Courage, chaos, and the making of a myth
Balaklava is one of the most famous battles in British history. Yet it cannot really be compared with, say, Hastings, Waterloo, or the Somme, all of which were large-scale struggles with great issues at stake. Balaklava is an altogether different matter.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is a military myth. It happened, of course, but it has become embedded in an essentially false narrative framework.
The Battle of Balaklava as a whole – little more, in reality, than three somewhat disjointed skirmishes, at least from the British perspective – has been inflated in popular culture out of all proportion to its real historical significance.
It began with contemporary newspaper reports and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous narrative poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, published before the end of 1854.
It has continued ever since. Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why: the story of the fatal charge of the Light Brigade, published in 1953 in anticipation of the centenary, turned into a bestseller.
More significant still have been two films, a Michael Curtiz film released in 1936, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and a Tony Richardson film released in 1968, with an all-star cast that included Trevor Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Harry Andrews, Jill Bennett, and David Hemmings.
The Richardson film relied heavily for its inspiration on The Reason Why, and it was very much an anti-establishment and anti-war film. In the context of the Vietnam War, the message was inescapable: incompetent elites preside over military disasters.
We need not be detained by the reasons Britain went to war with Russia in 1854. It is probably enough to say that many questioned the fact that a country led by Anglicans would conjoin with its habitual and Catholic enemy – France – to fight its habitual and Orthodox ally – Russia – on behalf of Muslim Turkey.
Into that imbroglio were sent some of the most fractious and ill-starred officers whom Britain has ever chosen to put in positions of command. Between them, they created the disaster of Balaklava.
Captain Portal of the 4th Light Dragoons spoke for many:
We are commanded by one of the greatest old women in the British Army, called the Earl of Cardigan. He has as much brains as my boot. He is only equalled in want of intellect by his relation the Earl of Lucan. Two such fools could not be picked out of the British Army to take command. But they are Earls!
James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a man who believed implicitly in the privileges of a noble birth, was as good-looking as he was dim, yet his wealth and position allowed him not only to pull through a series of desperate scrapes, but to prosper. Looked at with a modern eye, his survival is astonishing, but even in Victorian times it must have seemed breathtaking.
Yet the incompetence of figures such as Cardigan has had the effect of exaggerating the Battle of Balaklava’s importance.
After all, only about 2,500 British soldiers were actively engaged, and about 600 became casualties. This is a very small engagement in a struggle between great European powers.
Compare it with the Battle of Solferino, for example, where, in 1859, 120,000 French and Italians confronted an equal number of Austrians, and French casualties alone were 12,000.
And while the British were damaged by Balaklava, they were nothing compared with, say, the two defeats in front of Sevastopol in June and September 1855. Yet the smaller battle has come to dominate the whole campaign in the British perspective.
Clearly, Tennyson’s wonderful poems (commemorating both Light and Heavy Cavalry Brigades) have much to do with this, as does the whole romance of the occasion – dashing, brilliantly dressed centaurs, brave Britons gallant in defeat, and, of course, a clash of lords and noblemen.
Throw in a tangled love story and pique people’s interest with some politically charged cinema, and you have the perfect military historian’s cocktail.
So why did Balaklava acquire such notoriety?
This is an extract from a 15-paged special feature on the Battle of Balaklava, published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters.
In our special, Patrick Mercer analyses Balaklava afresh, to place it in its wider context, and to review the events on the battlefield on the basis of his own intimate knowledge of the ground.
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