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  • James Houser

October 25, 1854 - The Battle of Balaclava

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

October 25, 1854. Someone has screwed up. Miscommunication, distrust and incompetence have combined to send Britain’s only light cavalry brigade on the Crimea charging up a hill against overwhelming Russian numbers. Though you wouldn’t know it from popular media, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” wasn’t the only event of the Battle of Balaclava. It’s just what people remember from the battle – and even that is mostly wrong.

Earlier this month, I gave the background on the Crimean War and how we ended up with a British, French and Ottoman army fighting the Russians on the Crimean Peninsula. If you want that background, the link is HERE (POST LINK). If not, I’ll press on and give you a quick summary.

Tensions between Christian denominations in Palestine gave the Russian Empire an excuse to launch a war against the decaying Ottoman Empire, hoping to gain massive territories and create an Orthodox Christian Empire in the Aegean and Black Sea. For various reasons – to protect trade or commercial interests, to advance the cause of Catholic or Protestant religious claims to the Holy Land, and especially to curb the growing (and much-feared) power of the Russian Tsar, Britain and France joined the war on the Ottoman side in March 1854.

To force the Russians into a favorable peace, the British and French conceived a plan to land on the Crimean Peninsula and seize the key Russian naval base of Sevastopol, headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet. Around 60,000 British, French and Ottoman troops landed on the Crimea at Eupatoria on September 13, 1854. Once all the troops and baggage were ashore, the Allied army marched south, hoping to capture their target city in a quick coup. A week after landing, though, the Allies faced their first Russian army at the Battle of the Alma.

On September 20, the Allies crossed the Alma River in a frontal attack against the Russian troops on the heights to the south. The Allied army actually outnumbered the Russians two to one, but due to their strong defensive position the defenders put up a tough fight. The French performed very well, the famous Algerian Zouaves scaling a cliff to outflank the Russian defenses and the French riflemen advancing in open order with excellent synchronization and skill.

The same could not be said of the British. The Crimean War was in almost every way an embarrassment for a British Army that was simply not as modern or as organized as the French or even the Russians. The only saving grace the British had in the Crimea was the bravery of their troops and the cohesion of their units. Throughout the Crimean campaign the British troops would be disgracefully short of medical supplies, food, equipment and shelter. The medical services were a universal travesty, and the French felt nothing but pity for their poor allies, who had to endure the Russian winter in floorless tents and subsist on meager rations.

If that wasn’t enough, the British high command was hopelessly inept. The redcoat infantry were armed with the Minie rifle, the next generation of firearm, with a much greater range and accuracy than the old muskets the Tommy had carried since before Waterloo. But many British officers discounted this newfangled contraption, and had not even bothered to train their soldiers on its use. They preferred the cold steel of the bayonet charge, the close formation, and old-style cavalry charges. The British commander on the Crimea, Lord Raglan, was one of the most incompetent soldiers ever to lead a major force in the modern era. And for all this, it would be the British soldiers that paid the price.

When the British attacked at the Alma, Raglan’s only order to his subordinates was to “advance” – no notion of who was to go where, or how, or for what reason. There was no plan for what to do when they reached the Alma River, and helpless groups of soldiers bunched up on the riverbank sheltering from the Russian cannon and muskets. Only a few units, such as General Colin Campbell’s brigade of Highlanders in their tartans and tall bearskins, made it up to the top of the ridges overlooking the Alma. There, they managed a small breakthrough. Combined with the French victory on the other flank, this was enough to force the Russians to retreat.

The Allied victory at the Alma was a grim foretaste of what was to come for Britain’s army on the Crimea. The lack of command, terrible medical organization, poor supply and outdated tactics were only balanced by the courage and discipline of the soldiers. But that would not be enough.

By October 1854, the Allies had surrounded Sevastopol, which sits on the very point of the Crimea, and had begun to place it under siege. Though they probably could have captured it had they moved faster after the Alma, the Allied delays gave the Russian defenders time to repair the fortresses and prepare a defense. While the Russian civilians, sailors and troops inside the fortress port city began to dig trenches and emplace their cannon, the Allies slowly built up their own trench system to surround their target.

What had been intended as a quick operation to seize Sevastopol by storm had instead turned into a siege, and an operation of this duration needed a supply base. The Allies chose a bay on the south side of the Crimea – the bay of Balaclava – as their primary supply point, where ships could come in from Britain, France and Constantinople to bring reinforcements and provisions.

The Allies launched their first bombardment of Sevastopol on October 17, 1854. It was clear to the Russians that the city would soon fall without a major effort to break the Allied encirclement. The Russian commander, General Menshikov, had been bringing in reinforcements from other parts of Russia to try and break the siege of Sevastopol. While the British, French and Ottomans were surrounding the city, then, they would have to watch their backs; the Russians were coming to save the headquarters of their fleet. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, Queen Victoria of Britain, and Napoleon III of France were all immensely interested in the fate of Sevastopol. The struggle on the Crimea had become the focal point of the conflict, which only now really started being called the Crimean War.

The Russians decided to launch their major assault on the Balaclava supply base on October 25, 1854. The British had built a line of small forts on the Causeway Heights overlooking the approaches to Balaclava, which were now occupied by Ottoman troops and armed with heavy field guns. The simple truth was that Raglan did not have enough troops in his army to both hold the lines around Sevastopol and watch his back, leaving the defenses of Balaclava and his rear areas gravely undermanned. The only troops immediately on hand to resist a Russian advance were the cavalry division of Lord Lucan, which consisted of two brigades - the Heavy Brigade under General James Scarlett, and the Light Brigade of Lord Cardigan – and a mixed force of the 93rd Highlanders and some Royal Marines under General Colin Campbell, who had been given the task of guarding Balaclava.

At about 6:00am, the Russians began their advance towards Balaclava. The first warning sign was when a British outpost in a small, dirty Russian village was roused and routed by a gang of Cossack cavalry. The Cossacks were the peoples of the Ukrainian and south Russian steppes, widely known and feared as ferocious, undisciplined, and ruthless light cavalry that served as the Tsar’s shock troops. As the first sounds of firing poured in, Lord Raglan at first refused to believe that an attack was imminent. Only the intervention of his subordinates prepared the British for battle, as Campbell and Lucan both conferred and prepared to resist the oncoming attack.

But it was too late for the forts on Causeway Heights. The Russian infantry advanced in huge columns that swamped the Ottoman soldiers defending the ridge. Most of the Turkish troops were Tunisian conscripts, many of whom had no training and due to the broken supply system were half-starving. They nevertheless put up a brave resistance before finally breaking and retreating down the slope, but they never got any credit for their stand from the British, who jeered them and treated them cruelly for the rest of the campaign. The upshot of this was that the Battle of Balaclava began with the Russians seizing the heights by 8:00am and prepared to exploit their initial triumph.

The Russians decided to launch their Cossack cavalry directly at Balaclava, hoping to destroy the supply base before British reinforcements arrived. The French were already on their way to help their allies, and Raglan had finally begun to order up British reinforcements – but slowly, and with vague orders. He also gave vague orders to Lord Lucan, commanding the cavalry, who was completely in the dark about the commander’s overall plan. Raglan’s mismanagement had left the 1500 cavalry of Lucan’s division and the 3000 of Campbell’s Highlanders and Royal Marines to stand against the attack of almost 20,000 Russians. Though he had arrived on the field, Raglan did not take control of the action, meaning that – just like at the Alma – it was up to the soldiers and their junior officers to win the battle without help from above.

The Cossack cavalry came swarming down from the Causeway Heights, around 3,000 in all, streaking directly for Balaclava. They came in waves, pounding fiercely down the slope in clear view of the British and Russian commanders. Lucan immediately sent orders for the Heavy Brigade to move down and intercept them, but they would take time to arrive. For now, all that stood between the Cossacks and Balaclava itself was one regiment – the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, with General Campbell himself at their head.

Campbell, the son of a Glasgow cabinetmaker, was an oddity in the British Army as a man who had risen by merit rather than by birth. A former officer of the 93rd, he led his small regiment – only around 500 men in their tartans and tall shakos. Campbell stood before them, noting that their backs were basically to the sea, and said “There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.” One soldier replied, “Aye, Sir Colin. If needs be, we’ll do tha’.” Campbell spread his regiment in an unusually wide formation, a line only two ranks deep. Unlike many British officers, he had studied the Minie Rifle and realized its effectiveness, and decided to maximize its firepower.

To the British officers gathered around Raglan on the hill a mile away, it looked like madness – a tiny patch of red facing that oncoming horde of man, horse, and steel. Campbell’s Highlanders, though, laid a steady aim with their rifles and fired volley after volley into the oncoming wave of Cossack cavalry. The superior range and accuracy of the Minie rifle tore into the horsemen, and the chaotic formation began to twist and writhe like a snake as they fell back under the disciplined fire of the Scots. Soon, the Cossacks were retreating at full gallop. The epic stand of the 93rd was forever after immortalized in story and art as “The Thin Red Line.”

But that had only been the first wave. Already new formations of Cossacks were forming on top of the ridge and charging at the Thin Red Line, and enough of them were coming this time to swamp even the hellish rifle fire of the kilted Scots. It was time for the second great epic moment of Balaclava that didn’t have a Tennyson poem written about it.

As a new cloud of Russian horse prepared to descend on the Highlanders, the cavalry arrived – literally. The Heavy Brigade of General Scarlett emerged from behind a hill to the left of the Highlanders and crashed into the Cossacks like a sledgehammer. Scarlett himself was first into the Russian mass, followed closely by the Royal Scots Greys and the Inniskilling Dragoons. Soon the cavalry fight was on, a swirling mass of formations plowing into each other, white and green and red uniforms smashed and slashed with saber, lance, and straight sword. Pistols fired, and blood spurted from severed limbs or great gashes across the face. The 5th Dragoons circled around the Russians and galloped into their flank, tearing through the formation singing “Faugh a Ballagh” without suffering a single casualty.

The Charge of the Heavy Brigade was drastically outnumbered, around 800 British cavalry against perhaps 2,000 Russians, but the confusion of the battle made it a test of endurance: who would crack first? Turned out it was the Russians. The nerve of the Cossack and Russian cavalry finally broke, and the horsemen streamed back pell-mell for the Russian infantry, who had watched this whole mess from atop the heights. Scarlett’s charge had been a dramatic success, suffering only 10 killed in the whole melee – it was certainly more of a success than what was about to happen to its sister brigade.

As Lord Raglan watched the fight from far away, he saw the repulse of the Russian cavalry and the chaos this brought to the enemy. The British and French infantry were still some distance away, and Raglan believed that there was a fading window to take advantage of the Russian disarray. Even more pressing, some officers reported that the Russians were removing the captured British guns from the Causeway Heights fortresses. Raglan was immediately enraged. The Russians would have British cannon to display as war trophies! That would not do at all. Something had to be done.

Raglan scribbled a message to Lord Lucan: “10:45. Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns – Troop Horse Artillery may accompany – French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.” He sent a young, aggressive young officer named Captain Nolan to carry the message to Lucan, sending him off with the unmistakable order: "Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately." A great disaster was in the making.

Nolan rode off to find Lucan, who opened the note and read it. Like most of Raglan’s orders, this instruction was confusing and vague – the front? WHERE on the front? Which guns? He didn’t see any French cavalry. Follow the enemy?! They had the ridge lined with infantry and cannon! The order didn’t make any sense. Lucan asked young Nolan for clarification, but the impudent young officer responded brashly, “Attack, sir!”

“Attack what?” said Lucan, frustrated. “What guns, sir?”

Nolan waved his arm vaguely to the east, finally settling on a feature and pointing to it.

“There, my Lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”

The problem was that Nolan had pointed, not to Causeway Heights and the captured fortresses, but to an entirely different hill some distance BEHIND the Causeway Heights. Any formation trying to reach that hill would have to ride up a narrow valley, sandwiched between the Russian guns on Causeway Heights and Russian troops on a different ridge to the north. It was a suicide run, mind-bogglingly stupid, but Raglan wasn’t known for his competence and this young staff officer was insisting that Lucan’s horsemen attack THAT hill.

Lucan rode over to Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade, to deliver the order. Cardigan questioned the sanity of such an order, and Lucan agreed, but also confirmed that “Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey." Cardigan assented, and ordered the Light Brigade to mount up for their attack. He started them forward in two lines to cross a mile of open terrain, where they would be confronted and flanked on both sides by Russian artillery and infantry along their whole approach. It was amazingly stupid. But it was the order.

At 11:10 the Light Brigade – 670 sabers strong - started forward, breaking into a trot a few minutes later. The young staff officer Captain Nolan had placed himself at the head of the attack, and he was one of the first to be killed when a shell exploded beneath him. The Light Brigade surged forward into a growing hail of shot and shell, as men and horses began to fall from the ranks, blown away by bullets or the impact of cannon balls or shell fragments. The British cavalry closed up, filling in the gaps, pressing on against all odds.

At 200 yards from the Russian lines, Lord Cardigan, taking the lead, ordered his bugler to sound “gallop.” As his formation melted away around him in the smoke and steel rain, the Light Brigade neared their objective – and they hit it.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone had blundered.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred."

The Charge gets a lot of attention, thanks to the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem. The poem is famous, and it’s a good bit of work. It emphasizes the glory and the futility of the charge. But there’s a lot caught up in the myth here. The Charge was less a result of willful incompetence (though Raglan had plenty of that) but rather miscommunication. It was not especially glorious; everyone watching what was happening was pretty much facepalming rather than admiring. Finally, and most unusually – the Charge of the Light Brigade was not nearly as costly or even as unsuccessful as has been depicted.

The Light Brigade hit the Russian position hard, shocking the Russian gunners and especially the Cossack cavalry, who were still licking their wounds from the pounding they had gotten from the Heavy Brigade. The Russian generals tried to get their troops to charge the few Light Brigade men who had made it atop the ridge, but the Cossacks were having none of that and bolted for the rear. No one had thought the British would be stupid enough to attack back here, so no one had prepared for it.

When Cardigan got ahold of his brigade, he realized he needed to get out while the getting was good. The Russians were shocked, but they wouldn’t stay that way for long. He got his horsemen in hand and led them back the way they had come. The Russians were still too bewildered to cut them off and destroy them, so Cardigan was able to extricate most of the Light Brigade and bring it back to British lines. They had killed a bunch of Russian artillerymen and scared the Cossacks off, but not much else - still, most of them had survived when everyone watching expected them to all die.

For all the fame the Charge of the Light Brigade gets as a doomed suicide charge, the actual number of troopers killed in the charge came to 110 – around 17% of the brigade. A further 129 were wounded, and some 32 taken prisoner. This comes out to around 40% which is of course not GOOD, but far from annihilation and far from a bloodbath. Most units in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg suffered far worse.

And…that was pretty much the end of the Battle of Balaclava. It was more of a string of episodes than a coherent military engagement, mainly thanks to the non-leadership of Lord Raglan. The infantry reinforcements that finally arrived took no part in any fighting, as the Russians still held the high ground and after the Light Brigade’s doomed attack no one wanted to try THAT shit again. So both sides stared at each other until nightfall. The Russians claimed victory, since they had seized the fortresses on Causeway Heights. The British claimed victory since they had held Sevastopol. The Light Brigade got to be remembered forever, and the Highlanders all had a pint.

And the Siege of Sevastopol dragged on for another year, exponentially more soldiers died of disease and exposure than from combat, and it was a miserable experience all around by the time the Crimean War was over. You had a better chance of surviving the “valley of Death” than surviving the winter in the camp at Sevastopol. Cholera and diarrhea were more likely to get you than the Russians. The mismanagement of the British Army in the Crimea was such a huge scandal that it caused the collapse of the government, the disgrace of Raglan, and long-term reform to the British military. Florence Nightingale’s efforts to care for the wounded of Balaclava led to her assistance in the founding of the Red Cross.

But none of that got a Tennyson poem. And neither did the Thin Red Line or the Charge of the Heavy Brigade. History has a selective memory.

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