Friday, December 16, 2016

The Charge of the Light Brigade - who was the "someone" who blundered?

Here is the second verse of Tennyson's Eponymous poem about the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October 1864.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
    Someone had blunder'd:
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.


There have been items in the press recently such as this one in the Telegraph and a piece in the most recent issue of BBC History magazine by Professor Saul David of the University of Buckingham, about the question of who was to blame for sending about 670 men of the British army's Light Cavalry brigade on what amounted to a suicide mission.

A letter has recently been found in the British Library's archives, written by a soldier called Frederick Maxse who took part in the battle, which casts further light on who the junior officers and the rank and file of the army blamed for the disaster. The answer will not surprise anyone who has read a decent history of the battle such as Cecil Woodham Smith's definitive account, "The Reason Why."

The irony of the Charge of the Light Brigade is that of the four principal actors in the drama, their degree of responsibility for the disaster was in exactly inverse proportion to the degree of incompetence they displayed in the rest of their long or short careers.

The man who, if judged on his conduct from the moment he bought his first commission until he received orders to carry out the charge, and after it finished, is a strong contender for the description of the worst over-promoted idiot ever to hold a general's commission in the British army actually did everything important right on this one occasion.

By contrast the man who appeared to be a brilliantly competent up-and-coming professional soldier until he arrived to deliver the Commander in Chief's orders is accused by Professor David of bearing the principal blame for the disaster, a view which Maxse said was also widespread among the survivors of the Light Brigade, and there is other evidence which bears this out.

The Commander in Chief of the British forces at Balaclava, Lord Raglan, was able to view the entire battle from his location on very high ground to the west of the battlefield, and could see that a Russian force to the South East of his forces appeared to be about to retreat, taking with them some British naval cannons which had been captured earlier in the battle. Believing that a show of force by the British cavalry would make that Russian force retreat faster and leave the captured cannons behind, Raglan ordered his Cavalry general, Lord Lucan, to advance against them.

The order, written in the hand of his Brigadier Airey of Raglan's staff, still exists and reads

"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. Immediate."

Unfortunately, from their position on the plain some 600 feet lower, Lord Lucan, the commander of the cavalry division, and Lord Cardigan, commander of the light cavalry brigade, could not see the Russian force to the south east against which Raglan wanted them to advance, as there were low hills in the way. But they could see a Russian battery of guns in an almost impregnable fortified position at the end of another valley about a mile away slightly north of due East, usually referred to by historians of the battle as the "North Valley" because it was to the north of another valley where fighting took place during the battle of Balaclava.

When Raglan's messenger, Captain Louis Nolan, reached General Lord Lucan and handed over Raglan's orders, Lucan understandably had no idea which enemy position he was to advance against and which guns he was supposed to prevent from being carried away, particularly as the guns he could see looked to be staying right where they were - and with them were large numbers of Russian troops.

"Attack? Attack what, Sir? What guns?" he asked.

Responding to this request for clarification, Nolan threw out his arm in the general direction of the visible enemy position and replied "There, my Lord, is your enemy, there are your guns."

By all accounts this response was given in such an insulting tone that some observers were surprised Lucan did not have Nolan arrested.

Professor David's article suggests that Nolan was even more insulting to Lord Cardigan, asking the general if he and his men were afraid when he sought similar clarification of the order. Cardigan then pointed out to Lord Lucan that the attack he was being ordered to make would put his men under fire from large numbers of both cannons and rifles to the front and from both sides while charging down a valley about a mile long.

"I know it," said Lord Lucan, "But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey."

The account of this stage of the battle in Cecil Woodham Smith's book differs in one material respect from Professor David's article in BBC History Today.

Woodham Smith in her book says that Raglan's last words to Nolan as he took the written message were "Tell Lord Lucan that the cavalry is to attack immediately."

If that is true then, although Nolan is still culpable for conveying completely the wrong impression about which target was to be attacked, he was not misrepresenting Lord Raglan when he said that the cavalry was to attack the Russians immediately.

Professor David, however, suggests that Raglan may have merely intended a show of force and writes that it "seems likely" that Nolan used the word "attack" on his own authority, in which case his responsibility is even greater.

Either way Nolan failed in the first duty of an ADC by failing to clearly and accurately convey the orders it was his job to communicate. And Raglan, although he was a far better general than Lucan or Cardigan, failed to make sure his orders were clear and were communicated by someone who understood them and could accurately pass them on.

Lucan was made the scapegoat for the disaster: Cardigan was, for a time regarded as a hero. Both were exemplars of what was wrong with the system where most officer commissions in the British army were bought for hard cash, with the exception of a small proportion of battlefield promotions (usually for suicidal bravery) and some specialised roles in units like the engineers or artillery where officers actually had to know what they were doing. (The Royal Navy also had to use a promotion system which took some account of competence as well as money and family connections because successfully navigating hundreds of tons of wooden sailing ship is a very skilled job indeed!)

We will never know what Captain Nolan thought he was doing because he stayed to take part in the charge rather than return immediately to Lord Raglan and was killed in the first few seconds of the action. In fact he rode in front of the Light Brigade as they came under fire and started to shout something, which nobody could hear, and was then fatally struck by a fragment from one of the first Russian shells.

There are several possible explanations for Nolan's final actions. Of the two most likely, one is that he had known all along which guns Lord Raglan's order referred to, but only realised that he had given Lucan and Cardigan entirely the wrong impression when the Light Brigade began to move down the North Valley. The other is that he had himself misunderstood Raglan's orders and then at the very last moment realised his mistake. Either way, if in consequence he was trying to stop the attack or divert it in the right direction, the shell which killed him doomed the Light Brigade.

And into the valley of death rode the six hundred.

But the lesson of the chain of events which caused the Charge of the Light Brigade is that people who are not the sharpest pencil in the box can sometimes be right, and people who are usually highly competent can make the worst mistakes.

Cardigan and Lucan's careers were not distinguished - that is putting it very politely - yet the questions they asked when given Raglan's order were the right ones. Nolan's career up to 25th October 1864 suggests a competent professional, except that it is also clear that he despised Lucan and Cardigan and allowed this to affect his conduct. Although many of the reasons he held them in low regard were justified, by allowing his low opinion of these officers to influence how he treated them when bringing the Commander in Chief's orders, he caused the death, injury or capture of hundreds of his fellow soldiers.

It is said of many a clever man that he "does not suffer fools gladly." However, the wise person knows that even the greatest fools many have something to say which is worth listening to.

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