pressure from below. 'Surely' said Hardinge in the House of Lords, 'when the noble Earl talks of possible aspersions, it shows that his decision to attack was taken ... upon the fear which he entertained of aspersions from his officers and soldiers.'

Lord Hardinge's comments show that there is an old but long-forgotten explanation of why the cavalry generals obeyed an order that they knew to be mistaken: they did so out of respect for the wishes of their men.


The British Army in the Crimea, 1854-56

The hastily scrawled order in General Airey's handwriting (right) that directed the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade is one of the highlights of the current free exhibition, running until March 31st, at the National Army Museum.

This extensive exhibition covers many aspects of the Crimen War, and particularly tells the story of the ordinary soldiers involved. As well as documents, letters, and journals relating to the Charge it also displays the telescope of Lord Raglan, a blood-stained and sabre-slashed stable jacket of one fortunate survivor, Lt Sir William Gordon (1830-1906), and the bugle believed to have sounded the Charge.

A special commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Charge will be held at the Museum on October 25th, at which the public will be asked for their views on who was responsible for the disaster.

The National Army Museum,

Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea SW3 4HT

Tel: 020 7730 0717
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Title Annotation:Frontline
Author:Small, Hugh
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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