The Near Suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War


A Brief History

On October 25, 1854, The United Kingdom, The Ottoman Empire, and the French Empire fought against Russia in the Battle of Balaclava, which included the famous (and disastrous) “Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Digging Deeper

The Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) was an absolutely massive war, easily one of the most significant wars fought between Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914.  An Alliance of France, the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and the Kingdom of Sardinia challenged the Russian Empire and Bulgaria.  The Franco-British-Ottoman alliance enjoyed a strength of a million men versus some 720,000 Russo-Bulgarians.  The combined dead would tally around 700,000 to 825,000.

In such a costly struggle, without any doubt the single most famous aspect of the fighting concerns the  Siege of Sevastopol (October 17, 1854 – September 9, 1855) in the present-day Ukraine.  The Battle of Balaclava was part of that Allied effort to take Sevastopol.

During the battle, Britain’s Lord Raglan planned on sending the Light Brigade, which consisted of light cavalry, to chase after and harass a retreating Russian artillery battery.  Unfortunately, the orders were not accurately received and so instead the Light Brigade, armed with sabres launched a frontal assault against a different, better-prepared artillery battery.  As a result, the Light Brigade was mauled, suffering incredibly high casualties, suffering perhaps 270 or more losses out of a force of 670 or so, i.e. losses of at or above fifty percent!

We have two outstanding and memorable descriptions of the engagement which capture the essence of the brave, but futile attack.  First, is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, now in the public domain and so reproduced below:

“Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
Some one 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.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!”

More succinct was French Marshal Pierre Bosquet’s summation of the charge of the Light Brigade:  “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.  C’est de la folie” (“It is magnificent, but it is not war.  It is madness.”).

Despite the debacle, Britain and its allies would eventually go on to win the war.  Thus, despite such monumental disasters as the Charge of the Light Brigade, an alliance of Britain and Napoleon III’s France achieved what Napoleon I’s France did not pull off in 1812: a successful invasion of the Russian Empire!

Historical Evidence

Of the films about the incident, the more historically accurate version is 1968’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, although even that version has some “departures from history.”  For a recent book about the real life encounter, see Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade.  For a nice illustrated online history of the event, head over to the BBC’s website.

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Matthew Zarzeczny

Matthew graduated with a B.A. in French and history from Baldwin-Wallace College. At BW, Matthew minored in political science. He earned a Master’s in History at Kent State University and a Ph.D. in History from the Ohio State University. He teaches history at Ashland University, John Carroll University, and Kent State University at Stark.

  • KellyMcBrown

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  • KellyMcBrown


  • Mary

    The general’s orders were not followed to the correct area of battle. This caused hundreds of casualties. The foolishness of this, is not the first time soldiers have lost their lives needlessly, and unfortunately it has happened throughout history. This is a horrific result of war.

  • Zey Tavia

    Unfortunately, this is what happens when orders are misinterpreted, people are ill-equipped, and the enemy is better manned and prepared. The result is often certain major injury or death. :(

  • Tyler Cates

    I think the quote summarizes this better. War is madness and when orders get misinterpreted it is just asking for madness. This results in many deaths that could have been avoided.

  • T Goff

    Although the French General’s quote is true, I believe the poem better describes what happens. Troops in any military, at any time in history, were (and are) trained to do as they are told. So, even during the Charge of the Light Brigade when men knew that things might be amiss, did not say anything against their commanders. Thus, the “600” were crushed. I think the poem goes to show that maybe commanders, leaders, and generals should rely on listening to the suggestions of their men.

  • HB

    The French Marshal Pierre Bosquet’s summation of the charge of the light Brigade most likely summarizes it better. It discusses the madness behind war and that is true. Madness is the result of misinterpreted terms and directions, and this can lead to many deaths. Overall, war does exactly equal madness.

  • Emily Kaiser

    I think that the quote from Marshal Bosquet better summarizes the war: while training, the soldiers are trained to follow orders, which allows the general public to believe that war is an organized attack, but it is not–it is unorganized insanity, and this battle in particular seems to be lacking in the organization realm.

  • Melissa Smith

    I believe that Marshal Pierre Bosquet’s quote better summarizes this battle. This battle killed a lot of people and the best way to describe what was happening was that it was madness.

  • khummel

    I agree with Melissa in the idea that the quote shows the battle the best. The battle was indeed madness and that would be the best way to sum it up. To simply say that it was what it was, madness.

  • Amber J

    First of all, I have never read this poem. I agree with Melissa that the quote summaries the battle the best. The battle was madness that killed many. I believe the poem shows that many commanders and other official people should listen to their men serving more also.

  • Braden McDonnell

    Can’t believe the Officer in command would follow such suicidal orders, misinterpreted or not.

  • Evin R

    It’s always something else when you owe a stroke of luck above anything else for an accomplishment.

  • Tom Kubrak

    It is unfortunate that a kind leader like Napoleon had to lose not only at the battle of Waterloo, but many troops as well. At least they have the respect that they deserve through the poem in this article. I can only imagine what it must have felt like being surrounded by multiple armies and knowing that there is no hope.

  • Mike Rinicella

    This type of military tactic caused so many casualties unfortunately and the troops had no choice but to follow their orders.

  • Ben Nevers

    Just goes to show just how important good tactics and structure is for military battle. Leaders must be precise and soldiers must follow.

  • Corey McComas

    I think after reading this article and really learning about the battle, the quote by Bosquet really sums up everything that went on. It truly was chaos and madness.

  • David Purcel

    Bosquet nailed it with his quote. Based on the article, this truly was madness.

  • Alex Guthrie

    Considering these people are responsible for as many lives as they are, it’s insulting to examine the fact that more strategy is not involved.

  • Alec Ciferno

    actually, pretty surprising that only upwards of 50% of the brigade were lost in such a debacle

  • Gino Iacampo

    One million men armed and ready to fight is ridiculous. Then to have 700,000 on the other side? That’s an absolute bloodbath

  • Harvey Tolley

    The fact that orders were misread has occurred over and over in the annals of war time history. That is why we constantly are refining communication in the military and try to develop new ways to monitor troops as they move on the battlefield.