A major conflict of the 19th century, the Crimean War claimed at least 500,000 lives, more than even the American Civil War, and had a profound impact on such renowned personalities as British nurse Florence Nightingale and Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It got its start in and around Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, where Orthodox Christian and Catholic monks had been engaging in fierce, sometimes deadly brawls for years over who would control various holy sites. Following one such violent squabble in 1852, Czar Nicholas I of Russia, a self-proclaimed defender of Orthodox Christianity, demanded the right to exercise protection over the Ottoman Empire’s millions of Christian subjects. Upon being rejected, he then sent his army, the largest in the world, to occupy two Ottoman principalities in present-day Romania. The czar also purportedly had his eyes on Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, which if taken would give his navy unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea. Unnerved by this expansionism, Britain and France sent their own warships to the area and vowed to defend Ottoman sovereignty.
Fighting officially broke out in October 1853, and the following month the Russians decimated the Ottoman fleet in a surprise attack. But although Nicholas referred to the declining Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe,” his land forces made little progress in their push south, underscored by the failed siege of a fortress in present-day Bulgaria. Meanwhile, in March 1854, Britain and France declared war and immediately bombarded the then-Russian city of Odessa. With Austria likewise threatening to jump into the fray, Nicholas withdrew from Romania. Rather than declare victory, however, Britain and France decided to punitively target the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, located on the Crimean Peninsula. On September 13, 1854, a joint allied force of over 60,000 troops sailed into Kalamita Bay, about 33 miles north of their objective. Due to stormy weather, it took five days for them to fully disembark. Believing the conflict would be over quickly, they brought neither winter clothing nor medical supplies. They moreover lacked accurate maps, had little idea how many Russian troops opposed them and flouted the dietary restrictions of the Muslim Ottoman soldiers within their ranks. To make matters worse, a cholera outbreak erupted.
Nonetheless, the British and French defeated the Russians in their first run-in near the Alma River, causing a panicked retreat with the help of their long-range Minié rifles. They then commenced a roundabout march to Sevastopol, where they spent two-and-a-half weeks digging trenches and lugging artillery into position prior to initiating a bombardment of the city on October 17. By that time, however, the Russians had significantly strengthened their defenses. After holding out for eight days, they tried to break the siege with a dawn attack on Britain’s supply base in the nearby fishing village of Balaclava. That morning, having forced Ottoman troops to abandon four defensive redoubts, they were able to occupy the Causeway Heights just outside town. But they failed to progress any further thanks to a regiment of Scottish highlanders and the Heavy Brigade, each of which repelled a Russian advance.
With Balaclava now safe, Lord Fitzroy Somerset Raglan, the British commander-in-chief in Crimea, turned his attention back to the Causeway Heights, where he believed the Russians were attempting to make off with some of his artillery guns. He ordered the cavalry, consisting of both the Heavy and Light brigades, to advance with infantry support “and take advantage of any opportunity to recover” the lost ground. Lord Raglan expected the cavalrymen to move immediately, with the infantry to come later. But George Bingham, the earl of Lucan, who commanded the cavalry, thought he wanted them to attack together. As a result, Lucan’s men sat around for 45 minutes waiting for the infantry to arrive. At that point, Raglan issued a new order, telling the cavalry to “advance rapidly to the front … and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.” From his vantage point, however, Lucan could not see any guns being removed. Confused, he asked Raglan’s aide-de-camp where to attack, but instead of pointing to the Causeway Heights, the aide allegedly waved his arm in the direction of a Russian artillery battery at the far end of an exposed valley.
Lucan next approached his brother-in-law James Brudenell, the earl of Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade. The two men loathed each other so much they were barely on speaking terms. And neither was apparently respected by the troops. One officer in the Light Brigade went so far as to call them both “fools.” Cardigan, he wrote in a letter home, “has as much brains as my boot. He is only equaled in want of intellect by his relation the earl of Lucan.” Though perturbed by Raglan’s order, Lucan and Cardigan obeyed it without first checking back in to make sure they understood it correctly. At their bidding, the roughly 670 members of the Light Brigade drew their sabres and lances and began their infamous mile-and-a-quarter-long charge with Russians shooting at them from three directions (though never from all three at once). The first man to fall was Raglan’s aide-de-camp. Another soldier then had “his head clean carried off by a round shot, yet for about 30 yards further the headless body kept in the saddle,” according to a survivor. Other survivors spoke of being splattered with horse blood, of watching their companions lose limbs, of seeing brains on the ground and of going through smoke so thick it was like “riding into the mouth of a volcano.”
The Heavy Brigade, which, its name notwithstanding, resembled the Light Brigade except with regard to uniform color, was supposed to follow in support but only went a short way down the valley before Lucan directed it to turn back. Somehow, the Light Brigade reached its destination anyway, crashing into the enemy lines with a vengeance. A few Russians even shot at their own comrades in a desperate bid to clear an escape route. The Light Brigade’s members didn’t hold the ground for long, though, before being forced to stagger back from whence they came. En route, Russian artillery pounded away again from the Causeway Heights—but not from the other two sides, as the Light Brigade had taken out one battery itself and the French had taken out another—while Russian cavalrymen attempted to entrap them. In the end, of the roughly 670 Light Brigade soldiers, about 110 were killed and 160 were wounded, a 40 percent casualty rate. They also lost approximately 375 horses.
Despite failing to overrun Balaclava, the Russians claimed victory in the battle, parading their captured artillery guns through Sevastopol. Yet they would surrender the city and naval base nearly a year later, after which they agreed to give up a small chunk of territory and to keep their warships out of the Black Sea in exchange for peace. Meanwhile, the Light Brigade’s exploits had already become legendary in Britain, thanks largely to Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Named poet laureate a few years earlier by Queen Victoria, he praised the bravery of the men as they rode into the “valley of death.” His poem “The Charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava,” on the other hand, never quite captured the public’s imagination.