Quote of the Day for October 25
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
Henry David Thoreau
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
Henry David Thoreau
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. Lord Raglan, overall commander, had intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue and harry a retreating Russian artillery battery near the front line, a task well suited to light cavalry. Due to miscommunication at some level in the chain of command, the sabre-armed Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault into a different artillery battery, one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire. Although reaching the battery under withering direct fire and scattering some of the gunners, the badly mauled brigade was forced to retreat immediately, producing no decisive gains and very high British casualties. It is best remembered as the subject of the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published just six weeks after the event, whose lines emphasize the valour of the cavalry in bravely carrying out their orders, regardless of the obvious outcome. Blame for the miscommunication has remained controversial, as the original order from Raglan itself was vague.
The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry, consisting of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, under the command of Major General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Together with the Heavy Brigade comprising the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the Scots Greys, commanded by Major General James Yorke Scarlett, himself a past Commanding Officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards, the two units were the main British cavalry force at the battle.
The Light Brigade, as the name suggests, were the British light cavalry force, mounting light, fast horses, unarmored aside from helmets and equipped with lances and sabres; optimized for maximum mobility and speed, they were intended for reconnaissance, skirmishing and cutting down infantry and artillery units as they attempted to retreat. The Heavy Brigade was the British heavy cavalry force, mounting large, heavy chargers, equipped with heavy steel cuirasses and greaves for both troopers and their horses and armed with cavalry muskets and pistols designed to be fired on the move (in addition to sabres for close combat); they were intended as the primary British shock force, leading frontal charges against dug-in infantry positions in order to break the enemy lines. Overall command of the cavalry resided with Lieutenant General George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law who disliked each other intensely.
Lucan received an order from the army commander Lord Raglan stating that “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.” Raglan in fact wished the light cavalry to prevent the Russians from successfully withdrawing the naval guns from the redoubts that they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the south side of the valley. This was an optimum task for the Light Brigade, as their superior speed would ensure the Russians would be forced to either quickly abandon the cumbersome guns or be cut down en masse while they attempted to flee with them. Raglan could see what was happening from his high vantage-point on the west of the valley, but Lucan and the cavalry were unaware of what was going on owing to the lie of the land where they were drawn up. The order was drafted by Brigadier Richard Airey and was carried by Captain Louis Edward Nolan, who carried the further oral instruction that the cavalry was to attack immediately. When Lucan asked what guns were referred to, Nolan is said to have indicated, by a wide sweep of his arm, not the Causeway redoubts but the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away. His reasons for the misdirection are unclear, as he was killed in the ensuing battle.
In response to the order, Lucan instructed Cardigan to lead 673 (some sources state 661; another 607) troopers of the Light Brigade straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights, famously dubbed the “Valley of Death” by the poet Tennyson. The opposing Russian forces were commanded by Pavel Liprandi and included approximately 20 battalions of infantry supported by over fifty artillery pieces. These forces were deployed on both sides and at the opposite end of the valley. Lucan himself was to follow with the Heavy Brigade.
Although the Heavy Brigade was better armored and intended for frontal assaults on infantry positions, neither force was remotely equipped to frontally assault a fully dug-in and alerted artillery battery, much less one with an excellent line of sight over a mile in length and supported on two sides by supporting artillery batteries providing enfilading fire from elevated ground. The semi-suicidal nature of this charge was surely evident to the troopers of the Light Brigade, but if there was any objection to the orders, it was not recorded.
The Light Brigade set off down the valley with Cardigan out in front leading the charge. Almost at once Nolan was seen to rush across the front, passing in front of Cardigan. It may be that he then realised the charge was aimed at the wrong target and was attempting to stop or turn the brigade, but he was killed by an artillery shell and the cavalry continued on its course. Despite withering fire from three sides that devastated their force on the ride, the Light Brigade was able to engage the Russian forces at the end of the valley and force them back from the redoubt, but it suffered heavy casualties and was soon forced to retire. The surviving Russian artillerymen returned to their guns and opened fire once again, with grape and canister, indiscriminately at the mêlée of friend and foe before them. Lucan failed to provide any support for Cardigan, and it was speculated that he was motivated by an enmity for his brother-in-law that had lasted some 30 years and had been intensified during the campaign up to that point. The troops of the Heavy Brigade entered the mouth of the valley but did not advance further. Lucan’s subsequent explanation was that he saw no point in having a second brigade mown down and that he was best positioned where he was to render assistance to Light Brigade survivors returning from the charge. The French light cavalry, the Chasseurs d’Afrique, was more effective in that it cleared the Fedyukhin Heights of the two half batteries of guns, two infantry battalions and Cossacks to ensure the Light Brigade would not be hit by fire from that flank and later provided cover for the remaining elements of the Light Brigade as they withdrew.
War correspondent William Russell, who witnessed the battle, declared “our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy”.
Cardigan survived the battle. Although stories circulated afterwards that he was not actually present, he led the charge from the front and, never looking back, did not see what was happening to the troops behind him. He reached the Russian guns, took part in the fight, and then returned alone up the valley without bothering to rally or even find out what had happened to the survivors. He afterwards said all he could think about was his rage against Captain Nolan, who he thought had tried to take over the leadership of the charge from him. After riding back up the valley, he considered he had done all that he could and then, with considerable sang-froid, left the field and went on board his yacht in Balaclava harbour, where he ate a champagne dinner. He subsequently described the engagement in a speech delivered at the Mansion House in London that was afterwards quoted in length in the House of Commons:
“ We advanced down a gradual descent of more than three-quarters of a mile, with the batteries vomiting forth upon us shells and shot, round and grape, with one battery on our right flank and another on the left, and all the intermediate ground covered with the Russian riflemen; so that when we came to within a distance of fifty yards from the mouths of the artillery which had been hurling destruction upon us, we were, in fact, surrounded and encircled by a blaze of fire, in addition to the fire of the riflemen upon our flanks.
As we ascended the hill, the oblique fire of the artillery poured upon our rear, so that we had thus a strong fire upon our front, our flank, and our rear. We entered the battery—we went through the battery—the two leading regiments cutting down a great number of the Russian gunners in their onset. In the two regiments which I had the honour to lead, every officer, with one exception, was either killed or wounded, or had his horse shot under him or injured. Those regiments proceeded, followed by the second line, consisting of two more regiments of cavalry, which continued to perform the duty of cutting down the Russian gunners.
Then came the third line, formed of another regiment, which endeavoured to complete the duty assigned to our brigade. I believe that this was achieved with great success, and the result was that this body, composed of only about 670 men, succeeded in passing through the mass of Russian cavalry of—as we have since learned—5,240 strong; and having broken through that mass, they went, according to our technical military expression, “threes about,” and retired in the same manner, doing as much execution in their course as they possibly could upon the enemy’s cavalry. Upon our returning up the hill which we had descended in the attack, we had to run the same gauntlet and to incur the same risk from the flank fire of the Tirailleur as we had encountered before. Numbers of our men were shot down—men and horses were killed, and many of the soldiers who had lost their horses were also shot down while endeavouring to escape.
But what, my Lord, was the feeling and what the bearing of those brave men who returned to the position. Of each of these regiments there returned but a small detachment, two-thirds of the men engaged having been destroyed? I think that every man who was engaged in that disastrous affair at Balaklava, and who was fortunate enough to come out of it alive, must feel that it was only by a merciful decree of Almighty Providence that he escaped from the greatest apparent certainty of death which could possibly be conceived.
The brigade was not completely destroyed, but did suffer terribly, with 118 men killed, 127 wounded and about 60 taken prisoner. After regrouping, only 195 men were still with horses. The futility of the action and its reckless bravery prompted the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (“It is magnificent, but it is not war.”) He continued, in a rarely quoted phrase: “C’est de la folie” — “it is madness.” The Russian commanders are said to have initially believed that the British soldiers must have been drunk. Somerset Calthorpe, ADC to Lord Raglan, wrote a letter to a friend three days after the charge. He detailed casualty numbers, but he did not make distinction between those killed and those taken prisoner:
“Killed and missing. Wounded.
9 Officers 12
14 Serjeants 9
4 Trumpeters 3
129 Rank and file 98
156 Total 122
— besides 335 horses killed in action, or obliged afterwards to be destroyed from wounds. It has since been ascertained that the Russians made a good many prisoners; the exact number is not yet known.”
The reputation of the British cavalry was significantly enhanced as a result of the charge, though the same cannot be said for their commanders.
Slow communications meant that news of the disaster did not reach the British public until three weeks after the action. The British commanders’ dispatches from the front were published in an extraordinary edition of the London Gazette of 12 November 1854. Raglan blamed Lucan for the charge, claiming that “from some misconception of the order to advance, the Lieutenant-General (Lucan) considered that he was bound to attack at all hazards, and he accordingly ordered Major-General the Earl of Cardigan to move forward with the Light Brigade.” Lucan was furious at being made a scapegoat: Raglan claimed he should have exercised his discretion, but throughout the campaign up to that date Lucan considered Raglan had allowed him no independence at all and required that his orders be followed to the letter. Cardigan, who had merely obeyed orders, blamed Lucan for giving those orders. He returned home a hero and was promoted to Inspector General of the Cavalry.
Lucan attempted to publish a letter refuting point by point Raglan’s London Gazette dispatch, but his criticism of his superior was not tolerated and in March 1855, Lucan was recalled to England. The Charge of the Light Brigade became a subject of considerable controversy and public dispute on his return. He strongly rejected Raglan’s version of events, calling it “an imputation reflecting seriously on my professional character”. In an exchange of public correspondence printed in the pages of The Times, Lucan blamed Raglan and his deceased aide-de-camp Captain Nolan, who had been the actual deliverer of the disputed order. Lucan subsequently defended himself with a speech in the House of Lords on 19 March.
Lucan evidently escaped blame for the charge, as he was made a member of the Order of the Bath in July of that same year. Although he never again saw active duty, he reached the rank of General in 1865 and was made a Field Marshal in the year before his death.
The charge of the Light Brigade continues to be studied by modern military historians and students as an example of what can go wrong when accurate military intelligence is lacking and orders are unclear. Sir Winston Churchill, who was a keen military historian and a former cavalryman, insisted on taking time out during the Yalta Conference in 1945 to see the battlefield for himself.
According to Norman Dixon, 19th-century accounts of the charge tended to focus on the bravery and glory of the cavalrymen, much more than the military blunders involved, with the perverse effect that it “did much to strengthen those very forms of tradition which put such an incapacitating stranglehold on military endeavor for the next eighty or so years,” i.e., until World War I.
The fate of the surviving members of the Charge was investigated by Edward James Boys, a military historian, who documented their lives from leaving the army to their deaths. His records are described as being the most definitive project of its kind ever undertaken. Edwin Hughes, who died 14 May 1927, aged 96, was the last survivor of the charge.
In October 1875 survivors of the Charge met at the Alexandra Palace in London to celebrate the 21st Anniversary of the Charge. The celebrations were fully reported in the Illustrated London News of 30 October 1875, which included the recollections of several of the survivors, including those of Edward Richard Woodham, the Chairman of the Committee that organised the celebration. Tennyson was invited but could not attend. Lucan, the senior commander surviving, was not present but attended a separate celebration, held later in the day, with other senior officers at the fashionable Willis’s Rooms, St James’s Square.
August 2nd, 1890 trumpeter Landfrey, from the 17th Lancers, who sounded the bugle charge at Balaclava made a recording on an Edison cylinder that can be heard here, using a bugle which had been used at Waterloo in 1815.
In 2004, on the 150th anniversary of the Charge, a commemoration of the event was held at Balaklava. As part of the anniversary, a monument dedicated to the 25,000 British participants of the conflict was unveiled by HRH Prince Michael of Kent.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the then Poet Laureate, wrote evocatively about the battle in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Tennyson’s poem, published six weeks after the event on 9 December 1854 in The Examiner, praises the Brigade (“When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!”) while trenchantly mourning the appalling futility of the charge (“Not tho’ the soldier knew, someone had blunder’d… Charging an army, while all the world wonder’d”). Tennyson wrote the poem inside only a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in The Times, according to his grandson Sir Charles Tennyson. It immediately became hugely popular, even reaching the troops in the Crimea, where it was distributed in pamphlet form.
Forty years later Kipling wrote “The Last of the Light Brigade”, commemorating a visit by the last twenty survivors to Tennyson (then in his eightieth year) to reproach him gently for not writing a sequel about the way in which England was treating its old soldiers. Some sources treat the poem as an account of a real event, but other commentators class the destitute old soldiers as allegorical, with the visit invented by Kipling to draw attention to the poverty in which the real survivors were living, in the same way that he evoked Tommy Atkins in “The Absent Minded Beggar”.
Two war movies were made, both titled The Charge of the Light Brigade. The 1936 version stars Errol Flynn and is very historically inaccurate, turning the motive into a grudge match against an Indian ruler allied with the Russians. The 1968 version, featuring David Hemmings (as Nolan) and Trevor Howard (as Cardigan), is much more factually accurate.
The novel Flashman at the Charge has Harry Flashman participating (much against his will) in the Charge.
The charge is the subject of British heavy metal band Iron Maiden’s song “The Trooper” on their Piece of Mind album.
It was also the inspiration for the Pearls Before Swine album Balaklava, which begins with a sample of the 1890 recording of trumpeter Landfrey.
At 2:30 on 9 March 1916, several hundred troops under the command of Francisco “Pancho” Villa crossed the border separating the United States and Mexico and attacked the small Army garrison at Columbus, New Mexico. The raid was a surprise to the still sleeping men of the 13th Cavalry, who were responsible for patrolling the border around town.
After about two hours of fighting, and a brief pursuit of Villa’s men into Mexico by Major Frank Tompkins, the attacking bands dispersed into the deserts of Chihuahua. Due to the work of a telegraph agent in town, the public heard about the raid almost as it was happening, and within twenty four hours, President Woodrow Wilson decided to send the U.S. Army into Mexico. Known as the Punitive Expedition and led by Brigadier General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the goal of the campaign was to capture Pancho Villa and those men responsible for the raid.
The Columbus raid was a minor skirmish in a much bigger conflict. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 as a revolt to remove Porfirio Díaz, the aging dictator of Mexico, from power, but as revolutionary factions fractured, the war became a large scale political and social revolution that transformed the republic. Villa was the head of one of the most powerful of these factions, but his fortunes declined after breaking from the Constitutionalists, led by General Venustiano Carranza. When Wilson recognized Carranza as the legal president of Mexico in October 1915, Villa became enraged. This resentment boiled over into a series of attacks on U.S. citizens in Mexico by Villa’s forces, culminating in the attack on Columbus.
The Punitive Expedition was comprised of 4,800 men from the 7th, 10th, and 13th Cavalry, 6th Field Artillery, the 6th and 16th Regiments of Infantry, the 1st Aero Squadron, and medical personnel. The 10th Cavalry was an African American regimen. Known as buffalo soldiers, these troops were mostly led by white officers, with the exception of Major Charles Young, who was one of only three African American officers in the U.S. Army. The expedition entered Mexico on 15 March 1916 in two columns, one led by Pershing that crossed the border at Culberson’s Ranch and a second that crossed near Columbus.
Pershing’s column arrived first at Colonía Dublán and then split into three provisional squadrons, all of which went south on different paths to pursue Villa and his forces. One of these provisional squadrons composed of soldiers of the 7th Cavalry and led by Col. George A. Dodd rode to the town of Guerrero on the hunt for Villa. Left without reliable guides, the 7th Cavalry spent the night of 28 to 29 March traveling a circuitous route to the town, arriving at about 0800. Villa had been shot in the leg during a skirmish in Guerrero on 27 March and was taken to a home in the area, where he stayed before leaving in the direction of Minaca at daybreak on 29 March. Dodd skirmished with retreating Villistas, but did not see Pancho Villa himself. The expedition was never closer to capturing Villa.
While the three provisional squadrons pursued Villistas, the column that entered Mexico from Columbus was divided into four “flying columns,” so named because they were small, highly mobile, and expected to provide for themselves materially in the field. As these squads combed Chihuahua, Pershing moved his main base of operations further south to San Geronimo and then to Satevó to be closer to the cavalry. These columns were assisted by the 1st Aero Squadron, which was mostly tasked with delivering messages and doing reconnaissance. This was the first major Army operation in which planes were used in the field, and the expedition revealed serious deficiencies in the eight Curtiss JN-3 biplanes that the squadron brought to Mexico. Besides their inadequate number, the planes had difficulties flying in Chihuahua’s high elevations, heat, wind, and sand. By April, all of the planes had been grounded.
On 12 April, one of these flying columns under the command of Major Tompkins, supported on each flank by squadrons riding further north, decided to go to the town of Parral after contracting for supplies and fodder. Upon their arrival, General Ismael Lozano, who was in charge of local Mexican government forces, requested that Tompkins depart, while a mob of civilians formed. Tompkins refused, and asked Lozano to provide him with a spot to camp. On the way to this camp, his squad skirmished with government forces, called Carrancistas, and with civilian members of the mob. This clash precipitated a diplomatic crisis that led Wilson to order Pershing to move his headquarters back north to Colonía Dublán and give up the active pursuit of Villa. Flying columns were replaced by squads that patrolled a grid around Dublán.
Still, small skirmishes between Pershing’s forces, Villistas, and Carrancistas continued even after the end of active pursuit. After another raid north of the border on the tiny settlement of Glen Springs, Wilson ordered the National Guard to mobilize to protect the border. Units from Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico came first, but when their numbers proved small, Wilson ordered the National Guard to send troops from the rest of the nation. Eventually, over 100,000 National Guard spent the next several months training along the border. In Mexico, a patrol squad led by Captain William T. Boyd was ordered to do reconnaissance in the area of Ahumada. On the way there, Boyd insisted on passing through the town of Carrizal even after being denied permission by Carrancistas. This led to a skirmish in which nine troops were killed and twelve were wounded. In addition, twenty three soldiers were taken prisoner.
The fallout from this action led to the establishment of a joint Mexican-U.S. commission to negotiate Pershing’s withdrawal and orders for the expedition to stay in the vicinity of Colonía Dublán. The soldiers of the Punitive Expedition ceased patrolling, but they kept busy until their withdrawal on 5 February 1917 drilling and training. In the end, Pershing did not capture Villa, but he did receive valuable experienced that served him in his role as leader of the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI.
Mexico 1916-1917, 14 March 1916-7 February 1917. An increasing number of border incidents early in 1916 culminated in an invasion of American territory on 8 March, when Francisco (Pancho) Villa and his band of 500 to 1,000 men raided Columbus, New Mexico. Elements of the 13th Cavalry repulsed the attack, but there were 24 American casualties (14 military, 10 civilian). Immediate steps were taken to organize a punitive expedition of about 10,000 men under Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing to capture Villa.
The 7th, 10th, 11th, and 13th Cavalry regiments, 6th and 16th Infantry regiments, part of the 6th Field Artillery, and supporting elements crossed the border into Mexico in mid-March, followed later by the 5th Cavalry, 17th and 24th Infantry regiments, and engineer and other units. Pershing was subject to orders which required him to respect the sovereignty of Mexico, and was further hindered by the fact that the Mexican Government and people resented the invasion. Advanced elements of the expedition penetrated as far as Parral, some 400 miles south of the border, but Villa was never captured. The campaign consisted primarily of dozens of minor skirmishes with small bands of insurgents. There were even clashes with Mexican Army units; the most serious was on 21 June 1916 at Carrizal, where a detachment of the 10th Cavalry was nearly destroyed. War would probably have been declared but for the critical situation in Europe. Even so, virtually the entire Regular Army was involved, and most of the National Guard had been Federalized and concentrated on the border before the end of the affair. Normal relations with Mexico were restored eventually by diplomatic negotiation, and the troops were withdrawn from Mexico in February 1917.
Minor clashes with Mexican irregulars continued to disturb the border from 1917 to 1919. Engagements took place near Buena Vista, Mexico on 1 December 1917; in San Bernardino Canyon, Mexico on 26 December 1917; near La Grulla, Texas on 8-9 January 1918; at Pilares, Mexico about 28 March 1918; at Nogales, Arizona on 27 August 1918; and near E1 Paso, Texas on 15-16 June 1919.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: United States Army Campaigns; Mexico Expedition (United States Army Center of Military History)
CONTRIBUTOR: Eddy Toorall