It was the action that went down in military history as much for its commanders’ incompetence as for its soldiers’ perceived heroism.
One hundred and sixty two years ago this month, the Battle of Balaclava was fought as part of the Crimean War by the British forces under Lord Raglan, the Second French Empire, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire, against the forces of the Russian Empire. Lieutenant General George Bingham, third Earl of Lucan and owner of extensive lands in Mayo, commanded the British cavalry which was divided into heavy cavalry and light cavalry. The light cavalry, or Light Brigade, was commanded by Major General James Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan. The appointment of both men was to prove disruptive however, as Lucan and Cardigan were brothers-in-law who intensely disliked each other.
On October 25 1854, Russian troops seized Allied guns and Lord Raglan ordered their recapture by the cavalry. Raglan’s order went through two hands before reaching Lucan, who then ordered Cardigan to carry out their commander’s order which appeared to call for a full frontal charge on the heavily armed Russian forces that were dug in about two kilometres down a wide valley. Both Lucan and Cardigan saw the folly of sending the Light Brigade, armed only with lances and sabres, into an open valley which was flanked by armed enemy and at the end of which was a line of Russian guns. Nevertheless, duty bound, Cardigan personally led the charge of his Light Brigade down into the valley.
It took seven minutes for his men to ride to the captured guns, during that time they were exposed to Russian bullets and large gunshot from three sides. The Light Brigade suffered huge casualties, eventually retreating without the guns. Raglan looked on from a distance in disbelief as the blunder unfolded. Of the 670 troops, 118 were killed, 127 wounded, and 60 taken prisoner. It was rightly viewed back in Britain as an unmitigated disaster.
Hugely embarrassed by the military catastrophe, allegations against officers began immediately. Raglan accused Lucan of misinterpreting his order. Raglan had impeccable military credentials and had fought alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Incidentally, Wellington had been a family friend of the Binghams and was at one stage a member of Castlebar Corporation. Cardigan, too, blamed Lucan for giving him a suicidal mission and he returned to England a hero for bravely leading his courageous men into the jaws of the savage enemy. Lucan’s character as a military man, on the other hand, had taken a battering.
Six months after the debacle at Balaclava, on one of Lucan’s rare visits to his Mayo estate, a number of local dignitaries formed a deputation representing the inhabitants of Castlebar and its vicinity to wait on the noble lord at his residence in order to read him an address of support which cited that “the historian cannot fail to record the sacrifices, energy, and valour, of Lieutenant General the Earl of Lucan”. As poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, saluted the brigade’s sense of duty in his 1854 poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ with the memorable lines; “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”.