You don’t need to be a Victorian poet to appreciate that a 19th century battle involving feuding commander-in-laws, tragic battlefield misunderstandings, the “Valley of Death,” at least three types of knitwear, and heroic French cavalry is going to be a total disaster. These were the ingredients of the Battle of Balaklava.
The Crimean War began in 1853, with the British, French and Ottomans fighting the Russians for control of the fading Ottoman Empire. Modern historians consider it the first modern war, due to the involvement of telegraphs, repeating rifles, and high-explosive artillery. How hilarious, then, that perhaps its most famous military action involved horses, sabers, and verbal misunderstandings.
On October 25, 1854, English and French troops were attempting to capture the Black Sea Russian port of Sevastapol. Their 4,500 soldiers faced 25,000 Russians across a U-shaped valley. While these odds may seem extreme, the Russians never approach a battle without waaaay too many soldiers. And, recall, that it was the first modern war. So everybody was excited and unsure of what, exactly, would be required of them in this bold new day.
Let’s cut to the charge. The British commander, Lord Raglan, kept giving his cavalry, commanded by Lord Lucan, confusing orders. The fourth, and worst of the bunch, was carried to Lucan by a snotty Captain named Nolan.
“Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.”
Besides sounding like a Mad-Libs battle command, it seemed to Lucan to have nothing to do with the battle whatsoever. The only guns he could see were the Russian artillery at the other end of the valley, more than a mile away (and what the hell are ‘horse artillery’?). Lucan asked for clarification. Nolan vaguely swept his hand across the valley and said contemptuously, “There my lord, there are your guns.”
Lucan took this order to Earl Cardigan, his direct subordinate and commander of the Light Cavalry. Lucan also happened to be Cardigan’s brother-in-law and, if that were not sufficiently galling, had just won the regiment’s coveted “Most Luxurious Muttonchops Award.” A reluctant Cardigan led his 600-odd men on a one-mile charge across the entire battlefield, being fired upon from three sides by Russians who probably felt like they were hunting buffalo in “Oregon Trail.” Tragically, the charge may have succeeded if Lucan had followed with the heavy cavalry (or at least the featherweight or welterweight cavalry). Instead, Cardigan’s Light Cavalry roughed up the Russians until the Russians realized they vastly outnumbered the British, at which point they sent the Light Cavalry back across the same one-mile gauntlet of artillery and rifles.*
The Light Cavalry were probably saved from total annihilation by a flanking movement from the French Chausser’s d’Afrique, who sufficiently engaged one side of the Russian guns to cover the British charge and retreat. The whole action took 20 minutes. Of the approximately 660 British who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade, 110 were killed, 161 wounded or captured, and 375 horses killed. Nolan was among the dead. Cardigan survived and argued bitterly with Lucan about who was at fault for the suicidal order.
Cardigan got the last muttonchop-quivering laugh when he had the button-front sweater named for him. Indeed, knitwear was thrown about after the battle like purple hearts. The town of Balaklava got its name attached to ski masks, Raglan ended up with a namesake sweater, and trendy trousers were named after British officer Duke Skinnyjeans. Lord Tennyson honored them all with his famous poem Charge of the Light Brigade, and his lesser-known essay, Totally Sweet Cavalry Charges, Poetry, and You.
*This strategy for chasing a superior enemy force was later made famous by Han Solo’s charge in the Battle of the White Subhallway in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Drink: The Valley of Death
- chilled Russian vodka
- currant liqueur
- French champagne
- one copy of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade
- In a narrow champagne flute, pour one ounce of chilled Russian vodka.
- Mishearing something, recklessly pour one ounce of currant liqueur into the flute.
- Top off the glass with French champagne, stirring gently to mix until the concoction becomes poetic.
- Read Tennyson’s poem aloud, taking a sip every time you come across the word ‘death.’